I'm not sure if it's dementia, unfulfilled desire, or just that I've been roaming this earth for too damn long, but sometimes I can't tell if I'm a spook or an angel. Every day at 11 o'clock I go to Denny's with the mother of my children. I order an All-American Slam. Mother orders a Fit Slam because she's watching her eighty-nine-year-old figure. She reads a Danielle Steele novel while we wait. I peruse the Wall Street Journal or watch the broads, if there are any worth looking at. We both drink at least three mugs of decaf poured by Mary Ann, a sweet and dowdy waitress with hair like chemically treated Golden Retriever fur. After working thirty-eight years as an information officer and passing the first seventeen years of my retirement on Portugal's Algarve coast, brunch at Denny's can be mind-numbing. That's why I'm eternally grateful to the secret services of the United States of America: like the mafia, they have a way of pulling you back in when you need it most.
"Send them to my table, Mary Ann," I say as soon as I spot the black Lexus SUV.
How can I tell an intelligence vehicle from an expensive suburban mama-mobile? It's a feeling, something that bubbles up from my intestines like gas. That's what happens after you spend a lifetime in the service of four Republican presidents starting with Eisenhower.
"Who?" asks Mary Ann. Her voice is raucous. She smells as if the cigarettes smoke her.
"Alright, Gus," says Mary Ann like she's talking to an old fuddy-duddy. "More coffee?"
"Oh yeah, I'll have some, honey," says Mother. She was a real doll in her day. I still have her 1942 photograph on my desk: victory rolls, penciled brows, dark lipstick, heart-shaped face, perfect skin, to say nothing of what was out of camera range. But my bride is now an old lady with a pooch, in a pink track suit, sitting on the cracked faux-leather of a diner booth.
The body-builder types get out of the still running SUV. Come on, guys. Give me something good. I stand when they enter. We shake hands.
"Gentlemen," I say.
"Sir," says the case officer.
We don't bother with code names and paroles. Everybody in the service knows me, and I can see straight through them. The handler returns to the door, clasps his left wrist with his right hand, and keeps watch. Mother discreetly excuses herself to the Ladies'. I'll fill her in later, if necessary.
"Have a seat," I say to the case officer.
He's wearing Pasha de Cartier. I can tell because my son Jim bought me a bottle of that hairspray-smelling stuff for Christmas. I spritzed myself once, just to make Jimmy happy, and got an instant headache. The bottle's still in its box, in the bottom drawer of my dresser, and Mother's told the boys never to buy me anything but Old Spice.
"Coffee?" says Mary Ann.
"No, thanks," says the officer. "We've got some in the car."
Sure, fancy Starbucks swill with whip cream that you're afraid to spill on your expensive shirt. Anybody can see you're the kind who never spends more than twenty seconds outside, even in May, because a suit like that will kill you in Arizona, and that pretty shirt will be soaked in no time.
"What's the job?" I ask.
"Terrorist suspect. Greek. We want you to get close."
"I hate to disappoint you," I say, "but Greeks aren't any good at terrorism. They might think about it, but then they'll break for coffee and cigarettes and move on to ouzo and mama's casserole and forget the whole thing. You're probably on the wrong track."
"We doubt it."
"Thirty-seven year-old female Leftie. Makes frequent trips to Turkey, borrowed the Koran from a local library, wrote a letter to Obama about torture in Guantanamo. Watches Islamic sermons on YouTube. Signs animal-protection petitions. Applied to the Foreign Service three weeks ago. Currently teaches Greek at a local church. You're going to enroll in one of her classes."
"She doesn't have to know your age. You'll say you're planning on buying a summer house in Greece. A Syrian national, also suspect, may be in the class. Keep an eye on him. And a warning. Eleni Lekkou — the subject — is slippery. Rarely leaves her house."
"Naked. You're going in as yourself: a bored grandpa who wants to brush up on his Greek."
Thanks, you shit, I think. "Got it," I say.
He slides a file across the table. "She's smart. So go ahead and tell her you were an officer. Sometimes the truth is more distracting than a lie."
I shake my head. "Don't worry, son. No broad is too smart for Gus Frangoulis."
