"Dreamland" -- A Different Fifties
Tong Ming Guo walked slowly down the sidewalk along Three River Road. It was mid-afternoon, and the crowds along both sides of the street moved just as slowly as he did in the heat and dense humidity. The summer lingered on in Wuhan, and the low, dark clouds withheld the afternoon thunderstorm that might provide the only relief. Ming Guo hoped the rain would hold off for a little bit longer. The more people on the street the better.
Up ahead he saw Little Chou, sitting on his yellow scooter across the road. Chou was talking to a shopkeeper who stood on the sidewalk. Ming Guo could see the shopkeeper’s daughter behind the counter, holding her hand over her mouth and laughing at something Chou had said. Always the girls with Little Chou. Ming Guo knitted up his brows. He should have picked a different spot for Chou; he should have checked the spot during the day and seen the shopkeeper had a pretty daughter. He never would have chosen that shop if he’d seen the girl. Too late now.
When he came abreast of Chou, Ming Guo stopped and turned to his right, facing the chickens hanging in the butcher’s window there. This one was prosperous. He had a glass window. He studied the reflection in the glass, watching to see where Chou’s attention was. Finally, he saw the boy check his watch and casually look around. At last Chou spotted him; he nodded once and then continued on north.
He could see the sign near ahead: The Yellow Crane Café. Just as he was about to turn into the restaurant, a group of Americans appeared walking south. They were all in uniform, all young men, laughing and talking loudly in their barking gibberish. He looked up at them as they passed him, towering giants striding along in their perfect, heavy boots, with their perfect, white teeth flashing under their big noses. Ming Guo suppressed a shudder of revulsion as one of them brushed against him, oblivious to his presence. He clutched tightly at the strap of the heavy canvas bag over his shoulder as the big American knocked into it. At least they kill Japanese, Ming Guo thought.
“Welcome, welcome, welcome!” called out one of the waiters in the café as he entered.
Ming Guo managed to summon a tight smile in response as he looked around. The table he’d picked out when they had ridden slowly down the street the night before was taken. A couple of well-dressed middle-aged women sat there, chattering back and forth in Shanghai dialect. The waiter was pointing to a table further back in the café. In his t-shirt and shorts, Ming Guo was not the sort who should be seated up front where he could be seen from the street. He ignored the waiter’s prompting and picked a table that was almost as good as the one he’d wanted; close to the front, not too far from the open wall that gave a good view of the street.
“I am waiting for someone. I’ll have some tea until he comes.” Ming Guo didn’t take his eyes off the street as he spoke. He carefully set his bag on the floor between his feet, but kept the strap draped over his leg.
The tea came and he looked at his watch as he took a sip. Late already. He quickly scanned his eyes around the restaurant. Three of the other tables were occupied. Two foreigners sat at one of them. Ming Guo tried to hear what they were saying, but couldn’t tell what language they were babbling in. He could distinguish between English and French, he thought, but he couldn’t tell what kind of foreigners these were. They wore suits and looked prosperous. Good enough.
The ubiquitous portrait of Chiang Kai-shek hung on a wall on the other side of the restaurant. This place had made the picture into the centerpiece of a little shrine, with banners proclaiming the virtues of the New Life Movement hung above it, and a couple of sticks of incense burning on a table that stood before the picture. Ming Guo let out a little snort at the sight, then quickly looked around to make sure no one had noticed. The Generalissimo would have a good view … if only the old bastard showed up.
Wuhan had become everything he despised about his country: Crawling with foreigners, every fifth sign in this area was in English or French, it seemed. The place was corrupt to the bones beneath the city’s hills, full of frivolous people oblivious to the creeping decay.
How his heart had soared three years ago when he’d been chosen to do this work. To get to that day, he’d walked every mile on the march to the dry, yellow hills of Shaansi, losing twenty pounds along the way. When they’d arrived, he’d been little more than a skeleton. He hadn’t minded – being lighter had eased the burden on his blistered bare feet. How clear and pure the very air there in the Shaansi Soviet had been. That place had been everything that places like Wuhan were not: full of committed people, energized by a shining light of patriotic commitment.
It had been Comrade Lin Biao himself who had addressed the little group that had been summoned to the cave complex where the Party leadership worked. He told them that they would be rewarded for their service to the people by forming part of a new unit of special fighters. They would receive intensive training and work behind enemy lines on only the most important assignments. What an honor to have the chance to do such great work!
But he missed the clarity of the dusty hills of Shaansi. Ming Guo grimaced at the finely-dressed ladies from Shanghai, silhouetted against the grey light from the street. If only they could know how they betrayed their country, sitting there gossiping over their tea.
Just as he was shooing the waiter away again his man appeared. Portly to the point of waddling, his eyes slits in his fat cheeks, the man was middle-aged with quite a bit of silver in his brush-cut hair. He wore a well-tailored, light grey suit and a bright red silk tie. He stopped on the sidewalk in front of the café and looked up at the sign after peering into the place. A low rumble of thunder sounded just as Ming Guo reached his hand up to gesture at the man. The fat man’s eyebrows shot up at the sight of Ming Guo, and he hesitated a moment. Ming Guo scowled and nodded at him. Yes, I’m the one, you fat turtle’s egg.
“What is the meaning of this?” he said to Ming Guo in a low, demanding voice after he had ordered tea.
“An emergency change in plans, General,” Ming Guo said, smiling as reassuringly as he could.
“I don’t like emergencies …” The older man went silent as the waiter set out a pot and a cup for him. When the waiter departed he went on: “Old Feng never said anything to me about this kind of meeting!”
“Really, General, I am so sorry for your trouble, but we must talk urgently.” Ming Guo leaned forward and put his hands around his tea cup.
“How do I know it is safe to talk to you?” the General asked. He turned slightly in his chair to look around the restaurant.
“Feng owes you something, yes?” Ming Guo reached down and grabbed the bag. He pulled it onto one of the empty chairs at the side of the table and nodded down to it. As the General looked down, Ming Guo folded it open to reveal the bundles of two-hundred yen notes.
“Yes, he does.” The General reached for the bag, but Ming Guo slid it back out of his reach. He put it into his own lap.
“We must have an updated report immediately,” Ming Guo said quietly.
“Give me the money, I will prepare a report and give it to Old Feng, just as we always do.”
“No. We must know now. There has been more activity at the American air base here in Wuhan. We need to know if there are plans to keep the new planes here indefinitely.”
The fat man frowned. “This is very irregular, very suspicious,” he growled.
“We do not have time, General. I am a special courier and must leave right away. Please tell me, and I will give you this package.” Ming Guo patted the bag in his lap.
“Well, alright.” The other man looked around nervously again. He leaned forward. “You will speak with Mori?”
“Yes, just as soon as I can.” It wasn’t a lie. Ming Guo would like very much to speak to Mori.
“Tell him that I require assurances that Nanking will be mine, as has been discussed before. Assurances!”
Ming Guo nodded and pursed his lips, trying to contain his impatience. “Yes, you want assurances about Nanking; I understand. Now, about the American planes?”
“Ha! Yes, there are more of them. For now. But they won’t stay. Their officers talk of nothing but how their Congress is making trouble for them.”
“Do they say whether they will be ordered to leave?”
“Most of them believe they will be gone in no more than two years. They talk about the election for their president next year … I’m not sure I understand it all. Somehow it will have a big impact on what they do. One party may stay, another may pull the troops out.”
“And have you found any of them – the Americans – that will work with us?”
The fat man snorted. He pulled a fine silk handkerchief from his breast pocket and mopped sweat from his brow. “No. There are a few who have women here, some who may want money, but there is no way any of them would work for …” his voice trailed off.
“What about Chiang; what will he do if the Americans leave? Will he come to some accommodation?”
“No one knows what the Generalissimo will do. I see him rarely now. It seems he doesn’t have time for people like me. But I think preparations are being made to move up river if necessary.”
