Messenger Chapter Ten

Chapter Ten.

Interrogation

I awoke early that afternoon. That is, Mr. Barnard woke me up, touching my shoulder with one hand while holding a cup of hot tea near my nose with the other. Most unusual. Then I remembered the day before, and our long night. “Did they get the engines up okay?”

“No, they didn’t. Too blamed big and heavy. But they piled three feet of rock and dirt on ’em. Think that’s enough?”

“These days, God knows, but I suppose it’ll have to be. Just so they’re out of sight, we ought to be all right.” I remembered something from sleep, and sat up abruptly. “Say, Mr. Barnard, you know what we forgot? We ought to comb the rocks near where the wing tip hit first; there were fragments all over the place. Not so big a clue, but all it would take would be for the sun to reflect off just one piece. . . .”

Mr. Barnard put the teacup in my hand (having moved it just barely in time to prevent my sudden motion from spilling it all over my bed) and told me to calm down. “The same idea came to me, and the same way. Seems like you and me do some of our best work while we’re asleep.” We smiled at this innocuous version of one of his slightly off‑color stories. “But I didn’t break up your beauty sleep to remind you how brilliant I am. And it wasn’t just jealously, either, seeing you sleeping the sleep of the just while your betters stand watch. The fact is, the boss wants to see you pronto.”

I rolled my feet out of bed and got up. “I know for sure he was still going when I quit,” I said. “Doesn’t anybody ever sleep around here besides me?”

“It’s age, George. Don’t matter how slow it happens, the older you get, the less sleep you need. Ready?”

Somebody had very thoughtfully left water in my jar. I poured some into the bowl, plunged my hands into it, and thoroughly massaged my face. “Ahhh, that’s cold,” I said, feeling for the towel. “That’s one thing I miss about the old life: hot water in the morning without having to hike down the hall and fight over the bathroom. I take it I don’t have time to shave?”

“Later. Come on.”

Mr. Conway was waiting for us in his room. On his table were some cards and papers which he invited me, with a gesture, to examine.

An American, for sure. One Dennis Corbin. Mr. Dennis Corbin’s personal papers, found in his wallet, included among other things a California driver’s license, a Social Security card, a San Francisco Public Library borrower’s card, three oil‑company credit cards, four other credit cards, and two flimsies for gasoline bought with the credit cards. Also $85 in twenties, tens, and ones.

I looked at Mr. Conway.

“What do you make of all this, George? Does it appear authentic?”

I shrugged (which, Mr. Barnard keeps pointing out to me, is my usual response to a request for an opinion.) “Any document can be faked. If these are fakes, they’re good enough to fool me.”

Mr. Barnard said, “The currency look too small to you?”

“Too small?”

“Yeah.” He took a dollar bill out of his pocket. It was the size of an IBM card. “It didn’t look right to me, but I wasn’t sure, so I fished around and found one I had on me when I came here. You can see they ain’t nearly the same size.”

I laughed. “A couple of things have changed in the U.S. since 1931, Mr. Barnard. Didn’t you ever see the bills I brought here?”

“Guess not. So that looks okay to you? What’s it all tell you about him? Assuming the stuff’s for real.”

“Not much. He’s 26 years old, lives in California—San Francisco probably but not definitely—and he was there as recently as June 13th, when he signed for gas at this Exxon station, whatever Exxon may be. In 1962, $85 would have been a fair amount of money to be carrying around, but it may not be that much now, I wouldn’t know. And he may have stocked up for a trip.”

“Recall whatever you observed yesterday,” Mr. Conway said. “What impression comes to mind?”

“Mr. Conway, I don’t know that I had any particular impressions, it all happened so fast. He seemed young and pretty normal, that’s all. Except he was flying in an American plane with Chinese markings and Chinese pilots.”

“This is not idle curiosity. Our new guest is on the verge of waking up, we believe. He sustained a concussion and bruises, nothing serious. But fortunately, he remained unconscious long enough for you to get some sleep.”

