[More browsing through old files of discarded would-be fiction.]
Henry and his brother were sitting in Henry’s car, which was sitting in Joe’s garage, out of sight of hypothetical passers-by. It was after 11. Joe’s kids were asleep, and so was Rosalie, but Henry had insisted that they adjourn to the garage, just as he had earlier asked Joe to put his own car out on the street to make room for Henry’s. “Man,” Joe had said, opening the passenger door, “if you’re worried about Rosalie and the kids spying on you, you really are paranoid.”
Henry had replied, merely, “Cautious is as cautious does, Joe. Suppose somebody got up to go to the bathroom. No use taking chances.”
Joe had shrugged and gotten into the car. “So what’s up?”
“I need help, and it pretty much has to be you, if you’ll do it. There isn’t anybody else I trust who could do what I need you to do –nobody who would trust me too. But you should know up front, you’re going to be shooting in the dark.”
“Oh goody. Does this mean I finally get to hear war stories from your days with a certain intelligence agency?”
“You might, if we both agree that for the moment I’m not talking to a news reporter.”
“Henry! For God’s sake—“
“I didn’t say I don’t trust you, I just want it clear. This isn’t a leak, or background, or deep background, or anything. It doesn’t exist. Not in any way at all. When we’re done here, we’ll agree on a story, and that will be what we talked about. Anything else I tell you, you don’t remember. You put it way in the back of your mind except when you need to remember it, and even then no more often than you can help. Okay? You can’t use any of it. Not now, not later, even if you stumble onto it some other way. You’ve got to be blind to it, no matter what. Forever.”
“That isn’t the way the journalism game works, brother. If—“
“I know it, Joe, but this isn’t journalism, and it isn’t a game.”
“Henry, that isn’t what I mean. Suppose Jerry Bower – the city editor – suppose he points me at something. How can I say `no, I’m not going to take a look at that?’ It isn’t just a matter of my job: You think they don’t know you’re my brother? You think they can’t add? If they point me, I’m going to have to snoop, same as always, or it’ll be the same as putting up a sign saying `sniff here for smell of rat.’ Whatever it is, your friends are going to have to cover it up well enough for me to miss it. Hell, they’re going to have to do that regardless. If I can’t miss it, trying, others won’t miss it either.”
Henry’s eyes strayed from his brother’s face to the garage wall behind him, then returned. “All right. If you have to look, look. But don’t find.”
Joe shrugged. “You want it to stay hidden, hide it well. I won’t use anything I get from you, I’ll go that far.”
A short, curt nod. “It isn’t best, but it’ll have to do. If it comes to it, though, just refrain from using any conspicuous initiative, will you?”
Joe smiled. “Jerry would say you don’t have anything to worry about.”
“Oh sure, and if you were half as lazy as you pretend to be, you’d be covering traffic court in the suburbs somewhere. But just this once, live up to that image, all right?”
“What do you need?”
“I need you to do some snooping for me. Very discreet snooping, Joe. Take no chances, and I mean none. If you can’t find out with zero risk, get back to me instead. Okay? And zero risk doesn’t mean be careful, it means zero, or you could kill us both.”
Joe looked at him, considering. “Couldn’t your ex-colleagues find this out, whatever it is, a lot easier than I could?”
“So I take it that they aren’t being particularly helpful. Might it be that they are perhaps the opposition?”
“Not exactly, no.”
“Care to tell me how inexactly?”
“Well, I’ll try to explain it to you, some of it. But you’ll have to listen and not assume you already know better.
“I know how to listen, Henry. It’s my job.”
“Well, yes, but you probably think the world is pretty much the way it looks.”
Joe didn’t often give voice to irritation. It showed in other ways, in a slight compression of his lips, in the slightest tightening of the muscles around his mouth. “Oh for Christ’s sake, Henry, how naïve do you think I can be and still be a reporter?”
His brother paused before replying. “It isn’t a question of being naïve. Certain vested interests don’t find it very hard to make the world look that way they want it to look. It’s more a question of systematic mis-education.”
“Disinformation, you mean?”
“Well, disinformation – but that’s like quibbling over the shade of green in a blade of grass, when the grass is really blue, or yellow, and the only reason we see it as green is because we expect to. You understand at all? We’re talking about that level of distortion.”
Slow, Joe was not. “In other words, reality as we know it is to some extent a tissue of lies.”
Joe’s look of distaste deepened. “Don’t think I doubt your word, brother. I don’t know what particular set of lies you’re going to tell me about, but I’ve been here long enough to know I can’t trust anything anyone at any level of government says about anything. It’s like they lie just to stay in practice.”
“Not just to stay in practice. More like, when the owner says frog, the possession says how high.”
“And chief among the unknown bosses are your old friends, I have always assumed.”
“My old colleagues. `Friends’ would be overstating it, I’m afraid.”
“Yeah, but it all stems from them, and you were in on it.”
