By Jennings, Phillip
Forge Books Copyright © 2008 Jennings, Phillip
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780765355782
Chapter Uno South of the Border, But North of Panama Gearheardt looked damned good for a dead man. Same silly grin. Same low slouch in the chair. His left foot, sockless in his penny loafer, rested on the corner of my desk and balanced him as he leaned on the two back legs of the government issue, standard low-level embassy employee furniture. His cigarette ash landed lightly on my inexpensive carpet, a gift from one of my Mexican assets, as he waved his arms demonstratively with his story. “So the Nungs dragged me out, probably so they could eat fresh-cooked meat, but unfortunately for them I was alive.” Gearheardt spread his arms, illustrating the point that he was living. He had walked into my office in the embassy, pulled a chair up to my desk, and said, “Jack, you look like a damn bureaucrat. Never thought I’d see the day.” I have to admit that after the shock I shed tears of joy, whooping and disturbing the embassy folks, most of whom already did not like me. (No one in the embassy liked the guys who were spooks, assuming that the CIA was busily working against the very programs the State Department was pushing. They were mostly right.) But Gearheardt—alive! It was a miracle. Unless you knew Gearheardt. My first reaction was to call mymother back in Kansas. She had always loved Gearheardt. (Did that put her in the class of bar women around the world who also loved Gearheardt?) She had the completely unrealistic notion that Gearheardt “protected” me as my best friend. But I knew that she would be thrilled. When I left home after a visit, departing to the hell-spots the Marines sent me, she would say, “I just hope that Gearheardt will protect you. Bless his soul.” He had last been seen, or so I thought, in the middle of a pile of flaming helicopter in the Laotian jungle near the Mu Gia pass. His Air America mission had been to pick up a group of Chinese mercenaries, Nungs, who had been causing mischief on our behalf along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Letting down into the zone, Gearheardt had taken a dead-on burst from a .50 caliber and cart-wheeled in flames. The Nungs on the ground radioed there were no survivors. Three days later I held his memorial in the White Rose, our favorite Vientiane nightclub, slept with his girlfriend to comfort us both, and, not long after, left Southeast Asia. That was 1969. Now it was 1973 and the dead man was sitting in front of me. My best friend alive and all in one piece. “You survived that fireball without a scratch?” “Actually if you look close, these aren’t my ears. I’ll tell you about that later. I’m thirsty, Jack. Let’s hit a cantina.” Gearheardt left the embassy the way he left most places when I had known him before: as if the entire staff was already mourning his departure. He spoke to all of the secretaries and the people who appeared from their offices—although he couldn’t have known any of them. Gearheardt had been presumed dead for years. After I left Asia, I had hounded the CIA to let me join the Agency, partly, in some way, to continue working with his memory. They had only reluctantly let me join their ranks. (The “cover” that Air America was an independent airline might have been breached if I left it and immediately showed up as an agent, they thought.) After brief training and a rapid language course, I ended up in Mexico. The Marine at the front desk jumped to attention as we approached the exit. “Sign Mr. Armstrong and me out, Corporal,” Gearheardt said, brightly. “And tell Gunnery Sergeant Wolfe I’ll take him up on his offer next time.” He winked at the grinning Marine and strode out into the afternoon Mexican sunlight. I caught up with him after checking to see that the Marine actually signed the two of us out. Gearheardt’s name was not on the log. Only a Pepe Woozley had signed in for admission to my floor. “Gearheardt,” I said, “you just got here this afternoon. What’s all this with the gunny? And who in the hell is Woozley?” “The guy I thought I was when I was in Angola, Jack.” He paused to let me exit the embassy gate before him. “You ask a lot of questions for a spook.” He joined me and we began walking down the street. The passing Mexicans smiled at Gearheardt, who smiled back. They had always ignored me. “Knock off the spook stuff, Gearheardt. I’m here as the embassy’s economic development officer.” I put my arm around his shoulders as we walked down the crowded avenue. I was so damn glad to see him. “You are one rotten bastard, you know,” I said to him. “I had no idea you were alive.” Gearheardt laughed. “When the Company disappears you, Jack, no one is supposed to know you’re alive. I’ve had to convince my mother I was writing her from beyond the grave. She was easier to fool than the IRS, by the way. But that’s the price we pay for eternal virginitis, Jack. We’re spooks for our country.” “What the hell is virginitis, Gearheardt?” I asked before I remembered he always threw in nonsense words to take your mind off the fact that the rest of his explanation made no sense. It had worked on me again. But I didn’t care. I was glad to see him. We had almost stopped the Vietnam War together and you get close to a guy when that kind of pressure