On the drive up River Road through the horse farms of Potomac, John H spoke of his love for Albuquerque, where he had settled his family twelve years earlier.
About to celebrate his 25th year with the FBI, he had evaded the fast track, and administrative posts, preferring to ensconce his wife and two sons in one home after early stints in New York City and Seattle.
The Bureau offers this kind of non-ambitious career to those who want to hunker down and steer clear of supervisory roles at Headquarters.
John H was born in Germany. His parents, of Russian extraction, spent the latter part of World War II in a displaced persons camp. Given the choice of returning to the Soviet Union or emigrating to America, it was no contest. They settled in Michigan.
I parked the car in quaint Potomac Village and we nabbed a quiet table at Renato's, an up-market Italian restaurant.
I ordered a glass of pinot grigio. John H asked for ice water.
"It's not because I'm on duty," he said. "I'd join you, but I can't drink."
"Can't drink alcohol?"
John H shook his head. "When I was four years-old, in Germany, there was a big party going on, lots of wine everywhere. I snuck down to the basement and drank a whole bottle of wine. They had to rush me to the hospital. I was sick for days, almost didn't make it. The result is, just the odor of wine sends me reeling."
John H ordered ravioli; I, a pizza. For the next hour he filled many pages with meticulous notes about my background.
"When I was fourteen, in 1969, living in southern California, my family traveled to London for what was supposed to be a three-week summer vacation," I began. "We never returned, swapping sunny blue skies for dark cloud and rain. I think my father was suffering a mid-life crisis, long before that phrase became fashionable. Anyway, he wanted to grab a hold on life before it grabbed a hold on him.
“The entrepreneurial project that facilitated our upheaval—trans-Atlantic charter flights—disintegrated. So a new idea germinated in his mind: Cheesecake. London didn’t have any. And my mother had a killer recipe. The Hard Rock Café had just opened and it became their first customer, for whom my mother baked five cheesecakes each day. Pretty soon they were up to forty cakes a day for a handful of customers. My mother baked from six in the morning till eight at night, in an oven so small it had room only for two cakes per baking. My father delivered the cakes. My grandmother washed cake tins. My brother and I earned our pocket money grinding cookies for the cake crust in old a milk-shake mixer. I’d eat cheesecake for breakfast and come home from school every afternoon to rows and rows of cooling cheesecakes in the living room. Their operation was bursting out of our house, so my parents found a retail shop down the road and added chocolate cake and apple pie to their production schedule."
John H smiled. He no doubt wondered what my family's cake business had to do with my ability to ruse Edward Howard. But he had to hear the whole story for it to make any sense.
"Soon, my parents needed even more space," I continued. "My dad wanted to buy the lease of a run-down restaurant next door, remove the wall dividing both premises, create one large bake-house. The landlord gave an oral approval, but after taking my parents’ key money he demanded a much higher rent to consummate the arrangement in writing. My dad refused on principle. So the wall didn't come down. My parents used the restaurant space for storage and finishing cakes. When the landlord saw this, he squawked: 'You can't run a baking operation in there--the lease stipulates it has to be a restaurant.' I was just out of high school, and I said to my parents, 'Okay, I'll open a restaurant in the front part, that'll satisfy the lease.' We already had tables and chairs, an old microwave oven and assorted kitchen appliances. With a little paint, and some partitions, I had it up and running within a month, called it Tricky Dick's Coffee House, after our infamous president, who was on his last legs at the time One of our menu specialties was Alger Hiss Pumpkin Pie."
John H laughed. (Hiss, a spy in the U.S. State Department, had hidden the self-incriminating microfiche in a pumpkin patch; Tricky Dick Nixon, then a U.S. Attorney, had successfully prosecuted him.)
"It became an institution," I continued. "Not because it was a front for a baking operation, but because it was an anarchist's picnic, full of eccentric characters.
“I left the place in my brother's hands sporadically and ventured off to college in the States, to Cape Cod and the American University in Washington, D.C., but never stayed long enough to get a degree, though I studied criminology and political science and got to know a Georgetown University professor named Carroll Quigley, who took me under his wing and coached me along, sending me out of his office with controversial books in brown bags.
“Tricky Dick's was my practical education, hiring and firing staff, dealing with the mentally insane, people with names like Bronco John and Burned-out Paul. Tim Hardin, the folksinger, was living in a squat around the corner, down-and-out, a recovering heroin addict. He’d come in and sing If I Were a Carpenter for his dinner, and he’d make up new lyrics extemporaneously, and customers, who had no idea he had written the song, would try to correct him."
