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The Human Division #12: The Gentle Art of Cracking Heads
By John Scalzi
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2013 John Scalzi
All rights reserved.
Episode Twelve: The Gentle Art of Cracking Heads
"This is a very interesting theory you have, about conspiracy," said Gustavo Vinicius, the undersecretary for administration for the Brazilian consulate in New York City.
Danielle Lowen frowned. She was supposed to be having this meeting with the consul general, but when she arrived at the consulate she was shunted to Vinicius instead. The undersecretary was very handsome, very cocksure and, Lowen suspected, not in the least bright. He was very much the sort of person who exuded the entitled air of nepotism, probably the less than useful nephew of a Brazilian senator or ambassador, assigned someplace where his personal flaws would be covered by diplomatic immunity.
There was only so much Lowen could stew about the nepotism. Her father, after all, was the United States secretary of state. But the genial, handsome stupidity of this Vinicius fellow was getting on her nerves.
"Are you suggesting that Luiza Carvalho acted alone?" she asked. "That a career politician, with no record whatsoever of criminal or illegal activity, much less any noticeable political affiliations, suddenly took it into her head to murder Liu Cong, another diplomat? In a manner designed to undermine relations between the Earth and the Colonial Union?"
"It is not impossible," Vinicius said. "People see conspiracies because they believe that one person could not do so much damage. Here in the United States, people are still convinced that the men who shot Presidents Kennedy and Stephenson were part of a conspiracy, when all the evidence pointed to single men, working alone."
"In both cases, however, there was evidence presented," Lowen said. "Which is why I am here now. Your government, Mr. Vinicius, asked the State Department to use this discreet back channel in order to deal with this problem, rather than go through your embassy in Washington. We're happy to do that. But not if you're going to give us the runaround."
"I am not giving you a runaround, I promise," Vinicius said.
"Then why am I meeting with you and not Consul Nascimento?" Lowen asked. "This was supposed to be a high-level, confidential meeting. I flew up from Washington yesterday specifically to take this meeting."
"Consul Nascimento has been at the United Nations all day long," Vinicius said. "There were emergency meetings there. She sends her regrets."
"I was at the United Nations before I came here," Lowen said.
"It is a large institution," Vinicius said. "It's entirely possible that you would not have crossed paths."
"I was assured that I would be given information pertaining to Ms. Carvalho's actions," Lowen said.
"I regret I have nothing to give you at this time," Vinicius said. "It's possible that we may have misunderstood each other in our previous communications."
"Really, Mr. Vinicius?" Lowen said. "Our mutual State Departments, who have been in constant contact since your nation brought its first legation to Washington in 1824, are suddenly having communication difficulties?"
"It is not impossible," Vinicius said, for the second time in their conversation. "There are always subtleties which might go misread."
"I am certain things are going misread at the moment, Mr. Vinicius," Lowen said. "I don't know how subtle they are."
"And if I may say so, Ms. Lowen, in the case of this particular issue, there is so much disinformation going on about the event," Vinicius said. "All sorts of different stories about what happened on this ship where the events took place."
"Is that so," Lowen said.
"Yes," Vinicius. "The eyewitness reports aren't especially credible."
Lowen smiled at Vinicius. "Is this your personal opinion, Mr. Vinicius, or the opinion of the Brazilian Ministry of External Relations?"
Vinicius smiled back and supplied a little hand movement, as if to suggest the answer was, A little of both.
"So you're saying that I am not a credible eyewitness," Lowen said.
Vinicius's smile vanished. "Excuse me?" he said.
"You're saying I am not a credible eyewitness," Lowen repeated. "Because I was part of that diplomatic mission, Mr. Vinicius. In fact, not only was I there, I also conducted the autopsy that established that Liu Cong's death was murder, and also helped identify how it was the murder was accomplished. When you say that the eyewitness reports are not credible, you're talking about me, specifically and directly. If what you're saying actually reflects the opinion of the Ministry of External Relations, then we have a problem. A very large problem."
"Ms. Lowen, I —," Vinicius began.
"Mr. Vinicius, it's clear we got off on the wrong foot here, because I was assured there would be actual information for me, and because you are clearly an unprepared idiot," Lowen said, standing. Vinicius rushed to stand as well. "So I suggest we start again. Here's how we're going to do that. I am going to go downstairs and across the street to get a cup of coffee and perhaps a bagel. I will take my time enjoying them. Let's say a half hour. When I return, in half an hour, Consul General Nascimento will be here to give me a full and confidential briefing on everything the Brazilian government knows about Luiza Carvalho, which I will then report back to the secretary of state, who, just in case you didn't know, as it's clear you don't know much of anything, is also my father, which if nothing else assures that he will take my call. If, when I return, Consul Nascimento is here and you are nowhere nearby, I might not suggest that you be fired by the end of the day. If, when I return, she is not here, and I have to see your smug face again, then I would suggest you take a long lunch break to book your trip back to Brasília, because you're going to be there by this time tomorrow. Are we clear on these details?"
