Charlie had not been enjoying The Washington Post much lately. The screwups of the new president and his administration had made for either embarrassing or infuriating reading. But, finally, there in the top left-hand corner of the front page, was some really good news. It came with the two-column headline:
Bennett Picked To Head CIA Aimed At Jackson Damage Control
A presidential crony and Wall Street millionaire, Joe Phillip Jackson, had been nominated for director of Central Intelligence. He withdrew after taking many hits about his obvious lack of qualifications to run the largest and most important intelligence agency in the world. Charlie had seen Jackson's nomination as some idiots' idea for dealing with the fallout from the Aldrich Ames treachery: What about having a director who not only knows nothing about the Agency or intelligence but also knows nothing about anything else except making money?
But now the idiots had come to their senses. Joshua Eugene Bennett was the current deputy director of Central Intelligence and a friend of Charlie's. They had shared many hairy and satisfying moments in the Agency and had remained friends since Charlie's retirement. Josh, fifteen years younger than Charlie, had continued to rise through the ranks because he was one of the few good ones who had managed to escape damage from both the Iran-Contra and the Ames debacles.
Charlie--Charles Avenue Henderson--was sitting at the breakfast table at Hillmont, the eighteenth-century West Virginia manse he and his wife, Mary Jane, operated as an upscale bed-and-breakfast. He was reading the Post as slowly and deliberately as he pleased, which was one of the daily joys of his retirement.
Another was acting silly whenever the spirit so moved him. That spirit was about to so move him again.
Charlie and Mary Jane Henderson may have had birth dates that proclaimed them to be in their late sixties but nothing else about them did. Both maintained a spring in their steps and voices and states of mind--they could pass for early fifties, maybe even younger. Mary Jane, five feet five, with a compact figure and short gray hair, was in trim, in motion and always at the ready. Charlie, who was six feet tall, generated the same let's-go feeling. He had no paunch and no extra chins; only the thinness of his graying brown hair showed any signs of his proper age.
Charlie, also, was a Po Chü-i believer. The ninth-century Chinese poet had written some words, passed on to Charlie on his sixtieth birthday, that had become the creed for his retirement life. Po said in his poem that during a man's thirties and forties he is distracted by various lusts, and between seventy and eighty there come the ailments and ills. He ignored the fifties altogether and thus declared the good time to be between sixty and seventy.
Wrote the poet: "I have put behind me Love and Greed. I have done with Profit and Fame. I am still short of illness and decay and far from decrepit age. Strength of limb I still possess to see the rivers and hills. Still my heart has spirit enough to listen to flutes and strings. At leisure I open new wine and taste several cups; drunken I recall old poems and sing a whole volume."
Mary Jane sometimes saw Charlie's fondness for the words less as belief in a poetic creed than as proof that he had simply moved into his second childhood. Charlie claimed he had been lucky enough never to have had to end his first, having gone directly from high school to college to the U.S. Navy and then to the Central Intelligence Agency without missing a beat or being forced to do anything other than little-boy work.
"This is little-boy work, you know," he had said, for instance, to Josh Bennett one sunny day in Nice, France. They were sitting in an old town street café, posing as two American insurance salesmen attending a real event, New York Life's Salesmen-of-the-Year Week on the Riviera. There were two major international meetings going on in Nice then, and Langley had given them a choice of which one they wanted as cover. The other was a meeting of charismatic Catholics. No thanks to that, said Charlie and Josh. They chose the insurance group even though it meant wearing plastic name tags pinned on their loud sports shirts. Josh added his own touch by wearing a blue baseball cap with the red-and-white letter B of the Boston Red Sox on it.
"Hush," said Josh. "Our lives may be in danger."
"That is my point, little boy."
They were watching a man at the outdoor café next door, who had been identified by French intelligence as Vladimir Aronsky, a KGB dirty-works man. There was fear at Langley that Aronsky had come to Nice, where there was a large Russian émigré colony, to do harm to an elderly Russian woman who was working the émigré side of the street for the CIA.
"Look!" Charlie said to Josh.
"What should we do?"
So they watched while a husky man with a beard and the dress of a dockworker inserted and removed the thin blade of a knife from Aronsky's back and then disappeared into the crowd on the street.
The Russian woman had apparently seen to her own protection. Or so it seemed.
