Last year, running late through the nation’s capital to give a talk at the Smithsonian entitled “IF MOTHS ARE ATTRACTED TO LIGHT WHY DON’T THEY COME OUT IN THE DAYTIME?” I tried to take a short cut between two anonymous granite facades, only to find myself in a blind alley. More haste, less speed, I reminded myself, and was about to retrace my steps when I noticed that the door in the wall barring my progress was a half-inch ajar, held thus by what turned out, on closer inspection, to be a carelessly-discarded pickle. FDM Authorized Personnel Only, said a plaque above the door, and under normal circumstances this would have stopped me in my tracks. But my usually reliable sense of direction told me that this might well be the back of the building where I was due to speak. What’s the worst that could happen? I reasoned, displacing the shriveled gourd with the toe of one brogue and easing my fingers ’twixt door and jamb. A reprimand from some overzealous official? In an uncharacteristic access of impulse I pulled the door open and stepped across the threshold. The door clicked emphatically shut behind me and I found myself walking down a long corridor. “Hello, there!” I called out over the squeaking of my shoes. But response came there none, so like the man on the whisky bottle, I kept walking, until I came to a stairwell and an elevator. I now had the option of going up or down, but not, alas, forward. “Is anybody here?” I shouted but, again, heard nothing but the echo of my own quavering baritone. So I took out my cell-phone, intending to call ahead to explain my predicament. I had only got as far as punching in the area code, however, when a voice behind me murmured, “You’re wasting your battery,” and I turned to find myself confronted by a dark-suited man in his mid-twenties.
“No signal,” he explained, gesturing towards the ceiling, “Security.” And then there was a pause which I suspect only good manners prevented him from curtailing with that untranslatable American monosyllable ‘Duh!’
“Ah. I see,” I said. “Thanks for telling me.”
And now his eyes widened in surprise.
“My God—you’re British!”
“Last time I looked,” I quipped.
“But what are you…? Why are you…?” He pointed to a plastic square on his lapel imprinted with his photograph and those same three letters ‘FDM’. “You don’t have one of these?”
“But how did you get in?”
“Somebody left the back door open. Not my usual M.O. I assure you, but I’m rather late for a lecture. Moths; diurnal absence, enigma of, theory pertaining to.”
“Dude, you are so in the wrong place.”
“Oh. Perhaps you could direct me towards the front door then?”
He probably would have looked more enthusiastic if I’d suggested we both jog naked to the Lincoln Memorial.
“Are you crazy? You can’t go anywhere near the lobby! It’s full of security. They’ll shoot you!”
“Why would they do that?”
“It’s their job!”
As sweeping statements go this struck me as being right up there with ‘Chim-chiminy, chim-chiminy, chim, chim, che-ree’, but before I could say so a soft ‘ping’ announced the approach of the elevator.
“Quick!” said my young companion, grasping the sleeve of my jacket, “in my office!” Again I was torn; on the one hand not much of what this fellow had said made sense, on the other hand he was wearing the tie of a very reputable university. I cannot think why else I would have followed him—as I did—down the staircase. Once inside his office he wasted no time locking the door and we then stood facing each other in breathless silence as three or four people marched briskly past. Then he perched on the front of his desk and frowned at me in a solicitous manner.
“You really have no idea where you are, do you?”
“Well I assume it’s not entirely unconnected with those letters on your badge. What exactly does ‘FDM’ stand for? No, let me guess; Firearms Discharged Murderously? Foreigners Dispatched with Machineguns?”
“Very funny,” he said, “But if they found out I’d helped you they might shoot me, too.”
So my first impression had been correct; the fellow really was an oboe short of an orchestra.
“Well, this really has been fun,” I said, marching across the parquet, “but I am running very late, so if you wouldn’t mind just—”
“Forget it. It’s almost lunchtime. Place’ll soon be crawling with people. Without one of these suckers on your coat you wouldn’t get ten feet—on your own, anyway. Then you’d never see England again.”
Barking, obviously. I moved towards the desk.
“Well in that case may I just use your—”
But his hand beat mine to the handset.
“They’re all bugged. My name’s Davis, by the way—Jackson Davis. Spelling.”
“Delighted to meet you, Mr. Spelling, but—”
“No—spelling’s not my name—it’s what I do.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Good. If we keep it that way you may get out of here. But you must do exactly as I say.”
