from The Lady is Bugged
by Barry Fulton
“Hotel Albergo, per favore.”
The cab driver smiled, turned his head, and said, “Scusi, sir, but you have asked for the Hotel Hotel. Maybe best to say in English.”
Scott was jet lagged. Also embarrassed. After telling Rachel that he knew his way around Rome, his credibility had just vanished. He looked at her. She was gazing out the window, pretending not to have heard. Of course, she wasn’t pretending, she didn’t hear. She couldn’t see his lips. Off the hook for the moment. Scott started over, as Rachel looked at him.
“Please take us to the Hotel Scalinata di Spagna.”
“Good hotel, signore,” the driver said, “good sight of Spanish Steps.”
Rachel tensed, shook her head. “No,” she said, “we have reservations at a small hotel in a place called Trastevere.”
“He’ll take you there after he drops me off, but this is the place I always stay.”
“Mr. Scott, it’s your call, but it is better, believe me, not to stay there. Perhaps we can discuss that later, but please, please believe me.”
She was intense. He was annoyed. The pained look on her face convinced him to follow her guidance. She was, after all, just the messenger. But it was inexcusable not to have discussed this before.
“Driver, change of plans. My companion suggests a quiet hotel in Trastavere. Here’s the address.”
“The bella donna hasa’ good taste. Hotel she wants—very romantic.”
Scott took a deep breath and said nothing. Rachel looked chagrined, but quietly said she would explain.
They arrived after forty-five minutes of dodging half-size Fiats, swarms of Vespas, and carelessly strolling pedestrians. Rachel thanked the driver but insisted they carry their own luggage. Instead of entering the hotel, she asked Scott to follow her. “Look,” she said showing him a hand-sketched map, “we are to walk two blocks in this direction, turn left, then five blocks, and turn right for a house a few doors down. It says to ring twice and we will be greeted by the housekeeper who will show us to our rooms.”
Scott understood, or so he thought. Headquarters was running the show. He wasn’t being followed by Rachel. He was being led. He didn’t like it, but he followed all the same. As they walked he asked how this place had been chosen.
Rachel smiled. “I think it will be apparent when we arrive. Neither of us will be signing a register or submitting our passports to be scanned and sent to the police. But, even more important, we will have access to secure communications with headquarters. The woman identified as the “housekeeper” works for the agency, has a TS clearance, will serve as an interpreter if necessary, and knows Rome better than the Guide Michelin.”
Scott began to relax. Maybe he should stop thinking of himself as a one-man show. As they walked, Rachel said she had no idea that Roman streets were so crowded, that buildings were in such a state of disrepair. “This area looks ripe for gentrification,” she said.
Scott explained, “Trastavere means beyond the Tiber River, from the Latin trans Tiberim, with a history that goes back to the Etruscans. It has been the home of many notables including Julius Caesar. The cobblestone streets were an upgrade from the first paved streets in the fifteenth century. Many of the homes date to medieval times as you have observed. On the inside, some are dated and sparsely furnished. Others are sumptuous. And it benefits the owners to maintain the external patina of age, as the tax assessors don’t have access to the interior.”
Rachel liked that, as she liked deception of any sort. She recognized it was the appeal of a clandestine profession. Better than trying to carve out a living as a magician. As Rachel listened to Scott with her eyes, she abruptly stopped, recognizing she was lost in the maze of Trastavere’s narrow streets.
“Rachel,” Scott said, “people who grew up here can get lost. You’re doing pretty well for the first time. Let’s retrace our steps and see if we can’t find our Roman villa.”
It was hardly a villa, pleasant enough but strikingly ordinary, exactly as described. Rachel rang. They were greeted by a tall, slim woman whom Scott judged to be in her mid- fifties. “Buon giorno. Posso aiutarla?
“Hello,” Rachel began, “I am Rachel Sullivan and this is Mr. Scott.”
“Welcome to Rome. I am Signora Scicolone. My friends call me Sophia. And I would like to assume you are my friends, but first I must see some identification.” She took their ID cards, disappeared for a few minutes, and returned with a smile. “Very good, now we can get down to business.”
