Sunday, August 23, 2009

Memories of Tehran, 1978

Daniel Conte lies in a hospital bed at Landstuhl Army Hospital, Germany, after having barely survived a fierce gun battle with the terrorists who possessed the plutonium pit stolen from a Russian weapons lab. An IV drip dispenses a pain killer whenever Conte presses the little red button at his hand.

As Conte pressed his little button his mushy mind called up to semi-consciousness images of those last days in Tehran in 1979. The disenfranchised poor pouring out of their hovels to join marauding students stampeding down Kourosh-e-Kabir street and swarming over the walls of the British Embassy to smash windows and set buildings aflame. Huge columns of grey-black smoke boiling up into Tehran’s cerulean blue sky. Army tanks and APCs rumbling through the streets. Army troops, APCs, and gun emplacements at the corners of Shahyad Square. And incongruously, the scent of roses in the greenhouse at the US Embassy where Conte said a hurried goodbye to Taraneh.

Conte remembered her pulling him back to kiss again as he turned to go. He would never forget the look in her eyes. She knew what he would not let himself even consider. He wondered now at his naïve belief that the small parcel of US territory called an embassy, surrounded by a nation gone mad, would ever be an island of safety.


In Chapter 21 of my novel, The Lion and the Sun, I mention Doshantapi Air Base, Tehran, a main base of the Royal Iranian Air Force (RIAF) and, in the novel, the launching point for the novel’s protagonist, Daniel Conte, in the last leg of his mission to recover the missing Russian plutonium pit. The primary action in the novel takes place in 1994, but Conte was in Tehran in 1978-79 and his return brings back troubling memories.

I spent five weeks in Tehran beginning October 2, 1978. Martial law had been declared in Iran the previous month due to strikes, violent demonstrations, and riots.

I was in Iran with three other Air Force officers assigned temporary duty with the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG). We were placed in temporary billets at a decrepit apartment building in downtown Tehran that had been reserved for US personnel supporting the RIAF. The apartment building was surrounded by a frail-looking barbed wire fence that would’ve provided little obstacle to the rioters, had they gained knowledge of our existence and decided to come in for a discussion of US support of Shah Reza Pahlavi.

The entry to the building was guarded haphazardly by two Iranian soldiers. Each carried a matt black, pistol grip Uzi, which they slung around casually by a strap hung over their shoulder. They spent most of their time in a tiny guardhouse at the gate, where they drank tea and played checkers. They seemed to pay no attention to us as we entered or left the building. Our attempts at friendly greetings were met with sullen nods of the head. Every night we heard gunfire in the streets.

We were bussed to and from Doshantapi and often met armored personnel carriers patrolling the streets. We had two guards aboard the bus; conscripts with rifles across their laps, often pointed at one of us across the aisle. We were prohibited from carrying weapons.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

From The Lion and the Sun

Daniel Conte has just come from the American Embassy in Vienna, where he reviewed information on a missing Russian plutonium pit. The sky is threatening and he takes shelter in the Palais Liechtenstein.

Conte thrust his hands in his overcoat pockets and hurried along Boltzmanngasse towards the U-Bahn station. A towering bank of thunder clouds had built up in the south-east over the Danube and a gusting wind was blowing what was left of the Autumn leaves erratically down the cobblestone street. Lighting slashed through the cloudbank and the rumble of thunder reverberated through the narrow streets.

Conte didn’t want to get soaked. He had too few clothes to fall back on. He turned down Strudlhofgasse, practically running now. Dead ahead was the Liechtenstein Museum. He made it to the entrance just as the deluge slammed down out of the lightning lit sky.

The Palais Liechtenstein had seen better days. The Baroque palace, still owned by the Liechtenstein family, had been opened to the public and displayed, among other things, their private art collection, but they didn’t appear to be putting a lot of money into maintaining the magnificent, old building. Still, it had a kind of grand decadence about it.

Conte checked his overcoat and climbed to the second floor where there was a small coffee bar. On the way up he passed an oversized photorealistic portrait of a young woman. The painting was so large it covered the entire wall over the landing. Conte could make out the fine fuzz on the woman’s cheeks. Her eyes seemed to follow him as he turned up the steps. Kaitlyn’s face, her lovely eyes and soft lips, came suddenly into his mind.

There were only a few people in the coffee bar. He sat at a small, round table, wrought-iron legs and marble top, sipping his mélange and occasionally glancing at his watch.

“May I join you?”

Conte looked up at a woman trying to balance a small silver tray with a coffee and some sort of pastry, while lugging a soft-sided leather briefcase. There were scattered raindrops on the case. She had her left shoulder elevated to prevent the strap holding her handbag from slipping, giving her otherwise attractive body a somewhat deformed aspect.

