Bryson had only had one serious job in his life, and this was it; still, he recognized the undertones of the pink-slip talk. He fought the urge to defend himself, for that was not Directorate procedure; it was unseemly. He recalled one of Wallers mantras: Theres no such thing as bad luck, then thought of another maxim. "Alls well that ends well," Bryson said. "And it did end well."
"We almost lost you," Waller said. "I almost lost you," he added ruefully, a teacher speaking to a prize student who has disappointed him.
"Thats not pertinent," Bryson said quietly. "Anyway, you can't read the rules on the side of the box when youre in the field; you know that. You taught me that. You improvise, you follow instinctnot just established protocol."
"Losing you could have meant losing Tunisia.Theres a cascade effect:
when we intervene, we do so early enough to make a difference. Actions are carefully titrated, reactions calibrated, variables accounted for. And so you nearly compromised quite a few other undercover operations, in Maghreb and other places around the sandbox. You put other lives in jeopardy, Nickyother operations and other lives. The Technicians legend was intricately connected to other legends wed manufactured; you know that. Yet you let your cover get blown. Years of undercover work compromised because of you!"
"Now, wait a second"
"Giving them defective munitionshow did you think they wouldn't suspect you?"
"Damn it, they werent supposed to be defective!"
"But they were. Why?"
"I dont know!"
"Did you inspect them?"
"Yes! No! I dont know. It never crossed my mind that the goods werent as they were represented."
"That was a serious lapse, Nicky. You endangered years of work, years of deep-cover planning, cultivation of valuable assets. The lives of some of our most valuable assets! Goddamn it, what were you thinking?"
Bryson was silent for a moment. "I was set up," he said at last.
"Set up how?"
"I can't say for sure."
"If you were set up, that means you were already under suspicion, correct?"
"II dont know."
"I dont know? Not exactly words that inspire confidence, are they? Theyre not words I like to hear. You used to be our top field operative. What happened to you, Nick?"
"MaybesomehowI screwed up. Dont you think Ive gone over it and over it in my mind?"
"Im not hearing answers, Nick."
"Maybe there aren't any answersnot now, not yet."
"We can't afford such screwups. We can't tolerate this kind of carelessness. None of us can. We allow for margins of error. But we cannot go beyond them. The Directorate doesnt tolerate mistakes. Youve known that since day one."
"You think there was something I could have done differently? Or maybe you think some else could have done it better?"
"You were the best we ever had, you know that. But as I told you, these decisions are reached at consortium level, not at my desk."
A chill ran through Bryson upon hearing the bureaucratese that told him Waller had already distanced himself from the consequences of the decision to let him go. Ted Waller was Brysons mentor, boss, and friend, and, fifteen years ago, his teacher. He had supervised his apprenticeship, briefed him personally before the operations he worked on early in his career. It was an immense honor, and Bryson felt it to this day. Waller was the most brilliant man hed ever met. He could solve partial differential equations in his head; he possessed vast stores of arcane geopolitical knowledge. At the same time his lumbering frame belied his extraordinary physical dexterity. Bryson recalled him at a shooting range, absently hitting one bulls-eye after another from seventy feet while chatting about the sad decline of British bespoke tailoring. The .22 looked puny in his large, plump, soft hand; it was so under his control that it might have been another finger.
Copyright Robert Ludlum 2000. All rights reserved.
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