Swagger summarized his findings for Nick at a meet in a Dallas coffee shop.
“He’s not tracking you?” asked Memphis.
“Maybe he hasn’t made the leap. Maybe he doesn’t know who I am. Maybe I’m off his radar so far.”
“Maybe he doesn’t exist.”
“Then who’s trying to kill me?”
“Bob, you’ve made a lot of enemies. It could be anyone, right? I’m just playing devil’s advocate here.”
“The same hired killer got James Aptapton.”
“Fair enough. You got him, I got a feather in my cap, we took a bad actor off the street forever. Nice transaction all around.”
“Any word on this Krulov? The oligarch who’s supposedly in with the Izmaylovskaya mob?”
“Yes and no. It turns out that through his many companies, Comrade Krulov has many official contacts with American corporations, such as Ford Motor Company, McDonald’s, 3M, Procter and Gamble, and on and on. To investigate, we’d have to get Justice Department approval and convene a task force with subpoena powers and begin a massive effort. Do you think we have enough to take it to Justice?”
Swagger knew the answer. “Of course not. What about, I can never remember the name, Yecksovich?”
“That guy. Owns a gun company. Weird name, you’d notice that name.”
“The name turns out to be a nickname, means nothing. His father was named Aleksandr, and when he was a kid – the father, I mean – his little brother had trouble pronouncing it, so he called big brother ‘K-s,’ pronounced ‘Ix.’ Ix stuck, the guy goes through life as Ix, he grows up, has a kid, and since he was a successful goon, he gave his son the patronymic Russian middle name of Ixovich, that’s all. Dimitry Ixovich Spazny. Spazny is hard-core KGB, in line when Yeltsin dumps communism and gets all kinds of breaks and becomes a billionaire. I have his businesses, and he’s invested all over the world like the rest, and as with Krulov, I’d need a federal task force to begin to make a dent in his affairs.”
“That’s not going to happen?”
“Afraid not. It’s just me, an SAIC on the outs with D.C., and you, a contract undercover. I can finesse some backup and nurse you through the system with as little exposure as possible. I can’t fund you. I can’t make a major issue of you. If that happens, our wiggle room goes away, and already I’m getting odd looks from my second, who’s not sure what’s going on. What’s your next move?”
“I have to make contact with Richard Monk again. One way or another, he’s a sure conduit to whoever’s pulling strings. I can play him and see what happens.”
“The Swagger investigation method: shake the tree until hired killers come out. Hope you can kill them first. Then learn what they knew. Never fails. Loud, dangerous, but sure.”
“I agree with you and my wife and daughter. I am too old for this shit. But I don’t seem to have another choice. Except maybe to go away and let old Hugh alone.”
“You could never do that. Even if he tries to kill you again.”
– – – –
Richard was just sitting there. His usual breakfast – Egg McMuffin, hash browns, coffee, and OJ – and suddenly, there Jack Brophy was. He slid in next to Richard with a cup of coffee.
“Hey, Richard,” he said. “Long time no see, friend.” He shook Richard’s hand, and Richard sort of choked, had to swallow, and said, “Jack, I’m glad you’re all right. The way you disappeared.”
“Oh, that,” Bob said. “Family crisis. Had to take care of some unexpected issues.”
“Jack,” Richard said, “there was a shooting. On the night you left, near the street where you disappeared. A man was killed. Trying to kill someone else, they say. Somehow I worried you were involved.”
“Me?” said Swagger. “No sir, I’m a rabbit. I love the guns, but only when I’m shooting at some faraway fuzzy animal or on a nice, safe firing range.”
Swagger laid some stuff on Richard about how he’d done some experimenting back in Idaho, and he was convinced that whoever shot JFK used what he called a “hybrid” of some sort, two calibers mulched together, but Richard couldn’t stay with it. He didn’t see how two bullets could fit in the same, er, bullet. Or two shells in the same bullet, or two cartridges in the same shell. Something like that.
Then Swagger went off on the Dal-Tex Building.
“Still on Dal-Tex?” Richard said. “The angles are right, but it was a huge public building full of people coming and going; it’s almost impossible to believe anybody could be brazen enough to get in and get out. Plus, the cops sealed it off within three minutes. You’d need to have a sniper going in the front door and out the front door, unseen, in the middle of a mob scene. I don’t see how it could be done.”