Conte rose quickly and held her chair for her. “Please,” he said.

She smiled, and went about placing her tray and arranging her belongings. Once she was settled she glanced over at Conte and said, “Beastly weather.”

Conte watched her and marveled yet again at how women seemed so adept at lugging purses, briefcases, shopping bags, and often children without seeming to miss a beat. It was something he’d noticed about his wife, who, determined to maintain her career, had managed to ferry their two kids here and there, while doing all the things required of a mother, and a professional woman.

Glancing again at his watch, Conte said, “I hope the rain lets up soon. I’m really not dressed to go out in it.”

The woman took a sip of her coffee. “Are you here for the exhibit?” Seeing the puzzled look on his face, she continued, “They are hosting a special exhibit of erotic art. It’s been so popular they’ve decided to stay open today.”

Conte shook his head. “No, just came in out of the rain.”

The woman wore a knit wool skirt, long-sleeved, white cotton blouse, open at the neck to show ample cleavage, a casual blazer, and a brilliant orange, silk scarf. Several gold bracelets slid along her wrist as she raised her cup to her lips, glancing under her eyebrows at Conte.

“I made a special point of coming by, though I’ve been earlier in the week. You really shouldn’t miss it, you know.”

She pronounced ‘been’ like ‘bean,’ and her ‘A’s, aah -- aspects of an upper class English accent -- but her speech was somewhat wooden and she rolled her ‘R’s. There was the remnant of a ‘V’ sound in her ‘W’s.

Conte smiled and nodded, wondering briefly where she’d learned her English.

The woman took a bite of her pastry, something with a flaky crust covered in powdered sugar, and then dabbed at the corners of her mouth with her paper napkin, careful not to smear her cherry-red lipstick.

“I know a little something about erotica. Would you like me to show you around?” The rolled ‘R’s and the remnant ‘V’ a bit more pronounced as she said this.

Conte had a difficult time reading the expression on the woman’s pale, attractive face, but not her meaning. “That’s very kind of you, but I’m afraid I have to be going.”

The woman watched Conte as he rose from the table. “You’ll be soaked. Perhaps we can share a taxi. Where are you staying?”

“I can get to my place quite easily via the U-Bahn,” Conte said. “But thanks anyway.”

The woman raised an eyebrow. “Ah, too bad,” she said.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

From The Lion and the Sun

Daniel Conte is in Vienna following up leads on the disappearance of a plutonium pit from a Russian Weapons Lab. One of the people he interviews is at the International Atomic Energy Agency. Demitri Protopopov is the director of the division responsible for WMD inspections in the Middle East.

Protopopov had a face like a basset hound, full of folds and furrows, sad, brown eyes, with several layers of bags under them. He was able to see the humor in some of the shenanigans that went on around the Agency and he got a twinkle in his eye when discussing the strategy of how to get something through the bureaucracy. He shuffled around his office in his stocking feet, smoked, and drank his tea after heaping four teaspoons of sugar in it. He had crayon drawings tacked to the wall behind his desk. One showed three stick figure children with a ball, an animal of some kind, a tree on one side of the drawing, and a big mushroom cloud on the other side.

Conte reflected on the fact that Westerners assigned to the IAEA, Americans especially, tended to be frustrated by the dance that’s required before any real business was possible. Generally, the first meeting with someone was all about creating “rapport.” The weather was discussed, of course, your trip over, where you’re staying, the sad state of the IAEA cafeteria, and so on. You shook hands and on the way out said, “Oh by the way, I would like to come back and discuss…” whatever it was you were there to discuss in the first place. An appointment was made. You said your goodbyes, and the next stop was lunch.

Protopopov was not one to violate protocol, but Conte was. “Mr. Protopopov…” Every gentleman at the Agency was referred to in formal settings as ‘mister,’ even if they were a director, a doctor, or a mail messenger. “I understand that you are negotiating a new safeguards agreement with Iranian nuclear authorities?”

Protopopov smiled, rearranged the penholder on his desk, and said, “Of course. The Agency has a safeguards agreement with Iran. It was brokered by AEOI, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. Developments during the recent war requires that it be modified.”

Protopopov and Conte sat in leather chairs arranged around a beaten copper coffee table of the sort one finds in the bazaar in Esfahan or the exotic furniture department at a New York department store. Conte sat forward, hands on knees. “Is Iran making a complete declaration, or are you going with what they’ve provided in the past?”

Protopopov reached for another biscuit. Holding it a few inches from his mouth, he looked at Conte and said, “Of course we expect a full declaration.” He popped the biscuit in his mouth and chewed thoughtfully.

“Mr. Protopopov,” Conte took a sip of tea while Protopopov was chewing. “Are you concerned that perhaps Iran has nuclear facilities that are not on the Agency’s list of sites?”

