As I said, Sergeant,” said Harry Gardner, “Dad was a man of literature, really. So his books, his private books, were all fiction.”
Swagger once again stood at the threshold of Niles Gardner’s office, that book-lined cave where the CIA’s famous Boswell had tried for thirty years to write novels and failed. He could see the Red Nine lying undisturbed on the desk and the four ceramic bluebirds and the illustration of the six green elm trees on the shelves.
“Well,” said Swagger, “as I say, it’s a long shot. But I noted that beside the pistol, which is sometimes called a Red Nine, there’s that collection of bluebirds, four of ’em, and that picture of elm trees, six of ’em. It occurred to me that somehow the phrases ‘Red Nine,’ ‘Blue Four,’ or ‘Green Six’ might have had some meaning to him, like in some private way he was commemorating them.”
“Wow,” said Harry, “you know, that’s remarkable. I noted those things too, and I thought them strange, but it never occurred to me to put them in a pattern. They were so unlike Dad. He was not a sentimentalist, and those bluebirds in particular are so kitsch that I can’t understand why they’re there. Let’s look at the picture.” He took it down from the wall, handed it to Swagger, then took it back. “Dime-store frame. Let’s see what the picture is.”
He turned it over, unfolded four soft copper flaps securing the mounting board, and shook the board free of the frame. The picture fluttered to the floor. Bob picked it up and discovered that it was folded in such a way to display the six trees, but it was actually an illustration from a
“Good Lord,” said Harry. “Now, there’s your classic fifties kitsch!” He turned to Swagger. “You’ve introduced a strangeness to my father that not even
“It connects with nothing of your father, or his mind, or anything that you can think of?”
“Nothing. I’m astonished. Where’s this going?”
“I found the pistol odd too, in its way. I noted those other things, all with the numbers attached to colors. I thought: Radio call signs, agent names, map coordinates, some kind of color code, all of which could have some connection to intelligence work and might have some bearing somehow on the fake name he cooked up for Hugh Meachum.”
“In other words, if you can decipher the pattern, maybe it’s the same pattern that connects to Hugh. Or the same principle of pattern, is that it?”
“Something like that. I know it’s thin, believe me.”
“Thin or not, it’s fascinating but way beyond me, Sergeant.”
“It could also be nothing. He liked bluebirds. He liked trees. He liked Mausers.”
“But he didn’t like trees. He didn’t like Mausers. He most certainly didn’t like bluebirds, that I can guarantee you, particularly ceramic ones. So maybe you are on to something.”
“If so, I ain’t smart enough to figure it out.”
“I’ll tell you what. You feel free to dig around here. As I say, I’ve been over it all, and I can guarantee you: no porn, no hidden notes from mistresses, no decoded instructions from his secret masters in the Kremlin, no movie scripts, nothing that anyone but a son would find interesting, and even his son didn’t find it that interesting. I am going to leave you alone with Niles Gardner, and if you find anything, more power to you. Do you need coffee, beer, bourbon, wine, a sandwich, anything like that?”
“The bathroom is down the hall. Feel free to use it.”
“Thank you, Mr. Gardner.”
Bob turned and faced the mind, or at least a portion of it, of Niles Gardner. He found it intimidating. It was all books, and most of them Bob had never heard of. But starting at the top left-hand corner of the top left-hand bookshelf – the book was
It took over three hours, and from the well-thumbed, well-worn condition of the volumes, Swagger could tell that Niles Gardner was a man who loved his novels. Hemingway, Faulkner, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Orwell, Dickens, Wolfe, Wells, Bellow, Friedman, Golding, Brautigan, Pynchon, Fitzgerald, Crane, Flaubert, Camus, Proust, Wharton, Spillane, Tolkien, Robbins, Wallant, he read passionately and catholically. A classic in a Modern Library edition was apt to be found next to something by Jim Thompson. Kurt Vonnegut and James Gould Cozzens and Lloyd C. Douglas and Herman Wouk and Bernard Malamud and Robert A. Heinlein and Norman Mailer and Anton Myrer and Nicholas Monsarrat and John le Carre and Howard Fast and Irwin Shaw and Robert Ruark and Franz Kafka, all were equally displayed and beloved on the long feet of floor-to-ceiling shelves. On and on it went, and there was no relief from the weary task of unshelving, flipping the pages, reading the comments, then replacing. Occasionally, something would fall to the floor, some kind of long-ago bookmark, like a dry cleaner’s slip or a folded index card or someone’s business card or whatever, and each would indicate a stopping place or a passage of brilliance that Niles had awarded an exclamation point.
Finally, Bob was done. He had come across no oddities, no irregularities, no anomalies. It was just a serious reader’s collection of the best his species had done at the ridiculous effort of telling a long story in prose.
“How’re you coming?” asked Harry, leaning in the doorway.
“I suppose it was a game try, but I didn’t learn a damned thing I didn’t already know, except that the world is sadly full of books I’ll never read.”
“This room makes me feel the same way. I–” He paused. “This probably has nothing to do with anything,” he went on, “but I did find one book hidden away when I was searching. It was nonfiction, old, a first edition. It was strange for Dad to have, and he’d hidden it in the bedroom, in his nightstand, under a pile of magazines. What did I do with it?”
Swagger waited as the internal drama played out in Harry’s head.
“I thought it might be valuable, so I set it aside for an appraisal and then never–” He snapped alert. “Wait here. I put it in the attic, where I have some of Dad’s old suits that I’ve been meaning to give away.”
He turned, and Swagger heard the echoes in the old house as the man bounded up the stairs two flights, then bounded back.
He walked in with his trophy.
“Some kind of obscure Victorian science book, though the author’s name is slightly familiar; I can’t remember from where.”
He handed the heavy volume to Bob. It was
Swagger turned to the title page and saw that it had been published in 1884.
“It’s got a bookmark,” said Harry.
Swagger cracked the old volume to the page that, sometime in the distant past, Niles Gardner had designated as of special meaning, and found himself at the intersection of pages 730 and 731, where he began to read Frances Galton’s comments on numbers and colors.