“You used the right word. Brazen. I figure these boys were top-of-the-line pros, the kind of guys who don’t make mistakes and have nerves of steel.”
“Mafia hit men!” Richard said. “That ground’s been trod over and over again, and nobody’s picked up anything but craziness.”
“I didn’t say Mafia. Fact is, I don’t have no theory about who yet. I’m still working out the how. If I get the how, maybe I’ll find the who.”
The gist of it turned out to be that Jack wanted Richard to help him find some old guys who remembered how Dal-Tex was in the old days. He had to build a case that getting in and out that day was feasible. He swore Richard to secrecy within the community. He declared himself the sole owner of valuable intellectual property.
Richard said he’d look into the possibilities, but discreetly; because of the value of his intellectual property, Jack told Richard he was afraid of a claim jumper or someone beating him to the punch. He’d be the one to contact Richard in a couple of days. He told Richard, “If you don’t know where I’m staying and you’re captured and tortured, you can’t give me up.”
Ha, ha. Not very funny, Richard thought, but being a nice guy, he laughed anyhow.
– – – –
“Okay,” said Nick, “initial contact made. Now we’ve rerun Richard Monk. I was able to slip that one through, and that guy Jeff Neal, the computer genius, I had him do the actual search. He’s the best, and if he can’t find anything, there’s nothing to be found. Or it’s been buried by super-pros. At a deep level, we can say once again we come up with nothing. It’s the same as it ever was. Brown graduate, twenty years U.S. Army CID, mostly in Europe. Good record.”
“He retired as a major,” said Bob. “How can that be good? Any fuckups?”
“Jeff got his records. Fabulous fitness reports all the way through, even reading between the lines. The problem is that after 9/11, all the military intel branches clogged up with careerists who saw it as a fast way up the ladder. By the very fact that was what they did, they made it a slow way up the ladder. Plus, Monk was in Europe, a specialist there, and nobody wanted to move him to Baghdad. He’s on record as making many transfer requests. But he was too good to let go. So they fucked him for his excellence.”
Bob snorted. “Sounds like typical service shit.”
“He stayed in Germany while the connected career boys got to the sandbox and soaked up all the promotions. He was never going to make lieutenant colonel, so he took the out-at-twenty and went to Washington and eventually connected up with that lefty foundation that pays him well and sent him to run their show in Dallas. We can find nothing untoward about him except the Japanese porn collection and the Bangkok vacations.”
“Man,” said Swagger, “the way this is going, I may head out to Bangkok too.”
– – – –
This is the hard part. I knew I’d have to get to it sometime. I suppose it might as well be now. Pardon, a shot of vod. Sometimes I call it Vod the Impaler. Yes, impale me, Vod, impale me!
Ah, that’s better. Poor Lon. He is the tragic figure in what happens. It was a shame to watch it happen, it was worse to have made it happen. He was given so much and it was taken so cruelly; he soldiered on heroically, without ill will, doing the best he could. Then I used him and turned him into an official monster. The years passed and he never betrayed me, he never quit on me, he never resented me, he never violated his pledge. He just had to be alone for a while. He was an honorable man, so I used him again, and this time I got him killed. At least he died as he never believed he would or could, with a rifle in his hands, in the intense rapture of a manhunt.
In any event, and for the record: Lon Scott was my cousin on my mother’s side, his mother being my mother’s sister, the family Dunn, old money, maybe older than mine. She married a man who was far richer than she; Jack Scott, Texas oilman, Connecticut gentleman farmer, big-game hunter, champion rifleman, aviator extraordinary, war hero (fifty missions in a B-24, including the nightmare that was Ploiesti), and the father who paralyzed his own son.
Lon was born to be a hero, and he genuinely achieved that status young. At fourteen, he shot and killed a wounded lion as it charged him, his father, and a professional hunter in what was then called British East Africa. His reflexes were the fastest, and when the beast came out of the high grass at fifteen yards, Lon stepped in front of the older men, took the charge, and put two .470 Nitro Express solids into it as it leaped, and when it hit him and knocked him down, the animal was already dead. As for Lon’s character, that was a story he never told or wrote (he was a fine writer; see his classic
Lon was born to wealth and rifles. The former he used modestly, never bragging, never splurging, always generous to family and causes. The latter became his life. I suppose he got it from his father, but there is a genius gene for the firearm that does not respect class or race or economic circumstances, it simply descends and enlightens once every generation or so. I suppose the great gunfighters of the West had it, possibly a few thirties desperadoes (Clyde Barrow, for one, possibly Pretty Boy Floyd), and a few great lawmen. The great snipers have it, a few of the great hunters. Lon had it.