I skip the first four classes. I don't come back early from summer vacation in Lake Winnipesaukee for anyone, not even Uncle Sam. Instead, from our balcony lined with marigolds in aluminum-foil-covered pots, with its view of the lake and forested tree line below, I write Lekkou a letter with a detailed autobiography and ask for a reply.
"Women can never resist the hand-written letter of a mysterious gentleman," I say to the blue jays I feed every day. But a few weeks later those damn birds are laughing at me as they peck away at their seeds because I haven't gotten zip from Lekkou. So I go to the public library ten minutes from our place, chat up the librarian so thoroughly she's ready to jump in bed with me, and ask her to show me how to use email. She blushes and obliges. I send Lekkou a message asking for the class roster because I'm "bad with names." Two weeks later I receive a curt message and a list. One item, at least, is accomplished: the Syrian has registered.
At 4:30pm on the first Wednesday after our return to Tucson, I ready my briefcase and kiss Mother goodbye. By 4:52, I'm at the church, but the doors are locked, and there's nobody in sight. I sit down on a stone bench, beneath a newly planted olive tree. Twenty-five minutes later a slim brunette climbs the steps. A fellow student? There was a photo of Lekkou in the file, but it was an ugly, artistic black-and-white. It led me to believe that my subject would be like most Greek girls: fat and mustachioed.
I hold out my hand. "Hi, I'm Gus Frangoulis."
"Hello, Mr. Frangoulis. I'm Eleni. Nice to meet you."
I can't believe my luck. If you're going to spend a lot of time with a woman before you put her behind bars, she might as well be a looker.
Half an hour into the class Lekkou says in Greek, "Mr. Kostas" — that's Gus in Greek — "you can't stay here. You have to go to Level Two."
"But I want to review," I say.
I can't go to Level Two. The Syrian's in One.
"I don't understand why. You already speak better than my Level Two students."
"But — "
"You're going to be frustrated here."
"Alright, Teach, whatever you say."
I don't want to arouse suspicion. Besides, deference always wins women over. The problem is that I've got to figure out a new way to keep tabs on the Syrian. I stay for Level Two, which starts right after One finishes. The next week I come back with an excuse: Mother and I always go out for an early-bird special on Wednesdays, so it's easier for me to come straight to school after dinner.
For observation purposes, I pace the halls during Level One. You've got to keep moving at my age. I look frequently through the classroom window at Hassan Sadi, the Syrian PhD candidate, who has a suspiciously unkempt beard. From chitchatting with the Level One students before class, I gather that Lekkou often asks him Arabic words from a book she's reading about a Turkish imam. What kind of Greek is she? I report that the book and class assignments could be a means of passing messages.
Meanwhile, I bring plenty of pocket litter to show I'm a cultured man of the world and, moreover, one who respects Islam. I give Lekkou a few Muslim Voice newspapers; the movie roster from a cinema that regularly shows foreign films, including one about a young Palestinian terrorist, which I highly recommend; an invitation to the celebration of the Prophet Muhammad's birthday (with some fancy blue and green calligraphy that reads, To Mohammed I'm devoted); a Los Angeles Times review of a Leftie play running in Phoenix; and menus from Middle Eastern restaurants where we have surveillance teams working regularly.
Every time I give her something she says, "Thank you, Mr. Kostas," as if I were a six-year-old who made crayon drawings of hardly recognizable figures with bulging eyes. Worse yet, she never bites. She doesn't go to the Prophet Mohammed's birthday party, never comments on any of the newspapers, and never goes to the movies. Hell, she even says she cooks at home, which is evidence in itself that she's not a patriot.
Once the subject is used to receiving valueless offerings, we advance to little gifts containing wiretaps and tracking devices. Since the steps of the church building are steep and poorly lit, I give Lekkou a bugged mini-flashlight, but it never goes anywhere and doesn't produce even one conversation. Next I give her a bugged Arizona Cardinals backpack.
"Oh, thank you, what a pretty red." She kisses me and I remember — with a certain tingly sensation in my chest — what it's like to touch the cheek of a woman who doesn't have old-age bristles. "That's so sweet," she says. "Are you into ornithology, Mr. Kostas?"
"Ornithology? It's a goddamn NFL football team."
