The Man in the Revolving Door cover

The Man in the Revolving Door

By Robert Edward Eckels

Appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, June 1969

© 1969 by Robert Edward Eckels, reprinted by permission of the author

This is the 329th “first story” to be published by Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine…an extremely smooth and unusually entertaining story for a “first”–very professional indeed, and with an aided quality of appeal: in slightly changed circumstances it could have happened to you—to any one of you…

The author, Robert Edward Eckels, was born on December 7, 1930 in East St. Louis, Illinois. He lived and worked in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri and Ohio before settling down in Maryland where he is employed by the Social Security Administration as Staff Assistant to the Assistant Bureau Director for Claims Policy. Mr. Eckels is married and has one son.

Mr. Eckels tells us that he has been writing fiction “off and on” for more than 20 years. “The Man in the Revolving Door” is his first published story, and now that he has “broken the ice” on the surface of Rejection Lake, battered down the gate of Acceptance City, he is hard at work on other stories—which we, for two, can hardly wait to read…

You’d think, considering all the trouble I had later, that I would have had some warning, some flash of intuition at the start that would have said Watch Out. But instead it all started in the most ordinary way, and I was too deeply embroiled to avoid it before I even knew I was in it.

The man’s name was, he said, Theodore Holbrook, and he had never been a patient of mine. You see what I mean? There was nothing out of the ordinary in that. Although my practice was well established I still accepted new patients. There was nothing out of the ordinary about the man either.

He sat, like any other patient or would-be patient, in the low semi-reclining chair across from my desk, letting his gaze wander curiously around the room while I spent a few moments reading the notes my office nurse had prepared. When I looked up, his glance had passed from the framed certificates that identified Lawrence Ross—me—as a graduate of Johns Hopkins and a duly qualified and licensed M.D. to the silver-plated model of a bombing plane perched on a corner of my desk.

I smiled to break the ice. “A souvenir of my days in the Air Force,” I said.

Holbrook smiled back. He had a particularly engaging smile, something like Van Johnson’s in the days when he was making movies with Judy Garland or June Allyson. There were other resemblances, too: the same pleasantly open face and the same brushed-back brownish hair.

“I know,” he said. “You were a major serving as flight surgeon with the 7822nd Bomber Group in England from 1943 until the end of the war.”

His answer surprised me. He was much too young to have been a member of the 7822nd, and although it was no secret I doubted if there was anyone in town with the possible exception of my wife and one or two close friends who could identify my old Air Force unit. It was slightly disconcerting to hear a total stranger rattle it off as if it were common knowledge. Still, that was no reason for me to be upset.

“You seem to know a good deal about me,” I said, waiting for his explanation. But when it came it wasn’t what I expected at all.

“I’ve made it my business to,” Holbrook said seriously.

This was definitely disconcerting. I would expect any prospective patient to make some sort of investigation into my medical qualification, but this was too much. I felt a growing sense of irritation and to cover it I retreated into professionalism.

“Perhaps,” I said, “you’d better tell me what seems to be the matter with your health.”

I might as well not have spoken for all the attention he paid me.

“I believe Michael Sovolos is a patient of yours,” he said.

“Yes,” I said shortly. Actually, Michael was more of a friend than a patient, but I did prescribe medication for him occasionally. “Did he recommend me to you?” If he did, I’d have a few words to say to Michael the next time we met. I put in a long day without having my time wasted by a garrulous young man, however ingratiating his smile may be.

“Not exactly,” Holbrook said.

“Although he is the reason I’m here. Perhaps this will make everything clearer.” He laid a leather cardholder on my desk and flipped it open.

Without looking at the card I said, “What are you, Mr. Holbrook? An insurance investigator?”

“Read the I.D., Doctor,” Holbrook said.

I picked up the leather case. It held a single green laminated plastic card. The upper left quarter showed a full-face photograph of the man sitting opposite me. The rest of the card identified him as an agent of the Central Intelligence Agency.

It took several seconds for the import of the words on the card to seep through to my conscious mind. I looked from the card to Holbrook. “The C.I.A.,” I said. “I’m afraid I don’t understand—”

“It’ll take some explaining, Doctor,” Holbrook said. He took the case from my hand and slipped it into his jacket pocket. “I take it we can’t be overheard here?”

“No, of course not.”

Holbrook nodded. All trace of the boyish grin was gone now. “Michael Sovolos,” he said, “is a Communist agent. Spy, if you like. And one we’ve been after for a long time.”

“That’s ridiculous!” I burst out. “Why, I’ve known Michael for—”

“For ten years,” Holbrook said. “Ever since he came here, supposedly a refugee from behind the Iron Curtain. But how well do you really know him? Do you know anything except what he’s told you himself?”

“No, but—” I shook my head. “Why the whole thing’s ridiculous! What would a spy be doing around here?” But even as I spoke I thought of the plant west of town that manufactured precision instruments. Some of its products were used in the aerospace and missile programs.

Something of what I was thinking must have shown in my face because Holbrook smiled—a very different smile from the boyish grin he’d used before—and said, “Precisely,” just as if he’d been reading my mind.

I realized suddenly that I was standing behind my desk. But I couldn’t remember rising. Now I sat down slowly, and my thoughts ran riot.