is on you. We would have stopped the Vietnam War too, except we’d had no idea of what we were doing. We turned into a cantina. A small, bright, and cool place where I knew the proprietor was discreet (since he was on my payroll) and the beer and tortillas were cold and hot. Gearheardt headed to the back to use the cuarto de baño, and I ordered beer for us both. I was almost schoolgirlishly excited at seeing my old friend. My sidekick through the thick and thin of the Vietnam War and Air America in Laos. Although there was a part of me shouting Alert! Alert! Gearheardt in the area! since I had never been with him more than five minutes that he didn’t get us both in scalding water. “Vayan con perros, señoritas,” Gearheardt was saying to the two young Mexican women he had managed to meet and get to know in the ten yards between the restroom and our table. He plopped down in the seat opposite me, raised his beer glass in a salute, and drained it. “Dos más, por favor,” he yelled to the bartender. Then he leaned toward me and lowered his voice. “I need your help, Jack. I’m taking over Mexico.” My heart sank. I knew the grinning bastard was dead serious. Chapter the Dos Exploding Chihuahuas Gearheardt was well into the beer before he was half through bringing me up to date on his adventures since he’d narrowly escaped being a “pork roast” on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Beer was such a natural element for Gearheardt that I assumed he bathed and did his laundry in it. That’s how he got along with beer. He never seemed to get slowly drunk. There would come a time when the next beer or the next became a catalyst and he would go from Gearheardt to raving madman; this was usually signaled by his taking a pistol from his shoulder holster and scaring the crap out of anyone nearby. I watched for that signal now, but he was calm, almost mellow, in his description of his duty for the CIA in Africa. Angola, to be exact. “They slapped a gallon of Unguentine on me, Jack, and packed me off to help the folks in Angola whip the Cubans. I was the chief helicopter flight instructor for the Angolan air force.” He signaled for more beer, but his hand didn’t move toward the shoulder holster I could see beneath his sport coat. “You taught helicopter flying to the Angolans?” “I would have, except they didn’t have any helicopters. In fact, as far as I could tell they didn’t have an air force. Typical damn CIA screwup. You would think that somebody in Washington would check these things out. How hard could it be to send someone to the airport and see if anything lands or takes off?” “So what did you do?” I was genuinely curious. Gearheardt was not known for his veracity in the Agency, but his stories were almost always based in truth. “I hung around the capital. Pretty boring to tell the truth. The Portuguese are obviously not going to be able to hang on. It’s their last colony I think. Those guys couldn’t administer a hanging in a one-rope town. But guess who I ran into.” “Gearheardt, I know no one who has been to Angola, is going to Angola, or who wants to go to Angola. Just tell me who you saw.” I was anxious to get him back on the subject of taking over Mexico. “The dreaded Gon Norea.” “You’re kidding. The Cuban American British Russian spy? That Gon Norea? The one the Koreans put in a barrel and ruined his back?” “That’s the man. Good guy too. We chased women around Luanda till we ran out of the CIA’s living allowance. That guy is a tail hound, Jack. One night we had these three—” “Gearheardt, could you just tell me the bare bones of what the hell you were doing in Angola and what it has to do with taking over Mexico? Which, by the way, I am not sure is in the U.S. plans for Mexico. But maybe I missed the memo.” The cantina was rocking. A number of the embassy people had stopped in and were using the happy hour prices to drink tequila and bitch about their miserable lives as embassy people. Behind the bar Mr. Chávez caught my eye, pointed to his chest, and raised his eyebrows. “You need me for work?” he mouthed. I shook my head slightly and he went back to bartending. Mr. Chávez was a reliable source of information on the Halcones (the Mexican secret police) and various other Mexican government officials. He owned bars and restaurants near most large embassies and across the street from the government offices. Not only did he pick up information coming from the Mexicans and others, but if I wanted to plant information in the government or other embassies, I stationed an agent at a table with a bottle and let him talk to his agent companion. The next morning, the information he was “whispering” was sure to be diffused throughout the various institutions. Mr. Chávez didn’t need the small amount of money I paid him for information and an occasional small favor. He said he was happy to help the Americans because his money was all in American stocks. Gearheardt laughed when I told him. “You know, Jack, it’s getting harder to find an honest man. The Company had me set up a shop in Luanda selling South African passports—forged of course—so that we could get guys across the border to train with UNITA. Half the damn checks I took in bounced.” I looked into Gearheardt’s eyes to see if there was a twinkle of irony, pushing aside the image of African Bushmen writing checks