Monday, June 24, 2013

Work in Progress: Chapter 1 of 'In the Dragon's Lair'

The following first chapter from In the Dragon's Lair is part of a work that will be a sequel to The White Dragons. It picks up where the first book left off.

(Begin Excerpt)

Chapter One
Tuesday, June 24, 1975, Dagastan, Central Asia

A month had passed since the overthrow of Dimitri Kovasc, First Secretary of the Dagastan Communist Party and head of state, and his replacement by Milosevic Dragov, the deputy head of Dagastan’s security services. Merely a month since the chaotic events leading to the death of American ambassador Robert Ellingsworth, and David Morgan, Ellingsworth’s deputy chief of mission (DCM); the number two man in the embassy, was still charge d’affaires, a.i., an archaic French diplomatic term that essentially meant, the one in temporary charge of the embassy’s affairs until a suitable replacement could be found.
     Morgan didn’t find the delay in naming a new ambassador all that strange, as unsettling as it was to him personally. Washington had been caught sleeping by the rapid pace of events in Dagastan, and the system, slow at the best of times, had yet to find someone, prepare his nomination packet, and submit it to the U.S. Senate for the confirmation process, a process that could, depending on the individual, and the mood of Congress at the time, take months.
     It had been six months between the time Morgan’s first ambassador, Eloise Tarkington, departed Dagastan and Ellingsworth had arrived, despite his name having been put into the hat a full year before her planned departure. During that six month stint in charge, Morgan hadn’t made any significant changes in the way the embassy operated because Tarkington had been a people-oriented leader who always took into account the way her actions affected others. Despite his not putting his own personal stamp on the place during his time as boss, Morgan suspected that Ellingsworth had resented him just for being in charge. Challenging some of the man’s more egregious traits, as Morgan had done on one or two occasions, had only made matters worse.
     The deterioration of their relationship culminated in the unfortunate incident when Ellingsworth had invited Morgan to a late-night meeting in a seedy part of Dagastan’s capital city, Kazbektun, where they’d been ambushed, and Ellingsworth had been killed by a stray bullet. Morgan couldn’t prove anything, but he and the embassy Regional Security Officer (RSO) Pete Jeffers had been convinced that Ellingsworth had arranged the ambush to get rid of them because they were too close to discovering what he’d been up to in his secretive meetings with Milosevic Dragov, former deputy head of Dagastan’s security services, and now the country’s leader after he’d led a coup that deposed his former boss, Dmitri Kovasc, the former First Secretary of the Central Committee of Dagastan’s Communist Party.
     Morgan hadn’t communicated his suspicions to Washington, and he’d convinced Jeffers to hold off as well. In the first place, they had no proof. Secondly, he didn’t want to smear the name of a Foreign Service colleague without absolute proof of his guilt.
     Unlike his first time at the helm, this time, Morgan had made some immediate changes. For starters, his weekly country team meetings, now held every Monday morning at eight sharp, started on time, because he didn’t keep people waiting. He also sat at the chair nearest the door, rather than parading the length of the room as Ellingsworth had done; nor did he insist that everyone stand when he entered the room. More often than not, he’d already be in the conference room waiting for the staff when they arrived.  He also now included the RSO in all country team meetings, and from time to time, had one of the junior officers from other sections or agencies attend the meetings to act as a note taker. He felt that this was a valuable way to make them feel like an important of the mission’s operations, and gave them a sense of what it would be like as they advanced in grade in the service.
     He’d designated the political counselor, Dennis Larson, the acting DCM. Larson had moved his number two, a young grade three officer named Joseph Moon, up to be interim head of the political section.
     Country team meetings were now livelier; not rowdy, but people no longer felt constrained as they had under Ellingsworth’s dictatorial hand. Morgan let the heads of section speak first, only interjecting to ask questions if he didn’t fully understand something, and said very little at the end beyond brief instructions for the coming week, or synopses of news he’d heard from Washington through his private channels.