– – – –
I’ll spare you details on the weekend and the pitch I made to Lon and his eventual acceptance. As you may have gathered, I would make a later, tougher pitch to Lon, and that was the dramatic one. I’ll detail it at the proper time.
To sum up, Peggy and I got there around 5, had cocktails, and took him to dinner at his country club, where all knew and loved him. The food was excellent, and he was in good spirits. I could tell the intellectual exercise of solving the problem had energized him. The next morning, he and I went out to his range, and he showed me the rifle he had prepared and the ammunition, and convinced me that it was fine, that it would work. I suppose he knew what would come next. He displayed no surprise at the course the conversation took.
Lon was a big man. That’s why he played fullback; ask the Harvard pansies, they know him well. He watched his weight and worked out his upper body with dumbbells regularly, but he was always fighting the pounds; they seemed to creep on him like fog and cling like putty. He had a square American face, wore wire-rimmed glasses, and kept his hair short, like all of us did without question in 1963. He favored corduroys, chinos, and crewneck sweaters, all well worn, so that he looked like an English professor – again, like we all did in those days. You were an English professor in a rumpled sport coat or an IBM salesman in a sharp dark suit and black tie. That was all there was.
His face was so lively and intelligent that people oftentimes didn’t realize he was moored in that hateful steel chair, S4 forever. He’d gotten awfully good with it over the years, and he may have been the one who invented the wheel ring of smaller circumference than the rubber tire he used to propel himself. He could probably climb a mountain in the thing, or rob a bank, or go up or down stairs. But it got to him, I know it did. His vitality crushed into that metal framework, his liveliness anchored by the great dead wastage of his lower body, his talent frustrated by his immobility.
It took a bit, as it always does when you recruit a solid citizen to go against all that he’s been taught, but I had advantages. I knew he read Lippman in the
When I explained my fears that Walker’s right-wing pressure might force the callow and decadent JFK into doing another stupid thing, this time a stupid
There was some logistics planning to be done, but that’s always a task at which I excel. I got a big chunk of operating funds out of the black budget by my usual means, bought each of the tickets at a different travel agency, paying cash, booked rooms for us from the nineteenth to the twenty-sixth at the Adolphus under fake names – easily done in those precomputer days – used a fellow in the gray economy who did a lot of intelligence trade work to put together fake driver’s licenses for the three of us, and made sure everything was delivered and nothing was written.
I had my own career to tend to, so I worked extra-hard in the meetings and at appending notes to reports and keeping Cord up-to-date on PEACOCK and the like. I was busy, or at least I gave the impression of being busy. My one worry was that Kennedy would make another mistake and we’d find ourselves on crisis footing and stuck in weeks of eighteen-hour days while the grown-ups at State worked out ways to prevent him from ending the world in fire. I guess those midweeks in November, he was busy screwing Cord’s ex-wife, Marilyn, Angie, and everybody except poor forlorn Jackie, when he wasn’t plotting his next campaign. He didn’t seem to do much except think about his career and wait for things to happen. It was that hunger that killed him: the trip to Dallas was strictly politics and had nothing to do with his actual job as president.
In any case, I sold Cord, who had seemed hazier and more morose of late and perhaps was drinking more than he should, as his nose was turning into a big red blob, on another PEACOCK trip – this time, to make it easier on myself, to the south. The idea was to hit the prestige North Carolina schools, like Duke and Wake Forest and the University of NC, and spend a week trolling for talent down there. For some reason, North Carolinians always did well in prestige journalism circles, possibly because, although they were Southern, they weren’t
The night came when Lon, Jimmy, and I met as a team for the first time. It was November 19, 1963. I had rented a Jeep Wagoneer, and the three of us drove from the Adolphus, a grand hotel that bathed in the red glow of the neon pegasus atop the Magnolia Petroleum Company next door, out to the Patio and got acquainted, first with one another and second with the field upon which our operation would transpire. It was a good trip. Jimmy and Lon bonded instantly, and it was understood, without having to be explained, that Jimmy would be the action guy, the assister, Lon’s special friend. Lon would shoot; he was the artist, the special talent, who made the thing work. I would supervise, though discreetly, more by studiously considered suggestion than direct order; I would also handle everything organizational, logistically and strategically. It was a good healthy dynamic. There is no I in “team,” or so they say, and for the three of us, it was true.
I drove, Lon was in the back where he’d be a week hence, and Jimmy sat next to me. We had not much trouble negotiating the Dallas traffic. I can remember only a little about the drive over to the neighborhood: the colors of the early 1960s. Somehow, in the soft air of that time and place and season, they were lighter. I can’t put my finger on it, and no words may exist, at least within my reach, to describe it, but everything was less urgent, less hard-edged, and more light filled the air. The great Nabokov could probably conjure it in two or three words, but I grope and babble. It was as if America was too comfortable for primary colors; they would come later, after the event I engineered, during Vietnam, during the huge change in demographics as the ignorant generation whose fathers had won the war took over. But not then, not yet. Everything was softer, lighter, quieter. I don’t know how else to make you feel it.
Speak, memory. Now I remember pulling into a parking space about forty yards down from the Patio and sitting there for a bit, letting it soak in.
“This is where we’ll be?” said Lon. “Suppose we can’t find parking.”
“The two nights I visited, there were ample spaces,” I said. “I can’t imagine we’ll have trouble late on a Monday night.”
“Where’ll the other guy be, Mr. Meachum?” Jimmy asked.
“See the alley directly across from the restaurant? I’ve told him to take up a position, entering from the rear. We’ll place some wooden crates there so he can get a good braced position. We’ll have to walk the range, but I’m guessing it’ll be about seventy yards.”
“And you want me there?”
“This guy is such a jerk, I’m not sure how he’ll do. If someone confronts him, if he gets confused, if he loses confidence – in all those circumstances, you may have to intercede. You’ve got a slapper?”
