The Doomsday Conspiracy

Chapter Seventeen


The following Monday morning Robert reported for his first day of duty at the 17th District Office of Naval Intelligence at the Pentagon.
Admiral Whittaker said warmly, "Welcome home, Robert. Apparently you impressed the hell out of Colonel Johnson."
Robert smiled. "He's quite impressive himself."
Over coffee, the Admiral asked, "Are you ready to go to work?"
"Good. We have a situation in Rhodesia ..."
Working in the Office of Naval Intelligence was even more exciting than Robert had anticipated. Each assignment was different, and Robert was given the ones classified "extremely sensitive". He brought in a defector who revealed Noriega's drug-smuggling operation in Panama, exposed a mole working for Marcos in the American Consulate in Manila, and helped set up a secret listening post in Morocco. He was sent on missions to South America and to the East Indies. The only thing that disturbed him was the long separations from Susan. He hated to be away from her, and he missed her terribly. He had the excitement of his job to occupy him, but Susan had nothing. Robert's caseload kept increasing. He spent less and less time at home, and that was when the problem with Susan became serious.
Whenever Robert came home, he and Susan would run hungrily into each other's arms and make passionate love. But those times began to be further and further apart. It seemed to Susan that no sooner did Robert return from one assignment, than he was sent away on another.
To make matters worse, Robert could not discuss his work with her. Susan had no idea where he went or what he was doing. She knew only that whatever he was involved in was dangerous, and she was terrified that one day he would leave and never return. She dared not ask him questions. She felt like a stranger, completely shut out of an important part of his life. Of their life. I can't go on like this, Susan decided.
When Robert returned from a four-week assignment in Central America, Susan said, "Robert, I think we had better have a talk."
"What's the problem?" Robert asked. He knew what the problem was.
"I'm frightened. We're slipping away from each other, and I don't want to lose us. I couldn't stand it."
"Susan ..."
"Wait. Let me finish. Do you know how much time we've spent together in the last four months? Less than two weeks. Whenever you come home I feel as though you're a visitor, instead of my husband."
He took Susan in his arms and held her tightly. "You know how much I love you."
She laid her head on his shoulder. "Please don't let anything happen to us."
"I won't," he promised. "I'll have a talk with Admiral Whittaker."
"The Admiral will see you now, Commander."
"Thank you."
Admiral Whittaker was seated behind his desk, signing papers. He looked up as Robert entered and smiled. "Welcome home, Robert, and congratulations. That was an excellent job in El Salvador."
"Thank you, sir."
"Sit down. Can I offer you some coffee?"
"No, thank you, Admiral."
"You wanted to talk to me? My secretary said it was urgent. What can I do for you?"
It was difficult to begin. "Well, sir, this is personal. I've been married less than two years, and ..."
"You made a wonderful choice, Robert. Susan's a fine woman."
"Yes, I agree. The problem is that I'm away most of the time, and she's unhappy about it." He added quickly, "And she has every right to be. It isn't a normal situation."
Admiral Whittaker leaned back in his chair and said, thoughtfully, "Of course, what you're doing isn't a normal situation. Sometimes sacrifices have to be made."
"I know," Robert said stubbornly, "but I'm not prepared to sacrifice my marriage. It means too much to me."
The Admiral studied him reflectively. "I see. What is it you're asking?"
"I was hoping that you could find some assignments for me where I'm not away from home so much. This is such a large operation, there must be a hundred things I could do closer to home."
"Closer to home."
The Admiral said slowly, "You've certainly earned that. I don't see why something like that can't be arranged."
Robert smiled in relief. "That's very good of you, Admiral. I would certainly appreciate it."
"Yes, I think we can definitely arrange that. Tell Susan for me that the problem is solved."
Robert stood up, beaming. "I don't know how to thank you."
Admiral Whittaker waved a hand of dismissal. "You're too valuable a piece of manpower for me to let anything happen to you. Now go home to your bride."
When Robert told Susan the news, she was thrilled. She threw her arms around him. "Oh, darling, that's wonderful."
