Friday, July 7, 2017

Casing the Colors © Week 17

Casing the Colors © Week 17 • • • CHAPTER 32 • • When Kate Gordon's plane touched down in Moscow, President Katerinov and the American Ambassador were waiting on the tarmac for her, but there was no welcoming delegation. President Katerinov brushed her cheeks with formal kisses and took her arm to move toward the limousine waiting near the plane. "Katharine," he began, as the limousine pulled away from the plane and they settled down for the ride to the American Embassy, "we must speak frankly and quickly, for time is running out. Your Ambassador has agreed to host our discussions." His words and the silence following them increased Kate's apprehension. She wondered if he would withdraw his offer of political cooperation, or perhaps even his suggestion that he would prefer a personal relationship with her. The shock of the Moscow cold combined with her excitement at seeing Alexei again made her shiver. She put out her hands to hold onto both the Ambassador and the president to steady herself against her misgivings. "What has happened since I left Paris?" she asked incredulously, knowing her father would not have left her ignorant of an important event. The Ambassador began to review events of the past two days, recounting details she already knew. She realized that he was playing for time to get them into the relative security of the American Embassy before the conversation began in earnest. She glanced at Alexei, whose impassive face had at last taken on the hint of a slightly ironic smile, confirming her conclusion. As the limousine drove on, the three passengers chatted with animation about subjects they all knew to be meaningless, playing a charade whose goals were less clear to Kate than its rules. Once in the Ambassador's office, warmed by a small glass of vodka and the fire burning slowly in the fireplace, Alexei relaxed noticeably. Kate swallowed her vodka, Russian style, in one motion, sinking into a comfortable chair near the fire, bone tired but nervously alert. Alexei watched her easy movements and again realized that he had made the right decision. "Katharine," Alexei said, bending down to kiss her forehead, "what I could not say in the limousine is that first we must settle our personal relationship. I have spoken with your father and Secretary Stevens because there must be no misunderstanding about my motives." She looked up at him, wondering what he would say next. The Ambassador spoke instead. "President Katerinov and I talked together with General Gordon and the Secretary. They are fully informed and want your decision to be made without concern for political consequences." Her puzzled look was so amusing that Alexei laughed softly and, tilting her face up toward him, he said, "My dear Katharine, I have nothing terribly devious to say. I simply want you to marry me." "And I was certain you were using me," she replied sheepishly. "Will you marry me, Katharine, or must I kneel and plead?" Alexei asked. "Alexei, you are always one sentence ahead of me. Of course I'll marry you," she said, the words tumbling out. "But where, when?" "Tonight, here, before the world unravels." "Tonight?" Kate repeated as the weight of his proposal hit her. "I don't want you to leave me again before you are my wife. In my life, separations have too often been permanent. You know that I am not in the most secure position here and even if we eventually win, our struggle will go on for many precarious years. I need to know that you will be there, that someone in this troubled world cares whether I survive and even wants me to succeed. I need to know, no matter where I may be, that you are alive and free and that you love me." She reached into her handbag and took out the ring Gabriel had given her in Veracruz. She put it into Alexei's hand in a gesture meant to unite them and to forever separate herself from the two men to whom she had previously devoted herself. "Tonight," she said, making a final mental evaluation of her probable future with Scott and praying that her impossible love for Stu Wellford would become the memory that could sustain her in much the same way as Alexei had just described his own need for her. Kate was calm as a US military chaplain performed a brief marriage service in the Ambassador's private office. She knew their chances for a normal marriage were minimal at best, but she was determined to stay for as long as time and events allowed with this man who seemed absolutely committed to his destiny as the champion of an idea larger than his individual importance. After they pronounced their vows, Alexei kissed her. "I promise you a Russian wedding when the world settles again." Then, he took a box from the Ambassador's desk and opened it, taking out a black fringed shawl covered with golden yellow and deep red roses intertwined with green leaves to form a Paisley design. She wrapped the shawl around her shoulders, taking some of the fringe in her hand and holding it against Alexei's cheek while she returned his kiss. "When the world settles again." Alexei stepped back, his mood changed. The three sat together around a low table in front of the fire as Kate told them about the American plan to redeploy troops in Europe as part of a new world order in which the US Alliance with Russia would be pivotal. "The United States is willing to enter into the Alliance with Russia if Russia will commit herself to democracy and work for world peace. The events of the past decades have taught us several lessons. The world needs two superpowers, but it needs them to act in union, holding their separate spheres of influence together, forcing the world to work for peace and economic freedom. We are willing to join Russia in such a military and economic Alliance reaching around the globe." When Kate finished her report, Alexei reached out toward the Ambassador and her and they joined hands, forming a circle around the table. Alexei said, "You have my solemn word." "When will you begin your action against the Republics?" Kate asked. "In the next day or so. We can't wait much longer. They're interfering with our cross-border commerce now." "And Belarus and Ukraine?" "They are willing to agree to our terms if we will let them move