The day was a bad one and Arch knew it could only get worse. He and his broken-down alcoholic and hungover partner, assigned at the last minute from supposedly experienced embassy staff, had been following the ‘target’ all morning. The woman wasn’t a target for any contact or violence but the tag was used by people such as ‘cowboy’ field agents like Willy who normally waited to receive either information or defectors while attending embassy parties or merely grousing around. Every embassy had at least one CIA cowboy assigned to it so locally indigenous assets would have a way to find the agency if they needed or wanted it. The cowboys had come by that descriptor because such agents never truly went out on missions or did any real fieldwork but acted like they were full-blown spymasters of the worst sort.
The woman was a difficult tail. She went into every shop around the plazas of Rome, which meant that Arch, having only Willy to be his team, had to go around each shop to make certain that if it had a rear exit it was covered so she would not give them the slip if she caught on the rolling surveillance. Willy refused to do the rear guard work and it was beyond useless to attempt to gain more control over him in the condition he was in. Back at the front of the Hermes shop, Arch had tried. Willy had stared back at him, fully erect with the sun shining so brightly on his face that it disguised the livid red nature of his alcohol-infused skin. He wore a Burberry trench coat. When Arch had asked about the coat, being worn on a sunny eighty-degree day in downtown Rome, Willy blurted out the truth.
“I want to look like a spy. It’s so cool to actually be out here and doing this. Women are looking at me.”
Arch sighed so deeply he thought he might pass out from lack of oxygen. That not being looked at or noticed at all was exactly what the mission demanded escaped Willy completely. He was a cowboy. Non-combat types, non-field trained, agents who never left home, or the embassy, could not be made to understand real fieldwork. It was useless to try. No matter how many times real field agents attempted to describe what fieldwork was really like, it never worked. The home office, and affiliated field offices, making up ninety percent of the CIA’s personnel, were pogues. Field people called office people 'pogues' while the office personnel referred to field agents as players. The word ‘player’ sounded, initially, better than pogue at first hearing, unless the tone the word was said it was taken into account.
It took hours for the woman to finally stop at a small deli, get a sandwich wrapped in white paper, and then walk the short distance from the deli to where the Trevi Fountain sat, pumping out its clear cool water into the pool that was attached to it. The Trevi had become famous from a song and then movie using its name, and Rome loved to take advantage of that fact. The woman didn’t take a seat by the pool, instead, walking all around the fountain to sit down on one of the stone benches that were set up between the back of the fountain and a beautifully constructed white office building just a few meters away.
Arch didn’t like it. There were too few people near where the woman sat, slowly unwrapping her sandwich. They really had no choice, however. To wait around the edge of the fountain was to lose sight of the woman and that they could not do. The woman was an embassy employee and not one of the local ones. As an American, she could not be electronically ‘tagged’ without a warrant. Even her cell phone location was protected. In Arch’s sixteen years with the agency, he’d only conducted physical surveillance three other times, and those had not gone well either.
Arch and Willy took seats on a nearby bench. Arch glanced directly at the woman, sitting in profile, but quickly looked away before she could notice his attention. It was enough. She was athletically built, wearing low pumps. A skirt, no stockings, and a simple white blouse were what she wore. Short hair, but not too short. The woman was about forty, Arch gauged, and attractive in a sharp-featured way. She gave no indication that she might have noticed two men sitting nearby, with one dressed out rather obviously as a spy.
“Why are we following her?” Willy asked, hushing his voice, although the sound of the fountain’s rushing water covered almost all other sounds.
“The purse,” Arch replied, wondering to himself why he was replying at all. “The purse is what we’re following, not the woman herself. I don't even know her name or her position at the embassy.”
“But she’s got the purse,” Willy replied.
Arch glanced at the woman again, noting the Dooney Bourke purse clutched to her left side.
“For right now,” Arch said, finally.
“So she’s a spy too, maybe giving information to the enemy?” Willy asked, his voice even more hushed than before.
“There is no enemy and I don't know why we’re following the purse.”
The woman suddenly got up, turned, crushing her empty sandwich paper in her right hand, and walked right toward them. Arch and Willy stared straight ahead as if there was something intensely interesting up the stairs and on the façade of the office building located only a few meters from where they sat.
The woman continued to walk straight ahead until she exited from behind the fountain. Arch turned his head to follow here movement.
“Washroom,” he murmured to Willy. “She’s headed straight for the women’s restroom across the plaza.”
“We just wait here?” Willy asked.
“No, you go stand by the wall over there,” Arch said. “The restrooms are down two sets of stairs behind the railing. We don’t know where she’s going when she comes out. With me here and you there we can cover all directions.”
Willy stood, or tried to stand.