"So you dealt with all sorts of people?" said John H.
"On-the-job psychology and sociology. Later, on the basis of this life experience, I managed to weasel my way into a graduate program."
"Of course," said John H, much amused, mind boggled, and no doubt thinking, this will keep the security-checkers busy. "Where?"
"The University of Southern California did a master's program in international relations, which they ran out of the U.S. Navy’s Europe headquarters in London. I took a couple of courses, some field trips: NATO and the EEC in Brussels, OECD in Paris, and the U.S. Army Russian Institute in Garmisch.
"Anyway, my family's cake business finally moved to a factory, so we folded Tricky Dick's when our lease ran out in 1978. I started writing for a folksy expatriate newspaper called The American that catered to Americans living in the UK."
"But how did you get into journalism without any training?" John H scratched his head.
"Same way I got into the restaurant business: spontaneity. You ever heard of Bilderberg?"
Like most other people, he had not.
"While I was at American University I wrote a term paper on this group of so-called power-brokers. When I got back to London, I rewrote it, submitted my piece to a magazine called Verdict. They bought it, published it, and when I saw my scribing in print, even though the editors stole my byline, I wanted to become a journalist. My breakthrough came when I infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan."
John H put his pen down and shook his head, incredulous. "Tell me about that."
"The KKK was trying to establish a branch, what they call Klavern, in the UK. I penetrated their operation so well, the Imperial Wizard from South Carolina appointed me its leader. I sold it to the Sunday People, a high-circulation UK tabloid, and we lured all the British Klan recruits to a London hotel, photographed and tape-recorded them saying horrible things about what wanted to do in Britain, like tar and feather inter-racial couples."
John H scribbled with gusto. “Go on.”
"The Klan’s Imperial Wizard, Bob Scoggin, was impressed by my progress and decided I had to visit him in South Carolina and get naturalized, his term for initiation, to make it official. So I, and two reporters from the Sunday People, fly to Spartanburg, South Carolina, check into a Days Inn motel near the interstate. A welcoming committee drives us to Scoggin’s ranch house, pick-up trucks everywhere. They guide us into his dark garage, point us up a creaky staircase. At the top, I knock a closed door. Scoggin’s opens, and he’s decked out in a gold satin robe and hood. He beckons us into his Klan den, with black-light Klan posters hanging on the walls, illuminated with fluorescent black-light. First he takes us for 20 bucks each, membership dues. Then he stands us near his altar: a table draped with an American flag, an unsheathed sword and a Bible opened to Corinthians 12. Finally, he ushers in a bunch of robed Klansmen and women to form a semi-circle around us. Thus begins a thirty-minute ceremony during which the Imperial Wizard taps our shoulders with his sword and anoints us with holy water. At the very end, Scoggin’s points to a snakeskin nailed to the wall and says, ‘I got that rattlesnake before it got me and that’s what you’ve got to do with Klan traitors.’ Then they bring out a tape measure.”
“A tape measure?”
“To size us for up for our robes and hoods.”
John H grinned, shaking his head. “Tell me more.”
“We spend a week there, attending meetings, handling illegal weapons. On the last day of our visit, Imperial Wizard Scoggin takes us on a tour of the Blue Ridge Mountains on our way to a tri-state KKK rally in North Carolina. I’m driving our rental car, with Scoggin in the front passenger seat and the two reporters sitting in back.
“I’m using an alias with the Klan. My only genuine ID is my UK driver’s license, which I’d packed with my clothes in the trunk. We do our little tour, Scoggin introduces us to the oldest Klansman in the country, about 92, who looks like the guy holding the pitchfork in Grant Wood’s famous painting, American Gothic. At dusk we cross the border into North Carolina and find the rally site.
