Excerpt: No Perfect Secret
Anna went into the guest bathroom, buried her face into a wad of towels, and screamed. I don’t want to do this anymore. God help me, I don’t.
“What’s going on with you?” said the man from State, standing in the bathroom door.
Anna shoved the towels into his hands and moved past him, down the hall into the kitchen. The kettle was screaming. She put tea bags into cups, poured in the boiling water. The steam felt good on her face. Calming. She inhaled it greedily.
He came into the kitchen drying his face and head. Finished, he draped the towel on the back of chair. Next, he was looking into the stainless steel fridge.
“Finding anything interesting in my fridge? Maybe you better check the mayonnaise for smuggled diamonds.”
“I’m just looking for the half ’n half. Found it.
Anna loathed his type of bureaucrat that the Patriot Act had let loose on ordinary citizens. She held her tongue on that score because she was anxious about what this visit meant. It was an affront to have him making himself at home in her house, delving into her fridge.
She fished for teabags with a spoon, poured in the half-and-half. So much for a year at Le Cordon Bleu, where tea was always made in a porcelain pot, allowed to steep at least three minutes, then gently poured into delicate cups and warmed cream added if desired. “I’m sorry. I didn’t catch your name. And, I’m sorry about your scarf.”
“No harm done. It’s Francis Caburn. Frank or Caburn will do.” He noticed an array of liquors on a sideboard, inspected the bottles, and chose a decent scotch. She had made three cups of tea. So. One was for him. He could use it. He poured a generous measure into Anna’s tea, hesitating over his own cup. Regulations be damned, and who was looking? He’d need it to get through the god-awful mess Nesmith had left behind.
“Make yourself at home, why don’t you? Anna said, stepping back from the granite counter.
“Thanks. I will. You might want to find a pair of socks or something. Your feet are blue.”
When Anna returned, she had blue snuggies on her feet and a knee-length sweater over the caftan.
“We can do this at the kitchen table, if that suits,” said Caburn.
Anna shrugged. She sat. He put a tea in front of her, and took a seat across from her. She took a sip. She sighed for a moment, the bliss apparent on her face, but in another moment, her face changed. “You’re being very forward. Do you always go into people’s kitchens, snag their liquor, and pass it around? How do you know a person even drinks?”
“You look like you need it.”
Caburn knew interviewing Anna in her own surroundings put her at an advantage. The rules were to first bring some discomfort to the situation; second, become a best friend, the idea being that the interviewee would be more forthcoming. He did the best he could with the situation at hand. In addition, he had a bad, bad feeling Anna Nesmith didn’t have a clue. She was already wound as tight as a tripwire.
“This is a beautiful kitchen,” he said, looking around. “State of the art.” All the appliances were stainless steel, the counters a pebbled granite. “Is that one of those new-fangled convection ovens? My sister has been hinting around for one.”
“Yes. I used to enjoy cooking.”
“What’s the difference between a convection oven and a regular oven?”
“It cooks faster.”
“That’s it? So does my microwave.”
Anna almost smiled.
A gust of wind shook the house. Anna glanced for a long moment toward a pair of French doors that led to the glass and wood sunroom. No sun, now. It was sheathed in ice. She took another sip of scotch-laced tea and exhaled.
“Something is wrong, isn’t it?”
Way wrong. “What makes you think that?”
“You. A State Department investigator knocking on my door in the middle of a winter storm screams trouble.” She looked into his eyes. “You might as well tell me.”
“We do checks on couriers all the time. We have to; it’s mandated policy.”
He watched her face, could almost see her brain flexing.
“Eight to four-thirty. Those are regular work hours.”
“Those are yourregular work hours. My department works 24/7.” He took out a notebook and pen. He would have preferred to use the small tape recorder but had left it in his coat pocket, lest its appearance undo the small measure of balance she had managed. “Do you feel up to answering a few questions?”
“But that’s just it. Why ask me anything? Kevin’s the courier—not me.”
Anna stared at him, obviously trying to read him, taking in the military short haircut, the lived-in face with beard stubble, the full lips that he knew he pursed when he was trying to compose his thoughts, like now. He was certain of himself, and people usually listened to him.
Anna glanced into her empty cup, looking slightly dazed. He imagined it was the warm scotch on top of an empty stomach.
“Mrs. Nesmith … Anna… Are you with me?”
“Yes. A little scotch-fogged. I don’t usually drink hard liquor.”
“Do you know where your husband is right now?”
“Making a courier drop is all I know.”