Ming Guo finally saw Little Chou appear on the street over the fat man’s shoulder. “One last question: Chen; General Chen, have you approached him about working with us?”
“Yes. Or, at least I tried. I don’t think he’s interested.”
“Good. Well, General, it is time for me to present you with what is owed to you.” Ming Guo reached into the bag and felt for the heavy lump at the bottom, beneath the bundles of money. He pulled the big Colt out of the bag as he stood. He rolled the hammer back as he brought the pistol to point squarely at the other man’s chest. Before the astonished look on his face could transform to one of fear, Ming Guo squeezed the trigger, and a flash of flame shot down from the pistol. The bullet’s impact drove the big man back from the table and his arms flung out, but he did not fall. As calmly as he could, Ming Guo raised the pistol to align its sights with big open circle of the General’s mouth and squeezed the trigger again. He hadn’t even heard the first shot. He never did. But this one registered with Ming Guo, a clap of thunder that seemed like it should bring down the walls of the restaurant. The fat man flipped backward as the back of his head exploded in a shower of blood and gore.
Ming Guo reached down and picked up the bag. Concentrating as hard as he could to control the racing of his heart and the ragged unevenness of his breathing, he carefully withdrew the big sheet of paper there among the Japanese currency. He unfolded it and laid it on the table, making sure the words written in large red and black ink were clearly visible:
THIS IS THE FATE OF ALL TRAITORS
Patriots! Join the Chinese Communist Party’s
struggle against the Japanese invaders
who defile our beloved country.
LONG LIVE CHINA!
LONG LIVE THE CHINESE PEOPLE!
Ming Guo was dimly aware that the other people in the restaurant were crouching down on the floor, and that there was yelling and screaming out on the street. One of the Shanghai ladies was moaning with terror. As he stepped around the traitor’s body, he turned the canvass bag over, spilling the bundles of yen out into the spreading pool of blood on the floor.
Only when he’d done that did he look up again. Little Chou had kept his post, but he looked terrified as he revved his scooter. All around him, people scrambling away from the entrance to the restaurant. Ming Guo held the pistol up where it could clearly be seen when he stepped out onto the sidewalk. There were more screams as he appeared to the onlookers.
Without a word, he threw his leg over the scooter’s seat. Little Chou let out the clutch and, with a cloud of blue smoke trailing behind, the two sped away on Three River Road.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
The Houston Post
September 1, 1951
WEDEMEYER TO TESTIFY ON SURGE
UP Washington. General Albert C. Wedemeyer has been summoned to testify before a joint session of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees regarding progress on the so-called “surge” strategy in China. Also expected to testify at the same joint committee hearings are War Department head Clarke and Secretary of State Acheson. Growing opposition to the increasing number of U.S. casualties in the undeclared war in China has spurred Senate minority leader Wherry to demand last Monday that the Barkley administration define a concrete timeline for withdrawal of American forces.
In anticipation of these hearings, the citizens group Move America On purchased full-page advertisements in newspapers all across the country this week, demanding an immediate end to what it called the “quagmire” in China. The advertisement, containing a petition signed by leading figures as diverse as John T. Flynn, Charles Lindbergh and Charlie Chaplin, also called for an accounting of funds spent on what it called the “dirty war” being waged in China by the mercenary group known as “the Flying Tigers.” The text of the petition called for an end to what was called the “wasteful spending on yet another endless and pointless war, when unemployment continues in this country at above 15%.”
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
September 10, 1951
Transcript, Hear it Now
Murrow: Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Tonight, our topic is China. This week, General Alfred Wedemeyer will testify before Congressional committees about President Barkley’s increase in troop numbers in China, known as the “surge strategy.”
The American people are asking what America is doing in China. Are we at war? If not, what are we doing? Is something like “victory” possible in China? How will we know when we’ve achieved it? These are the questions we’ll be considering tonight.
Ever since America’s disastrous involvement in Germany ten years ago, people have begun to wonder whether our people will ever support fighting in foreign conflicts far from home. When President Roosevelt joined Winston Churchill’s so called “coalition of the willing” to intervene in Germany in 1938, the world seemed to be behind the two leaders. Speaking to the League of Nations, Churchill warned of Nazi poison gas attacks from a growing German air force. Hitler’s move into Austria seemed to prove him right, and also those, like George Marshall, who said a war in Germany would be over quickly. Just months after the Allied forces entered Germany, Churchill announced to Parliament that it was a “mission accomplished.”
But no poison gas was found. Nazis were forced out of their official positions, and it took months to find Adolf Hitler. Even when he was captured, violence continued. Factional fighting and rioting kept American forces in Germany for years. Thousands of American boys were killed. Both Churchill and Roosevelt lost elections because of the continuing violence. When the communists decisively won the 1944 elections in Germany, America was unceremoniously evicted from the country.
So, are we headed down the same road in China? That’s the question I put to our guests tonight, two retired U.S. Army Generals. Supporting the surge in China is George S. Patton. And speaking against it is Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Eh, could be interesting, but I get the feeling you're trying too hard to make it look like the mid-2000s.
I think you are laying on the parallels to thick. Its better if they are hints rather than great big slabs.
As things progress, the story will turn on subjects that have been life-long interests of mine (and I'm pretty old ...), predating the specific contemporary events in OTL that prompted me to start writing.
I forgot to mention this before: IOTL, Germany did have large stockpiles of poison gas in 1938. In fact both sides in WW2 maintained large numbers of chemical weapons, but they were very little used because each was afraid that if it used them, the other would retaliate in kind. (In fact, this lesson formed some of the intellectual argument behind MAD). Another major reason they were not widely deployed was the mobile nature of WW2 battles, it would have been very difficult to prevent friendly-fire casualties (unlike the seperated trenches of WW1).
They saw some use -- the Germans used occasionally on them on the Russian front to reduce extremely tough fortresses, and the Japanese used them to a somewhat greater extent in their invasion of China before the "official" start of the war in 1939.
Another comment: Instead of having the Allied forces searching for nerve gas, have them searching for biological weapons. In OTL the Nazis did not have biological weapons.
With that ... the next part of the first chapter in a moment ...
Chapter One (Continued ...)
September 11, 1951
How are you? How are Ellen and the girls? I loved the pictures you sent in your last letter, but, Bubba, you have to send more!
Things are good with me. I’ve been lucky, lucky, lucky; I’ve got my third trial under my belt and a record of 2-1. Not bad!
I listened to Murrow’s panel show on the radio last night. He had two retired generals on to talk about Wedemeyer’s testimony this week. Of course, he had Patton on for the pro-surge party, but I’d never heard of the other guy, a fellow named Eisenhower or Eisenstein … I’m not sure I caught the name right. Patton did his usual entertaining job of grandstanding that was full of poetic fireworks and history. Old Eddie Murrow had a real cold fish on his hands with the other guy, though – getting him to talk was like pulling teeth. I don’t know where CBS found him.
Anyway, Murrow started by rehashing all the mess about Germany. I don’t know what that has to do with China. Even though I’m a real news hound, sometimes I get so tired of how the radio folks just love to go over the whole “quagmire” thing over and over.
The real highpoint, though, was Patton. Near the end he really tore into Murrow and the other guy. He said that with Soviet support for Mao and the Tojo-Stalin Pact, it was only a matter of time before Russia and Japan divided up all of Asia if we didn’t keep supporting Chiang. He said that “Chiang may be an S.O.B., but he’s our S.O.B.” in that high-pitched voice of his. Eisenhower or Eisenhauer (or whatever the guy’s name was) said Patton was just a shill for MacArthur. He said everybody knew MacArthur was going to run for president in ’52.
