Read Rockets' Red Glare Online

Authors: Greg Dinallo

Rockets' Red Glare (9 page)

Chapter Fourteen

In the cemetery on the hill overlooking Christ Episcopal Church, a few mourners stood, heads bowed above scarf-wrapped necks, while the minister recited final words over Sarah Winslow’s coffin.

Melanie lingered as the group dispersed, and watched as her mother was lowered into ground frozen harder and deeper than the diggers could remember. She stood alone between the side-by-side graves of her parents, hoping that the minister was right—that at this very moment their souls were being joyously reunited—though she found it difficult to believe in a Hereafter for herself.

The doctor also remained. He moved forward from behind the flower-covered grave where he had been standing unobtrusively.

“Give you a lift?” he offered in a friendly voice.

“Thanks, no,” Melanie replied. “I think I’ll walk. It’s such a beautiful morning, and I—” she paused, and shrugged halfheartedly.

He nodded that he understood.

“I was with your mother,” the doctor said. “It was peaceful. She just fell asleep. Before she did, she asked me to make sure you got this.” He removed the envelope from his pocket and handed it to Melanie, adding, “It was her last conscious thought.”

Melanie accepted the envelope without looking at it, and smiled appreciatively. “Thanks again,” she said. “Thank you for being with her.”

She turned, and meandered down the narrow road, between the headstones,
out of the cemetery, and past the white clapboard church that nestled in the snow-blanketed hills.

Moments from her years in this wholesome place came to mind while she walked—fleeting glimpses of eating homemade ice cream on summer nights in the lawn glider, galloping on her chestnut colt through fields of wildflowers, her parents glowing with pride when she danced at a school recital, the rush of passion with her first lover, the train station on the day she left home to audition for a dance company in New York.

She was crossing a field when the chirp of a foraging wren pulled her out of it, and she looked with some surprise at the envelope in her hand. Intrigued, she opened it, and began reading the letter her mother had written so long ago.

January, 15, 1946

Dearest,

I have something wonderful to share with you! Just before Christmas, I gave birth to a beautiful little girl. She’s pink and blue-eyed, and has wispy silken hair. We named her Melanie. Of course, Zachary believes her to be his, and I have said nothing to the contrary. But I’m certain she is really yours, and wanted you to know.

I have no doubt of this because I discovered that I was pregnant on the hospital ship taking us home. Funny, we hit some rough weather just after we left, and everyone was seasick. Lord knows, at first, I thought I was, too. But only in the morning? Every morning? For weeks? Even after the seas had calmed?

Your daughter is healthy, with straight, strong bones, and has her father’s face when she grins. We’re all happy, and living in a perfectly wonderful cottage that Zachary built for us.

I hope you’re happy, too. I think about you, and wonder what you’re doing. Are you still in Italy? Will you return to Rome and resume your studies at the university? I hope so. I want so much for this to reach you. I’m sending it under your code name, as I know the military personnel in the sector know you by it, rather than your own. How could they ever forget you? I know, I won’t.

As ever,

Sarah

P.S. How could we have known they’d ever find us?

Oh, I’m so happy to be alive!

Melanie was stunned by the revelation. The words rang like a bell clapper that wouldn’t stop. She sat on the trunk of a fallen tree and read
it again, and then again. And then, again, after she resumed walking. She didn’t feel the cold. She didn’t feel anything except an overwhelming loneliness.

A vague recollection of her mother’s face came to her, and as it sharpened Melanie saw Sarah’s cheerful countenance replaced by a rather queer, unsettled look. Her father’s brother had been the cause of it, she recalled. Uncle Wallace often joined them for Sunday dinner, and on one such occasion he kept remarking how much his ten-year-old niece resembled her father. And each time he said it, Sarah’s face took on the strange expression. It made Melanie uncomfortable at the time, and she purposely didn’t dwell on it. But it had stayed with her all these years, and now, she understood why.

She had turned into the drive, and was walking through the glade of pines toward the cottage when a gust of wind caught the envelope and scooped it from her grasp. It inflated, and sailed through the air—then, swooping down, danced, pinwheeling across the frozen snow. Melanie chased after it, the pages of the letter fluttering in her hand, her boots crunching through the hard skin of white between the trees. Almost within reach, the envelope suddenly sailed upward and snagged amidst the twigs of a bare hawthorn. Melanie slipped her hand between the branches and carefully picked the envelope from the thorns. Then, she sensed a presence and looked up.

