Fiction / Paul Negri
:: A Secret Service ::
President Lincoln is more silent than usual today. Now it is true that he has not spoken a word during the whole time of our incarceration here. But there are other ways of being silent besides not speaking, and it is in this other way that he is silent today. They’ve put him in a wheelchair and rolled him in front of the TV in the day room. The sound on the TV is off, so it too is silent. The only other inmate in the room is the old man they call George (I don’t know what his real name is). George is talking to himself, but silently.
It is in this kind of silence that I receive my instructions. Chief Wood, the head of the Secret Service, is a man of few but compelling words. When the Chief speaks, you know what you must do.
I glance at the door to the day room. Gregory, one of the regular attendants, is standing in the doorway. He is feigning inattention. I wait. Waiting is a skill of mine. There is perhaps no one in the Service who can wait so well as I can. Wait and watch. Eternal vigilance, it has been truly said, is the price of liberty.
Gregory finally deserts his post, although I know it will be only momentarily. I cross the room quickly and pull a folding chair closer to the President. I whisper, “New directive from the Chief, sir. He respectfully requests that we forestall any action. The time is not right. But soon. Very soon, I’m sure.”
President Lincoln continues to stare at the TV. His great craggy face, now beardless (yes, they shaved him, the bastards), betrays no hint of disappointment or discouragement. Those dark, deep eyes have seen enough, I imagine, to endow him with the patience of the ages.
Gregory is back and with a single word demolishes the golden silence. He stands in the doorway, arms folded across his chest, eyes hard on me. But you are too late, Gregory. I have delivered my message.
“Now you leave Arthur alone. Leave him be.”
Arthur. That’s what they call Mr. Lincoln. Just as they call me Ben. They think that by simply naming us, they can control who we are. They are not as smart as they think. I have always lived under pseudonyms, and Ben is fine with me. I know who I am and they do not. And working for the Secret Service, it is critical I keep it that way.
I return to my chair by the window, placing just enough distance between the President and me to satisfy Gregory yet permit me to spring into action and interpose myself between Mr. Lincoln and whatever might threaten him—knife, bullet, or those subtler means of assassination employed by our captors in their relentless attempt to destroy who we are. Rest assured, Mr. President, there will be no door pushed open, no dagger, no shot fired, no one leaping onto the stage shouting of tyrants to a confused audience. Not this time. Not on my watch.
Inmates file into the room. Bingo must be over. Bingo is one of our keepers’ most insidious weapons. They use it to implant directives, using a numerical code, in the minds of the inmates. A remarkably simple but effective strategy. Once those numerical codes are implanted, the inmates are as helpless as babies wrapped tight in swaddling clothes. Along with the inmates comes one of Gregory’s confederates. They have so little regard for our capabilities that only two guards are thought necessary to keep more than a dozen of us in check. Bingo!
Of what wars these poor prisoners are, I do not know. It is sad that they have all survived the struggle only to end up here, warehoused and maintained, stored out of sight and out of mind by the true enemy, one they never even knew they were fighting. My mission necessitates that I keep a discreet distance from these men, engaging them just enough to gather information that might prove useful to the Service or aid me in my protection of the President. I think most of them pose no threat, although threat can come out of a clear blue sky and calm sea. That I’ve learned. But there are a few men who bear careful watching. And watch them I do.
I circle the room, my usual route, subtle as a shadow, blending into my surroundings, barely noticeable, looking here, listening there, passing by President Lincoln with every completed circuit. Nothing unusual to report, Chief Wood. The President is safe, for the moment. I am doing my duty. Yes, it is something to be proud of. Thank you, sir. You are too kind.
Gregory deposits me in the office of Major Wirz for my weekly interrogation. I’m not absolutely sure it’s Heinrich Wirz, the monster of Andersonville, exterminator of Union prisoners. He now goes under the absurdly innocuous name Dr. Jack Horner. Little Jack, indeed. He is almost as skilled at concealing his identity as I am at concealing mine. We are evenly matched. But I have the advantage. I have Chief Wood. I don’t know who whispers in Major Wirz’s ear.
Wirz is a very average-looking man, not tall, nor short; neither fat nor thin; bland features, a face you could forget while looking at it. That, of course, is part of his power. I must admit I have a grudging admiration for it. I sit quite still in the comfortable chair before his desk. The seat and arms are padded. Yes, I sit in a padded chair.