for fake passports. There wasn’t. “That is a sad state of affairs, Gearheardt.” I moved my chair closer to the beer-bottle-covered table. “Gearheardt, you mentioned something about taking over Mexico. What the hell is that all about? Were you just pulling my chain? You do know that I am acting station chief in Mexico City, don’t you?” “Congratulations, Jack. Head of the Agency’s men in Mexico and you just a poor economic development officer. My, my, what has the Agency come to?” I stared at him. He sat, unperturbed, lightly tapping his finger against the beer bottle. He wouldn’t look at me, and that worried me. I trusted Gearheardt implicitly. On the other hand, I had trusted my first dog, Roughhouse, implicitly and he had eaten my sister’s rabbit. Dogs do what dogs do. And Gearheardt . . . “You know what I like about Mexico, Jack,” he finally began, “it’s those Chihuahuas you fill with candy and then beat with a stick until they blow open and the candy goes everywhere. That’s good clean fun, Jack.” “Piñatas, Gearheardt. Chihuahuas are little dogs.” Gearheardt didn’t look up from the table, but he smiled. Then he said, “Jack, I need to tell you some things. But when I tell you, then you’ll have to make some tough choices. You and I have always been honest with each other—” “No we haven’t. You have lied about every damn thing you’ve talked me into. Just tell me what this taking over Mexico is all about. If it’s a joke, let’s forget it and go get some tacos and margaritas.” Gearheardt got up from the table and pulled a wad of money from his pocket. “Let’s take a walk,” he said, dropping the pesos on the table without counting them. I nodded at Mr. Chávez and followed Gearheardt out the door. The street was crowded and loud. The Zona Rosa was nearby and I suggested to Gearheardt that we head there for dinner. “Let’s walk down to the park, Jack. Chapultepec Park is one of the great strolling parks in the world.” He took off down the street, smiling at the Mexicans scurrying along the crowded sidewalk. I caught up with him. “How do you know about Chapultepec Park? I thought you said you had never been to Mexico City before.” “I told you I had just arrived in Mexico City. I meant this time.” “So you’ve been coming here and not getting in contact with me. What an asshole you are, Gearheardt. Didn’t you know I was at the embassy?” Gearheardt looked at the scores of speeding cars screaming by in front of us. He stepped into the street and was oblivious to the screeching brakes and chaotic swerving going on around him. I stuck close to his side. “I knew you were there, Jack,” he shouted over the noise of the traffic. “But I needed to get my structure in place before I contacted you. Besides, you thought I was a standing rib roast. And don’t think I don’t know that you slept with Dow after I was dead.” Which was true and caught me slightly off guard. “I was just—” “If you say you were just horny, I’ll forgive you. I don’t want to hear anything else. I didn’t make up excuses for screwing all of your girlfriends.” I needed a minute to think through what he had said, and Gearheardt went on. “Let’s talk about Mexico, Jack. Let’s talk about Mexico and Cuba,” he said as we mercifully reached the curb. We were in the park. Every night the park was lit like a festival. Bright lights underneath the giant trees. Families and lovers were the main human ingredients. The park’s aura belied its existence in the heart of a frantic downtown Mexico City. At the city end of the park was the Chapultepec Castle, where the U.S. Marines once fought. Not far away, on the other side of the boulevard, the National Museum of History was a crown jewel, a world-class archaeological exhibition palace. Gearheardt sat on a bench beneath one of the mammoth trees and I dropped down beside him as he lit a cigarette. “Those are the Halls of Montezuma, Jack,” he said, pointing to the castle. “You know, the Shores of Tripoli and all that stuff.” “I know the Marine hymn, Gearheardt.” “Don’t you kind of still miss the Marine Corps, Jack? This CIA stuff is fun but there’s no camaraderie or anything. Every man out for himself, know what I mean? If I’m going to try to take over a country or just kill some officials, I like to do it with a bunch of good guys. Have a few beers or something, you know? Blow something up and then run like hell. That’s my style, not all this sneaking around and using some local dickhead with a burr up his ass about his own politicians.” “You haven’t changed a bit, Gearheardt. A hand grenade looking for a place to explode.” Gearheardt and I had been young Marine pilots when we were asked by the president to go on a mission to Hanoi to stop the Vietnam War. We didn’t do a very good job, to say the least, and were traded to Air America and the CIA after we escaped from North Vietnam. Gearheardt resented our treatment, but I thought we received better than we deserved. Gearheardt screwing Uncle Ho’s girlfriend might have caused the 1968 Tet Offensive. But that was behind us now. “Got a cigarette, Jack?” Gearheardt asked. “I gave it up. The air in Mexico City is enough to keep a good cough going.” Gearheardt waved to a young boy selling cigarettes and gum. He bought a package of each, borrowing the pesos from me and letting the boy keep the considerable change. “I gave it up too. But