Monday, December 15, 2014

40. DECEMBER 1999

I set off to Europe, solo, cloaked in Brioni and armed with a LaGuiole corkscrew—as a weapon, more versatile than a dagger, yet capable of uncorking a bottle of Margeaux.

Not only was I still engaged in undercover assignments for the FBI, I had also contracted my services (with the FBI’s acquiescence) to Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service (introduction courtesy of Clair George).

This would be my most important trip to date:  my old beat, multiple new missions. 

My driver slyly cut around Thanksgiving Sunday bumper-to-bumper traffic by detouring through the long-term car park, dropping me at Arrivals.  This had the added benefit of confusing any possible surveillance.  

I did not think I was being watched yet, but I knew surveillance would cut in sooner or later.  Behind me, I had left a trail of spies—Cuban and Russian—who had been probing my legend by not only accessing public records about me but also conducting cursory inspections of my various accommodation addresses.

I boarded a Swissair Airbus 330 and took my seat in first class with its eiderdown comforter and feather pillows.

I hadn’t planned to eat, just sleep, but the service was so efficient and cuisine so good, I tucked into caviar and smoked salmon and full-bodied Bordeaux.  With Xanax cutting in, I slid into a solid four-hour slumber before gliding into Zurich at 8:35 a.m.  

Not twenty minutes later, I belted myself into another aircraft destined for Geneva—an earlier flight than that posted on my ticket.  Not only did it save time, it would also complicate life for anyone expecting me on the later flight.

I hopped the Alps to the tune of the High Llamas' Cold and Bouncy, my rallying cry for sub rosa assignments, which aptly described the flight.

Geneva was as gloomy and austere as its Calvinist founders.  In contrast, the Beau Rivage welcomed me with warmth.   A message was waiting from Edward Lee Howard, discussed earlier in this memoir, who was in Geneva to meet me.

Clair once told me, “Defectors almost never adjust.”  Such was the case with Howard.  After many years in Russia, he was terribly homesick and wanted nothing more than to return to the United States.

I had become Howard’s new best friend since we’d met six years earlier.  

But, as revealed earlier, our friendship was an illusion—one I had conceived, crafted and executed for the FBI, a book ruse—similar to the one I invented for Baron von Biggleswurm. 

Surveillance cut in soon after Howard showed up at the Beau Rivage for the first of several meetings over the next few days.

This would be the last time I would see Howard.  He came to an untimely end a few years later:  a mysterious “accident” near Moscow.  I have always believed he was murdered by Russian intelligence, partly as a result of his relationship with me.

I left Howard Christmas shopping near the Mont Blanc Bridge.  I had a plane to catch, another adventure.

(The full story of my undercover work for FBI Counterintelligence is told in my book, Ruse, Potomac Books, 2008, which is archived on this site.)

Checking in for my 3:05 flight to Nice, I noticed Air France ran a two p.m. flight, and snagged it, again disrupting the plans of any would-be watchers expecting to pick me up in Nice.

Maybe ninety seconds elapsed between stepping off the plane and climbing into a taxi.  

“Monaco,” I instructed.  “Hotel de Paris.”

A phone message awaited me:  my next appointment.
I cannot write about this particular assignment as it remains subject to a nondisclosure agreement.  

Next day, another assignment.  

Morning cappuccino at my favorite Monte Carlo coffee bar with one of Prince Albert’s closest friends.   A month earlier, the friend had asked me to investigate a Monaco resident who, he claimed, was trying to strong-arm him out of a sporting project. 

I conveyed our findings, the significance of which transcended my friend’s immediate concern.

“Prince Albert should know about him,” I said, not least because this individual had skillfully inserted himself into the Prince’s social orbit.

Calls were made, a late dinner scheduled:  Pizzeria St. Michel in Cap d’Ail, 10:30.

