by Chris Morton
McCain took a can of freestone peach halves from the bottom drawer of the desk; from deeper inside he extracted an opener and for nothing less than three minutes, wrestled with the can. He had large hands, and like his arms they were covered in dense black hair; his forehead furrowed beneath thick black eyebrows, his spectacles slid forward and a globe of spit formed on the right side of his rather fat red lips.
“Damned contraption …”
On the left of the desk’s surface were six blue pencils, neatly sharpened and laying on top of a shallow pile of light brown folders. The center of the desk was smooth, shiny – a shadow of the bumping can stretched and wavered – while on the right was a typewriter, a heavily loaded ashtray and a dark green telephone attached to a set of buzzers.
From outside, busy car horns filtered through a half-opened window. Commuters and evening vendors; the muffled hustle of a city on which the sun had now set.
McCain hit at one of the buzzers.
“Ginnie, could you get in here?”
A tall woman entered the room. Gangly, and though not unattractive, she was nowhere near as bewitching as many of these young girls could be.
McCain murmured in response and the woman came over to his desk, bending down across him.
“Can’t seem to –”
“Yes, they can be a pain,” she said. “The trick is to hold it here.”
The can opened.
The woman stepped back. Beneath her a large tartan carpet covered most of the tiled floor – to their left was a whiskey cabinet with ice and server.
“Shall I …?”
The woman, Ginnie strode over to the said cabinet.
“You’ll have one?” McCain asked.
“Not for me, thank you all the same.” She turned, a crystal tumbler having magically appeared in her clasp. A good measure of murky spirit – behind her a portrait of Eisenhower hung with a strained smile to match McCain’s own.
“You should get home.”
“I will, I will. You know how it is. Long day.”
Ginnie placed the tumbler beside the can of peaches. “Shall I get you a spoon?”
“Of course. I mean, yes, of course. Can’t seem to think …”
“And the evening paper?”
“We’ve a copy here?”
Ginnie left the room, returning with a spoon and information that the paper would arrive shortly from downstairs. She hovered for a moment, watching McCain’s glass.
“Would you like another?”
“Not yet.” He waved away her offer; loosening his tie, he leaned back in his chair. “Just the paper, and get yourself off. Catch yourself a hot date.”
“Thank you, Mr. McCain. Shall I organize a cab?”
“No need, no need.” He waved her away again, though not rudely: there seemed in fact, by all appearances to be an understanding between them. Almost as if they were going through a routine.
“Right you are.”
McCain was left alone.
“Long day indeed,” he mumbled.
He stood and quickly made over to the cabinet; poured himself another slug, then returning to his seat, made sure he’d drunk just enough to make it look as if he hadn’t got a second. When Ginnie opened the door again, this time bringing in the paper, his cheeks were reasonably flushed.
“I’ll get off then.”
“Yes, yes, good-night.”
He still hadn’t touched the peaches – something which Ginnie noticed but failed to mention as she gave him a nod and left the room once more.
McCain opened the paper. Just one of those things. Without glancing at the first page, he opened it randomly. What exactly he’d been hoping to find, he couldn’t have said – but almost as if he’d shifted into a new light; awake, finally, from the morbid clout of nothing, his world began to spin.
He reached for the buzzer.
“Ginnie, get in here.”
His secretary returned, this time wearing a coat of purple fur over what had been a flat green dress.
“Get me Barrel on the line.”
“Yes, Barrel. And make it snappy!”
“Right you are.”
Ginnie turned back. “Is this important?”
“You’re goddamn right this is …” McCain paused. “Just get me through to Barrel and be off. I’ll handle this.”
Their eyes met.
“I’ve got this,” McCain repeated. “You go see to that date.” McCain ran four fingers through his hair. “Probably nothing,” he murmured, this time more lightly. “Need to check something …”
McCain made to start at his peaches, though once Ginnie had left the room, he focused on the paper, on what he’d seen; his hands were shaking.
American ‘pioneers’ fail again to reach the moon. Fourth attempt this year ends in premature engine shutdown. Simple bad luck or suspicions of corruption justified? See tomorrow’s paper for our exclusive interview with NASA representative, A. T. McCain …
The words appeared in small print between a financial article on the rising price of inner city estate and an advert for bleaching detergent.
A light on the switchboard flashed.
McCain picked up the phone whilst at the same time removing his spectacles.
“McCain.” (The voice was firm and sharp.)
