Authors: Robert Littell
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Espionage
Outside it was night;
"I'm just thinking out loud," Francis was saying. An angelic smile manned the usual fortifications of his face. "What if. . ." His voice trailed off uncertainly.
"What if what?" Carroll prompted. A muscle twitched impatiently in his cheek.
They were, by any standards, the Company's odd couple. Office scuttlebutt held that when one itched the other scratched, but that wasn't it; that wasn't it at all. It was more a matter of symbiosis; of constituting two sides of the same coin. Looking at any given skyline, Francis would see forest, Carroll trees; Francis wrote music, Carroll lyrics; Francis would leap with almost feminine intuition in the general direction of unlikely ends while Carroll, a pedestrian at heart, would trail after him lingering over means.
"What if," Francis was saying, "we were to put our man Friday onto someone with Mafia connections?"
Francis pulled thoughtfully at an earlobe that looked as if it had been pulled at before. "Exactly.
Francis wore an outrageous silk bow tie that he had picked up for a song at a rummage sale. His sixth-floor neighbors thought it was out of character, which only showed that they didn't really understand his character. It was the unexpected splash of color, the tiny touch of defiance, the unconventional link in an otherwise perfectly conformist chain that set him apart from everyone else.
Carroll, on the other hand, liked to look as if he belonged. He favored conventional three-piece suits and starched collars that left crimson welts clinging like leeches to his thin, pale neck. Laughing behind his back, the neighbors spoke about his penchant for hair shirts worn, so they assumed, to atone for unspecified sins.
They were half right. There were sins, though Carroll never felt the slightest urge to atone for them.
"The Mafia is out of the question." Carroll announced flatly, a crooked forefinger patrolling between his collar and his neck. He looked past Francis the way he stared over the shoulder of anyone he deigned to talk to. "They will want to be paid in the end. And not necessarily in money.
Besides, there's no compartmentalization. If this thing is going to succeed, it has to be tightly compartmentalized. Like a submarine."
"Quite right," Francis remarked, blushing apologetically. "I can't imagine what I could have been thinking of." His face screwed up, his eyes narrowed into slits, a sure sign that his mind was leaping toward another unlikely end.
Francis and Carroll were minor legends in the Company. Somewhere along the line one of the CIA's army of PhD's who majored in African dialects and minored in Whitman had dubbed them "The sisters Death and Night."
The name stuck. If you mentioned the Sisters in an intraoffice memo, and capitalized the S, almost everyone tucked away in the Company's cradle-to-grave complex knew whom you were talking about. But only the handful with "eyes-only" authorizations in their dossiers had an inkling of what they actually did for a living.
What they did was plot.
And what they were plotting on that perfect August day was a perfect crime.
"What we will seed," Francis thought out loud, defining the problem, "is someone who can carry out an assignment without knowing it came from us."
"Someone who thinks he is being employed by others," Carroll ventured, lingering over means.
"Exactly," Francis agreed enthusiastically.
In an organization where people knew secrets, or made it their business to look as if they did, Francis stood out with his aura of absolute innocence. He invariably wore an expression that fell midway between curious and reluctant, and a Cheshire cat's pained smile that hinted at nothing more morally compromising than the death of an occasional rodent, it was common "knowledge around the shop that he regularly lied about his name during the annual lie-detector tests-and always managed to fool the black box.
Compared to Francis, Carroll was an open book. When he felt frustrated, it appeared on his face like a flag. He had started out in the business with "Wild Bill" Donovan's Office of Strategic Services during the
"Wrong War" (as he liked to call it; he felt that America had defeated the wrong enemy), and quickly made a name for himself by scribbling in the margin of one report: "The matter is of the highest possible importance and should accordingly be handled on the lowest possible level." What he meant, of course, was that he should handle it; at the tender age of twenty-nine, he had already been convinced of everyone's incompetence but his own. (Perhaps stunned by his audacity, his superiors gave him the brief. In due course Carroll engineered the defection of a German diplomat carrying a valise full of secret documents, and the betrayal to the Gestapo of the Soviet agent who had acted as their go-between. By I945 Carroll was already focusing on the right enemy.)
Nowadays some of their Company colleagues whispered that the Sisters were past their prime, washed up, over the hill; old farts who amused the technocrats calling the tune; has-beens who gave the men in the Athenaeum (as the Sisters, classicists to the core, called the front office) something to talk about at in-house pours. ("The Sisters proposed that we . . ." "They weren't serious?" "I'm afraid they were."
"What did you tell them?" "I told them they were mad") There were even a few with regular access to the Sisters' product who recommended giving them medical discharges-and there was no suggestion that the problem was physical. They'd been around too long, it was said, they'd seen too much-as if being around too long and seeing too much inevitably led to deeper disorders. Still, several people in high places took them seriously enough to justify giving them space (which, with its Soviet magazines scattered around a shabby Formica coffee table, looked suspiciously like a dentist's office in Tashkent), a man Friday (whose real name, believe it or not, was Thursday) and a gorgeous secretary with an incredibly short skirt and incredibly long legs and a way of clutching files to her breasts that left the rare visitor noticeably short of breath. After all, it was said, the Sisters had had their share of triumphs. Not that long ago, with an almost Machiavellian leap of imagination, they had ferreted out a Russian sleeper in the CIA's ranks.
While everyone else frantically searched the files for someone with a record of failed operations against the Russians, Francis thought the problem through from the Soviet point of view and decided that the merchants who ran the mole would have boosted his career with an occasional success. Working on that assumption, the Sisters combed the files looking for someone with one or two conspicuous successes and a string of failures. The suspect they uncovered was delivered to the tender mercies of the Company's most experienced interrogator, one G.