"I'm going to ask him for a couple of weeks off so we can take a trip somewhere. It will be a second honeymoon."
"I've forgotten what a honeymoon is like," Susan murmured. "Show me."
Robert showed her.
Admiral Whittaker sent for Robert the following morning. "I just wanted you to know I'm making some arrangements about the matter we discussed yesterday."
"Thank you, Admiral." Now was the time to mention taking a leave. "Sir ..."
Admiral Whittaker said, "Something has come up, Robert." The Admiral began to pace. When he spoke, there was a note of deep concern in his voice. "I've just been informed that the CIA has been infiltrated. It seems that there has been a steady leak of Top Secret information. All they know about the spy is that his code name is 'the Fox'. He's in Argentina right now. They need someone outside the Agency to handle the operation. The Deputy Director of the CIA has asked for you. They would like you to track the man down and bring him back. I told them the decision is up to you. Do you want to undertake it?"
Robert hesitated. "I'm afraid I'll have to pass on it, sir."
"I respect your decision, Robert. You've been travelling constantly and have never turned down an assignment. I know it hasn't been easy on your marriage."
"I'd like to take on this job, sir. It's just that ..."
"You don't have to say it, Robert. My opinion of your work and dedication will always remain the same. I just have one favour to ask of you."
"What's that, Admiral?"
"The Deputy Director of the CIA asked to meet with you, regardless of your decision. As a courtesy. You don't mind, do you?"
"Of course not, sir."
Early the next morning Robert drove to Langley for his meeting.
"Sit down, Commander," the Deputy Director said after Robert entered the large corner office. "I've heard a lot about you. All good things, of course."
"Thank you, sir."
The Deputy Director was a man in his early sixties, reed thin with fine white hair and a small brush moustache that moved up and down as he drew on his pipe. A Yale graduate, he had joined the OSS during World War II and then moved into the CIA when it was formed after the conflict. He rose steadily up the ranks of the most powerful intelligence agency in the world.
"I want you to know, Commander, that I respect your decision."
"I appreciate that."
"There is one fact, however, that I feel I should bring to your attention."
"What's that, sir?"
"The President is personally involved in the operation to unmask the Fox."
"I didn't know that, sir."
"He regards it - as I do, too - as one of the most important assignments this agency has had since its inception. I know of your situation at home, and I'm sure the President is sympathetic, too. He's a real family man. But your not taking on this assignment might throw - how should I say it - a cloud on ONI and Admiral Whittaker."
"The Admiral had nothing to do with my decision, sir," Robert said.
"I understand that, Commander, but will the President understand that?"
The honeymoon will have to be postponed, Robert thought.
When Robert broke the news to Susan, he said gently, "This is my last overseas assignment. After this I'll be home so much you'll get sick of me."
She smiled up at him. "There isn't that much time in the world. We're going to be together forever."
The chase after the Fox was the most frustrating thing Robert had ever experienced. He picked up his trail in Argentina, but missed his quarry by one day. The trail led to Tokyo and China and then Malaysia. Whoever the Fox was, he left just enough of a trail to lead to where he had been, but never to where he was.
The days turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months, and always Robert was just behind the Fox. He called Susan almost every day. In the beginning, it was, "I'll be home in a few days, darling." And then, "I might be home next week." And then, finally, "I'm not sure when I'll be back." In the end, Robert had to give up. He had been on the Fox's trail for two and a half months, with no success.
When he returned to Susan, she seemed changed. A little cooler.
"I'm sorry, darling," Robert apologized. "I had no idea it would take so long. It was just ..."
"They'll never let you go, will they, Robert?"
"What? Of course they will."
She shook her head. "I don't think so. I've taken a job at Washington Memorial Hospital."
He was taken aback. "You've what?"
"I'm going to be a nurse again. I can't sit around waiting for you to come home to me, wondering where you are, and what you're doing, wondering whether you're dead or alive."
"Susan, I ..."
"It's all right, my sweetheart. At least I'll be doing something useful while you're gone. It will make the waiting easier."
And Robert had no answer to that.
He reported his failure to Admiral Whittaker. The Admiral was sympathetic.