Michael a spy! It was almost beyond comprehension. But here was an agent of my government to prove it. Things like this just didn’t happen—at least, not to me or people like me.

But it had happened. And I felt personally betrayed. My friendship had been used and betrayed.

“Well,” I said gruffly, “why don’t you arrest him then? Deport him or whatever it is you do with spies. Why come to me?”

“It’s not quite that simple, Doctor,” Holbrook said. “To coin a phrase, Sovolos is just a little fish in a big sea. There are others—bigger fish—that he can lead us to. So it would be a mistake to pull him in just now. But he does have something we do need right now—a list of his contacts inside the missile plant. And that’s why we came to you, Doctor. You can get that list for us.”

“Now,” I said, “you are being ridiculous. I’m a doctor, not a secret agent.” But still, somewhere deep inside, I was pleased—and flattered—that they had come to me for help. That didn’t mean I would do what they wanted. But I was pleased nonetheless. “You must have better ways of doing these things,” I went on, “trained agents…”

“Trained agents we do have, Doctor. But not a way into Sovolos’ house that wouldn’t give the game away. That’s what you have.” He paused. “Or don’t you still go to his house every Thursday evening to play chess?”

I swallowed hard. “I suspect,” I said, “you already know the answer to that.”

Holbrook flashed his boyish grin, “Of course I do. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.” He was all business again. “There’s no alternative, Doctor. It has to be someone who has a legitimate reason for going into the house. Anything else—a faked burglary, for example—would only make Sovolos suspicious.”

“And I suppose,” I said sarcastically, “that he wouldn’t be suspicious if I just stood up and said, ‘Excuse me, but while you’re thinking about your next move, I’ll just go and search your bedroom.’”

Holbrook smiled faintly, and I realized that by interposing an objection I had indicated that I was actually considering his proposal. The idea was frightening.

“He wouldn’t be suspicious if he were asleep,” Holbrook said blandly. “You’re a doctor—you’d know what to give him.”

“No,” I said. “The whole thing is out of the question. I couldn’t possibly do what you ask.”

But the truth was, it was the sort of thing I could do. The medicine I prescribed for Michael was a simple tranquilizer, and in recent months he had got into the habit of taking one of the tablets just before starting our game. “To keep from getting too excited over the match,” he said good humoredly because it was I who always became too engrossed in the game. And to cap it off, because Michael had an almost pathological fear of overdosing himself, I limited his supply to one week’s pills—which, being a friend, I brought with me every Thursday night.

It would be a simple matter to substitute a narcotic, wait for it to take effect, then search his house. Michael would never suspect anything. In fact, he would probably apologize later for his rudeness in falling asleep.

Holbrook looked at me thoughtfully, then deliberately shifted his gaze to the model bomber on my desk. “I’m not going to wave the flag at you, Doctor,” he said. “I don’t think I have to. You proved your patriotism in one war. And once you have a chance to think it over, you’ll prove it again in this so-called ‘cold’ war we’re now fighting. And that,” he said, rising from his chair, “is all I ask—that you think it over. I’ll leave you my card.” He held out a card and I took it mechanically. “You can reach me at that number any time of day or night.”

At the door he added, almost as an afterthought, “After all, Doctor, it’s not as if we were asking you to do anything particularly dangerous. All we want is that you give a man a sleeping pill and then go through his rooms.” He winked at me suddenly. “A real piece of cake—as the British would say.”

With that he was gone, leaving me with the odd feeling that I had just been part of a scene from a movie and that an actor should be standing behind my desk, not me. Only the small stiff paper rectangle between my fingers reminded me that it was all very, very real.

If I were a movie doctor I would have had my nurse—who would, of course, be either young and sexy and obviously in love with the doctor or older with a wisecracking case-hardened exterior hiding a heart of gold—cancel my appointments for the rest of the day so that I could give full time to sorting out the welter of thoughts surging through my mind. But in real life doctors don’t do that sort of thing, not if they have any concern for their patients’ welfare. (They don’t have nurses like that either; mine is efficient, but middle aged and plain.)

So I had no choice but to go on. Which in a way was a blessing because by 7:30, when the reception room was cleared out and my nurse and I had finally closed the office, my day’s work had displaced Holbrook’s proposal. I hadn’t forgotten it, but it was only one problem among many—one I would deal with in my own way and in my own time.

It's moot to ask it now, of course, but I can’t help wondering what would have happened if it had stayed that way. That is, if I hadn’t met Dodson.

He was waiting for me outside my office. When he saw me coming he pushed himself away from the wall, holding up one cupped hand just too late to cover the yawn distorting his face. He wore a checked sports coat, light gray pants, and the widest tie I’ve seen since 1948.

“Dr. Lawrence Ross?” he said.

I sighed. Another one of those perennial freeloaders who manage to catch you out of office hours with a “simple question that wouldn’t be worth coming to see you about.” I said, without breaking stride, “My office hours start at nine tomorrow. You can see me then.”

“I know, Doc,” he said, falling into step beside me. “I know. And the next time I have a sore toe I’ll come to see you during office hours. But right now it’s my business I want to see you about, not yours. And my office hours run round the clock.” He dangled an open cardholder in front of me. “Dodson, C.I.A.”

I stopped short. “Good Lord,” I cried, “can’t you people leave me alone? I have your man Holbrook’s card. I’ll call him if I decide to go along with your plan.”

