Sunday, May 4, 2014

WIP: Chapter 2 of 'Dragonslayer'

June 21-22, 1978, Francis Scott Key Hotel and Africa Bureau,
Department of State, Washington, DC

     Morgan took a taxi straight from the Dirksen Senate Office Building to the Francis Scott Key Hotel on Twentieth Street, not far from the Department of State building.
     Before entering the hotel, he walked down to a small liquor store near E Street and Twenty-First Avenue and bought a half-pint bottle of vodka and a large bottle of lime juice. Back in this room, he looked at his watch. It was 3:50 in the afternoon. He’d eaten a light lunch before the hearing, and it was far too early for supper, even though his stomach felt empty. He knew it wasn't wise to drink on an empty stomach, but the tension of the hearing needed relief.
     In his room, he took off his jacket, tie, and shirt, and kicked off his shoes. He then poured a third of a glass of vodka and filled it the rest of the way with the lime juice. He took down half the glass in the first swallow. The bite of the vodka and the slight bittersweet taste of the lime juice felt warm sliding down his throat.
     After emptying the glass, he decided the vodka concoction would be better with ice, so, a bit unsteady on his feet he padded outside and down the hall to the ice machine in the alcove near the stairs and filled the room’s ice bucket. Returning to the room, he made another, going a bit easier on the vodka. He might as well have skipped that part of the ritual. After four of the even weakened drinks, his tension daze had been replaced by a warm haze – the earlier episode at the hearing just a fuzzy thought in his mind. Deep in the rearmost recesses of his brain was a voice telling him he should get up, get dressed and go out for supper. That voice, though, eventually faded.
     He woke up the next morning at 5:30, lying on top of the bed spread, still in his pants and undershirt, with a mouth that felt like it was filled with cotton wool and the feeling of a ten-piece orchestra playing in his skull.
     Cursing himself for his over indulgence, he eased out of bed, disrobed, and limped to the tiny shower stall. He stood under the nozzle, and turned it on full force, and as cold as possible, shivering as the needles of water pummeled his aching head. When his headache had subsided to a manageable level, he turned the hot water handle until it was just short of scalding, and scrubbed until he tingled all over. Finally, feeling half alive, he got out and toweled off. After relieving himself, he brushed his teeth, rinsing twice with the astringent mouthwash in the tiny plastic bottle on the sink, and then carefully shaved off the morning stubble, nicking himself twice in the process.
     He pulled on his gray pants and tucked a light blue shirt into them, and then fumbled several times knotting his best red tie. When the tie was finally firmly seated around his neck – a bit too tight, but he decided that he deserved to suffer after so foolishly getting so drunk, so he just flexed his neck muscles until it no longer felt like he was being garroted. He then put on his black jacket and went downstairs to the hotel dining room for breakfast.
     His stomach almost rebelled at the greasy smell of the limp, undercooked bacon on the buffet line, but he knew he’d need to get something solid into his stomach or he’d get sick by mid-morning. He put two slices of the bacon on the plate, adding two biscuits, a small pile of hash brown potatoes, and scrambled eggs. On the way to an empty table in the corner, he grabbed a bottle of Tabasco sauce.
     Sitting at the table, ignoring the scattering of other diners, he poured a third of the spicy sauce over the eggs. The first few bites almost didn’t stay down, but as he ate, his stomach began to settle. By the time he’d finished, washing it down with two cups of hot, black coffee, he almost felt human again.
     He debated going back to his room, but decided he might as well face the day. It was 7:45 when he emerged from the hotel, and the weather was already warm and humid, signaling a hot July to come. He walked south on Twentieth Street toward E Street, and then west to Twenty-First. A block south he turned west onto D Street to the employee entrance of Main State, joining a line of employees entering past the guard who eyed each individual’s entry badge. Inside the D Street lobby, he turned toward the left and took the elevator up to the fifth floor, emerging in corridor 9. He then walked over to corridor 5 and walked the width of the building toward the front and corridor 1 where the Naganda country directorate and desk officers were located.
     The Naganda desk officer, a young FS-04 on his third tour, his first in Washington, was waiting for him in the reception area. Morgan had to search his memory for the young man’s name, thanks to the effects of half a bottle of vodka, but it finally came – Gregory Wells. A native of Kentucky, Wells had served two years in the Peace Corps before joining the Foreign Service, so he was somewhat older than most of the other desk officers who had joined right out of college. He stood when Morgan entered.
     “Mr. Ambassador,” he said in a soft southern accent. “I hope you had a good night’s rest.”
     “If you only knew,” Morgan thought, but he simply smiled, nodded, and said, “Yes, I did. What’s on my agenda for the morning?”
     Wells motioned toward a tiny cubicle of an office behind the secretary’s desk that had been set aside for Morgan’s use while he was preparing for his confirmation hearings. “I have a schedule for you on your desk. Would you like a cup of coffee before we get started?”
     “No, I’ve had my quota for the day,” Morgan said, shaking his head. “Let’s get to it.”
     Wells stepped aside to allow Morgan to enter the office first. When Morgan had settled himself behind the gray, government-issue desk, Wells sat in the stiff back chair in front of it. He reached over and picked up a single sheet of paper.
     “I've kept your schedule light today to give you a chance to fully decompress after yesterday’s hearing. The main items are the selection of your secretary and DCM.”