“The state police have set up a roadblock and we stop behind a long line of cars on a single-lane dirt road headed into the rally. I can see up ahead the state trooper is asking to see ID and car papers, And I’m thinking, Shit, the KKK from three states is about to find out I’m not who I claim to be. The reporters behind me, too, click to the notion that we’re about to get caught out, and they’re also looking for an exit ramp. But there’s nowhere to drive, we’re stuck in line, and there’s nowhere to run. I inch closer. Finally, it’s my turn. The trooper bends down, looks at me through the rolled-down window. ‘License and registration,’ he says with a southern drawl. I pluck the car rental agreement from the glove compartment, hand it to him. He looks at it, grunts, hands it back. ‘License,’ he says. ‘It’s in the trunk,’ I say. ‘Well, go get it,’ he replies. I climb out. The Imperial Wizard gets out, too, meets me at the back of the car. With the trooper on my left, and Scoggin's on my right, I open the trunk. Both men are watching as I rummage through my dirty clothes. Just as I locate my license, Scoggin's turns to the trooper, offers his right hand, and drawls, “Hi, I’m Bob Scoggin, Imperial Wizard for South Carolina.” The trooper breaks into a broad smile and says, 'Well, why didn’t you say so, Bob? You boys go right on through.'”
“Wow! That’s a good story.”
“All true. Not one word of exaggeration. So I close the trunk and we roll into the rally site. They have our robes and hoods waiting for us—red robes, because they made us Kleagles, Klan-speak for officer, since they presume we’re going to command the KKK back in Britain. Instead, of course, the Sunday People runs a front-page, center spread expose over two successive issues. It killed the KKK in Britain dead in its tracks.
"After that, I worked freelance for the Sunday People’s investigative department. It was a great place to train, under a legendary investigative editor named Laurie Manifold. I developed my own stories and specialized in undercover penetrations. I infiltrated cults, Ponzi schemes, neo-Nazis, and a pro-violence anarchist group called Class War. I was the Prince of Ruse, exposing sleazeballs and scumbags. It's like being an actor, except you make up your lines as you go along. Main thing I learned, if you don't believe your own cover story, don't expect anyone else to believe you either.”
John H sat affixed to his timeline. “What next?”
"In 1981 I was invited to Poland to write a book about the Solidarity movement, which had just exploded over there."
"How did that happen?" asked John H.
"I received a letter from a Polish journalist."
John H eyed me with skepticism. "Out of the blue?"
"Yeah. No, not entirely. He'd read a short book I wrote about Bilderberg, The Global Manipulators, which the publisher had advertised in The Economist. He tracked me down and interviewed me on his radio show about which persons Jimmy Carter, the newly elected president, would choose for his cabinet. I predicted almost all of them correctly, based on my investigation of the Trilateral Commission. A few months later his letter of invitation arrived and pretty soon after that I traveled to Warsaw and Gdansk.
"It resulted in a book, Strike for Freedom! published in 1982 by Dodd, Mead. After that, after martial law was declared and Lech Walesa imprisoned, I did more work in Poland for ABC News."
"In 1984. They gave me a six-month contract to focus on the outlawed Solidarity underground."
"How did that come about?"
"My Polish contact was privy to a secret dialog going on between Solidarity and the Polish government. ABC News was basking in glory over their documentary about secret negotiations behind the Iran embassy hostage release, so they were gung-ho on this sort of thing. I traveled to Poland a number of times, supplied video equipment to key activists in Solidarity, and coordinated what they produced. The secret dialog came to nothing, but we were able to report the effectiveness of the underground, how, for instance, its technicians could cut into the TV nightly news broadcasts and announce, 'These newscasters are lying!' And when Popieluszko, the priest, was kidnapped and murdered by members of the Polish secret police, we photographed the secret, uncensored transcript of their trial and I smuggled it out of Poland."
John H smiled, scribbled on. "How did you get in and out of Poland?"
"Business visas. I posed as a mushroom salesman. I even spent one full day traipsing around a city called Bydgozsz, tasting mushrooms and pretending to check out a chain of fast-food mushroom restaurants. One place fed me a four-course meal with everything made from mushrooms, including mushroom cake for dessert."
John H raised an eyebrow.
"They take mushrooms very seriously in Poland," I said. "Anyway, New Year's Eve '86, I moved back to the States and realized I had to do something different. In Britain, freelance journalism is a respectable occupation. In the USA, freelance is a euphemism for unemployed. I wanted to stay in the information biz, so I became a literary agent."
"How did that happen?" John H scratched his head again.
"Spontaneity, as usual. Before leaving Britain I attended a conference on international terrorism at Ditchley Park and met Robert Kupperman, one of the early pioneers of terrorism studies. Later, we lunched in Washington. Kupperman told me he wanted to write a book. I knew a few people in book publishing so I offered to help. I drafted his proposal for a book called Final Warning and sold it to Doubleday for six figures."
