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Such Men Are Dangerous

Lawrence Block

  Such Men Are Dangerous

  Lawrence Block























  THE DESK MEN at the Agency run to type. They are all an inch or two over average. They wear dark suits, white shirts, striped ties. They drink scotch and water or bourbon and water or, in the summer, vodka Collinses. They work out once a week at a gym, usually handball or squash. They smile a lot, but not quite enough to get on your nerves. You wouldn’t mistake them for sales managers or purchasing agents, but might think they were personnel men, which, come to think of it, is close. If you’d been around them much, you’d place them right off. This isn’t the liability it might seem; they don’t operate under cover, hardly ever leave Washington, and so it doesn’t matter a hell of a lot who knows what they are.

  This particular one was no more than a couple of percentage points off the standard. He was a little bonier than most, and I’d guess his weekly exercise was cross-country running. He shook hands firmly, looked me right in the eyes when he talked, and had a voice that was resonant with sincerity and definition of purpose. None of this means anything, ever.

  He said, “Sorry we’ve taken so long processing you, Mr. Kavanagh. You know how it is, the mills of God and the wheels of bureaucracy.”

  “No problem.” Nor had it been. They had me staying at the Doulton and they were covering the tab, and three weeks of good food and plush surroundings had not been hard to take. Waiting did not bother me; patience is as much a part of the life as action.

  “I hope you’ve enjoyed Washington?”


  “And they’ve made you comfortable here?”

  “No complaints.”


  I waited for him to say something, and it took me a minute to realize that he wasn’t going to. I thought of out-staring him. Pointless; it was my hotel room, but it was his town, so we would play it by his rules. He was waiting for me, which meant he had an answer for me, which meant there was a question I was supposed to ask

  I smiled with as much warmth as he deserved and asked three. “Well,” I said, “where do I go and who do I see and when do I start?”

  His face clouded on cue. “Good question,” he said. “The thing is, Paul, that I’m afraid there’s nothing open right now, nothing that’s your sort of thing, not at the moment. The way things stand at the present time—”

  “Wait a minute.”

  He stopped, looked at me.

  “Let’s start over,” I said. “I didn’t trot on down to Washington with a question mark on my forehead. You people called me, remember? You asked me if I’d like to join the team. I said I didn’t have anything better to do, and it sounded good, and I came here and went through the interview routine and took the tests, and didn’t make any waves, and three weeks disappeared, and now—”

  “You’ll be paid for your time.”

  “Oh, the hell with that. If my time’s not worth anything I don’t care whether or not I’m paid for it.” I got out of the comfy chair and walked across the deep carpet toward the window with the overpowering view of our nation’s Capitol. I got halfway there and turned around. “Look, you don’t mean that there’s no job open. There’s always a job open. What you mean is that somebody who wanted Paul Kavanagh changed his mind during the past three weeks. What I’d like to know is why.”


  “I want to know, and I want you to tell me. Maybe you want to go someplace else because your people bugged the room. That’s fine, but—”

  “Don’t be silly. We didn’t bug the room.”

  “Then we’re all in trouble, because there’s been a pebble mike in the light socket since I checked in, and—”

  He got to his feet. “It’s ours.”

  “Of course it is. Look, Dattner—”


  “George. George, I know the game. I honestly do. I’ve played it and I know how it goes. Understood?”

  “All right.”

  “So I’m not asking you to reconsider, because in the first place you didn’t make the decision and in the second place these decisions aren’t reconsidered. I know all this. Okay?” He nodded. “All I want is an explanation. Somewhere in the past three weeks somebody’s mind changed. I want to know why. I know my record over the past ten years. Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia—I got good marks right down the line, and I know it, and there’s nothing that could have turned up recently that wasn’t on my sheet all along. Right?”

  “Go on.”

  “Well, what else is there? My civilian record? I don’t have one. Family? They were all lifelong Republicans except for a maverick uncle who voted for Truman in ’48. They’re all dead now anyway. College? I never signed a petition or joined a political group. I played football and kept up a B-minus average. Somebody wanted me to run for student council once but I didn’t have the time. Or the inclination. After graduation I had a tryout for the Steelers. I was too light for pro ball. In August my father died, and in September I enlisted in the Army. I made squad leader in basic and I went Airborne because I was scared of heights and didn’t want to admit it. Half the guys I knew were there for the same reason. The rest wanted to get killed, and some of them made it. Then I was over there for ten years, and you know about that. I could have stayed ten more years, but everybody gets tired of jungles sooner or later. I did, and I came home, and I’m here, and—”

  I turned away from him, chopped it off in the middle of a sentence and walked over to the window. I was annoyed with myself. The occasion didn’t warrant that sort of speech. I was letting myself get angry. There are times when it’s worthwhile to do this, times when a self-induced emotional buildup helps you function better, but this wasn’t that sort of time.

