Victoria: Chapter 35

In the fine fashion of Agatha Christie mysteries and the old Orient Express, I was traveling incognito. When George the Pullman porter asked my name, I gave it as Mr. McWhorter. I was dressed in the uniform of the New South – expensive suit worn over a shirt with open collar – and I trusted to a Panama hat pulled low and Italian sunglasses to make a sufficient disguise. So long as I didn’t slip into State o’ Maine speech, I figured I was safe enough.

The train was fast but the Southerns’ track was smooth, and I got a good night’s sleep as Mr. Pullman’s guest. George woke me at 7 o’clock on the 25th of March in time to shave and dress, and we arrived in Atlanta’s Peachtree Street station on the advertised at 8 AM.

The only way to see a city is to walk it. I traveled light, with one shoulder bag, so I could do just that. Coming out of the station, I took a right on Peachtree Street toward downtown.

Immediately I got a powerful sense of deja vu all over again. I’d been here before, in the Corps, in places like Lagos, Mombasa, and Maputo, and later in Washington, Baltimore, and other American cities. Atlanta reeked of disorder and decay.

It wasn’t just the garbage piled high on the street corners, uncollected, or the trash littering the potholed streets. It was the smell of fear. Even in the morning, when the worst elements were usually asleep, my nose wrinkled with it. All the windows and doors were barred, including upper stories. The better establishments had armed guards out front. The lesser made do with “Beware Of The Dog” signs. The few pedestrians scuttled furtively, like people in a kitchen full of cockroaches.

I picked up the day’s Atlanta Constitution – now a double entendre, since Atlanta’s New South government had its own constitution – and dove into a diner to get some breakfast. The few other patrons looked up briefly without any expression as I sat down at the counter. The young black counter-man turned to take my order, and on his face was written “the attitude,” that cultivated stare of defiance and menace I hadn’t seen up north since CORN solved our black problem, and that had also vanished from Old South Richmond. He took my order for a three-egg omelet with ham and sausage without saying a word, then barked it to the cook at the grill.

As I waited for my chow, I unfolded the paper to find an unpleasant reminder of the bad old days. Murder and mayhem, rapes and riots filled the front page. Even with the New South Congress in session in the city, the political news took second place to crime. That reflected reality. When order is lost, the important news is all local.

My breakfast, when it came, was good. Atlanta was still Southern, in its way. I was through the sausage and starting on the ham when I heard pop, pop, pop, from somewhere out in front, mixed with the harsh staccato of an AK on full automatic. The waiter and cook dove behind the counter and the rest of the breakfasters ran toward the back. I grabbed the Walther .380 I carried in a shoulder holster, bent low, and made for the front door. I waited a few seconds – all quiet – then opened the door carefully a few inches, just enough to be able to look up and down the street.

About 100 feet away, south toward the downtown, a police cruiser stood, its windows shot out and one door, toward the sidewalk, hanging open. I could see a cop stretched out beside it, on the sidewalk. His Glock was in his hand. He wasn’t moving.

“Call 911,” I shouted back into the diner. “I think a cop’s been shot. I’m going to check it out.”

From behind the counter, the counter-man replied, “Fuck the cops and fuck you too, motherfucker. I ain’t callin’ nobody.”

Boy, you just lost your tip, I thought.

I crouched and ran, keeping behind the parked cars, toward the cop. People in shops closer to the scene must have seen him, but nobody came to help. I figured whoever had done the drive-by was long gone, but you never know. I kept checking six, a useful lesson from Marine aviators, but in this case six stayed clear.

As I got in closer, I saw a pool of blood around the officer’s head, not a good sign. Dropping down beside him, I checked for heartbeat and breath. He had both. He had a nasty gash on his right temple, but I quickly saw it wasn’t deep. He’d been winged and knocked unconscious, but unless there was something I couldn’t see, he’d live to collect his retirement.

I pressed my handkerchief into the wound, held it in place with the cop’s cap, and leaned into his vehicle to see if the radio was still working. It was. I pressed talk and gave the signal every cop regards as sacred, and dreads: “Officer down, officer down!” The dispatcher came on immediately. Glancing at the street numbers,
I gave him an address. I knew other cops and an ambulance would be there fast.

