These strange ‘visions,’ for such they must be called, are extremely vivid in some cases but are almost incredible to the vast majority of mankind, who would set them down as fantastic nonsense. Nevertheless they are familiar parts of the mental furniture of the rest, whose imaginations they have unconsciously framed and where they remain, unmodified or unmodifiable, by teaching.”
Bob squinted, feeling his brow crunch in pain. So wrote Francis Galton in the late nineteenth century, and Bob thought: What the fuck?
If he understood it, and he wasn’t sure he did, Niles Gardner had been fascinated by whatever thing it was that Sir Francis had noted 120 or so years earlier, some “fantastic vision” disease or condition. It had to do with colors showing up when cued by encounters with nothing of color. A letter could have a color to it or, in this case, a number.
He seemed to be saying or acknowledging or somehow having fun with – there was an unidentifiable sense of lightness to it, humor, almost a joke – how he saw certain things in color. He would always see the number four as blue, which was why he had four junky ceramic bluebirds on his shelf, and the number six as green, which was why he had a magazine illustration from the fifties that incidentally displayed six green elm trees. Most provocatively, he saw the number nine as red, which was why he had a Mauser 96 pistol lying around, one of the few Mausers designated by the numeral 9 engraved in the grip, then painted red, and known forever after as Red Nines.
Swagger sat in the business office of the Adolphus, where he was again staying in Dallas, and banged his head against the enigma at a computer monitor that the hotel provided its guests. Outside the door, prosperous men seemed to push to and fro; by extreme happenstance, the hotel was that weekend the site of some sort of JFK Assassination Research meeting.
Swagger had ridden down in the elevator with a batch of them, mostly heavyset white guys in sport shirts who hung together.
“Y’all interested in the assassination?” he asked one.
“Mmm,” said the man, looking off, as if he had some big secrets cooking and couldn’t share them with an outsider. Maybe he was the guy who realized that the Commies had not one or two but
Swagger looked back at his notepad, where, in childish script, in an attempt to keep it straight and orderly, he had inscribed some notes that anyone else might see as insane.
“Blue = 4, Green = 6, Red = 9,” read one line.
“Maybe numbers not as significant as colors?”
“Maybe sequence isn’t important?”
“Maybe it’s not a code, it’s just what he sees?”
“Why would Hugh have anything to do with 4, 6, or 9, or blue, green, or red?”
That was a stumper. He was, he realized, on the second step, but only on the basis of fragile assumption. That assumption: that Hugh’s last, best, lost work name was a reflection of Niles and Hugh’s love of Nabokov, and that it involved a pun, possibly cross-lingual, that could be noted only by someone who knew it existed.
So: what linked them?
But: there was no direct link between the three numbers, the three colors, and Hugh.
Except: the pistol, as his son noted, stood for espionage. It had to. It was exactly the implement any spy in the twenties or thirties might have carried if he didn’t have a Luger. What were its advantages over a Luger?
More firepower, ten rounds to seven.
Longer barrel, meaning more accuracy.
More ergonomic, because its weight was ahead of the trigger, not above it, as in a Luger.
More psychologically threatening to an opponent.
More flexible, as it could be mounted to a shoulder stock and used for longer-range shooting.
It did have disadvantages.
A little harder to load, with a stripper clip that demanded fine motor control to mate with the interior magazine lips, rather than a magazine, which, by gross motor movement, could just be shoved into the Luger’s grip.
Harder to conceal, maybe very difficult to conceal, because it was bigger.
Yet these were the sort of things a Bob Lee Swagger would consider, not a Niles Gardner. Niles, after all, was a lit guy, not a gun guy. He wouldn’t be thinking tactically but symbolically, and in his brain, the glamour and the romance and the vividness of classical prewar espionage, back when it was called the Great Game, was just as easily conveyed by the Mauser as by the Luger.
Maybe the meaning of the gun as tool was of less importance to Niles than the meaning of it as symbol. In his mind, it could and probably would be his image of his friend the heroic (three tours in ’Nam!) Hugh Meachum. After all, Hugh was the man Niles could never be but would always want to be. The gun, solid steel, precise, deadly, able to destroy at long distance, concealable under a Burberry trench coat, the indispensable leverage that enabled its possessor to control any dangerous transaction, was a perfect projection into objective reality that expressed all the Hugh traits that Niles didn’t have.
As Niles’s mind had to work, Hugh
But it went nowhere. It didn’t connect to Nabokov, it didn’t connect to the Agency. It just sat there, an old pistol on a dead man’s desk, its secrets locked away, only a glow of hopes or fantasies about it, its sole uniqueness the Red Nine on its grip.
I wish I had a drink. I wish I had a cigarette. I wish I had a whore. I wish I had a mansion by the sea.
