It was 1 o’clock under a smoke grey sky as I walked toward the School of International and Public Affairs on the well-manicured campus of a prestigious university. The building was defiantly modern, but its alabaster hue and the svelte columns lining its perimeter brought to mind an ageless and sun-bleached skeleton. I passed through the lobby and out the back where an expansive sunken plaza surrounds a shallow pool the length of the building fed by the Fountain of Freedom, a 23-foot-tall bronze abstraction evoking a war-torn ruin.
I spotted Cornwell sitting, as planned, on the unbroken marble bench forming the far side of the plaza. He was gazing toward the building, contemplating, I guessed, the 12 oversized heads of the animals of the Chinese zodiac staring at him from my side of the pool. Re-envisioned renderings of Qing dynasty works that were looted by Western soldiers during the Opium Wars, they stood in a row like inscrutable sentinels for a nether realm. Cornwell noticed me as I was skirting the pool, taking in the bronze sculptures myself.
“That dragon looks quite defiant,” I said as I approached.
“The dragon is believed to bestow leadership abilities,” Cornwell said, “but like the others, its influence can be benign or malignant.” He stood, greeting me with a smile and his habitual blinking, and extended a hand, which I grasped, avoiding too tight a grip.
“What do you suppose he was trying to say with these?” I asked.
“I might know better if he’d been able to attend the dedication.”
“Yes. I followed his difficulties in the news. Some passport trouble with the authorities in Beijing.”
“Another dissident run afoul of the law. At least we’re supporting him with this.” A slight sweep of his arm encompassed the installation.
“I’m glad to see it, and to have a chance to chat with you during my visit.”
“It’s always good to hear how my former students are getting on in the world, especially when they’re starting out,” Cornwell said. “Your meeting is at 2?”
“Yes. Shall we get lunch at the cafe here?”
“Let’s do that. Sit for a minute first.” We sat on the bench facing the fountain and pool with the animal heads and the building as backdrop. “Who is it you’re seeing?” he asked, sitting back and crossing one leg over the other.
“Professor Levinson. She teaches a course on intelligence services, their role in policy development.”
“Relevant to what you’re working on?”
“I’m thinking she could be helpful down the road. I’ll try to scope out how much she knows about services, here and in other countries.”
“A little fishing expedition,” Cornwell suggested, tilting his head back, nudging the bridge of his horn-rimmed glasses with a finger.
“I believe you’ve emphasized the importance of curiosity in this line of work.”
“I’m glad you remember.” He expressed his gratification with a quick smile. “It’s nice to catch up face-to-face. I was quite interested in your latest note. Especially to hear you’d …”
“Killed someone, yes,” I said, sitting up straight. “For the first time. The first time it was one of the good people.”
“You mean you let one die.”
“I’d say I played a more active role than that,” I said, clasping my hands together.
“You liked him, didn’t you?”
“Yes. Quite a bit, despite his flaws. Because of them, really.”
“He was a local journalist, right? In Ukraine? An idealist aiming to root out corruption?”
“Yes. Oleg. Oleg Koval.”
“CIA started to lean on him, for tips?”
“Yes. He resisted at first, but it grew on him. Spying, I mean. Soon that was all he wanted to do.”
“How did that happen?”
“Initially his role was to pass on bits of information — gossip and conjecture. Well, things evolved from there, of course. Before long he was getting assignments to seek things out, about the nationalists, mostly.”
“Made it worth his while, or seemed to? Paid him well?”
“There was some money, and other enticements too, if he wanted them, which he didn’t. The women and the parties didn’t mean much to him. He was an idealist, remember. But there was something more. He’d become frustrated. He’d expected bigger and better things for himself, in terms of work, at least, and even in the role he had he felt overlooked. He wanted to make more of an impact.”
“So he had plenty of motivation.”
“Yes, I think so. And don’t forget the adrenalin. That became a big thing too. The risk. The thrill of it all.”
“So what happened?”
“He was making inquiries about a bombing, supposedly the work of radical nationalists, but there were rumors it was a provocation orchestrated by a foreign service — to stir up public outrage over the nationalists. He left for an interview with a militia officer but didn’t show up for it. Then he turned up dead. Shot.”
“Any fall out? Repercussions?”
“It was clever how the arrangement had a little downside protection, if I do say so myself. To the world it looked like just another murder of a crusading journalist. A fairly anonymous one at that.”
“So how did it leave you feeling?”
“It’s a shame. For his sake, I mean. He was having a bit of an impact, but we’ll never know if he could have had more. Whether he might have redeemed himself. I’ll miss him, his rants about corruption. At the same time I feel relieved, too, as I finally let one die, as you put it, one of the good guys, after struggling with it.”
“It’s true, you know, sometimes we must do distasteful things, in carrying out our work. Just like them. I’ve been teaching writing for almost 30 years. You’re not the first aspiring author who’s found it difficult to kill off a character. That’s part of creating compelling fiction. You need to reflect the world we live in. Sorrow, loss, death. Death seems particularly important in this line of work you’re pursuing, which I enjoy so much, tales of espionage.”
“It does feel enlightening, to face up to the reality.”
“What’s next, then?”
“Harding, the station chief, will be doing a little agonizing over Koval’s death himself. He might not miss him as much as I do, though! He’ll be looking for someone to replace him. I hope to have another chapter to show you shortly.”
“I’m looking forward to it. Let’s eat.”
David Ludlum, an editor for Merrill Lynch, has helped Robert F. Kennedy Jr. write a book on environmental policies and taught a mini-MBA program to college recruits at Mitsubishi in Tokyo. He lives in Princeton, where he has studied writing at Lauren Davis’s workshops.