I glanced at them and back to him. “So?”
“Mr. Tate, you met with Veronica Smith, and she passed you information.”
“I used to skate a lot back then. I was young, and it was fun. As for her, what’s her name? I sat at a lot of benches and fixed my skates a lot. I would expect that I sat next to a lot of people over the years.”
I had spent time in New York City right after I got back from Vietnam back in nineteen sixty-eight. Back then, I skated a lot. I’d met Veronica in Nam, and she’d been transferred to the states with her boss not long after I got here. She had contacted me and arranged the meeting.
I had retired from the spook business decades ago. But then, one never completely retires from anything—especially from the company as the CIA was known. I did remember the meeting, but I wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction of admitting it. Besides, it was all water under the bridge, and nothing could be gained from digging it up now.
“You must have been bored or had a lot of extra manpower to follow me around,” I noted as I glanced through the pictures again. The photos were from the same spot, the bench, but she faced a different direction than me. I knew a data sheet accompanied the photos and logged every frame, time, and location.
“Ok, I’m tired and bored. I’m leaving.” I shifted around in my chair to stand up.
“Whoa, you can’t just leave like that. We have questions for you.” Cardiff’s face flushed pink.
By now, I was standing and getting my jacket.
“Look, you’re not charging me with anything. I’m not going to sit here and try to remember something that happened thirty or forty years ago to appease a bunch of kids who weren’t even born when someone took these pictures. I have important things to do. Like watching reruns of Hawaii Five-O.”
The door slammed behind me as I left.
Outside I hailed a cab and watched my back as it took me to the address I’d given it.
I’d done it. I buffaloed them and got out of there without admitting anything, but it wouldn’t last. I remembered the meeting with Veronica and the information she’d passed me in the glove she laid between us while we fixed our skates. I still had it, and it was time to use it.
Several hours later, I was in my second safe house. Having taken great pains to make sure I wasn’t followed or bugged. I retrieved the information from the place I’d hidden it decades ago.
The small microfilm roll of pictures would cause a lot of people a lot of trouble. At the time, I had decided not to use it and allow things to progress as they were, but I knew the truth would come out eventually. I didn’t think it would take this long.
It was time.
Veronica had gotten pictures of our government’s involvement in war crimes in Vietnam. As a private secretary for several high-ranking government officials, her job gave her access to information that she’d sworn she’d never reveal. She had always kept her non-disclosure agreement, except for one set of pictures she processed and a copy of them. I had that copy. Now, thirty-two years later, they wanted it.
I wondered why they wanted to dredge this up after decades. The war was almost forgotten, and most vets were close to retirement or retired, as were the government officials involved with the war. There was no one it could hurt anymore. Veronica died a few years ago and had no family. Why not just let it stay buried along with the rest of the state’s secrets?
Someone was digging up the past for a reason.
Back at my place, I considered what to do with the microfilm. Burning it was an option, but they would never believe it was gone.
Lance Cardiff, the spook that interviewed me, seemed sure he had me. Those pictures didn’t prove anything, and I told him as much. The surveillance didn’t surprise me. What was rattling around in the back of my mind was who were they watching, Veronica or me? At this point, it almost didn’t matter. She was gone. I wasn’t far from it. But why the interest in a forgotten war or incident buried decades ago?
Pulling out my old microfilm reader, I examined the pictures one more time.
Time had changed nothing.
The images remained as horrifying as they had been at the time. The black and white pictures clearly showed the terror and desperation of the civilians slaughtered in the small village. I didn’t recognize the village. I’d been in Vietnam in ’68 but never left the bases. My assignment to find a mole within base command was over quickly. I discovered the mole and handed him over to the military. I never knew what happened after that and didn’t want to know. This was different. Veronica had copied a report on a village that a squad of rogue soldiers had destroyed. No one talked about it or the soldiers in question.
It went away except for the pictures copied on microfilm she’d smuggled to me.
I never knew what to do with them. So, I hid the microfilm and tried to forget the entire incident.
But now, someone knew about the pictures and what they revealed and wanted them. The question was, what do they show? It was time to find out. I scanned the roll of film into the computer and enlarged the images.
The pictures were grainy, and blown up on a large monitor didn’t help, but with the software I used, I was able to sharpen and clarify them.
Then I understood.
One of the soldiers shown firing his M16 into the crowd of children was a face I knew.
I’d known him for decades. Charles Winston McGraw’s service record was exemplary, not a blemish on it. He’d served with distinction in a dozen campaigns during his career, and I was involved in many of them. He retired as a three-star general and still held sway over significant policymakers, and his next challenge was to run as a governor of his home state. A position he had a good chance of winning, given his background and current standing with the public. An excellent chance unless the public learned of his involvement in a rogue operation that killed innocent civilians. It would destroy his reputation and political career before it began.
The disgrace would follow him to his grave. How he knew about the pictures or Veronica, I didn’t know.
I saved the files to a thumb drive and put the original film back in the safe. I nursed a large tumbler of rye whisky as I considered what to do with the pictures. Going directly to him and asking if he was behind the Fed goons that interrogated me was out of the question. As much as I wanted to hear his side, experience had taught me never to let your opponent know how much you know.
I decided the best approach was to tell him I heard he was running for governor, and offer my help, perhaps for security issues. I called, and he agreed to meet me the following day.
I didn’t sleep at all that night. The images of the atrocities in the village kept coming back into my mind. What could the general say that would explain them and his actions? I knew I couldn’t ask him directly without revealing that I had seen the pictures. I wasn’t sure how to angle to it without tipping him off.