“Well, Mr. Conte, that is a matter for our Deputy Director General to address during his visit with Vice President Habibi next week in Tehran.”

“I see. And pending the outcome, when do you expect Agency inspections to resume in Iran?”

“A team has already been to Tehran to discuss the matter with the AEOI. These things cannot be rushed, Mr. Conte. You must understand that sovereign nations take their sovereignty seriously.” Protopopov fairly beamed at Conte, thinking that he had surely scored diplomatic points with this utterly obvious observation.

“I’m just wondering, Mr. Protopopov, if you’re at all concerned that Iran may be following in the footsteps of Iraq and trying to pull the wool over the Agency’s eyes?”

“I see.” Protopopov studied Conte for a few seconds before going on. “As I recall, you were an advisor to our Iraq Action Team and spent some time in Iraq.”

Conte just nodded and waited for Protopopov to continue.

“We were amused by that exercise, Mr. Conte.”

Conte cocked his head slightly, “How so?”

“Well, everyone knew that your people were sending information back to the US CIA, but at least it was somewhat subtle. These days the Americans’ ‘research’ is so much more obvious. It reminds me of an old joke we used to tell in the Former Soviet Union. It seems that a notice was posted on the swim club bulletin board informing the members that a certain member, Comrade K we shall call him, was being dropped from the club. A friend of Comrade K approached the club chairman and inquired as to why this was so. The chairman said that Comrade K had peed in the swimming pool. But comrade chairman, said the inquiring member, we both know that members often pee in the pool. Yes, said the chairman, but not from the diving board!”

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Who is Daniel Conte?

He is the lead character in my novel, The Lion and the Sun. Someone asked me recently what my novel was about. When I was first writing it I would have answered, it's a spy novel. But as I wrote it I realized that it's about a man who happens to be a spy.

Daniel Conte has been in the espionage business almost 20 years. He came to it after serving in Vietnam. He came to it with a duty, honor, country attitude. He thinks he's made sacrifices in the service of his country. And he has, but so has his family, and not willingly.

Conte wants his wife to understand that he does what he does because circumstances demand it; America's national security is always at risk. The world no longer fights wars that have point-in-time beginnings and endings. It simply fights battles in one interminable war in the global power struggle.

Conte and his wife are undergoing a trial separation, but Conte thinks he can fix things. He's done it before. After all, that's the business he's in -- fixing things: power struggles in foreign countries, loose nucs in places you never heard of, bad people selling weapons to other bad people, and unfortunate situations that impact exchange rates. Conte knows he can fix his marriage. Only this time, he won't get the chance.

Conte, on his way back to the States from one assignment is turned around and sent on another, one that will come close to terminating his career with prejudice. Conte will survive the bullets, but the mission will uncover repressed memories of past betrayals and lead to new ones that will challenge the very core of his beliefs in his service, his country, and in himself. And in the end, there are no heros.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Pass me another piece of biscuit, please

My Uncle Ugo worked as a pan greaser in a south side bakery in Chicago. It was a good job, because he could bring home broken biscuits. We had more biscuits than we could eat. I fed the stale biscuit pieces to my pet pigeons. That worked out okay until they started demanding strawberry jam.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

River of Pain

I left my love behind, and hid my thoughts of her in the labyrinth of my mind. I walked along the river, watching the waves and whirls and waiting for the pain to wash away. And here I am again, wondering if it ever will. Willing myself to walk away again. Wondering if I will.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

From The Lion and the Sun

The taxi pulled up to the entrance of the Marriott where I was waiting. The weather was overcast and cold in that bone chilling way that seems to be unique to the concrete jungles that form the core of our major cities. The Christmas decorations around Crystal City looked sad and neglected and did nothing to brighten my mood. For Christ sake, it’s not even Thanksgiving yet.
My taxi driver was a burly, dark complexioned guy wearing a turban. He had a full beard partially hidden by a heavy winter scarf. The name on his chauffeur’s license was Jagtar Singh. As he slipped out into traffic a book fell from the top of his dash into my lap. I turned it over and read the title. “The Puzzle Palace,” by James Bamford.
“You reading this?” I asked.
The driver spoke to me while he watched his side mirror. “Sure I read it. You know this book?” Without waiting for me to answer he went on, “All about America spy agency, NSA.” He glanced at me. We were on the way to CIA headquarters. What was I supposed to say? I just smiled and raised my eyebrows.
“Where did you get it?”
“My son gave me this book. He is in US Air Force,” the driver said, abruptly changing lanes and gunning the cab.
“What’s he do?” I asked.
The driver made another abrupt lane change and charged on to Jefferson Davis Highway. “He’s a good boy,” he said, glancing at me.