Read Checkpoint Charlie Online

Authors: Brian Garfield

Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie

Brian Garfield

A
MysteriousPress.com

Open Road Integrated Media ebook

For Alyce Martha
With love

Contents

Charlie's Story: An Introduction by the Author

Charlie's Game

Charlie's Shell Game

Checkpoint Charlie

Trust Charlie

Charlie's Vigorish

Challenge for Charlie

Charlie in Moscow

Charlie in the Tundra

Charlie's Dodge

Passport for Charlie

Charlie's Chase

Charlie's Last Caper

Charlie's
Story

An Introduction by the Author

C
HARLIE
, who waddles and struts and gloats his way through the stories in this collection, is a character who delights me because of his contradictions. Charlie inhabits a violent world — the CIA — yet he is nonviolent; indeed, he's inept with weapons and scorns them. (“Any fool can shoot people.”) He is old and fat, in a genre that conventionally calls for sleek young heroes. He is thunderingly conceited, an amiable know-it-all, in a world that normally allows no room for arrogant prima donnas. He is clever and ratiocinative in a world best known for its blundering screw-ups. He is an iconoclast in an organization that demands conformity. He insists upon working alone, even though the “company” that employs him is one that prizes team spirit and effort. He is intuitive and resourceful in the midst of an organization peopled by dogged data-gathering computer types. He is rumpled in the world of the neat; he is humorous in the world of the witless; he has nerve but not nerves; and his relationship with his boss, whom he refuses to call his “superior,” is characterized by mutual hatred and contemptuous loathing, even though the two characters exist in symbiosis: neither can survive without the other.

He is also rather desperate. He really enjoys only two things: eating, and practicing his trade — the trade of international trouble-shooter and extinguisher of brush-fires; a trade at which he is — and knows he is — the best in the world. Charlie's greatest fear is that he will be fired: forced into ignominious retirement. In order to avoid that inevitable fate, Charlie goes to ever-increasing lengths to prove his inimitable excellence and therefore his indispensability. As he grows ever older and fatter, Charlie must continuously extend the outrageousness of his stunning feats of accomplishment. He is a man under constant desperate challenge; beneath the corpulent surface of self-confidence I believe there is a man very near utter panic.

*   *   *

I
N THESE STORIES
I have made very little effort to conform to the realities of life in the CIA. The Company is a purely fictional setting here; it is no more real than the police force of Inspector Lestrade or the army of the Sad Sack. It simply provides the furniture and props against which Charlie acts out his performances.

But the physical surroundings of most of the stories are quite real. Writing this series of stories has allowed me to make use of places I have visited in my disorganized ramblings about the world. One rarely, for example, has reason to use the island of Attu (at the western tip of the Aleutian Island chain in the Bering Sea) as a setting for fiction but I was there once and, as Charlie's experience in “Charlie in the Tundra” suggests, once is enough. Some of the locales are more commonplace, of course, especially the book's eponymous one in Berlin —it has become a cliché setting for spy stories — but I felt obliged to set a story there simply because of the nice pun on the hero's name.

Several of the stories were written while I was visiting the locales depicted in them; I wrote them on the spot, in longhand. (For some reason I prefer to write short stories in longhand, novels on the typewriter.) Others were written in retrospect. The first real Charlie story was the one set in Caracas, Venezuela; it was written four or five years after our visit to that city. And in a few stories Charlie finds his way to places I have not yet visited at all (Australia, for instance), but this probably happens because those places are on my agenda for the future.

*   *   *

I
N KEEPING WITH HIS BULK
, Charlie — like the elephant — was conceived quite a long time before he was born. His father, so to speak, was Miles Kendig, the hero of my novel
Hopscotch
(1975). Kendig has some of Charlie's characteristics: expertise, intuitive intelligence, iconoclasm, conceit, so forth. But Kendig has already been retired from the CIA before we meet him in
Hopscotch;
the game he plays is against the Agency, rather than within it; and of course Kendig is neither fat nor physically inept. Walter Matthau, who portrays Kendig in the film version of
Hopscotch,
ideally fits my own picture of the character; and I can hardly visualize Walter Matthau as Charlie Dark. Still, in many respects Charlie is a chip off the Kendig block, and indeed some of the subsidiary characters who surround Charlie have been adopted intact from
Hopscotch:
Myerson, Cutter and Ross all played important roles in the original novel, as did Mikhail Yaskov, the Russian superspy.

The bridge between
Hopscotch
and the Charlie stories was a short story of 1976 called “Joe Cutter's Game” in which I brought back Cutter, Ross and Myerson to solve a sticky problem in Dar-es-Salaam. Kendig had dropped out of the picture by then, mainly because I had said everything I wanted to say about him in the original novel, and also because at the end of
Hopscotch
Kendig and the Agency had parted company permanently; there seemed no point trying to drag him back from wherever he may have disappeared to. In any case “Joe Cutter's Game” was, in format and characters, the prototype for the Charlie stories; therefore, in order to make this collection complete, I have rewritten that story — replacing Cutter with Charlie — and it has become “Charlie's Game,” the opening story of this collection. But in the interests of purism I must admit that the first actual Charlie Dark story was the one that appears in second position in this book: “Charlie's Shell Game.”

