Authors: Charles McCarry
“You think Chen Qi is a puppet?”
“I think Chen Qi is a loyal Party man who has done extremely well for himself and would roast his own mother on a spit to keep what he has.”
“In short, we’re dealing, in your opinion, with Guoanbu.”
“If we’re lucky,” Burbank said.
I was lost. Burbank was going to order me to take this job. He was going to order me to go to work—actually, pretend to go to work—for Chinese intelligence. I knew this before the sound of his voice died. I needed a moment to get myself together. I could tell by the look of him that Burbank wanted to get out of Starbucks, wanted to go to some bleak location, park the car, and condemn me to my fate. I had long since drunk my double espresso. After the flight, after forty minutes of Burbank, I needed more caffeine. I said, “I’m going to get another coffee. Want anything?”
He said, “God, no. Order the coffee to go. We can’t continue this conversation here.”
At least he was predictable. While I was at the counter, Burbank made a phone call. It lasted maybe five seconds. Inside the immaculate Hyundai he said nothing. Now he seemed to be meditating and driving at the same time. I slept, waking up when he braked or made a sharp turn, then going under again. We took country roads, one after the other, and somewhere west of Leesburg, he pulled up to an isolated barn that had been converted into a house. It had a keyboard lock. Burbank entered the combination and we went inside. It was cool, nicely furnished, the walls hung with large hyperrealistic paintings that looked like the next stage of photography. All were depressing—mournful swollen pregnant girls whose fetuses were visible as in sonograms, curly-haired, beautiful brown children wearing prostheses, ruddy workers in hard hats, faces frozen in terror as if watching a mushroom cloud in the last nanosecond of their lives.
“Not very cheerful,” Burbank said. “The caretaker is the painter. Believe it or not, she sells this stuff for good money.”
By now it was early evening. To my surprise he poured drinks—single malt scotch—and shook unsalted nuts from a can into a bowl. Like the methodical spy he was, he turned on the stereo to defeat listening devices that one really would not expect to be present in a safe house. All the more reason, according to the unwritten manual, to take precautions. Believe nothing. Trust no one. Every lock can be picked, every flap unglued, every seal counterfeited, every friend suborned.
Burbank crossed his leg, thin ankle resting on bony kneecap. He said, “Can you stay awake?”
“Try. This meeting may go on for a while. We have a lot to talk about. Let me know if you get to the point where you can’t concentrate.”
“If I fall sleep, that’s the signal.”
Burbank did not acknowledge the pleasantry. “For starters,” he said, “let me ask you what you think of Chen Qi’s offer.”
“I think it’s genuine in its way,” I said. “He has some reason for hiring me. His offer was bizarre. I think he knew that I saw what he was up to, or wondered what he was up to, and that he wanted me to draw certain conclusions from it.”
“Like the offer actually came from Guoanbu, that he
Guoanbu, that I was caught in the flypaper.”
“He was threatening in manner?”
“Far from it. He was as civilized as they come, on the surface. He reminded me of my father.”
Burbank lifted a palm. “Explain.”
“There are physical and other resemblances.”
Burbank gave me a quizzical look but asked for no details. I wondered if I had been wise to feed him this psychic clue. Burbank seemed to be wondering the same thing, using his own unique terms of reference. I was too tired to regret my words or worry about their effect on him.
exactly Burbank stopped asking questions, turned off the stereo, and tuned into the evening news. Drinking scotch and chomping on nuts, he was absorbed by today’s recycling of yesterday’s stories. I hadn’t watched American television for a long time, and almost never the news, so I recognized neither the anchorperson nor the hot topics. In minutes I went to sleep. An hour later, when Burbank switched off the set, I woke up and stumbled into the bathroom. When I came back I saw no sign of him. Was he in another bathroom? A long time passed. I looked in the master bath. He wasn’t there. I called hello. No response. I turned on the outside lights. The Hyundai was gone. It was raining, sheets of it. Well, if he didn’t come back, I could always go back to sleep. I was hungry. I looked in the refrigerator. Lettuce, celery, carrots, low-fat yogurt, red and yellow Jell-O, a lemon with a strip of peel removed, an unripe melon, two minibottles of water. In the freezer, two frozen organic dinners (vegetarian). I was looking at the demented paintings again when Burbank came back, a six-pack of microbrew lager in one hand and a bag from a sandwich shop in another. I smelled hot tomatoey American food. He put his packages on the kitchen table and said, “One tofu with sprouts, arugula and roasted red pepper, one meat-ball with provolone, red onions, hot peppers, and black olives. Which do you want?”
