The man in front of me was big with his hair clipped short on the side, military style. He was wearing a white trench coat and a brown hat, brown oxford shoes, white shirt, brown tie, and I assumed he had a government issued revolver on him somewhere.
He didn’t offer his hand and neither did I.
I was wearing my brown Dan Post cowboy boots, brown corduroy sports coat, Wisconsin Badger sweatshirt, Wrangler Jeans, and my silver belt buckle I won for being the runner-up all-around cowboy on the Texas Rodeo Circuit in 1937. I had my Colt .45 belly gun in its rig, situated snuggly under my left arm. I topped everything off with a white Stetson hat. I looked good.
I had a brandy manhattan in front of me and he had a Scotch and some change. He bought the drinks. It was his meeting.
“Thank you for agreeing to see me, Max. I realize you are a busy man.”
“That’s true but Harry said it was important. Something to do with national security?”
He ignored my question and asked one of his own.
“You and Lieutenant Harry Marshall pretty tight?”
“I guess. What’s this about?”
It was a Monday afternoon, 2:15 p.m. Central Standard Time, to be precise. We were sitting in the back of Rocco’s Pub, near the ladies room and close to the phone where I receive most of my calls. My friend and proprietor, Dan Ciorrocco, known as, The Rocco Man, was busy wiping down the bar and filling the cooler with beer, preparing for the evening crowd that would start arriving around 4:00 p.m. It was dark. I asked Rocco to keep the lights turned down and he agreed. This was a secretive meeting.
”Yes, well, I’m Colonel Jack Clarkston, I’m the Assistant Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.” He paused to let the importance of that set in, I guess. I stared at him.
He continued. “What do you know about the CIA, Max?”
I thought a moment and realized I didn’t know a great deal about the CIA, so I did what I usually do when I found myself lacking knowledge, I lied.
“Quite a bit actually. You are a bunch of weird spooks snooping around in everybody’s business trying to overthrow governments of small defenseless nations. How’s that’s for starters?”
He stared at me nodding his head.
“That’s fairly factual. Actually, we gather intelligence. We deal with two types of intelligence gathering. First, there is white intelligence which is information gathered from open sources such as newspapers and magazines and then there is covert intelligence gathering and this is what I am interested in hiring you for, to work directly for me outside the normal channels of the agency. I believe you are the perfect candidate.”
“Hire me? What for?”
Clarkston stared at me for an instant before pulling out a cigarette and lighting it. He blew smoke over his head and took a sip of his Scotch.
“Max, you have military and investigative experience. You don’t have a family. No siblings, your mother is dead and your father disappeared years ago, most likely died and buried in a pauper’s grave somewhere. Your history with women is shaky at best. You don’t have a wife or any kids, no attachments. You are familiar with the southwestern states as well as Mexico and South America and you cheat on your taxes. In other words, you are a perfect candidate for covert operations, this operation. We need someone outside the agency, someone we can trust. Are you interested?”
“And why should I do this?”
“Because you love your country and because we are asking you to do it. You don’t need any special talent or high intelligence. If intelligence, talent, and ability were hereditary, we would have to dig deeply into your family tree to find its source,” he said with a flicker of a grin, “and we don’t have the time to do that.”
I didn’t appreciate his failed attempt at humor.
“I don’t know. I’m making some pretty good money now. I would hate to give it up.”
“Max, we know what you are making and it isn’t what you have been reporting on your tax returns. We don’t care about that. We are willing to pay you twice as much as you brought in last year and we’ll lose the information we have on you so the Treasury Department will not get their hands on it. We don’t play games, Max.”
We looked at each other across the table.
I picked up my brandy and took a big swallow.
“Since you put it that way, I guess I’m your man.”
“Good, that’s good, Max.”
He took another drag on his cigarette and continued to look at me.
“We found over the years a man becomes a spy for different reasons, hatred, anger, political zeal, money, and sex and then some of them are coerced. You exhibit all these qualities. Hell Max, you voted for Senator Joseph McCarthy. In addition to theses qualities, you seem to have inner demons which could also help you be successful.This is an opportunity to do something special, something important for your country. Because of your tradecraft, and independent nature, we feel you would be a perfect fit for this job. There is no reverence in what you will do. I have to tell you, now that you are a part of this, there is no way out. You can’t fuck around with these people. They will break you and turn you into something awful.
“I’m just a private dick, Colonel. I’m not a Spook.”
“We’ll make you one and you will be one of the best. Hap Schultz will join you.
We want you guys to fly under the radar. When someone comes to us saying they have some information relating to this job, we want to send you and Hap, someone who cannot be traced back to us. You set up your network of friends you can trust. No more than ten people. We will train you and pay you well. Tomorrow morning at 8:00 a.m. you and Hap Schultz will meet me in Lieutenant Marshall’s office down at the Milwaukee Police Department’s 16th Precinct. Don’t be late. Hap is being briefed by another agent as we speak.
“Have you heard of a sleeper agent, Max?”
“No, I can’t say I have. What is a sleeper agent?
A Sleeper Agent is an inactive deep-cover agent. What we are about to tell you came from a sleeper agent. It is top secret and if any of this information leaks out, it could cause the death of many people and that will make me angry and you don’t want to make me angry, Max.
After you sign these forms I am going to tell you somethings and you cannot breathe a word to a soul. You are also going to meet some very powerful people who are going to pass along some top secret information to you and you are going to forget you ever met them. Do you understand?
I nodded my head. I figured I had already forgotten more than I know and forgetting more shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
“Good. Your cover will be that you are traveling and writing about life on the rodeo circuit throughout the southwestern United States, Mexico, and South America. We will assist you in getting jobs as a pickup rider at the different rodeo events. Those where we can’t help you, you will be on your own and will have to figure out how to maneuver around the event. We want you to mingle with the cowboys in the area as well as the people who are putting on the event. You will just be another rodeo junkie while you spook some really bad people.
“Since you are a writer and a former newspaper man your background fits.
“We will teach you a code and provide you with a code book.
“Dan Cirrocco will be your contact. You will leave your encrypted reports here at Rocco’s Pub with Dan. You will learn the code. Mr. Cirrocco will have no idea what the codes mean. He will hand them off to Homicide Detective Harry Marshall who in turn will get them to us.
“We will never leave you naked. We will have friends in the area at all times but you will never know who is covering you.
“Your code name will be Cheese Head.”
“Cheese Head? Where the fuck did you come up with that?”
“It doesn’t matter. All your correspondence will be signed Cheese Head. No exceptions. I’m going to leave now. A car will be out front in fifteen minutes to pick you up and take you to the Pfister Hotel. You will be meeting another Harry, Harry Truman.”
I stared at him in disbelief.
“President Harry Truman?”
“It’s the only one I’m aware of, the man who created the CIA, this Frankenstein I work for. This is big, Max, real big.
“Oh, and by the way, if asked, I was never here. We never talked.”