Paper Snake and the Mongoose
Chapter 17 – Shiva’s Messenger
Paper Snake and the Mongoose
“Do you use this stuff while I’m away?” Carl Eckert popped a couple of his garcinia mangosteen rind extract capsules as he spoke to his hamsters. He had briefly considered whether buying a video camera to record the movement for later fast forwarding was advisable. He refilled the food pellets and water in his hamster’s feeding apparatus and watched the animal’s shuffling progress from the furthest corner of the sprawling habitat. Knowing the answer may be detrimental because Carl often felt he only kept the pet to justify buying intricate segments for the elaborate cage. New pieces somehow added scope to the habitat of Eckert’s own life.
As he left he finished off the eight berry super fruit medley that he bought and used regularly for the high antioxidant content. He locked the door of the two-bedroom nesting-box condo that he shared only with his stinky rodent, James Bond.
Skittering his oft-navigated maze of the Metrorail and myriad rat-tunnel corridors of the Langley facility, Carl’s mind followed the convoluted pathways of his memory. His recruitment into the CIA had been before the Berlin wall fell. With his eyes full of nameless stars, Eckert had stepped over the CIA seal at Langley for the very first time. He was destined to be like Ian Fleming’s 007 spy, with a license to kill and a life to thrill but it hadn’t turned out quite like that. For reasons undetermined, he never made field grade.
Carl Eckert switched on the light of a box shaped room with a window for people with larger lives to look in through and watch him. As Section Head of Filing, he held probably the least glamorous job in the CIA. Now at age 44, after 20 years of plodding forbearance, the enticing light at the tunnel’s end showed only as a shiny gold retirement watch dangling like eighteen carrots on a telescoping stick. Unrelentingly, the grist stones of the bureaucracy had rolled over his aspirations but like diamonds, his dreams resisted crushing.
The files were now the cheddar in his job. Flavored to taste by his imagination, a routine report from the field office in Berlin had a dangerous female operative slowly strolling out the fog at Checkpoint Charlie with secrets under her trench coat. Fine cheese does improve over time and as his administrative grade went up, so had his security access but that was a vicious triangle. The more he could read meant more he could imagine but by morning, as now, he knew he could only just read.
“What tasty Roquefort is this?” Carl found that an overnight codex sweep had shunted an intriguing prompt to the department head. The file in question had a baffling classification that existed outside of the normal secrecy hierarchy. The dossier had originated before he even joined the CIA. “It’s been aging for a long time.”
Now came a dusty task of rodent proportions. Carl needed to travel the catacombs of the subterranean archives to gain his treat. The physical folder had lingered unmolested for decades and it took almost an hour to locate.
Perhaps it should’ve grown crumbly and somewhat moldy like the king of cheeses he had named it after. Instead, the jacket felt brittle and papers peeking out seemed to crackle with an electrical charge poised to arc on a touch. Like a timid mouse tempted, his shy fingers gingered at the folder and a fanciful vignette took its mysterious roots in his mind. Carl Eckert was about to learn that real traps snap harder than imaginative ones do and a lightning bolt of power spins a treadmill like a whirligig in a tornado.
Presidential Chief of Staff Nick Taylor stepped into the Oval office without knocking and poured himself a cup of the excellent White House coffee. He sipped it black and steaming but he wished it was the Honduran Coffee Extract that he loved so much. He found President Weeds pretending to work. Nick looked at the desktop and easily read the open file the president was intently studying upside-down with his glassed over eyes. The Shiva episode was still too ripe in his mind and would be for some time yet. Instead of garnering sympathy, the assassin’s bullets had sparked a political nightmare and it was just getting worse.
“Did you know that trajectory analysis of the slug that struck the Secret Service woman, indicates it was aimed at your buttocks?” Nick closed the folder and shoved it to the side, spinning it end for end as he did.
“Yes, the jests on late night TV after that revelation were libelous.” In Weeds’ opinion, here was another perfect application for terminal sentencing. Legally though, a case would be difficult to contest because to be slander, it must be proven as an untruth.
“Information seems to be hemorrhaging into the headlines even before bleeding onto your desk.” Despite his friend’s consternation, Nick found some of it quite clever.
