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“I know it,” Fritz said. “Kind of an assisted living thing.”
“Yes, and Sadie was my chief assistant. I took care of her after her husband cut her; she took care of me after Roth and his associates beat me up. Things go around that way. They make… I don’t know… a kind of harmony.”
“Things happen for a reason,” Hosty said solemnly, and for a moment I felt like launching myself over the table and pummeling his flushed and fleshy face. Not because he was wrong, though. In my humble opinion, things do happen for a reason, but do we like the reason? Rarely.
“Near the end of October, Dr. Perry okayed me to drive short distances.” This was a blatant lie, but they might not check it with Perry for awhile… and if they made an investment in me as an authentic American Hero, they might not check at all. “I went into Dallas on Tuesday of this week to visit the apartment house on West Neely. Mostly on a whim. I wanted to see if looking at it would bring back some more of my memories.”
I had indeed gone to West Neely, but to get the gun under the porch.
“Afterward, I decided to get my lunch at Woolworth’s, just like in the old days. And who should I see at the counter but Lee, having a tuna on rye. I sat down and asked him how it was going, and that was when he told me the FBI was harassing him and his wife. He said, ‘I’m going to teach those bastards not to fuck with me, George. If you’re watching TV on Friday afternoon, maybe you’ll see something.’”
“Holy cow,” Fritz said. “Did you connect that with the president’s visit?”
“Not at first. I never followed Kennedy’s movements all that closely; I’m a Republican.” Two lies for the price of one. “Besides, Lee went right on to his favorite subject.”
“Right. Cuba and viva Fidel. He didn’t even ask why I was limping. He was totally wrapped up in his own stuff, you know? But that was Lee. I bought him a custard pudding—boy, that’s good at Woolworth’s, and only a quarter—and asked him where he was working. He told me the Book Depository on Elm Street. Said it with a big smile, as if unloading trucks and shifting boxes around was the world’s biggest deal.”
I let most of his blather roll off my back, I went on, because my leg was hurting and I was getting one of my headaches. I drove home to Eden Fallows and took a nap. But when I woke up, the German guy’s how-did-you-miss crack came back to me. I put on the TV, and they were talking about the president’s visit. That, I said, was when I started to worry. I hunted through the pile of newspapers in the living room, found the motorcade route, and saw it went right by the Book Depository.
“I stewed about it all day Wednesday.” They were leaning forward over the table now, hanging on every word. Hosty was making notes without looking down at his pad. I wondered if he’d be able to read them later. “I’d say to myself, Maybe he really means it. Then I’d say, Nah, Lee’s all hat and no cattle. Back and forth like that. Yesterday morning I called Sadie, told her the whole story, and asked her what she thought. She phoned Deke—Deke Simmons, the man I called her surrogate father—then called me back. She said I should tell the police.”
Fritz said, “I don’t mean to add to your pain, son, but if you’d done that, your ladyfriend would still be alive.”
“Wait. You haven’t heard the whole story.” Neither had I, of course; I was making up sizable chunks of it as I went. “I told her and Deke no cops, because if Lee was innocent, he’d really be screwed. You have to understand that the guy was barely holding on by the skin of his teeth. Mercedes Street was a dump and West Neely was only a little better, but that was okay for me—I’m a single man, and I had my book to work on. Plus a little money in the bank. Lee, though… he had a beautiful wife and two daughters, the second one just newborn, and he could hardly keep a roof over their heads. He wasn’t a bad guy—”
At this I felt an urge to check my nose and make sure it wasn’t growing.
“—but he was a world-class fuckup, pardon my French. His crazy ideas made it hard for him to hold a job. He said when he got one, the FBI would go in and queer things for him. He said it happened with his printing job.”
“That’s bullshit,” Hosty said. “The boy blamed everyone else for problems he made himself. We agree on some things, though, Amberson. He was a world-class fuckup, and I felt sorry for his wife and kids. Sorry as hell.”
“Yeah? Good for you. Anyway, he had a job and I didn’t want to lose it for him if he was just running his mouth… which was a thing he specialized in. I told Sadie I was going over to the Book Depository tomorrow—today, now—just to check up on him. She said she’d come with me. I said no, if Lee really was off his rocker and meant to do something, she could be in danger.”
