L.B.: Geheimkode

L.B.: Geheimkode May 2, 2008

Left Behind, pp. 431-435

Buck spent Saturday holed up in the otherwise empty Chicago bureau office, getting a head start on his article on the theory behind the disappearances. His mind continually swirled, forcing him to think about Carpathia and what he would say in that piece about how the man seemed to be a perfect parallel to biblical prophecy. Fortunately, he could wait on writing that until after the big day on Monday.

Reading Left Behind can be a bit like those picture-puzzles from Highlights magazine, the ones where you’re supposed to circle everything that’s wrong. Let’s try that with the paragraph above.

We’ll circle “otherwise empty,” since Global Weekly’s production schedule couldn’t possibly allow for everyone to have a 9-to-5, M-F work schedule. (I suppose many of them could have Saturdays off if GW goes to print on Fridays, but that can’t be the case since we know the executive editor just spent all of Friday hanging out with Bruce Barnes.) “Getting a head start” gets circled, since The Event is now 12 days past, and Buck’s what-happened? follow-up is already hopelessly late. Ditto for “he could wait on writing that.” Circling “continually” as unnecessary is probably nit-picking, though there’s definitely something off about a sentence in which our hero’s own mind forces him to think. I’d also circle “big day” as Buck’s chosen term for his meeting the following Monday rather than for the much bigger big day of two Mondays ago that he’s supposedly sitting there writing about.

I’m still probably missing something there, but I’ve covered the page with too much red crayon to find anything more.

It’s been an astonishing 14 pages since the last phone call, so you can guess what comes next:

Around lunchtime, Buck reached Steve Plank at the Plaza Hotel in New York.

The conversation that follows is a reprise of the previous phone call between these two (see “Super Powers“). This time, however, they switch to speaking in code halfway through.

First, though, they have to deal with the Hattie Question, and I’m actually going to try to defend this exchange as an almost plausible bit of dialogue:

“I’ll be there Monday morning,” he said, “but I’m not inviting Hattie Durham.”

“Why not? It’s a small request, friend-to-friend.”

“You to me?”

“Nick to you.”

Buck is in an awkward spot here. He can’t just tell Steve, “Look, I’ve changed my mind about helping those two get together because I just found out that he’s the spawn of Satan, evil incarnate, the great ten-horned beast of the apocalypse.” So instead he just gets snippy and starts acting like it offends his morals to allow two unmarried adults to spend time together with no one there to chaperone except the Security Council and the national press corps.

“So now it’s Nick, is it? Well, he and I are not close enough for that familiarity, and I don’t provide female companionship even to my friends.”

“Not even for me?”

This is good strategy on Steve’s part. If your friend becomes inexplicably indignant and starts using words like “familiarity” or “provide female companionship,” you could try to point out that no one has suggested anything unseemly or improper, or you could just try to defuse the situation with a joke. Buck’s response, however, is not encouraging:

“If I knew you would treat her with respect, Steve, I’d set you up with Hattie.”

That “if” there is an unsubtle dig at Steve, who thus reasonably loses his patience with his friend, saying:

“I’ll ask her myself, Buck, you prude.”

This reading is probably a bit of a stretch. We’re probably supposed to view Buck here as legitimately and righteously indignant rather than as flustered into semi-incoherence. The latter would make him more human and thus more appealing, but that’s not how the authors tend to think about their heroes.

Either way we read this Buck has managed to tick off his friend, so it takes a bit of chutzpah for him to segue right into asking for a favor. Buck wants another “exclusive” interview with Nicolae:

“You know I’m going to do the complete piece on the guy. He needs this.”

“If you watched TV yesterday, you know he doesn’t need anything. We need him.”

“Do we? Have you run into any schools of thought that link him to end-times events in the Bible?”

Steve Plank did not respond.

How could he respond? That question is almost a perfectly crafted conversation killer. It doesn’t allow for a reasonable response.

You can try this yourself sometime. On a train or airplane and don’t want to have to make conversation with a chatty seatmate? Just respond to whatever comment they make by asking, “Have you run into any schools of thought that link this to end-times events in the Bible?” Political campaigns are exempt from No-Call-List restrictions, but here is a useful tool for making sure they never phone again. I’d imagine this would also be effective for rebuffing unwanted attention at a bar. (The potential danger to this strategy being the remote but horrifying possibility that someone might respond, “Why, yes! Yes I have run into schools of thought that link this to end-times events in the Bible!” At which point you’d be doubly screwed.)

Steve’s silence here, however, is not the shocked and perplexed silence such a question would prompt in real life — not the semi-panicked pause of a sane person realizing they’re dealing with someone in the opposite category. Steve’s silence here instead is meant to be ominous and laden with meaning.


“I’m here.”

“Well, have you? Anybody that thinks he might fit the bill for one of the villains of the book of Revelation?”

Steve said nothing.

“Hello, Steve?”

“I’m still here.”

“C’mon, old buddy. You’re the press secretary. You know all. How’s he going to respond if I hit him with that?”

Steve was still silent.

This ominous silence is meant to indicate that Steve knows exactly what Buck is talking about and that he’s afraid to answer because Buck’s questions are too close to what he knows to be the truth.

So OK then, let’s consider how that could be possibly be true.

Buck has spent the better part of the last 72 hours getting a crash course in PMD prophecy theory from Rayford, Chloe and Bruce in turn. They’ve outlined this interpretation of the book of Revelation and explained to him what they believe it prophesies about a coming Antichrist. Steve hasn’t heard any of that, yet here he seems to know everything that Buck does about the end times, the Antichrist and the entire PMD checklist. Where did Steve learn all that?

