Tuesday, October 11, 2011

THE OLD SPY (free sample)


Sunday, December 21, 1997

"Hello," I said a bit breathlessly after racing from the bathtub, dripping all over the floor.

"Knightsbridge station. Phone bank. Thirty minutes. Take the tube." The line went dead. The voice could have been male or female. The accent was thick. Possibly eastern European. Possibly Middle Eastern.

I had been in London for a week, researching a scholarly paper about the history of the news department at the BBC. I was using the Christmas break at Leesburg State College, where I was the Jean Scrimshaw Tankardly Professor of Media, to conduct the research. My area of academic emphasis was on media history and politics. My London project was funded by the Jean Scrimshaw Tankardly Institute, a Washington-based think tank involved in a series of eclectic scholarly undertakings that allowed the Institute to send people all over the world. All of that is true.

The truth was also my cover. My assignment was to make covert contact with a U.S. intelligence asset who had let it be known that he or she had critical and time-sensitive information to deliver. The asset had a company contact but all interchange had been exclusively through a dead-drop. The asset told the agency handler through a coded message that he or she would only meet face-to-face with somebody in a senior position that his or her sources could not possibly know. The conditions set out by the asset made me a logical candidate for the meeting. The Tankardly Institute, you see, is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Central Intelligence Agency.

I dressed quickly in slacks and a sweater and pulled on my well-worn anorak to ward off the persistent drizzle that beset the city. It was typical winter weather. I left my utilitarian accommodations. While the mailbox was unmarked and the rent was paid by the Tankardly Institute, it was, in fact, a CIA safe-house – a furnished flat in a modest, red brick building on Hogarth Road, swept regularly for electronic eavesdropping devices and watched constantly by agency operatives. I paused for a moment to let my eyes become accustomed to the darkness. I descended six steps and turned left. My destination, following instructions to take the subway, was the Earls Court Underground, less than a block away, but I started in the opposite direction, toward Cromwell Road, stopping once, pretending to check my pockets and glance behind me to ascertain that I wasn’t being watched.

I was looking for people who suddenly emerged from parked cars or from nearby buildings. I reversed my direction and headed back toward Earls Court Road. I heard a car start behind me and quickly turned right on the narrow footpath called Hogarth Place and then walked briskly down Kenway Road, across the main thoroughfare, Earls Court Road, to the tube station. I had no time for much more sophisticated tradecraft. I was pretty sure my tail was clean as I entered the station and bought a ticket. I double-checked once more before taking the elevator down to the Piccadilly Line. I walked from the lift onto the Heathrow-bound platform, pausing a moment and doubling back again to the Cockfosters-bound side as the next train pulled in and the doors whooshed open.

The early-Sunday evening train was crowded. I stood at the rear of the car as it made the two stops before Knightsbridge. I stepped onto the platform and was swept with the crowd to the escalator up to the turnstiles and ticket booths, which occupied a small lobby about twenty steps below street level. I walked casually to the bank of public phones to the right of a kiosk that sold candy, gum and newspapers. I checked my watch. Twenty-six minutes had elapsed since the telephone call to the safe-house.

I strolled to the map of the neighborhood on the tiled wall near the ticket booths, trying to look like a tourist. A besotted old woman with plump cheeks about three shades too red was sitting on the marble floor carrying on an animated conversation with her poodle. The dog did not respond which did not seem to matter to the woman.

I lingered about two minutes and turned back to the phones. Two twenty-somethings of indeterminate gender – decked in leather, festooned with multiple piercings, and both sporting spiky purple Mohawks – were alternately cursing and cajoling somebody at the other end of one public phone. One phone bore a British Telecom sticker declaring it "out of order." There were two others.

I didn’t like the game. Using a public phone in a public place to call out was occasionally acceptable; receiving a call on a public phone in a public place was always risky. It was an amateur ploy. Too much chance to be observed. Too much chance to be ambushed. Too much could go wrong. Too dangerous. It was not sound operational practice to have an operative stand around waiting for a public phone to ring. Answering it made you stand out like a mariachi band in church. I tried not to look as uncomfortable as I felt. The out-of-order phone rang. The code and counter-code had been established before I left Washington and transmitted to the asset by way of the usual dead-drop. I lifted the receiver. "Yes."

"Is your mother with you?" It was the same heavily accented voice that had instructed me a half hour before.

"No. She’s back at the hotel," I said signaling that as far as I could tell I was not followed and everything was clear at my end. Had I said any other words, it would have been a signal that I was compromised or had grown a tail and another pre-arranged contact would have to be made. There was a brief silence as if the person at the other end was uncertain. The two punks staggered noisily away and up the steps to the street.

"Ten minutes before noon. Kew Gardens. Walk toward the pagoda." The line went dead.

"No problem," I said to nobody. I replaced the receiver and glanced quickly around. The station was mostly empty. The man in the kiosk was reading a tabloid newspaper and looking bored. Two London Underground security officers were talking about their Christmas plans. The old woman was still telling her life story to the patient poodle. A couple who looked like American tourists, complete with cam-corder, fanny packs and city map, were grappling with the automatic ticket machine.

I went up the steps to Sloan Street, turned left and walked around the tube station onto Brompton Road. Harrods, which is lit up every night, was especially twinkly just a few days before Christmas, despite the mist and chill breeze. Other shops were decorated with Christmas trees and Christmas lights. I strolled past the display windows of the famous store. They were bedecked with seasonal exhibits aimed at luring the wealthy, or those who pretended to be, in to spend some of their pounds. I continued for two more blocks, taking a left onto Beauchamp Place and making my way to an old familiar Irish pub in the middle of the block across from a trendy Italian restaurant with a rank of limos parked in front. It felt as if it might snow any moment. I hung my anorak on a wall peg and took a stool at the end of the bar near the front window, ordered a double Paddy and halfheartedly eavesdropped on two exceedingly gay young men from Harrods complain about their mutual boss. The whiskey tasted very good.

"He’s just such a nasty bitch," lisped one a little too loudly. He was sipping what was obviously not his first, or even his second, glass of Chablis. "There was simply no need for him to change my schedule at the last second without even asking. I hope the rude old queen rots in hell."

The other made sympathetic noises and ran his hand over his closely cropped hair. "He’s obviously on some kind of power trip."

Two middle-aged American couples came in and plopped themselves at a table by the fireplace, complaining too loudly about the weather. Two rich, pudgy college-age women were giggling riotously and sipping beer at the bar two stools down from the gay guys. One other older man was at the far end of the bar from me.

I surveyed the street. The mist had turned into a more steady rain whipped by sporadic gusts of wind, which streaked the window. The place was starting to fill. A group of shoppers with Harrods bags came in, followed by three young men in jeans and heavy sweaters.

I ordered another double Paddy. "Lots of ice, please."

"You’ve been in here before," said the bartender. "American?"

"It’s that obvious?"

"It’s the ice. Americans love their ice. Touring?"

"On business," I said.

"What kind of business are you in, if I might ask?"

"I’m a college professor. I’m over doing some academic research."

"Terrible time of year to come," he said gesturing toward the window. "Always rotten weather around Christmas. You should come over in October or April."

"I’d love to. I didn’t have much choice. I had to come when my school had its break between semesters."

"I see," he said turning to the gay guys who each ordered another glass of wine.

I sipped another Irish whiskey and chatted a bit more with the bartender. It turned out he had attended George Washington University for a year. I asked why he was tending bar.

