And, in the course of all of this, I ate my usual five meals a day, sorted and read my mail, went to various meetings and lectures, listened to a set of Siamese language records – a difficult tongue, by the way, and a positively mind-freezing alphabet – and generally went about the business of life. Part of the business of life was the careful task of ignoring Karlis Mielovicius and his true love in Latvia.
This would have been easier if Karlis had not kept reminding me of my promise. He wasn’t an absolute pest. On the contrary, he was so patient and understanding that I was soon consumed with guilt. But he filled my mailbox with little reminders – a picture of the girl, a letter he had received from someone who knew her, a variety of news clippings referring to Latvia, that sort of thing.
I suppose, with all of this gentle prodding, I would eventually have gone to Latvia anyway. It was senseless, certainly, but pure logic and reason make a bad foundation for a human life. One has to do idiot things from time to time, if only to assure oneself that one is a human being and not a robot.
So I probably would have gone anyway. But a couple of months after the encampment the Chief got in touch with me and ordered me to go to Colombia, and the next thing I knew I was on my way to Latvia.
I was heading home from an anarchist forum when the first contact was made. I left the subway at 103rd Street and walked north on Broadway, and at the corner of 106th a clean-cut young fellow tapped me on the shoulder.
“Excuse me,” he said, “but I think you dropped this.”
He handed me a crumpled piece of paper. “I don’t think so,” I said.
“I’m sure I saw you drop it,” he said. “It might be important.” And he pressed the piece of paper into my hand. Before I could say anything else he scurried off into the night.
I unfolded the scrap of paper. It was the wrapper from a piece of Juicy Fruit gum. I never chew gum and if I did I don’t think I would chew anything called Juicy Fruit and if I did I’m sure I wouldn’t save the wrappers. I dropped it in a little basket and went home.
I didn’t leave the apartment until noon the next day, at which time I decided the restaurant down the block could outperform my own little kitchen. I left my building and walked to the corner of Broadway, and the clean-cut young fellow came up to me and tapped me on the shoulder.
“Excuse me,” he said, “but I think you dropped this.”
And handed me a crumpled piece of paper.
“It might be important,” he said once again, a hint of steel in his mellow voice. And off he went again. I went to the restaurant and ordered a plate of scrambled eggs and fried potatoes. I hadn’t thrown away the scrap of paper this time. I felt it was definitely important. Either I was quietly losing my mind or someone was attempting to make contact with me, and the piece of paper seemed likely to hold a clue.
I uncrumpled it while I waited for them to scramble the eggs and fry the potatoes. It was a Juicy Fruit gum wrapper (the same one? a different one? who knows? who cares?). This time I turned it over and found that someone had written something on the back.
The scrambled eggs and fried potatoes came. I ate them. I drank several cups of coffee. I read the message over and over again. I would have to destroy it, I decided. It wouldn’t do to leave it lying about where anyone could find it. Someone might glean information from it. Just because I couldn’t get anything out of it didn’t mean that some keen-eyed, quick-brained lad couldn’t get a kernel of meaning out of it.
Sprints. No, correct that: SP r-ints.
The T seemed likely to mean Tanner. The soonest probably meant that I was supposed to do something right away. And the fundamental insanity of this particular method of delivering a message suggested the message’s source. Only the undercover agencies of the United States Government operate habitually in this fashion.
Which meant that this gum wrapper was a message from the Chief. A certain amount of his cuteness is dictated by circumstances. Since I’m a subversive a couple thousand times over, my privacy is limited in certain ways. The FBI taps my phone and reads my mail before I do, and the CIA has bugged my apartment. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. I’m not entirely sure which is which and I don’t entirely care.
I tucked the gum wrapper into my shirt pocket and took it back to my apartment. I puzzled over it for a while, then hauled over the telephone and looked at the dial. Then I got it. SP r-ints was a telephone number. Just substitute the appropriate numbers for the last five letters and one came up with SPring 7-4687.
Which I did not dial just then, since either the CIA or the FBI was tapping my phone. Instead I left the building again and found a pay phone and invested a dime and dialed the number.
A girl said, “Good afternoon, Omicron Employment.”
I said, “Tanner.”
The girl said, “Room Two-one-oh-four, Hotel Crichton.”
I said, “Soonest?”
The girl said, “At once.”
I said, “How Mickey Mouse can you get?” but before saying that, I broke the connection.
And then I looked in the phone book and found out that the Hotel Crichton is on East 36th Street between Lexington and Third, and I took a cab to it and went all the way up to the twenty-first floor and found Room 2104 and knocked on the door and opened it when a voice suggested I do so and went inside.