  I looked at Washington until the tension went away, then turned to Dattner. George. He asked if there was anything around to drink. I had a bottle of reasonably good Scotch in the bureau. I told him no, but I could call Room Service if he wanted. He told me not to bother.

  I went over and sat down again. He was still standing. “Your turn,” I said.

  “Pardon me?”

  “Your turn. I talked, and now you can talk. I’ve been out of uniform for four months and it’s inconceivable that I could have done anything suspicious in that time. I haven’t consorted with any communists or foreign agents. I haven’t consorted with anybody, I—The hell with it. It’s your turn, friend. I’m either a security risk or an incompetent. You’re going to tell me which I am, and how you people found me out”

  He gave me a long searching glance, and then his eyes moved momentarily to the overhead light fixture where they had planted their little toy. I think he did this on purpose.

  “I’ve already told you all I’m authorized to,” he said.

  “I realize that.”

  “So …”

  It took a second, but I picked up my cue. “I won’t let it lie,” I said, cooperatively. “If you go out of here now I’ll make waves until I find out what it’s all about. Ask enough people and you get an answer. I can ask my congressman, I can ask some reporters—”

  A quick grin showed on his face but not in his voice. “That’s not good,” he said. “I don’t … Paul, if I tell you what I kno
w, will you let it ride?”

  “If it makes sense.”

  “I don’t know if it will or not. It makes sense, but it might not make sense to you.”

  “Try me. Incompetent? Security risk? What am I?”

  “A little of both.”

  The anger came, an instantaneous tightening of the muscles in my legs and abdomen. I was ready for it, I knew it was coming, I was prepped in advance to keep a lid on it, but even so I suspect some of it showed. But I didn’t reveal it to the little bug on the ceiling. When I spoke, I made the words offhand, casual.

  “You’d better tell me about it,” I said.

  And he did.

  I’d been right—it was nothing in my service record, nothing in the college years or the years before, nothing in my family background. It was not in fact, anything I had done.

  It was what I was.

  “We’ve spent three weeks on you,” Dattner said. “We know more about you than you do, but that won’t surprise you. Part of our investigation has been your past history, and that’s good, just as you said. We knew that before we contacted you, before we invited you to Washington. If your record wasn’t perfect you never would have heard from us. Of course we went over it again, but nothing bad turned up.

  “Your record was only half of it, though. The rest of our investigation was concerned with what you are now, not what you’ve been and done in the past. That’s where the interviews came in, and the testing. There was a purpose to all those forms you filled out. Know much about testing?”

  “Just that I took enough tests to last me the rest of my life.”

  “Uh-huh. Know what they were designed to show?”

  I shrugged. “Whether or not I’m crazy, I suppose. The political tests were pretty obvious, though I would think that a person could fake his way through them—”

  “Not as easily as you might think.”

  “Maybe not. I’m no expert. The others, let me think There were physical tests which I’m sure I passed, everything from health and coordination to weapons and unarmed combat skills. I know I did well on that. And there was the psychological bit, questions like do I think little men are following me. A year ago I would have said yes, because a whole platoon of little brown men were following me, but that’s off the point, isn’t it?”

  He didn’t smile. I guess it wasn’t funny.

  “I suppose that test would show up personality problems. Homosexuality, that sort of thing. Or out-and-out nuttiness. And what else was there? IQ tests, on which I must have done fairly well, and tests to measure spatial relations and mechanical aptitude. One time they gave me a faucet to put back together, a water faucet. If that’s what kept me out—”


  “Because I’ve always had my heart set on being a plumber, and—”

  He lit a cigarette. “There were other tests,” he said. “Sometimes you were being tested when you didn’t know it. Your emotional reactions when you were kept waiting, that sort of thing. Psychologists are a sneaky bunch.” He looked around for an ashtray, and I got up and found him one. “Matter of fact,” he went on, “a psychologist could explain all of this better than I can. But I’ll talk to you and they wouldn’t so don’t get mad at me if I sound a little vague. It’s not my province.”

  I told him that was fair enough. He said all he could do was give me the gist of it in layman’s language, and I said layman’s language was all I could understand. He sat back and put out his cigarette and I waited, not entirely certain I wanted to hear what he was going to tell me.

  “Personality tests,” he said finally. “They’re considerably more sophisticated than you may realize. The one you mentioned with the questions about little men following you, for example. That’s the MMPI—”

  “Which means what?”

  “Minnesota Multi-Phasic Something-or-Other. It can spotlight a great many emotional conditions ranging from hysteria and paranoia to I don’t know what. Even when you know how it works it’s hard to cheat it. It’s been in general use for years—”

  “I took it two months ago.”

  “Uh-huh. Job application?”

  I nodded. “I applied for a dozen different things. Corporate executive positions. Some companies wanted me, but nobody offered me anything that excited me. One company gave me that test.”

  “Did they offer you a job?”