From the time he laid eyes on a rifle, that was his life. In those days – this would be the early thirties – there was no opprobrium attached to such a fixation, and in his circle, it was celebrated and encouraged. His father gave him his first .22 before he was five years old, and by the time he was ten, his skill with the firearm had made him a legend. He spent summers on the Texas ranch, where he became a damned good cowboy, I’m told; by the time he was eighteen and left for Yale, he’d filled a bunkhouse with horned treasures as well as the lion and three rhinos, two Cape buffalo, and a dozen or so antelope species from his adventure in East Africa. That being a randy part of the world, I’m sure his nobility, grace, and courage earned substantial reward between silk sheets during the many evenings in Happy Valley where all the exiled Brit nabobs and their grumpy but beautiful women gathered to smoke, drink, and fornicate in abundance.
His real passion was for thousand-yard shooting. He won his first Wimbledon cup in ’50, had an off year, then won again in ’52 and ’53. It is an extraordinarily demanding discipline that brings all the shooter’s skills into play, not only his stamina to hold his position for great lengths of time but his ability to dope the wind and reload ammunition skillfully to get the maximum accuracy for the range, the rifle, and the conditions. He was, at the time, an honors graduate of Yale and unspeakably handsome. It was thought in some circles that he would follow the path of another great shooter, the national prewar skeet champion Robert Stack, and eventually move into movies. His grace with a gun in hand – then a necessity in the American movie industry – spoke well of his chances, and his high IQ, which made flash memorization a trifle (as in scripts), and his intense empathy, which marked him as a charismatic young man, all suggested such an outcome. He was better-looking than Rock Hudson, not a homo, smart as a tack, and could hit a running target offhand at a hundred yards ninety-nine times out of a hundred. He was already famous by ’55 and was just waiting for the next big thing to happen to him.
On October 11, 1955, when Lon was thirty, his father shot him in the spine.
He fell to the ground and never walked again.
Characteristically, Lon never made much of it. It happened, that’s all, let’s get on with it. Of course, the thousand-yard shooting was out, most of the hunting was out, so he devoted himself to the newer sport of benchrest and its application in the fields, varmint hunting, and he spent most of the summer at his place in Wyoming, killing vermin at distances up to a thousand yards off a bench and experimenting with the best ways to get this done. He learned a lot, and it could be said that at one time, he knew more about long-distance shooting than any man on earth. He remained on good terms with his father. The official story: it was an accident. A Model 70 in .30-06, a prime hunting weapon, was dropped and it went off, though the safety was on. Nothing could be done except get Lon to the emergency room fast, which was what his father and other shooters on the line did; Lon’s life was saved, but his mobility from the waist down was not. He spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
No one ever said a thing. What could be said? The act had no meaning except for the tragic randomness of the universe, its cruel whimsy. What’s the line: Whom the gods destroy, they first make interesting? Possibly I made that one up. Or possibly it’s Vod speaking. But in outline, anti-Oedipal dynamics are visible. The father, so long thought a great man, sees his usurpation in his young son. He loves the boy, but a serpent of ego whispers into his subconscious: He will replace you. He will steal your memory. You have given him everything, he will take everything. you are soon to become a supernumerary. Thus the gun falls from the hands, thus the safety is perhaps not forcibly off but wedged gently into that no-man’s-land between on and off, thus by freak mischance or the weird imposition of evil will on a falling object, the muzzle is lined up for one tenth of a second on Lon’s lower spine, and the rifle discharges.
He was lucky, I suppose. It was S4. No quad, no respiratory problems, no iron lung, no electric wheelchair or writing with a paintbrush by mouth. Muscular and athletic, he adapted well. He could drive, he could prepare food, his mind was intact, he could dress, drink, laugh, read, watch, work at his bench. S4, so much more mercy than C2. Still. .