“I’m out of it now.”
“You were in it long enough. And now you want me to help bail them out of something. You know what I feel like? I feel like General Sherman at the beginning of the Civil War, when he told his brother – his brother was a senator, a big shot – he said `you politicians have gotten us into a hell of a mess, and now you can get us out of it.’ Not word for word, but that’s the gist of it. I’m inclined to pretty much say the same thing. I didn’t have anything to do with getting us into whatever mess you’re in, and why should I try to get us out of it, even if I could?”
“For the same reason Sherman didn’t sit out the war, Joe. The genie was out of the bottle, and the ones who let it out weren’t the ones who could get it back in. So it had to be done by the only people who could.”
“Meaning me, really, but I need your help.”
“And are you going to do it by giving us 600,000 casualties, like Sherman’s war did?”
“It wasn’t Sherman’s war, he just helped fight it, and end it. And wasn’t it worth it?”
“The men who died might not have thought so.”
“They were willing to risk dying, weren’t they? And they were going to die sometime. Better kill 600,000 men than lose the experiment, and lost the country.”
“Government by consent of the governed. And we damned near did lose it.”
“Seems to me we lost it later.”
“Well, we might. That’s what this is all about. We look back at the civil war and we think, well the result was worth the dead and wounded, and the destruction and suffering. But it might look different if we had it in front of us still to do. And that’s what I’m telling you. We do have it to do, and it doesn’t much matter what my former colleagues did or didn’t do, or what you think of them. In the general scheme of things, they just aren’t that important.”
“Hey, listen, can we adjourn to the living room? I’m getting tired of sitting in your car inside my own garage for fear of my kids spying on me.”
“Take this seriously, Joe, please. This little precaution is nothing – literally nothing – to what you’re going to have to do if you’re not going to kill yourself and me too, and who knows what else.”
“Let’s hear it, then. I am tired, and I’m going to need to get to bed soon.”
Joe knew who his brother had worked for. One enters such secret services in much the same way one does the Forestry Service, or the Department of Transportation, and so one’s family is at first an observer of the process. They watch as one goes through the door. It is only after that point that one disappears from view, becoming successively more silent, more vague, more evasive – and, as time elapses, more duplicitous. Usually one’s family realizes that one has disappeared only several years after the process has gone beyond the point of no return.
So, the things Joe knew were mostly from the beginning of his brother’s career. What he surmised, what he feared, came later. He had watched his brother go through the door, and then had watched, silently, over the years in which Henry had become less and less “there.” Joe alone of the family had not been proud of his brother’s career; he alone had had serious doubt as to the rightness of whatever cause his brother served; he alone had rejoiced (silently) at his brother’s sudden departure from the spy agency – and he alone, probably, had also left open the question as to whether in fact Henry had really left the agency or was participating in some new phase of his career requiring a different cover story. After all, he had reasoned, Henry demonstrably was receiving a pension, which presumably meant that he had left on terms at least civil, if perhaps not cordial.
In the three years since Henry had retired – if indeed he had really retired – Joe had seen him perhaps half a dozen times, all but this once at their parents’ place in New Jersey. In that time, he had been careful to ask Henry no questions about his career or his retirement, not wanting to have to wonder if he was being lied to – for the two men had been close, as boys. He was certain that Henry had noticed his reticence, but how the reticence was interpreted, Joe didn’t know.
It meant that Henry had to start his explanations a long way back, a long way even in 1984, let alone now.
“I can’t remember if you know that I know Russian.”
“I couldn’t remember if I had told you. I didn’t think so, but it’s been a lot of years, and I was new then. Well, I do. They sent me to a special school for languages about a year after I signed up with them. I had the aptitude, and I worked hard, and as a reward I got to do some traveling and I got to spend a certain amount of time in small windowless rooms listening to tapes of transcripts of various kinds. And over time I picked up a few other languages – all of them languages used in the Soviet Union’s Moslem republics in central Asia. I take it I don’t have to connect the dots for you.”
“No. We knew you had to be spying. The rest was detail.”
“Well – you say spying. I suppose that’s what it could look like. It isn’t even wrong, exactly, it’s just that people use all kinds of words to describe things, and they think those words really do mean whatever they seem to mean to them. But there’s a big difference between what a word means, and what it suggests, you know? The word `spy’ means one thing to you and probably something a whole lot different to me. For all I know, you think spying is always James Bond stuff, but it isn’t, mostly. It isn’t even John Walker stuff. Mostly. Suppose I say `information gathering’ instead of `spying.’ It has a whole different set of associations to mind, doesn’t it? It ought to, at least.
“Are you with me? This isn’t a quibble; it’s an important distinction. Yes, I was involved in intelligence gathering, but I didn’t spend my time being smuggled into countries on false passports, or assassinating people, or rifling office safes. What I mostly did was something between scholarship and detective work – not so far from journalism, in fact, except that what I found out wasn’t supposed to wind up in the papers.”
