Guardians

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Chapter 6

The next morning he put on his best suit and took a cab to Melville’s. At the restaurant the maître d’ looked him over like he had just crawled out of a sewer grating, clearly unimpressed with how a man on a civil servant’s salary dressed.

His point made, he conducted him to the table Weatherly had reserved.

“Mr. Weatherly has called to inform us that he will be running late,” he said.

Russell ordered a Coke, which he drank as he perused the menu and took in his surroundings. Everyone was thin, and rich, two things he wasn’t even close to feeling at the moment. (The bathroom scale had reminded him just a few days earlier that he’d been putting on the pounds again.)

These were people who never visibly hurried, never looked troubled, their resources so great that virtually any care or concern was a trivial thing. He found himself remembering the bit of Veblen he’d read in an undergraduate sociology class, and wondering if perhaps he shouldn’t have taken some other career path.

Sure as hell, there had been moments when he’d wondered if it was a mistake not to sign that stupid report all those years ago. After all, his refusal to sign was just a minor irritation for the authors of the document. The CIA pulled him off the panel, and put on some careerist who did put his signature on the line. Even without it, the others got what they wanted. SALT II never passed the Senate, the hawks went on banging the drums for the arms race, and the folks in the military-industrial complex made their killing.

Russell checked his watch and saw that he’d been waiting for fifteen minutes. He wondered if this wasn’t some kind of negotiating tactic, dropping him in a place like this and leaving him to sweat before they started to talk. Looking at the entrance to the hall it also occurred to him that he wouldn’t know Chadwick had arrived until he walked right up to his table.

Sure enough, Chadwick’s appearance was a surprise. He looked a good ten years younger than Russell was, maybe younger; he might have been fresh out of the frat house at Yale.

Chadwick was also carrying an attaché case, which Russell guessed would be relevant during the meeting.

“Sorry I’m late,” Chadwick said. “Something came up. I trust the wait hasn’t been too arduous?”

“No.” A waiter was hovering over them, and they ordered. Russell had the chilled Maine lobster and a crusted barbequed short rib, paired with a filet mignon wrapped in Swiss chard; Chadwick, a veal dish with an Arctic char.

“I’m sure you’re curious as to the nature of our interest,” Chadwick volunteered after the waiter was out of earshot. “Essentially, we’d like you to continue what you were doing before, only for us.”

He said “us” in a way that sounded more than perfunctory, as if he really considered himself a member of that team. And why not? Chadwick gave every impression of that self-assurance a person could only have when they were born to privilege, and never had cause to doubt it.

“Just what part of that job exactly?” Russell asked.

“Technological assessment, particularly of the exotic items you specialized in during the latter part of your tenure at Central Intelligence. You were in fact suggested by your predecessor in the role, Robert Jorgenson.”

That was as much of an admission as they were going to make in public. Yes, they did know what he was really doing at Langley for all those years after all.

“I have to admit that I haven’t heard very much about Argus prior to now,” Russell said. “Would you mind telling me more?”

“Of course. We’re a private intelligence firm. Our staff consists primarily of American military, intelligence and other government veterans interested in continuing their earlier national service.”

Russell did his best not to smile, given what he’d seen of “national service.”

“In line with this, we accept work exclusively from the governments of the United States and its allies, or parties in good standing with them, and at all times we abide by both American and international law.

“Consistent with the policies I have just described, you will not be called on to disclose any information about your activities during your period of government service. Any and all confidentiality agreements you signed in the past will be respected – just as you are expected to respect the contract you will sign with us.”

Chadwick produced a rather thick document from his case, which Russell promptly looked over.

A hundred and fifty k a year, starting salary, with a guaranteed seven percent increase every year for the next five years, assuming he continued working for them; it was far more than he’d hoped any of the people who wouldn’t be calling him back were likely to offer. A very generous expense account and a twenty k signing bonus, too. Yes, he’d only fantasized about getting a deal like this.

It was very hard for Russell to picture himself saying “no” to anything after that, and Chadwick must have known it. It also seemed they were very eager to get him started as soon as possible.

“You have a unique skill set. We’d like to hire it, and as you can see, we are willing to compensate you commensurately. You’ll have staff, and a budget too. We believe in your work, and we want you to have every resource you need in order to succeed at it.”

“When will you need a decision?” Russell asked, doing his best not to seem overeager.

“The sooner you can reply, the better. By Monday, if possible.”