“Did he seem off his rocker when you had lunch with him?” Fritz asked.
“No, cool as a cucumber, but he always was.” I leaned toward him. “I want you to listen to this part very closely, Detective Fritz. I knew she meant to go with me no matter what I told her. I could hear it in her voice. So I got the hell out. I did that to protect her. Just in case.”
And this is an in-case if there ever was one, the Sadie in my head whispered. She would live there until I saw her again in the flesh. I swore I would, no matter what.
“I thought I’d spend the night in a hotel, but the hotels were full. Then I thought of Mercedes Street. I’d turned in the key to 2706, where I lived, but I still had a key to 2703 across the street, where Lee lived. He gave it to me so I could go in and water his plants.”
Hosty: “He had plants?”
My attention was still fixed on Will Fritz. “Sadie got alarmed when she found me gone from Eden Fallows. Deke did, too. So he did call the police. Not just once but several times. Each time, the cop who took his call told him to stop bullshitting and hung up. I don’t know if anyone bothered to make a record of those calls, but Deke will tell you, and he has no reason to lie.”
Now Fritz was the one turning red. “If you knew how many death threats we had…”
“I’m sure. And only so many men. Just don’t tell me that if we’d called the police, Sadie would still be alive. Don’t tell me that, okay?”
He said nothing.
“How did she find you?” Hosty asked.
That was something I didn’t have to lie about, and I didn’t. Next, though, they’d ask about the trip from Mercedes Street in Fort Worth to the Book Depository in Dallas. That was the part of my story most fraught with peril. I wasn’t worried about the Studebaker cowboy; Sadie had cut him, but only after he tried to steal her purse. The car had been on its last legs, and I had a feeling the cowboy might not even come forward to report it stolen. Of course we had stolen another one, but given the urgency of our errand, the police would surely not file charges in the matter. The press would crucify them if they tried. What I was worried about was the red Chevrolet, the one with tailfins like a woman’s eyebrows. A trunk with a couple of suitcases in it could be explained away; we’d had dirty weekends at the Candlewood Bungalows before. But if they got a look at Al Templeton’s notebook… I didn’t even want to think about that.
There was a perfunctory knock on the door of the interview room, and one of the cops who had brought me to the police station poked his head in. Behind the wheel of the cruiser, and while he and his buddy had been going through my personal belongings, he had looked stone-faced and dangerous, a bluesuit right out of a crime movie. Now, unsure of himself and bug-eyed with excitement, I saw he was no more than twenty-three, and still coping with the last of his adolescent acne. Behind him I could see a lot of people—some in uniform, some not—craning for a look at me. Fritz and Hosty turned to the uninvited newcomer with impatience.
“Sirs, I’m sorry to interrupt, but Mr. Amberson has a phone call.”
The flush returned to Hosty’s jowls full force. “Son, we’re doing an interrogation here. I don’t care if it’s the President of the United States calling.”
The cop swallowed. His Adam’s apple went up and down like a monkey on a stick. “Uh, sirs… it is the President of the United States.”
It seemed they cared, after all.
They took me down the hall to Chief Curry’s office. Fritz had me under one arm and Hosty had the other. With them supporting sixty or seventy pounds of my weight between them, I hardly limped at all. There were reporters, TV cameras, and huge lights that must have raised the temperature to a hundred degrees. These people—one step above paparazzi—had no place in a police station in the wake of an assassination attempt, but I wasn’t surprised. Along another timeline, they had crowded in after Oswald’s arrest and no one had kicked them out. As far as I knew, no one had even suggested it.
Hosty and Fritz bulled their way through the scrum, stone-faced. Questions were hurled at them and at me. Hosty shouted: “Mr. Amberson will have a statement after he has been fully debriefed by the authorities!”
“When?” someone shouted.
“Tomorrow, the day after, maybe next week!”
There were groans. They made Hosty smile.
“Maybe next month. Right now he’s got President Kennedy waiting on the line, so y’all fall back!”
They fell back, chattering like magpies.
The only cooling device in Chief Curry’s office was a fan on a bookshelf, but the moving air felt blessed after the interrogation room and the media microwave in the hall. A big black telephone handset lay on the blotter. Beside it was a file with LEE H. OSWALD printed on the tab. It was thin.
I picked up the phone. “Hello?”