Larry looked up and a cold shiver traveled his spine. A gory allegory like that wasn’t exactly what needed to hear right now.
“A CIA man is waiting outside.” Nick changed the subject.
“No, he’s only a Section Head and this is quite strange. He claims it’s critically urgent and told me that he won’t move from the hallway, until you see him, or the Marines drag him away. That’s fairly audacious for a minor functionary.”
“Bring him in.” Weeds circled the desk and geared up his most unnerving stance. Sending careers to be guillotined was bolstering his wounded feelings of manliness and another might be headed for the block. “But this had better be important.”
Outside the door, Carl Eckert was in the same borderline state of semi-coherence that he’d been in since his morning shock. The raw power that seemed to emanate through the Oval Office door was like errant radiation leaking out of a microwave, simmering his insides like baked lasagna. His resolve vacillated between bolting or persevering to a duty owed his country that demanded he bring the documents here. The door swung open and the Chief of Staff beckoned a finger like a cannibal chef to a plump missionary.
“Mr. President, Sir,” talking in a quavering voice as he walked, the bureaucrat stumbled on the flooring and stopped short. Frozen both still and silent, a vision of a spitted rat revolving over a campfire cooked in his mind. The two politically powerful men closed to within arms reach of him and Carl Eckert stood blinking.
“Go on.” The Chief of Staff urged strongly but the man stood in goggle-eyed silence. Nick impatiently swung a hand and cuffed the petrified functionary firmly on the back.
Already overly tight with fear, Taylor’s nudge jolted Carl’s tuba into blowing a ripping blast. The bodily tone in a low octave sharply juxtaposed with the regal vibes of the Oval Office as it reverberated. Sour methane gas from his back end began to defuse into the air.
“The shell casing from Akron triggered a retrieval request, to my desk in the CIA records section.” Stewing in a cauldron of his own aromatic vapors, Carl’s words now boiled out as fast as the torrent of his lower wind had been. “I pulled out a folder that’s been untouched since the sixties. The security classification was unclear but it was flagged to me.”
“What’s in it?” Weeds’ nose wrinkled, as he took the file.
“You should—.” Carl’s stomach lurched. It felt like his lunch wanted to return from the depths of his guts. “I don’t feel so well!”
The president had a premonition of the distraught man vomiting on the eagle-sealed carpet. One noxious smell was quite horrible enough. He shooed the CIA man away with a dismissive wave.
His physiological gaff and the hand poised to clamp his mouth, gave Carl’s exit far less dignity than even his entrance had shown. He hurried the White House corridors and in a cold sweat, managed to find an exit in time. The afternoon air quelled Eckert’s distress but it did nothing to restore his shattered nerves.
“The Cold War is long over.” Carl tried reminding himself why he went to the president. “It’s too late for that to start a nuclear war.”
When Kennedy was shot, Carl knew he had been in a crib but older people remembered where they were when they got the news. Every American of his generation, had grown up with feelings of a conspiracy that was akin to an unfinished symphony. People deserved the truth but it had to come from the very top.
Carl Eckert was underappreciated but he was far from stupid. He knew the files original intent from the moment he read the first page summary. It contained material to pin the assassination on the fingerprint’s owner and prove a fully plausible reason for it. The file even went so far as to show the real beneficiaries of the plot, how to best attest that they weren’t involved at all. The Weeds family was a prominent participant of that elite group and that fact gave Eckert a cause for concern but the situation now was much different than the file’s creator had predicted. Shiva’s Messenger changed that.
That the president wasn’t killed first was puzzling to Eckert, as it was to the press and the world but the file gave a perfect reason. The Akron shooter obviously knew about the folder’s existence and that his fingerprint would activate its reactivation. He was giving the administration an opportunity to come clean on what really occurred in Dallas and why. Shiva backed that up with a solid motivation of why Larry Weeds should take the appropriate measures.
‘How can Weeds be that tall when he has no backbone at all?’ The filing manager had heard some quips like that relating to the president’s spineless performance during the Akron shootings. From what Carl Eckert had read about him, Shiva was certainly a man able to make good on his warning. Eckert had felt a shudder of dread and he wasn’t even the man’s target. Doubtlessly, Weeds must feel the menacing full effect as he peruses the material. Carl’s life hung now on a coin flip but at least the toss was weighted by the president’s proven trepidations for his own safety.