What she saw only intensified her feelings of abandonment—that she had lost both her parents on the same day, one for the second time, and one forever.

There, framed between two mature maples, stood the stone cottage—the cottage she had always been so proud to say had been built by her father.

She approached it slowly and, after walking around it, sat crestfallen on the top step of the porch and read the letter again.

But what she was searching for with each reading wasn’t there to be found. It was cruel, she thought. Cruel and tormenting that this staggering revelation was incomplete—that neither the envelope nor the letter itself revealed the identity of the man who had never received it.

* * * * * *

It had been an unusually mild winter in the Southwest. March was still a week away and buds were already sprouting on the tips of oak and aspen.

A few wind-stretched clouds hung in the sky as the Piper two-seater came out of the southwest, and made a slow banking turn low over the Churcher estate.

The man next to the pilot pulled a motor-driven, 35 mm camera to his eye and began taking photographs. He trained the telephoto lens on the grounds, on the surrounding approach and service roads, on the high walls, and on the museum entrance kiosk.

Below, in the study of the Chappell Hill mansion, Andrew Churcher and Ed McKendrick sat in opposite chairs, dwarfed by towering walls of books.

Neither reacted to the drone of the plane.

Andrew stared glumly at the phone on the desk. His father had been missing for three days, and Andrew had slept little. An overall numbness and sense of detachment had gradually set in.

McKendrick fidgeted, his mind wrestling with a decision he’d been hoping he wouldn’t have to make. But the mystery of Theodor Churcher’s disappearance grew as each day passed. And for reasons known only to McKendrick, he was feeling pressured by it. The time had come. He arched his back against the chair, got up, and went to the oak wall behind the desk. A Cezanne still life hung in the center panel. He swung aside the hinged frame, revealing a wall safe. His thick fingers grasped the combination dial and began twirling it.

“What’re you doing?” Andrew asked halfheartedly.

“Getting something,” McKendrick mumbled.

He realized he had been so preoccupied, he had forgotten about Andrew. McKendrick decided to proceed despite his presence. He finished the combination and brought the dial to a precise stop.

The tumblers clicked into position.

McKendrick turned the lever and pulled open the safe. A flat, square metal box was on a shelf by itself. He removed something from it, and returned the box to the safe, which he immediately closed and locked. Then slapping at the frame with an elbow, he sent the Cezanne swinging back into place with a thud.

McKendrick’s brow furrowed in concentration. He turned and crossed the room, flicking a plastic card that he had taken from the safe against his thumbnail.

“What’s that?” Andrew asked.

“Card key.”

“Yeah?”

“Match to your father’s.”

“Office, museum—”

McKendrick nodded, and said, “Something I’m supposed to do—” He paused thoughtfully and added, “But I’m not sure.”

Uncertainty, particularly admitting to it, Andrew thought, wasn’t at
all like McKendrick. Even in his numbed state he sensed the weight of his dilemma.

“Do what?” he asked, getting out of the chair and crossing toward McKendrick with more vitality.

“Something—has to be—forwarded,” McKendrick replied, picking his words. “But only under certain circumstances.”

“Did I miss something?” Andrew asked suspiciously, “Or didn’t you just answer my question without telling me anything?”

“Your father didn’t want you involved,” McKendrick replied flatly. He turned away from Andrew, and slowly crossed the room in thought.

Andrew pursued him. “Christ, he’s been missing for three days. He’s probably dead. And you’ve got something to do that I can’t know about!” he said emotionally, wondering why his father’s confiding in McKendrick had never bothered him until now.

McKendrick stopped walking and turned to face him. “Take it easy, kid,” he said calmly, having heard the resentment in Andrew’s voice. “
I
don’t know about it either. I’ve got orders, that’s what I know. And before I carry them out, I’ve got to be positive your father’s dead and know the circumstances.”

“Why?” Andrew asked. “You’re still not telling me what I want to know, Ed.”

