Secrets in Washington
By Lady E
March 2, 2007
I met the first man as I was going home from a dance at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall. I was in the process of climbing into a cab when he leaped from the shadows of the building and latched onto my arm.
I jumped back, crashing against the car door, and demanded he release me. His artless, unassuming beam, plastered across ruddy cheeks and childlike eyes, was almost believable as he pumped my hand in a ridiculously effusive manner.
"Professor!" came a gasp from that cherubim face. It was unexpected to hear the keyword uttered by so youthful a figure, but it was no concern of mine who the men chosen for tonight were. A strange calm came over me as I realized, henceforth tonight, there would be no looking back. "Professor, it is a pleasure, a delight, an absolute honor to be sure – I have admired your writings for quite some time and cannot begin to express the joy this brings me…"
I did not miss my cue, overplayed though it was. As he prattled onwards, I leaned in relief against the door, earning an impatient glance from the cabdriver. "Thank you, sir, for such high praise," I responded as graciously as possible while nearly having my arm yanked out of its socket. Repeatedly.
Taking my words as encouragement, he bounced from toe to toe while introducing himself, "Adam Shorne, Professor. Adam Shorne, at your service."
Concealing a grimace with a polite nod, I wrenched my injured arm back to safety and in the same move gestured toward the cab opening. "We can further discuss my… writings, if you wish, Mr. Shorne." My less-than-subtle invitation would have been inexcusable under normal circumstances, but the man was attracting far too much attention and aggravating me to no end. The sooner this was over with, the better.
Eyes glowing, he nodded fervently, nearly tossing his hat twelve feet through the air. Without preamble, he leapt in, a compact briefcase peeking out beneath his arm.
I followed more sedately, carefully scanning over the handful of loiterers who might have witnessed the exchange before closing the door firmly. Inside, the cabdriver was grumbling, "High time. I don't get paid waiting around on the curb all night."
Smiling apologetically, I said simply, " 48 N. Rotari Road," and the cab rumbled into motion. Let the driver wonder what business I had with the Department of Defense this late at night.
For a blessed moment, only the run of the engine could be heard, and then the effervescent man opened his mouth again. Halfway to our destination, in the middle of a tirade about the masterpiece of English literature I'd apparently written some twenty years ago (possibly the letters I'd penned home while serving in Korea), Shorne thrust the briefcase unceremoniously onto my lap.
Grimacing again at his tactlessness, I slid a palm over the black leather and cracked it open to the sight of ten thousand dollars in American bills, all neatly stacked. With a snap, the case shut again on the first of my payment. I caught Shorne's sidelong glance amidst his babble and knew he was wondering why I hadn't bothered with even a cursory examination of the money's legitimacy. There were two simple reasons, neither of which I planned on explaining to this henchman. One, I wasn't in this for the money. Two, I personally knew the man forking over ten grand, and while I wouldn't trust any underground weapons dealer beyond the barrel of a shotgun, this one simply had too much money to notice a mere ten thousand.
The agreement had been settled two months ago in the backrooms of a smoky, nameless pub with only two attendant witnesses. I had worked before with Mr. Grayson, as he liked to be called, but never on anything overtly criminal. Earlier this year, however, with the presidential scandal, certain illicit discoveries by the public had compelled me to enter a direct partnership with Mr. Grayson. He had access to places few other people did, and I needed to start off on a clean slate now that Vietnam was over. Grayson considered me in his employ, no doubt, as he did everyone else, but our deal would be concluded after tonight's events.
We rolled down Constitutional Avenue, federal buildings passing through our windows in a never-ending stream: the National Gallery of Art, the National Archives, the Department of Justice, the National Museum of Natural History, the Constitution Hall, the Federal Reserve Building. The hallway of buildings tempted attacks, not just from underground rings but from the ordinary, slighted citizen as well. The civil rights riots this year should have been fair warning. It wouldn't take much more than a single bomb, planted in the right spot, to stir the capital into chaos.
The cab reached the Pentagon without incident. I handed a bill to the driver, declining change, and stepped out with the briefcase tucked against one side. Turning to extricate myself from Shorne, I was surprised to find him still sitting inside.