Boy, Patton made him sorry he’d said that: He said he didn’t care who was running for president, that his friends in the Pentagon told him that Stalin had been working on all kinds of new super-bombs and super-planes that ought to be making people’s blood run cold. You know how much I love that kind of thing. I’ve read that the kinds of thing Patton was talking about really might be possible.
Murrow ended up having to take the other side (which he didn’t seem to mind, reliable friend of Uncle Joe that he is), since the Eisenglass fellow seemed to be tongue-tied after that. He said that the intelligence failures that led to the war in Germany ought to make Patton suspicious of his “friends in the Pentagon,” that rumors about Russian super-weapons were just anti-communist paranoia, that Chiang was a corrupt fixer, that the Flying Tigers were a bunch of mercenaries, Patton ought to be ashamed of being a friend to people like Mussolini and that thug DeGaul … the usual litany.
I don’t know. Sometimes I think these people on the radio want Stalin to take over the world. They ignore all the evidence of the prison camps in Russia … what are they called? Gulash, Gulag?
Anyway … it’s late and I need to get to bed, because I’m going to Los Angeles tomorrow! I got the strangest new case recently. We do a little work for Hughes Tool Company here in Houston. Two days ago, one of the senior partners in the firm came to my office. He told me that Hughes had given us a new case and they wanted me to work on it. I don’t know how this happened – I don’t know anybody at Hughes, haven’t done any work for them. But they asked for me by name. It turns out that one of the key witnesses is in Los Angeles, and I have to go out there right away to take his deposition. What with weird old Howard Hughes himself living out there, I’m sure they have lots of local lawyers that could have done the deposition … but they want me to handle the whole thing. It seems very unusual to me, but who am I to look a gift horse – and a free trip to Los Angeles – in the mouth?
Anyway, I’ll drop you a postcard from sunny California!
Kiss the girls for me.
Your loving brother,
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
INTRODUCTION from The Dragon’s Fire: Gerry Banks’ Story
This book was many years in the making. I have collected hundreds of documents – letters, news clippings, and the contents of public and private files – and conducted more than two dozen personal interviews to substantiate everything that is related here. Much of this work was necessary to fill in the gaps in the extraordinary correspondence from my brother, Gerry Banks, that I received from September of 1951 through the following year, and his personal journal that later came into my possession. I have chosen to reproduce here a selection of the material I collected over the years, because it provides a context that reveals the process in which I engaged in order to piece together the incredible story of Gerry’s adventure.
I begin the story in the Fall of 1951, but an essential element of this tale lies in our childhood. I was born in 1920, and Gerry was born four years later, in 1924. Our father was a Baptist minister, who had a small church in Houston, Texas. Houston was an oil boom town in those days, and the city was riding a wave of new wealth and growing population. But our father, a man with the improbable name of Octavius Paul Banks, was not content to settle into the work of building a congregation among his fellow Texans. He had been an exceptional student at Baylor, where he studied theology, having mastered Latin and Greek to a degree that was considered unusual in those days for a man who ended up going into the work of a minister rather than a scholar. Most of my very few memories of that time in Houston center around the musty smell of his book-lined study, and I can remember sitting on his lap and peering at the strange Greek letters in a book lying on the desk before him.
Our mother died shortly after Gerry’s birth which, I am sure, was a major factor in the radical change in our life that followed. For my father’s love of languages had not ended when he left college. Unbeknownst to anyone but perhaps our mother, Octavius Banks had been teaching himself to read Chinese for some years, and had secretly harbored the dream of missionary work in China. When our mother died, something changed in our father that broke the bonds he might have felt for our native Texas. According to his sister, who was later to be a mother to me, he became distracted and inattentive to the day-to-day work of his ministry in Houston. By 1927, he had arranged to be assigned to a mission in Peking.
Thus it was that Gerry, then only three years old, and I, a somber seven-year-old, made the long journey to China. That journey is really the beginning of my vivid memories of childhood, and of Gerry’s story. I was focused on the mechanics of it all, the trains and ships, and missed how difficult it must have been for my father, travelling alone with two small children across such a great distance. In hindsight, I never cease to be amazed at the audacity and idealistic energy that must have animated our father to undertake this journey.
The story of my father’s years in China is one that I hope some day to write, but that is not this story. What is important here is to know that the great differences in physical constitution between my brother Gerry and me were to have a profound impact on the different courses our lives would take. For not long after arriving in Peking, we both fell ill with typhus. Gerry recovered quickly, but not so for me. I languished in the Peking Union Hospital for many months. With great regret, my father arranged for me to return to Texas in the custody of a returning missionary. I was entrusted to the care of my aunt, and in a few months had made a complete recovery. But the paths of the lives of my unusual family had been split. My aunt resisted my father’s requests that I return to China, and I ended up having a normal adolescence in Houston in the years of the Great Depression.
Gerry stayed in China with our father, and he flowered there. I followed his life through letters and photographs (I only saw my father and Gerry once in person in those years, when they came to Texas for a six-month sabbatical in 1936). In the photos, I saw that Gerry was growing into the imposing man he was eventually to become. By the time he was sixteen, Gerry was six feet, six inches tall and weighed over 220 pounds, an improbably tall figure in the photos I received, surrounded by Chinese people a foot or more shorter than him. He was always smiling in those pictures, a sharp contrast to the serious, stern expression on our father’s face when they posed together in front of the mission school in Peking.
Most importantly for Gerry’s story, he became completely fluent in Mandarin, and by his teen years, he was reading and writing Chinese at a level that our father never achieved. Gerry never ceased to encourage me to try to learn Chinese, but I did not inherit our father’s facility with languages, and I could never do better than to puzzle out a little of the bare meaning of the characters Gerry would include in his letters to me. I did, however, inherit our father’s bookishness, and ultimately became a professor of history here at the University of Wisconsin, the work that has given me the opportunity to engage in the research and writing that has resulted in this book.
Gerry returned to America – and Texas – in 1941. Through a prodigious campaign of letter-writing, our aunt had secured a probationary admission to the University of Texas for Gerry. He did not disappoint: Even though his education up to that point had been largely a matter of self-study overseen by our father, he graduated from UT in three years. This was the longest period I ever spent with my brother, since I was working on my graduate degrees at the University of Texas at the same time.
It was in those years that I came to realize how different we were, my brother and I. In many ways, he was clearly more brilliant than I was, always quicker to pick up on a new idea, and definitely better at grasping any concept expressed in words. But it was his bluff, gregarious personality that truly put him in a different world from me. Despite having grown up in a world that was utterly foreign to what he came to in Austin, he immediately made friends with many people, and had a very active social life. I watched with amazement as he adapted with ease to the normal life of an American college student. In fact, few of his friends even knew about his unusual background, he was so quick to take to his new life.
It was surely his gregarious personality that channeled Gerry into law school. He had been an avid and very active debater in his undergraduate years, and moving onto the University of Texas school of law had been a completely natural progression for him. By this time, I had moved to Madison, where I received the news of our father’s death in 1946.
When Gerry graduated from law school in 1947, it seemed that the life he had lived before coming back to Texas had almost been a dream. His many letters to me rarely mentioned China, and we rarely corresponded about the background of our unusual family. I knew from occasional remarks he would make in our letters that Gerry continued to receive newspapers by mail from China – often weeks out of date because of all the disruptions there – and he was an avid commentator on politics that would occasionally include items about the growing American involvement there. But this was by no means the mainstay of our correspondence. Instead, in those years before 1951, I read of how my brother had gone to work as a young lawyer at one of the old line law firms in Houston, and of his very active romantic life.
Thus the stage was set for the beginning of a turn of events that seemed only a little surprising at the time, given Gerry’s background and temperament, but that later I was to learn was the beginning of one of the strangest episodes in the history of our country.
April 23, 1982
This is really good but I find it weird that Patton would rip into Ike like considering their frendship before WW2 or that the not glory whore Ike would agree to argue with Patton.