That was a cop’s blackjack, a flat, flexible piece of leather with about a pound of buckshot sewn into it; a master could whack a man to unconsciousness with one quick blow.
“I do, and it’s saved my bacon more times than I can remember,” Jimmy said.
“That would be your move. It’s messy, but we can’t kill any private citizen; we just have to get Alek out of there cleanly. Do you see any problems, Lon?”
Lon grunted. “This is sort of like
We laughed. We were all John Wayne fans.
“Technically, it’s an easy shot off a rest. I am worried about a deflection. It appears I’ll be shooting through some bushes.”
“If you want, Mr. Scott, I can visit some night late and discreetly trim what needs to be trimmed. We’ll take that worry off you.”
“Great idea,” I said. It was. I hadn’t thought of it. I’m glad Jimmy, ever practical, had.
“Then our patsy falls back through the alley, cuts between two houses, turns right, hides the rifle under the Forty-fifth Street Bridge, takes off his galoshes, climbs up to Forty-fifth Street, and takes a bus home. Can he do that?”
“That’s why I want you with him at a discreet distance. It’s possible he’ll get scared in the dark. If he turns the wrong way at the river, he’ll be miles from a bus stop. It’ll all be different in the dark. He was supposed to do it in the dark to familiarize himself, but he’s such a disorganized twit, I don’t know.”
“I’ll lead him by the nose if I have to.”
“Good man, Jimmy. Now let’s go into the Patio, get a table, and try their margaritas.”
So we did, three merry murderers having a good time on the patio of the Patio, which would soon be the scene of our crime. Since the duty day was done and we were on to the bonding aspect of the operation, I passed on the tequila drink and knocked back three vodka martinis, and Lon kept up with me, though he was a bourbon guy, and Jimmy sipped beer, regaling us with stories of his youthful run-ins with a Sergeant O’Bannon of Boston’s Fifth Precinct in the North End of town, where it was still more a suburb of Dublin than Beacon Hill. He told a funny story in perfect dialect. There was hardly anything Jimmy wasn’t good at.
– – – –
I arose early, took the Wagoneer to Alek’s neighborhood, parked well down from his roominghouse, and waited for him to emerge. He was late, as usual. (The idiot was on time for only one thing in his life, the murder of JFK.) I let him turn the corner on the way to the bus stop, then pulled up to him. No one was close enough to hear us in Russian.
“Good morning, Alek. Hop in, I’ll run you downtown.”
He got in, and I took a U-turn to avoid driving by the bus stop where a few commuters waited, in case any of them happened to notice the highly unusual spectacle of the grumpy Lee Harvey Oswald being picked up in a large American vehicle.
“Tell me what you’ve been up to, Alek,” I said.
“I memorized the plan. I went to the Patio twice, walking it, getting used to the lighting. I will make a good shot.”
“Excellent,” I said. “Earlier that night, we’ll move in some old wooden crates. You can use them for support so you don’t have to try any fancy positions.”
“I’m a Marine Sharpshooter.”
I knew that Sharpshooter was a relatively easy distinction to attain in the Marines; he had not made Expert.
“I have complete faith in you. And you have walked your escape route? You won’t get lost in the dark? I worry about you being arrested, going the wrong way home, and singing like a canary.”
“I will die before talking, Comrade,” he said fiercely. “You can count on my love of socialism and the working fellow to get me through any ordeal the fascists have in mind!”
“Well said,” I replied. “That’s the kind of spirit we need.”
There was nothing particularly memorable about the discussion. He had a kind of morose personality and didn’t seem agitated about what lay ahead. We just went through the details rather dully, without much sparkle at all.
“Any more visits from the FBI?”
“Nah. Maybe Agent Hotsy is bored with me.”
“She’s fine. I’ll see her this weekend and Junie and new baby Audrey. Also, I’ll get the rifle.”
“Any problems getting it out of the house?”
“You know she’ll look for it when the news comes, and not seeing it, she’ll conclude you went back on your word and murdered him.”
“She won’t talk,” he said. He held up a fist. “I am the king of my house, and the wench” – he used a cruel Russian word,
He guided me through traffic, which thickened as we drew near to Dealey Plaza along Houston Street, after crossing the river. In a block or so, we were there, and I had my first look at Alek’s place of employment, with its Hertz sign set on the diagonal above. I cannot say I paid it much attention, because at that point Dealey Plaza and the Texas Book Depository were utterly meaningless to me. I had no revelation, no surge of heartbeat, no epiphany. The structure was a big, ugly building on the edge of a municipal park of no particular charm, brick, six or seven stories tall, completely without character. The cars whizzed by it, all the other buildings were equally uninteresting, even the triangle of grass that constituted the plaza lacked feature or interest. I regret many things I did over the next few days, and among them – not the first but up there nonetheless – was that I made the Book Depository eyesore a historical shrine, never, ever to be demolished.
“That’s it,” he said.
“Okay, I’ll turn here so nobody sees you get out of this car. Oh, I wanted to get the diagram from you.”
He reached into his jacket and pulled it out, the only article except for the box of cartridges I’d given him that both of us had touched. I knew I’d burn it at the first opportunity.
I dropped him at the corner of Main and Elm, then turned left on Elm, passing under the shadow of the Book Depository as I headed down the slight slope of Elm to the triple overpass a hundred yards ahead. I came within sixty or seventy feet of the even more famous grassy knoll on the right. In all the years that followed, I always had a smile – perhaps the only one the operation ever produced on my face – at the expense of the lunatics who believed that the little green lump explained everything.
I found a way to reverse my direction, got back to Commerce, and in ten blocks or so reached the Adolphus. There, I made phone calls to Jimmy and Lon to set up a real-time run-through that night, as we would do for the next six nights, to get used to the routes, the patterns of the shadows, the rhythm of the traffic, the different hues of darkness as the conditions altered the nighttime weather.
That night after dinner, I had a moment of happiness and calm. I was doing something big that I thought would help my country at the cost of one small, worthless, ugly man. It did not feel wrong at all to me, and I had no doubts, no qualms, no reservations. I was going to make a difference. I was going to change history.
