Shell Game

On a leaden winter dawn Tristan arrived at an Amtrack terminal from a briefing with seven C.I.A. employees, two of whom spoke while the others watched, scribbling notes in what had to be Pitman, where he, Tristan, was designated a Language Officer under Elliot Posner, the Hong Kong Chief Plans Officer, whom, Lyddell had informed him, once lost contact with seven of his OO’s for three months only to discover them, after much international hullabaloo, holed up in a mainland KTV hotel suite as official guests of The Party, wasted on cocaine, copulation and booze, claiming to be very close to landing some ‘top notch game changing intelligence,’ but was still made PO with his rat’s nest of assets and dubious intelligence vast enough to make his, Tristan’s, posting less of the opportunity he was led to believe and more like a protracted method of laying in front of an oncoming bus. Tristan sat in his seat and stared through crystalline formations on his window, told himself welcome to government, and tried to fall asleep. This did not work. He thought of Fratello’s Pizzeria in Nesopeck where a bottle of wine had been ordered, rearranging ionic structures over a period of months, or forever; a hill near Barnhart Dam few knew had been a tire landfill because the tall grass, butterflies, forest coursing with running trails and the cattail spotted wetland were so idyllic; a cold, haunting Icelandic ballad espousing childhood nightmare type emotions; a portrait of Deng Xiaoping on a fading book mark in a history of modern China Lyddell had given him. Was this the real reason he was being sent to China, he wondered, amidst dreams, to unveil a legacy of organized crime at the foundation of Chinese capitalism? That made Tristan laugh to himself, so gauche, common. You’re so melodramatic, he told himself.

The men who spoke during the debrief were Counterintelligence Center Chief, Benjamin Alcott and Deputy Director of NCS for Community HUMINT, Dr. Matthew Cole. The silent observers included Director of NCS, John Berman; CIA Executive Director Stephanie Olson; Chief of Station in Hong Kong, James Rodnik; Charles Lyddell, and an enigmatic severe looking woman who sat at the far end of the conference table. After a flattering outline of Tristan’s outstanding record at George Washington University, The Institute, National Intelligence University, Camp Peary and additional training reports from Harvey Point were offered to the group by Lyddell the Deputy Director revealed that eighteen months ago terrorist network chatter indicated that the Chinese government was trawling for cyber-mercenaries and planning an attack on the United States. They admitted counterintelligence in the region had been a low priority since the nineties, but had reason to believe the risk was very real, very dangerous, and set to occur very soon. Tristan had been selected to sift the HUMINT archives from the past five years to categorize, prioritize and report any potentially actionable leads. The posting, a back room assignment surrounded by shoddy filing cabinets, was what Tristan had expected, at least nominally, but it didn’t explain the unorthodox nature of his recruitment. He tried to think of anyone he knew in China. Through the remainder of his four hour train ride from Washington to Harrisburg, through the afternoon shouldering his rucksack through downtown Harrisburg to buy his mother, Minna, a scarf at Theodore Bobbins’ Indo-Asian Pate and Napery (around the corner by the Harrisburg Downtown Improvement District Office he dropped his pack on a bench to drink a coffee and witness a rather skillful steel drum rendering of John Williams’ main theme to Jurassic Park by a grimy legless veteran); then to Front Street along the Susquehanna bike trail where he used to workout shirtless, a skin and bone hope-filled teen, to the Rose garden where he’d first kissed Julie Satorini, the sweet woody perennial fragrance of Synstylaes, Carolinaes and Laevigataes fermenting the warm summer evening, eventually, slightly unhinged from thirty four hours of wakefulness, nostalgic meandering, and caffeine, Tristan mulled, and mulled, mining his Friendtime app, thumbing through innumerable faceless memories which seemed as likely imagined or plucked from films or derived from dreams, and any way somehow all pointing toward a single point below a remote western horizon. It took him until he’d reached the woodbine covered dog-eared spruce stockade on the corner of his parents block to remember that when he was visiting home after college graduation he’d run into middle school classmate Danny Tiding who told him that fellow St. Catherine’s alum Steven Alexander had moved to Seoul to become the ATA representative for the World Taekwondo Association in Korea. Steve had all but disappeared during high school. Between traveling to Korea multiple times a year for Taekwondo tournaments, and teaching at the local ATA academy, he was basically home-schooled. He may have even graduated a year early. “Hi mom.”

“Oh, hunny. It’s so good to see you!” She pushed open the purple combination door and pulled him close at the shoulders, careful not to soil him with her tomato paste and spinach splattered apron. Holding him at arm’s length she gazed a few seconds. “You look good. Tired, but strong. Come in, come in.” She headed back toward the kitchen. “Richard! Your son is home.”