For vague reasons having to do with film copyrights and the like, the names of the subsidiary characters were changed in some of the stories when they appeared originally in magazines (
EQMM
and
AHMM
): Myerson, who is Charlie's irascible boss, became “Rice” in some of the magazine stories, and Leonard Ross became “Leonard Myers” in a curious reversal. In this present collection I have changed all the names back to the originals because those are the names by which I know the characters.

The stories appear in this book in the order in which they were written. All but the last story appeared originally in magazines. The last story —“Charlie's Last Caper”— is a new story written expressly for the book; it puts a sort of cap on the collection. That story will not appear in magazines, because in a way it does conclude Charlie's story and I'm not quite sure I'm ready to end the series so abruptly. I think of a collection in book form as a sort of alternative universe; what happens here in the book need not necessarily have happened in the magazines; therefore I feel free to write Charlie's further adventures in the future. I do believe he will return sometime, although at the moment I have no specific plans for further stories about him. Perhaps he and I need to get a bit older together and see how the world looks then.

*   *   *

T
HIS IS A BOOK
of fiction about one character but it is not a novel; it is not at all the sort of thing it might have been if I'd chosen to write a novel in twelve or fourteen chapters about Charlie Dark. One brings different muscles to the two tasks. Each of these stories was written independently of the others and each is essentially a self-contained exercise — a puzzle or game, rather than the sort of inquiry into human affairs that one is more likely to find in a novel.

Charlie is a con man. He indulges in capers in which he can outwit his opponents by guile and wit. These stories are conceits — they hinge on their plots and maguffins — and they were written for fun and I make no apology for their lack of profundity.

Normally I have no patience with continuing series of yarns about the same characters. Many writers are happy to devote their lives to the production of lengthy series of novels and stories all of which put the same characters into repetitively similar situations: the detective genre is particularly crowded with such series. As a reader I enjoy some of them but as a writer I sometimes suspect that the authors of those series are taking the easy way out: they've opted for security and some of them appear to intend to keep doing it until they get it right. For myself, on the few occasions when I've written sequels I've found that it was sheer tedium to try to write an entire new novel about a character about whom I'd already said whatever important things I'd wanted to say; such sequels, for me, have invariably proven lackluster.

I would not perpetuate Charlie if my only interest in the stories were Charlie's character; and I could not do it if Charlie were a character in a novel. What keeps the stories alive in my imagination is the challenge of coming up with new worlds for Charlie to conquer. Charlie is a game-player. Each of these stories deals him a new hand of cards to play — as if he were a poker player. A poker game lasts but a few hours, of course; and a short story can be written in a few hours. One would not care to play poker without interruption for six months at a time; similarly, one would not care to spend six months writing a novel about a game one has played before. After a while the hands must all begin to look the same; the game only remains exciting when it is played at infrequent intervals, and briefly.

*   *   *

I
N A SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT FORM
, “Charlie's Game” — the opening yarn of this book — was the first story I ever wrote for a magazine. I'd written dozens of short stories in my teens but the magazine publishers of the time did not realize what they were missing by turning me down; all I ever had to show for any of those stories was rejection slips. My first publication was a novel, in 1960, and thereafter I made my living as a writer of books (and, later, films) without ever selling a short story to a magazine until, in 1976, Eleanor Sullivan — managing editor of
Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine
and editor of
Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine —
insisted that I try my hand at the short form. Had it not been for Eleanor's amiable badgering, and that of Fred (“Ellery Queen”) Dannay, it never would have occurred to me to begin writing these stories. In a way, therefore, Fred and Eleanor are Charlie's godparents.

I hope the book justifies their faith in Charlie.

*   *   *

Charlie's
Game

W
HEN
I
TURNED THE CORNER
I saw Leonard Ross going into Myerson's office ahead of me. By the time I reached the door I heard Ross say, “Where's Charlie?”

“Late. As usual. Shut the door.”

Late. As usual
. As far as I could remember — and I have phenomenal recall — there had been only one time when I had been late arriving in Myerson's office and that had been the result of a bomb scare that had grounded everything for three hours at Tempelhof. His acidulous remark had been a cheap shot. But then that was Myerson.

Ross was shutting the door in my face when I pushed in past him and kicked it closed. Ross said, “Hello, Mr. Dark.”

Myerson only glanced up from the desk. Then he went on pretending to read something in a manila file folder. I said, “Welcome back, Charlie,” in an effort to prompt him but he ignored it and I decided to play his silly game so I dropped my raincoat across a chair and squeezed into one of the tubular steel armchairs and perused the photos on the wall, waiting him out.

The room was stale with Myerson's illegal Havana smoke; it was a room that obviously was unnerving to youngsters like Leonard Ross because among Myerson's varied and indeterminate functions was that of hatchet man. Any audience with him might turn out to be one's last: fall into disfavor with him and one could have a can tied to one's tail at any time, Civil Service or no Civil Service; and as junior staff, Ross had no illusions about his right to tenure. I had none myself: I was there solely at Myerson's sufferance, but that was something else — he could fire me any time he chose to but he was never going to choose to because he needed me too much and he knew it.

His rudeness meant nothing; that was what passed for amiability with Myerson. I gave Ross a glance and switched it meaningfully toward a chair and finally Ross sat down, perching uneasily on the edge of it.

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