BEAT THE DRUM SLOWLY
By J. Strauss.
Zurich, part of the social igloo called Schweiz (the Germanic third of Switzerland), lay spread before him. Arch Patton stood on the roof of the Hotel St. Gotthard, the only hotel less than half a kilometer from the train station, and overlooking the Bahnhaufstrasse. It was cold, but then Zurich is cold to foreigners even when it’s ninety degrees, which is seldom. He blew the smoke from one last puff of the last cigarette he was ever going to buy on this planet. He’d only made that promise a few hundred times before but this time he was serious. Arch field stripped the butt and cast the little bits into the icy wind.
His life was a mess. He buffered the depressive thought with the secret belief that every human’s life was a mess and had been since the word civilization had been coined so long ago. Back then a man went out and killed something, brought it home and was rewarded. As soon as the thought formed Arch had to laugh out loud. In a way, nothing had changed. Arch went out and killed something and returned to be rewarded. Unfortunately, the only reward he ever seemed to realize, other than some choice drugs and booze now and then, was to go out and do it all over again. He would have included women in some of that reward but it was not to be. Working as a field operative for the CIA meant moving often and fast. Airports and hotels served as conveyor belt-stop homes. Only James Bond found beautiful women at every bar or waiting on the tarmac. In the real world a field agent was lucky to find anybody in the bar that spoke one of his languages and the woman on the tarmac was only there to make sure his identification was acceptable.
The mission he was on was different. More interesting and more fun. The one coming after that was going to be a trip back into flowing red liquids accompanied by muffled entreaties and begging eyes. But that was the future. Zurich was part of the civilized world. Returning to Africa was never bad. Africa was a place of magic, love and unbridled innocence but it also unfortunately possessed way too many things powerful people in other countries wanted. Arch sighed, girding himself to go back to the room. The St. Goodard was a three star hotel so there was no room service. Zurich provided little service anywhere at anytime, unless it was delivered with a disguised sneer at very high prices.
Dave was down in the room talking to his wife. If Arch had had a wife he’d have wanted to talk to her in private too. Being tossed out of the room for a while was no violation of their partnership bond, however short the period of time they’d work together. It was fortunate they even knew one another. Usually the agency deliberately kept agents from working on successive missions and forming social bonds. Those bonds almost always caused problems when it came to evaluating and discussing what they were really doing out in the world as opposed to what they were told they were doing.
Dave was a good guy. Too young, too tall and too good looking. Dave was the Burt Reynolds of their team while Arch was the Dom DeLuise, even through it was Arch who was team leader. Somehow, even though Dave looked like a spy should look he was able to function successfully through the perilous gauntlet of airport security, customs and immigration. Arch had always resented how easily he was able to move through such situations, as if he mattered too little to even check out.
This mission was different though. The Agency, through one of Arch’s bogus business accounts, provided plenty of backup funding in cash. It took over a million cash for a foreigner to open a Swiss account in the new post 9/11 world. Accounts in Switzerland were vital, not for confidentiality of which there was little, but because the Swiss would instantly convert any currency to any other currency for a price. So many difficult countries maintained restricted currencies where local money could not be had in significant enough amounts to pay indigenous assets. To have more than a million in a Swiss account made anyone a person of note in Zurich, at least to those few who knew. Mission money flowed into the account and was withdrawn in whatever currency needed, as long as the base amount of one million was never invaded. The CIA was draconian in responding to agents who dipped into the foundational funding.
