8

FALLS CHURCH, VIRGINIA

The colonel had chosen a motel on the edge of town, using a pay phone to reserve a room under a pseudonym. At 11:00 P.M., after he’d used an electronic scanner to make sure that the room was free of microphones, his three associates arrived, their clothes speckled with water from the dank November rain that had greeted them at Washington National Airport following their flight from New Orleans.

All of them looked tired, even Captain Weller, who normally exuded sexual vitality. Her blond hair looked stringy, her blouse wrinkled. She took off her jacket, slumped on the motel room’s sofa, and toed off her high-heeled shoes. Major Putnam and Alan had haggard red cheeks, presumably from fatigue combined with the dehydration that occurs on aircraft and the further dehydrating effect of alcohol.

“Can we get some coffee?” Captain Weller asked.

“Over there,” the colonel said flatly. “The carafe on the tray beside the phone.” In contrast with his visitors, the colonel looked fit and alert, standing as straight and attentively as ever. He’d shaved and showered before he’d arrived, partly to keep himself fresh, partly to appear more energized than his companions. His clothes, too, were fresh: shined Bally loafers, pressed gray slacks, a starched white shirt, a newly purchased red-striped tie, and a double-breasted blue blazer. The effect was to make his tall, trim body suggest the military, even though he did not wear military clothing.

“Oh.” Captain Weller glanced toward the carafe on the tray beside the phone. She and Major Putnam, who slumped on a chair beside the television, did not wear military clothing, either. “Right. I didn’t notice it when I came in.”

The colonel’s eyes narrowed as if to imply that she had been failing to notice a lot of things.

Alan, the only civilian in the room, loosened his rumpled tie, unbuttoned the top of his wrinkled shirt, and walked over to the coffee, pouring a cup. Everyone in the room looked surprised when he carried the cup over to Captain Weller and then returned to pour another cup, blowing steam from it, sipping. “What are we doing here? Couldn’t this have waited until the morning? I’m dead on my feet, not to mention I’ve got a wife and kids who haven’t seen me in-”

The colonel’s flint-and-steel voice interrupted, “I want a thorough update. No more of your hints and guesses that you don’t feel comfortable talking about because you don’t trust the security of the phones.”

“Hey,” Alan said, “if we’d been given portable scramblers, I’d talk on phones all you wanted, but once burned, twice shy, Colonel. In this case, we need extra-tight security.”

“I couldn’t agree more.” The colonel stood straighter. Rain pelted against the window, making the dismal room even less agreeable. “That’s why I ordered you to be here right now instead of at home in bed with your wife.”

Alan’s expression hardened. “Ordered, Colonel?”

“Somebody tell me what’s going on.” The colonel’s voice became more flinty. “Major, you’ve been unusually silent so far.”

“A lot of it you already know.” The major rubbed the back of his neck. “In New Orleans, we went to meet Buchanan at his hotel room. The arrangement was to be there at nine hundred hours. He didn’t respond when we knocked. After we tried several times, we asked a maid to unlock the door. The day before, he’d been released from the hospital. Maybe he’d fainted or something. What we found was his room key, a signed checkout form-obviously he didn’t want the hotel to start a search for him-and this note addressed to Alan.”

The colonel took the note and scanned it.

“So he says he’s going to do us a favor by dropping out of sight. That way, he’s an invisible man, and the reporter from the Post can’t verify her story if she pursues it.”

“That seems to be the idea,” the major said.

“And how do you feel about this?” The colonel scowled.

“Hell, I don’t know,” the major said. “This is all out of hand. Everything’s so confused. Maybe he’s right.”

“Damn it, have you forgotten that you’re an officer in the United States Army?”

The major straightened with controlled indignation. “No, sir, I definitely have not.”

“Then why must I remind you that Captain Buchanan is absent without permission? A deserter. Our operatives can’t just decide to quit and go off on their own, especially when they know as much as Buchanan does. We’d have chaos, a security nightmare. I can see I haven’t been supervising you closely enough. What this assignment requires is more discipline, more-”

It was Alan’s turn to interrupt. “No, what this assignment needs is for everybody to remember who’s an officer in the United States Army.” He set down his coffee cup with such force that liquid splashed over the side. “That’s where this assignment went wrong in the first place, with military personnel doing work that’s supposed to be done by civilians. You’ve been impersonating civilians so long you don’t know the difference.”

