Windmills of the Gods

Chapter Five


THE snow-covered Kansas highway was ablaze with flashing red lights that turned the frosty air blood red. In the center of a circle of vehicles, ringed by headlights, sat the five-ton M871 army tractor-trailer, and partially beneath it, Edward Ashley's crumpled car. A dozen police officers and firemen were milling around, trying to keep warm in the predawn freeze. In the middle of the highway, covered by a tarpaulin, was a body.
A sheriffs car skidded to a stop, and Mary Ashley ran out of it. She was trembling so hard that she could barely stand. Sheriff Monster grabbed her arm. "I wouldn't look at him if I were you, Mrs. Ashley."
"Let go of me!" She was screaming. She shook loose from his grasp and started toward the tarpaulin.
"Please, Mrs. Ashley. You don't want to see what he looks like." He caught her as she fainted.
She woke up in the back seat of Sheriff Monster's car. He was sitting in the front seat watching her. The heater was on, and the car was stifling. Mary stared out the window at all the flashing red lights,and thought, It's a scene from hell. In spite of the heat, her teeth were chattering. "How did- How did it h-happen?"
"He ran the stop sign. An army truck was comin' along Seventyseven and tried to avoid im, but your husband drove right out in front of him."
She closed her eyes and saw the truck bearing down on Edward and felt his panic. All she could say was, "Edward was a c-careful driver. He would never run a stop sign."
The sheriff said sympathetically, "Mrs. Ashley, we have eyewitnesses. A priest and two nuns, and a Colonel Jenkins from ,Fort Riley. They all said your husband ran the stop sign."
Everything after that seemed to happen in slow motion. Finally, she watched as Edward's body was lifted into the ambulance.
Sheriff Monster said, "They returned him to the morgue. I'd best get you back home. What's the name of your family doctor?"
"Edward Ashley," Mary said. "Edward Ashley is my family doctor."
LATER MARY REMEMBERED WALKING Up to the house and Sheriff Monster leading her inside. Florence and Douglas Schiller were waiting for her in the living room. The children were still asleep.
Florence threw her arms around Mary. "Oh, darling, I'm 'so terribly, terribly sorry."
"It's all right. Edward had an accident." Mary giggled.
Douglas Schiller looked into her eyes. They were wide and vacant. He felt a chill go through him. "Come on, I'm putting you to bed."
He gave her a sedative, helped her into bed, and sat at her side. An hour later Mary was still awake. He gave her another sedative. Then a third. Finally she slept.
IN JUNenON City there are strict investigative procedures involved in the report of a lone injury accident. An ambulance is dispatched from the county Ambulance Service, and a sheriff's officer is sent to the scene. If army personnel are involved in the accident, the CID-the Criminal Investigating Division of the army-conducts an investigation along with the sheriff's office.
Shel Planchard, a plainclothes officer from CID headquarters at Fort Riley, and the sheriff were examining the accident report in the sheriffs office.
"It beats me," Sheriff Monster said.
"What's the problem, Sheriff?" Planchard asked.
"Well, looky here. There were five witnesses to the accident,
right? A priest and two nuns, Colonel Jenkins, and the truck driver, every single one of them says- exactly the same thing: car ran the stop sign, turned onto the highway, and was hit by the army truck." Sheriff Monster scratched his head. "Mister, have you ever seen an accident report where even two eyewitnesses said the same thing?"
"It just shows that what happened was pretty obvious."
"There's somethin' else nigglin' at me. What were a priest and two nuns and a colonel doing out on Highway Seventy-seven at three thirty in the morning?"
"Nothing mysterious about that. The priest and the sisters were on their way to Leonardville. Colonel Jenkins was returning to Fort Riley."
The sheriff said, "I checked with the Department of Motor Vehicles. The last ticket Doc Ashley got was six years ago, for illegal parking. He had no accident record."
"Sheriff," said the CID man, "Just what are you suggesting?"
Monster shrugged. "I'm not suggestin' anythin'. I jest have a funny feelin' about this."
"If you think there's some kind of conspiracy involved, there's a big hole in your theory. If-"
The sheriff sighed. "I know. If it wasn't an accident, all the army truck had to do was knock him off and keep going'. There wouldn't be any reason for all these witnesses and rigmarole."
"Exactly." The CID man rose and stretched. "Well, I've got to get back to the base. As far as I'm concerned, the driver of the truck, Sergeant Wallis, is cleared. Are we in agreement?"
