by Ken Grimwood


SIXTEEN  (continued)

‘I want an injunction filed now, Mitchell! This week, if we can; the middle of next, at the latest.’

The lawyer concentrated on his glasses, polishing the thick lenses with a precision befitting the care that might be taken with an expensive telescope. ‘I don’t know, Jeff,’ he said. ‘I’m not sure that’ll be possible.’

‘How soon can we get it, then?’ asked Pamela.

‘We may not be able to,’ Wade admitted.

‘You mean not at all? These people are free to go on spewing their ridiculous fantasies about us, and there’s nothing we can do about it?’

The attorney found another invisible spot on one of his lenses, wiped it away delicately with a little square of chamois. ‘They may well be acting within their First Amendment rights.’

‘They’re leeching off us!’ Jeff exploded, waving the pamphlet that had prompted this meeting. His photograph was prominent on the cover of the booklet, along with a slightly smaller picture of Pamela. ‘They’re profiting from our names and our statements, with no authorization from us, and in the process they’re making a mockery of everything we’ve tried to do.’

‘They are a nonprofit organization,’ Wade reminded him. ‘And they’ve filed for tax-exempt status as a religious institution. That kind of thing is hard to fight; it takes years, and the chances for beating them are slim.’

‘What about the libel laws?’ Pamela insisted.

‘You’ve made yourselves public figures; that doesn’t leave you with much protection. And I’m not sure their comments about you could be construed as libellous, anyway. A jury might even see it as the opposite extreme. These people worship you. They believe you’re the incarnation of God on earth. I think you’re better off just ignoring them; legal action would only give them more publicity.’

Jeff made a wordless exclamation of disgust, crumpled the pamphlet in one hand, and threw it towards the far corner of his office. ‘This is just the kind of thing we wanted to avoid,’ he said, fuming. ‘Even if we ignore it or deny it, it taints us by association. No reputable scientific organization is going to want to have anything to do with us after this.’

The lawyer slipped his glasses back on, adjusted them on the bridge of his nose with one thick forefinger. ‘I understand your dilemma,’ he told them. ‘But I don’t –’

The intercom on Jeff’s desk buzzed in two short bursts followed by a single long one, the signal he had established for notification of an urgent message.

‘Yes, Elaine?’

‘There’s a gentleman here to see you, sir. He says he’s with the federal government.’

‘What branch? Civil defence, the National Science Foundation?’

‘The State Department, sir. He insists on speaking with you personally. You and Miss Phillips both.’

‘Jeff?’ Wade frowned. ‘Want me to sit in on this?’

‘Maybe,’ Jeff told him. ‘Let’s see what he wants.’ Jeff keyed the intercom again. ‘Show him in, Elaine.’

The man she brought into the office was in his mid-forties, balding, with alert blue eyes and nicotine-stained fingers. He sized up Jeff with a quick, penetrating glance, did the same to Pamela, then looked at Mitchell Wade.

‘I’d prefer we had this talk in private,’ the man said.

Wade stood, introduced himself. ‘I’m Mr Winston’s attorney,’ he said. ‘I also represent Miss Phillips.’

The man pulled a thin billfold from his jacket pocket, handed Wade and Jeff his card. ‘Russell Hedges, US Department of State. I’m afraid the nature of what I have to discuss here is confidential. Would you mind, Mr Wade?’

‘Yes, I would mind. My clients have a right to –’

‘No legal advice is required in this situation,’ Hedges said. ‘This concerns a matter of national security.’

The attorney started to protest once more, but Jeff stopped him. ‘It’s all right, Mitchell. I’d like to hear him out. Think over what we were talking about before, and let me know if you come up with any workable alternatives; I’ll give you a call tomorrow.’

‘Call me today if you need to,’ Wade said, casting a scowl at the government representative. ‘I’ll be in my office late, probably till six or six-thirty.’

‘Thanks. We’ll get in touch if necessary.’

‘Mind if I smoke?’ Hedges asked, pulling out a pack of Camels as the lawyer left the room.