     Morgan knew he wanted as his personal secretary – Mary Sung, his secretary when he was deputy chief of mission in Dagastan. He’d been given a list of three candidates to be his DCM, or deputy chief of mission. There were two men and a woman. He’d interviewed all three, and while all were imminently qualified, he was wavering between two, a senior political officer who had served in Kenya and Nigeria, and the woman, a consular officer who had not only served in Rhodesia, Guinea, and Madagascar, but in Colombia and Thailand, and a tour in the Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. Ed Harris, the country director, had been pushing him to select the political officer, but the woman, a Kansan named Susan Pinchon, had impressed him during the interview with her poise and calm demeanor. The political officer, a New Yorker who had graduated from Fletcher School of Diplomacy, while qualified, had struck him as a bit too stiff and formal – and, a bit full of himself. He knew that his choice wouldn't go over well in the directorate, but as ambassador, it was his decision - and his alone - to make.
     “I've decided that I want Mary Sung as my secretary,” he said. “She’s currently working in Personnel. I've spoken to her, and she’s willing to take the job. If possible, I’d like her to arrive at post at the same time as I do, or as close as possible.”
     “That won’t be a problem, sir,” Wells said. “I’ll get the paperwork started this morning. In fact, it might even be a good idea if she gets there before you do. She can help prepare for your arrival.”
     Morgan liked the young desk officer. He had a knack of seeing what needed to be done, and wasn’t shy about making suggestions. Happily, he was newly assigned to a two-year tour, so Morgan would have him backstopping the embassy for most of his own tour.
     “Good idea, make it so. Now, the DCM – I think I want Pinchon. She really impressed me during the interview, and I think she and I can work well together.”
     Wells frowned, but nodded. “Very well, sir . . . I, uh, well, there’s been something of a hitch regarding the deputy position.”
     Something was troubling Wells. Morgan felt a flash of anger – not at the desk officer, but, if someone else in the directorate was trying to undercut him on this issue, there would be hell to pay.
     “Don’t tell me there’s a problem with her being assigned?”
     “No, sir, not at all – uh, well, as you know, the country director and the DAS Symington preferred Wilmington, but they both recognize that this is your choice to make. No, it’s the current deputy. He’s asking to have his tour curtailed immediately, so your new deputy will have to report for duty shortly after your own arrival. Having the number one and two positions changing at the same time could prove a little unsettling for the embassy staff.”
     Morgan had a hunch that he knew why the current deputy had asked for a reassignment, and if it was accurate, it was just as well. The relationship between an ambassador and a deputy chief of mission has to be based on trust and mutual respect. He didn't want, though, to bother Wells with his speculation. “We’ll just have to deal with it,” he said. “I’ve faced similar situations when I was in the army, when the top leadership of my unit changed en masse. With a little effort, we can make it work. Get in touch with Pinchon and let her know she’ll have to move her travel plans to the front burner.”
     Wells smiled. “Will do, sir. Anything else?”
     “Yes, get in touch with Lee Kennedy in DSS, and Alison Chambers in INR. I want to talk to them. Oh, and, if possible, I’d like to talk to both of them at the same time.”
     “Of course,” Wells said. “May I ask why? Just in case they ask.”
     “Not now. They’re old friends, so if you tell them I want to talk to them about something important, they won’t ask questions. I’d like to talk to them first before I tell you what it’s about. It’s a sensitive matter, you understand. It’ll all be clear when the time comes.”
     The nice thing about being an ambassador, more accurately in Morgan’s case, an ambassador-designate, was that junior ranks were conditioned to do what you asked, and if you chose not to explain why, to salute and execute. In some ways it was like the military – without the discipline and military bearing. Morgan mentally cautioned himself not to begin taking it all too seriously.
     “Yes, sir,” Wells said. “I'll see if they're available this morning.”
     He put the single sheet neatly back in the center of the otherwise empty desk and left.
     Morgan sat back in the chair, looking up at the low ceiling of the cramped little office. He wanted very much to go back to his hotel room and crawl under the sheet for ten or twelve hours. Even though his headache was gone, his mouth still felt dry and his eyeballs itched. He could, he knew, just close his eyes and take a nap here in his little temporary private office, but sleeping at his place of work was something he found it uncomfortable to even think about. He fought the urge to close his eyes, by blinking rapidly until the items in the room had a blurry haze surrounding them.
     He didn't notice the door opening at first, and when he did he was startled to see the broad-shouldered, dark figure of Carlton Raine standing there, framed by the lights in the reception area. He hadn’t seen the CIA agent since leaving Dagastan.
     “Man,” Raine said. “You look like something the dog drug in. Did you tie one on yesterday after your hearing?”
     Morgan stood and, smiling, extended a hand, which Raine grasped firmly. He was glad to see the man who had saved his life when he and his security officer were ambushed in Dagastan.
     “More like one tied me on,” he said. “I forgot to count drinks – and, because of that I forgot to eat.”
     Raine made a face. “Eew! Booze on an empty stomach – that’s a lethal combination.”
     “Tell me about it. Hey, what are you doing here? Have you been reassigned from the garden spot of the world?”
     “As a matter of fact, I have,” Raine said, smiling broadly. “Two weeks ago in fact. I’m now the chief of station at the embassy in Mabuntu.”
     It took a few seconds for Morgan’s brain to process that information. When it did, he smiled.
     “We’ll be working together again. Now, that’s good news. Have you been there yet?”
     “Yeah, I've been there a week. I just came back to Langley for a few days of briefings and went straight out. I wanted to get back for your confirmation hearing, but I missed my connecting flight in Amsterdam and didn't get in until late last night.”
     Morgan motioned to a chair, and then sat back down. “Okay, I’m glad you’re here. Can you fill me in,” he said. “What’s going on out there?”

     Raine leaned forward, placing his elbows on the edge of the desk. “Well, now, I’m pretty good at what I do, but I've only been in country for a week, so I’m still in the process of catching up,” he said. “If you have a few minutes, though, I’ll tell you what I know.”