Guardians

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Chapter 21

“How’s the new job?” Callum asked over his plate of linguini.

“Pretty great, actually,” Russell owned. “I was really worried when I got my pink slip, but it’s definitely a change for the better.”

Callum Trimpe was a professor of Russian literature at United States University. Their association began when Russell consulted him on a piece of research, never showing him anything classified, but using the background knowledge his sensitivity to the nuances of the language and his deep immersion in Russian culture and history afforded him.

“I expect the new changes will mean less room for Russian specialists in government?” Callum asked.

“Most likely, in the short term,” Russell said. “Though things might come around later. Right now, half of it’s contempt for an enemy they view as an affront to their way of life, and half of it’s an inability to see beyond their own noses.”

A lot of guys he knew who’d been assigned to look at satellite pictures and count up Soviet tanks and planes and missiles were reassigned to other duties, even while all that heavy metal was still sitting in place, and still potentially dangerous.

It would probably be worse for academics. Hard times for the economy were especially hard on universities, which weren’t in much of a hiring mood even when the business journalists sang the praises of a rising Dow Jones average. Language departments had never been particularly privileged by college bean-counters, and Callum had confided worries about that, as he and his wife had an idea that they’d like to get out of D.C..

“No place to raise kids,” he said.

Of course, it wasn’t just a matter of opportunities for professors of Russian. The fewer people there were teaching it, then the fewer there also were learning it, which meant fewer trained Russian-speakers in government, a problem everyone would pretend to be shocked by when a need for competent Russian-speakers arose. It was the kind of vicious cycle that the people who presently ran the country seemed expert at perpetuating.

Callum mentioned seeing Freejack the previous weekend. It “wasn’t bad,” but he liked the Sheckley novel better, he said, comparing the two at some length. Russell said the novel sounded interesting, at any rate.

The bill came, and Callum reached for his wallet.

“Lunch is on me,” Russell said unexpectedly.

“Come on, I can’t let you do that,” Callum said.

“No, it’s all right. This isn’t something I’ve had the chance to do much before; just let me enjoy it.”

“When you put it that way – knock yourself out.”

After getting the new job Russell remained in the same apartment and continued driving the same car. He bought a few new suits, more to avoid standing out for the wrong reasons at work than any pleasure he took in fancy clothes; most of the time he was oblivious to what he was wearing.

Russell would have enjoyed a bigger television screen, and maybe one of those laser disc players that were supposed to be better than VHS, but he vacillated when it came to electronics purchases. Everything seemed to get outdated so quickly, to be markedly cheaper the next year, because there was something much better available for the same price he had paid before. Now there was all this talk about high-definition – he figured he’d wait and see where that went.

He didn’t even eat out like this much more often.

So he enjoyed watching the money pile up in his bank account, while thinking in increasingly concrete terms about where he might put it so that it could pile up even faster, and enjoying the occasional minor indulgence like this. After they split up and Russell paid up, he proceeded to the door.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Wright,” someone said before he walked out.

Russell turned in the direction of the speaker addressing him and was surprised to see Heinrich Kriegman standing before him, coat draped over his arm.

“I see you’ve already finished lunch,” Kriegman said. “Would you care to join me for a drink in the bar?”

Russell didn’t have the nerve to be rude now, and even though he smelled trouble, he was curious as to how this meeting would go if it were allowed to continue.

He checked his watch, saw there was time. “Sure,” he said, already regretting it.

They sat at the bar. Both of them had beer. Russell knew that he wasn’t great at holding his liquor, and careful to take only very small sips as they conversed.

He also knew that Kriegman’s showing up there was very unlikely to be a coincidence. Kincaid’s was a nice place, but given Kriegman’s usual, five-star standards, he was practically slumming. Besides, he wasn’t the kind of person Kriegman saw socially.

“So, what brings you to D.C.?”

“Business, naturally,” Kriegman said, as if it was all a bore. “Nothing all that exceptional, just glorified errands. Still in government?”

Russell was sure Kriegman knew better. “I’m in the private sector now,” he replied.

“More remunerative work, I trust. That’s all to the good. Your new employer – is it an exclusive arrangement?”

“For all practical purposes.”

“I see. Should circumstances change, you will let me know?” Kriegman produced a business card, which Russell accepted, then finished his beer and proceeded into the restaurant.

It wasn’t the first time that he’d been approached by a foreign agent interested in recruiting him. A KGB case officer had talked to him back in ’83, when the organization had been particularly aggressive in its information gathering.

(As Russell learned later, in the wake of the deployment of the Pershing-2 missiles to West Germany, talk of Strategic Defense Initiatives and extremely stupid jokes about the bombing of the Evil Empire beginning in five minutes, the Soviets had worried the U.S. was preparing for a first strike against the Soviet homeland, and accelerated their intelligence gathering accordingly. Russell’s guess was that someone in Moscow suspected the U.S. had mastered a piece of alien technology making such a strike feasible, and hoped he knew something about it, and was willing to talk.)

Russell reported the incident and that was that, a story that sounded a lot more colorful than it really was, which may have been just as well since he couldn’t tell it anyway.

And of course, he’d had a couple of run-ins with Kriegman before. Kriegman hadn’t been a source of concern for his bosses comparable to a Soviet operative, but someone to be wary of nonetheless.

The story went that the Nazis, with their hodgepodge of aircraft designs ahead of their time – flying wings, stealth technology, vertical takeoff and landing craft – and their penchant for strange experiments – words like “anti-gravity” had been thrown around –had been the beneficiaries of extraterrestrial technologies.

“It’s nine-tenths bullshit, same as everything else,” Jorgenson told him, “but we were never sure how much the Nazis actually got their hands on. The country was occupied by four different powers, us, the Soviets, the Brits, the French, and none of the others was perfectly above-board with us, not even the Brits. Besides, we didn’t know what was just buried and later dug up by the West Germans or East Germans, or what Nazi fugitives might have run away with.”

Whatever the case, Kriegman had a close connection with the later parts of the story as a lawyer for the Von Beckenbauers – an old family of Rhineland industrialist-aristocrats who got into aerospace in the post-Versailles years when the Germans legally didn’t have an air force. After the war that followed, the Von Beckenbauers and their associates had been linked with the rehabilitations and background clean-ups that helped old Nazis go on living and working.

Now, with reunified Germany an economic colossus; with the emergence of an European Economic Community centered on German industrial might; with the Communist collapse leaving a vacuum in Germany’s old Eastern European stomping grounds, and the American economy well along the path to deindustrialization and decrepitude; with German politics becoming radicalized as neo-Nazis took advantage of discontent with worldwide recession, immigrants and all the rest – a big question mark hung over what would happen next in that country.

Another smaller but closely related question mark hung over what role the Von Beckenbauers would try and play in this new world. They weren’t an enemy, at least not yet, but there was a risk of being compromised by an association with them all the same. He knew he wouldn’t be taking Kriegman’s offer, but he slipped the card into his suit’s right breast pocket all the same.

Russell told himself that the contact might prove useful to the company at some point. But more important to him was the feeling the card gave him – of being in demand, something he hadn’t felt very often before recently. Jorgenson had been a beneficiary of the uptick in interest that followed the Roswell crash, and then Sputnik, and then every so often when Soviet aerospace engineers came up with something that made Westerners particularly nervous, but nothing quite like that happened during Russell’s whole time in Langley. He meant to enjoy it to the full.

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