1. WE ARE SHADOW
She heard the air. It sounded like her Mustang on the Interstate. She’d push its tat engine hard for the on-ramp. Dash would vibrate. She’d check mirrors. Trucks were there, scaring her sideways to the shoulder. She’d strain up to speed in the slow lane, flip the blinker to join the faster ones, relax into the drive, and only then would she realize the radio was a ruffle of lost words because the windshield was whistling on high. Air that loud was normal on the ground. Here in the cockpit, it was a sign.
Solar bands, raw dawn beauty, were hours away. Clouds blocked stars. Moon was gone. As for her visor, its night vision just fine on the ground, it’d frizzed out. Green light had gloomed to black. This night, Mary had no horizon.
She checked the head-up display. It said she was at thirty-five thousand feet with her nose tilted two degrees down. So what was the noise?
She toggled up attitude detection. She was pointed to ground at seven hundred miles per hour.
They couldn’t both be right. She moved the stick.
Head-up stayed; attitude changed. She was an arrow straight for earth at the speed reserved for sound.
Her forgetting hands went to the grips to eject.
Some checklist came in time to save her. Gloves: she took them off. Helmet. Second was the helmet. Wait. Should she take her helmet off? She strained. Helmet was on, wasn’t it? No. Hadn’t somebody got a face sheered because the helmet was on? Off, would something she’d forgotten to batten blind her? Faceless or blind. Faceless or blind? Blind. Helmet stayed. She pulled out the oxygen, held on to her breath. Store it, store it. Into the compartment under the seat, she shoved and locked tubes. She released the survival gear in the seat kit. That would have broken her back.
She could not find the four-line release for the chute. Fingers and palms were mumbling all over the surfaces near where the release should have been. It was here. It has been here. Here. Here. She was at twenty-five thousand feet. Belts were flapping all over her chest. She hooked. Another she pulled off, couldn’t, and tied it down instead. She tightened the Koch fittings.
If she couldn’t get the four-line to deploy she would never make it. No, sometimes you make it. The odds were just bad. You could make it. Flailing, that was the thing that could kill you.
She pulled down on the grips.
The windblast threw the helmet from her head. Her earplugs disintegrated and flew like buckshot out a shotgun. Two pens in her pocket became stilettos that scored her chin. Her wallet fired through the bottom of her G-suit, along with a water bottle that busted out of a zippered pocket—missiles both. The laces on her boots plastered into the leather; one of them got through to her ankle, making an arabesque wound. Her watch sank into her wrist until the wind whipped it, and her skin, away and into the atmosphere.
One leg was twisting out of its socket in her right hip. Tendons snapped, one, two; another held. She could not feel any of it. In minutes she saw the city below, old houses in rows, the bowed Potomac, memorial stairs lit white beside it.
There was a crash. The night editor saw it at the top of his screen. Before he could open that story, another story arrived.
The first story said inhabitants of the Watergate heard something in the Potomac like the sound of a ship running aground. The second story said a bus smashed a truck in Potomac, the Maryland suburb. An explosion heard for miles wracked this affluent enclave of the nation’s capital just after midnight. Stanley remembered how he had edited a story the night before last, removed enclave. Someone else had excised it from his copy when he was just starting, the youngest reporter of all. Back then he thought the word couldn’t be used because it sounded like “clavicle,” or collarbone, a long bone curved like the italic letter f. Some editors let enclave stand. He’d built a vocabulary without such chiffons. It was a language of straight timber.
It hadn’t made him a newsman. With more than four decades behind him, he was instead a repository, the memory of the newspaper that had judged him wanting. He knew on which Washington street one murder unfolded and another almost did, which lobbyist’s first partner was someone else’s third, how the vote on appropriations changed something in conference when someone was Speaker. He had accumulated, first on spiral-bound paper, then in steel-case Rolodexes, and later on peach index cards in oak recipe boxes, a way of finding who to ask and what had happened and where they’d been and when they’d mattered. The city-states and principalities he’d chronicled knew nothing of him, but his enlarged understanding had made him their defender. Sometimes, he felt like moat and parapet. The attackers were hyperactive reporters, seasoned editors with tin-cup recollections, the paper itself—an organism sensitive to status, especially its own, but deaf to smaller bells.
The final edition had just closed. The last papers were furling out of warehouses many highways from downtown, where he and the copy chief, the last two working, sat tilted to terminals. From his desk his colleague was distant, featureless across a shaken board of careless desks. The air conditioning, a constant in September Washington, was the one sound. Stanley wore a suit vest over a Mexican shirt. His hair was gray tufts—a sun-scuffed baseball cap was on his head.
Stanley felt as if he sat by the sea. His computer screen, where the newswires sent their stories and bulletins and advisories, was his estuary. He spent his nights judging movement on this inlet. He had become, he thought, an honest estimator of depths. To be sure, there were reporters, the best of them fearless divers; he had to admit even the most middling of them reached an underwater he only imagined. But Stanley liked to think he knew more than they. He had learned to see how the actual of the world sometimes became known, and how, most often, disappeared from told life.