“Sit ye down,” said Burbank.
To the prodigal home from China, the meal was at least as delicious as the mixture of canned pork and beans and canned spaghetti that Nick Adams, just back from epicurean Paris, mixed together, as I remembered it, over a campfire in Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River.” Fearful that the beer would put me back to sleep, I drank the water, stealing the second tiny bottle for good measure.
When we finished, Burbank tidied up, putting the debris back into the sandwich bag, washing his beer bottle and my water bottles with soap, presumably to erase our fingerprints, brushing the crumbs into his hand, then into the bag, wiping the tabletop with a sponge, then with a paper towel. He looked happy. Apparently the indoor picnic had been as much of a treat for him as for me.
He brewed some green tea for himself. I drank instant espresso. We remained at the kitchen table. I was glad not to be in the same room with the caretaker’s paintings. Burbank waited for his tea to cool, then drank it in a single thirsty gulp.
He said, “What really do you make of this offer of Chen Qi’s?”
We had already discussed this in mind-numbing detail, but I went along, as I was paid to do. I said, “As you said, Guoanbu comes to mind.”
“Why? Do you suspect that girl who’s teaching you Mandarin?”
The answer, of course, was yes, but I didn’t want to betray Mei to the likes of Burbank. If
was the word. More than once the thought had crossed my mind that she was being run not by Guoanbu but by Burbank. Her objectives were his objectives: be my crammer in Mandarin, put me in touch with young Chinese who might someday be useful, fuck me cross-eyed to keep me away from sexual technicians from Guoanbu. Just as often, I told myself she could not be working for anyone but Guoanbu. If the usual rules applied, she had been setting me up all along for Chen Qi’s recruitment pitch. Only at certain moments did I think she was nothing more than a lusty woman who just happened to have a thing about hairy Americans.
To Burbank I said, “What do
“I think it’s a golden opportunity,” Burbank said.
“For whom? To do what?”
“For us. To do what we do.”
“You don’t think it’s a trap?”
He snorted in amusement. “Of course it is, in the opposition’s calculations,” he said. “But that can be an advantage for our side. Some of the best operations we’ve ever run involved walking into a trap—or, to be more exact, by pretending to be stupid enough to do so. The idea is to demonstrate your low IQ, move the trap, change the bait so the trapper goes looking for his missing trap and steps on it himself and has to chew off his own leg to escape.”
Burbank’s face positively glowed as he imparted this wisdom. As the animal for whom the trap was being baited and set, I found it hard to join in his enthusiasm. And yet I was learning something. He was showing me his mind, or more likely the fictitious mind he had invented for the purposes of this conversation.
Burbank said, “What do you think the opposition’s purpose might be?”
The answer that sprang to mind was,
Same as yours
to own me, to ruin my life.
What I said was, “To recruit me, to compromise me, to double me, to expose me, to pump me out for the utterly trivial things a nobody like me knows. To embarrass the United States, and if I’m lucky, to swap me in due course for some Chinese agent of greater value.”
“To surround us, in short. Do you play
He meant the Chinese game called Go in Japan and in the West. In Mandarin
means “the game of surrounding.” I had often played it with Mei, who always skunked me. I said, “After a fashion.”
“Work on it. You can’t understand them if you don’t understand
“Do you know the game?” I asked.
“No one does unless he’s Chinese. I play it. It’s hard to find partners. Chen Qi is a
man. The game is a passion with this guy. We know that about him. Work on it. Get a teacher, get good enough to play him. Beat him if you can. He’ll think all the more of you if you do.”