“You seen the evening edition?” said McCain with equal authority in his tone.
“Not yet,” came the answer. “Anything I should be worried about?”
“You could say that.”
McCain placed the receiver back down, cutting off the call. He stood and went over to the cabinet, mixing up another whiskey; once seated again, he began on his peaches.
The phone rang.
“McCain,” said the voice. “We may have a problem.”
“You’re goddamn right we do,” McCain mumbled, chewing and swallowing.
There was a pause. Then: “You’d like to find out who did this?”
“I wanna strangle them,” replied McCain.
“Of course I am.”
“You mean an assassination, a code red?”
“That’s your call, Barrel.”
“And you’re … look, McCain, I have to ask. You sure you didn’t –”
“What do you take me for? Damn it, it’s as much my job as anyone’s to see the true nature of the Pioneer missions doesn’t get out … why photographing the moon at this present time …” His voice suddenly rose. “You think I did an interview? For Pete’s sake, this isn’t even an article. It’s bait, I tell you. A frame.”
“Okay, okay,” came the reply. “But you know a lot of people will be –”
“Worried, yeah, I know.” McCain coughed. “Which is exactly why I need it dealt with and fast. Whoever set this up, I want them found and dealt with before …”
“Before your position is reviewed?”
McCain breathed heavily. “Reviewed,” he repeated with a fair amount of irony. “My God, Barrel, how much time do you think I have?”
There was silence as the magnitude of that question began to form.
“McCain, I’ll vouch for you.”
“Like that’ll do any good.”
“The code red, I’ll put it through. But there’ll also be –”
“Sure.” McCain replaced the receiver, his eyes looking tired. Pushing the peaches to one side, he reached for the whiskey, then leaned back in his chair.
The fan in the ceiling whirled slowly and it was all of five minutes until the phone rang again.
“I understand you’d like some information.”
“Yes, yes, I … who is this?”
“Name’s not important,” said the rough voice. “My assistance was requested. You are Allen McCain. I hear you’d like to track down a reporter …”
“Yes.” McCain stood, still holding the receiver. He picked up the phone and went over to the window. Opening a slat in the blind with two fingers, he took in the dark street below. A phone booth opposite the building with a hunched figure inside. Wide hat and long coat.
“Just need you to confirm.”
The figure turned around fully, looking up at the window – though there was no way he could have seen him.
“What information do you have?”
“That an article has appeared in the newspaper on your desk, and you’d like to take care of the source.”
“No, not an article.” McCain squinted. “It was just …”
“We can find who wrote it.”
“You can?” McCain stammered. “How fast?”
“We work quickly.”
“How?” McCain’s face brightened somewhat.
“We have contacts,” said the voice. “It’ll be easy enough to trace.”
“Well, whoever it is, they need to be dealt with.”
“It’s our business.” The man in the phone booth turned away. “You’ll hear from one of us shortly.”
“Right … right you are.” There was a flash of lightning and McCain jumped back. Three seconds later the distant sound of rumbling, then the pitter-patter of rain hitting hard at the window.
McCain watched the figure stride purposefully along to the next block, tightening his coat, one hand up to his hat.
When the figure disappeared, McCain began to laugh – deep and from the belly; low, rumbling with a hint of mania.
All of a sudden, the phone rang – McCain almost dropped it, jumping for the second time in the same minute.
Still by the window, McCain swayed ever so slightly. Moving slowly back to the chair, he managed to sit down.
He placed the phone on the desk.
“Allen, are you there?”
“You all right?” It was a woman’s voice.
“Fine, Joan. How are things?”
McCain, switching the receiver from right hand to left, reached into his breast pocket with his one free hand. He pulled out a packet of Lucky Strikes, expertly managing to extract a cigarette and light it in one swift motion (that also involved taking the zippo from his right waist pocket).
“Allen, you wouldn’t believe it.”
“Wouldn’t I?” McCain let out a puff of smoke.
“The day I’ve had. I don’t know where to start.”
“First the car, then the neighbor’s dog; that godawful Rottweiler, what do they call that thing? Some ridiculous –”
“No idea.” McCain coughed.
“Pitcher, that’s it. If you ask me …”
“Ask you what?”
“… stupid name, that’s all.”
“Yes, okay, Allen, I’m sure you don’t want to hear about all my troubles.”
“No, no, go on,” McCain replied, drawing on his cigarette, eyes distant. “What did, what did Pitcher do this time?”