Hopefully you'll see that as I get into this I've put more thought into casting the characters from OTL. I do anticipate some groans, though (at least initially), at some of those casting choices ...
And with that, more of the story:
Chapter One (continued ...)
San Antonio Light
September 12, 1951
RUBBER BOARD ANNOUNCES NEW JAPAN TARRIF POLICY
AP Chicago. Calvin H. Straughan, President of the Rubber Producers Board, announced today that Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company had agreed with the proposal made by other members of the Board to join in supporting higher tariffs on exports to Japan. The move is widely supported by the auto industry, which continues to experience tire shortages. The Rubber Workers Union has not stated what its response will be. However, a spokesman for the Barkley administration, on condition of anonymity, has said that the president will likely resist this effort by the rubber industry. Friction with Japan has been increasing, and the Barkley administration’s policy of decreasing War Department budgets has been seen as an attempt to signal to Tokyo that it may try to disengage from the unpopular conflict in China.
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
September 12, 1951
I had thought that I would spend most of this trip reading material from this new case file that’s taking me out to Los Angeles, or a new book I’ve gotten my hands on that looks very interesting – and I will – but there’s something about the rhythmic, rolling motion of the train that keeps putting me to sleep. San Antonio lies just up ahead in the dawn, and I’ve already dozed a few hours. Part of the ease of sleeping is the luxury of the accommodations. The client wired for a full berth sleeper all to myself. It’s hard to resist the nice crisp, white sheets.
But I also keep thinking about how Dad and I used to travel by train in China. What a different experience! The Sunset Limited I’m riding on is about as modern and clean as you can imagine, with its sleek new stainless steel cars and diesel engines. Those trains in China were a very different world: Ancient steam engines, belching sooty coal smoke, cars that were crowded to bursting with every imaginable kind of person, and smells that would knock an American back like a sock in the face from Joe Louis. We would go to Nanking twice a year, at least, to see the mission officials. And more than once, Dad went out to the far west, out into Mongolia almost, to visit a Catholic missionary he’d met in Peking. He took me on almost all those trips.
Dad used to let me wander around on the trains by myself, and I guess a lone round-eye boy was safe, because he was such a strange sight. I would usually end up going back to the back of the train, and would stand and watch the railroad workers gambling in the caboose. They lived in that car, packed like sardines, and at night they would sit around a little lantern on the floor, playing some kind of incomprehensible card game and swearing in a way that made me laugh – and they would laugh and give me little bits of the sticky rice that was their staple.
During the day, I would sit with Dad and look out the window when he wasn’t paying attention – I was supposed to be studying. On the trip to Nanking, I would see the dusky tans and browns of the north country give way slowly to more and more green as we headed south to the big river. How different the countryside is here: In China, all the land is cultivated in tiny little plots, each one a little different from the other, but the boundaries between them clearly marked by rows of trees and irrigation ditches. Here, I can see a few broad fields of cotton in the coming light, stretching almost out to the horizon, but also lots of land that’s just fallow, and no sign at all of irrigation. It’s funny – we think of China as being so poor, but the land there is so rich in the way it is all worked so hard by the people. Here, we have an embarrassment of riches; but somehow so many people can’t see that.
I keep thinking about how we got to this point, where so much of America doesn’t seem to work right. It didn’t happen often, but every once in a while, Dad would talk about how things had been when he was young, and how things had changed so much back in America since we’d left. I read about it in the newspapers in the mission, and it all seemed very far away, but somehow not strange to me, because what I was seeing in China was also, I came to realize, a place that was in a storm of change. My old nanny, Ah Ting, would tell me that she remembered a time before things had begun to change so much; that the world her mother had told her about was pretty much just like the world she had grown up in. I guess the whole world has been caught up in the same great storm for a long time, and Americans have been lucky that it’s been better here than most places.
- - - - - - - - - - -
We’re rolling across the western part of Texas now. This place does look familiar – it reminds me very much of the two trips I took with Dad out to the west in China. But no camels …
I had a very nice encounter with a fellow at breakfast, and we just had lunch together, too. I didn’t learn much about him, but he was very curious about me. Somehow he came across my background in China not long after we sat down to eat this morning, and he spent the whole time asking me questions about it. I think he must have been in the Army, because he asked a lot about the Japanese soldiers I’d seen, and the fighting we’d seen up north of Peking. He had that look about him, too: I remember some of the Chinese military officers that Dad had converted; they always seemed to be wearing a uniform, even when they weren’t.
Maybe it was because I was thinking about those train trips with Dad this morning and I brought it up …
It’s funny, you know I don’t like to talk about China that much. For whatever reason, when I came to America, I started a new life and always wanted to be an American here. I remember how worried you were when I first came to Austin that I would have trouble fitting in. But I wanted to so bad that it wasn’t really a problem. Inside, I would sometimes feel lonely, because I knew that none of the other kids in school had a clue what the Moon Festival was or when it was or which way their bed was supposed to go or what was “hot” or what was “cold” to eat. But I put all that in a box and just went on. I’d read so much and heard so much on the radio and seen so much in the movies about America that it really wasn’t that hard in the end. It was just like getting up out of my seat in the movie house and walking up into the screen.
- - - - - - - - -
So they brought the San Antonio papers on the train when we stopped there, and I’m reading about the latest from the Price Board on steel prices. I’m so glad I’m just a regular old trial lawyer. I can’t imagine how those guys do it who work on the Price Board actions. Half our lawyers spend all their time on them – it can take years and years to make a case to change the formulas they use. I hate to say it, but if the average Joe on the street knew what was involved in raising the price of gasoline by just a couple of cents, his head would catch on fire. I see the negotiations with the union guys and the Price Board people going on for weeks in our conference rooms. It costs companies like Texaco a fortune just for our fees to handle those negotiations and here’s the deal: By the time we finally get an agreement with everybody, the thing they started out to do in the first place doesn’t make any sense at all.
We just “finished” a Price Board case for Texaco that was based on them wanting to build a new part of their refinery in Texas City. That case had been going on since 1943 – eight years! So they got the price increase – big victory, right? Nope. It turns out that this steel price thing had made the whole thing impossible. Texaco can’t build the refinery, after all. So now the tax guys are scrambling, because the excess profits from the gasoline price increase we got will all be taxed away. Texaco can’t even lower the price if they wanted to. The unions want them to build the refinery, anyway, to avoid the profits tax, but Texaco is stuck with the new steel prices. What a mess!
I’m pretty sure I saw another sign of the steel price problem earlier, before lunch, when we passed over the Pecos River. I read about the bridge in the little booklet here in my sleeper – it was built in the1890s. It’s the highest railroad bridge in North America and quite a sight. The train slowed down so we could have a good look (although maybe also because the bridge is so old …). There’s a new bridge that’s been under construction for a long time just downriver. There are two tall concrete piers sticking up from the water, and a lot of weathered timber that looks like it was some kind of temporary structure … but I think there hasn’t been any work on it for a long time. Maybe now that they’ve got the steel price set, they can finish it.
- - - - - - - - - - -
I just looked at my watch and it’s tomorrow – September 13. We stopped in Tucson for a good long time and I got out and stretched my legs. The dry air sure is different from the soup we’re used to in Houston!
I’ve finished going through this new case file – it’s a real head-scratcher. It looks just like a simple little case by a drilling contractor in California over the delivery of some drill bits. I just don’t understand why the heck they wanted me to go all this way to take a deposition in this little case.
There aren’t any lights at all outside the window now – it’s pitch black. I think I’ll sleep now and wake up in L.A. tomorrow … later this morning. I’ve got one night there after the deposition tomorrow. Maybe I’ll go to Hollywood!
Your loving brother,
Your critique of the POD is very good. Unfortunately, the "German Fiasco" is central to getting the starting scenario set up and, frankly, since one of the animating motivations for the writing was the thinking I was doing a few years ago about the pros and cons of preemptive war -- very much in the context of the US experience in Iraq c. 2005-2008 -- I would have to develop a better explanation for how it came to be, rather than changing that major element of the starting conditions for the story.
