The fallen leaves were rattling and hissing along the sidewalk, pushed along by a chill autumn wind, as I walked the two blocks to Lafayette Park in Washington. I looked for the bench nearest the statue of Polish-American hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko, as per instruction, and sat down. On the other end of the bench sat a man wearing an overcoat two-sizes too large, a Cincinnati Reds baseball cap, dark glasses and a beard that looked like the coiffed tail of a circus pony. I lit a cigarette, inhaled a lungful of smoke, and exhaled it in a long-suffering sigh. “Ok, Wronwright”, I said. “What’s this all about?”
“Shhh! Don’t use my real name, Paco! Use my code name – Rover One.”
“Rover?”, I shouted in astonished amusement.
I heard the galumphing footsteps, but didn’t pay attention to them until I found myself suddenly pinned to the bench by a pair of muddy paws, a cold nose in my ear and my lap full of Irish setter, all good will and wagging tail. An elderly woman in a sweat-suit came shuffling up.
“Oh, I’m so sorry! Get down off the nice gentleman, Rover! There’s a good boy!” Her head swiveled about in a puzzled way. “Somebody called out his name, and he just broke away from me.”
“That’s all right”, I said, patting the head of what was surely the last dog in America named Rover, and glaring at Wronwright. He wasn’t laughing out loud, but I could definitely see his fake beard quaking. The lady toddled off dragging her dog with her, and I brushed the dirt off of my camel hair coat. “Ok, Rover” (I whispered it this time). “Why am I sitting here in the park on a cold day next to a guy who looks like a frequenter of soup kitchens?”
“It’s a disguise, Paco. With Obama winning the presidency, I’ve got to be careful. I worked for Karl Rove, you know, and some of the Democrats are talking about show trials.”
I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but I just couldn’t imagine that Wronwright’s mug would be showing up on the walls of post offices anytime soon. “Look, er, Rover One. Somehow I think the Democrats are going to have better things to do than put the arm on a man who may have innocently waxed a few black helicopters. What makes you think Rove’s people are in any danger?”
Wronwright uttered a mournful whistle.
“What was that supposed to be?”, I asked.
“A signal. That was a cardinal.”
“Are you sure? It sounded more like a mourning dove with tonsillitis.”
“It was a cardinal. Ah!”
Wronwright was staring with peculiar interest at a pudgy park employee in a green jumpsuit who had been picking up trash by means of a long stick with a spike on the end of it and stuffing it in a canvas sack; he nonchalantly made his way over to us. The walrus moustache he was wearing couldn’t conceal his almost cherubic face. It was Karl Rove, himself.
“Pardon me, sir”, he said, as he speared a piece of paper near Wronwright’s feet. He dropped his voice to a near-whisper. “Rover One, I distinctly remember telling you that the signal was supposed to be the chirping of a cardinal. Don’t you know the difference between a cardinal and a goldfinch?”
“Personally, I thought it sounded more like a mourning dove,” I opined. “But not a very healthy one.”
Rove glanced around, and then leaned on his stick. “Detective Paco, it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance; although I could have wished that this introduction might have taken place in more pleasant and” – he cast a look at Wronwright – “less absurd circumstances. But to come rapidly to the point; has Rover One filled you in on our situation?”
“He says that you and your agents may be in some danger from an anti-Bush backlash.”
“Correct, unfortunately. We haven’t broken any laws, but the prosecutorial zealotry of a highly partisan Democratic administration isn’t likely to let a little thing like justice get in the way of scoring political points.”
“I see. So what you need to do is drop off the radar for a while, maybe do something to get some leverage.”
This news dovetailed nicely with a job I had just taken on. I was going to need somebody who could cut through a nasty tangle of international red tape, and Rove struck me as a fellow who wielded a mean pair of scissors.
“I tell you what, boys. Meet me in my office in an hour – Wronwright knows the way – and we’ll talk this over. I’ve got something cooking that might benefit all of us.”
* * *