For All Nails #204: Rogue Asset
by Johnny Pez
"Hello, Joan, what on earth are you doing here?"
It had been so long since Joan Kahn had gone by her real name that at first she didn't realize the comment was addressed to her. And so distant was her old life that when, after a second's hesitation, she turned to see who was speaking to her, it took her another two seconds to remember the name of the man standing there.
"Hello, J.D.," she finally answered. Since she couldn't very well tell her questioner that she and former CBI director Timothy Liddy were trying to learn whether a body found washed up on the beach two days before might be Vincent Mercator, she decided to use a subtle evasion instead. "I might ask you the same question."
"I'm here ignoring that old adage about mixing business with pleasure," said Professor John Dickinson Pez. "UCPH FN1 is holding a seminar on the Rocky Mountain War, and somehow I got invited." With a deadpan expression he added, "It's a working holiday -- I'm working and my wife's on holiday."
She gave him a look of mock severity. "You got invited, J.D., because you're an authority on the war. Axis of Fire was a great book." This was true. South Park: Axis of Fire was easily the most readable book on the events leading up to the Rocky Mountain War she had ever read. J.D. had a gift, sadly rare among academic historians, for writing lucid prose. True, his conclusions were unoriginal; he had concluded, as many had before him, that Henry Gilpin had worked from behind the scenes to bring about the war. As far as Joan was concerned, Gilpin's responsibility for starting the war had already been established beyond a reasonable doubt. Regardless, there was nothing like a good, gripping historical narrative to get the point across, and J.D. had certainly managed that.
"Unfortunately," said J.D., "great books don't put food on the table -- popular books do."
Like yours, was the unspoken thought behind J.D.'s words, though there didn't seem to be any rancor involved. J.D. had written the only positive review of The Kronmiller Conspiracy to appear in an academic journal.
"So write a popular book," Joan told him.
Glancing around him at the sun-drenched walkway in an ostentatiously conspiratorial manner, J.D. leaned forward and stage-whispered, "I am. I'm writing a novel."
Joan felt a vague sense of alarm. "J.D., it's not about a middle-aged college professor contemplating adultery with a student, is it?" Steven Taylor had once told her that a week didn't go by without him receiving at least one novel manuscript about a middle-aged college professor contemplating (or committing) adultery with a student -- this in spite of the fact that the Justice Press didn't publish fiction.
"Oh, no, nothing like that," J.D. said to her relief. "I'm writing a sobel." Sometime in the year since publication of For All Time, Robert Sobel's name had become a synonym for any work that described or was set in an alternative world.
"About the Rocky Mountain War?" she asked.
J.D. shook his head. "That would be too much like work. I'm writing about New England at the turn of the 18th century. The idea is that instead of handing Nova Scotia back to the French after the War of the League of Augsburg, the Massachusetts colony keeps it. As it turns out, this eventually causes the Rebellion to break out 65 years early, and instead of Albany, the Rebellion is put down by the Duke of Marlborough."
It sounded to Joan like a pretty unlikely idea for a novel, but then she'd thought Under the Sun FN2 was a pretty unlikely idea for a novel, and it had sold over two million copies. She settled for wishing him good luck with it.
"Thank you," J.D. said. "Tell me, what have you been working on since the Kronmiller book?"
"Oh Lord, you and the CBI," said J.D. with a grin.
"Come on, think about it," she urged him. "Here he is, sitting on top of the largest, best-equipped army in America. There's the CNA sitting right across the Arkansas, ripe for the plucking. So what does he do? He lunges across the Pacific and attacks the Japanese, that's what. Why would he do something like that unless someone close to him was deliberately making Japan look like a threat? And who but the CNA would have a motive to do that?"
"You come on," J.D. answered. "The answer's right there in the Mexican War Department archives. Peking was about to fall to Japanese-backed insurgents. We know now that the Japanese didn't have any designs on Siberia at the time, but back then Silva thought otherwise."
"According to the archives that Mercator released, you mean," said Joan. "The man who had just had Silva arrested. Don't you see? He wanted everyone to think Silva was irrational, that he was jumping at shadows when he attacked Japan."
"So, what, you're saying Mercator deliberately covered up a plot by the CBI so he could blame the Pacific War on Silva?"
Joan was beginning to realize that all these thoughts about Silva and Mercator had been building up in her mind for the last two years. That explained why they were pouring out in a sudden torrent, prompted by J.D.'s question. They were lining themselves up in her mind even as she spoke. "Mercator didn't regard the CNA as a threat. He never did. For him, there was only ever one enemy."
Joan nodded. "El Pulpo."
By now, J.D. had picked up the thread of her thoughts. "And if Mercator told the people they'd been tricked into a war by the Tories, they'd be clamoring to attack the wrong enemy."
"Exactly," said Joan. "So the whole question of outside influence was drowned in silence, and instead everyone was told that Silva was a madman who had attacked the Japanese out of sheer paranoia."
J.D. was shaking his head. "If you want to make this work, you've got to figure out who the CBI agent was, and explain why he was willing to betray the USM. And it would have to be someone right at the very top."
"How about Vincent Mercator?" said Joan, much to her own astonishment.
J.D. opened his mouth, but didn't say anything at first. Finally he managed, "That's ridiculous. He wasn't right at the top, he was a lawyer in Jefferson before the war, he didn't even become a colonel until 1948 or something."
"He was a captain in 1941, assigned to the Presidential Guard under Felix Garcia," Joan pointed out. "All the garrison commanders in 1949 were former Guard officers. Mercator was right there, in Chapultepec Castle, when Silva decided to attack Japan. Eight years later, he and the rest of the Guard were in position around the country, ready to seize power." Joan laughed suddenly. "Can you imagine how surprised Gardner FN3 must have been when his mole suddenly made himself dictator of Mexico?"
J.D. was shaking his head again. "Joan, I mean it, this time you've gone completely around the bend."
Joan barely heard him. "Have you ever noticed how obsessed the CBI has always been with Mercator? I mean, these days everybody's obsessed by him, but the CBI was always obsessed. And Liddy was the most obsessed of all. I wonder if they knew each other?"
"Joan, Timothy Liddy is gone!"
But Joan was no longer listening to J.D. She was thinking about what it must have been like for the CBI to see their man in Mexico City go rogue. That was what they called it, she knew. An agent who had quit the CBI and begun to freelance was called a "rogue asset". Now she understood.
Now she understood everything.
Forward to FAN #205: Death in the Afternoon, Popcorn Extra.
Forward to 24 January 1975 (Joan Kahn): The Merchant of Guadalajara.
Return to For All Nails.