What is his subconscious making of all this? Perhaps he has felt the hate under the love, perhaps he has heard a whispered resentment in all the lavish praise, perhaps he knows his father a little better than the father knows himself. He suppresses. He conceals his feelings. As I’ve said, he gets on with it. Who knows what snakes have been released into his mind, what need to strike and kill fathers universally or fathers symbolically or sons who, like him, were created by their fathers and then surpassed them. No one knows any of that, least of all I, but it may explain why, at some level, Lon was okay with the monstrosities I pitched him and kept the faith to the very end. In fact: he died of the faith.
In late October 1963, none of this could be imagined. I told myself I had a question for Lon that needed answering, perhaps denying to myself the inevitability of the course I had set up. I did know that I couldn’t be affiliated by record in phone contact from house or office, and I was aware that nobody knew whom that devious busybody James Jesus Angleton was or was not wiretapping. My solution to this was to drive downtown on a Saturday afternoon wearing suit and tie, park around Fifteenth at N, walk up N, and stride boldly into the office building at 1515 upon whose facade the words “The Washington Post” were emblazoned in some sort of ancient Gothic typeface. In those days, newspapers were wide open to the public, especially if the public looked as Official Person as I did, in dark tie, dark suit, white shirt, horn rims, and natty little Princeton haircut, as it was called. I strode in, nodded at the ever-sleepy Negro guard, and took the elevator to the fifth floor, where the newsroom was sited.
It was hardly a tenth full, as a skeleton crew watched teletype machines or took dictation from far-flung correspondents on the rare breaking-news stories. I sat down at Marty Daniels’s desk, aware that I looked a little like Marty, who covered the Defense Department for the
I got Monica, she put me through to Lon in the shop, and I said hello.
“Hugh, how’s my favorite secret agent? Have you caught Dr. No yet?”
“The slimy bastard changed lairs on us again. He found a new volcano. And how’s my favorite cripple?”
“You know, Hugh,” said Lon amiably, “I thought I felt a sexual impulse below my waist the other day, but it turned out to be a house falling on my knee.”
We both laughed. I had followed his steps to Choate and Yale. He was five years older, and I’d gone down to New Haven my senior year to watch him on the football field, where I took great pleasure in the way he left the Harvard Bambis smashed and bloody in his wake. That was his strength deployed in righteous fury!
“Seriously, how are you doing, Lon?”
“I’m fine except for the ulcers on the leg. They don’t hurt, but they’re a little annoying. I’ve got a piece due for the
“Just spying away like a busy little beaver,” I said. “Spy, spy, spy, all day long!”
Soon enough, our jocularity out of the way, I progressed to issues. “Lon, something has come up on the job, and I thought I’d run it by you.”
“Good Lord, Hugh, I’d think if anybody’d have experts on this sort of thing, it would be you fellows.”
“I’m sure we do, but it’s the weekend, nobody spies on weekends. Plus, it will take three days to go through and three days to come back via channels. You probably know more than they do, anyway.”
“I’ll do my best.”
“I’ve come across a reference to” – I pretended to withdraw it from memory – “something called an ‘Eye-tie Mannlicher-Carcano six-five.’ Now, I am a professional intelligence officer, so I have been able to determine that ‘Eye-tie’ probably means ‘Italian.’”
“Excellent, Hugh. I feel we are well protected.”
“Indeed. But the rest, other than the fact that it’s from the firearms world, is gibberish.”
“Well,” he said, “I don’t know too much about it. It could refer to the rifle or the cartridge, depending on context. Or both. Anyhow, the rifle was the Italian service rifle beginning in 1891 and running through the late fifties. It was probably the worst service rifle of its generation, less effective in every respect than the German Mauser, the British Lee-Enfield, our own Springfield, even the French Lebel. But they kept making ’em in various iterations, including a short cavalry or ski troop version.”
“I see,” I said. “How would an American get one?”
“Very classified. Buy a stamp. That’s the secret. When the Italians joined NATO, they converted to our arms – you know, the garand, the .30-caliber machine gun, the carbine, the .45 automatic – so they sold off a billion or so of the Mannlicher-Carcano rifles in various formats as surplus, and a great many of them came into this country, where they are being sold as downmarket hunting rifles by mail-order gun houses. I see ads for them all over the place. These guys put a cheesy Jap scope on them and sell them as deer rifles for the workingman who can’t afford a Winchester Model 70.”