“Fortunately?”

“He’s your boy,” Mr. Barnard said in explanation.

“Mine? Why mine?”

“Because you and Henry are the only Americans here, and Henry convinced me that you are the better suited to the job of becoming comfortable with Mr. Corbin—or rather, having him become comfortable with you. You and he will appear to him to be of an age, which surely will help.”

I smiled uneasily.

“Now George, don’t worry,” Mr. Barnard said. “It won’t be like you won’t have us around. We’ll be here. But you’re the front man.”

“Imagine yourself in his place. He will be wondering where he is, who we are, what we intend. Remember your own experience.”

“If he’s got a guilty conscience, that ought to be clear right away. And don’t forget, your walking into his room is going to be a big shock to him.”

“Is it? Why?”

“For the same reason he shocked us yesterday. There ain’t supposed to be any other Americans out here.”

“Yeah, I guess that would throw him, wouldn’t it?”

“Do you require a script, George?”

I looked at Mr. Conway blankly, I’m sure.

“You are kindly, but firm. He is trespassing, but we are inclined to be lenient if we are satisfied he is telling the truth. No answers about Shangri‑la—don’t mention the name, incidentally—until we have learned all we care to know. Can you convey all that?”

“I can try, I guess.” I would have shrugged again, but remembered in time Mr. Barnard’s persistent ribbing on the subject of shrugging.

The situation had its humorous aspects. I walked in and found Mr. Dennis Corbin staring at the ceiling. I could still remember being on the other end of the same kind of conversation. I determined to try to alter it.

“Good morning, Dennis,” I said. “My name is George Chiari. Our doctors tell me you weren’t hurt very badly and I’m glad to hear it. How do you feel?”

Corbin took his time answering. For a moment he lay there, looking me over, sorting things out in his mind. When he finally spoke, I was struck both by the soft, pleasant tenor of his voice and by the harsh overtones his mood added to it. A quiet, shy boy trying to act tough? A proud, intolerant personality superimposed on what had been a more pleasant youth? Merely the natural reaction of anyone trying to get firm footing in a bewildering situation?

“You know my name, but I don’t remember you. Does that mean I should remember talking to you already, or did you get my name by rifling through my things?”

Not the reaction I’d expected! It was hard not to be put immediately on the defensive. But then I realized the implications of what he’d just said. And I remembered Mr. Conway’s instructions. Kindly but firm. No answers first. Trespassing. I sat down on the room’s only chair. “Does that mean you don’t remember where you are?”

He seemed undecided whether to answer the question at all. Why? Surely he was reluctant to give me so great an advantage.

“For your information, Dennis, I pulled you out of the wreckage of your airplane yesterday. Do you remember the crash?”

This time I waited out his silence. Finally he said, “I thought it had to be something like that. Where the hell am I?”

Trespassing. “You don’t remember where you were when you came down?”

Somewhat impatiently: “I don’t remember a thing after eating breakfast this m— yesterday morning now, I take it.”

“And where was that?”

More silence. “Maybe you’d better tell me where I am. Is this Pakistan?”

“No. You are in Tibet. Still in Tibet, I might say.”

“And why might you say that?”

“It’s clear enough that you are trying to work out why you’re talking to another American. That tells me either you haven’t seen many lately, or at least you didn’t expect to see any at the moment.” I wondered if this sounded as pretentious to him as it did to me.

Corbin still made no attempt to sit up, which, in his place, is the first thing I would have done, if only to alter the balance somewhat. But looking up at me seemed to bother him not at all. He was very self‑contained—or was it self‑centered? “I’ll accept that,” he said after a while.

In his place, in 1962, I’d have been overflowing with questions. Where was I? What happened? Who’s in charge? He seemed to have none, or rather seemed to have no interest in getting answers. Suddenly I realized that he was playing interrogation games. Interesting: Why did he regard himself as a prisoner?