against the Baltic states. I expect that action to begin almost immediately after I give them the okay." "Can you tell me anything about the White House source?" Kate asked. "Not really. Miguel won't talk, but I'm not sure he knows very much. Raqqa is the contact. It's his kind of operation. However, I have an idea about how to flush out the source, whoever it is." They talked on into the night, planning for troop cooperation, settling on the joint request for UN help in removing and destroying at last the Soviet nuclear weapons hidden deep in the earth of Eurasia. Then, the Ambassador offered a final wedding toast and left the two alone. Alexei lifted Kate onto his lap. It was three in the morning. "I am exquisitely happy," he said, kissing her ear. "I have a reason now to want to continue. But, my dearest, I think you must sleep alone tonight. I will send a car for you tomorrow at noon. The Ambassador will come with you to lunch, for cover. Forgive me. I must work through the night tonight, but my heart will be with you." They walked to the front door where his limousine was waiting in the circle in front of the Embassy. He turned to look into her eyes. "Once more, my dear, we are the President of Russia and the American diplomat. Be patient with me while I lay a foundation for the political acceptance of our marriage." He kissed her cheek lightly before getting into the limousine. As it pulled away, he looked back at Kate standing alone on the Embassy steps. Give us the chance to survive together, he prayed to his orthodox God, not knowing that his new wife was forming the same prayer, without the comfort of knowing whether there was a God to hear it. The cold night air gave Kate one last burst of energy that stayed with her as she rode the elevator to her suite on the third floor of the Embassy. By the time she settled into bed, it gave way to exhaustion and she fell into the first deep sleep she had enjoyed for several nights. The first gray morning light filtering through the drapes in her bedroom wakened Kate and found the red roses of the shawl draped on a chair near her bed. She looked at the shawl and murmured, "Dear God, I'm married to the President of Russia." But as her eyes traced the flowered pattern of the shawl, she was reassured. Its beautifully colorful, intricately romantic pattern harmonized with the energy and poetry in Alexei's attitudes and words and with his passion for life and its promise. She moved her body slowly under the coverlet, seeking the cool places on the sheets, imagining the touch that had captured her. She looked at her watch. It was almost eight o'clock and she tried to sleep again, but the telephone interrupted the unhurried morning. It was the Ambassador. "Kate, we have some tapes of a breaking situation in Africa. Can you come to my office?" "Give me five minutes to dress," she said, already out of bed, dragging the phone's cord behind her long naked legs toward the bathroom. • • The Embassy communications unit had been retrieving videos of live television coverage from all over Africa. The physically shocking scenes revealed the chaos caused by Americans hastening to return to the United States. Images of African politicians shouting anti-American clichés tumbled upon other images of military attempts to intercept and seize the US Air Force transports that had been sent to augment available commercial airplanes taking the repatriates and their families to Europe for forward flights into the United States. US military units attached to American embassies in Africa were hastily deployed in an attempt to protect the vulnerable planes and their passengers. African police and military troops stood down as private militia and islamic terrorists fired on the American military units and trapped many evacuees in the ensuing skirmishes. Additional US troops poured out of transport planes onto tarmacs to confront the rebels. All over Africa, airports turned into combat zones. The videos also showed American units joined by the military complements of European embassies, mustered from all over Africa, fanning out to aid the Americans, as well as frightened Europeans who had decided to follow the American example, making their way to airports. Machine gun and mortar fire hit some of the hapless evacuees as ruthless bands of African islamic fundamentalists and paramilitary units took advantage of the unexpected opportunity to vent their rage at European domination. Emboldened by the passivity of their governments and political leaders, they convinced many regular African troops to join them in taking bloody revenge. Stranded in long lines as evening became night, the evacuees were easy targets for rifles and machetes. Quickly deployed US military units managed to control events, allowing planeloads of terrified Americans to respond to the US government warning to return to America. Often, soldiers, citizens and Africans were caught together in indiscriminate melees. US television networks, pushing to test the resolve of the unelected American government, criticized President Wellford for being grossly in error in his decision to evacuate Americans from Africa and the Middle East. They showed scenes of African gangs body-looting dead Americans to make their point. President Wellford, within hours of the first widespread media challenge to his authority, appointed Pete Lowell the chairman of a new Office of Media Relations, whose job was to provide prior censoring of all media reports of sensitive national security situations. The networks continued to show what was happening, but, predictably, their commentary turned from criticism of the President to discussions of the OMR's legitimate role and raucous arguments about whether the situation in Africa constituted a genuine security threat. Some Americans and Europeans, heading for what they hoped would be protection in South Africa, and were trapped in a blood bath that gained momentum as black South Africans took advantage of the general pandemonium on the continent to strike at the white South African population with whom they had been struggling in a degenerating power sharing arrangement. When Black South Africans bent their angry despair to the work of massacre, the last remnants of white domination