But it was in fact something very different. It turned out Aronsky had wanted to defect to the West. A French intelligence officer in Moscow, intentionally or otherwise, got Aronsky's defection offer all screwed up and the result was a KGB setup in that Nice café. Aronsky, who thought he had been sent to Nice on a routine KGB courier mission, was waiting for somebody French who would speed him on his way to freedom and a new life. Instead, he got a knife in the back from one of his own. The old woman had nothing to do with it.
Charlie and Josh were held officially blameless and they went on quickly to other assignments for what was then called the Soviet Russia Division of the Agency. But neither ever forgot bearing joint witness to the assassination in broad daylight of a man who wanted to come over to their side. Charlie in particular never forgot. He was the senior man present, he was the one who said, "Nothing." They should do nothing but watch.
All of this serious stuff was right there in his head twenty-five years later as he drove the two miles into town. He parked the Wagoneer at a meter on Washington Street, the main street of Charles Town, West Virginia, which was also Charlie's town. It was an unpretentious place of thirty-two hundred people, with a low-key race track and much John Brown history; Charlie felt comfortable and at home there. Today he had to pick up a new bicycle pump at Western Auto, only a block from the old courthouse where in 1859 John Brown was sentenced to hang for leading his unsuccessful antislavery insurrection at nearby Harpers Ferry. Two of the guests coming this weekend had said they wanted to ride bicycles over by the C&O Canal. The old pump had had it.
Something else that happened on that Nice assignment had also popped into his mind. Something not so serious that happened at the Nice airport as they were on their way out of town.
A bald-headed elderly woman in blue jeans and a white T-shirt with "Jesus Was a Freak, Too" written across the front in red had come running toward Charlie and Josh.
"Jesus! Jesus!" she screamed at Josh. "You said you would come again, and you did!"
She flung herself down at Josh's feet. "Praise God! Praise God! You came again! Here you are!"
Charlie moved aside to watch his friend, his fellow well-trained undercover agent for the intelligence service of the United States of America, deal with what they called in training an "unexpected event."
The woman wrapped her arms around Josh's right leg. "I came from Milwaukee! I came to find Jesus! I did! I did!"
Josh looked over at Charlie. Help me, you bastard! screamed his eyes.
Charlie shrugged. And tried his best to keep from laughing.
"I have a plane to catch," Josh said to the woman. "Please, now. I have to go."
Charlie wasn't the only one looking on. A circle of people, some fifteen or twenty travelers, taxi drivers, porters and others, had gathered for the show.
"No! No! Now I have you! I can't let you go! Jesus! Jesus! I love you, Jesus!"
Josh, a big man in good physical condition, took a large step with his left foot and attempted to pull his right foot free from the woman's tight grasp. All he managed to do was drag her a couple of feet.
"Give me something! Give me something of yours! Something sacred!"
Josh grabbed the Boston Red Sox cap off his head. He kissed the B-for-Boston and stuck the cap down firmly on the woman's bald head.
"Here, my daughter," he said in a voice worthy of a Vatican chapel. "Take this in my name. Wear it proudly."
The woman leaped to her feet, grabbed her head and the hat with both hands and ran away screaming, "Jesus gave me his hat! Look at me! Jesus gave me his hat! Praise God, praise God. Jesus gave me his hat!"
Josh and Charlie trotted ever so quickly to the Air France gate for their flight to Paris.
"We should have done the charismatic Catholics instead of the insurance thing," Charlie said ever so quietly to Josh as they boarded the plane. "You're a natural charismatic."
"You are a natural bastard," said Josh.
Charlie was given a special kick to remember this additional story on that Charles Town sidewalk twenty-five years later because he had to pass Messages from the Messiah, the local Bible-and-Christian-equipment store, on the way to Western Auto. He had walked by it hundreds of times before without giving it or the merchandise displayed in its windows even a glance. But this time a baseball cap caught his eye.
It was a white baseball cap with the red-and-blue waving-ribbon emblem of the Pepsi-Cola Company embroidered like a badge on the front. Written on the emblem in white, instead of the word "Pepsi," was the word "Jesus." Jesus, apparently, was the real real thing? Or was that Coke?