  “Haven’t heard from them yet.”

  “I don’t think they’ll hire you.”


  He nodded. “Your MMPI profile won’t be what they’re looking for.”

  “What am I? Hysterical or paranoid?”

  “Neither. But you’re not a company man, either.”

  “Go on.”

  He thought for a moment. “I don’t really have the vocabulary to make this work,” he said finally. “There were, oh, I don’t know how many tests. It would be pointless to go over each one and explain what it did and how you did on it. I can just sort of sum up what we found out. And I can tell you that the syndrome, the personality pattern that showed up, is not unusual. Not for a person of your background.

  “I said before that you were a security risk and an incompetent. For a second I thought you were going to swing on me.” I admitted that the impulse had been fairly strong. “Maybe I can make it clearer for you, then. Our tests indicate that you are not highly motivated in any particular direction. In other words, there’s nothing you want very much. You don’t want a million dollars, you’re not hungry for power, you’re not burning up with some social or political cause—”

  “Is this bad?”

  “Let me finish. What it boils down to, really, is that nothing matters to you very much, nothing beyond doing the job at hand, living a reasonably comfortable life, and staying alive.”

  “So that means I’m crazy?”

  “No. It might mean you’re too sane.”

  “You lost me.”

  “I was afraid I would.” He sighed. “From what I’ve said so far, you would seem to shape up as a perfect prospect for us.” The same thought had occurred to me. “You’ll do what you’re ordered to do, you won’t let personal ambition turn you off the track, you don’t have any obvious weakness that an enemy could exploit. So far it sounds like a perfect description of one of our operatives.”

  “Or a robot.”

  “Remember that you said that, it’s relevant.” He took out another cigarette but didn’t light this one. “To go on—you’ve got the lack of motive that fits the right pattern. But our men have something else, something that makes them function competently, something that keeps them from being security risks. It’s a deep drive to serve their country.”

  A dozen things occurred to me at once and I did not say any of them.

  “Not because they’re born patriots and you’re not, Paul. Usually it’s not a very pretty reason at all. Some of the time—I’d say a lot of the time, frankly—it’s because they’re latent homosexuals who have to prove themselves as men. And not always latent, either; some of our best men are, well, forget it.”

  “Stick to the point.”

  “Uh-huh. The point, I guess, is that they have to serve us. The nation, the Agency itself, it hardly matters which. If they’re robots, the controls that make them tick are here in Washington. The Agency fills a vital role in their lives, father or mother or brother or whatever. They will do whatever they are ordered to do.”

  “And I wouldn’t.”

  “No, you wouldn’t. Ten years ago you would have, and now you wouldn’t, and that’s the difference.”

  “I don’t get it.”

  “Of course you don’t, damn it.” He worried his forehead with his fingertips. “All right, let’s look at it from another direction. Do you honestly think you would take a black pill?” I stared at him. “A death pill. Cyanide in a hollow tooth, a lethal capsule sewn under your skin, whatever. Say your cover is blown and you’re captured and have to undergo interrogation. The only way to prevent the o
ther side from pumping you is to take yourself out of the play. Would you do it?”

  “I suppose so.”

  He shook his head. “If you really think so, you’re wrong. I can’t prove it to you. It’s true, just the same. You wouldn’t do it. Nor would you stand up very long under torture. Don’t interrupt me, Paul. You would realize even before they really started to hurt you that sooner or later you would talk, and you would know that it made good sense to talk right away and avoid unnecessary pain. And you’d sing like a soprano.”

  “I can’t believe that.”

  “Should I stop now?”

  “Not until you’ve told me something I can make sense out of.”

  “All right. Maybe this will help. You wouldn’t stand torture and you wouldn’t kill yourself for a very good reason. You would work it out in your mind, and you would realize that it just wasn’t worth it, that it wouldn’t make sense. Why die to keep the Chinese from learning a minor bit of data that probably wouldn’t do them a dime’s worth of good anyway? Why lose an arm or an eye or a night’s sleep and ultimately tell them anyway? And, to take it a half step further, why get killed when you could preserve yourself by turning double agent? Ten years ago you wouldn’t have thought those things out Ten years ago you could have reasoned that a man really could get himself killed jumping out of planes, and that chunk of insight would have kept you out of the paratroops.”

  “I’d jump tomorrow. Today, if you want.”

  “Because you’re not afraid of heights anymore.”


  “So you’re not afraid of heights. So at the same time you’ve gone through an emotional change. In a sense you’ve lost something, but there’s another way to look at it. You might well say that you’ve gained something, that you’ve grown up and learned how to think for yourself.”

  “And that’s bad?”

  “It may be good for you. It’s bad for us.”

  “Because I’ve learned to look out for Number One? That’s what we did in those jungles, friend. We were a batch of mercenary soldiers doing a job.”

  “You re-enlisted and stayed there.”