Returning to the downed cop – a good-looking kid, white, Kearney according to his name badge – I held the bandage tightly to stop the blood flow. As I did so, I looked up the street to see one of the other patrons leaving the scene of my breakfast, carrying my bag. A white guy, too. I yelled, but he just ran the other way. Blood is thicker than baggage, I thought. No way could I leave the cop. Thanks, New South. I’ll get even, some day.

Kearney started to come to. His mind was still where it had been when he fell, and he started to move. I held him down. “It’s OK, kid. You’re covered. Help’s on the way,” I told him. But he was going into shock.

Even where everything else has fallen apart, cops still take care of each other. A cruiser smoked by in less than a minute, slammed on the brakes, and backed up on the sidewalk. Just one guy was in it – another dumb practice in the jungle. He saw the Walther in my right hand, reached toward his own weapon, then realized I was helping his buddy and cooled it. “Better get that out of sight,” he said to me as he ran up. “It’s illegal here for a private citizen to carry a weapon.”

“Did the city council bother to tell that to the guys with the AK?” I asked.

“Fucking politicians,” he replied as he moved quickly to check his buddy over. “I hate all of them.”

He found no other wounds. As usual, the drive-by boys couldn’t shoot, they just sprayed.

The new cop guided in a couple other cruisers, a motor and, somewhat later than I expected, an ambulance. The cops didn’t say anything to the EMT guys, seeing as they needed them, but their body language told me they weren’t happy.

We saw Kearney lifted into the ambulance, and the motor and one cruiser gave it an escort to the nearest hospital. The remaining cops asked me a few questions, and I told them what I’d seen, which wasn’t much. “Are open attacks on police something regular down here?” I asked a sergeant.

“Every day,” he replied. “In case you didn’t know it, you’re in a war zone. And it’s gonna get worse, fast.”

“You think so?” I replied as casually as I could. The best way to find out what’s going on in a place is from the cops. The problem is getting them to talk to you, if they don’t know you.

“I know so,” he replied. “Look, we owe you one. You came to the aid of an officer who was down. I can tell you’re not from around here, because none of the SOBs in this lousy town will lift a finger to help a cop. I’m afraid Kearney bled all over that nice, expensive suit. Why don’t you ride with me down to the station and get cleaned up?”

“Thanks,” I replied. “I’ll enjoy being safe for a little while.”

“You think so?” the cop, a Sergeant Randall, replied. “They’ve mortared our station twice in the last month.”

***

The police station was walled off for a full block around the actual building with Concertina wire, street barricades, and blockhouses in which I saw machine guns mounted. “Welcome to Fort Zinderneuf,” Randall said as we drove in. “Isn’t the New South gracious?”

The word had spread that Randall was bringing in a citizen who’d helped a cop in trouble, so I was met with friendly smiles and strong handshakes from all the other cops. Nobody said anything about the Walther. Randall showed me to the shower room, where I cleaned up while another cop did some quick work on my jacket. “Cold water will take the blood out if you get it before it dries,” he told me. Somehow, it felt good being back among men who knew that sort of thing.

After I’d scrubbed up and the suit coat was hung to dry – my shirt was a lost cause but a cop my size gave me one of his – Randall stuck his head back in. “Can I invite you upstairs for a cup of coffee? There are a few other folks here who’d like to thank you for what you did.”

“Sure,” I answered. “But no thanks are needed. You guys are out there for us all the time. I’m happy to have a chance to return the favor. How’s Kearney?”

“The hospital says there’s no damage beyond what you saw,” Randall replied. “A transfusion, some IVs, and a couple days in bed and he’ll be OK. Thanks for asking.”

Upstairs was officer country, as I could see by the “I love me” pictures as we walked down the second floor hallway. Sergeant Randall led me into the office of the police captain who ran the station house. There, about a dozen cops were gathered.

Again, it was smiles and handshakes all around, along with good southern coffee. The captain gave a little speech formally offering his gratitude and that of his men. At the end of it he said, “I’ve got a small present for you,” and handed me an official looking piece of paper. It was a permit to carry a sidearm. “You may find that useful, Captain Rumford.”

