We were sitting on the terrace of the Victoria Falls Hotel, drinking late into the night, two colleagues, retired Africa hands, who’d worked together briefly at Langley. Now by chance we found ourselves in Zimbabwe, attending a conference that neither of us found interesting. A moon was riding the night sky above us. It was almost midnight, and we were alone, beholding the moonlit gorge of the Zambezi River just after it plunged through the falls.
“You ever meet Brian Osgood Jones?” Marlo asked.
She had retired several years earlier from the Agency, one of the few women to serve as a station chief in an embassy. She’d done that here in Zimbabwe for two tours – six years – and she’d been a good choice for the job. She grew up in the Foreign Service, part of it right here in Zimbabwe, and she used to speak Shona so well that in a dark room an African would have bet she was one of them. She’s out here now, teaching for a year at the University, and the Shona is still in good repair.
“The anthropologist?” I asked. She nodded. “Heard about him. In – let’s see – connection with Qatar, maybe?”
I smiled. “Never encountered him,” I said. “Friend of yours?”
“I happened to meet him the first time on this very terrace. Now I hear he’s been nominated for a Nobel Prize.”
I guffawed. “They letting folks nominate themselves these days?”
“The Qataris nominated him, I believe. He has a wife there.”
“So it means nothing. Just an interesting item on a resumé.”
Her mentioning Jones – of course, I’d heard of him – made me appraise her for a moment as a woman. She was thoroughly professional, a talented officer, knew how to run a shop, rather executive, and thoroughly loyal to the Agency. It was said she’d proved herself willing to sleep with targets when that was necessary. She also had a womanly side. She was undeniably sexy, but at least with colleagues she hid her attractiveness beneath an aura of competence.
I wondered for just a moment if there’d been anything between her and Jones; one always wondered that when Jones’ name was spoken. Then I realized she would never have mentioned him if there’d been a connection. Lovers are something one must be very careful about in our business. I’ve had a few – I’ve a very tolerant wife, God bless her – and one of them very nearly cost me a promotion.
“Brilliant anthropologist,” Marlo said. “He picked up languages as easily as he’d pick up a handkerchief.”
“Or a girlfriend.”
She laughed. “That’s the man,” she said.
We gazed out together at the moon hanging over the Zambezi.
“What was he doing in Zim?”
“Ostensibly teaching. But he was really doing an up-close study of how Africans had taken the institutions of democracy and totally subverted them: stolen elections, corrupted the judiciary, muzzled the press. That’s happened all over the continent. That’s why it promised to be a fascinating and important book.”
I could see that she had fallen a bit under his spell.
“I was here attending a regional conference. Can’t remember now what the topic was.”
“A conference as interesting as this one, eh?”
She smiled. “I was on this terrace late the last evening, happy to be alone. Jones came out to join me.”
“He use his line on you?” The talk had always been that Jones, who was originally Irish, had a line of blarney that no woman could resist.
“I wish he had. I’d have liked to hear it. But there was no preamble. He said simply, ‘I could be a first-class agent for you.’”
“I wasn’t sure he’d actually said that.”
I could well believe that. In the game we play no one outside the embassy was supposed to know that she was the station chief.
Marlo laughed. “I looked at him, a little surprised,” she confessed. “He said, ‘Anthropologist is the perfect cover. I’ve set up informants all over the country. I get information from them that’s often confidential.’” She took a sip of her drink and said, “I’d never had this kind of approach. He went on, ‘I could probably run a dozen of my informants as agents. Without their even knowing it.’”
“Were you tempted?” I asked.
“Of course.” She smiled. “It was damn hard to get good intel here in Zim in those days. The Mugabe people didn’t trust us and the assets we developed in the opposition kept getting compromised. They’d disappear or meet with fatal accidents. Of course, I wondered why. I said, ‘Why are you offering to do espionage for us?’”
She laughed. “He was affronted that I’d said espionage. He very loftily remarked” – and here she imitated his outrage – “that despicable word. I would never compromise my professional reputation by spying.’” She spoke the word as if he had spat it. “’I’m offering to act as an advisor, a consultant, to your embassy.’ I said, ‘We call it espionage. If you hold it in such low regard,’ I asked, ‘why would you stoop to it?’”
Marlo gave special emphasis to the word “stoop.” We nodded to each other and clinked glasses. After all, “stooping” to it was what we had spent our professional lives doing.
“And why would he?” I asked. Motivation is always a crucial question. Sometimes it’s patriotism, but Jones was an Irishman, offering to pass intel to Americans. Sometimes a volunteer feels that a country’s being driven off a cliff – certainly one could think that about the Mugabe crowd – and that he can make a difference. Usually it’s what it was in this case.
“He frankly admitted he needed the money,” Marlo said. “I ventured that he must be doing pretty well, drawing a handsome salary from the university and getting royalties from his books. ‘There’s no money in books,’ he said. ‘Lucky if you sell fifty.’”