Dodson looked at me speculatively. “I think,” he said “you had better tell me all about Mr. Holbrook and his plan. But—” he took my arm and guided me up the street—“this is not the place to do it. Got a car, Doc?”

I pulled my arm free. In appearance and manner Dodson—with his “Doc’s”—was too much like a racetrack tout for my liking. Nevertheless, I let him accompany me up the street.

One thing I will say for Dodson: he was a patient man. Every time I tried to ask him something he would shush me with a “Later, Doc.” He himself was content to say nothing further until we reached my car. Then he waited beside the right-hand door while I unlocked the door on the driver’s side and got in.

For a moment I thought of starting the motor and driving off, leaving Dodson on the sidewalk and out of my life. But, for better or worse, I didn’t. I reached over and pulled up the knob on the door lock. A second later Dodson scrambled in.

“Better not just sit here, Doc,” Dodson said. “It looks suspicious. Drive around a bit while we talk.”

“No,” I said and the angry tone of my voice surprised even me. “Not until I know what’s going on here. First Holbrook shows up from the C.I.A. and now you. And you don’t seem to know anything about him.” I shook my head firmly. “I’m not going anywhere until everything is a lot clearer.”

Dodson held up a hand. “Okay, Doc, okay. No need to get mad. First of all, this Holbrook. Is he a real clean-cut young guy with brown hair brushed back?”

“Yes, that’s Holbrook.”

“Yeah. Only his name isn’t Holbrook. It’s Krasnevski, and he’s a Russian agent.”

“But, my God,” I said, “he can’t be. He looks so American. And he told me he was a C.I.A. agent.”

“Well, now, of course he looks American. He was picked because he looks American. And just what would you expect him to tell you?” Dodson’s voice rose archly, “’Hello, Doctor. I work for the K.G.B—you know, Russian intelligence. Would you care to indulge in a spot of treason?’” He snorted, then laid a hand consolingly on my shoulder. “Don’t look so shocked, Doc. It’s not the first time they’ve used this ploy, and you aren’t the first one to fall for it. There was a babe in London back in the ‘50’s who sold the Limeys down the river for years. And all the time she thought she was helping old Uncle Sugar cross-check on the secret dope his spies were feeding him. Now, tell me: what did Holbrook want you to do?”

When I finished telling him, Dodson let out a long low whistle. “Well,” he said, “I’ll say one thing for friend Holbrook. He sure plays for big stakes.”

“Big stakes?” I said. “Michael?” My head was spinning worse now than when Holbrook had sprung his bombshell at me.

“Yeah,” Dodson said. “Michael Sovolos.” He appeared to consider something carefully, then went on. “I guess under the circumstances you’ll have to know this, but if it goes any further—” He left the sentence hanging for a moment, then picked up again on a different tangent. “Anyway, your friend Michael is a pretty modest gent. Before he came over to us he was high up in a certain satellite government. And incidentally, Michael Sovolos isn’t his real name. What it is is something you don’t need to know. Anyway, even after he came over to our side he kept up a lot of contacts on the other side. That list Holbrook wanted you to get? It’s a list of people on the other side of the Curtain that we could—uh—use if the need arose. You can see why they would like to get their hands on it.”

“I’m not sure,” I said, “just what I see.”

Dodson nodded sympathetically. “I know just what you’re thinking, Doc,” he said. “Holbrook tells you one story and I tell you another. And both of us claim to be C.I.A. men and have I.D.’s to back it up. So who do you believe?”

“Something like that,” I admitted.

“Well, I wish I could make it easy and give you a phone number to call. But if you called the C.I.A. they’d deny ever having heard of either a Holbrook or a Dodson.” He smiled grimly. “I think you can understand why.” He paused just long enough to give me time to nod. “So the only way to do it,” he went on, “is the hard way—on faith. But while you’re making up your mind take a good hard look at Holbrook’s story.

“He told you, didn’t he, that it was important not to tip Sovolos off that his cover was blown? So how did he explain this? Sovolos is bound to check that list sooner or later—probably sooner because it’s not the sort of thing you toss in a dresser drawer and forget about. So if you steal the list it’s only a matter of time before Sovolos is tipped that the game is up. But if Holbrook is a Commie agent and all he wants is the list, it doesn’t matter if Sovolos is tipped off or not. Right?”

“But in that case,” I said, “why doesn’t Holbrook steal the list himself? Why should he bother to bring me into it?”

Dodson grinned triumphantly. “Because that house is under constant C.I.A. surveillance. Nobody gets near it unless we know who they are and what their business is.”

For the first time since Holbrook had approached me I relaxed, really relaxed. I hadn’t realized till then just how tense I had been. Michael wasn’t a spy. And I was off the hook. The only thing that troubled me was a stirring of guilt when I remember how quick I had been to condemn my friend. But anyone would have probably reacted the same way under the circumstances. I couldn’t really be blamed. It was Holbrook’s fault. And I looked forward to taking my revenge.

“I suppose,” I said, “that you’ll want me to testify against this man Holbrook or whatever his name is?”

Dodson fidgeted. “It’s not quite that simple, Doc,” he said.

With a sudden sense of foreboding I remembered that I had heard those same words earlier today.

