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I know I’m not crazy. I know this because it said so in my file, which I stole out of Director Gray’s office on a drunken dare from a guy who eventually disappeared in Somalia. Somewhat emotionally detached, the file said, and loose with the truth, yes, but in the eyes of the Agency, these were positive attributes. A red star at the top of the file corresponded to a note stuck to the inside cover. Refer to Simon? the note said. The question mark has always troubled me. They were never sure I could cut it.
So how to explain what I’m doing right now. Gardening? Searching for a lost contact lens? Seeing if there is a stranger crawling around under my shrubs waiting to sneak into my house and strangle me with a length of piano wire?
It is Tuesday morning, the San Francisco sun is shining and the fog is starting to recede back toward the ocean. It’s as regular as any other morning except that on this morning rather than sitting at my kitchen table sipping a scalding cup of coffee, here I am in the backyard crawling around on my knees under the juniper trees, muttering to myself like one of the local shopping-cart pushing, bottle-collecting loonies.
“There is no evidence here,” I whisper. I am holding tightly to a brightly painted set of Matryoshka dolls, shaking them as if to make a point to my invisible audience. If I were really thinking, I would have picked up the cast-iron frying pan, still warm from this morning’s pancakes. Cast iron is generally accepted to be a better choice of weapon than a bunch of Russian nesting dolls. I continue to crawl forward under the scrubby trees.
“There are no tracks, no shell casings, no cigarette butts or discarded coffee cups. You are simply having a paranoid attack that, most likely, a hit of caffeine will alleviate. Now get up and go back in the house.” Yet from my position here in the garden, I can’t help but notice that the palm tree in my perfectly landscaped backyard is situated in just such a way as to allow direct spying in through my kitchen window. Someone with skills could even figure a way into the house from here. How could I not have noticed this?
My neighbor Tom, a British gentleman who always looks slightly past his “use by” date, watches me from his own backyard, a curious expression on his face.
“Problems with the trees, Lucy?” he asks as I crawl out, pulling twigs and needles from my unwashed hair.
“Yes. Well, no, actually. I thought I heard a cat.” Oh please. “It sounded like it was in trouble. Lost maybe?”
“No cats here,” Tom says. He looks left and then right with an exaggerated turn of his bald head. “None that I’ve seen anyway.”
“Well, thanks for checking. Gotta go. Left a child inside unattended. You know how that can end up.”
Tom stares at me blankly. I guess not. I start to pull the debris from my hair, trying not to look too particularly crazed on this fine morning. And then I see it, off to the side of the back stairs. Five years ago I would have known immediately the height, weight, eye color, and sexual orientation of the owner of this footprint. But today, I am not sure. Is it my husband’s footprint, the washing machine repairman, the woman who comes to read the meter? I haven’t a clue. But I have that sinking feeling it is not supposed to be here.
I head up the stairs throwing Tom a half-assed wave over my shoulder. I know he is still watching me and will continue to watch me until I disappear into the house. Sometimes I think everyone knows and that I should hang a neon sign outside my bedroom window that says: YES, YOU ARE ALL RIGHT. THINGS ARE NOT AS THEY APPEAR TO BE.
I have left Theo for one minute too long. Covered in applesauce, he’s trying, with great enthusiasm, to bite the cat’s tail. The cat is howling to be let go. Theo is howling in delight. And I swear that not ten minutes ago I heard someone crawling around under my house. But I am not crazy. My file said as much. Tomorrow, however, everything might change.
My name is Lucy Parks Hamilton and in addition to being paranoid, unshowered, emotionally detached, and a liar, I am also a stay-at-home mom. Ten years ago, I would have met the idea that I would be going on playdates and walking around with streaks of snot on my shoulder with absolute indignation. Nowadays it’s possible for me to wear the same pair of jeans for seven days in a row and not get too worked up about it.
My son Theo is three. He attends Happy Times Preschool twice a week for three hours. During these long three hours, I could be doing things. I could be folding laundry or shopping for food or writing my autobiography. I could even get a haircut or wash the car. But no. I have to sit where I can see the bright yellow door of the Happy Times Preschool. And that happens to be by the windows at the third table to the left in the Java Luv, a small coffee shop across the street and about half a block away from the school. The folks at the Java Luv are all very pleasant and are in complete agreement with one another that I’m a little weird. Or perhaps a lot weird.
