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Castro, Kennedy, Khrushchev: The Center of Nuclear Brinksmanship

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"That's it! I can't wait any longer. Marsha, tell Morris to run the presses."

"Oh, Mr. MacMannus, are you sure? You know Mr. Block always comes through with the scoop." His secretary's voice oozed skepticism, suggesting his decision was a mistake.

"No, Marsha, this time he's gone too far." Peter MacMannus squared his shoulders and took a deep breath. "The inside story of missiles in Cuba will just have to wait until next month." His analyst had told Peter to trust his decisions, not to let doubt paralyze him. "The readers of KNOW Magazine will have to be satisfied with the profile of Watson and Crick, now that they've won the Nobel for medicine. DNA. It's the stuff of life, not that Catch will have one when he gets back here," Peter muttered. Marsha smiled from her position in front of Peter's desk.

The society page of the New York paper rustled in his hands, shivering with delight while reporting that, "KNOW Magazine's star reporter Catcher Block--ladies man, man's man, and man about town--was spotted late into Tuesday night at Près de Lune, the four-star Georgetown eatery, with a Swiss heiress at his side to warm the uncharacteristically cool evening."

The secretary still peered over the top of his paper, waiting Peter's final word. "Have Morris go to press," Peter ordered. Marsha sped off as Peter tried to figure out a way to handle his star reporter. Maybe if Peter could get Catch a competent secretary to ride herd on him and keep him on deadline, these problems would disappear. Catcher went through secretaries like Kleenex; the list in personnel was legion, and the head of the steno pool had long ago run out of qualified candidates. If only he'd stop sleeping with them, one might work out, Peter thought.

Peter swung his chair around and looked out at New York City decorated for Halloween. The billboard outside his window reminded shoppers that Hershey's miniatures were the best chocolate for little ones. Trick-or-treaters would be wandering the halls of his apartment building tonight, demanding candy in tribute, and he'd better have the Hershey's to placate them. Last year's fiasco with the little heathens didn't bear thinking about. Why must these problems plague him? An AWOL Catch, Halloween candy to procure, the November issue of KNOW to publish, the world on the brink of nuclear war--it was too much for a man with eighteen diagnosed neuroses to deal with.

The obelisk and globe on his credenza were crooked again. He'd told the cleaning people they should be on a straight line, but they never listened. Peter reached out to nudge the obelisk back a half-inch.

This time last week, Peter had been making plans to retreat to his family's ski cabin in Vermont, hoping the nuclear fallout wouldn't reach that far. And now Khrushchev had agreed to take the missiles out of Cuba, but Catch, sent to get the inside scoop, had missed his deadline. Again.

This time, Peter told himself, I will make a stand. I will not let Catch finesse me into forgiving him. If only he weren't such a good reporter!

A scuffle in the outer office caught his ears, and Peter spun his chair around to find Marsha attempting to block the door. Her arms were held by a tuxedo-clad Catcher Block as she protested, "Mr. Block! Mr. MacMannus ordered the presses to run! And run they will!"

"No they won't, Marsha. Not until Peter hears my story!" Catch shot Peter a dazzling grin, obviously expecting to be showered with praise for yet another amazing scoop.

* * *

Firm. Resolute. Peter chanted his watchwords as Catcher stepped around his secretary. "You're fired." Peter stood up to emphasize his authority.

"No I'm not," Catch shot back, stalking toward Peter's desk. Catcher had never respected Peter's authority.

"Yes, you are," Peter repeated in his most unyielding voice. He'd been practicing resolve every week with his analyst. Marsha, still hovering in the doorway, looked impressed.

"Not after you read my story." Catch held up a sheaf of papers, wiggling them to whet Peter's curiosity.

Damn the man, Peter thought, then suggested aloud, "Morris might as well wait another half hour, Marsha. Will you bring us some Sanka?"

"Sanka?" Catch's disdain was palpable.

"I can't sleep if I drink coffee this late in the day." Control the whine, Peter reminded himself.

"Who needs sleep when the world is on the edge of destruction?" Catcher flung his hands in the air, paper rustling.

"Yes, your party in Georgetown last night would seem to indicate that sleep, along with your job, was low on your list of priorities."

Catcher placed his article on Peter's conference table. "Mac, you know me better!" He disappeared into Peter's bathroom, and the sound of running water muffled his voice. Catch never took these things seriously.

Peter stood up and sidled closer to the open bathroom door. His fingers itched to grab the article and start reading, but he had to know what Catch had been doing in that restaurant. "What was that, Catch?"

"It was research, Mac," Catch emerged rubbing his face with a hand towel. He lowered the now-damp towel, slinging it around the back of his neck. His unbuttoned sleeves were rolled up to his elbows, and his hands moved as he talked. "Do you remember that Swiss Miss I told you about after the Vienna summit?"

"Heidi?" Peter could hear his voice rise. Control the squeak, he told himself. "The one who yodeled?" Peter backed toward the conference table as Catcher advanced.

"Yes, Heidi von Haffner. All-aah-ley-ee-oo," hands cupped to his mouth. "She's moved to Washington with her father; he's assisting Ambassador Zehnder, you know. Her sister, Brigitta, became friendly with Comrade Nikita during the summit, and he invited her to visit his dacha on the Black Sea." Catch's eyebrows wiggled to indicate the type of visiting that was going on. "She was there during recent events, and very happy to tell her sister all about it. Heidi to Brigitta to Chairman Khrushchev--who was quite chatty when he had Brigitta whispering sweet nothings into his ear."

