Table of Contents

Fall 2007

Short Stories

Bus Stop

Deep Freeze

In the Ditch

Missed Connections

My Bedtime Buddy

On Silent Feet

Out of Service

Ric With No K

The Rorschach Affair

The Years of the Wicked

Under the Blanket of the Sun

Upon A New Road

Reviews

Ammunition

Bad Thoughts

Beating the Babushka

Bloodthirsty

Hidden Depths

Pay Here

Play Dead

Poison Pen

Silence

Who Is Conrad Hirst

Profiles/Features

Bronx Noir

In For Questioning

Together We Write

Profile: Derek Nikitas

Pelecanos Country

Interviews

George Pelecanos

Robert Fate

Rick Mofina

Kevin Wignall

Short Story: THE RORSCHACH AFFAIR by KP Dorsey

Judy stepped from the back door of the US Embassy into a sub-Saharan Sunday afternoon sun that forced her eyes shut. The wind seemed to blow from an open clothes dryer.

Her chopper idled on the pad. They trained her to duck her head, so she did, though the rotors spun six feet higher than she stood. She carried only her small overnight bag.

A Marine had been sent to her room to collect her things, for security, lest she be assassinated on the street, and he had not interpreted her packing list with perfect intuition. Nor was she thrilled with her military attaché cover legend. MA’s cover is already a mutual wink between the host and guest countries. The whole TDY felt like a neon arrow erected over the coyote’s cave reading 'The American intelligence community went thataway.'

The flight's destination was an oil platform thirty miles off the coast in the Guinea Gulf. A non-notional liaison Foreign Service Officer was along for the ride. The rig workers believed the sole purpose of the visit was a briefing on updated security measures, should the nationalist guerillas operating on land decide to branch out and attack the platform. The Directorate of Intelligence in DC was developing a theory that the guerillas were creatures of Islamist radicals based across the continent on The Horn. Their routine round of kidnapping oil workers and hi-jacking pipelines were, the theory stipulated, part of a pilot program to test the possibility of using oil prices as an economic weapon against the United States. This particular offshore rig had been nationalized by President Boteng's predecessor over a decade earlier and was known to be under-producing by a suspicious margin, compared to reports from a cut-out Judy had recruited months earlier. He told her the volume of oil coming from the seabed remained unchanged. The lower volume filling tankers exerted upward price pressure on Nigeria’s exports. Judy's task for headquarters, and which was compartmented from her FSO counterpart, was to discover where the rest of the oil was going. Her task for the local station chief was to find evidence in support of a different theory altogether.

"So it's not exactly a secret you're not here on some workaday demarche," the desk-fattened FSO shouted at her, as she squeezed past him. He sat in the second of four hard-backed seats in the mid-cabin. She took the port-side window, which was only half an empty seat away from the adipose girth of the bespectacled, sweating diplomat. She intended her body language, as she buckled her safety harness, to communicate that his unsubtle prompt had disappeared into the chest-thumping noise of the engine.

She watched the white x-in-circle shrink beneath them, then disappear behind as they gained altitude. She found cans and a mouthpiece hanging behind her seat.

"I've heard the one about the diplomatic pouch special escort, too," the FSO said, into his own mic. He had enough stomach collapsed over his belt to fill at least two liposuction canisters. She suppressed a thought about how many spittle-flecked words from the mouths of how many similar figurants had coated the mic now half an inch from her own mouth. "So I'd prefer not to read my name or any cryptonym designating my name in any of your reports." It was impossible to know whether he was eliciting or rubber-necking.

"Then don't say anything reportable," she broke in.

He huffed and pretended to look out the opposite window.

"Our ETA is still four hours, Captain?" she shouted for the pilot. She didn't know how good the reception was through the chopper's internal system. She hoped she wasn't too loud. This was her first such flight.

"Affirm," the Marine said.

The FSO did not comment. He must have expected the detour.