Thinking more about your comment, it really is a hard problem -- to come up with a rationale for the "police action" in Germany. Not only was the enforcement of treaties and "international law" seen as much less of a rationale for military action in the 1930s, but memories of the Great War were still relatively fresh, and the idea of getting involved in another war on the Continent with Germany would have been a tough sell to "the Lost Generation."
But that last point may present some way to at least strengthen the point: Perhaps rhetoric aimed at avoiding another Flanders Fields would be the route Churchill would have gone, instead of the too-obvious "WMD" thing I latched onto while Bush et al. were being skewered in the world's press in 2006 ...
Well, you *could* have something in Poland a few years earlier, but then it wouldn't be churchill in office. If you want this to be 1941 then hasn't World War Two started yet? Churchill only rose to power in OTl because "peace in our time" flopped so badly.
Now, if Hitler dies at some point in the mid-'30s, and another Nazi takes over (Goering?), one who isn't ready to totally conquer the world. You could have a scenario where a British official reads "Mein Kampf," gets dispatches from the successor - who, for political reasons, lambasts Hitler and not only reveals all Hitler's plans, but makes up some of his own - and who thinks all the Nazis are going to be that way.
So, Georing sends troops into Austria or the Sudetenland attempting to only get that much territory and no more, but the British are worried, thinking another WW I will result, so they push to go charging into Germany to topple the Nazis. They and the U.S. do, int he midst of the war with Japan (which the Allies win) and they do put in a more moderate government in Germany, but as it turns out, Georing and the others really weren't really to conquer the world.
That's the best way to do it; still holes perhaps, but it's the best way I can conceive of while keeping it at least close to OTL. (And you kind of have a little Double-Blind What-If within your AH which could intrigue readers, too, if you choose to have the characters discuss it.)
I know what it's like to try to write AH with only the present in mind, though; I found a series of little AH stories I write back in 1993 or 1994, and I did a lot like you in a few cases. The most egregious was probably thinking Britain and Napoleon could have a Cold War after a Napoleonic victory exactly like the recently concluded Cold War of OTL, which I'd been following since the 1980 election, when I first got really interested in politics as an elementary school kid. With my books I've done now, I have tried much harder to look at the history of the times, for instance using the burgeoning of professional baseball as a factor in a few discussions and decisions.
My lulu.com books (2 AH)
Union win 1863, mostly US history + Baseball integrated from start, some US history
Sweet Lands of Liberty
As you'll see (and as the hint about the "Tojo-Stalin Pact" is meant to hint in what I've already posted), things develop in the East much, much differently than in OTL. I don't want to give too much away, because I find much of the charm of AH fiction to be the slow revelation of the ways in which the AHTL differs from OTL. But from the opening vignette and what we already know about Our Hero, one would get the idea that the focus of the story will be on or in Asia.
Second, I imagine the "German Fiasco" as having begun not long after the Anschluss, i.e. in the second half of 1938. The real POD would have to be a good deal before that in the West, because Churchill (as a symbol of the kind of mentality that might launch a preemptive war) has to be in a position to do that. So I've imagined -- to the extent that I've thought about it -- that Churchill's "gathering storm" rhetoric meets a much more receptive audience in the mid-1930s. How that would be, I haven't really thought through.
What's important for the story is that in the 1951 ITTL, "WWII" never happened as we experienced it in OTL and America is gun shy because of the experience of the German Fiasco. There was no "Crusade in Europe" and before that, there was no slow strangulation of Japan through tightening trade sanctions in the 38-41 period, and thus not the perception by the IJA and IJN of the pressing need to capture resources in SE Asia. (Note the "Rubber Board" news item in the last installment.)
Gerry Banks stepped off the train into the glaring sunlight of the late Los Angeles morning. He pitched the grey fedora down on his head and squinted along the length of the gleaming sleeper cars, looking for a porter.
A young man stepped out of the crowd and walked directly up to Gerry. “Mr. Banks?” he asked.
Gerry snapped his head around and looked at him. “Yes,” he said, taken aback.
“Hello. I’m Frank Sims. I’m here to take you to the deposition.” Seeing Gerry’s surprise, he added, “They did tell you I’d meet you, didn’t they?” He was of middle height, with wisps of red hair poking out from beneath the brim of his hat.
“Well, yes,” Gerry said, “but …”
Sims laughed. “I had your picture,” he said, explaining how he had picked Gerry out of the rush of passengers coming off the train. Gerry raised his eyebrows, but didn’t say anything. A picture? And this fellow had been standing right at the car Gerry had come out of. But he didn’t say any more, as a large black man had come up beside them and begun to pick up Gerry’s bags. But he wasn’t in a porter’s uniform. Instead, he wore a well-tailored dark suit.
“This way, please,” Sims said, indicating that they should walk toward the terminal. His manner conveyed that there was nothing unusual in what had just transpired, so Gerry simply shrugged and followed along, taking a quick step to catch up.
Gerry looked around as they passed through the terminal. He had never been in Los Angeles before. The two previous times he had come across the West Coast (that he remembered) had been through San Francisco.
The expanse of Union Station was impressive – much bigger than the one in Houston, but a good bit smaller than Grand Central in New York. He’d passed through Grand Central when he’d visited there during his college years. They walked through the main waiting room and Gerry looked up at the wooden beams that spanned the vaulted roof and the big, round art deco chandeliers that hung down from them. He spotted some discolored patches in the woodwork in the ceiling that looked like water stains. Bright sunlight angled across the tile and marble floor. Voices echoed around the room from the scattering of travelers in the big space. Against the far wall, he saw a huddle of people looking up with sad eyes at the well-dressed travelers. As they passed, Gerry saw a policeman absent-mindedly twirling his night stick, looking down and talking to one of the people crouched together there. They looked like they had been there for a while. The big, modern-looking clock on the far wall showed the time: 10:15.
“So,” Gerry said, as they walked back out into the sunlight and continued on toward the parking lot, “what’s the plan?”
“The deposition starts at one,” Sims said, not breaking his stride, “So I thought we’d check you into your hotel and have a quick bite, if that’s OK with you, Mr. Banks.”
“Sure,” Gerry said, craning his neck up to take in the straight lines of palm trees along the walkway.
“You’re at the Biltmore,” Sims said as they walked up to a big, black 1947 Lincoln. Two children, Mexicans, they looked like to Gerry, were leaning against the car as they approached. When they saw the group of well-dressed men walking up, they snapped erect and big smiles replaced the blank looks that had been on their faces. “They wired you about the hotel, I guess,” Sims added.
“Only that hotel arrangements would be made.”
Sims laughed. “Well, you’ll be very pleased. Have you ever stayed at the Biltmore?” He asked as they slid into the back seat, the door being held open by the other man.
“No.” Gerry took in the leather-lined interior of the car, “this is my first time in L.A.”
The third man slipped silently into the driver’s seat, started the car and pulled smoothly away from the curb. Sims said, “This is Mr. Deitrich’s car,” apparently answering an unasked question.
“Ah…” Gerry said, nodding knowingly. He had no idea who “Mr. Deitrich” was, but by this point had decided that there were simply too many things about this situation he didn’t understand. His instincts as a trial lawyer had kicked in. Even though he’d only been doing it for four years, he’d learned the hard way that there sometimes came a point in a legal proceeding – a trial, a hearing, even a deposition – when it made sense to just keep your mouth shut and your ears open, where even asking questions could get you into trouble if you didn’t have enough information. And he definitely didn’t have enough information. The case file he’d reviewed seemed clear enough. But the rest – why he was even here instead of some local lawyer in California – didn’t seem to add up. His best bet, he decided, was to do something he was good at: Being a stranger in a strange land.
