Tom Grant held the key to my operation. He was my hideously grotesque lucky break.
The night Gomez the Potter and I sat drinking in his candlelit office, he told me that a “key figure” at labs had "zipper" issues. The man, Gomez said, was recognizable for his gaudy collection of bowties. And someone had attached the word pedophile to his name, which was Dr. Tom Grant.
The accusation might have been a two-martini wisecrack, I thought. There was plenty of sophomoric humor jockeyed around by young Turks on the Hill. Or it might have been part of a more devious plan.
The effect was the same.
The thin but sticky suggestion about Grant’s lust for little girls and boys lit off murmurs, the early consolidation stage of a full-blown rumor. The lab’s minions of secrecy came alert, setting snares and amping up their echo chambers.
The damage was then shelved, put aside, readied for use in the event Grant got his integrity in a snit. Management feared the old bastard might go public with his findings about The Detonation.
There was more. That summer, I got word from a reporter at the San Jose Mercury that a member of the lab’s staff was about to blow the whistle on management. About the details, he was vague, except to say that the final public report about the attack on Washington was a whitewash. I asked how he knew that, and he knee-jerked about protecting sources. My assumption was that he was on a fishing expedition, and I let the matter drop.
Then, a friend who had served in the Obama administration added a new ingredient. He said the labs were in turmoil over tests conducted at Technical Area 36. A long series of experiments there in the environment contradicted the government’s policy position, which was based on the Los Alamos Report.
Technical Area 36 at Los Alamos was a wooded plateau high up on the mesa used for experiments on exotic explosives. The Material Dynamics Group ran the program, which was led by Dr. Tom Grant.
That was enough for me. I first approached Grant one evening as he was leaving a local watering hole. The Brew Pub attracted beer aficionados and the lab's young elite. I had been watching him drinking alone from my end of the bar. He was slugging back boilermakers. I did my damage with a double Jameson, then another. Maybe another. I don’t’ recall.
As he left and walked to his car, I followed. He took a woozy step to his left then looked around for his parking spot. The big lot swam in blue light. “Dr. Grant,” I called. He heard me the second time I said his name and turned on me like I was a mugger.
We were standing between cars, he on one side of the parking lane, I on the other. He had a round head and round eyes and his red complexion made him appear a pale shade of purple in the halide lot lamps.
“I’m calling the cops,” he said and pulled out his cell phone and fumbled it. It fell behind the front tire of an orange Dodge Charger. Not easy to pick up. He muttered, squatted like he was about to pee, and nearly tumbled face forward.
“I’m a security contractor here Dr. Grant,” I said as he got to his knees. I tried to help him up and got rewarded with a shove. I kept going. “My name’s Joel Garratt, with two Rs and two Ts. You look like you could use a ride home.”
He got to his feet under his own power. “No, no, no. Mind your own damn business.” He arched his back as if it ached, stretching and squinting at me.
“I’ve been all over the Human Resource’s files on you Dr. Grant, and I think I know why you just downed those four boilermakers. So let me say this, I’m the guy you want to talk to. I can help you out of this.”
He looked at his phone and then glared at me. “Fuck you. Next time you count my drinks pay the bar tab.”
“The lab thinks you’re going to blow the whistle on them.”
His face puckered into an angry knot. “Then fuck you twice.”
“They play for keeps Dr. Grant, you know that. And they’re about to plant a rumor that you’re a pedophile. They’re out to crush your reputation. There’s no explaining away a rumor like that. Try rewrapping Saran wrap. Suing them for slander won’t save your career. Whatever you said in your own defense would draw more attention to the accusation. You’d be ruined.”
“That, sir, is the most disgusting, inane comment I’ve ever heard. I hope you're ashamed.”
“Rumors like that destroy people.”
“Are you trying to bulldoze me, Mr. What’d-you-say-you’re-your-name was?”
“No. No bulldozing, no steam rollers.” I laughed hoping to take the edge off the moment. “And I’m not railroading you.”
My friendly ploy didn’t work. He grew more incensed, nearly stuttering. “Do, do, do you know how long I’ve been up here on the Hill? I’m not some, some … some prick in a beer joint.” I could see his bowtie bob as he talked. “I’m renowned as a national asset.”
He came to attention. “What did you say your name was?” I told him.
“Well, Mr. Garratt, I’m going to see to it that you’re out of a job faster than you can say Jackie Robinson. That’s how I’m going to kill that ugly lie.” He pocketed his cell phone and fished out his car keys. “Disgusting.”
He tried opening the car door. “That’s not your car,” I told him.
“How do you know that?”
I was silent.
He moved around the back of the Dodge, and I stepped after him so I wouldn’t have to raise my voice. “I can stop them,” I said, “and you can prove management buried the truth. That’s what it’s about, right? You don’t have to blow the whistle. There are other ways to ditch management.”
He said nothing.
“Let’s drive you home Dr. Grant.”
“Go away,” he said. “I gotta find my car.”
