DUCK AND COVER – DAPHNE BELLFLOWER
Phil stared out the window over the nineties-era high-rises at the black water in the bay. He checked his watch. 9:52 p.m., Vladivostok time. It was exactly seven minutes from the last time he checked his watch. He paced back and forth the length of his hotel room, which took approximately ten seconds. Phil sighed, resisted the urge to check his watch again, and sat down in the room’s single chair.
He turned on CNN to catch up on the American news, although CNN usually made him homesick. Hour after hour, CNN was a veritable smorgasbord of tornados, government scandals, bus crashes, train wrecks, serial killers, Angelina Jolie, shootings in Florida, and international news stories presented to confirm America’s moral, economic, and military superiority. Phil might be in Russia, but in the United States it was business as usual.
Phil watched as a CNN reporter detailed rescue efforts in some little town completely buried by mud. Phil studied the surviving residents’ stricken faces against a backdrop of grey skies. His headset buzzed. “Walsh here,” Phil said, turning down the sound. “Are they back yet from the dinner meeting?”
“Are you kidding?” Evans asked. “They were all drunk before they left. They won’t be back before midnight. Hope the negotiations go their way.” Evans laughed, and Phil heard shouts and laughter on the other end.
“Where are you?” Phil asked. “And how many EP guys went to the dinner with them? Did anyone notice the Exxon guys were drinking? There should be at least four security officers with them. I specifically requested four officers. Four sober officers.”
“OK, Phil,” Evans said, his voice crackling through the headset. “I know that you’re new in the private sector, and you still sound a little uptight. The first thing you need to know is that this is not the Secret Service, so you don’t have to worry about reporters and all that protocol nonsense. Exxon executive protection is a lot different.” Evans paused for a second, and Phil heard him take a drink.
“So what I’m trying to say Phil, what I’m telling you is to pull that stick out of your ass and come down to the bar to drink with us,” Evans said. Phil heard several loud bursts of laughter. “The Exxon guys are a lot more fun than Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. A bunch of us off-duty guys are here in the bar. Except for the four guys you specifically sent to the dinner. Those poor assholes.” Evans laughed again, and Phil’s headset went silent.
Phil sighed. He glanced at his watch again. 10:19 p.m., Vladivostok time. He wanted to call his wife and kids back home in Houston, but he couldn’t figure out what time it was in Texas. Since he left the Secret Service to manage the Russian executive protection program at Exxon, Phil traveled six months out of the year. The Exxon job paid more than double what he made for the government, but the travel exacerbated an already strained situation with his wife.
He jumped up and looked out the window at the city. During his interview at Exxon, the head of the executive protection services told Phil that Vladivostok was known internationally as “The San Francisco of the East.” There were several hills in Vladivostok and a large, elaborately designed bridge that extended over the bay, but as far as Phil was concerned any resemblance ended there.
Vladivostok may have been picturesque at one time, but Phil thought any vestige of charm the city once had was long gone. The old buildings and monuments, relics of the Tsarist regime, were torn down after the revolution to make way for rows of apartments, factories, and shipping facilities. The concrete fortresses encircling the town, built in the late 1800s to protect the city from warring factions from the Far East were still mostly intact, but the Japanese, Korean and Chinese that the fortresses were designed to repel were now a major factor in Vladivostok’s economy.
Phil sat down again in front of the television. He felt claustrophobic in the small room. A Burger King commercial, all glistening meat, bright American cheese, and crispy salty fries made Phil’s stomach growl. He had to eat something. He jumped up, switched off the television, and put on his navy sport coat. He grabbed his key card from the dresser, slipped his gun into the back of his pants, and headed down the dimly lit hall to the elevator.
He headed through Hotel Hyundai’s lobby to the bar, instinctively taking inventory of everyone in the room. Three Russian women, mid-20s, one in a green dress, one in a black dress, and one in a bright blue pantsuit, all carrying shopping bags. Two Korean men, early 60s, in matching grey suits, one with a black briefcase, the other on his cell phone. Two desk clerks, one male approximately five feet nine inches, one female, approximately five feet three inches, both in hotel-issue uniforms. Everyone in the lobby except the woman in the black dress was smoking.
As he walked through the lobby, Phil could hear Evans arguing loudly with someone about NFL draft picks, and determined the hotel bar was to the right. He pushed the heavy door open, his eyes adjusting to the dim light. He saw Evans and a group of Exxon EP officers bunched up in a tight circle, seemingly determined to ignore the bar’s international clientele.