“You accept that. Fine. So why not tell me what you remember and I’ll tell you what we saw and we’ll piece it together. We pulled you out of a big airplane yesterday. I’m pretty rusty, but it looked to me like a Buffalo. Does that bring back any memories?”

He looked at me with new interest. “That’s right, a C‑8A. Are you a flier?”

“Used to be. It’s been a while. Pretty old plane to be flying around in, isn’t it?”

“It has its advantages.” His tongue loosened, perhaps, by the temptation to talk shop, he added: “If you’ve seen it, you know what it is. It’s your basic STOL utility transport plane. Twin turbo engines, maybe a basic 1200‑mile range at these altitudes. It was plenty big enough for three people, even with all the equipment we jammed in there. And that low stall speed helped.”

He paused.

“Because—?”

He declined to be led, so I prodded.

“We took a tremendous amount of equipment out of that wreck, Dennis. Any of it worth keeping?”

“Hell yes it’s—” He stopped. I waited some more, then asked him if he’d care to explain why he was riding around in an American airplane with Chinese markings and Chinese pilots.

“Nothing to explain,” he said off‑handedly. “I was working for them. Why did you take the equipment out? What did you do with it?”

“Aren’t we talking at cross‑purposes here? Why not answer my question?”

“I did answer your question. I was working for them, that’s why I was riding with them. I was maintaining that equipment you evidently put your hands on. And if we really are still in Tibet, I’d suggest you be careful with whatever you took: It’s valuable equipment and the Chinese government is going to want it back. Actually, so is ours: That’s all U.S. owned.” Slowly, carefully, he sat up. “How about the pilots? Are you giving them the third degree too?”

“They’re dead, I’m afraid. We buried them this morning.” No perceptible response from him. “Does this feel like the third degree to you?”

Corbin looked around, found his boots on the floor nearby. “I guess I’m allowed to get dressed? To walk around?”

Kindly but firm. “Naturally we have questions, and good reasons for needing those questions answered. But this room is a hospital room, not a cell. You aren’t a prisoner, you’re a guest. After I get a doctor and he says it’s safe for you to move around, you can get dressed and I’ll show you around.”

He lay back in bed. “Okay,” he said. He closed his eyes, waiting for me to call the doctor. I began to find that self‑assurance slightly irritating, yet there was something attractive about the boy nonetheless. I didn’t like to think of him working with the communists.

“I need a little more information first, Dennis, if you don’t mind, before I call the doctor. I still don’t have a clear idea of how you got here or what you were doing in the vicinity.” My God, I thought: Was that kindly but firm? To myself I sounded bureaucratic and prissy. (Later I decided I could have done worse. Unconsciously, I’d chosen a persona that Corbin knew how to respond to.)

He opened his eyes again and laughed, a short, sardonic laugh worthy of Mr. Barnard. “This isn’t the third degree, but I can’t get dressed until you call the doctor, and you won’t call the doctor until I tell you what you want to know.”

Well (I thought), at least he’s responding. “Dennis, be reasonable. Don’t make the situation into something it isn’t. Are you in a cell, being hit with rubber hoses? Are people shining lights in your eyes and making you sit on the edge of your chair—or stand in one place—for hours on end? It’s pretty cold in here, I know, it always is in the morning, but did we put you in here without a warm robe and blankets?”

His eyes narrowed a bit and his lips compressed. “If you think you will intimidate me, you have the wrong boy. Go ahead. Do your worst. But sooner or later somebody else is going to make you answer some awkward questions about all this.”

Partly a pose, of course. Bogart and John Wayne and God knows what other tough‑guy stuff he watched on TV. But I admired it all the same, even if it also exasperated me. “I wasn’t giving you a list of coming attractions,” I snapped. “I was telling you that you’re making yourself the star of the wrong movie. You aren’t the lone tough‑guy hero, stuck in a Nazi prison camp. You’re the mysterious stranger who rode into town for unknown reasons, and I’m the head of the committee [I almost said `posse’, but shied away from the you’re‑under‑arrest overtones] sent by the townsfolk to find our your intentions.”

