Passing through his secretary’s office that was located outside of his, McArizzry picked a couple of peppermints from the crystal dish on the desk. Removing the wrapper, he popped one in his mouth, chucking the clear wrapper in the trashcan under Gina’s desk. “Get Trula Bowman on the phone and send to my secure phone.”
“Yes, sir. She’ll ask what it is in regards,” Gina said, calling up from the White House messaging system, the Baltimore Maryland cell number for Billy and Angeline’s spinster aunt. “She always does. You know how she hates to take time out from her reading.”
McArizzry knew quite well. Getting time with the wizened spindly seventy year old was harder than finding free time in President Early’s schedule, which was practically non-existent. Trula Bowman was on a quest to read all of the books on the infamous “1001 Books to Read Before You Die” list. He, like Josh Fannin, the NSA chief, had been introduced to Billy and Angeline’s aunt while attending college with Billy. He had maintained as close of a contact as he could with Trula, not only to keep tabs on Billy, but because he liked her sharp mind, and when it was not directed at him, her peppery, often barbed wit. He could not say the same for Josh, who was often the subject of her criticisms.
He considered what Gina could tell Trula that would not alert the NSA and every other intelligence agency that listened to and recorded the calls made on non-secure phones. No one should realize that the call was anything other friendly, checking up on her, saying hello, often from his non-secure office phone. This included President Early, not if McArizzry wanted to stay the chief of staff. What he was about to do was called traitorous, though McArizzry saw it as self-preservation, and more importantly preservation of his mentor, President Early. Involving ESS was wrong, plain wrong. He had counseled the president not to give into the whims of Darnell’s widow and her ilk. The president at his disposal all of the necessary resources to investigate Darnell and Handel’s deaths. What could ESS, a private mid-size company do that seven investigative and intelligence agencies could not? The president had rejected his advice, and sided with Darnell’s widow. But, it was more than that.
President Early had been the genesis for the Darnell-Handel Initiative (DHI). Among its first goals was to stomp out North Korea and reunite it with South Korea. Now this was not in of itself wrong, but the motivation behind it was what had kept McArizzry up at night. Early’s crusade was eerily similar to a far fetched earlier plan that had been aimed at the former Soviet Union by Early’s predecessor. Early like many others maintained that the splitting of Western Europe into East and West, and thus empowering Russia was inviting evil to dine at their table. The two presidents shared another common thing–a charismatic ability of persuasion. Darnell and Handel had been convinced to help. Handel he had expected. A right wing nut. Darnell? An apolitical novelist who liked to write thrillers. Now they were dead. Then, there was the brass box. A decorative item for a shelf. Nothing more. A little brass box manufactured in Philadelphia in 1867. How could it trigger all of this?
He popped the second peppermint in his mouth and picked two more. Originally used for transporting opium, the box had been passed from hand to hand until it had almost been sold as a part of a huge lot of miscellany at an estate sale of Billy and Angeline’s mother’s house, after her death. As the story had been told to him, Trula had snatched up the box, intending to give it to Angeline because of her niece’s love of all things Asian. That had never happened. Shortly thereafter, Trula’s 55-over apartment had been burgled and ransacked. The box had been the only thing taken.
“Tell her that Margaret bought a cat pin; she gave it to me. Trula will like it,” McArizzry said, seeing Gina’s raised bright, red Irish eyebrows. “Just tell her…as if it was just any old piece of news.” Margaret was his daughter and she had bought a gold-leaf pin of a cat, though she had not given to him, knowing how he detested cats. It was one of many things he had in common with the spinster. The eavesdroppers knew about his aversion to cats, but he suspected they did not know about Trula’s. He was confident that Trula would understand the reference and not give away her own hatred of the sneaky solitary critters.
Josh Fannin’s phone buzzed, though on silent, so it could not be heard. If it were a text or an email, the buzzing would stop after a few seconds. The buzzing continued, indicating an urgent call. He stopped the Marine as he got to the door. “Hold off for a few minutes.” His expression gave away nothing as he felt Billy’s scrutiny. Like any other time, he gestured to his throat. “Need to get something for this…dry throat.”