The landscape of the Sahel was a flat, brown camouflage pattern interrupted by geometric shapes of green. Livestock or crop farms. Most of the local population scavenged wood for cooking fires and the resulting deforestation was visible, as baked brown dust, all the way to the coast. The amount of rainfall over this part of Africa was directly related to the intensity of the hurricane season in the Atlantic. She noted, for later debriefing, that the green spaces of the farms were literally keeping the man-made desert at bay with little more than a single strand of barbed wire which the wood scavengers would not cross.

"There's the river, ma'am."

They meandered north, avoiding larger towns or settlements. The pilot had a list of way points which coincided with her survey interests. Even he, though, did not know why those sites had been chosen.

The Niger river’s source is the mountains of southern Guinea, where its volume is greater than what reaches Nigeria. Most of the water seeps or evaporates in the desert, past the Guinean border with Mali, resulting in periodic downstream droughts. The unmistakable geometric lines of temporary construction roads were plainly visible, cut through the upland forest canopy. Stacks of cast concrete, round tunnel segments, square box culvert sections, stood three stories high near the crew encampments.

Judy photographed these with a tiny digital camera she bought with her own money from an ordinary big-box store in Virginia before leaving for overseas. The FSO made a gesture with his head that signaled confirmation of his suspicions mixed with disgust at the accuracy of his own foresight. She always marveled at the stupidity of all who believe transparent displays of disgust advance their cause.

There was nothing to be done about it. If he was here it meant he had clearance to observe what she did. He could infer little, though, from what was, in fact, only what it appeared: a construction site to build a water diversion culvert for the purpose of farm irrigation. Various international aid agencies, including USAID, were spending tens of millions to turn the western Sahel into Africa’s version of California’s San Joaquin Valley.

Judy shouted to the pilot they were finished. The chopper banked to the left, heading toward the Gulf. The sideways lean of the banked turn, combined with the relatively slow forward momentum of a helicopter's pivot made her heavy against the chopper door. The force also sent the FSO leaning into her. She was pretty sure he wasn't resisting as much as he could.

*****

From about five miles out, the oil platform resembled a masted sailing ship. Boom arms, the derrick, and the spidery rigging combined to give Judy an impression of armed menace and vast, well-directed power.

The chopper's engine cut off and the rotors wound down. The FSO disgorged himself from the chopper and stood behind her. The pilot would stay with them overnight, racked out in the chopper. Judy hoped whatever accommodations awaited her would not make her envy his assignment.

She was greeted by three of the rig crew's management, all native Africans, all dressed in canvas coveralls smeared with oil, all smiling for the benefit of their VIP guests. The leader looked like the John Henry statue where she grew up in West Virginia. The atmosphere on the landing pad was composed entirely of petroleum fumes, both burned and raw.

The delegation made its way across a steel-mesh deck through which the undulating ocean some hundred feet below plainly showed. This induced a vertiginous flash of nausea that straightened Judy's head and focused her eyes up and away. They climbed steel stairs to a catwalk, toward a fire-door so heavy even the huge leader had to shift his weight to hold it open.

Her first impression of the "mess hall" was that it had recently hosted a wrestling match among crude-soaked hippopotami. Judy took a grimy military-surplus chair on one of the long sides of a battered dining table, at the corner nearest the head. She was pleased to watch John Henry take the head seat, closest to her. She ignored dozens of fork marks in the tabletop, stabbed in a pattern around a hand-shaped, rust-brown stain she knew was made of dried blood.

"I am Madu, head driller. This is Adofo, my rig foreman, and Diallo, my assistant driller."

Judy extended her hand. "Jane Winthrop, United States Military Attaché, and Ralph Zutz, US State Department Security Consultant." The driller's biceps threatened to burst through his coverall as Judy's hand disappeared entirely into an oily, five-fingered bench vice.

"It's 'Rafe,' actually. Pleased to meet you all," the FSO said. He was at the far end of the table, out of range of handshakes. She imagined him turning on a spit with an apple in his mouth.

"We'll need to see the life-support facilities. Especially the water plant. We're thinking of subdue-and-occupy scenarios in which the crew could be incapacitated by infiltrators," Judy said.

