Authors: Greg Dinallo
Rocket’s Red Glare
For my parents who never knew—who by word and deed taught me to believe in human potential and hard work. And for my wife and son whose tolerance and love keep those beliefs alive.
It had almost come undone once—almost. The documents declared 124,000 tons of offshore crude shipped on the
and pumped off at Puerto Sandino, Nicaragua. But neither the cargo nor the destination was important. The numbers were what caught Dick Nugent’s eye that June day in 1981. Dick had a habit of making associations to remember them. He had once seen the
capacity listed at 125,000 tons, and it stuck—$125 per hour was what he paid his analyst.
Why hadn’t the supertanker been fully emptied? he wondered. Was the
captain running a little side business? Or hadn’t her compartments been filled to capacity in the first place? Why the one-thousand-ton discrepancy? Why 124 and not 125?
As cost effectiveness coordinator for Churchco Industries, a mega-conglomerate based in Houston, Texas, Dick was well-paid to notice such things. He had been putting in long days to finish a comprehensive evaluation of Churchco’s Petroleum Division. The tonnage discrepancy on the
was one of many items he had uncovered, and he attached no special significance to it.
The next day, Dick filed a detailed thirty-six-page report of his findings, and took the late morning flight to Miami, where he would begin a similar evaluation of Churchco’s Medical Products Division.
The following morning, Churchco’s founder and board chairman, Theodor Churcher, in his ongoing role as a consultant to the Soviet
Union’s Industrial Ministry, departed for Moscow on a CC-10-60, the long-range jetliner manufactured by Churchco Aero-Space.
At fifty-seven, Churcher still had the lean physique of a long-distance runner. His soft graying hair complimented his chiseled profile. He appeared to be moving forward even in repose.
Four hours into the flight, thirty-nine thousand feet above the southern tip of Lake Erie, his incisive, green-speckled eyes darted across Nugent’s report. Churcher paused to down the last swallow of a Gibson, then resumed reading and nearly gagged in disbelief when he got to the item on page twenty-three—the item concerning the
* * * * * *
That evening in Moscow, Churcher dined with an old friend in an apartment on Proyezd Serova Street, just off Dzerzhinsky Square at the hub of the capital city’s central ring. The antique-filled duplex had a dark, gloomy feeling, and lacked a woman’s touch.
Its occupant, Soviet Minister of Culture Aleksei Deschin, was a large, solid man with dark eyes set deep behind high Slavic cheekbones. He had the look of the Bolsheviks flanking Lenin in the Socialist realism murals that decorate government buildings—one who had aged well, handsomely. And, indeed, women were attracted to him, and he to them; but long ago
woman had slipped away, and he’d since lived alone with the emptiness.
Churcher eased the cork from a bottle of ’61 Margaux he’d brought his host, and solemnly filled two goblets with the premier cru.
“I have an internal problem, Aleksei,” Churcher said somewhat suddenly.
Deschin swirled the bordeaux to the rim of his glass, inhaled the rising bouquet, and smiled. “If this doesn’t settle your stomach, Theo,” he said, “nothing can.” Though heavily accented, Deschin’s English was very fluent.
Churcher smiled despite his concern. Then he removed page twenty-three of Nugent’s report from his pocket, and handed it to Deschin. The key passages concerning the
and the tonnage discrepancy had been bracketed in red.
Deschin slipped on his glasses and began reading.
Churcher stood and, taking his wine with him, crossed the room that had once known grandeur. He stopped at the large bay window, and looked out at the rain pelting the Square.
The intimidating statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky—the Polish expatriat who founded the Cheka Secret Police, forerunner of the KGB—stood at its center, the rain-slicked bronze glistening in the darkness.
Deschin finished reading, and quietly joined Churcher at the window. The cultural minister’s eyes had taken on the spooky nervousness of electroshock patients.
For a few moments, neither spoke.
Finally, Deschin said, “You have a very bright person in your employ, Theodor.” He breathed deeply and added, “Very, very perceptive.”
“The best,” Churcher said, still looking out the window. “Harvard MBA. Top of his class. Smart as a whip. I have big plans for him.”
Deschin nodded and set his glass on the sill. He carefully refolded the red-bracketed page on the original crease lines, then pinched a corner between thumb and forefinger, as if the square of paper was contaminated, and held it up to Churcher.
“Who else has seen this?” Deschin asked softly.
Churcher shook no slowly. “No one,” he said. “He reports directly to me.”
Deschin thought for a moment, then lifted his glass and drained it. He swallowed hard—forebodingly. He said nothing.
Churcher stared at him in silent appeal.
Still, Deschin said nothing.
A profound sadness came over Churcher as he lowered his eyes, acquiescing.
The two men turned to the window and looked across Dzerzhinsky Square at the rain-darkened granite monolith that housed KGB Headquarters.
