CHAPTER 4

As is true of many grandly named enterprises, the National Institute of Assassination Research was located in somebody’s basement. The house was shabby, with shedding shingles, in another decaying Dallas prewar bungalow neighborhood, a one-story wreck that hadn’t seen paint or putty in too many years. The glass-and-steel spires of New Dallas seemed a long way away from this broken-down zone. As Swagger walked through the gate in the cyclone fence on a sidewalk smeared with wet leaves, he noted a sign that said “Bookstore in Back.” He followed that around and found a stairway down to another sign that instructed him to “Ring Bell,” which he did.

“Come on in, it’s open,” came a shout.

He walked into a room jammed to bulging with bookshelves, all of them ominously creaky and distended from load-bearing responsibility as their fibers struggled with the tonnage of pages they were asked to contain, the whole thing musty and basement-smelling. The shelves were indexed by handwritten-on-tape topic labels: CIA, RUSSIA, RIFLE, LHO EARLY, LHO LATE, WARREN COMMISSION PRO, WARREN COMMISSION CON, DOCUMENTS, WITNESS ACCOUNTS, FBI, JACK RUBY, and so on and so forth. Bob looked for one called DAL-TEX, but didn’t see it. He moseyed, unmonitored for a good deal of time, pulling this or that tattered paperback from a shelf, tracking the conspiracy theories from Mafia to KGB to Castro to MI-Complex to Big Oil to Far Right, none of them particularly motivating.

The stuff felt like an undertow; it could suck you in and in minutes you were annealed into the gel of conspiracy, your clarity gone, your logic-gyro hopelessly out of whack, your ability to distinguish this from that eroded into nothingness. Too much information; which of it was trustworthy, which dubious? Too many claims and assertions, too much speculation, some out-and-out lies for profit. In all, as if some madhouse virus of paranoia had been set loose, infecting all who breathed it.

“Hi, there,” a voice said. “Sorry, I was trying to catch up on shipping. Can I help you?”

The man was tall and gangly, a kind of seedy academic with a matting of thick blondish hair and glasses held to his head by an elastic strap, now pushed back into his hair. He wore a tatty green crewneck sweater under a tweed jacket that had some mothholes flagrantly displayed on the lapel. Mid-forties, no commando type, his hollow, pale cheeks bristly with day-old beard. He smiled, introducing the fact that he hadn’t discovered tooth-whitening strips, and extended a long-fingered hand. Bob shook it, discovering as he’d anticipated that it was slightly squishy and moist, and smiled back.

“Well,” Bob said, “I seem to have a bug in my head that’s saying ‘Dal-Tex’ over and over again. If there was a second rifle, it had to be there, given a bunch of other factors. I thought you might have books on it. I thought you might have a file.”

“Ah,” said the proprietor of NIAR, “very interesting.”

“I stood at the Elm Street X, and I couldn’t help but notice how close its trajectory is to the Sniper’s Nest.”

“Agreed. Many, many folks have found that fascinating.”

“I’m sort of late to this game, so forgive me for my ignorance. I’m guessing that a lot has been thrashed over, gone through, shaken out, and I don’t want to waste my time doing what someone already did in 1979.”

“I don’t blame you, friend,” said the man, settling easily into a conversational posture by resting his rear on the counter and crossing his arms. “Especially now. You know, with the fiftieth coming up, we’re anticipating a big surge in interest and attention. It seems like Stephen King isn’t the only guy working on an assassination book. I’m aware of a great deal of activity.”

“I’m no writer,” said Bob. “Lord knows, I couldn’t string two words together if my life depended on it. It’s the puzzle aspect of the thing, the pure solution, that is so damned fascinating.”

“I hear you,” said the man. “I’m Richard Monk, and I guess I’m CEO and janitor of NIAR. Also shipping clerk, accountant, and lightbulb replacer. It’s pretty damn glamorous.”

Bob got out his wallet and pulled a card, handing it over.

John P. Brophy (Ph.D.) (NSPE)

“Jack”

Mining Engineer (Ret.)