“So it’s no sniper rifle?”
“It’s basically a piece of junk. Barely accurate, shoddily made, ugly as sin, with a cranky bolt throw. It shows that the Italians never took war seriously, particularly when you compare it to a brilliant piece of engineering like a Mauser. Now, the cartridge it shoots is more interesting and probably deserved a better rifle than the Mannlicher. It’s a mediumbore, flat shooting round, meant for battle at more or less longer ranges. The bullet is heavy for its size, with a thick copper coating to hold it together on those rare occasions when Italian marksmanship prevails. It’s a viable round for just about any thin-skinned game animal up to and including a whitetail. I’d use it on a man before I’d use it on a bear.”
“If you hit a man in the head with it?”
“Good-bye head, assuming a relatively short range, out to two hundred meters.”
“Hmm,” I said, by which utterance I meant information received but not processed.
“What have you got in mind, Hugh? Is this about some kind of Cuban invasion operation because you have a line on ten thousand Mannlicher-Carcanos real cheap? If so, I’d strongly suggest that you avoid the temptation. There’s a lot better rifles available in surplus than pieces of junk manufactured by people who eat spaghetti for lunch and take a nap every afternoon.”
“Thanks, Lon. Let me ask you this – what can you do with it?”
“No, no, that’s not what I meant. I suppose I meant could you – uh – counterfeit it?”
“You mean build a fake one? Good God, Hugh, that’s ridiculous.”
“I’m not explaining myself well, because I don’t have the vocabulary. I’m thinking about forensics, about the clues guns leave that identify them. It’s not something I know anything about except from
“Is this for your next James Bond novel, Hugh?”
“I wish I were that clever, Lon.”
“Well. . let me think, okay? I’m guessing another requirement would be a silencer. It’s really called a suppressor. You know, so the real assassin’s shot doesn’t draw attention.”
“They have such things?” I asked. I was so naive then.
“Yes, it’s not just a movie gimmick. Hiram Maxim figured it out over sixty years ago. Any clever machinist can handle it. It’s just a tube with baffles and chambers and holes in it. I’ll look into it and call you back and–”
“No, no, let me call you back. When, a week, next Saturday, will you be available?”
“Hugh, I live in a wheelchair. I’m
– – – –
I sold Cord on a scouting trip to Boston for PEACOCK, had Travel book me, moved five thousand dollars from the PEACOCK account to Larry Hudget’s FOXCROFT account, knowing he hadn’t bothered to master the finances and would never find it, drew a check, and cashed it in a small bank in the Negro section of D.C. where I’d done some business and could trust Mr. Brown to be discreet. The next day I flew to Boston, checked in to the Hilton in Cambridge, then took a cab to the airport and paid cash for a ticket to Dallas, TWA. In my grip was a suit that I had bought in Moscow in 1952, which fit as well as a shirt I’d picked up in Brno a few years ago, and a black tie I’d bought from Brooks Brothers when I had to attend Milt Gold’s father’s funeral. I figured even a genius like Alek wouldn’t notice the difference in tailoring quality between the Brooks tie and the GUM suit, which looked and fit as if assembled by chimpanzees.
I checked in to the Adolphus, rented a car, and put on my Russian monkey suit. It felt odd to walk across the hotel’s pretentious old-oak lobby with its Harvard eating-club flourishes, dressed like a kulak afraid he was about to be arrested. Nobody noticed. It was Texas, after all. Nobody notices anything down there.
An hour or so later, I parked my rental car across the street and watched when the downtown bus dropped off its passengers at 5:38 p.m. on the corner of Zane and North Beckley, in the suburb (across the Trinity River aqueduct) called Oak Cliff. It was probably November 5, 1963, maybe the sixth. I had no trouble spotting him. He wasn’t cut out for any kind of undercover work, because if any cop or agent were searching for a spy, they’d pick Lee Harvey Oswald out of any crowd. He was more substantial than I expected. I thought he’d be a feral little rat, quick and shifty, ready to pounce on any morsel of cheese. But he was thick, solidly muscled, stumpy rather than fast, solid rather than limber or light on his feet. You couldn’t miss him.