The nasal New England voice that responded sent a chill up my back. This was a man who would have now been lying on a morgue slab, if not for Sadie and me. “Mister Amberson? Jack Kennedy here. I… ah… understand that my wife and I owe you… ah… our lives. I also understand that you lost someone very dear to you.” Dear came out deah, the way I’d grown up hearing it.
“Her name was Sadie Dunhill, Mr. President. Oswald shot her.”
“I’m so sorry for your… ah… loss, Mr. Amberson. May I call you… ah… George?”
“If you like.” Thinking: I’m not having this conversation. It’s a dream.
“Her country will give her a great outpouring of thanks… and you a great outpouring of condolence, I’m sure. Let me… ah… be the first to offer both.”
“Thank you, Mr. President.” My throat was closing and I could hardly speak above a whisper. I saw her eyes, so bright as she lay dying in my arms. Jake, how we danced. Do presidents care about things like that? Do they even know about them? Maybe the best ones do. Maybe it’s why they serve.
“There’s… ah… someone else who wants to thank you, George. My wife’s not here right now, but she… ah… plans to call you tonight.”
“Mr. President, I’m not sure where I’ll be tonight.”
“She’ll find you. She’s very… ah… determined when she wants to thank someone. Now tell me, George, how are you?”
I told him I was all right, which I was not. He promised to see me at the White House very shortly, and I thanked him, but I didn’t think any White House visit was going to happen. All during that dreamlike conversation while the fan blew on my sweaty face and the pebbled glass upper panel of Chief Curry’s door glowed with the supernatural light of the TV lights outside, two words beat in my brain.
I’m safe. I’m safe. I’m safe.
The President of the United States had called from Austin to thank me for saving his life, and I was safe. I could do what I needed to do.
Five minutes after concluding my surreal conversation with John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Hosty and Fritz were hustling me down the back stairs and into the garage where Oswald would have been shot by Jack Ruby. Then it had been crowded in anticipation of the assassin’s transfer to the county jail. Now it was so empty our footsteps echoed. My minders drove me to the Adolphus Hotel, and I felt no surprise when I found myself in the same room I’d occupied when I first came to Dallas. Everything that goes around comes around, they say, and although I’ve never been able to figure out who the mysteriously wise sages known as “they” might be, they’re certainly right when it comes to time-travel.
Fritz told me the cops posted in the corridor and below, in the lobby, were strictly for my own protection, and to keep the press away. (Uh-huh.) Then he shook my hand. Agent Hosty also shook my hand, and when he did, I felt a folded square of paper pass from his palm to mine. “Get some rest,” he said. “You’ve earned it.”
When they were gone, I unfolded the tiny square. It was a page from his notebook. He had written three sentences, probably while I was on the phone with Jack Kennedy.
Your phone is tapped. I will see you at 9 P.M. Burn this & flush the ashes.
I burned the note as Sadie had burned mine, then picked up the phone and unscrewed the mouthpiece. Inside, clinging to the wires, was a small blue cylinder no bigger than a double-A battery. I was amused to see that the writing on it was Japanese—it made me think of my old pal Silent Mike.
I jiggered it loose, put it in my pocket, screwed the mouthpiece back on, and dialed 0. There was a very long pause at the operator’s end after I said my name. I was about to hang up and try again when she started crying and babbling her thanks for saving the president. If she could do anything, she said, if anyone in the hotel could do anything, all I had to do was call, her name was Marie, she would do anything to thank me.
“You could start by putting through a call to Jodie,” I said, and gave her Deke’s number.
“Of course, Mr. Amberson. God bless you, sir. I’m connecting your call.”
The phone burred twice, then Deke answered. His voice was heavy and laryngeal, as if his bad cold had gotten worse. “If this is another goddam reporter—”
“It’s not, Deke. It’s me. George.” I paused. “Jake.”
“Oh, Jake,” he said mournfully, and then he started to cry. I waited, holding the phone so tightly it hurt my hand. My temples throbbed. The day was dying, but the light coming in through the windows was still too bright. In the distance, I heard a rumble of thunder. Finally he said, “Are you all right?”
“Yes. But Sadie—”
“I know. It’s on the news. I heard while I was on my way to Fort Worth.”