“Good morning, Lucy,” the barista, a guy named Leonard covered in spiderweb tattoos, greets me. “Read any good books lately?” He laughs because it’s become something of a joke. I sit in the same seat at the same table and do nothing more than stare out the window. I never pull out a well-worn best seller or peck away on my laptop or socialize or pick my cuticles or anything. I just sit and watch that yellow door. So I guess they are right about me. Strange.
But I do have a purpose. I am here to make sure that no one goes into Theo’s school who does not belong there. I want to know that my son is exactly where he is supposed to be until the moment I can retrieve him. Some people might say I have developed overprotective tendencies. They have not seen what I have seen.
When Theo and I are together, we spend a lot of time engaged in potty talk to varying degrees.
“Mommy, I have to pee. I have to pee NOW,” he’ll shout at the top of his lungs.
“But honey, we went not ten minutes ago. Can we at least finish getting our groceries and go to the potty after that? Again?”
“I go right here,” he’ll announce and squat down on the ground of whatever unfortunate store I’ve chosen to patronize on that day.
“Okay, let’s go. Let’s hurry!”
After a dozen such close calls, I discovered my son is simply a potty tourist, interested in visiting potties the world over. Let me tell you, it gets old pretty fast.
When we’re at home and not crowded into the restroom du jour, we read Dr. Seuss. The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, Horton Hears a Who. Lately, in my head, everything is conducted in a pleasant ultra-violent singsongy Seussian.
Is there a door in that store?
A big door.
A big purple door.
Go through the big purple door in the big store and perhaps on the other side you will meet a s’more all covered in red gore.
And so on. My brain is atrophying. I can feel it. But I’m not entirely sure how to stop its slow slide into mush.
We sing. I can sing “The Wheels on the Bus” and “Old MacDonald” in several different keys and octaves. Occasionally I’ll throw out a verse in Urdu or Czech or Tagalog for practice. Yes, Theo looks at me funny, but I’m willing to bet I’m the only mom in the ’hood who can do so.
It turns out I am a fabulous multitasker, at least in my own mind. I can dress Theo with one hand and arrange playdates with the other. I can simultaneously shower, play cowboys and horses, tie shoes, and make scrambled eggs. Occasionally the shoes end up in the eggs. Or in my hair. But nobody’s perfect, right?
I do laundry, separating the darks from the whites from kid clothes and using a different detergent and water temperature for each load. I make organic applesauce and fix toys and spend so much time crawling around on my knees playing cars or dinosaurs that my knees now have more calluses than skin. I go to Whole Foods and squeeze the fruits and vegetables like we’re longtime lovers, spending perfectly useful minutes in the perfectly useless pursuit of the perfect melon. It is important, although I couldn’t tell you exactly why. I cook healthy meals with whole grains and fish and green vegetables. The fact that I wash them down with half a bottle of expensive red wine doesn’t trouble me in the least. I often find myself in conversations that seem to go like this:
“So what do you do all day?”
“I’m a stay-at-home mom. I take care of my son.”
“Oh. Well. I think I need to go and stick a needle in my eye.”
End of conversation. It’s a bum rap. Being a mother is hard. And I feel like I have a few data points in the “hard” category.
I am thirty-six years old. I am fairly tall, with indistinct, brown, shoulder-length hair that could certainly benefit from a few highlights. I have blue eyes that some people say are so intense they find it unnerving. And I can still kill an adult male twice my weight with one precisely placed punch in the chest. This is not something I tell the other moms at the playground. It simply doesn’t come up all that often.
“Hey, Lucy, I hear you used to be a spy. Got any extra wipes in that bag? Or maybe an AK-47 lifted off some rebel in Afghanistan? Or a small drop of poison I could slip into my husband’s Manhattan because I swear he’s screwing the nanny?” Like I said, it really doesn’t come up too often. And in reality, this motherhood thing hasn’t been so good for the old termination skills. I’m a little rusty in all areas except, it seems, paranoia. My paranoia is still largely intact.
So these are the things that I do as a stay-at-home mom. Play, clean, shop, feed, sleep, play some more, repeat. There is no denying I am a long way from where I used to be.
