WASHINGTON D.C., 1953
A solid man of average height not yet thirty years old, stood in the ninth-floor hotel room and placed the telephone in its cradle, ending a difficult conversation. His tuxedo was at odds with the room’s drab, charmless atmosphere, and he brushed hair from his forehead with the unconscious gesture of a man whose sense of entitlement was rattled. He walked to the window, sipping from the two fingers of scotch he’d poured into a paper cup, and gazed at the dark clouds that blanketed the resting city. A curse slipped from his lips: Shit.
Phillip Treacher pondered the lie that he had just told his wife to explain why he wouldn’t be joining her that night at the president’s Thanksgiving gala. He misled friends, misrepresented himself to neighbors, and regularly carried out assignments that required him to go dark or use an alias, but this was his first lie to his new wife.
She knew he worked for the CIA, and she had come to understand in the first months of their marriage that when he came home in a sullen mood, there had been a problem at work – and she knew not to ask. They had established boundaries for their conversations, and his grimace was a signal that he couldn’t answer her questions. But when he drank heavily at dinner, she guessed that a Soviet double agent had died and his harsh interrogation had been a success.
Treacher had tried to soften the blow by starting the conversation with a few questions about inconsequential things – her gown back from the tailor for the weekend gala. Does it fit? And gossip about who would be at the White House and who would not. Casual chat that he kept up heroically until she interrupted. What’s wrong? Where are you? He said something unexpected had come up and he wouldn’t be able to make it. Her silence was the longest of their marriage, and without saying more, he knew she would ask the question that he couldn’t answer. He felt a terrible responsibility to keep her in the dark about an urgent national security matter of acute sensitivity.
He considered letting her hold onto her shock and anger, but he felt the need to offer a plausible explanation that she could tell other guests who asked why she’d come alone. I’ve been called out of town. Regret, guilt, remorse. These were the feelings that he permitted himself in the moment of his deception. But he had not considered, even for a moment, describing what he was doing a few blocks away in the Hotel Harrington.
Treacher stared at the black telephone. He drained the scotch from his paper cup and crushed it in his big fist. Too short for college basketball, too light for football, too slow for baseball, he had tried tennis, track, even fencing, before he settled on Yale’s rowing team, which was a good match for his strong hands. He still raced one-man sculls at dawn before his late-sleeping wife, Tammy, woke, and he got an hour of grueling exercise on the Potomac before going to the office. Treacher tossed the crumpled cup into the wastebasket and turned his attention to the silvered smokiness of the room’s two-way mirror.
Between two queen-size beds there was a nightstand with a forest green banker’s lamp, a telephone, and the afternoon’s tabloid, which had been folded in thirds after having been read and discarded. A middle-aged man sat on the bed nearest the window. He wore a gray suit jacket, but he had no tie, slacks, shoes, or socks. He was morosely slumped half-undressed on the edge of the bed, cradling his head in his hands. Quiet now, Treacher thought.
Treacher’s immediate thought was that this man, Dr Charles Wilson, couldn’t possibly be a national security threat, couldn’t possibly be dangerous. He moved closer to the two-way mirror and saw that the quiet man was now deeply agitated. Dr Wilson looked at his wristwatch, then stared at the telephone for a long time, visibly impatient and upset. He glanced at his watch again. His face was drawn and pale. Treacher thought the unthinkable and shuddered. The judgment winged across his consciousness: At least he’ll be at peace in his grave when this dreadful night is over.
Phillip Treacher was no stranger to the Hotel Harrington. He had been in room 918 before, under different circumstances, with a different security problem – and always the sensible spirit of the place provided a gloss of normalcy to the dirty business.
It was Washington’s oldest hotel and, at eleven floors, one of the tallest buildings in the city. Its location near the White House and close to the Smithsonian made it a top pick for out-of-town visitors. Its height had attracted the city’s first television station, Channel 5, which maintained its antenna on the roof and operated studios in a converted ballroom on the mezzanine. There, two iconoscope video cameras pointed toward the stage where Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux and his choir sang hymns every Thursday for the television audience. That Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 1953, was no different. Spectators crowded the soundproof glass wall and watched the animated evangelist in his tuxedo lead singers through a medley of rousing spirituals.
Channel 5’s popular programming drew a lively crowd of musicians, actors, and tourists to the hotel’s lobby, where they mixed with loitering fans and budget-minded diners going to the self-service Kitcheteria, or their elegant opposite, who came with reservations to the Pink Elephant Cocktail Lounge. Diplomats, lobbyists, and out-of-town businessmen moved swiftly to the elevators in the company of girlfriends or prostitutes without attracting the disapproval of the concierge, a smartly dressed professional, who noticed everything and remembered nothing. Lively social commerce made the Hotel Harrington a good location for a CIA safe house.
