In the summer of 1961 just as the Berlin Wall is about to slam shut the last escape route out of Eastern Europe, President Kennedy needs to know what the Soviets are up to, and Blackford Oakes is sent to Germany to get the answers. When Oakes's contact, Henri Tod, turns up missing, Blackford locks horns with East Germany's unscrupulous communist boss.
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The Story of Henri Tod
A Blackford Oakes Mystery
By William F. Buckley Jr.
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1984 William F. Buckley, Jr.
All rights reserved.
The Marlin was all right — when you have wife, children, nurses, Secret Service, four aides and one doctor. But he liked, every now and again, to remind the company that this was his father's boat, not his. He liked to sail. He could still do so, once in a while. But not when there was a goddam caravan going out. Like today. Lunch, picnic at Great Island.
Oh, it would be all right, and the day was one of those special sunny-blue-warm-crisp days that make the Cape stand out as first contender for Center of the Natural Universe. Why couldn't Washington have Cape Cod weather? Ah, he knew why Washington could not have Cape Cod weather. Because there hadn't been a Presidential Task Force constituted to inquire into the question. He must remember to put that on the agenda, call in Admiral Albuquerque; good old Albuquerque, who thought it impudent even to smile in the presidential presence. "At ease, Admiral." Then maybe he'd look at his watch and say, "Smile-time! Ten seconds!" The President could get away with that kind of thing, because his genial informality drew the sting.
Let's see. He should make his point about powerboats versus sailboats. To the mate, standing discreetly under the wooden awning that extended out toward the open cockpit where his wife and Paul and Gatty were seated, on the deck chairs. In a voice loud enough for them to hear: "Sam. Tell the skipper to cut down on the rpm." And then to Paul, "Noisy, these power buggers. So we cruise at twelve knots instead of fourteen, so what?"
Paul looked up from his book, Franny and Zooey. "So what? Why —" Paul was coaching himself not to refer to the President of the United States by his first name, never mind that they had been roommates at college, and never mind that most emphatically during the first few months, though less and less now, resigned as the President had become to being The President, he had been urged to continue calling him "Jack." Paul had progressed to the point of being able to handle "Mr. President," so mostly he addressed his friend without cognomen of any kind. "— why, if we go at twelve knots instead of fourteen, that means we'll arrive at Johnny Walker's dock at 12:48 instead of 12:44, and Plessy will grow old with worry." Plessy, the adjutant who coordinated the President's minute-by-minute movements, fretted each time the President departed Point A headed for Point B.
"Plessy won't grow old unless I tell him to," the President grumbled, and released a half smile, which was when the Secret Service man walked into the cockpit and said, "Sir, we must head back to Hyannis Port."
"Yes, sir. The duty officer radioed. He said it was top priority for you to return."
"Tell 'em to send a chopper to Great Island, pick me up there."
"The duty officer, sir, ruled that out. He said they need you right away."
His wife now raised her eyes from her book, and the silence was general.
"All right," he snapped, and the Secret Service man quickly went to the helmsman.
They traveled now at the Marlin's full speed, just over sixteen knots, so that it would have been difficult to communicate other than at full voice. In a way the engine noise made it easier, because even if it had been silent on deck little would have been spoken. Had Caroline been three years older, she would probably have said what was on everyone's mind: "Daddy, why are we going back? Daddy, why?" But grownups don't do that in straitened imperial circumstances. Bad form. What is a President supposed to say? "I don't know, dear. Could be the Indians have seized Fort Knox. Could be the Mississippi River has decided to flow east at St. Louis. Could be the Secretary of Defense has flown off to Russia with all of Daddy's secrets. We'll just have to wait and see." Paul and Gatty and Jackie returned to their reading, but a close observer would have noticed that pages now were turned more slowly than they had been on the outbound journey.
The duty officer was waiting for him with the telex. The President bounded onto the dock and took the folded paper, reading it quickly. He turned to his wife. "Go on back out to the picnic. Maybe I'll be able to join you later. If not, I'll see you when you get back."
"All right," she said, as Paul and Gatty looked up at him. Their expressions were a question mark. He paused, and then said quietly, "Berlin. They're partitioning the city."CHAPTER 2
"Oh my darling boy! My beautiful Blacky!" Blackford Oakes noted that his mother had not changed in the year since he had last seen her, and that was 95 percent good news, he thought; make that 85 percent. References to his good looks had been unbearable when he was sixteen. At thirty-five, he could more easily let them pass as maternal endearments if only they were rendered, as now they were, in private. The trouble was that his mother was perfectly capable of going on about her son's pulchritude in the company of relative strangers. "Mother," he had said to her the last time she trespassed, "if you keep this up I swear I'm going to have a gold ring put through my nose, and a couple of fingers chopped off." But there was no taming her.