Dodson went on, “We aren’t ready to pull the rug out from under Holbrook—not just yet. So—” he dragged the word out—“what we’d like you to do—” again he dragged the word out—“is exactly what Holbrook asked.” He smiled happily as he concluded.

“What?” I cried. “Give him the list?”

“Well,” Dodson said, “maybe not exactly what Holbrook asked. You drug Sovolos and find the list, but you give it to me and I give you a phony one to pass on to Holbrook.”

“And what do you do with Michael’s list?”

“I sneak it back to its hiding place.”

“After making a copy.”

Dodson laughed. “Not necessary, Doc. The U.S. Government already has a copy—given to us by Sovolos himself. Our only concern is to get the phony list to Holbrook so we can see who he passes it on to.”

I shook my head. “No,” I said, “it’s impossible. I can’t do it.”

Dodson leaned toward me. “Is it really so impossible, Doc?” he said. “Think about it. Are we really asking you to do something so difficult? Or dangerous?”

“Not dangerous!” I said. My voice almost cracked, and I coughed twice to bring it under control. “What happens to me when Holbrook finds out that the list is a phony?”

Dodson shrugged. “Who says he will?” He held up a hand to forestall me. “And even if he does he won’t blame you. He’ll just figure it was Sovolos who was too smart for him. That’s all.”

It was all very convincing—too convincing, in fact. I continued to protest, but Dodson had an answer for everything. And in time the meeting came to its foregone conclusion.

I agreed to help Dodson.

Agreed, however, with a queasy feeling that I should have gone on asking questions until I found the one he had no answer for.

Once in, I wanted the whole affair over and done with as quickly as possible. Dodson agreed, and so did Holbrook when I phoned him and made the necessary arrangements. Nevertheless, I had to wait till Thursday—three days away.

And for me, three days of pure hell. And a hell that was made worse by the fact that I couldn’t talk about my problem with anyone. Certainly not my wife, even if Dodson hadn’t forbidden it. I’d never be able to explain to her why a middle-aged general practitioner had allowed himself to get mixed up in a game of espionage. I had a hard enough time explaining it to myself.

Even Michael, who was part of the game, was ruled out as a confidant. You don’t keep a friend by admitting your willingness to drug him and search his house, even in a good cause.

I don’t know how I got through those three days. But it was Thursday at last, and I was on my way to Michael’s for our usual chess match, the bottle of sleeping pills cold and heavy in my pocket.

As usual, Michael met me at the door promptly, as if he had been waiting for me.

“Ah, my good friend,” he said, “come to revenge yourself for last week. Or,” he added with mock severity, “is it my turn this week to seek revenge?” Michael spoke English very well. Only a very slight foreign intonation and a few odd turns of phrasing betrayed that it was not his native language.

While he helped me off with my topcoat, I said, “You know exactly what happened last week. In fact, you could recite every move if you wanted to.” I had no doubts on that score. Michael had an excellent mind for chess. It was surprising that I ever managed to beat him.

Now he smiled. “Perhaps,” he said, “you take me for a chess ‘shark’ who is merely toying with you until the time comes to bet the really big money.”

I laughed. The thought of money riding on one of our games was just too ridiculous. And then I remembered that although the evening had begun just like a hundred others, this one would have a different ending.

When Michael turned back from hanging up my coat I had the vial of pills ready in my hand. “Here,” I said. “Your week’s supply. You’d better take one now before we start.” I hoped my voice didn’t sound as strained and unnatural to him as it did to me.

“Ah,” Michael said, smiling. “I see it all now. The exotic drug which cannot be traced—to dull my senses so that you win easily.”

I blushed.

“No, no, my good friend,” Michael protested. Like most Europeans he was oversensitive that others might mistake the point of his little quips. “Do not look so stricken. It is only a bad joke.” He took the vial from my hand. “To show you, I take one right now. Besides—” he smiled—“it will relax me and make me play all the better.”

It was all I could do to keep from following him out of the room to insure that he did take one of the tablets. I forced myself to go into the living room and stand by the already set up chessboard.

However, from where I stood I could hear the sudden rush of water as a faucet turned on in the kitchen. And in a few moments Michael was back, beaming. “All done,” he said. “And now—” he gestured toward the chessboard—”I believe it is your turn for the white.”

We sat down and started to play. Almost automatically I moved my king’s pawn two squares.

“Aha!” Michael said. “The old standby. Not particularly daring but a good solid move.” He moved his queen’s pawn two squares and settled back in his chair to watch me.

This wasn’t the first time he’d tried this particular gambit on me. On previous occasions I’d taken the pawn—with disastrous results to me. I wondered what would happen this time if I protected my pawn with my queen’s knight.

I never found out. Michael was asleep in his chair.

I eased my chain back and stood up slowly so as not to disturb him, then wondered why I bothered. The drug produced eight hours of dreamless sleep. They could blast a superhighway through the house next door, and he’d still sleep. I watched him for a moment, feeling a vague indefinite regret that I had to do this to a friend; then I set out to search the house.

I’d never searched the house before, but I had the advantage of a double briefing—from Dodson and Holbrook. Dodson had been the more helpful of the two. “It’s a small red notebook,” he had said, “and it’s somewhere in his bedroom. That’s all I can tell you because that’s all I know. I couldn’t find out any more without tipping Sovolos off that something was cooking.”