Wirz—or Dr. Horner as I must call him—looks up from the file he has been writing in and smiles. “You look well today, Ben.”
“Thank you, Dr. Horner. I am well.”
“Are you sleeping better? Those dreams that were bothering you, are you still having them?”
“Why, no,” I say. “I’ve been having rather pleasant dreams now. I believe that medication you’re making me take has worked like a charm.”
Dr. Horner leans back in his chair and looks at me in silence for a long moment. He is a man of long looks. “That medication should not actually be affecting your dreams.”
“Well, an unexpected side benefit then,” I say. Damn. I must be careful.
“Can you tell me a bit about these pleasant dreams?”
Can you tell me about your dreams, Major Wirz? Do the breathing skeletons of starved prisoners wrap their boney arms around you?
“I’ve been dreaming of the ocean,” I tell him, quickly improvising. “A lovely day at the shore.”
“The ocean? Do you remember the last time you were by the ocean?”
“It was quite a while ago. It was very nice.” Careful now, careful. The devil is, as they say, in the details. “I love swimming in the ocean. I’m quite a strong swimmer, you know.”
“Yes, I know,” says Dr. Horner. “And the last time you were at the beach. Were you alone?”
I know what he wants me to say. He wants me to say I was with the wife they have invented for me. Ben’s wife. But the name is something I can’t recall. “Do you mind if I shut the window, Dr. Horner?” I say, stalling for time.
“I’ll shut it for you,” he says, gets up and goes to the window.
The name, damn it, the name, Ben’s wife. Dr. Horner sits back down. “Was anyone with you at the beach that last time?”
“Yes. My wife. Elsie.”
“Ellie?” says Dr. Horner.
“That’s what I said. Ellie.”
He nods. “Anyone else?”
“Well, there were lots of people there. It was a lovely day.”
“Didn’t you tell me you always went early in the morning? When there were few people there?”
“I think you’re right. That morning there were few people there.” It’s like walking a tightrope over an abyss. One slip and I’m gone.
“Did you swim that day?”
“Of course. The ocean was warm and calm. Perfect for swimming.”
“And did Elsie swim with you?”
“Ellie,” I say. Got you, Wirz. Got him, Chief Wood.
“That’s what I said. Ellie.” Dr. Horner makes a note in the file.
I must remain calm. Reasonable. They need to believe that I believe them. That I think I am this man Ben. If they believe I am Ben, then they will never know who I really am, the man who protects the President, and who always will. Sic semper.
“Is there anyone else in this dream of the ocean? I mean anyone you know.”
“Why, yes,” I say. Let’s give the good doctor something to think about. “You’re there.”
“Yes. But it’s odd, Dr. Horner. You’re in a uniform. Not very appropriate for the beach.” I watch his eyes. He doesn’t blink. He is good. But I am better.
He leans back in his chair and smiles. “A uniform? Like a policeman?”
“No. Like—a soldier. An officer. Why, you look like a major.”
“I believe you’re playing with me, Ben,” says Dr. Horner. “I’m not really in your dreams, am I?”
I say nothing. Perhaps I’ve gone too far. Wirz is a dangerous man—
“I was thinking of your grandchildren, Ben. The twins.”
“Oh, yes. Little angels,” I bluff. This is something new. They want Ben to have grandchildren. My God, I’m getting tired. How can I keep up with them? I need a moment, a moment to think.…
“Would you like a glass of water?”
For God’s sake, Chief, tell me what to do. But no. There is too much noise. I’m sweating. Wirz shut the window to take the air away. What’s next, bright lights in my eyes?
“They were four this year. Am I right?”
I hear a great rushing sound, like waves crashing in my head. Before I can stop myself, I’m out of my chair. I stand at attention.
“All right, Ben. Let’s leave it at that for today. Ben?”
“Little angels,” I tell Dr. Horner. The twins …
He takes hold of my wrist and glances at his watch. “I’m going to try a change in your medication. It may upset your stomach a little. But just at first. Is that all right?”
I nod. I’m afraid to speak. I may blurt out something I shouldn’t. I bite down on my tongue.
Dr. Horner stands and goes to the door. “Gregory?”
