“Arriving at destination on right,” the GPS announced in a choppy, British accent.
“This can’t be right,” I thought as I pulled into the driveway. Before me was an old, very old, wooden house. I didn’t see any lights on and the property was intolerably overgrown. Wasn’t this the house people liked to say was haunted? It really wasn’t that bad. It looked abandoned but not haunted.
I double-checked the address. It was right, so I gathered my things, a briefcase and a cup of coffee. The man who lived here called himself “D. A.” on the phone. He was probably elderly and simply couldn’t keep the place up. After all, he’d hired me to write his memoirs.
The mildewed porch steps bowed under my weight. I swung the knocker on the faded black door. Clunk! Clunk!
“Come in!” a voice called from within, aged but strong.
The interior was much better kempt. Nonetheless, I couldn’t suppress a sneeze as I closed the door behind me.
“Over here. Peter, I presume.”
“That’s right,” I answered. I followed the voice into a large office, my footsteps echoing off the hardwood floor. The whole back wall was a bookcase, guarded by a broad executive desk. However, I found the old man—he looked to be about seventy—seated by the tall windows that let in the morning light. He wore slacks, a polo, and a plaid flat cap to conceal his silver hair.
“You must be D. A. Or would you prefer to be called something else?” I balanced my coffee on top of my case and extended a hand, but I was left hanging.
“D. A. is fine. That’s what I want on the book.” He tapped on the chair next to him with his cane. “Have a seat, young man.”
I set my cup on the tiny side table between the chairs and sat down. As I pulled out a notebook and pen, I mentioned, “I thought I was at the wrong place at first. Some people call this a haunted house.”
“I keep to myself. I was trained to,” D. A. answered wistfully. His brow furrowed in thought. “That’s why you’re here, actually. There is so much I meant to tell my children and wife, things I should have explained… oh, decades ago. I can’t now. I struggle to communicate. You’ll have to be patient with me, but I’m paying you by the hour for your time here so that shouldn’t be any trouble.”
I had forgotten to check the time when I arrived. I glanced at my watch inconspicuously, or so I hoped. 9:40. I must have been about ten minutes late. I determined to stay a little longer to make up for it.
“Quite frankly, my children don’t want to see me anymore. I hurt them by my absence. You see, I worked as a spy most of my life. That job demands your heart and will. I want to publish this autobiography of sorts, so that, if any of them should want to understand, they will be able to. Most of them became very rebellious. They set their lives on destructive paths. I wasn’t able to counsel them then. I wasn’t there when they needed me most. Perhaps, in this way, I will be able to speak some truth into their lives now.”
“That’s admirable.” My attempt to sound encouraging failed. I felt terrible for D. A. If his kids wouldn’t even visit him, there was no way they would read his memoirs. He blamed himself for their poor decisions, and he wasn’t entirely wrong to do so. What a lonely existence! I bounced the pen on a blank page of my notebook, wishing something could be done to mend those family ties. Alas, I was a writer, not a counselor.
“Let’s get this project going. Where were you born?”
He talked about his upbringing, how he’d always looked up to his dad, a decorated military man, and wanted to be a hero just like him. That childhood dream was what ultimately led him to become a spy. I didn’t have to ask many questions to keep the conversation on track, unlike with previous clients. D. A. knew what he wanted to say. Instead, I jotted down details that might find their way into the manuscript almost as fast as I could write. After two hours, I had crammed four pages with my small handwriting. We’d covered the first twenty-five years of his life, including his training and first mission as an agent.
“I should have more than enough here to get started.” I snapped my notebook shut and immediately sneezed. “Excuse me. I’m sure more questions will come up as I work. You can answer those for me next week, and then we’ll pick up where we left off.”
“Sounds good,” he agreed.
As I rose to leave, pictures lying on the executive desk caught my eye. I edged a little closer. They looked to be from a gruesome crime scene. Before I got too nosey, I faced D. A. to confirm, “Same day? Same time?”
“It was great to meet you, D. A. Until next time.” I extended my hand again.
Again, he ignored the gesture. “Until then.”
I sped home, eager to set my fingers to the keyboard while the information was fresh in my mind. D. A.’s was not the story I had expected when I took this job. In my line of work, you would always hope your next client had an interesting background. Personally, I wanted to write for an astronaut, an inventor, or especially a psychiatrist since that’s what I would have become if I hadn’t pursued writing. A spy, though? That had to top the list!
I researched the locations D. A. had mentioned to fill in the gaps in his memory. With only his initials, I couldn’t find anything on him or his relatives. He seemed oddly sensitive about sharing his name, so I didn’t press him for it.
