by Michael E. Lloyd
Chapter 5: Home Discomforts
Kristy Toresito had left Napa Valley early on the Friday morning, and returned to her spacious town house in Davis.
She had glanced briefly at the headlines of the morning papers, then quickly picked one up and studied two front-page articles properly:
FIREBALL OVER AMERICA: The fifty seconds-long meteor event replayed over and over on the nation’s TV screens yesterday was the visible effect of the intense heat generated by the ram pressure of a meteoroid or asteroid as it transited the Earth’s atmosphere.
Everybody, experts and their sophisticated Meteor Radars included, had then expected to see one or more large meteorites crossing the sky en route to the North American continent. If any of those bodies had been dangerously large, it is suspected that attempts might have been made to destroy them before they could reach the ground.
But nothing appeared. Tracking centers report seeing the regular ionisation trail of a meteor, but no debris and no meteoric dust — a considerable surprise. Most experts now seem to have concluded that the incoming meteoroid was composed mainly of ice and small stones, and was totally vaporised during its re-entry. Many are however still puzzled that their equipment gave no prior indication of the body’s approach ...
MILITARY ENCLOSES MOJAVE MINE: Police sources in the area of Clark Mountain announced yesterday evening that a small mine in the northern Mojave Desert had been closed earlier in the day, following a reported explosion. State troops have been called in to ensure the site remains secure while the matter is investigated.
Initial speculations on a link between this incident and the meteor which was seen much earlier that morning were rapidly scotched, when it was confirmed by several local citizens that the mine had already been evacuated as a precautionary measure more than an hour before the fireball appeared. There is no technology that can predict the potential paths of meteorites with any accuracy, and in this case nothing seems anyway to have survived the re-entry.
Well, that account was a little different from what she had seen on the “video”. But it was a neat way of keeping the scare level down. And she could now guess what had been behind that fireball.
She put the paper away and tried to get on with her life.
She toyed again, two or three times during the day, with the idea of ignoring Raymond’s “orders” on the subject of Brighter Vale and trying to do something to stop its inexorable break-up. But she repeatedly abandoned that quandary, in favour of dealing with her increasing backlog of constituency work (and all from home!) and with the much bigger political challenge that was constantly on her mind.
Lucia had, of course, been hovering around discreetly and invisibly ever since Raymond’s departure the previous day, although she had popped out, mid-morning, to attend the brief San Francisco team meeting, while Kristy remained safely occupied in the bathroom. And early in the afternoon Lucia had another little task of her own to complete. So she sidled still unseen up to her protégée, and embraced her in the briefing sphere. Quo was then able to gently instruct Kristy to remain locked and incommunicado inside her house for the next couple of hours — just in case Jennifer or Lawrence should do anything careless — while Lucia tripped quickly across to JFK to ensure, as promised, that Salvatore Pirone made it safely through departure controls and onto his plane home to Venice ...
Lucia was back again by four o’clock, and Quo was able to release their charge from that mild house arrest. But Kristy anyway had no plans or energy left to go out that evening. And by the time she fell exhausted into bed, very late on Friday night, she had lost any remaining will to fight with Raymond on the Brighter Vale issue, and she knew she would not be disturbing Steve and the guys in any way as they continued their bad-news mission with many of Hollywood’s soon-to-be-again-falling stars.
* * *
The next morning, Lawrence Veight hurried out to his car and hit the road, fifteen minutes behind schedule for the “crisis” meeting with his two fellow Representatives.
His packed diary had allowed him little time the previous day to consider what Jennifer had told him. In fact he’d almost forgotten about it until he’d overhead Friday evening’s local radio news: ‘Government sources are now reporting that the minor explosion was probably caused by a small sub-surface spontaneous combustion, which generated a column of mineral dust in the manner of a short-lived geyser spurt. There was negligible surface wind at the time, and the risk of ground or airborne contamination is said to be only very slight, but the mine will remain closed until further notice while safety experts conduct a thorough examination.’
He’d been briefly tempted to make some further discreet enquiries there and then, but had kept his promise and his silence.
