Conspiracies, Chapter Four

Chapter Four

I didn’t try to conceal my bewilderment. “I still don’t get it. You say you’re in deep trouble. Somebody trying to put a quarter of a million dollars in your pocket in return for letting him publish your book, offhand doesn’t come out sounding like serious bad news to me, George. Maybe I’m missing something?”

“I don’t know how far it might go, Angelo. They’ve got a lot of good people, a lot of resources. If they find me, it might get really unhealthy to know me.” He took a note out of his pocket. “Here, read this and keep it with you. If you never need it, great, but I’ll feel better knowing you have it.”

The note said: “To Carlos Santiago and his associates. I appeal to your sense of honor to leave my family unharmed. I give you my word, they will not know where I am or how to contact me. They can do you no good as hostages or as revenge, and any act against them can only produce within yourselves reason for shame and remorse, without producing the slightest benefit to you. Without bringing you in any way closer to your desires. Additionally, I assure you I am not a pacifist in the sense of being inhibited against acts of violence to protect the innocent or to so revenge them as to prevent future outrages. I realize that this must seem a puny threat, quite insignificant. Contemptible, perhaps. All I can state is that I have resources unknown to you. I would prefer not to have to use them. But I will if necessary. George Chiari.”

I tried to look at him with new eyes, as I would if I were evaluating an unknown potential news source. “If this is a bluff, George,” I said, “it’s a damned good one. It almost convinces me.

“It should. It isn’t a bluff. Warning him ahead of time is all I can do to protect you. I hope he’ll listen, but if he tries anything against you, or against anybody in the family, I’ll do my best to make him sorry he was ever born. With luck, I’ll kill him. But with real good luck, he’ll know I mean business and he won’t try anything.”

I didn’t know what to say, or where to look.

“I’m shocking you, I know. But it can’t be helped, Angelo, you have to believe that.”

“It’s just that I’m used to getting my drama and violence on the TV news, not talking to my brother.”

“I’m not the person you knew, Angelo. Not in almost any respect. And this matter is desperately important. To them, to me. Keep that note safe, and keep it on you. Humor me on this, if you have to.”

I folded the note and put it into my wallet, still unsure how I should feel. “I don’t regard it as humoring you, George, believe it. I just wish I had some idea of what’s going on. I take it you’re going into hiding?”

“How do you figure that?”

Impatiently, I shrugged. “What’s the point of the note, if you’re still going to be around? But if you’re hiding, how do I tell you what I learn? If anything.”

“I’ll be in touch. Different ways each time. I don’t know precisely how at the moment. Anyway, I want you to honestly have no idea how to contact me.”

“George, that doesn’t make any sense. Suppose I find out something and it’s urgent that you know about it. Then what? Do I hang around a phone booth all day like Clark Kent?”

He said – reluctantly, I thought – “Angelo, I don’t know if it has occurred to you yet, but if you know I’m going to contact you, and they capture you, then it’s just a matter of them waiting for me to call, and then leaving me their message. And it’s liable to be an unfriendly message. Something giving me six hours to give myself up or have them start on you. Or on one of the girls, or someone.”

I felt chilled – just as I had in reading George’s note, perhaps because the thought had already occurred to me. “George, I know, but I don’t see how it can be helped. And anyway, what do I tell mom and dad, and everybody else?”

George sat quietly for a moment or two, long enough that I wondered if he was going to ignore the question. I was about to ask him again, when he said, “You decide. Play it by ear. You can’t tell them what I don’t tell you, so they won’t know anything that’s likely to get them caught in the crossfire.”

“Can I tell them you think you’re in danger?”

Another long hesitation. “You’re going to have to be guided by the wisdom of the moment. Be careful what you tell them, that’s all.”

“I will. How do I get a message to you, if I need to?”

He looked, if possible, even grimmer than he had till now. “I’m telling you, brother, we can’t underestimate these people. You can’t know any direct way to get me, or we’re both dead. Don’t play around with this. And that goes double when you do your snooping.”

I nodded, convinced despite myself.

“Look, you’ve got voice mail on your newsroom telephone. I get a message when I call and you aren’t there. Do you get to change that message whenever you want to?”

“Well, there’s nothing to changing the message, but nobody ever bothers. After you’ve said `I’m not here and I’ll call you back,’ how much more is there to say?”

“You might say quite a lot, if we make up a code. It would have to sound innocent to anybody else, of course.”

“All right, what are the situations and the messages? You got any ideas?”

“What do you say now?”

I laughed. “I made that message so long ago, I don’t know. Who cares? What should I say?”

“Whatever it says now, leave it unless you need to hear from me. And I mean need, Angelo.”

“Okay, okay,” I said, mildly irritated. “I get the message.”

“If you think you see signs of them somehow, but you’re still free for the moment, change your message to say you’re doing your best to cover an important story. If you need to talk to me, say you’re out on an important story but you’ll return the call as soon as you get back. `Important story’ is the key, and I’ll try to contact you when I hear the message. But I might not get it right away, because I’m not going to be calling in on any regular schedule. Tell them that, if it comes to it.”

“I’ll say it. Does it happen to be true?”

“Everything I’m saying is true. You don’t bluff these people.”

“Suppose I’m not in the city?”

“Can’t help it. There’s only so much you can plan for.”


“On with your paranoid fantasies,” I said lightly.

“Paranoiacs have real enemies too.”

“Old joke.”

“New bumper sticker, though. New to me, anyway; I saw it the other day. And it makes a point.: How can you ever know for sure?”

“There’s always proof, one way or another.”

George smiled at me. “Spoken like a true journalist.”

“The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” I said, “allowing for prejudice, inaccuracy, and possible objections from advertisers. It’s all in the journalist’s code, right up there with `you’d better believe there’s such a thing as a free lunch.’ Knew I could make you laugh, sooner or later! But it took longer than I thought it would. So give.”

Another shrug. “There isn’t that much to tell, in some ways. Nothing that will be very useful to you.”

“Let me judge that. You never know what little thing will turn out to be a big thing, and lead to one.”

“All right. The books in the library in the hidden monastery where I spent so many years were very adequate for the years more or less up to 1937. But it was the human library that was so terrific. You take a dozen brilliant, experienced, disciplined minds, each based in the assumptions and mental habits of different cultures and time periods, and you’ve got an unbelievably powerful corrective to unconscious bias and blindnesses. Literally, you couldn’t assemble a group like that anywhere else on the face of the earth.”

“And that’s where you got your conspiracy theory, sort of pre-assembled?”

“Not exactly. It was more like being inserted into the middle of a long-running argument, or discussion, or research project, however you want to look at it. They’d been studying and drawing conclusions since long before I showed up. I was valuable to them, as I said, because I was the most recently arrived from the outside world. By the time I left in 1979, I was a full participant in the seminar, you might say.”

“And you walked out with the archives.”

“I did like hell. I walked out with the clothes I was wearing, and a mostly finished manuscript, and a few items for – someone else. I left the manuscript in safe-keeping and went on to Pakistan, and almost got killed in the rioting.“

“So how did you get your manuscript back?”

A hesitation. “I’d tell you, Angelo, but I don’t know whose hands you might wind up in. Let it go. When I got here, I had a lot of digging to do, and reflecting, and conjecturing and building up hypotheses that led nowhere. And I had to find a way to make a living, and stay hidden, and get ready to – well, get ready for the day when I’d have to deal with one of the groups whose tracks we had been following.”

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