In the hallway, Josh answered the call.
“McArizzry requesting a call to Trula Bowman. Something about a cat,” the deputy said, reading from a transcript on his computer.
“A cat? McArizzy can’t stand them. What—”
“Call disconnected…no transferred…to the secure phone in his office…something’s wrong,” the deputy said.
Josh heard the uncertainty and then the disgust in his deputy’s voice. “McArrizzy’s got the music up loud, I bet. Check the camera at Gina’s desk. She’s not there.” If there was one thing that was predictable, it was Gina and her distaste for the dissonance in Russian classical music. The two years they had dated, she had complained loudly about her boss’ habit of writing to “that damn noise.”
A minute later, the deputy came back. “Right. I’ll get a-v to start filtering.”
“Tim, talk fast. Got to get back to that Park Avenue apartment and Sherman McKoy,” Trula said, fingering the cover of the large print paperback of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities that lay in her lap. “Tinkle break done; need to read.” Gina’s call had come at a restroom break and she had benefited from that.
Despite not being in the same room and being over thirty-nine miles away, McArizzry’s face reddened at the mention of one of the most intimate needs of the spinster.
“A golden cat eating grass, perhaps?” Trula asked. When she did not get a response, she smarted. “You should be accustomed to my slips of the tongue. Out with it, and what is all that racket?”
The racket was two televisions, a recorded concert streaming from his computer, and another one his smart phone, all playing different Russian concertos, at a deafening level. For good measure he had turned on an electric fan under his desk. Knowing that his secure phone was not secure–nothing really was with the NSA–he had decided to make it hard as possible on the spy agency to listen in and decipher the message. Ultimately, they would by background noise, leaving only the conversation. A trumpet crescendo sounded from the laptop. “It’s like the one you saw at Jergen’s three years ago.” He heard clapping, the small patty-cake kind and then Trula exclaim.
McArizzry sat back. Trula’s reference to this week told him she recognized the urgent nature of his call and that she had been viewing the latest news on the situation involving North Korea. She was not a fan of President Early–now. That had changed about the time she had moved to Baltimore. “Too many crazies in that circle of his, Tim. Get them out of there.”
As to Jergen’s, she probably had never been to Jergen’s, probably did not know where the jewelry shop was in D.C.’s Pentagon City was located. It was not because Trula was unfamiliar with Washington. She had visited it a number of times with Billy and Angeline checking out senior homes. It was the name of the district that had kept her out it. Anything that started with penta scared her.
“Dragons and cats live there,” Billy had said, explaining his aunt’s morbid fear.
“The president has a state dinner coming up next week so I can’t get away. I would have Margaret but Georgetown’s back in session…” McArizzry said, his voice falling off, leaving Trula the opportunity, as he knew she would, to finish his thought. Margaret was a senior at Georgetown University and it was true school was back in after a brief break.
“Get it to Billy. He and Angeline owes me a visit. It’s about time they took me back to the bookstore,” Trula said, picking up the book in her lap. “I’ve been meaning to get Angeline to explain some of the passages in Memoirs of a Geisha.”
Five minutes later, Billy’s phone rang. He collected it off the desk beside the Marine and checked the caller id. Aunt Tula. “Hello Aunt Tula!”
Since he was four, when he was unable to sound the r in her name, he had called his aunt, Tula. A warm smile lit his face and his eyes shown with happiness. Of all his father’s brothers’ wives, he loved her best. Instead of the distant, reproachful aunt like his other three, she had been actively involved herself in his childhood. Her involvement had never wavered. She had attended every soccer game, tennis match, and debate tournament. It had been the same with Angeline, except that his twin sister’s interests had run to gymnastics, track, and the private school’s literary society. Almost every morning, she had been in the limo that had taken them in the mornings to and picked them up in the afternoon from Georgetown Academics. Their own father could not compete with the attention she lavished on them, but it was not all fun and games. She demanded their best. “After all, you have Hamill and Boleyn blood in you!”