There had been no change in that position in this morning’s papers. The activity at the mine didn’t seem to be generating much media interest at all, and that meteor (which might well be connected with it, he now thought, if Kristy’s story actually were true) had already become yesterday’s news. And there had been no private alerts about either item on any of his own secure communication channels. So it probably was just a simple natural explosion. Maybe his colleagues’ promised “evidence” would suggest something different — but he doubted it. Almost certainly a huge waste of three precious weekend hours ...
* * *
As Lawrence carefully listened, and Lucia and Quo observed unseen, Kristy went through it all again, and even more fully than she had with Jennifer.
At the start, their latest conscript pressed for a lot of extra detail on Kristy’s initially sketchy report of the Brighter Vale affair, and he did not then disguise his disgust at ‘ ... the whole sordid business, woman — what were you thinking of?’ But he could also see that this was not the main event, and he laid aside his judgement as she moved on to the bigger picture ...
He then stopped her frequently with questions as tough as any he had posed in countless debating chambers. But she was used to handling the opposition, particularly when she knew she had truth on her side. And he played fair with her.
His strongest challenge was reserved for her description of the virtual movie of the dramatic mineral extraction.
‘You mean those images just appeared there, on your back porch?’
‘Yes, Lawrence. They were images, of course, but no more or less real than any other movie on the screen. And I just know that what they showed me was real. And when I finally get to describe them to anyone who’s seen the actual results of that operation, they’ll know it was real, and they’ll know I’m telling it like it is!’
He indicated that she should move on. And then the actress deep inside saw the audition director before her, and knew it was time for the big and silent scene. She rose from her chair, strode triumphantly up to him, and thrust the single sheet of Doman proposals under his famous nose for the truth.
That nose was still working under strong prejudice, and Veight’s nostrils flared more angrily with every sentence he read. But he made a practised and determined effort to regain his composure before speaking again.
‘Well, Kristy, I still say it’s a hoax. An April Fools’ Day prank, exactly one month late. Look at it objectively. What do we have? Some guy — probably this Raymond character — gets wind of your little game with this “youth drug”. Does some digging, then sets you and your backers up for the biggest con trick since The Sting. Gets into bed with the mine manager, they rig up some sort of fireworks display, and he leaves a camcorder on remote to film it all. Then he runs off a copy, types this sacrilegious message, and hightails it into the Valley to give you the full treatment. I say we put our effort into finding the jerk and tearing him apart.’
‘But why should he do all that, Lawrence? It doesn’t make any sense! And anyway you’ve ignored all the inconvenient details that support my story and destroy your theory. How did Raymond project that hologram out of nowhere, when he was sitting right next to me with a cocktail in one hand and this sheet of paper in the other ...?’
Jennifer Pruston was less generous. ‘She’s right, Larry. You’re still letting your rigid beliefs get in the way of your compassion. If you truly believe what you just said, then I gave you far more credit than you deserve when I asked for your help!’
Veight was momentarily stunned into silence. But Kristy’s strength was now renewed.
‘Lawrence, I beg you: please sit and think it through again. Consider all the facts, properly. And consider us. We’ll leave you in peace for as long as you need, OK? Come on, Jen, help me with the coffee ...’
‘You don’t attend church, do you Kristy?’
‘Oh, Lawrence, please let’s not go there ...’
‘No, but I do!’ Jennifer interrupted. “And if that’s taught me one thing, Lawrence Veight, it’s humility.’
‘Very well. I have to admit I’m now completely torn on the whole business. I see and hear all your evidence, Kristy, and I still largely believe in your integrity — and yours too, of course, Jennifer. And I’m willing to run with the assumption that Raymond is what he claims to be and that he didn’t concoct that video show. But evidence is not proof. I’ll play ball while we try to get the corroboration Kristy needs. If someone who’s been to inspect the Mojave site can confirm a full match between her account and whatever they’ve found there, I’ll stay with you. If not, I’m going to get very angry, very fast.’
Jennifer had mollified. ‘But to get to that point of proof, Larry, you’re going to have to stick your own neck out and hold up the banner with us ...’
‘I know that. And I shall.’
The politician in Kristy pressed home her advantage. ‘So what do we think of the visitors’ proposals?’
