25: Absence

written by Julian Mundy
directed & produced by Mischa Stanton

[[SFX: tape recorder starts; a diner]]

PETRA MARQUEZ (PM): So, um...

BRIDGET CHAMBERS (BC):  What is it, Petra?

PM: I don’t really... No, never mind. I guess I’m wondering what happens next.

BC: She was convicted by a military tribunal. They’ll do what soldiers do, now is simply a question of when.

PM: And how, I guess. Sorry.

BC: It’s fine. I’m not mad at you. It’s hard to describe how I feel.

PM: I get you. [pause] Sally?

SALLY GRISSOM (SG): Yeah? Sorry, Petra, were you saying something?

PM: You’re being really quiet. Still here with us earthlings?

SG: Yeah... Yeah, just processing.

PM:  Talk to us. You knew her the longest.

SG: I thought Bridget...

BC: No, just a couple of years in school. My history with Ettie goes back the furthest, but you worked with her for almost a decade. You would know best if she... No. That isn’t fair, putting that on you.

SG: It’s okay, Chambers. It’s natural.

BC: I have all these doubts. And then the very next moment, I scold myself for having them. Maybe a part of me envies your perspective, Sally.

SG: Roberts and I were friends... are friends, but part of that friendship was respecting that we couldn’t tell each other certain things. You just don’t talk about some things, because they’re classified, or redacted. But then, the not-asking and not-telling becomes a reflex, and you miss chances to talk about the things that matter. I don’t even know what her parents are like, or how many siblings she has. I just know that weird card game.

BC: She never spoke much about her family. Her parents worked hard to put Ettie through college, they were so proud. She has a younger sister by a few years... maybe the single person I ever saw who wasn’t intimidated or, I don’t know, “wrong-footed” by Ettie. I remember she was a hugger. Ettie is... not. Wait, Sally, did you say she tried to teach you Dilemma?

SG: Excuse me, she taught me Dilemma, then I taught her how to teach Dilemma. She tends to over-explain.

BC: ...Thank you, Sally.

SG: For what?

BC: For being her friend. I worried she might not make any more after we lost touch.

SG: Hey, sure, I mean... You’re welcome, I guess. I can’t say how well it worked out for her.

PM: Sally, don’t–

[[SFX: a plate breaks; someone laughs, then a few people clap]]

SG: ...You know what? Eff this.

BC: ...Eff? What?

PM: What are we effing?

SG: None of this fits, right? That kangaroo court we sat through? They’re just doing what they think is damage control while they wait for the other shoe to drop.

PM: So what are you suggesting?

SG: The verdict was passed down by a panel of gun jockeys, most of whom barely had the clearance to look at the evidence. They don’t have ODAR registry access, but there are three ladies at this table who do... And then there’s our good friend, Mr. Gaines...

PM: This is a migraine waiting to happen. You want us to retrace her steps, going back years? Come on, half of what we find is gonna be blacked out.

BC: I know there’s no love lost for you about Esther, but if she isn’t to blame for this mess, the real culprit still gets to move around as they please! Tell us that doesn’t make you a little uneasy.

Petra: ...Ugh. Fine. I hate homework.

[[SFX: Sally stands]]

SG: Ladies, it sounds like we have a plan. I gotta go make some calls.

CHET WHICKMAN (CW): This isn’t exactly what I had in mind when I took your meeting, Sally. I don’t like being ambushed in my own office. No offense, Lou.

LOU GAINES (LG): I have a research background, and I have a thorough grounding in the movements of Esther Roberts after the war ended.

CW: What you call “thorough” is incomplete, at best! You were a civilian when you were came looking for Mr. Marian.

LG: Which is why we need priority access to the registry archives. Agent Chambers and I will be coordinating the search, Petra and Dr. Grissom will assist with cataloguing and analysis.

CW: –In a misguided effort to exonerate a woman who’s already been tried and convicted of treason and espionage. God help me, I can’t believe I’m back at this place with you.

SG: Hasn’t it occurred to you that this is all happening a little too quickly? Whickman, there is still a guy with a Timepiece out there. We know next to nothing about him, other than he had help from our guy, Marian. That doesn’t rustle your jimmies at all?

CW: I can’t conduct a formal investigation into the activities of Esther Roberts in the wake of her sentencing. I testified. I have to stand by what I said in that room, or...

SG: Or what? Whickman, what’s going on?

CW: I have no more favors to call in, Sally. I’m holding onto this organization with my fingernails. If I look like I’m waffling, they could replace me in a matter of weeks. I can’t let that happen.