“So, he doesn’t mention where he’s going before he goes.”
“You know he’s not supposed to do that. But, I can usually figure out where he’s been.”
“Oh? How do you do that?”
“If he brings me a box of Swiss chocolates, I guess Switzerland. Once he brought me a black pearl. So I thought Japan. A good piece of leather or a pair of Clarks suggests London. Hermes scarf says Paris. Oh, he once brought me a set of carved amber animals, so I figured the Baltic States. Five yards of a fabulous, intricate patterned silk said China. I had one of the wing chairs in the living room upholstered with it.” She closed her eyes, thinking. “He brought me a Krugerrand a few years ago.”
“South Africa?” guessed Caburn.
“Lesotho, I think. I don’t know if we still have a consulate there now or not. And I’m pretty sure he carried a dispatch to Mexico City. That was in January of ’07, right after Calderon was elected. He brought me a replica of a Mayan…”
She stopped herself, and he wondered what she might have said. “A statuette of some sort.”
“I’ve read about the Mayans, lots of bloody sacrifices. Even the Mayan king sacrificed his blood—” Caburn stopped. What his memory was hitting on was a depiction of the Mayan King sitting on a stool in all his feather and gold finery and cutting the underside of his own penis with a stone knife. A sacrifice to a sun god. Caburn shivered and crossed his legs beneath the table.
“Are you still cold? Shall I turn up the thermostat?”
“I’m fine. It’s just the customs of primitive societies always leave me cold. Not cold, cold—”
“I know what you mean. It’s like the aborigines in Papua New Guinea who eat the brains of their loved ones, become ill, and die. They called the disease kuru. The aborigines kept presenting with something like mad cow disease until a veterinarian discovered the similarity between kuru and scrapie, an infectious disease in the brain of sheep.” Anna shuddered. “That put me off red meat for weeks.”
Oh, man! What had he started? He liked his steaks rare. He had to ask. “If the meat is well done, does that kill the, uh, kuru?”
“I guess not. Only the women and children ate it. The men in the tribe stayed healthy.”
Caburn was seriously irked at himself. He checked his watch and saw it was now almost seven-thirty. He was starving, and he wanted to stop and get takeout before he went home. Not beef or lamb, though. Maybe chicken or shrimp.
“Could you drink another cup of tea?” Anna asked, moving from the table to the kitchen counter. “I’m going to have one.” She poured bottled water into the kettle and plugged it in. Leaning against the kitchen counter with her arms crossed, she asked, “Do you have any more questions?”
“Just a few. I need to get going before the roads ice up any worse. Don’t take this amiss, but I think you are one smart lady—you know—to figure out all the places Nesmith carried dispatches.”
“Carried?” Anna came on full alert.
“Sure,” Caburn said, trying for a cool recovery. “Carries going out, carried coming home.”
Anna nodded and picked up where she’d left off, but skepticism coated the words. “There are only one-hundred-ninety-five countries in the world, more or less—depending upon revolutions or protests for independence—not counting Taiwan. Kevin has been a courier for fourteen years, so I think he’s probably been to most of them.” Her forehead scrunched as if she’d had an afterthought. “But not Kosovo.”
It wasn’t easy to impress Caburn. It was something that she could pluck data out of her memory as if it were ordinary, like a family recipe for lasagna or pound cake. “One-hundred-ninety-five countries. You think one person in a thousand would have that kind of info on the tip of their tongue?”
“Geography teachers would. A senator from the Midwest asked for the data and how much the U.S. gave various countries in loans, grants, or foodstuffs.”
“And you remembered?”
“It’s my job to remember. Anyway, the dollar amount was in the billions, and most of the loans have been forgiven.”
“Whoa. No wonder we’ve got a trillion dollar deficit. Not to mention my salary has been frozen.”
“Mine, too,” admitted Anna. The kettle began to hiss. She unplugged it and poured the hot water over fresh teabags. She put both cups on the table with the carton of half-and-half. Her hand hesitated near the bottle of scotch, and then she put that, too, within Caburn’s reach.
“Why wouldn’t Nesmith go to Kosovo?” He didn’t need the information. It was just that now his curiosity was engaged.
“Mostly because the embassy is small. It’s just a conduit for trade delegations from the U.S. Our office does the research.” She looked squarely at Caburn, but her breath seemed to stutter for a moment. “I don’t believe anything we’ve touched on has to do with what is going on with Kevin. He is coming home, isn’t he?”
He met her look head on. “Yes, he is.”
“When?” She studied him, watching for any telltale signs that he might be lying, tics or his eyes shifting away. He knew she saw none.