So the woman with the baby carriage and the tow truck driver from the Esso station had done as I’d hoped they would. Thank God for that. Not that it seemed very important as I sat listening to this heartbroken old man try to control his tears.
“Deke… do you blame me? I’d understand if you do.”
“No,” he said at last. “Ellie doesn’t, either. When Sadie made up her mind to a thing, she carried through. And if you were on Mercedes Street in Fort Worth, I was the one who told her how to find you.”
“I was there.”
“Did the son of a bitch shoot her? They say on the newscasts that he did.”
“Yes. He meant to shoot me, but my bad leg… I tripped over a box or something and fell down. She was right behind me.”
“Christ.” His voice strengthened a bit. “But she died doing the right thing. That’s what I’m going to hold onto. It’s what you have to hold onto, as well.”
“Without her, I never would have gotten there. If you could have seen her… how determined she was… how brave…”
“Christ,” he repeated. It came out in a sigh. He sounded very, very old. “It was all true. Everything you said. And everything she said about you. You really are from the future, aren’t you?”
How glad I was that the bug was in my pocket. I doubted if they’d had time to plant listening devices in the room itself, but I still cupped my hand to the mouthpiece and lowered my voice. “Not a word about any of that to the police or the reporters.”
“Good God, no!” He sounded indignant at the very idea. “You’d never breathe free air again!”
“Did you go ahead and get our luggage out of the Chevy’s trunk? Even after—”
“You bet. I knew it was important, because as soon as I heard, I knew you’d be under suspicion.”
“I think I’ll be all right,” I said, “but you need to open my briefcase and… do you have an incinerator?”
“Yes, behind the garage.”
“There’s a blue notebook in the briefcase. Put it in the incinerator and burn it. Will you do that for me?” And for Sadie. We’re both depending on you.
“Yes. I will. Jake, I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“And I’m sorry for yours. Yours and Miz Ellie’s.”
“It’s not a fair trade!” he burst out. “I don’t care if he is the president, it’s not a fair trade!”
“No,” I said. “It’s not. But Deke… it wasn’t just about the president. It’s about all the bad stuff that would have happened if he had died.”
“I guess I have to take your word for that. But it’s hard.”
Would they have a memorial assembly for Sadie at the high school, as they had for Miz Mimi? Of course they would. The networks would send camera crews, and there wouldn’t be a dry eye in America. But when the show was over, Sadie would still be dead.
Unless I changed it. It would mean going through everything again, but for Sadie I’d do that. Even if she took one look at me at the party where I’d met her and decided I was too old for her (although I would do my best to change her mind about that). There was even an upside: now that I knew Lee really had been the lone gunman, I wouldn’t have to wait so long to dispatch his sorry ass.
“Jake? Are you still there?”
“Yes. And remember to call me George when you talk about me, okay?”
“No fear there. I may be old, but my brains still work pretty well. Am I going to see you again?”
Not if Agent Hosty tells me what I want to hear, I thought.
“If you don’t, it’s because things are working out for the best.”
“All right. Jake… George… did she… did she say anything at the end?”
I wasn’t going to tell him what her final words had been, that was private, but I could give him something. He would pass it on to Ellie, and Ellie would pass it on to all Sadie’s friends in Jodie. She’d had many.
“She asked if the president was safe. When I told her he was, she closed her eyes and slipped away.”
Deke began to cry again. My face was throbbing. Tears would have been a relief, but my eyes were as dry as stones.
“Goodbye,” I said. “Goodbye, old friend.”
I hung up gently and sat still for quite some time, watching the light of a Dallas sunset fall red through the window. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight, the old saying has it… but I heard another rumble of thunder. Five minutes later, when I had myself under control, I picked up my debugged phone and once again dialed 0. I told Marie I was going to lie down, and asked for an eight-o’clock wake-up call. I also asked her to put a do-not-disturb on the phone until then.
“Oh, that’s already taken care of,” she said excitedly. “No incoming calls to your room, orders from the police chief.” Her voice dropped a register. “Was he crazy, Mr. Amberson? I mean, he must have been, but did he look it?”
I remembered the cheated eyes and daemonic snarl. “Oh, yes,” I said. “He certainly did. Eight o’clock, Marie. Nothing until then.”
