Read an Excerpt
Mrs. Pollifax sat in Carstairs’ office with a cup of coffee in one hand and a sandwich in the other, her hat an inverted bowl of blue felt with such a cockeyed twist to its brim that Bishop guessed it had been frequently sat on and squashed. He saw her glance at Carstairs, seated behind his desk, and then at him, and now she said gently, “Yes, the weather’s been unseasonably cool for May, and my trip to Langley Field very pleasant, we’ve discussed my geraniums and how I met Cyrus Reed in Zambia, but I really do think—”
Bishop put down his own coffee cup and grinned. He thought this must be how she appeared to her garden clubs—a cheerful, cozy little woman with fly-away white hair and a penchant for odd hats and growing geraniums—and he thought it a pity he couldn’t share with those garden clubs his first meeting with her in this office, just after she’d led an escape party out of Albania against incredible odds, and had been whisked back to this country by jet. She had sat in this same chair, wearing the voluminous clothes of a goat-herder’s wife, her face as dark as a gypsy’s after three days adrift in the Adriatic, and what she’d accomplished had staggered them all. He sometimes felt it was impossible to reconcile these two Emily Pollifaxes; his grin deepened as he said, “You’re suggesting we dispense with pleasantries and get on with it?”
“Well,” she pointed out, “it’s difficult to believe you’ve brought me here to discuss the weather. Really difficult,” she added with a twinkle, “considering that you sent a private plane for me, which I must say was dashing of you.”
“We do try to be dashing when we can,” Bishop told her gravely. “It counteracts the soiled trench-coat image that—” He stopped, remembering Mrs. Pollifax’s reproachful telephone calls to him when a scandal about the CIA surfaced. But that wasn’t our department, he would tell her, and point out that he really couldn’t relay her indignation to the White House. He supposed that it was this quality in her that led Carstairs to brief her more carefully than he did his other agents, but her responses were never more surprising to Bishop than the fruit cakes she sent at Christmas, which usually incapacitated the entire department, their brandy fumes lingering almost as long as the hangovers.
Suddenly he remembered why Mrs. Pollifax was here, and what Carstairs was going to propose to her, and he felt that old clutch of horror that always hit him when she sat innocently on the edge of her chair, all eagerness and delight at a new assignment, and always chiding him for his concern. It was rather like an attack of violent indigestion, and he wondered if Carstairs was feeling it too; if so, he gave no evidence of it. Not yet at least. He would eventually, of course; he always did.
“The job we have in mind,” Carstairs began smoothly, “is innocuous enough on the surface, Mrs. Pollifax, but because of the country involved could be extremely dangerous—extremely—if you came under suspicion.” He gazed at her thoughtfully. “Which is why I wanted you here personally, to make sure you understand this, and to ask whether you still feel—are still interested—”
“What country?” she promptly asked.
“The People’s Republic of China.”
She drew in her breath sharply. “But how incredibly exciting,” she breathed, “and what an amazing coincidence! I’ve been so curious, so interested—”
“Extremely dangerous,” Bishop heard himself say firmly.
Her eyes widened. “But you say that about all the assignments,” she told him, “and surely we’re friends with China now?”
“Exactly,” Carstairs said lightly, “which makes it all the more shocking if any suspicions should be aroused. But we have some business there that simply can’t be handled through diplomatic channels, and we’ve decided to chance it.”
“Chance what?” asked Mrs. Pollifax cheerfully.
“Roughly speaking,” he said, “we want to get a man out of China, but to do this we must first get a man into China—an agent, of course—to accomplish this. Your job, if you take this on, would be to provide cover for this agent, and at a certain point approach a certain native—not an agent—who’s known to have some helpful information.”
Mrs. Pollifax said warmly, “Well, that sounds easy enough to—”
Bishop interrupted her. “Of course it sounds easy and innocuous,” he said indignantly, “because he hasn’t mentioned that in making this contact in Xian you become absolutely expendable—all to guard the identity of someone else—and that this man in Xian, who is not an agent, could just as easily turn you over to the People’s Security Bureau, for all we know about him.”