Gregory comes in and stands behind him. “I’d like Ben to stay in his room for a bit. Perhaps a day or two. We’ll be trying a new medication.” He turns to me. “I’ve finished your book, Ben,” he says. “I enjoyed it very much. I’m not one for historical fiction, but you have a way of bringing the characters to life. The scene with Lee and Grant at Appomattox Court House—well, I felt like I was there.”
“Thank you,” I say. So the man Ben has written a book. If that’s who they want me to be, I hope at least it’s a good one.
The two days confined to my cell were almost unbearable. Not for any deprivation to myself but for the jeopardy in which I placed President Lincoln. My only consolation was that the blanketing silence of that time alone gave Chief Wood ample opportunity to keep me informed and chide me, more gently that I deserved, for my ill-advised thrust and parry with Major Wirz. And yes, he is indeed Major Wirz. The Chief has confirmed it.
My first action this morning was to slip unnoticed into the President’s cell. Not only did I find him unharmed and resting peacefully in his bed, but his beard has actually begun to grow back. He’s looking more like himself. He looked at me and said nothing. His admirable restraint is a quality I would do well to emulate. With the faintest of smiles and a nod of his head, he indicated his appreciation of my service to him. I think he feels safe. And I intend to keep him that way. If I must be this man Ben to operate most effectively in that regard, then Ben I shall be. At least until I have full intelligence of our captors’ intentions. It is a hard thing to be someone you’re not. Who doesn’t want to simply be himself? With the exception, perhaps, of you, Major Wirz.
I sit in the garden and wait for Ben’s so-called wife to appear. Ellie. I must remember the name. She’s working for them, of course. And yet her heart doesn’t seem in it. I think she’s unhappy with her work. Her efforts to make me into Ben, so ardently desired by her superiors, have been spotty at best. She seems so discouraged. I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point someone else shows up pretending to be Ben’s wife and we start all over.
The garden is not really a garden; that’s simply what it is called. There are some metal benches and a few potted plants, and a small lawn surrounded by a flagstone walk. In the middle of the lawn is a stone fountain, two little angels riding the back of a dolphin. Water slowly runs from the dolphin’s mouth as if leaking from a drowned thing. The largest part of the so-called garden is a concrete square with metal tables and chairs. A few inmates are sitting at the tables with their presumed families. I sit on the bench opposite the window to President Lincoln’s cell. I keep my eye on the window.
“Ben.” It’s the woman called Ellie. Gregory is with her.
“You have a nice visit now,” says Gregory, and they exchange a knowing look.
Ellie sits down on the bench next to me. “How are you feeling today, Ben?”
“Quite well, Ellie,” I say, and smile the way I think someone named Ben might smile.
Ellie puts her handbag on the bench next to her. The mini-microphone in her bag is activated by contact with the metal bench. Electromagnetic, the Chief explained. That’s fine. They will hear what they want to hear and what I want them to hear. They will hear Ben talking to Ellie.
“Dr. Horner tells me you had a bad day,” says Ellie. “So he put you on something new. Has that helped?”
“Oh, yes. I’m feeling much better.”
“You’re looking better,” she says and smiles, but only for a second. The smile droops. She looks exhausted. There are rings under her red-rimmed eyes. She plainly doesn’t sleep well. She must have been a very pretty woman once. But now she is faded, like an old photograph. Still, she doesn’t seem a bad sort. What would make a woman like her work for them? I can only imagine. But mine is not to reason why, is it, Chief Wood?
“Julie and Keith are back from Paris. I think it did them a world of good. Julie may go back to work next month.”
“Good,” I say. “We all need our work, don’t we?”
“Wouldn’t you like to go back to work? Back to your writing?”
Careful now. “It’s something to consider.”
She puts her hand on my arm. “Don’t you want to be well?”
“Doesn’t everyone?” I say.
Ellie takes her hand away. “Why are you staring at that window? Is that your room?”
“No. My room has no window.” As if she didn’t know.
“Look at me. Please.”
I look at her.
“No one is blaming you. Not Julie or Keith. Not me.”
I nod. The strain of keeping my eyes on Ellie and the effort of maintaining my Ben-like smile is wearing me down. My head is beginning to ache. Ellie stares hard at me. What does she want? If only I had your wisdom, Mr. President. We sit in silence for what seems like a long time.
