Chapter 52: Crazy talks
Lawson awoke in his bed, feeling fully rested. The Vice President’s house was sumptuous and, as he just rediscovered, remarkably comfortable and well tended. It was a little past seven on the clock on the solid oak night table when he got up and stepped into the private bathroom to wash his face and look at himself in the mirror. His body felt refreshed, but his eyes seemed to disagree. He got dressed and was escorted to the kitchen, where he had breakfast with Sylvia and learned that Theodore had already left for his office at the White House. Lawson was supposed to have a meeting with the President at ten in the morning and was not really looking forward to it. He had always loved the Clintons and had voted for them by advance polling in both elections from Africa the first time and Philippines for the second term, but he was not a fan of goodbyes.
His car was ready on time and parked in front of the huge residence. He arrived at the White House with a lot of time to spare. After passing security, he was escorted to a waiting room near the Oval Office where he took his second coffee of the day, also very good, he noticed. As he waited, his eyes fixed absentmindedly at the picture of assassinated President Lincoln and thought contemptuously, where was Booth when you needed him? He immediately brushed the thought off his mind. Lawson was a patriot after all. But what did that mean? He couldn’t wish a man to die simply because he was stupid or a puppet like Theodore had suggested. No, he couldn’t do that; he was wiser than that. The new President was there for a reason of his own, but which one? What was his agenda? Lawson knew that people entered politics to make a difference, but bureaucrats, lobbyists and, more importantly, the people that contributed to a winner’s campaign soon all line up to collect their dues, like what the Italian mafia does in a good Mario Puzo novel. Soon, politicians would start caring more about doing what they needed to do to be re-elected and less than what was good for their constituency. Add to that fame, ego, power, and money, and you just witness nature in reverse, where a nice colourful butterfly just transforms into an ugly black caterpillar.
He continued daydreaming, half-wondering to himself why daynightmare was not a proper English term because it was a more fitting descriptor for what was playing around in his mind: Dark, hopeless thoughts, especially when his mind visited the scene of him leaving the Facility for the last time. It had been too short to enjoy everything it offered. He would have turned down a full four-year term as President of the United States for these few months underground in that alien coal mine of his—although his mine would have put luxurious JW Marriott’s to shame. Now, it was all in English, which had made his obligation to travel to Washington even harder.
After passing through another Secret Service agent and another short walk, he soon entered the Oval Office for his last official meeting at the White House under an administration that had taken their countries from the hands of one tyrannical brother and was about to deliver it to the hands of another. In his eyes, the Clinton administration had taken a nation, loved by most, praised by all—including its enemies—and made it into the most prosperous nation in the world.
The meeting had been rather short and Lawson went out frustrated by the outcome. He understood that truly nothing could be done...not because of the usual incompetence or the blind refusal of some individuals that were generally paid to be blind; this time, it had been because of the time constraint. The discovery of the Facility by the Norwegian government and incidentally, the Americans, had happened too late for the Clinton/Grant administration to do anything about it and everyone cursed Eirik and Jack for that.
Lawson had the last words of the meeting, mainly expressing his fear of the unknown. On the surface, the religious rhetoric suggested that they would replace Lawson by someone more attuned to God’s will in the handling of the Facility. Clearly, God’s version of the Noah’s Ark and the level system was God’s way of weeding the unworthy. Of course, at that meeting attended by a friend of the Clinton administration, the new President had chosen not to mention that the two highest levels were atheists and that two lowest had been a Catholic clergyman and a devoted Mormon.
Although he had thought it was a bit of a waste to come all the way to the United States for a meeting that would last for only an hour and an evening with his closest friends, now that it was over, he felt that he shouldn’t linger in Washington any longer. Lawson availed himself of his full-fare open ticket and got a seat on the next day’s afternoon flight on British Airways. He felt bad skipping towns without meeting any of his old army buddies and perhaps for not playing politics and placing pieces on the board for the future when he would be out of a job. But why bother? He thought. He had enough years at the UN for a full pension retirement. So, what would he do with that money? Get a new car perhaps? Buy a house somewhere? But even new modern homes in the 21st century didn’t have food replicators and sonic showers. The truth is that he wanted none of that. All he hoped for was to continue working in his Facility, even if he was only offered a position as a janitor. But even that was not possible, because the damn place cleaned itself. All these thoughts came to his mind as he walked inside the Hilton near the airport, returned his car and went to bed to sleep the afternoon off.