I’m starting again.” He lit another cigarette and blew smoke, tilting his head up and away from me. “My only hobby.” Gearheardt sat for a moment contemplating the almost carnival-like scene in what we could see of the park. When he spoke, he didn’t turn his head toward me. “This country is screwed, Jack. The new rich folks are stealing from the old rich folks. The politicians are crooked as a dog’s hind leg. The peasants don’t know enough to give a shit. And if they do get ahead, by some damn miracle, they just join the stealing crowd. Most of the Mexicans are just dicked.” He flipped his cigarette onto the sidewalk. “The situation is so pathetic it almost makes me feel bad to screw their women.” Gearheardt didn’t deal in irony, and I knew that I was about to hear what he meant when he said he (the CIA? Gearheardt individually?) was taking over Mexico. So I kept my mouth shut. Now he turned toward me. “Cuba has it all together, Jack. The man has things under control.” I assumed he meant Castro. “You’ve never been to Cuba, Gearheardt. And have you forgotten the Cubans in Hanoi? The assholes torturing American pilots?” “In Angola they’re kicking ass and taking names, Jack. Toughest damn troops you ever saw. Disciplined and under control. In a fair fight, we would have a hard time knocking them on their butt. I’m not kidding you.” “What has this got to do with taking over Mexico?” I asked. Gearheardt lowered his voice and leaned toward me. “The Russians would piss their pants if we had troops in Mexico, Jack. God knows what the Chinese would do. I would imagine they couldn’t even find Mexico with a map. But you never know. France is still pissed the Mexicans executed Maximilian. Heaven knows what Germany is cooking up. Spain hates the Mexicans because they don’t want people to think Mexicans are Spanish. South America is jungle and dancing in bars. Sure, there are countries that don’t have their own screwed-up political agendas and axes to grind. But can you see Iceland invading Mexico? Maybe if they teamed up with Greenland they could blast their way ashore at Acapulco, but then what? So Mexico just sits here, right on our border, festering and rotting in the sun.” “I have no idea what that rambling means, Gearheardt.” The concept of Icelandic troops storming Acapulco momentarily caused my mental gears to grind. “But let me explain a couple of things to you, my friend. First, there are more Russian spies in Mexico than there are Cubans in Havana. We assume they are trying to turn the country. And we’re not going to let them. “Second, I don’t know what all this festering in the sun is about, but we’re making progress here. I mean the Agency is. And we are not actually hoping some wild-ass renegade hit man recently from Angola might suggest backing the Cubans in a coup, if that’s what you’re suggesting.” Gearheardt was humming maddeningly, his face turned away from me. I grabbed his arm. “Are you listening to me, you damn wild man? No coups! If that—” “Ix-nay on the oo-cay stuff, Jack. This toro I see before me might speak a little English.” I had not noticed two large Mexicans standing closely in front of us. Their black suits, tight in the shoulders, and sunglasses told me they were not lovers out for a stroll. Halcones. I leaned back onto the bench and knew that I should say something before Gearheardt—as he did every damn time we faced any authority—pissed them off. I never could understand how anyone could see worth a damn through those sunglasses at night. “You boys big Ray Charles fans?” he asked, smiling the Gearheardt smile and spreading his arms across the back of the bench. The colored lights strung along the walkways twinkled in the sunglasses. The men behind the glasses didn’t seem to get the reference. In any event they were not amused. “Get up, gringo,” the closest toro said, speaking to Gearheardt. I started to rise, pulling my diplomatic passport (black instead of civilian green) out of my inside breast pocket. “Señores,” I began, “there might be some mistake. My friend and—” “Creo que no,” the smaller bull said. “No mistake. Your friend is coming along with us. This is no business of yours, Señor Armstrong. Go home.” “Jack,” Gearheardt said, now on his feet and facing down the first Halcón, “this is not unexpected. The man asked you politely to go home. You might want to do just that. These gentlemen want to buy me a beer. They didn’t invite you.” He smiled and stepped between the two policemen, who turned and followed him without looking back at me. Who was standing on the sidewalk in Chapultepec Park worrying about a friend who had just been picked up by the meanest secret police in the world. I was pissed, knowing that I was now becoming part of something that Gearheardt had no doubt dreamed up and which would completely disrupt my life if it didn’t kill me. That damn Gearheardt, I thought. The Mexican boy selling cigarettes appeared beside me. He looked at the three figures disappearing into the dark street running behind the park. “That damn Gearheardt,” he said. Then he left while I was still speechless. Copyright © 2007 by Phillip Jennings. All rights reserved. Continues...
Excerpted from Goodbye Mexico by Jennings, Phillip Copyright © 2008 by Jennings, Phillip. Excerpted by permission.
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