"Well, I think I'm all tuckered out for the night," he grinned. "A pleasure to meet you in person at last, Professor." With that last enigmatic statement and a cheery wave, the door shut and he was off.
The second man chose to announce his presence at this point. As I headed for the entrance to the illustrious Department of Defense, a stranger wordlessly fell into step beside me.
If his silence wasn't intimidating, his height certainly was. He stood at least a full head taller than me and wore an old-fashioned top hat. A beard and mustache hid his jaw and much of his expression. With the dark, crisp clothing of the Pentagon guards, he cut a mysterious figure, a far cry from the ebullient Mr. Shorne, for which I was simultaneously relieved and cautious. Here was a man one took seriously.
It was only outside the main entrance that I chose to break the silence. "No keyword?" I asked casually, while he fished for his keys.
His mustache quirked, but he did not look at me. "Is it necessary, Professor?"
"It pays to tread carefully," I answered, refusing to be riled. He unlocked the doors and stepped through. When the doors shut behind us, he did not lead us through the main visiting area but instead threw an arm out to block my progress. Perplexed but careful not to reveal it, I waited.
"Perhaps I had better finish my routine check-up alone. You will wait here, Professor?" Again, there was a slight, sarcastic intonation on my supposed occupation.
I frowned and wondered what game he was playing. My instructions had been to accompany him while he procured the documents Grayson wanted, perhaps not the safest plan to follow, given the number of after hours workers still in the building, but it had been the plan. Had I not been informed of a change? Or was this man acting on his own?
Unsure why my presence had been expected to begin with and seeing no immediate harm in the prospect, I nodded towards the man, and he disappeared into one of the many corridors branching off from the visitor's area. Not wanting to leave all the cards in his hand, however, I slipped into a side chamber, one less spacious and more ideal for watching rather than being watched.
He was a plant for Grayson, obviously. A federal security officer who received a large sum of cash from an illegal weapons dealer was not all he seemed. But the disparity in plans led me to question even that. Could he possibly be a double agent? Did Grayson question his loyalty? That possibility sent my suspicions spiraling in all directions. Had my presence tonight then been intended to ensure the man followed through?
I shrugged that one off. If Grayson was having difficulty securing the loyalties of his subordinates, I could not see any way I might be entangled in the affair. He would not trust me any more than he would his own man.
The side room turned out to be remarkably sparse in furnishings. A large counter faced the doorway, utterly devoid of paperwork or other expected clutter. A door at the other end stood ajar, the outline of a coat rack in the gloom giving me the first hint of what the room's purpose was – had been, from the deserted looks of the place. Otherwise, the only other object adorning the room was a glistening drinking fountain, a rather out-of-place commodity, but this side of the building had been hastily constructed from what I could remember.
If Grayson did not suspect this second man of duplicity, which seemed more and more unlikely as I considered the amount of pay Grayson offered and all the other strings he had at his disposal, the only other reasonable possibility for this sudden change in plans turned disturbingly towards putting me off-guard.
I was suddenly very glad I had not stayed in the reception area.
"Professor?" drawled that sarcastic voice again, coming from the doorway.
I spun to face him, not quite able to shake the heightened tension that had come over me. He did not look suspicious, peeling himself from the doorframe and holding out a briefcase, which I assumed held the contents he'd picked up.
He nodded, and a brief glance inside the case was all the affirmation I needed. It took more effort to keep my next question as impassive as the first.
The amused, knowing quirk to his mustache appeared again. "I would not dare forget something so important," he jibed, raising his other hand to reveal the set of keys dangling from his fingers and pulling them out of reach when I lifted a hand. Irritated, I read the silent dare in his eyes: Come and get it, if you can, Professor.
At any other time, on any other night, a simple ring of keys would not have mattered so much. But this set, currently in the clutches of a treacherous federal officer, would help me lay to rest the last of my guilt in Korea and Vietnam, a worry that had plagued me for twenty years. Perhaps, even then, with the mounting pressure, I might have been able to coerce this man to simply hand over the keys, but I was still jumpy from the notion of an ace up Grayson's sleeve, so I did not react as calmly or logically as I would have preferred.
