When Mike lays it all out on the table, it makes sense. Nadine doesn’t normally like to agree with him, but this time it makes too much sense not to.
She has no doubt in her mind the things Conrad Dalton would do to get re-elected, loyalty and steadfastness be damned. She may have voted for the man, she may serve his administration, but she doesn’t trust him and she isn’t confident that he’d protect McCord’s seat. Not at his own expense, if that’s what he thinks the cost might be.
She suspects that Elizabeth really is worried, and then she knows it for sure when Elizabeth calls her back into her office later, wanting to know what Nadine thinks.
Nadine knows what she thinks. But she needs a minute to figure out how to say it with tact and propriety. When she’s silent a beat too long, Elizabeth fills in the blanks herself. “You don’t trust him,” she says.
“No,” Nadine says. She can be honest now that she has been saved from tact. “Not... not implicitly.” Not with your career , she thinks.
The Secretary doesn’t look offended. The Secretary doesn’t really react at all. “Well,” she says neutrally, “He’s a friend and I’ve known him for a long time, and I think—“
But Nadine shakes her head. “With all due respect, ma’am? So have I.” The blatant interruption takes Elizabeth by surprise. Nadine soldiers on. “For more than...” She has to think about it, chuckling dryly when she realizes how much her answer dates her. “Well, for more than half my life, now.”
Elizabeth stares at her for a moment before deciding to take a stab at it. “CIA?” she ventures.
“Yes. They recruited me right out of college. I’d had my heart set on law school but their pitch was... very convincing.”
Service to her country in exchange for free tuition, matched year for year. As a new grad with no money and substantial debt, she’d been in no position to turn them down. And they did hold up their end of the deal, after all was said and done. That hadn’t been the problem. The problem was everything that happened to her on assignment—all the things they hadn’t prepared her for, all the things they hadn’t bothered to protect her from.
“I didn’t know. Who recruited you?”
“I don’t even remember anymore.”
They’d been nearing the end of the Cold War, though no one could have known it at the time, and the agency was sparing no expense when it came to hiring and training new operatives, trying to push a stalemate toward a better conclusion.
Nadine was the daughter of a Russian Jew and had the language skills to prove it, which made her an attractive recruit. And she danced, which made for a good cover. So they put her through training and then put her on a plane to Eastern Europe, with an assignment she wasn’t sure she could complete and no friendly faces around to help her try. Twenty-three and in over her head. At the time, she thought it was the loneliest she’d ever felt in her life.
Nadine watches as Elizabeth runs the new information through, fitting the pieces against what little she already knows of Nadine’s life. It doesn’t take her long because she doesn’t know that much. “So your time with the dance troupe…” Elizabeth trails off.
Nadine nods. “We did tour Europe. I did dance. But… it wasn’t the reason I was there.”
Officially, her cover was that she was a cabaret dancer touring with a European company. One of the other members of the troupe was the son of a known KGB agent, and he was her mark. Flip him, whatever it takes , they said. She understood that she would not be permitted to come home empty-handed.
Her handler never told her outright that turning a person against their country and family would involve sex, but Nadine could read between the lines. Why else would the CIA go out of their way to hire so many young female agents? She’d thought of the possibility when she let them hire her, and hadn’t felt any which way about it, either. It didn’t occur to her to have reservations until after she’d already done it, and by then it was too late to walk anything back.
“I don’t want to ask about anything that may still be classified,” Elizabeth says carefully.
“I don’t even know how much of it still is classified,” Nadine replies. “It was the only assignment I ever worked. I quit as soon as I got back.”
“It went bust?”
“No.” Nadine’s mouth twists wryly. “I got pregnant.”
It was his baby. She’d done the job she was expected to do, and now she was left with a pregnancy she didn’t ask for from a man she didn’t want. But he loved her (or so he said) and that was enough to flip him. He agreed to betray his father and country for her and their baby, so she ran with that. She filled his head with silly fantasies about running away together, getting married and raising a family and making a life with each other—
And then she handed him over and never saw him again.
“I see,” Elizabeth says delicately.
“I hated… all of it,” Nadine said honestly. “I was so exhausted from pulling double duty; dancing day and night while trying to live this other life; I was tired of being on all the time. I’d gotten injured a couple of times while dancing our Christmas run… nothing catastrophic, but I couldn’t… It was too hard on my body. It would have been hard on anyone. I wanted to come home, but my handler refused to pull me out until I’d completed my assignment.”
“Who was your handler?”
Nadine thinks Elizabeth has it figured out by now. Maybe she just needs to hear it out loud. “Conrad Dalton,” she says.
“Nadine... I’m so sorry.”
She’d returned home underweight and pregnant and physically and emotionally injured, licking all kinds of wounds as she tried to regroup. She didn’t know how to rebuild her life from the scraps that were left, or how to explain to anyone why she had to. The baby, at least, was easy to explain. Easy to lie about.
Nadine clears her throat. “I completed my mission almost by accident, around the same time I discovered I was pregnant with Roman. But if I hadn’t... If the assignment had still been open, I think Conrad would have left me there to close it or rot. Even with a baby on the way. He didn’t really… He never showed much concern for the toll it was taking on me.”
What it all came down to was that Nadine hadn’t understood, really, what she was signing up for when she’d signed up to do it.
“I didn’t know,” Elizabeth says, shaking her head. She pulls her glasses off slowly. “I didn’t know any of this.”
“It isn’t something I tend to share. It was a very brief part of my past,” Nadine says. “One I’m not particularly proud of.”
“You were young.”
“Everyone they recruit is young.” Conrad had probably been counting on her naïveté because he knew he could take advantage of it. The Company knew they could take advantage of it. Hers, and that of dozens of other young women just like her.
“That’s how they get us, isn’t it?” Elizabeth says softly. “Clever enough to play their games. Too young to see how they play us, too.”
“Indeed,” Nadine muses. Conrad had always used a ‘tough love’ approach with her, but it was almost always manipulative and never helpful. He’d been serving his country. He’d been blind to everything else. “President Dalton is not,” she concedes now, feeling obligated, “the same man he was then. But he has always acted with intention, and he is very calculating. My point is that his end goal might not have you in mind. That’s all I think.”
Elizabeth exhales, seeming to allow herself to deflate slightly. “So you believe what Mike was saying.”
“He’s building a convincing case.”
“I trust his research,” Elizabeth agrees, “but I’d feel better about it if you looked into it as well.”
Nadine smiles. “I’ve already started.” She plans to review it with Mike later, after she’s had the chance to do her own studying. “If that’s all…”
“Yes. Thank you, that’s all I need.”
She’s halfway to the door when Elizabeth thinks of something else.
“Your son, does he know…?” Elizabeth put the pieces together, of course. Everything Nadine refuses to say out loud even now.
She lied to everyone about who Roman’s father was, and she still does.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Nadine says. She forces a bland smile.
It answers Elizabeth’s question all the same.