Places that included Cambodia, Vietnam, Budapest for a short while, Croatia, Nepal, Slovenia—but that was for a vacation with the guy who disappeared in Somalia—a number of desolate locations in Africa, Tibet, and more of China than I care to remember, and several places I’m still not at liberty to comment on but let’s just say the weather was terrible. In those days, I was not Lucy Parks Hamilton, wife of William Wilton Hamilton III, mother of Theodore Hamilton. Back then I was Agent 26, aka Sally Sin, of the United States Agency for Weapons of Mass Destruction.
The Agency, as you already know if you read the papers, is comprised of a bunch of analysts sitting around trying to figure out who has what, when they are going to use it, and on whom. And for the most part that’s true. But there is a single line on page 415 of the USAWMD budget that reads, simply, Operations—Additional. And that’s where we lived, a small group of spies trained to ferret out elusive information, the one missing piece of the puzzle. And on occasion we were called upon to disarm those individuals or groups who had become a little too proud of their personal stash of Armageddon. Oftentimes these folks would decide, logically of course, that blowing up all of Cleveland because the guy who cut them off in traffic had a Cleveland Cavaliers bumper sticker was perfectly reasonable. Agency policy required us to disagree, although there are plenty of people who don’t see the point of Cleveland anyway. But that’s another story. The covert agents of the USAWMD are out there every day trying to stop the bad things from happening by whatever means possible. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Most people remember the times when it doesn’t.
There weren’t twenty-six agents. I have no idea how many there were but I think it was less than twenty-six. However, my boss, Simon Still, seemed to think I looked like Agent 26.
“Hey, Sally Sin, Agent Twenty-six, I got something for you,” he’d yell through the labyrinth that comprised our office space.
“Who are agents one through twenty-five?”
“I’m not at liberty to disclose that information.”
“So how am I supposed to know that I’m really Agent Twenty-six?”
“You’re starting to annoy me, Agent Twenty-six.”
“Sorry, sir. It won’t happen again.”
And Agent 26 wasn’t nearly as bad as Sally Sin, which was a joke from the computer game that started this whole mess in the first place. We’ll get to that in a minute.
My husband, Will, once made a ton of money as an investment banker. But then he had a transformative experience while visiting the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island. As he stood staring out over the two thousand acres of waste, he says he began to hyperventilate and not only because of the stink. He started to see himself and everyone he knew swimming through an ocean of decomposing medical waste and old toys and rotten grapefruits. It must have been quite an image because days later he quit his seven-figure job and decided he had no choice but to dedicate his life to saving the planet. And I mean that literally. He managed to come up with enough seed money to start his own investment fund to support the development of green energy. Will speaks with a certain reverence about solar cells and geothermal energy, and if he catches me absentmindedly putting a piece of paper in the garbage rather than in the recycle bin, the pain is acutely visible on his face. He is a good person and he expects me to recycle with the same enthusiasm that he does. So I try. Honestly, I do.
“Honey, this is a tree,” he says, gingerly removing the piece of newspaper from the garbage can. “It can be turned into so many other things, like egg cartons for instance. But you need to give it a chance to go on and do good in the world.”
When I first met Will I thought he might be another hippie throwback talking the talk but finding the walk part kind of inconvenient and opting instead for a quick trip to Starbucks. But not Will. As it turns out, he is the first person I have ever met who truly believes a single individual can make all the difference. It’s humbling.
Despite my poor recycling habits and my inability to understand the complexities of trading carbon credits, he seems to like me anyway. I’m not exactly sure how that happened, but I try not to question my good fortune too much. And, of course, Will loves Theo to pieces and buys him all sorts of exciting sustainable wooden toys. In the interest of marital harmony, we both ignore the fact that I occasionally slip the kid a Matchbox car made in China. I do try and remember to recycle the packaging, however.
We live in a modest house in San Francisco, California, with a roof covered in solar cells. The amount Will paid for the house still makes my throat dry, but Theo likes it here. He can play outside in February and rarely has to wear shoes. He is beautiful and I’m not saying that simply because I’m his mother. People approach us on the street wanting only to touch his silky blond hair. This, as you might guess, doesn’t go over particularly well with me. Remember the paranoia I mentioned earlier? In addition to the blond hair, he has my blue eyes and a dimple in his chin like his dad.
