Editor’s Note: Herewith the second chapter of our serial novel, “Over the Edge.” To read Chapter 1, click HERE.
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Peter Tock was never particularly thrilled with the godparent thing but Patricia’s parents insisted several times over. And he grew fond of her early on. She was always what they used to call “a fanciful child.” What with his babysitting assignments and the bedtime stories Peter had invented, the several summer weeks in Maine on the small island the Feinsteins and he co-inhabited, and the bucket-full of inadvertent hints her parents might have let slip, Patricia somehow guessed that he worked for one of those agencies her generation would come to call The Deep State. If only, he and his colleagues would laugh/cry amongst themselves, they were anywhere near as deeply powerful as the alt-righters imagined, their pensions and death benefits might better reflect that imagined influence.
In Peter’s world, “obligation” can get you killed. It’s why a lot of them would end up alone. They might try to connect – in Peter’s case, again and again – with a wife, husband, or significant others, but the deeper the connection, the stronger the obligation to divert a portion of your energies and focus to someone else. And in their line of work, the more distracted, the more vulnerable you are to mistakes and miscalculations. And “they” – and there is always a “they” from another side – are more than willing to kidnap and blackmail those you’re concerned about, to leverage that concern.
So it is always part and parcel of the calculations you have to make when it comes to deciding what to do and how to do it.
Unfortunately, it only took that well-practiced but still subtle acknowledgment of need in Patricia’s voice for Peter’s god-fatherly love to override the professional and critically important distance he normally relied upon.
So Peter took a series of deep breaths, asked her to tell him everything she knew about this Zain Toma. Reminding himself several times as she continued on how she loved to embellish the simplest of stories. No wonder she was a drama major. Then he couldn’t help but tell her he’d do what he could.
He knew, of course, that at this point choice was out the window. Peter also knew his goddaughter well enough to know that if he didn’t help, in her zeal and strong desire to celebrate the best in people, Patricia could easily wander into a big mess. Perhaps, in this case, a dangerous mess. And the Feinsteins would never forgive him if they discovered he had said no to her.
Routine kills. Do the same thing in the same way, take the same route to work, go to the same place for lunch and you’re too easily found, and too easily dispatched. So, when Peter was home alone, he indulged himself. And embraced and adored the familiarity of his favorite if modest breakfast. Two shots of espresso and some heavy cream, then yogurt and banana and raspberries and blackberries and blueberries.
As Peter looked over the notes he took, he couldn’t help but laugh. Because none of it rang true. Whether it was the National Intelligence Office in Ankara, or MI6 in London, or the folks in Moscow, even Langley, he could see them laughing. How many alternative names had they – whoever they were – tossed out before they decided on Zain Toma? If he, the erstwhile professor, were a she, she could easily have become Rainna Storm. It was probably the best part of their day, sitting around the conference table in their SCIF, that very expensive Sensitive Compartment Information Facility secret services folks too often retreated to when they needed to whisper about the unnecessarily “classified” material they dealt with.
Rock climbers slip and fall and they die. Because rock climbers make mistakes and equipment fails. In his line of work, people make mistakes. You better learn to read people, develop the instincts to distinguish between what is true or mostly true and what isn’t. If you don’t do the job, and you’re lucky, you’re sent to pretend you’re a junior trade representative in the Embassy in Lower Slobovia. If you don’t do the job, and you’re less than lucky, that guy or gal you thought you could rely on while rock climbing, gives you an unexpected shove and you end up in the hospital or, worst of all, the morgue.
Turns out he hadn’t paid that much attention to the endless discussions the Feinsteins had held about which of the many colleges Patricia could attend. Truth is, he never liked school and regarded it as something parents imagined their kids needed. He would have handed Patricia twenty grand and told her to travel the world.
It didn’t take too long for Peter to discover that Pine Rock College was “a target rich environment.” There were multiple children of influential parents, American, European, African. In the middle of pretty much nowhere it wasn’t hard for these parents to imagine their special children safer in a school few people knew about than Georgetown or Yale or Harvard.
It didn’t take too long for Peter to learn that Cynthia Curry, their Provost, had recently been turned down for similar positions at her alma mater, Amherst, at Barnard and Wellesley. That that failure rankled her and probably predisposed her to accommodate the placement of Professor Zain Toma.
An hour later, with the help of a measly hundred dollars wired into the account of the pissed-off woman who answered the phones at the Economics Department at the University of Basrah – she had previously taught Mathematics under Saddam – and Toma’s backstory started to melt.