"Diallo will lead your tour. Adofo and I will then answer your questions during the third meal, at seven pm. Your bunks will then be ready. If your presentation requires any special equipment, Diallo will get it for you. Until seven, then." The big boss did not invite questions or discussion. He stood and extended his open palm to the door.

"Third meal?" Judy asked Diallo, as they descended a mesh-enclosed steel ladder to the lower works level.

"There are four per day. Many calories make much work."

Diallo was half the size of Madu and still a big, powerfully built man. He was beneath Judy on the ladder and spoke to the bottoms of her feet without any sign of objection.

"This is the lower level. These tanks hold our fresh water supply. The roar from these machines is the sound of desalination of ocean water. In this we are self-sufficient. Across the deck is the waste-water disposal system, also loud. Also self-sufficient. The pipeworks are completely separate. No chance of mixing potable water with gray-water, or brown-water."

Judy dragged her feet, lingering longer than necessary before the two-story-tall machines. The main assembly could be described as a combination of a brewery works and an electrical dynamo; two huge, covered holding vats connected by half-meter-diameter pipes led into and out of two cylindrical pump housings about the size of automobiles. She considered whether to feign sea-sickness, to get a longer look--Diallo was not in a perceptible rush, but wasn't dawdling, either--but she couldn't decide if it was plausible to be seasick on a stationary surface. She did manage to take a surreptitious photograph of two pipes, the same size as the ones to the pumps, which appeared to bypass the water-works then disappear down, through the floor, rather than up through the ceiling, as did all the others. If all the plumbing in this section was for desalination, these two pipes were extraneous--they touched none of the process machinery. While she memorized these details, "Rafe" ogled at the equipment and nodded in empty-eyed wonder, not noticing he had stepped in a puddle of condensation and machine grease.

They exited another steel fire-door and stood on an exterior steel frame landing. Diallo never turned his head to be sure his group was still there, he simply walked on then turned to address them at the apparently well-rehearsed stopping points. They were close to the ocean surface now, only about one story down. The landing was enclosed with metal-tube safety railing, hip-high. Judy stood next to one of the main load-bearing columns of the rig, which passed through the steel floor from far up on the main level. As she gripped the safety rail, she traced the overhead course of another set of pipes leading from the roof of the desalination room, suspended by wires, across a hundred meters of open sea to an adjoining mini-platform about the size of a wealthy landowner's bush veldt bungalow on stilts.

"All treated waste then exits the pump room and collects in holding tanks in that separate platform. The pipes leading down to the sea pump waste to disposal ships, which receive the waste water and transport it for further treatment and disposal on the mainland," Diallo said. His voice was raised over the sea breeze, which on this side of the rig was refreshingly scented with nothing but salt, the open ocean, and a tinge of ozone, like a summertime breeze in North America, she thought, after the lightning of a thunderstorm blows away days of heavy haze.

It was this pleasant smell which hit Judy in the chest, as hard as a pistol round striking her in a bullet-proof vest. She understood what Diallo was showing her.

*****

People being questioned tend to get more defensive the closer they get to releasing themselves from suspicion. For them, interrogation is like being led toward a door while blindfolded. You don't know if the stranger pulling you wants to run your nose into the frame or deliver you safely within. The closer to the door the more squirms.

Judy had just allowed the environment to influence her judgment by asking a question a bit too close to the door jamb. The five involved, Judy, her burden in the form of a morbidly obese "colleague," and the three oil workers, sat around a mess table in the, now, occupied dining area. Judy was no rookie. This was her second hardship post and her third overseas tour. The view appalled her.

Two dozen or so men, the smallest the size of a baby elephant, hunched over trays of food mounded to sternum height. Mouths full of food, food stuffed in there by bare hands the color of pitch regardless of the ethnicity of their owners, spent way more time open, to shout or grunt, than they spent chewing. Across the surface of every table swept a kind of multicolored sirocco composed of flung food particles and spittle. The background white-noise of voices was over-laid with the sticky, phlegmatic static of aspirated mastication.

Judy had just noticed, and decided to pretend not to, a complete absence of napkins when she asked Madu, "And to whom in the government do you report shipping volumes?" It was then she saw first Diallo, then Adofo, unambiguously, unmistakably, squirm.

