They touch down at Dulles at 2 a.m., a mother and two children, the family of a spy. The terminal is empty, feels cavernous. The boy, 9, sits on the floor while his mom figures out what to do.

He's used to airports. He and his 11-year-old sister, CIA brats, have flown all over the world. He even got left behind in an airport one time when his father, the spy, boarded a plane without him. John H. Richardson was like that -- so intensely wrapped up in his work he could forget his little boy, his namesake.

Now the family's flown in from Saigon to join him. There's some trouble at the CIA. And it's the middle of the night. And Eleanore Richardson is looking around the airport for someone from "the agency." But no one has come to greet them. No car. No driver.

"CIA Chief Recalled," a headline has blared.

"Arrogant CIA Disobeys Orders," shouted another.

It is 1963 and Richardson is the embattled Saigon station chief for the CIA. He managed the agency's relationship with Ngo Dinh Diem as the South Vietnamese president's regime was crumbling. After a reporter blew Richardson's cover, the agency quickly yanked Richardson out of Saigon and hid him in a Washington-area apartment until the storm could blow over.

But within a few weeks, Diem would be assassinated with Washington's complicity. The United States would plunge deeper into the quagmire of Vietnam. And for the rest of his days, Richardson, a scholarly spy and master manipulator with a nagging conscience, would routinely drink himself into bouts of brooding. He'd torment himself with regret that he hadn't stood against the Diem coup. He'd leave his children clueless about what made their father so melancholy, would leave them grasping at the abstractions of the man called dad. "My Father the Spy," the son calls him in the title of his new memoir.

His mother tried to make their life as normal as possible. That 1963 day before they left Saigon, she threw a party for little John's birthday "and had this elephant come to our house. That was the big news for me," John recalls in an interview.

And then they're trudging through Dulles, finally finding a phone. Eleanore doesn't have a contact number for her husband. Neither he nor the agency has told her where he is. So she calls Bill Colby, her husband's CIA supervisor.

"How can I reach John?" she says.

"I can't tell you," Colby says. He calls John on her behalf.

Little John is riding with his dad in that long black limo. Operating under diplomatic cover, a CIA station chief is nearly as powerful as an ambassador and has similar perks, like the car and the inscrutable driver in those mirrored sunglasses.

Soldiers stop ordinary cars at checkpoints, but they wave through the limos with the little flags flapping and the diplomatic plates. It's power on wheels -- American power afoot in Manila, Saigon, Seoul (and Vienna before little John was born and Athens when he was a baby).

Richardson's looking at his dad, seeing that suit, those horn-rimmed glasses. Inside his dad's formal world, all protocol and secrets and chauffeurs, it felt like "extreme grown-upness," he says, "like I was visiting Planet Dad."

Fathers as foreign entities: It's a familiar theme. But in his book, which is subtitled "An Investigative Memoir," Richardson, now 50, takes us deep into the life of a CIA agent, both professional and personal, noble and tragic.

He is the author of the 1996 Hollywood-murder novel "The Vipers' Club" and the 2001 work of nonfiction about dwarves "In the Little World." A former scribe for Premiere magazine, he now is writer-at-large for Esquire, where in 1999 he wrote the article that became the basis of his latest book.

Richardson talked about his father and his book during an interview over lunch while on book tour here. He is as casual and laid-back (but for the odd picking at his fingers) as his father was upright and formal.

He speaks ironically, even emotively about his dad, but scrupulously avoids judging the man who left him with so many mysteries. The fact is, he's been trying to write this book for years. He's been trying to unravel "the puzzle of paternity" for years. And he hasn't. That's the heartbreaker.

Employing personal letters, declassified government documents, recollections of ex-agents, and family memories, Richardson paints a portrait of his father as a masterful yet somewhat reserved Cold Warrior, recruiting spies for the United States in postwar Europe, manipulating governments in Greece, the Philippines, South Vietnam and South Korea.

He is the spy who quoted Marcus Aurelius and John Stuart Mill -- and made sure his son could too.