Peter had a bagful of titles to use, each with its own discrete phone number answered by Abigail on the second floor, and went with Assistant Director for the Office of Strategic Affairs at the National Security Agency when he called Cynthia Curry. Cynthia was shaky to begin with: she had never misplaced a professor before and it didn’t take long, once she learned his resume was more fiction than fact, for her to appreciate that Zain Toma was a mistake she might never recover from. Swearing several times how hard she and Pine Rock worked to provide her charges with the very best teachers and most appropriate role models, before she threw her former classmate, Ronald Forbank, under her version of an academic bus.
One of the first things you learn is that in DC everyone is looking for a free meal. And because for many – at least the hardest-working, the most competent and worst paid folks who do the bulk of the work – that paid-for meal is a rare opportunity to eat where their bosses eat, to finally try that sushi the Washington Post recently raved about.
Of course, these were the very places the very powerful always went to. If you ever wanted to find out who was on whose take, go to lunch at one of the top restaurants and see which lobbyist was buying which senator lunch.
Not surprisingly, Ronald Forbank wasn’t at all interested in foregoing an opportunity to score a great steak by having lunch with someone he didn’t know at Mario’s, an Italian restaurant nobody at State had ever heard of. And he was a determined no-go until Peter mentioned Ronald’s wife Becky’s affinity for cocaine at Skidmore, and that suspended sentence her uncle the State Senator had procured for her, the proof of which had somehow been digitally deep-sixed.
Peter gently posed the possibility of an inter-office memo to Tillerson that might or might not change the trajectory of his career-to-come. Or an email to Sessions or perhaps one to that weasel, Stephen Miller. Instead, Peter suggested an eggplant parmigiana sandwich Forbank would never forget.
Those guys at State couldn’t help themselves. They thought themselves more bright than pretty much everyone else, wherever they were, and as they circumnavigated the world from one embassy to the next it seemed the main thing they had learned was to love the sound of their own voices. It was as if they were all practicing for a slot on the Sunday morning news shows. To talk some more.
So Forbank hallucinated Peter as Chuck Todd and spent a good ten minutes on the Meet The Press in his mind making what he imagined was a convincing case about what Toma knew about those now calling the shots for al-Maliki in Iraq. And, with a bit of Mario’s red sauce about to fall from his mouth onto his light blue shirt, about how much actionable intel Toma might be able to offer. And, in conclusion, since Toma might have been compromised, it was now even more imperative – his word – and in everybody’s interest to stop asking about him and looking for him and give his handlers time to successfully integrate him at another university, preferably a thousand miles away.
Peter was guessing no one had ever told Forbank about his tell, the almost imperceptible twitch of his right pinkie when he had to sell something he wasn’t sure of. It moved about a millimeter like a little metronome and Peter thought nobody had noticed it and warned him.
One eggplant parmigiana later Peter suspected that Forbank was full of shit. And that in all probability Toma had been snatched from under his incompetent care.
Peter had trained several young men and women over the years. He was fond of sharing this small but critical clue about their work: “You don’t need me to tell you about the many assholes who’ve made it to the top,” he’d begin. “You’ve probably dealt with them every day at the places you worked at before you got here. You might even think I’m one of them. What you probably don’t know is how important they are to those of us who gather information.
“There is a sense of solidarity that defies ideology and borders. And so those of us who are respectful, generous even, who appreciate an honest give and take, have learned that there are often important and useful accommodations to be made. They are as abused by their bosses, and as pissed off as you have been. Be kind and considerate, be fair, and give as much as you take and you will find friends among your so-called enemies.”
Peter then called Sergey. These days he called all his Russian contacts Sergey because there are Sergeys galore in the news today. Peter had known this Sergey for many years. They met first in Berlin, became reacquainted in Managua, ran into each other in Zurich and then under orders from Putin, Sergey had him escorted from his apartment under guard to the Moscow airport. Their burdens these days were remarkably similar: surviving the whims and cruelties of their masters while doing their best to serve their States.
Still a bit pissed by the handcuffs Sergey used on him, Peter wasn’t prepared to share the secret of Mario’s with Sergey but thought the cold cherry soup at The Green Tree might do the trick. And, as a bonus, Sergey would appreciate the irony of their making a deal at a Hungarian restaurant.
