Hide and Seek

We start to learn a little more about the man who built ExComm:  Clive Barrett.  My mental model for him is a cross between Felicks Dzerzhinsky and James Jesus Angleton.  NOT a healthy combination!

I had planned a slightly surreal soliliquy by Barrett about what-all he’s trying to accomplish with ExComm but it simply would not fit:  the man is too much a monster and the words didn’t work in his mouth.  I’ve already about 800 words after this scene and once I see Sylvia back to her flat I think things are going to take a turn for the surreal.  That’s fine; I have never gone fully surreal and I like to push my own limits with each new book.

But for now, here’s Sylvia talking FTF with her boss.  Cheerio.

“Had your phone off?  Get some sleep?” she heard his typical measured voice ask.

“Yes, Director.  I knew you could have one of my men wake me for an emergency, just as you did,” she answered, sitting up and rubbing her left hand about her face.  Her eyes were gritty…

Eyes.  Eyes like black holes…

“I… I’m sorry, Director!  What was that?”

Sylvia hoped zoning out like that didn’t just get her fired or worse.  Thankfully she heard a soft snort:  Barrett’s very quirky sense of humor briefly making an appearance.

“I said that there’s no emergency; I wanted you fully awake once you are back here,” there was a rattle of ice in glass.  Drinking again?  “To judge by your lack of a reply makes me think I should have called you ten more miles ago.”

She glanced out the window.  They would be back to HQ in five to ten minutes.

“You will have my complete attention when we arrive, presently,” she said clearly.  “Shall I come directly to your office?”

“If you would be so kind, Miss Fernandez.  There are a number of matters to cover before this day is out.”

There was silence but she checked to make sure the signal had ended.  Sylvia handed the phone back to her gunner.

“Thanks for that,” she said with her business smile.  “Can you pass me the radio?  I need to tell the rest of our little caravan what’s up.”

The four vehicles came to a brief halt two blocks from ExComm’s building with Sylvia telling the men they were relieved for the rest of the day once they got their equipment properly stowed.  She had Kharachan take the wheel of her car as she slid into the passenger seat.

“The Director summoned me so you’re free to go until I need you again,” she said.  “You can visit your family or whatnot.”

“ExComm is my family, Assistant Director,” he lisped slightly.

She just stared at her weaselly assistant.

“How sad.” She looked ahead to the four guardsmen at the entrance to the interior court of their headquarters.  They stopped, had their ID checked, and slowly drove in.

Compared to the chaos of trucks, guns, and men from her first visit to the quiet order of fewer men and a few cars from when she set out to Oklahoma the heart of the Extraordinary Commission was almost deserted.  It was almost eerie.  Something to gently as the Director, she thought, getting out.

“Don’t wait for me,” she told her aide before shutting the door.  The car moved away.

Nods to the two armed men at the door who recognized her had her in and right:  to the bathrooms first.  I almost always seem to be at my worst when he wants to see me!

With females still a rarity in ExComm she had the Women’s Room to herself.  Unlike her first visit it seemed someone had managed to clean in the last few days.  And the near-freezing weather kept any smells from festering.  Sylvia put her suit coat over a radiator while she did what she could to her face and hair.  Afterward she grabbed her coat and tried to shake the wrinkles out as if it were a matador’s cape.

At least it’s warm.  A few of the offices rated space heaters; the Director wasted no money on central heat.  “Work harder,” had been his reply to such requests.  She walked down the hall to the last door on her right.  The single guard indicated with a toss of his head for her to go in.

Sylvia didn’t recognize the man behind the desk.  Barrett liked to change his secretaries every six months or so.  That was such a blow to institutional memory that she had already asked him about it.  “I don’t want any one person to know that much about what I’m doing here,” had been his odd reply.

And just what are you doing here?

“I’ll let the Director know you are here, Miss Fernandez,” the young man said, picking up a landline receiver.

She remained standing.  There were no chairs.  Sudden.  He set the phone down.

“Please go on in.”

“Thank you,” she replied, her words making a small cloud before her.

His office was typically dark.  She did hear the hum of a heater under the desk.  Next to the half-empty whiskey bottle and highball glass were two pieces of paper and one thick file on his desk but his attention just then was on what appeared to be a small photograph.  Barrett set it face down on the left side of his desk and beckoned her to sit in one of the two chairs.

“Reporting, Director,” she said formally before taking the chair.

“What you did with up north with Binger was exactly what I wanted,” he began, taking another glass from a drawer.

He already knows?!  And just how much does he know?!