Just moments after Madu answered, in the voice of an automaton, "These matters are handled through the routine channels. Your bunk quarters are to the right of the main exit, first door on the left," the three notional rig crew managers rose from the table in unison, and excused themselves for the night.

*****

If she had to summarize her career experience to date, she might compare it to spending years viewing Rorschach tests with combative ink-artists who insist on seeing whatever flatters them, while she is duty-bound to call a duck a duck.

She kicked the dingy sheet off the bunk without a care whether she woke what she now thought of as the walrus in the bunk beneath her. His apneatic gurgling fit him right in anyway. In her bare feet, she jumped the meter-and-a-half to the tiled floor and slipped her boots on.

The bunk room was built for ten, and the other eight bunks were divided by sliding wall partitions not nearly thick enough to drown out the collective snoring, which made her think of modern orchestra music. She rolled her feet heels-first until she reached the fire door. If anyone woke, it would be only natural she sought the bathroom.

Past the door, she turned toward the ladder. Flood lights, spot lights, and safety lamps of various sizes and intensities from intimate to blinding silhouetted the rigging on the main level. Webs of shadows fell over every surface. She could hear only the turbine-whine of machinery and the sub-bass rumble of viscous liquid through metal. No voices. She paused at the top of the ladder for one whole minute before she felt certain no one would follow her from the bunk room.

At the landing she turned again toward the desalination works. The machinery was dim in the safety lamps, and unmanned at this hour--eight minutes after 2am by her watch. She pulled the mini-digital camera from the wide waistband of her flopsy, sexless cotton pajamas and snapped the machinery from every angle the radiant heat of the pipes allowed.

When she was satisfied she had it all, she continued down the ladder further than they had gone on the "tour." The ladder went all the way down to the water, then continued under. From the next-to-last dry rung she got what she was sure was the second-place prize of the trip, high-quality photos of the two mystery pipes, which followed the main load column, down into the depths of the Gulf.

First prize, she saw as soon as her night vision recovered from the camera flash, was going to be a little dicier.

She tied her boot laces together and hung them over a ladder rung, then lifted off her pajama top and tied it to the next rung up. Removing the bottoms required a slightly acrobatic balancing act, one leg at time, but she managed to preserve a dry set of clothes for her exit.

The water below the ladders' first wet rung surprised her. It felt like a warm bath. Her camera was not rated for water resistance, so she took the tiny memory stick that held her pictures and slipped it into her left boot. Then she wrapped the camera tight in a clear plastic sandwich bag she had palmed from dinner, twisted the neck closed and clenched the twist in her teeth. The camera's own memory held ten shots if it didn't short out first.

She breathed deeply ten times through her nose, and held the eleventh breath.

The aqueous sound of submersion pushed into her ears. The underwater darkness was nearly total. She couldn't see her photo subject, but she knew where it would be, if it was there. With her head just a few feet under the surface, and one hand white-knuckled to a ladder rung, she snapped away, as fast as the camera's little computer would allow. The flash went off ten times.

Putting her pajamas back on was even more awkward than taking them off, but she couldn’t be found nearly naked, even on the outside catwalk. About an ounce of seawater had invaded the sandwich bag, but the little machine had not given up on her. She wiped it down on a pajama leg and tried to key up a preview of one the pictures she had just taken. In the postage-stamp-sized preview window she was sure she could see two pipes, angling away from the support strut and joining two others, from the mini-platform across the way, in a Y-joint that led to where she would be unable to go, but where the answer of the missing oil, the last answer headquarters would ever expect, was sure to be found.

At six in the morning she awoke in her bunk just a bit damp, but more refreshed than if she had slept twice as long. She had the goods. Even the horrendous sight of the walrus wrapped in a bath towel caused no more than a passing brow-wrinkle. She dressed, balled up her PJs into her bag, and left the bunk room behind, in the happy abode of memory where it belonged.