Charlie was very pleased with himself when he finally got back into the Wagoneer twenty minutes later. He had not only bought his bicycle pump, he had also sent by overnight Federal Express a $12.75 gift-wrapped PepsiJesus hat to Joshua Eugene Bennett. The enclosed card said: "Congratulations, Natural. Take this in my name. Wear it proudly."
It was a silly thing to do. Little-boy stuff.
Charlie was looking for nothing so he saw nothing. He had no antennae extended, and no suspicions, apprehensions, hints or hunches were at play. That was why he failed to pick up as soon as he should have on the handsome young man named Marty Madigan.
Madigan hadn't called until just after three o'clock Friday afternoon. Did there by chance happen to be room for one more this weekend? he had asked Mary Jane. He said he had read an article in the Baltimore Sun travel section several months ago that had called a Hillmont weekend "a magical experience of superb elegance and time-machine history that is more than worth its pricey $450 price."
Mary Jane sometimes turned down such last-minute requests because she wanted to encourage people to think of Hillmont as a place for which you had to plan and reserve way ahead of time. We're not running a Holiday Inn here, you know, she explained to Charlie, who believed it was simply nuts to turn down any business.
"He had a good solid sound in his voice," Mary Jane said to Charlie in explaining why she violated her own rule this time.
Martin V. Madigan turned out to look as good and solid as he sounded. Tall as Charlie, lean, early thirties, athletic, blue-eyed, dark-brown hair worn slightly over the ears, at ease, in command, warm smile. He arrived in a four-year-old BMW 325i just before seven-thirty, and after showing him his room on the third floor, Mary Jane took him to the living room to meet Charlie and the ten other guests. They werealready on their second drink. Madigan asked the waiter for some soda water over ice with a slice of lemon.
Why come to this weekend, spend all of that money, and only drink soda water? Charlie wondered. Maybe this young man is a recovering alcoholic. A religious teetotaler? Not likely. He seems too urbane, too East Coast for any of that.
Charlie was dressed in full Colonial--a burgundy frock coat, beige breeches, white leggings, a white ruffled shirt and a powdered wig with ponytail. Mary Jane, who was also wearing an eighteenth-century outfit, had ragged Charlie until he reluctantly agreed to attend all Hillmont weekend evening events in costume. You spent your whole adult life being other people for the CIA so what's the problem doing it now for your wife? was her argument. Charlie felt like a fool at first, but he had gradually grown comfortable being a Founding Father every Friday and Saturday night for cocktails and dinner.
Wes and Paul, the two young chef-caterers who did all of the Hillmont cooking and serving, had laid out one of their typically lavish Friday-night dinners. Friday night was only coat and tie, less elegant than the big Saturday-night dinner, which was black tie, with string music in the background. But Friday night wasn't bad.
"I have never eaten anything quite so fine," said Madigan to the table. He was talking about the turtle soup amontillado. Mary Jane accepted his praise with a smile and the other people took the cue and spoke or grunted their agreement.
Mary Jane had put Madigan between two women guests, both of them there with their husbands, both of them in their late fifties or early sixties, both of them delighted to be chatted up by this attractive younger man. Charlie was seated next to one of those women, and occasionally he picked up a fragment of talk about the problems of the new administration, everyone's favorite topic of conversation even here,an hour and a half from Washington in the West Virginia Panhandle.
"Mr. Henderson, I assume you are pleased with the Bennett appointment," Madigan suddenly said to Charlie, who was sitting one woman away.
"Bennett?" Charlie said.
"The new choice for the Agency," Madigan said.
The Agency? thought Charlie. Who is this guy?
Charlie had a job to do at the end of the soup course, which was right now. He stood and tapped a fork against a glass.
Saved by the turtle soup!
"Good evening, one and all," he said. "I may look like George Washington but I'm not. I am one of the two proprietors of this home and enterprise. The other, as you surely know by now, is the attractive woman who sits across from me. She is not George Washington either. Who we are is Mary Jane and Charlie. What we are are your host and hostess for this weekend. And in that capacity I hereby welcome you, one and all."
Charlie raised his glass of wine, a 1990 chardonnay from the nearby Piedmont Vineyard, and so did everyone else. "To a great weekend at Hillmont," he said. Everyone else, including Madigan, joined in the toast.
