An American Spy by Olen Steinhausen

An American Spy - book cover

First get through the ‘Set-up’, then follow the ‘Play’ and, finally, enjoy the confusion that in the end makes perfect sense.

Read a Short Extract



Tuesday, April 22 to Thursday, April 24, 2008

Erika introduced herself but didn’t bother asking their real names. What was the point? She wasn’t here on a fact-finding mission but to offer advice. They listened to her slow, measured English with feigned earnestness, and she pointed out that, given that they were on German soil, and given that their mission was now known, they could abandon it without shame. “Really, you can’t expect a rebuke from your department head. Alan Drummond, right?” she asked and got confused stares in reply. “The point is,” she said, “if you want to have a conversation with Mr Stanescu, it can easily be done here – but in my house, you have to follow my rules. What you cannot do is shove him into some little plane, as you did with Henry Gray.”
    There was no reason to assume that either had been on hand for that abduction, but she noticed something tense in Hector Garza’s features.
    She could have shared more, in particular that she knew that these Americans had that morning parked a refrigerated truck painted with the insignia of the HIT grocery store in a private garage in Zehlendorf, but why bother? They would only come up with new plans, something Tourists were rumoured to be adept at.
    When they smiled and thanked her for the wonderful conversation – confessing, however, that they had no idea what she was talking about – she let them go without argument. Erika’s people had placed two trackers on their truck, and there were now twelve men and women in Berlin whose sole task was to watch this pair.
    The next morning – Tuesday, April 22 – those twelve people watched as the pair parked their HIT truck outside Stanescu’s Kreuzberg apartment building and followed his taxi as he headed in for his shift. However, along the way, the Tourists’ pursuit was interrupted by two of Erika’s men who smashed cars into the HIT truck at the corner of Gneisenaustrase and Nostitzstrasse. Once that was accomplished, she called Stanescu directly and asked him to come to a restaurant along the Spree, the Altes Zollhaus, so that they could have a word. He arrived looking confused, having just witnessed a suspicious-looking three-car pileup on his way, but he was properly submissive. After offering wine and food and receiving disconsolate refusals in his broken German, she asked if he remembered a man named Rick.
    Andrei stared at her. “I know one man what is named Rick.”
    “Well, the people in the truck that was following you know that you’re acquainted with this man called Rick, whom they call Xin Zhu. They are very interested in learning about him, and they believe you can help them.”
    “They are CIA?”
    She nodded, her jowls trembling.
    “But you attack it.”
    “They had a car accident, Mr Stanescu.” She placed a plump hand on the edge of the table. “That is not important to you. Before, I promised you that I would hold them off as long as I could, and I think I’ve reached the limits of my power. I don’t think they’re interested in prosecuting you for what you did to that man in Brooklyn. What they seem to want is information about the Chinese man, your Rick, who they believe sent you to shoot him.”
    Andrei leaned back, finally saying, “I can answer. Questions, I can answer.”
    “I’m sure you can, and I’m sure you will. However, we will do it my way, and not theirs.”
    “What is it, their way?”
    She cleared her throat, and a waiter looked over before realizing she wasn’t calling to him. She said, “They would have grabbed you and pushed you inside that truck, where there is a bed and a lot of drugs. You would have woken up in a plane heading somewhere. Perhaps to the United States, perhaps to Turkey – I don’t know. For a minimum of a week, probably more, you would have been interrogated.”
    “And what is it, your way?”
    She sighed. “I don’t like it when German residents are dragged out of the country by other governments, particularly by friendly governments. You and I will go to a house outside of Berlin for, at most, three days. No drugs, just conversation. I will allow a single American on the premises to ask questions.”
    Two hours later, Oskar brought his phone. “It’s the office. They’ve got a Gwendolyn Davis on the line.”
    In perfect German, Leticia Jones said, “So, does the offer still stand?”
    The conversation lasted for one and a half days in a house off the E51 to Postdam. Jones showed up early both mornings with a handheld audio recorder while Hector Garza stayed in his hotel room or strolled the shopping avenues, occasionally even buying shirts. Erika was surprised by this, having expected Garza to do the talking. After all, they had no idea how Andrei Stanescu felt about black people, nor how he would deal with a female interrogator. Leticia Jones wasn’t just fluent in German, though; she had a remarkably welcoming presence that encouraged her subject to go deeper than simple answers.
    The interrogation was also fascinating because Andrei Stanescu had only spent an hour or so in the company of the Chinese officer. What could he know about Xin Zhu? Leticia Jones hadn’t known this before their talk began. She only knew that Andrei had been handed a pistol in Brooklyn by a member of the Chinese embassy, whom Andrei called Li. She knew that Li had been told by Xin Zhu to give Andrei the gun, and so it followed that Xin Zhu, or one of his representatives from China’s foreign intelligence services, the Guoanbu, had been in personal contact with Andrei. Jones showed him a series of photographs until he identified Li as a man named Sam Kuo.