I jumped. At least I did inside. I immediately hoped it hadn’t showed. I realized denial would just make me look foolish. “It’s nice to be addressed by my real rank again,” I replied with what was intended to sound like nonchalance. “I think you have to be German to carry out this Field Marshal business. I feel like I’m playing in The Student Prince at Heidelberg.”

The cops smiled, though in Dixie I doubt many got the reference. “Don’t worry, sir, you’re safe with us,” the police captain replied. “You would have been even without your help to Kearney. We know what you all have done up north, and we only wish we could do the same down here.”

I’d learned long ago that liberal cops are very, very rare. Cops see too much of life to believe in bullshit.

“But now we do owe you for Kearney, too,” he continued. “So our question to you is, how can we help you do whatever you came here to do?”

“I came here to find out what’s going on in the capital of the so-called New South,” I replied. “The best way you can help me is to tell me.”

“You’ve already gotten a good taste of it,” one patrolman replied.

“I have,” I answered. “But on my own, I can only see what’s on the surface. What I need to know is what’s going on that I can’t see. The situation here can’t endure. Human nature can’t tolerate disorder indefinitely. Which way is it going to turn, restoration of order, or chaos?”

My question met with uneasy silence. The cops looked at each other, looked at me, then looked at each other again. They were pregnant with something. Could I get it to drop?

Finally, the station chief said, “I’m going to give you an honest answer. We owe you that, and one thing more besides.”

“For more than a year, we’ve been tracking a conspiracy here in Atlanta. We’ve told the mayor, the city council, even the New South government, but they won’t listen. They just call us ‘racists’ and tell us to go away.”

“The conspiracy involves the gang leaders, some local politicians, some members of Congress, all black. To put it simply, they plan to take over the city, kill all the whites and Asians, and proclaim something they call ‘The Commune.’”

“When?” I asked.

“We don’t know that,” the police captain replied. “But the pieces all seem to be pretty much in place. My guess is the only reason they’re still waiting is that the Congress is importing more arms for them. The gangs are now formally part of the ‘New South Army,’ which should tell you what that army is worth.”

“What are you going to do when it happens?”

“Run,” one officer replied.

The captain nodded. “We’ve all gotten our families out of this place long ago, into the Old South, the countryside. We’ve only stayed because we need the paychecks. We don’t owe the SOBs who run this town, white or black, the time of day. When the place blows, we hope it takes them with it. We’re getting out.”

A picture was forming in my mind. The Commune. The Paris Commune in 1871. If Atlanta became the Paris Commune, the whole South would have to unite against it – and act, just as the French had to do then. From my standpoint, the sooner it happened, the better.

“Are you willing to set this bomb off?” I asked.

The cops looked startled. That was not a response they expected. “Why should we do that?” one cop asked.

“Because it will finally force the True Confederate government in Richmond to act,” I replied. “As you’ve probably noticed, they aren’t the most decisive sorts. This would leave them no choice.”

Again, the cops looked at each other. One spoke up, “Why not? We know it’s coming. If we set it off, we can be sure we’ll get out.”

“How could we set it off?” the police captain asked.

“Am I right that you’ve been recording this meeting?” I said.

The officers looked a bit sheepish. “You’re right,” the captain answered. “We record everything. We have for years. It’s the only way to cover our own asses. If the wrong people found out about this, we could always say we were just setting you up.”

“Okay, here’s how you light the fuse,” I told them. “Make a dozen copies of the tape, get one to each of the chief conspirators, then get out of town. Once they know I’ve been here, and that I know their plan, they’ll set their coup in motion. They’ll have to, because they’ll think I’ll move to stop them. Delete the portions of the tape after my question, ‘What are you going to do?’ so they won’t know what you’re planning either.”

I knew the cops would need to palaver on this one. I’d made their day somewhat more interesting than they had anticipated. I was asking them to play for high stakes, and to take risks, which cops don’t like. At the same time, I was giving them a chance to get back at politicians they hated and a citizenry that looked on them with indifference if not contempt. Which would win out, fear or rage? I gave them some time to think about it by asking directions to the head.