There’s a balance to strike at moments like this. Saying too much could end the conversation; saying too little could tip the best-laid plans down the drain. A lose-lose situation. I assumed that Grant knew his office politics; that if he took the initiative, he could stop the slur. I imagined him confronting Arnold Dover in his shining office. What’s this slander you’re spreading about me! He could take a line like that right to the top of LANS, and put the fear of litigation in them. It would work.
I had to find a way past his defense. “Human Resources knows you’ve been talking to the Mercury,” I told him and mentioned the reporter’s name.
It was as if I slid a cold hand down his back. Grant looked over his shoulder. “Go away.”
There was no force in his words. The big fish was wearying. “This charge isn’t going away, and this may be our only chance to talk. I can help. I’m a friend, and I know people.”
“There are cameras all over this lot, you fool.”
“They’re passive cameras,” I told him. “There’s no reason for anyone to go over tonight’s video. They'll file it and forget it, SOP. This is as good a place as any to talk, out in the open.”
He looked at me for some moments and leaned up against the car on his right.
“Can you walk?” I asked.
“Of course I can walk, you ass.”
“Can you drive?”
He had his keys, but he couldn’t find his car. “We better walk,” I told him. “They air’ll do us both good, and I’ve got a plan to lay out for you.”
He pushed his hand back over his forehead and smoothed his thin hair, looking at me like a formula scrawled on a chalkboard. I was the "n value," the unknown. “Go on, walk,” he said as if he were giving the order and not submitting to my request.
We pressed forward inhaling the crisp night air that seemed filtered through the ancient stars above the mesa. Walking side-by-side, I unraveled the story Gomez told me about the portfolio the lab had compiled on him. He didn’t speak except to punctuate my points with a word of disdain: “Sickening,” he repeated, again and again.
Then he surprised me. “It’s not a secret to me that the labs are preparing a case. They’ve told me as much. Sent their smoke signals. I got it, and the charge was off the table and now you’re going to fuck it all up.”
As we reached Central Avenue, Grant began to adjust his pants. At least that’s what I thought he was doing until he bumped into me, shoving me into the darkened entry to a restaurant that closed early.
I started to say something, and he showed me a belly gun. “Colt Python .357 Magnum Carry,” he said, “and it will hurt you.”
He wasn’t going to shoot me. He had too much to lose, and that’s what I told him, “You’re not going to shoot me.”
He agreed. “You know that, and maybe I know that, but as you can see, my finger’s on the trigger, and lots of my col-leagues saw me walk out of the Brew Pub drunk, with you following. Accidents happen.”
Drunks and guns, I thought, realizing reality had abandoned me. I had two reactions. One, the moment before he aimed the gun at me, when I was in charge, and the second after he pointed the gun at my belly, and I lost track of my game plan. He took the initiative.
“Take out your cell phone and remove the battery,” he snapped, shoving me further back into the entry.
“It’s an iPhone.”
“God dammit! Then turn it off and put it in your slacks.” He waved the gun around. “Are you wired?” he asked. I shook my head and put the phone in my pocket. “Unbutton your shirt.” I followed his orders. No wire. “Now take off your jacket.” I felt lightheaded. “Turn around. With your back to me. Take out your wallet, and let it fall to the ground.” How far was he going to go? “Drop your pants,” he said. “Here in Los Alamos, a masher who attacks an esteemed scientist might get shot. So, I guess that means I have an excuse to pull this trigger.” My throat felt like I’d been sucking sand.
“We’re still on camera,” I told him.
“Maybe we’re in the shadows,” he replied. “Maybe my back is away from that camera near the corner. You want to take that bet?” He held the gun in his left hand. The Italian word sinistro, from the Old French meaning dark, evil, menacing, came to mind.
“I love their round little asses,” he said, and I thought Oh, my God. “Round and so firm,” he added. It was as if he were taunting me with his confession. The sinister bastard was a child molester. The labs knew it and allowed him to get away with it so long as he kept his mouth shut about the report. The man was scum, a shittum as my police friends say. He’s a human who’s committed a heinous crime, and now I have to curry to him. I was no better than the creeps at the labs. At that moment, my mind was a terrible place to be.
“I want you to empty your wallet, business cards, credit cards. I don’t care about your cash. I want your I.D. Just lay it all out. I want to take a picture of it.” He took his phone from his jacket pocket. “Now pull down your boxers and hold your penis in your hand. Stare straight ahead.”
“Fuck me? I’ve already fucked you. Do it.” Now he pulled the hammer back on the gun, and he hissed “I love their doughy little asses. You should try some.”
He wanted an excuse to shoot me.
“Okay, okay,” I held up my hand.
“Pants and dick, and look at me. Show me how you feel,” he said. He took three photos as I dropped my drawers and took a grip. The flash on his phone felt like photo rape.
But my luck had not completely run out. My wallet held Joel Garratt’s information, not my own. My real I.D. and credentials were in the billfold of my Jacket, which was at my feet, with my boxers.
“Pull up your underwear and your shrunken dick, and take my phone,” he said. He took more photos as I did. Then he set the cell on the ground and slid it toward me with his foot. He seemed pretty spry for a drunk. “Take pictures of your I.D. and pass the phone back to me.”