‘Go right ahead.’ Jeff motioned him to one of the seats facing the desk and slid an ashtray within his reach. Hedges produced a box of wooden matches, lit his cigarette with one. He let the match burn slowly to a blackened stub, which he dropped, still smouldering, into the large glass ashtray.

‘We’ve been aware of you, of course,’ Hedges said at length. ‘Difficult not to be, what with the media spotlight you’ve been in for the past four months. Though I must admit, most of my colleagues have tended to dismiss your pronouncements as parlour tricks … until this week.’

‘Libya?’ Jeff asked, knowing the answer.

Hedges nodded, took a long drag from the cigarette. ‘Everyone at the Middle East desk is still thunderstruck; our most reliable intelligence assessments indicated King Idris had a thoroughly stable regime. You not only named the date of the coup; you specified that the junta would come from the middle echelons of the Libyan army. I want you to tell me how you knew all that.’

‘I’ve already explained it as clearly as I’m able.’

‘This business about reliving your life –’ His cool gaze took in Pamela. ‘Your lives. You can’t expect us to believe that, can you?’

‘You don’t have any choice,’ Jeff said matter-of-factly. ‘Neither do we. It’s happening; that’s all we know. The only reason we’ve made such a spectacle of ourselves this time is because we want to find out more about it. I’ve made all this very plain before.’

‘I expected you’d say that.’

Pamela leaned forward intently. ‘Surely there are government researchers who could investigate this phenomenon, help us find the answers we’re looking for.’

‘That’s not my department.’

‘But you could direct us to them, let them know you’re taking us seriously. There are physicists who might –’

‘In exchange for what?’ Hedges asked, flicking a long ash from his cigarette.

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘You’re talking about a commitment of funds, manpower, laboratory facilities … What would we get in return?’

Pamela pursed her lips, looked at Jeff. ‘Information,’ she said after a moment’s pause. ‘Advance knowledge of events that will upset the world’s economy and lead to the deaths of thousands of innocent people.’

Hedges crushed out the cigarette, his keen blue eyes riveted on hers. ‘Such as?’

She glanced at Jeff again; his face held no expression, neither approval nor admonishment. ‘This thing in Libya,’ Pamela told Hedges, ‘will have disastrous, far-reaching consequences. The man in charge of the junta, Colonel Qaddafi, will appoint himself premier early next year; he’s a madman, the most truly evil figure of the next twenty years. He’ll turn Libya into a breeding ground, and a haven, for terrorists. Dreadful, unimaginable things will happen because of him.’

Hedges shrugged. ‘That’s awfully vague,’ he said. ‘It could be years before those kinds of assertions are proven or disproven. Besides, we’re more interested in events in Southeast Asia, not the ups and downs of these little Arab states.’

Pamela shook her head decisively. ‘You’re wrong there. Vietnam is a lost cause; it’s the Middle East that’ll be the pivotal region during the next two decades.’

The man looked at her thoughtfully, fished another cigarette from his crumpled pack. ‘There’s a minority faction at State that’s expressed just that opinion,’ he said. ‘But when you claim our stance in Vietnam is hopeless … What about the death of Ho Chi Minh day before yesterday? Won’t that weaken the resolve of the NLF? Our analysts say –’

Jeff spoke up. ‘If anything, it’ll strengthen their determination. Ho will be all but canonized, made into a martyr. They’ll rename Saigon after him, in – once they’ve taken the city.’

‘You were about to name a date,’ Hedges said, squinting at him through a haze of smoke.

‘I think we should be somewhat selective about what we tell you,’ Jeff said carefully, giving Pamela a cautioning look. ‘We don’t want to add to the world’s troubles, just help it avert some of the clear-cut misfortunes.’

‘I don’t know … There are still a number of doubting Thomases in the department, and if all you can offer are evasive generalities –’

‘Kosygin and Chou En-lai,’ Jeff declared forcefully. ‘They’ll meet in Peking next week, and early next month the Soviet Union and China will agree to hold formal talks on their border disputes.’

Hedges frowned in disbelief. ‘Kosygin would never visit China.’