Over the course of the month, we met four times. We always sat in those two chairs by the window, me with my morning coffee and him in his same Monday garb. The meetings became very relaxed and friendly, despite that I could never get a handshake. We both looked forward to our times together. He enjoyed the company, and I was happy to provide it. Maybe there was a strange smell in that house, though, because I couldn’t go a single visit without sneezing or coughing at least twice.
So much of what he told me about his missions felt like information I should not know, that shouldn’t be public knowledge. He assured me that it was fine since it had been so many years ago. Nonetheless, my futile research suggested that the records were still quite confidential.
His assignments centered in southeast Russia and Turkey, where he had spent seven years. When he got married at the age of thirty-four, he transferred to an administrative position, so that he could lead a more normal life. All too soon, he was called back to the field. Largely thanks to his earlier espionage, they’d been able to uncover a plot that threatened national security. Only he could stop it since he had an established persona in that part of the world. This mission, however, was indefinite in duration. He returned to the states, to his family, when he could, but he was overseas more often than not. Eventually, it became too dangerous to return at all.
“So, how did you finally get back?” I asked during our last meeting. I wanted to discuss his post-service years.
“I had infiltrated the enemy’s camp and earned their trust, but, because of that, I was stuck there,” D. A. explained. “Once they realized that they had a mole, it wouldn’t be long before I was found out. By the time our government extracted me, my identity was compromised. Foreign intelligence knew who I was and that I had the information they wanted. They sent agents to hunt me down. I couldn’t see my family without putting them in harm’s way, but it wasn’t enough to hide. If the agents couldn’t find me, they would find my wife and threaten to kill her if I didn’t talk. In that case, I would tell them whatever they wanted to know, and then they would kill her all the same because they couldn’t just let her go after she’d seen them and heard their voices.”
“If you knew they would kill her anyway, why speak?” I meant the question matter-of-factly, but it came out so callous.
“Because I loved my wife too much not to try. I made sure it didn’t come to that, though. I knew what I had to do to protect her.” D. A. paused. There was tremendous grief on his face but also a smile as he remembered the love of his life. He continued without looking up from the floor, “I jumped off the bridge over Pochano Creek. That was back in ninety-eight.”
“That’s a shallow creek! People have taken their own lives by jumping from that bridge.”
“End the book there.”
“No! That would make it sound like you died,” I protested and then cleared my throat to mask a cough. There was something to be said for a good cliffhanger, but not in a biography.
He responded dryly, “I want it like that.”
“Are you sure? There’s a lot you could say about your life now and maybe your family would have some sympathy…” Then it hit me, and I shut my big mouth in a hurry. The people who were after him thought he was dead, and he wanted to keep it that way. Did he really think they would still come for him if he turned up alive? That explained why he waited so long to do this and why he insisted on being called D. A. instead of his real name.
“Okay,” I finally complied. “I’ll write this up and edit it. My goal is to have the manuscript done in two months. You can look it over then, and I will make any changes you want. After that, I’ll publish it for you.”
“That’s very fine.”
It ended up taking almost four months to complete. I wanted to do my best work for D. A. He was a hero. He had sacrificed so much for his country, suffering to this day rather than endangering his loved ones. I was honored to write his memoirs, though, at times, I felt inadequate for the task. Some parts I rewrote four or five times. At long last, my enthusiasm outshined my insecurities.
I called up D. A. that afternoon. “The manuscript is ready! I could bring it by if you’d like.”
“Yes, please do!” That must have been the first time I’d experienced any amount of excitement from D. A. “I’ll be here.”
The sun was already going down when I rolled into the driveway. It set so early in October. A stray cat with charcoal black fur sat on the porch banister. The tip of its tail flicked back and forth like a metronome, and its golden eyes tracked me as I ascended the steps.
“Get!” I waved a hand to shoo it away, but it didn’t so much as blink. I sighed in defeat and swung the door knocker. No response came. I knocked harder. Nothing.
The cat cocked its head to one side, as if wondering what I was waiting for. I tried the doorknob. It was unlocked, as always, so I stepped into the hall and called out, “D. A.? It’s Peter. I have… the… Ah-choo!”
A thick layer of dust covered every surface, years worth. Hadn’t the house been clean on my last visit? There was nothing to suggest that someone was living here, yet D. A. had answered the home line only a couple of hours ago. My mind raced. I wandered into the office. The chair I had always sat in had noticeably less dust on it than everything else.
I had a sinking feeling. I approached the desk and finally picked up the crime scene images. They showed the mutilated body of a man washed up on a riverbank. Under the pictures was a newspaper that had been opened to a particular story. The headline read, “Dead man in Pochano Creek identified as former United States spy Dalton Attwater.” It was dated May 2, 1998.