[Yet another beginning of a novel that links consciousness and politics and spy stuff and conspiracies…. Also unfinished, put here for those who may be amused by it.]
This was back in 1984, before email, before cell phones, before home faxes. Hell, it was practically before answering machines. Not that any of those gadgets would have done any good. If the guy on the other end of the line doesn’t want to talk to you, it doesn’t matter. And we didn’t even have to ask, it was clear that Henry wouldn’t want to talk. So that’s why Jack Slade found himself, just at dusk, driving down a gravel road with a creek on his left side and on his right a fifty-foot ridge parallel the road, a little way back from it. He was in one of the most rural counties in Virginia, and for quite a while, even while still on the paved country road, he had mostly seen trees and not much else. Sequestered country.
He had been told “all the way to the end, and whenever the road forks, stay left,’ and he had come two and a quarter miles, and here he was. End of the road, and a little two-story wooden house nestled into the south side of the ridge. A light burning upstairs. A car parked in front of an outside wooden stairway to the second floor. Slade automatically noted that the car’s make, model and color matched what he had been given, and so did the license plate. What kind of car it was, I don’t know. Never saw it, don’t remember the description. That kind of thing doesn’t stick with me. Slade would know, though. He’ll know twenty years from now.
Slade parked next to the car. Without hurry, without hesitation, he got out and looked around. Just an old friend calling, that was the story. Not that it was likely to fool Henry.
Slade looked around at the few acres of grassland . Nice. Be good if you had a couple of horses, he thought. No sign of horses, though. Too bad.
To his left the field was bordered by trees; presumably the creek that had accompanied the road. To his right, the ridge. Behind him the long road, ahead of him a blankness of woods. No one in sight.
He called out, an old friend come calling. “Henry? Henry! Hey Henry!” No response, of course. He wondered if Henry was watching him from behind one of the trees. Yet, for what it was worth, he had no sense of being watched.
Old friend, come calling. Go to the garage door at ground level, peer in the window. One big room, twice as wide as deep, the bottom floor of the entire house, undivided. On the right, a two-car garage, with one stall cluttered with lawn mower and tools. On the left, a workshop of sorts, with machinery Slade couldn’t offhand place. A bowl of cat food on one end of the bench, and a bowl of water.
Well, the light was on, right? Up the outside stairs. “Henry?” Knock on the door. Wait. Knock again. Try the door. Unlocked. Enter? He pulled the door open and stepped onto a porch that seemed to run the width of the building, down the entire south side. Floor to ceiling windows without curtains and a stone floor. Nothing else in the room. On the side opposite the windows, no fewer than four sets of sliding glass doors, on a guess one set per room. On the other side of the first set – interior curtains open – was Henry, sitting on a couch in a small living room, holding in one hand a book closed around a finger that marked his place, calmly watching Slade imitating a friend come calling.
Slade let a smile appear on his face, as old friends do. He flicked a finger at Henry and at himself, asking for entry. Henry nodded but did not move. Slade pushed the glass door sideways and entered. “Henry,” he said. “Long time.” (He didn’t quite dare offer to shake hands, he told me later; it wouldn’t have helped matters any. Which was Slade’s way of saying that it might have gotten him thrown out without further ado.) “You sure live off the beaten track.”
There was a four-second delay (trust Slade to know how long) before Henry responded. Long enough to let him see Henry maybe deciding on tactics and strategy. Long enough to make him wonder if maybe Henry wouldn’t answer at all. “Living off the beaten track deters casual visitors,” he said at last. “I take it this visit isn’t casual.”
Slade put up his hands in front of him, palms forward. “Just visiting, Henry, honest. It’s been a long time. Too long.”
“Not that long, Jack. What’s on your mind?”
Slade was surprised at the depth of the calm implacability to be read in the face of his former friend. He found that his shoulders were hunched up. He forced them down, tried a smile. “Henry –“
“I hope you didn’t drive a hundred miles to lie to me, Jack. You ought to know you can’t do it. And the first time you try, you’re out the door. The second time, I mean. You’ve already used up your first.”
Slade smiled, a more genuine smile this time, in admiration for Henry’s putting him in his place within seconds. Besides, he had always liked Henry. “I tell the truth, I get to sit down?”
Henry sighed, reached over to the coffee table in front of him and picked up an envelope, which he used as a bookmark. He put down the book and stood up. “You tell the truth, you get a beer if you want one.”
“Now you’re talking!” But it was too loud, too hearty. Slade heard it but couldn’t call it back. Have to use more care.
“Guinness suit you?”