Out of the bitterness of many years, Joe heard himself challenging the brother he had lost so long before. “Sure, Henry, you were collecting intelligence. And that’s all that your friends were doing, too? Hush-hush journalism, so to speak?”
Another hesitation. “I’d forgotten the gap, Joe, I guess. Nobody’s fault, but it’s there. Too many years on different paths, I suppose. Not enough communication. I look at you and I don’t see you as 46 and a father and family man and reporter and all that. Or, well, I do, of course, but really I see us the way we were growing up. But you don’t see me the same way, and it makes a gap.”
“It wasn’t `not enough’ communication, it was a complete lack of communication, and how else could it be, given the career you chose?”
“It was an honorable career,” Henry said quietly. “It can be, you know, despite your prejudices against it. Can be and usually is, in my experience.”
“You say that, but tell me it doesn’t involve lying on demand, Henry.”
“I can’t say that, no, but how many other careers don’t? Yours, for instance.”
“Never mind mine. Just tell me how we could have communicated when I would never know if you were lying to me or not.”
Henry looked steadily across the car at his younger brother. “You think I’d lie to you, then?”
“Henry! If I asked you about the wrong thing – something you were supposed to pretend not to know about – are you going to say you would have told me the truth?”
“How about you? Are you pretending that you and your fellow reporters always tell people the truth? Of course not, and we both know it. So why the double standard? How would you feel if I said to you, `you’re my brother and I always trusted you, but now you’re a reporter, and I can’t’?”
“You tell me that you don’t believe me because I was in intelligence, and spies – to use your word – can’t be trusted. That explains the distance I have felt all evening. It tells me why all these years you never seemed to be interested in what I did or even who I was.”
“Well, can you blame me? I figured the less I asked about what you did, the less I’d get lied to.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence. What ever happened to innocent until proven guilty? Or even to the benefit of the doubt?”
There was an awkward silence.
“So tell me what I could do to show you I can be trusted. As much as a news reporter, say.”
Joe’s face tightened. “What’s that crack supposed to mean?”
A sigh. “Okay, Joe, let’s forget about it. If you’ll open the garage door, I’ll get out of here. Say my good-byes for me, if you would.”
“I’ll just chalk it up as one more price I have paid for trying to serve my country. It’s funny, I thought I’d finished paying. Maybe you never finish. No, don’t say anything, we’re too far apart. It’s better I go.”
“You came here for help. You said you didn’t have anybody else to trust.”
“Yeah, I did. But that was when I figured on having you. I’ve got to do a little more thinking, that’s all. There are other things I can try. On a deal like this, there’s got to be trust, or you’re nowhere.”
Joe suspected he was being set up to offer to help, and the suspicion was strong enough to stop him from making the offer. After a few more futile exchanges, he got out of Henry’s car, opened the garage door, and watched his older brother back out of the driveway, out of his life.
Which left Henry very much a Man Alone, for, odd as it may seem given his resourceful career, he had made no contingency plans against the possibility that his brother would refuse to help. Worse, he who saw so much, so well, had never looked to see that his brother’s heart had closed against him. His own feelings remaining unchanged since before he had entered the closed, dedicated, manipulative world that had taken most of his adult life, he had not thought to examine his brother with the tools he used routinely against his adversaries, colleagues and superiors (if that grouping is not a triple overlapping redundancy).
So now he was – where?
Working along with the former colleagues he neither trusted nor liked nor even respected.
Alienated from his family, the only real anchor his life had ever had other than his hard service.
Needing, more than ever in his life, the assistance of one person he could trust and be trusted by – and having no names in his hat, precisely because of the very nature of the life he had led.
Feeling the clock ticking steadily against him, and he with no idea how to begin, yet he knowing that even in knowing some of the things he must not do, he was ahead of nearly everyone else in the field. Nearly, or perhaps absolutely.
Gravitating, finally, by default – but with his eyes open – to Jack Slade.
Not a great choice, Slade, if there had been the luxury of choice. A company man, for sure. In any conflict of loyalties, Jack would come down where he was told. In fact, Jack would never allow a conflict of loyalties. He might talk of wanting to be friends, but Jack was best friends only with Jack. Henry might have to use him – would have to use him, the way things were shaping up – but he would do so only with eyes wide open. Trust wouldn’t enter into it. Which was a pity, given that trust was the one essential.
It helped that he knew Jack’s bag of tricks, and could read him without trouble. It helped that he had established personal ascendancy over him in so many ways: on the job, over the chessboard, competitively drinking, even climbing mountains against each other. It helped, and it would need to help, for Jack would be their contact with the organization, and so he would hold the strings to too many things that they might need at any given moment.
On the other hand, it would help that Jack was scared. Jack had spent too many years working the system. He would never be very comfortable with somebody who genuinely didn’t give a damn. That could be worked. It would be leverage.