He woke up from his nap at a little past 1900 hours. Hungry, he grabbed the leather-bound hotel reference guide, slid his finger to the room service divider, and started looking for what he would have for dinner, though he found nothing interesting. In reality, he didn’t really feel like seeing the same beige walls until checkout the next morning. So he got dressed, left the room, and took the elevator twenty-two floors down to the main lobby and headed to the resto-bar at the end of the long corridor.
The menu in the restaurant was pretty much the same as the one in the room and he started to wonder if he wasn’t getting spoiled by the replicated food at the Facility. There, he would have had expensive wines, organic food and a glass of Louis XIII Remy Martin’s Grand Cognac with his dessert, a taste he had acquired in Paris during dinner with an ambassador who had wanted to show off. Unfortunately, at one hundred twenty dollars a glass, it was an expensive taste he couldn’t indulge into on a regular basis, even with his UN salary. But at the Facility, he could swim in that godly liquor if so desired. When the waiter returned to take his order, he did what most people did when they didn’t have any idea of what they wanted to eat. He selected a classic, in this case, a hamburger steak.
Lawson had finished his burger, which he had found tasty enough, and was slowly finishing his French fries when a woman approached his booth, sat in front of him, and placed her coat on the thickly padded seat next to her. She came about it so nonchalantly, that for an instant he had been sure that a friend had recognized him and sat down without bothering for the usual friendly banter. His second thought had been to the fact that she didn’t carry a purse, and who she was had come next. The continuous flow of thoughts was of nice memories in Asia a few decades ago, where girls would routinely sit at your table and, if you were lucky, propose to marry you. But she looked in her late twenties, dressed like an attorney and didn’t seem to be in need of money whatsoever.
“Sorry miss, but is it possible that you are sitting with the wrong person?” asked Lawson.
“I don’t think so, Colonel Albert Lawson. You are the official United Nations director, the security advisor to Norway and, unofficially, well, how should I describe that in public… let’s just say that you are the commander of a stationary submarine that’s a lot bigger than the Sears Tower in the middle of a fjord in Northern Norway,” she replied with a smile. “I have learned that you will be out of job in the days to come and I’m here to offer you a place to stay. My name is Katherine Keays, but my friends call me Kiki.”
Lawson had understood the reference at once, and as trained as he was, his face had betrayed him a little until he managed to remember to put his poker face back on, but still was at a loss for words. With the jetlag, the night with his soon-to-be-jobless friend and the meeting with the still President of the United States and adding his own issues to the mix, he was still speechless after several seconds and it was becoming ridiculous, he thought.
“On my way here, I knew that I wouldn’t meet you at your best, but I was not expecting someone so heavily burdened,” continued Katherine seeing that he wouldn’t talk. “I came only to deliver a message to you.”
At that, Lawson nodded as his brain slowly returned to its normal cruising speed.
“Like I said, it is my understanding that you are about to be presented the door. Regrettably, we can’t help you with that, but we can offer you shelter in our place,” Katherine cleverly said. “Of course, you wouldn’t be the leader. We have no use for those. However, in our place, we respect the levels of people and, although yours is rather low by our standards, we would still welcome you with open arms and help you increase it. Who knows, maybe in time you can return to Norway when it would matter the most, or just to retire.”
He closed his eyes for a second. The sound of people, dishes and the music in the lounge seemed to be placed on pause for a moment. His mind should have been thinking of identifying that woman or asking the typical questions he normally would when confronted with unusual situations the way a man tries to ground himself to reality, but he had somehow skipped that part and was contemplating the possibilities, chances of continuing, but continuing what and how? He shook his head and willed his eyes to open and half expected the woman to be gone, but she wasn’t. It was not a dream, he decided. That was why sleep deprivation was an effective tool, wasn’t it? He focused for a second, more to try and understand this new reality and its implication. Maybe he had not really understood it correctly or maybe she was just looking for a lay and had been talking about whether to do it at his place or hers.
“You have to excuse me, but I’m really tired and I’m not sure if I understand you correctly. You seem to know a great deal about me and I know nothing about you. But no matter, I have only one question for you. Are you suggesting that there are more locations like mine?” asked Lawson trying to be cryptic. Journalists, he knew more often than not, knew very little, but a few well-placed words like: We know your friend is taking bribes and he said you do it, too? And before the guy knew he had defended himself and said that his friend had only done it a few times and bingo! The fish had swallowed the bait whole and the journalist had his confirmation.
“All I can say is your place is nice, but maybe not unique and certainly not the newest. However, if you want to know how deep the rabbit hole goes, you will need to be higher than you are. Do you understand me?” Kiki asked, hoping he had understood because there weren’t too many ways to be cryptic when describing these things.
“By higher you mean levels, because I can’t go higher in my position,” replied Lawson.