Boise, Idaho

“Spent my life digging holes all over the globe,” he said. “It’s pretty boring in a tent in Ecuador, so I started reading when I wasn’t digging or sleeping or drinking or whoring. I’m still reading. About three years ago, I noticed I had five or six million bucks ticking away and declared myself retired. I got hooked on JFK and have been digging into that. It seems to have taken over my life. I read your website for news every week. Anyhow, I finally worked out some stuff of my own and thought I’d come to town to check it out, see if it stands up to reality.”

“So you’re a Dal-Tex guy. I could put you in touch with a couple of other big Dal-Texers.”

“Well. .” said Bob. “Yes, but I am cautious–”

“I get it. You’ve got a theory, it’s your intellectual property, you don’t want it getting out. All of us are like that, halfway between hungering to share and fearing being ripped off. I’ll go easy, no problem.”

“You know everybody and everything?”

“I am the Kennedy assassination,” Richard said, laughing. “I live and breathe this stuff, Jack. And I have the unfortunate problem of a photographic memory. If I read something, it’s there forever. Or at least so far. Maybe it’ll reach a point where one more fact makes my head explode.”

Swagger laughed. Richard Monk was engaging, if weird, and didn’t have that suspicious, feral quality that so many in the “assassination community” seemed to have.

“Offhand, what’s the state of the art on Dal-Tex?”

“Well, for a time the people who owned it were generous in letting researchers tour it if they made an appointment. Their policy has changed lately, I suspect because of the fiftieth, and the attention is ginning up, and they’re trying to rent out a lot of office space. I know the building manager; I might be able to get you in.”

“That would be great,” said Bob.

“To be honest, you shouldn’t expect much. The whole thing has been gutted and rehabbed twice over since ’63. Now it’s modern, you know, kind of ‘lofty,’ very chic urban Greenwich Village vibe happening. They even built an atrium into the lobby that goes up all the way through the center of the building so it looks like the Bradbury Building in L.A. Very old-movie cool, but completely disconnected from 1963.”

“The windows are still where they were?”

“Absolutely,” Richard said, “and of course you’ll confirm that certain windows line up almost perfectly with the angle and the trajectory of the head shot allegedly taken by LHO that day.”

“Good. See, I get into it through the guns. I’m a shooter. I actually did a lot more hunting than whoring and drinking and feeling sorry for myself, and I’ve seen a lot of animals and even some men die when hit by a high-powered bullet, or even, believe it or not, a low-powered six-point-five. My work has been on guns and ballistics, and now the problem is to make it fit the possibilities of the day.”

“Got it. See, I think it’s good that you don’t come into it with the preset conviction that ‘The CIA Did It’ or ‘Dallas Right-Wing Oil Bastards Did It,’ because that skews your thinking.”

“Exactly.”

“You know what, Jack? I’m way behind in my shipping. I more or less survive by mail order. Man, without the Internet, I’d be trying to get by on a major’s pension from Big Green.”

“Army?”

“Intel. Twenty years, mostly Germany. Anyhow, I’m thinking maybe we ought to meet for dinner and talk there. Is that something you’d be up for?”

“Only if it’s on me.”

“Great. Better than I hoped for. Where you staying? I can at least come to you.”

“The Adolphus.”

“Oh, then the French Room,” Richard said airily, and Swagger knew it was a joke, for the French Room was the swanky hotel’s glamorously decadent restaurant.

“Seriously, go down one block to Main, go up Main, there’s a great Mex place called Sol Irlandes.”

“Got it,” said Swagger.

“See you at eight. It’s an easy walk.”

– – – –

“Okay,” said Richard, after a long grateful swallow of Tecate, “I didn’t bring the file, because I am the file. But when you come back, I can pull all the pictures and references for you, or I can attach it to an e-mail and ship it to you, whichever.”

“Great,” said Swagger.

“Meanwhile, I’ll call Dave Arons, who manages the building for its owners, Galaxy Capital Limited. Dave’s okay, he gets it; I’ll tell him you’re an old friend, very trustworthy. He just doesn’t want loonies parading through there in tinfoil hats.”