Sheriff Monster said reluctantly, "Yeah."
MARY Ashley decided later that the only thing that saved her sinity was being in a state of shock. Everything that happened seemed to be happening to someone else. She was underwater, moving slowly, hearing voices from a distance.
The church was filled to overflowing. There were dozens of wreaths and bouquets. On 'e of the largest wreaths had a card that read simply "My deepest sympathy. Paul Ellison."
The casket with Edward's body in it was closed. Mary could not bear to think of the reason.
The minister was speaking. "Lord, thou hast been our dwelling . place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God. Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth doth change, and though the mountains be shaken into the heart of the seas. . . ."
She and Edward were in the small sailboat on Milford Lake.
"Do you like to sail?" he had asked on their first date.
"I've never been sailing."
"Saturday," he said. "We have a date."
They were married one week later.
"Do you know why I married you, lady?" Edward teased. "You passed the test. You laughed a lot and you didn't fall overboard."
When the service ended, Mary, Beth, and Tim got into the long black limousine that led the funeral procession to the cemetery. Because of the numbing cold, the graveside ceremony was kept brief.
I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore."
Finally, mercifully, it was over. Mary and the children watched the casket being lowered into the frozen, unearing earth. Goodbye, my darling.
IN AN office at CID headquarters Shel Planchard, the CID officer, was talking to Colonel Jenkins. "i'm afraid I have some bad news, sir. Sergeant Wallis, the driver of the truck that killed the civilian doctor ... He had a fatal heart attack this morning."
"That's a shame," said Colonel Jenkins.
"Yes, sir," the CID man said'. "His body is being cremated this morning. It was very sudden."
"Unfortunate. Well, I won't be here much longer. I'm being transferred overseas." Jenkins allowed himself a small smile. "A rather important promotion."
"Congratulations, sir. You've earned it."
Edward's death was the beginning of an unbearable hell for Mary Ashley. Everything within her screamed to deny what had happened to him, but the reality kept hitting her in fresh waves of shock.
Florence and Douglas and other friends often stayed with her, trying to make things easier, but Mary wished they would go away and leave her alone. When it was time to dispose of Edward's personal things, Florence offered to help her, but Mary said, "No. Edward would have wanted me to do it."
There were so many small, intimate things. Moving like an automaton, she ran her fingers over suits he would never again wear. The blue tie he had worn on their last night together. His gloves and scarf that kept him warm. He would not need them in his cold grave.
She found love notes they had written to each other, bringing back memories of the lean days when Edward started his own practice, a Thanksgiving dinner without a turkey, summer picnics and winter sleigh rides, her first pregnancy and both of them reading and playing classical music to Beth while she was in the womb, the love letter Edward wrote when Tim was born, and a hundred other wonderful things that brought tears to her eyes. His death was like some cruel magician's trick.
Edward was everywhere. He was in the songs Mary heard on the radio, in the hills they had driven through together. He was in bed at her side when she awoke at sunrise.
She began to talk to him: I'm worried about the children, Edward. They don't want to go to school. Beth says they're afraid that when they get home, I won't be here. The dean wanted to know whether I planned to go back to teaching at the university. I told im not now. The children need me too much. Do you think Is
-,Would go back one day?
Edward would never leave her and the children. He was there, somewhere.
THERE was a popular bar on the Boulevard Bineau that Marin' Groza's guards frequented when they were not on duty at the villa in Neuilly. Angel selected a table where conversations could be overheard. The guards, away from the rigid routine of the villa, liked to drink, and when they drank, they talked. Angel listened, seeking the villa's vulnerable point. There was always a vulnerable point. One simply had to be clever enough to find it.
It was three days before Angel overheard a conversation that gave the clue to the solution of the problem. A guard was saying, "Groza sure whips himself viciously. You should hear the screaming that goes on every Friday night. last week I got a look at the whips he keeps in his closet. . .
It was all Angel needed.
Early the following morning Angel changed rental cars and drove a Fiat into Paris. The shop was on the Place Pigalle, in a section populated by prostitutes. Angel went inside, walking slowly along the aisles, carefully studying the merchandise. At length Angel selected a whip, paid cash for it, and left.
The next afternoon Angel brought the whip back to the shop. The manager looked up and growled, "No refunds."
"I don't want a refund," Angel explained. "I feel awkward carrying this around. I would appreciate it if you would mail it for me. I'll pay extra, of course."