"My God, Catch!" Peter's heart seized at the thought of the journalistic accolades they would receive. His right fist pressed against his chest, reminding him to inhale. His left hand clutched the conference table for support.

"Not to mention my little senorita Inez in Havana, who's such good friends with Comandante Castro." The burr fairly purred through Catch's lips.

Disbelief overwhelmed Peter. He dropped into the chair at the head of the table. Catch had done it again: come through with the story at the last minute. Visions of a Pulitzer Prize danced before his eyes--what was a missed deadline to that? "What did Inez tell you? Cronkite and Brinkley wouldn't even speculate on how much influence Castro had over the Soviets!"

Catch sat down next to Peter and leaned in to confide, "Well, apparently, our friend Fidel was quite the little warmonger. He even told Nikita to fire the missiles at one point, although I couldn't get that quote on the record."

"And Fidel seemed so nice when we met him in 1959," Peter said with a plaintive nostalgia for Castro's tour of the U.S. "I thought for sure elections would be called within months."

"That was before he embraced communism, Mac. We have a lot to blame Che for. I miss Havana in the winter." Catch's eyes went misty. "The rum, the sun, the girls--there'll never be another place like it."

Peter remembered Catch's antics at the house in Havana well. "I loved that house. Dad would be so upset to know that the communists took it over for a boy's school. He spent so much time lazing by the pool and watching the local senoritas."

"Part of a noble American tradition, Mac. Speaking of which, I haven't told you all I learned about our own side." Marsha brought in coffee, making sure Peter took the cup prepared with two sugars and cream, just as he liked it.

"Mr. MacMannus," Marsha said.

"Not now, Marsha!" Peter wanted to hear about JFK and how the decision to quarantine Cuba had been made.

Catcher took a sip of Sanka and winced. He put the cup down on the table with the face of a man served sour milk.

"But Mr. MacMannus, Miss Hiller from Banner Publishing has called seven times! She's very insistent that she needs to speak with you."

"She'll have to wait until tomorrow." Peter waved his left hand toward the door. "Go. Go." After Marsha had left with a parting glare to ensure her displeasure registered, Peter turned to Catch, who had risen and was now gliding around the office with ill-concealed glee. "Well?"

"I talked to my contacts around DC, who were able to get me fifteen minutes with the President." Catcher closed his eyes in remembrance. "Now there was coffee! Served by the cutest little secretary I'd ever seen. I knew it was bad when the President didn't even glance at her." Catcher's eyes met Peter's and they both shared a moment of incredulity.

"Jack Kennedy didn't look at a girl? And she was pretty?" Peter's voice rose again, but he didn't care this time.

"I was surprised Jackie let her work there, to tell you the truth." Catch moved to slouch against the conference table, his hands describing an hourglass figure. "The President gave me a rundown of the 'decision making process,' all tarted up with those Harvard business school notions."

"McNamara was always mad for those things, from what my father said." The elder MacMannus had become acquainted with the Secretary of Defense when he worked at Ford Motor Company, always one of KNOW's top advertisers.

"Well, they're still boring. I culled it down to the essentials for the article: missiles spotted in Cuba, debate, blockade." Catcher gestured toward the papers on the table, and Peter's fingers started to itch with the desire to see the exposé.

Something nagged at Peter about the past two weeks, a question that had lurked since Kennedy's speech to the nation on October 22nd. He rose to pace around his office, trying to figure it out. "I can't imagine why the Politburo thought we would stand for missiles so close. Too much vodka, do you think?"

Catch drank more coffee. "Probably. I heard they were relying on information from that bartender at the National Press Club, but I couldn't get him to confirm it."

Peter's eyebrows attempted to leap out of his head. "The Russkies were talking to Johnny Prokov? That sot? My God, we're lucky Washington isn't a smoking glass crater." He started to feel dizzy. "I think I need to sit down." He sank into his couch.

Catcher looked at Peter with concern. "Doing all right, Mac? We're still here, the missiles are leaving Cuba, and I've got a hell of an exclusive. We should go out and celebrate!"

"Celebrate? Let me see your copy." Peter called out, "Marsha! Get a senior editor up here!" As Catcher delivered his typed article from its resting place on the conference table, Peter saw the Hershey's billboard again. "Oh damn, I've got to get candy before I go home."

"What?"

"Tonight's Halloween. The children come out and demand their worship." Peter couldn't repress a shudder.

"Well now we really have to celebrate. We'll close down the town, and you won't have to worry about the costumes scaring you this year." Catcher grinned down at Peter with the familiar sparkle in his eyes. "We might even be able to find you a girl to take home."

"Ha ha. Laugh at me all you like. We can't all have your talent with the ladies."

"Sure we can. And I know just the lady for you! Let me go and change, and we'll have a blast." Catch strode toward his office, where he kept a spare set of clothes. Peter watched him go, and looked down to read the article. It was titled "Castro, Kennedy, Khrushchev: The Center of Nuclear Brinksmanship." He remembered now why Catch was his best friend and ace reporter. He always came through in the end.

-end-