Again, the telephone. Treacher turned away from the sidewalk spectacle of unruly fans surrounding Elder Lightfoot’s car and looked back into the room. His first thought was that his wife had found a way to trace their call and was phoning back. He picked up the receiver on the third ring.
Treacher recognized the voice of the head of Technical Services. ‘Who else would it be?’
‘What’s the news? Any update?’
Treacher heard the boozy laughter of partying guests in the background. ‘Are you coming over?’
‘No, I can’t. It’s on you. What’s the update?’
Treacher had been the unlucky junior man to pull holiday duty. ‘Two Office of Security men found him in the television studio. He’d thrown away his wallet in the lobby. He was barefoot and extremely agitated, and he demanded to go on camera. He pushed his way to the newscaster before he was stopped.’
‘Christ! Is he spinning out of control?’
‘Spun. He’s spun. I think he’s gone. You can look forward to the arc of what he knows falling on a widening audience.’
‘What is he saying?’
‘Anthrax.’ Treacher waited a moment. ‘You’re quiet, Herb.’ Phillip Treacher knew that the threads of ruinous danger were unspooling in Herb Weisenthal’s fevered mind. The word would have produced a chaotic montage of top secret locations – Fort Detrick’s stainless-steel incubators, dark landing strips on the Korean Peninsula, Berlin Station’s basement interrogation cells, Porton Down’s locked gates guarded by men with tommy guns – the vast sweep of a covert enterprise that was their sworn duty to keep secret.
‘Herb, you’ve never been this quiet.’
‘Where is he now?’
‘Next door.’ Treacher looked through the two-way mirror at Dr Wilson. The overhead light was off now, but the shaded bedside lamp illuminated a pale perimeter. ‘He’s on the bed in his boxer shorts. His head is in his hands, and he keeps looking at his watch.’
‘He’s there. Next bed. He’s asleep. It’s been a tough couple of days.’ He paused. ‘You should come by and see for yourself.’ He didn’t expect an answer and he didn’t get one.
‘What does he know?’
‘He’s a chaperone from Chemical Branch to keep Wilson calm. He’s a chemist, not a bodyguard.’
‘I think we know the danger. We don’t have a choice.’
‘Yes, yes. We know the danger,’ Treacher snapped.
‘Phil, we have to contain this before we fall into a bottomless perdition. We’ve let it go too far. A mistake – yes, my mistake – is about to become an intolerable catastrophe.’
‘An unforgivable mistake.’ There was a pause.
‘Let me remind you that we are at war,’ Weisenthal said. ‘We don’t want to wake up one morning to find this problem has come front and center overnight in big newspaper headlines. War itself is regrettable.’ ‘Don’t lecture me.’
‘It’s time to move. We can’t weigh our options any longer. I’ve got clearance. It’s vetted, blessed, approved. It’s now for you to act and the operations team to take care of the rest.’
‘Do you hear me?’
‘Loud and clear.’
‘Good. The decision has been made. It’s done. Let’s do what we need to. We are beyond sentiment and regret. Keep your doubts to yourself and do your duty. Move forward.’
Treacher felt anger rise up again, but his memory of their bitter weeklong quarrel was quelled by the inevitable. They were beyond trying to convince each other that one opinion was right and the other wrong. They agreed to disagree. A decision had been made at the top of the Agency, confirmed by Weisenthal, and now he would reluctantly proceed. Treacher felt a cold hollow in his chest where regret mixed with sorrow.
‘We are officially horrified,’ he said, ‘but we move forward. You should have put more thought into your little experiment before we got here.’
‘Water under the bridge. By any reasonable standard of judgment, we were careful – but now, unfortunately, we have an unstable man with state secrets in his head.’
‘He’s a colleague. I know his wife and children.’ Treacher looked through the two-way mirror at Dr Wilson. A lonely condemned figure in boxer shorts slumped on the edge of the bed.
‘What choice is there?’ Weisenthal said quietly. ‘His instability is fresh and speed must answer it. Arrangements are in place.’
‘When does it happen?’
‘Shortly. Leave the door to Wilson’s room unlocked. Ainsley will stay in the bathroom, out of the way. Two security officers will be there in a few minutes.’
‘What do I tell them?’
‘Nothing. They have their instructions. Solid men. Veterans. They know it’s an urgent matter approved at the highest level.’ A pause. ‘Phil?’
‘You okay? Your voice is tired. Have you been drinking?’
Treacher’s mind revolted against the question. ‘Yes,’ he snapped.
