The classrooms and hallways of Farmingdale High in Long Island were deserted on the morning of Saturday, August 19, 2001, when a van pulled into the school’s parking lot. Turning off the engine, the driver of the vehicle — a tall man in his late 30s — stepped out into the warm summer sun. He cast a sweeping gaze upon the buildings and grounds of the institution he’d graduated from two decades earlier.
Whatever nostalgia he might have felt for his old school was tinged with bitterness. For it was here that he had suffered some of life’s early humiliations: taunted by classmates for his apparent dimwittedness; held in low esteem by his teachers. If they remembered him at all, they would remember him as the boy who had difficulty reading. The boy who was so bad with spellings. His bearish frame may have sheltered him from physical bullying in his last years of school, but combined with his severe dyslexia and his social awkwardness, it had also cemented his image as a dolt.
That image had stuck with him, despite a successful career in U.S. intelligence and a top secret security clearance that gave him access to some of the country’s most-valued secrets. Being underestimated — by family, classmates and colleagues — had been the theme of his life, a curse he had borne silently since childhood. But for the mission he had now embarked upon, it was a blessing. None of his colleagues or managers in the intelligence community could have imagined that he of all people — so lacking in flamboyance as to be the antithesis of James Bond — was capable of masterminding such a cunning espionage conspiracy.
From the parking lot, he walked to the edge of the school grounds. Squeezing through a hole in the barbed wire fence next to the handball courts, he stepped into a wooded area that separated the Southern State Parkway from the school perimeter. Walking a few yards, he stopped by a tree and dug a hole in the ground. He took a laminated phone list out of his pocket and buried it there before walking back through the fence to his van, confident that nobody had seen him.
He’d already pulled off the biggest heist of classified information in the annals of American espionage. In just a few days, he hoped to execute the final step of a meticulous plan to exchange those secrets for millions of dollars. If he succeeded, he would have enough money to pay off the mortgages of his brothers and sisters, settle his personal debts and secure the financial future of his children.
With fortune, he imagined, respect would follow. Those who had known him would no longer doubt his intelligence. Once and for all, he would shake the mantle of stupid.
From “The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell: A Dyslexic Traitor, an Unbreakable Code, and the FBI’s Hunt for America’s Stolen Secrets” by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee. Reprinted by arrangement with NAL, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee.