“He published it! I can’t believe the stupid cowboy published it. Does he not care about the goddamn American public’s faith in its goddamn government?”
The CIA man spat viciously. A little saliva somehow failed to clear his full lips and trickled into a scrofulous brown and gray three-day beard. He wiped at it ineffectively with one meaty hand, the other still clutching and shaking the Warren report (less appendices, which reposed comfortably in and around the wastepaper basket) as if it were a kitten whose neck needed breaking. Had it actually been a kitten it would probably have suffered no injury, though; everything about the CIA man was large but soft, except his eyes which were small and hard.
“Yes, well, he had to publish something,” NSA replied thinly. There was nothing, from his thin black shoes up through his thin waist past his thin tie to his thin blond hair, to suggest his thin lips could speak any other way.
His own copy sat before him on the cheap Formica-topped table between a half drunk glass of water on a square napkin to the right and a blank steno pad (cover emblazoned with “National Security Agency EYES ONLY”) surmounted by a Waterman pen on the left, in a neat four-by-four array: the top two showing the contents page left and the index right, the nearer left being some eighteen or so pages turned down on the left and eight hundred face up on the right. The top open page carried a block title saying SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS, above which was neatly handwritten in elegantly serifed capital letters the single word BULLSHIT.
FBI chimed in, or rather rasped in (any bell-like qualities in his voice having been long since lost to cigarettes, whiskey and according to legend a morning gargling of babies’ blood). “I don’t see why. What are the words ‘National Security’ good for if you don’t use them?” He grimaced, an expression his weathered granite face was well suited to, at least by comparison to any other expression. “Not that anyone’s going to trust us much after this fiasco. Especially…”
He jerked his head in the direction of USSS, slumped silently in the corner like a suicidal Secret Service Superman who’d forgotten the glasses for his Clark Kent disguise, clutching a mug from which came a strong scent of… really, really bad coffee, the kind of coffee that could only be made by a lifelong Mormon falling badly off the wagon for the first time.
“None of us escape responsibility for this.” The Defence Intelligence Agency was less well known to the public than the others, and there was a reason for that. DIA’s voice was much like him: small, quiet, calm, authoritative, and capable of conveying with serene implicit certainty the knowledge that here was a man who could definitely kill you with his pinky finger, probably maim you with his little toe, and quite likely temporarily cripple you with an eyelash. “The whole world now knows that a single man, acting alone, can kill the President of the most powerful country on Earth, and all the highly trained cohorts at his command couldn’t stop him.”
The Secret Service man took a choking gulp of his coffee, glared defiantly around the table, poured a thick stream of white sugar into it and, neglecting to stir it, took another. “You sh… stinkers don’t have to worry. It was our da… division’s job, and we fu… failed, G… g… g…” He closed his eyes so hard his eyebrows touched his cheekbones, took a third gulp, and mouthed silently what looked like gosh darn it.
DIA looked around the table, piercingly enough to badly wound any ghosts in the room. “Well, we did train Oswald, and failed to keep track of him. That’s my bailiwick.” His black gaze fell on FBI expectantly.
“Um, well… I suppose it was a domestic situation. American ex-soldier citizen plotting an assassination… we probably could have worked with ATF to track the gun sale. That much they could handle.” (FBI had nothing but disdain for Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, three items he felt required no governmental oversight whatsoever.) He sat back and folded his arms in a defiant all-you’re-getting-from-me attitude, with unfortunate effects on his official FBI-approved suit jacket.
“Damn straight it was domestic!” blustered CIA. “No international aspect, I’m not even allowed to mix in!”
NSA’s thin face reddened. “That turns out not to be the case.” From his inside suit jacket pocket he pulled a yellow slip of paper and smoothed it out just beyond (and perfectly aligned with) his neatly laid out copy of the report. Everyone looked at it, even USSS. It said:
==TO: OSWALD FROM: NOSENKO
==FOR LAST TIME NOT INTERESTED EXCLAMATION POINT
==IS YOUR PRESIDENT COMRADE DO WHAT YOU WANT STOP
==YOU ARE COMPLETE AND UTTER NUTCAKE ISNT IT QUERY
“But he WASN’T working with the Ruskies! Hell, it says right there they weren’t in it!” CIA tried to fold his arms like FBI had, but while his jacket was (being of a more modern and comfortable cut) better suited to the gesture, his physique was not, and after a couple of abortive attempts he settled instead for folding his hands atop his ample belly in as truculent a manner as he could manage. “Not our arena!”
USSS slammed his coffee mug down on the table and, after a few rattling moments, managed to release it and shake his finger at CIA and NSA (or possibly he was just pointing at them, it was hard to tell). “You had correspondence about a Presidential assassination threat?” His teeth bared in something that wasn’t a smile, and also probably wasn’t very good for the structural integrity of his tooth enamel. His eyes were red, white, and blue, and barely contained within their sockets.
There was a tense moment, broken unexpectedly by FBI’s rasping voice. “Hey, we need to get past this, learn lessons. Maybe it’s a sign we need to share information more. Too bad it took such a devastating attack to get all of us to work together more, but my analysts would be happy to help with any data any of you don’t have time or resources for.” He reached out casually.
Somewhat less casually, NSA snatched the slip back up and tucked it away. Ignoring FBI’s glower he said “I suggest we deal with the immediate problem first. How do we survive the loss of public confidence this lone gunman has cost us, preferably with our budgets more or less intact?”