Sprowls. After an intense interrogation that lasted seven months, G.
Sprowls came up with the right questions and the suspect came up with the wrong answers. There was no trial. The suspect simply disappeared from the face of the earth, at which point the CIA awarded a medal and a pension to his widow rather than acknowledge that it had been infiltrated.
"Someone who thinks he is being employed by others," Carroll was saying thoughtfully-he appeared to be talking to the poster tacked to the back of the door that read "Fuck Communism!"-"Can't very well point a finger at us if he is caught, can he?"
There was a single soft knock at the door. Without waiting for permission, the gorgeous secretary, who drew pay and broke hearts under her married name, Mrs. Cress well, sailed into the dentist's office, wordlessly deposited a box of candies on the coffee table, and then, like a spider ducking soundlessly back into its hole, disappeared.
Carroll tore off the lid and studied the contents. He detested nuts and cherries-one gave him hives, the other diarrhoea-but could never for the life of him remember which ones didn't have them.
"Look at the code on the back of the lid," Francis said with an air of someone indulging his partner's idiosyncrasy.
"I don't understand codes," Carroll muttered. He snatched a candy at random, peeled off the tinfoil and, bearing decaying yellowish teeth, gingerly bit into it. "Caramel," he announced with satisfaction, and he popped the rest of the candy into his mouth. He was working on his third caramel when he suddenly snapped his fingers. "I've got it!" he cried, though the caramel sticking to his teeth made his words difficult to understand. "What we need," he explained when he could finally articulate, "is someone who is highly skilled, intelligent, trained in fieldwork and willing to follow orders without inquiring into their source as long as they arrive in the correct form."
Francis said, "I don't quite follow-"
Carroll rocked back onto the rear legs of his chair. "What we need-" His lips twisted into an expression of grim satisfaction; another flag snapping on the halyard of his face.
"What we need," Francis repeated, his eyes watering in anticipation.
Having come up with a perfect crime, he considered it in the nature of things that Carroll should come up with a perfect criminal.
"What we need-" Carroll whined, and because in his experience walls more often than not concealed ears, he plucked a pencil from a coffee table and finished the sentence on a sheet of scrap paper.
"-is a sleeper!"
"A sleeper, of course!" Francis wrote in turn.
Carroll retrieved the pencil. "But how on earth will we find one?" he wrote.
Francis grabbed the pencil out of Carroll's fingers. "We might get the Potter to give us the use of one," he wrote.
The Sisters melted back into their chairs, drained. Whistling softly through his teeth, Francis collected the scraps of paper they had written on; they had divided up office chores, and it was his job to shred all secret documents.
Carroll's cheek muscle twitched uncontrollably. "He might just do it,"
he said in a hollow voice, and in a gesture that had nothing, and everything, to do with ends and means, he waved vaguely, weakly toward the dirty window; toward the dirty city; toward the dirty world out there waiting to be manipulated.
They made their way in lock step down a freshly painted corridor of power toward the Athenaeum. "You'd think our masters would get tired of battleship gray," Francis commented. His nose wrinkled up in disgust.
"Imagine how different this place would look in pale green, or off-white even."
Carroll was too absorbed in his own schemes to worry about color schemes. "He's going to agree," he concluded, as if wishing could make it so. "I know him from the days when he ran errands for Dulles in Switzerland. He likes to keep several irons in several fires."
"Then we must make this seem like just another iron," Francis said under his breath, and flashing an ingratiating smile at one of the Pillars of Hercules, as the Deputy Director's two secretaries were known (one handled people, the other paper), he announced in a voice ideally suited to pulpits, "We are responding, like good dogs, to our master's whistle."
"Where do you get your ties?" the Pillar who handled people asked, waving them toward the appropriate door. She reached under her desk and dispatched a surge of electricity toward the appropriate lock. The door clicked open just as Francis reached it.
"What do you think of our halls?" demanded the Deputy Director, swivelling away from his man Friday to confront the Sisters.
"I would have made a case for pale green or off-white if someone had consulted me," Francis replied sulkily.
"Oh." said the Deputy Director, obviously disappointed. "I more or less liked the battleship atmosphere conveyed by the gray. Keep us all on our toes, don't you think, Harry?"
The Deputy Director's man Friday nodded in brisk agreement. He was immaculately dressed except for a discreet sprinkle of dandruff on his sloping Brooks Brothers shoulders.
"Yes, well," the Deputy Director said enthusiastically. He pasted back a stray strand of battleship-gray hair with several fingertips. "II you don't mind, I'd like to make this a quickie," he announced. "I'm supposed to be up on the Hill in forty-five minutes. There will be photographers. I still have to have my hair trimmed." He swivelled back toward his Harry in panic. "You're absolutely sure I m scheduled for Matthew? That new man who handled me last week butchered my sideburns."
"I checked on it myself this morning,' Harry said impassively. "Matthew has cleared his book for you."
Relieved of another nightmare, the Deputy Director returned to the Sisters. "About this Op Proposal of yours"-he pulled a lemon-colored file card from a lemon-colored folder and tapped it with the back of a manicured fingernail-"you really think he may be ripe?"
Carroll arched his neck to relieve the pressure of his collar. "He's lost three sleepers in six months," he explained to a point on the wall over the Deputy Director's head. "His name is mud."
"He's been put out to pasture," Francis added hopefully. "He is bound to be nursing bruises. And then there is the matter of that wife of his...”
"I didn't know he'd been put out to pasture," the Deputy Director whined in irritation. "How did you know?"