And there he was.
He is a soft and rounded man with a bald head and fleshy hands and innocent blue eyes. He smiled me into a chair, filled a pair of water tumblers a third of the way with Scotch, gave one of them to me, and kept the other for himself. We drank.
“Ah, Tanner,” he said. “You almost gave that lad a coronary when you threw away the gum wrapper last night. Put him a bit off stride.”
“I guess I wasn’t thinking.”
“Figured out the phone number quickly enough, though. Sprints.” He chuckled softly. “You would be surprised,” he said, “just how many phone numbers can be converted into simple English words. A handy mnemonic device.”
“Hmmm,” he said.
I don’t know his name. I think of him as the Chief because I’ve heard him called that, but I’ve never learned his name or his title or even the name of the agency he heads. Nor do I know how to get in touch with him should the occasion arise. I think he works out of Washington. I can’t be sure. I know that one is never supposed to attempt to make contact with him. One waits for the mountain to come to Mohammed. Now and then the mountain rents a New York hotel room and sends a cryptic message.
“I have a piece of work for you, Tanner. Another touch of whiskey?”
“No, this is fine.”
“Good, good. What do you know about Colombia?”
“No, no, the country. South America.”
“Oh,” I said. “ Colombia.”
“Mmmm.” He got to his feet, walked over to the window, fiddled with the shade. I wondered whether he was merely playing with it or whether this action would set off an uprising in Indonesia. He stopped fooling with the shade and turned to face me. “ Colombia. Know much about the place?”
“The political situation?”
“How about a specific organization – the Colombian Agrarian Revolutionary Movement?”
“I know the group.”
“Thought you might.” He smiled suddenly. “Just what I said to myself when this first blew our way. Said if there’s a nut group somewhere, my boy Tanner knows about it. Knew right out of the box you’d be the perfect man for this job.”
He thinks I work for him. He has every right to think so. A while ago, shortly after the conception of my son Todor, I had a little trouble with the Central Intelligence Agency, and to save my neck I invented the Chief. I kept telling the CIA that I worked for another federal agency and couldn’t tell them a thing about it. When the Chief appeared to rescue me, I was more surprised than the CIA was. I was also trapped by my own story. He thought I was one of his trusted agents, and maybe I am.
“The Colombian Agrarian Revolutionary Movement,” he said. “Communist, wouldn’t you say?”
“They’re never exactly communist. Not until after they take power. Then the true colors show. We’ve been getting a great many rumbles out of Colombia. The news isn’t good.”
“Looks as though the country’s ripe for a revolution. The Colombian Agrarian Revolutionary Movement has been whipping up a lot of popular sentiment lately. From all indications, they’re planning a full-scale power play within the next two or three weeks. And that, Tanner, is where you come in.”
I looked inquisitive.
“Your job,” he said, “is to get inside this red group and stop it. Kill off the revolution. Nip it in the bud, squash it. We’ve got a friendly government in Colombia now-”
“Well, that’s a strong word, but let’s just call it friendly government. Colombia is an ally, and we’d like to preserve the status quo. That’s policy, Tanner, and they make those decisions way upstairs.” He chuckled again. “The CIA wanted this one, you know. The Agency likes this sort of job, but they haven’t smelled so well in Latin America since the Bay of You-Know-Whats. And Edgar wanted this one, too. The Bureau swung a lot of weight in South America during War Number Two. But I knew you’d be the right man. A nice neat inside job, that’s the way to kill the weed before it blooms.” Another inane chuckle. “I’ll never forget what you did in Macedonia. If you’re as good at stopping revolutions as you are at starting them, this should be a cinch for you.
I finished my drink. He had a job for me, did he? A job that would be just right for me, was it?
I wouldn’t touch it with a rake.
Because it just so happens that I am a member of the Colombian Agrarian Revolutionary Movement. I’ve supported CARM for several years and I’ve been able to donate some fairly substantial sums to them toward their end of overthrowing the Colombian government. My contributions have been mostly financial, as there’s very little CARM activity in the New York area. It is an activist movement, a rebel band that roams the Colombian hills, adding new recruits and gathering its strength for the uprising.
Communist? I knew CARM well and long, and I couldn’t call them that. They are left-wing socialists, but their program is based in Colombia, not in Moscow or Peking or even Havana.
The news that a CARM revolution was imminent was welcome news indeed. The thought that I might be ordered to sabotage this revolution was terrifying. I would not do it. I would not dream of doing it. If I went to Colombia, it would be to aid the revolution, not to destroy it.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I can’t go.”
“I can’t go to Colombia. I can’t accept the assignment.”