Thad Clarke—until recently the top agent of MCIU-5, that most elite unit of the CIA—marched past the throbbing hangover that had lodged behind his temples and knocked six times on the large oak door in front of him. The cadence of his wrapping was timed precisely to the lyric “O the ramparts we watched” from “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The subtle code was specifically designed to let the person behind the door know that security had not been compromised, and someone with code word clearance or above was requesting entry. Clarke only then realized the code might have been changed without his knowledge after what had happened last week. Then again, if he was truly persona non grata at headquarters, he doubted he would have been allowed on the top floor at all.
“Come in,” the tight, almost squeaky voice—no one would dare tell the owner of said voice that his voice had such a high, nasal quality, but there it was—came from the other side of the door. A harsh buzz rang forth and Clarke heard the carbon-steel alloy lock click.
Clarke entered the room he had entered hundreds of times before and was immediately struck by what had changed. The Old Man was still behind his desk, carefully reviewing cable reports from some far-flung area of the world. Clarke guessed the report was from Panama, judging by the satellite photos he could see partially sticking out of the beige file folder. This was as it should be. In fact, he decided that everything looked in order. There was just something off that he couldn’t quite put his finger on.
“Have a seat, my boy. We have much to discuss, it would appear.” Clarke’s head of section—the Old Man—had indeed never gone by any official name, instead allowing whatever euphemisms around his identity to take hold. If enemy parties were to pierce the veil of MCIU-5, all they would find is a man with no name.
“Yes, sir,” Clarke said, taking the offered seat. He detected a slight increase in the treble of his voice. He loathed being a supplicant to anyone, but Clarke supposed he had always felt deferential to the man who had brought him into the ranks of clandestine operatives. Presidents had feared him. Entire Congressional subcommittees had feared him. Division lore indicated that before he died the only things J. Edgar Hoover feared were God, André Courrèges, and Clarke’s boss. Clarke had reason to be nervous.
“I’d like to start—” the Old Man said.
Clarke interjected reflexively. “If I may, sir. I’d like to apologize about what happened last week. I lost my temper.”
A smile crept across the Old Man’s face. It was an alien enough gesture on his face, that Clarke decided the next few seconds would lead to his total exoneration, or his death by the hands of the state. “Nonsense,” he said, waving the notion away with a hand. “If I had a nickel for every time I bellowed at one of the bean counters downstairs, I could set fire to my pension.”
Clarke matched the smile, but felt it blow up beyond anything that might be considered proper in the situation. “If we can chalk it all up to a lesson learned, I would very much appreciate the chance to get back to work.”
The Old Man regarded Clarke for a moment that felt as if it stretched into eternity. “Oh, dear,” he finally said. “This will be awkward, I’m afraid.”
“How do you mean, sir?” Clarke asked.
The Old Man grimaced and reached for the intercom on his desk. “Please send him in, would you?”
The voice beyond the intercom squawked something akin to agreement and the lock on the office door clicked again. A man—younger, with wispy blonde hair and a mirthful, nearly cherubic face—walked into the office. The newcomer’s pair of Allen Edmonds Carlyle Oxfords—the same type of shoe Clarke himself wore—clicked with each step. The Ermenegildo Zegna suit the other man wore was—from a distance—a precise match for Clarke’s own ensemble. If it weren’t for the man’s vapid grin, Clarke would have assumed he was looking at his twin.
“Hello,” the newcomer said. “My name is Thad Clarke. I’m glad to know you.”
Clarke—that is, the man who up until a moment ago thought of himself as the only Thad Clarke in the room—shot a glance at The Old Man and back to the interloper. It was a frantic, uncontrolled gesture, and Clarke immediately chastised himself for the loss of control. He had once brought down a Neo-Nazi financing ring using only his pinochle skills. Now, when his entire world had been turned upside down, he had been turned into some sort of spastic new recruit.
“But, I’m Thad Clarke,” he protested.
The Old Man shook his head. “Not anymore. We’re living in precarious times. Al Qaeda. ISIS. Russia and the Deep State. It’s preferable that they all think you’re still on the job, even if you have resigned. We had a contingency plan for your disappearance or death—”
“—that would be me,” the interloper interjected. “I bring a lot more to the table than just the willingness to fill your admittedly large shoes. I can pilot a space shuttle. I’m board certified from a very prestigious Clown College. I also make a mean quiche.”
Clarke looked incredulously between the two men. The Old Man nodded sharply. The smile was gone. “Yes, that’s all… true. It also turned out to be useful now that you’ve resigned your commission.”
Clarke lowered his head, but said nothing more. He had entered that office in hopes to get his life back. As he left, he had nothing. Not even a name. Thad Clarke will return, as it turns out, but the sad sack who left that building had no idea where to go next.