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The kids were bored, like kids always are at grown-up events they don't understand, fidgeting and playing restricted games and wanting the ceremony to end, so they could get to the coke and hamburger stalls, but near Hawkins there was one solemn, round-eyed black child, older than his years, attentive by his mother's side, arm protectively around her waist. Hawkins looked beyond, to the outstretched wings of polished black granite, one reaching towards the Washington Monument, the other to the Lincoln commemoration, and wondered where in that relentless, sterile list of Vietnam war dead the kid's father was named. What were the boy's years? Maybe thirteen. Probably wouldn't remember the man then. How many others at the dedication ceremony would be able to recollect their fathers or their brothers? Hawkins remembered his own legendary and famous father telling him of being in a storm ditch along Highway One, on the way to Tay Ninh, with babies just old enough to suckle from flap-eared breasts, sufficiently aware of the difference between incoming and outgoing fire to know when to cover their ears and when not to bother but hold the tit instead. He guessed they wouldn't have fathers either. Not many, anyway. Always the innocents, rarely the guilty. Pompous thought, decided Hawkins, blinking away the reflection, knowing he should have accepted the unexpected invitation to come with the Petersons and guiltily now trying to find them, to regain the opportunity. Bloody stupid, to have made the excuse. Idiotic. There hadn't been any need to check his telex or the agency machines at the Press building. Kept himself to two drinks, though. Singles at that: still a good day, so far. Never going to develop into a problem, like before. Never.
He saw the politician at last, on the Lincoln Memorial side, quite a long way from where he stood, in a predictably reserved, roped-off section. There were photographers clustered around, because the speculation was open now, but Peterson appeared unaware of their closeness, straight-backed and properly solemn faced. Peterson's wife was by his side, pretty in a corn-fed, vitamin enriched milk-every-day kind of prettiness which Hawkins had never liked until he met her and which he now liked very much. Which was ridiculous and he knew it, like saying he had to check the office wires when he wanted to stop off at the bar, instead of travelling in their limousine. He decided there was less harm in admiring Eleanor Peterson – or would lust be a better word? – than there was in two drinks, even small ones, so early in the day. Far less harm. Because those two quick snorts had been more important than getting close to a man likely to become the next President of the United States. And that was the sort of risk he'd promised himself never to take again.
The ceremony ended with an abruptness, practically an anti-climax. People stood as if they expected more and were unsure what to do, with only the impatient children anxious to get out into the Mall. An apparently uncoordinated movement started, to walk by the memorial and study the names inscribed into it and Hawkins went with the crowd to get to Peterson. He remained at the rear of the line, glad his height enabled him to keep the Petersons in sight as the walkway dipped. When he got nearer the Mall Hawkins saw the official group was already walking towards their waiting vehicles, Peterson among them. Hawkins concealed the breath deodoriser in the palm of his hand, squeezing it several times into his mouth and then called formally 'Senator! Senator Peterson.'
The politician didn't hear, continuing on and Hawkins called again and this time the man hesitated and turned, smiling in recognition.
'Ray! Didn't think you were going to make it, after all.'
'Important,' Hawkins lied. 'Kept me longer than I expected: sorry I couldn't come with you.'
Although Peterson wasn't yet a declared candidate the machinery existed because no one had any real doubts the man intended to run. Joe Rampallie, the campaign manager in everything but official title, was further down towards the waiting limousines and Peter Elliston, of whose precise function Hawkins was unsure, was already at the open door of one of them.
Eleanor stopped and turned and when she saw Hawkins she said 'Hi!' and gave one of her open smiles. She had brace-straight, even teeth.
They were an impressive couple, Hawkins decided: a presidential package. Peterson was very tall – as tall as he was, which was six-four – and exercise slim, which he wasn't. There was a flush of health about the man's face, too, and Hawkins watched as Peterson brushed back from his forehead in an habitual gesture the shank of flax-hair that the cartoonists were so fond of caricaturing. Eleanor was not as tall but still big for a woman, bright-complexioned and blonde-haired, fittingly dressed in black. Hawkins wondered if the respectful outfit had been her choice or that of the election machine. He was conscious of his out-of-condition paunch against Peterson's slimness. Maybe he'd get in shape soon. Another maybe.
'John said you had to stop by at the office,' she said.
'Always queries from London,' said Hawkins, continuing the lie.
'How are things?' said Eleanor.
'OK,' said Hawkins. He'd returned from the funeral in England two weeks earlier. 'I meant to call you, to thank you for the wreath. It was kind.' Something else put off, he thought.
'Sure you're OK?' she pressed, unconvinced.
'Positive,' he insisted.
'Now that you're back we must lunch together soon,' said Peterson. There was a pause. 'Up on the Hill.'
