SPOOKING ME II
by Melodie Johnson Howe
Before I was interrupted by the fire, I was writing about my excursion into the CIA. Even spies need to eat. And the CIA has one of the biggest food courts I have seen. Think of a football field filled with neon signs reading Burger King, Barbecued Ribs, Wolfgang Puck. There are food stations filled with comfort food such as meat loaf, pasta, macaroni and cheese. There is Chinese food, Mexican food and lots of salad bars. There are dessert stations. Ice cream stations. And a Starbucks. It is filled with thousands of people. When I walked into this I was immediately abandoned by the other writers. They all seem to know exactly what they wanted to eat.
I am not good in stores like Target, T.J. Maxx, or Costco. I go into sensory overload. Because there is so much of everything the abundance begins to look unappealing to me. And I can’t pick out what I came in for. I need the confines of a menu in order to make a selection. It’s the same as writing in a genre for me.
I somehow get swept into a salad bar line and I realize I had no tray. As I’m being shoved along I spot the trays on a center kiosk. Now holding my tray like a shield, I take deep breaths and plunge back into the salad line. I grab a roll (though it wasn’t the one I wanted) and place it on the tray. I snatch tongs and hurriedly pluck salad onto my plate. The tray tips. The roll falls to the floor. A man in a subtle pinstripe suit standing next me chivalrously bends down and picks it up. He starts to return the roll to my tray then thinks better of it. His cold blue eyes assess me.
“I’ll take care of this,” he said in a firm steely voice.
“Thank you,” I respond in a conspiratorial whisper.
A hit man. A wet job. The roll disappears forever.
With our lunches and lattes we are ushered into a conference room where we interview a charming and utterly unilluminating agent. I stare down at my sad little salad and no roll. I’m feeling sleepy. I gulp more latte. In comes a short quick dark-haired man with a beard. His eyes have a furtive intelligence. He gives us a curt nod. He was an ex-agent/analyst who is now a CIA historian. And he is angry about how Hollywood and writers portray the CIA. He is going to lecture a group of authors who, except for me, are thriller writers, and tell us that we have it all wrong. Now I’m alert. This is going to be good, I think. A real curmudgeon in the midst of all these blandly nice people.
He quickly hands out copies of a review he wrote about the movie “The Good Shepherd.” It did not get four stars. In fact it got a cyanide pill. Then he sits and fusses with his computer. On a large screen up pops a sentence something like “the prevailing thought among film makers and writers is that CIA is bad and everything else is good.” What he really detests is the marketing of “The Good Shepherd,” which stated it was the true story about the beginning of the CIA.
He then begins to rip the movie apart on every level showing us there is not one truth in the movie. It is then my evil friend Gayle Lynds pops up, points at me, and says, “She nominated ‘The Good Shepherd’ for the Thriller Award for best movie. It won.” The angry historian is now staring at me as if I were a mole. I flash him one of my best smiles. He ignores it and continues as if he hasn’t been interrupted. Maybe it was that he ignored my winning smile, but as he went on and on about how silly the movie was I began to feel testy. I heard him saying:
“There are only two words in the entire film I liked …” he paused just long enough.
“The End?” I hear myself saying.
There is silence in the room then the writers burst out laughing.
“Angelina Jolie,” he announces flashing her picture on the screen. Those were the two words he liked. CIA humor.
Then the evil Gayle turns back into my smart friend and asks him if they hadn’t marketed the movie as the truth would he still have hated it.
“No,” he admitted. “It would have just been another bad movie about the CIA”
He said wasn’t asking for writers to paint the CIA in a good light, just a realistic one. Most of us go home to our kids at night and water our lawns on the weekend, he added.
These are some of the authors he thought did that: John le Carré, W. Somerset Maugham (Ashenden: the British Agent, which I wrote about in an earlier column), William F. Buckley (Blackford Oakes books), (sorry, no first name) Hood (any spy series), Robert Littell, and Alan Furst.
Before we left we were taken into the gift shop to buy anything we wanted at a discount. Yes, The CIA has a gift shop filled with sweatshirts, baseball caps, mugs, paper weights, pens, tumblers, flasks, mouse pads, and teddy bears all with the CIA logo on them. Now I ask you, would the KGB or the Stasi have a gift shop?