Aimlessly, Carl wandered the seedier areas of Washington. A person with a less active imagination than his might’ve returned to his desk at Langley. Instead, while pondering the presidential decision process, Eckert used the opportunity to envision himself cast as Turner in Three Days of the Condor, fearing for his life because he knew something he shouldn’t. Unlike that movie’s plot, he had spared everyone in the chain of command by taking the paper bomb directly to the top.
“Your day is probably less stressful than mine is today.” Carl saw a homeless man curled up in an alley and slipped a twenty into his dented hat. Being indigent would be a blessing about now and Eckert actually coveted the man’s status
Now several hours since his embarrassing gas attack on Pennsylvania Avenue, the civil servant threaded the labyrinth of public transportation. How many mysterious deaths had followed 1963? In response to this mental question Carl expanded his fun by taking a far different route than normal. He pretended that every innocent person on the subway was someone sinister.
As part of his acted out fantasy, Eckert got off the train at a neighboring stop, instead of his own. His apartment overlooked a parking structure for suburban commuters, so he could look from there into his own window. He’d done this before while playacting the spy, out on his covert missions. Carl skirted several cars as if being actively tailed and positioned himself adjacent to the corner wall, he could see into his secure little bed of shavings.
“What if there really was a death sentence for flatulence?”
“That was really nasty!” The president fanned his face with the file and then opened it. His eyes scanned the first few lines and all air, even the foul smelling, seemed sucked from the space. Larry tottered. The comfortable chair behind his desk was far too distant for his faltering knees, so the president sank down onto one lining the walls.
“I guess that what’s in there, is alike to what’s in the air.” The chief of staff took the folder from his friend’s hand as the man had shuffled back. Only a quick peek proved Nick as prophetic, as he was poetic. He read the covering summary aloud.
“I don’t see how we have any other options.” Larry Weeds spoke quietly after a very long thoughtful pause.
“That’s not entirely your decision to make.” Nick Taylor saw his own aspirations in a vortex. A flushing toilet takes everything in the bowl but fortunately for the ambitious chief of staff, there were other influential people in there with him. Weeds knew that very well too.
“There is no question. The Shiva operative knows about this and he delivered that message clearly with his warning in Akron.”
“We don’t know that for a certainty.” Taylor’s mind spooled up to his conniving best. His friend was leaning toward a rash action that needed averting. “We had no knowledge of the folder until now so how would he? Why has he waited? Yours isn’t the only name.”
“What was the sniper saying if it wasn’t expressly this file?” Weed looked expectantly to the one man who provided him with all his best answers.
“I suspect the drastic statement was in some way connected with Dallas but that Ohio was not directly targeted at this particular dossier.” Internally, the chief of staff smugly smiled. “I just need some time to figure out what Shiva’s Messenger said.”
“What about the Records Chief?” Larry was uncertain if he should adopt a concerned visage or a stern one at the decidedly unpleasant next agenda item. The resulting blend of expressions came out looking stunned instead of either selection. “Do you think he read too much?”
“Unless NASA needs an astronaut for a mission to orbit Uranus, there’s no posting remote enough to suppress what he knows. This file’s been hidden because premature release is not an option.”
“Who would believe him anyway?” Weeds offered a possible pardon. “There are conspiracy theory sites all over the web and few lend any credence.”
“If they had this material posted,” Nick shook the papers for effect, “they would get noticed and believed.” Taylor paused. “I’ll go make the unofficial arrangements.”
“What was that?” Carl Eckert was shocked from his acted out espionage by a shape crossing his window. He scanned the sky to see if a wisp of cloud or an airplane had thrown a fleeting shadow but the clear blue sky wasn’t even marred by a pigeon. Looking back, he saw the motion in his living room again but this time a pair of unmistakable hands cracked the blinds open and a face showed. Carl leaned his back against the reassuring cool of the concrete block. Suddenly, this wasn’t a game anymore.
The foreknowledge of an expedient murder situation lurking for him in his own residence transcended his wildest imaginings. Snowflakes falling on a hot griddle flash to steam without the intermediate step of melting to water. So did Carl Eckert’s emotions pass into anger without going through fear.