“Grazie per la vostra ospitalità̀, Signora,” Scott began, “but since my Italian is a little rusty, I’ll continue in my native tongue which I would guess is yours as well.”
“Thank you for the compliment, but not exactly. I was born in Rome. Grew up in Washington where my father was the Italian Consul-General. Returned here as a teenager to get reacquainted with Italy. Graduated from the University of Bologna. Long story, but eventually I became a U.S. citizen. And… here we are.”
“And I understand you offer special accommodations,” Scott said.
“If you look around, you’ll see a sitting room, a small dining room, and a kitchen. The refrigerator is well stocked, and by the time you rise, there’ll be fresh bread on the counter and hot coffee, hot American coffee so you can enjoy twenty ounces instead of a tiny cup of Italian espresso. So make yourself at home.”
Scott and Rachel looked around as Signora Scicolone motioned them to follow her upstairs. She pointed to a cypher-lock and a keyed lock. “You will need your ID card and a key to enter. There are two bedrooms with private baths and a secure office. There is another cyber-lock on the office. Inside you’ll find a safe as well as a secure communications link. I am available to assist in any way.”
Scott excused himself, said he needed to freshen up and get a few hours sleep. He invited Rachel to join him for dinner. She asked Signora Scicolone for a map in order to explore the neighborhood. “Yes, of course, Ms. Sullivan. Why don’t I accompany you and show you around. I might point out a few good restaurants, and even a special place to get some real coffee if you would like to take in a little Italian culture.”
Scott unpacked his carry-on luggage, undressed, and stood under the shower for ten minutes. He would have remained longer if the hot water had not run out. He recalled the last time he visited Rome. Nearly thirty years ago. Then newly married. Happily married.
By coincidence Elisabetta was in Italy on a shopping trip. Maybe he would look her up. Maybe not. He needed some sleep.
As the two women explored the narrow streets and alleys of Rome’s west bank, Sophia promised a visual treat as they approached Santa Maria in Trastavere. “Not so stunning from the outside, but just wait until we enter.”
Sophia was unaware of Rachel’s deafness and hadn’t faced her as she spoke. As they stepped into the Piazza de Santa Maria in Trastavere, Sophia stopped, faced Rachel, and said, “Here it is. The fountain has been here since the eighth century.”
“I’ve never seen anything so old.”
“And there’s the church I told you about.”
“What church?” Rachel asked.
Suspecting that Rachel was suffering from jetlag, Sophia repeated the description of the church, first built in the fourth century and rebuilt in the twelfth and nineteenth centuries. “The mosaic in the apse is stunning,” she said as the two entered the main door. Sophia followed Rachel and whispered to her the English translation of the Latin inscription on the door:”This is the gate of the Lord, the just will enter by it.” Rachel did not respond, but audibly gasped when the interior lights revealed the beauty of the mosaic. Sophia followed Rachel as she stopped to admire each painting and sculpture. By the time the two left the church, Sophia had understood that Rachel was deaf. Recognizing her role with the Agency, she wanted to express her admiration, but decided it was better to simply reciprocate the graciousness Rachel expressed during the tour.
“How about stopping at the bar across the street,” Sophia suggested as they left the church.
“Isn’t it a little early to stop at a bar?”
“Oh, no, not that kind of bar. It’s a coffee bar, where we can order a little pick-me- up, an espresso with sugar to cut the bitterness. Of course, even at this hour, some Italians order a caffè corretto, an espresso with a little grappa or brandy.”
“I’ll skip the corretto now, but would enjoy an espresso before we walk back. Thank you, or should I say grazie mille?”
Sophia smiled, amazed that Rachel spoke Italian with barely an accent.
After a few hours sleep, Scott was surprised to find Rachel in the living room looking at Corriere della Sera. Freshly scrubbed and dressed for dinner, she practically leaped from the sofa to share her excitement about her first day in Rome. “Mr. Scott,” she said, “Signora Scicolone recommended the Ristorante La Scala in Trastavere.”
“Music to my ears,” Scott said as they meandered toward the restaurant. With map in hand, Rachel led the way, this time attentive to the directions. They were greeted in English as they entered the restaurant.