"It's my fault for agreeing to let you do it. From now on, we'll let the CIA handle their own damned problems. I'm sorry, Robert."
Robert told him about Susan taking a job as a nurse.
"That's probably a good idea," the Admiral said thoughtfully. "It will take the pressure off your marriage. If you took on some overseas caseloads now and then, I'm sure it won't matter as much."
"Now and then" turned out to be almost constantly. That was when the marriage really began to disintegrate.
Susan worked at Washington Memorial Hospital as an operating-room nurse and whenever Robert was home she tried to take time off to be with him, but she was caught up more and more in her work.
"I'm really enjoying it, darling. I feel I'm doing something useful."
She would talk to Robert about her patients, and he remembered how caring she had been with him, how she had nurtured him back to health, back to life. He was pleased that she was doing important work that she loved, but the fact was, they were seeing less and less of each other. The emotional distance between them was widening. There was an awkwardness now that had not existed before. They were like two strangers trying desperately hard to make conversation.
When Robert returned to Washington from a six-week assignment in Turkey, he took Susan out to dinner at Sans Souci.
Susan said, "We have a new patient at the hospital. He was in a bad plane crash, and the doctors didn't think he was going to live, but I'm going to see to it that he does." Her eyes were glowing.
She was like that with me, Robert thought. And he wondered if she had leaned over the new patient and said, "Get well. I'm waiting for you." He rejected the thought.
"He's so nice, Robert. All the nurses are crazy about him."
All the nurses? he wondered.
There was a small, nagging doubt at the back of his mind, but he managed to get rid of it.
They ordered dinner.
The following Saturday, Robert left for Portugal, and when he returned three weeks later, Susan greeted him excitedly.
"Monte walked today for the first time!" Her kiss was perfunctory.
"Monte Banks. That's his name. He's going to be fine. The doctors couldn't believe it, but we wouldn't give up."
We. "Tell me about him."
"He's really darling. He's always giving us gifts. He's very wealthy. He flies his own plane and he was in a bad crash, and ..."
"What kind of gifts?"
"Oh, you know, just little things ... candies and flowers and books and records. He tried to give all of us expensive watches but, of course, we had to refuse."
"Of course."
"He has a yacht, polo ponies ..."
That was the day Robert began calling him "Moneybags".
Susan talked about him every time she came home from the hospital.
"He's really dear, Robert."
Dear was dangerous.
"And he's so thoughtful. Do you know what he did today? He had lunch sent from the Jockey Club for all the nurses on the floor."
The man was sickening. Ridiculously, Robert found himself getting angry. "Is this wonderful patient of yours married?"
"No, darling. Why?"
"I just wondered."
She laughed. "For heaven's sake, you're not jealous, are you?"
"Of some old man who's just learning to walk? Of course not." Like hell I'm not. But he wouldn't give Susan the satisfaction of saying so.
When Robert was at home, Susan tried not to talk about her patient, but if she did not bring up the subject, Robert would.
"How is old Moneybags doing?"
"His name is not Moneybags," she chided him. "It's Monte Banks."
"Whatever." It was too bad the sonofabitch couldn't have died in the plane crash.
The following day was Susan's birthday.
"I'll tell you what," Robert said, enthusiastically, "we'll celebrate. We'll go out and have a wonderful dinner somewhere and ..."
"I have to work at the hospital until eight."
"All right. I'll pick you up there."
"Fine. Monte is dying to meet you. I've told him all about you."
"I look forward to meeting the old man," Robert assured her.
When Robert arrived at the hospital, the receptionist said, "Good evening, Commander. Susan is working in the orthopedic ward on the third floor. She's expecting you." She picked up the telephone.
When Robert got off the elevator, Susan was waiting for him, wearing her white starched uniform, and his heart skipped a beat. She was, oh, so damned beautiful.
"Hello, gorgeous."
Susan smiled, strangely ill at ease. "Hello, Robert. I'll be off duty in a few minutes. Come on. I'll introduce you to Monte."
I can't wait.
She led him into a large private room filled with books and flowers and baskets of fruit, and said, "Monte, this is my husband, Robert."