The next morning, Wednesday, November 20, 1963, I woke, ambled groggily to my door, opened it, and grabbed the newspaper, the
– – – –
Ah, Vod. So dependable. Such a friend, an ally. Vod always has my back, my best interests at heart, my happiness paramount in its fermented little potato brain. With Vod at my side as well as in my blood, I launch into the final act, which would leave me, theoretically at least, history’s most abominable man. I slew the prince who was the king. I widowed the goddess of all our dreams; I made Ari Onassis possible. (There’s one I know I’ll never be forgiven for!) Oh, and I orphaned those two little so-cute-it-hurts-even-now kids. Bad Hugh. Hugh, you bastard. Vod, a little help here, please.
I knew I had to convince three people to help me tilt Operation LIBERTY VALANCE a little bit, so that instead of shooting General Edwin Walker on November 25, 1963, we would shoot John Fitzgerald Kennedy on November 22, 1963, two and a half days hence.
The three people were Lon Scott, Jimmy Costello, and myself. As for Alek – Lee Harvey Oswald – I knew the glory pig would take zero convincing. The idiot would be like a rabid dog pulling on a leash. He might have come up with it himself if he’d read the paper. It was everything his fetid little sewer-Commie mind demanded and had dreamed about for years. His eagerness would surely get him killed and everyone else electrocuted. But I felt I could control him and improvise a new plan so brilliant that even he couldn’t screw it up too badly. I would see him tonight at the bus stop.
As for me: Did I believe in what I was about to do? And if I didn’t, how could I convince the others? I tried to apply the dictates of the New Criticism to the ethical issue, as if it were a poem demanding the most rigorous attention to detail, untarnished by the excesses of biography, assumption, sentimentality, lugubrious emotionalism. Read the text, I told myself: read the text alone.
Here was the text I read, trying to ignore the young president’s glamour, his vitality, his beautiful children, his strangely beautiful but beautifully strange wife, his brood of brothers, cousins, sisters, parents, whatever. No room for sailboats, touch football, movie stars, no thought of parochial politics (we were both Democrats), all that out. Lyndon Johnson, whoever he was, out.
My clinical reading of the text that was JFK demanded only one answer: what were his intentions in the Republic of South Vietnam? I didn’t give a damn about Castro or Cuba, I didn’t see much that could be done in Europe except minor maneuvering for minor leverage, a missile base exchanged here or there, a spy betrayed, a minister blackmailed, all of it, in the long haul, meaningless.
But what of that steamy glade, with its ravishing jungle and mountain landscape, its little yellow people who wanted nothing in life except to be left alone to raise their rice plants ankle-deep in water and shit? The issue was: would JFK get us into a big shooting war there? If so, who would fight it? The tiny yellows he cared nothing about – they would die in the hundreds of thousands, for sure – or a generation of college kids unlikely to care to risk a war to save a country so far away, whose rise or fall meant so little to them and would not be worth dying for. Left to their own devices, neither of these demographics would vote to let slip the dogs. It wasn’t like the Vietcong had bombed Pearl Harbor, much less Winnetka. No, it would happen only if JFK willed it to happen by inventing reasons to send our troops over there. He’d already begun, and I’d seen them, tan, lean young men with the close haircuts and narrow eyes of highly trained professional military, the so-called Green Berets, yearning for a war they thought would be quick and glorious, with a nice sniff of powder to it. I knew there were a lot more of them there than the
To me it was shit. The place was infinitely more complex than anybody in Washington suspected, and it had the kind of suction that could drag us down to ruin in its whirlpools of deceit and danger, its anthropological conundrums and village traditions, its cruelty; our enemies would degrade us, but not as much as we would degrade ourselves in fighting them.
I took, as I said, the recent murder, under our auspices, of Diem as doubling down on a bad bet. We knew Diem was so corrupt that his military was incapable of winning a war, and that the reigning tactical concern for field and general-grade officers, much less administrators and bureaucrats in Saigon, would be filling their own secret bank accounts in Paris. We had decided to wipe that corruption off the face of the earth, to encourage new, younger, American-trained (and American-allied) officers who would win the war. If they proved unable, we would begin to send more than “advisers”: we’d send divisions, we’d send our new helicopter-borne army, and the general slaughter – as well as Eisenhower’s feared “land war in Asia” – would be on. There was no telling how many would die, theirs, ours, the unfortunate peasants caught in the middle, and for what? One piece on the board, said to be a domino but maybe just a piece on the board.
That JFK was a philanderer, that he was screwing Cord’s wife (among the many), that he came from a family as narrow and clannish and narcissistic as any Tudor or Hanoverian, all these I tried to discount. That his heroism in the Pacific was greatly exaggerated, that he received the Pulitzer for another man’s work, that his father bought him every election he ever won, all that I tried to push aside. I don’t know if I did. But in the end I made up my mind, and once I’d done that, it was on to the others.
I called Lon.
“No, Hugh,” he said. “Not a chance.”
“I will be on a flight to Richmond by three if you say one more word, Hugh.”
I let the conversation simmer off into silence for a bit. Finally, I came back with what I knew was the weakest of propositions. “Just let me make the argument.”
“My mind is made up. As soon as I saw the paper, I knew how that devious little insect that you call a brain would set its antennae to twitching, its mandibles to grinding, its pincers to snapping, and I knew exactly where you’d go. I know you better than you know yourself, Hugh. Anyhow, what’s the point of listening to the argument? There’s only one argument, really. You believe you can pull off the biggest coup in history. You would call it an ‘operation’ in your spy-novel lingo, so as to distance yourself from it, as if it’s scientific or medical. It’s hubris, Hugh. It’s just hubris.”
“Lon, you are–”
“I know you, Hugh. I know you.”
“If you’ve made up your mind, how can it hurt to hear my argument? I assure you, it has nothing to do with me, my needs, any of that. The psychology involved is yours, Lon. I will make you see how it has to do with
“Oh, right. Oh, that’s rich. Hugh, you are a bastard.”