So with this in mind I went directly to Michael’s bedroom. It was simply furnished—a double bed with a bookcase headboard, two straight chairs, and a chest of drawers with a mirror hanging over it. The wall opposite the chest was half occupied by a sliding door closet.

Remembering a movie I’d seen years before, I pulled the chair over to the middle of the floor so I could stand on it and peer into the overhead light fixture. There was nothing there. However, the crystal shielding the bulbs was held in place by three small screws. I had no trouble getting the crystal off, but putting it back required that I balance it with one hand while I fastened the screws with the other. It was trickier than it sounds, and twice I almost dropped the crystal.

I was puffing when I got down off the chair. The question of why I had got involved in this affair was stronger than ever in my mind and even more unanswerable. But I was involved. And in for a sheep, in for a goat. I went over and lifted the mirror away from the wall. There was nothing behind it.

The chest of drawers was almost too obvious a place to hide anything in, but both Holbrook and Dodson had stressed that I should overlook nothing. Using almost identical terms they had said, “Look for the ordinary that’s out of the ordinary.”

Reluctantly then, because I felt a strong distaste for going through my friend’s personal things, I pulled out all the drawers and searched them thoroughly.

All I discovered was that Michael was a very tidy man.

I checked the bed, top and bottom: nothing. I felt along the edge of the wall-to-wall carpeting and found nothing. Barring a secret panel, which I discounted—I knew when this house was built and for whom—there was no red notebook in the bedroom proper. That left only the closet.

It was a larger and deeper closet than I had suspected, going back far enough to be considered a walk-in. A clothes rack neatly hung with suits and coats ran along the right hand wall. Opposite it, on the left, a long metal shoetree had been fastened to the wall, and a row of shoes had been impaled on its forms, soles sticking out.

Something struck my eye almost immediately: one of the shoes fitted imperfectly on its form. The shoe was an inch or so out of line.

Here indeed was the “ordinary that was out of the ordinary.” I licked my lips, lifted the shoe off its form, and felt inside the toe.

My fingers met a spiral metal edge and a second later I had pulled out a small notebook with a flexible red cover. I slipped the shoe back on its form and paged swiftly through the notebook.

I didn’t know what I was looking for—confirmation that Michael wasn’t a spy? In any case, I found no such confirmation. All the entries were in some sort of number code. Slightly disappointed, I put the book in my jacket pocket and started to leave. At the closet door I turned for one last look back and nearly had a heart attack.

All the shoes were now neatly in line.

It was easy enough to figure out what had happened. Once the notebook had been removed, the shoe fit snugly over the shaped shoe tree. I began to appreciate the advantage of Michael’s hiding place. One glance and he would know if anything was wrong.

And if he happened to glance in before Dodson got the notebook back into its hiding place the whole scheme—including my part in it—would have to be explained to him.

I had to set it right, but for one awful moment I couldn’t remember which shoe had had the notebook stuffed in it. Then I remembered—the third one from the far end. I hurried back and stuffed my handkerchief into the toe of the shoe. A little juggling and it was unsuspiciously out of line again.

I went back to the living room, left a note for Michael containing, I hoped, the right touch of humorous tolerance for his falling asleep after the first move in our game and was just letting myself out the front door when I remembered my second mistake: I’d left the vial of tablets.

To insure that Michael would get a sleeping pill the first time, every tablet in the vial was a narcotic. I had to get the vial back and substitute the vial of his regular tranquilizer that I still had in my other jacket pocket.

I ran back to the kitchen. There was the glass he’d used. But no vial. He must have put it in his pocket after taking the pill!

Back to the living room where I contemplated with dread the sleeping body I was going to have to search. There was no way to avoid it, though. Having gone this far, I had to go the rest of the way.

I moved the chessboard and began gingerly to pat his pockets. There was no likelihood that he’d wake up, but this was a thousand times worse than going through his bureau drawers.

After an eternity I straightened up—without having found the vial. For a moment I almost gave way to panic, but somehow I managed to keep control.

If the vial wasn’t in the kitchen and not on Michael, then obviously it had to be somewhere else in the house. Brilliant deduction, Holmes! But where? I tried to remember what had happened. I had given the vial to Michael; he had gone to the kitchen, taken a pill, then returned to the living room.

But not from the kitchen!

Remembrance washed over me and left me limp with relief. He had circled around and come back by way of the bedroom.

Into the bedroom again—the bedroom I’d thought I’d searched so thoroughly. And there, big as life, on top of the chest of drawers was the vial.

It was a matter of seconds to switch vials and rush out of the house. As the door closed behind me I remembered that I hadn’t replaced the chessboard. Well, Michael could make what he liked of that. I wasn’t going back into that house tonight.

Forty minutes later I met Holbrook at the spot we’d arranged and handed him a small red notebook. He leafed through it eagerly, then smacked it loudly against his palm. The sound was as sharp as a pistol shot.

“You won’t get a medal for this, Doctor,” he said, “but you’ve performed a greater service for your country in this one night than you did in all those years in the Air Force.”

I didn’t tell him that Dodson had used almost the same words fifteen minutes earlier when he had given me the false notebook I had just given Holbrook and taken the real one to return to Michael.

And that, as far as I was concerned, was the end of it. I considered myself well out of it, too. It was true I’d get no medal, but then nothing really bad had happened to me either.