“How did he know we were English speaking?” Rachael asked.
“Our dress, our walk, a shrewd guess. Not sure, but the maître d’ is seldom wrong.”
They were seated at a quiet table just off the main dining room. Scott ordered a bottle of Valpolicella Ripasso Classico, which he explained is the most famous red wine from the Veneto region. “Valpolicella,” he said, “means valley of many cellars. I hope you’ll enjoy it.”
“Mr. Scott. I love everything here. I’m sure I will, but I must confess, I don’t know much about wine. Perhaps I could persuade you to be my tutor.”
Scott smiled and said, “Let’s see, although you should know I’m no expert.”
“Mr. Scott, anything you…”
“Rachel, how about dropping the mister. My friends call me Scott, sometimes Thomas. Take your choice, but let’s be friends.”
Rachel looked uncomfortable, adjusted her chair, leaned forward, began to speak, looked down, blushed, and retreated to silence.
The waiter brought the wine, showed the bottle to Scott, offered a taste, and with
Scott’s approval poured two glasses.
Scott proposed a toast—”to friends.”
After tasting the wine, Rachel said, “Guess I was tongue-tied for a moment. Of
course I want to be your friend. But it won’t be so easy to call you Scott, not after everything I’ve read about you. I mean, it is an honor to be here, to speak to you…Scott.”
“That wasn’t too difficult, was it?”
“No, but you don’t understand. I mean, when we’re here in Rome, we might be observed. And they told me you might be recognized. So—and I assumed you were told— I’m supposed to be your girlfriend. They said that would be good for you and for me. I mean, to pretend, Mr. Scott.”
“And it’s still Mr. Scott? Should I address you as Ms. Sullivan? Afraid we might appear to be characters right out of a Jane Austen novel if anyone is listening.”
“Jane Austen! Oh, I love her, don’t you…Scott?”
Noticing that the waiter was pacing, waiting for their order, Scott suggested they start with a Caprese salad. “The tomatoes are transported from the south and the mozzarella fresh from the milk of a bufala, so sweet it is practically sinful—garnished with basilica and slathered with virgin olive oil. Practically worth the journey from Washington.”
“Scott,” she said, “I must confess I grew up eating Chef Boyardee spaghetti and meatballs. I eventually moved upscale to the Olive Garden, but I’ve never been to a real Italian restaurant before, not even in the States.” She looked around and then whispered, “It’s not at all difficult to pretend we’re here as…as good friends.”
She smiled. Scott smiled. He reminded Rachel that he would be “sightseeing” at the Castel Sant’Angelo tomorrow, perhaps chatting with other tourists. He suggested it would be a good time for her to take a tour of the city.
Her smile disappeared. The salad arrived. “Buon appetito,” he said. After a few minutes of silence, Rachel put down her fork and looked him in the eye. “I can’t go sightseeing. They won’t allow me. I should be there too.”
“No, no, that only complicates my chance encounter.”
“But, that’s my role. I won’t arrive with you. I’ll be alone, already present, guidebook in hand, when you arrive, to ensure this isn’t a trap. They must have told you. I’m here to protect you. You know I listen with my eyes. I also see things that others miss.”
“Rachel, I appreciate the offer, but I’m fairly self sufficient.”
They were interrupted with the suggestion that they may wish to order their primi piatti. He chose spaghetti alla carbonara; she asked for fettuccine ai funghi porcini.
Rachel continued, “Scott, I know, believe me, but I also know you are never armed. In case of a trap, it’s best to have some backup.”
“Yes. Licensed, certified, and if I may say so, damn good.”
Scott tilted his head to one side, adjusted his napkin, poured more wine, and slowly said, “Lei non mancano mai di stupire.” “What does that mean, Scott?”
“You never fail to amaze.”