CIA looked ready to speak again but was cut off by DIA’s perfectly whetted monotone. “That, gentlemen, is why I brought my colleague here. He has a certain expertise in what he calls psychological operations.”
The other three letter agencies (and USSS) looked at each other, puzzled. The four letter agency finally asked, “What colleague?”
When a dusty gray voice said “I believe he means me,” all the professional spooks spooked. (Even DIA twitched an eyelash, but luckily no one was in its way). They all whirled in various directions, except DIA who pointed a forefinger into one corner. (He did not raise his thumb straight up, and so his hand resembled an automatic rather than a revolver.) After a few seconds everyone cottoned on and looked where he was pointing.
It might have been partly the cheap fluorescent lighting in the room, and perhaps partly the shadows cast by the revolving ceiling fan, but mostly… what? Perhaps he was the most boring looking man in the entire world. The eye simply slid off him in self-defense, and tried to point itself in a way that would keep him in the blind spot. Every agent in the room had had intensive training in describing persons of interest with sufficient detail that a third party could identify them across a crowded airport during an evacuation under enemy fire, but this was as far from a person of interest as it was possible to get; he was almost supernaturally lacking in interest.
Every usable descriptor would end up being described as “kind of average” – height, weight, complexion, hair color, eye color, race, gender, number of limbs, you name it.
He (had to be, right? The room averaged 100% male) went on in gray flannel tones, “The problem has a solution, which none of you have thought of because you are too used to hiding secrets. It is a technique which has been successfully used before, and with each iteration becomes more effective, albeit at a certain cost.”
Everyone except DIA and NSA asked together, “WHAT SOLUTION? WHAT COST?” DIA said nothing; NSA asked “To how many iterations?” but was drowned out by the others, which made him glad because he’d regretted it the moment he said it. If any of them had heard him, his childhood conditioning from many high school locker room incidents might have forced him to resort to unpleasant (possibly lethal) actions to ensure they never spoke of it again.
“The cost is that there will be a loss of trust in the government, and in the good intentions of at least some of your agencies.” USSS jerked at this sentence, but relaxed to a medium quiver at the next. “However, you will not be perceived as incompetent, and your budgets will at least maintain and probably increase, perhaps dramatically.”
They were all very interested now, proving that the messenger is not the message. “I repeat, this technique has worked before. May I?” This last was plainly directed at DIA, though it was not plain why it was plain, since everyone was still having trouble focusing their eyes on the said messenger. Even the institutional paint on the walls was easier and more interesting to look at.
“You may,” said DIA. “Gentlemen, it goes without saying that you are not to repea… Oh, right, never mind. Carry on, sir.”
The dusty voice did. “Do any of you remember a very embarrassing incident when the US Air Force accidentally shot down one of its own experimental weather balloons costing several million dollars?” Heads shook deliberately. (Even USSS’s, which was finally ceasing to shake involuntarily.) “Perhaps it will help if I mention that it happened in Roswell, New Mexico.”
“Where the Russian spaceplane landed?” “Russians my ass, they don’t have that kind of tech…” “It was Martians!” “Mars is not inhabited, had to be transdimensional…”
DIA’s voice cut through the babble like a polite switchblade. “I believe you see how it worked, gentlemen. It’s disinformation, but applied to the public rather than to enemy agencies.”
He coughed, glanced apologetically at the corner… at his colleague, and added, “I admit we got a bit carried away with the creative aspects, thinking we needed to… how did you put it? Gain mindshare, yes.” He turned back to the others. “Let me remind you that the US Air Force’s budget is now 47% of the total defense budget.”
He had them there. He and the gray man led a spirited discussion with them for several more hours, doing what the gray man called “brainstorming” – coming up with alternative scenarios involving the Russians, the Cubans, the Mafia, rogue CIA agents (CIA came up with that notion himself), Illuminati (NSA’s contribution, after DIA nixed any discussion of extradimensional travelers – “Learn from my mistakes!”), hit men hired by jilted movie starlets. USSS described other places where gunmen might have hidden had there been any, buildings and vehicles and fences and grassy knolls. FBI suggested replacing the collected bullets with others to muddy the ballistics report. CIA offered to encourage some double agents to throw out conflicting testimony. NSA meticulously wrote all the ideas down in his steno pad (or so he claimed; he was enciphering them as he went).
Finally the gray man said, “I think we are almost done here. One last thing: can we get hold of the photographic evidence, just temporarily, and preferably without the owners knowing about it? I am thinking particularly of the third copy of the Zapruder film. I would only need it for a day.”
“Sure,” said CIA expansively. (There wasn’t much room for him to expand any further; he’d discovered a stash of doughnuts in a cabinet beneath the coffee pot USSS had basically destroyed.) “We can do that over the weekend…” He paused, noting FBI’s glare. “By we, I mean our FBI contingent of course. My guys can assist.”
“Good. Tell our colleague from DIA when you have it, and we can arrange pickup and return. Good night, gentlemen.”
After everyone else had filed out and the two of them were alone, DIA asked the gray man, in a voice which after the long meeting was only about as deadly as a rubber truncheon, “What exactly are you going to do with those films? You know they’ve been seen by many people, we can’t just cut things out.”
The gray man chuckled. (A dusty gray chuckle, naturally.) “Oh, more subtle than that. A slight angle change here, a subtle distortion there, shadows and reflections added… You’d be surprised. Trust me, with my help this coverup will be much more confusing than our first one together has been. Just get all the copies to Area 51, to my ship, and I’ll take care of everything.”