The backpack, too, sits idle for a few weeks, and then, around Thanksgiving, it starts making twice-weekly trips on a bike path. Finally we've got something. We send two joggers, but they say she isn't meeting anyone out there. She turned the Cardinals pack into a grooming bag for her Alaskan malamute. I pull my record book from the shelf, wheel my chair over the polycarbonate office mat, and inch up to my desk, where I note in my tiny, curly handwriting: "may have jihadist potential, but definitely no training."
In December, I notice that Lekkou brightens like an Orthodox church at midnight Easter mass whenever I tell a good story, especially if it has to do with history or espionage, so I start telling her all sorts of things, both true and total bullshit. I talk about getting drunk on Paske Bryg in a Copenhagen sauna, being run up a tree by a toothless tiger in Japan, learning flamenco in Portugal, narrowly escaping arrest in East Berlin, going after an Armenian weapons dealer called the Merchant of Death, and purposely missing every submarine — minus the first — that I was supposed to bomb during World War II.
"What do you mean, you missed?" she asks.
"I hit the first one, but when I flew back and saw all those corpses and body parts in the water, I couldn't do it again. So I missed every time."
"Wow," she says. "If everyone had your sensitivity, there wouldn't be any war."
She isn't half as smart as the suits said. Does she really think we pilots had a chance to look at body parts after dropping our stuff? And does she really think that even a doped hippy pacifist could have had qualms about bombing a Nazi submarine, with zero chance of civilian casualties or architectural damage, in the open Atlantic? Jesus Christ.
But I'm not immune to admiration. I'll take it, especially from a kid who snakes like an Egyptian dancer in elegant two-and-a-half-inch heels and smiles at me like Mother used to do, all moony-eyed, and who turns to me, her hero, when she is trying to close up at night and the lock is spinning and she's ready to collapse after teaching four hours straight. I find the hex key on the reception desk and release the lock.
"I don't know what I would've done without you," she says.
And then when the alarm won't set because some idiot left a basement door open and she's too afraid to go down and close it by herself, I, Gus Frangoulis, am there to take her by the hand, beneath the shelter of my great wings, and lead the way.
Anyhow, after three months of observation, listening in vain to my bugs, and having all my bait go wasted, I still don't have a bit of evidence. Worse yet, I'm beginning to wonder what Eleni was like as a little girl, if her hair was lighter, curlier, wispier, if she was the kind who never had a partner in gym class, if she wore pretty red dresses for Easter, and so on. These daydreams increase in frequency when I learn she doesn't speak to her father. It's as if she's been waiting for me for thirty-seven years. At the same time, I fear that I've lost my acuity or that she might even be onto me. I remember being warned, during my training over half-a-century ago, about modern sirens who could sniff you out and make you fall in love with them, rendering you a traitor to your country. This has never happened to me. It isn't happening now, either, but they never told me that one day I might have to spy on a Greek girl who would strip my defenses by slipping into my heart like the daughter I never had.
*Just before the New Year, the case officer calls me at home and says that Hassan Sadi is no longer suspect for undisclosed reasons. I report that I still have nothing on Lekkou. "Continue," he says. "There's something about her."
I crank up the charm. When we have trouble with the heating, I go to the miserly church warden and ask that the temperature be raised. One evening I bring melomakarona and kourambiedes, Greek holiday cookies made by Mother herself, and then I feel terrible when my girl can't have even one because of "celiac disease," some fashionable food allergy that's probably all in her head, anyway. I tell her she's the best teacher I've ever had and cheer her up with stories from my youth whenever I see her looking distracted or sad, as if her throat were caught in an invisible vise. I want to ask whose legs I need to break, but that would be inappropriate. I go to the library every day and check my inbox. I always sign emails to her, "Affectionately, Gus."
At 10:21am on January 7, 2013, she sends the message: "My Dear Mr. Kostas, would you and Mrs. Christina like to meet for coffee at Cafè San Michele on Sunday at 3pm? Filakia, Eleni." Filakia: little kisses. It means next to nothing in Greek, but the American in me is tickled.
I respond immediately. Two days later Mother and I are sitting at a common table in some organic coffee shop, surrounded by artsy students swiping their fingers over screen contraptions. Although Mother never knew a thing about my job back in the day, she did some training in 1998. Since then, she's been helping me out on little missions like this one, and I have to say that she's damn good at playing the harmless, prying Greek granny. That's what she is, anyway, so it's not much of a stretch. If the Greeks would only wise up to the potential of their old ladies, they'd probably have the best secret service in the world.