My local friends want to know what it is I do when I’m not with Theo. They want to know how I spend those hours that I’m not playing cars or dinosaurs or reading Where the Wild Things Are for the eight thousandth time. I don’t tell them about my coffee shop vigil. I don’t tell them I stare at the front door of Theo’s preschool waiting for bad guys to appear and mess up my perfectly happy existence. My goal in this stage of my life is to fly under the radar. Being that weird is definitely not under the radar. And how would I explain that I occasionally slip out to Donovan’s Dojo, patronized exclusively by ex-cons and cops, to kick the shit out of a bunch of people who think my name is Amy and that I did time for armed robbery? Or that in a lockbox in my closet, buried under some sweaters, is a .45 caliber Colt Commander that I have used to kill people? And that sometimes I take it out and look at it to remind myself of what that was like.
So I deflect the invitations to lunch or coffee with as little fanfare as I can manage and focus on Theo. He is, after all, the reason I am here in San Francisco and not dead in the desert in Yemen or crawling around in the jungles of Myanmar. And the truth is I like it here, the clean smell of the air, the soft pink of the evening sky. It is all so peaceful and orderly. After nine years with the USAWMD, I appreciate peaceful and orderly in a way I never did before.
Part of being Agent 26 meant no one from my life—past, present, or future—could know I was Agent 26. My official story is that after I graduated from college I went to work for the government as an analyst for the USAWMD. I sat at a desk, in a row of other people sitting at similar desks, and I read documents. When I was done, I summarized what I read in five hundred words or less and passed it on down the line. I can fill in the agonizing details if pressed, but if you present it correctly no one ever asks a follow-up question. It’s really too boring for the average citizen to consider. So we talk about something exciting, like the weather.
The unofficial story is more interesting. In college I was always broke. To collect enough money for the necessary survival items—beer, cigarettes, pot, what have you—I would volunteer at the graduate psychology school to take various screenings and tests, earn a few bucks, and help the struggling grads gather up enough data to come up with yet another expert conclusion, such as: If you eat too much, you may become fat. Clever.
It was my senior year, well into the deep freeze of a northeast winter, when I found myself in an overheated classroom filling out a psychological survey about fear. What made me afraid? What did I do when I was afraid? Did I feel like fear was something I could control? The second instrument, as the grads called the questionnaires, wanted to know how I felt about moral ambiguity. Was having an affair always wrong? If you kill someone for a good reason, is it still wrong? If you back over the neighbor’s cat, do you confess? The third one was a series of mathematical questions where you had three seconds in which to give your answer. Even at the time, I knew it was about pressure and not math. Will the test-taker crack and run screaming out of the room? But that sort of thing never bothered me and my blood pressure stayed as level as a football field.
The final part of the study involved playing a computer game. We had to give ourselves a code name and run through a scenario, which required that the player make a lot of choices based on dubious information. I chose Sally Sin as my code name, thinking it was funny. I regret that now, but how was I to know it would actually matter?
So I got my twenty dollars and left the building, bracing myself for the freezing winds and slippery sidewalks. I made it as far as the convenience store before the man in the dark coat and sunglasses caught up to me. Even then he seemed strangely out of place. Jeez, I thought, who is this guy? An engineering professor? A tragically unhip visitor from another planet, like the South or something?
“You shouldn’t smoke,” he said, suddenly standing next to me at the checkout window. I barely looked up as I dug around in my knapsack for enough loose change to cover the pack of cigarettes on the counter. Growing impatient, my new friend in the cashmere overcoat and shiny black shoes slapped a five down next to the box.
“Didn’t you earn twenty bucks not ten minutes ago?” he asked.
“Yes, but I don’t want to break it yet.”
The man shook his head in apparent disgust.
“Thanks,” I said, gesturing toward the five on the counter. “I’ll pay you back. After I break the twenty.”
“Please, keep your pennies.”
“Nice glasses,” I said, starting to walk out of the store. The man followed closely behind. “Do you work for the FBI?” Thinking back, I’m lucky he didn’t flatten me for being snotty.
Instead, the man gave a quick laugh, more like a snort really. “NSA, actually, but I’m doing a favor for USAWMD.”
“A lot of letters there,” I said. My attention was already turned to peeling the cellophane wrapper from the pack of cigarettes.
“Listen,” he said, taking my arm, “like I mentioned, I’m doing a favor so let me make it quick. We’d like to speak with you about your career plans. We think we might be able to offer you a chance to have some adventures and earn a pretty good living at the same time. If that sounds appealing, let us know. Enjoy your smokes.” He slipped a card into my pocket and disappeared out the door.
The card read “John D. Smith, Recruitment, USAWMD.” It had a phone number and a note that said to call anytime. I put the card back into the pocket of my down jacket and headed home.