“Well, screw you very much, Mr. President! I’m glad I passed wind in your office.”
His misguided patriotism had demanded he do the right thing and there had been no option on that. It was only his misfortune that the dangerous file landed in his hands at all but luck did have it that Carl was a dreamer. The Roquefort file was the tastiest morsel he had ever seen. How could he simply hand it away and never see it again? On his route between CIA headquarters and the office of the presidency, Carl had paused to make and store photocopies.
In his commission of the act of making reproductions, the bureaucrat had no intention of using them in any nefarious ways. He just wanted it to read and enjoy, or just having such an explosive toy in an envelope under his arm would’ve given delicious realism to his fantasy role acting. Now, that plaything was a deadly weapon.
“I’m sure you’ve changed over the years but I’ll recognize you.” The now ex-CIA bureaucrat stared at a 40-year-old photograph of a handsome assassin known by most as the shadowy dog-faced man. The eyes were particularly identifiable by their piercing nature even if the black and white didn’t show the hue. Eckert’s mind assigned them as grey with some blue.
“I’m going to find you.” Carl Eckert spoke a vow to the image. As he did so, his entire skin surface shuddered at an effervescent pleasure that was as bathing in a glass of seltzer water. Perhaps that’s what happened when one realizes that they’ve just stepped onto their dream’s pathway.
“Close the door behind you.” Bart Jefferson welcomed Beth Withers into his office and waited for her to hobble with a cane to a seat before continuing. “How’s the leg?”
“Jogging beside a limo could prove difficult.” Beth still felt she wanted to be somewhere useful and had showed up at work.
“A scar will make a good story for kids one day but that’s not why I called you in.” Though he’d always liked Beth, this past event had brought them closer. It even crossed the line between boss and friend. He took a deep breath and continued. “The President wants some quick results and the FBI has responded by forming a task force with the sole purpose of finding Shiva’s Messenger.”
“And?” Beth urged after a painfully long pause.
“How would you feel about transferring your services to the Foolish Bloody Idiots?” Jefferson jokingly allowed his inter-service rivalry to show.
“I’d love it!” She wanted onto it for two critical reasons. The potential route avoided an untenable dead-end gully and it delivered an opportunity to apprehend the assassin who had jeopardized her career. “Do you suppose it’s possible?”
“Well,” the senior Secret Service agent grinned, “I anticipated your reaction. A buddy of mine is heading it up. Bob Waters owed me a marker and I felt obligated to you for one. You can start as early as tomorrow morning.”
Agent Withers was speechless but words couldn’t have done justice to her appreciative expression either.
“There is just one codicil and I agreed to it for you. After the investigative sub-unit disbands, if you want to stay on at the FBI you have to attend their Quantico training. Now scoot before any dust can settle,” Bart smiled and gestured her to leave, “and don’t leave any make-up or panties in your desk drawer.”
Carl Eckert visited his bank and converted everything he could into cash. Unfortunately, his investments would take too long to liquidate and were useless to him. All he had at hand was close to $20,000, but it might be the last money he would ever see. Using his credit cards was almost as foolish as carrying a cell phone.
Just one more victim of the president’s penchants for fatal verdicts, Carl would disappear into plain sight. His business suit would be exchanged for goodwill box cast-offs. There would be no more razors, warm beds or bathtubs. No one notices the homeless. Larry Weeds would be able walk right past him and not see the man he was looking for. The president wouldn’t stoop to give him any spare change. Why would he want to? Indigent people don’t vote and certainly not for Republicans.
“Welcome onboard.” Bob Waters took his new employee on a limping tour and introduced her to the team.
“Can we speak in private?” After a glance at a blackboard name, Beth sighed resignedly and turned her new boss by the elbow. She explained the dilemma.
“With pre-knowledge of this, I wouldn’t have hired you.” Bob Waters settled back into his swivel chair. An agent confessing to a previous affair with the principal person of interest was bizarre. “I can’t say I’m pleased but I’m glad you told me right away. It tells me something about your character.”
“I’ll quit.” Beth felt her eyes ready to fill up with a shovelful of dirt. Damn you Allen! That’s twice.