The shot hit home. He relaxed a bit. Not much, but some. I pressed my advantage. “So forget all that `you can’t make me talk’ stuff and tell me what I have the right to know. We did pull you out of that wreck, you know, at the risk of our lives. And we did give you medical care, and bury your friends. We do intend to treat you well. But we have a right to know where we stand.”

Then I waited.

He had been watching me attentively during my little speech. Again there was a pause while he decided. A cautious Charlie. “I guess it could look like that,” he said, a bit reluctantly. “Okay, ask. But if you ask something I think I should not answer, I will not do it.”

“That’s fine. I don’t have to know all your secrets. Probably the things I’m most concerned about aren’t the things you want to keep secret anyway—like what all that machinery of yours did.”

Another shot that hit home.

“What I still want to know is: Why were you in a Chinese aircraft? Where did you come from and what were you doing here?” Trespassing. Kindly but firm.

“I told you,” he said, picking his words through mines I couldn’t see, “I was there to maintain the equipment. They flew the search pattern, I maintained instruments to see what we were flying over.”

“You were prospecting, then?”

Defiantly: “I am not going to tell you what we were looking for, so you can for—”

“I’m not sure we care, Dennis. Prospecting sounds like you were looking for mineral deposits. That right? Mineral deposits rather than—oh, downed aircraft or troop concentrations or something like that?” What I wanted to say was “man‑made objects,” but I didn’t want him associating our anxiety with the existence of our buildings.

He decided it was smart to admit that he was looking for minerals. He even volunteered information. “That’s one advantage of the C‑8A—you can fly at pretty slow speeds, even at 22,000 feet. That helps a lot. When you’re taking thousands of readings a second, the more time you have over the terrain, the better.”

“So you were mapping the whole country? Or were you looking in one specific place?”

Again hesitation. “I suppose there isn’t any reason not to tell you. At the very beginning of the project, they marked off certain areas—pretty large areas, though—and told us to concentrate there. But we’d done those, and we had a couple of days left, and we were doing a couple of fringe areas, just on the chance.”

“I don’t need specifics and you don’t have to answer this at all if you think you shouldn’t, but whatever you were looking for, did you find any around here?”

He was looking me straight in the eyes. “I don’t have the slightest idea. The last thing I can remember is breakfast, as I told you.” He shifted restlessly. “Speaking of that—”

I stifled a smile. It seemed to me that Dennis Corbin and I might get along okay.

“Soon, Dennis. Right after the doctor.”

“Who is right after more questions,” he sighed. But he was far more relaxed than when we had started.

“Maybe you can see what I’m driving at.”

“Yeah, I think I do, except it makes no sense. You want to know if we came looking for you or if we got here by accident. And now you know the answer. Then you want to know if our mission requires mapping this particular territory, because if it does you can hardly expect to remain undiscovered. And I am sure you will want to know if anybody will be coming to find us. They will be, of course. Probably they are already on their way.”

“Did you keep in radio contact with your base?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did they have some sort of electronic beacon that would have given out your position automatically?”

“I don’t know that either. I didn’t fly the thing, I monitored instruments.”

I believed him. “And you don’t have any way to guess if the pilots radioed a mayday before they hit.”

“I don’t even remember the flight; I sure don’t remember the crash.” He paused, and I didn’t fill the pause, having run out of questions. “But none of this makes any sense to me,” he said. “Why are you worried about being seen? Who are you? What is this place?”

I stood up. “Good questions, Dennis,” I said.

“Did I say something wrong?”

“No, not at all. I’m going to get the doctor, so you can get your breakfast.”

Mr. Meister was going to spend enough time examining Corbin to allow me to check with Mr. Conway and Mr. Barnard on our next move.

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