Evans caught sight of Phil silently evaluating the bar patrons. “Phil, Phil, over here,” he yelled, motioning him into the circle. “We just heard a bunch of liberal idiots want to change the name of the Washington Redskins. Can you believe it? They can’t do that, can they? That’s ridiculous.”
Phil observed the Exxon security officers in the bar. He didn’t know any of them very well, having made a concerted effort to keep to himself. There was Tim Callahan, an ex-cop from St. Louis, Sean Kennedy, an ex-staff sergeant who supposedly served four tours of duty in Iraq, and Joe Rossi, an ex-FBI officer from Baltimore. All appeared slightly intoxicated, but far from drunk. Phil was surprised. If these were Secret Service agents, they would be wasted by this time.
“We want another round of Jack and Cokes,” Rossi told the bartender, tossing an Exxon American Express black card on the bar. “Put our tab on this. What are you drinking, Phil?”
“Jack and Coke sounds good to me,” Phil said. “Can I get a menu?” he asked the bartender. “I want something to eat.” The bartender silently handed him the multi-lingual menu. Phil looked at the offerings on the English page and wished he hadn’t seen that Burger King Commercial. He couldn’t get used to the food in Vladivostok, an odd fusion of traditional Russian dishes with an Asian influence.
“I’ll have the beef and kimchee piroshkies,” Phil said, wishing for the hundredth time that he could just get a burger and fries. He sipped his drink. At least Jack Daniels and Coke tasted the same everywhere. He took another drink and joined his fellow security officers.
“Glad you came and joined us, Walsh,” Callahan said, slapping Phil’s back with his meaty hand. “You come highly recommended. I have a good buddy in the Secret Service. I hear you had top level clearance since Jenna Bush’s wedding. Must have been great at W’s Crawford ranch.” Callahan paused. “I also heard you got a bum deal in that Columbia mess.”
Phil ignored Callahan’s last comment. He assumed they watched CNN, just like he did. “It was a good job,” Phil said. “I loved it. And W was a great guy, a lot of fun to be around. President Obama and his family are nice too, but they’re pretty strict. Everyone has to follow the rules.” He took another sip of his drink. “It’s a tight group of guys, the Secret Service. It’s more than just a job, all that taking a bullet for the president stuff.”
“Yeah, that patriotic stuff is great,” Kennedy said, laughing. “But most of it’s bullshit. The President is nothing more than the CEO of the United States. Everything’s business now, business and oil. It’s always oil. Look that mess we made in Iraq. For nothing, all for…”
“Oh God, don’t get him started on Iraq,” interrupted Evans. “We know, we know, you wake up in the middle of the night because of your PTSD, not because you have to take a piss like the rest of us.” Kennedy laughed. “Just don’t shoot me when you finally snap,” Evans said. “Shoot one of those bastards that pay us to protect them.”
“I can guarantee you that I’m not taking a bullet for anyone at Exxon,” Rossi laughed. “Hopefully the corporate boys lock their doors at night. The most stress I want in my life is turning in my risk protection analysis at the end of the month. That’s more than enough.” Rossi looked at Phil. “So how do you like Vladivostok?”
“It’s all right, I guess,” Phil said. “But it’s too much time away from my wife and kids. The wife doesn’t like it.” He looked at the other people in the bar. “It’s not what I expected here. I thought it would be snow, vodka, and ex-Russian intelligence officers. You know, that John Le Carre stuff.”
“You’re living in the past,” Kennedy said. “The Cold War is over. Everybody in America, Russia, China, and Korea wants the same thing now: more money. Nobody cares about politics. President Obama brokers business deals between countries.”
Kennedy gestured with his half-empty glass. “You remember the APEC summit we had here a few years ago? All about economic cooperation between countries with money. Ideology be damned. But at least the Russians built a new bridge here and a couple of hotels. If you think Vladivostok is ugly now, you should have seen it before 2012.” Kennedy shook his head. “What a shithole.”
“At least this hotel is pretty decent,” Callahan said. “Good old Hotel Hyundai. They named it it after a car. A cheap car.” He looked at Phil. “So what do you drive Callahan? Back in the states.”
“Whatever the government leases, usually something American. Bronco, Silverado, whatever,” Phil said, looking at the plate of oily food the bartender slid in front of him. “The wife drives a mini-van.”