No, he didn’t. He didn’t wish he had any of those.
I wish I had an answer.
He thought that maybe that answer lay somewhere within the work of Sir Francis Galton, cousin to Darwin, Victorian polymath (Bob had to look up the new word).
He Googled Sir Francis.
The Wikipedia entry came up first, and he absorbed the info quickly.
Eugenicist. Another word to look up.
Hmm, seems to believe smart people should breed and dumb ones shouldn’t.
Hmm, noted the uniqueness of fingerprints, classified them, and thus invented the forensic discipline of fingerprint index, and thus, in one sense, was the father of scientific crime investigation.
Believed passionately in the power of genes (obviously, eugenics and fingerprints) and that talent clusters could be associated with certain families, i.e., those of the “superior” English upper class, into which he was born.
Synesthesia. It was something he had been the first in the world to note clinically.
But it was another new word.
Bob Googled it.
– – – –
Alek’s grubby face stared at me from the screen. Same surly demeanor, same anger, same radiant negativity and self-pity, undercut with toxic defiance. It made me sick.
I staggered to the TV set and changed channels, but no matter where I turned, there was Alek, with some demented commentator spewing out the sordid details of his life. Russia, Marine Corps, attempts to defect, poor employment record, marriage to a beautiful Russian girl, father of two baby daughters, known for temper and abusive, explosive behavior. There was a fuzzy film of him handing out pro-Cuba pamphlets in New Orleans: really, what did he think
Now and then they’d cut to film of his wife as she carried the two babies to a car amid a swarm of reporters and cameramen. I remember being struck with how pretty she seemed, but also how confused and vulnerable. I hoped she had somebody good to take care of her and was later gratified to discover the ministrations of the angelic Ruth Paine on Marina’s behalf. Thank God for the good people of the world, to somewhat ameliorate the pain caused by teams like Alek and Hugh.
It took a while, but I was more or less sober when I got around to assessing my position. Of Alek, even in police custody, I had little fear. What could he tell them, and when would he tell it? Listening carefully to the reports, I concluded he’d not yet made any wild charges about Russian agents guiding him. Rather, he’d been indicted only on the murder of Officer Tippit, for which he had no alibi and no defense and for which there were plenty of witnesses hungering to send him to fry in the chair. He was probably enjoying the attention and plotting how to spin it out for years and years and years. That he would die at the end was at this point meaningless; he was having too much fun being famous at last.
Every time the coverage shifted to Washington, to tracking the grief and shock of the capital city, to images of a weary LBJ arriving home, of Jackie returning alone to the White House, I changed channels, and by one had turned the damn thing off. I knew it was the beginning and that it would go on and on, and we’d have to get the reaction of each family member, each intimate, each acquaintance, we’d attend the funeral and the burial and the. . It was too much. So much for tough guy Hugh, the New Critic of politics and policy, not letting emotion or sentimentality get in his way.
When the tube was dark, that left me alone with my biggest fears, concerning Jimmy Costello. I checked my watch again. I stole down the hallway to knock on his door softly and got no answer. (I paused at Lon’s too and heard the regular breathing of merciful sleep, though now and again he’d stir uncomfortably.)
Back in my room, I tried to think things through. Suppose they’d nabbed Jimmy and the rifle? Suppose they’d offered him a deal, no execution if he rolled over fast. Though it was against his principles, maybe he’d seen that taking the rap alone was no bargain, so he’d talked.
It went on. Maybe even now, police raiders were assembling to swoop us up, men with tommy guns and shotguns, hell-bent on justice and retribution. I wished I’d brought my .45 with me. The best thing, under those circumstances – though tantamount to an admission of guilt – would have been the swift application of 230 grains of hardball suicide to the head. But that would leave Peggy and the boys and poor Lon to face alone the mess I’d made. I knew I couldn’t do that. If caught, I’d also have to absolve the Agency of any blame, make certain all knew it was my ploy and my ploy alone, that I’d coerced Lon into it against his will, that I had done it for what I believed were sound moral policy reasons, confess, take my sentence, and face my executioners with dignity and grace, leaving a legacy for my sons and the Agency.
There was nothing to be done. I called the desk to see if the bar was still open, and it was not, and inquired if I could have a bottle sent to my room and was told it was too late. So I just sat there, waiting for – Godot, I suppose. The knock on the door. The explosive entry of the raid team. Mr. Dulles, so disappointed? Cord, even more disappointed. I saw myself saying, “But Cord, it was your wife he was screwing,” and Cord answering, “He was the president of the United States, you fool!”
Then there was a knock on the door, soft but firm.
Oh, Jesus, I thought, for it was the climax to the day. Live or die would be decided upon the opening of the door. I glanced at my watch. Good Christ, it was nearly five.