‘Get some food in you. Life goes forward. Order room service. Not a good way to spend Thanksgiving.’
Treacher hung up. He was calm and horrified, those two opposing emotions alive in him at the same time. His face had paled, drained even of its scotch flush, and he felt a great thirst in his parched mouth – as if he’d breathed in a desert wind. His eyes had narrowed, and behind the lenses of his wire-frame glasses he appeared to squint. He felt particularly out of place standing in the safe house in his tuxedo, but the call to duty had come suddenly.
Treacher checked the 16mm camera that stood on a tripod in front of the two-way mirror, and he did the same with the Nagra recording deck. Equipment lights were dark, both machines dormant, but out of an excess of caution he unplugged the Nagra and pointed the camera away from the mirror. There was to be no record.
The beginning of the end had come unexpectedly, during a Monday staff meeting at Navy Hill Headquarters. Treacher had been discussing the Agency’s liability in the aftermath of its botched effort to test the dispersion properties of bacteriological agents released from a lightbulb dropped on subway tracks, when Herb Weisenthal summoned him from the conference room.
Treacher followed Weisenthal past late-arriving secretaries for whom the presence of the TSS chief on the second floor would be a lively topic of gossip. ‘No reason to start any rumors,’ Weisenthal had whispered, smiling at the astonished women as he led Treacher to the stairwell.
‘How’s the wife? Newlyweds? How long has it been?’ Weisenthal felt it necessary to precede an urgent work matter with a not-quite-cordial personal question.
‘Not long,’ Treacher replied vaguely. ‘When do we stop calling ourselves newlyweds?’
‘When sex slows down.’
Treacher smiled vaguely, refusing Weisenthal the satisfaction of an insight into the state of his marriage. They were unalike – Treacher the Ivy League man with roots in an established New York banking family close to Cardinal Spellman, who mentored Treacher and gave him standing among Washington’s elite. He was well-schooled, well-spoken, well-liked, ambitious, and conventionally patriotic. He had been an aide to the undersecretary of state fresh out of law school, special assistant to the Agency’s inspector general at twenty-eight, and his name was among the privileged few of a new generation cultivated by Washington’s social circles. He and Tammy were invited to smart parties with smart people.
Weisenthal was a Brooklyn immigrant’s son raised on a tough street who’d gone to public high school and then a Midwestern state university on scholarship. He found his way into Washington’s burgeoning intelligence bureaucracy with a doctorate in agronomy that was useful for a nation secretly developing its germ warfare capability. He spoke with the determined speech of a recovered childhood stutterer. He was an ordinary dresser, preferring to look like the other men who arrived early to the office and left late. Except for his club foot, which gave him a slight limp, nothing about the man stood out or drew unwanted attention.
‘I haven’t met him before, but I know him by reputation,’ Weisenthal said, answering the question that was on Treacher’s mind. His eyes invited Treacher up the stairwell. ‘He’s in my office. MI6. Very British. Our liaison to Porton Down. Staff intelligence officer. He said he had to speak to us in person.’
Weisenthal’s sparsely furnished corner office had a gunmetal-gray desk, wooden chairs, a sofa, and a glass coffee table with that week’s issues of Time and Newsweek, and against the wall, completely out of proportion to the rest of the room, was a large black combination safe, door ajar. There were no family photographs, no memorabilia, no hint of a life beyond the office except for his brown fedora hanging from a coat stand.
The Englishman rose abruptly from the sofa to greet the two Americans. ‘Thank you for seeing me on short notice,’ he said. His overnight bag was on the floor, and his tan mackintosh draped a chair. ‘Mark Leyland.’ He eagerly thrust his hand forward to Weisenthal and then to Treacher.
‘I didn’t call before I left London. I wasn’t comfortable discussing the matter on the telephone, so I took the overnight flight through Gander.’
A brisk smile parted his lips, half explanation and half apology.
Treacher remembered much of the hour-long conversation, but as with all things that come suddenly and upend your comfortable perspective, he had been skeptical of the case Leyland was making against Dr Wilson. The Englishman’s corpulent bulk was squeezed into a dark wool suit that had wrinkled on the long flight and made him seem comical. Leyland kept touching his cufflinks, an odd tic that distracted Treacher. He was obviously uncomfortable and awkward knowing that he was providing compromising information on a colleague of the two Americans he addressed. That’s what Treacher thought as he listened. He resented being made aware of facts he found distasteful – facts that could not be ignored.
Apparently, Dr Wilson had been in Berlin, where he witnessed the harsh interrogation of an ex-Nazi weapons scientist who had then died. Wilson flew from there to London and drove to Porton Down, where he brought up the disturbing incident with an English scientist who worked in the same field of biochemical weapons research, a man he considered a confidant.
