In 1979, shortly after he joined the Central Intelligence Agency, Russell Wright was assigned to a classified interagency committee examining the “strategic balance” between the United States and the Soviet Union. Far from being expected to examine the available data with his colleagues, he was immediately pressed to sign off on a report that said the Soviets were on the path to dominance in space by the mid-1980s.
“The Soviet lead in this area will enable it not merely to extend the reach of its military forces far beyond its borders as already seen in the last Arab-Israeli War (1973), the Angolan civil war (1975-) and the Ogaden War (1977), but to fight and win a nuclear conflict with the United States,” the executive summary concluded earnestly. Unless, of course, the United States took really extraordinary measures, beginning with the rejection of the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty.
Bullshit, Russell said after looking at the “data,” which consisted mostly of unsubstantiated speculation about the Soviets filling Earth’s orbit with laser cannon-armed space stations which would zap anything with an American flag on it lifting off from the ground.
I can’t sign this, he said, and I won’t sign this.
“You won’t? We’ll see about that,” said the brusque fat man with the dark circles under his eyes, a Congressman’s aide who’d done a stint as a deputy assistant deputy assistant to the National Security Adviser (or some such) under Nixon.
“I’ve made my decision,” Russell said flatly.
This raised the eyebrows of the scrawny, sharp-faced guy from the Defense Department, similarly minded but less given to confrontation than his bulkier comrade.
Russell had had a notion that he’d get to play Henry Fonda in his own production of Twelve Angry Men, but it was not to be. He was the youngest, lowest-ranking and least-connected guy in the group, which had been put together not to make a judgment of the facts, but as a formality in which they lent the authority of the agencies they represented to the document. There was no way they were going to defy the people who’d already made the decision about what the results would be. And who had their ways of hitting back, delivering a blow he didn’t see coming until it got him right in the jaw.
That came when Russell’s boss called him into his office and informed him he was being reassigned. When Russell filtered out the bullshit jargon, he realized that he was being packed off to the “UFO desk” he’d only heard about in rumors.
Russell didn’t get why at the time, but he eventually figured it out: the Agency kept a finger in, but as of the late ’70s, after Church, and the budget cuts, the bosses decided they were happy to leave this side of intelligence to the more purely technical and military operations. (Basically, he looked at stuff passed to them by other, slightly more attentive agencies – the NSA, Air Force Intelligence – just so Langley could keep up with what was being done in this area.) The revival of Agency fortunes in the ’80s didn’t change that, the money and people that came flooding in staying out of his particular dried-up riverbed.
This meant his was a section where he couldn’t do very much harm to any initiative that really mattered, that he was out of the more important loops and grapevines (like things that affected the budget and jobs), and that he was a poor prospect for promotion to a more responsible post. No staff, no budget – he had to ask for whatever he needed, keeping him on a leash. And if he turned whistleblower, just mentioning what he was really doing would discredit him, make him look like a crazy person.
He would not be another Philip Agee.
They probably hoped Russell would simply retire, go find a new life somewhere far away where they might never hear of him again.
It amazed him that they thought he’d turn into a crusader, but he didn’t give them the satisfaction, and he lingered.
Yes, that was the word for it he’d think, “lingered.”
Russell was in that office when Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan, and when the hostages came home from Iran, and when Bill Casey took over and decided to play wartime O.S.S. games with the Soviets. Russell was there, watching with equanimity and more than a little irony, as officialdom panicked over Qaddafi, and sent the Marines into Lebanon (in an operation that lasted longer than Russell’s marriage), and invaded Grenada; when a Marine colonel told him in the tone of a ’50s propaganda reel that if they didn’t stop Daniel Ortega now he was sure he’d be leading his men into battle against Communists in Gila, Arizona.
Russell was still manning the same government-issue desk in the same little office when the seventies started to feel like a whole other era to him, the clothes and the hairstyles he’d once taken for granted to look silly and antique to him and everyone else. (Fortunately for his wardrobe, he’d never been a trend-chaser, giant lapels and flared pant legs entirely absent from his closet.)
He also noticed that he wasn’t seeing as many movies as he used to, certainly not theatrically (mostly he was watching videocassettes on that VCR thing he’d bought the year before); and after taking in an afternoon of that MTV, he noticed, too, that the newer music wasn’t speaking to him the way the stuff he’d had when he was growing up still did.
It was about that time that Gorbachev started to seem different from the geriatrics that had preceded him in the Soviet premiership, and American bombers rained iron on Libya in the middle of night. The Iran-Contra affair (during which one of the shits who tried to pressure him into signing the report in ’79 got a rap on the knuckles for lying to Congress about his involvement in a cocaine-and-missiles deal, while that Marine colonel who expected to fight Communists in Arizona became a media star) came with a bang only to go out with a whimper. (He remembered that colonel being convicted the day Amanda’s lawyer served him divorce papers – not least, because he was still at that same stupid desk.)
Then he and the rest of his generation had the strange experience of watching the enemy who’d obsessed so many of them for so long just . . . give up? Moscow said it was done directing the developmental path of its East European satellites, and then the Berlin Wall was just little souvenir rocks, and that Christmas Day when the bald man with the funny birthmark on his chrome dome resigned from an office he said didn’t exist anymore, it all seemed anticlimactic. Like Odoacer overthrowing Romulus Augustus sixty-six years after Alaric sacked Rome.
During all that time there was never a rapprochement between him and the people he’d pissed off by refusing to go along with their fantasy of Soviet battle stations in space. He never turned his post into the seat of a bureaucratic fiefdom, but he was good enough at an obscure job no one else much wanted to hold onto it, and to rate the minimum hikes in his pay.