He looked at me as he checked the photos I had taken. “Good work, Mr. Garratt. You’re a regular archivist. Get dressed.”
My hands felt like baseball gloves.
“Now I have something on you.” He was proud of himself. He had leverage. Maybe he thought he owned me, and now he could prove it. “Don’t pull any shit on me, you idiot.” He eased back the trigger and slid the stubby weapon into the front pocket of his slacks.
At that instant, tearing him apart would have been easy, easy. I was younger, taller, and I was pumped and pissed. The pristine air hurt my lungs.
As we continued our walk down the street, his voice grew loud, his tone pompous as if he were reprimanding a naughty child. His bombast subsided into a subdued but tense lecture. “The situation is more delicate than you can understand, Garratt.” He grew sober. “Consider this, there may be reason to believe that management is under military orders to hide the facts. So much for blowing the whistle.”
“You believe that?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
“It wouldn’t change anything either way. A lie doesn’t make the country safer.”
“Don’t be so sure. The labs have allowed the Marines to round up the usual suspects and the military’s delivered the wrath of God. That’s all the public asks for. Bomb the bastards. They want what they expect, no surprises. No nuance. Case closed.”
He walked along legs spread apart, shifting his weight from side to side. I thought of an elephant parading on its hind legs dressed in a baggy gray suit.
We turned onto a side street leading back toward Trinity Drive. He wanted to return to the pub for another drink, but I nixed it. I’d had enough of him for one night. But he wasn’t finished.
“We’re at war Garratt, and we’re killing a bunch of second-tier thugs in the name of revenge. So if you want to play Saint George, I’ll be happy to hand you the sword, the dagger, the whole suit of armor. But I warn you. This dragon is in it for the gold. I won’t be theatrical. I’ll let your imagination do its worst.” He took a long breath. “I don’t give a shit if you live or die. I don’t care if I ever never see you again. But if you was the dragon, I’ll show you where he lives with his whole family. I’ve got nothing to lose, except maybe you.” He laughed. Not a real laugh, but a poor imitation of a stage laugh, the sound of an auto trying again and again to kick over on an icy morning. “Game on?”
“I didn’t come here for the ocean view,” I told him.
“I know some women.”
“Don’t go there.”
He coughed twice and laughed “Three days. Sanbusco Market Center. Eight pm sharp.” As he walked past me he pointed. “North parking lot.
I waited twenty minutes in the north lot of the Sanbusco mall before a Latino girl, not more than 12 years old, midriff bare, wearing distressed capris and a red tube top, knocked on the back door of the car and handed me a slip of paper. She smiled, said nothing, and walked away slowly, as if she wanted me to watch her. The note was typed, and instructed me to drive to the Santa Fe Depot, a nearby arts and crafts center. I parked near the Manhattan Avenue entrance as instructed. The lot was empty and I waited. The only person who knew about this meeting was an old retread agent named Elvin Krongartten. I texted him a drop pin so he’d know my location, and hoped I hadn’t walked into a trap. I had my .45 in my lap, but I had no cover. There were easy shots all around my car in a 360-degree circle. I decided to rack the slide. No safety. Trigger cocked. Finger resting on the edge of the trigger guard, I squeezed the back strap, but not too hard. I whirled at the sound of a chunk of heavy metal rapping against my rear door on the driver’s side. I saw the barrel. I saw the man aiming it, but I could not easily twist around in my seat to defend myself.
“Open the fucking door, you idiot,” Grant said. Why the gun? I asked.
“You could be setting me up.”
I let down the trigger, but didn’t engage the safety. He opened the passenger door and sat down with his belly gun in hand.
“There’s a lot to be said for the virtues of mutual distrust,” I said.
“Ah,” he gasped. “It’s the manure of paranoia.”
“Yes,” he said. “I thought so myself.”
After that night, we started meeting regularly along the side trails of Bandelier National Monument. We communicated through “Second Life,” a virtual world. His handle there was LillyLove and his avatar was a pubescent 12-year-old girl dressed as a power slut. My handle was ReillyAce, my avatar was a playing card, a one-eyed Jack with a black heart. In this way, slowly and by blackmail, the Seven Dwarfs were recruited.
I hated meeting up with Tom Grant. It felt dirty. Worse, I felt guilty, but I did it. And I kept his sickening secret, and I would continue to keep it. I did what I had to do, the compromise called the-greater-good. Hello, Brothers Karamazov.
In any case, he had compromising photos of me.
Over the next month, Grant gave me leads to certain individuals at the lab whom I could cultivate, often using Grant’s name. I soon discovered many of them formed a discrete network of happy families, swingers, pansexuals, pederasts, pedophiles, and fetishists. Los Alamos seems so idyllic. I should have known. The town was full of security risks, which worked to my advantage. Grant’s friends were easily compromised; their security clearances became bargaining chips.
I learned – stunned, skull and shoulders snapped back, eyes dilating -- that the Washington bomb was not al Qaeda’s weapon. I learned, too, that the sneaking dagger crowd from Chechnya got duped into serving as delivery boys for their worst foe, the nasty resident of Novo-Ogaryovo in Moscow.
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