‘He talked about highly sensitive matters, eyes-only stuff.’ Leyland’s tenor voice had deepened. ‘Very inappropriate matters. Our man reported it up the chain. We felt it important to give you Americans a heads-up. These are, we believe, serious security violations.’ ‘
What did he say?’
‘He had doubts about his work. He was very specific.’
After Leyland left, Weisenthal had taken Treacher aside. That was when the quarrel began.
‘It’s not enough to sit with Wilson and get his view. It’s not enough to remind him of the sensitive nature of our work. It’s not enough that we accept his apology and his mea culpa.’
‘Not enough?’ Treacher had shouted. ‘You hire good men, intelligent men. You trust them to keep their mouths shut. He was talking to MI6, for Christ’s sake. He wasn’t unburdening himself to a stranger. We’re educated men. We have thoughts about the work we do.’
‘There is no learning curve on treason.’
Inside that abrupt beginning Treacher had seen the horizon of possible endings, none pleasant, all expedient. Weisenthal said everything he wanted to say with the numbing repetition of an aggressive salesman. What if he were abducted while traveling overseas? What if he were drugged at a conference in Paris, where he travels three times a year? What if he were compromised? Would he talk? What would he say? That’s what we need to test.
Treacher heard the soft tap on the hotel door and then two more muffled strikes in quick succession. Through the peephole Treacher saw two Office of Security men standing in the hallway with the dubious calm of diligent officers on urgent assignment. Treacher undid the door chain and admitted them. He glanced into the hallway, where two women in raccoon scarfs and short skirts escorted a drunk old enough to be their father. The john wouldn’t remember the encounter, and the prostitutes would have every reason to forget it. The girls moved down the hallway in a duet of giddy laughter.
Inside the room, Treacher faced the two men. The shorter one had a boxer’s porcine nose, square jaw, and wide-set eyes that gave him the impression of a man capable of great malice. His taller, younger partner had a kinder rookie’s face overspread with exaggerated confidence. Humble men, loyal men, who had earned a reputation for keeping their eyes open and their mouths shut. They saw the recording equipment and twoway mirror without surprise or question. They were familiar with the room and its purpose.
The taller agent looked at Treacher.
Treacher paused. The alias felt like a new suit he had tried on in a men’s clothing store and forgotten to take off. ‘I’m Nick Arndt.’ Treacher repeated the name to own it, implant it, to score his memory for the way he would be known by the two officers. ‘Yes, Nick Arndt. Which one are you?’
Treacher had read the two-paragraph note on Michael V. Casey during his evening vigil. He’d glanced at it when he first arrived and again after he’d exhausted his interest in the room’s copies of Modern Screen and Photoplay. Boston College. Wounded in the first days of the Battle of Osan. Son of a decorated Washington Metropolitan police officer. Father of a two-year-old girl. Solid Irish Catholic. Good patriot.
‘And you?’ Treacher asked the second man.
A knock on the door, startlingly loud in the quiet room. Treacher put his eye to the peephole and then quickly opened the door for Ainsley, who stood barefoot in a bathrobe that he tightened with an offhanded movement, closing it where it had opened. He had the wildly disheveled hair of a man awakened from restless sleep, and he was agitated. He looked past Treacher at the two security officers and his concern was amplified by his surprise. Treacher pulled Ainsley into the room.
‘This is Dr Ainsley,’ Treacher said brusquely to settle the men’s nerves.
‘For God’s sake, what’s happening, Phil?’ Ainsley said.
Treacher turned abruptly to the officers. ‘Forget that name. You never heard it. The name is Nick Arndt.’ Treacher flipped open his leather wallet and displayed an FBI alias – proof of who he claimed to be. Treacher then addressed Ainsley. ‘You okay?’
‘That’s not the right question,’ Ainsley said. ‘What’s going on? Who are these thugs?’
‘The hour has arrived,’ Treacher said. ‘Where is he?’
Treacher looked through the two-way mirror, but he was too far away and the angle was wrong, so he couldn’t see Dr Wilson’s sleeping form. As he moved closer, the fullness of the room opened up. Dr Wilson lay on the bed under a pale blue blanket, knees drawn to his chest, occupying only a small portion of the mattress. Treacher calmly rested his hands on Ainsley’s shoulders. He repeated Weisenthal’s instructions. Go back to the room. Stay in the bathroom. Wait for the police to arrive.
Treacher was again alone with the two security officers. He had been picked for the assignment, and the time to question orders had passed. He had not trained for this, but he knew what was required. The shot of scotch he threw back vanquished any doubt that remained.