“I left mine in Boise.”

Around them, the dark restaurant hummed with commerce. It seemed to be a popular place, maybe because the salsa was so good. Swagger sipped his Diet Coke.

“By the way, they’re playing down the connect to the assassination, even if they’ve got an assassination museum souvenir shop right there on their corner, at Houston and Elm.”

“I noticed it,” said Bob. “I didn’t go in.”

“They now call it 501 Elm, not Dal-Tex.”

“Makes sense.”

“Good marketing move, I think. Okay, right now Dal-Tex is featured in at least thirty-eight of the two hundred sixty-five formally recognized conspiracy theories. It’s got the angles, and as you’ll find, access and egress on that day was more or less easy. It wasn’t closed down till twelve-thirty-nine or so, so a team could have gotten out pretty easy. But you probably know neither Bugliosi nor Posner, the two great Warren Commission acolytes who’ve studied all the theories, give it much time of day. They don’t even bother to rebut it. When you think about it, maybe that’s sensible. I mean, man, it would have taken some balls. Go into a public building, crack an office, pop the president, and walk out whistling ‘Dixie’ ten seconds before the cops arrive. Balls and luck. Over two hundred people worked in that building.”

“Weren’t most of them at Dealey, like Mr. Zapruder?”

“There’s always some guy hanging around.”

“Maybe they were disguised.”

“Possible, I suppose. But disguised as what? A giant charm bracelet? No way strangers can disguise themselves as friends.”

“‘Giant charm bracelet’?”

“Sorry, Woody Allen line. Not funny if you don’t love Woody.”

“I must have missed it,” Swagger said. “Anyhow, on the disguise thing, maybe it was long-term. The group rented an office before, and after the shooting stayed there for six months, when the lease was up. No, wait, dammit, the route wasn’t known till the twentieth.”

“That would free you up to the big deep-conspiracy thing, where some sinister force buried in government uses its tentacles to manipulate things into place far in advance.”

“I’m an engineer. I have a distrust of big plans, because I’ve made my money troubleshooting when big plans go wrong, and believe me, they go wrong all the time. It’s better to have a plan than not have a plan, but at the same time, no plan survives contact with reality.”

“You sound military, Jack. I was in for twenty, I saw it happen all the time.”

“I was in the marines for a–”

“The limp, Vietnam?” interrupted Richard.

“Nah. Ecuador. A piece of drill bit going a thousand feet a second. That was my real education. The engineering teaches you that a plan is a set of assumptions or diagrams that are wrong or impossible. Everything affects everything, everything changes, and you end up in a place you never thought you’d be.”

“I agree.”

“Still, dammit, the angle of any of six windows to that X on Elm Street gives us exactly the brain shot that killed the president. It’s attractive to a conspiracy theorist.”

“It is. You say your thing is ballistics?”

“Yeah. I think I’ve figured out some things as to how there could have been another gun, but no forensic evidence of it.”

“Fascinating. But don’t tell me, because you’ll be angry at yourself in the morning.”

“I wasn’t going to. ‘Intellectual property,’ as you say. For a mining engineer, the whole world is secured by mineral rights. That’s what I bring to the table, and it makes me kind of paranoid.”

“That’s fine. Also, as it turns out, I’m not much of a gun guy, and I’d have no way to evaluate it.”

“That’s a common failing in this assassination research world,” said Bob, taking another sip of Diet. “Too many gun opinions by people who don’t know a damned thing about guns. A lot of time has been wasted.”

“I’ll tell you why. Because it’s so big. In order to make sense of it and make fair assumptions, you’ve got to have expertise in too many areas. The medical people know nothing about guns and the gun people know nothing about the Mafia and the Mafia people know nothing about the CIA and the CIA people know nothing about the Cubans and so sooner or later you’re making judgments on something you know nothing about, and the result is always nonsense.”

“Let me ask you, Richard,” said Bob, “do you have a theory?”

