I am ready to commit treason, Val thought to herself again as she crossed the Galata bridge. I am ready to throw my life away.
It was a pale morning and Golden Horn Bay, below her, was choppy with a cold wind. To the south, minarets over flat orange roofs, the cumulus vaulting mosques. She moved with a steady flow of pedestrians in coats, puffing steam into the early spring air. Cars moving past briskly.
She went down the stairs into the market and bought a cup of black Turkish coffee, then sat and thought about her life. It was early and she had time to do that, she thought. So many advantages. So much effort and time put in, by herself to an extent, and by others, to make her into what she was. A great deal of trust and hope and optimism. Teachers and professors and commanding officers. All for nothing. Too bad she hadn’t been someone else.
You all invested in me, not knowing that who I am was decided long ago. You had no say in it. It isn’t your fault.
Her father must know. But he was too cowardly to say.
She sighed and rose from her seat as she drained the last grainy dregs of coffee, paid, and carried on. On the north side of the bay, in Beyo?lu, she found a payphone and rang Tom Childs.
“Tom… yes.” She checked her watch. “No, I left early. I’ll see you at the hotel in half an hour. Yeah, just checking. See you then.”
She hung up and stepped out of the phone booth, then lit a cigarette. She looked back the way she had come across the bridge and into what had been Constantinople, lifetimes ago. She saw the slow busying of aquatic traffic through the bay and into the Bosporus River and knew that it had been just as busy in the time of the Ottomans. In coming this way, she had, in a manner of speaking, crossed from Asia into Europe.
As she headed for the hotel to meet Childs, she saw herself in a store window. The tan overcoat cinched loosely about her waist and shoulder-length black hair, straight and unfashionable. Practical black boots. The cigarette posed before her lips, no lipstick. No makeup of any kind. She only glanced at herself for a split second as she passed.
That woman is a traitor, she thought, but there was no guilt evident in her appearance. Look at your own face long enough in a mirror and you feel disconnected from it. The thoughts inside you move with no outward indication, and you think, That couldn’t be me. Where is the evidence of the world that lives inside me? I can feel myself thinking, but I can’t see myself thinking. She took that as a lesson of what other minds concealed.
Childs was already inside the hotel, sitting in a plush leather chair in the vestibule, his back to her. Val paused on her way to him to use the ashtray and light another cigarette. Childs was looking around nervously at the other hotel patrons and appeared relieved when he saw her. She sat in the chair next to him and slouched.
“Where’d you go?” he asked her.
“Went for a walk. Got coffee.” She barely glanced at him, speaking from the side of her mouth where no cigarette hung. Now she looked at him, frowning. “You get your coffee?”
“About four cups. Room service.” Childs cracked a smile and rubbed his hands together. He had an oblong face and red hair, just starting to go bald at his temples and crown. “I needed it.”
They were in the room for half an hour before the CIA arrived. Val sitting with an ashtray before her, dart in hand. Tom fiddling with the thick folder before him on the table. He opened it several times, checked it, and closed it again. On the table were two bottles of raki, a bottle of red wine, and a chrome corkscrew, but Val had no desire to drink this early in the morning.
Well. She had no plan to drink this early in the morning.
She heard footsteps in the hallway, muffled voices, and the doorknob turned. The two men from the CIA entered, speaking to a concierge. They wore grey suits, black overcoats, and scarves. They hung their coats next to Val’s and shook hands. Childs rose to greet them, but Val just extended a hand over her shoulder and went on smoking.
The heavyset man introduced himself as Carter, thinning hair as grey as his suit. He was in charge. His fellow was named Walsh, taller with black hair and black eyes, a square head.
“Like the last President,” Childs joked to Carter as they set.
“Yeah, like the President,” Carter smiled thinly. He looked at Val. “And you’re Venegas. Are there many women in CSIS?”
“Not too many.” Val stubbed out her cigarette and looked at him.
Walsh gestured at her hair, expressionless. “No perm. I like that. My secretary has a perm. I’m tired of perms.”
“Where are you from?” Carter squinted at her face. “You don’t look Canadian.”
She waved a hand. “I immigrated.”
“Oh, you don’t say.” Carter was nodding along. He looked at Walsh. “It’s a brave new world. How many Mexican girls would you say we have running field errands?”
“About zero.” Walsh made an ‘oh’ shape with his hand.
Val took out her pack of cigarettes and thumbed a fresh one. Carter and Walsh fumbled in their pockets and came up with lighters, leaning forward. Val used her own.
“Thanks, boys.” She grinned at them as they sat back again, fiddling with their suits, glancing at each other.
Tom Childs coughed into his hand. He probably wanted to start the meeting, but the Americans seemed unconcerned. Walsh and Carter took the opportunity to light their own cigarettes, but Childs didn’t smoke.
“Anybody for raki?” Carter pointed his cigarette at the drinks on the table.