‘You are now initiated,’ he said to Casey and Kelly. ‘Nothing you will hear, nothing you’ll see, nothing that happens tonight, goes outside this room. Understand?’
‘Michael, this will be unpleasant. You’re a professional. A patriot. A good Catholic. The man next door is dangerous. Unstable. You saw him in the television studio barefoot and upset. You were kind enough to find his wallet. It’s all very unfortunate, but very necessary.’
Casey nodded. His eyes were wide and steady, but his companion had no reaction whatsoever. Treacher knew where the risk lay between the two men.
‘You have a problem keeping quiet, Michael?’ No, sir. ‘You know what national security is?’ Yes, sir. ‘We are fighting a war, a Cold War, but a war all the same, against a Godless enemy, and our way of life is at risk. Understand?’
Treacher listened. The lights in the adjoining room were now off, and darkness beyond the two-way mirror obscured the room’s details. What was taking so long? He suck-started a cigarette, but after one unsatisfying pull he ground it into the overflowing ashtray. Again the darkened room. He was alert to sounds, but he heard nothing, and he impatiently clenched and unclenched his fist. His quarrel with Weisenthal was a bad memory that echoed in the quiet of his mind, lengthening the wait. Hellish time. A second became a minute, and one minute became two and then three. The tyranny of waiting.
Suddenly, through the two-way mirror, flashlight beams carved the darkness, bouncing floor to ceiling until they found a sleeping Dr Wilson. He’d shifted on the bed, his knees still curled up to his chest in a fetal position. Amber beams washed his face in hot light, waking him, and he sat up. He blinked, startled and confused, and then loud voices shouted urgent commands. Dr Wilson was rudely made to stand, and the shorter security officer pinned his right arm behind his back, immobilizing him, and the second man guided him across the room. Dr Wilson became violent in the face of his doom. He kicked fiercely, struggled to free his right arm, and made contorted efforts to cling to the bedpost with a grasping hand. Grunts, shouts, desperate cries, and the sharp crack of breaking furniture were muffled by the two-way mirror. Erratically swinging beams caught snapshots of violence. In one moment of illumination, Treacher saw a dark object come down on Dr Wilson’s head. The room was suddenly quiet. Dr Wilson’s slumped form was dragged forward.
Treacher turned away from the two-way mirror, heart pounding. His hands were cold. He closed his mind to what he knew was happening. He counted the seconds until three minutes passed. Trust the plan. Clean up. Get out.
Treacher entered the adjoining room when he found the door ajar. He passed the bathroom and saw Ainsley on the toilet, underwear at his ankles, head slumped, trembling.
Treacher turned on the bedside lamp, and the perimeter of light revealed torn pillows, a blanket crumpled on the floor, a broken chair, and the shattered globe of a standing lamp. Everywhere the signs of struggle. Treacher’s eye was drawn to Dr Wilson’s wristwatch on the bedside table, which he immediately recognized by the dual time-zone face set in a tonneau crystal. He had always admired the polished gold bezel and harmonious lines of the elegant watch. He knew how much it meant to Dr Wilson, and he knew too that a policeman might covet it. He worried that the chain of custody would be broken and it would be lost. He took it for safekeeping.
Treacher became aware that the room was drafty – and cold. That’s when he saw that the casement window was smashed and the drapes were outside, flapping violently in the night. Shattered glass lay on the sill, on the radiator below, and in a debris field across the floor. The window’s inside frame was a sawtooth of broken glass.
Treacher carefully put his head through the jagged opening and saw a luminous White House under the limpid night sky. Dead of night in the sleeping city. Suddenly, an ear-splitting shriek amplified by the dry November air and the early morning quiet. It was a strange cry of surprise and distress followed by the sharp clap of shoe leather running on the sidewalk. Treacher followed the uniformed doorman as he hurried from the opposite side of the street where he’d been speaking to the driver of a lone Checker cab.
Treacher saw the doorman join three pedestrians who had collected in a tight circle, talking in a blur of excited voices and urgently calling for help from an absent authority. They stepped aside for the doorman, and a mortally wounded Dr Wilson was visible on the sidewalk. Blood leaked from his nose and mouth and stained his cotton T-shirt. His knee was twisted at a terrible angle, and a pale bone protruded from an open thigh wound just below his boxer shorts. Blood pooling on the sidewalk was black in the night. The doorman took the dying Dr Wilson in his lap and leaned forward, but then Dr Wilson’s gasping effort to speak ended, and life left the body. The doorman gently laid him on the concrete.
The doorman backed away from the hotel’s looming façade and looked up at drapes flapping from an open window. He counted the floors so he could know which room the dead guest had been in.