"So you're still a literary agent?"
"Not really. I wear that hat once in a while. If somebody comes to me with something good, I try to help them place it."
"So what hat do you wear most of the time?" asked John H.
"Hold on, we're getting there," I said. "In 1988 I moved to Monaco."
"Monte Carlo, on the French Riviera."
John H put his open palm to forehead. More scribbling.
"My parents had been living in Monaco, and I'd visited a bunch of times through the '80s. I always thought, this would be an interesting place to live for a while. In summer '88 my parents called to say a small apartment near theirs had become available. I flew over to take a look and signed a lease on impulse. Monaco is like a glass bubble, a very busy city-state removed from reality."
"What accounts for that?"
"Thirty-thousand people, comprised of ninety-three nationalities, squeezed into a mile-and-a-half square."
"What did you do in Monaco?"
"Mostly, I rationalized that I was there to discover literary talent. I met many interesting people. Out of that came a comic novel."
"You wrote a novel?"
"Zubrick’s Rock. About a reclusive mega-millionaire who lives in Monaco but loses his residency status due to involvement in a scandal. He has nowhere else to go. So he takes a long walk, wanders into Monaco's wax museum, and discovers that the reigning Grimaldis took Monaco by force from the Spinola family 700 years ago. So this character, he always wanted his own country, digs up a descendant of the Spinolas to legitimize a coup d'etat. The only Spinola he can find as short notice is a low-life dentist in Hoboken who's an alcoholic and a compulsive gambler."
John H had stopped taking notes, studied me.
"After Monaco, I moved to Washington," I said. "I met Clair George, the former CIA spymaster, and became a consultant."
"What kind of consultant?"
"Creative problem resolution."
John H smiled. "Go on."
"My consulting is confidential. Private sector intelligence, by appointment to billionaires and royalty.”
"Can you tell me something about it?"
"I'll tell you about an assignment I had recently, because it relates to my ability to handle Howard by creating the right illusion. I'm involved in a complicated international child custody case. I represent the mother's side. The father was given generous visitation rights, but he uses the child as leverage to extract money from the mother, who comes from one of Europe's wealthiest families. The child hates being forced to spend time with his nutcase father, who once tried to kidnap him. So the mother is on pins and needles every summer when the boy is forced to spend five weeks with dad, who is under no obligation to disclose where he goes with the boy. For five weeks the mother doesn't know where her son is, or if the father will return him or try to kidnap him again. He'd been heard to mutter under his breath that one day he'd run off with his son to South America.
“So the mother hires me. I figure, what I have to do is monitor this guy, especially when he has custody of his son. And, if possible, I need to influence, even manipulate his actions, to render him harmless to my client and her son. To do this, I have to get to know the father, that is, insert myself into his existence." I paused. "Shall I continue?"
"First thing I do is hire a former CIA operative in Europe to collect as much information about the father as possible. Out of this, I learn what makes him tick. This is important, because I need to refine the right story that'll get him to invite me into his life. You only get one shot at this from out of the blue. I call him on the phone, make my pitch. One week later, we're having lunch together at a fancy restaurant in Paris. After an hour of fine food and wine, he's telling me all about his personal problems, including his ex-wife and their son. By the end of lunch, I'm his new best friend. Come summer, not a day goes by that I don't know where the kid is and what he's doing." I paused. "I only like jobs with a high L.Q."
"Laugh Quotient. My main criteria. It's got to be funny or I won't do it."
John H grinned. In his profession, he did not often see this kind of perspective. He settled the eighteen-buck tab and we strolled to my Volkswagen.
"Sorry my background is so eclectic," I said.
"You kidding?" said John H. "You seem tailor-made for this job."
"So what's your gut," I said. "Am I heading east?"
"We've still got hurdles," said John H. "But I like what I hear. My gut instinct is that you'll be heading east. Your name is Robert,” he added, attuned to some kind of metaphysical wavelength. “That’s the code-name Yurchenko used to identify Howard.” He seemed tantalized by the poetry at play, as if these events had been directed by the stars.
John H phoned me next morning from the J. Edgar Hoover Building, FBI Headquarters.
"It's coming along," he said. "Can you get to the Holiday Inn at three? The U.S. Attorney I mentioned wants to meet you."
"Okay to wear blue-jeans?"
"That's the most welcome thing you've said so far. I'll tell everyone to wear blue-jeans."