Arch looked once over the edge of the parapet to check out the Bahnhofstrasse below. It was Europe’s third most successful strip of commerce. Pedestrians were everywhere, adroitly avoiding the serpentine narrow trains slowly making their way up and down the boulevard. Autos had been banned many years back. The target back of the mission’s intent was located only a few blocks down the street but was on the same side as the St. Goddard so Arch couldn’t see it. No matter. The mission was to take Dave inside to meet with an official who was an inside asset. The official was to leave Dave and Arch in a conference room and inquire of his superiors as to some details of opening a new account. While alone, and with very tiny solid-state circuitry, Dave was to connect to an unused and sealed over computer portal. Arch didn’t even know what the download was supposed to contain and didn’t care. It was a lark of a mission. If they got caught then they’d probably be thrown out of the bank, Zurich and maybe even Switzerland. Life would change but it would not become unbearably painful or end.
Arch knocked at their room door a few times and then swiped his plastic key. Dave lay on the bed where Arch had left him except he looked different. He was off the phone. He had both pillow on one of the Queen-sized beds tucked up under his head and he was white as a sheet. Arch walked in, moving slowly to the outside patio door overlooking the Bahnhaufstrasse. He didn’t open it.
“What is it?” he asked of his partner, without turning to face him.
“What?” Dave replied, his voice betraying stress strung tight to near breaking.
“This isn’t about me or me butting into your business or personal life. We’ve got a rather delicate and complex mission going down in a few hours. You’re no good to me in the shape you’re in. You take some drugs?” Arch asked, finally turning to look Dave in the eyes. He waited while seconds passed. He had time enough to think about the fact that his career did not need ‘banned from Switzerland’ stamped on the front page of his personnel jacket…if the Agency kept such outmoded kinds of documents.
Dave struggled with himself, his expressions running the gamut while he thought about whatever it was. Finally, he spoke, but in a whisper. “My wife, we redid the house. The builder charged forty-seven thousand dollars. I convinced him to wait until he was done to collect the whole thing. My wife gave him a check for the money yesterday. Her check bounced. The builder’s going to call the sheriff tomorrow to have her arrested.”
“Okay,” Arch said, looking back out the window.
“Okay? Okay?” Dave shot back, his voice roused from its whisper.
“Thanks for telling me,” Arch went on. “I need you for the mission. The Agency needs this mission. So we find a way.”
“What way,” Dave responded, loudly. “We’re talking about forty-seven thousand dollars U.S. here. The guys who owed me didn’t pay and they won’t take my calls. They know I’m out of the country. My wife’s going to jail. Why’d she write that check?” Why didn’t she wait?”
Arch remembered meeting Dave’s wife a year back. A wonderfully vibrant woman of beauty and intellect. And she’d immediately liked Arch, which was uncommon among such women. “It wasn’t her fault. It was your fault. She simply trusted you to come through a bit too much. But it doesn’t matter. We need forty-seven grand and we need it fast.”
“There’s no way,” Dave said, his voice dropping back into a near whisper, his body going limp on the bed.
“There’s always a way. But there’s also always a price. Do you care where the money comes from? Last time we had a talk about mission integrity I didn’t do so well.”
“You’re always bending the rules and it’s going to be the ruin of you and anybody working with you when you get caught,” Dave answered, his voice beginning to return to its normal volume.
“Do you care where the money comes from?” Arch repeated, after a moment of silence.
“No. Obviously. I can’t let my wife go to jail. I’m not even there to bail her out. We’ve got two teenagers at home. What will their friends think? What…” he tried to go on, but Arch held up his hand.
“Enough. Give me your bank account number back home. A wire should make it by tomorrow morning. I can get a confirming transmission number from this end so she can hold the builder off until the money hits your bank later in the day.”
“I don’t believe it. You’ve got forty-seven grand here?” Dave asked, in surprise.
“Of course not. I don’t have two grand to my name,” Arch replied, snapping his fingers holding out his right hand for the requested data.
Dave jumped from the bed, opened his briefcase and rummaged through its contents. In seconds he had a checkbook out and was tearing out a check. He pushed it toward Arch across the bed.
“I’ll be back in an hour, or less,” Arch said, folding the check in half and putting it in his pocket.
“Where are you going?” Dave asked, returning the security of the bed.
“Does it matter?” Arch shot back, heading for the door.