“That’s what they pay me for. The things I’ve authorized, you wouldn’t believe, the things I’ve seen. Please, Lon, meet me in the lobby in ten. We’ll go for a little walk.”
“Agghh.” He snorted, signifying surrender.
– – – –
I pushed him in silence across the street from the hotel. I didn’t head south, down Commerce toward Dealey, but north, and then I turned east down a street I don’t remember. It was November 20, 1963. The sun was out, and true fall, as we New Englanders would recognize it, had yet to begin. The leaves were still green. In late November! We arrived after a block or two at a small park that seemed to be dedicated to some glorious Texan or other who had triumphed at the Battle of Squashing Mexicans or some such. That’s what we did in the Agency – if not Mexicans, some other little brown tribe, anyone who got in our way. That’s what I helped us do. We were in the empire business, after all, and I was paid to make sure that empire stayed strong and lasted forever, and anyone who opposed us got squashed. If the empire was to fall, it wouldn’t be on my watch.
We sat in the sun. Should I say birds sang, the wind blew gently, the sun was bright, the world seemed full of hope? Maybe all that is true. I have no idea.
“Get on with it, goddammit,” Lon said. “I don’t have all day.”
“I just have one question,” I said. “Request, actually. Then I’ll shut up.”
Finally, I said, “Lon, tell me about the chair.”
“The chair. The one you’re sitting in. It’s made of steel. I can see a label; I think it was manufactured by Ridgeway Medical Equipment Company, Rahway, New Jersey.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I don’t talk about such things.”
“No, tell me. You’re a goddamn noble Roman, Lon. I know you too. You’re sick with honor. You’ll never complain, you’ll never cease to maintain the code. Stoic, dignified, without complaint to the end, a study in Protestant rectitude and Western heroism. You’re braver than John Wayne, Gary Cooper, or–”
“They’re actors,” said Lon.
“Audie Murphy, Neville Brand, I don’t know, the boys who raised the flag on Iwo, Robert C. Scott, Cord Meyer, Bill Morgan, Joe McConnell, Major Darby.”
“It’s nothing to do with courage. It’s the practicality of acceptance and resignation. It’s doing the best you can with what you’ve got.”
“Tell me, Lon. You’ve never told anyone, probably not even yourself. Tell me.”
Lon waited a bit. Then he said, “All right. S4 is lousy. It stinks. It’s no fun. It’s better than S3, it’s better than any of the Ts, it’s much better than any of the Cs. But still: it’s lousy. I get sores on my legs, and I don’t even feel them. But the pants are smeared with blood and pus and have to be thrown away because no dry cleaning gets it out. I shit in my diapers and don’t know I’ve done it, and I have to somehow deal with the diapers on my own, in my room at night, a truly repulsive job. I worry that there’ll be a leak, that I’ll offend, that something humiliating will happen. I get bruises on my spine, and sometimes they climb above S-4 and I get tremendous pains. I sometimes remember my legs in my dreams, remember walking, feel the experience, and almost believe that, by some miracle, I’ve – But then I wake up, dead from the waist down. Psychologically, that’s hard to take, particularly the seven hundredth time or so. I have nightmares about Dad. He had a look on his face for a split second, before the horror came over him as he saw what had happened. I saw it as I twisted around to see what the hell had happened and saw him standing there with the rifle on the ground before him. I think about that look. Was it a smile? It could have been a smile! I – I don’t know. There was something there, a kind of, I don’t know, satisfaction or something. Dad was great, considering. Until he died, he did everything he could to make my life livable. He spent a fortune, he was with me nearly every single day. I know that he hated himself for the accident, and that it took twenty-five years off his life, but still. . That look. A father’s worries about usurpation. His inability to get totally behind somebody who will replace him.”
He was silent for a while, gathering wind. He had never spoken of such things.
“The women,” he said. “I don’t know if it was better to have had a decent amount of intimacy before or to lose your sexuality as a virgin, because then you’d never remember, never know what you were missing. I have no policy position here. But I smell women’s perfume, I see the crease between their breasts, I see the tops of their stockings. It happens all the time, because around me they’re not so guarded in their body movements; they know I’m out of the game. They’re not being cruel, it’s just their nature. They love to put out the sniff of sex, but they hold it back until the wedding night to make sure he shows up at church. That whole ritual guardedness, the flash, the tease, the lean-over, the crossed legs, that’s all missing around me, because, absent a working penis, I’m one of the gals. That’s what happens to us S4s. So I see breasts and even thighs all the time. And I remember, and it makes me crazy, and I have to get through it on what I suppose is Yankee grit or something. But I hate it. I hate them, yet I yearn to be around them, to smell them, to see them smile, to make them laugh, to know that except for the one thing, I would be with them. Instead, I’m the witty eunuch in the chair, the gelded stallion, so charming yet so unable to satisfy and give to them what they desire, children and dick. So yes, Hugh, the chair is no fun. I’m guessing you probably already deduced that with your spy’s keen powers of observation. What the hell does this have to do with anything?”
“Lon,” I said, “Kennedy is going to send thousands of young Americans off to a war we cannot win. He’s going to do that because he wants the reelection, and he can’t be called soft on communism. We were going to correct that problem by eliminating a fellow who called him soft on communism the loudest. Now I see it. We have a chance not to ‘correct’ but to ‘eliminate.’ To erase totally.
“I directed you to the chair you ride in all day long because thousands of boys will come back from the war in those chairs. At some point or other, all of them will wish they had been killed. Because they won’t have your strength, your heroism, your ‘Yankee grit,’ as you call it. They’ll have nothing and they’ll get nothing. You command the gun world with your shooting skills, you have extraordinary resources of intelligence, charm, and will, to say nothing of a considerable personal fortune. These poor boys will have none of that. They’ll just have the chair. You hate the chair, but you have managed to transcend it. They won’t have that chance, Lon, and you know it. The chair will turn their lives into daily torture. Forever and ever and ever, which is how long they’ll feel their lives lasting. So that is why I ask you to do this, Lon. Not for my hubris but for yours. Keep those boys out of their metal chairs. Endure, publically if you get caught or privately if you don’t, the mantle of regicide, the man who killed the king. If you can bear the chair, you can bear that easily enough.”