The big car merged into the traffic on Main Street and it pulled strongly into the southbound lanes. Ahead lay the white tower of City Hall, reflecting the bright sunlight far above the other, lower buildings around it. At each intersection, Gerry could see the Hollywood hills off to the right. The view was clear, free of the smog he had read about.
“It’s the wind,” Sims said, correctly guessing Gerry’s thoughts from his gaze out to the hills. “When it blows from the west like today, the smog all goes away.” For a moment, Gerry thought about how the same thing would happen in Peking.
“Aha,” Gerry said, nodding his head, and then wondering about this fellow’s close focus on him. “So,” he said, turning his attention into the car, “do you work for Hughes Tool out here?”
“Not exactly,” Sims said, with that same sunny smile he’d had when he called out Gerry’s name beside the train. “I’m an assistant to Mr. Deitrich.” Suddenly it clicked in Gerry’s mind: Noah Deitrich, the over-all manager of Howard Hughes’ sprawling empire of companies. He remembered now that he’s heard the most senior partners in the firm mention his name in awed tones.
“I see,” Gerry said. But he didn’t. Not at all. He was being chauffeured around in Noah Deitrich’s car? They made a right turn and, travelling just a couple of more blocks, had pulled up in front of a building that occupied an entire city block – the Biltmore Hotel, Gerry saw from the sign. As it pulled to the curb in front of the colonnaded archway in the middle of the block, the car was immediately surrounded by uniformed bellmen, who opened the two back doors.
“Good morning, Mr. Sims,” Gerry heard and he turned to see the doorman greeting the other man by name with a big smile. Maybe this is just the way the Hughes companies did things, he thought. After all, when you’re the richest man in the world, maybe even junior lawyers get royal treatment.
He waited for Sims to come around the car and the two of them walked through the glass doors being held open for them, into the hotel’s lobby. Gerry knew instantly that he was going to be staying in the best hotel he’d ever experienced, something utterly strange to the son of a Baptist missionary, even one who’d walked through the Forbidden City.
The opulence of the lobby was almost comical. The many columns and faceted, vaulted ceiling were finished in a profusion of minutes details. Gerry exercised extreme willpower to keep from gawking at the flood of textures and colors. But then he had to restrain himself again as he held his gaze steadily forward, for walking directly across his path was Lana Turner, her impossibly blond, smooth hair bouncing as she led an entourage of what appeared to be three or four young men across the lobby floor.
He turned and started to say something, but Sims smirked and spoke first. “You get used to it,“ he said flatly.
“Is Mr. Banks’ room ready?” Sims asked as they stepped up to the main counter.
“Yes, Mr. Sims,” the officious looking man behind the counter said without a pause. “If you will just sign in,” he said gesturing at the big, leather register lying open on the marble countertop.
Sims reached forward with a jerk to cut Gerry off. “I’ll take care of it,” he said quickly, knitting up his brows and lifting the pen. Gerry drew back, but was instantly sorry he’d done so, because he couldn’t see what Sims wrote. Before he could lean to try to catch another glimpse of the book, Sims had gently taken his arm and turned him away from the desk, smoothly scooping up the room key that had been laid next to the register.
“Let’s get you up to your room, and then we’ll have some lunch.” A bellman with Gerry’s bags fell in behind them.
“So … did you have a good trip?” Sims asked, as they stepped into the elevator and he showed the room key to the small, dark man who sat on a stool in front of the elevator’s controls. The room number was clearly engraved on the large brass key fob: 1122. Not the top floor, at least, Gerry saw … but second-to-the-top.
As the elevator began to rise, Gerry said, “Yes, not bad. I read a lot, getting ready for this afternoon, and the newspapers.”
Exiting the elevator, they turned left and walked down a long hall covered in a thick wool carpet. The bellman took the key from Sims and unlocked his room. Light from the bright sky beyond streamed through sheer curtains into a huge room that Gerry saw was a suite. The bellman went about placing Gerry’s bags on a table. He had barely extended his hand when Sims smoothly dropped a coin into it and then the two men were alone in the room.
“OK, I’ll let you unpack and then come on down to the restaurant.” Sims turned without waiting for a reply and was gone, closing the door behind him. Gerry tossed his hat onto the big, plush sofa along one wall, and shook his head. The mystery of this case had only become more incomprehensible since he’d gotten off the train at Union Station. He walked over to one of the big windows and pulled the gauzy curtain aside. He could see the flat expanse of downtown Los Angles with its square grid of streets stretching out below. His room was on the back side of the hotel, facing northwest. He had a clear view of the Hollywood hills now. He could see the famous sign, crisp and white against the light brown vegetation and the bare earth.
He snorted and turned away, sure that he simply didn’t know enough to understand how it was that he was here.
Lunch had not provided any further clues to resolve the mystery. In fact, Sims had been so matter-of-fact in the chit-chat during lunch, that Gerry had decided that there really wasn’t any mystery at all. All of what had seemed so strange to him, he decided, was simply due to his having happened into a world he wasn’t used to. Maybe the other oil company clients he’d worked for didn’t do business like Hughes Tool, but they weren’t owned by Howard Hughes, after all. It had been hard to think about any of that, anyway, because it turned out that Lana Turner was sitting two tables away, with some big studio boss that Sims had named as if Gerry should know who he was, but didn’t. Sims had explained some intricate story about the financing and casting of a new picture to him. He had studiously avoiding pitching his voice so that it couldn't be heard beyond their table in a way that seemed practiced for him.
After lunch, out on the sidewalk in front of the hotel, Sims had smiled, pointed to a building two blocks along South Grand Avenue, shook his hand and disappeared into the big Lincoln. Now Gerry was standing in the small waiting room of the offices of Smith & Nixon, on the third floor of that building, with his big black briefcase at his feet. Sims had said that a company representative, a Mr. Stone, would be at the deposition, which was typical, but that he might be a little late and that Gerry should just go ahead and start without him. Everything was falling into the regular pattern of his work.
He’d announced himself to the receptionist, a dumpy, grey woman who seemed very bored. She’d stabbed the cord from her headset into one of the plugs in the old wooden console in front of her to inform someone that Gerry had arrived. While he waited, Gerry looked at the pictures and diplomas on the wall. His eye was caught by a framed letter from the governor of California, Earl Warren, to one of the partners in the firm, Richard Nixon. It seemed that Nixon had been a Republican candidate for Congress in 1948, and Warren was writing to him to congratulate him. There was nothing on the wall to indicate that Nixon had won the election.
The door from the interior of the office opened and a man in a loose-fitting dark suit stepped up with his hand out. “Gerry Banks?” he asked. He had a very deep voice. Although he looked to be six feet tall, he had somewhat stooped shoulders and eyed Gerry from underneath dark, heavy brows. Gerry noticed a fine sheen of perspiration on the man’s brow beneath his receding hairline.
“Yes,” Gerry said, reaching out and taking the man’s hand. He had a very firm grip.
“Dick Nixon” the other man said, introducing himself. “Come with me,” he said curtly, turning and leading Gerry back toward the open door to a conference room with windows looking out onto the street below.
The setting was very familiar to Gerry. The witness, one of Nixon’s client’s business managers, sat at one end of the long table. He got up as Gerry entered. He was as Gerry had guessed he would be, middle aged. He had a neatly-trimmed grey mustache and wore the kind of small, oval wire-frame glasses that had gone out of fashion a few years before. Next to him, facing the windows, a plain, thin young woman with her light brown hair in a tight bun at the back of her head sat very erect. A stenography pad lay open in front of her on the table.
By this point in his career, Gerry had taken dozens of depositions like this, and he set about emptying his briefcase and settling into his chair next to the court reporter as a matter of habit. As he did so, he introduced himself to the court reporter and gave her one of his business cards. Nixon dropped into his chair across from Gerry after introducing the witness with an absent wave, and promptly slumped down with a fixed, somewhat sour expression on his face.