That is, nothing really bad had happened to me yet.

It was three weeks later almost to the day when the bad started: Holbrook showed up at my office again.

This time, however, there was a subtle change in him. He still looked like an All-American boy, but an All-American boy grown cynical and slightly contemptuous.

The cynicism and contempt were more than apparent in the smile he gave me. “Surprised to see me, aren’t you, Doctor?”

“Yes,” I said. “I thought our business was finished.”

“Not quite, Doctor. But first let me give you a little token of appreciation from my government.” Still smiling, he placed a package of bills on my desk. “Then we’ll talk about the other work you’re going to do for us.”

“I don’t want your money.” I said frostily. “And I certainly don’t intend to do any more work for you.”

“You think not?” Holbrook said in a tone I didn’t like at all. “You’ll notice,” he went on in the same unpleasant tone, “that I said my government. Not our government or your government. I said it that way on purpose because—” he shook his head from side to side as if he were instructing a backward child—“your government and my government aren’t the same. Not the same at all. In fact, you might even say that your government and my government aren’t even as friendly as they might be.”

I swallowed twice to keep from blurting out that I already knew all about him and his government, and that the joke was on him. Somehow I managed to say, “Come to the point.”

“The point is simply this, Doctor: when you stole that notebook from Sovolos’ house you committed an act of espionage against the interests of your country. Your friend Michael isn’t a Communist spy. I am.”

I tried to look shocked. “And you expect me to continue to work for you! As I said it I realized that my indignation wasn’t entirely feigned. It was shocking that Holbrook would come into my office, brazenly admit being a communist agent, and expect me to continue to do his dirty work for him. That shows, I think, how little I understood the working of spies and their minds. I wasn’t to remain ignorant for long.

“I don’t believe you have any choice,” Holbrook said evenly. “Or rather, that the alternative is even more unpleasant. I don’t think your government would be very pleased with you if they found out what you had done.”

I licked my lips, “And how would they find out?” But I was learning fast; I had already guessed the answer to that.

Holbrook smiled, a caricature of his previous boyish grin, “Some anonymous person would send them copies of photographs of you handing over the damning evidence. Plus a tape recording of our telephone conversation when you agreed to go along with my little scheme.” He held up a hand. “Oh, I’ll admit the tape’s been edited, but even the man who edited it would have a hard time proving that. Maybe it wouldn’t be enough to convict. I wouldn’t know about things like that. But I do know—” and here his voice grew harsh—”that it wouldn’t do your reputation or your practice one damn bit of good. Once the story got out you wouldn’t be able to treat a dog for ingrown toenails in this town or anywhere else.”

Holbrook relaxed visibly, smiled again. “You wouldn’t want that to happen now, would you, Doctor?”

I tried to think of what I would do if I were actually in the position he described. I honestly didn’t know. I still don’t. It’s something to lay awake nights and think about.

Under the circumstances, though, I decided that the only thing to do was stall for time until I could get in touch with Dodson. “What is it you want me to do?” I said.

Holbrook smiled. “It’s very simple, Doctor. Just be a mailbox.”

I frowned. “I don’t understand.”

“Then I’ll make it clearer,” Holbrook said. “For obvious reasons we don’t have a direct contact between the top and bottom levels of our organization. As you’ve already found out—” again the bitter grin—”a lot of our people don’t even know who they’re really working for. Anyway, once an agent obtains some –uh—information for us, he just passes it on to the man above him who passes it on to the man above him. And so on. The problem is to arrange the meetings. They have to appear to be legitimate, otherwise the suspicious minds of the boys in counterintelligence would start working overtime. And, let’s face it, security is a consideration, too. You have to have a few breaks in the chain—cutouts—who don’t know the man above or below—unless you want your agents to topple like a row of dominoes once the first one falls.”

Holbrook laughed harshly. “I’ll bet you thought the U.S. had a monopoly on domino theory, didn’t you?” He didn’t wait for any reaction but went right on, “Now what could be more ideal for our purposes than a doctor’s office? If an agent has some information to pass on, he just calls for an appointment, identifies himself to you—we can work out passwords and such later—and hands the information over to you. A little later a second agent drops by and picks it up. From the outside it’s very legitimate—just two guys going to see a doctor. And secure too. The agents wouldn’t know each other; the first one could signal the second by a code ad in the paper. And you’d be a dead end because you wouldn’t know how to contact anybody—they’d always contact you.” Holbrook’s face reflected his mental savoring of the thought. “Perfect,” he said, “all the way around.”

“Perfect,” I said, “for everybody except me. I’d be expendable.”

“Only if you happened to get caught,” Holbrook said. “You’d be too valuable for us to waste needlessly. So take your choice: refuse and face certain exposure—or work with us and face possible exposure. Which is it going to be, Doctor?”

“I’ll have to think it over,” I mumbled.

Oddly enough, that seemed to be the answer Holbrook expected. He stood up. “Do that,” he said casually. “Take all the time you want—between now and Saturday noon. I’ll call you then and for your sake I hope you have the right answer.”

I watched him swagger out of my office, and I thought grimly: I’ll have the right answer for you all right. Wait till Dodson and the C.I.A. hear about your scheme to blackmail me into working for you!