"And speaking of George Washington," Charlie continued, "he did actually have a meal in this very room. It was
on March 10, 1791. He stopped here to have dinner with an old friend before proceeding on down the road another two miles to spend the night at Harewood, his brother Samuel's home. We have a blown-up facsimile from Mr. Washington's diary entry for the evening that proves it happened. It's framed and on the wall of the library, where we'll be going after dinner. Charles Town, the town two miles back the other way, is named for another George brother. So we are in the middle of Washington country and we are all better off for it."
"Hear, hear," said the husband of one of two older women.
"Eat and drink well tonight, as George did before you," Charlie said before sitting down. "And again, welcome to Hillmont."
There was a quiet round of applause and waiters swept in the fish course--pan roast of Rappahannock oysters with sweet potatoes allumettes.
The Agency? Who is this guy?
Is he Agency? Charlie, in his thirty-seven years of doing all kinds of jobs, had found answering that question to be among the most difficult. Two agents in deep cover cross paths by accident; a dangerous situation arises. How do they establish quickly and believably that they are not only on the same side, they are drawing paychecks from the same employer? There were many frightening stories about missed signals and close calls. Charlie even had a couple of his own to contribute.
Charlie turned immediately to the woman on his left, a Pittsburgh attorney in her forties, and answered her questions about this particular part of West Virginia and its role in the Civil War, as well as in the Revolutionary War and the Colonial period.
If he is Agency what is he doing here?
Charlie kept up the history conversation through the end of the oysters. Simple courtesy and good manners required him then to turn back to the woman on his right, and therefore in the direction of Madigan.
Charlie said only a few words to the woman between them before Madigan struck again.
"You and Bennett have known each other a long time, haven't you?" Madigan said.
"What is your interest in all of this?" Charlie asked.
"Yes, yes. Yes, indeed," said the woman between them.
"It's an occupational one," Madigan said.
The main course, venison noisettes with a sauce of pinot noir and lingonberries, Spätzle and glazed spring vegetables, was now before everyone.
"This is about as close as it is possible to get to authentic eighteenth-century food, to what George might actually have eaten here in 1791," Charlie said to the woman, in a voice loud enough to be heard around the table. Everyone quieted down and Charlie said to Mary Jane, "Why don't you explain?"
This was not part of their regular routine but Mary Jane loved this kind of spontaneity. So she picked up the cue and explained to all how Wes and Paul had gone to Mount Vernon and to the Library of Congress, as well as to the Jefferson County Historical Society and other local places, in search of menus and recipes from the period.
Charlie faked rapt attention.
When Mary Jane began to wind down her story, he said, "Tell them about the wines."
"Oh, yes, the wines," Mary Jane said. And she told everyone about the many high-quality vineyards in the area, particularly down the road in Loudoun County, Virginia, near Middleburg and Leesburg, where they bought the wines they would be drinking all weekend.
A couple of the guests had a few questions and the conversations stayed mostly tablewide and general throughout the main course.
It was not until the middle of the salad--field greens with Stilton cheese under a raspberry-walnut vinaigrette dressing--that the conversations went small again.
And it wasn't but a few counts later that the woman on Charlie's right asked Madigan the right question. "What is your occupation?" she said. Charlie wanted to hug her.
"You might say I work for the government," Madigan replied, a slight hint of mystery in his voice.
So. He definitely is not Agency. No Agency person would ever say anything so stupid and say it so stupidly. Real Agency overts say cleanly what they are and the coverts go cleanly to their cover identity and occupation.
"Which government?" said the woman. "Ours, I hope."
She laughed and Madigan laughed.
"I understand you and Bennett share a special interest in Jesus hats," Madigan then said to Charlie.
It hit Charlie like a rifle shot.
Without even a glance at Mary Jane, he stood up and announced: "Coffee and an ever-so-light Shenandoah Valley apple soufflé follow now in the library--we call it the Washington Room."
As Wes and Paul's waiters saw to the other guests, Charlie asked Madigan to join him for "a breath of fresh air" outside.
It was a stunningly quiet October evening. A three-quarter moon lit up the sky and the light came down through the trees like beams from many soft spotlights. This time of year--deep autumn, as it was called in West Virginia--was Charlie's favorite. He often told people that they would know he had been appointed God when all of the other eleven months became just like October.