“Yes, level is what I’m referring to. For that, you can train at our place and increase it, provided you have the time. View it like a sporting club: Everyone has their physical and mental limits, but I know you are far from having reached yours,” replied Katherine, smiling at the waitress who had just brought her a glass of water and was now dismissing her.
“Let’s assume someone is attending these classes,” said Lawson, interrupted.
“Then their level and understanding of the wisdom, for the lack of a better word, will increase too, and then we can meet again and I can tell you more as it increases,” proposed Katherine, placing a business card on the table using her index and major fingers to make sure her prints had not been left on the card. “You can call me anytime.”
The name on the card was indeed Katherine Keays and the number was a United States number from Maryland that Lawson knew well. In Africa, he had been using a lot of numbers with the same area code and three-digit interchange, appropriated by Iridium, a satellite phone company and for all intent and purposes, a dead-end. He had hoped that the conversation had been long enough for him to guess where she was from, but not tonight and not in his state of mind. At best, he had narrowed it down to Eastern American most likely, definitely not British or Australian, and definitely not that of a New Yorker either. It was too clean for that. Much like that of a Canadian, but that possibility didn’t enter his mind at all.
“Call me when you are ready for a new adventure,,” with that, she smiled and prepared to leave when her phone rang and she excused herself, but remained seated in front of him. He could only hear one side of the conversation, but the biggest tell had been her face which had passed from jovial to grave. “Damn, how come we didn’t see that sooner? Probably, or they planned everything in person and never referred to it on the phone or e-mails until now. Yeah, he did, but they are dormant at the moment, I just checked as I sat down. Right, hundred twenty percent is his max considering his current physical condition. It’s not like he runs seven kilometres a day anymore. Okay, will do.” And she hung up the phone.
Lawson had been listening. The discussion had seemed to be about him, but it had felt like a load of nonsense. “So, you are Canadian?” he rightly guessed at last.
She looked very more now and clearly showed no time for friendly repartee anymore. “Listen to me Albert, something is going to happen to you. We don’t have the details yet. I’ve tried to help you. Listen, you will feel hungry a lot. Eat, okay? You will need it. Tomorrow morning, come back here, you will have the buffet breakfast and eat hearty! There will be no time to calculate your calories, understood?” She finished pointing at the buffet in the middle of the restaurant where the salad bar was located and where the breakfast would be tomorrow.
He looked at her as if to say, “You need serious help” and remembered that when something felt crazy, it seemed like that because it was.
“Good luck, Colonel. We will see each other again soon, I hope,” and with that she kissed him on the cheek and he let her. As she walked toward the door, she stopped, grabbed a device and made some adjustments to it and exited. Lawson had seen her pause for a few seconds, but had not seen what she had done and just stared at her until she had exited to the corridor. He had planned to have dessert before she showed up and now it was as a good a time as any and he ordered the cheese cake.
Her last remark had a double effect on him. She just proved that she knew a lot about him; and second, she had said one more thing to open his mind to something he had almost considered a kid’s game when it was first reported. They only have had a few days with the thing, since they managed, or so they thought, to have the Facility translate everything in English and he had planned to ask Eirik and Celina to see at their return if it could increase their levels. Now he knew that it wouldn’t do much good. No point in asking Tiger Woods if a golf training video could improve his game. You needed to take a mediocre player for that. A person that had a lot to learn, that way the result would be almost immediate. What he needed was the priest again, and then he remembered his last conversation with him and realized that short from a kick in the ass from God himself, he wouldn’t return to be humiliated again. So, he would have to check the list later and find someone low enough to have fast improvements, but also someone worthy of those effects.
He remained seated for almost another hour, the music and the sound of dishes and the conversations around him had returned. He also took time to memorize the phone number, associating the last four digits with the address of an old school friend to make sure he wouldn’t forget in case he lost the card. The rest of the numbers he already knew because it had been the number of so many other sat phone users he knew of, including his own phone once. So with KK 881-555-5426 now engraved in his mind, he returned to his room, forgetting his military discipline and pre-bed routine for once. He fell asleep almost immediately. Although her last words to him had almost destroyed the little amount of faith he had in her, he still hoped that there was a way to remain in the game and, just in case she had been telling the truth, he wouldn’t mention anything about that conversation and the possibility of more Facilities to anyone.
Another major decision he had made today was to break his silence and reveal to Steven and Chrissy the truth about them. They had not found out anything yet and Lawson didn’t have anything to lose anymore, but they did, big time. That’s why he would tell them as soon as he returned. He will have a video conference with her the next morning before his return flight, but it was too important to say, even over the secure line and he wanted to tell both of them together. So it would have to wait.