The triangular strip of land where the Potomac converges with the Anacostia River and flows into the Chesapeake Bay was once nothing more than swamp. In many ways, especially in the devilish throes of mid-August, it still was. The controversial businessman turned even more controversial president had vowed behind podiums and atop stages to drain the swamp. Steadfast will and iron fists promised to agitate the snakes from hiding and jettison them into far-off wilderness. A tall order for even the most motivated.
Downtown Washington could have passed for much more than a scorching precursor to hell at the apex of summer’s hottest month. Cherry blossoms had long since bloomed and wilted away. But the scientist leaving the IMA World Health building on M Street at precisely half-past three was not focused in the least on heat. His significant mental capacity was at that moment dedicated to pondering the president’s strong-worded edict recited time and time again.
Could it be done? Rather, was it wise to attempt an upheaval of the very system that had delivered him into power? Lip service, the scientist reasoned, but that was a tactic of every successful politician. This president was new to politics, but he already understood its most critical stratagem: Say and do whatever necessary to get elected.
In a way, the political world had its business condensed to a laboratory experiment.
The scientist had a name, but he felt privy to remove a laminated tag oozing bureaucratic importance and sealed-door privilege as he left the impressive glass and steel structure and let it drop into the nearest of several waste bins dotting the street corner. His identity was easily discerned without a name card to those in his narrowed field, and to the rest he preferred to remain anonymous.
Blessed with a head of dark, unruly hair that had receded and gone dusty around the temples and a slight frame starting to round out with middle age, he was glad nonetheless not to glimpse his own Slavic features plastered on billboards and advertisements that mobbed downtown.
America’s preeminent scientific authority on population control chose to move through the scorched, muggy streets of the nation’s capital like any other person.
Downtown had become a maze of gyms, high-end retail stores, and glistening nonprofits. He took it all in with the most passive of glances whilst crossing the busy thoroughfare and passing a concrete and glass façade of yet another office building. He moved swiftly, not in the least because he understood that his life’s work was quite contentious throughout the nation, he had called home for thirty years.
“Everything has become controversial,” he couldn’t help but mutter aloud.
On sporadic occasions, usually in concert with a press circuit surrounding a newly published piece of research, he received malicious calls and death threats. The scientist had learned to ignore them long ago. He lived a private life in a stylish high rise with a doorman near Central Park. There was no reason to suspect any crazed individual would ever make good on one of the various intimidations.
As if by chance, Igor Stregor drew even with a rented Hyundai sedan parked along the curb.
Here he paused. Checking his watch, a scowl deepened the faint lines of his face. His flight back to New York City wasn’t due to take off for several hours. It made no sense to return to the airport now and pass time in a crowded concourse. He glanced around and slipped behind the wheel. No, Igor had something much better in mind.
That Americans could agree on nothing seemed to be about the only reality with which they could successfully come to terms. Igor ruminated on this as he let Rhode Island Avenue ferry him out of Washington, in the opposite direction of both major airports. For the first time that day, he felt a twinge of pride for his native land. It was often breezed over by his employers that Igor wasn’t a native of Washington, or anywhere else in the United States. In fact, he wasn’t American at all.
Igor couldn’t resist contemplating his past as traffic lessened and scenery shifted to sprawling suburbs. Born half a century ago into a small and forgotten Estonian village, his former community had been handed nothing to prosper save subsistence farming and a flawed communist system.
“We may not have had much, but we survived,” he grumbled under his breath. Igor failed to voice how his father had smuggled him and the rest of his family out of Estonia and eventually into America on the shaky bona fides of a diplomatic passport.
Several minutes later, his destination swam into view at the end of a shaded residential vista.
The Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America graces a hill in Brookland outside the capital called Mount Saint Sepulcher. Consecrated a century previous, its grounds contain gardens, several replicas of shrines recreated to remind visitors of the Holy Land, and the bones of Saint Benignus of Armagh, an Irish chieftain baptized into Christianity in the fifth century. The neo-Byzantine sanctuary itself, designed by famed Roman architect, Aristide Leonori, was built to resemble the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.
That the monastery was a friary and retained the mislabel at the behest of reluctant Catholic church officials was of relative unimportance to visitors passing its limestone gates each day. Igor contemplated doing the same. He eased to a stop in a shaded parking lot across the street and unlatched the rental car’s door when he instinctively froze.
A sleek Mercedes G-Wagon pulled into the parking lot a few seconds after him and stopped, engine idling. Its back faced a wrought iron railing separating asphalt from an adjacent park. Igor contemplated it with a shrewd gaze. Something about its arrival left him with a funny feeling that rooted around somewhere in the pit of his stomach. Due to his timing—mid-afternoon on a weekday—there were not many other cars in the parking lot.
He had a clear view of the black G-Wagon. The windshield’s tinted glass made surveying its interior problematic.
One thing was certain, however; the figure behind the wheel, intricacies of form shrouded by distance and the sun’s glare, stared at him.
Igor opened his door. The G-Wagon’s driver did the same. When he caught full sight of the figure, a heat wave could do nothing to unravel the icy chill that cloaked him.
Unlike most Americans, Igor had a knack for nationalities. The man was British, judging by his rigid demeanor and dress. He wore dark pants and a light tunic visible under an unseasonable Savile Row jacket. His slicked hair lent the air of a London street criminal. But it was his face that held Igor’s eye and filled him with fear.
A pale mask of death.
Igor took one look and fled in the monastery’s direction.
As he burst into the domed sanctuary, Igor took no notice of the chancel’s elaborate gilding atop a raised dais and polished marble tiles that amplified his clattering steps. He ignored a stunningly lifelike representation of Jesus Christ being offered a wine-soaked sponge while suspended from a cross over the narthex, along with his Ascension to heaven at the nave’s opposite end. The first wizened member of the Order of St. Francis to spot him looked as if he’d seen a madman. He crossed himself and mumbled a silent prayer.
It wasn’t until reaching a second friar with a kind face and ample flesh that Igor dared to speak. Glancing over his shoulder, he returned his frantic gaze to the man of God and refrained from clinging to the front of his brown cassock with both trembling hands.
“I need to use a telephone!”
Worry creased the friar’s features. He appraised the situation for several long moments that to Igor bordered eternity. Visitors around them had given the interaction a wide berth, casting lingering glances but refusing to let less than four rows of wooden pews come between them and the unconventional proceedings.
Igor stared into the friar’s calculating eyes, fearing at any moment heavy doors behind him would open and the very embodiment of death would sweep into view.
At long last, the man of God nodded.
He led the frightened scientist into a sparse office off the north transept. On a plain desk sat an outdated phone.
Before the rotund friar could react, Igor slammed the door in his face with a mumbled apology and wedged a heavy chair against the handle. Ignoring the holy man’s cries of indignation, he lunged for the telephone.
As he dialed a number by heart, Igor realized that deep in his subconscious a latent fear of this day had always lingered. There was no telling who they were, but eventually they would come for him. Paranoia fostered during his years living behind the crumbling Iron Curtain had prolonged his survival, but that good fortune had come to an end.
Now he was down to his last hope. A man not unlike the figure depicted throughout this monastery when it came to his ability to work miracles within the secretive intelligence world. The only man who had a hope of ushering him unscathed from this disagreeable predicament.
What Igor Stregor got was something utterly and entirely different.
Excerpt from A Day in Fall, published by White Bird Publications