    They’d finished dealing with the actual events leading to the attempted murder of Milo Weaver after just a few hours, and then Jones focused on the person of Xin Zhu. A physical description that began with that uncomfortable word “fat,” then grew more detailed, his small eyes, his blunt nose, his full lips, the thin hair on the top of his head and the thicker black locks over his ears. His quiet way, as if by silence he could sap the air of indecision—“He is very convincing,” Andrei said. “A thing in space. Hard . . . no, solid.”
    Their meeting had been preordained, Andrei believed. He had not been looking for it, nor even wishing it. He’d been a bitter man before Rick came into his life, full of hatred for all his fares and all the faces he saw on the street, and it was Rick who unexpectedly offered him a kind of salvation.
    “He believes in order.”
    “Sorry, I don’t understand.”
    “He said, ‘I believe in order of thing.’ ”
    “He believes in the order of things?”
    “Yes. Exact.”
    “When did he say that?”
    “When I ask if he is religious.”
    Knowing of Andrei Stanescu’s Orthodox faith, part of Xin Zhu’s argument had been to quote the Bible, lines of which—Erika knew from experience—could be pulled out to justify most anything. Zhu hadn’t dug too deeply, though, sticking with the old standard. “And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe."
    “Is he religious?”  
    “He did not say.”
    “What do you think?”
    Andrei stared at Leticia Jones deeply, then touched the bottle of water in front of him but didn’t drink. “Maybe,” he said, but refused to commit himself further.
    Leticia Jones did not bother to tell him that the man he had shot was not his daughter’s murderer. It was beyond Leticia Jones’s mandate—which was, as far as Erika could tell, to find out everything about the person of Xin Zhu from people who had met him personally, even briefly. What this told Erika was that the CIA knew embarrassingly little about the man, and it was desperate to learn anything.
    Leticia Jones saved the most crucial question for the second day, and when she asked it, her tone was exactly as it had been the previous day: calm, welcoming, almost seductive.
    “Why do you think he did it?” A pause. A gentle smile. “Why do you think he helped you—a stranger—take revenge for the murder of your daughter?”
    Andrei didn’t need to think about that; he’d thought about it ever since March 28, when he’d picked up the big Chinese man from the airport and listened—at times exasperated, other times hypnotized—to his story. “Rick, his son was murdered. He know what it can do to a father. He know how going back to the murderer can make a father good when he is terrible. No, not good. Better.”
    “Better than good?”
    “Better than terrible. He know this man that kill my Adriana. He sees injustice, he wants order. He believes in order of thing.”
    “So Rick is a man who makes order where there is no order.”
    “You like him.”
    “He give me gift. He don’t know me, but he give me gift.”
    A gift, Erika thought, that will ruin you once you’ve gotten past this wonderful high.
    Before calling the interview finished at 1:18 p.m. on Thursday the twenty-fourth, Leticia Jones rested her hands on the oak table that had separated them all this time, palms down so that each of her long, red-painted nails glimmered under the ceiling lamp, and said, “Herr Stanescu, after hearing all this, it strikes me that you really like Rick. Am I right?”
    Andrei nodded. “He is very good man, for me.”
    “Which makes me wonder,” she said, “why you would be so open with us. Certainly you realize that we don’t mean your Rick much good. We’re not his friends. In fact, he’s done some terrible things to us, and we don’t forgive easily.”
    Andrei nodded.
    “Don’t you worry you’re betraying him?”
    Andrei smiled, then intoned, “Give to Caesar what thing is for Caesar, and to God the things what is for God.”
    You just take what you like from that book, thought Erika.
    She walked Jones out to her car, and from beyond the trees they heard traffic humming down the highway. “So what did he do to you?” Erika asked in English. When Jones didn’t reply, she clarified. “Xin Zhu, I mean. Kidnapping people off of foreign streets is no small thing.”
    Jones still didn’t reply, only smiled, her feet crunching twigs.
    “Tell Alan Drummond that if he wants to be a little less secretive, then I could have a look in our files. We might have something.”
    “Your boss.”
    “You haven’t heard,” Jones said, shaking her head. “Alan Drummond’s out of a job.”
    “That’s why they cleared out the offices of the Department of Tourism?”
    To her credit, Jones didn’t flinch. “All I know is he’s in the unemployment line. Anything else is above my pay grade.”
    “Like what Xin Zhu did to you people?”
    Jones shrugged; then Erika put a hand on her elbow, finally understanding. They looked at each other.
    “He destroyed it, didn’t he? The department. That would be . . .” Erika took a breath, wondering what this could mean, and how it might have been done. It was quite nearly awe-inspiring. A legendary Department that had struck fear in the hearts of spies all over the planet for at least half a century, felled by a single angry man in China.
    Leticia Jones wasn’t going to affirm or deny a thing. She said, “You’ve been very kind, and the American people appreciate it.”
    “I doubt that.”
    Jones opened the door, then as an afterthought, placed a hand on Erika’s shoulder. “Well, I appreciate it.”
    “Not enough to tell me what Xin Zhu did to deserve this personality analysis?”
    Jones got into her car and rolled down the window. “Xin Zhu did nothing, and everything, if you know what I mean.”
    “I don’t.”
    A shrug, then Leticia Jones drove away.
    By evening, both she and Hector Garza were on flights to New York. Erika asked a team to watch them, but somewhere on the road between New York and D.C., the two agents vanished into the cool American night.

Copyright © Olen Steinhauer 2012