The Spy that Smiled
The men with the hooks dragged what was left of Jim out of the river. The coroner dug a 9mm PBP round out of his skull. The bullet rattled in the pan, bloody ice-melt haloing Jim’s thinning hair. He was smiling.
I had known Jim since he came back from Berlin. I got to know him over cold turkey sandwiches in the cafeteria, weak cups of office tea, lingering stake-outs in workhouse bars that catered to union-workers. I wanted to hear about how it was out in the cold, on the front lines. He never smiled when he said to me:
“This is the front line.”
We sipped gin in the open, in the wee dark hours, watching what Jim thought were safehouses and letter drops. We had no approval from up above, as far as I knew, but we were out there anyway, on our own time. We were a team, Jim and I, playing our games against the enemy—follow and fall back, never to approach, never to engage, never to give the game away… He sat out there on the river, not ten yards from where they found them, and he never smiled as he told me:
“They follow me, you know. Like I follow them. They’re good at it. I go back to my place, and you would never know they had been there, but I know. The little signs are there, the way the carpet lays, the hairs in the doorframe, the ragged little rip in the envelope, where someone maybe tried to open it a little too hastily. It followed me here, the war. They have followed me. Because they know that I am following them.”
P. called me in, a week before. P. was apparatchik, a bureaucrat, hard to ever imagine him in the field, drinking whisky from a frozen thermos, out in the cold. P. was worried about Jim—not personally, not for the man, not for what he had gone through or was going through; it was all for the department, how it looked, the constant reports, requests for assets, out in the middle of the night at his age, chasing phantoms. He said:
“There is no mole.”
At that range, Jim must have seen the shooter. At close enough quarters to glimpse a face he recognized in the muzzle flash. At peace with the blow, maybe, for that final confirmation. He must have known, right before he died, that he was right all along.