"Chaps with philosophy degrees are about as much in demand as shepherds and blacksmiths," he said. "I’m working on an MBA now, so I can make some proper quid. The London School of Economics ought to set me up pretty well, but I can’t afford my tuition and to let my flat without doing this in the evenings."

I leisurely finished my drink and decided to brave the weather and walk back up to Brompton Road and on a few blocks more to a favorite little French bistro for dinner. The rain had subsided again to mist by the time I left the pub, but the night had become colder and the gusts of wind seemed to blow right through my anorak.

Stepping from the chilly, damp street, the bistro’s amalgam of intriguing smells – a bouquet of coffee, chocolate, garlic, roasted chicken and tobacco – welcomed me. It was noisy and crowded with Sunday diners. The maitre d’ pulled a Gallic frown when I apologized that I had not booked a table. He looked around and grudgingly acknowledged that a table for one would be clearing momentarily if I’d care to wait. His haughty demeanor as much as declared that he understood that poor rustic Americans are too gauche to know enough to reserve in advance. He turned prissily on his heels and stepped off to fawn obsequiously over a table of apparent regulars. Enough time with the riffraff.

The waiters and waitresses – in black slacks, white shirts, and long white aprons that stopped mid-shin – made their way efficiently among the jammed tables serving up generous portions of boudin blanc, saumon fume, cassoulet, ragout du lapin, steak and pom frittes, and pot au feau. The crowd was mostly middle-aged and well heeled. Tweed was the dress code for men and women.

The officious little maitre d’ returned to me after about five minutes and showed me to a minuscule round table in a corner not far from the kitchen doors. He presented the menu and wished me an insincere and perfunctory "Bon appetit" without ever making eye contact.

My waitress was Dutch and charming, more than compensating for the carefully cultivated Parisian rudeness of the maitre d’. I ordered a half bottle of a modest Chateauneuf de Pape while I studied the menu, settling on a salad of mache, haricot vert and smokey diced bacon, to be followed by a hearty braised lamb shank on a bed of lentils. I declined dessert, but savored an espresso and an Armanac to conclude my meal. An hour and twenty minutes later I was back in the mist heading toward the South Kensington tube station and my home away from home. The dreary flat reminded me of a budget hotel in a third world country.

The time was two hours later in Israel and I looked forward to telephoning my wife, Hannah, when I got back to the safe-house. She used my absence as an excuse to get out of Northern Virginia in winter and visit her sister in Haifa. Norah and her husband, Mordecai Levin, were both on the faculty at the University of Haifa. Dinners there tended to run late into the evening so I decided to wait until a little before ten, London time, midnight in Israel, to call.

The London subway’s Piccadilly Line was largely deserted as I boarded a train for the short ride back to Earls Court. The cold seemed to envelope me as I walked the short distance from the station to the flat. There were a few muffled noises of television and the odors of other people’s dinners as I let myself in to the vestibule and down the dimly lit hallway. I had kept a light on in the small sitting room when I left and had placed a tell-tale in the door, a small piece of paper wedged between the door and the jamb that would fall to the floor if anyone had entered the place during my absence. It remained where I’d put it.

I hung my damp anorak over the back of the desk chair to dry and clicked on the television. It was tuned to Sky News, Britain’s answer to CNN. The reporter was standing in front of an all-too-familiar scene of flashing emergency lights, bustling police and ambulance activity, a night-lit tableau of some kind of disaster. The superimposed graphic beneath the TV reporter read: "Haifa, Israel." I just stood there watching, numbed at first and then panicked by what I was hearing.

A bomb hidden in a trash can exploded adjacent to a crowded ocean-side sidewalk cafĂ© about two hours earlier. It had been a large device of explosives and shrapnel (mostly nails) designed to create the largest measure of human misery possible. At least a dozen people were known dead, twenty-five were hospitalized, many in critical or grave condition. A radical Islamic fundamentalist group with ties to the Hamas movement and Hezballah had claimed responsibility. The reporter’s voice and the grim pictures became a blur. My mind raced. My hand shook uncontrollably as I reached for the phone.

What was happening to me? I tried to steady myself. My breathing was shallow. A wave of nausea swept over me. I could feel myself perspiring, though the room was not particularly warm. When I had been shot at, when I was in serious physical danger, when it appeared my own life was about to be snuffed out by the agents of an enemy intelligence service, I had been surprisingly calm. Part of it was training; part of it was professionalism. Now my concerns were not for myself. My training did not prepare me for this.

From memory, I punched in the country code for Israel, the city code for Haifa, and my sister-in-law’s number. No answer. I left a message on the answering machine. I tried Mordecai’s mobile phone. Again no answer.

I stood there looking at the TV screen, not seeing, not comprehending. My instinct was to call the duty desk at the agency, but my instructions were to make no contact whatever, for any reason, until I returned to Washington to be debriefed by my case officer.

I determined that I would do what I was trained to do – wait. I would try the Israeli numbers every hour until someone answered. I would calm myself. Sky News repeated the story over and over, every half hour. At midnight, the number of dead was revised upward. Another victim died around 1:30am.

It was not until 5 in the morning, Israeli time, that Mordecai answered. His voice was thick and gravelly. "I was about to ring you," he said. "I just got in." There was a pause, a sob. "She’s dead. Hannah’s dead. Dear God, there was nothing to do."

I was incapable of saying anything. My worst fears had been confirmed in two words. "What about Norah?" I asked after what felt like a long time.

"Badly wounded. We don’t know. The doctor said the next twenty-four hours are critical."

"What about you?"

A pause. "I was in the loo. We’d just ordered a second cup of coffee and I went inside the cafe to the fucking toilet." Mordecai Levin uttered an animal-like noise and broke down into inconsolable weeping.

My world had collapsed, imploded. I was numb. I was bereft. I was angry and sad and cold and completely empty. My outrage and fury would come later. I wanted tears, but they would not flow. I wanted to scream, but my voice would not work. I wanted to do something violent, but all I was capable of was sitting and hurting. My wife, my lover, my friend, my alter-ego, my golf partner, my life partner, my everything – gone in a flash of madness.

By nine o’clock in the morning grim reality had enveloped me. I had no choice. It was time to move. I showered and put on fresh clothes and forced myself to drink a cup of bad instant coffee. I was unutterably sad and totally devoid of physical feeling. It was all I could do to make myself do what I was trained to do. The sky was slate gray and gloomy as I stepped onto Hogarth Road. It was dry, but there was a brisk chill wind blowing. I allowed my training to take over and engaged automatically in the standard counter-surveillance measures all operatives working alone were trained for.

I looked both ways and saw nothing unusual. I surveyed the parked cars and the windows of the three and four story buildings that lined the street, checking for watchers. I saw none. I walked to the end of the block looking carefully among the trees in the small park across the street, turned right on Earls Court Road and paused in front of several shops and restaurants using the reflections in the windows to check behind me. I crossed the street and strolled down Trebovir Road, turned left onto Warwick Road and stepped into the red telephone booth outside the subway entrance, pretending to make a call. I saw nothing unusual.