'I'd like that,' said Hawkins, aware from the qualification that it was to be an official, not social occasion. He'd need invitations like this now. And an in-depth profile on Peterson, in advance of his actual declaration, would make a good comparison piece with the incumbent President. The incumbency gave Nelson Harriman the traditional advantage but during his initial term unemployment had risen to record levels and Harriman had been unlucky with the timing of a gesture to Moscow, accepting a Soviet invitation to a fresh round of arms reduction talks a month before intelligence confirmation that the Russians had developed an improved SS-20 missile, exposing himself to the accusation of being weakly conciliatory.
Peterson was a formidable contrast, a recognised war hero whose consistent championing of Vietnam veterans was getting him national popularity now the pendulum of public feeling was swinging against the previous rejection. But Peterson wasn't just relying on the past. During the most recent European tour there had been meetings with the British Premier, the West German chancellor and the French President and speeches in every capital insisting upon confronting Russia through strength, not weakness. And the domestic record was good, too, with an equally consistent voting record on welfare. Three days earlier Hawkins had watched the man on Good Morning America convincingly put the case for lower interest rates to stimulate the stalled American economy and out-argue a guru monetarist.
Definitely make a good feature, predicting the unseating of the first incumbent President since Jimmy Carter, Hawkins determined. Too good to have risked for a couple of drinks. No problem, though.
From behind them Hawkins saw the campaign manager hurrying back from the waiting cars. Joe Rampallie was a saturnine, unsmiling man who blinked with rapid nervousness from behind glasses that were advertised as being the executive type. They had only met three times but Hawkins didn't think the other man liked him. Rampallie said something that Hawkins didn't hear and Peterson looked uncertainly at Eleanor, who didn't respond. The senator shook his head at Rampallie.
'You must come out to the house again soon, too,' said Eleanor, to Hawkins.
The last time, six months before, Hawkins had gone by himself because by then his father had been too ill. He'd drunk too much scotch before he'd left their own house and continued on highballs in Georgetown and got into a confused, unconvincing argument about US policy in Latin America with a Democratic senator from Iowa who'd lost his temper and accused him of not knowing what he was talking about. Hawkins feared the absence of an invitation since then had been to show disapproval. Or maybe it was because Eleanor guessed how close he'd come, in his drunkenness, at making a pass at her. Thank Christ he hadn't. 'Thank you,' he said. 'That would be very nice.' Next time he'd stay sober, for all sorts of reasons.
'I'll call,' promised the woman.
To Peterson Hawkins said, 'I wondered if the others would be here today?'
'Others?' said Peterson.
'Blair and Patton,' said Hawkins.
Peterson frowned, looking into the crowd as if seeking the other two survivors from the mission. 'I thought I saw Colonel Blair earlier.'
Behind the politician Hawkins saw Rampallie beckon Ellis-ton from the vehicles and enter into an immediate conversation. At once the man hurried away into the crush of people.
'I expect they'd come,' said Hawkins.
'I guess so,' agreed Peterson. 'We haven't kept in close touch: just Christmas cards, stuff like that.'
There was no reason why they should have done, Hawkins supposed. With his father they'd been brought together in Vietnam by an event, not through friendship. Rampallie had another of his soft-voiced exchanges with the politician and Peterson shook his head. 'I don't think that's a very good idea,' said the senator.
'It can't hurt,' said the campaign manager, his voice reaching Hawkins.
'I don't like it,' insisted Peterson.
'The organisers won't mind; it gets them coverage.'
'They've got that anyway,' said Peterson. 'It's cheap.'
'Looks like it's fixed,' announced Rampallie and from the direction of the monument Hawkins saw the slim, urgent staffman returning. There were three people with him, a soldier whose chest was a technicolour of decorations, a plain-suited man and a woman, dressed like Eleanor, severely in black.
'Don't do anything like this again,' Peterson said to Rampallie, as he turned to meet the group. To Hawkins he said, in introduction, 'This is Colonel Elliott Blair ... Eric Patton ...' He paused, smiling without recognition, at the woman.
'Sharon Bartel,' she said. 'My husband was Major Bartel.'
Peterson cupped both hands around that of the woman and said, 'Of course. It's good to see you after so long, Mrs Bartel.'
Charles Bartel had been the junior ranking co-pilot of the helicopter, recalled Hawkins, one of the eight who didn't make it. Francis Forest had been the later condemned Green Beret Colonel in command of the mission and two other Green Berets, Frank Lewis and Paul Marne had died with him. So had Howard Chaffeskie and James McCloud, the sidegunners. And the civilians, Harvey Lind, the CBS cameraman whose film deservedly won him a posthumous award and John Vine, the CBS reporter for whom the excursion into Chau Phu had been the final assignment.
As the hurriedly assembled group went through the ritual of introductions, Hawkins was aware of Rampallie summoning the remaining photographers and of a sudden scurry towards them. Peterson was right; it was cheap.
'I'm sorry about this,' apologised Peterson. 'Really I am.'
They stood around with the discomfort of strangers unsure how to react to one another, each waiting for the other to initiate a conversation.