Gerry laid his notes in front of him, next to the neatly-stacked documents he would mark as exhibits, looked up to Nixon, and said, “Hughes’ company representative will be a little late, but we can start without him.”
“Umph,” Nixon grunted, nodding slightly, and pushing out his lower lip.
“Okey-dokey,” Gerry said. He turned to the court reporter and said, “Swear the witness, please.”
She lifted her right hand and, turning to the witness, said, “Please raise your right hand.” He did, and she went on, in a swift monotone, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”
The witness said, “I do.”
“Please state your full name for the record,” Gerry said.
“Malcolm Harold McNaughton,” the witness said.
What followed was a matter of rote for Gerry. He’d learned how to do this in the way that lawyers had been learning for hundreds of years; by watching other more experienced lawyers do it. In those first years of his legal career, he’d done what generations of lawyers had done, absorbed a set of standard opening questions and admonitions that varied almost not at all, regardless of the personal style of the lawyers or the subject matter of the questioning. Name, job title, whether the witness had testified before, if not, what the rules of the questioning were, the witnesses’ personal background: The basic pattern was almost always the same.
Gerry had learned very quickly that this litany of questions served more than one purpose. He was gathering some basic, necessary information. But just as important was the chance to settle in to the task, to develop a common focus with the witness. Even more important, the back and forth of these opening questions provided the opportunity for him to take a first measure of the witness: What was his facility with words, was he comfortable giving his testimony, did he look to his lawyer for reassurance, did he make eye contact with the lawyer who was asking him questions? Just knowing exactly what he was going to say next, and for the next few minutes, gave him an advantage over the witness that allowed him to spare some of his attention for other details of the man he was talking to – something that didn’t happen in normal conversation. This small advantage allowed Gerry to establish a rhythm of subtle control that the best lawyers used to their advantage as they continued on into the questions that really mattered.
While he was going through this little ritual, he heard the door open quietly behind him. One of the key skills of a trial lawyer Gerry had picked up was control over attention, and he was only dimly aware of the further sounds of someone walking carefully up behind him and taking the seat to his left. He appreciated that the Hughes company man pushed his chair back so that he sat directly behind Gerry. As he focused on the witness, the new person in the room vanished from Gerry’s mind.
After what seemed like only a very short time, Gerry glanced at his watch and saw that he’d been questioning McNaughton for almost two and half hours. He had worked through the pile of documents he’d brought with him, establishing the chain of custody of the drill bits that the plaintiff company claimed were faulty.
Looking up from his watch, he glanced over at Nixon, who was absently staring up at the ceiling. “Why don’t we take a short break?” Gerry asked. As he said this, he heard the Hughes representative getting up from his chair and, out of the corner of his eye, saw him walking toward the door of the conference room.
“Fine with me,” Nixon said, looking over at the witness – but not Gerry – with a crooked, slight smile on his face, as if Gerry’s request for a break were somehow a sign of weakness.
Gerry carefully turned his notepad face down on the table, got up and followed his client out of the room. As he walked through the door, he saw the grey flannel of the man’s suit retreating through the door that led to the waiting room. Gerry continued on, picking up his pace to catch up with him.
“Uhm, Mr. Stone?” Gerry asked, as he saw the man pushing on out of the waiting room into the hallway beyond. He didn’t stop but went out of the offices of Smith & Nixon entirely. Gerry hurried out after him.
In front of the elevator doors, the other man finally stopped and turned around. Gerry froze. This was the man from the train – the one he’d had breakfast and lunch with yesterday as they’d crossed the great western desert. The smallest trace of a smile played quickly across the man’s face as he saw Gerry’s look of recognition.
“Wait a minute, dammit!” Gerry said in a low voice. “What the heck are you doing here?” he asked. Gerry suddenly remembered that the man on the train had told him that his name was Stone – Jack Stone.
Stone reached into the jacket of his suit and pulled out a slip of paper. He stepped forward to Gerry and said, “Here, call this number when you’re done. We’ll send a car around for you.”
Gerry shoved his hands into his pockets, refusing the paper. Stone smiled broadly then, a sunny smile that lit up his light grey eyes in his deeply tanned face. “Don’t worry, I’ll explain everything to you then. Here. Just call when you’re finished.” He pushed the paper forward.
Gerry nodded slowly, but the expression of consternation on his face didn’t change. He pulled his left hand out of his pocket, reached forward and took the slip of paper. A phone number was written on it in neat, square handwriting. Nothing else. He nodded slowly as a bell rang and one of the elevator doors opened. Stone nodded, too, the big smile still on his face, turned and walked into the elevator. “First floor,” Gerry heard him say.
Gerry fished in his pocket and pulled out a cigarette. He absently lit it and slowly blew a long trail of smoke out into the elevator lobby.
-- -- -- -- -- --
It took a strong effort of will to shake the encounter with Stone and go back in to finish the deposition. Whatever was going on, Gerry was being paid to do a job, and he did it. But it turned out that the only concrete things he could accomplish was establishing the facts of the purchase of the drill bits, and that they’d been documented as being involved in failures in drilling. The only other thing he could think to do was to get McNaughton, who was a manager in an office, to admit that there were lots of reasons that drilling oil wells had problems and that he, personally, didn’t know for sure that the issues his company had had were caused by the drill bits.
When he’d finished, Nixon had been a little friendlier – probably because McNaughton’s testimony hadn’t hurt his case – but Gerry didn’t take Nixon up on his invitation for a cup of coffee back in the other man’s office. Instead, he’d asked to use the phone, and had called the number on the slip of paper Stone had given him.
A voice he didn’t recognize had answered and had simply told him that a car would be downstairs to pick him up. Gerry cocked his head as the phone went dead. He’d put his hat on, waived to Nixon with a forced smile, and now he was walking out of the building onto Grand.
The same big black Lincoln was at the curb, and the big man who’d driven them in the morning was standing with his hands clasped behind him, facing him squarely. As Gerry approached, he opened the back door with a pleasant smile, and Gerry could see Stone sitting inside.
“Here, sir, let me take your bag,” the driver said. Gerry hesitated for just a moment. But with a slight shrug, he handed the bag to the driver, and slid into the back seat beside Stone. The driver closed the door behind him.
“I’m sure you have some questions, Mr. Banks,” Stone said evenly.
“That’s an understatement,” Gerry said. “You knew I was coming out here to take a deposition when we talked on the train. It would have made sense for you to figure out it was for your company.”
“Yes, of course,” Stone said, as the driver slid into the seat in front of them and started the car. Just as smoothly as he had in the morning, he pulled out into the light traffic on Grand.
But instead of offering an explanation, Stone reached into the slim, brown leather brief case at his feet and pulled out a file folder.
“Everything will be explained,” he said, “but first, you need to take a look at these.”
Gerry took off his hat, laying it on the dark red-brown leather of the seat between them. He took the folder from Stone. Inside were just two sheets of paper. He recognized them as legal documents – short, numbered paragraphs, and a place at the end for a signature … his signature, he saw immediately.
Before reading any further, Gerry looked up at Stone. The other man eyed him with a set, blank expression. Gerry waited, but Stone said nothing, so with a little exasperation he looked back down and actually began to read the papers.
They were confidentiality agreements. The first was with a company called “Hughes Special Projects, Inc.” Before reading on, he turned to the other and saw that it was with “the United States of America.” Gerry’s eyebrows shot up, but he kept reading. Both agreements had today’s date, September 13, 1951, typed into them. Both stated that confidential information would be revealed to him, Gerry Banks, and that he agreed to keep that information confidential “in perpetuity.” The agreement with Hughes laid out an enforcement mechanism that called for him to be liable for liquidated damages of $100,000 if he were to reveal what he learned in any activity connected with the Hughes company. The other referred to some federal statute and an executive order for enforcement, both only by the kind of inscrutable legal citation that meant nothing outside of a law library. There was no clue as to what the “confidential information” might be.