“My problem is that I know too much about it. I can’t judge anymore. I see the flaws in everything, the contradictions, the micro findings. I could do twenty minutes on the metallurgical analysis of the bullet fragments found on the floor of the limousine and whether it disproves a second-gun theory or buttresses it, and it’s arguable either way. But I have no real opinion as to which side of the issue is correct. How can I judge? I wish I could forget some of the stuff I know, but I can’t make it go away. It’s my curse. On the other hand, it made me a good intel analyst, and it helps me in my chosen line of work.”

“Got it.”

“But since you’re paying – do you mind if I order another beer?”

“Go ahead.”

“I will share with you the one theory I’ve heard that explains everything. I may have made it up, I may have heard it somewhere, I don’t know, it was just in my mind one day. Perhaps God put it there. It accounts for every nuance and inconsistency and witness confusion and everything. The only problem is, after I tell you, I’ll have to kill you.”

Where is this guy going? Swagger thought.

“I’m not going to live much longer anyhow, so you may as well fire away.”

“Let me ask you one favor. Don’t interrupt when I say something that doesn’t accord with the thing we laughingly call ‘history.’ It’ll all become clear in the end.”

“I’m listening,” said Bob.

“On November 22, 1963,” Richard began, “a screwball Marxist loser named Lee Harvey Oswald, for reasons too banal to be believed, fired three shots at the president of the United States, who by utter coincidence showed up outside his workplace window one day. The first shot missed, because Oswald was an idiot. The second shot hit Kennedy under the neck, in the high back. It drove through his body, deflecting because of the president’s heavy neck musculature, hit Governor Connally in the back, passed through him, and hit him in the wrist and finally the thigh. Oswald’s third shot missed, because he was an idiot.

“Oswald is not important, but let’s stay with him for a second. He panicked, raced downstairs, and there met a police officer named Marion Baker, who commanded him to halt. Oswald instead bolted by the officer and headed out the door of the Texas Book Depository, and Officer Baker drew and fired. End of Oswald.

“What happened to Kennedy is the gist of our story. His Secret Service driver raced to Parkland Hospital, less than five minutes away, and a very good team of emergency physicians got to work. It was touch and go, nip and tuck, all through the day and night. In the morning Kennedy finally stabilized. Though feeble from the devastating wound, he hung on, sustained by his incredible will to live and the good wishes and hopes of millions around the world.

“The recovery was slow and painful. Lyndon Johnson became acting president in his absence and ruled judiciously, as guided by Kennedy’s advisers, and made no tragic, boneheaded decisions. No Vietnam, obviously. Meanwhile, Kennedy grew stronger and stronger each day. It was feared that his spine was damaged and that he would be paralyzed, but by the narrowest of margins, that proved not to be the case. During this time, his wife, Jackie, hovered like an angel at his bedside, and perhaps the power of her love was another force for the good in helping the man regain his capacities as he healed slowly over the months. He sat up in March ’64, he took his first tentative steps in May, and by August he returned to the White House (LBJ, of course, had never moved in) and began to take up light duties. By the convention, in mid-August, he was able to give a rousing speech and was renominated by unanimous acclaim. He barely had to campaign and barely did campaign, and his opponent, Barry Goldwater, was wiped out at the polls in November. Less than a year after the tragedy in Dallas, he was re-inaugurated as president and began his second term.

“But he had changed. At first only his closest associates noticed it, but as his policy tendencies, uncontested because of the sheer charisma of his near martyrdom, became evident, the press and then the public noticed. It seems that he had ‘seen the light,’ as it were. The near-death experience altered him profoundly; the long months of solitude with nothing except his medical team and the enduring love of his wife had cemented that alteration.

“Gone was the anti-Communist cold warrior. Gone was the savvy political pro, not above a dirty trick or two. Gone too were the philandering, the drug excesses, the games of carrot-and-stick with the press for maximum advantage, the partying, the glamour, the whole sense of the glory of Camelot. Instead, he became an ascetic.”

“A what?” said Swagger.

“Guy with great self-discipline, clear moral beliefs. True believer.”

“Got it.”