“He didn’t say why,” McKendrick replied. “Hell, I don’t know what to tell you.”

Suddenly, Andrew could hear his father’s voice—“Articulate. Articulate. Never expect someone to read your mind.” He took a moment to compose himself, then stepped around McKendrick to face him. “I have two questions, Ed, and I expect you to answer them,” he said in a controlled, businesslike tone.

McKendrick studied Andrew for a moment, gauging the change in him. “Okay,” he said, “shoot.”

“First, what has to be forwarded?” Andrew asked. “Second, to whom does it go?”

McKendrick considered it for a moment. “There’s a package in the museum,” he replied. “I have no idea what’s in it.”

“Yeah?” Andrew prodded impatiently.

“It goes to Boulton,” McKendrick replied, half wishing he hadn’t.

“Boulton? My father’s golf crony?” Andrew blurted, feeling foolish the instant he said it. He could already hear the bite in McKendrick’s tone.

“No, Boulton the CIA honch,” McKendrick snapped facetiously, not disappointing him. “It goes to the company, Drew, not the country
club.” He paused and added sharply, “ ‘To be sent under anonymous cover in the event I croak under suspicious circumstances.’ That’s a quote, and it’s all I know.”

“Geezus,” Andrew exclaimed. He hadn’t anticipated the second half of McKendrick’s reply.

“My sentiments, exactly,” McKendrick said. He winced, thinking Churcher would ream his ass if he wasn’t dead and ever found out McKendrick told Andrew about the package.

The two men held a look. Andrew broke it off.

McKendrick fell into a chair, flicking the card key against his thumbnail.

The exchange had shaken Andrew from his lethargy. He paced anxiously and circled to the desk where he straightened the phone—as if adjusting its position might cause it to ring.

* * * * * *

Prior to closing the book on his years in Cuba, GRU agent Valery Gorodin had one last task to carry out. The assignment came directly from the office of the Soviet premier. And Gorodin knew it was undoubtedly the most important of his career—the one that could put him back on the road to membership in
nomenklatura.

For years, direct travel between Cuba and the United States had been indefinitely suspended. Gorodin had been routed through Mexico City, arriving there just after midnight. He spent the evening at the Soviet Embassy on Calzada Tacubaya, securing his cover.

This meant he had to become familiar with an elaborate new identity—personal history, career background, and reasons for travel—and he had barely eight hours to do it. Memorizing “the legend” was much like cramming for a final exam, and Gordin was a quick study; but using the cover biography, in the offhanded manner of a person who has lived it, was infinitely more difficult.

To sharpen Gorodin’s responses, GRU personnel who had been acting as his tutors became his interrogators. They grilled him for hours, asking the same questions repeatedly. They forced him into traps, discrepancies, and incriminating silences until the answers came automatically and seemed natural. It was the most intensive eight hours Gorodin had ever spent.

The following morning, a colleague led him into the bowels of the Embassy and introduced him to the “dry cleaner"—a network of tunnels that branches out from a basement storeroom, providing concealed access to surrounding streets and vice-versa.

“The Company keeps us under constant movements analysis,” the
colleague warned. “They know about these tunnels, too; but the station chief doesn’t have the personnel to monitor each terminus round-the-clock. Let’s hope we picked one he’s not watching today.”

Gorodin hurried anxiously down the damp narrow passageway. It led to a rickety staircase that came up in an alley behind a bordello on Calle San Jacinta. Gorodin opened the door a crack and peered into the alley. An Embassy driver was waiting in a cab to take him to the airport. A bleary-eyed prostitute was leaning against the door, propositioning the driver.
Hooker or CIA case officer?
Gorodin wondered. He waited until the driver got rid of her, then pushed aside the sheet metal door and hurried to the taxi.

The second leg of his journey took Gorodin over the Mexican Gulf. The route reminded him that seven miles below, search and rescue teams were scouring the waters for Theodor Churcher and his helicopter.

The tires of Mexicana Airlines Flight 730 added their black stripes to runway 37N at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport twenty minutes ahead of schedule, and taxied to the terminal directly.

The time was 11:40
A.M.
when the mechanized boarding ramp swung into position and bit into the side of the jet’s fuselage.

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