Scott rose early the next day. He would have a quick breakfast and then prepare for his visit to Castel Sant’Angelo to meet First Secretary Rahim Saki. As Rachel was instructed to precede him, he had decided that her presence would not inhibit the meeting. The light drizzle and overcast sky were hardly conducive to tourism. Not the kind of day to tarry and chat with strangers. He would not be disappointed if he had to stay another week, unless his chaperone felt obliged to tag along.Scott was surprised to find Rachel already at the dining room table with Sophia who was obviously enjoying her company. “Please sit down and I’ll bring us some coffee, bread, and jam. Your colleague Rachel is a delight. Already she has me feeling homesick for the States, and has offered me the hospitality of her apartment during my next visit.”
“Buon giorno to both of you,” Scott said, “appreciate the breakfast. Didn’t expect you’d be up so early. I’ll be spending most of the morning reviewing files, checking for messages, and preparing for… hmm, let’s call it an unplanned, spontaneous encounter between a tourist and a history buff. I, of course, will be the tourist. And Rachel, unless plans have changed, you’ll be doing a little tourism of your own.”
“I’m so excited, Mr. Scott. Oh, I mean, Scott, sorry. Sophia explained that Emperor Hadrian built the structure in the second century as a mausoleum. Since then it’s been a fortress, an adjunct of the Vatican, a prison, and now a museum. And she said we could see a magnificent view of Rome from the upper level.”
Within the hour Scott was sitting alone in the second-floor office, logged onto an Agency site through a secure channel. He had received only one message: “Trust you two are enjoying Rome. Good day for tourism. Best view of the Tiber expected at 1530 hours from the terrace.” He reviewed Saki’s biography, studied several pictures, and prepared for the meeting. It was unlikely to happen unless the rain stopped.
By noon the sun was out. Scott walked toward the site and stopped at a bar where he enjoyed an Italian sandwich called a tramezzino and an espresso. The chatter among the patrons was calming. Rome hadn’t changed in the three decades since his last visit. Still time to kill, Scott wandered around Trastavere before walking toward Castel Sant’Angelo. He bought a ten Euro ticket and joined other tourists. He paused briefly to look at the cells that had held numerous famous prisoners including the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini.
Scott climbed the ancient stairs to the balcony where he expected to meet First Secretary Rahim Saki. Scott paced around, looked everywhere. He couldn’t find him, nor could he spot Rachel who had been instructed to precede him, protect him in the event of a trap. He leaned against the wall and pretended to study a guidebook while looking frequently to see if either would show up. After an hour he left—disappointed that Saki hadn’t appeared. He worried that Rachel was nowhere in sight. “A coincidence,” he wondered, “or foul play?”
He walked home. His bad leg showed him down, a reminder of his tumble down the Afghan mountainside. High humidity always brought on discomfort. He stopped in front of an antiquarian bookstore, couldn’t resist stopping to browse. He looked at an Italian version of Ezra Pound’s Cantos. Scott recalled he had lived in Italy for twenty years and was arrested for treason when he returned to the United States in 1945. That would certainly be the fate of First Secretary Rahim Saki if a clandestine meeting with an American spy were discovered by the Iranian Embassy.
When Scott returned to their safe house, Rachel greeted him at the door. She began, “You won’t believe…”
Scott interrupted. “Rachel, I can certainly believe you weren’t at the Castel Sant’Angelo as planned, but please explain what I won’t believe.”
“But, I was there.”
“Here,” she said, opening her iPhone, “look at this picture. Did you see him?”
“Yes, from his New Balance sneakers and Ravens sweatshirt, I guessed he was an American, maybe on a European tour after college graduation. How did you get the picture? Where were you hiding?”
With a mischievous smile, Rachel said, “Scott, that’s a selfie. It was me.”
“You! That was you? So you do disguises too, or did the Agency put you up to that?”
“No, not really. It was my idea. Didn’t want to compromise your meeting in case we had been seen together when we arrived at Fiumicino or at dinner last night.”
“And I guess you’re going to tell me that Mr. Saki was also there, and I failed to spot him.”
“Yes and no, but he left before three-thirty, well before you arrived. I was there early, saw him just before three o’clock. A few minutes later, he was approached by a man in a tailored suit, who seemed to surprise him. It was clear they were acquaintances. I tried to “listen,” if you know what I mean. I couldn’t get it all, but they had a dispute. The man in the suit, much older than Saki, said, ‘You have to get back right now.’ They argued, but within a few minutes Saki followed him, ten minutes before you arrived.”