“Having come so close to death, he hated it and would have made it illegal if possible. In policy, that feeling of the fragility of life, the rapidness with which it may be taken away and the permanence that even a tiny act of violence leaves in its wake, turned him into a pacifist. He saw that war was wrong in the abstract and in the particular, that strength was a pitiful disguise for fear, that more was gained by reaching out with love than shunning while locking and loading. He immediately recalled the ten thousand American troops in the Republic of Vietnam, he canceled a hundred million in defense spending, he began to open avenues to rapprochement with Castro in Cuba and ordered the CIA to stop all its anti-Castro activities. He also forbade the agency from playing in the internal politics of numerous Latin American and African countries, all of which promptly went Communist, as did the Republic of South Vietnam, absorbed without struggle by the North Vietnamese. It didn’t matter to him that we ‘lost’ those countries; we ‘won’ by avoiding battle and the loss of our precious young men.

“His grandest ambition was to end our nuclear arms race with the Russians. The idea of millions cowering in fear across the globe because some mad general could push a button and end the world in nuclear holocaust, essentially on a whim, horrified and sickened him. That would be his crowning glory.

“In the years 1967 and 1968, his most ardent initiatives addressed the arms race, the escalating accumulation of atomic devices and delivery systems (their presence made the possibility of accidental annihilation all the more feasible). He offered the Russians everything he could think of, on bended knee, so to speak, anything to move away from the madness of mutually assured destruction that held the world in its iron grip, as the Atlases and the Poseidons and the SS-12s and 14s seethed and steamed in their silos all across the American West and the Siberian Plain, and the B-52s and the Tupolev Badgers held in their fail-safe orbits just outside of each other’s airspace, twenty-four/seven, their high, feathery contrails against the blue blurry reminders of how close we were to the brink and how fragile were the mechanisms that seemed to guard our safety.

“As for the Russians, they wouldn’t budge. Sure, some liberals in the politburo appreciated the opening for a softening of attitudes and lobbied to play along, but the hard-liners, astounded by how readily the president was acquiescing and how much he was giving up without recompense, counseled sternness, to see how much more could be gotten out of a fellow they thought was clinically insane, even if neither they nor anyone in the United States could say as much.

“Finally, as his second term was running out and egged on by liberal Eastern newspapers and new media that celebrated his willingness to defuse the bombs threatening the world and replace bellicosity with understanding, the president ordered the unthinkable. He ordered unilateral nuclear stand-down. To prove his sincerity, he would prostrate himself and his country to the Russians.

“He ordered the B-52s of SAC grounded. He ordered the computers at NORAD unplugged, as well as the over-horizon radars of the DEW line. He ordered the Minutemen in their silos defueled and began a program of warhead neutralization, removal, and destruction. He ordered the MX experimental program halted. At a certain date, he had done what he set out to do: He had removed the United States from its position as a nuclear power. He had achieved peace.

“At twelve minutes after midnight on Tuesday, November 5, 1968, the Russians launched.”

“Wow,” said Swagger. “Richard, this is getting a little weird, isn’t it?”

“Jack, you promised not to interrupt.”

“It’s a good thing I’m not a drinking man anymore, or you’d have me all bourboned up by now. I’d be fighting sailors, talking to young women, and calling my kids.”

“My whistle is dry. I need another beer.”

“After destroying the world, I’ll bet. Waiter!” He hailed the kid. “Get my father here another Tecate and refill my Diet, will you?”

“Sure. You guys want to see the dessert menu?”

“Hey, ice cream and nuclear firestorms turning me to ash, that’s a great idea,” Bob said.

Richard laughed. “Oh, it gets better.”

The beer came, and Richard rewarded himself for destroying the Western Hemisphere with a swallow, while Swagger drained his own half a Diet Coke in tribute to the burning cities and civilians slaughtered in their beds by the millions.

“Okay, Richard,” he said. “I guess I’m manned up enough to get on through this.”

“You only think you can’t handle the truth,” said Richard. He took a breath and began again.

“Who can blame them? It probably wasn’t even a decision made in the Kremlin. I’m sure it was some junior lieutenant general in some command bunker outside of Vladivostok. By the iron logic of his national philosophy and the Doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, he did the right thing. Once the ‘mutually’ is taken out of the equation, the sane thing to do is fire.