“My relationship with him makes me a potential witness or even a possible suspect.”
“Then I have to keep you, both to protect evidence and provide for handy interrogations.” Bob joked away the tension of his newest teammate. “I’m rejecting your resignation. Your jumping in front of a bullet tells me whose team you’re playing on. His identity isn’t conclusively proven yet but It could be advantageous to us that you’ve actually seen the messenger and you can recognize him.”
FBI agent Beth Withers sat at her small cubicle desk to brood before going to work with her assigned sup-unit.
“Bet your ass I’ll know you instantly!” She might not even have to see his face to identify him because she knew the way he moved. Allen had torpedoed one assignment, attached a limpet mine to the next and shot her in the thigh. What hurt most of all, was that he had been intimate with her, while fully aware that he was an assassin and she was an agent.
“You were so slick! You knew exactly how to weasel your way in with me.” Why would he take such an enormous risk though? That didn’t make sense. He hadn’t pumped her for any information. She would’ve caught onto that. In her mind, Beth played back every moment she spent with him, searching for anything that would make the liaison worth the inherent danger.
“Now I know why he balked at going into that photo booth with me.” In fact, she’d even teasingly threatened to force him in at the point of her gun to get the keepsake. He had an odd expression as he was vehemently declining. “Retrospectively, it was his fear.”
Finding only that non-essential incident, she then tried another memory technique. With her eyes closed, Beth ran encounters in reverse. The unusual viewpoint allowed her to almost step out of her body to see the details clearer.
“My book?” He could’ve seen it briefly on that first morning. She thumbed quickly through it. There were several bits of information but the most telling was her comment on a discussion with the Chief about manpower.
“You could’ve found that information from a safer source.” Even with it, he would still have to guess where she would cut. No further thoughts could get her any closer to his motivation because there were several possibilities and only one stayed prominent. “Were you just toying with me? When I catch you, I’m going to apply thumbscrews!”
Different units within the group were handling various aspects. One was tracking all of the references on Allen Powers’ resume. Each thread they followed led only to a soap bubble that popped as it was touched. They traced another man that had since vanished. Allen Wright had been a maintenance person at the sniper-nest building and was the ambulance driver on the scene.
Beth was attached to the division acting on an assumption that a police officer killed on the outskirts of Akron had also been the work of the assassin. There was no solid connection and Beth was convinced it wasn’t even related to the Shiva case. That would have made the Ohio scenario like a hokey mock-up of Dallas, complete with J.D. Tippet slain. That proposition was almost ludicrous.
“If only I could figure out where you gained and perfected your skills. Maybe then I could find some small details of your consistent modus operandi.” The trouble was that the Shiva case wasn’t comparable to anything else, with the possible exception of some of the Dallas conspiracy theories. That was 40 years ago, and it was unlikely that the same shooter would still be working.
“Hold on!” Beth brought her thinking back a step. Equating Akron to Dallas reminded her that she had just thought about the 1963 plot, in connection with the police officer. “What if Shiva did kill Jerry Burke during his escape?”
The dead officer was shot once in the throat and twice in the forehead with a .22 caliber handgun. Experts thought that the bullets also passed through a suppressor. It might have looked like a professional hit, except the grouping of shots suggested less than elite marksmanship. Burke had fired two rounds from his .38 caliber snub-nose, as the spent casings confirmed. Presumably, they went into the other vehicle because the slugs weren’t found. It could be expected Jerry had to hit someone because how could he miss from that close range?
Agent Withers retrieved a file and perused it. Patrolman Jerry Burke was a policeman with a history of anger management and discipline problems. On the day of his death, he was previously slated to sniper escort but had been reassigned back to patrol. On the night before he died, Burke had a spousal altercation. His wife filed an assault charge in the morning. Could Shiva’s messenger have known that? No. That was impossible.
“Why would Burke have a throw away gun?” Beth mused for a plausible scenario. If pissed off about not spending a day snoozing on a roof, would he take his frustrations out on his wife? “I’ll assume that he would and that explains the domestic violence.” When the alert went through the force to be on the lookout for a possible assassin, what would he do? “Getting hero status in the papers with a high profile bust would be a very nice thing, wouldn’t it, Jerry?”