“Rachel, you’re a natural. How did I ever get along without you?”
“Thank you. I don’t deserve the compliment, but it’s made my day.”
Scott shook her hand, suggested she join him in the office where he would file a brief sitrep, a situation report for Fort Meade. He took the steps two at a time, eager to draft the report. He felt if he didn’t get to the keyboard immediately, Rachel would beat him to it.
“I worry,” Scott said, “that Iranian security intercepted Saki’s communication with my contact Mr. Karimi. If so, we’ll never see him again. On the other hand, maybe there was an emergency at the Iranian Embassy that required his presence. His colleagues would have known about his interest in history and frequent visits to Castel Sant’Angelo.”
“Where does that leave us, Scott?”
“Well, there’s still another explanation. Suppose the arrival of the man in the suit was part of the plan. His role might have been like yours, to back up Saki in case of a problem, or to signal him to leave in case I wasn’t alone. And imagine for a moment that the kid in the Ravens sweatshirt was recognized.”
“Oh, no, why even you didn’t recognize me.”
“That doesn’t mean the Iranians are not capable of outsmarting me—and you. Our Roman holiday may be short lived.”
Scott slept fitfully through the night, blamed it on jet lag, but worried that what began as an exciting assignment might soon end. Twice he checked for messages. Nothing. On the third try, just as the sun rose, Fort Meade replied. Middle of the night there, so it was evident someone was paying attention. He read the message quickly and then again slowly enough to memorize every word.
Contact left prematurely to avoid complications. He plans now to continue historical research far from mission. Will be exploring Pompeii ruins Saturday afternoon. Expects to be walking along the Vicolo dei Lupanare at 1530 hours. Will remain in Sorrento overnight if further contact warranted.
Scott was amused. He recalled from visiting many years earlier that this narrow alley included the remains of the Lupanare, the ancient city’s only known brothel. He might find his man studying the raunchy frescoes on the interior walls.
Sophia was already up, coffee brewed, and fresh bread waiting. “Buon giorno, Mr. Scott,” she said, “appears that Rachel has slept in today. About time, I’d say, as she didn’t sleep more than an hour or two the first night.”
“And top of the morning to you as well,” Scott said with such enthusiasm that she was taken by surprise. “Beautiful day, isn’t it? Maybe I’ll do a little sightseeing by myself, give Rachel a chance to be alone. She insisted on joining me for dinner again last night. I suspect she may be taking her assignment too seriously.”
“And I suspect, if you would indulge me for a moment, that she rather enjoys your company, and I don’t mean as a father figure.”
“Well, I doubt that,” Scott said. He poured a cup of coffee, sat at the kitchen table, and looked at the headlines in Il Messaggero.
“Anything I can do to help?”
“Thank you, yes. When Rachel comes down, tell her I’ll be out for the next several hours. And if you don’t mind, would you see if there might be tickets available tonight at the Rome opera. I saw a review of Tosca that says a virtually unknown soprano has a voice that must be heard.”
“Perhaps for tomorrow night,” Sophia said. “Rachel wanted to surprise you and had me get two tickets for this evening, for something quite different than an Italian opera.”
“And that would be?”
“It’s a one man show, Italy’s best-known illusionist, known as Roberto Il Magnifico.”
American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.
Barry Fulton is a management consultant at the U.S. Department of State, Vice Chair of InterMedia Board of Directors, and a board member of the Salzburg Global Seminar. A former Associate Director of the United States Information Agency, during his 30-year career as a Foreign Service Officer with the Agency, he served in Brussels, Rome, Tokyo, Karachi, and Islamabad. Fulton holds a PhD in communications from the University of Illinois, an MA in broadcasting and BS in electrical engineering from Penn State. He has taught at George Washington University, American University, the Foreign Service Institute, and the Pakistani Information Academy. He is the author of State Gets Smart; Leveraging Technology in the Service of Diplomacy: Innovation in the Department of State; and project director and author of the CSIS study, Reinventing Diplomacy in the Information Age.