Yes, says the son, his father was hard to reach. But, he protests, "It wasn't like he was totally shut down and unwilling to talk. He just preferred to talk in abstractions and he preferred to talk about philosophy and grammar. . . . We would talk about John Stuart Mill and liberty and the rights of man. And that's what he was comfortable with."

And in many ways, the father became an abstraction to his children. They moved from country to country, from school to school, their lives a succession of nannies and drivers and embassies and a few hairy brushes with the cloak-and-dagger world.

Like the time their driver did not fetch them from an expatriate sports club in Saigon. So their nanny, Mercy, hailed them a taxi. But the taxi driver sped past their street, not heeding Mercy's shouts, which turned to screams. "Then Mercy pulled out her umbrella and swung it hard against his head, startling him so much he jerked the wheel into the curb. The cab stalled out and Mercy popped open the door, pushing us out," he writes. "Then the taxi driver roared off, leaving us standing in the dust in a daze of surprise and alarm. We never knew if he was a Vietcong agent trying to snatch the CIA chief's kids or just some random bozo swept up by an impulse for a big score."

Richardson hardly knew, as a kid, if his dad had such bizarre episodes. His dad rarely talked about his work -- except in generalities, in abstractions. He learned from his father's former colleagues that he was an understated man, persistent and persuasive in his spycraft. If someone were to play his father on-screen, the son says, it would have to have been Sean Connery. His father, he says, was a low-key but charming man, the smooth dancer at diplomatic functions.

And yet he battled sadness, always had. At 14, he witnessed his father, an oilman, die. He went to high school and college in California, just behind Richard Nixon. Then his younger brother died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His mother died of cancer in his arms.

Rather than "heroic," the son uses the word "tragic" to describe his dad. Joining the army as a battlefield translator during World War II, his father had a military career that morphed into espionage. Letters he later wrote to the family read as clinically as his cables to CIA HQ.

"At the moment, I would be inclined to feel that we should be able to avoid further crisis with respect to the Buddhist issue," he wrote from Vietnam to the wife and kids while they vacationed in the States. A dispatch from Planet Dad.

The son longed for more of the dad he didn't see. The dad he did see was the man who pressed him incessantly to be correct and responsible and patriotic and serious.

"He never taught me how to shave or 'this is how you dress.' Nothing normal," Richardson says. "He told me to read books on anti-communism."

The father would leave books on his 15-year-old son's bed "and I hated him," the son writes.

One day in Seoul, the long-haired son gets into a fight with U.S. military police. The father forces him to apologize in person to the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea.

Then, the shock and disappointment deepen. The father receives a note from military intelligence that his 16-year-old son "is a known user" of LSD. The parents and son go to a psychiatrist. It is decided the best course is for the young Richardson to go away to school. He's off to Hawaii. But things only get worse.

Acid is everywhere, and the son is dropping tab after tab and also trying to sell it. He is arrested, he writes, as he walks through a marketplace "muttering 'Acid.' " He acknowledges how warped it all was: "It would probably have been smarter not to actually be on acid at the time," he writes.

It is much too much for his father to bear. The honor of the CIA is being smeared by this scandal, he believes.

On hearing the news that young John is in a juvenile lockup in Hawaii for trying to sell drugs, the father calls in his secretary and starts to dictate a cable to HQ -- a cable of resignation. The secretary refuses. They argue. He finally gives up the idea.

"My Father the Spy" is an errant son's attempt to bridge the emotional divide, to find some reconciliation, to make amends.

"To some extent, this book is between two people, instead of between two covers," Richardson says.

Except that it's told against the backdrop of ex-Nazis and espionage and coups and the Cold War and Vietnam. And it features that very Valerie Plame-esque kind of scandal, the outing of an undercover man, apparently leaked in a political battle over a military war. Very familiar indeed.

Richardson was pitted against the Brahmin politico Henry Cabot Lodge, then U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, who wanted Ngo Dinh Diem ousted. The two Americans didn't mix well. Lodge felt that Richardson wasn't switching courses, from a past policy of attempting to win the war with Diem to a new policy of winning the war without him.

