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The Querulous Nightingale

Published: June 16, 2017

I arrived in Washington the same day that James Forrestal went out the window.

My first visit to the capital would have been otherwise forgettable. Union Station was less crowded on a Sunday morning than I’d ever found a stateside train station. Never a churchgoing man myself, I still felt a nostalgia for the chiming bells I periodically passed on the way from the train to the Mayflower Hotel.

They told me I’d been abroad too long.

 

 

“Welcome to the Mayflower. How may I help you?” the old man behind the desk greeted me.

“Douglas, room for one.” As he searched the reservation list with his finger, I took a moment to examine the lobby’s chandelier and the reliefs that surrounded it, the carved figures emerging a few inches from the wall.

“Here it is. Douglas. Room’s paid for two weeks; if you plan to stay longer, let us know beforehand. We have a few months until the busy season, so you should be fine.”

I nodded as he rang the bell and produced a bellhop not much younger than me. I could tell from the way his left arm hung limp that he’d seen combat; only a field medic would have both been able to save the arm and lacked enough time to set it properly.

“Take your bags, sir?”

I held up the sole bag I carried. “I’ll bring this up myself.”

“Then right this way, sir.” The bellhop had a slight hitch in his step, which, combined with the arm, reminded me of a production of Richard III I’d seen before the war.

“Mind if I smoke?” he asked.

“I’ll join you.” I intended to light his cigarette before my own, but he produced a match and struck it with his good hand before I could remove my matchbook from my suit pocket. He managed the elevator with similar dexterity but must have noticed my glancing at his arm.

“Best years of our lives, right?” He smiled and took another puff. “Got this from one of Hirohito’s snipers on Tarawa in ’43. They had to load us on a raft and float us out to a ship for treatment. Took long enough that the bullet moved around and there was nerve damage.”

“You get the guy who did it?”

“Him and two of his sidekicks.”

“Paid back with interest. Well done.”

“You look like you served.”

I nodded, but took a long drag on my Lucky rather than divulge any more information. When we got to my floor, I told the bellhop I would take myself the rest of the way. He handed me a copper key, and I passed him a dollar, making eye contact and shaking his hand firmly as I did so.

 

The room provided more space than I would ever need, with a bed thrice the size of any of the spartan arrangements to which I’d grown accustomed, and a fabric armchair like the one my father sat in whenever he would listen to his serials.

I threw my suitcoat and hat on the oak writing desk and took off my shoes, which had given me a small but painful blister on my right heel. On the nightstand sat a bottle of Kentucky bourbon, serving as a paperweight for the brown-paper envelope with Welcome Home scrawled on it by an anonymous woman’s pen. There wasn’t much chance of finding a bar open on Sunday.

Out of habit, I checked the bourbon to make sure the wax seal was unbroken before pouring myself a glass. The oaky flavor met my tongue like a reunited friend, but the stuffy room had left the bottle too warm. In my stocking feet, I took the ice bucket down the hall to fill it.

Though the rooms on both sides of mine seemed empty, as promised, I heard low voices coming from the next room down. Just two French-Canadian women discussing lunch plans; nothing to worry about. I found the ice, then returned to my chambers to pour myself a drink.

From the window, I had my first view of the White House. It looked smaller than it had always seemed in The March of Time, but what struck me was its condition. Time away had made my homeland feel prefabricated, as if I were looking at a sanitized replica of the very ruins in Thessaly or Epirus that I’d played a small role in keeping part of the free world.

At that moment, Truman was probably taking some important meeting inside those sandstone walls, Louis Johnson was still settling into his new job, and, I would soon learn, his predecessor’s broken body was being examined somewhere in Bethesda.

 

Monday arrived later for me than it should have, my internal clock having yet to reset and my memories of the night before a haze of bourbon and the contents of the package left for me.

The hotel shower with its cleansing force felt like a luxury, and even the commode provided comfort I hadn’t experienced in some time, though this had more to do with the quiet and solitude than the facilities. When I finished toweling myself, I found a sheet of paper had been slipped under the door, telling me the time and place of my evening appointment. I checked the hallway, but whoever delivered it had already gone.

The city was busier, with men in suits on their way to work, a pattern into which my small bag and I blended easily. The note had given me several hours to kill, and I thought the guise of a tourist was that least likely to prompt notice of an unattached man free on a workday. I carried my camera around my neck, and made a show of taking a panorama of images — the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol dome in the distance — all the while surveying the evening’s meeting place and taking mental notes. I knew the value of understanding one’s surroundings.

Having already thrown the last of my drachma in a trash can far from the hotel, and sure nobody was close enough to see, I took the old identification cards I carried and wrapped them around my next Lucky. As the matchhead burned them away, their ashes spread over the reflecting pool like tiny birds on the wing.

 

I took supper in a small diner near the Old Ebbitt, choosing the stool farthest from the door, at the end of a long and nearly empty counter. After ordering, I purchased a The Evening Star from the rack up front, and opened to the Clifford Berryman cartoon while sampling the too-thick coffee.

Flipping through the afternoon paper was how I first heard the news about the old warhorse’s plunge out the window of a hospital few knew had become his home. Of course, I’d heard rumors about his mental state and his paranoia, as everyone in our line of work had, but never knew how much of that to believe.

“Put ’em in a box, tie ’em with a ribbon, and throw ’em in the deep blue sea,” the waitress said as she refilled my coffee.

“I’m sorry?”

“That’s the song,” she said, indicating the Wurlitzer in the corner. “You looked like you were trying to figure out what it was. It’s Doris Day.”

“Thank you. I’m afraid I don’t know much about music.” I returned to my paper, looking for more clues about the Forrestal story as I dipped my toast in the mix of runny eggs and burnt potatoes the waitress had brought over. I could feel her eyes on me while I read, but kept my head down to avoid any unneeded conversation.