Peter came with the name of a Chechen terrorist who they had recently scooped up in a FISA-warranted wiretapping of a corrupt banker washing money from the Ukraine to Cyprus to St. Vincent and the Grenadines. In return for saving countless Russian lives Peter asked Sergey to speculate on his latest theory about Toma. The whole story State was floating stank.
Sergey finished the soup, some goulash and was about to order the palacsinta with raspberry filling when he acknowledged this was a more than fair trade, and that he might in fact owe Peter something for next time.
Then after the first bite of the delicate crepe, he started to laugh. “The ladies. They are always our undoing. I wouldn’t be telling you this except that who you call Toma couldn’t ever keep his hands to himself or how you say it, keep it in his pants. I wouldn’t be telling you this if he hadn’t messed everything up because from the very beginning he was a star pupil, an act of magic by the FSB.
“You know the only reason you caught those fish we stocked in your backyard and lived among you for years in New Jersey and in New York, is because the FSB did such a good job of making Americans. Such good Americans we made, they forgot over the years to be good Russians.”
“Are you talking about what the FBI called ‘Operation Ghost Stories,’ ” I asked, “because the spies you sent to us all took the identities of dead people …”
“Let me tell you” Sergey continued, “they blended in so well they were on their way to the top in your country. Politics, military … But look, their neighbors, their bosses, all your rich Americans always wanted more. And our Americans kept asking for more money. Anyway, that is what you call the water under your bridge.
“It still makes me ill. But the gift back to you, my friend, for the Chechen, is that the man your silly State Department thinks is an Iraqi with a French wife was born in Vladivostok to Russian parents so poor for a thousand rubles they gave him to us for our American village. To make another American. Your people missed him because we sent him with a second group to Los Angeles and they did better than the other idiots in New York.
“By the way he was the best with languages. So French was no problem. And Yiddish which is what we think your Forbank thought was a strange language.
“Unfortunately your Toma, our Fyodor Nevksi, when he grew up slept with every woman who would have him … Even Yuri who ran the West Coast operation, Fyodor couldn’t help himself and took Yuri’s wife to his bed, and you don’t want to get on Yuri’s bad side. So, for a big joke Yuri sent his wife home, back to Russia far away from the Rodeo Drive stores she loved so much and bigger joke he made your Toma enlist to fight for America in Iraq. And there he was and you could count the days before your people thought he was the perfect person to recruit.
“How do you say ‘you can never invent this shit?’ You think he’s yours and we thought he was ours. And he’s taking money from both. By the way our people always thought it was stupid for your people to send him to what you people call the boondocks. To me, I enjoyed my trip to meet with him, what do you call it, to “debrief,” a word I never understood, but to find out what he knew on skis on that Butternut place, which between you and me is a poor excuse for the Alps.
“The people above me always imagined he would get some serious secrets from that Forbank idiot. I was ready to give him a heart attack. But when we met a few weeks ago I was feeling kind and told him to try and find a job at Columbia or Cal Tech or even Berkeley but he loved the fact the girls there, and even the woman who ran that Pine Cone place, thought he was exotic. Especially when he spoke French. Between you and me, Peter my friend, I once thought we were racing to the top but these days Russia and America are racing to the bottom.
“By the way, we overheard your Forbank tell Langley he thought we took him. But something happened to his tracker and we lost him. And it wasn’t us that took him.
“You know by now we have some very good hackers. And I am not so good with any of that but I can tell you we don’t really know that guy in the blue tracksuit at the coffee shop or that blond driver. And we don’t have any black, Infiniti Q70s.
“My money is on Mossad. Let’s have some more palacsinta, my friend. Thinking about this asshole who was once half mine and half yours and now belongs to someone else makes me hungry.”
That night Peter lied to his goddaughter Patricia, a lie that felt worse than almost all the lies Peter had found himself telling over the years. He mixed in a bit of the #metoo movement, thinking he might get hipness points for including the hashtag, and a bit about nondisclosure agreements which Peter hoped would cover the Pine Rock end of things, reminding her that if she or anyone she knew up there dug too deeply she might legally jeopardize those who had come forward. He tried a small helping of honesty – the things he had discovered in his efforts to help her which she couldn’t tell others without possibly putting him at risk at work. Zain Toma was not who he said he was. And wherever he was right now, he was no longer Zain Toma. And whoever he was now, he was doing his best to charm as many young women as he could. Pine Rock was a hell of lot better off without him and so was his dear goddaughter.
“Thanks, Uncle Peter,” he heard and did his best to convince himself that was that.
(To be continued)