“What the hell?” he said, his voice near a hiss.
Willy pulled on the coat but the back of it was held fast to the stone bench. He slipped out of the coat, turned and then bent down close.
“Gum, my coats stuck to the seat with gum,” he exclaimed in shocked surprise. “A huge wad of gum has got my coat. I don't want to tear it getting it off.”
“Leave it,” Arch said. “You can come to get it when she comes out, besides, you’ve played the spy thing about as far as it will go.”
Glumly, Willy followed orders and headed across the small plaza to where the toilets (or gabinettos ) were located. He stopped and stood next to the railing where the men’s room was, just aside from the women’s.
Arch watched closely, waiting for the woman to come out to see what direction she would head in. Suddenly, however, Willy straightened up and ran toward the steps leading down to the women’s toilet. He said nothing, nor did he signal. Alarm bells went off in Arch’s head. He grabbed the Burberry and used all of his strength to jerk it from the bench it was glued to. He wrapped the coat around his right forearm, creating a huge cushion, and then ran at full speed toward the women’s bathroom.
He didn't delay when he got there, plunging down the steps and thrusting himself through the open door. The scene that met him as he stopped was as shocking as it was patterned after other violent incidents from Arch’s past. Willy was down on his back, eyes closed, condition unknown. The woman was down in the corner with one man bending over her. The other man stood staring at Arch, his eyes big, surprise written all over him. The suppressed revolver in his hand didn’t move, so Arch did, stepping forward and ramming the tightly wrapped Burberry into his face. The gun went off twice, the rounds going through part of the wrapped coat but not hitting Arch’s arm. Arch twisted the revolver from the man’s hand, as he fell backward into the sink. Arch’s attack had been so hard and vicious that the mirror on the wall behind the sink shattered, sending shards everywhere.
Arch pulled his smoking trench-coated arm back and then slammed the man’s own weapon into the side of his head as hard as he could hit him. The second man stood up quickly, his head craned around to see his attacker. Slowly he stood, allowing the woman to quickly stand up too. Arch noted that she’d made no sound. No screams, and she didn’t give the appearance of being injured or attacked at all. The purse was still clutched to her chest.
Willy was moving. He slid out of the way as the unconscious man fell from the sink onto the tile floor. The second man raised his hands as if acting out a scene from an old American western.
“Help him up and then get the hell out of here,” Arch said to the woman, his eyes never leaving those of the second man. “Move as fast as you can to the business building behind the fountain. They’ll have security in a place like that. Call the police and wait. I’ll be along shortly.”
The woman did as she was ordered, Willy working to get control of himself and move through the open door. Arch stood waiting, most of his attention on the man with his hands raised. The shooter had not moved since he’d hit the floor.
“Non sparare,” the man said.
Arch understood. Don’t shoot. Slowly Arch brought the gun down. He unscrewed the large suppressor from the barrel, reached back and tossed it into the toilet behind him, then he pushed the small detent to open the cylinder and hit the loading lever on the left side of the revolver, noting it was a Smith and Wesson. He reflected on the fact that it was probably a .38 loaded with subsonic rounds. A quality weapon, two professionals and little question what should have gone down. The remaining four rounds spilled onto the tile floor.
Arch tossed the weapon down, and then backed out the door. There was nothing in his mission about killing hitmen or settling scores. He ran toward the business building. He glanced behind him once, as he turned toward the center doors of the building. At the top of the stairs, he could see over the fountain but there was nothing to see. Tourists wandered about, taking pictures, selfies and then eating and talking as they sat about on the man benches placed around the pool part of the fountain. There was no sign of the two hitmen.
Arch went through the thick double glass doors only to be confronted immediately by two security guards dressed in well-made black security uniforms.
“I’m with them, are the police coming?” Arch asked, making sure his own empty hands were fully visible at his sides. The guards did not appear to be armed but such appearances could be very far from the truth in such situations.
“Minutes,” one of the guards said in English, motioning Arch to put his hands on the counter to be searched. Arch complied. The guard unwrapped the damaged Burberry from Arch’s arm and then carefully folded it and put it in on a nearby chair. The search was quick and professional. Arch breathed a sigh of relief. Losing the woman or the purse would have been a disaster for his already tattered and beaten career.
Arch walked to where the woman and Willy sat.
“They shot my coat,” Willy lamented.
“Yes, they did, but think how cool that will be when you make up a story about your exploits,” Arch responded, before turning to the woman. He took the seat to her left.
“You’re a player,” he began, keeping his voice too low for the guards to hear, as they held the Burberry up to look at the blackened bullet holes all over it. It looked like the two bullets had made about ten holes because of the wrapping.
The woman said nothing.
“You’re a player and you sure as hell don’t work for State,” Arch said. “What’s in the purse?”