When I returned from an extended head call, the cops had made their decision. “We’ll do it,” the captain announced. “We know what’s coming and we sure can’t stop it. Plus, we know your war record up north. If you think this is the right thing to do, we probably ought to listen to you. We’ll time it so they get the tapes day after tomorrow, March 27th. That will give us a day to get clear.”

“And we still owe you something. We need to get you out of town, too. If the New South government or the conspirators nab you, you’ll have seen your last New England autumn.”

“Can you get me to Savannah?” I asked.

“Sure,” he replied. “We’ll just dress you up in one of our uniforms and have you ride with one of our men. Nobody stops a cop car, and if they do, no one looks at a cop’s face. They just see the uniform.”

So the bomb was armed. I spent the night in the station house. The next day, March 26, in the uniform of Atlanta’s finest, I left town in a plain brown wrapper, driven by a patrolman whose family was in Savannah, a secure bastion of the Old South. At the outskirts, I turned around in my seat for a last look at the Atlanta skyline. “Kind of makes you wish old Sherman could come back, doesn’t it?” the officer who was driving me asked.

I thought about Kearney left bleeding on the sidewalk and my stolen travel bag. “Ayuh, it kinda does,” I replied.

***

The Atlanta cop drove me directly to the 3rd Texas Rangers’ base camp, where our uniforms and his ID got us through the gate. Still Southern security, I thought. He dropped me at the CP, where I quickly found Captain Armbruster and Sergeant Danielov. Armbruster wasn’t quite sure how to react to my latest avatar as an Atlanta cop. Dano just grinned. “Looks like you’ve been doing some spec ops on your own,” was his comment.

“Ayuh, you could say that,” I replied in good Maine fashion.

“You bring the rest of my trash down with you?”

“Got it all,” Ron replied. “Though I’m afraid your uniform might need ironing.” He’d obviously gotten the word from Captain Ravenal.

“We can take care of that, sir,” Captain Armbruster volunteered.

Dano and I looked at each other and broke up laughing. No one up north ever thought of ironing a uniform. We seldom thought of washing them. We were wary of the Sukomlinov Effect: the side with the best uniforms always loses.

“Don’t sweat it, Captain,” I replied. “I assume Southern regulations forbid a Field Marshal’s uniform to wrinkle itself.”

The battalion commander, Col. McMoster, was out leading some training, but he would be back around dinner time. I suggested we meet in the mess, then retire to someplace quiet where we could talk. I told Armbruster we had some sensitive material to discuss, and left it up to him who should be there. Meanwhile, I could shower up and change into something more comforting.

Dinner in the mess was steak, barbecued pork South Carolina style, or both. Dano and I both took both. It would be some time yet before we had our guts and our arterial deposits back up to normal.

Col. Bill McMoster, CO of the 3rd Texas Rangers, joined us halfway through chow. He knew I had arrived, and I was glad to see he’d put training above hospitality. His utilities were muddy and he stank, which were also good signs. His conversation over dinner was direct, honest and self-critical.

We gathered afterwards in his office, which was paneled with books, most of them military histories. Their condition suggested somebody had read them in the field. Cigars and bourbon quickly went around. It was funny to think back on the old U.S. military, with its “no smoking, no drinking” rules. If your armed services have become a girls’ school, you probably need rules like that.

I shared with the assembled Texas officers and NCOs the story of my minor adventures in Atlanta. The point, as I saw it, was that all we had to do was wait. When Atlanta erupted and the blacks proclaimed The Commune, the Confederate government would have to act. “I guess I should probably head back to Richmond tomorrow,” I concluded. “They shouldn’t need any advice as to what to do, but from what I saw there, they might.”

Colonel McMoster sipped his bourbon for a bit, then responded. “I’m afraid you still don’t understand the depth of the problem in Richmond,” he said. “You weren’t there during a crisis. I was. They didn’t act when New Orleans burned, and they won’t act when Atlanta goes up either. With the people they’ve got in charge, they can’t. All they know how to do is nothing, so nothing is what they will do.”