He felt those losses, some he even mourned. He relished that the night editor was one of the countable few who decided what was important enough to discuss publicly. Granted, he signified only in those hours after the last edition closed and before the newsroom—the Room—came to its senses, sometime after ten in the morning. Things at night appeared different in morning; night editors were constantly corrected, and it all rushed into the infinite light stream of amending and shading that continued day-in and day-out to give shape to what the outside world called factual. His contribution was not even a fleck of light in the sun blast of that constant making and unmaking of what might be true.
He looked at his screen again. He Googled to see if blogs had it. Nothing came up but pilot video games. He switched back. Now the wire was saying there was a helicopter accident near the Watergate. A noise like a ship in a river had become a bus in a suburb, an explosion in an enclave, and now a helicopter in the Potomac. This time, “aboard were government employees.” He sent the copy chief a message—See the wire on Watergate crash? She messaged—???? Then added—No bodies. As if answering her thought, Stanley saw the wire had sent another take—“Pilot presumed dead.”
She landed in a tree. From it, Mary could see her Viper—now a fire in the river. In the Washington thrillers she had read so many of as a teenager, she would be a saucy woman. And she would not be in a tree. She would have landed in the water, clung to an outcropping of rocks after being battered by the rapids, and somehow managed to get her mirror, the one in the survival gear she had, in truth, jettisoned, and, flicking its light to the sky, been rescued by a sailor. She’d have been piloting a secret mission, but ultimately, because of dirty politicians, nosy reporters, and heart-of-gold detectives, the reader would see she was not what she seemed.
The Coast Guard was a few minutes away. There were automatic relays that brought them when an F-16 went down. She felt her face—slashed but not too deep to fix. Leg felt numb. She looked down. Her heel was where her toes should be.
For as long as she could remember, the only thing she knew was to do what frightened her the most. She was not aggressive, not technically proficient, not physically self-possessed. So she ran to the military, to the men who didn’t want her there, to the women who were nothing like her, to trials that strafed her nature. She wanted to grow out of herself. She wanted to take the coat of appearances given her by birth and burn it away by will. She had a picture of herself in her mind. All that was left of the cloth shawl of circumstance was smoke. She was a naked figure in its haze, coming out of the soft focus to let the storm come hard as it may.
The walls glowed raspberry, the woodwork gleamed cream. At the base of the broad stone mantel was a collection of frayed bellows. Nearby was a Japanese screen hand-painted with rocks and trees. There were easy chairs in celery with a brushed-silk sheen. On the rumpled linen sofa were pillows made from canary damask, a salvaged Colonial quilt, and, needlepointed on the largest pillow, in a russet explosion, a cascade of begonias. One lamp was a royally yellow Chinese jar touched with jade, on top of which sat a pleated ivory shade. For fun, there was a leopard-print ottoman finished with heavy silk-twisted fringe, some strands of which were a little too long, on purpose, to create a sumptuous sensation as they draped on an antique rug the color of dried bamboo.
The dinner party of Mabel Cannon and Don Grady had gotten as far as the first drink. The guests were people known to be known. They presumed they were on the written-about-but-not-actual A-list. It was not called the Social Register. In conversation, if spoken about at all, its peripheral aspirants thought it was called “the circuit.” These guests were lavishly parodied. Unknown to their diagnosticians, they were also people who knew they were satirized. It felt fine to them. Mockery was the living sign of envy.
Mabel had come to see that her husband was almost the last of a time past. No one else was in his rank. He had promoted his home as the place most important conversations occurred, more than in any official location. One guest, whose wife was out of town, had been attending dinner parties here since he was a somewhat young man. Yet he, a historian, had come to think of Mabel Cannon and Don Grady, who’d been so reliantly welcoming to him over the years, as not unlike the European aristocracy before the First World War. It was all crumbling around them. It would never be as it was. It had to end, it would end, and no one believed it ever could end.
But people—having faith in what they had read of power, or had seen of it onscreen, or, most often, believed through the sanction of asides describing it—still came. They averted their eyes and drank up, spoke of things that reinforced what was supposed, wore smiles, stayed late.
The conversation this night was when one war would end and another begin. Don Grady, working on a national-security book, could not speak of events as they unfolded, but only when they were completed. Interest in any event was highest when it was unknown but presumed to be knowable. That was one of the privileges of dining at Mabel Cannon and Don Grady’s: you might be able to divine, through observation of Don’s reaction to a guest’s proffered scenario, what was going on—in that worn expression—behind the scenes. Someone could then say, I was at Grady’s, and when someone said war was coming next week, Grady winced. If war came next week, this moment would be remembered and recounted, proof of Grady’s unimpeachable access to power’s highest balconies. If war did not come next week, the wince would be interpreted as his tut-tutting at the wrong many who could only guess, and badly, the future. As for Don, he was constantly bewildered and had made a profitable art out of masking his confusion. His books were best-selling. He felt despicably lucky. He acted like a bishop.