“In a few days. A week, at the most.”
She took a deep breath and seemed to find her strength again.
“You can’t tell me what he’s done, what kind of trouble he’s in?”
Caburn lapsed into silence for a few seconds. He shook his head. His instructions were to put off the inevitable as long as possible.
Her eyes flashed with desperation; she wasn’t going to let it go. “A few years ago, one of Kevin’s colleagues was caught smuggling heroin.”
“No… no, it’s nothing like that,” Caburn assured her. It’s much worse. But he was relieved her mind was going down that path. It led to a cascade of possibilities, and he was certain she would rotate through each and every one of them, from Nesmith being robbed to being kidnapped by terrorists.
He offered her a small smile. “Has Nesmith brought you anything interesting lately?”
“What do you think that signifies?”
She opened her mouth to say something then snapped it closed. She paused a moment longer before she said, “That he’s not going places where he can shop, or he has a quick turnaround. If he comes home and sleeps for seventeen hours straight, I think he’s carrying to Iraq or Afghanistan.”
“How many bank accounts do you have, if you know?”
“It’s just a routine question,” he said.
“Does Kevin get asked that?”
“He does. And, as far as our records show, he’s always been open and honest.”
But she looked like she didn’t really. She watched his hands as he scooped up the teabag in the spoon and wound the string around it then set it on the saucer. He poured in the half-and-half then picked up the bottle of scotch. He held the lip over her cup. She nodded. Neither spoke until they’d taken a few sips.
“We have a joint household account. Then we each have our own personal account. Clara Alice has her own account, her pension, but we don’t let her pay for anything.”
“How does that work? Your paychecks, finances, I mean.”
“Just like yours, or anyone who works for the government. We never see our paychecks. They’re direct-deposited into our personal accounts. Then we transfer funds from our personal accounts to the household account.”
“But suppose Nesmith writes a check on the account, and then you do the same? How do you keep from having overdrafts?”
Anna looked at him steadily. “You’re either a dinosaur, or you’re playing dumb. We don’t write checks. We use our ATM cards.”
“I guess I’m a dinosaur. I write checks for my car payment, rent, and cash—whatever.”
“Well, we don’t. Our mortgage, car payments, utilities are all auto-withdrawn. Even our car insurances.”
“And this is the only home you own?”
“You must be joking.”
“A lot of young married couples have vacation homes.”
“We’re not so young. I’m thirty-four. Kevin is almost forty.”
“And, no children, right?
“No. No children.” A deep sadness washed over her face, leaving it drawn, and she looked down at her hands wrapped around the teacup.
Caburn thought of a string of expletives that he could not mouth in front of this woman. But he knew that when she learned the truth about her husband she would be cleft in two. “Does he call you … say from whatever country he’s in, just to check in, see how you’re doing?”
“No. Never. He leaves his cell and his Palm Pilot in his car. But he does often e-mail me from the VIP lounges. That’s where he has to wait until his flights are called, so he uses the courtesy Internet to alert me as to when or what time I can expect him home.”
“Have you ever gone on a dispatch with him? Or met him at the end of run, say in London or Paris?”
“Well, that wouldn’t be against the law, you know. A courier makes his delivery, and if he doesn’t have a return pouch—or he has to wait for it—he can take a day or two off, meet his wife or girlfriend. It happens.”
“Not with us. I have a job. We can’t leave his mother for more than overnight. And that’s only if our neighbor stays over. She’s…”
“Right. I understand.” Caburn drained his cup and returned his pen and notebook to his pocket. “I think that will do it. I appreciate your time and the tea. If I need anything else, I’ll call first.”
“That makes more sense than you can possibly know. I’m going to suggest it to my boss.”
A few minutes later Anna walked Caburn to the door and waited while he shrugged into his overcoat. A very fine vicuna, she noted. His picked his muffler up off the floor and shoved it into his pocket.
As he opened the front door, the lights blinked. “Oh, Lord, if the ice brings down the lines, we’re in for it.”
“Well, safe traveling,” Anna said, and shut the door firmly—against the wind, the sleet, and Frank Caburn.
The brass knocker sounded. Anna opened the door to him again.
“I forgot. My hat blew away. If it shows up in the neighborhood, would you hold onto it for me?”
“Yeah. It’s a very, very nice hat.” He started to say more, but a gust of sleet-filled wind slammed into him.
Anna closed the door and shot the deadbolt. She leaned against it for a moment. Oh, Kevin—what have you done?
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