Robert stood there, staring at the man in the bed. He was three or four years older than Robert and resembled Paul Newman. Robert despised him on sight.
"I'm certainly pleased to meet you, Commander. Susan has been telling me all about you."
Is that what they talked about when she was at his bedside in the middle of the night?
"She's very proud of you."
That's it, buddy, throw me a few crumbs.
Susan was looking at Robert, willing him to be polite. He made an effort.
"I understand you'll be getting out of here soon."
"Yes, thanks mostly to your wife. She's a miracle worker."
Come on, sailor. Do you think I'm going to let some other nurse have that great body? "Yes, that's her speciality." Robert could not keep the bitterness out of his voice.
The birthday dinner was a fiasco. All Susan wanted to talk about was her patient.
"Did he remind you of anyone, darling?"
"Boris Karloff."
"Why did you have to be so rude to him?"
He said coldly, "I thought I was very civil. I don't happen to like the man."
Susan stared at him. "You don't even know him. What don't you like about him?"
I don't like the way he looks at you. I don't like the way you look at him. I don't like the way our marriage is going to hell. God, I don't want to lose you. "Sorry. I guess I'm just tired."
They finished their dinner in silence.
The next morning, as Robert was getting ready to go to the office, Susan said, "Robert, I have something to say to you ..."
And it was as though he had been struck in the pit of his stomach. He could not bear to have her put what was happening into words.
"Susan ..."
"You know I love you. I'll always love you. You're the dearest, most wonderful man I've ever known."
"Please ..."
"No, let me finish. This is very hard for me. In the last year we've only spent minutes together. We don't have a marriage anymore. We've drifted apart."
Every word was a knife stabbing into him.
"You're right," he said desperately. "I'll change. I'll quit the Agency. Now. Today. We'll go away somewhere and ..."
She shook her head. "No, Robert. We both know that wouldn't work. You're doing what you want to do. If you stopped doing it because of me you would always resent me. This isn't anybody's fault. It just ... happened. I want a divorce."
It was as though the world had caved in on him. He felt suddenly sick to his stomach.
"You don't mean that, Susan, we'll find a way to ..."
"It's too late. I've been thinking about this for a long time. All the while you were away and I sat home alone and waited for you to come back I thought about it. We've been living separate lives. I need more than that. I need something you can't give me anymore."
He stood there, fighting to control his emotions. "Does this ... does this have anything to do with Moneybags?"
Susan hesitated. "Monte has asked me to marry him."
He could feel his bowels turning to water. "And you're going to?"
It was some kind of crazy nightmare. This isn't happening, he thought. It can't be. His eyes filled with tears.
Susan put her arms around him and held him close. "I will never again feel about any man the way I felt about you. I loved you with all my heart and soul. I will always love you. You are my dearest friend." She pulled back and looked into his eyes. "But that isn't enough. Do you understand?"
All he understood was that she was tearing him apart. "We could try again. We'll start over and ..."
"I'm sorry, Robert." Her voice was choked. "I'm so sorry, but it's finished."
Susan flew to Reno for a divorce, and Commander Robert Bellamy went on a two-week drunk.
Old habits die hard. Robert telephoned a friend at the FBI. Al Traynor had crossed Robert's path half a dozen times in the past, and Robert trusted him.
"Tray, I need a favour."
"A favour? You need a psychiatrist. How the hell could you let Susan get away?"
The news was probably all over town.
"It's a long, sad story."
"I'm really sorry, Robert. She was a great lady. I ... never mind. What can I do for you?"
"I'd like you to run a computer check on someone."
"You've got it. Give me a name."
"Monte Banks. It's just a routine inquiry."
"Right. What do you want to know?"
"He's probably not even in your files, Tray, but if he is ... did he ever get a parking ticket, beat his dog, run a red light? The usual."
"And I'm curious about where he got his money. I'd like a fix on his background."
"So, just routine, huh?"
"And, Tray, let's keep this between us. It's personal. Okay?"
"No problem. I'll call you in the morning."
"Thanks. I owe you a lunch."