I hung up before she could say anything else. Then I took off my shoes (getting free of the left one was a slow and painful process), lay down on the bed, and put my arm over my eyes. I saw Sadie dancing the Madison. I saw Sadie telling me to come in, kind sir, did I like poundcake? I saw her in my arms, her bright dying eyes turned up to my face.
I thought about the rabbit-hole, and how every time you used it there was a complete reset.
At last I slept.
Hosty’s knock came promptly at nine. I opened up and he ambled in. He carried a briefcase in one hand (but not my briefcase, so that was still all right). In the other was a bottle of champagne, the good stuff, Moët et Chandon, with a red, white, and blue bow tied around the neck. He looked very tired.
“Amberson,” he said.
“Hosty,” I responded.
He closed the door, then pointed to the phone. I took the bug from my pocket and displayed it. He nodded.
“There are no others?” I asked.
“No. That bug is DPD’s, and this is now our case. Orders straight from Hoover. If anyone asks about the phone bug, you found it yourself.”
He held up the champagne. “Compliments of the management. They insisted I bring it up. Would you care to toast the President of the United States?”
Considering that my beautiful Sadie now lay on a slab in the county morgue, I had no interest in toasting anything. I had succeeded, and success tasted like ashes in my mouth.
“Me, either, but I’m glad as hell he’s alive. Want to know a secret?”
“I voted for him. I may be the only agent in the whole Bureau who did.”
I said nothing.
Hosty seated himself in one of the room’s two armchairs and gave a long sigh of relief. He set his briefcase between his feet, then turned the bottle so he could read the label. “Nineteen fifty-eight. Wine fanciers would probably know if that was a good year, but I’m more of a beer man, myself.”
“So am I.”
“Then you might enjoy the Lone Star they’re holding for you downstairs. There’s a case of the stuff, and a framed letter promising you a case a month for the rest of your life. More champagne, too. I saw at least a dozen bottles. Everyone from the Dallas Chamber of Commerce to the City Board of Tourism sent them. You have a Zenith color television still in the carton, a solid gold signet ring with a picture of the president in it from Calloway’s Fine Jewelry, a certificate for three new suits from Dallas Menswear, and all kinds of other stuff, including a key to the city. The management has set aside a room on the first floor for your swag, and I’m guessing that by dawn tomorrow they’ll have to set aside another. And the food! People are bringing cakes, pies, casseroles, roasts of beef, barbecue chicken, and enough Mexican to give you the runs for five years. We’re turning them away, and they hate to go, let me tell you. There are women out there in front of the hotel that… well, let’s just say Jack Kennedy himself would be envious, and he’s a legendary cocksman. If you knew what the director has in his files on that man’s sex life, you wouldn’t believe it.”
“My capacity for belief might surprise you.”
“Dallas loves you, Amberson. Hell, the whole country loves you.” He laughed. The laugh turned into a cough. When it passed, he lit a cigarette. Then he looked at his watch. “As of nine-oh-seven Central Standard Time on the evening of November twenty-second, 1963, you are America’s fair-haired boy.”
“What about you, Hosty? Do you love me? Does Director Hoover?”
He set his cigarette aside in the ashtray after a single drag, then leaned forward and pinned me with his eyes. They were deep-set in folds of flesh, and they were tired, but they were nonetheless very bright and aware.
“Look at me, Amberson. Dead in the eyes. Then tell me if you were or weren’t in on it with Oswald. And make it the truth, because I’ll know a lie.”
Given his egregious mishandling of Oswald, I didn’t believe that, but I believed that he believed it. So I locked onto his gaze and said: “I was not.”
For a moment he said nothing. Then he sighed, settled back, and picked up his cigarette. “No. You weren’t.” He jetted smoke from his nostrils. “Who do you work for, then? The CIA? The Russians, maybe? I don’t see it myself, but the director believes the Russians would gladly burn a deep-cover asset in order to stop an assassination that would spark an international incident. Maybe even World War III. Especially when folks find out about Oswald’s time in Russia.” He said it Roosha, the way the televangelist Hargis did on his broadcasts. Maybe it was Hosty’s idea of a jest.
I said, “I work for no one. I’m just a guy, Hosty.”
