Chapter 1: Hope

•March 26, 2010 • Leave a Comment

That Marek was late on his weekly grocery delivery wasn’t a surprise, exactly.  The Free Market Economy was, after all, new to Poland and its various nuances – the fiscal benefits of good service in particular – had not quite taken root in the country. I’d been through six delivery boys since Yeltsin played jungle gym with the tanks on the square, and none of them had understood why Pani – well, I suppose I won’t tell you my name, for now – why the American Pani was so strict about her hours.  Until Marek, who, as far as I could make out, didn’t give a rusted groszy either way, but liked the American Dollars I gave him with each delivery.  God knows what he could buy with them on the black market.

I went to the window out towards Niepodlogosci, out into the wet, grey weather, looking over the stacks of heavily sooted, melting snow on the sidewalk.  They were still using pebbles, for now.  Salt would only make things worse.  The street otherwise was utterly unremarkable – grandmothers, babcias, the short, linebacker-shaped entities who were as likely to bat a storeowner with their oversized purses as to buy their latest grandchild a paczki.  Of course, Polish Zlotys, Rubles – anything from the East – it was all basically worthless in those days.

I shook my head, then.  Marek was missing, and that bothered me.  I didn’t see him on the road, and picking people out was something I’d been particularly good at in training.  Anxious, a little, I craned my head out to look straight down at the grate for Marek’s bike – he rode it even in the winter, I remember noticing the bruises on his forearms particularly.  It was there, in all of its rusted glory, covered in Ghost Rider stickers he’d gotten God knows where and the skull’s head on the handle bars that his brother had given him, or so he’d informed me proudly.

The entrance door rattled behind me, each of the three locks opening slowly in turn, bolts sliding back one by one, as it were.  There was a second’s hesitation as the key was withdrawn, and then the door cracked open.  From where I was standing, I could not see the door itself – a critical design flaw of the apartment that I’d temporarily been forced to deal with – but I could hear, quite well.

A low shuffle came from the entrance, keys jangling in a hand, or against a pocket, and then the door swung slowly shut.

‘Marek?’  I asked.  ‘Ti tam jestes?’ ‘Is that you?’  A truly inventive question, I’ll admit.  I do give myself this much credit – one of my guns I keep in the kitchen, under the knife drawer where idle hands wouldn’t care to look.  I had one hand in the drawer, feeling for the gun already.  My fingers tightened around the barrel, trying to pull it out without making too much noise.

‘Marek?’  I asked again, and then, distinctly, I heard a footstep.

I have odd flashes, clinical, in the middle of tense moments, and I remember distinctly wondering how the powder-blue tile would flake and crumble when shot.  It was quite possible, I considered, that the whole wall was thick and sturdy enough that nothing much would happen at all.  Nothing I couldn’t chip away and clean.  The thought somehow cheered me slightly, and I let the pistol slide back into my hand.

In spy films they always show you rifling through shelves with fake bottoms, pulling out a gun and a box of ammunition and disappearing, breathlessly, into the night, leaving the girl behind, or – better – taking her with you.  The thing is, spying’s a lot like politics.  You only get to make your Mr. Smith stand every so often.  That didn’t mean the gun felt strange or unusual; it had, by that time, basically worn a groove between my thumb and forefinger.  It was just that, even with things as they were and someone in the next room, I didn’t really fully expect to use it.

‘Marek?’ I repeated, almost coquettishly, daring whoever was there to show themselves.  They always did, eventually, and I had learned patience, doing what I do.  There’s really nothing quite like it for hurry-up-and-wait.  And mostly it was wait, now that the big baddies to the East were having an identity crisis.

The silence from the next room surprised me.  It was disconcerting, really, not because it meant I was wrong – I clearly wasn’t, unless Marek had been struck dumb – but because it was so deafening.  So insistent.  Come out and talk, it was yelling at me.  Or maybe, come out and die.  The two have a way of sounding similar.  I waited, and, yes, I know I’m patient, but there’s a point at which waiting becomes foolhardy.   After all, there’s a fine line between waiting it out and letting someone draw a bead on you.  I inched around the counter, taking care to avoid the metal drying rack.  You never know what’ll get you shot.  I am not joking when I say I’ve lost friends over wind chimes.  Although, the exact definition of ‘friend’ in this context is a little…well…

I backed up along the wall, listening carefully as I did.  I walk around my apartment in socks – and keep the floors waxed – partially because there are just days when I can’t bring myself to lift my feet.  And, of course, for times like this.