were erased from sub-Sahara Africa as easily as dust is erased by a violent summer rainstorm. While Kate Gordon and the American ambassador watched the videos and live TV coverage of events in Africa, General Gordon and Secretary Stevens called on a secure phone line. "Honey," General Gordon said, "it seems the media hasn't learned of your marriage and we need to ask you to go on with Scott as usual. Do you think it would be possible, for just a few more weeks?" "We still have the security leak and we need your help," Bill Stevens broke in. "You don't really suspect Scott, do you?" Kate asked, remembering the similar conversation in her father's living room after her first trip to Russia. "No, but it seems to be someone close to him," her father replied. "My Ranger and Secret Service investigations have produced nothing against anyone who participates in the White House confidential discussions." "What about George Morrison?" Kate asked, trying to find another explanation for the leaks. "Scott is almost religiously patriotic. He simply can't be the source." "George is clean," Bill answered. "It seems to be a military leak of some sort and we'll find it, but your help with Scott would make it easier." "Can you do it?" General Gordon asked again. "I'll talk to Alexei," Kate said. "We can settle it tomorrow," Bill said. "I'm meeting your plane in Frankfurt to take you to the allied leaders meeting in England." "By the way, Kate," General Gordon said, "Scott is doing a great job with the Europeans. Everyone he's talked with is willing to consider the new military arrangement for Europe. I only wish things were going as well here in the United States. General Carlson is barely managing along the Rio Grande. He's ordered troops into Mexico to eliminate the mobile rebel artillery patrols firing into American border towns. There's been a lot of ground contact with Miguel's men but the Mexican refugees just keep coming. There are already a quarter million in Arizona and twice as many in Texas." "What about the sealed border decision?" Kate asked. "Why aren't they being turned back?" "Stu won't give the order to seal the border," her father answered. "He wants to avoid a confrontation with refugees, especially now with the mess in Africa. We're meeting him in an hour to try to thrash out a policy he can accept." When Alexei Katerinov arrived at the Embassy for a lunch of sandwiches in front of the television sets, they watched as American embassies in Africa were abandoned by State Department personnel who had been ordered to destroy all documents and burn the buildings as they were evacuated. Strangely, with the exception of Libya, all the countries of North Africa, the spawning pool for islamic fundamentalist terrorism, opened their borders to shelter every American and European who managed to find a flight to safety or survived the desert heat and roving death squads to reach North Africa by car. After lunch, Kate left the Ambassador's office with Alexei, to find a quiet place to talk to him. When she explained what her father and Bill Stevens had asked of her, he was not surprised. "Why do they need you?" he asked, knowing as well as she the answer to his question. "I can't think of anything I'd like less, but I suppose they're right to ask us," Alexei said, taking his new wife into his arms. "I have to go to England tomorrow with Bill Stevens for the European meeting. Do you have any messages for him?" she asked, turning the discussion away from Scott. "Belarus and Ukraine have agreed to the American-Russian Alliance if American economic aid is increased substantially within the next month," Alexei answered with some pride. "They will concentrate on re-establishing their control in the Baltics while Russia stabilizes its borders and brings the recalcitrant Republics back into the federation." He was pleased with the success of his rather delicate negotiations with the two Republics most likely to give him trouble in his efforts to form a strong federation capable of matching once again the superpower status of the United States. More than this, Alexei Katerinov was pleased to be able to tell Kate that he had succeeded in establishing the conditions that would make order possible, halting the spread of the post-Soviet chaos of the past decades. He did not say that it was probably the last chance he or anyone would have to succeed. He was certain that if this attempt failed, a fierce war of attrition would begin, with the riches of Russia and its hegemony in play. The Russian president knew what the result of such a struggle would be and he shuddered at the prospect of a second Russian revolution, this time without even so much as the presence of a unifying dogma to prevent the splintering of forces and power into a thousand centers of warring interests seeking victory for its own sake, not knowing what they wanted to do with it and not caring how badly Russia was mauled in their quest. "Will we be able to announce the Alliance as soon as we've told the Europeans?" she asked. "Yes. I have even managed to convince the western Republics that they need a strong American military presence in Europe to save them from the Russian bear." He smiled mischievously at Kate. "You may tell Monsieur le President that his Russian friend appreciates his help and will show his gratitude." She looked at Alexei. Was he telling her that he had succeeded with France where she had failed? Would President LeNoir allow US troops into France? "Don't look so puzzled, Katharine. I am not entirely without friends or resources. Just give my message to President LeNoir, privately. Do you remember the words?" "Yes, Alexei," she responded, petulantly, "I remember the words." "My dear wife, when a very powerful person wants to help you, do not be so foolish as to refuse him," he said, repeating Chelenko's words. Alexei laughed and took her hand. "Tolkouchka, Chelenko, Gabriel and now Jacques LeNoir. You are everywhere, Alexei," she sighed. "But not with you, for very long, anyway," he answered as they made their way to her suite, where a bottle of chilled champagne, icy vodka and a vase of red roses, a wedding gift from the American Ambassador, waited for them.

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