“Just right,” he said. He made an effort to keep his voice level and calm, and suspected that Henry’s flicker of a smile meant that he was, as usual, tracking Slade’s mental processes without trouble. Slade had never been able to win a game of chess from him. Had never come close.
Slade picked a chair and sat. Henry disappeared into the kitchen and returned with two opened bottles of Guinness and passed on over. Slade took it, inclined it toward Henry. “Old times,” he said.
Henry looked at him and shook his head. “Nothing there to drink to. How about `True friendship’?”
Sarcasm? Hard to tell, with Henry. Slade raised his bottle and drank from it. Henry sat down opposite him, and took a drink as well.
A pause. “You must be feeling pretty secure,” Slade said.
“Because you found me sitting there with a book? You know better than that, Jack. I knew you were coming, I knew you were alone, and I checked you out before you hit the gravel road. Elementary precautions.”
Slade looked at the bottle in his hand. “The guy at the store.”
“He gives directions, but he calls.”
“And you assumed I didn’t have a gun in my car, and wasn’t meeting anybody before I got here.”
“Assumed has nothing to do with it. I checked out your intentions. You know. So, no, you didn’t catch me napping. But that wasn’t ever your intention, as you know full well. That’s what got you in the door. So what do they want from me this time?” Vintage Henry, always stripping the bullshit.
Slade watched him take a drink. “It’s true,” he said. “We have a little problem.” He knew better than to fence with Henry, but habits die hard.
Henry pointed at Slade with the top of his bottle. “That word `little’ is pretty close to being your exit line.”
“All right, big problem. You want us to come here on our knees?”
“I didn’t want you to come here at all. I’m retired.”
“Are you retired from living on planet earth?”
A long moment’s silence. Slade told me later he didn’t feel that Henry was weighing the sentence so much as that he was weighing Slade himself. Finally, “Jesus. As bad as that?”
Slade felt that in the circumstances he could allow himself the luxury of annoyance. “I didn’t come all this way to beg you to come back to work, if that’s what you’re thinking. We seem to struggle along without you okay. Ordinarily”
“Maybe. Maybe worse.”
“Probably. And maybe worse.”
Another silence. “Worse from whose perspective? Oh, never mind; stupid question. From their own view of their own best interests, of course. What else do they ever really care about?”
Slade started to protest, either out of some sense of loyalty or, more likely, out of a healthy respect for what was being recorded on the tape harness he was wearing. Henry over-rode him. “Doesn’t matter the specific threat, I’ll bet I can tell you the general nature of it: Something has them worried that they’ll lose control.”
Slade, of course, had nothing he could usefully say in response, so he took another drink. As Henry noted.
“And you’re here as errand boy, going through the motions? Or do you share their concern? Privately, I mean.”
The bottle was empty. Slade looked around and found an envelope to put it on, to avoid leaving a ring on the coffee table. “They aren’t wrong this time, Henry. At least, not obviously. I’m as worried as they are.” And so he told him what he had been instructed to tell him. Henry had questions, of course, but Slade had been well briefed, and finally, Henry said, “tell them I’ll think it over, but probably yes.”
There wasn’t a lot to say after that. “I’d better go, then,” Slade said.
“I’m not going to ask you stay the night, I need to be alone with this. Let me use the bathroom and I’ll walk you down to your car.” And then, to Slade’s astonishment, Henry put a finger to his lips. Henry leaned over and picked up a pencil and pad, and went into the bathroom and shut the door. He was back in a couple of minutes, having flushed the toilet. Again with his finger to his lips, he handed Slade a note.
I’ll give you one chance, take it or leave it. Drive half a mile. Take off the wire you’re wearing, turn it off, and put it in the trunk. You can tell them it was uncomfortable, if they ask. Come back and tell me the rest of it. I might trust you once more; I won’t trust them. If you agree, say you wish we were still friends.
Henry stood with outstretched hand as Slade read the note. “You ready, Jack?’
“Yeah, I’m ready.” He handed back the note, and watched Henry put it into a pocket pending destruction. Always careful, Henry. It was one of the reassuring things about him. “I wish we were still friends.”
“Yeah, well, a lot of water under the bridge. Maybe some time after you get sprung from that sorry crowd, give me a call and we’ll see.” He opened the sliding door and they walked onto the porch and then outside onto the landing.
“But maybe we’ll be working together on this?”
They descended the wooden stairs. “Maybe. Maybe not. I’m not promising. I’ll let you know.”
They were at Slade’s car. Slade stuck out his hand. “I do wish we were still friends, Henry.
Really, I do.” Henry hesitated, then shook hands. He chuckled. “Be careful what you wish for. It wouldn’t help your career any.”