That evening Angel was on a plane to Buenos Aires.
THE whip, carefully wrapped, arrived at the villa in Neuilly the following day. It was intercepted by the guard at the gatehouse. He opened the package and examined the whip with great care, thinking, You would think the old man had enough of these already. He passed it through, and another guard took it to Marin Groza's bedroom closet, where he placed it with the other whips.
Mary was preparing dinner when the telephone rang, and she picked it up, an operator said, "This is the White House. The President is calling Mrs. Edward Ashley. Please hold."
Moments later the familiar voice was on the line. "Mrs. Ashley, this is Paul Ellison. I just want you to know how terribly sorry we are about your husband. I understand he'was a fine man."
"Thank you, Mr. President. It was kind of you to send flowers."
"I don't want to intrude on your privacy, Mrs. Ashley, and I know It's been a very short time, but now that your domestic situation has changed, I'm asking you to reconsider my offer of an ambassadorship."
"Thank you, but I couldn't possibly-"
"Hear me out, please. I'm having someone fly out there to talk to you. His name is Stanton Rogers. I would appreciate it if you would at least meet with him."
She did not know what to say. How could she explain that her life had been shattered, that all that mattered now were Beth and Tim? "I'll meet with him, Mr. President," she said. "But I won't change my mind."
Stanton Rogers telephoned Mary right after the Presiden's call. "I promise to make my visit as brief as possible, Mrs. Ashley. I plan to fly in Monday afternoon to see you, if That's all right."
He's such an important man and he's being so polite, Mary thought. "That will be fine." In a reflex action she asked, "Would you care to have dinner with us?"
He hesitated, thinking what a boring evening it would be. "Thank you," he said.
Stanton Rogers was a formidable man, Mary decided. She had seen him on Meet the Press and in news photographs, but she thought, He looks bikeer in person. He was polite, but there was, something distant about him.
"Permit me to convey again the Presiden's sincere regrets about your terrible tragedy, Mrs. Ashley."
"Thank you." Mary introduced him to Beth and Tim. They made small talk while she went to check the pot roast.
When Mary had told Florence Schiller that Stanton Rogers was coming for dinner and that she was making a pot roast, Florence -had said, "People like Mr. Rogers don't eat pot roast."
"Oh? What do they eat?" Mary had asked.
"Chateaubriand and crepes suzette."
"Well, we're having pot roast."
Along with the pot roast Mary had prepared creamed mashed potatoes, fresh vegetables, and a salad. She had baked a pumpkin pie for dessert. Stanton Rogers finished everything on -his plate.
During dinner Mary and he talked about the colorful history of junction City. Finally he brought the conversation around to Remania. "Do you think there will be a revolution there?" he asked.
"Not in the present circumstances. The only man powerful enough to depose lonescu is Marin Groza, who's in exile."
The questioning went on. Mary Ashley was an expert on the iron curtain countries, and Stanton Rogers was impressed.
The President was right, he thought. She really is an authority on ]Remania. And there is something more. She's beautiful. She and the children make an all-American package that will sell. Stanton found himself getting more and more excited by the prospect. She can be more useful than she realizes.
At the end of the evening Stanton Rogers said, "Mrs. Ashley, I'm going to be frank with you. Initially I was against the President appointing you to a post as sensitive as Remania. I told him as much. I tell you this now because I've changed my mind. I think you will make an excellent ambassador."
Mary shook her head. "I'm sorry, Mr. Rogers. I'm no politician. I'm an amateur."
"Mrs. Ashley, some of our finest ambassadors have been amateurs. That is to say, their experience was not in the Foreign Service. Walter Annenberg, our former ambassador to the United Kingdom, was a publisher. John Kenneth Galbraith, our ambassador to India, was a professor. I could give you a dozen more examples. These people were all what you would call amateurs. What they had, Mrs. Ashley, was intelligence, a love for their country, and goodwill toward the people of the country where they were sent to serve."
"You make it sound so simple."
"As you're probably aware, you've already been investigated. You've been approved for a security clearance. You're an expert on ]Remania. And last but not least, you have the kind of image the President wants to project in the iron curtain countries."
Mary's face was thoughtful. "Mr..Rogers, I appreciate what you're saying. But I can't accept. I have Beth and Tim to think about. I can't just uproot them like-"
"There's a fine school for diplomats' children in Bucharest," Rogers told her. "It would be a wonderful education for them. They'd learn things they could never learn in school here."