"You would still be beautiful, Blacky."
"Okay," he had said. "Okay. If you're talking about my soul, Mother, you may say it's beautiful, which is a very sweet thing to say. And easier, since you're not my confessor. On the other hand, nobody is. I haven't pooped since I last saw you, Mother." Lady Carol sighed with pleasure.
"Alec home?" Blackford asked after his stepfather, while removing his overcoat.
"He's out, but he'll be here for lunch. He knows you're coming. He had to go to a meeting. It's all very difficult, apparently, because it has to do with the widow of his old sergeant, Heathcliff. She remarried after Heathcliff was killed and her new husband is very rich. Very, very rich, Blacky. I think he owns soap."
"What do you mean, 'he owns soap,' Mother? Do you mean he owns a soap company?"
"No, dear. He owns soap. Every time you wash your hands, Sergeant Heathcliff's ex-wife's husband — I can never remember his name — gets some money out of it. Oh, not so very much, I would say. Maybe as little as a farthing. But you know, when you take into account all the people who wash their hands — though it's true, we have to face the fact that there are some lazy people in this world who don't wash regularly — but also, Blacky, we have to face facts, some people who perhaps can't afford to buy soap — anyway," Lady Carol led the way up the staircase at 50 Portland Place and eased her son down on the sofa opposite the fireplace, whose neatly placed logs and tinder she leaned over to light as she continued her story, "anyway, you can see that that amounts to a great deal of money."
Blackford, a graduate engineer from Yale University, with practical experience in architecture and other serious pursuits, decided he would simply accept unconditionally that his stepfather's ex-sergeant's ex-wife had married the man who had invented soap; and let it go, let it go. But he thought to ask, "Why is Alec concerned about the money?"
"Well, you see," said Lady Carol, pouring more milk into her son's tea because she had always thought he did not take enough of it, a stoic self-denial he had picked up as a boy at school, in the early months of the war, "the owner of the soap has died, and left his wife all his money. And now she has said that she wishes to build a monument at her husband's training barracks in Lincolnshire in memory of her first husband, Sergeant Heathcliff."
"Well I think that's very nice of her."
"Yes, dear, it's very nice of her, but the gift is entirely unsuitable, Alec says. Sergeant Heathcliff's widow has specified that her late husband's heroism should be described on the statue she wants to commission and donate, and she proposes to use as the text for the statue the letter she received from Alec in 1918."
"Well, I see that there might be a problem there. If Alec was writing to someone just widowed, he might have written a little — floridly. He was only — what, twenty-two years old himself in 1918?"
"It isn't merely that your stepfather wrote floridly about Sergeant Heathcliff. It is that he apparently wrote things about the sergeant which simply were not true."
"You mean Sergeant Heathcliff wasn't killed in battle?"
"He was killed in battle — your father has explained it all to me — but not by the Germans."
"Why?" Blackford looked up from his teacup.
"It appears that after the first platoon of your stepfather's company charged the German line, just before dawn, the second platoon was to follow, ten minutes later. As the light broke, one of them spotted a figure behind a large tree, and thinking him a German sniper, opened fire. It turned out it was — Heathcliff, hiding behind the tree while his men charged forward against the Germans. Your stepfather saw no need to describe to Mrs. Heathcliff her husband's cowardice, you know — he is so kindhearted, Alec — so that night he sat down with his fellow officers, and apparently they had got hold of a bottle of whiskey. So when he began to describe the end of Heathcliff, Lieutenant Beauregard — you never met him, he was a splendid man — began to, well you know, began to embellish the truth. And then the major chipped in. And by the time your stepfather had finished the letter and" — Lady Carol sighed — "I suppose the whiskey bottle, the end of Sergeant Heathcliff appeared most fearfully heroic. And it was all your stepfather could do, in the weeks that came later, to explain to Mrs. Heathcliff why her husband had not been recommended for the Victoria Cross."
At that moment the heavy clomp of Sir Alec ascending the staircase was heard, and Blackford rose to greet his balding, portly stepfather, dressed as usual in striped pants, morning coat, and stiff collar. They shook hands warmly, and Sir Alec accepted the tea from his wife and sat down on the sofa opposite.
"I say," he said distractedly. They waited. "I say," he repeated. "It was jolly rough."
"How did you manage it, dear?"
"Well, I, hrrm," Sir Alec cleared his throat, "I told Lady Sparrow —"
"Sparrow, that's the name, Blacky — forgive me, Alec —"
"I told Lady Sparrow that Heathcliff had left behind a missive addressed to king and country praying that in the event he should perish, no public notice was to be taken of his death, that he wished to be remembered only as a humble and dutiful servant of his sovereign."
