The Plastic Pelicans
Arnold Dover worked as chief counsel for the management company that ran Los Alamos. We were in his office. Davidson sat nearby looking out the window at the tan campus at the heart of the nation’s nuclear weapons program. Dover’s lobby-like office boasted two etched glass floor-to-ceiling walls. They let in natural light, stood for privacy, and gave off the pungent cachet of power and secrecy.
Dover looked relaxed in his business suit — a gray summer weight from J. Press with a white shirt and a fashionable Hermes blue silk twill tie. The chief counsel seemed pleased with himself for successfully pulling off the big bust at the warehouse a few hours earlier. He sat to my left in a plump red leather armchair.
“Give it up.” He was coaxing. “What was in the brief case you had cuffed to your wrist when we flew out here from Philly?” A smile rode up and down his lips, revealing teeth too wide not to be noticed.
“The brief case was all about the plane ticket, Arnold. I was just a courier who earned a free ride in the free drinks cabin. I swear. That’s all it was.” I smiled.
His eyes flickered with confusion. “I’m talking about inside the case. What were you carrying inside the case?”
“It was none of my business,” I told him. “I really don’t know.” That was a double lie. The fact is that I thought I knew what was inside, and that it was my business. I had been told that I was to carry an SD card and original documents indicting Dover’s company. Had I thought about it, I’d have realized there was no reason to carry such information to New Mexico. It should have been headed in the opposite direction, to New York. But this was a new assignment, and I’d been drinking. In reality, the Pelicase case I carried was packed tight with counterfeit twenty dollar bills.
My head was pounding from the beating I had taken during the kidnapping. The laceration at the base of my skull had been cleaned up and super glued at the lab’s infirmary, no stitches. I was told I had a concussion, that I should avoid the urge to sleep, and I could take the rest of the week off. The doctor said nothing about drinking, and I needed a drink.
We all needed a drink.
I sat in a plump red lounge chair, next to Dover, part of his office suite, holding an ice pack against the base of my skull.
Dover gave me a pinched, sour look, more tentative than antagonistic. “And now you’re all up to your ears with spies, and the Pueblo nation which is buying weapons like there’s no tomorrow. I don’t see the fit.” He had a point.
“You’re a mysterious guy.” He turned and smiled at Davidson, who avoided his glance.
“I walked into a hornet’s nest,” I told him. That’s usually a good explanation for being somewhere you don't belong.
“That’s Jackson, Arnold,” said Davidson. Once again, he was coming to my defense, as he did earlier when Dover entrapped me and my team of agents. Davidson stretched back against the sofa, which was the same cushy lipstick shade as the plump leather chairs it faced. “You have to understand him.” He continued, “Jackson’s not complex. He’s abstract. You’re an original aren’t you Jackson?” He was nearly taunting. “Now tell me about the scarification you’ve developed on those handsome cheeks of yours. Is it a fashion statement? Have any tattoos been added. The wounds are both so regular. They’re a match, don’t you think, Arnold?”
Davidson and I had always been like two cats taking swats at each other, but hunting in pairs. I've often said that. We had been colleagues and friends as recently as seven months ago. Now, I was no longer sure who he was, or whose side he was playing for.
“Jackson likes to think he’s a spy,” Davidson continued, “but he’s got no talent for it.” Davidson dialed down his bravura voice to just above a hum. “But you are a fine investigator, Jack. I’ll grant you that.” A glass coffee table separated us. “He’s usually getting into something, Arnold. So while you can trust him completely, I’d question the very nature of trust.”
“I forgot you’re a philosopher,” I said.
“The Detonation changed a lot didn’t it Jackson?”
I showed Davidson the ice pack, a sign that he was not to get cute with me.
The phone rang, and Dover picked it up at once. The conversation on his end of the PBX sounded like this: “Yes.” “I don’t know.” “Correct.” “About a week ago.” “Yes, I would like to make a report. No, I’m in a meeting now, but I can be available in an hour. Call my secretary.” “Yes.”
While he was talking, I leaned toward Davidson. “What’s this Kestrel stuff?”
He pressed his lips and appeared distressed. “When we’re done with this.”
“Done with this. What’s this?”
“A necessary interrogation. I’ll keep it mild, and you lash in that tongue of yours.”
Dover hung up and blew a long sigh, a silent whistle. “This is getting really crazy,” Dover said. “Last week I parked my car in my assigned space, locked it up, worked until about seven, came down to the lot, and found my car wasn’t parked in my space, but in the space next to mine. I thought I must be overworked, because I remember that morning when I drove in the lot was empty. I was early. So, you know, like I could have done something weird. I hadn’t had my coffee yet.”
Central Park Square where Dover’s offices were located, formed a New York City-sized block of high ground, in the center of which was 105, a swerving edifice topping the wide invisible heart of the lab’s boxy tan facilities. Its glass exterior reminded me of green Wayfarer sun glasses, something to conceal your identity.
The work here was top secret because it pushed against the substance of creation, teasing out the meaning of those frantic, elusive elements on the verge of the infinite — some of which were nearly eternal and others of which were fractionally evanescent, no more than a wisp of a thought — and all of it for the purpose of war.
Davidson had grown serious. The interrogator. “There’s something I hadn’t known about you, Jackson,” he said. “You fly courier. Were you so broke you couldn’t afford the fare?”
“I like the priority seating.”
Davidson cranked his beaky face, warning me to play it straight.
“I find that a bit surprising.”
I decided not to answer.
“You wouldn’t have anything around to drink, would you Arnold?” I asked.
“Help yourself,” he said, pointing his thumb over his shoulder to the credenza at his back. It held a collection of expensive Scotch’s, nothing under 12 years. I poured myself four fingers of Johnny Walker Black. I have a thing about booze named after people. Dover turned in his chair to get my attention. “I want you to know that you’re looking at the 12 best bottles of Scotch in the world.” I offered to bring him a drink. He continued, “Everything else, the other whiskeys and clear alcohol are underneath in the cabinet.” He paused. “No drinks for me.”
Davidson asked, “Has he got any Tweedsmuir?” Tweedsmuir was the village in which our mutual Capitol Hill friend Ellen Dreyfuss took her summer recess. Her mother owned the distillery there, and named her eponymous single-malt after the town on the Tweed. I told him, “No. He’s missing the 18-year old.”
“Do you hear from Ellen,” he asked.
“We shared a place at Fort Detrick.”
“She given in to your charms?”
I let that one pass. “She’s in Santa Fe. Real estate’s too pricey for me.”
Now Davidson changed direction. “Well, Arnold,” he said, “you’re missing one of the great and little known single malts from your collection.” He sounded triumphant, a gotcha.
“True dat,” I said, a retort out of character but apt. I offered no explanation. There was no need.
“How about an Oban, two fingers, the 14-year-old will do.”
I looked. No Oban. “Don’t have any.”
“Of course I do.” Dover turned to me, sounding irritated.
“Do you know what it looks like?”
“Oh, Jack surely know what it looks like.”
“Look again,” Dover said.
“There goes your collection, Arnold.” Davidson pronounced.
“Check underneath.” He grew agitated, and at first I didn’t understand why. “I’m getting Halfheimer’s disease. Losing keys, misplacing my wallet, files, cars moving around, people calling about missed appointments. Now my Scotch is playing tricks.” He sighed, puffing his cheeks out. “The other day I was told my AMEX was maxed out. When I checked AMEX on my cell, it said I was paid up, unlimited credit. I showed it to the waiter, and he just shrugged.”
I wondered if someone was “gaslighting” Dover, trying to make him crazy. Maybe that expained Davidson’s presence.
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