Russell studied the contract after lunch and through the next day. He didn’t see anything that looked like a deal-breaker, and on the following Monday he drove to Argus’s D.C. offices. Situated out in the suburbs, the three-story structure housing them looked wholly unexceptional.

Russell’s opinion didn’t change when he walked through the glass doors, into the air-conditioned lobby. The receptionist occupying the U-shaped desk in the middle of the floor greeted him, then reported his arrival and told him to wait. Thirty seconds later Chadwick stepped out of the elevators.

“I’m pleased to see you’ve taken us up on our offer,” Chadwick said, shaking his hand. “While you’re here, let me show you to your office.”

They went into the elevator, up to the third floor and down the main corridor, then through a pair of large double doors leading to a partitioned rear half. A door at the end let into a small anteroom occupied by an assistant assigned to him (one Erin Harper), and past it, his office, which was easily three times as big as the one he’d had in Langley. It also had a window.

“I believe you know this man,” Weatherly said while he was looking out that window, and Russell turned to see.

Jorgenson was standing there, to his surprise. They’d mentioned him, but didn’t say he was working with them. And frankly he’d suspected that they were just name-dropping to make him more receptive to their pitch.

“It’s been a while,” Jorgenson said. “But good to see you.”

“You too,” Russell reciprocated. The last time they’d spoken, Jorgenson was living in Fort Lauderdale. It seemed he’d stayed more connected than he’d let on; “consulting,” perhaps, just as Russell supposed he was now.

“I’ll leave the rest of the tour to you,” Weatherly said to Jorgenson. “Mr. Wright.” He nodded and left them alone in Russell’s new office.

“So . . . how’d you come to be here?” Russell asked. Jorgenson was going to be sixty-nine this year; not an age at which one started a career.

“Like I said, I was retired. But they made me an offer too attractive to turn down.”

They seated themselves, Russell behind his new desk, Jorgenson in the big armchair in front of him. “Your job’s going to be running the analytical section. I’m overseeing the whole thing, for now.

“This is a much better deal than you had there.”

“Yeah, I get that. But I can’t help wondering why.”

“Same as before, thoroughness,” Jorgenson answered him. “This firm is at the juncture of business, technology and policy. Think of them as a fixer. And right now, they’re developing a very strong interest in the old East bloc.

“Say what you will about the Soviets, they produced one hell of a scientific research base. They fucked up royally sometimes, but they were world-class in some areas – chemicals, metallurgy, and the rest.

“It didn’t do them as much good as it should have. The think tank inmates may insist Russia’s a capitalist success story just waiting to happen, but the truth is that the country’s basically a very large Mexico, and now the barriers keeping its people in, and foreign money out, are down.

“We’re going to see hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of scientists, mathematicians and engineers come West, a huge amount of low-cost, high-skill labor flooding into the market. We’re going to see high-tech firms sitting on valuable intellectual property going up on the auction block, along with a lot of strategic natural resources that matter to tech firms. And we’re going to see a lot of demand for business intelligence surrounding the whole thing.

“Argus is going to help its clients with all of this. And while we’re at it, we’re going to have our eyes open for the kinds of assets around which we’ve built our careers. After all, when the biggest fire sale history is going on and nuclear materials, and even whole, functioning nukes may be in danger of leaking out – can those things be far behind?”

Russell knew the potential significance of the event. After the Tunguska impact in 1908 the Czarist Okhrana started a branch for dealing with things like that, and the Soviets continued the program afterward.

They’d been in a position to accomplish a great deal. Russia covered a sixth of the world’s land area, and for much of the last half century it had enjoyed privileged access to a great deal of other territory, sitting as it did on half of Eastern Europe, enjoying a special relationship with China for a decade before their split, and clients all around the globe for longer than that. From his time in Langley, Russell remembered potential prizes in Ethiopia and Cuba that they’d had to write off completely for lack of access, and a number of other times when they were able to edge them out. He was aware of one particularly big prize the Soviets scooped up in Romania ahead of them back in ’87.

“Nothing remotely like this has happened since the war,” Jorgenson said, “when, by the way, they got their hands on a big chunk of what the Nazis had, same as we did. Just like then, an empire’s fallen, really fallen, and we’re going in to pick the bones clean.

“In any case, we’re still getting things up and running here, so I hope your schedule’s clear.”

It was, and right now Russell didn’t mind the fact at all.

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