I walked casually into the Earls Court Underground using the Warwick Road entrance, descended the stairs to the District and Circle Line platforms, and took the escalator down to the Piccadilly Line tracks. I boarded the next train to Green Park, where I changed to the Victoria Line and rode one stop to Victoria Station. I went upstairs and circled around the cavernous old main terminal. I spotted no tail and doubled back down the steps that led to the District Line, boarding the next train. I got off that train at Stamford Brook and stood on the platform until the few other people who got off there with me left. I was alone at eleven in the morning. It fit my mood. I was willing myself to maintain the tradecraft protocols of my professional training, but the depth of my loss, of my grief, wrapped around me like the wind. No amount of professionalism could diminish the crushing feeling. I was exhausted but not tired. My eyes felt as if I’d been in a sandstorm.

I sensed motion and turned. A young woman with green hair, a safety pin through her cheek and clunky black combat-style boots passed behind me and waited about 20 yards from me. She sneered at me as if I were emitting a noxious odor. A old man in a black woolen coat, walking with a cane, limped onto the platform just as the train was pulling in. I took a seat in the nearly-empty lead car and proceeded to Kew Station. I strolled around the small commercial area near the station entrance for several minutes, doubling back on myself twice, and eventually, when I was as satisfied as I could be that I was not being watched or followed, strolled through the pleasant residential neighborhood toward the famed botanical gardens.

At 11:50am, I bought a ticket and entered the huge expanse of trees and shrubs and white steel and glass Victorian-style greenhouses and conservatories. As instructed I strolled to the pathway that led to the Japanese pagoda. The rendezvous plan was more professional than the previous night’s phone contact. I had been warned that the asset I was to meet was an amateur with only rudimentary training in field operations. There was virtually nobody there on that cold Monday morning except a man who was approaching me from the opposite direction. He stopped a few feet in front of me.

"Excuse me," he said. It was the same voice that spoke to me over the phone the previous evening. "Can you tell me where the restaurant is?" Again, it was a prearranged code.

"I can’t, I’m afraid. I’m just a tourist," I said giving the response that told him I was not being followed.

He motioned with his head for me to walk with him. He struck me as an amateur with a certain aptitude for the business. I glanced around to see if there were any vantage points from which someone might try to eavesdrop on our conversation with one or more parabolic microphones. I had to trust that this man was not wired, that he was not a double-agent and that I was not being set up. I removed a small Panasonic radio from my pocket and turned it to a rock station, loud enough that it would thwart anybody trying to overhear us. It was a primitive technique, but quite effective in counteracting all but the most sophisticated audio filtering equipment. The vast openness of the botanical garden made anything more than rudimentary eavesdropping unlikely, though not impossible. Paranoia is a part of the business.

"I’m Fawad," he said, not extending a hand. He looked me up and down.

"I’m Sam," I said, picking the first name that came to mind. We walked several paces. My contact was thin, wiry and about four inches shorter than me. I stand a shade over six feet tall. My contact wore dark-rimmed glasses and a dark blue cap with a white Nike swoosh on it. "So. You wanted a high level meeting?"

"How high up are you?" Fawad asked bluntly.

"High enough that what you have to say will reach the most senior people in our government. How good is what you have to tell me?"

"Good. Very good." Fawad had dark olive skin and black penetrating eyes behind his spectacles. He studied the pathway in front of us. "In the middle of May, your President – Mister Bill Clinton – is going to Berlin to commemorate the anniversary of the Berlin airlift."

I did not react, but I was surprised that he had access to information that was a closely guarded secret within the United States government. I knew that was not public information. It had not even been divulged to the White House junior staff or the press corps yet. In fact at that point it was known only by a few select people in the U.S. and German government strictly on a need to know basis.

"Somebody is going to kill him." Fawad’s accent was becoming easier for me to understand. It struck me that Fawad could adjust his accent and grammar at his convenience.

"Okay. You’ve got my attention," I said.

For the next thirty-five minutes, we walked the footpaths of the Kew Botanical Garden and he revealed a complicated plan to assassinate President Clinton and more. The plan involved several assassins, all willing to die in the process, who would position themselves in places where Mr. Clinton would be most exposed. They would conceal explosives under their clothing and detonate the bombs when they were proximate to the president. I recognized this tactic as an ominous turn in the logistics of international terrorists and sought clarification.

"These assassins are true believers. They believe that Islam demands they wage a jihad against the United States, Israel and any of their allies. They believe that their deaths will admit them immediately to heaven," he said.

The operation, he went on, was the brainchild of a radical Islamic fundamentalist, reputed to be from a wealthy Saudi family, who had put together a network of Muslim militants to wage a holy war – jihad – against the infidel, which he defined as basically anybody who wasn’t Muslim, particularly the Jews. Fawad said he was told the organization was based in Afghanistan, the welcome guest of that country’s fundamentalist Islamic government known as the Taliban. What he described was a highly organized and well-funded enterprise well beyond the organizational and operational scope of most terrorist groups of the time. He said his sources called the Saudi Sheikh Osama.

"The organization has cells and sleeper agents and sympathizers in many countries."

"Such as?"

"Germany. France. Italy. Canada. The United States. Here in Britain. The Philippines. Indonesia."

Fawad explained that it was a separate and distinct group from any of the major terrorist or militant groups in Europe, Asia or the Middle East, but he said it has contact with all of them. He said it was not unheard of for the Afghan-based group to subcontract with other organizations with regard to logistics, intelligence, transportation and communication.

"Some people say they all coordinate. I don’t know. Many of my contacts say this is the most sophisticated such organization in the world," he said flatly. "It has what the other groups do not. It has organization, a sophisticated command and control structure, and much, much money."

He said he did not have exact details about its methods of operation, but he indicated that it was highly compartmentalized for security reasons. "Some cells deal with weapons. Some with laundering and filtering money. Some with communication. Some with operational logistics. There is even an intelligence apparatus that has penetrated such things as airport security in several American and European cities. It has operatives who can hack into various government and private computer systems."

He said he had heard that the organization had deeply buried sleeper cells and agents including several in the United States who had obtained student visas and vanished into the country, obtaining new identities along the way. "There is a great complacency on the part of the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service about the abilities of these people. And there is a great sense of false security among the people of the United States. I am told that Sheikh Osama believes that this will help make his efforts successful. Along with his belief that the United States government does not believe that there is any threat directly to the mainland and people of the United States."

Fawad told me he did not know the name of the organization, itself, and had heard it called several things. "I have heard talk of a man they call Ayman the doctor, a physician from Egypt, and Mullah Omar. I am led to believe that they are close associates or even the next in command to Sheikh Osama," he said.

"How have you come by all of this?" I asked. I had not been briefed on my contact’s background before my assignment.

He explained that he knew some people while he was growing up in Lebanon who wanted to destroy the United States. "Everyone wanted to destroy Israel, of course, but few were so bold as to think they could attack America." He got contact names before he migrated to Europe and ultimately to England, and was instructed about where to find friendly places and friendly people who spoke his language and understood his culture. Fawad said he moved to London as a teenager and lived in a Muslim neighborhood, praying at a Mosque where some of the faithful ultimately became radicalized and joined up with the Sheikh’s organization. "It is not hard to find angry Muslims," he said. "All you have to do is look at Israel killing Palestinians and the US and Britain condoning it."

"Were you one of the angry Muslims?" I asked.

"Of course."

"Why didn’t you join the Sheikh?"

"Beirut was called the Paris of the Middle East. Where I grew up in Beirut was the worst of the worst. My family was dirt poor. When I got to London I knew I never wanted to go back to that."