It was difficult to calculate the number of decorations Blair carried but Hawkins guessed it had to be more than fifty. He isolated the Silver and Bronze Stars and more than one Purple Heart and gave up. Like counting fireworks, he thought. Blair looked like a model for a recruitment poster, hair shorn to the skin high above his ears, stiff-backed, uniform immaculately uncreased, shoes gleaming. The hand contact between them was brief but Hawkins' impression was of physical hardness; knocking on Blair's chest would be like knocking on wood.
Eric Patton was quite different, a tall, polished-faced man with retreating hair. He bulged with plumpness around a waistline where one-time muscle had become fat through neglect or indulgence. His attitude was of an eagerness to please and Hawkins realised that the hesitant smile seemed always waiting, in readiness.
The widow of Charles Bartel was a petite, quietly still woman whom Hawkins guessed to be only three or four years older than Eleanor Peterson, although the age difference appeared greater. Eleanor Peterson had the beauty of someone protected throughout her existence: close up there was a tightness about Sharon Bartel's face and there were pinch-lines in the corner of her eyes. Happy beauty against sad beauty, Hawkins thought.
It was the practised politician and his wife who made the conversation.
'I'm sorry,' Eleanor said to the other woman. 'It must be a difficult moment for you.'
'There have been quite a few,' said Sharon Bartel. 'I've become used to them.'
'What do you think of the monument?' Peterson asked generally.
'It's not enough,' said the widow, positively. 'I've read all about the supposed artistic merits but I don't think it's sufficient.'
'There's supposed to be a sculpture planned,' said Hawkins, entering the conversation.
'And provision for a flag,' said Sharon. 'I still don't think it'll be a sufficient improvement.'
'Maybe it's something we have to get used to,' suggested Patton. The hopeful smile flickered on and off, like an uncertain light.
'Maybe,' said Peterson. 'What do you think, Colonel?'
'Appropriate,' said Blair, curtly.
Hawkins guessed that any other stance than that of almost upright attention would be difficult for the soldier. His father had told him that in Vietnam the Special Services were the military elite, the supermen: whenever Green Beret special forces entered a bar or restaurant, ordinary soldiers had risen to offer their seats. Blair looked as if he would have taken such homage for granted.
'I met Harvey Lind's wife at the beginning of the ceremony,' said Sharon, looking back into the crowd in apparent search.
To Rampallie Peterson said, 'I should write to her: Vine's wife, too, if he had one. Remind me about that.'
Patton smiled at Hawkins and said, 'Where's your father?'
'He died, a month ago,' said Hawkins. 'I managed to bring him to see the preparation before he became too ill.'
'I'm sorry,' said Patton automatically.
'He was a good writer,' said Sharon Bartel. 'A sympathetic man.'
'Yes,' said Hawkins, greeting the familiar praise. 'He was.'
'He contacted me afterwards,' she said. 'Wrote me a very nice letter.'
'After Vietnam he was posted here, as the Washington correspondent,' said Hawkins. 'I succeeded him two years ago, but he stayed on. We lived together.'
'Quite unusual, son following father like that?' offered Blair. He had a flat, unmodulated voice.
'I suppose it was,' agreed Hawkins. Unusual wasn't the polite word in the London office, Hawkins knew. Just as he knew there was some justification for the sniping. He wouldn't have got directly into Fleet Street from Cambridge without his father's influence. Or been kept on, when the drinking had become established and the mistakes had started, bad enough for two libel writs. Or – from that mess – got the Washington job, a prestige and reward posting on a Sunday newspaper as politically respected as theirs. Or managed to sustain it, hopefully appearing from the distance of London to have controlled the drinking and created his own contacts which were, in fact, a legacy of his father's influence and respect in the American capital. Or ... Abruptly Hawkins shut off the litany going through his mind. All over now, he thought. Now he was on his own. Very much on his own.
A lot of executives had attended the funeral and later the memorial service in St Bride's. It was at the memorial service that he realised there were some of them who suspected what had happened in America. And were waiting for the proof, like vultures in the nearest tree. Hawkins swallowed, his throat moving, wishing he had a drink. Very much alone, he thought again.
It was Eleanor Peterson who brought the awkward encounter to an end. Indicating their waiting car she said, 'Can we give anybody a lift anywhere?'
'I've got a car, thank you,' said Patton.
'No thank you,' said Blair. 'I've got transport too.'
'I'll walk,' said Hawkins. 'Fourteenth Street is close enough.' And the bar on Virginia Avenue was even closer.
'Don't forget what I said about keeping in touch,' Peterson reminded, moving with Rampallie towards the cars at last.
'I won't,' said Hawkins.
Peterson's car was an executive Cadillac, with secretarial jump-seats facing the rear seat passengers and small courtesy tables that swung outwards from the door supports, as a writing platform between them. Rampallie sat directly opposite the senator, with Elliston facing Eleanor Peterson.
Excerpted from Rules of Engagement by Brian Freemantle. Copyright © 1984 Brian Freemantle. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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