He looked miserable. His charmless, uninteresting face was set on grim to the highest number; he looked around sullenly as if waiting for the FBI to arrest him already; and he radiated a leave-me-alone frequency at its highest pitch. About four people got off, and the three others knew each other and were joshing and talking, the way guys do the world over, and Alek just blew through and by them, head down, walking steadily down North Beckley. It wasn’t far, because his room-inghouse, at 1026 North Beckley, was just a few houses down from the Zane – N. Beckley intersection. Nevertheless, he passed within five feet of me on the sidewalk, completely oblivious, and I got a good look, not that there was much to see. Head slumped forward, shoulders slouchy, he plodded along in cheap workingman’s clothes that probably wouldn’t be changed that week. He wore a pair of gray chinos, black Oxford shoes of inferior manufacture, and a green jacket – not a sport coat, a kind of golflike jacket – over a brown shirt, all nondescript. I watched as he turned in to the roominghouse, a run-down dwelling as nondescript as he was.
I moved the car to the next block and, through my rearview mirror, watched and waited. In forty-five minutes he reemerged, his hair wet from a quick standing bath, but otherwise dressed the same. This time he walked more jauntily to the bus stop, climbed aboard, paid his nickel, and sat halfway back. I followed a few car lengths behind, saw where he was dropped, waited until he went into a building, and then parked and moseyed in. It was the Dougan Heights branch of the Dallas Public Library, and I quickly checked the meeting bulletin board and saw that in room 4, the Soviet-American Friendship Society had convened. The prospect of spending a couple of hours with a crowd of American Commies whining about capitalism plus a few bored FBI agents nauseated me, so I drove to a good restaurant, had a steak, and got to bed early.
The next morning either I was early or he was late. But I saw him coming down the street to the bus stop finally, after missing the 8:17 and the 8:33. I was again wearing my GUM suit, and I’d done a little purposely bad buzzing with my electric Remington, giving myself that raw, poorly barbered look seen all through the East bloc, where tonsorial grace had not yet penetrated. Did I think Alek would notice these things? Probably not consciously, but one never knows what the unconscious picks up and how that contributes to frame of mind, receptivity, trust, and malleability. If I had been able to come up with Russian underwear on such short notice, I’d have worn it too.
He paid no attention to me as we passed on the sidewalk, made no eye contact, but as our shoulders almost brushed, I said in Russian, “Good morning, Alek. Kostikov sends his greetings,” and continued on.
“Hey,” he said in fractured Russian, after having chewed the information over for a few seconds, and processing the information that I knew his Russian nickname, and that I had evoked the name of the KG Bwho had interviewed him in Mexico City, “Hey! Who am you?”
I turned and watched him eat me up with his ratty eyes, trying to decipher the strange figure before him.
“You should say ‘Who
I thought he might run after me and knock me down, but he didn’t. He came a few steps in my direction, and then I guess the bus rolled in and he was caught in the dilemma and at last decided on the bus. I heard him run to it; when it passed, I felt his eyes on me as I walked along, seemingly uncaring.
I gave him a restless day, a sleepless night, and another restless day – I used the time to recon the area of General Walker’s house, to check his public schedule, to visit a gun store in Oak Cliff with the absurdly Texas name Ketchum and Killum on Kleist, and to buy three white boxes of Mannlicher-Carcano 6.5 ammunition and actually hold the thing that some cowboy tried to sell me, telling me it was the best damn rifle on the market for the money. It seemed like a piece of junk to me, though I had been prejudiced by Lon. It was nothing like the fine, sleek rifles that I had seen Lon shoot when we were boys. I thanked him but politely declined.
That evening I watched Alek get off the bus, check around nervously for whatever his imagination had prompted him to suspect, then start walking. I pulled up next to him before he could turn in to the rooming-house. “Comrade alek,” I called in Russian, “come, I’ll buy you a vodka for old times’ sake.”
He looked around nervously, then dashed to the car. “You am might be seen,” he said.
(At this point I cease to replicate his horrid Russian. I will recount in standard English as if he spoke in standard Russian, simply because I grow tired of mangling the language to no real effect. You get the picture.)
“No, nobody will see us. Agent Hotsy is watching his son play Little League in Fort Worth tonight. We have the world to ourselves. Direct me to a tavern, please. I don’t know Dallas.”
He muttered something, and more by body language than words did he guide me to a god-awful Dew Drop Inn or some such, and we invaded the dark, crummy insides. It wasn’t crowded and was garishly lit in one corner by a jukebox, which an idiot had primed to play hillbilly music. We found a booth more or less isolated in the rear.