‘I think it’s a good deal for everybody,’ said Jennifer quickly. ‘They have needs, we have needs, so we exchange our surpluses. Sounds like the idyll of world trade to me. And they’re paying fine prices!’
‘I agree. But that’s a very capitalist line for someone like you to take ...’
‘Oh Larry, you’re doing it again! Please just drop the moralising for half an hour and let’s try and get ourselves a group position on all of this!’
They had been round the houses several more times, and Veight was as satisfied as he was going to be, for now. He had agreed to represent the visitors’ proposition, and without trashing it behind their backs, unless and until something happened to change the present truths.
Kristy sighed with deep relief. ‘Thank you, Lawrence. I understand how hard this has been for you. I hope we won’t let you down.’
‘I’ve already realised I’m in a no-win situation here, ladies. I either wind up losing faith in two of my most respected friends, or I lose faith in something a lot bigger.’
An uncomfortable silence descended and lasted for a very long moment.
‘OK,’ said Jennifer eventually. ‘How do we play it now?’
‘I think we need to bring in the State Department. This has to come under the banner of Foreign Affairs, right? ... and it’s my guess they’ll already have taken over the mining site investigation, especially if they have any satellite video of what happened. Trouble is, their people will be even more sceptical than I am ...’
‘Then why go that way?’ said Kristy, suddenly very concerned.
‘Because we have to get the highest-level Intelligence guys on-side from the start. Don’t forget the Secretary is fourth in line of succession ...’
‘I’m really not happy with this idea, Lawrence.’
Jennifer Pruston’s antennae were again working better than the man’s.
‘Look, if we have to meet with State, why don’t we do it without Kristy, at first? She’s the precious resource here, and she’s obviously real nervous, aren’t you, girl? We should insist on keeping her incognito until they grant full immunity for both her and Raymond. And we’ll need to come up with codenames for both of them.’
‘Wait a minute — that’s not fair, Jen. Why should you and Lawrence take the risks of exposure, and not me ...?’
‘Because you’re the real witness, Kristy. We’re just the messengers. And because we’ll be standing beside each other all the way — right, Mr Veight?’
‘Of course, Jennifer. I won’t let you down, and we’ll have safety in numbers. And I think your idea of keeping Kristy away from probing eyes and minds is exactly right.’
‘OK, people, I give in. Thank you! So, the ball’s in your court now. Who’s going to be making the next move?’
‘Well, I guess I’ll volunteer,’ said Lawrence. ‘Because I think I know exactly whom we need to call ...’
Quo was reasonably comfortable with the prospect of Kristy’s reverting to her normal duties for the immediate future. No public suspicions about the woman had apparently been raised, either relating to her involvement in the Brighter Vale affair or to her surreptitious role as Envoy Extraordinary. She had played her crucial part in getting their proposals rolling, and Quo would anyway now prefer to move on to the close monitoring of Congressman Veight and whoever else might become a key player in the days leading up to the May 12 summit.
* * *
Lawrence Veight did a lot of thinking on his drive back around the city and out to the Heights. He was indeed quite certain of whom he needed to call, but he wanted time to work out what he really felt about it all, and precisely what he would have to say.
He continued that thinking not just for the rest of the day, but also before, during and after attending church the following Sunday morning.
Lucia and Quo, unseen but in his constant company, were growing ever more frustrated with this apparent inaction. But Quo knew that she must once again patiently bide her own time, and continue to let their opposite numbers in this game of diplomacy make the slow running all for themselves ...
After lunch, Lawrence finally braced himself and called his very high-level Foggy Bottom contact on the private and secure line he had used several times in the past. He knew the man well enough, and his real name, of course, but he found it hard to think of him as anything other than the official, randomly-generated initials “DF”. Most of the favoured few who knew both the man and his dull pseudonym enjoyed privately sharing the joke that it probably stood for “Deep Fraught”.
‘Bob, this is Lawrence Veight in Sacramento. May I speak discreetly with you?’
DF was not amused to be receiving a business call at home during a very pleasant, early-season, Washington Sunday garden party.
‘Hardly a good time, Lawrence.’
‘I apologise for that. But I have some very sensitive information which needs to be urgently communicated, and once again you are, in my view, the most appropriate person to receive it ...’