I’m not clear even now about what I expected Dodson to do, but he had got me into this mess and he damn well would have to get me out of it.

It was at that moment I remembered I didn’t know how to contact Dodson! I didn’t even know his first name.

It took a few seconds for the full seriousness of the situation to sink in. Without Dodson I was a dead duck. There would only be my unsupported word that I hadn’t acted as a spy against my country.

The phone on my desk buzzed and I picked it up automatically.

“There’s a Mr. Dodson calling, Doctor,” my office nurse said. “He insists on speaking to you.”

“Put him on,” I said fervently.

“Hi, Doc,” Dodson said, and how I welcomed the sound of his cheerful, slightly nasal voice. “I understand you had another visit from our mutual friend.”

“How did you know?” I exclaimed.

He didn’t answer immediately, and for some strange reason that bothered me. Then his voice, confident and self-assured, dissipated my apprehension. “Why, the same way I knew before, of course.” He chuckled. “Can’t expect me to give away all my secrets.” Then seriously” “What did our friend want this time?”

“Is it safe to talk over the phone? I was becoming suspicious of everything now.

“Huh? Oh, sure, I’m in a phone booth and there’s no tap on your end.”

I told him everything—what Holbrook had said and how I had played along to gain time.

When I finished, Dodson was silent for a moment. “Boy,” he said at last, almost reverently, “what a break this is!”


“The kind of break you dream about! With you on the inside we’ll be able to get the lowdown on Holbrook’s whole operation.”

What he had in mind was all too clear. “No,” I said desperately, “I won’t do it.”

I might as well not have spoken. “It’ll be easy, Doc,” Dodson said. “We’ll plant a girl in your office as a nurse. You just tip her off whenever one of—”

“I told you no!”

“Oh? I don’t see how you can say that, Doc, seeing as how you’re going to have to go along with Holbrook anyway.”

“Go along with him? Are you mad?”

“The old you-know-what really hits the fan if you don’t,” Dodson said. “He wasn’t kidding when he said he’d turn those pictures and tape recordings over to the authorities. And then—” He clicked his tongue against his teeth.

“But you can clear me. You can tell what really happened.”

“I’m afraid,” Dodson said, “that it’s not quite that simple, Doc. As I told you before, we’re not ready to reel Holbrook in yet. So if you try to blow the whistle, the Agency’d have no choice but to call you a liar.”

I was stunned. “You mean,” I said, “you’d just stand by and let me be convicted of a crime I didn’t commit?”

“Well, we hope it wouldn’t come to that. But if it did—well, national security, you know.”

“Damn national security,” I shouted and slammed the phone down. Nevertheless, I knew I would have to do what he wanted.

I felt as if I were running down a narrow, darkened corridor through an infinite succession of doors that swung irrevocably shut behind me once I’d passed. No, there’s a better image: I felt as if I were a man in a revolving door—a man who couldn’t get out…

I know my behavior that evening worried my wife, although she said nothing. It would have been a relief just to talk to her about it. But if I couldn’t tell her before, how could I possible explain now? Finally I could no longer stand her concerned frowns and went to bed early.

I spent several 180-minute hours fighting the bedclothes before sheer exhaustion began to drag me down into sleep. Then an errant thought strayed up from my subconscious and shocked me awake: it was the question I should have asked Dodson but didn’t, the one that had nagged just beyond the range of my conscious mind during those three days before I had gone to Michael’s. I’d been too nervous and tense then—too involved—to bring it to mind, and afterward, trying to forget the whole matter, I’d suppressed it. But now conditions were just right and it surfaced.

I sat upright in bed and said aloud, “Why was it necessary for me to steal the book for Dodson in the first place?”

I could see the surprise on Michael’s face through the glass panels before he opened his door.

“Lawrence,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting you. And so early in the morning too.”

“I know you weren’t,” I said curtly. “But I couldn’t wait until Thursday night to see you. May I come in?”

“Of course, of course.” Michael stood back to let me enter, then followed me into the living room. Without bothering to take off my overcoat I sank into an armchair. Michael remained standing in front of me.

“Perhaps some coffee?” he said. “You do not look at all well.”

“I imagine I don’t,” I said. “I didn’t sleep last night and at my age—”

Michael clucked sympathetically.

“But as a doctor,” he said, “you should know what to do for insomnia.”

“Oh, I do, I do.” I laughed shortly. “You of all people should know that. But last night I asked myself a question and after that I didn’t want to sleep. Because that one question led to other questions, which oddly enough led me to some answers.”

“It must have been an important question then,” Michael said.

“It was,” I said. “Would you like to hear it?”

“If it pleases you, yes.”

“It pleases me,” I said. I took a deep breath. “Why was it necessary for me to steal that book?”

I was watching Michael closely. Nothing in his expression changed. His lips remained curved upward in the same polite half smile. The slight furrow in his brow didn’t alter. But just for a moment there was a small flicker behind his eyes. It told me what I had come to find out: Michael knew what I was talking about.

“I’m afraid,” Michael said. “I do not understand your question.”

“You should,” I said. “It was your book, the one hidden in your shoe in your closet.”

“I think,” Michael said slowly, “I should call my friend Mr. Dodson of the C.I.A.”

“Oh, come off it, Michael. Dodson is no more a C.I.A. agent than I am. Or you are.”