"You've got it."
Robert replaced the receiver and thought, Portrait of a man clutching at straws. What am I hoping for, that he's Jack the Ripper, and Susan will come flying back into my arms?
Early the following morning, Dustin Thornton sent for Robert. "What are you working on, Commander?"
He knows perfectly well what I'm working on, Robert thought. "I'm winding up my file on the diplomat from Singapore, and ..."
"It doesn't seem to be occupying enough of your time."
"I beg your pardon?"
"In case you've forgotten, Commander, the Office of Naval Intelligence is not mandated to investigate American citizens."
Robert was watching him, puzzled. "What are you ...?"
"I've been notified by the FBI that you have been trying to obtain information that is completely out of the jurisdiction of this agency."
Robert felt a sudden rush of anger. That sonofabitch Traynor had betrayed him. So much for friendship. "It was a personal matter," Robert said. "I ..."
"The computers of the FBI are not there for your convenience, nor to help you harass private citizens. Do I make myself clear?"
"That's all."
Robert raced back to his office. His fingers trembled as he dialled 202-324-3000. A voice answered, "FBI."
"Al Traynor."
"Just a moment, please."
A minute later, a man's voice came on the line. "Hello. May I help you?"
"Yes. I'm calling Al Traynor."
"I'm sorry, Agent Traynor is no longer with this office."
Robert felt a shock go through him. "What?"
"Agent Traynor has been transferred."
"To where?"
"Boise. But he won't be up there for a while. A long while, I'm afraid."
"What do you mean?"
"He was struck by a hit-and-run driver last night while jogging in Rock Creek Park. Can you believe it? Some creep must have been drunk out of his mind. He ran his car right up on the jogging path. Traynor's body was thrown over forty feet. He may not make it."
Robert replaced the receiver. His mind was spinning. What the hell was going on? Monte Banks, the blue-eyed all-American boy, was being protected. From what? By whom? Jesus, Robert thought, what is Susan getting herself into?
He went to visit her that afternoon.
She was in her new apartment, a beautiful duplex on "M" Street. He wondered whether Moneybags had paid for it. It had been weeks since he had seen Susan, and the sight of her took his breath away.
"Forgive me for barging in like this, Susan. I know I promised not to."
"You said it was something serious."
"It is." Now that he was here, he didn't know how to begin. Susan, I came here to save you? She would laugh in his face.
"What's happened?"
"It's about Monte."
She frowned. "What about him?"
This was the difficult part. How could he tell her what he himself didn't know? All he knew was that something was terribly wrong. Monte Banks was in the FBI computer all right, with a tickler: No information to be given out without proper authorization. And the inquiry had been kicked right back to ONI. Why?
"I don't think he's ... he's not what he seems to be."
"I don't understand."
"Susan - where does he get his money?"
She looked surprised at the question. "Monte has a very successful import-export business."
The oldest cover in the world.
He should have known better than to have come charging in with his half-baked theory. He felt like a fool. Susan was waiting for an answer and he had none.
"Why are you asking?"
"I was ... I just wanted to make sure he's right for you," Robert said lamely.
"Oh, Robert." Her voice was filled with disappointment.
"I guess I shouldn't have come." You got that right, buddy. "I'm sorry."
Susan walked up to him and gave him a hug. "I understand," she said softly.
But she didn't understand. She didn't understand that an innocent inquiry about Monte Banks had been stonewalled, referred to the Office of Naval Intelligence, and that the man who had tried to get that information had been transferred to the boondocks.
There were other ways of obtaining information, and Robert went about them circumspectly. He telephoned a friend who worked for Forbes Magazine.
"Robert! Long time no see. What can I do for you?"
Robert told him.
"Monte Banks? Interesting you should mention him. We think he should be on our Forbes Four Hundred wealthiest list, but we can't get any hard information on him. Do you have anything for us?"
A zero.
Robert went to the public library and looked up Monte Banks in Who's Who. He was not listed.
He turned to the microfiche, and looked up back issues of the Washington Post around the time that Monte Banks had had his plane accident. There was a brief item about the plane crash. It mentioned Banks as an entrepreneur.