Lodge pressed for Richardson to be recalled. Richardson stayed put. And a short time later, in a rare unmasking of a CIA station chief, Richardson's name appeared in a Washington Daily News article under the byline of Richard Starnes, with the headline: "Arrogant CIA Disobeys Orders."

The world, until then, had never known what a classic CIA spymaster was like. After the Starnes piece, David Halberstam and Max Frankel wrote in the New York Times on the problems between Lodge and Richardson. There was no law back then prohibiting the revelation of a spy's identity. The stories boiled it down to a struggle between Lodge and Richardson; a struggle between philosophies on the conduct of the war.

Lodge won out, and Diem was overthrown. But Richardson's son says he can't help wondering what would have happened if his father had been bolder and fought harder to preserve Diem in power.

"If my dad was more arrogant, we might not have got into the Vietnam War," he says. Even before Vietnam, his dad had faced moral conundrums that pitted his instincts against the dictates of geopolitics and the spy game.

In postwar Europe, U.S. intelligence agencies secretly recruited and protected scores of former Nazi officials for use as agents in the new Cold War against communism. Some ended up in the United States with citizenship. And John Richardson was part of the operation, albeit peripherally, his son writes.

In Austria, his father ran, or handled, a former German SS officer, Otto von Bolschwing, who had been transferred from the CIA station in Germany. Richardson's discovery of his father's involvement, he says, was a "nauseous moment." But the fact that his father apparently managed one, not scores, of Nazis was some solace, he says.

To the layperson, the compromises that are made in the name of a national interest are inexplicable. But such was the stuff of the CIA man's life -- as the son discovered while researching the book, when he found a cache of his father's cryptic private notes.

"National interest -- cold-blooded. Cut our losses but written in human blood."

"Worst Episode of my CIA Service," the father wrote, followed by, "Why didn't I protest more?" He was talking about the Diem coup, his son writes. He could get no explanation from his father, then in failing health. The notes left more mysteries.

And other discoveries left more hurt.

An old friend of his dad's let him read letters written ages ago when the two elder men were in college. The letters contained his father's expressions of wonderment and thoughtfulness and feeling -- all the things the son always wanted from his dad but could never, ever reach.

Others knew his father in ways he could only imagine. They knew a completely different man.

"I was jealous, more than anything else," he says. "I loved that he was like that" -- like the man in the early letters. "I loved that guy. And yet that was not a guy I ever met."

Only late in his father's life did the two begin to communicate easily. The father, retired and living in Guadalajara, Mexico, seemed pleased that the son had become a writer and was making something of a success of it.

His letters seemed less and less formal; less like classified cables. The father and son were able to even talk about the divide. At one point, the son sent a chunk of an early version of his book. His father responded:

"About my being remote and vague. Part of this may have been the result of your strong rebelliousness from an early age," he writes, adding later, "We did go trout fishing once together in the Virginia Blue Ridge mountains, and remember the trip we made together from McLean to trout fishing in Maine?"

As the years wore on and his father's health wore down, the son shuttled frequently from his home in Westchester County in New York, where he lives with his wife and two daughters, to Mexico. There still was so much to know.

One day, he's sitting on his father's patio, chatting amid the bougainvillea and lemon trees. They're chatting about Vietnam, sort of. And the son decides to ask his father the big question.

"I asked him how he felt about the blood on his hands," Richardson recalls in the interview.

In the book, he writes: "I'm thinking in a general sense about Diem and the war. But he looks hurt and puzzled and doesn't answer. Later, mom gets angry at me. 'He never killed anyone or ordered anyone to be killed. You know that.' "

But he didn't know that. Not even at the very end in 1998, when his dad is dying and gasping for breath and the son is sitting on the edge of the bed. So much he would never know.

John H. Richardson says his CIA station chief father "never taught me how to shave . . . . Nothing normal. He told me to read books on anti-communism."Richardson says the legacy of Vietnam haunted his father.John H. Richardson holds up a V-mail letter from his father written during World War II, when the future CIA station chief first moved into espionage."To some extent, this book is between two people, instead of between two covers," Richardson says.