A poetic choice.  Since first visiting the principality eighteen years earlier, I had passed this little pizzeria hundreds of times.  Each time, I had said to whomever was in the car (or to myself), I must stop there for a pizza one day.

Early evening I strolled through Monaco, winding up at Stars & Bars, a trendy American-style sports bar.  

Over a glass of Bandol wine I contemplated my life.  I did not need to dress for work, had not knotted a tie around my neck this trip.  I did not spend my working days in fluorescent shoeboxes and conference rooms.  My meetings did not go on for hours.  I did not write long reports.  As Clair George put it, “the best intelligence is a scrap of paper in your back pocket.”

In my back pocket I carried a bombshell for the Hereditary Prince of Monaco.

Moono, the IRS sting artist, once told me that an undercover agent has lots of blank spaces, free time.  The work itself—if you call it that—is about total focus and role-playing, but only for short, intensive periods.  

I arrived at the pizzeria first.

(Clair George:  Always arrive early—and recon the rendezvous site.)

The proprietor had reserved a table near the door.  I requested one furthest away, without mentioning I expected Prince Albert to join me. 

The place was rustic, decorated with antique farming equipment.

My friend arrived; we ordered wine.  And then Prince Albert strode in, his two bodyguards took a table near the door.

I gifted the prince with a reproduction vintage baseball hat, Kelly green with an A (for Albert) embroidered on it (insignia for the Brooklyn Athletics).

We ordered pizza and my friend explained why he had organized this meeting at such short notice.  And then it was my turn.  I conducted an oral briefing.

The prince was shocked and horrified.

After we finished eating, I handed him the crumpled report to read.  (And then, like Clair, I carefully retrieved it.)

“The more immediate problem is our friend having to terminate the relationship.  If the target of this report values his existence in Monaco, a few words from you, Albert, would solve the problem.”  I paused.  “The larger problem is this bad guy’s continued existence in Monaco.  Like a cancerous tumor, he will grow and become more intimidating.  It’s just a matter of time before they start pulling hits in Western Europe.”

(Twenty-four hours later, Edmund Safra, a banker, would be dead from asphyxiation—a fire in his Monaco penthouse that to this day remains mysterious and controversial.)

The Prince looked at me.  “May I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

”If I give you the name of a Russian, could you find out about him for me?”

“Of course.”

The Prince borrowed my pen, the Hemingway Mont Blanc ball pen I’d carried all decade, and scribbled Alexei Fedorichev, Fedcominvest.  “He wants to buy into our football team.”

The Prince offered to drive me back to Monaco.  Outside the pizzeria, still and quiet at this late hour, he donned his new baseball cap.  We climbed into the backseat of his bodyguards’ car and they drove us the quarter-mile to where Albert had parked his car.  He zipped me through Monte Carlo’s dark streets and pulled into the forecourt at Hotel de Paris.

The doorman, about to open my door, froze when he glimpsed the prince, and waited, unwilling to interrupt our conversation.

When I awakened next morning, this was my first thought:  I’m working for Prince Albert of Monaco!

It was still dark at 6:50 a.m. when I checked out of the hotel for my flight to London.

The staff at Lowndes Hotel greeted me like an old friend.  Indeed, it had become my second home.

I punched a call from the public phone.  “I’m in,” I told the man I was looking for.

“In where?”

“To paraphrase John Le Carre, in from the warmth.”  

Indeed, London was frightfully cold compared to the French Riviera.

“Where are you?”

“The usual place.”

“Can I come straight over?”

“I don’t have a room yet.  Wait an hour.  Unless you want to grab a bite with me in the restaurant.”


He was right, of course.  Security protocol dictated we avoid public places.

I saw him arrive at the hotel’s entrance from my window.  I timed his steps impeccably, and opened my door just as he raised his hand to knock.

“Clever,” he said.

“No.  I’ve got cameras everywhere.”

He chuckled.  “So what happened?”

Britain’s Official Secrets Act bars me from writing more.

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