While paying my bill, I considered the turning desert display next to the register, and opted for two pieces of fresh Turkish delight and a small block of halva to take back to my hotel.

“Who’s that man in the paper you keep looking at?” the waitress asked as she counted my change. “Somebody important?”

“Paper says his name was James Forrestal,” I said, feigning ignorance. “He was the first secretary of defense. He just killed himself.”

“Sounds like you don’t know much about government either.” It could have sounded mean, but she smiled when she said it, showing off. “Henry Knox had that job for George Washington.”

“Knox was the first secretary of war,” I said. “This man was the first secretary of defense.”

“Sounds like the same job to me. What’s the difference?”

“The difference is all the difference.”

 

With several hours remaining before my scheduled rendezvous, I returned to the Mayflower to shower and rest. I nodded a greeting to the bellhop, but bypassed the elevator to take the stairs. I again checked the doors surrounding mine for noise and, finding none, let myself in.

Closing the door, I did not expect to see my room already occupied.

The man sitting in the desk chair wore sunglasses, and his left leg jutted out at an unnatural angle. Though I pulled my gun from my suit’s inner pocket, his was already aimed directly at the doorway where I stood. The older man perched on the bed rose when I entered, and smiled.

“Urge him with truth to frame his fair replies,” he said, lighting a cigarette.

“And sure he will, for wisdom never lies,” I responded. The man with the weapon put his away, and I followed suit. “What are you doing here?”

“We moved your debrief to a more secure location.”

After I first saw the gun, I thought of the whispers about former operatives being eliminated, and kept my guard. “Can I smoke?” I asked, waiting for a nod before taking out my Luckys and lighting one.

“Now, we’ve reviewed your file, and are familiar with your work for the agency,” the older man said. “As you know, we’re not technically supposed to operate on American soil, so everything we say here stays between us.”

“Understood. I —”

“We want to get to know you a bit before handing out any new assignments,” the other interrupted. “To do that, we want to get more familiar with what led you to the agency, why you wanted the job, why you’re a fit. Most men with your background went the career-military route after the war, but not you.” He named the most recent assignments in my file, as if I were unfamiliar with them, feigning admiration while I smoked and nodded to show I was paying attention.

Eventually, they gave me a chance to explain how I’d watched the same war films most men my age had, and eagerly joined the war only to find the reality of combat a less glorious enterprise. I detailed how, both philosophically and tactically, I preferred eliminating individual targets who had earned it rather than dozens of ordinary men whose only mistake was being born on the wrong soil.

I liked to think of myself as a precision instrument, and my experience confirmed that impression.

The older man kept his questions informational, while the one with the wonky leg peppered me with confrontational queries: “How did you feel about keeping the world safe for democracy by putting a king in charge?” “What would you have done if Wallace won last fall?” “How do we know so much time talking to the DSE didn’t turn you a little pink?”

I answered every question, with cold but professional precision. Smokers were always easier to read; whatever disguises their faces formed when speaking had a tendency to relent slightly while they focused on their habit. I insisted on asking a few of my own questions, about the possible next stations, how our work had been perceived on the homefront, if these men had heard anything about any of my men who had already come home. Both insisted they either didn’t know or couldn’t tell me any of those things.

Then I settled on a question I’d been thinking about for most of the day.

“Last words have always fascinated me,” I said. “Since you know the password, you must be in position to know. What were Forrestal’s last words?” Neither answered. “Surely, if it were a suicide, he left a note; and surely you must know what it said. Unless you’re not who you say you are.”

The older man fielded this one. “He was copying a translation of a Sophocles play, and left off at ‘No quiet murmur like the tremulous wail, of the lone bird, the querulous nightingale.’ One of the experts from Annapolis said it’s about suicide.”

“I know the play. It’s about the suicide of Ajax, after he goes mad, butchering and torturing sheep and cattle.”

“That makes sense,” the older man said. “Forrestal went mad almost as soon as he was fired. It was only a matter of time.”

I thought about what he said for a few minutes, then asked permission to pour myself a drink from the bourbon bottle. I offered a beverage to each of my interviewers, who agreed only after they saw me swallow my own serving.

 

 

The following afternoon, I sat with my sole bag outside Union Station, waiting for the California-bound train I planned to inconspicuously exit at one of its refueling stops.

Smoking the last of my cigarettes, I thought about why last words had always mattered to me. I’d grown to dislike the kind of war movies I grew up watching. They had no realism, and offered only two ways to die. Men were shot and fell to the ground like pieces of wood, dead but clean, or they received a slow death that let them deliver their final thoughts, urgently and masterfully, then fall silent the instant they finished imparting their wisdom.

In my war experience, nobody knew when their last moment was coming. Usually, soldiers’ last words were screams of pains or vain calls for their mothers.

Despite the interviewers’ assumptions, my post-war activities for the agency hadn’t turned me pink. Only angry.

I was grateful to my contact for the file detailing how the other members of my team had been murdered within a few days of their own Washington debriefs, and warning me about my visitors — had they pantomimed grief for my compatriots instead of ignorance, I might not have deciphered their intentions. Though I had never admired Forrestal, who always seemed extreme and obsessed, I saw no reason for what happened to him and wanted to gauge what my would-be executioners thought. Whether he was killed directly, or driven to ending his own life, didn’t ultimately matter.

The bourbon had proven as useful as the file, enticing enough that the pair closely watched me drinking mine, without noticing my hand dropping the powder in the bottle. I’d left them both in the closet of one of the empty rooms next to mine, wondering if anyone would find them before the hotel’s busy season.

I took out my camera and shot one last image of the view down Massachusetts Avenue, while I sat on the station’s steps and finished the last of the Turkish delight, the mint gel cooling the tobacco flavor in my throat.

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