LG: You hired Agent Chambers and myself to help you steer this ship when it goes off course, so that’s what we’ll be doing. We’ll simply have to look at Roberts’ movements as part of the larger issue, that being the missing Timepiece.

SG: We can pin the bastard. Chet.

[[SFX: the clock strikes four]]

CW: This stays under our roof, you understand? Keep it quiet, and try to keep personal feeling out of your conclusions. You’ll need hard evidence of the mole to point to.

SG: Chambers and Petra are down below, working on it as we speak.

CW: [sigh]

LG: If it’s there, we’ll find it. Then you can make good on your promise, Mr. Whickman, and focus on finding David.

CW: Make it fast.

 

BC: You put all this together yourself?

 

LG: This is the meat of what I could find on Esther Roberts. She took part in a few engineering consultations in the years following the war. There was a period where she took several short absences to meet with various think tanks. It looks like she was subcontracting certain projects, but I wouldn’t recognize the code names. Not much press attention overall. ODAR seemed to take up most of her hours, which gives us plenty to sift through in the archive.

PM: I volunteer to lift and carry things. This stuff makes me go cross-eyed.

[[SFX: Lou hands out files]]

LG: Crossed eyes are still a pair of eyes. We need every one we can get, so pace yourselves. This likely won’t get done in a night or a week. Burning out is a real possibility. Like I tell my students: keep yourself alive first. Everything else comes after.

PM: Yeah, yeah, I hear you.

SG: It’s not like this is the hardest thing we ever did. We’re just...

PM: Trying to overturn a guilty verdict on a woman convicted of high crimes against the state, by rooting through a bunch of papers to find a mole who may or may not exist in real life. No, I get you, I’m right there with ya.

BC: You’re restless.

PM: I’ll try to get a grip on it.

BC: We understand, sweetheart. Or maybe it would be better to say: we know where it’s coming from. We just have to keep our eyes clear, or...

PM: We probably fail. I know.

SG: If I still could get in touch with Patridge, maybe I could fill in some... shit. Nevermind.

PM: What do you mean? Anthony Partridge?

[[SFX: the record player turns off]]

SG: Forget I said anything, really. Just a bit of tinkering that... isn’t working. Right now.

PM: Have you been talking to him?

SG: Not... for quite a while. How do you even know about–?

PM: Are you telling me you have a direct line to the Blackroom, Sally?

SG: No! In fact, that is exactly what I’m telling you I don’t have!

LG: You’re talking about the dispatch unit ODAR lost contact with?

PM: Yes. // SG: No!

BC: ...What does this mean?

SG: It means nothing! If the Blackroom isn’t responding, it’s something on his side, and it won’t matter what kind of hotline I may or may not have!

PM: Jesus. How long have you had it?

SG: A couple years. It’s not like I can hold a heated conversation, there’s some lag time between messages, but... Since I heard about what happened on your mission, I sent a few messages rapid-fire. No response yet. I wanted to help out, but I didn’t think telling you before I knew anything would–

PM: But you’ve been talking for a couple of years, you said. Could you have said something that made him break contact? Did you talk to him before my mission?

LG: Petra. Just hang on a second, all right? She isn’t to blame for what happened to you out there, but we’ll find the one who is.

PM: It isn’t about me... I’m sorry, you’re right. My bad, Sally.

SG: It’s fine, really. I get it.

BC: Let’s just keep going then. Anyone for coffee?

[[SFX: radio tuning; outside of Lou's place]]

SG: Don’t go and buy yourself a pack of cigarettes, Sally. I don’t care what kind of day you’ve had, you don’t get to start now.

[[SFX: Petra approaches]]

PM: Talking to yourself, huh? That’s cool. I know how that is.

SG: Oh. Yeah, I guess so.

PM: I’m sorry. I got pretty intense up there.

SG: No, it’s fine, you don’t have to–

PM: But that’s only because I know the kinds of things you can do. I have ODAR history to guide me. None of them know what you’re capable of, not really. When you mentioned Partridge, I thought: “If anyone could make him shut down the Blackroom, it’s her.”

SG: You’ve got me at a disadvantage, too. You know some things I haven’t done yet.

PM: We’re only here now because you did the impossible. Can I ask you to try to do it again?

SG: You want me to keep trying to contact Partridge?

PM: Yes. Please.

SG: Okay. Okay, I will. I’ll keep you posted.

PM: Thank you. I’ll see you later.

SG: Yeah, you bet. Sleep well.

PM: And Sally? If we do find out later that you had something to do with that man dying in Russia, I think we’d both wish you had just told me now.