"Uh," Vinicius said.
"Good," Lowen said. "Then I expect to see Consul Nascimento in half an hour." She walked out of Vinicius's office and was at the consulate's elevator before Vinicius could blink.
Across the street at the doughnut shop, Lowen pulled out her PDA and called her father's office, getting James Prescott, his chief of staff. "How did it go?" Prescott asked, without preamble, as he opened up the connection.
"Pretty much exactly as we anticipated," Lowen said. "Nascimento wasn't there and pawned me off on an egregiously stupid underling."
"Let me guess," Prescott said. "A guy named Vinicius."
"Bing," Lowen said.
"He's got a reputation for stupidity," Prescott said. "His mother is the minister of education."
"I knew it," Lowen said. "Mommy's boy made a particularly dumb remark, and that allowed me to tell him to produce Nascimento or I would start a major diplomatic incident."
"Ah, the gentle art of cracking heads," Prescott said.
"Subtle wasn't going to work on this guy," Lowen said, and then the windows of the doughnut shop shattered from the pressure wave created by the exploding building across the street.
Lowen and everyone else in the shop ducked and yelled, and then there was the sound of glass and falling debris outside, all over Sixth Avenue. She opened her eyes cautiously and saw that the glass of the doughnut shop windows, while shattered, had stayed in their frames, and that everyone in the doughnut shop, at least, was alive and unharmed.
Prescott was yelling out of the speaker of her PDA; she put the thing back to her ear. "I'm fine, I'm fine," she said. "Everything's fine."
"What just happened?" Prescott asked.
"Something just happened to the building across the street," Lowen said. She weaved her way through the still-crouching patrons of the doughnut shop and went to the door, opening it gently to avoid dislodging the shattered glass. She looked up.
"I think I'm not going to get that meeting with Nascimento," she said, to Prescott.
"Why not?" Prescott said.
"The Brazilian consulate isn't there anymore," Lowen said. She disconnected the PDA, used it to take pictures of the wreckage on and above Sixth Avenue and then, as a doctor, started to tend to the injured on the street.
* * *
"Amazonian separatists," Prescott said. He'd caught the shuttle up from Washington an hour after the bombing. "That's who they're blaming it on."
"You have got to be kidding me," Lowen said. She and Prescott were in a staff lounge of the State Department's Office of Foreign Missions. She'd already given her statement to the New York Police Department and the FBI and given copies of her pictures to each. Now she was taking a break before she did the whole thing over again with State.
"I didn't expect you to believe it," Prescott said. "I'm just telling you what the Brazilians are saying. They maintain someone from the group called in and took responsibility. I think we're supposed to overlook that the specific group they're pinning it on has never once perpetrated a violent act, much less traveled to another country and planted a bomb in a secure location."
"They're crafty, those Amazonian separatists," Lowen said.
"You have to admit it's overkill, though," Prescott said. "Blowing up their consulate to avoid talking to you."
"I know you're joking, but I'm going to say it anyway, just to hear myself say it: The Brazilians didn't blow up their own consulate," Lowen said. "Whoever our friend Luiza Carvalho was in bed with did it."
"Yes," Prescott said. "It's still overkill. Especially since the Brazilian ambassador is now down at Foggy Bottom giving your father everything they know about Carvalho's life and associations. If their plan was to intimidate the Brazilian government into silence, it's gone spectacularly wrong."
"I'm guessing it wasn't their plan," Lowen said.
"If you have any idea what the plan is, I'll be happy to hear it," Prescott said. "I have to go back down tonight to meet with Lowen senior."
"I have no idea, Jim," Lowen said. "I'm a doctor, not a private investigator."
"Rampant speculation would be fine," Prescott said.
"Maybe distraction?" Lowen said. "If you blow up a Brazilian consulate on American soil, you focus two governments' attention on one thing: the consulate exploding. We're going to be dealing with that for a few months. Meanwhile, whatever else these people are doing — like what the plan was behind Carvalho's killing Liu Cong — gets put on the back burner."
"We're still getting the information about Carvalho," Prescott said.
"Yes, but what are we going to do about it?" Lowen said. "You're the U.S. government. You have the choice between focusing on a case of a foreign national killing another foreign national on a Colonial Union ship, on which you have no jurisdiction whatsoever and only a tangential concern with, or you can focus your time and energy on whoever just killed thirty-two people on Sixth Avenue in New York City. Which do you choose?"
"They might be the same people," Prescott said.
"They might be," Lowen said. "But my guess is that if they are, they've kept themselves far enough away from events that there's someone else the direct line points to. And you know how that is. If we have an obvious suspect with an obvious motive, that's where we go."