“Did your oxymoron come true?” Beth recalled the first line of Edgar Alan Poe’s ‘Tale of the Monkey’s Paw’, “Be careful what you wish for, you might receive it’.”
“Patrolman Burke is looking for a suspicious gunman, leaving town. Jerry has an untraceable weapon with him because—Why?” Beth mumbled as she left her cubicle to pour a coffee. Her preoccupation and talking to herself earned some smiles from her new coworkers. Though she continued to think, by the time she got back to her desk Beth had come up with only one possibility. “In case whomever he found wasn’t already armed!”
“Phew! Jerry, that’s disgusting! Do you even care if you have the right suspect? I think I may be glad you’re dead.” Her assessment of the slain policeman didn’t begin high but it had just descended further. “Unluckily, you found the right victim, like a flea in a couch and he killed you. Still, you managed to shoot him twice.”
“The hits were likely in the critical head or upper torso area.” Walking back to her desk, Agent Withers had a nasty mental image of Allen dead somewhere and drawing flies. While she had just expressed pleasure at Burkes demise, Beth couldn’t find the same sentiment about the man she thought she had known.
“You had a .22 caliber gun with you.” Why didn’t Allen just kill Burke as he walked up to the car? This was the stupidest thing Shiva’s Messenger did all day. Was it a superior ego or a danger thrill thing? Was it akin to dangerously dating a federal security agent? Beth thought about the personality she’d observed in Allen. Her personal alarm sensors never even jiggled around him. A split personality might’ve been needed to make him into a person prone to shooting before questioning
“How many people are there in your portfolio?” Beth chuckled. His real name may not even be Allen. Powers and Wright were just pseudonyms. All they really knew was that he was a sniper with razor sharp targeting.
“If your aim was so damned good, why wasn’t the group tighter on Jerry’s forehead?” Shiva’s messenger had just been wounded and wildly struck the throat but then he was able to double-tap, albeit with a shaky hand.
“Canada!” Two big pieces of the jigsaw puzzle slipped perfectly together. Beth spilled her drink all over the desk in a hurry to talk to her boss. Bart Jefferson had told her that if Shiva had hit the wife-beaters with a double-tap then it might be a concern. The differing style with the lead-up murders was because he didn’t want to look like a pro. They were to evoke a police response. He knew from her book that manpower was tight and he wanted to reduce it further. “Everything fits.”
“Sir, I think he was practicing north of the border, all the way to Akron!” Beth finally ended her dissertation. Coming up with the logic trail had taken much longer than explaining it. The task force commander followed patiently along. “He switched his technique only to keep us from construing him as a credible threat.
“You have been judged and found wanting.” Bob looked at the new girl and slowly nodded his head while musing.
“I’m sorry.” Beth was crushed. “I thought it made sense.”
“Not you!” Bob laughed at her misapprehension that really was his unintentional fault. “The quote from Daniel’s interpretation of the disembodied handwriting on the wall that foreshadowed the fall of Babylon. The serial killings seem to have contained a message.”
“Are you suggesting,” Beth swiftly veered to follow his new logic trail, “he was intending to kill the president while he was committing the five murders and then changed his mind sometime between then and the Akron rooftop?”
“Your real talents were wasted when you were in the meat shield service.” Bob Waters grinned and laced his fingers together on his desk. “I think you’re even sharper than Bart said you were. You can cover this new aspect and you’ll have another agent to help out. Take your mittens and toque, eh? Keep me appraised.”
Recalling the soggy mess waiting back at her desk, Beth went to the ladies room to get some paper towels. She steadied herself, with palms on the cool marble vanity and looked at the mirror.
“May he live in interesting times.” As quoted by Robert Kennedy two years before Sirhan Sirhan, supposedly it was a Chinese curse. Change in her life was definitely rampant, but not all was bad. “It’s what? P-day + 3, but it feels more like a month.”
Now if she was to take an investigation into a foreign country, there was a small mountain of red tape to move. The smug young FBI agent smiled as she flexed her fingers. “I hope that the pen is mightier than the bulldozer.”
“Unfortunately, Allen’s likely dead in a remote wooded area and my Shiva Task Force fun will end when his body is found.”
Remote wooded area, that sure sounds like Canadian terrain.