I walked over.
Smiling sheepishly, Jimmy Costello, with something wrapped and bundled in his suit coat, was standing there. “Sorry I’m late, Mr. Meachum,” he said. “Hope you wasn’t worried.”
“I only had three heart attacks and finished my bottle and tried to order another.”
“No, no, God, man, not your fault, mine. I should have been tougher. The leader hangs together in the bleak moments, and I didn’t. Thank God for that Irish rascal Jimmy Costello. Bet you’ve got a story to tell.”
“No heroics. Just me sitting in the dark for twelve hours until the night became wee and I was able to make a dash.”
“Sure, but can I go to my own room first and get myself my own bottle?”
“Absolutely. Enough for a glass for the boss?”
“Count on it, Mr. Meachum.”
He laid the bundle down on the bed, where it fell open. I was happy to see the rifle, in parts, still in its odd canvas holster straps. The man himself returned in a few seconds, undid his tie, poured us each a couple of fingers, and commenced with the tale. I can’t capture the trace of Irish brogue that underlay his account because it was more a thing of rhythms and lightly alternative syllabic emphasis, so I won’t even try. It would be blarney. But here’s the gist of it, as I recall.
“You leave, I get the gun disassembled and holstered, I snatch up the coat and I’m out the door maybe thirty seconds after you. I hear it click and head down the hall when I remember the damned window. The window. I give it a second. Maybe the old man won’t notice his window open where it was closed before. But he’s a Jew, smart as a tack, with a gift for details if he’s in the garment trade, because that’s the biggest of big business games, so I duck back, pop the lock, flee across the outer office to the inner, and get the window down as it was. So I’m maybe a minute and a half behind you as I hit the hallway, and lo and behold, ahead of me, the elevators open and a couple of birds pop out. They’s all concerned about the president, but more so about not being able to leave the office because of that damn cop. What, did he think a haberdasher gunned down the president? They were so taken with it, I know they didn’t pay a hair’s attention to me, so I figured I was okay.
“But when I get to the elevator and push down, the doors didn’t open. I figure there’s been another call and check the indicator above the doors and see both cars are downstairs in the lobby and ain’t budging. I figure that means the cops have put the kibosh on them for a bit while they check out the real estate.
“I go to the stairwell and can hear commotion on the flights below. Not sure if it’s cops coming up or citizens going down, whatever, but it’s not good. I slip off my shoes and, in my stocking feet, head up a flight to the top, me with the death rifle hanging around my neck, heart beating like a drum.”
He took a pull of his bourbon, and I joined him.
“I make it up and then run out of building. I’m hard against the roof. Fortunately, the stairway does lead up to a door set horizontal in the roof. Using my picks, I pop the door in a second, roll to the roof, and let the door slip shut behind me, hearing it lock. I look about. The roof is empty, and no building stands taller to give vantage. The only structure would be the elevator machinery house twenty-five yards away. I ease my way to it, feeling naked as a jaybird and worried about helicopters or low-flying planes, but the sky is empty too. I’ve got my jimmy keys and I’m in in a flash. I squint and can see there’s not much but space for the greasy lifting and lowering machines. I get past the machinery to the far end of the house, where some quirk in design has left a platform in the wall so it forms a shelf or space or something.
“Fortunately, Jimmy’s a strong boy, and he gets himself up there and wedges himself way back to the wall, so he’s not visible to flashlight beam from the doorway. A searcher’d have to come by the motor works, go to the rear, and shine a beam directly in.
“I squeeze this way and have to do some squirming to get more or less comfortable, pushing my coat this way, fixing it so I’m not lying on the gunstock, or got a lump of coat under my ass, because I’ve decided my best bet is to stay still till the middle of the night, then ease out. I committed myself to the long haul in the dark.
“A few hours later, I hear noises, and sure enough, the door into the machine room is opened, lights are turned on, and I hear a couple of detectives and a janitor. The janitor is saying, ‘See, nobody’s been up here since the last inspection in July. Besides, you got the guy.’ The cop answers, ‘We have to check everything, bud.’
“I hear them poking around, and some light beams shoot around the machinery. Nobody wants to go in any farther. They dip out in a second, and that’s that for another twelve hours.”
“Very good,” I said. My Jimmy! I knew he could outsmart a couple of buckram Texas detectives.
“Well, not so good,” he said. “I haven’t told you of my problem.”
“How can it be a problem, Jimmy? You’re here, poor Alek has been nabbed, and everything’s as it should be.”