“Ever hear of an Argentine writer called Jorge Luis Borges?” I said.
“No. Hemingway’s as far as I go.”
“He writes stories in the form of fictional essays. Conjectures on this or that, always astonishing in their brevity and their insight. In one, he postulates that the true son of God was Judas, not Christ. Anybody could be Christ, suffering and becoming immortal. But it took a strength of character that only the son of God could muster to make the crucifixion possible, by the betrayal. That was the true heroism, the true sacrifice, for without it, there was nothing. He didn’t bear the pain of the cross for a day, he bore the pain of hatred, exile, universal loathing, all that, forever.
“Sounds crazy to me,” he said. “Your Bor-haze, or whatever, carries no weight with me. How do you know you’ll prevent this war? Maybe this Texan, Johnson, maybe he’ll wage the same war.”
“He won’t. He’s a New Deal Democrat forged in the crucible of thirties Washington. He has no interest in military adventurism, nothing to prove, because he’s an older man with plenty of mistresses and an ugly wife. He’ll use his time in office to siphon money off to Texas and his cronies in the party; he’ll give a lot to Negroes so Lippmann will write well of him; he’ll build dams and highways and buildings with his name on them. Like all of them, he’ll screw everything in heels. He has no interest in foreign affairs. I’ve looked at it carefully. Internationally, he’s as sober as Eisenhower; domestically, he wants to be the next FDR. He’s FDR with ants in his pants. The last thing he wants is to go off on a crazy crusade in a foreign swamp. It’s way too expensive.”
“This thing, this ambush? You don’t even know if it’s possible.”
I suppose I knew I had him then. He’d gone in a single breath from the strategic to the tactical. He didn’t realize it, but he’d surrendered on the strategic. Now it was a matter of details.
“We’re so close, Lon. We’ve solved the ballistic issue, we have the best rifle shot in the world, we have a silenced rifle, the most advanced assassination tool in the world, we have a prime patsy who will, I say again,
“It’s not a joke, Hugh. Killing a man, a young beautiful man, no matter the reason, it’s not a joke.”
He was right. My foolish attempt at levity had sabotaged the moment.
“I overplayed that hand, I know. It was stupid. I apologize to you, Lon; you deserve better from me. No, we won’t celebrate, we’ll mourn along with the rest of America, and we’ll never boast or tell. But we will save thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of lives.”
“Damn you again, Hugh. You are so willful, so convincing.”
“Let me sell Jimmy and see what he comes up with. If he comes up with something that’s workable,
That was how we left it. I pushed him back, and he retired to his room for a nap. I called Jimmy. There was no answer.
– – – –
I saw him get aboard the bus near the depository, and I followed it across the long aqueduct over the Trinity River all the way back to Oak Cliff, through the late-afternoon Dallas traffic. I wasn’t interested in the bus so much as in who else was interested in it. I looked for black Ford coupes, maybe with antennas, G-man cars. Neither the Bureau nor the Secret Service was there or shared any interest in Comrade Oswald; they were, as usual, profoundly asleep on the job. I could almost hear them snoring. Zzzzzz-zzzzzz.
In Alek’s neighborhood, I watched from across North Beckley as he got out; again, no other cars were parked on the street, and the two other men who got out at the same stop disappeared in another direction. Alek walked by me, oblivious to all in the fading light, his details hard to make out.
Even from the few lines the declining sun revealed, you could read him: he was like a figure out of Walt Kelly or Al Capp, a caricature of grumpy hostility, a stumping, glaring, shabby figure, all lines in face and body pulled down as if by overwhelming gravity, broadcasting the message DO NOT APPROACH OR YOU WILL BE FIRED UPON. No wonder the idiot was friendless, always getting in fights or bitter arguments, a trial to those few who had decided to let him into their lives, a wife beater, a jerk. Yet he became the ball bearing of history. How utterly strange and unpredictable.
I flashed my lights. He looked up, startled, recognized the Wagoneer by shape, and came over and got in.
I pulled away. “Good evening, Alek,” I said.
“Good evening, Comrade,” he said, “I’m set,” or something similar in his garbled Russian. “On Friday evening, I will go to Fort Worth and return Monday morning with the rifle for–”
“Alek,” I said, “I take it you haven’t read today’s paper. Or talked to coworkers in the plant?”
“I read papers a day late. It’s cheaper, I get them from the garbage. As for coworkers, they are not worth–”
“All right, all right. Time is short, the stakes are high. Now listen to me carefully. Don’t say a thing. Don’t react or have a bowel movement or begin to hip-hooray. The situation has changed radically.”
I felt him turn. “The ears are all of me,” he said, his clumsy literal translation, I’m guessing, of “I’m all ears,” for which there was no Russian equivalent.
Idiot! Agh. Anyway, I went ahead. “On Friday, at around twelve thirty, a motorcade will pass in front of your building on Elm Street. In an open limousine will be the president of the United States. Alek, can you alter history for us with one shot of your rifle? It is a great opportunity, so great that one must suspect the laws of the universe are turning in favor of our moral insistence on progress. Alek, can you do this thing for us? Are you the man who has been sent to do this thing?”
I heard his breath being swallowed, I heard him gulping. I couldn’t bear to look at his face, for I knew I would see a cavalcade of madness, narcissism, greed, and ambition and that his beady little vermin eyes would burn hot and fierce. The worst are full of murderous intensity, I thought.
“Comrade,” he finally said, and then he blurted off into English, “Jesus Christ, yes, goddammit, I have waited my whole life for this, oh, I will in one strike change the course of history, I will show the world the magnificence–”
“Settle down, you fool,” I said. “You’re carrying on like a schoolgirl. Get ahold of yourself and listen to me, all right?”