I was a good student, exceptional only in the area of foreign language. After learning high school Spanish from the textbook before the teacher even figured out all of our names, I had yet to encounter a language I couldn’t master with a minimum of focus and a couple of weeks. When I joined the Agency, I spoke normal languages like French, Spanish, and German. When I left, I spoke things like Mandarin, Arabic, Kurdish, Hungarian, Azerbaijani, Portuguese, Hindi, Vietnamese, Urdu, Persian, Korean, Nepali, and the list goes on.
I liked the fact that I could speak French like a Parisian and German like a Berliner, but it never occurred to me that it could be useful for anything but vacations. Four years into college and I still had no idea what I wanted to do when I grew up other than get as far from the cold northeast wind as possible. I thought about being a writer but had nothing all that interesting to say. I thought about being a lawyer but didn’t know any lawyers who would admit to liking it. So I resigned myself to trudging along, waiting for that Eureka, I’ve found it! moment, which showed no signs of surfacing.
Five days after graduation, packing up my tiny college apartment with no clue as to where I was going and what I was going to do when I got there, I came across the business card of John D. Smith. And so, having nothing to lose and a possible job in a troubled economy to gain, I called him. That a total stranger claiming to work for the NSA followed me into a convenience store and offered me a job didn’t alarm me in the least. Not a single lightbulb went on in my fuzzy twenty-something head. It never occurred to me that this was anything but completely normal.
I met with John D. Smith in a coffee shop. He had on a navy blazer and a white shirt even though it was 90 degrees and humid outside. He seemed pleased to see me. He called me Smokey the Bear and I had to deliver a long explanation about how I only smoked during finals, because of the stress and all. He laughed, saying something about how he already knew that and continued to call me Smokey the Bear. Later, after several years with the Agency, I would develop a perverse hatred of nicknames, code names, pet names, and any name not written expressly on one’s birth certificate, not that I was able to use that one either.
“So what would the job be?” I asked.
“Well, you’d have to come to Washington for a while, after which you might visit . . . other places. And there would be a lot of reading and studying and giving your opinion.”
Giving my opinion was something I was good at. I accepted his offer without even asking about the pay, and headed to D.C. six days later.
For a month, I read files on Cambodia, a place I could barely find on the map. There were sketchy pictures of what looked like a massacre, newspaper clips I couldn’t decipher, and personal reports from people who were still there or had been there. After completing my required reading, I was asked what I thought about Cambodia.
“It seems like a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there,” I said.
“In other words,” John Smith prompted.
“They’re fucked,” I said. He snorted. His snorting was starting to get under my skin.
“But why are they fucked?” he asked.
“Because no one will take responsibility for the slaughter of millions of people. There has been no reckoning. And there always has to be a reckoning. Someone has to pay for the blood. The situation will never be stable otherwise. You know, that whole justice thing.”
I found out later that they had been watching me for that month, not so much interested in my silly opinion of the Cambodian holocaust, but rather in what I ate for dinner, if I crossed against the light, if I flossed every day or every other. They followed me to and from the office, to the movies, to the dry cleaners, on one lame date with an accountant, to the grocery store. They even followed me into the locker room at the gym. Wherever I went, my shadow followed. Of course, I had no idea. All of that following and being followed and following someone following someone else contributed to the development of my acute sense of paranoia, which is why I was crawling around under the shrubs this morning while my sweet little boy was inside coating himself in applesauce and trying to bite the cat’s tail. Some things never go away.
After those first few months, I was invited to spend some time with Simon Still, a mysterious figure who floated in and out of the USAWMD offices from time to time. He was of average height, thin, pale, with hair that might have been blond at some point. He always wore a white Panama hat and dark glasses and bore an odd resemblance to David Bowie, circa 1985.
It was not that I didn’t like Simon exactly. But he made me uncomfortable, like a pair of jeans that are a little too tight and pinch your thighs when you try to sit down. He took me for a walk on the Mall and explained in a very Simon-like way what was going on.
- "Smart, sassy, sexy Sally Sin is an absolute delight of a heroine whom I predict will be around delighting readers for a very long time. And her first adventure, Original Sin, is pure entertainment gold."—John Lescroart, author of the New York Times bestselling Dismas Hardy novels
- On Sale
- Jul 12, 2011
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Hachette Books