     The mood in the embassy was definitely better. So, why, David Morgan wondered, as he sat alone in his dining room picking at the watery fried eggs, undercooked hash browns, and almost burned beyond recognition toast that his cook had placed in front of him, was he worried? He worried so much he had trouble falling asleep at night, waking up in the morning feeling like someone had stuck bits of sandpaper to his eyeballs, with a dry throat, and the beginning of an ache somewhere between his chest and his stomach – he could never tell which.
     Part of it, he knew, was the uncertainty of Dagastan’s political situation. Dragov’s people had moved quickly to take control of most of what passed for strategic points in the poor, landlocked country; the broadcast stations, the main military bases, and of course, the national bank. There’d been a total clamp down on information during the first three days. Embassy officials were hearing unsubstantiated rumors of certain ‘enemies’ of the new regime meeting untimely ends in basement cells or in remote villages to which foreigners were seldom welcome. Morgan had sought a meeting with Milosevic immediately after the coup, but hadn’t learned anything that helped him predict in which direction the country would eventually go.
     He did discover that winning Milosevic to the U.S. side, and somewhat away from the Soviet orbit in which the country had been since before World War II, had been the excuse Ellingsworth had used for his highly irregular clandestine meetings with the man. Whatever he’d achieved, unfortunately, had died with him. Milosevic wasn’t opening up to Morgan or anyone else in the American embassy.
     At first, Washington’s silence was deafening. No one in the embassy could understand why they weren’t being bombarded with queries from the various offices, bureaus, and agencies in the capital that all think themselves primus inter pares when it comes to where they stand in line to get their inane queries responded to. It didn’t take Morgan long, however, to understand.
     Just fifty-five days earlier, the last helicopter had lifted off from the embassy grounds in Saigon, ending the American presence in that country. Saigon’s surrender to North Vietnamese forces that poured unopposed into the city had sent shock waves through official Washington. Even those members of Congress who had voted for cutting off funds for prosecuting the war were among those looking for someone to blame for its loss. That event alone, he knew, would have had the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department pretty busy. But, it wasn’t the only crisis or semi-crisis affecting a city that produced nothing really useful, just reams of laws, regulations and policies that people in the field had to try and make sense of. In mid-April, the Soviets had helped the Indians launch their first satellite, which had gotten the Pakistanis all spun up, and since Pakistan was Washington’s main ally in that region, that was probably occupying dozens of analysts and desk officers. Domestically, the city was still reeling from the Watergate scandal. Several senior members of the Nixon administration had been convicted of a number of crimes, including a stupidly conducted break-in of the Democratic Party offices in the Watergate tower three years earlier. Nixon had himself resigned as president on August 9, 1974, putting his vice president, Gerald Ford in office to serve out the remainder of his two and a half year term. In its two hundred year history, with the Teapot Dome Scandal and all the other misbehavior the country had seen in its politicians, Tricky Dick became the first president in American history to resign from office.
     No, Morgan knew; it would take something cataclysmic to refocus Washington’s attention on a fourth-rate country in a third-rate part of the world; a country that didn’t even have nuclear weapons.
     He was still worrying, and kicking himself for it, during the ride from his residence, on a hill in a rather nice part of town – that is, if any part of a town dug out of the reddish brown loess of a plain that grew stunted corn and shaggy sheep could be called nice. At least, it didn’t have the mud shanties occupied by rural peasants come to the city seeking their fortune only to find that, not only was there no fortune, but they were without the means to return to the countryside, that took up so much space in other parts of Kazbektun. His driver, who had taken a defensive driving course run by the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service, prided himself on varying his route every day, but always apologized profusely whenever the route took Morgan through areas of transients.
     “Am sorry, boss,” he would say. “Is too many peoples like this come to city now.”
     Every time he did it, Morgan would wave it off. He’d served in enough third world countries to no longer be affected by such sights.
     Achmed pulled him up to his usual place, at the front entrance of the embassy, where he got out and went through the front door like all the other employees, and every visitor, through security and past Post One, where a Marine resplendent in his dress uniform saluted him and said a cheery, “Morning, sir.” He always returned the salute. There was a special entrance in the back of the embassy that he could use, but he preferred letting people see him come to work.