He slid one of the two papers across to her before pouring some alcohol into the new glass then adding some to his.  To distract herself from her near-panic she picked it up to read it.

“Your decisive action to maintain the rule of law in our northern province was enough for me to overcome our critics here and at in the legislature,” Barrett said, also pushing the glass across.  He raised his.  “Congratulations, Deputy Director Fernandez!”

“I am?  You did?” she was much more surprised by his ‘our critics’ than her promotion made official.  She picked up her glass and drank with him.  “Thank you, sir.  I shall do my best!”

“Oh,” he paused and set his glass down, “I’ll need a lot more than that, I’m afraid.  Once we’re finished here you can head over to the south wing and start reorganizing things to your satisfaction.  It will be about a month before you are to head out again.”

“Will it?” she quietly reflected.

“The next order of business is just an FYI,” he said, finishing what was in his glass while moving the next paper to her side.  “This is the official announcement that DD Stephens has chosen to leave our organization and return to the Ranger Division.”

She quickly scanned the officious sounding lines and looked back up.

“That implies there is an unofficial version?”

“Of course,” Barrett agreed, pouring more for himself.  A look to her had her shake her head.  “He was… less than pleased at having to raze Wichita.  Pleading women and children and all that.”

“And all that…”

“In fact, he took it upon himself to arrange for the legitimate refugees to be moved south into former Oklahoma.  I’ve already tasked your man Binger with getting them resettled by spring,” he said around another mouthful.

My man…

“I’m surprised that such near-insubordination is tolerated,” she tried gently.

Barrett looked surprised.

“I reward initiative whether it is to my advantage or not, Sylvia!” He took another long drink.  “You think I like this job?  The evacuations are bad enough; breaking men’s souls to do it is likely worse…”

His drinking and this conversation is headed somewhere dangerous; him calling me by my name…

“So who is to replace him?  Who will be my opposite in that Chief Directorate?” she asked, trying to get his mind back onto a business track.

“Baker,” he said with a nod.  But pouring more whiskey.

“Really?” That surprised her.  “I would have thought Randolf from First – ”

“No.” His rejection was complete.  She was also pleased to see him put the cork onto the top of the bottle.  “No one gets promoted out of the First Chief Directorate.  After what I’ve ordered them to do they are no longer fit for legal society.”

“For human society,” he sighed, sagging a bit into his chair.

Sylvia understood.  Men who would put families onto boxcars to be dumped out at the border with no food or water; men who would nail over seventy thousand people to crosses… it was never war.  It is something much worse…

“Was there anything else, sir?” she asked, staring at the folder in case he had forgotten about it.

“Yes.  What I said is your next road trip,” he said while moving the thick folder across.  His actions were such that the small photograph on the corner was dislodged.  The convection currents from the space heater drifted it to Sylvia’s side of his desk.  She reached down to retrieve the photo.  Now face-up and turned to her, she could not help but regard it.

A grinning Oriental girl in her late teens.  She wore a lifeguard’s bikini and was holding some kind of Chihuahua mix.  Her eyes were occluded by sunglasses and her long black hair in a single braid.

“Sorry, sir,” she said, returning to picture to him.  Without a word he took it and slid it into his jacket pocket.

“The Mexicans,” he began as if nothing happened, indicating the folder, “have just occupied San Diego.  They are moving a brigade toward Tucson as we are talking.”

“War?” she asked.

“Certainly not against us,” he said shaking his head.  “More like just moving into the power vacuum, justified in their eyes by their long-standing claims to the Southwest US.”

“And this?” she asked, putting her right hand onto the folder.  It was pointless to try to read it all now.

“Their next move will be against former New Mexico.  I want all the legal work done in two weeks for us to occupy everything east of the Rio Grande,” he finished his alcohol.  “That is, after all, traditional Texas land going back to our First Republic.  Oh, we’ll also need cover for some pockets across the river, as well.”

“If I may ask, why, sir?  It’s by and large not productive land like Oklahoma.  Why add this burden to our nascent state?”

“It’s not the land we need,” he replied with a nod, “it is the minds in Sandia Laboratories in Albuquerque and National Lab at Los Alamos.  Some of the best special weapons designers in the world.”

“I see.” Sylvia didn’t entirely but understood that she had best review the file under her hand before morning.  The only thing left on his side was the corked bottle.  “Was that all, Director?”

“Yes.  Thank you, Miss Fernandez.”

She stood and moved toward the door.

“She was my eldest daughter.  Callie.  Lost in the Breakup,” she heard him say softly.  “I lost her.”

Sylvia let herself out.

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