It only took forty-five minutes. Arch knocked on the door but didn’t have to swipe his card. The door was instantly pulled open. “Well?” Dave said, looking up and down the deserted hallway as if they were being pursued by unknown and unseen enemies.
“Here’s your check back. They only needed the numbers. I wrote the confirming number on the back. Call your wife and fill her in.” Arch walked to the patio door, opened it and stood in the cold Zurich wind that was wafting up from the busy street below.
Dave made his call. The mission went down smoothly. Dave wasn’t to be a part of the following mission so Arch didn’t mention anything about it. They would meet in London, following that mission to attend a meeting with Europe’s Chief of Station about knew regional protocols. “Pay me when you can,” is the only comment about the money Arch made. Dave simply nodded at the request.
The London meeting was a bust. There were to be no new protocols simply because the European Chief of Station for the Agency had died days before in a plane crash. A not yet appointed Chief of Station would have his or her own protocols. Dave and Arch waiting for instructions at the Dorchester Hotel, a five star hotel that charged like a five star hotel. The bill would be hard to defend to the new Chief of Station but taking advantage of new guys or gals on the block was part of what Agency fieldwork was all about. When the instructions came there was a surprise. Against Agency policy they shared the data from their instructions. Dave was going to Seoul from some bit of IRS related work, but Arch was ordered back to the Agency to explain himself prior to an investigation being launched.
“Oh man,” Dave said, when Arch explained to him what was happening. “Don’t bring me into this.”
Arch couldn’t believe what he heard come out of his former partner’s mouth. “What are you talking about? I need the forty-seven thousand to cover the lies I told to back up the withdrawal.”
“What withdrawal?” Dave asked, pacing up and down on the luxurious carpet near the far corner of one of the Dorchester’s huge hallways. Arch sat in a leather chair so rich in leather that it seemed to suck you backward and down.
“I had to invade the million dollar trust fund to get the money. I’ve got to pay that back and even then there’s probably going to be some trouble for both of us.” Arch uttered the words matter-of-factly but his mind was roiling at the potential meaning of Dave’s comment and question.
“Me? I had nothing to do with any of it. You stole the money from the Agency? Are you out of your mind? Nobody violates that rule. I’m not giving you a dime. That money was simply fruit from a poisonous tree. You did this. You fix it. Or not.” Dave continued to walk upon reaching one end of what had been his pacing area. He walked down the long hall and into the Dorchester’s magnificent lobby, and then he walked out the front door. Arch watched Allen, the third generation Brit doorman, approach and take Dave by the elbow to help him into a small black cab. Allen was a smashing fellow, or so one of the other doormen had said, after Arch tipped the man a hundred pounds to get a parking slot right near the front door.
He sat and thought about Dave, his wife, the money and life for the next ten minutes without moving a muscle. With a deep sigh he reached inside his sport coat and took out an Walkman. He plugged the ear buds in and hit the music app.
He punched the first button that popped up on the music screen of the Walkman and then slowly took out a cigarette, his last ever, and lit it with the solid gold Dunhill lighter he intended to throw into the garbage at his soonest opportunity. The lighter flamed, the glare and gold seeming to sit so well against the backdrop of his blue Dunhill coat arm material. Everything seemed so right. Arch got up from the chair, feeling like he was vacating a small bit of heaven, and then walked toward the front door where Allen, seeing him coming in the distance, was already smiling and getting ready to take his left elbow.
The music began as he walked along. The first chorus of “Streets of Laredo”, played with Marty Robbins singing, and Arch couldn’t help but smile at the words: “Then beat the drum slowly, play the Fife lowly. Play the dead march as you carry me along…”
Life was as it was supposed to be.
This is really excellent writing. I love the Arch Patton short stories there always seems to be a deep moral to the stories. You are such a God gifted author.
You are so awesome Nancy and very loyal.
Your comments always brighten my day.