“I don’t really like vodka,” Alek said in English.
“Good,” I answered in Russian. “It was a manner of speaking. I wouldn’t order anything out of the way in a place like this, as one of these men might remember us talking in a foreign language, drinking Stolichnaya. I would also speak in English, but I speak it with a New England accent, and that would probably be more remarkable to them than Russian.”
A sluggard came over, and we ordered Mexican beer. When he brought the frosty cans, the waiter also brought chips and some kind of tasty red sauce. It was my first experience with Mexican food, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.
“Who are you?” Alek said, leaning forward and fixing his beady, suspicious eyes on me.
“You’ll never learn my name. Security.”
“But you’re from–”
“I’m from your friends.”
“I know Hotsy, the police agent who bedevils you. In the Mexico City embassy, I know Kostikov, I know Yatskov. I have talked to the first Russian woman you loved, Ella German. I have spoken to your wife’s former lover Anatoly Shpanko. I have talked to your wife’s uncle, Ilya Prusakov, the MVD colonel. I have discussed you with your comrades in the Minsk electrical appliance facility. I will say that all of them have one thing in common: they have a very low opinion of you, Comrade.”
I took a slow draft of the beer, enjoying it immensely, watching a whole dictionary of emotions flash Across alek’s dim little face: anger at being reminded of his mediocrity, his many failures; defensiveness, as he tried to quickly construct his battlements against the truth; fear that someone was here for him; pleasure that he had been noticed at last by what he perceived as the Apparatus; bliss that someone, somewhere, somehow thought he was special.
Finally, he said, “I made mistakes, but only of trying too hard. I believe too hard. It makes some people hate me.”
“It seems they
“They resent me. People always resent me.”
“Do you know the term ‘projection,’ from psychology?”
“No. But I’ve studied Marx, I’ve studied–”
“You’ve studied everything but yourself, which is why nobody cares for you, Alek.”
He looked gloomily into the distance. An actual tear may have formed in one of his eyes. He started to speak, but I cut him off.
“In the whole world, nobody believes in you. To all you are negligible, a failure, a man without a past or future. You beat your pregnant wife and terrify your dear little baby daughter, Junie, you are the shame and scandal of the Russian-speaking community in Dallas. You go to the Cuban embassy and they throw you out, and you go to the Soviet embassy, pull a gun, break down sobbing, and they throw you out. No one in the world believes in you, Alek. Oh, wait. I just remembered. There is a man, probably a fool, who thinks you might amount to something, who thinks you can be saved.”
“Who?” Alek asked.
“Me,” I said.
I had a few more of the chips with the tangy red sauce. Delicious! I loved the crunchiness of the chips, with a vigorous salty aftertaste, subsumed in the fiery yet not unsubtle blast of the sauce, clearly by color tomato-based, yet not sweet, like so many tomato derivatives, the whole thing suddenly going nuclear to the taste when the pepper component detonated, then ameliorated by the tidal thunder of the cold, cold beer. A fellow could get used to such a thing.
I looked back at Alek. “Say, these chips are swell. I don’t believe I’ve ever had Mexican before. Why don’t we order some dinner? Go ahead, you’re the expert. Call him over and order for us. I think I’d like another beer, please.” I held up my empty can. It was called Tecate and had a lime slice wedged into the opener puncture. Why had I never tasted this before? It seemed not to have made it to Georgetown yet. I made up my mind to search out a Mexican restaurant in D.C. and take Peggy and the boys. That would be an adventure.
Alek waved the waiter over and ordered something from memory; as we waited for the food, I made small talk.
“So, tell me, when did you begin to notice that socialism in reality was considerably different than socialism in theory, and that working on an assembly line anywhere in the world is pretty much the same?”
He wouldn’t engage for a few seconds but then lurched on sullenly. “It wasn’t the work. It wasn’t the guys, they were okay guys. Some of them liked me. I just start thinking about reality and lose my concentration.”
“You messed up. That’s all it was.”
“No. I had big thoughts. I just couldn’t get them out. But somehow–”
“Your type will always locate a ‘somehow.’ Somehow this, somehow that, it’s never your fault, somehow it’s always someone else’s fault. Maybe you should for once in your life forget about somehow and concentrate on one thing, do it well, thoroughly, completely, and not give a shit about what happens somehow to you. Then, if you know you did your best, possibly soon enough they will know, and there will be no somehow.”