He had gotten a job as a delivery driver for an appliance dealer, he explained. He liked the regular income. He liked being able to afford a decent flat. He said he had heard things over a period of years in the Islamic community that he knew would be of interest to British or American officials. In short, he thought there might be some money to be made by selling what he knew. He said he had a chance encounter with an American woman who claimed to be the wife of a U.S. business executive based in London. "After we talked while I was delivering a new fridge to her flat, she told me she might be able to arrange some money in exchange for certain kinds of information, things I knew." He said they arranged what was to look like a chance meeting a few days later.

"And so it began?"

He nodded. "I was to encounter her by accident at a precise time on Oxford Street in front of Marks and Spencers. She slipped me a piece of paper with instructions on it and a note that said to memorize it and burn the paper."

"Your contact?"

He nodded again.

"How did it work?"

He described a simple, but anonymous, dead-drop system through which he would make contact or through which his handler would contact him. Most of his information had been low-level intelligence. "I never let the contact know what I looked like," he said.

"Do you know your contact?"


In the male-dominated world of Islamic fundamentalism, it apparently never occurred to him that the wife of the US businessman was, in fact, a company operative. Fawad explained that in this case he had asked for a face-to-face meeting with somebody in a senior position because of the nature of what he had to offer. He also said he was concerned about his personal safety in using the dead-drop with his unknown handler. "This is very dangerous. These people have eyes everywhere."

"And, I presume, you believe this will warrant a larger payment than you have gotten previously?"

"Of course, my friend," he said coldly. "I am hardly doing this out of a love for the United States." His accent had almost disappeared.

"How long has it taken you to compile all of this?"

"There has been much discussion in the last several months before and after prayers, in the coffee houses, on the streets, in the shops," said Fawad. "More than the usual amount of talk. It’s all gotten very busy. It’s usually a little bit here and a little bit there and I may have enough to tell my contact. But this seems to have become a priority. I first heard about the plan to kill Mr. Clinton in early September from the brother of one believer who went off to join the Sheikh. Over the next several days that story came up from other people. I knew this would be of interest and of value?"

He cast me a sly look.

"That was when I let it be known that I had something big which would require different arrangements than usual."

"Well, you have earned a suitable reward," I said, which caused a thin smile to form on Fawad’s lips.

I had been given two luggage locker keys before I left Washington, which opened compartments at two different British Rail stations. The key with the higher number etched on it opened a locker at Victoria Station which contained a packet with more money than the other. I had been instructed that I was to make a determination regarding the value of the information provided and present the appropriate key. I handed Fawad the key and said, "Victoria."

He licked his lips, looked around nervously and put the key in his pocket.

"Obviously if you hear anything more about this operation or about this organization, we’ll want to know. Use your usual contact methods and don’t reference this conversation."

"We will see," Fawad said neutrally. He turned and walked away toward the gardens’ main exit. He did not look back.

I walked to the coffee shop in the middle of the garden. I again glanced around to see that there was no unusual activity. There was still nobody in the garden, save for an occasional worker. I drank a cup of bad coffee and let fifteen minutes pass. The clouds had thickened. So had my personal depression. I returned to the safe-house and packed my things.

The next day, I flew home to bury my wife and be debriefed about my conversation with Fawad.

I learned that on Christmas day, Fawad’s body was found floating in the Thames near Greenwich. His throat had been cut. On May 14, 1998, President Bill Clinton made the first visit by a U.S. President to Berlin after the wall came down. It was uneventful.


Horace McKinney had a way of pissing everybody off. He was an intense, twitching, mousy little man with all the social skills of a warthog. I had intended to play golf on a nice spring Thursday afternoon, but made the mistake of asking him how things were going and he insisted on telling me.

"They’re out to get me, you know," he whined from behind his battered old desk, poking his glasses up on his nose with his index finger. The Irish call it "whinging" but whining was closer to the actual sound. "They’re conspiring to undermine everything I’ve done around here. The rigid academic standards I’ve established, they want to put them in the rubbish bin. They want to change the curriculum. You know how hard I have worked to bring our curriculum up to a standard admired by Trinity College or Cork."

I knew that Horrace was given to hyperbole.

"They want to get rid of you. You’re in their sights. Not to mention me, don’t you know? I can’t say anything that doesn’t get to the Dean before it’s out of my mouth. You know how that happens? It’s that shrew, that woman." He gestured with a boney finger. "She has sown the seeds of academic discord. She has driven a wedge in what should be a brilliantly cohesive department. The Dean hates me. Just hates me. Doesn’t have the foggiest notion of what real academic and intellectual skill is all about. You know he doesn’t have a very serious academic background. Got to be Dean because of political clout. He’s afraid of me is what I think. They’re all afraid of me. A bit jealous. They know I know what I’m doing and they resent it. Now they’ve got the Dean looking for an excuse to move me out."

Dr. Horace McKinney was the Chairman of the History Department at University College Killarney, a small department at a small liberal arts college in a small town in a small country. His specialty was ancient history, the most singularly important aspect of the discipline, he believed. His students whispered behind his back that they thought he lived through most of it. His doctoral thesis had been about the Helenistic political instability that resulted from the death of Alexander the Great. He seldom had a conversation that he didn’t somehow work in something, however tangential, about his one and only, still unpublished, scholarly work.

"They’re like the generals who conspired against the regent in 323 B.C., you know?" he said. "Back-stabbing and conniving!"

"So you’ve told me," I said. I had never found the internal manifestations of college politics to be a sport that held much interest for me. I saw no great benefit or harm in nodding politely, even though I had heard his laments about his enemies – real and perceived – more than once before. After all, he was the head of the department even with his ticks and idiosyncracies and I felt it would not necessarily be in my best interest to be too rude to the man. The fact was he couldn’t do me any real damage, but he could make life uncomfortable, in that he controlled the teaching schedule and the allocation of faculty offices and classrooms. I silently berated myself for having made the mistake of trying to make small-talk with him.

He believed his archenemies to be the only other two full-time members of the History faculty – Oliver Buswell and Fiona Collins. Buswell was a bald, self-important, corpulent blowhard with a plummy voice and the unctuous mannerisms of a bad undertaker. Collins, the specialist in Irish history required by law to be on the faculty of every secondary school and college or university in the country, was a stick-like spinster, always pleasant to your face and without a good word about you when your back was turned. She claimed to be a distant relative of the legendary Irish revolutionary Michael Collins.

McKinney sputtered, "She’s a liar. Nothing but a liar. Not a shred of truth in it. A genealogist acquaintance checked out her family tree and there’s not a Michael Collins leaf on it."

I got along with Buswell and Collins, simply because I wasn’t considered important enough to be a threat. My faculty position was less than that of a full-time professor and more than that of a part-time instructor. I wasn’t an historian, per se, but nobody could figure out where else to put me. They made no secret of the fact that they thought I was being paid the same as them while being required to do a whole lot less. I was an American, an oddity in Irish academic circles. I taught issues courses related to media, politics and society, which included significant element of history and historical context. It was a discipline few in Europe had ever encountered and it seemed to them trivial and unimportant, designed more to amuse the students rather than a serious academic undertaking. .

"Who ever heard of media as a legitimate line of study?" opined Professor Buswell one evening when I encountered him over several whiskeys at my local pub, The Laurels. "What do you do in your classes, anyway? Have them watch telly?" He intoned a mirthless guffaw. "I can’t imagine it. No, no, not at all. But whatever the powers that be want. They actually awarded you a graduate degree in that?"

"I’m afraid so," I said.