“By ‘civilians,’ you mean the Agency. ”

“Obviously.”

“Well, if the Agency had been doing its job, it wouldn’t have needed to call on us, would it?” the colonel said. “During the eighties, your people got so stuck on gadgets and satellites, you forgot it took operatives on-site to get the truly useful information. So after you screwed up enough times-Iran, Iraq, the old USSR-even the Soviet collapse caught you by surprise-you decided you needed a team of on-line, can-do personnel to pull your asses out of the fire. Us.”

“Not my ass,” Alan said. “I’ve never been a fan of gadgets. It wasn’t my fault that-”

“The truth is,” the colonel said, “when the Cold War ended, your people realized you’d be out of a job if you didn’t find something else to do. But the trouble is, all the jobs that needed to be done, like stomping out Third World drug lords, required more risks than you wanted to take. So you asked us to take the risk. After all, the reason there hasn’t been more success against the drug lords is you’ve been using the top men as informants in exchange for giving them immunity. It’s kind of tough to go after people you’ve been chummy with. So you ask us to go after them and do it in such a way that they don’t realize you’re the ones who turned against them.”

“Hey,” Alan said, “it’s not one of my people who suddenly thinks he’s a free spirit and drops out of sight.”

“Captain Buchanan wouldn’t have been able to drop out of sight,” the colonel said, “if your people had kept proper surveillance on the hotel.”

“It wasn’t my people who were put in charge of watching that hotel,” Alan said. “If this had been turned over to me. . This is a military screw up all the way. Soldiers don’t have any business doing-”

“That’s enough,” the colonel said. “Your opinion is no longer required.

“But-”

“That is all.” The colonel swung toward the major and the captain, who looked shocked by the sudden argument they’d witnessed. “What do we do about Buchanan?”

Captain Weller cleared her throat. “I phoned his credit-card company and claimed that he was my husband, that his card had been stolen. I expected that maybe he’d have bought a plane ticket. I was wrong. The credit-card company told me someone using his name had rented a car in New Orleans.”

“And?” the colonel demanded.

“The next thing, someone using his card rented a motel room in Beaumont, Texas.”

“I’m impressed, Captain. I assume our people are in Beaumont now.”

“Yes. But Buchanan isn’t there.”

“Isn’t. .?”

“It turns out he only stayed a couple of hours. He left at noon.”

What?

“Obviously, he wants to keep on the move,” Captain Weller said.

“To where?”

She shook her head. “He seems to be heading west. The credit-card company promised to keep me informed.”

“There’s only one problem,” Alan said.

They looked at him.

“The next time Buchanan surfaces with that card, the company won’t only shut off his credit. It’ll send the police after him. That’ll be dandy, won’t it? To have the police involved.”

“Shit,” Captain Weller said.

“And if you get your hands on him first,” Alan said, “what are you going to do with him? Put him in solitary confinement? Don’t you see how out of control this could get? Why don’t you just let the man alone to disappear as he promised?”

Rain pelted against the window.

“Last night, you reported that he was convinced we were trying to assassinate him,” the colonel said.

“Correct.”

“Well, his suspicions are absurd. He’s paranoid if he thinks we’ve turned against him. What does that say about his ability to disappear as he promised? Maybe he’ll keep coming back to haunt us. And what about the reporter? She surrendered her research. But did she keep copies? Will she kill the story as she promised?”

“Whatever we decide, let’s do it fast,” the major said. “I’ve got two dozen undercover personnel in Latin America who expect me to make sure they have backup. Every minute I spend worrying about Buchanan, I run the risk that something else will go wrong. If only Buchanan had cooperated. All he had to do was stick to his cover story and become a trainer. What’s wrong with being a trainer?”

“Because that isn’t what he is,” Alan said.

They stared at him.

“And I’m not sure Buchanan is who he is, either,” Alan said.

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