After breakfast, which was conspicuously unchaperoned, she and her "colleague" delivered the (non-notional) security update to a meeting room full of half-drowsing rig workers who, now that she thought of it, were the last people on earth who needed to be told how to deal with security risks. The trio of "managers" sat in the back, six arms crossed, and paid what they probably thought looked like polite attention. The group dismissed after the briefing, stunned into silence by the walrus' inevitable whining monotone.

Madu walked them to their chopper, which the Marine pilot had already warmed up.

"So very kind of you to keep us current on the latest developments in counter-insurgent tactics, Miss-- Miss-- " He paused, the tone of his voice rising on the second "Miss."

He was actually trying to prompt her to forget she had given a false name. "Winthrop. Mizz Winthrop. Jane, actually. The United States is a friend to the industrious, Madu. We'll be in touch."

As if.

The walrus again waited in the back seat, ready to harp at her as she climbed aboard.

"That's it? All the way here for a half-hour tour and a nap?"

It was obvious the FSO had been around the block with at least one previous notional colleague. They all thought the Clandestine Service had a huge secret orchard of money trees somewhere outside of Reston, VA and that they spent it with profligate glee just to get State's miserly goat. The Marine up front, likely a veteran of dozens of sorties much weirder than this one, didn't even blink.

Judy slung her overnight bag under the seat and buckled in.

About one thousand feet and four nautical miles from the rig, she decided to transfer the cameras' onboard snaps to the memory stick. She rifled through her overnight bag, at first with a feigned look of boredom, since the walrus didn't need to know what she was looking for, or why. Then her movements betrayed anxiety. Once her pajamas were strewn across the cabin floor, even the Marine pilot couldn't help but notice she was close to a panic. He ignored this, though, when she settled herself by thumping the heel of her left boot rhythmically on the floor plate.

She could feel the memory stick under her heel. But the camera was gone.

*****

Judy sat before a typewriter for the first time in her brief career. Some secrets are sufficiently sensitive they are never entered into any computer, no matter how supposedly secure. This was her final report, so she chose every word to conform to the jargon-rich lingo of the dip-pouch-sitreps she had seen during training:

MOST SECRET, EYES ONLY, NOFORN, NODISSEM: DCI (KUDOVE), COS/EWIEMU
DATE: 22, July, 2004
Action: Operation KUENVIOUS

Summary of background:
On 19 July, Senior Officer on Station (SO) debriefed PIXIE re open-source theory motivating KUENVIOUS. Atlantic hurricane activity based on Sahel moisture in combination with ocean temperature. Interagency cross-comparison with National Reconnaissance Office photos of ocean surface temperature patterns in the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (Gulf of Guinea) show plumes of high temperature (84° Fahrenheit) surface water contrary to expected decadal oscillation, suggesting presence of subsurface thermal venting. NRO imagery further suggests greenification in the Sahel concerted plan to amplify west-bound Saharan low pressure waves. Open-source reporting (Gray, et.al) suggests wetter Sahel combined with two degree increase in ITCZ temperature yields 10-28 percent increase in low-pressure organization over ten years and 8-33 percent increase in average storm volatility. A deep-end projection of 25.92 barometric pressure may be expected. KUENVIOUS was an operation to prove Horn-based Islamists are attempting to enhance hurricane strength in the mid-Atlantic.

Prior Reporting:
KUCAGE intelligence estimate of June 2004 lists other-source reporting of 1.) International Finance Corporation funding for greenification projects. 2.) volume discrepancy for petroleum departing JDZ platform 182. PIXIE visited JDZ 182 on 20-21, July. Pipes consistent with furnace fuel supply lines join pipes consistent with those containing air at high pressure. PIXIE confirmed evidence consistent with aerosolized oil/air mixture ignition for subsurface electrical turbine operation. Sea water in vicinity of JDZ 182 was measured at 88° Fahrenheit. Atmospheric ozone was present in high quantity. No detectable vapor from waste disposal was present. PIXIE submitted corroborating photographs 21, July. Remaining photographic evidence disappeared overnight while PIXIE was aboard JDZ 182, likely due to theft. SO offers support theft is evidence for concealment motive.

Current Reporting:
PIXIE returned to operation status, 23, July. Local other-source reporting confirms USAID, Africa section, allocated $10 million USD, earmarked Niger River diversion. See aerial recon photos enclosed.