Still, the hard-liners went on holding their grudges, and the danger that they’d act on them went up with the country’s intelligence budget being axed. Wright’s office was ostensibly part of a much more banal-sounding technological research program that seemed a lot less urgent in the “post-Cold War security environment.” And soon enough, he got his notice of termination.
The message seemed rather faraway when he got it, and the idea of fighting back, taking revenge, even just making a scene awfully faint, like the event hadn’t quite sunk it, like it wasn’t real.
Maybe he was just resigned to it.
On his very last day Russell cleared out his desk and walked out with his things stacked in a cardboard box in a scene he pictured being repeated all over the country in the midst of the sharpest economic downturn in a decade. (He didn’t carry very much; a few papers, a paperweight his nephew made in art class.) He set the box on the roof of his dark blue ’88 Honda Civic, got out his keys to open the door and unexpectedly paused in the middle of it, breath condensing in front of him, and looked back at the building.
Everything looked sharper around him, as if he’d just eaten something very hot that cleared his head. His eye fell on the bands of windows wrapped around the fifth and seventh floors, and it occurred to him that working inside the building he’d barely been conscious of the building having windows.
He wasn’t sure the place was worth missing, but it was strange to think that he’d probably never come back to it after all the years he’d spent inside.
The moment passed. He got out his keys, opened the car door, picked up his little box off the roof and laid it on the passenger-side seat, then got in after it and drove out of the lot for what he expected would be the last time.
Sitting in rush-hour traffic on the Beltway, the leaden sky turning to velvet night overhead, he mentally reviewed his situation. He knew he didn’t have much chance of landing a job with another intelligence agency, which were also laying off people and not much interested in a “troublemaker.” The think tanks wouldn’t touch him with his record; they were pretty much a feudal domain of the people who stuck him at the UFO desk in the first place.
Of course, there was the industry he was recruited out of in the first place, aerospace. But of course, he’d as much left it as gone toward government service. Life in a cubicle hadn’t suited him. He hadn’t fit in with his coworkers, didn’t get them just as they didn’t get him, and truth be told, while he’d found the idea of working on high performance aerospace systems very cool, he was much more interested in pushing the envelope than completing his assignments.
And anyway, Russell wasn’t sure he could go back to it even if he wanted to. That industry was laying off a lot of people as well amid the cut-backs in defense and space, and even if it hadn’t been, he’d been out of the field for a very long time. Now he was approaching middle age with a degree he’d picked up in what felt like a different lifetime.
Private security was a different matter. A lot of people were talking about industrial espionage, corporate games with the Germans and the French and the Japanese taking the place of Cold War spy vs. spy. He thought it was an exaggeration, but even so, there may have been possibilities for someone with his expertise. But none of the names in his Rolodex seemed likely to help much with landing work in that sector.
He’d probably have to pound the pavement, sit through interviews. Some people talked as if switching careers was nothing. That was pure shit, as far as he was concerned, and just as was generally the case, shit came out of assholes.
Fortunately he had his savings, which were a little fuller for the money he’d recently made in the stock market. He’d just go home, have a quiet night with some take-out in front of the television, which he knew full well meant that he’d sit brooding at home after the cholesterol rush from the take-out dissipated, flipping channels.
Very likely, the cable would be out, it always was when he needed it most, and he thought about popping into the video store. He still hadn’t caught Terminator 2. Maybe it’d be on the shelf at Blockbuster.
When Russell got home it was with two bags, a grease-stained paper one from the golden arches containing dinner, and a plastic one from the video rental containing Point Break. (They didn’t have any copies of Terminator when he came in.)
He set the two bags down on the coffee table, noticed the little red light blinking on his answering machine. He perfunctorily played back the recording.
“Good afternoon Mr. Wright,” the caller said. “This is Chadwick Weatherly, of Argus Consulting. I’d like to speak to you regarding a job opportunity.”
“Chadwick Weatherly” then lef his number, and then hung up.
His dinner and movie forgotten, Russell stood there, thinking about what he’d just heard. Argus Consulting? He was sure he’d never met anyone affiliated with them, not openly anyway. He was, in fact, sure that he’d never heard of them. He also knew that it should concern him that they were offering him a new job the very same day he left his old one. Did they know he was on the market? If so, how?
And what could they possibly want with him?
Russell knew he had to be careful about the people he worked with. On top of all the usual considerations, he didn’t want to arm his old enemies with excuses to come after him. Even the possibility that these people knew what he’d really been doing in government was enough to set off alarm bells in his head.
Still, he started picturing his job search mercifully ended before it even began.
He picked up the phone and called the number back.
“Hello?” a woman answered.
“Hi. This is Russell Wright. A Mr. Weatherly called me earlier and gave this number.”
“I see. Just one moment.”
“Thank you.” He heard the clicks that indicated he was being put through to someone else, and then there was a brief pause.
“Good evening Mr. Wright,” said someone who sounded a lot like the man who’d left the message on his machine. “I see you got my message.”
“Yes. You called regarding an employment opportunity.”
“Indeed we did. Would you be available for a meeting tomorrow?”
Tomorrow was Saturday. Who did job interviews Saturday? Still . . .
“What do you have in mind?”
“Lunch at Melville’s, twelve-thirty.”
Melville’s? He’d heard of the place, but had never gone anywhere near it. This didn’t sound so much like a job interview as their wining and dining him.
That was a good sign, assuming it wasn’t all a prelude to a treason charge. At the very least, he’d have a pleasant meal.
“I’ll be there,” Russell told him.
“Very good. See you then.”
Okay, it was done now, he thought, after which he hung up the phone and proceeded to enjoy the night. With a double quarter pounder and a bucket of fries in his stomach, the world didn’t seem nearly so bleak a place as it had a few hours before.