I pulled into the parking lot of the Georgetown dock and saw a double-decker river taxi overflowing with people getting ready to leave. I peeked at my watch. Two minutes. I found a short-term parking space, threw on the parking brake, and jogged to the ticket counter looking the part of a businessman on the verge of missing an afternoon meeting.
The guy at the ticket counter had seen plenty of guys like me, so he had my ticket ready and was holding up ten fingers. I handed him a ten, nodded my thanks, and headed down the ramp. The gate was already closed, but the attendant saw me coming.
“Just in time.” He put a crack in the gate, and I slid through.
“Thanks for waiting,” I said, even though I knew he hadn’t.
The Cherry Blossom looked like an old-time riverboat scudding down the Mississippi, the paddle wheel churning off the stern, spray gently showering the deck. I walked through the lower deck as the boat headed downriver. An eclectic gaggle of tourists crowded along the filigree railing as their guide’s voice rang out over the loudspeaker.
I looked for disinterested parties. I looked for a sidelong glance. I looked for a man dressed like a librarian or an accountant. I climbed the stairs to the second deck. The view improved, and I ignored it completely. A man in a tweed coat with a neck scarf tucked under his chin stood alone off the stern end, watching the paddle wheel turn. It was probably by chance that he was stationed next to the American flag dancing in the breeze, but I kind of doubted it.
“You look cold,” I said, standing next to him.
“When you’re seventy-six you’ll be cold pretty much every minute of every day, too,” Mr. Elliot said. I’d always called him Mr. Elliot. I always would.
“Then why the hell did you pick a water taxi in the middle of the Potomac for a get-together? I kind of miss our room in the Holiday Inn.”
He stared at me with blue eyes as challenging and icy as they’d been during our first meeting nearly thirty-five years earlier. His grin had taken on an ironic twist over the years, and I suppose that was inevitable given the business we were in. “A room at the Holiday Inn costs money. A senior’s pass gets me a view of the river for five bucks.”
“I paid ten,” I said.
“Your time will come, kid.”
He’d aged, to be sure, but the fire was still there. How many people could you say you trusted with your life? Well, with Dad dead and gone I was down to one. And here he stood. I could only hope that he felt the same.
“So. The White House chief of staff and a three-star in the same room,” he said with a chuckle. “Bet that lunch was a barrel of laughs.”
He was talking about an impromptu and rather extraordinary get-together at the Old Ebbitt Grill with my longtime friend Lieutenant General Thomas Rutledge and a political animal named Landon Fry, only the most powerful man in the country save the president himself. I didn’t like politicians. Fry was no exception. “I had the Monte Carlo, the general had a Cobb salad. Fry probably munched on the silverware.”
Mr. Elliot chuckled again. “You always have the Monte Carlo.” He drew his coat tightly around him and stared at the water churning below us. “They didn’t give you the details, of course.”
“They used The Twelver in the same sentence with critical mass and catastrophe, so I assume I’m going in headfirst,” I replied.
The Twelver. That’s all the general had needed to say. “The Twelver” was a two-word reference to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president and the Agency’s least-favorite person. The Twelvers were the largest Shiite Muslim group in Iran. They believed the Twelve Imams to be the spiritual and political successors to Muhammad. It was an extraordinarily powerful position, because the Prophet’s successor was thought to be infallible. It was no secret that Ahmadinejad fancied himself the Twelfth Imam, even if few others did.
“You’ll go in headfirst and without a net,” Mr. Elliott corrected.
“So what’s new?”
Mr. Elliot turned and faced me, gimlet eyes burning, dead serious. I’d seen that look a hundred times before, and it always meant the same thing: showtime.
My longtime case officer said, “You’re back on the clock. Headed for the badlands. Boots on the ground.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“You know we don’t call a guy out of retirement unless no one else can do the job, Jake,” Mr. Elliot said plainly. Then he got down to business. “Your mission is to develop indisputable intel proving that Iran has nukes and the launch capabilities to use them. We also want you to provide coordinates to support military strikes and covert assassinations inside that country. And you have two weeks max to do it.”
I wanted to say, Oh, is that all? No sweat. But I didn’t, of course. Mr. Elliot did not appreciate sarcasm. I started doing the math: two days to prep, eight days on the ground, and four days for the inevitable complications.