He pointed his cigarette at me. “Hold that thought.” He unstrapped his briefcase and took out a file even thinner than the one on Oswald I’d spied in Curry’s office. This file would be mine, and it would thicken… but not as quickly as it would have done in the computer-driven twenty-first century.
“Before Dallas, you were in Florida. The town of Sunset Point.”
“You substitute-taught in the Sarasota school system.”
“Before that, we believe you spent some time in… was it Derren? Derren, Maine?”
“Where you did exactly what?”
“Where I started my book.”
“Uh-huh, and before that?”
“Here and there, all around the square.”
“How much do you know about my dealings with Oswald, Amberson?”
I kept silent.
“Don’t play it so cozy. It’s just us girls.”
“Enough to cause trouble for you and your director.”
“Let me put it this way. The amount of trouble I cause you will be directly proportional to the amount of trouble you cause me.”
“Would it be fair to say that when it came to making trouble, you’d make up what you didn’t absolutely know… and to our detriment?”
I said nothing.
He said, as if speaking to himself, “It doesn’t surprise me that you were writing a book. You should have carried on with it, Amberson. It probably would have been a bestseller. Because you’re bloody good at making things up, I’ll give you that. You were pretty plausible this afternoon. And you know things you have no business knowing, which is what makes us believe you’re far from a private citizen. Come on, who wound you up? Was it Angleton at the Firm? It was, wasn’t it? Sly rose-growing bastard that he is.”
“I’m just me,” I said, “and I probably don’t know as much as you think. But yes, I know enough to make the Bureau look bad. How Lee told me he came right out and told you that he was going to shoot Kennedy, for instance.”
Hosty stubbed out his cigarette hard enough to send up a fountain of sparks. Some landed on the back of his hand, but he didn’t seem to feel them. “That’s a fucking lie!”
“I know,” I said. “And I’ll tell it with a straight face. If you force me to. Has the idea of getting rid of me come up yet, Hosty?”
“Spare me the comic-book stuff. We don’t kill people.”
“Tell it to the Diem brothers over in Vietnam.”
He was looking at me the way a man might look at a seemingly inoffensive mouse that had suddenly bitten. And with big teeth. “How do you know America had anything to do with the Diem brothers? According to what I read in the papers, our hands are clean.”
“Let’s not get off the subject. The thing is, right now I’m too popular to kill. Or am I wrong?”
“No one wants to kill you, Amberson. And no one wants to poke holes in your story.” He barked an unamused laugh. “If we started doing that, the whole thing would unravel. That’s how thin it is.”
“‘Romance at short notice was her specialty,’” I said.
“H. H. Munro. Also known as Saki. The story is called ‘The Open Window.’ Look it up. When it comes to the art of creating bullshit on the spur of the moment, it’s very instructive.”
He scanned me, his shrewd little eyes worried. “I don’t understand you at all. That concerns me.” In the west, out toward Midland where the oil wells thump without surcease and the gas flares dim the stars, more thunder rumbled.
“What do you want from me?” I asked.
“I think that when we trace you back a little farther from Derren or Derry or whatever it is, we’re going to find… nothing. As if you stepped right out of thin air.”
This was so close to the truth it nearly took my breath away.
“What we want is for you to go back to the nowhere you came from. The scandal-press will gin up the usual nasty speculations and conspiracy theories, but we can guarantee you that you’ll come out of this looking pretty good. If you even care about such things, that is. Marina Oswald will support your story right down the line.”
“You’ve already spoken to her, I take it.”
“You take it right. She knows she’ll be deported if she doesn’t play ball. The gentlemen of the press haven’t had a very good look at you; the photos that show up in tomorrow’s papers are going to be little more than blurs.”
I knew he was right. I had been exposed to the cameras only on that one quick walk down the hall to Chief Curry’s office, and Fritz and Hosty, both big men, had had me under the arms, blocking the best photo sightlines. Also, I’d had my head down because the lights were so bright. There were plenty of pictures of me in Jodie—even a portrait shot in the yearbook from the year I’d taught there full-time—but in this era before JPEGs or even faxes, it would be Tuesday or Wednesday of next week before they could be found and published.
“Here’s a story for you,” Hosty said. “You like stories, don’t you? Things like this ‘Open Window’?”
“I’m an English teacher. I love stories.”
“This fellow, George Amberson, is so stunned with grief over the loss of his girlfriend—”