The two of them had cornered me the one day, shortly after I had started teaching in Killarney. It was two years earlier, in September.

"We want to welcome you," said Fiona sounding collegial.

"Ummm-mm," agreed Buswell. "Yes, welcome."

"Thank you," I said pleasantly, although there was not much welcoming in his tone. I felt like I was being sized up as dinner by a pair of jackals on the hunt.

"Where was your last faculty position?" she asked.

"Leesburg State in Virginia."

"I’m afraid I’ve never heard of it," she said. "Where, exactly is Leesburg?"

"It’s about an hour west of Washington, D.C., in what is often called Virginia horse country. It used to be quite rural and remote, but now it’s a commuting suburb to the capital."

"Big school?" asked Buswell.

"About two and a half times the size of this one. Just over four thousand undergraduates. There was a very small graduate program. Maybe two hundred and fifty." University College Killarney had only about fifteen hundred students.

"You had an endowed chair," he said.

"You’ve done your homework."

"Why would one relinquish an endowed chair?"

"Burnout. I was tired. My wife had just been killed. I felt I needed a change. I had no real reason to stay. And I didn’t see anything in the rule book that said I had to work until they carried me out in a box. So I bagged it. I suppose you could call it retirement."

"Hmmm," Buswell intoned skeptically.

"I’m sorry to hear about your wife," said Collins, trying to sound sincere, although I doubted the depth of any real sincerity. "How long had you been married?"

"More than twenty years."

"A long time."

"Not long enough."

"How was she killed?"

I explained briefly. I told them about the bomb in Haifa but didn’t go into detail about why we were not traveling together, except to say I was working on a paper in London.

"So you’re Jewish?" Buswell arched an eyebrow.

"Is that a problem?" I asked.

"Oh, no, no, no. Nothing of the sort. No, no, no."

The gentleman doth protest too much, I thought. I didn’t bother to explain that Hannah had been Jewish and I was nothing. I let him fret over the fact that I had caught a whiff of anti-Semitism.

"Why Killarney?" asked Collins trying to reroute the conversation and save Buswell from himself.

"Hannah and I had been coming here regularly for years on vacation to play golf. So when I started thinking about where I might like to move, to retire to, Killarney kept coming to mind. Some people want Florida or Arizona. I didn’t much hanker for a year-round hot climate. So I came over for a couple of months as a try-out and I decided to stay." I didn’t bother to explain that the Jean Scrimshaw Tankardly Institute had made a discreet donation to University College Killarney in return for Chancellor O’Keefe finding a teaching spot for me.

"Do you miss America?" asked Buswell.

"I get back periodically. I usually get back during Christmas break here, when I’m getting tired of Irish winter. But no. I’m quite happy here."

- - -

McKinney was rambling on about his latest encounter with Dean Michael Davidson. I irreverently referred to him as "Harley." I’m told he rather liked the swashbuckling moniker much to the surprise of Oliver and Fiona who took him aside to tattle on me. I concluded it helped reinforce his rebellious self-image as an Irish James Dean in a pinstriped suit. It’s not hard to understand why the rodent-like McKinney and the robust, handsome Harley Davidson would not be the best of chums.

"I hear rumors, you know. They’re simply swirling. You know a lot of people around here pay attention to what’s going on in this department. The latest rumor is that Davidson wants to give me the boot, move me aside, put me out to pasture don’t you know, and put Professor Buswell into this office. All rumor, you understand. Nothing official. All wisps of smoke. But you know how things travel on the wind in a small institution like this. He really does hate me. Cheeky. Very cheeky. He knows I’m more on the academic ball than he is and he can’t stand it. Just can’t stand it. Makes him daft. Knows the level of scholarship I’ve demonstrated and is jealous of it. You know he’s only got a master’s degree in education. No PhD. No terminal degree. Nope. It’s unheard of. There’s no other academic dean in all of Ireland who doesn’t have an earned doctorate." He droned on, repeating variations on the same tired theme.

"I’m sure it will all turn out fine, Horace," I said lamely, trying to wrench myself free when he paused for a breath. "I have no doubt he respects you."

"It’s a plot. Him and those two sycophants. They’re always tugging at his ear. Whispering this and that. They’re conspiring. You’re not immune either, you know. Not at all."

"I’m not losing any sleep over it."

The fact that Horace McKinney’s phone rang provided the opportunity for me to take my leave.

"See you Monday," I said quickly with a wave, ducking out the door. Thursday afternoon and my work week was finished. My schedule gave me a four-day work-week, another bone of contention with Buswell and Collins. I taught no classes on Friday and seldom went into the office on that day unless there was a faculty meeting or some other function that required my attendance.

McKinney’s office was on the third floor of what the school’s brochures and catalog called the main building. It was the only building. It had once been an indoor shopping mall adjacent to the bus and rail station and across a lane from what used to be The Great Southern Hotel. The mall had been less than successful and when upstart University College Killarney was looking for a permanent home in 1999 the school bought it with the help of grants from the European Union and a group of private philanthropic foundations. What had once been stores and restaurants had been converted into classrooms, offices and laboratories.

There was a lift, an elevator, but I chose to walk down three flights of stairs to street level. I strode out into the brisk spring air. A dismal rainy morning had given way to bright sunshine. After a long, wet, dreary winter I seldom passed up an opportunity to play a few holes of golf. I walked along College Street, which merged into Plunkett Street, and turned right onto Main Street. I strolled past The Laurels, up High Street to Hawthorne Mews, where I lived in a two bedroom townhouse. The house had a private parking space and I generally left my car there and walked to work. Parking around the college was nearly impossible, especially during tourist season when buses routinely clogged the thoroughfare and took up all available parking spaces. I checked my answering machine, which had only one message about my Saturday golf game, and quickly changed my clothes.

The Killarney Golf and Fishing Club was only about a five minute drive out the Killorglin Road. The old club had undergone several major transitions from the founding of the original golf club with its nine hole course in 1893, to development of an eighteen hole track in 1938, to construction of the second eighteen hole course in the 1970s, and finally with the opening of the third eighteen hole course – Lackabane – in the 1990s. Joining the club had been one of my first priorities even when I was only testing the waters with regard to a permanent move.

The two older courses – Killeen and Mahoney’s Point (which the locals pronounce MAH-hun-ees) – are built along the banks of Loch Leane, one of the three lakes of Killarney. Rising majestically from the water across the lake are McGillicutty’s Reeks, the highest mountain range in Ireland. The setting is simply spectacular. I put on my golf shoes, strapped my golf bag onto my trolley – the Irish name for a pull cart – and strode off around the big modern clubhouse, past the putting green.

I waved at the pro, who was practicing. "It’s turned nice," I said.

"Beautiful, thank God," he said. He looked at his watch. "Check out a bit early, Mac? You professors really have it made."

"I couldn’t resist."

Golf carts in which one rides – the Irish call them buggies – are usually reserved for the aged and infirm. While they are becoming more commonplace, they’re still considered a novelty among the locals. The Killarney Golf and Fishing Club maintains several dozen buggies, which have proven a good money-maker during the tourist season. Virtually every Irish golfer walks.

The first tee at Mahoney’s Point is down a treed footpath. It’s a short par-4 with a slightly elevated green. I knew I would not get in eighteen holes before the light started to wane, but I was determined to play as many as I could. The sun dropped behind McGillicutty’s Reeks at about 5:30pm in early April. I had just about two hours of good light so I determined to play the first four holes – three testing par-4s and a lovely little par-3. Then I would cut behind the 6th green, across the 7th tee to the long par-3 twelfth hole and play in from there.