Evans and Callahan laughed. “You aren’t doing government work anymore,” Evans said. “What do you drive now?”
Phil finished his drink. It had been two years since he left the Secret Service, but it seemed like it was yesterday. He checked his watch and wondered again what time it was in Texas. “A BMW. I drive a BMW now.” He motioned to the bartender. “Can I get another,” he asked, looking around. “Let’s get another round.”
“Slow down, Phil,” Rossi said. “We don’t party like those government guys. Someone in EP has to be sober if the CEO’s wife and kids are kidnapped.” He emptied his glass. “But it’s not going to be me tonight.”
Phil looked up at the bar television. CNN was on. He wondered if his wife was watching CNN right now in Houston. He found the thought oddly comforting. “So how long have you guys been here?” he asked.
“I’m an Exxon lifer,” Callahan said. “They take good care of their people. I started on an oil tanker in Alaska, but after that Valdez mess I decided to go corporate. I miss it sometimes, being out on the ship. It’s beautiful there.” He paused, “Or was anyway before the accident. But here in Russia, I’ve been here about ten years or so.”
“Exxon has a lot of major screw ups,” Kennedy said. “Look at what happened in Louisiana. But you’re right Callahan, they do take care of their people. I don’t think they fired anybody or made anyone resign.” He glanced at Phil, struggling with his greasy piroshkies. “There wasn’t a fall guy in the Gulf Coast. BP just paid everybody off. Not like what happened to Phil.”
Phil put down his fork and covered his plate with his napkin. He looked at the men. “Is there anything you guys want to ask me?” he said. “Like why I don’t work for the Secret Service anymore? Did you miss it on the news? CNN covered it for weeks. And everything was paid off.”
Evans shook his head. “We all heard the news, but who in the security business believes CNN?” he said. “The average American has no idea what security is like in other countries. Terrorism is everywhere, and it doesn’t sleep. And it’s not just the Muslims, it’s the drug cartels and the pirates too. As far as Americans are concerned, it’s just one big Florida out here.” Evans looked at the others. “Am I right?” he asked.
“Anyway, we heard you were the fall guy,” Rossi said. “My buddy said they forced you to take the blame for everything that happened. That prostitution is legal in Columbia, and there weren’t that many agents actually involved with the ladies. I also heard everybody was really blasted.”
“Well you heard wrong,” Phil responded. “You’re right, most of us had been drinking, and some of the guys got out of control. But we were off duty, and the President and his entourage were asleep. And we didn’t know the girls were prostitutes. At first, we just thought they were really into Secret Service guys. In retrospect, we should have known better. Even the ugly guys got laid that night.”
Phil nodded toward Kennedy. “He’s got it right,” he said. “Everything is about capitalism. The problem wasn’t that we got drunk and brought back a bunch of hookers to the hotel. The problem was that we refused to pay them. It wasn’t a diplomatic snafu.” He shook his head and laughed.
“The next morning after that night, I woke up to the sound of people banging on my door. I had a terrible hangover and was off duty, so at first I didn’t answer.” Phil rattled the remnants of his ice and drained his glass.
“Then I heard a loud voice say: POLICE. OPEN YOUR DOOR. NOW.”
“I opened the door and the girls from last night rushed in with about half of the Cartegena police department. Then some fat cop yells at me that they hadn’t been paid, that the Secret Service hired these hookers and didn’t pay them and were all a bunch of crazy drunks. Then my room was full of hotel security officers demanding the names of all the Secret Service officers involved, and said that we would have to leave the hotel immediately.”
Phil shook his head. “So we all left the hotel,” he said. “Right after the police made us settle up with the girls. That’s capitalism in action; you pay for the services you get or you get screwed. You have to respect the flow of commerce.”
“And then the President found out,” he continued, “and so did every reporter from CNN to Al Jazeera. The Summit of the Americas wasn’t our finest hour, that’s for sure. Me and the other agents used to pride ourselves on being more discreet.”
He laughed. “Needless to say, my resignation was demanded from the Secret Service. So here I am, senior manager of the Exxon executive protection division.” Phil checked his watch. “It’s 11:54 p.m., Vladivostok time. If we get out of control tonight, can I assume Exxon will pay for it?”
He looked at the men. “Want another round?” he asked. The bar door opened, and the hookers walked in.