A Sting Operation?

Gary’s interlocutor took his time eating, but used the time to give Gary some background. He kept the wine flowing into Gary’s glass and chose not to comment on his lack of appetite.

“That’s right. I work in the FCC,” he said, vigorously buttering a slice of French bread, “but you can take that with the usual grain of salt that a conspiracy theorist such as yourself inevitably applies.” He took a large bite, and looked around casually to locate the hostess. “You see, the government is a community, with hard lines of delineation and soft ones. My job makes me reliant on the soft ones — not unlike Alice’s Reginald in his community, if my sources are accurate. So I have a home in the FCC, but my pay comes from a pot of money that gets fed from here and there, and, well, it pays the bills. But like most government employees, I’m not in this for the money. Oh, sure, fair recompense is important, but really what you want is — job satisfaction. Am I right, Gary?”

“I wouldn’t really know.”

Bob chuckled. “I kinda thought so. Your resume is astounding in its singlemindedness. I bet your supervisor wonders if he’ll have to kill you to get rid of you. Or are you the workgroup hot potato? No comment? Well, no matter. It’s not your job experience we’re after.” He took a bite, savored, then looked at Gary as if hoping he would give his memory a little boost. “Oh yes — job satisfaction. Gary, my job, in the main, is to find anomalies like yours and to assure that they do not negatively affect the fabric of our society. What does that mean? Well, let’s be specific, shall we?” He stopped.

“Sure,” said Gary slowly.

“Okay, four months ago, you get a call from Alice — at work I believe — and you come to see the strange goings-on. If I know you, you have a hard time believing there’s anything out of the ordinary, but then you see it and you know that this is not some average everyday malfunction. You come back two nights hence, and sure enough, there it is — glowing in mid air, big as life. Ever the chivalrous gentleman in matters concerning Alice, you offer to take this intruder away, and in short order you manage to decode its instructions sufficiently to make good on your promise. You’ve got it captured in a TV-like cage or a spiral — ”

” — spiral — “

“Good, thank you, a spiral somewhere where it won’t easily be found. Now, mind you, I could unleash a furious investigation to find it, the like of which you couldn’t imagine, but — and maybe you’ve figured this out for yourself — that becomes awkward. The more people involved, the more questions. Or at least when I involve the more public members of the government community. There are more shadowy groups and associations that let themselves be used for this purpose and from which there is never a question or indiscretion, just one refrain: ‘what’s the next job?'”

Gary thought better of referring to the Blue Ball Society before he opened his mouth, but Bob seemed to pick up the hesitation.

“It was four months ago, Gary, when I sat in a trailer not far from here and posed the question to a young man.” He stopped again.

Okay, I’ll bite, thought Gary. “What question?”

“The question, Gary, was this.” He put down his silverware and straighten the plates and glasses. “Soldier, I said, this man has a device that he believes communicates with an alien intelligence. Given that this alien intelligence could be malevolent, what does this constitute?”

“Foolhardiness?”

“Okay,” said Bob indulgently. “That I’ll grant you. But the young man — not long ago lost during a training exercise in Alaska — answered as his training would make him. Treason.”

“Treason?”

“Yes, Gary, treason. Do you know that treason is the oldest capital crime under federal jurisdiction?”

Gary noticed how his saliva turned metallic, just like in the tired images of thriller novels. He wanted to capture that feeling of dread for later.

“I didn’t know that.”

“But as I said, there are hard lines and soft ones in the government. This fact pertains to how penalties are applied as well. I asked the young man to pass judgment. And he did.”

“What was his decision?”

“You’re sitting here, aren’t you?”

Another banal involuntary action, a gulp and a cough.

“But more importantly, Gary,” he said, reaching for something in his jacket, “they’re still here as well.”

He tossed onto the table the thermal image of Alice, Andrew, Reggie and Gary. There were no identifying features but Gary recognized the moment.

Gary looked at him, unsure if the anger welling up in him would suffice to get him to the point where the man across from him was cold and dead. Then he looked down at his hands in his lap. He knew there was probably someone in the room with them, at another table or the young server himself, who was trained and waiting to turn Gary’s rage into impotence and dying capitulation.

“Well, I do believe in double jeopardy, Gary, so let’s just forget about that offense and that moment of risk. You’ve been absolved.”

“I appreciate it,” he said.

“You’re welcome. Dessert?” When Gary shook his head, Bob buried his eyes for a moment in the dessert menu. He signaled to the server — who appeared with suspicious alacrity — and said, “A Cafe Americano for me. I bet you could use an after-dinner drink, Gary?”

“A whiskey sour,” he said, with the realization that there was another act coming, and with resignation.

“Now, to the point,” Bob said, slipping the picture back into his jacket. “It’s time to end this farce. You have the anomaly, and you will give it to me.”

“Yeah, sure.”

“You will never say another word about this incident, and you’ll make sure that all your co-conspirators do the same.”

“Absolutely.”

“Finally,” said Bob, “you will assist in a sting operation to capture a treasonous member of the United States government, someone who has been seduced by an alien power and who has abused the sacred trust of the American people.”

“A sting operation?” Gary said, imagining a wire and the voice of a wise guy…

“Yes, but don’t worry. All you have to do is be your regular selfish and self-absorbed self. No acting, no putting yourself at risk.”

Gary was waiting.

“Here it is in a nutshell. We’ll have another conversation about this after you’ve had time to think about things a bit. There’s nothing worse, I find, than sending someone out to do your work whose mind is still on their own petty worries. They can be uniformly relied upon to muck everything up. So — briefly. The anomalies were first predicted by a respected physicist, who has been on retainer with the government to help us locate them. He now seems to be — ” He paused while the coffee was placed. “– to be interested in making his own contact with the so-called alien intelligence. To this end, we believe he will be contacting you shortly, probably through this woman.” He produced a photo of a petite, attractive but hard-eyed woman in fatigues and with the distinctive green beret on her shoulder. “Your job will be to arrange for him to be found with the anomaly.”

“And then?”

“And then? And then I would try to be as far as I possibly could from the sting. Be on vacation. Mexico, Virgin Islands, Bahamas — any place you don’t need to worry about a visa. I suspect you won’t have time to get one.”

“Then that’s it?”

With a sip and a connoisseur’s smack, he replied: “That’s it. As long as you stay to your side of the bargain.”

Gary felt the relief of imagining himself emerging, tanned, from the plane to a rebirth in his home town.

“There are only two little matters. First, you can’t breathe a word to the alleged intelligence. Not a word. Second, I need you to have someone there, a local contact. In a case such as this, my associates will insist on it, for the sake of cleanliness.”

“Someone there?”

“Yes the person the anomaly belongs to. Say that Reginald fellow. Maybe you could take Alice and her boy on a vacation, and give Reginald a chance to collect on the reward he’s been pestering me for.”

“Reginald came to you?”

“Oh yes, ready to sell his dear mother to collect a finder’s fee. He was ready to throw you to the lions, that’s for sure.” A sharp chuckle. “I wouldn’t turn my back on that fellow.”

“If he came to you, why are you talking to me? Why aren’t you giving him this deal?”

“Well, first, he doesn’t have the anomaly, does he. Second, he can’t be relied upon, not in a matter as delicate as this. And third, I don’t think he’s quite smart enough to be as afraid as you are. — Let’s just enjoy the end of this meal, shall we? Afterwards, I think I’ll have to go up to my room and take a nap.”