[[SFX: silence in the night; Petra walks away; radio tuning]]

SG:

 

[[SFX: radio tuning]]

 

SG: Goddammit, Partridge, would you pick up your phone and tell me what’s going on? I’d settle for an “eff-you” if it means I get some proof of life. I don’t like imagining you crushed under a pile of canned peaches and beans and shit, okay? Stop goofing around with your stupid rubber band ball or whatever and call me back. You ass.

[[SFX: radio tuning]]

SG: Partridge, it’s me again. I’m just going to keep calling until I hear back, so if this is supposed to be some kind of elaborate punishment you devised, it’s only gonna backfire. You know you can’t out-stubborn me, man, so just, please, call me back... Listen, I’ll narrate some books by message to break up the boredom in there, if it means you forgive me for whatever it is I did. Will do. I don’t even know anymore. Just call me. Please. It’s Sally. Grissom.

[[SFX: radio tuning]]

SG: Anthony.. I really, really hope you’re okay. I know you couldn’t possibly be okay, but that’s all I want for you. If you’re there, please just tell me you’re not dead. I can’t lose a friend like you. I can’t sit here, not knowing what’s going on with you. Please talk to me.

[[SFX: radio tuning]]

SG: Partridge, I... I think this will be my last message. Without anything else to go on, I have to tell myself something is either broken, in which case, you’ll fix it, or... Maybe you just can’t hear me anymore. I will always remember what you’ve done for me. I’ll be here, if you want to talk. Love you buddy.

 

PM: I think that’s everything you wanted.

 

BC: Thank you, Petra. This is everything from 1950 through ‘53?

PM: Should be. I don't really know what you want with time-off requests, though.

BC: Just one more way to check Esther’s movements against the court record. You have to enter a reason for taking time off, paid or unpaid. If she gave any specifics, we could determine who she might have met with during those lectures and whatnot.

[[SFX: Sally hangs up a phone and enters the room]]

SG: We won’t be able to cross-reference with HUAC, though. Whickman doesn’t have the juice to get us access right now.

Petra: Wow–

LG: Focus, people. Focus on what we have in front of us. House Unamerican is–

SG: A luxury we can’t afford?

LG: Not the way I was going to phrase it, but, yes, more or less.

SG: Yeah, doesn’t sound right, does it?

BC: Yeah, that's odd. // PM: No, not at all.

SG: What are you looking at, anyway?

[[SFX: Lou flips a page]]

LG: Blackroom call logs. I started wondering about the people in this organization with the clearance to contact the Blackroom. Specific call codes correspond to specific personnel, with each logging the time of their call, and the response by the Blackroom.

[[SFX: Petra takes the file]]

PM: Hmmm. Whickman and Roberts show up a lot. Also an “HC53?"

SG: That’ll be Hank Cornish.

PM:  Lou, wait a second. Look here.

LG: Right, there are no responses logged from the Blackroom after March 1st.

PM: This is the date of my mission in Russia. This is the last call that went out before the Blackroom went silent. Is “LG51” supposed to be you?

LG: That... is my Blackroom code. What in the hell?

SG: Lemme see that.

[[SFX: Sally grabs the page]]

BC: Why do you have a Blackroom code? We’re both analysts, and I was never issued one.

LG: I asked Whickman to grant me probationary field agent status, at least until we can track David down. With my military background, he said yes as long as I went through the accelerated training program. That technically grants me a Blackroom code. I’ve never used it. I hardly know how to! I was only run through it twice in training.

PM: So there’s no way that call could have been you?

LG: None. As I recall, I was still in the process moving into my apartment in town. Took up most of the week, not just that day.

SG: I can vouch for that, I was there. Almost knocked my front teeth out moving the sofa inside.

PM:

BC: Clearly a smokescreen of some kind?  Look, there's a couple of other Blackroom calls I haven't been able to account for either. Random access codes every time. But there’s no way to tell who it’s meant to cover. Are we thinking Soviets? Someone Vasilievich worked with, other than David?

LG: Hmm... Inconclusive.

SG: What a dick move! Why are spies such jerks? Uh, present company excluded, Petra.

PM: Hey, I’ve done my share of dirt. But one of two possibilities is the case here. Either they’re alone, improvising and desperate... or they’re being directed, and things are still going according to plan.

BC: ...Hard to say which is worse.

[[SFX: radio tuning; Lou's truck pulls up outside Petra's house]]

LG: So this is the place, huh?

PM: Yeah, that’s her. Whatcha think?

LG: I’d say it’s nicer than any house I lived in growing up. You buy it?