“Was he frank about why he needed the money?”
“To put his Irish son through university. He mentioned that he’d been married to Maeve for twenty years and she’d never given him a child.”
“You had this all checked out, of course.”
“He had filed for divorce, continuing to sleep with her for he never gave up on that. And she got pregnant, presented him a son. Patrick. Catholic, he never divorced her and Patrick was now at the Trinity College, Dublin.”
I grunted. “Always careful of the volunteer who needs lolly,” I said.
“I told him I’d think about his working for us. ‘No, no,’ he corrected. He’d be working with us, advising.” Her voice underlined the word “with.” “A consultant.”
“What did ‘thinking about it’ mean?”
“That I wasn’t going to make a move until I’d discussed it with the Ambassador.”
“He happened to think it was an interesting idea. I explained to him, of course, that I was not about to let my professional standing be tarnished by a man of Jones’s reputation.” Marlo turned to me. “You can see what would happen: The female station chief in Harare – female station chiefs still being something of an experiment inside the Agency – signs on as an agent a man with a worldwide reputation as a mesmerizer of women. The Agency assumes she’s been compromised and pulls her out of the country.”
“So you turned him down.”
“No. The Ambassador undertook the negotiations with Langley.”
“And Langley said no.”
“They weighed the factors: that intel in Zim in certain quarters was almost impossible to get; that Jones might prove useful; that he was in his late 60s, presumably slowing down—“
“Maybe a little. That I was 52 and unlikely to be swept off my feet; that every woman known to have been targeted by Jones was in her 20s.”
“So Langley approved?”
“The Ambassador handled the negotiations, but I was present.”
“Did he have charisma?”
“It wasn’t charisma. He had an intensity of focus so strong that when he gazed at you you had the feeling that for him you alone existed. He genuinely liked women. His manner involved a sincerity of interest that truly wasn’t feigned and a kindness that convinced you you must be exquisite. And it was all so beautifully packaged. The man was attractive in an animal way – even in his 60s. There was a physicality that could make a woman tremble.”
“Sounds like you trembled yourself.”
“That gaze didn’t affect me. But imagine the power it had on young women in their 20s, women whose senses of themselves were seeking assurance that they were attractive and interesting. They often felt that no man had ever looked at them before, that no man had found value in the looking. So if Jones wanted to take a bite out of them, as he frequently did, they were only too happy to oblige him.”
I laughed, a little astonished frankly, and thought I should probably be drinking coffee. I poured us each a bit more wine and asked, “You decided to engage this as an agent?”
“In some ways it seemed so perfect. Both to me and the Ambassador. Then when we negotiated payment, he insisted that we pay him a retainer.”
“Payable in London. I was skeptical; the Ambassador agreed. Can’t remember now for exactly how much.”
“Embarrassed to remember the amount?”
“It was high. But there was room for it in the budget. We stipulated that what he gave us would be exclusive to us, shared with no other parties. No stipulation as too how much intel he would actually feed us. But it came in a steady flow.” She laughed, sipping her wine and looking straight out at the Zambezi gorge under moonlight.
“Why the laughter?” I asked.
“Whenever he was going to present us with some especially significant tip, he would say, ‘I can’t give you this under the retainer. This is extra.’ Perhaps because there had been danger in acquiring it. Or his ‘informant’ – or he himself – had been in danger developing it. Or Mugabe’s Security Service might be able to trace where it came from.”
“And you bought it.”
“He would tell you just enough about it to get your mouth watering. You had to have it.” She shrugged. “So you bought it.”
“Until it got, of course, so that you were buying almost everything.”
“Just the way our world works.”
“I’ve had operatives like that,” I said. “You think you’re running them. In fact, they’ve running you.”
“In thin months I began to wonder if he were making some of the stuff up.”
“You always wonder that,” I acknowledged. “Did you put someone on it to check him.”
She smiled. “Of course. We thought we were being careful, professional.” She laughed now and shook her head. “Oh, that trickster! Our exclusive stuff turned up in the Times of London. The Washington Post. The Guardian. By ‘Our exclusive correspondent in Harare.’ With a little explanation at the bottom—“
“Saying that the correspondent must remain anonymous due to dangers in Zim,” I said. “Was he feeding the information to journalists?”
“We tracked it down. He was writing the stuff himself.”
“The man had energy,”
“He was a dynamo. Then Embassy Maputo queried us about stuff the government there had shared with the embassy. It could only have come from Jones. It turned out he was sharing intel developed for us with the South Africans, even the Mozambiqueans.”
I rose and paced about, finished off my wine. I’d run questionable agents, but never something like that. “What did you do?”
“Had a little talk with the man. I said, ‘We know what you’re up to. Guys get killed playing such games.’ He turned the full force of his intensity, his manner, his animal attractiveness on me. ‘That won’t work with me,’ I told him. ‘We’re turning you loose with a recommendation that you leave the country. That’s for your safety.’ He said, ‘You can’t! I desperately need money.’ It turned out he was playing more than one game.”