The three finishing holes on Mahoney’s are breathtaking. No matter how many times I played them I always marveled at the scenery. Your tee shot on the par-5 sixteenth plays to the crest of a hill that reveals the panorama of Loch Leane below and the mountains in the distance. The tough par-4 seventeenth plays right along the lake. And the par-3 eighteenth may be one of the best golf holes in the world. It plays across a corner of the lake, with the mountains brooding above to the right. The shot is to a long, narrow green surrounded on three sides by towering, ancient trees. Those final three holes can transport me into another world. I often thought that since Hannah’s death golf was the only thing that kept me sane.

My schedule generally allowed me to play golf every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, although the winter weather in Killarney – with it’s rain, blustery winds and short days – often limited me to playing only one or two days a week. During the three week Christmas and New Year’s break I usually rented a condominium on the beach in St. Augustine, Florida, where I could golf almost every day and recharge my batteries.

Even before I moved to Killarney I developed some good golfing friends. It took me almost no time after I made the transition to full-time resident for me to have a regular Sunday four-ball.

Hamish Dwyer was the youngest member of the group at thirty-eight and had a rapier-like wit. He was a bachelor, born and raised in Killarney, employed in the town clerk’s office, and made it his business to know just about everybody in County Kerry. Aside from golf – he played to a respectable handicap of fifteen – his only major activities were drinking pints of Guinness at The Laurels and smoking cigarettes, with occasional sprints across Main Street to the bookie shop on the corner to lay down a few euros on a pony or two. The nationwide ban on smoking in pubs that took effect in 2004 could still launch Hamish on an epochal diatribe against the "nanny government that wants to wipe the noses of every citizen." The benefit of the smoking ban was a sharp reduction in Hamish’s cigarette consumption, which he refused to recognize might actually be good for him.

Leo Hackswell, the owner of The Laurels, was the oldest member of the Sunday foursome. He claimed to be sixty-two and was the toughest twenty handicapper at the club. Leo was also an accomplished musician and played his fiddle regularly on weekends for the tourists in the back room at The Laurels in a group he called Leo Hackswell and the Celtic Duffers.

Walter FitzGerald, One Nut Wally to his friends, was about my age and played golf a little better than me. He was a nine or ten handicap; I carried a twelve most of the time. He was a retired Garda [police officer] and avid gardener. He said he lost a testicle as a result of an altercation with a group of thugs in Tralee, which had left him with a permanent limp and qualified him for early retirement and a disability pension. The fact was that Wally never quite retired. He was regularly called back as an advisor. Any time a big criminal case came along, you could bet that One Nut Wally would be nearby.

He never said anything about it, but everybody said his wife was an heiress, which is why they lived in a big house off Ross Road, drove expensive cars, had the best golf equipment available, and traveled regularly to Spain’s Costa del Sol to relax and play golf.

- - -

It was no secret that I could be found at The Laurels most evenings. I usually went in at about 6 o’clock, had several double Paddys, enjoyed the craic, the Irish term for convivial conversation even though it’s pronounced like the illegal, cocaine-based, substance some people smoke, and left for dinner about 8. I used to be a pretty good cook, but when Hannah died I all but stopped. I could never work up much enthusiasm for cooking for one. Once in a while I’ll make an omelette or some pasta at home, but most evenings I eat out.

I was seated with Hamish reliving that Sunday’s match – Leo and I had beaten Hamish and Wally on the eighteenth hole at Killeen by virtue of a twelve foot par putt I made – when I felt someone sit down next to me. I turned to find the twitching, wizened face of Horace McKinney, looking even more agitated than usual.

"I thought I’d find you here," he said, by way of a greeting, poking at his glasses nervously.

"How nice to see you, too," I lied.

"They let you out of the crypt for the night?" asked Hamish, turning his attention to a tabloid newspaper. He had no use for most academics, especially this one.

Horace ordered a shandy from the tall, skinny young man named Jimmy who was one of the bartenders that night.

"Pint?" Jimmy asked.

"No. Just a glass."

"Woman’s drink," muttered Hamish, glancing from his paper at a soccer match on the muted television.

Horace ignored him and waited nervously until his mixture of beer and white lemonade [the Irish equivalent of lemon-lime soda] arrived before starting to talk. He made no effort to hide his elevated level of agitation. His face was pinched and tight.

I figured this was going to require fortification so I signaled Jimmy to top up my glass with another double Paddy. "More ice, Mac?"


"He’s done it," Horace McKinney started conspiratorially, almost whispering. The words came out in a cascade. "I told you about the rumors. I told you about all the talk. Well, they’re now fact. It’s a fait accompli. He’s done it. I told you he was going to and now it’s a fact."

"Harley?" I asked presuming he was talking about the dean.

He nodded.

"Buswell’s replacing you?"

"I’ve been shaking for two days. I haven’t been able to eat or sleep. I’m a wreck. This is just terrible."

"Speak up Horace, I can hardly hear you whinging," said Hamish.

McKinney shot him an angry look. "He waits until it’s just about time to go on Friday afternoon. Calls me into his office and tells me he thinks it’s time for a change in the History Department. Time for some new blood. Says he’s going to move me back into the classroom and put that pompous nitwit Oliver Buswell into the Chair’s office. What a mistake! It’s catastrophic. He doesn’t know what that means. Buswell doesn’t understand the intricacies of a history curriculum. He gets all of his advice from Fiona, who thinks she knows everything about everything. You know Buswell probably won’t consult me at all. Thinks he knows all there is about running the department. I knew he was going to do something stupid. I told you Davidson had it in for me. Has had for some time. He’s jealous. Professionally jealous. Thinks I’m setting out to replace him. You know that’s the furthest thing from my mind. I’m not an administrator. But he’s worried about me. I have worked very hard to make our relationship meaningful. I have given him the benefit of my wisdom and counsel scores of times."

"Whether he asked for it or not, I’ll bet," muttered Hamish.

"I’m having a private conversation," Horace pouted.

"Not here."

Horace McKinney drew a deep breath and proceeded. "He said he didn’t think I was demonstrating enough robust leadership. Said the school is gaining stature and I’m not keeping in step. Said he’s had complaints about me. Complaints about what? Who on earth would complain about me? We know the answer to that. Only two people who would complain. The students love me. My colleagues respect me. What complaints? Two scheming malcontents out to get me? Challenging my scholarship? My knowledge? My academic leadership? He wouldn’t point the finger, but he didn’t have to."

The words spilled out. He was speaking so fast I thought he was going to hyperventilate.

"That’s too bad," I said, not quite knowing what else to say, but Horace never heard it. He was lost in his own dialogue.

"I’m so angry I don’t know what to do. I don’t believe I’ve ever been this angry. And hurt. And offended. That he would side with those two...uh, those two..." He let the sentence trail off. "I haven’t slept at all for two nights. I haven’t been able to eat. I’m just so angry."

"Bad sign," muttered Hamish. "He’s repeating himself. Could be a long night." He raised his voice and his right index finger. "Jimmy, same again, please."

"I was going to talk to you tomorrow," McKinney continued without interruption. "But I decided this couldn’t wait. He’ll be sorry for this. He can’t treat me like this, like some lackey he can dismiss with the wave of his hairy hand. The man implied I’m not qualified to be chair. Implied I have – what did he say? – ‘personality problems.’ Do you think I’ve got personality problems?"