The wall was scratchy, a bit, against my back, through the thin cardigan I was wearing, a turtleneck, actually, and I still hadn’t heard a thing from the next room.  I really wanted to convince myself it was nothing at all, nothing worth worrying over, but my instinct wouldn’t quite let me.  Moving insistently, albeit slowly down the hall, I remember checking my gun, making dead sure the safety was off, stepping right up to the doorframe of the archway leading into the living room.  He had to be in there; the kitchen, of course, was clear, and there wasn’t anything else to the place but the living, dining, kitchen, and bed areas, and I could see straight through to the bed –

Yep.  Speaking of bedrooms, I was looking into mine right now, double-checking the closet mirror from different angles, checking to be sure it really was empty, when I had the bright idea to look at the mirror itself.

Looking straight at me in the reflection was a very familiar face.  A man I’d done business with.  Almost a few things that didn’t quite qualify as such.  Karl.

I turned the corner, a bit elated, or at least, relieved.

“Stop right there.”  Karl was East German, you should know, and everything that goes with it.  Hard, bitter, scheming, permanently unsure of his abilities but perpetually convinced of your ill intentions.  His gun was out, of course, and he could have shot me if he had wished it.  Apparently, I thought as I took another half-step towards him, leaning against the wall in my socks and University shorts (not the one I went to, of course, that would be a tad too obvious), he didn’t want to right at this particular juncture

“Hi, Karl.”  Wall or no wall, the guy was difficult to deal with.  Sooner or later you expect all of your friends of a certain type to drop in, but I hadn’t been looking forward to this one.

“The Gun.  Pistole.”  This despite the fact I’d already lowered the damn thing.  I wasn’t sure what exactly he wanted me to do beyond that.  Turn it over and hand him the ammunition clip?  I had to remember not to laugh.  He was, after all, probably just following his basic protocol training.  ‘Beim Treffen des Unwillkommenen Aussreissers’ or something hideous like that.  God, Trolls must have come up with German.

“Of course, Karl.”  I put the pistol down on the black wooden Ikea CD tower.  It hadn’t taken those Swedish bastards long to set up shop.  I think they were sort of a housewarming gift for Walesa.  Fat little man, he was.  “Now, what do you want?”

“Mischa.  Where is he?”

“Mischa?  I haven’t seen him for years.”  That part was almost true.  “I have no idea.”  That part definitely wasn’t.  Old habits die hard.  I had a decent idea where to start looking, anyway.

“Lukasz said you did.”  Lukasz and Karl, the old boys in a nutshell, those two.  The thing about spying is, well, you usually have a pretty good inkling what’s just around the corner.  All those of us stationed in the old East Bloc knew the old world was crumbling.  I imagine the Russkis in the States did, too.  By the time the Yugoslav agents woke up in the mid-nineties, we’d already established our new networks and had been running them for years.  Lukasz and Karl had been quick about it.  Got in on the ground floor, so to speak.  They’d been Stasi, minor KGBlings, but they were fully fledged now, making things unpleasant for the rest of us.  Lukasz’s name had started coming up with some particularly nasty things on the Silesian border.  Zgorzelec reeked of him.  Mischa, meanwhile, the one Karl was asking about, was a couple steps past either of them – he was Spetznats, Russian special forces, and one of my few real lapses in judgment.  God knows what he had gotten himself into this time.

“Lukasz.”

“Ah.” He responded, biting at the tone of my response, “It rings the proverbial bell.” Who the hell taught him that word I don’t know.  English Sprechen im Unmittelbaren Volksumgang, no doubt.  The Wuerzburg edition.  “So then, shall we try again?”  He waited, but I didn’t respond.  “Where is Mischa?”

Well, here we go again.

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