I spotted my tail about twenty minutes after the train pulled out of Union Station, making the morning run from D.C. to NYC. He was nondescript with a vengeance: middle-aged, middle height, an average white guy in an average suit, instantly forgettable, the sort of unexceptional American businessman probably even his wife had trouble picking out of a crowd. Maybe he was just a little too typical, that was the problem.
I was in the club car balancing a plastic foam cup of coffee in one hand and The Washington Post in the other. It was a fine Wednesday morning in July, deep in the lazy days of midsummer, and I hoped that I was mistaken. The guy was across the aisle, two seats behind me, and I spotted him only by accident because of an odd reflection. He was seated on the sunny side of the car, in a shaft of sunlight, while I was halfway in the dark, causing his image to appear in the glass of my window. He kept glancing in my direction, unaware that I could see him. That bothered me, though at first I put it down to simple paranoia. There was always a chance he had merely recognized me, a fallen celebrity, and was curious to see if I read and drank coffee like other mortals. The photograph that once ran in the nine hundred newspapers that carried my syndicated column didn’t much look like me anymore, but occasionally people still stop me on the street. “Hey, aren’t you Ron Wright?” they’ll demand, more of an accusation than a question. Such is the inconvenience of fame. Or infamy, in my case: the only investigative reporter who has ever had to give back a Pulitzer Prize.
The train pulled into Baltimore, took on more passengers, then continued its journey north. By now the light had changed and I could no longer see the reflection of the nondescript man two seats behind me. But I felt his focused interest on the back of my neck, and once when I glanced around, I briefly met his eyes. It was at this moment that my paranoia transformed to certainty. His eyes revealed nothing but after enough years, you develop an instinct about these things. My Mr. Average White Male was no casual bystander. Not only was he tailing me, he didn’t particularly care if I knew it.
But who was he, that was the question. FBI? CIA? Or maybe only a private detective hired by someone I once offended in my column by writing the truth. Whoever he was, his presence was tiresome. I’d been fired, blackballed, disgraced, hung out to dry, but there were still people who wanted their small portion of revenge. I had called my column “Wright’s Wrongs,” back when I was young and idealistic, a real crusader. I’d taken on nearly everyone, from dishonest defense contractors to the State Department, so I suppose I should have been ready when the wolves came, eager to eat me up alive. My friends had tried to warn me. Clever me, I hadn’t listened.
Suburbia drifted by the train window. Exurbia, I guess they call it now, the ozone of endless human sprawl: shopping malls, highways, schools, the distant lure of McDonald’s arches rising golden against the sky. After a while, I stopped pretending to read my newspaper. I closed the paper and closed my eyes. I tried to tell myself that it didn’t matter who the spook was behind me. Let him spy on a tired man sleeping in a club car. What more could the world do to me that it hadn’t already done? Yet I couldn’t sleep. My curiosity got the better of me, as it tends to do, a fatal flaw in my so-called character. I kept wondering why anybody would bother to tail me to New York. It was bothersome.
I decided to test the waters. I opened my eyes and sat forward with a start, reaching for a small notebook and pen from my sports jacket pocket. I wrote energetically for a few moments, like I had just had a Pulitzer Prize--winning idea. It was a pretty good simulation of the creative process, amplified only slightly for the benefit of my watcher. Then I stood to use the restroom at the far end of the car, leaving the closed notebook on top of the newspaper on my empty seat as bait. Without glancing behind me, I made my way through the moving train to the restroom, stepping aside for a lady with a little boy who were coming out of the WC just as I arrived.
The tiny restroom was a mess, littered with paper towels, but I wasn’t there to linger. I closed the door behind me, counted to ten, then opened the door quickly. I stuck my head out and glanced down the car. Sure enough, my friend had been unable to resist the temptation to snoop. He had moved from his seat to mine where he was quickly turning pages in my notebook. I watched as he came to the last entry. Being such a nice summer day, I’d written him a poem:
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
I can spot spooks on my tail
A whole lot better than you!
Mr. Average White Guy came to the end of my literary effort and jerked his eyes upward to where I was watching from the restroom door. I smiled and waved, being courteous by nature. Alas, he was not pleased at my performance. Suddenly he didn’t look so average anymore. He looked like mean as hell. With casual contempt, he threw my notebook back onto the newspaper and didn’t bother to pick it up when it tumbled onto the floor. This accomplished, he gave a curt nod in my direction and returned grumpily to his own seat where he stretched out and closed his eyes.
My little prank was adolescent, I admit---and in the shadowy rules of intrigue, it would have been better if I hadn’t let on that I’d spotted him. But someone in my position needs to savor small victories when he finds them. Absurdly pleased with myself, I returned to my seat and slept dreamlessly all the rest of the way to New York.
I had him scoped, of course: he was government. No mere P.I. would have shown quite the same degree of arrogance and untouchability. I worried about that for a nanosecond before sinking into the rhythmic clickety-clack of train sleep. A private eye on my tail would indicate one of the many special interests I’d offended in Washington was after me. But a G-man was a different matter, and I wasn’t sure what I’d done to merit public scrutiny. It had been a while since I’d last embarrassed a senator or president, my golden years of muckraking.
The train rumbled forward, gobbling up the land. I awoke in darkness in the tunnel to Penn Station, a musty subterranean world of red lights, green lights, and ancient-looking tracks. When I stood to get my attaché case in the overhead rack, I saw that my watcher was gone. I hoped I was now free to go about my business, unhindered by further surveillance. As it happened, secrecy was a major requirement of the business I hoped to accomplish today in New York.
Copyright © 2006 by Jack Anderson