Setting down the briefcase of money and documents on the ground, I pulled out a pistol and leveled it at him. The .40 Derringer was more or less vintage by now, its glory days over, but this one worked, and I did not hesitate to inform my opponent as much. "Toss me the keys. Gently," I said, meeting his gaze with every ounce of composure I could muster.
"Illegal possession of firearms is reason enough for arrest. Threatening an officer of the law is tempting the devil." Despite his calculated words, he graciously lobbed the keys to me, allowing me an easy catch.
"Given who your employer is," I said coldly, "I hardly think you have any right to accuse me of either offense." Before I left, I asked him the question that had been at the back of my mind. "It is correct to assume your loyalties lay with Mr. Grayson?"
He chuckled outright at that. "I am hurt by your suspicions. Of course I remain loyal to my employer," he said, mockingly tipping that hat of his, and stepped aside for me to pass.
Outside, I hailed a taxicab again and gave directions for " 9th Street and Constitutional Avenue." I headed back for the National Mall, that array of ornate buildings begging for disaster.
There was no telling if the man had been honest with me or even what he had meant by his "employer." For all I knew, he could be a Communist double-crossing both the American administration and the underground weapons ring. Again, I reminded myself there was another time and place for aimless questions. I was already on my way to the National Archives, with the keys to all their security barriers tucked safely in my pocket, courtesy of that Pentagon turncoat. One quick trip in and out, one more of Grayson's men to meet, and the night would be over.
The cab pulled up outside the National Museum of Natural History. The driver offered to wait at the curb, but I waved him off with a half-formed excuse about needing an evening stroll. I didn't think I needed an alibi for this part of the night, but it wouldn't hurt to have him believe I was just out for a leisurely turn about the block.
I smiled at the thought as I crossed the street. Perhaps in my younger years, I would have done exactly that, stumbled around the center of the United States capital in awe of the architecture and the history. But fighting through two wars and wrestling with their aftermaths had taught me the dangers of such a prospect. If there was one surefire way to get killed, it was to lurk about in a city infested with all manners of clashing opinions and deceitful plots.
One of which was about to conclude, I thought, while unlocking a side entrance to the National Archives. With the keys in hand and confidence from having studied this place extensively in broad daylight, I spent a total of ten minutes reaching my destination. It was a simple task to remain undetected, so long as I stayed away from the U.S. Constitutional documents exhibit. The rest of the Archives was decidedly less well-guarded, with most doors unlocked after the initial entrance and only two or three tired security officers on duty.
I met even less trouble in the Foreign Wars section. Stepping through the open doorway, a swift glance about the room revealed it to be abandoned. It was a matter of minutes to extricate the rather large file labeled "Andrew Forsyth: Washington Post Reporter" and slip it into the briefcase Shorne had given me earlier tonight. Later, I would find some way to erase the documents, but removing from the public eye the evidence of my involvement in the drug distribution incidents during Korea and Vietnam took top priority.
If I'd been careful in entering, I was even more vigilant in finding my way out. Coming in, even with a briefcase full of money, I might've been able to explain away my presence as curiosity from a businessman on a visit to the capital, but going out, it would be difficult to find a reason for why I needed to take some of the contents of the Archives with me. Some risks were worth taking, of course.
My caution paid off. I reached Constitutional Avenue unhindered, drawing in a breath of open air with some relief, and as luck would have it, a single cab remained at the taxi stand across the street. I hurried over and directed the driver to " Southwest Ohio Drive and West Basin Drive," my last stop for the night.
After I met with Grayson's last underling and handed over the Pentagon papers and keys in exchange for the rest of my payment, this tedious business would be over at last and I could head home to my wife.
"Have a nice visit at the Smithsonians?" the cabdriver spoke up, making conversation.
Smiling inwardly at my "visit," I answered casually, "Yes, I did. Thank you." A tiny doubt niggled at the back of my head, but I couldn't figure out why I felt a sudden discomfort.
"Glad to hear it. Not many people properly appreciate the effort poured into maintaining those sites."
I made a noise of agreement, and we fell silent, watching the buildings pass by. I couldn't shake the sense of unease, and a few minutes later, a huddle of yellow cabs caught my attention. They idled outside the Washington Monument, not an unusual sight in these busier parts, but something about the sight troubled me.
And then it hit me. Taxi stands were not located this close together; there could not have been a taxi stand outside the Archives.
