South of the Border, But North of Panama
Gearheardt looked damned good for a dead man. Same silly grin. Same low slouch in the chair. His left foot, sockless in his penny loafer, rested on the corner of my desk and balanced him as he leaned on the two back legs of the government issue, standard low-level embassy employee furniture. His cigarette ash landed lightly on my inexpensive carpet, a gift from one of my Mexican assets, as he waved his arms demonstratively with his story.
"So the Nungs dragged me out, probably so they could eat fresh-cooked meat, but unfortunately for them I was alive." Gearheardt spread his arms, illustrating the point that he was living.
He had walked into my office in the embassy, pulled a chair up to my desk, and said, "Jack, you look like a damn bureaucrat. Never thought I'd see the day."
I have to admit that after the shock I shed tears of joy, whooping and disturbing the embassy folks, most of whom already did not like me. (No one in the embassy liked the guys who werespooks, assuming that the CIA was busily working against the very programs the State Department was pushing. They were mostly right.) But Gearheardt--alive! It was a miracle. Unless you knew Gearheardt.
My first reaction was to call my mother back in Kansas. She had always loved Gearheardt. (Did that put her in the class of bar women around the world who also loved Gearheardt?) She had the completely unrealistic notion that Gearheardt "protected" me as my best friend. But I knew that she would be thrilled. When I left home after a visit, departing to the hell-spots the Marines sent me, she would say, "I just hope that Gearheardt will protect you. Bless his soul."
He had last been seen, or so I thought, in the middle of a pile of flaming helicopter in the Laotian jungle near the Mu Gia pass. His Air America mission had been to pick up a group of Chinese mercenaries, Nungs, who had been causing mischief on our behalf along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Letting down into the zone, Gearheardt had taken a dead-on burst from a .50 caliber and cartwheeled in flames. The Nungs on the ground radioed there were no survivors. Three days later I held his memorial in the White Rose, our favorite Vientiane nightclub, slept with his girlfriend to comfort us both, and, not long after, left Southeast Asia. That was 1969. Now it was 1973 and the dead man was sitting in front of me. My best friend alive and all in one piece. "You survived that fireball without a scratch?"
"Actually if you look close, these aren't my ears. I'll tell you about that later. I'm thirsty, Jack. Let's hit a cantina."
Gearheardt left the embassy the way he left most places when I had known him before: as if the entire staff was already mourning his departure. He spoke to all of the secretaries and the people who appeared from their offices--although he couldn't have known any of them.
Gearheardt had been presumed dead for years. After I left Asia, I had hounded the CIA to let me join the Agency, partly, in someway, to continue working with his memory. They had only reluctantly let me join their ranks. (The "cover" that Air America was an independent airline might have been breached if I left it and immediately showed up as an agent, they thought.) After brief training and a rapid language course, I ended up in Mexico.
The Marine at the front desk jumped to attention as we approached the exit.
"Sign Mr. Armstrong and me out, Corporal," Gearheardt said, brightly. "And tell Gunnery Sergeant Wolfe I'll take him up on his offer next time." He winked at the grinning Marine and strode out into the afternoon Mexican sunlight.
I caught up with him after checking to see that the Marine actually signed the two of us out. Gearheardt's name was not on the log. Only a Pepe Woozley had signed in for admission to my floor.
"Gearheardt," I said, "you just got here this afternoon. What's all this with the gunny? And who in the hell is Woozley?"
"The guy I thought I was when I was in Angola, Jack." He paused to let me exit the embassy gate before him. "You ask a lot of questions for a spook." He joined me and we began walking down the street. The passing Mexicans smiled at Gearheardt, who smiled back. They had always ignored me.
"Knock off the spook stuff, Gearheardt. I'm here as the embassy's economic development officer." I put my arm around his shoulders as we walked down the crowded avenue. I was so damn glad to see him. "You are one rotten bastard, you know," I said to him. "I had no idea you were alive."
Gearheardt laughed. "When the Company disappears you, Jack, no one is supposed to know you're alive. I've had to convince my mother I was writing her from beyond the grave. She was easier to fool than the IRS, by the way. But that's the price we pay for eternal virginitis, Jack. We're spooks for our country."
"What the hell is virginitis, Gearheardt?" I asked before I remembered he always threw in nonsense words to take your mind off the fact that the rest of his explanation made no sense. It hadworked on me again. But I didn't care. I was glad to see him. We had almost stopped the Vietnam War together and you get close to a guy when that kind of pressure is on you. We would have stopped the Vietnam War too, except we'd had no idea of what we were doing.
We turned into a cantina. A small, bright, and cool place where I knew the proprietor was discreet (since he was on my payroll) and the beer and tortillas were cold and hot. Gearheardt headed to the back to use the cuarto de baño, and I ordered beer for us both. I was almost schoolgirlishly excited at seeing my old friend. My sidekick through the thick and thin of the Vietnam War and Air America in Laos. Although there was a part of me shouting Alert! Alert! Gearheardt in the area! since I had never been with him more than five minutes that he didn't get us both in scalding water.
"Vayan con perros, señoritas," Gearheardt was saying to the two young Mexican women he had managed to meet and get to know in the ten yards between the restroom and our table. He plopped down in the seat opposite me, raised his beer glass in a salute, and drained it. "Dos más, por favor," he yelled to the bartender. Then he leaned toward me and lowered his voice.
"I need your help, Jack. I'm taking over Mexico."
My heart sank. I knew the grinning bastard was dead serious.