The thunk-thunk of the Chinook grew louder in the humid Virginia sky; it swung into view just as we lifted our heads from the deep grass of the cemetery. It wasn’t the Enemy, with their forward-looking infra-red that could detect body heat even in the densest forest; it was salvation, in the form of our pickup chopper. We’d made it to the rendezvous point on our topographic maps, and we’d survived the three-day ordeal of Escape and Evasion. My squad mate, Karen, lifted her M16 in the air. “Oh, yeah, baby,” she crowed. “Grandma was airlifted out of a secret CIA installation!”
She was twenty-two at the time and had no children. She quit our elite training program soon afterward. She’d been perfectly frank in admitting she’d enrolled purely to have kickass cocktail party conversation for the rest of her life. And she was right: I always wait for the pregnant pause at the dinner table after some new acquaintance says, “Wait. Seriously? You worked for the CIA?”
I did. And it was worth all those hours hiding in the cemetery, just to say so.
I wasn’t born to be a spy. My parents tried to raise me right–Catholic, conciliatory, cowed. But I grew up near Washington, D.C., during the Deep Throat years, when nothing seemed sexier than a small brown sign off the George Washington Parkway. CIA, it said. Just like that. An exit ramp disappeared into a thicket of trees. Could you even take that exit? And what would happen to you, if you did?
All writers begin life as readers—and I cut my teeth on LeCarre. I devoured Ludlum, MacInnes and Deighton. I pressed copies of Nelson DeMille’s Charm School on prospective boyfriends. I wanted it all: the cat suit, the thigh holster, the midnight assignation under a bridge in Prague. I could quote Bond from Dr. No to Never Say Never Again, and there was a special place in my heart for Vesper.
But it’s tough to be a woman in America and really love Bond. Bond Girls have copious breasts and Barbie Doll legs. Bond Girls have names like Honey Ryder. And most importantly, Bond Girls always die–usually because they insist on wearing high heels, or they can’t drive a stick shift. They trip on their stilettos as they race to the helicopter, and expire on the word “James…!” Far better to wear combat boots, as I did. Provided you carry a particular shade of lipstick in your gear—MAC’s Chili will do just fine—that pairs brilliantly with camouflage.
I applied to the Agency as an analyst, but after a year of FBI background checks and a polygraph, I was pulled into the CIA’s training program as a special treat. For a year I learned to be a spy: tossing supplies out of open airplane doors to partisans waiting in the bush; rappelling off a helicopter skid with an M16 strapped to my back; making brush passes and taking agent meetings and servicing dead drops; working surveillance on the streets of DC at night. This was long before waterboarding and Rendition and the ugly outing of Valerie Plame. A kinder, gentler intelligence era. Our worst enemy was Moammar Gaddafi, who downed Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 as a Christmas present. CIA employees died on that plane. I was allowed to work on the investigation. I spent four years at the Agency before quitting to write books, and I don’t regret a day of it. My knowledge of the covert world has proved endlessly useful as background to the novels I’ve written—even my latest, JACK 1939. As I wrote about a young Harvard kid picking up a pistol for the first time, it helped to remember just how clueless I once felt, in similar circumstances; and I put a lot of my girlish fantasies into the creation of Diana, JACK’s British femme fatale.
Intelligence is a funny business, worked in the shadows with occasional bursts of glory. There was the time I flew to Houston to debrief George H. W. Bush; the time I got a yellow sticky note of praise from Al Gore; and the never-to-be-forgotten moment when I donned a Dolly Parton wig and rhinestone glasses to meet a terrorist asset. Raising kids, I’ve gotten endless mileage out of my old career. When one of my sons—then about five—told me scornfully that he could never be a writer because “that’s a girl’s job, Mom,” I narrowed my eyes and said, with just the right hint of menace, “Remember, Sweetie. It’s Mommie who can fire a grenade launcher. Not Daddy.”