Lekkou enters looking like a modern Artemis in a grey leopard dress and purple suede boots. I go with her to the counter and buy her a latte, which, she insists in a bird-like, obsessive-compulsive manner, should come without the customary sugar cookie. I pull her chair as a gentleman should. Mother and I begin our barrage of history, never asking Lekkou even one question. I show her a picture of my one surviving veteran brother and deplore the war-hawk lectures he gives all around the country (wearing his original World War II uniform, no less).
Mother talks about how we grew up two streets away from each other in Astoria. "Both our families are from Chios," she says, "and our mothers spoke Turkish." This is part of our plan: Mother thinks the best way to lure Eleni into a confession is by claiming Muslim ancestry.
"In fact," I whisper, "I think my mother was Turkish. Muslim, that is."
Lekkou narrows her eyes — not the reaction I desire — and says, "Why do you think that?"
"I have an Ottoman sword with that old Arabic writing. My grandfather gave it to me. People said he was from Turkey."
"Lots of Orthodox Christians were from Asia Minor, Mr. Kostas. Just being from there wouldn't make her Muslim."
"Maybe, but there was always something hush-hush, something we weren't supposed to talk about."
"A mystery," says Mother. "Oh yeah."
"When was your mother born, Mr. Kostas?" Eleni asks.
"When was she married to your father?"
"I suppose it's possible," says Lekkou with that fact-finding, professorial air, "but not likely. Many Christians converted to Islam during the Ottoman period, but the reverse was rare. The only time it would have been possible in Chios was during the decade after the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 and before 1923 Compulsory Population Exchange. Your parents' marriage does fall within that decade, but still, I don't think that a keepsake sword and the ability to speak Turkish prove anything."
I pride myself on knowing my history, and even I didn't think of that. My sons have never been to Chios, and yet this girl can spout dates, probabilities, and historical facts — relating to my genealogy — off the top of her head. Christ, I think, this time in earnest and not as an expletive: you made a mistake when you gave this kid to somebody else. She was meant to be mine.
I look at Mother. She kicks me under the table and I get the message: pull yourself together, Gus, you've got a job here.
"So what's your husband doing today?" I ask.
"In Argentina, dancing."
"Dancing? With whom?"
"Other women. That's why I've been out of sorts lately."
"I'm with you, sweetie," says Mother. "I wouldn't like that either."
Now I know whose legs I need to break. Anybody can see that her poor heart is being juiced like a grapefruit.
Mother kicks me again and says, "You know, it's really loud in here. Why don't we go over to the house? It's just around the corner."
Lekkou doesn't need any convincing. Like an abandoned puppy, she'll follow anyone home.
As soon as we're out in the parking lot, Mother says, "I'll come with you, honey."
That's another part of our plan. Mother goes in the subject's car, checks it out, and stealthily plants a mike under the passenger seat. She talks about Japan, her Ikebana classes, and what a ball she had over there. She says that once she asked her Ikebana teacher how long a dried flower would last. The teacher, annoyed that Mother had broken the sacred silence of flower arranging, looked her in the eye and said, "Madam, it is already dead." Mother laughs and says how miserable she was when she came home. Then she asks, "What do you think of the States?" And Lekkou spills her guts. We hope.
Back at the house, the first thing we do is show her the laundry room, just off the garage, where I keep all my certificates and awards from the Greek Archdiocese and the US government — window dressing is what we call it, ancillary materials that lend credence. Then we go inside. I say we always take our shoes off, and Lekkou politely removes hers. We start the tour. First we go to my study, where I show her an embroidered, sequined, maroon velvet icon of Saints Constantine and Eleni that my mother, also named Eleni, passed down to me, and I think again, Christ, why did you have to send me one with that name?
"Passed down?" says Lekkou. "Whose was it before?"
"Her mother's, I suppose."
"When did your mother come to the States?"
"In 1911, with her family."
"Then she wasn't Muslim, Mr. Kostas. She wasn't there during the small ten-year window when a few Muslims converted to Orthodoxy. The fact that the icon came from her mother is also evidence."