"Like Amazonian separatists," Prescott said, archly.
"Exactly," Lowen said.
"The timing is still a little bit too perfect," Prescott said. "You stepping out and the consulate going up."
"I think that was coincidence," Lowen said. "If they were timing it, they would have waited until Nascimento was back in the office."
"Which would have meant you would have died, too," Prescott said.
"Which would have suited their purposes of distraction even more," Lowen said. "Blowing up the daughter of the secretary of state would definitely have drawn the focus of the United States. Another reason to assume the bomb was set in motion a long time ago."
"When I present your theory to the secretary, I'm going to leave that last part out," Prescott said. He pulled out his PDA to take notes. "I'm sure you'll understand why."
"That's perfectly fine," Lowen said.
"Huh," Prescott said, looking at his PDA.
"What?" Lowen asked.
"I'm sending you a news link that was just forwarded to me," Prescott said.
Lowen pulled out her PDA and opened the link; it was a news story on her tending to the injured on Sixth Avenue after the explosion. There was video of her kneeling over a prone woman.
"Oh, come on," Lowen said. "She wasn't even hurt. She just freaked out and collapsed when the bomb went off."
"Check your message queue," Prescott said.
Lowen did. There were several dozen media requests for interviews. "Gaaah," she said, throwing her PDA onto the table, away from her. "I've become part of the distraction."
"I take it this means the State Department should say you're unavailable for interviews at this time," Prescott said.
"Or ever," Lowen said. She went to get some coffee to self-medicate for her quickly approaching headache.
* * *
Lowen ended up doing six interviews: one for The New York Times, one for The Washington Post, two morning news shows and two audio programs. In each she smiled and explained that she was just doing her job, which was not strictly true, as she had given up the daily practice of medicine to work for the U.S. State Department, and anyway her specialty had been hematology. But no one called her on it, because the story of the daughter of the secretary of state arriving like a healing angel at the scene of a terrorist act was too feel-good to mess with.
Lowen cringed as her picture was splashed across screens all over the planet for two whole news cycles, the second news cycle prompted when she received a call from the president, who thanked her for her service to the nation. Lowen thanked the president for the call and made a note to yell at her father, who had undoubtedly set up the media op for his boss, who had to contend with midterm elections and could use a spot of positive public relations.
Lowen didn't want to deal with any more interviews or congratulatory calls or messages or even the offer by the Brazilian Ministry of Tourism to come for a visit. What she really wanted was to get her hands on the file concerning Luiza Carvalho. She pestered both Prescott and her father until it showed up, along with a State Department functionary whose job it was not to let the file out of her sight. Lowen gave her a soda and let her sit down with her at the kitchen table while she read.
After a few minutes, she looked over to the State Department courier. "Seriously, this is it?" she said.
"I didn't read the file, ma'am," the courier said.
The file had nothing of note about Luiza Carvalho. She was born in Belo Horizonte; her parents were both physicians; no brothers or sisters. She attended Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, earning degrees in economics and law before joining the Brazilian diplomatic corps. Postings in Vietnam, the Siberian States, Ecuador and Mexico before being called up to be part of Brazil's United Nations mission, which was where she had been serving for six years before she took on the Clarke mission, where she murdered Liu Cong.
Like all Brazilian foreign service workers, Carvalho was questioned annually by her superiors about her associations and activities and also consented to be randomly "examined" (that is, followed and bugged) by the Brazilian intelligence services to make sure she wasn't doing anything untoward. Aside from some questionable sexual liaisons — "questionable" in terms of taste in partners, not in terms of national security — there was nothing out of the usual.
Carvalho had no associations or friends outside of the foreign service community. The only trips she took were Christmastime visits to Belo Horizonte to spend the holidays with her parents. She took almost no time off except for two years prior to her death, when she was hospitalized for a case of viral meningitis; she spent four days in the hospital and then another two weeks at home recovering. And then it was back to work for her.
"This woman is boring," Lowen said, out loud but to herself. The courier coughed noncommittally.
An hour later the courier had left, file in hand, and Lowen was left with nothing but a feeling of unsatisfied irritation. She thought perhaps a drink might fix that, but a check of her fridge informed her that the only thing in that appliance was the dregs of some iced tea that she couldn't recall making. Lowen grimaced at the fact that she was coming up with a blank concerning when she had made the tea, then grabbed the pitcher and poured it out into the sink. Then she left her Alexandria condo and walked the two blocks to the nearest well-lit suburban chain theme restaurant, sat at its central bar and ordered something large and fruity for no other reason than to counteract the taste of boring that Luiza Carvalho had left in her mouth.
Excerpted from The Human Division #12: The Gentle Art of Cracking Heads by John Scalzi. Copyright © 2013 John Scalzi. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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