Recommendations:
SO concurs with PIXIE: Recommend armed SOCOM SEAL reconnaissance of subsurface turbine at JDZ 182. Recommend destruction of JDZ 182, with prejudice, upon final confirmation of turbine-driven ocean heating. Recommend EXEC-level intervention, USAID, Africa Section, immediately. Recommend GAO audit of International Finance Corporation immediately, while ODYOKE holds World Bank Presidency. Recommend FOIA blackout on all aspects KUENVIOUS for life of principals plus fifty years.

While Judy waited for a reply from the Director via the diplomatic pouch special escort, her cut-out aboard the oil platform studied the instructions he had downloaded from the internet on how to operate her digital camera.

*****

On Friday of that week, Madu decided the crew deserved to celebrate their recent success. Routine METEOSAT imagery posted in plain view on the NOAA web site showed a new, seasonally unexpected plume of hot surface water over one hundred miles long off the west African coast.

During the festivities, complete with coolers of freshly imported beer, Madu took a quiet moment to ask Diallo what he thought of the American girl.

Diallo had two open beers, one per hand, and was sitting on the high rail from which, only days earlier, Judy had descended into the water. He stared off into the black, roaring ocean.

"Did she talk about her family at all?"

"No," Diallo said.

"How did she choose you?"

Diallo still looked away. "I was selected during an assignment on a well in Darfur."

"She was there?"

"Posing as a UN aid worker." Diallo chose that moment to toss the first of his beers to go empty into the black void beneath him. “You believe the real rig would escape their scrutiny?”

Madu’s answer was to take the camera, emptied of its easily enhanceable high-definition photos of some spare construction pipes which had been hastily jerry-rigged and submerged to decoy their visitors – in case they showed up under as well as above the water – and throw it over the railing. It tumbled down through a light breeze and disappeared.

*****

Judy received her reply the next day:

MOST SECRET, EYES ONLY, NOFORN, NODISSEM: PIXIE, SO/EWIEMU, COS/EWIEMU
DATE: 26, July, 2004
Action: Conclusion, Operation KUENVIOUS

Preliminary Regional Intelligence Estimate of Current Reporting:
Concur circumstances of theft indicate concealment. Consultation with civilian experts fails to support hurricane theory. All-source reporting combined with DI analysis fails to concur JDZ 182. Best engineering estimate renders pipes shown in PIXIE photos ambiguous. Presence of ozone, absence of waste odor too subjective to support concurrence re recommendation re destruction JDZ 182. KUDOVE critical no consideration given to weaponized crude futures market theory. Evidence also consistent with psy-op campaign to skew PBPRIME public opinion prior 2004 election cycle. Special Adviser to KUDOVE cites HORAYA article of 21, July. Intervention, USAID, Africa Section, submitted for EXEC review, pending. GAO lacks jurisdiction re International Finance Corporation, World Bank. FOIA blackout on all aspects KUENVIOUS for life of principals plus fifty years approved.

Action items:
- Take no further action re KUENVIOUS. File closed.
- PIXIE to return to PBPRIME, immediately, for reassignment NATO HQ, Brussels.

“They don’t believe us,” she said, in the SO’s office, after he burned the reply in an ashtray he used only for that purpose.

"Africa desk," he said. "Besides. Rumor has it Wolfowitz will head the World Bank next. You did a good job."

"But the evidence."

"Was delivered. This is the life we chose, Judith. The big secrets you'll carry for the rest of your life are not vast conspiracies. They are the knowledge of what you've done."

"Then, you don't think there’s a huge electro-turbine, one of maybe dozens, heating ocean water in the Gulf of Guinea?"

"I think HQ has closed the file, whether there is or not. I think you are ordered to report. I think you will have a fine career."

There was nothing more to be said about it. The only thing she would miss in Belgium was working with the SO. She told him so, then went home to pack.

About the Author
KP Dorsey lives and works on a glacial outwash basin, in one of the Great Lakes Eight states, on an eastern branch of the Mississippi flyway, in the Northern Temperate Zone.