“I feel all right now, but I’m sure I’ll crash soon. They kept me up all night.” Tristan followed his mother into the kitchen. 

“That’s okay. We don’t have anything special planned. Just make sure you eat a good dinner first.”

“It smells amazing in here.”

“I made your favorite. Veggie lasagna with eggplant. I saved the basil and marjoram from the garden this fall and the Ricotta is fresh from Gabriella’s.”

“It’s amazing that place is still open.”

“You know, your father thinks she’s tied in with the mob.” She whispered, eyeing the stairs Richard had yet to descend. Tristan was sitting at the kitchen island appreciating the golden twilight while she chopped items for a salad.

“Have you heard anything about Steven Alexander?” Tristan inquired. He remembered that sometime last year at around one in the afternoon he received a Snople-Voice call at his office computer, source unknown; it sounded like an accidental dial: A man speaking a Chinese dialect unfamiliar to Tristan. He listened for two minutes deciphering what he thought were the words for stone and fish, before the voice said, “Oh, shit.” An American accent, followed by a deep, distended silence, the silence of an enormous vacant loft at three A.M. The call could have originated anywhere, bounced off any number of servers, firewalls, scrubbers. Had Steven been on a watch list? Was Tristan now one degree removed from a suspected collaborator? 

“It’s funny you should ask. This year they continued the summer movie series. You know the one they have in Italian Park on Thursday nights, by the lake? They extended it into the winter by using the Opera House, they just finished restoring it, it’s beautiful, you should really see it before you leave, but anyways Steven’s mother was there. Did you know she got remarried? I couldn’t believe it, she looks exactly the same. I don’t remember when the last time I saw her was. Had to be three or four years. She says that Steve is doing well. He’s been in China for two years now, working at some big company, consulting I think she said. I can’t remember where. Those Asian names all get muddled in my old head.” 

Minna pulled the steaming lasagna from the oven, cheesy edges a touch burnt, just as Tristan liked. Her brow was slightly damp from the final rush to complete everything in time. She threw two Pane Crostoso loaves, sliced and buttered with crushed garlic cloves at three inch margins, tin foil wrapped, into the 1930s porcelain O’Keefe and Merritt gas range his father had plucked from the family farm before it was divided and sold.

“Tristan.” Richard sidled down the stairs with a tilt showing deference to his ailing left hip. Tristan rose to greet his father. “How are you, son?”

“If I didn’t know better I would have thought you were compelled more by the sound of Mom pulling dinner coming out of the oven than the arrival of your only son.” He displayed an exhausted, half smile, accepting his fathers hard hand. The adrenaline was gone now that he was in the familiar warm home of his childhood. 

“Oh, don’t be silly. I just had to finish something up for work. Two more years, and I’ll be taking your mother to Bermuda in December instead.” He looked to Minna for approval.

“As long as you don’t spend all your free time out in the garage working on that old Packard I’ll be happy.” She was finishing the salad and didn’t look back.

Tristan’s father was an industrial engineer, specializing in mining operations. He was currently managing a coal project outside Pottsville that is scheduled for reassignment in two years at which point he will retire.

“So, you got your orders? When do you have to push off?”

“I can stay for Christmas, but I have to leave before the first.”

“Good, then I’ll have an extra hand for a couple weeks. Your mother’s been getting on me about cleaning out the basement.”

“Would you boys mind setting the table?” She gave her husband a look that told him to stop putting words in her mouth. Tristan grabbed the utensils and the bowl of salad; Richard grabbed the plates and a doily for the lasagna.

“Dad, make sure you don’t forget the cover story.”

“Nobody asks what you’re up to anymore.”

“I’m serious. It’s important.”

“All right, I know, I know, my son’s some big-shot important super-spy. So, now I have to lie to everyone. I got it. I’ve never lied before in my life, and now –” 

“You don’t have to lie, dad, just tell them I don’t talk about it much. That’s the truth.”

Richard grabbed the lasagna and set it in the center of the table. 

“Okay?” Tristan clarified.

“Yeah, that’s fine. But what do I say when they ask where you work, where you live? Huh? You don’t talk about that either?” 

Minna pulled the bread out of the oven and dropped the loaves on the table, chuckling to herself hoping to dispel the tension. “Okay, that’s enough for now. Tristan’s exhausted and starved I’m sure. Let’s just have a pleasant dinner. We’ll have plenty of time to iron out the details later.”

Tristan sat across from his mother with his father to his right at the head of the table. Richard said grace, thanking the Lord for all the blessings they’d received in this life: the food on the table, the health and safety of his son and daughters. He thanked the Holy Mother Mary for watching over his family, and providing good counsel in times of need, and asked that God would offer extra graces for Tristan, his son, as he endeavors on what was sure to be a period of many unknowable trials of body and soul. “Amen.”


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