“All right. They do blame you. But for God’s sake, Ben, give them time. And stop blaming yourself. You looked away. You were careless. For just a few minutes. And it took them. That heartless ocean. Or a monstrous God.” Ellie is crying.
What a strange script they have her recite. There are apparently grave consequences to being Ben. No wonder they want me so badly to be him. They’d have me then and eventually the President too. “I think visiting time is over,” I say. I’ve got to check on Mr. Lincoln.
“We just sat down,” she says and dries her eyes.
“They have strict rules here. And I want to cooperate. The rules are for my own good.” Listening, Dr. Horner?
Ellie’s distressed. She’s not getting what they want. Perhaps she’ll be punished. God knows—monstrous God, she said?—they’re capable of anything. She takes my face in her hands. Her hands are warm. “Be honest with me. Do you know who I am? Do you know who you are?”
“You’re Ellie,” I say, trying to speak down toward her handbag, so they can hear me loud and clear. “My wife. And I’m Ben. Who else could I be?”
There is such anguish in her face. Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps she doesn’t work for them. Could she, too, be working for the Service?
Word has finally come. My silent orders from Chief Wood. I’m to affect the President’s escape today. It can’t come soon enough for me. For the past few weeks I’ve found it more and more difficult to keep up the charade of being the man Ben. Major Wirz is very suspicious. At our last session he told me the worst thing I could do was to humor him; it would be bad for him and worse for me. With his frustration, his own façade is crumbling. His speech is beginning to have a slight Swiss accent, yes, the accent of his homeland, something noticeable only to my trained ear. I wouldn’t be surprised if he starts sprouting a beard next and donning his Confederate uniform outright. Well, with the help of God and Chief Wood, the President and I will not be here to see it.
The plan is simplicity itself. It depends just on being in the right place at the right time and paying close attention. So much in life depends on that, Ellie. The President is in his wheelchair before the TV in the dayroom, as usual. I am sitting in my chair by the window, as usual. Gregory has led everyone except George to the game room to be inoculated with Bingo, as usual, leaving us alone with the blond attendant Tyrone. In a few minutes Tyrone will disappear to smoke a cigarette, as he does every morning when Gregory is out of sight.
“Keep an eye on Arthur, will you, Ben? I’ll be back in five,” says Tyrone. “And you be good now, George,” he adds and works his lips silently in derisive imitation.
“Sure, Tyrone,” I say casually, yawning for good measure to impress him with how ordinary a day it is. George takes no notice and continues to silently talk to himself. And Tyrone is gone.
I move swiftly. I take the President’s wheelchair and maneuver it to the door. I glance at George, who stops silently speaking and waves goodbye. I know I can count on him to do nothing. It’s a quick roll down the hall to the unlocked doors to the garden.
The skies are overcast and heavy with the threat of rain. I wheel Mr. Lincoln past the table and chairs to the lawn, along the path, past the fountain and around the corner of the building, out of sight. The President turns in his chair and looks up at me. “Everything’s going according to plan,” I tell him. “Chief Wood will explain it all when we see him.” The President makes no protest. He is no stranger to taking risks for freedom’s sake.
I push the President up the grassy knoll to the parking lot and wheel him to the far side. The question is, where will they land? The Chief said I’d know it when I saw it. I scan the streets beyond the parking lot, and sure enough I spot it. Of course. The circular clearing in the middle of the roundabout, a large concrete island with a flagpole in the middle and a big American flag waving in the high wind. It couldn’t be plainer.
We cross the lot and go down the ramp to the sidewalk. Cars and trucks are circling the roundabout at varying speeds. They slow down and speed up unpredictably. There’s no pedestrian walk to the island. I stand and watch the cars go round and round until I have to look away. Now is the time to trust Chief Wood. Yes, sir. I do believe. If I don’t believe in you, what is left? I step off into the street.
Cars stop. Some speed by. Some swerve away from us. They honk, but whether they’re for or against us I cannot tell. Someone is shouting. I walk with my gaze straight ahead now, focused, seeing and hearing everything. We get to the island just as a yellow car coming around the curve comes so close I feel its speed graze my back. I fall hard against the wheelchair and the President rolls rapidly forward. I lunge with all my strength and catch the wheelchair just enough to slow it down before I fall. The President stops inches from the curb and the onslaught of the manic traffic. I’ve banged my knees badly and scraped my hands bloody, but I struggle up, breathing hard, and rush to him. He grasps my hand. He is all right. He is safe. I have saved him.