‘He will,’ Jeff asserted with a tight smile. ‘And before too long, so will Richard Nixon.’

The March wind off Chesapeake Bay stirred the light rain into a fine, chill mist, stopped the scattered droplets in their fall, and whipped them this way and that, into an atmospheric microcosm of the whitecaps that slapped across the choppy bay. Jeff’s hooded slicker glistened blackly in the omnipresent moisture as the cold, clear drizzle lashed and trickled invigoratingly across his face.

‘What about Allende?’ Hedges asked, trying without success to light a sodden Camel. ‘Does he stand a chance?’

‘You mean despite your people’s mucking about in Chilean politics?’ It had long since become obvious to Jeff and Pamela that Russell Hedges had only the most tenuous connection to the State Department. Whether he was CIA or NSA or something else entirely, they didn’t know. It didn’t really matter; the end results were the same.

Hedges gave one of his ambiguous half-smiles, managed to get the cigarette going. ‘You don’t have to tell me whether he’s actually going to be elected or not, just whether he stands a reasonable chance.’

‘And if I say he does, then what? He goes the way of Qaddafi?’

‘This country had nothing to do with the Qaddafi assassination; I’ve told you that time and again. It was purely an internal Libyan affair. You know how those third-world power struggles go.’

There was no point arguing about it with the man again; Jeff knew damned well that Qaddafi had been killed, before ever taking office, as a direct result of what he and Pamela had told Hedges of the dictator’s future policies and actions. Not that Jeff mourned the death of a bloodthirsty maniac like that, but it was widely assumed that the CIA was linked to the murder, and those well-founded rumours had led to the creation of a previously nonexistent terrorist outfit called the November Squad, headed by Qaddafi’s younger brother. The group had vowed a lifetime of revenge in the name of its slain leader. Already, a massive petroleum fire raged out of control in the desert south of Tripoli, where three months earlier the November Squad had blown up a Mobil Oil installation, killing eleven Americans and twenty-three Libyan employees.

Chile’s Allende was no Qaddafi; he was a decent, well-meaning man, the first freely elected Marxist president in history. He would die soon enough as it was, and probably at American instigation. Jeff had no intention of hurrying that shameful day.

‘I have nothing to say about Allende one way or the other. He’s no threat to the United States. Let’s just leave it at that.’

Hedges tried to draw on the soggy cigarette, but it had gone out again, and the wet paper had begun to split. He threw it off the wharf and into the restless water with dismay. ‘You had no such compunction about telling us Heath will be elected prime minister in England this summer.’

Jeff eyed him sardonically. ‘Maybe I wanted to make sure you didn’t decide to have Harold Wilson shot.’

‘Goddamn it,’ Hedges spat out, ‘who set you up as the moral arbiter of US foreign policy? It’s your job to supply us with advance information, period. Let the people in charge decide what’s important and what’s not and how to handle it.’

‘I’ve seen the results of some of those decisions before,’ Jeff said. ‘I prefer to remain selective about what I reveal. Besides,’ he added, ‘this was supposed to be a fair trade. What about your end of the bargain – is any progress being made?’

Hedges coughed, turned his back to the wind off the bay. ‘Why don’t we go back inside, have a warm drink?’

‘I like it out here,’ Jeff said defiantly. ‘It makes me feel alive.’

‘Well, I’ll be dead of pneumonia if we stay out here much longer. Come on, let’s go in and I’ll tell you what the scientists have had to say so far.’

Jeff relented, and they began walking towards the old government-owned house on the western shore of Maryland, south of Annapolis. They’d been here for six weeks now, conferring on the implications of Rhodesian independence and the coming overthrow of Cambodia’s Prince Sihanouk. At first, he and Pamela had regarded their stay here as something of a lark, a vacation of sorts, but Jeff was growing increasingly concerned over the detailed grillings by Hedges, who apparently had been assigned to them as a permanent liaison. They’d been careful not to say anything they felt could be put to harmful use by the Nixon administration, but it was becoming harder to know where to draw the line. Even Jeff’s equivocal ‘no comment’ about next fall’s elections in Chile might be rightly interpreted by Hedges and his superiors as an indication that Allende would, in fact, win the presidency; and what sort of covert US action might that assumption provoke? They were walking a dangerous tightrope here, and Jeff had begun to regret they’d ever agreed to these meetings at all.