“That leaves me with a question for you,” McMoster continued. “If the blacks proclaim this ‘Commune’ and Richmond doesn’t respond, what do we do then?”

The Colonel’s question hit me in the face like a cold, dead flounder. I didn’t have an answer. I immediately realized I had just played the game of High Seas Fleet.

Prior to World War I, Germany had built a powerful force of battleships, the High Seas Fleet. Britain’s Royal Navy was stronger, but the Germans were certain that, when war came, the British would steam up close to the German coast to blockade it. There, mines, submarines, and torpedo boats could whittle them down until the German battleships could engage them on equal terms. In May of 1914, Admiral Tirpitz asked the High Seas Fleet’s commander, “What will you do if they do not come?” He received no answer. When war erupted three months later, the British dreadnoughts stayed far away from Germany’s home waters, supporting a distant blockade, and the German High Seas Fleet proved useless.

With my stomach in free-fall, I looked at Colonel McMoster and the other Confederate officers and gave the only answer I could. “I don’t know,” I said.

I could feel the room deflate. Here I was, their best and brightest hope, “the new Moltke,” caught with his pants down like some second lieutenant in his first tactical decision game. Nobody said anything, but I knew what they were thinking. They were right. I hadn’t thought the situation through to the end.

The one advantage experience gave me over a second lieutenant was that in a moment like this, my mind didn’t freeze up. I asked myself the question, “If I were back up north and found myself in a fix like this, what would I do?” Immediately, I knew the answer.

“Can you get me a secure communication link with our Governor Kraft, back up in Augusta, Maine?” I asked the Rangers.

“Yes, sir,” their commo replied. “We have secure comm with the military attaché in our embassy there. He can patch you through.”

“OK, set it up,” I said. I gave the commo the governor’s private number. “Gentlemen, I’m afraid my guilty secret is out. I’m not really a Field Marshal. But I know someone who is. God willing, he’ll have the answer I don’t.”

It took about 20 minutes to put the call through. I took it privately in the XO’s office. After a fair amount of crackling and hissing in the phone line – Confederate Bell, I thought – I heard Bill Kraft’s welcome voice come on. “Is this the vaunted Southern Field Marshal on my phone?” he asked.

“No, sir,” I replied. “This is one very junior captain calling to say he’s screwed the pooch and needs some help.”

“Well, well, the prodigal returns,” Kraft chuckled. Luckily I’d caught him in a good mood. “Fear not, we shall kill the fatted calf. What can I do for you?”

I explained the situation to the governor. “We have an embassy in Richmond, as you know,” he said. “Their estimation of the Confederate government tallies with that of your colonel there. I suspect he’s correct that when Atlanta erupts, they still won’t act.”

“So what do I do then?” I asked.

Kraft was silent for about thirty seconds. The way his mind worked – instantly or not at all – that was a long time. I was relieved when his voice came back up on the net. “Act for them,” he said. “Act in their name. Present them with a fait accompli, an action so bold they have to repudiate it or take credit for it. If it works, they’ll take the credit.”

“You have any thoughts on what that action might be?” I asked.

“It has to resolve the situation in Atlanta,” Kraft replied.

“How do I do that with one Ranger battalion?” I inquired. “They’ll go into Atlanta if I ask them to, and they’ll go down in a blaze of glory, but against a whole city, they’ll still go down.”

“You’ve got to use them to generate other forces,” Bill said. “Exactly how to do that I can’t say from up here. You’re the one at the front, so you’ll have to answer that question for yourself.”

I thanked the governor for his advice, which did help put the puzzle together. But the key piece was still missing.

I hung up the phone and turned to go back into McMoster’s office, where the Rangers were still waiting for a brilliant solution. Sergeant Danielov was standing in the doorway. “I took the liberty of listening in on the phone in the S-3’s office,” he said. “I’ve got an idea that might do the trick.”

“What is it?” I asked, hoping I’d been right that if I got myself into trouble, a sergeant would get me out of it.

“Why don’t we ask the Rangers to steal us a nuke?” favicon