“And what led you to that startling conclusion?” Michael’s smile was definitely gone now, and I didn’t like what replaced it.

“My question, Michael—the question I asked myself last night. Because there’s no answer to it if Dodson really is a C.I.A. agent. If all he wanted to do was pass a false list to Holbrook, there’d be no need for me to steal the real one. Dodson could give me the false one. Then I could come over here as usual, even drug you if necessary to make it look good, and then leave and give Holbrook the false list afterwards. But I wouldn’t have had to take the real list.”

“All this is very interesting,” Michael said. “Please go on.”

“So,” I said, “Dodson isn’t a C.I.A. agent, and for some reason it was necessary to his scheme that I steal the book. It could be that he just wanted the list for himself. But that doesn’t square with the way he acted when Holbrook tried to blackmail me into continuing as an agent. Dodson called me—I didn’t call him; I couldn’t—and pressured me into working for Holbrook, again on the assumption that I would in fact be working undercover for my own country.” I shook my head. “But I wouldn’t have been.”


“No. Because when you add everything up, there’s only one conclusion possible: Dodson and Holbrook are working the same side of the street. The whole thing was just a clever scheme to lull my suspicions and recruit me as an espionage agent. But in that event the book itself had no meaning. It was only a device to trap me. So, Michael, you had to be involved.

Michael turned away.

“When I think how easy it was made for me,” I went on, “I know you had to be part of it. I was too scared and nervous to think about it at the time but only an idiot would hide anything in a place as obvious as that single out-of-line shoe.”

Michael turned back to face me and for the first time I saw the gun. I never realized before how enormous the hole in the barrel of a pistol is.

“I had to put you down as being reasonably clever, Lawrence,” he said, “but naïve. I find—to my sorrow, because I really did like you—that you are much cleverer than I thought. But also much more naïve.”

“Then you did plan it together. The three of you.”

He nodded.

“For ten years,” I said bitterly, “you planning this. And you can say you really liked me.”

“No, not for ten years, although I will admit that the advantages of your office for our purposes did occur to me shortly after I first met you. But it was something I—how should I say? –kept in the back of my mind until the need arose. And now—” he gestured with the gun, not enough, however, to cause him to miss me if he had to pull the trigger—”all that planning for nothing.”

“You’d be foolish to kill me, Michael” I said suddenly.

“And why is that?” He was amused. The mouse was defying the cat, and the cat, sure of its strength and cunning, could afford to smile. “Have you left a sealed message with someone—to be opened in the event of your death?”

“No, but you’d lose your mailbox.” That eased his gently sarcastic smile, and I added hastily, “You can still have it, you know. It’s just going to cost you more.” I hoped I didn’t sound as panic-stricken as I felt.

Michael’s head moved slightly, negatively. “Far too much,” he said. “We’ll give you one hundred a month.” The gun didn’t waver.

“You’re crazy if you think I’d run the risks involved in a thing of this sort for a hundred dollars a month. No, it’s a thousand or nothing.”

Michael put the gun down, and I realized with a sudden chill that he had been testing me. If I had agreed to his ridiculously low terms he would have suspected that I was just talking to save myself and then—I shuddered inwardly and stopped following that line of thought.

“Welcome,” he was saying, “welcome to the ranks of the professionals, Lawrence. The smart ones who work only for the money. Because in this business you can never be really sure who your employers are.” He smiled wryly. “I think I am working for the Russians. But perhaps not. Perhaps it is Peking or Hanoi or Upper Volta that pays for my services. But what does it matter as long as the pay is good? The penalty for failure is the same in any case.

“But you, my old friend, you are going to have to be more reasonable. A thousand a month is too much.” His voice turned businesslike again. “Seven fifty. It is my highest offer.”

When I opened my mouth to protest he cut me short. “Take it, Lawrence. It is the most you will get. And the alternative—”

I agreed to seven fifty.

Before I left, though, I asked one more question.

“You carried me in those chess games, didn’t you?”

Michael pursed his lips and nodded. “Yes,” he said. “You really are a terrible chess player.”

I’m glad he said that about the chess. It made my calling the F.B.I. much easier.

Stallings, the F.B.I. man—a real F.B.I. man; I made sure of that—met me at the public library in, of all places, the humor section.

“It’s not likely you’re being followed, Doctor,” he said. “But, as you said on the phone, why take chances? Now, suppose you fill me in on all the details.”

When I finished, Stallings’ face bore an almost rapt expression. “Beautiful,” he said. “What a beautiful scheme. And beautifully executed, too. Right down to the character of the ‘legitimate’ C.I.A. man. You’d just naturally think anyone that crude would have to be what he claimed to be. It’s the smooth ones you always distrust.”

“I suppose,” I said somewhat testily, “you could look at it that way.” I hadn’t expected him to heap praise on the conspirators, and it annoyed me when he did. “Will you arrest Michael now or will you need reinforcements first?”

Stallings pretended to study the titles of the books on the shelf before him. My heart sank; I knew what was coming.

“Well, Doctor,” Stallings said, “it’s not quite that simple. We’ve been trying to get a lead on these people for some time now. And you, Doctor, are in a rather unique position to help us.”

I leaned against the book stack and began to laugh. Or perhaps to cry. Sometimes it’s hard to tell one from the other.