It's Oct. 24, 1962, and a mild-mannered Hewlett-Packard oscilloscope salesman has just picked up his telephone handset. Robert Kennedy is on the other end of the phone.
For most people, a call from the U.S. Attorney General — and a Kennedy no less — would be a thrill. But not so for Palo Alto resident Nathan Michaels.
In "A Fine and Dangerous Season," a novel by Palo Alto author Keith Raffel, President John. F. Kennedy is summoning Michaels to the White House.
The last time they met was in 1940. JFK was a student who spent the fall semester auditing classes at the Stanford University School of Business, and the two young men were friends. Kennedy took the young Michaels under his wing, and introduced him to the rarefied world of glamorous Hollywood stars.
But Michaels never wants to see Kennedy again. The charismatic future president violated a code between friends. Predictably for JFK, he couldn't keep his pants on. Michaels stumbled upon a tryst between Kennedy and Michaels' girlfriend, Miriam.
Enter the countdown to the Cuban Missile Crisis 20 years later. Michaels and his late father have a decades-long connection to Maxim Volkov, the top Russian KGB agent in North America. Kennedy needs Michaels and Volkov to shuttle messages to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to diffuse the nuclear crisis.
Suddenly Michaels is on an Air Force T-39 out of Moffett Field, headed for the District of Columbia. His peaceable life with his wife and twin sons is about to become a wild race against a ticking time bomb. And war-hungry generals want him dead.
Veteran techno-thriller author Raffel has turned to history and his real-life experience as counsel to the Senate Intelligence Committee to craft this cloak-and-dagger tale. It is as hair-raising in its fiction as the historical events that nearly ravaged the planet 50 years ago.
Raffel deftly weaves the threads of Michaels' life with the crisis at hand, from his Stanford encounters with Kennedy to his World War II flashbacks.
Through Raffel's crisp, muscular prose the dialogue unfolds with frightening veracity. In drawing his characters and their voices, Raffel does not stumble. The White House conversations the author created between Kennedy and his heavy hitters could plausibly have taken place.
Here are the real-life Cold War players: Secretary of State Dean Rusk, the robotically calculating Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, the brainy National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, the trigger-itchy Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay.
Each man sees the dilemma through a mixture of intelligence information and his own lenses. The president must weigh fact and fiction against Soviet posturing and the single-minded machismo of Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro. It's a lethal cocktail.
Michaels and Volkov meet openly at first to pass messages between Kennedy and Khrushchev. But soon Michaels is running for his life and Volkov is nowhere to be found.
Michaels receives a call that is ostensibly from the Soviet Embassy's Miss Leontieva, a mysterious secretary whose iciness gives him the creeps. Volkov wants to meet with him. But it is a setup. The GRU, Soviet military intelligence forces, are out to prevent a peaceful solution, and Michaels narrowly misses being assassinated. It is the first of many tries.
On top of this, Michaels hasn't forgiven Kennedy for stealing Miriam away. He doesn't really want to be in Washington. If this is the end of the world, he wants to spend it with his wife and family, he reasons. But JFK's wife, Jacqueline, implores him to help the president. And the truth is, Michaels realizes, he is also hooked on ending the madness. His and Volkov's voices are among the few that seem reasoned.
But where is Volkov?
Finding the Russian again is the only way to Khrushchev, but that proves hard to accomplish. Michaels is still dodging GRU assassination attempts, including a fiery shootout near the White House.
The Soviet brass isn't the only group itching to play hardball. Tension mounts as General LeMay and the U.S. military prepares reconnaissance flights over Cuba. Already one U-2 spy plane has been shot down. If the Cubans fire upon another jet, that will lead to bombing the Russian missile sites and invasion of Cuba. The Soviet Union would respond with an invasion of West Berlin, and nuclear missile launches by both countries would begin.
It's two hours before the showdown when Volkov and Michaels finally meet again in a secret hideaway. Volkov sends Kennedy's final offer to Khrushchev and tensely awaits his reply.
Will the jovial Russian spy finally light that celebratory cigar he's offered to Michaels if the crisis is averted?
Disaster strikes just as Khrushchev sends his reply.
What happens next is a breath-taking dash to get to Kennedy, with 20 minutes left in the countdown to war. The president is praying for a miracle in a pew at St. Stephen's Martyr Church.
The book's title borrows from a quote by Trappist monk, author and pacifist Thomas Merton. Forty years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the public has come to know just how close the two countries came to all-out nuclear war. McNamara revealed that precipice in the 2003 documentary film "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara."
Raffel's novel is a grim reminder of the folly of hubris and how chillingly close to the edge we came.