Walsh scowled. “I hate that shit.”
Carter made a show of looking at him. “You’ve been to Istanbul how many times? And you still don’t drink the raki?”
Walsh shrugged, flicking his cigarette on the ashtray.
“Miss Venegas,” Carter smiled, eyes twinkling as he leaned towards her. “Perhaps some wine?”
“Another time.” She smiled back. “And please. Valentina.”
“Valentina.” He sat back, glancing at Walsh, all but smacking his lips and rubbing his hands together.
Tom Childs, long suffering, tried again to begin the meeting. He was used to this sort of thing, having worked with Val as long as he had. It still seemed to aggravate him. Not the least, Val figured, because he too still nursed some secret crush on her. It had taken her a few months to realize he had been trying to ask her on dates since they’d met. And she’d shrugged at the thought and raised an eyebrow.
“So this request for information…” Childs began again.
And they were into business. Valentina didn’t concern herself much with it. She knew the details. A Canadian citizen, first-generation with Turkish parents, and his parents had been communists, and he was visiting friends in Turkey who had friends in Russia, and the CIA wanted to know what they knew – which was who he was and where he was going and who he was going with and talking to.
Tom Childs was hesitating before he got into the meat of the information.
“So this room. It’s been subjected to some counter-surveillance. Is that correct? You guys meet here often?”
Carter grinned and the corners of his eyes crinkled. He looked at Walsh. Then he waved a hand dismissively. “Nobody’s listening. Take my word for it. Nobody cares about this guy. We’re just, uh, curious. This ain’t the fifties anymore.”
“Oh.” Childs seemed taken aback.
He opened the folder before him and began summarizing for the Americans. A rundown of wheres and whens and hows. Their own actions, their methods in watching the subject, what they’d seen. By midway through his presentation, Carter was nodding and reaching for the folder.
“Alright, I think I get the gist. Maybe he’s bent, maybe he isn’t. We can take it from here. If he breaks his travel plans, your agency will be the first to know.”
He put a palm broadly over Child’s files and drew them across the table. He put the cigarette in the side of his mouth and pawed through the information, pausing to look at the photos.
Walsh placed a document case on the table and opened it. “We have your package as well. It’s pretty routine stuff; I figure you won’t need a speech.”
Now. It’s time.
Childs opened his mouth and sat forward, but Valentina beat him to the punch with a hand lifted, coiling smoke around her fingers.
“Actually,” she said, “our RFI is a little different that the one you guys received originally. We’d still welcome the info you have, but I got a call directing me to ask for something special.”
Walsh sat back and Carter looked up from his documents, lifting an eyebrow. “Somethin’ special? Like what?”
Val clasped her hands on the table and looked at Carter. “We’re requesting info on an Agency employee, actually. We’re trying to connect some dots in a report to the SIRC, but we got no information on this guy.” She went into her coat pocket and came up with a black-and-white photo. “All we really have is an alias and this shitty VI. He operated in South America through the seventies and went under the name Vidente for at least a couple years.”
There was a long moment. Then Carter reached, scowling, for the photo and looked at it. “That is a crap photo. This, uh. This is unusual, I hope you realize that. Why does CSIS care about one of our spies? And why wasn’t this in the RFI we got?”
Val shrugged. “Like I said, it just came up. They’re writing the report right now and have to mention this guy. I don’t know the rest. You know how it is. We got a tighter leash on us in recent years.”
Carter passed the photo to Walsh without taking his eyes off Val. Childs was looking back and forth between them, bewildered. Carter said, “Ok, well. I’ve never seen him. Walsh, I’m guessing, has never seen him either. So if you want anything on him, we’ll have to call Langley and meet back later this week. But listen, this shit isn’t good enough.” He gestured generally at the table. “I dunno how you people usually handle stuff like this, but we’re gonna need something a little more official. Get a fax from home or get your boss to call us. Fair?”
They stood to shake hands and leave, and only then did Carter’s eyes widen as he looked up at Valentina. She was six-foot-two. A full head taller than Carter and Childs, with a couple inches on Walsh. “Uh,” he said. “Well. Next time, then.”
When they were gone, Childs rounded on her. “What the hell was that about?”
Val lifted her eyebrows. “About the SIRC report and the spook? Yeah, like I said, I only got the call last night.”
“You might have told me about it. I looked like an idiot. Are you sure we can fuck around with this stuff? We haven’t exactly recovered from Air India yet.”
She shrugged. “Sorry, man. It’s not that big a deal. I’ll call Ottawa tonight and get something more solid for them.”
Tom was shaking his head, looking over the folder the Americans had given them, packing it all into his briefcase. Probably already thinking ahead to the next meeting. And Val just lit another cigarette, went to the window and looked out across the view, over the bay. The wind had picked up and on the horizon, grey streaks of rain appeared.
Well. No going back now.