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Frank closed the back door of his camper behind him and peered carefully around its corner. There had been no room for a vehicle his size in the motel’s main lot when he arrived, so he’d found it necessary to park in an overflow lot beyond the pool area. Only a few cars and pickup trucks shared the lot with him now, one of which must hold the person who was helping himself to Frank’s wireless connection.
But no one could be seen in any of the vehicles nearby. Some were at odd angles, though, and the faint glow of a laptop might not be visible, especially if someone was being careful to avoid detection. He’d have to walk around the lot and try to get a better angle to tell for sure. Suddenly he felt insecure; how many of those pickup trucks had gun racks in their cabs, he wondered? Maybe it wasn’t so important after all to know who the hacker was.
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The Alexandria Project?
a Tale of Treachery and Technology
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And then he noticed it: an old VW camper, parked in the very back of the lot, with the curtains drawn. Bingo. That must be it. He felt his courage returning. How threatening could someone be that would rent a VW minibus?
He walked to the edge of the parking lot, keeping his camper in the line of sight of whoever was in the minibus. Feeling rather foolish, he scooted around the periphery of the lot in a hunched-over posture, staying behind the ratty landscaping as much as possible. When he was directly behind the VW, he crept quietly up to it and tried to find a way to peer past the curtains. But there was no way to see in
Crouching once more, he edged along the side of the vehicle until he was in front, and slowly stood up until his eyes barely cleared the bottom of the windshield.
Inside, he saw the head and shoulders of someone silhouetted against the glow of a laptop. On the side of the camper, he could see a partially open cabinet. He couldn’t see what was inside, but from time to time he could see the flickering of yellow and red lights reflected on the back of the cabinet door.
He crouched back down. Now what?
His haunches started to ache, so he sat down on the ground, once again feeling foolish. He had no doubt that the person inside the camper must be the one that was piggy-backing on his Internet connection. But if they denied it, how could he prove otherwise? Maybe he should just sneak back to his motel room and forget all about it.
Just then, he heard the engine turn over, and the minibus’ headlights came on. Involuntarily, he pasted his back to the front of the minibus, trying not to be seen. Then, realizing that he might be run over at any moment, he jumped to his feet and turned around. Finding himself unable for the moment to move, he stood staring face to face through the windshield at the person he had set out to find.
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Otto Barbash stood at the end of the private dining room in Chicago. His guests had enjoyed an excellent dinner, and the tables and chairs were now swept away. As always, Barbash was impeccably dressed in a dark, bespoke suit and club tie. A handkerchief emerged from the vest pocket of his suit coat, folded to display three identically spaced and proportioned points, as well as his personal monogram. Cupped in the fingers of his right hand he held a small brandy snifter.
No longer young or athletic, Barbash still carried himself erectly and well. As always, he had positioned himself in such a way as to dominate the room. A thick, precisely trimmed, mostly white moustache provided an old-world touch to his dignified face. That feature, together with a lofty forehead and his military bearing, sometimes left new acquaintances with the puzzled recollection that he might have been wearing a monocle. Indeed, a random visitor glancing at him posed against the richly paneled wall might understandably have mistaken him for an oil portrait of a 19th century diplomat.
There would be no random visitors this evening, of course, because the door to the room was closed and guarded, and the man that stood discretely to one side could easily have handled anyone that might try to enter uninvited. Signaled by the phone vibrating in his pocket, he opened the door to admit the last of Mr. Barbash’s guests.
Barbash had been anticipating that the two men would be arriving late. The opportunity to meet – and pledge economic support to - Lamar Wellhead was the raison d'être for the presence of the earlier-arrived guests. Barbash remained at the end of the room, content to allow his wife Amalia to greet the Governor. This would also allow him to have a few private words with Wellhead’s companion, who was shaking hands while discretely moving in his direction.
Not for the first time, Barbash was impressed by the fact that Richard Delaney seemed smaller in person than he did on television or in the press. In either case, though, the thinness of the man’s neck made his outsized head appear incongruous. Barbash wondered whether Delaney realized that the round lenses of his steel-rimmed glasses contributed to impression that his face was a full moon rising from the collar of his shirt.
But no, that wasn’t quite the right analogy, Barbash decided, because it failed to take into account those extraordinary eyes. Barbash was always meticulous in his investigations of those upon whom he would permit himself to place his reliance. Before consenting to a first meeting, he had studied Delaney carefully on video as well as in text. From the first, he had been struck by the unnaturally large and piercing yellow-brown eyes that dominated the man’s invariably immobile face.
But video didn’t do full justice to Delaney’s demeanor. Whenever he spoke, he inclined his head slightly forward, fixing those unblinking eyes on whomever he was addressing. The effect was unnerving, but even more unsettling for someone when they were speaking. Delaney’s unwavering gaze upon them, they often found that they could not look away. It was not unusual for someone in a group, or even on stage, to simply stop in mid sentence once they had locked eyes, as if hypnotized. Yes, Barbash thought. Not like a rising moon. Like a cobra, with its hood fully extended.