Mr. Elliot fished a pack of Chesterfields from his coat pocket, shook a cigarette out despite a NO SMOKING sign not twenty feet away, and used an old Zippo to light it. He smoked, and I watched the water. A gentle wake crested behind the boat, but I could just barely hear it over the riverboat’s engine. I heard voices, laughter, and footsteps as excited tourists moved to the starboard side of the boat. I followed their movement. The George Washington Monument pierced the air like a giant spike. The dome of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial seemed to hover like a flying saucer above columns of snow-white marble.
That’s how people reacted when they came to D.C. They saw the White House and the Library of Congress. They stared into Lincoln’s eyes and marveled at the names on the Vietnam Memorial. They gazed into the Reflecting Pool and tipped their heads to the sea of white at Arlington Cemetery. And they felt something. These were the symbols of their country, and they felt something. Pride, freedom, security. Who knew? But it was my job to protect that something. And if it meant a black op in the heart of most dangerous country on earth, well, so be it.
“I’ll need the MEK,” I said. The Mujahedin-e Khalq was Iran’s most powerful antigovernment group. They would do anything to topple the current regime. I knew their leadership as well as anyone in the Agency. I didn’t trust them any more than they trusted me. If I could aid in their movement, they would allow themselves to be used. “Which means starting in Paris.”
“Good. Because we have a little problem in Paris that needs taking care of.”
I didn’t like the sound of this, not with a two-week-timetable already staring me in the face. “So? Lay it on me.”
“There’s a leak.” His voice was a half-octave lower than it had been three seconds ago. “It begins with a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and ends with a French drug dealer who’s decided to try his hand at extortion. And so far he’s been damn successful. The leak needs to disappear, Jake. Your mission depends on it.”
He turned and looked across the water. I stared at the side of his face and said, “Details?”
“You’ll have them before you leave.” Mr. Elliot used a polished leather shoe to put out his cigarette. Now he vouchsafed me a look that was just this side of sympathy. “I know what you’re thinking. What about the senator? A rat sitting on one of the most powerful committees in the government. Who silences him?”
“I’ll take care of it. You put your guy in Paris out of business, and I’ll put mine out here.” He fished out another smoke.
“Thought you were quitting,” I said.
“That was before they dragged my favorite operative out of his rocking chair, and I had to take up my babysitting duties again.” He grinned. The grin turned into a snakebitten chuckle. I may have been fifty-six, but I still looked forty-five—that being my own humble opinion, of course. Well, maybe if the lighting was just right. I could still dead lift five hundred pounds and run a marathon in five hours. What was all this about a rocking chair? “Okay, granted, you still look like you’ve got a couple of miles left in the tank.”
“Helluva compliment. Thanks a bunch.” I gripped the railing as the riverboat inched toward the dock at Alexandria. “Any more surprises?”
“The DDO will be sitting in on your meeting tomorrow at the Pentagon. Be nice. You’re going to need him,” Mr. Elliot advised.
The Agency’s deputy director of operations was a politician through and through, but nothing went down without his approval. I would need him: Mr. Elliot was right about that. But he was just part of the op. I would run him just like I did every other asset, as if he were a blink of an eye away from slitting my throat. I said, “How much will he know?”
“He’ll know the op, but he won’t like it.” Mr. Elliot slipped a hand into his coat pocket and came away with a disposable phone in his palm. When the riverboat lurched to a halt, he grabbed my arm for balance, and the phone slid into my hand. The exchange was so quick and seamless that it reminded me of the old days. “It’s good for three calls.”
I looked into his eyes. He had something else to tell me, and it wasn’t going to be pretty. I made it easy for him. “And…?”
“That obvious, huh?”
“We’ve known each other a long time.”
“I’ve made contact with the Russians in Saint Petersburg,” he said.
The Russians in Saint Petersburg. That could mean only one thing: the Russian mafia. I was right. Not pretty at all. In fact, downright ugly.
I turned to go. “This your stop?”
“Nah. I bought a round trip.”
“A round trip for five bucks!” I caught his eye one last time. “I gotta give the AARP credit.”
Last I saw him, he was lighting another cigarette with his Zippo, and it did my heart good to know that he had my back again.
I went in search of a taxi. Everything from this moment on was a full-blown black op.
Copyright © 2012 by Wayne Simmons and Mark Graham