He raised a hand to forestall further questioning and pressed an ear against the door. The movement caused his jacket to bow briefly open, and as it did I saw a strap running up from his waistband and glimpsed, in the shadow of his armpit, the gleam of dark metal. Satisfied that the coast was clear he beckoned me forward. But I stood my ground.
“What does a proof-reader need a gun for?” I asked. “Putting the dots on i’s?”
“I’ve never used it.”
“But how do I know that, Mr. Davis? How do I know you’re not just some homicidal maniac who runs around potting foreign nationals like owls?”
He appeared to give my hypothesis serious consideration for a few moments, but when he spoke again there was something in his eye which I hope the scientific community will forgive me for identifying as a twinkle.
“You overestimate my importance around here. You seem to be confusing me with one or two very senior members of the present administration.”
And that settled the matter.
“Alec Robinson, Cambridge, Entomology,” I said, extending a hand. “Lead the way,”
“Okay, this is your story,” intoned my young companion as we walked. “You work for Webster’s—the Dictionary people? They do a lot with us. And you’ve lost your voice.”
We had stopped at a set of double doors.
“Remember,” he went on, punching an access code into a keypad, “Say nothing.”
The doors swung back to reveal a brightly lit, open-plan space where twenty or thirty people sat frowning into computer screens. There were no windows, but along one side of the room was a series of large, gilt-framed portraits of varying antiquity. One of the subjects—a bespectacled, snowy-haired fellow in an old-fashioned, southern-style white suit—I recognized immediately as the founder of the world’s most successful deep-fried chicken franchise. I was wondering which branch of government would wish to honor the memory of a man who had caused so much misery when a smartly-dressed young woman rose from her desk to intercept us.
“Jackson!” she said in a voice like Waterford crystal. “How nice of you to drop by. To what—or should I say, to whom—do we owe the pleasure?”
“Hello, Clara. This is Mr. Parker. Mr. Parker just joined the team at Webster’s. This is Clara Armstrong, Mr. Parker—one of our most brilliant minds.”
“With us for long, Mr. Parker?”
I simpered apologetically.
“I’m afraid Mr. Parker has laryngitis, Clara.”
“What a small world—that’s what I’m struggling with today, too!”
I looked at her with an expression that said you’re doing a remarkably good job of hiding it.
“Working through lunch again, Clara?” said Jackson.
“Yes—thanks to that presidential colonoscopy leak.”
“I thought something might come of that. What happened?”
“Some Brit reporter said it sounded like he was, quote, ‘looking up a former colleague’—as in ‘colon’ Powell? Powell didn’t give a rat’s ass, of course, but the veep went ballistic; started ranting about unacceptable provocation and a pre-emptive strike on the BBC’s Washington bureau. Next thing you know some staffer came over and made medical a priority. We have G through O in here, and I’m stuck on laryngitis. Can’t decide whether or not to make it an S.E.S.”
“That’s a Syllabic Emphasis Shift, Mr. Parker,” explained my chaperon. “Well, I’m sure you’ll make the right decision, Clara,” he went on, “But we’re on a tight schedule, so if you’ll excuse us. . . .”
She looked at me thoughtfully.
“Good bye, Mr. Parker—I do hope you feel better soon.”
I gave her valedictory nod before turning to follow Jackson. Just before we left the room I looked back at the portrait of the avuncular fellow in the white suit and realized—with some relief—that it was, in fact, Mark Twain.
“I think she bought the act,” muttered Jackson as we hurried along another anonymous corridor, “But I suggest we lay low until everyone else is back at their desks.”
He led me to a meeting room, and once inside it we dragged the table against the door.
“The portraits back there,” I said, panting slightly from my exertions, “who were they?”
“Distinguished FDM alumni, mostly. Also some writers who’ve supported the cause; Faulkner, Kerouac, Vonnegut. There’s another one right there,” he said, pointing to a sweet old lady smiling at us in sepia from the opposite wall. “Familiar with Eudora Welty, Alec?”
“Never heard of her.”
“One of the greatest enemies your country’s ever had.”
“Really? She reminds me of an aunt of mine. But what exactly is the cause she’s served so well?”
“You’d better sit down. I don’t think any Englishman has ever heard what I’m about to tell you.”
And on reflection, I think that sitting down was an excellent suggestion.