“So good of you to come,” Barbash said as he extended his hand to Delaney.
The rest of his guests were now gathered at the other end of the room where Wellhead was holding court, arms crossed and beaming with his trademark smile. The cheerful twang of his voice was punctuated by the appreciative laughter of his listeners.
“The pleasure is mine. It’s very good of you to host another fund raiser so soon.”
“Of course, of course. One must go through the motions after all, mustn’t one?”
“Indeed yes. Especially since the Supreme Court, in its infinite wisdom, opened the floodgates of Super PAC money. At another time, it would have been most welcome. But in this campaign it will only raise the costs of keeping up appearances.”
“I’m not concerned. One expects high stakes at the best tables. Our resources will be more than adequate.”
A waiter materialized at Delaney’s elbow, holding a silver tray. In the center stood a crystal glass with several ounces of scotch, served neat. On either side of the glass lay a cigar, its ends carefully trimmed.
“You prefer the Laphroaig single malt, I believe?”
Delaney raised his glass in salute. “As always, you are an excellent host.”
“I travel with my own refreshments and staff. I find that one can expect only so much from commercial establishments.”
Barbash looked with mild disapproval at Delaney as he raised his scotch to his lips. “I’m sure I don’t know how you drink that treacle when there are so many sophisticated single malts to choose from. I prefer subtlety over assertiveness. Over the years it’s an approach that has served me well.”
Delaney’s brow wrinkled in a line that paralleled his famously off-kilter smirk. But he knew better than to ignore the importance of stroking his largest donors when they had so clearly signaled their expectations.
“Your reputation for finesse is legendary. One would think that today’s businessmen would appreciate the example provided by your remarkable business success. Still, I’m sure you appreciate the fact that the current political environment hardly responds to nuanced behavior. If we wish to redress the balance in Washington, we’ll need to be forceful before we can be subtle.”
Barbash’s servant lit their cigars, and then withdrew.
Barbash drew appreciatively on his cigar. “Thank goodness for private dining rooms, or I could never enjoy a decent after dinner cigar outside my own homes. And it will keep the others at bay.”
Barbash gestured towards Wellhead with his cigar. “How is it that the best foil you could find to execute your plan is this caricature of a human being?”
“He is a buffoon, I grant you. But he is also in tune with our unfortunate times. And in any event, if we so desire, his role can be transitory.”
Barbash looked back sharply. “Transitory?”
“Yes, and hence my last minute request to accompany Wellhead tonight. I have been reflecting on the plan that I originally shared with you, and have a refinement to suggest. You’ll recall that the last Texan the party placed in office toed the line for quite some time, listening to the hand-picked cabinet, and especially the vice president, that we selected for him. But eventually he came to imagine that he truly was capable of being the leader of the Free World. Except for that unanticipated development, our plan was well designed and executed. I believe that with a small refinement, we can use the same approach and achieve complete success this time.”
“What do you have in mind?”
“If you will permit me to say so, this is a situation in which forcefulness in the first instance will be well rewarded. Rather than placing a hand-selected Vice President in a position to influence Wellhead, I believe that we should choose the perfect person to replace him a few days after the inauguration.”
Barbash was alarmed. “Surely you are not suggesting an act of violence?
Delaney’s smirk became more noticeable. “Not a violent act, no. Let us simply observe that it would not be difficult to place a person with the rather substantial carnal appetites of Lamar Wellhead in the way of temptation. Multiple temptations, perhaps, and in a state where the age of consent is 18. Needless to say, it would all look quite festive on videotape, even on Youtube.”
“Must we go so far?”
“I’m sure not. At heart, Wellhead is a coward. At his age, I doubt a private screening of his nocturnal performance would in fact lead to a stroke. But it should be sufficient to lead him to consent to be whisked away by ambulance, and to do the right thing for the country promptly thereafter, besides. After he resigns, he can enjoy a miraculously rapid recovery in a private hospital, watching himself cavort to his heart’s content on the sole copy of the videotape. Historians will always wonder what might have been, had he not given up his elected office so precipitously.”
Barbash exhaled and studied the smoke as it dissipated in the air. The concept had undeniable merit. And there would be no need for him to be personally associated with its execution in any way. He congratulated himself for having had the room screened for listening devices before his arrival. Of course, Delaney had left out one extremely important detail. But Barbash suspected that he already knew how Delaney would recommend that detail should be addressed.
“I assume that you have already given thought to who Wellhead should select to be his Vice President?”
“And who do you propose should assume that duty?”
“I’m pleased to say that I enjoy the Governor’s total trust. And if called upon to serve, how could I refuse the request of the Republic to which we have both so sincerely pledged our allegiance?”
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