PM: I thought about it. The lady seemed kind of put out when I said I didn’t know if I’d be in town long-term, but she left the option hanging if I ever decide to “settle down and find a nice young man.” Not necessarily in that order.

LG: Seems pretty big for one person, even so.

PM: Are you trying to drop some kind of hint?

LG: I’m content with my bachelor pad, for the moment. But thank you for thinking of me.

Petra: And thanks for agreeing to help me move all this junk inside. I just think it’ll be nice to have a lot of space to move around in for a change. Get away from people, noise, everything. No more living inside shoeboxes for ol’ Petra.

LG: You deserve it. Want to get started?

PM: ...Yeah. Let’s go.

[[SFX: radio tuning]]

SG: Diary of Doctor Sally Grissom, April 19th, 1953. We just kind of hit a lull in the search, so I needed to get out of that stuffy-ass room for a second and have a minute to myself. It’s days like this, when the four of us are neck-deep in paperwork, that I reminisce about laptops with easily sortable browser tabs. I’m not sure how Gaines and Chambers keep everything straight in their heads when it’s just this... whhosh! This blizzard of tiny, nothing details. They are pretty amazing though. Petra doesn’t give herself enough credit, either, she’s been holding up better than I am.

If I can be honest, I barely know what the hell I’m even looking for anymore. Nothing we’ve found indicates she even had the free time for espionage. She barely got out of the lab often enough to bump into Marian more than once every couple months. But we have nothing that points to any other quote-"foul-play"-unquote, nothing we can pin on anyone else. Everyone’s a little on edge right now. I wasn’t sure how Petra would react when I told her I... struck out with Partridge. She didn’t hit me! So there’s that. But I didn’t try it because she freaked me out that night. Okay, she freaked me out a little, but that’s not why I did it. That girl has been through a lot. I can only guess at most of it. I tried to call Partridge again because she actually made me want to do the impossible, for her. She knows me as this mythical figure in ODAR, but that’s not how I feel. I just kind of feel like a burden, I guess. Makes me think of something Roberts said to me, a long time ago: “We spit in the face of practicality every day.” The Timepiece wasn’t even working properly by that point, and we didn’t know a fraction of what we know now. Everything was clear except the future. We knew where we stood. Now we second-guess every–

[[SFX: door knock]]

SG: Yeah?

[[SFX: Bridget opens the door]]

BC: We just got a call from Mr. Whickman’s office. It sounded urgent.

SG: Crap. Okay, thanks Chambers, I’ll be right there... [to diary] ‘Til next time.

SG: Okay, so... I’m here. Why are you looking at me like that?

CW: Doctor– Sally, I know how hard you all have been working, so I thought I should tell you immediately... There’s no easy way to put it.

SG: Okay, fine, spit it out.

CW: I just got a call from DC, Sally, and they tell me Esther Roberts’ execution has been rescheduled. Last rites to be performed six months from now, not a few years, as standard practice would–

SG: Are they going to do what they did to the Rosenbergs? Whickman!

CW: Not as I understand it, no.

SG: Is it meant to send a message? The Soviets they think she works for?

CW: I think they just want the problem to go away, Sally! I don’t know that they’re being entirely rational about the situation. I have agents out there right now, looking for David Marian and Amelin Vasilievich, without Blackroom support on any level. I’m doing what I can, but this dragon has three heads. You and your team will have to take on at least one of them.

SG: Okay. Okay, right. Six months to smoke out the mole. I’ll let them know. Jesus.

CW: We could certainly use him on our side right now.

[[SFX: radio tuning]]

BC: He’s serious?

SG: He called me up right after he heard. I know we wanted to crack this thing a lot sooner than six months, but this still changes things. Right?

LG: No telling exactly how long an internal appeal for Roberts would take. There’s a lot we could find between now and then that would speed up the process.

BC: Also a lot that could go wrong. Whoever made that call to the Blackroom is still in play, and they could be setting us up for something nasty. If they can’t get away with, well, killing us, they’ll be trying to spike our wheel.

PM: I hate to sound cliché, but it could come from any direction.

BC: We are at a pretty severe disadvantage.

LG: You’re right about that. But we stay prepared. Stick together as much as possible, and watch each other’s back.

BC: You’re speaking from experience.

LG: I am.

SG: You think we’re targets?

LG: Hard to say. Their only action we can prove is the Blackroom call. That was a crippling blow to ODAR’s infrastructure, but no direct action was taken.

PM: A man died because of it, though.

LG: Like it or not, this is war. Not one we started, but we all have to carry our dead.

PM: So where else do we look?