     He was just about to take the stairs to his office when he noticed Laura Pettigrew rush out to the front entry area, look around, shake her head, and return to the consular section, which was to the right of the main entrance foyer. She had a harried look on her face. His curiosity aroused, Morgan decided to pay a visit to the consular section before going to his office, where there would be nothing more interesting than the boring stack of overnight cables.
     When he entered the section through the door reserved for employees, he saw Pettigrew, her round face red, and her feathery brown hair looking ruffled, talking to one of the four junior officers assigned to her section. Her normal doleful look was, today, one of frustration. As Morgan approached, she pointed toward the bank of windows where the other three vice consuls were busy interviewing visa applicants, and the harried looking young man rushed off to the nearest vacant window. She turned to Morgan.
     “Morning, boss,” she said. “To what do we owe the honor of your presence so early this fine morning?”
     Morgan chuckled. Pettigrew’s soulful brown eyes were always moist, as if she was about to cry at any instant; but, he knew that she was as tough as a Samurai’s blade and as dangerous to tangle with as barbed wire. If she was harried, something was amiss.
     “Just saw you rushing around like the proverbial headless chicken,” he said. “So, I thought I’d drop in and see what’s tough enough to flummox the unflummoxable Laura Pettigrew.”
     Her eyes went wide at the word ‘unflummoxable,’ which he’d just made up on the spot.
     “Uh, yeah . . . well, if you look at the waiting room, you’ll see what’s flummoxing me. We have nearly twice our normal number of visa applicants today. Calvin, there was interviewing at his usual pace; about as fast as a beached whale; so I had to give him a little verbal stimulation to get him to move ‘em through faster.”
     “What’s causing such an upsurge in applications?”
     She drew herself up to her full height, which was an inch short of Morgan’s height, but the bulk of her body made her seem taller. An exasperated look creased her face.
     “I’ve been kind of busy just trying to clear the waiting room and process them all,” she said. “Of course, if you really must know, I’ll have the officers ask. You know, one other thing that’s strange; we have a lot more business people applying than usual too. I can’t imagine what a business in the states is attracting so many Dagastani businessmen right now.”
     “That is strange,” Morgan said. “Look, don’t let it get in the way of getting the interviews done, but if you can let me know by the end of the day what’s causing the rush, I’d appreciate it.”
     “Will do. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’d better pitch in and help with the interviews, or we’ll be here until midnight.”
     Morgan recognized the tactful – bordering on blunt – dismissal. He smiled and turned on his heel, heading back to the stairwell and his office.
     When he entered the executive suite, the first thing he saw was the empty desk where the ambassador’s secretary normally sat. Vera Cotton, the Dragon Lady, who had been Ellingsworth’s secretary, had packed and departed for the United States two days after his body was sent back under a ceremonial escort consisting of four of the marines from the security guard detachment and Montgomery Cornelius, the embassy’s administrative officer. The door to the ambassador’s office, which her desk effectively blocked, was closed. Morgan had had both her desk and the office thoroughly cleaned of personal effects, and checked by Pete Jeffers, the regional security officer (RSO) for any classified or sensitive material.
     His secretary, the diminutive, but utterly efficient, Mary Sung, sat at her usual desk. Morgan had decided against moving to the ambassador’s office. On the one hand, he didn’t want the hassle of moving his gear, and on the other, when a new ambassador was selected, he didn’t want the man or woman to arrive and having to move back to his office. Besides, he thought, he didn’t need to get off on the wrong foot with the new boss.
     Sung looked up as he approached, smiling slightly.
     “Morning, Dave,” she said. “You have visitors.”
     It was then that he noticed the three men sitting on the chairs just outside the door to his office. Dennis Larson, his acting DCM, recently-promoted Colonel Patrick Duggan, the Defense Attaché, and Pete Jeffers, the RSO, sat on the edge of the chairs, their faces a study in collective concern.

     Shit, Morgan thought, looks like my day is going to go from boringly bad to immeasurably worse. “Okay, guys, let’s go into my office.”