“Yeah, yeah, sure,” he said, still in English.
“In Russian. I insist, all discussions of this matter must be held in Russian.”
“This is the sort of thing we do reluctantly, but we do not want this young man sending troops off to invade Cuba or anywhere, and he shows signs of instability, poor judgment, downright imbecility. He is too easily influenced, too desperately ambitious. He has no moral character. He is the kind of sparkler who could start an atomic war. He must be stopped, and a responsible leader put in charge of your nation. Alek, you must understand, in pulling that trigger, you are not destroying, you are building.”
“Yeah, yeah, I get it,” he said.
He didn’t, of course, and I was fooling myself, really, throwing a last grenade into my own lingering defenses; I was arguing with myself.
“Alek, if you are to do this thing, you must do it under our absolute discipline. We will provide you with an escape route. We will get you to a safe house, we will get you out of the country, we will get you to your glory in Havana and your rightful place among the revolutionary fighters. In a year or so, we will get your wife and children to you. But this can be guaranteed only if you submit and trust absolutely our rules, do you understand?”
“I agree, I agree. I hear what you’re saying. If it comes to it, I won’t let them take me alive. I’ll have my pistol with me, I’ll go down shooting, as I am willing to die for–”
“No, no, no,” I said, fearing this idiot on a shooting rampage in downtown Dallas, “you must
“Yes sir,” he said.
“Tell me how you would proceed.”
He laid out the obvious. He’d have to go home tomorrow night – Thursday – to get the rifle; he would break it down so it could be disguised and carry it into the building in a brown paper bag. Nobody would challenge him. He would go to the sixth floor, which was largely deserted, as it was pure stock storage area. He would situate himself overlooking Elm as it passed by Dealey Plaza on the way to the triple overpass, and he would shoot the president as he passed by.
“Which window will you shoot from?” I asked.
“Which window? You have your choice of any; which window do you chose?”
“Uh, I guess the one in the middle.”
“It’s in the middle.”
“Excellent reasoning. You are a genius. Where on Elm will you shoot the president? That’s the determining factor on the window. You cannot make these things up on the spot. You of all people cannot make things up on the spot, because you will do it stupidly.”
“Where should I shoot?”
“You know the building at the street.”
“I – I don’t know. It doesn’t seem to make any–”
“Idiot. You want him where he’s closest and slowest. Any map should give you the answer. Where will he be closest and slowest? This is why you’re such a failure, Alek. You don’t think. You just make things up!”
His face knitted in shame. Then I saw a bulb go on behind that dull face, those dim eyes. Bingo! Eureka!
“When he’s turning the corner. He has to turn the corner from Houston to Elm. It’s very sharp.”
“Excellent. It’s a hundred and twenty degrees. The car is big, it will pivot slowly. For all intents and purposes, he will be standing still. His chest will be open to you at a range of about seventy-five feet. An idiot could make the shot.”
“I’m not an idiot,” he said. “Sure, I make mistakes, but everybody–”
“Which window, Alek?”
“The corner window. The closest window to him. If I planned to shoot later, as he went down Elm, then I would move to another window down Elm.”
“Excellent,” I said, glad that he had figured out this elementary riddle (though no conspiracy theorists did, I might add) so that I could praise him and raise his spirits. “You shoot him when he’s closest, when he’s stillest. One shot, center chest, easy to make.”
“Fish in a barrel,” he said in English with that dreadful smirk.
“After shooting,” I instructed, “you will have little time to make your escape. The police will be in the building within minutes. Drop the rifle, walk, do not run, downstairs, being careful not to acquire oxygen debt so you are swallowing for air. Look no one in the eye, but do not shirk either. Your face is neutral. Exit the building and slip off into the mob. It will be chaos outside. Proceed down Houston Street one block to the corner of Houston and Pacific. You will see this car, though I might not be driving, and it could be anyone, a couple, an old lady, a Mexican, a hepcat. Climb in the back and lie down on the floor. Commit yourself to a long, boring drive. In a few hours we will have you at a safe house, and at that point, you can relax, eat, drink. The next day, or really the next night, we will move you out of the country. These will be an arduous few days demanding stamina, commitment, attention to detail, and obedience. Trust us, Alek, will you? Can you?”
He said yes.
“I wish we had time for run-throughs, for rehearsals, for shooting practice, for all of that. Can you hit that easy, almost stationary target under seventy-five feet away?”
“I’m a good shot. I won’t miss,” he said.
“All right. We must make do with what has been given us. For some reason, history has chosen you. You have to justify that choice. I believe in you, Alek, as no one else has. You owe me, you owe your true motherland, you owe history. You must not fail.”
“Comrade, I swear to you–”
I cut him off, as we were a few doors down from his house, and I gave him a Russian hug, smelling the body odor of a man who seldom bothered with hygiene, fastidious New England priss that I am and always will be.
“Now go, little Alek, and become a hero.”
He stepped out of the door, and I pulled out, leaving him behind.
You’re thinking: Okay, Hugh. Call your friend Jack Ruby and set the second part of the plan in operation. Tell us about Jack, how you manipulated him, how far back you old buddies went, your underworld ties, the implicit sponsorship of the Mob, particularly the Trafficante connection, running through the attempts on Castro that your own section, Clandestine Services under the great Cord Meyer, had set up.
Hah. The joke’s on you, friend. You shouldn’t be thinking about Jack Ruby, unless you sloppily missed the Warren Commission detail that he’d sent a Western Union moneygram to one of his strippers a full forty minutes
For the record, I never heard of Jack Ruby until shortly after he finished poor Alek and took over the story himself. I suppose this may be counted as several of the immense strokes of good fortune that Operation LIBERTY VALANCE enjoyed, though perhaps it was meaningless in the end. The truth is, I planned to betray Oswald to the police; I expected him to be picked up and eventually electrocuted.