The conversation was not going the way Mary had planned. "I don't- I'll think about it."
"I'm staying in town overnight," Stanton Rogers said. "I'll be at the All Seasons Motel. Believe me, Mrs. Ashley, I know what a big decision this is for you. But this program is important not only to the President but to our country. Please think about that."
When Rogers left, Mary went upstairs. The children were waiting for her, wide awake and excited.
"Are you going to take the job?" Beth asked.
"We have to have a talk. If I did decide to accept it, it would mean that you would have to leave school and all your friends. You would be living in a foreign country where we don't speak the language, and you would be going to a strange school."
"Tim and I talked about all that," Beth said, " and you know what we think? Any country would be really lucky to have you as an ambassador, Mom."
Mary talked to Edward that night: He made it sound as though the President really needed me, darling. I have the chance again, and I don't know what to do. To tell -you the truth, I'm terrified. This is our home. How can I leave it? This is all I have left of you. Please help me decide.... She found that she was crying.
She sat by the window for hours, looking out at the trees shivering in the howling, restless wind.
At nine o'clock in the morning Mary telephoned Stanton Rogers. "Mr. Rogers, would you please tell the President that I will be honored to accept his nomination for the ambassadorship."
As HE always did on Friday nights, Marin Groza shut his bedroom door, went to the closet, and selected a whip. Once he had made his choice, he took off his robe, exposing his back, which was covered with cruel welts. His expression was full of anguish as he raised the leather whip and cracked it down hard against his back.
Groza flinched with pain each time the tough leather beat against his skin. Once ... twice ... again ... and again, until the vision he had been waiting for came to him. With each lash, scenes of his wife and daughter being tortured scared through his brain. With each lash, he could hear them beg for mercy.
Suddenly he stopped, holding the whip in midair. He was having difficulty breathing. "Help! Help-"
Ley Pastemak heard Groza's cry for help and came running in, gun in hand. He was too late. He watched as Groza toppled to the floor, his eyes open, staring at nothing.
Pastemak summoned the doctor, who lived in the villa and came into Groza's room within minutes. He bent down to examme the body. The skin had turned blue, and the muscles were flaccid. He picked up the whip and smelled it.
"What is it?" asked Pastemak. "Poison?"
The doctor nodded. "Curare. It's an extract from a South American plant. The Incas used it on darts to kill their enemies. Within three minutes the entire nervous system is paralyzed."
The two men stood staring helplessly at their dead leader.
THE NEws OF MAWN GROZA'S assassination was carried all over the world by satellite. Ley Pastemak was able to keep the details away from the press. In Washington, D.C., the President had a meeting with Stanton Rogers.
"Who do you think's behind it, Stan?"
"Either the Russians or lonescu. In the end it comes to the same thing, doesn't it? They didn't want the status quo disturbed."
"So we'll be dealing with Ionescu. Very well. Let's push the Mary Ashley appointment through as quickly as possible."
"She'll be here soon, Mr. President. No problem."
ON hearing the news, Angel smiled and thought, It happened sooner than I expected it would.
At ten p.m. the Controller's private phone rang, and he picked it up. "Hello."
He heard the sound of Neusa Mufiez's guttural voice. "Angel say to deposit the money in his bank account."
"Inform him that it will be taken care of immediately. And Miss Mufiez, tell Angel how pleased I am. Also tell him that I may need him again very soon. Do you have a telephone number where I can reach you?"
There was a long pause, then, "I guess so." She gave it to him.
"Fine. If Angel-" The line went dead.
IT was more than packing up a household, Mary thought. It was packing up a life. It was bidding farewell to thirteen years of dreams, memories, love. It was saying a final good-bye to Edward. This had been their home, and now it would become merely a house again, occupied by strangers with no awareness of the joys and sorrows and tears and laughter that had happened within these walls.
Besides packing, there were so many other practical details. An indefinite leave of absence from the university had been arranged with the dean. The children had been withdrawn from their school. There had been travel arrangements to make, airline tickets to buy, the house to rent. In the past Mary had taken all the financial transactions for granted, because Edward had been there to handle them. Now there was no Edward, except in her mind and in her heart, where he would always be.
Finally, miraculously, everything was ready. It was time to leave.
Mary walked upstairs to the bedroom she and Edward had shared for so many wonderful years. She stood there taking a long last look.