Overhead, out of the heavy sky choked with clouds thick as smoke, over and above the hiss of the hard rain falling and the blare of horns and wail of sirens and the roar of waves and the shouts of the police rushing to the island toward the American flag that is always flying and the people on the beach running in panic and screaming and the blood boiling loudly in my ears, over the din I hear it, the sound, the sound of the helicopter, with its great blades slicing the thick air, spinning and swooping down from the sky to take us away, home, out of danger, to the only safe place.…
Ellie and Dr. Horner stand at the foot of the bed and talk in whispers. I pretend to be asleep. It’s the only pretense I can manage right now. I am too tired to do anything else. There is pain in my bandaged knees. I go over things again and again in my mind. Why did the Chief abort the mission? Was it my fault? Did I do something wrong? I have a terrible feeling I’ve done something horribly wrong. The Chief has not said a word to me since we were brought back. Not a single word.
Ellie sits at the foot of the bed and watches me. She will fold me up into this man they call Ben and put me in Horner’s pocket. And I will never be seen again.
I watch her through half-closed eyes. She pulls a chair to the head of the bed. “I know you’re awake,” she says.
I say nothing.
She sits in silence and continues to watch me. Then she gets up and shuts the door. She pulls the chair even closer and leans over me. “All right. I can’t do this anymore. I know you’re not Ben.”
I open my eyes and look at her. She seems sad beyond measure. What have they done to her?
“They want you to be Ben and they want me to help make you Ben. But you are not Ben, are you?”
I want to tell her, but I can’t. I cloak myself in silence.
“If I were you, I would not want to be Ben either. Not anymore. So I will not help them anymore. Do you understand? I will leave and not come back and you just be who you really are, no matter how much they try to make you someone else.”
Perhaps she is a friend after all. Perhaps.
“Can you just tell me something?” She pauses and takes a deep breath that seems to pain her. “What is your name? I promise I will never tell anyone else. Can you just give me that?”
There is something in her eyes, something I think I can trust. “I don’t have a name,” I tell her. I can’t help it. Forgive me, Chief. “In the Secret Service, we have only code names.”
Her eyes widen and a tear falls like a big drop of rain. “A code name?”
I nod and take her hand.
“What is your code name, then?”
“Riptide. The Chief calls me Riptide.”
The woman called Ellie drops her head on the bed and cries. “But please,” I whisper, “tell this to no one. It’s as secret as secret can be.” After a while she lifts her head, dries her eyes, gets up, kisses my forehead, and leaves. I suppose I will never know who she really is. I lie as still and as silent as I can. I close my eyes and listen to the silence for a long time. When I open my eyes the lights are out, but standing at the foot of my bed is Mr. Lincoln. I can see him plainly in the dark.
“Mr. President. You’re all right. You can walk.”
The President smiles.
“Chief Wood has said nothing to me since they brought us back here.”
The President nods.
“What are we going to do, Mister Lincoln?”
“We are going to listen,” says the President, “to the better angels of our nature.”
From the writer
:: Account ::
Not long ago, I read a story in the news about a man who accidently dropped his baby granddaughter off the railing of a cruise ship. He was holding her before a panel, which he mistakenly thought had glass before it. It did not. The little girl fell to her death. The child’s parents—including the man’s own daughter and other family members—were present.
Among the perennial questions about the human condition that intrigue and disturb me is this: how does one bear the unbearable? How do ordinary people, imbued with the extraordinary sense and sensibility of our kind, the faculty of fully knowing and appreciating all we do and the consequences, survive the guilt and unfathomable pain of having committed an act, even if fully accidental, with such dread consequences as the death of that baby girl? Does one live or die? And if one lives, how?
Paul Negri is the editor of a dozen literary anthologies from Dover Publications. He was twice awarded the gold medal for fiction in the William Faulkner – William Wisdom Writing Competition. His stories have appeared in The Penn Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, Pif Magazine, Jellyfish Review, and more than 50 other publications. He lives in Clifton, New Jersey.