“You think I’m calling you up to chat about the neighbor’s dog?”
McCain moved in his seat, stubbing out the cigarette. “No idea,” he drawled.
“It’s Rosie. She got into a fight again.”
“With a boy.”
“A boy, eh?”
“And you can stop smirking,” the voice said, guessing the expression on McCain’s face. “It’s the third time this year and they want … they’ve requested that we go there. Tomorrow.”
“The both of us.”
McCain shifted. “Can’t Tom –”
“No, Allen. It’s her father they want to see. Things are awkward enough already. For her. I’ve no wish to go parading –”
“No, quite. I understand.” McCain was looking at the paper, a right forefinger gently resting against his typed name. “What time?”
“In the morning?”
“Yes, in the morning. You can’t get here for –”
“No, no, I’ll make it.”
The voice huffed. “And you’re sure you’re all right?”
“… Well, I’ll be off then. You want to speak to Rosie?”
“She not sleeping?” McCain asked.
“I doubt it. Reads till the sun comes up. Thinks I don’t know …”
Behind, from the window, there was another flash of lightning.
“It raining there?”
“Tom with you?”
“Allen, you know he is.”
“Of course.” McCain huffed. “And you’re exaggerating, right?”
“Till the sun comes up.”
“Yes, I mean … you want to speak to her or not?”
“No, no. I’ll see her tomorrow. Eight o’clock, you say.”
“Allen, you sound tired.”
“Fine, I told you.”
“You need to get home, Allen. Your health. When was the last time you had a check-up?”
“On my way. See you in the morning, Joan.”
McCain stood from the chair, then hesitated before putting the receiver down. He lifted it again to his ear but the line was dead – he stared at the now dormant contraption, mouth open as if there had been more to say; something he’d forgotten; something that had slipped his mind.
Huffing, McCain went once more to the whiskey cabinet, mixed himself a new drink; this time with a hefty measure of sloshed ice. “Fight with a boy,” he murmured. He smirked again, then turned at the window. “Come and get me,” he wheezed.
The phone rang and he let it. Three, four rings.
Slowly, calmly, McCain paced back to the desk.
“Allen Thomas McCain. Forty-seven. Divorced. Bachelor in physics, first class.”
“Who is this?”
“Works within the Seers conglomerate. A cog. Though of course that’s merely a cover. Information tells us that McCain is working for NASA, though we’re having some trouble in determining what exactly he does for them.”
“What do you want?” McCain spat. Sweat had begun to form on his brow. “Who are you? How did you get this number?”
“A friend,” replied the voice – high pitched with the twang of an out of town accent.
“What do you want?”
“You asked for information.”
“I asked … who is this?”
“The article?” McCain spouted, his voice getting angrier.
“We have reason to believe that an interview was conducted with an A. T. McCain, as stated.”
“Impossible,” said McCain, pulling at the telephone chord in agitation.
“Five foot eight,” the voice continued. “Jet black hair, with a double helping of gray; short back and sides; wears dark-rimmed, tinted spectacles with thick lenses; stocky in build; a preference for Italian suits – resides at 421 Park Avenue, though owns a much larger property in Rhode Island. There’s a daughter, Rose who lives with her mother and a man who has yet to become –”
“Goddammit, yes, that’s me you’re describing. So what of it?”
“Just passing on the message,” the voice said. “We take it you will not be ordering –”
Nothing was said for a moment. McCain breathed, the voice breathed.
“It’s your call.”
“What do you mean my call? You think I’m gonna request my own …?”
McCain’s hands were shaking, his face becoming redder.
“We thought as much.”
“What kind of a two-bit outfit are you?!” McCain began to shout.
“Hey, don’t shoot the messenger.”
“Don’t shoot?! By God, I’ll …”
The line went dead and McCain punched at the desk – he immediately clutched his right fist, inspecting the damage as the phone burst into life once more.
McCain went for it; almost busted it.
“Goddammit, I’ll kill you!”
“God …” McCain began to convulse. “Joan, I didn’t –”
“Allen,” the woman’s voice stammered. “Are you okay?”
“Yes, fine, sorry,” McCain, forced himself to relax, somehow pushing the words into a calmer tone; one palm on the desk for support; his damaged hand still holding the receiver. “Joan –”
“Who did you think I was?”
“Nobody. Just, nobody; what do you want, Joan?”
“Nothing. Maybe I shouldn’t have –”
“Out with it.”