Charlie led the way toward the barn some fifty yards behind the house.
"Who are you and what are you up to?" Charlie said to Madigan as they walked.
"I am who I said I was. Marty Madigan. I'm the chief minority counsel of the Senate Intelligence Committee."
Charlie stopped. Madigan stopped.
"Keep talking," Charlie said. "And talk fast, please."
"We are beginning our inquiries about Joshua Bennett in preparation for his confirmation hearings as director of Central Intelligence--"
"He's a great man, a great intelligence officer, right up there with Dick Helms, Leo Spivey and the other great ones. He will make a terrific DCI."
"We've been told that he almost cost you your life in West Berlin in 1971."
"You've been told a goddamn lie!"
"Would you mind telling me what happened?"
"Yes, I would mind."
"We can subpoena you, Mr. Henderson."
Charlie's heart was beating like a hammer.
It had been a long time since Charles Avenue Henderson had done physical violence to another human being with his bare hands. Had the time finally come to use the one technique he had never had occasion to use in the line of duty? Should he utilize the easiest, fastest and surest way to kill Martin V. Madigan? Should he crack the top of this man's nose with a karate chop and then, using the same hand in a quick follow-up move, push the nose-bone fragments up into his brain?
Or should you calm down, Henderson?
He said to Madigan, "You are now going to march back into that house, go right up to your room, gather up your belongings, come right back down, tell my wife you have a bad case of the stomach flu, climb into your Republican car and drive your filthy young butt out of here and out of my sight before I do something that will make both of us sorry."
Madigan shrugged. "We will meet again, Mr. Henderson."
"You can count on it, friend," Charlie said with a bravado that exhilarated him.
"You make that sound like a threat."
"Take it any way it fits, Mr. Madigan."
Charlie decided to call Josh from the pay phone at the Handi-Mart down the road from Hillmont. In addition to having security concerns, he did not want to alarm Mary Jane, who was already upset enough about Madigan's sudden departure. She had not bought the story about a stomach flu. Wes and Paul had prepared one of Charlie's favorite breakfast feasts--yellow grits with white cheddar cheese, pheasant sausages, homemade cinnamon buns that were out of this world and three kinds of fresh fruit juices.
Josh was already at his office at Langley when Charlie got him on the phone. Saturday morning was just another work morning for most of the higher officials of the Agency. It was part of the culture.
"Let's do this on the egg machine," Charlie said.
"Hey, Charlie, come on. Ain't nobody here but us
"Goddamn it, Josh, put us on the egg machine!"
The "egg machine" was the secure-communications
system that scrambled telephone conversations for everyone except the two parties doing the talking.
It took Josh only a few seconds to get the call switched over.
Charlie told him about Madigan.
"I know him," Josh said. "He's harmless."
"Why, then, are the Republicans fishing for dirt, Josh?"
"Let 'em fish. There is none."
"Yes, but why are they looking?"
"I'm in great shape with all of the Republican senators on the committee. Madigan is freelancing or something. He's nothing. I promise, Charlie."
"He knew about our Jesus thing, Josh."
"I loved the hat, by the way. I should have mentioned that earlier . . ."
"Did you tell a lot of people about the hat and what it all meant, the stuff in Nice and all of that?"
There were a couple beats of silence. Then Josh said, "No. The hat just came yesterday."
"Think about it, Josh. Think about how Madigan knew about it."
"Charlie, your imagination is on the loose."
"Somebody right there on the seventh floor is feeding information to somebody on the outside."
"He also knew about West Berlin and the Czech."
"Nobody should know about that."
"Exactly. Nobody but somebody with access to a lot of our old secrets. Nobody but somebody with harming you on his mind."
That drew another couple of beats of silence.
"Charlie, every source, private and public, tells me there are no nobodies or somebodies on the committee who are opposed to my nomination. They have all concluded that a clean career man is better than an outsider after all. Everything we have points to a unanimous vote for confirmation. They're even talking about a unanimous voice vote when it goes to the full Senate."
"Then how do you explain Madigan?"
"I can't. But I will look into it. It's got to be absolutely nothing."
"It doesn't have to be anything of the kind, Josh, and you know it."
Excerpted from Purple Dots by Jim Lehrer. Copyright © 1998 by Jim Lehrer. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.