I swung my gaze to the cabdriver, who had so conveniently waited for me, and saw his eyes already watching me in the rearview mirror. A thousand indignant remarks sprang to my lips, but I held my tongue in check, waiting for his move first.
Finally, it came, but not in any way I could have anticipated. "Which Smithsonian museum did you visit, sir?"
I caught the subtle implication and tensed, inwardly berating myself for not having realized earlier. "None of the museums are open this late, as you well know."
"Hn" was his only acknowledgment, and then his eyes returned to the road as he kept driving.
Mind racing, hand clenched on the derringer, I wondered, could he be…?
When he parked the cab at last and turned to face me, I almost wished he hadn't. His angular, middle-aged face was expressionless, while I knew my own betrayed my anxiety, but I had already guessed what his next words were going to be.
"You can call me Mac. I'm your third man, Professor."
A surge of anger took me by surprise. I had had enough of Grayson's riddles and trickery. The man was jerking me around like a marionette, having me run around on his instructions while he cooked up plans of his own behind the scene. Accusingly, I said, "You were supposed to meet me at the Tidal Basin, near the Japanese trees."
"And so I have." Impassive, his eyes flickered outside the cab windows, to the naked trees lining the lake front. There were no pink blossoms of course; it was too late in the year for cherry blossoms to bloom. But there was no mistaking the distinct grove of trees, right outside the cab.
I could feel my temper slipping but gritted my teeth and busied my hands gathering the weaponry documents from the Pentagon. Crowning the pile with the Archives keys, I left the whole lot on the empty seat beside me. When I tried the door, it refused to budge. I wondered how I could have expected otherwise.
"Unlock the door."
"Not yet," answered Mac, calmly handing me another briefcase of cash, the rest of my payment. "I want to know who you are."
He had a harsh face, I thought, every line and plane slanting brutally and an old scar curving just above his left eyebrow. Like a caricature of war.
"You don't need to know."
"You're Grayson's brother-in-law, aren't you?"
The unexpected question took me off-guard, and my eyes flew to Mac's in shock. "I – did he – he couldn't have," I floundered, but my lack of a fiery denial was probably enough to confirm his guess.
He did not laugh at my stupefaction, merely waited for me to collect myself and then deigned to explain. "Your wife," he said, eyes holding mine, "is not at your home right now. Mr. Grayson says she went to him willingly, as soon as she saw those pictures of you in the war. I do not know the truth, but she is not home."
Disbelief warred with budding outrage, but Mac forestalled anything I might have attempted and handed me a slip of paper. "I was asked to leave this note at your house, but I am sometimes prone to laziness." Catching my narrowed gaze, he shrugged. "I was in ' Nam too."
The note was brief:
My Dear Brother,
My apologies for the U-turns tonight. I promise Abby's absence is the last one. For tonight.
I mentally cursed myself for not having foreseen this. Grayson had always liked to play. I had thought the elaborate plot he'd devised for tonight would have satisfied him, but I could not have been more wrong.
"Mac." I shoved both briefcases of cash at him. "Take me to Grayson."
An irrational fear had laid hold of me with Mac's words earlier. If she was suitable shaken by the dark secrets I'd kept from her, Abby could have gone with her brother willingly. The logical part of me scoffed at the possibility; Abby knew as well as I did, if not more so, what kind of person her brother was, and there was nothing he could offer to tempt her. But I could not help the coil of worry that had lodged itself in my chest.
In my mind, I could see Grayson, a short, fragile creature drunk on power and manipulation, patting my wife on the shoulder. He was laughing, at the betrayed expression on my wife's face, at the furious expression on mine, at the laws of the world. He seemed to be saying, as he had when I first married Abby, "Brother, brother, how many times do I have to tell you? I am always one step ahead."
"I don't care. You're going to be sorry," I said.
A/N: It's really about time I experimented with some action/adventure story. Obviously, this one-shot begs for a heavy revision, but I hope I haven't embarassed myself too much. Thanks for reading!
Disclaimer: This was a first-last sentence assignment from my creative writing class, and credit should go where it's due: The first and last sentences come from Denis Johnson's short story "Two Men." If anyone understands the point of that story, let me know.