“Really? Teaching at university, selling intel to embassies and security services, writing free-lance articles. . . He should have been getting rich.”
“And all the while chasing women students.” Marlo shook her head in admiration. “Even so,” she said, “he truly was in desperate need of money. There weren’t just Maeve and Patrick to sustain in Dublin. When he was teaching at University of California, San Diego, he passionately wanted a child. Maeve was holding out on him – he was 40 then – but he knew a California girl would bear him a ‘love child.’ Keira whom Brittany gave him was then an adult, doing a residency to become a brain surgeon or some such. She needed financial support. He was delighted to have his genes replicated in a brain surgeon.”
I started to speak, but Marlo said, “No! Don’t interrupt. There’s more.
“Then when Jones was teaching at the University of Toulouse in France, one of the oldest in all of Europe, Solange was his most promising student. He married her, assuming the civilized, tolerant French would never to punish a man for loving. Solange presented him with twins Georges-Henri and Philippe. They were then attending lycée.
“Later, doing research at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Oxford, he began an in-depth study of the Islamic world. Arabs were playing an ever greater role in world affairs and he needed to stay au courant. He met Nadia from Qatar. Qataris are a modernizing crowd, very happy to welcome a well-known anthropologist into their culture. Jones married her in a Qatari wedding ceremony. Men in Nadia’s family didn’t care that Jones had other wives; in Qatar a man can have four.
“Jones transferred to University of Zimbabwe – a step down from Oxford, that’s true, but Jones had become obsessed with writing his book. Nadia returned to Qatar. There she bore him a son whom they named after the Prophet.”
“So in Qatar he’s known as Abu Mohammed.”
We laughed together at that and clinked glasses that were empty of wine. “So,” she went on, “the guy had wives and children in Ireland, California, France and Qatar. He pleaded with me, ‘My children are dependent on you for their educations. But I’m really here because I knew that I could be of service to your embassy.’
“I shouted at him, ‘You’re finished with us!’ It was intolerable. I told him, ‘We won’t blow your cover with the other outfits you’re diddling, but you’ve gotten your last paycheck from us.’”
“And that was that!” I said. “Good riddance.”
“Oh, no! It wasn’t the end. He told me very confidentially that he had just succeeded in seducing Zindziswa, a student, the favorite granddaughter of one of Mugabe’s top generals, a member of his inner circle. She had moved into his house. His old magic was still working. The general told everything to Zindi, as he called her, and she told a great deal of it to him. She had a taste for Johnny Walker Red Label, he said. It loosened her tongue. He fed her Red Label late at night, then took her to bed. As she lay in his arms, top secret stuff flowed out of her mouth.”
“You didn’t fall for this,” I said.
“We were skeptical, of course,” Marlo insisted. “So we decided to have our best man track him. We played him for a month or two to see what happened.”
“What did happen?” I asked.
“Black cats are bad luck and Zindi was a hellcat. Jones used her for access to the Mugabe circle; Zindi used him as an ATM. Jones always assumed he could charm a young lady and seal it with seduction. He had great technique, but he was running short on staying power. We learned this because Zindi seduced the man we had tracking him and we approved. Turned out Zindi wanted partners who were volcanoes of testosterone, who could play all nine innings. Jones was good for a well-played inning, maybe two. After that he was spent.
“Then there was a robbery at Jones’s house. Money was taken, not a lot of it, because he was sending everything he could get his hands on to his families. He came to talk to me about it, concerned that it was instigated by Mugabe’s people.”
“What did you think?”
“I thought it was an inside job and told him so. Our man told us that Zindi and a different boyfriend went through the house.
“Suddenly Jones told everyone that he was off to New York to see his publisher. Zindi asked to go with him. He told her no.
“That infuriated her. Somehow she got into his computer and discovered that he taped her late night ramblings. She realized he was working for us. So she obliterated the computer with an axe and set fire to the house. That was the end of his book. He feared it might be the end of him. He came running to us fearing a fatal accidents. We hid him in the Ambassador’s office. Then we got him out of Zimbabwe inside the diplomatic pouch.”
“That must have been a very tight fit,” I remarked.
“We got him to Johannesburg, put him on a flight to Abu Dhabi, then onto Qatar. God knows what story he concocted for his Qatari wife and her male relatives, but they found a place for him at their university.”
While Marlo related this tale, clouds had drifted over the moon. They’d obscured the effect of moonlight on the Zambezi gorge and the night had grown cooler. We’d long before finished off the bottle of wine. It was time to call it a night.
“Some people always land on their feet,” Marlo observed. “Brian Osgood Jones is one of them. He even resurrected the book Zindi tried so hard to destroy. And now the Qataris have nominated him for a Nobel Prize.”
“Extraordinary fellow,” I agreed. “I won’t be surprised if he gets it.”