‘So?’ Jeff asked as they approached the tightly shuttered house, an inviting column of smoke rising from its red brick chimney. ‘What’s the latest word?’

‘Nothing definitive from Bethesda yet,’ Hedges muttered beneath the upturned collar of his raincoat. ‘They’d like to do some more tests.’

‘We’ve had all the medical tests imaginable,’ Jeff said impatiently, ‘even before you people got involved. That’s not the crux of it; it’s something beyond us, something on the cosmic level, or the subatomic. What have the physicists come up with?’

Hedges stepped onto the wooden porch, shook the beads of water from his hat and coat like an overgrown dog. ‘They’re working on it,’ he told Jeff vaguely. ‘Berget and Campagna at Cal Tech think it could have to do with pulsars, something about massive neutrino information … but they need more data.’

Pamela was waiting in the oak-beamed living room, curled on the sofa in front of a hearty fire. ‘Hot cider?’ she asked, raising her mug and tilting her head with a questioning look.

‘Love some,’ Jeff said, and Hedges nodded his assent.

‘I’ll get it, Miss Phillips,’ said one of the dark-suited young men who stood permanent watch over this secluded compound. Pamela shrugged, pulled the sleeves of her bulky sweater up over her wrists, and took a sip from the steaming cup.

‘Russell says the physicists may be making some progress,’ Jeff told her. She brightened, her fire-flushed cheeks radiant against the bunched blue wool of her sweater and the flaxen sheen of her hair.

‘What about the skew?’ she asked. ‘Any extrapolation yet?’

Hedges twisted his mouth around a fresh, dry cigarette, lowered his eyelids in a cynical sidelong gaze. Jeff recognized the expression, knew by now that the man held little credence in the notion that they had lived before, would live again. It didn’t matter. Hedges and the rest could think whatever they liked, so long as other minds, perceptive and persistent scientific minds, continued to focus on the phenomenon that Jeff knew to be all too real.

‘They say the data points are too uncertain,’ Hedges said. ‘Best they can come up with is a probable range.’

‘And what’s that range?’ Pamela asked quietly, her fingers tense and white around the hot mug.

‘Two to five years for Jeff; five to ten in your case. Unlikely it would be any lower than that, they tell me, but the high end could be greater if the curve continues to steepen.’

‘How much greater?’ Jeff wanted to know.

‘No way to predict.’

Pamela sighed, her breath rising and falling with the wind outside. ‘That’s no better than a guess,’ she said. ‘We could have done as well on our own.’

‘Maybe some of the new tests will –’

‘To hell with the new tests!’ Jeff barked. ‘They’ll be just as “inconclusive” as all the others, won’t they?’

The taciturn young man in the dark suit returned to the living room with two thick mugs. Jeff took his, stirred it angrily with a fragrant cinnamon stick.

‘They want some more tissue samples at Bethesda,’ Hedges said after a careful sip of the hot cider. ‘One of the teams there thinks the cellular structure may –’

‘We’re not going back to Bethesda,’ Jeff told him with finality. ‘They have plenty to work with as it is.’

‘There’s no need for you to return to the hospital itself,’ Hedges explained. ‘All they need is a few simple skin scrapings. They sent a kit; we can do it right here.’

‘We’re going back to New York. I have a month’s worth of messages I haven’t even seen; there might be something useful among them. Can you get us a plane out of Andrews tonight?’

‘I’m sorry …’

‘Well, if there’s no government transport available, we’ll just take a commercial flight. Pamela, call Eastern Airlines. Ask them what time –’

The man who had brought the cider took a step forward, one hand poised before his open jacket. A second guard came in through the front door as if silently signalled, and a third appeared on the staircase.

‘That’s not what I meant,’ Hedges said carefully. ‘I’m afraid we … can’t allow you to leave. At all.’

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