“In thirty minutes of sustained SS-9 warfighting, over a hundred million Americans perished. All command and control bunkers were hit, SAC-NORAD was turned to radioactive glass, but there was no point in wasting megatonnage on the silos because they’d been disconnected from the computer grid and the local commanders, the first lieutenants in the holes with the two keys, didn’t have the flexibility to launch without command authority. Fail-safe, you know. Those weapons were redirected at smaller cities, so even the Dubuques and the Cedar Rapids and the Lawtons were fried on the thermonuclear griddle. So the Russians won World War III quite handily.

“Unfortunately, they didn’t do so well in World War IV, which started the next day. Assuming the Brits would sit it out, they assumed wrong, and the RAF went in low and hard and turned Eastern Europe into a funeral pyre. For its efforts, the RAF’s airfields were awarded secondary strikes from intermediate-range SS-7s, and since the airfields were attached to the island of Great Britain, another twenty or so million went up in flames.

“The Russians also thought they had the American carriers zeroed, but it turned out their subs were the ones on the zero. The American destroyers hunted and killed them like fish in barrels, and the carrier planes took out the Russian surface fleet with first-generation air-to-ship missiles, allowing the carrier medium bombers and attack planes to get close enough to roar up the soft underbelly of Redland at low level and deliver tactical nukes on all Red Army groups, tank concentrations, and any unfortunate cities in the neighborhood. Finally, one Boomer-class nuke missile sub that had been at sea and missed the fire that time got itself back into the game and launched without command. Sixteen Poseidons. A hundred and sixty megatons, COD. Returns not accepted. By the end of the first day of World War IV, the Russians had lost close to two hundred million people and their military structure had been utterly cremated.

“Then it looked like the Chinese, the Africans, and the South Americans would inherit the earth. Ha ha, joke’s on them. A little thing called nuclear winter set in. One of those unintended consequences people are always talking about. I hate it when that happens. A blanket of radioactive debris filled the sky – I mean everywhere – and, robbed of sun, agriculture wilted and died where it grew. The temperature dropped forty degrees mean. The seas became oceans of poison. Marine life went the way of the dodo. Mutations, new plagues, new parasites, actual vampire attacks, all these microscopic nasties that had heretofore yielded to the killing power of soap and water flourished and multiplied and grew, killing yet more millions. The flu, black plague, cholera, you name it, ancient diseases not seen in eons came trotting out for their pound of flesh. Ovaries shriveled, and among the few million survivors, the birth rate fell precipitously. We were going down. We were dying faster than we were replacing, and nothing could change that demographic trend. By 2014, there was almost nothing left.

“There was only one solution. The remaining high-IQs agreed on it. With fewer than a hundred thousand people left on the planet, there was only one choice. In one of the most moving spectacles in human history, the world’s remaining top scientists, engineers, physicians, soldiers, and thinkers gathered; it was like the Manhattan Project, a colossal undertaking underwritten by all surviving power structures, backed by all humanity, a concentrated species effort the likes of which hadn’t been seen since Australopithecus crushed his first gazelle with a femur on the African savannah, with one goal; to find a way to use the power of science to save humanity.

“They had to send a man back in time.”

“I think I saw that movie,” said Bob. “I think it was called Terminator.

“Hmm, never heard of it,” said Richard, taking a finishing draft on his Tecate, then raising his hand for another one. “Now that you mention it, I might have seen it a time or fifteen.”

“I think I was with you until the time-travel jazz came up. I dig holes in the ground, long, straight holes. In other words, I live in and fight dirt. Dirt is about as elemental as you can get, Richard, especially when six miles of it are between you and what you’re trying to dig up. So for me, time travel is a nonstarter. I just can’t wrap my mind around it. I have to get off the boat right here.”