Gerry looked up at Stone and snorted. “How could I possibly sign these?” he asked.
“With this,” Stone replied with the same smile he’d had back in Nixon’s building when Gerry had first recognized him. He smoothly pulled a pen from his shirt pocket and began unscrewing the top.
“You’re kidding, right?” Gerry said, not reaching for the pen Stone held out for him.
“No,” Stone said, “I’m not kidding.”
Gerry closed the file folder. He said, “Look, I was willing to go along with this … strangeness … because I figured this was all just some kind of … uhm … Howard Hughes thing, but this,” he gestured at the folder, “this is just ridiculous, OK?”
“I understand,” Stone said patiently, settling back in his seat. He went on, “I can and will explain everything, but not until you sign those.” He gestured at the folder on Gerry’s lap.
“And if I don’t?”
“Then we go back to your hotel, and in the morning you go back to Houston,” Stone said.
Gerry thought about that for a moment. “Well, I’ll never have a hundred thousand dollars in my life and, as for the other, I have no idea what those laws are.”
Stone let out a little laugh, a good-natured sound. “Those are national security regulations. It’s standard security clearance stuff,” he said. “As for the money, that’s Mr. Hughes’ business, but they tell me everyone signs that who works for him.”
“I don’t work for him,” Gerry said, “or, I mean, one of his companies hired my law firm. But I don’t ‘work for him.’” He made quote marks in the air in front of him.
“Right,” Stone said, “what I mean is, works on one of his secret projects.” He didn’t explain what “secret projects” meant, but he said it the way one would say “works in the yard.”
The car drove on with the two men in silence. Gerry’s instincts about keeping his mouth shut had kicked in.
“OK, look,” Stone finally said, smiling again, “here’s the deal: You sign those and we tell you some things.” We? Gerry thought, but said nothing. “Then,” Stone went on, “you’ll know enough to make a decision.”
“Yeah,” Stone said, “a decision about whether you want to be involved in a project that Hughes is doing for the government.”
“Ahhh,” Gerry said slowly, cocking his head back. The word “mysterious” was as often associated with the name of Howard Hughes as the word “eccentric” or “playboy-millionaire.” Gerry knew Hughes’ aircraft company had done some work for the government … military aviation. Suddenly, Gerry thought back to the conversations he’d had with Stone on the train.
“This ‘project’ wouldn’t involve China, would it?” he said slowly.
Stone’s smile came back, but he didn’t say anything. He just nodded once, slowly.
So that was it. Stone had struck up a conversation with him on the train, and then they’d had two long meals together. Almost the whole time, they’d talked about Gerry’s life in China, a subject that had somehow come up not long after they’d met. Gerry searched his memory, and realized Stone had found out quite a bit about that, without seeming to keep the conversation on that topic in a forced way. Somehow it had seemed natural, but Gerry realized he’d told Stone that he spoke and read Chinese, and that he knew a lot about the political situation in China.
“And what if I don’t want to ‘be involved’ after you explain whatever it is you’re going to explain?” he asked.
“Then I take you back to your hotel, and tomorrow you go back to Houston,” Stone used exactly the same words he’d used before. But then, after a pause, he went on: “The only difference is, you know some things that you never, ever tell anyone else about.”
Gerry opened the folders again, and looked at the confidentiality agreements. As he did so, Stone added: “Ever.”
“Huh,” Gerry said. He looked out the window. He realized that they had been driving in a more or less random path around the downtown area. It was late afternoon, and a golden light suffused the streets. Traffic was picking up. He saw the cars, the round, bulging metal shapes glinting in the sunlight like bloated fishes in a river, stopping and then going slowly from traffic light to traffic light. It was as an American a scene as he could imagine – signs advertising Coca Cola and Burma Shave, a big billboard trumpeting the opening of a new picture with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, every fourth or fifth storefront empty, some men lined up outside a soup kitchen.
He shrugged, took the pen from Stone and quickly signed the two sheets of paper. Stone took the folder and slipped it back into his briefcase.
“Tom,” Stone said, directing his voice to the driver, “we can go on now.” The car turned west at the next intersection.
“OK,” Stone said, “we’ll do this in stages. What I have to tell you now is pretty simple. The rest you’ll hear from others in a little while.” Gerry nodded, and Stone went on: “That company you just signed an agreement with is working on a pretty big project for the Army. Some of it here, some of it in China. That’s where you come in.”
“Right,” Gerry said. That much made sense, but how anyone associated with Howard Hughes or the Army would have known he was fluent in Mandarin was beyond him.
“Hughes needs a liaison man for the project. To deal with the Army; be his eyes and ears, handle communication, that kind of thing,” Stone said.
“Wait a minute,” Gerry said, holding his hand out to stop Stone. “I’m a lawyer in Texas. And I don’t know anything about his business … or at least nothing but a little about the oil tool business. And I’m guessing this doesn’t have anything to do with drilling oil wells.”
“That’s right, or at least, not really,” Stone said, and cocked his head, waiting for Gerry to go on.
“Uhm, what the heck can I do that would help with some kind of secret Army thing?”
“Well, the details will be explained in a little bit. But the idea is that you would go to work for Hughes. He wants to send you to China to work on this thing, see?” Stone said.
“No,” Gerry said emphatically, “I most definitely do not see. How long are we talking about? I’ve got a really good job in Houston. I’m not just going to quit my job!”
“That can all be arranged,” Stone said.
“‘Arranged’?” Gerry asked.
“Well, first, you’ll get paid a lot.”
Gerry pursed his lips and nodded appreciatively. Stone went on: “And second, you’d be pretty amazed at what Hughes can do when he sets his mind – and his wallet – to it. I’m betting you could have your old job back in a heartbeat when this is over,” Stone said. “If you still wanted it,” he went on after a slight pause, that big smile coming back over his face.
Gerry shook his head. He looked across the back of the front seat, and saw they were at the foot of the Hollywood hills. The hillsides were striped with long shadows cast by the low scrub that dotted the rock and tawny dirt.
As the car began climbing into the hills, he turned back to Stone. “How long?”
“Months, at least. Maybe a year,” Stone said, “probably not much more than that.”
“OK, so what’s this ‘project’?”
“They’ll tell you about that when we get there,” Stone said.
“Who? And where are we going?” Gerry asked.
“Not far.” Stone looked out of the car. “We’re almost there.” The car was snaking around a smooth strip of asphalt that climbed up from one switchback to the other. Gerry looked out, too, and could see that they were rising above the city down below. He could see the ocean now, and the sun was glinting brilliantly as it sank into a layer of haze just above the water. What looked like driveways were spaced at long, irregular intervals turning off from the road when it would reach a crest of the hill, or one of the rare flat spaces. Most had gates set just back from the road.
“So what’s the project?” Gerry asked again.
Stone let out a little, barking laugh. “Well, I’ll tell you a little. Hughes is delivering a lot of hardware to the Army in China. It’s some pretty neat stuff. Stuff you definitely haven’t seen before. Nobody has. You’ll help with that.”
Before Gerry could ask another question, the car began to slow. They turned left across the oncoming lane into one of those driveways and pulled up to a substantial metal gate. He could see that it was the only opening in a wall made up of stone pillars and more heavy metal bars. The gate was at the crest of the hill, so he couldn’t see what lay behind as the car came to a stop. He expected that someone would approach to open the gate, but after a moment it silently opened by itself.
The car moved forward slowly and a little shelf of land came into view just below them. Beyond it, the vista of the city lay before the setting sun and ocean beyond. In the foreground was a swimming pool, already lit by submerged lights. Just beyond that was a very large, low-slung house that extended down and out in jutting layers.
“Howard Hughes’ house,” Stone said.