23

Teddy Fay had finished bringing his hangar apartment up to his standard of living, and now he sat at his work table, putting the final touches on a peeler/slicer combination for his usual client. He prepared it for sending to a mail drop in Missouri that would, in turn, forward it to the addressee. In due course, if his client found it acceptable, and Teddy was certain he would, funds would be wired to a numbered account in the Cayman Islands, making Teddy awash in cash. Royalties from later sales would keep the stream flowing.

Bored with the fine work, he turned his thoughts elsewhere, and a whim struck him. He donned a fresh pair of latex gloves and opened a packet of very common stationery, sold in many drugstores, then uncapped his silver Montblanc pen.

My dear Miss Holly Barker: It has been some time since we last communicated, and longer still since we actually met, and I felt I should express a few thoughts to you.

I am aware that you have risen quickly in the estimation of your colleagues at the Agency and that with the rather self-serving help of Lance Cabot, the ultimate careerist, and the approbation of Director Katharine Rule Lee, you have moved up in the Agency’s structure with considerable speed. I am aware, too, that you have been assigned, from time to time, to supervise operations. This, again, is self-serving on Lance’s part, since it is important to him to have an assistant deputy director with actual experience with running agents.di, y/div>

However, there is beginning to appear a blot on your copybook, as it were, and you must take steps to correct that, if you do not wish your progress up the ladder to be impeded in committee. I refer, as you may have supposed, to the assignment of young Todd Bacon to his current task, and to his repeated failures to complete it successfully.

Young Todd is, in many respects, the ideal officer. He is a planner, meticulous and thorough, and can even be inventive. He lacks, however, the most important qualities of the best operatives: imagination and the ability to improvise on the move. Like a mediocre chess player, he thinks only of the next move and not the two or three down the road.

That having been said, the Agency has always needed people like Todd Bacon to do the planning and dogwork that every operation requires, without actually serving at the pointed end of the mission, where dash and quick thinking are required for success. It occurs to me that young Todd is very nearly at the point where it would be difficult if not impossible to move him sideways into a position where he could contribute on a consistent basis and earn himself some praise and, eventually, a pension.

I know, of course, that his current assignment is off the books and, thus, not subject to the usual committee scrutiny that accompanies most operations, but that very fact puts you, and to a lesser extent Lance, in the hot seat. Lance, to the lesser extent, because if there should be heat to be taken, he will arrange for you to take it.

So, it is time for one of two things to happen: either close the books on Todd’s mission and reassign him (it occurs to me that the boy might eventually do well in my old department, Technical Services-he is, after all, proficient with computers, weapons, and the like), or, the other thing: assign someone with both the professional and personal qualities to make a success of the mission.

However, there are thorns in those rosebushes, too. First, it would be difficult to transfer a successful officer from sanctioned missions to an off-the-books one without stunting his career or, perhaps, making a larger number of Agency people aware of what he is doing. And even should he be successful, no one will ever know about it but you, Lance, and the director, at least until that officer gets around to publishing his memoirs in Sweden or writing a roman a clef Nor will it do you much good with the director, since she will, along with her estimable husband, be on her way in eighteen months or so.

Lance, it is clear, longs to replace the director with himself, with the resulting elevation of yourself to the highest realms of the Agency and the government. He may well think it is not the time to indulge in off-the-books missions.

And as for you, there is only one person you could appoint to replace young Todd, someone with the wit and the moxie to pull it off, and that is your own sweet self. You have already had one very good shot at pulling it off, of course, but that was, at best, a near miss, and one does not build a career at the top on a structure of near misses.

I hope you are able to make or at least influence the right decision. I am living quietly, now, with no great wish to be a bother to anyone, but as you might imagine, if my nest is disturbed, I might be annoyed enough to sting again. I am fond of you, in my way, and I hope you will not be the one to receive the stinger.

Should you and Lance wish to put an end to all this, please insert a small display advertisement in the Arts section of the National Edition of tl Eor he New York Times on the last day of this month, to read: NANCY, ALL IS WELL, CALL HOME.

Should the ad not appear, I shall assume that peace is not possible, and shall resume making a nuisance of myself.

With kindthoughts,

T.

Holly Barker slit open the plain white envelope with no return address. It would have already been subjected to X-ray and chemical analysis before reaching her desk, so she did not fear it. She read through the letter once, not stopping to analyze what was written, then she folded it, returned it to its envelope, and walked to the door that separated her office from Lance’s suite. She rapped on the door, sharply, twice.

“Come in, Holly,” Lance responded.

She opened the door and entered.

“And have a seat,” Lance said.

Holly handed him the envelope.

“Something to brighten my day, I hope,” Lance said. He seemed in a good mood. “What is your take on whatever this is?”

“I have no take,” Holly said. “No point of view, no recommendation. Nothing.”

Lance peered at her over his reading glasses. “That is very unlike you,” he said.

“The letter presents the situation as well, or better, than I could. It is not particularly flattering to either of us, and it is, of course, self-serving of the writer, but you have to see its contents. Go ahead, read it.”

“Right now? It’s a busy morning.”

She wanted to see his face when he read it. “I think right now would be the best time.”

“So it’s time-sensitive?”

“Read the fucking letter, Lance,” she said, as evenly as she could.

Lance gave her a long look, then turned his attention to the letter. He read it slowly and occasionally winced or glowered or lifted his eyebrows. He finished it and laid it on his desk. “Has this been processed?”

“It has had the usual scrutiny inbound; it did not appear to have been opened.”

“Have you taken any steps to process it further?”

Holly shook her head slowly. “No. Process it, if you like, but I can recite the report now.” She looked at the wall above Lance’s head. “‘This document has been processed to the fullest extent by this department. It is written by hand, in felt-tip ink, on widely available twenty-five-percent cotton paper and presents no fingerprints, fibers, DNA, or any other evidence that would profit from further analysis.’ In short, it’s clean.”

Lance leaned back in his chair, rested his feet on his desk, and ruminated for a moment. “I am having lunch-let’s see, the day after tomorrow-with the director of Technical Services. I will suggest to him that I have a well-qualified officer in my bailiwick who cannot be promoted further, and that it is my belief that he would make a fine addition to the Tech Services team. If that doesn’t work, I’ll speak to someone in analysis, and if that doesn’t work, you will reassign Mr. Bacon to a subordinate position at a station in an uncomfortable climate, remote from suitable women or other entertainment.”

“I understand. And derinate pothen what?”

“Would you be willing to replace Bacon on his current assignment?”

“I would not,” Holly replied. “Not under threat of transfer, of discharge, or of death. I would rather eat my gun than pursue this any further.” Lance began to speak, but Holly held up a hand. “And let me say this, before saying nothing further: his allusion to the hornets’ nest is a threat, and not an idle one, and I do not think now is the time to provoke him.”

Lance returned his feet to the floor and the letter to Holly. “All right, shred this and put the paper in a burn bag. Recall Mr. Bacon and his team for reassignment, and see that each of them is individually debriefed in such a way that he would not dream of speaking to anyone, even in his prayers, of his past duty with regard to this person.

“When Mr. Bacon returns to this office I will see him, if I have been able to procure for him a decent reassignment. If not, you will throw your body across my office door, see him in my stead, and give him his new assignment and a month’s paid leave during which to contemplate his future with the Agency. Also, place the ad in the Times. Is there anything else?”

“Shall I notify the director?”

“You shall not. I shall do that at an appropriate time. Good day.”

“Good day, Lance,” Holly said, rising and returning to her office. Her forehead was damp, as were her armpits and her crotch, but she felt the relief of having dodged a hellfire missile aimed at her head.

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