I remained unsure how to approach the subject with him as I pulled into the restaurant where we chose to meet. I decided to do what I always did, not say much, and let the other person talk.
At almost sixty years old, Ret. General Charles McGraw still looked the part. He’d been retired now for several years, and despite being a civilian from what I heard, he preferred to be called general. Because of that, I knew I could get him to relive his not-so-glory days at some point. I only needed to prod him.
Pushing the thought aside, I greeted him with the usual comments and small talk. Over the next hour, I led the conversation from his early career and his time in Vietnam and how he’d risen through the ranks, eventually coming out as a captain. He regaled me with stories of his days “in country,” as they called it back then.
At one point, I asked him about rumors of rogue operations that had killed innocent civilians. He looked at me and, for a second, turned white, but as a good liar and leader, he quickly regained his composure.
“Yes, there had been operations that had gone wrong, but they were all documented and personal responsibility dealt with.”
I let it slide and moved on to his later career and aspirations for being the governor.
In the middle of a question about his ideas for governor, I asked if he had nightmares about his time in Vietnam. He stopped mid-sentence and gave me a funny look.
“Nightmares? That was thirty years ago. Why should I still think about that?” He sipped his coffee and shifted in his seat.
“I just wondered, is all. I know some people have nightmares until their dying day.” I watched his face, trying to read him.
“Yeah, I did some pretty bad stuff in the name of war and saw even worse, but I locked all that away a long time ago.”
“Hmmm.” I thought for a minute.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he snapped.
“I know I still have nightmares from what I’ve seen…” I let that thought trail off.
Which, strictly speaking, wasn’t true. I had had some bad dreams from some of the operations I’d been on over the years, but nothing approaching what I hinted at him having.
He sat up straight, holding his coffee mug in his hands. Steam rising from the mug clouded his eyes for a second, but he didn’t comment. I continued.
“Just curious is all. Being governor is a lot of stress, and I wouldn’t want past stresses to come back and haunt you.” I watched his eyes widen and decided to switch gears quickly to rattle him. “Hey, you remember the old gang. Whatever happened to them?” Changing the subject quickly.
“Huh? What are you talking about, Tate?”
“You know the ops crew—Leon, Brent, and Veronica?”
Technically she wasn’t part of it, just a glorified secretary, but I knew better, and so did he.
“Hell, I don’t know or care.”
I let it slide. Leon was alive and working in corporate security. As for Brent, he was killed in a firefight during a mission for the company a few years ago. I knew what the official report said and what happened.
The general was cool. He never blinked when I mentioned Veronica or rogue missions or Vietnam. So, I tried a new tact.
“Have you heard about section 21? They’re going through all the old files, checking for mislabeled files or what they can declassify. I heard they were working on your old section from back in the day.”
“So?” McGraw grunted.
“Just wondering what they may find, is all. I know my section’s pretty clean…”
“I cleaned up my messes.”
“I’m sure you did. Funny, a company man, you might know him. Lance summoned me to meet with him the other day. He asked me about some files they found.”
“Not sure. They didn’t say. You know how spooks are. They assume you know what they’re talking about, so they give no details. Something about a missing village. They seemed to think pictures were floating around of a massacre, but they never really said as much. Just hinted like I was supposed to know, which I don’t.”
“You were there too.”
“Yeah, but never off the base where I was assigned.” I was there towards the end in ’sixty-eight, and McGraw had acquired lieutenant’s bars by then and was already angling for captain’s bars. I was familiar with McGraw’s record, having read it earlier in the morning before the meeting.
“What’s this about? Don’t bullshit me, Tate. What’s going on?” He’d lost his patience with me.
“All right, here’s the deal. When Lance Cardiff hauled me in the other day, he showed me some pictures—boring pictures of people skating.
“I did some checking. He works for you, not directly, but for people you know very well. My question is this, General McGraw. Why are you interested in people skating thirty years ago?”
I leaned back and waited. McGraw rolled his coffee mug on the table as his eyes shifted around the room. He lowered his voice and leaned forward. I leaned in to meet him halfway across the table.
“Look, Bobby, I’ve known you for years. Decades even. We’ve always been straight with each other.”
The truth was I hadn’t seen him in years and hadn’t missed him. I said nothing.
“They say there was a village where a lot of people died, and there are pictures.” I put words in Lance’s mouth.
“Yeah, there probably is. So what? It’s too late to fix it now.”
“What if someone in the pictures later becomes a public figure…” I let it trail off as well, then took a breath. “Phi Dinh Loc sound familiar? Of course not. It’s not here anymore.”
He turned white.
“There’s a picture of you, a young lieutenant, shooting into a crowd of children.”
“There can’t be.” He gulped for air. “I wasn’t there.”
“You were, and you know somehow that Veronica smuggled a copy to me. How did you know about her?”
For once in his life, I suspected, Ret. General McGraw was at a loss for words. He stared at the tabletop then raised his eyes.
“Bobby, you have to understand.”
“I don’t care. I wasn’t involved. If it weren’t for the pictures…”
“The pictures, can I have them?”
“What do you think, McGraw? No. They’re safe unless you don’t call off Lance and his spook brigade.”
He nodded. “Done.”
“And today, within the next hour, you’ll announce your withdrawal from the governor’s race and public life. If I ever see or hear from you again, those pictures go straight to the press.”
I stood and walked away but decided I needed to give him one more piece of advice. Turning around, I walked back to the table. Leaning down, I glared at him. “One more thing. If I ever so much as feel like I’m being watched or stalked, you’ll be dead in twenty-four hours.”
I left Retired General Charles McGraw sitting alone at the table. His face drained of color.
Never mess with a retired company man.