It all sounded innocent enough. Maybe I'm wrong, Robert thought. Maybe Monte Banks is a guy in a white hat. Our government wouldn't have protected him if he was a spy, a criminal, into drugs ... The truth is that I'm still trying to hold onto Susan.
Being a bachelor again was a loneliness, an emptiness, a round of busy days and sleepless nights. A tide of despair would sweep over him without warning, and he would weep. He wept for himself and for Susan and for everything that they had lost. Susan's presence was everywhere. The apartment was alive with reminders of her. Robert was cursed with total recall, and each room tormented him with memories of Susan's voice, her laughter, her warmth. He remembered the soft hills and valleys of her body as she lay in bed naked, waiting for him, and the ache inside him was unbearable.
His friends were concerned.
"You shouldn't be alone, Robert."
And their rallying cry became, "Have I got a girl for you!"
They were tall and beautiful, and small and sexy. They were models and secretaries and advertising executives and divorcees and lawyers. But none of them was Susan. He had nothing in common with any of them, and trying to make small talk with strangers in whom he had no interest only made him feel more lonely. Robert had no desire to go to bed with any of them. He wanted to be alone. He wanted to rewind the film back to the beginning, to rewrite the script. With hindsight, it was so easy to see his mistakes, to see how the scene with Admiral Whittaker should have played.
The CIA has been infiltrated by a man called The Fox. The Deputy Director has asked for you to track him down.
No, Admiral. Sorry. I'm taking my wife on a second honeymoon.
He wanted to re-edit his life, to give it a happy ending. Too late. Life did not give second chances. He was alone.
He did his own shopping, cooked his meals for himself and went to the neighbourhood laundromat once a week when he was home.
It was a lonely, miserable time in Robert's life. But the worst was yet to come. A beautiful designer he had met in Washington telephoned him several times to invite him to dinner. Robert had been reluctant, but he had finally accepted. She prepared a delicious candlelight dinner for the two of them.
"You're a very good cook," Robert said.
"I'm very good at everything." And there was no mistaking her meaning. She moved closer to him. "Let me prove it to you." She put her hands on his thighs and ran her tongue around his lips.
It's been a long time, Robert thought. Maybe too long.
They went to bed, and to Robert's consternation, it was a disaster. For the first time in his life, Robert was impotent. He was humiliated.
"Don't worry, darling," she said. "It will be all right."
She was wrong.
Robert went home feeling embarrassed, crippled. He knew that in some crazy, convoluted way, he had felt that making love to another woman was a betrayal of Susan. How stupid can I get?
He tried to make love again, several weeks later, with a bright secretary at ONI. She had been wildly passionate in bed, stroking his body and taking him inside her hot mouth. But it was no use. He wanted only Susan. After that, he stopped trying. He thought of consulting a doctor, but he was too ashamed. He knew the answer to his problem, and there was no solution. He poured all his energy into work.
Susan called him at least once a week. "Don't forget to pick up your shirts at the laundry," she would say. Or: "I'm sending over a maid to clean up the apartment. I'll bet it's a mess."
Each call made the loneliness more intolerable.
She had called him the night before her wedding.
"Robert, I want you to know I'm getting married tomorrow."
It was difficult for him to breathe. He began to hyperventilate.
"Susan ..."
"I love Monte," she said, "but I love you, too. I'll love you until the day I die. I don't want you ever to forget that."
What was there to say to that?
"Robert, are you all right?"
Sure. I'm great. Except that I'm a fucking eunuch. Scratch the adjective.
He could not bear to punish her with his problem. "I'm fine. Just do me a favour, will you, baby?"
"Anything I can."
"Don't ... don't let him take you on your honeymoon to any of the places we went to."
He hung up and went out and got drunk again.
That had been a year earlier. That was the past. He had been forced to face the reality that Susan now belonged to someone else. He had to live in the present. He had work to do. It was time to have a chat with Leslie Mothershed, the photographer who had the photographs and names of the witnesses Robert had been assigned to track down on what was going to be his last assignment.