These were orders? What next? Who knew but what
was the basis of Burbank’s technique as a counterspy. Certainly I felt surrounded. It was time to change the subject.
I said, “I’m curious about something.”
Burbank lifted his eyebrows. I took this for permission to go ahead.
I said, “Why do you have all those safes in your office?”
He thought this over. He saw what I was trying to do and decided to humor me.
“You think I should digitize all that information and store it in a computer?”
“Because safes are safe,” he said. “Because they contain things I need to know, need to keep in secure storage, one copy only.” He was spacing his words as if teaching me some arcane truth in a language I did not fully understand. He continued, “Think about the origins of the word
the meaning of that term to the collective subconscious, think of what the concept of being safe has meant to mankind over millennia. We are weaker than the other carnivores. We fear other tribes of our own kind with all our hearts and souls. Our existence depends on our being safe from the Others, capital
We are obsessed by it. The lust for safety is the reason why clubs and spears and gunpowder and nuclear weapons were invented. If experience has taught us anything in recent times, it is that computers are
safe. Computers are gossips, they are compulsive talkers. Touch them in the right place, with the right combination of digits, and they swoon and spread their legs. That’s what they’re designed to do—disgorge, not safeguard. That’s what they do. Safes have no brains, no means of communication, therefore no such vulnerability.”
I said, “They can’t be cracked?”
Burbank ignored the question. He said, “You have reservations about this opportunity.” No question mark.
“Serious ones,” I said. “Don’t you?”
“Of course I do. There are always reservations. Think about landing on the moon in that LEM. It might as well have been made of papier-mâché and it was built to fly in a vacuum, but Armstrong and Aldrin showed that it could be done.”
Excellent analogy for the equipment for this mission, I thought. I said, “I have no wish to be an Armstrong or an Aldrin.”
“You won’t be. Others have gone before.”
Yes, and never came back. I said, “Suppose we go ahead with this, whatever it is. What would it accomplish?”
“Nothing, maybe. But maybe a lot more than we imagine.” Burbank said. “There are no certainties. There never are. But you’d be on the inside, and….”
“Inside what? A corporation.”
Burbank said, “A corporation, please remember, that is a wholly owned subsidiary of Guoanbu.”
Burbank sounded as if he had taken it for granted that I would be as enthusiastic about this operation as he seemed to be, that I would be as unconcerned as he was about the risks that I, not he, was going to take. To myself, I was one of a kind, new to the world, never to be born again or otherwise duplicated. To Burbank, I knew, I was just one stone, black or white, it didn’t matter which, waiting on one of the 361 squares on his
board for his finger and thumb to move me.
“Penetrate the corporation and we penetrate Guoanbu?” I said.
“Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.”
“And I would do what to make that happen? Please tell me.”
“Build a network. Let them discover it.”
“Who would be crazy enough to sign up?”
“The friends of your girlfriend.” His voice was calm, his manner urbane, and he showed other signs of madness.
I said, “You’re serious?”
“It doesn’t have to be a real network. The Chinese just have to think it’s real and eliminate it.”
Yes, he was serious. I said, “And how do you propose I create this thing that does not actually exist?”
“The usual methods,” Burbank said. “Befriend, befuddle, betray.”
We studied each other’s faces for a time. Finally I said, “Guoanbu will kill those people.”
“Very likely,” said my new chief. “I told you that from the start. But Guoanbu will never know if they killed everybody. Think about it. They’ll lose face on a catastrophic scale. They’ll be looking over their shoulders till the end of communism, which may be quicker in coming if we pull this off.”
I said, “May I ask what gave you the idea I would go along with something like this?”
“Well, for one thing, it’s what you’re trained to do and paid to do,” Burbank said. “Besides that, you have a chance, a reasonable chance, to slay the dragon. That would be a great service to your country. To China and all its people. To mankind. You will be remembered.”
Remember by whom, I wondered, if only Burbank knew what I had done? I said, “I am at a loss for words.”
After a long pause he said, “So?”
I know, I knew then what I should have said. But a new Faust is born every minute, so what I did say was, “I’ll sleep on it.”