“Billy! When are you coming to see me?” Aunt Trula yelled into the phone. Billy held the phone out from his ear as Coke’s phone began to ring.”More books. Put Angeline on, too.”
“She’s in Thailand, aunt,” Billy said, grinning at Coke’s chuckling at hearing Aunt Trula’s voice. “How about tomorrow night? Coke’s with me. We’re in town.” Billy glanced over at Coke to confirm that Coke had not made other arrangements, observing that Coke was no longer laughing, his expression dour. Coke had attended public school, his father a welder while his mother was a receptionist at a law firm in town. They had met on the soccer field and had become fast friends. Then, Angeline had fallen for Coke, who had his share of girlfriends. Aunt Trula had accepted Coke into her circle, going so far as to accept a dinner invitation from Coke’s parents. “Best ribs in town!”
“Oh, shoot! Bring Coke along too. He’s overdo for some of my homemade remedy,” Aunt Trula said, speaking of the concoction of White Merlot, chardonnay, and moscato wines she mixed by hand, adding some hunch punch she kept in the pantry. “When’s Angel coming back into—“
“Aunt, can you hold on for a minute?” Billy asked. Not waiting for an answer, he hit the mute button and took the phone Coke was proffering. “Angeline?” He waved Josh off with a curt nod, and sat down in the chair. Angeline was nearly in tears; she was hyperventilating. “Calm down, Angel.” He used the nickname Aunt Trula had given his twin sister. She had not been this upset after the attack. “What’s wrong?”
“Youuuu….youuuu….you…seen the video?” Angeline asked.
A slam then a clicking noise sounded over the low hum he heard over the phone. Billy leaned over to his right to get away from the noise from the opening of the door to the situation room. She must have meant the feed that they had been about to view before the sudden break called by Josh. Otherwise, Angeline would have not referenced any particular one. “Put the computer up, Angel. Listen to me. Okay?”
“It’s…it…on the…the… desk, closed,” Angeline said, her voice steadily improving. She shoved the laptop to the far back corner, wiping her eyes with a burgundy cloth napkin. “It was awful! Worse than any Stephen King could have ever devised.”
Billy and Coke looked at each other. All three of them had read every horror novel Stephen King had written, though Angeline would only read them in the daytime. For a video to unnerve Angeline this much it had to be bad or she’s still upset from the attack. “Aunt Trula wants to see you. Coke and I can delay our return flight, go back to Elko, Thursday, give you time to get in town and—“
“I’m on my way now. Caught a first class suite…be…be in town tomorrow afternoon, if the storm doesn’t sock us in,” Angeline said, as the plane rose above the choppy dark air. “Renee won’t like it though.”
“Why?” Coke asked, as Billy held the phone between them.
“I’m supposed to talk to Jackie…about the group, convince her,” Angeline said, pointing to two items on the dinner menu.
Billy waited until the stewardess left. He jumped, feeling a hard shove to his left shoulder. Glancing up, his scowl returned, seeing Josh impatiently motioning toward the door. He mouthed, “No! Wait a fucking minute!”
“Billy? Coke? I suppose I can call Renee….”
“Sorry, Angel,” Billy said, turning away again. “I’ll explain to Renee.”
“We have to go Angeline,” Coke said, as the shadow of the Marine started over the two of them. “You okay?”
As Angeline said she was, Billy added, “We’ll go visit Aunt Tula and then you can help her out with Memoirs of a Geisha…some passages or something while getting sauced on the remedy.”
As the stewardess set down her second drink, Angeline thought about Billy’s last remark. Aunt Trula had read Memoirs of a Geisha over two years ago. Last summer, she had visited their aunt and over the course of a weekend, and a lot of remedy, they had gone over the book in painstaking detail. So what did Billy mean?