LG: Employment records, for a start.

BC: Maybe we get a look at some other field agent profiles, see if we can catch anything that hasn’t been inked out.

LG: That’s solid. David was only one of several new field agents recruited that year.

SG: Don’t they do pretty thorough background checks before they give the OK?

PM: Sure they do. But we’re living in the ‘50s. Analog fax machines are the best you’re gonna get around here, and they’re pretty rare. The system isn’t perfect.

BC: Breaking news from the stone age: we get by just fine.

LG: Aside from that, David is the most ready example that the change might happen when they’re already past our defenses.

BC: ...Did you ever see any sign he was a sympathizer?

LG: No. No, he was a pretty fervent anti-Stalinist, in my experience. Maybe we was trying to convince himself, or put up a front... Seems to have worked on me.

PM: Not just you, though. Remember how Whickman reacted when David and the Russian escaped? They had you pegged for the sympathizer, not their golden boy in the shadows.

BC: There is someone we haven’t considered.

LG: Who’s that?

BC: If we’re considering field agents, then we also have to consider your sister, Petra.

PM: ...What did you say?

BC: I know, I know, I don’t want to think about it either. But haven’t we been burned like that before? This thing turns friends, family against each–

PM: You shut your mouth. You do not get to drag her into this.

SG: Petra, she’s not--

PM: Don’t start, Sally, you don’t know any more about Carmen than she does. Carmen wouldn’t do that.

BC: Please just hear me out, just for a second.

PM: Why should I? What can you possibly know about why she does what she does?

BC: Nothing! I know next to nothing, Petra, and that’s what makes me worry. Doctor Elbourne’s method gave you both an immunity to Butterfly Syndrome, and now you can both do all these amazing things. You can duplicate yourself! I think it’s only fair to consider that she could be using that same ability. Maybe there’s a double of her somewhere with a different ideology. I don’t know how this all works, but I–

PM: Just shut up! My sister would not do that to me!

BC: She might not have known it was you! But we won’t know unless we–

PM: Rrrgh!

BC: Petra, please!

[[SFX: Petra storms out and slams the front door]]

BC: Oh lord...

LG: It’s okay, she’ll be okay.

SG: You’re not wrong, Chambers, but I think she’ll need some time to let that sink in.

BC: That all happened much too fast.

LG: You said what we all needed to hear. What David did shouldn’t be repeated.

BC: Thank you. I’m sorry, Sally.

SG: No worries, but that slam might’ve woken my neighbor.

[[SFX: radio tuning; Petra storming away]]

PM: [crying] Goddammit! That stupid bitch!

[[SFX: Petra sits on the ground]]

PM: Oh god, Carmen. It isn’t you, I know it isn’t you... Carmen, where are you?
[[SFX: someone approaches]]

IDA: Oh goodness! Sweetheart, are you alright?

[[SFX: Petra stands, sniffs, dries her tears]]

PM: Yeah. I think I will be. Things just got a little intense in there.

IDA: I know how that can be. But family is everything, isn’t it?

PM: ...What?

IDA: Weren’t you just having an argument with your sister? I thought you might be Dr. Grissom’s sister. Or niece, maybe.

PM: Oh, uh, no, we just kind of work together sometimes. We were fighting about work.

IDA: My word, must be serious if it’s got you out here. Not that I mean to pry. I only thought you might need a cup of hot tea and a moment to find your footing again.

PM: Thanks, it’s sweet of you to offer. You don’t need to do that, I’ll be okay.

IDA:Your choice, of course. But you needn’t say anything if you don’t want to, and I always find chamomile helps me put my thoughts in order.

PM: Thank you. I guess I’ll have some. I’m Petra.

IDA: Petra. What a lovely name. You can call me Ida.

PM: You’ve got a beautiful home.

[[SFX: they walk back to Ida's house; the door shuts behind them; tape recorder stops]]


ars PARADOXICA was created by Daniel Manning & Mischa Stanton. Season 3 was also written by Eli Barraza, Julian Mundy, Danielle Shemaiah & Tau Zaman.
Episode 25: Absence features –

Kristen DiMercurio (Sally Grissom)
Lia Peros (Petra)
L. Jeffrey Moore (Lou Gaines)
Preston Allen (Bridget Chambers)
Reyn Beeler (Chet Whickman)
Maxximillian Dafoe (Ida)
with special thanks to Isabel Atkinson

Original music by Mischa Stanton and by Eno Freedman-Brodmann. Additional music used courtesy of the Free Music Archive
ars PARADOXICA is brought to you by The Internet: The best thing about living in a surveillance state

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