I didn’t think it mattered. His personality – I am no psychiatrist, but I’d studied him enough and been around him enough – had the smell of disintegration. He was a crackpot to begin with, with enormous mental disorders that had afflicted him his whole life. The outward manifestations were hotheadedness, empathy with outre causes and policies, lack of attention to details, sloppiness in all manners of being. He was a man at war, though primarily with himself. I suppose, inside, he hated his absent father and his overbearing, vulgar, disorganized mother; he hated himself for his continual incompetence and his total inability to engage people at any level; for his utter intellectual mediocrity. He worshipped the god of communism, knowing little about it. He had a streak of melodramatic vainglory – more than a streak, it was perhaps the largest part of his identity. I do think that he genuinely didn’t care if he lived or died; he was willing to risk his own life in an attempt to fulfill his most urgent need, which was to matter and no longer be a marginal loser detested by all. Loved or hated, it made no difference to him; that his name would be on the world’s lips with this opportunity, it was an aphrodisiac that his dull-normal mind and undisciplined lunacy could not have resisted. I believe he would have taken those shots whether or not we existed.
Most important, I believed if he was captured, he’d find the pressures too much, and in time his mind would fall apart. He wouldn’t be able to recall his own truth. First he’d claim he alone authored the deed and cling to that for months because he wanted the glory, the notoriety, the fame. Finally, he’d tell them the “truth,” as he imagined it, that he’d been picked up by a Soviet agent, coached and prepped for a mission against General Walker, and at the last moment diverted to the president as target when that opportunity revealed itself. Dutifully, the FBI would check out the tale and find no evidence of it. No one would remember seeing Alek in the presence of this agent; someone at a desk near mine in Langley – maybe it would even be me! – would be given the mission of discovering if there had been any remote possibility of Soviet involvement and, using sources, networks, leverage, penetration, and analysis, would produce a report in a year that, aside from the idiot’s attempts to secure a visa from the Russian embassy in Mexico City in September, there had been no record, no rumors, no traces of Soviet contact with Oswald.
If Oswald went through photo albums of known agents in order to ID his mysterious mentor, he’d come up with nothing, for in truth I looked far more like Dave Guard of the Kingston Trio than I did Vassily Psycholosky, KGB killer and goon.
If all went well, there would be no physical evidence – no fingerprints, no footprints, no jimmied locks, nothing slightly out of the ordinary, nothing ambiguous in meaning; the clincher would be the ballistics, which, as I have explained, would suggest his rifle and his rifle alone.
As I drove away, he receded into the shadows. I would see him only one more time – the closest our plot would come to discovery. I quickly headed downtown to the Adolphus, where I still had to talk to Jimmy, to convince him, and where we had a great deal of planning to do.
– – – –
When I got back to the hotel, I was not surprised to see Jimmy waiting for me in the lobby.
“Hi, Mr. Meachum,” he said, rising, smiling in that Irish way, “how about letting me buy you a drink.”
“Sure,” I said, and like two cronies from an Oklahoma vacuum-cleaner manufacturer, we trundled off to the dark Men’s Bar, not the Adolphus’s famous Century Room, where a Rosemary or a Gigi or a Maryanne was singing. We found a table well away from the few other drinkers left, ordered up our poison, and waited for the girl to bring it and then to depart. For the record, in those days Texas had insane drinking laws, and we’d had to “join” the club in order to receive our own private bottles.
“So, Jimmy,” I said, “I’ve been trying to reach you. Have you spoken to Lon yet?”
“No, I haven’t. I thought I’d let the two of you work things out between you today. It seemed like a good time to take a little break.”
“Actually, it was. From what you’re saying, I guess you’ve figured it all out. That I want to change the nature but not the purpose of the mission. Same operational principles, different target. Lon, to be fair, is not so sure. He didn’t sign up for what I’m proposing. Neither did you. Neither, come to think of it, did I. But it’s here, it won’t go away; I believe it can be done. I also believe it
“Mr. Meachum, you don’t have to break a sweat. I get it. If you say it needs doing, then I’m the one to do it. Loyalty. You boys in your outfit, you got me out of prison and got me a new life doing what I do best and doing some good in the world. Never thought I’d have a shot at a house in the suburbs and two boys in private school, which is what I have today. I’ll sail with you to hell or the edge of the world, whichever comes first.”
“You’re a good man, Jimmy.”
“Plus, I hate them Castle Irish. Always putting on the airs, always carrying on like they weren’t bog-slogging peat burners like the rest of us. My father hated them, his father before him hated ’em more than the English. You’re doing me old dad a favor, and he’s smiling in heaven.”
“You’re a great man, Jimmy. Knowing I have you along means I know we can do this thing.”
“That we can. Do you know what I did today?”
“Of course not.”
“I was all over a joint called the Dal-Tex Building. ‘Dal-Tex,’ know what that stands for?”
“Dallas Textiles. It’s the heart of what passes as the garment trade in Dallas. Office building, a warren of offices, you’ll find fifty of ’em in every city in America. Full of rooms with desks and telephones and secretaries. What else do you need to make a buck in America? That and a good case of business smarts. This one is worth exploring because it’s located behind the Texas Book Depository on Elm Street. It has at least twenty offices that give a good look down Elm Street from almost the same angle as the Book Depository.”
“You’re way ahead of me, Jimmy.”
“You know me. I’ve got a natural talent for mischief of all sorts. There’s a fair number of buildings on the plaza that would give Mr. Scott an angle, but the only one that’s a few degrees off from the Book Depository is the Dal-Tex Building. I don’t see where else we could run the operation from without running the risk – too big, in my mind – of leaving an obvious clue that some other birds, that is, us, were involved. They’re going to investigate this one up the ass, with all the national experts and the best techs the Bureau has. If anything’s wrong, they’ll sniff it out. Something you never heard of, like arterial spray pattern or skin stretch marks or powder dispersal pattern or something subatomic that not even Dick Tracy has thought of. We have to minimize everything that differentiates our shooter from the little red nuthead. It’s a much higher threshold than with General Walker. That’s what makes it a puzzle and, frankly, for this boyo, great fun. I love to match wits with the best, that’s for sure.”