‘Then please be brief.’
DF listened with half an ear to the phone and the other half to the gossip buzzing all around him. He said nothing until Veight had finished his two-minute speech. The big picture, as far as he had then managed to glean it, was that extraterrestrials had apparently stolen that large piece of American soil and were now demanding a lot more, probably with menaces. Well, his insistence on State taking charge at the mine had certainly been the right decision. And now at least they had something more than that empty hole to go on. It all sounded crazy — but it was Lawrence Veight telling him, of all people! There had to be something in it for that zealot to allow the mere hint of “life elsewhere” to cross his lips ...
‘Thank you, Lawrence. Yes, I’ll keep it tight. And we’re already on-site. But I’ll send another man across tomorrow. He’ll contact you soon ...’
The line was secure enough, but Lucia had been huddling unseen next to Veight and patching his end of the call straight through to Quo, who was now resigned to another delay of at least a day, but pleased to observe that their latest ambassador had not betrayed his colleagues’ trust and had represented the facts and the Mater’s proposals with complete fidelity.
‘Harvey? Get ready to pack your bag. We just got a good lead on the Mojave case, from a very reliable source. Listen to this ...’
* * *
Lawrence Veight waited patiently throughout Monday. His phone finally rang as he sat in the slow-moving evening traffic. Lucia, riding invisible shotgun in the back seat, again listened carefully to his side of the conversation.
‘Mr Veight? This is Harvey Kuhler, INR. I’ve been told we should meet.’
‘Good afternoon, Mr Kuhler. Yes, I’ve been expecting your call for some time ...’
‘Well, I only made it across to the mine late this afternoon, and I’ve taken a quick look. But I’ll come back to that. First things first. This is some kind of political publicity stunt, right ...?’
‘Mr Kuhler, I’d like you to change your attitude very fast. Quite apart from the personal affront of that suggestion, I made it very clear to our mutual friend that I am speaking for Representatives from both parties.’
‘Ah ... that particular message didn’t make it through, sir ...’
Laurence Veight recalled the continuous buzz of conversation and popping of corks that had accompanied his pressured phone call to DF, and was not surprised.
‘Well, I trust that removes any doubt about our sincerity, Kuhler. So what are you proposing to do now?’
‘I believe you have a witness to what was done here, and a document admitting guilt.’
‘That is not an action plan, sir, and it is also an ill-informed understatement. Our knowledge of the situation is much fuller and more substantial than a simple witness statement, and the communiqué we hold goes a good deal further than just confirming responsibility.’
‘OK. Well, between you and me, Congressman, it’s still a mystery to all the experts we’ve pulled in. I don’t buy any of this extraterrestrial nonsense, but we need more than we’re likely to get here. I’m driving on down to LA now, for a couple other meetings in the morning, and then I’ll fly up to Sacramento. What time can you make?’
‘We all have busy diaries, Mr Kuhler. Five o’clock will be appropriate. I’ll give you directions to my District Office ...’
‘I have that information already, sir.’
‘Of course. And Mr Kuhler — I trust you were encouraged to keep this particular aspect of the affair extremely confidential ...’
‘Yes, sir. We all have plenty of reasons for that. My own reputation’s enough for me. I don’t talk about crazy stuff like this till I have real material in my own hands. No-one back east knows about it yet, apart from DF, and nor does anyone here at the mine, not even the SitMan ...’
The call was over, and Quo was astonished and dismayed to note yet another twenty-four hour delay.
‘Jennifer, it’s Larry. Five o’clock tomorrow, my office, OK? And it’s going to be hard work. Can you do a little research into a Mr Harvey Kuhler ...?’
‘Kristy? Lawrence Veight here. Everything all right?’ ... ‘Yes, I do understand. It’s often much harder not to be doing anything with a problem. Just try to carry on as normal, and don’t let anyone see what you’re really thinking, OK?’ ... ‘Good. Now, things are moving at last. The next meeting’s scheduled for tomorrow. But I won’t tell you where or when, for your own security. And I’ll keep you posted.’
To be continued ...
Copyright © 2008 by Michael E. Lloyd