The Cold War Is Not Over

February 28, 2011 by cynick | Posted in tradecraft

Yes, the Berlin Wall fell, and the Iron Curtain was raised, but for some Cold Warriors, battles still rage on.

I, myself, retired from active duty some years ago, since most of my specialized training has been made obsolete by the Internet.

Sometimes, though, there are missions that are too important to be transmitted by electronic means, and my former handler, the shadowy spymaster known only as “Four”, surfaces from whatever depths he hides in, and recruits me to perform One Last Mission.

I’ve never met Four in person, and in fact, nobody knows what he looks like. There are only unconfirmed reports that he sometimes provides cover for himself by traveling with a small child, but he, himself, is always in some impenetrable disguise.

I have no way to initiate contact directly these days, but we left in place a protocol for him to contact me, should I become needed. I make a daily afternoon trip to a local hipster-type coffee shop, always throwing a passing glance to the bulletin board for a flyer about an unlikely film festival.

The back of the flyer will have instructions that are encrypted in Double-Rot13; fortunately, I have the ability to decipher such messages in my head, and then take the appropriate course of action.

Last week, my heart skipped a beat, when, in the first time in over two years, such a flyer was hanging on the foyer bulletin board! I snatched it immediately, and retreated to a dark corner to read my orders.

At a very particular time, at a very particular place, and in a very particular way, I was to pass a message to another agent.

I was also to receive a message from this agent, and pass it back to Four: the channel of communication is bidirectional. This never would have passed muster back in the age of the Thousand Dollar Toilet Seat – another set of agents and handlers would have passed the message in the other direction – but times are hard, and all of that cell phone surveillance costs a lot of money, don’t you know?

Yesterday was the day of the operation. It did not all go according to plan, but, the chain of messages remains unbroken, and no enemy agents, as far as I know, witnessed the exchange.

The following is an exact timeline:

1447: Stuck in traffic on freeway due to gawker slowdown.

At least the accident was gawker-worthy – a rollover! – whereas most often, they are completely inexplicable, and result only in dash-pounding frustration.

1507: Arrived East Bank campus of the University of Minnesota. Chagrinned to see crowds of people making their way to Williams Arena for some event. Worried this could impact my timeline.

My spy skills have atrophied! At one time, I would have paid attention to the schedule of events near and around the area of the operation, and adjusted my timing accordingly. But alas.

1514: Arrived Lunds Pharmacy.

1515: Purchased small, cheap umbrella. I chose one in a dark purple.

1520: Headed back to neighborhood near campus. Noted cars driving around aimlessly looking for parking. Rather than join them in such futility – the snow-induced parking ban has halved the number of available spaces! forget it! Proceeded on to Plan B.

1527: Parked car at Como Ave and 18th Ave. SE. 1528: Prepared message, affixed message to umbrella shaft using emergency duct tape. 1529: Changed from shoes into boots. 1537: Caught Number 3 bus to Campus.

1537 through 1557: Wandered in a steadily shrinking loop pattern around campus buildings, gravitating toward Northrup Mall.

1558: Entered Smith Hall to pick up copy of Minnesota Daily, for the purposes of later crossword pleasure. 1559: Started walking toward location of handoff. A regular slacker gait, with the added purpose of someone with a particular destination, was chosen.

1400: Strolled across pedestrian bridge over Washington Ave. Discretely scanned for obvious surveillance, saw none.

My cover story – not that I’d need to tell it, but I did need to project the appearance of it – is that of a long-term graduate student in computer science, walking to the Coffman Bookstore to buy a book on Category Theory.

1401: Entered Coffman Plaza.

1401.20: Turned toward “The Cube” – a two story, glass enclosed structure that contains study areas and an instantiation of a giant coffee shop chain.

1401:57: Entered the Cube, walked toward elevator door.

1402:05: Hit elevator’s down button.

1402:10: Elevator arrived.

1402:11: Elevator door opened.

1402:12: Entered elevator.

My timing was spot on: Someone was inside, and was carrying an umbrella.

But there was a problem! This was supposed to be an anonymous contact, but I’d known this person in a past life, and his allegiance was unclear! I had only about one second to decide whether he was friend or foe. Was I being set up? Had Four made a fatal miscalculation? Had my real contact been replaced by an enemy agent?

I didn’t have to make that decision, since this person immediately darted from the elevator.

1402:14: Elevator door closed; I rode to the first floor, left the elevator, put on my gloves, and exited through the revolving door to Washington Ave. Wary of being spotted, I continued on to the bus shelter, and pretended to be waiting to catch the bus.

I had a few minutes to think about the situation, and I realized that the man in the elevator was my contact, but he probably had been confused by my presence, since in a past operation, he had seen me acting in an entirely different role.

Protocol dictated that I try to make contact one more time, at 1412.

1408: Ignored approaching bus.

1410: Walked east toward Church Street, and then around the walk bridge, toward Coffman Plaza, and toward the Cube.

1412: Approached the Cube. Out of the corner of my eye, through the glass, I saw a shadowy figure retreating down the staircase inside the Cube. I failed to get a good look, but I did hear an adult male speaking in a nonsensical voice, as one would to a small child.

So! Four has come to watch the operation personally! It must be very important indeed!

1412: Entered the building, and the elevator, just as before – and, once again, the same person was inside.

He’d had time to think too, and we immediately traded umbrellas. He headed out the door.

1413: Rode elevator to bottom floor, and headed out to the street to catch the approaching Number 16 bus, thus making my escape.

The botched first attempt and subsequent second pass greatly increased the risk factor of the operation. It was far more likely that I could have been spotted by enemy forces.

Not to worry, though: I was disguised in a black baseball cap, a heavy beard, and a shock of wild hair; and so, my cover preserved, I’ll live on to participate in future operations, should Four wish to call on my services again.