“Jack, trust me on this – time travel, by the laws of physics, is theoretically justifiable. I’ll spare you the math, but the secret is the position of the body in space. You see, if you sent a man back a hundred years from here, from this nice restaurant and among all these attractive young people, and he stepped into the here of a century ago, he would instantly die, because he’d be in outer space. Hello, no air, 5,000 degrees below zero, and pieces of shit flying along at light speed because there’s nothing to slow them down. That’s because the earth, the solar system, the whole shebang, nothing is where it was. It’s all moving and moving fast. You have to first devise the mother of all computers to calculate exactly where here was a hundred years ago, and by particle beam transmission, that’s where you send him. So when he gets there, there is a there to be gotten to.”

“I’m getting a headache,” said Bob.

“We’re almost done,” promised Richard. He took another long draft and resumed. “He wasn’t a special man. But he had to be a hundred percent certain. After rigorous psychological testing, he was found, winnowed from the thousands who’d sworn they could do the deed. But in 2015 everyone knew the temptation to stay in the past would have been overwhelming. The past was so much better than the ever-diminishing present. They had to have a man with the integrity to destroy himself on faith for a world he’d never see, for children he’d never know, who’d not only die but, more tragically, perish from memory, a man who not only wouldn’t exist but never would have existed.

“They found him. Maybe he was someone like you, Jack, tough and smart, salty, been around, walked with a limp, always with the watchful eyes, always slightly tense, as if he’s ready to dodge a flying drill bit. That would be the guy. A hero, like Jack, with a limp from a wound he never talks about.

“They sent him back. He entered the past at twelve-twenty-nine p.m. CST on November 22, 1963. They sent him to the southwest corner of the Texas Book Depository, just beyond the Hertz sign. He had a minute or so to set up, and he’d been trained well. He didn’t flinch. He didn’t hesitate, doubt, fear, regret. Very capable, a Jack Brophy if ever there was one. Good with tools, even or especially guns. He had a rifle, nothing special, nothing complicated, and a nice midrange scope, and several rounds of ammunition. All of these were chance survivors of the nuclear wars, located at great cost and effort by our descendants in the year 2015.

“The hero on the roof put his well-zeroed scope on the head of the vital, attractive young man known as John F. Kennedy and saw the president take Lee Harvey Oswald’s second round and flinch but not fall, watched his hands involuntarily rise to his throat in the nerve behavior known as the Thorburn position, counted to five, and squeezed the trigger. He drove a bullet into JFK’s skull.

“In that moment, he disappeared. The rifle disappeared. All traces of the bullet disappeared. As it performed its killing duty, it ceased to exist. All evidence of the second rifle ceased to exist. And that’s why nobody will ever ‘solve’ the case. A confused but still idiotic Lee Harvey Oswald was left to go Huh?, panic, and begin his crazed last run. Who cares what happened to him. What’s important is that in the moment of JFK’s death, the next hundred years ceased to exist, or ceased to have existed. JFK was dead; he wasn’t wounded, he didn’t recover, his brain had been turned to vapor, he didn’t pull the troops out of Vietnam, he didn’t beg the Russians for mutual concessions, he didn’t unilaterally stand down from the brink, thus pushing us over the brink. There was no nuclear holocaust, no deaths in the billions, no nuclear winter, no collapsing ecosystem, no vanished agriculture, no poison seas, no demographic suicide, no second Manhattan Project; we got, as a planet and a species, something unknown – a second chance.

“That’s where we are now, Jack, fifty years into the second post-November 22, 1963, reality. Vietnam. Watergate. Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bush One, Clinton, 9/11, Bush Two, the war on terror, Iraq, Afghanistan, it’s been one mess after another, Jack, but we haven’t blown ourselves up, and billions of us still drink the water and breath the air. So maybe that lone gunman did us some good after all.”

“Well,” said Bob, “you promised me a theory, and that’s a hell of a theory.”

“See, most theories assume that had JFK survived, the consequences would have been positive. There’s no way to make that argument. Just as likely, by that goddamned law of unexpected consequences, they could have been negative, tragic, even catastrophic. We can never know.”

“Richard, you are either brilliant or insane, I don’t know which.”

“I’ll bet you’re not surprised to learn I’ve heard that line a few times before. Now chew on that one overnight, and tomorrow at eleven, show up at the lobby of Dal-Tex, and Dave Arons will take you through the building.”