"Do I get a vote?" asked Hamish.

"If I were a violent man I’d do him harm. If this were America, I’d get my gun and shoot him. How dare he say a scholar of my quality isn’t qualified to be department chair? Says he’ll make the announcement next Friday at the general faculty meeting. Says he’ll say this was my idea, that I asked to step down as chair so I could pursue more research on the post-Alexander the Great period and write a book. Wanted me to sign a letter to that effect. I told him I bloody well wouldn’t sign anything. Hogwash. Anyway everybody knows I’ve already done the definitive research on that subject." He paused and took a prissy sip of his shandy. "My idea, shite! Excuse me. I don’t usually swear. He’s firing me and wants to lie about it and wants me to go along. He will be sorry, you mark my words."

He stopped and sighed heavily.

"What are you going to..." I started to say.

He continued his free association as if I hadn’t opened my mouth. "I’ve already gotten out my curriculum vita. It certainly won’t take me long. You can bet I’ll have prospects as long as your arm before the semester’s over. I’ve polished up the old CV. He’ll be sorry. He’ll rue the day he listened to them." He spat out the word as if it was poison. "He’ll think twice before he trifles with the likes of Horace McKinney, won’t he? Lots of faculty positions available for someone like me. I may go to America or England. Canada has some nice schools. A good history man is always a prized catch. Just shoot out that CV and wait for the offers to come in. I’ll spend the summer considering my options. That’s what I’ll do. A scholar of my stature will be much sought-after, I can tell you that. I’ll have job offers in no time when the word gets out about how this foolish man dared to treat me. Personality problems? Hmmmph! Not capable? Not enough leadership? Complaints about me? Hmmmph! I doubt I’ll be here next year. Besides, I don’t know that I can work in a department headed by somebody like..." He couldn’t make himself say Buswell’s name.

"The water’s been poisoned, Mac. Poisoned. Davidson can beg me to stay but it’s too late. It’s going to be him or me. He simply isn’t the kind of man who’d make a good chair. But he’s the Dean’s darling. Can you imagine how smug and self-satisfied he’ll be. He’ll be impossible. And that witch who dotes on his every word? I wonder what he has in mind for her. Neither one of them has accomplished a thing academically. They’re really not scholars. He’s lucky not to be teaching in some secondary school for slow students."

Horace McKinney prattled on, venting his anger at everybody and finally left, declaring one last time that Harley Davidson would be sorry and predicting one final time that Buswell, as chair, would be a disaster.

"That was quite a performance," I said to Hamish, who broke into a broad grin.

"The man needs a keeper." He poured a hefty portion of his thirteenth Guinness of the evening down his throat. "I can’t imagine how students sit through his lectures. That nasal voice would send me raving. Probably change my major to mathematics. Do they really love him?"

"Not exactly," I said as diplomatically as I could.

One Nut Wally came into the bar and limped to the back, where we were seated. "I just saw your colleague, the redoubtable Professor Horace McKinney, on the street carrying on an animated conversation with himself. He seemed a little agitated."

"Poor fellow’s been drinking heavily. Can’t handle it," said Hamish impishly. "Swallowed almost a whole shandy in a half-hour."

- - -

A steady rain beat on the windows of the large lecture hall on the second floor the following Friday afternoon. I would have been more unhappy about my forced attendance at the general faculty meeting if the sun had been shining. I consoled myself with the fact that I wouldn’t be playing golf anyway.

Faculty meetings at University College Killarney were a clannish ritual, underscoring the intense competition and sometimes thinly veiled hostility between the various departments The department faculties generally sat together, talking quietly among themselves and largely ignoring faculty members from other departments. Once in a while there would be a stiff and formal greeting. "Good afternoon professor. Are you having a good semester?" I took a seat in the back of the room, trying to avoid Horace McKinney. I suspect he waited until I had entered so he could sit next to me. He was ashen and twitching more acutely than usual. "Good afternoon, Horace."

"Nothing good about it." I thought for a moment he might burst into tears.

Oliver Buswell and Fiona Collins were seated two rows in front of us, and focused straight ahead and looking quite satisfied. Buswell folded his arms over his ample stomach. Fiona looked as if she would have been more comfortable astride a broomstick.

Aside from the tribal rituals and social posturing, faculty meetings at University College Killarney were predictable. I often wondered why the administration found it necessary to summon the whole faculty for what could just as easily have been conducted by email, other than to exercise their petty power over the hired hands. The Chancellor would give us a report on the expected enrolment for the fall semester along with the number of applicants compared to the number the school admitted. He always said we were attracting a "higher quality" student but never offered any empirical evidence to support the assertion. He provided an overview of the financial picture for the coming year, a portion of his presentation that was never cast in particularly positive terms, in part, I’m sure, to avoid giving the union any ideas about seeking much of an increase in faculty salaries or benefits. He would also deliver the usual platitudes about what a wonderful job all the professors had done the previous year. And so on.

The representative of our union – The Irish Association of University Professors and Lecturers – spoke briefly, reminding members of the annual union meeting and election of officers set for the following month. "We’ll be discussing other issues of vital concern to us all, so I hope we’ll see a good attendance. If you don’t have one, I’ve got a list of the candidates for the officer postings or you can check the web site. See me after the meeting if you need a copy. Thank you."

"It’s all rigged," whispered Horace. "They stuff the ballot box so their candidates always win. Every time I’ve run my votes were undercounted. People promised me they’d vote for me and the numbers never added up. Bad business, there."

"Is it possible people didn’t do what they promised you they would?"

Horace looked at me unhappily and started to say something, but the next speaker had begun. The chairs of several faculty committees were being called on to discuss their activities. The Technology Committee reported on efforts to add more computers to the computer lab and on the results of a year-long experiment with an American anti-plagiarism program called TurnItIn.com. The Academic Affairs Committee announced approval of two new courses for the following year – a course in European Business Strategy and a course about Comparative World Religions. The Student Discipline Committee reported that there were only two cases involving student discipline in the current semester, one involving plagiarism and another involving the use of a mobile pone to cheat on an exam.

Finally Harley Davidson, Dean of Academic Affairs, walked to the lectern. I thought Horace was going to faint or wet himself.

"I have one important faculty announcement to make," he said, his upper crust Dublin accent filling the room. "Our long-time history chair, Dr. Horace McKinney, has asked to be relieved of his duties as department chair so he can pursue more research in his area of specialization. I have reluctantly approved his request, and thank him very much for all of his service to University College Killarney over the past years."

There was a smattering of polite, if unenthusiastic, applause. Horace was twitching and gasping.

"That, of course, leaves an enormous gap in the leadership of our Department of History, but I have persuaded Dr. Oliver Buswell to take over the chairman’s office starting next semester. Professor Buswell is well known to us all and well liked within our academic community and he brings a wealth of talent and skill to this appointment." He gave a brief outline of Buswell’s background and offered up a few other lame platitudes. "I know he shall do a fine job."

Again there was polite applause. At which Buswell stood and waved like a politician accepting the nomination. "Ahem," he cleared his throat and tried to look humble, which was not easy for him. "I am honored. Very, very honored. I know that I have big shoes to fill and I shall endeavor to do my very best. Thank you."

- - -

One Nut Wally FitzGerald’s voice was all business. His message on my mobile phone was terse: "Call me. It’s important." It was followed by a similar message from Hamish.