* * * * * *
The following evening, Dick Nugent returned to his room in the Americana Hotel in Miami.
Nugent was tiny and precise, with thinning hair above black-framed glasses. He knew he personified the nitpicker he was, and kept an off-center view of life’s minutiae to himself. Dick was a loner and had no need to be liked, but craved professional esteem. As corporate whistle-blower, he enjoyed enviable autonomy, and had spent the day wielding it ruthlessly.
He entered the room carrying a bulging attaché and a bag containing a pint of Häagen-Dazs. Odd name for an ice cream, he always thought. The
of it was pure concentration camp—Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Häagen-Dazs. He envisioned Mel Brooks screaming, “No! No, help!! They’re sending me to Häagen-Dazs!”
He chuckled, tossed the bag and the attaché on the bed, and emptied the contents of his pockets onto a table. It held an assortment of file
folders, Churchco letterheads, and the portable Olivetti that traveled with him. He stripped to his shorts to shower, and heard the door to the balcony sliding open behind him.
A square, calm man—who, he thought, bore a remarkable resemblance to his Uncle Elliott—slipped into the room and leveled a 9mm Kalishnikov at Nugent’s forehead when he turned.
“Do as you’re told,” the man said in perfect English tinged with a slight Russian accent. “Do you understand?”
Nugent nodded emphatically. His hands trembled as he raised them.
“Wallet, traveler’s checks over there,” he stammered, pointing to the table.
The man shook his head. He gestured for Nugent to lower his hands, then slipped a sheet of Churchco stationery from the stack onto the table. Richard D. Nugent, Cost Effectiveness Coordinator, was imprinted beneath the corporate logotype on the letterhead.
“Sign your name, please,” the man said calmly.
“My name?” Nugent asked puzzled, his voice cracking. “I—I don’t get it. I mean—”
“Near the bottom,” the man interrupted gently. “Like a letter.”
Nugent was paralyzed by fear and confusion, the words sticking in his throat. “One of my—my reports get you canned or something?” he finally asked.
The man nodded, picking up on Nugent’s lead. “Haven’t worked in six months,” he replied. “This will change that.”
He pressed the Kalishnikov close to Nugent’s ear, and flicked a ballpoint pen across the table with the forefinger of his other hand.
“Please,” he urged gently.
Nugent’s fingers scratched at the table, unable to capture the elusive pen. Finally, he got hold of it and scrawled his signature across the sheet of stationery near the bottom.
The man flipped open Nugent’s wallet and thumbed one of the credit cards onto the table. His eyes darted from plastic to paper and back. Satisfied the signatures matched, he holstered the Kalishnikov, fumbling briefly with the leather tie-down, which refused to fasten over its brass pip.
“Sorry,” Nugent blurted, relieved. “I mean, nothing personal. I was only doing my job. I mean—”
Weapon secured, the man stiffened his hand—fingers aligned, thumb crooked back, palm parallel to the floor—and straightened the bend in his elbow with a sudden snap. The hand exploded from within his sport jacket, covering the short distance from the shoulder holster to Nugent’s
head in an eyeblink. The hardened edge drove upward, connected solidly across the width of Nugent’s lower brow, and silenced him. The force of the blow shattered the bones that form the eye sockets and frontal section of the cranium and lifted him off the floor.
Before unleashing the expertly delivered smash, the man stepped to his right—adjusting his angle to insure the momentum would propel Nugent toward the bed, where he landed with a barely audible thud and lay motionless.
The man took a pair of surgeon’s gloves from his pocket, pulling them on as he returned to the table. Then he rolled the sheet of Churchco stationery into the Olivetti and typed a suicide note above Nugent’s signature, copying from a draft he brought with him. When finished, he removed it from the typewriter and slipped it beneath Nugent’s wallet.
Then, he crossed to the bed, hefted Nugent’s limp body over a shoulder, walked out the sliding glass door onto the balcony, and eased him over the railing.
Early the next morning, a pool maintenance crew found Nugent’s broken body on the concrete decking, below a line of balconies.
The caption in the
late morning edition read: “EXECUTIVE LEAPS TO DEATH.”
The subsequent police and coroner’s investigations concluded that Richard Nugent had taken his own life. They found no evidence of foul play nor witnesses thereto. The suicide note presented a familiar profile: depression, a failed marriage, business pressure, diminishing confidence, debt, thoughts of embezzlement, a meaningless existence.
Reactions of friends and business associates were contradictory, ranging from “Not Dick, no way, not a chance,” to “He was sending out a lot of signals, I just missed them.”
Those in Churchco’s Petroleum Division whose professional shortcomings were revealed by the posthumous publication of Nugent’s report snidely attributed his suicide to guilt. But none of them were reprimanded for the oil tonnage discrepancy. Dick Nugent had caught it for the
and all references to it had been deleted from his report.
* * * * * *