Carstairs looked at him incredulously; in an icy voice he said, “My dear Bishop, all our people become expendable when they take on a job, you know that and so does Mrs. Pollifax. I’ve already told her it’s dangerous.” He turned back to her and said stiffly, “Bishop is right, of course, and you would be risking exposure at that point, but to this I would add that it’s of value to us that you do not speak Chinese, and would not speak it either in your sleep or under drugs; that you’ve endured interrogations before, and have shown a remarkable ability to sustain the role of Aggrieved and Misunderstood Tourist. I have every hope that such talents wouldn’t be needed, of course, but still—despite Bishop’s inexplicable attack of sentiment,” he said, giving him a quelling glance, “he is perfectly right.”
“Sorry, sir,” Bishop said lamely. “It’s just that—”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Pollifax, and drew a deep breath. “You’ve made it quite clear, I think—both of you—but of course I’d love to go. As soon as you said China—”
Damn, thought Bishop, she’s going to go: Carstairs’ blood pressure will be up for days, and I’ll have to resort to tranquilizers. This is always what happens after she goes because all hell usually breaks loose around this woman and we have to sit here in Langley Field, Virginia, and worry about her. How could we have forgotten this?
“Good—we did hope you’d take this on for us,” Carstairs was saying heartily, “because I can’t think of anyone who would provide a better aura of—well, respectability, but at the same time be resourceful enough to make a contact that is not going to be easy. You can leave in ten days, on June first?”
Mrs. Pollifax smiled. “You once gave me exactly one hour’s notice. Yes, I can leave in ten days.”
“And Cyrus Reed,” put in Carstairs. “I hear that it’s turned into quite a romance between you two, and that you’ve been seeing a great deal of each other since you met. Will he object to your doing another job for us?”
“Cyrus,” she said, neatly fielding both comment and question, “is in Africa until June sixth. He left last week to visit his daughter. The daughter,” she reminded them, “who was on safari with us last summer and met and married a doctor there.”
Both of them nodded. In any case, thought Bishop, the question had been a mere courtesy; both he and Carstairs knew very well that Cyrus was safely out of the country and could make no objections.
“But what is it,” asked Mrs. Pollifax, “that you do have in mind?”
“We’ll get to it, shall we?” said Carstairs, and left his desk, moving to the opposite wall where he pulled down a large map of the People’s Republic of China. “Our particular problem, as I said,” he began pleasantly, “is that it’s almost as impossible to get an agent into the country as it is to get someone out. Especially since the man we want to rescue—let’s call him X for the moment, shall we?—is in a rather inaccessible area. Actually,” he added casually, “in a labor camp.”
“Labor camp!” exclaimed Mrs. Pollifax.
“Labor reform camp, and roughly in this area.” Picking up a pencil he described a circle that enclosed a startling number of miles in the northwest corner, a region colored yellow-brown on the map, denoting desert and other inhospitable possibilities, with only the names of a few cities or towns interrupting the space.
“But that’s a great deal of country,” pointed out Mrs. Pollifax, taken aback. “And you don’t know exactly where?”
“Not precisely, no,” said Carstairs. “That’s what we hope you’ll find out from the man you contact in Xian, who spent several years in that same labor reform camp. His name, by the way, is Guo Musu. He’s a Buddhist, and they suffered rather extravagantly during the Cultural Revolution. Many of their temples and monasteries were taken over or destroyed, and the monks sent off to communes or labor camps, where in either case they were given massive doses of Mao’s thinking … gems such as book learning can never be considered genuine knowledge, and how heroic it is to give oneself totally to one’s Motherland—and of course to Mao. Because of this we hope he’ll prove sympathetic enough to pinpoint the location of that camp for you.”