The tone of both told me my pals were going to spoil one of those rare, absolutely perfect early June days. It was the kind of weather the Irish Tourist Board loved to show on promotional literature but that were cherished for their rarity by the locals. The sun had shone all day; the sky was without a cloud; there was virtually no breeze; the temperature was in the mid-60s; the Killeen Course was in perfect condition; and I played well. What more could a mortal ask?

I auto-dialed Wally from the men’s locker room.

"FitzGerald," he answered formally after the first pair of rings.

"Wally, it’s me. The day is wonderful and I shot 79. What’s so urgent?"

"Michael Davidson’s remains."

"You’re joking." My mood took a u-turn. "Harley’s remains? You mean like his corpse? A dead body? You’re not serious!"

"I am quite serious. In fact, it looks rather a lot like he was murdered. Now I don’t want to be jumping to conclusions, being an old policeman, but two shots to the head that all but blew his face off, hands and feet bound with sticky tape, certainly makes it look suspicious."

"Sarcastic bastard," I muttered

"I think we can rule out accident or suicide."

"Who the hell would want to kill Harley?"

"The question of the hour, lad."

"A few details, perhaps?"

"Some tourists found him up on the rocks on one of those barren little islands out by Ceann Sibeal, just out to sea from Ballyferriter. That’s Ceann Sibeal, the geographical and geological point, not the golf course. I know you relate everything to the nearest golf course. Anyway, these tourists – Americans from California – had gone out in a little dingy to explore. They’ll have a tale to tell when they get back to Los Angeles or wherever. Quite a shocking discovery for them. Not good for the tourist trade, I’m afraid. Rather bad publicity. Looks like poor old Dean Davidson was there for a while. Rather messy. With the warm weather the level of decomposition is fairly severe. A part of the job I don’t miss at all, I might tell you. Nasty stuff. Those tourists found him early this morning, but the coroner didn’t deliver a positive ID until just before I called you."

"No suspects?"

"One, for sure." A pause. "Horace McKinney."

"Horace?" I yelped.

"Yes, Horace. He’s number one on the hit parade. In fact, right now he’s the only one on the hit parade. He was overheard in a local pub talking to another professor about wanting to get Mr. Davidson. Could have been taken as a threat. Send up any red flags?"

"It has a familiar ring."

"I thought it might," said Wally.

"You mean that Sunday night – when was it? In late April? When he was all upset and tracked me down at The Laurels?"

"None other."

"He wasn’t serious."

"Maybe not, but he said it."

"You working the case?"


I flashed back to see how many people could have overheard Horace McKinney making what could easily have been perceived as threats against Harley. The immediate answer was several – Hamish, Jimmy, one of the other bartenders, a couple of other patrons seated near us. Aside from keeping his voice low, Horace had not taken any steps toward discretion. It wasn’t exactly a private conversation. On the other hand, Horace McKinney was not easily mistaken for a cold blooded killer.

"I can’t imagine him even holding a gun. He’d shake so hard..."

"I agree, he’s not exactly somebody a profiler would finger," Wally interrupted. "But there’s nobody else right now. He did have motive and probably opportunity. If he had a gun he had means as well. Don’t be too surprised if my old Garda chums pay you a little visit."

"I wonder if that’s what Hamish called about?" I mused.

"Ah, now, Hamish, is it? You don’t suppose himself heard the news and chose to do a little news bulletin, do you?" Wally affected a broad shanty Irish brogue. "You know that boy-o knows exactly what’s what in the town? He’s the cat’s whiskers when it comes to the inside stuff. And seldom has the good sense or decorum to keep it to himself. Ought to write a gossip column in the newspaper, that one. Except the legal eagles would be on full time duty looking for libel. You have any question what he’s calling you about?"

"It’s ridiculous," I said.


"Horace. Killing Harley. With a gun? McKinney would know bupkiss from the business end of a gun. He’d be as likely to shoot himself in the ass as to do up a big man like Harley with tape and whack him like some Mafioso. I’ve met some unlikely killers, but Horace? Mother Theresa’s a better bet."

"She’s no longer with us, God rest her soul!"


- - -

Harley Davidson’s wake was a strange affair. Everybody consumed predictably large amounts of alcohol, but there was little of the usual warm memories and loving stories about the late lamented that are generally attendant to such affairs. It was almost, well, like a funeral. For obvious reasons it was not an open-casket event. Most of the faculty dutifully showed up along with a few people from the town. I introduced myself to a handsome young man who said he was Harley’s son. He was in his late teens, sullen and unpleasant. He spent most of his time sulking and finally approached Harley’s widow, Violet, who was apparently trying to qualify for Ireland’s Olympic gin drinking team. From a distance it looked as if they almost hissed at each other. Something was said between them and the young man stormed out of the house. He did not return, at least during the time I was there.

Not surprisingly, Horace McKinney did not show up. Oliver Buswell and Fiona Collins came in together and loitered uneasily around the casket like they were afraid old Harley was going to pull a Tim Finnegan and rise up from the dead. He didn’t. I walked over to them and said, "Quite a shock?"

"Oh, yes. Yes it is," said Fiona as if she wasn’t expecting me to speak to them.

"Not nearly as shocking as poor Horace." Oliver Buswell’s tone was exceptionally lugubrious without a hint of sincerity.

"Oh?" I asked innocently.

"I never would have thought Horace capable of murder, you know."

"Me neither."

I waited for what I believed to be an appropriate moment and went over to Violet to have a few words and offer my condolences. I introduced myself and offered my hand. "He was a fine man," I said trying to find the right words. "I know this must be shocking. I’m very sorry."

Violet’s eyes widened and her nostrils flared. "He was philandering bastard." There was hatred in her rheumy eyes. "I hope the cheating sod burns in hell for ever and ever." She gazed back into her glass of gin. She’d stopped adding tonic and had been drinking it straight since shortly after I arrived. "Thank you for coming. What was your name again?"

- - -

The Garda picked up Horace McKinney at his brother’s house in Cork city. He was returned to Killarney, where he was arraigned before a magistrate and charged with the murder of Michael Davidson. He was released on bail, pending further investigation. He was forced to surrender his passport and sign an affidavit that he would not travel outside the three southwestern counties of Kerry, Cork and Limerick without obtaining permission from the Killarney Garda station.

Leo and Hamish found it all very funny.

"Good thing this wasn’t America," said Leo. "He certainly would have spent more than a few nights in – what do they call it over there? The poky? The hoosgow?"

"Old movies, Leo," said Hamish over a pint of Guinness. "It’s the slammer. And I can just see him facing some big black hooligan named Bubba who wants to be his husband."

"Well, it’s close enough to an America celebrity murder," I said. "It has the same flaws as the O. J. Simpson case. No weapon. No witness. And a prosecutor who wants to race to trial for an easy conviction. That’s a case that isn’t going anywhere."

- - -

Dear Reader,

If you enjoyed this sample of THE OLD SPY and want more, the entire novel is available at the Amazon Kindle Store for 99 cents.

Thanks for reading,

Rob Armstrong


  1. Wonderful opening, drawing the reader in with subtle strokes that point inexorably to the unfolding of a deeper, darker drama. Great work, Rob!

  2. Your book is the light at the end of a long tunnel of grading and advising. Can't wait to read it this weekend. The social media buzz has started. Will keep it going in SM class next week. Great job, Rob!