“I’m hoping so. Anyway, here’s what happened. I lay flat after that and let the time pass. After a bit, they okay the elevator, and so I’m close to the huffing and humming of that motor and can hear the cables winding and unwinding, the whole elevator cycle, the doors opening and closing, the cars going up and down and on and on. By ten it’s settled, and by eleven it’s gone away. I figure a few more hours. But around two, I’m suddenly smelling something, and I don’t recognize it. Acrid-like, industrial, for some reason I’d say it smells brown, if that makes any sense, smells of machines and such, and here’s the funny thing, I know I’ve smelled it before, but I don’t know where or when.
“The smell continues, and I realize it’s rising out of my own clothes. I feel around with my fingers and come across a spot on my overcoat upon which the rifle has lain, and it’s damp, and I bring it to my nose, and that smell nearly knocks me out. I’ve got the picture. Somehow I arranged myself in a certain position, and the rifle action had slid out of its pouch a bit. It laid on its side over a long time, and whatever Mr. Scott used in cleaning and lubricating it–”
“Hoppe’s 9,” I said. “It’s a bore solvent and lubricant. He uses it to clean, then he lightly coats everything with it as a lube. Yeah, it’s pungent.”
“That’s it, then. Anyhow, this stuff has to obey gravity. It begins to seep downward, and it starts dripping out. This happens over and over as I’m lying there, and a stain is spreading. Fortunately, from the way I’ve got my things arranged, it’s all on the overcoat and none on the suit coat, which I’d pushed back so it didn’t get lumpy on me.
“Now I’ve got a problem. It’s not just the stain but it’s the smell. Suppose, as I’m heading back to the car, I’m stopped. The cops are sure to be about. I can talk my way out of anything, and I’ve got my James Delahanty O’Neill card and Massachusetts license to get me out. But that stain’s standing out like a bull’s-eye on my chest, and maybe these Texas coppers know guns and can ID the smell. Not good.
“After I climb down, I take the coat off and fold it. It turns out they used that shelf to store carpeting, so I slide the coat into the carpeting so that it’s covered by a lot of weight. I smooth the carpeting over it. You can’t tell from looking at it that the old carpeting pile contains a coat, and it’s so heavy that I’m thinking it’ll contain that smell forever, at least until it evaporates.
“That leaves me with only my suit coat to hide the strap with the rifle parts, and it’s not long enough. I figure I can make it out of the building unseen, and then I’ll dump the rifle behind some garbage cans. I’ll go to the car, come back, drive around a bit to make sure no cop car is patrolling, and jump out and secure the rifle. That’s my plan, and that’s what I did, and I didn’t have no problem. It seems there’s lots of folks out, they keep going down to the depository, which is all lit up, and they’re placing wreaths and bunches of flowers on the hill. Anyway, sir, that’s the story.”
“I think we’re okay,” I said. “They’re so convinced it’s Alek and only Alek, and he’s probably beginning to think that way himself, they’ll never do the kind of search that would uncover the coat.”
“Possibly in a year, when all this settles down, you’d want me to return and revisit and remove that piece of evidence.”
“I wouldn’t do it too soon, Jimmy. I’d wait to see how the trial goes, I’d wait to see if the investigation stays with Alek or they tire of him and branch out. If the government commits to Alek and history commits to Alek, nobody’ll ever look any further. It could lie there for fifty years and never be seen and never tell its story. In the meantime, get some sleep, and I will too, and there’s nothing left for us to do here except make a low-profile exit from Dallas and return to our lives. You’ve done great, Jimmy.”
I shook his hand. For the first time in twenty-four hours, I felt the weight of dread come off my shoulders, and the air tasted clean on the way down. I took a last sip of the bourbon and this time enjoyed the mallet. It amplified the feeling. I realized then: we’d done it.
And that’s the way it happened. I have to laugh anytime I encounter the “deep plot” theory with various government (ours, theirs, anybody’s) manipulating forces, making exquisite plans based on surgical precision and split-second timing (the clandestine operation on JFK’s body on the tarmac at Andrews being the most hilarious). It happened the way everything happens; it was part of the world, not an exception to it. We had a plan for something else, and from that basic text we improvised, we adapted, we bluffed and lied and risked, and we brought it off. We were given an opportunity and maximized it, but we couldn’t have done it if we weren’t already there, on the ground, in midoperation, on another mission. It changed its essence and the scope of its ambition, seizing on the one-in-a-billion happenstance that put JFK seventy-five feet outside the Book Depository, and even that opportunity Alek the Idiot blew. Still, we prevailed. It was, like everything, ramshackle, clumsy, full of mistakes, and unconscionably lucky. We threw it together, that’s all, because it seemed right and moral, at least to me, and because it was, I believed, my duty.
I won’t argue the morality and I won’t – can’t – argue the strategic outcome in the next years. I will say this: as espionage, it was a masterpiece.