Look at that, as smart as her old man, I mean, as smart as me. Or as smart as they said. Anyhow, we show her the rest of our ranch house, the teak furniture from Japan and Mother's Degas imitations and the watercolor of Christ, who opens and shuts his eyes according to your angle, and Mother tells the same little story that she tells everyone about that painting: "It was my Chinese instructor's favorite. He said, 'Madam, don't touch. Perfect.' Oh yeah."
We sit down on the green armchairs with green towels placed over the headrests. Mother and I talk more about our European adventures. We ask Lekkou where she would live if she could go anywhere. Her answer — Rome — isn't especially interesting. But that allows us to segue into what's gotten her so down: her husband's trip to Buenos Aires.
"I wasn't good enough for him," she says, curling her bare toes on our Berber carpet. She tries to smile, but all she manages is a crooked lip press.
For a second I catch myself feeling sorry for her, which is probably required for angels, but code red for a spook: never pity your subject.
"By the way, you're having dinner with us," I say.
"Ok." She probably thinks Mother is going to make dinner, but then we discuss restaurants. Despite our adventures, Mother and I are real Americans. We eat out.
"Would you like to use the bathroom before we go?" Mother asks.
Mother shows her into our pink bathroom with its wicker swans and silver hairbrush collection. Meanwhile I deftly slip a chip beneath the insole of one of Lekkou's purple suede boots. Then we're off to some non-GMO, gluten-free joint. Over veggie protein burgers with a side of greens, Lekkou tells us what she doesn't usually tell anyone: that she writes. She's written two novels, in fact, and she's working on a third. The hero is a Turkish imam.
So that's why she was reading the autobiography.
"I'd love to read your stuff," I say.
"I'll email you something tomorrow."
We say goodbye in the dim parking lot, which is a bit chilly in the evening, and I'm almost sorry to see her go. I wonder what it would have been like to tuck her in when she was three. Then I get in the car and say to Mother, "You know, it's pretty damn fun to spy on someone and admit to being a spy at the same time."
"Oh yeah, don't I know it," says Mother.
"What did you get?"
"Zilch. She thinks the States are boring, but there wasn't any rancor. She has an icon of Christ the Good Shepherd on her dashboard. If she's up to anything, I didn't find it."
"Well, let's have a look at these novels," I say, realizing I forgot to tell Eleni to drive slowly and carefully.
She emails manuscripts the next day. I send them to Office Max and get them printed and spiral-bound. I read intensively, underlining with a ruler and red pen. I find them amusing at times, boring and scholarly at others, but see nothing subversive except for a penchant for tolerance. As far as commercial potential goes, I think she has a dead cat by the tail, but I email her and say it's the best stuff I've read in years. Giving unbounded encouragement is probably the only thing a father — or an angel — should do. Then I forward the docs to Uncle and present my conclusion: she's a novelist, not a terrorist.
I think, of course, that they'll at least let me finish the Greek course, but no, the handler orders me out right away. He won't say why. I have to invent some bullshit excuse about a death in the family and leaving early for Winnipesaukee. It almost breaks my heart. After writing the farewell email, I go home, lock myself in Mother's pink bathroom, and say to the mirror, "Goddammit, Frangoulis, you've got two grown boys. What do you need a daughter for, anyway?"
Once, in Libya, I almost met my doom. A spook can always tell another spook, and I knew that the guy in a white linen suit on the other side of the bar was tailing me. So I walked straight up and introduced myself. Over Manhattans on the rocks, we became friends. Later we went to his office, and he showed me my file. He thought I was there about American weapons being sold through South America. Thank God, he had no idea I was actually after Khadafy. I confessed to his erroneous charges. He let me go. After that, I swore I'd never do any more overseas jobs. Now I'm swearing again: I'm done with all of it, domestic and foreign, for good.
They allow me to see Eleni Lekkou one last time, in a public library parking lot, so that I can return some borrowed Greek history books before I leave for Winnipesaukee. As I lift the stack of books from the trunk of my 1989 Lincoln Continental, she says a strange thing: "Mr. Kostas, do you ever wonder what it would have been like to be a spy in Ancient Greece, where every visitor was expected to be a god in disguise?"
"Or in biblical times, when angels dropped in for dinner and offered prophecies about unborn children?"
Goddamn. As smart as her old man, no doubt.