There seem to be only one place he could have learned it: from Nicolae himself. I’m trying to imagine how that conversation could have gone …

NC: Welcome, Mr. Plank. Bienvenue. Bienvenido. Wilkomm …

SP: Just the English is fine here in the office, Mr. Secretary-General.

NC: Please, call me “Nick.” Now, your office is down the hall there on the left. Just ask Chaim if you need any supplies. Oh, and there is just one more thing you should know. I am the Antichrist.

SP: I’m sorry, the what?

NC: The Antichrist. The Beast? One of the villains of the book of Revelation? You have not heard of this?

SP: I … I … the book of …?

NC: Ah, I see you will have some catching up to do. Chaim? Please fetch some copies of Tim LaHaye’s non-fiction books for our new friend here.

Hmm. My imagined rendition of this conversation hardly seems plausible, but how else could it have gone?

Anyway, back in the novel itself Buck still can’t get an answer out of Steve so he tries a slightly different approach:

“Don’t do this to me, Steve. I’m not saying that’s where I am or that anybody who knows anything or who matters thinks that way. I’m doing the piece on what was behind the disappearances, and you know that takes me into all kinds of religious realms. Nobody anywhere has drawn any parallels here?”

Yes, that’s much more tactful. “I’m not saying” your boss is the Great Beast from the Abyss, I’m merely asking how he’d respond if somebody else were to suggest that he is.

This time when Steve said nothing, Buck merely looked at his watch, determined to wait him out. About 20 seconds after a loud silence, Steve spoke softly. “Buck, I have a two-word answer for you. Are you ready?”

“I’m ready.”

“Staten Island.”

“Are you tellin’ me that –?”

“Don’t say the name, Buck! You never know who’s listening.”

“So you’re threatening me with –“

“I’m not threatening. I’m warning. Let me say I’m cautioning you.”

This is followed by Buck reminding his friend of his reputation as a tough “bird dog” reporter who never backs down from threats or warnings. Steve doesn’t contradict him. Nor does he point out that the very example they’re discussing — reporter Eric Miller’s suspicious “suicide” leap off the Staten Island Ferry — is itself one of several stories Buck has helped to bury in just the past week due to his fearful response to threats and warnings.

Here again what is said about a character trumps that character’s actual behavior. Thus, for LaHaye & Jenkins, this song —

Brave Sir Robin ran away.
Bravely ran away away.
When danger reared it’s ugly head,
He bravely turned his tail and fled.
Yes, brave Sir Robin turned about
And gallantly he chickened out.
Bravely taking to his feet,
He beat a very brave retreat.
Bravest of the braaaave, Sir Robin!

— should be taken as proof that Brave Sir Robin was, in fact, quite courageous and gallant. This is primarily Very Bad Writing, but I have a theory that it’s somehow also related to Very Bad Theology — specifically to the author’s understanding of “faith” as wholly separate from, and irrelevant to, “works.”

The dialogue that follows is a delicious font of unintentional humor. Buck attempts to continue questioning Steve by eaking-spay in ode-cay.

Buck began scribbling furiously on a yellow pad. “Fair enough,” he said, writing, Carpathia or Stonagal resp. for Eric Miller? “What I want to know is this: If you think I should stay off the ferry, is it because of the guy behind the wheel, or because of the guy who supplies his fuel?”

“The latter,” Steve said without hesitation.

Buck circled Stonagal. “Then you don’t think the guy behind the wheel is even aware of what the fuel distributor does on his behalf.”


“But if he found out about it?”

“He’d deal with it.”

“That’s what I expect to see soon.”

“I can’t comment on that.”

It’s impossible for me to read that without picturing Buck making Dr. Evil air quotes with his fingers when he says things like “fuel distributor.” The best part, of course, is that they’re worried that Carpathia, Stonagal or Todd-Cothran might be listening in, so they adopt this convoluted way of talking that would only make sense to each other and to Carpathia, Stonagal and Todd-Cothran. Nothing they’re saying would be the least bit confusing to any of the people they’re trying to conceal their meaning from. This makes as much sense as it would have if the U.S. had replaced our Navajo code-talkers in World War II with people who spoke German.

But while nothing they’re saying would confuse the possibly eavesdropping conspirators, it does succeed in confusing Buck.

“Can you tell me who you really work for?”

“I work for who it appears to you I work for.”

What in the world did that mean? Carpathia or Stonagal? How could he get Steve to say on a phone from within the Plaza that might be bugged?

“You work for the Romanian businessman?”

“Of course.”

Buck nearly kicked himself. That could be either Carpathia or Stonagal. “You do?” he said, hoping for more.

So I pick up the ball, I throw it to first, and who catches it?

“My boss moves mountain, doesn’t he?” Steve said.

“He sure does,” Buck said, circling Carpathia this time. “You must be pleased with everything going on these days.”

“I am.”

Buck scribbled, Carpathia. End times. Antichrist? “And you’re telling me straight up that the other issue I raised is dangerous but also hogwash.”

“Total roll in the muck.”

“And I shouldn’t even broach the subject with him, in spite of the fact that I’m a writer who covers all the bases and asks the tough questions?”

“If I thought you would consider mentioning it, I could not encourage the interview or the story.”

There’s the deal: access in exchange for Buck’s agreement not to ask certain questions. Buck agrees. He always does. But he’s still “a writer who covers all the bases and asks the tough questions.” It says so right there in the book, so it must be true.

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