– – – –

Swagger got back to the hotel with a headache, as if he’d been drinking. In a sense, he had been: Richard’s science fiction story, with time travel and all that goofy bullshit. What the hell was that about? It had a meaning, somehow, but he couldn’t see it.

He almost wished he had a drink, and as usual, the temptation to go to the bar, to have the one that would become two and then three and so on was still there, like a pilot light, something that never went out.

He had to think of something else. He had to put something between himself and his appetites and the craziness that swirled in his head. He pulled on clothes and boots, took the elevator down, and walked the twelve blocks in darkness and coolness and emptiness to Dealey in a haste that belied the pain in his hip and the gracelessness of his walk.

He wanted to look at it again, see it in the dark, as form without detail, as shape. That nightmare site of so many crazies: the grassy knoll.

Without features, the small hill to the west of the plaza seemed utterly nondescript. He walked to it, climbed it, and watched the cars peel down Elm. He imagined himself as that legendary French gangster, the favorite candidate from one of the first theories, who somehow had lingered. A Corsican, the story went, like someone out of an old Hollywood movie, so degraded that he could kill the world’s most beautiful and dazzling man. There he was with his M1 carbine, leaning forward at 12:30 p.m. that day, putting the front sight blade on the president’s head and squeezing the trigger.

But–

No, it was wrong. The French killer couldn’t have aimed at the president. The president was moving at an uncertain speed. His killer would have to aim ahead of him. He’d have to hold, what, six inches to the front to make that brain shot. It was called shooting on the deflection, and it took talent and practice. Some people never got it.

Most people assume that the Frenchman on the knoll had the easier shot because he was closer. In their minds, close equals easy, far equals difficult. Oswald was 263 feet away, the Frenchman 75. Clearly, these people hadn’t done any wing shooting, or taken any shots at running game or men.

Swagger estimated that the theoretical Frenchman would have been on a ninety-degree angle to the vehicle, which itself was beginning to accelerate at an uneven speed. In order to place one shot – and he would be limited to one shot in order to preserve the false-flag operation – he would have had to shoot on the deflection. In skeet and trap and sporting clays, this is the hardest shot, called a “crosser,” because it demands the biggest lead. It is mastered by shooting it over and over again to develop a feel for the necessary lead given the speed of the target. The Frenchman would have had to find the target, keep the rifle moving, pull ahead of the target a certain (unknown) distance, and then pull the trigger without disturbing the sight picture as he kept the rifle moving. Swagger knew that was hard enough with a shotgun, which blasts a pattern of shot covering a fairly wide area, but almost impossible except for the top professionals with a rifle, an instrument that puts a single bullet into a single spot. The odds on making that shot the first time out are extremely remote. No, they are not impossible, but it seemed unwise for a professional team to base its plan on one man hitting a near-impossible shot first time, cold bore, unless it had at its disposal some sort of shooting genius, and such men are rare and difficult to find.

As for Oswald, or whoever was back there in the building, whichever one it was, his situation was completely different. His shot, in wing-shooting terminology, was an outgoer. It’s pretty easy. The target presents very little angle. The limo wasn’t exactly at zero degrees angle to him, but as it moved down Elm Street and as he oriented himself in the window to track it, it was under five degrees. From his point of view, even through that poor-quality scope, it was trending right to left slowly, possibly even undetectably to him. Its main quality was that it was diminishing in size as it traveled farther in distance. Neither of these conditions required that he shoot on the deflection, demanding that skillful computation of lead. He could hold point-blank on the target, concentrate on his squeeze, and get his shot off. If the rifle was accurate and the sight aimed dead zero, then the shot was technically no harder than a benchrest shot at a rifle range. The difference in distances – 75 feet versus 263 feet – was hardly meaningful. To Bob’s sniper’s brain, the shot from behind and above was far easier than a shot from 90 degrees at a vehicle accelerating at an unknown rate.

Swagger thought: Hmm, that’s kind of interesting. The shot had to come from behind.

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