“They didn’t get it,” the woman replied.
“They didn't want it,” Arch said. “They were a hit team. They intended to kill you.
“Why would they want to kill me?” the woman asked, in seemingly sincere surprise.
“They might have presumed that you knew about what was in that purse,” Arch said. Whatever it has is of enough importance to have a hit on you ordered, probably at a pretty high level. Those were professionals, either ex-military or police. These people are not playing around. What’s in the purse?”
“A flash drive,” the woman finally said, the fact that she was still alive just beginning to dawn on her.
“What’s on it?” Arch asked, wondering if the woman would say a word.
“I’m with the DEA and what’s on that implicates the Deputy Minister of this country,” the woman replied, everything coming out in one breath.
Arch shook his head and leaned forward to note that the right arm of his expensive sport coat had two creases cut into the outer part of the sleeve.
“Where in the hell do you think you are?” Arch asked, trying to keep his voice down but his temper rising. “Have you seen the Godfather, for Christ’s sake? This country is a sieve of information passing. No wonder they were going to kill you, and now maybe the two of us with you.”
“What do we do?” the woman asked, her voice registering shock for the first time.
“What’s your name?” Arch asked, more to calm her down than because he cared.
“Virginia, like the state,” she replied.
“Yeah, I might have figured that last part on my own if given some time,” Arch came back.
“We’ve got to get out of here is what we’re going to do, and then get to the Embassy and get out of this country,” Arch made the plan as he talked, laying it out for her as if he’d known all along what had to be done.
“When we’re out of the country your DEA can ask my CIA to give you protection. The police here are going to be no help and their protection will be useless. Half the police in Rome have contacts with the Mafia.”
Arch stood up and walked over to the two security guards. “We’re leaving and will be at our embassy when the police arrive, but there’s not going to be much to report to them, anyway.”
The two guards looked at one another briefly. There was no way they could stop any civilian who wanted to get off their property unless there was a crime on the property, and Arch knew from their look that they knew that. Arch went back and pulled Virginia out of the chair by her left arm.
“We’re out of here,” he said, walking her between the two guards, who seemed like there were still making up their minds.
The look between them had made Arch uneasy. Had the police, whom they had called, asked them to detain all three of them? Willy scrambled after Arch and Virginia, leaning down to grab his destroyed coat.
Finding a cab was easy. The three of them rode in silence toward the nearby embassy, Arch counting every second, in hopes that the police would not somehow interdict them, or maybe someone worse than the police.
They made the embassy in mere minutes. Arch guided Virginia and Willy to the Marine guard at the gate.
“Sergeant of the guard,” he instructed to the Marine Lance Corporal, pulling out his military I.D. card. The Lance Corporal took the card and then looked up.
“Yes, sir,” he responded. “That would be right now, sir,” he went on, needlessly.
He quickly handed Arch’s card back, as the sergeant had overheard the exchange and walked from a nearby guardhouse to where they were.
“Welcome back, Mr. Patton,” he said with a smile. “I see you have guests.”
“Two, both American’s, and we need to get inside the gate like instantly.”
The weird wailing sound of police sirens could be heard in the near distance.
“What a shock,” the sergeant said, pushing all three of them toward, and then through, the main gate, ahead of others waiting in line.
“What are we going to do?” Virginia asked. “I never want to leave the embassy again.”
“The ambassador will get us out, probably by transport to a U.S. base, likely to be Gaeta, and then flying out military,” Arch replied. “For right now, just find a place to sit and write your report. I’m going to write mine. Make yourself into the hero because I’m going to write that you’re an idiot and make myself into the hero.”
“What about him?” Virginia asked, causing Arch to turn.
Willy stood a few yards away, wearing his Burberry trench coat, covered in what were obviously many bullet holes.
“I can wear this, really, I think it’ll be fine,” he said, preening around and smiling grandly.
Arch stood staring, unimpressed by the coat but impressed by Willy. During and after what he’d been through the cowboy agent had remained unshaken and seemingly without much fear. There was more to the man than his wearing of the coat might indicate.
“Well, I’m certainly going to make him out to be an idiot in his own report,” Virginia said, before stopping abruptly and looking up into Arch’s eyes. “Will I see you again, ever?” she asked.
Arch looked away for a few seconds before bringing his gaze back. He tried not to lie to her, for reasons he couldn’t explain to himself.
“If you want to,” he replied. “I’ll make it possible for you to track me down but remember, this incident isn’t over for any of us. Not yet, and maybe never.
Real fieldwork is that kind of business. He pointed over at Willy preening around in his bullet-riddled Burberry. “That trench coat took the rounds that were meant for you. You might look into buying one of them when you get to London again.”