"It worked. But her tears very nearly overwhelmed us all. I say, Carol, some sherry, please ... And Blackford, my boy, what brings you to London, if I may ask?"
At this point Sir Alec Sharkey looked over with meaningful concentration at his wife, to reassure her that they were not to inquire too exhaustively into the nature of Blackford's work. It was almost ten years ago, when Blackford first returned to London after graduating from Yale, six years after being decorated as a fighter pilot in the last days of the war, that Sir Alec had sniffed out that Blackford's vague involvement with foundations, engineering firms, and other cosmopolitan concerns, which had taken him twice, for protracted periods, to Germany, and once to France, was best not investigated in detail. He liked Blackford, approved of him; had firsthand knowledge of his mettle when as a schoolboy, freshly in his stepfather's care, he had acted courageously in reaction to the bullying of a sadistic headmaster. Even as a very boyish boy, Blackford had had a manner preternaturally adult, Sir Alec reflected. Even when munching a candy bar, he had been very much composed. So Alec Sharkey simply assumed that his stepson, now thoroughly grown up, was honorably engaged, and that if it was convenient for him to speak vaguely about his professional life, Sir Alec would not inconveniently press him on the nature of his duties. Quickly Sir Alec took the occasion to move the conversation to more public matters.
"Terrible business, that Bay of Pigs, what?"
"Yes," Blackford said. "Terrible. It was quite terrible." His memory moved, under its own inertia, to the final meeting with Sánchez Morano, at the waterhole-restaurant opposite the military airfield outside Miami. It had been very hot, humid. They had dined together, and spoken of D-Day. Sánchez Morano's skinny frame made his dark brown eyes especially luminous, and his excitement was palpable. But Sánchez and Blackford circled about the question of what day exactly the operation would go forward, as though the date had not yet been specified. In fact Fidel Castro knew the day, and would be waiting for Sánchez. What was not known to Sánchez, or to Blackford — or to Fidel Castro — was the paralyzing ambiguity in Washington of the commitment to Sánchez's mission. In pursuit of which mission he died. In a manner not to be confused with Heathcliff's, though both died of bullet wounds fired, so to speak, from their side of the line.
Blackford left his mother's house and soon discovered that his memory of London's streets lingered sufficiently to point him the way to Park Street, where at Number 74, nine years earlier, he had been given his first assignment. He knew that CIA safe houses were regularly changed, and wondered offhand how it came to be that he was now headed for the same address. Perhaps the houses were recycled — he didn't know.
The April wind was brisk, and as he fought against it he found himself idling, as he often did when in search of distraction, with mathematical calculations: How many safe houses would the Central Intelligence Agency need to have occupied in the course of nine years, assuming that the Agency required — he didn't know just how many safe houses the Agency had in London, even though Blackford Oakes was more now than a mere agent in the field, and so he would take an easy figure and guess — ten. So. How many houses in total would the Agency need to occupy over the course of nine years if each house were abandoned after two months (that, he had been taught by one of his instructors in Washington, was the rule of thumb)? That would be ten houses six times per year, equals sixty per year times nine years equals 540 houses. Enough to house the entire Russian secret service, given the cubic feet assigned in Moscow per family. Fascinating. To whom? Ah, Blackford, you are a cunning old bird. To nobody, that's to whom.
He was walking down Park Lane, and the streets began to look thoroughly domesticated as he approached the residential district in Mayfair. He looked at his watch. Time had not withered away the sacrosanct habit. The meeting had been called for 4:14, at which time, exactly, he would knock on the door. He was a minute early and so walked past Number 74 until he judged the interval correct. He stooped to tie his shoelace, and when he arose walked back in the direction he had come from to the entrance of Number 74 and knocked. The door was instantly opened.
Blackford permitted himself, if many months had gone by without seeing Rufus, to embrace him in the rather formal way in which grown men greet their fathers. Rufus instinctively resisted anything that suggested explicit affection, but a few years ago Blackford had said, "Rufus, I know it's unlikely in our line of business that you would ever be awarded a Nobel Prize, but suppose that you were: What would you do when the King of Sweden, with a check for forty-five grand in his pocket, approached you with a royal embrace?"
Rufus had replied only with his little half smile, saying nothing, as was his habit. Today, Blackford thought, Rufus almost reached the point of returning the embrace. Such was the impression Rufus gave when remaining motionless.
Rufus's notion of foreplay, Blackford thought, amusing himself; and said, "Great to see you, Rufus, you old superspy!"
Rufus winced — but he had endured worse. When tortured by the Nazis, in the early days of the war. Before his legendary escape, and his rise to eminence in his profession as the intelligence officer Ike trusted most.
Excerpted from The Story of Henri Tod by William F. Buckley Jr.. Copyright © 1984 William F. Buckley, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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