“Now there’s no need –”
The line went dead.
Standing there stupidly, McCain appeared too angry to know what to do next. His dark shoes dug into the tartan carpet. Eisenhower smiled down.
“Got to be some kind of goddamn joke …”
McCain hit at one of the buzzers. “Ginnie …” then remembering she was gone, he hit the buzzer again, missed and the whole board lit up. “Damned …”
McCain began scrambling at the whole thing erratically, then stepped back, bewildered as the phone began to pulsate.
Outside a series of car horns started up in excited symphony.
“Barrel. Damn it, Barrel, what the hell is this all about?”
“You tell me.” The reply was calm, yet firm.
McCain stood straighter, sweating and breathing heavily. He hesitated, stumbled, and tried to think up an answer that would at least make some sense.
“Look, man. What exactly was the plan?”
“Now you listen to me,” McCain answered. “I’ve no idea what’s going on here, but I’ll get to the bottom of it. You have my word.”
“It’s too late.”
“What do you mean, too late?”
“We’ve killed the publication. It won’t be printed. But … only a select few know why the Pioneer missions are being corrupted. If it were to get out –”
“But it won’t.”
“McCain, I’m sorry. You know how it is.”
“You’re sorry? Dammit, Barrel!”
“I’ll see that Joan is taken care of.”
“Barrel, I’m pleading with you. Just give me more time. I can prove it wasn’t me. I’ve got no,” McCain clutched at the phone, “Barrel, why would I? What would I have to gain?”
“Gotta admit,” said Barrel. “I was surprised. What was it? You get cold feet?”
“Barrel, I’m telling you.” McCain was desperate. “All that I know. All these years. I was there, at Roswell, by damn! Why now would I –”
“McCain … I can’t. It’s already been decided. Just wanted to let you know,” the voice, ironically, seemed to have grown warmer, “No hard feelings and all that.”
“It was an impostor, I tell you. A setup. One of them.”
“Damned commies. You know how it is.”
“I see. The Russians.”
“Yeah, the Russians; who do you think I meant? Damn it, they’re framing me.”
“Yeah, the … now wait just a minute, Barrel. It’s only one source says that I talked but I’ve been tried and convicted –”
“A hint is all it takes. You know that as well as I do.”
McCain’s breaths began to speed up. “Barrel! By God!” He was overcome with rage. “We’re the ones in power here! Men like us. We’ve made sacrifices. Shown loyalty!”
The voice breathed, not responding.
“So that’s how it is then! They put us in charge but at the end of the day, we’re just as expendable as anyone?!”
“Look, McCain. We have to accept, there is a bigger picture.”
“A bigger …? This is my life we’re talking about! What do you want, dammit? What do they …? What would it take?!” McCain scolded. “If that’s how it is, I’ll tell it all now. Let the world know!” he began to laugh like a madman. “Barrel!” but the line was dead.
McCain fell into the chair; the phone, hanging off its hook, dangling beside him.
“Goddamn … setup.”
* * * * *
The door of McCain’s office opened with the silhouette of a large man coming into view. The man stood facing McCain, and even in the semi darkness (for the outside office was barely lit) this man, in appearance was not at all unlike McCain himself.
“So here it is then,” McCain muttered, not yet focusing. Tired and worn, his collar and tie loose now, his whole face and neck were blotched in red marks. His glasses were on the desk beside the smoking ashtray, beside the phone and typewriter; beside the folders and pencils. The whiskey bottle stood next to the still unfinished can of peaches; unashamedly in full view. “So here you are, then,” McCain repeated, swirling the fingers of his right hand in irony. “Better get on with it.”
“Any last words, my friend?” said the man, stepping forward to McCain. In his right hand was a small black gun with silencer.
“Yeah,” McCain replied, looking up lazily. “Give my love to Joan and Rosie.”
“I’ll take good care of them, rest assured.”
Their eyes met: McCain’s and the eyes of his killer. A set of eyes he knew from somewhere. “My God,” McCain stammered. “What … what the hell is this?”
But for a fleeting moment he seemed to understand. A doppelganger. To be, not eliminated, but replaced. What the code red was – what it always had been for those in positions such as his. The authority he had … the knowledge …
“Time to say good-night.”
A flash inside the office and McCain’s body slid to the carpet.
The man walked over to the window, carefully pulling it shut. He turned, tucking his weapon away while from the picture on the wall, Eisenhower gazed across, smiling.