He brought out the Dale carnegie in me.
“I tried to, I tried to,” he protested.
Thankfully, the food came – thinking about it now, I realize it was enchiladas, rice and beans, and a taco on the side – and we were spared more chatter as we put it down with another beer. Again, it was a good meal, and I was happy, for the rest of my life, to enjoy Mexican whenever the chance arose. That much I owe Lee Harvey Oswald.
We finished without much chatter, and I paid, and out we went to the car. It was dark now, and twenty minutes had passed since we had spoken. His face was knit tight, I guessed partly in fear of saying something stupid, partly in confusion. He could not meet my eyes.
When the car doors were closed and I’d pulled out into traffic, I finally said, “Alek, you know how it works, don’t you?”
“Sir?” he said in English.
“That is, the organization I represent.”
“I suppose so. You find people who–”
“No, no, not the idealized, the propagandized, version. I mean the reality. That reality is that it’s a big organization and it has many subunits, many departments, many cells, all of them driven by ego, fear, ignorance, full of average men attempting to curry favor with supervisors, attempting to
“Yes sir,” he said.
“Kostikov and Yatskov, for example, they’re in a division that is charged with servicing and monitoring our embassies abroad. They watch for spies, they try to recruit spies, they also have responsibilities for vetting defectors, dealing with walk-ins, this and that. Their hope is to get through thirty-five years without making a bad mistake or offending a superior; if they accomplish that, they get a medal, a nice but hardly remunerative stipend, and possibly a small dacha outside Moscow in one of the less fashionable districts. If so, they can consider themselves heroes and successes, you see?”
“To them, you are simply a problem they do not care to deal with. Imagination is not their strong suit. Career-wise for them – and there is no other concern – it’s best you go away fast and forever and not upset or reroute the Kostikov Express to a dacha.”
“But I’m in a different department. When news reaches me of the crazy American who says he took a shot at General Walker, I’m not annoyed, I’m fascinated. I have to learn more. My department has use for people like the crazy American; we’re charged with actually accomplishing something, not merely maintaining a security perimeter.”
“We occasionally do what’s called ‘wet work.’ Can you guess the meaning of ‘wet’?”
“Underwater,” the idiot said.
I sighed. “Try again, Alek.”
“Oh. Blood. You kill people.”
“Rarely. Sometimes. It’s always a tricky decision. It’s not like there’s a double-oh license or anything and we can go about blasting people with burp guns. But yes, sometimes, when necessary, say a defector, a murderer of one of our people, a particularly loathsome political opponent, then we may kill people.”
We reached his neighborhood. I pulled up a few doors down from his roominghouse, because I had no way of knowing if people there knew him and might remember him getting out of a car driven by a stranger.
“Alek,” I said, “I have a present for you. It’s in the glove compartment. Please reach in and get it.”
He opened the glove box and took out a white box of Western Cartridge co. 6.5 mm Mannlicher-Carcano ammunition. He held it in his hand, jostled it, felt its considerable weight. His eyes lit up.
“Bullets,” he said. “For my gun.”
“You know Kostikov and Yatskov thought you were making up your story. So did everyone in the apparatus. Except me. I thought: Perhaps this man, who lies about so much and has not finished one thing in his life, nor impressed one person, perhaps he is telling the truth about the shooting. That’s why I had to know you, Alek, I had to look into you. That’s why the travel, the investigation, all the interviews. But not till now, this second, have I confirmed for myself that yes, you are the rare man who believes in the cause so much that he will do the wet work for it. It’s easy to hand out flyers and go to meetings with homos and Negroes and federal agents. It’s easy to defect if you get to marry the sexiest Russian babe and begin fucking her right away. It’s easy to tell people that you’re a red, that you believe in the workingman, and that changes must be made, because you like the attention it gets and the ruckus it causes. The campuses and beatnik cafes are full of such worthless scum. But rare, truly rare, is the man for whom the revolution is worth dying for and worth killing for. He would be the man of action, an ideal. I believe you are such. Now get out, go home, go to bed, and prepare for another day of glory boxing books on the sixth floor. I will contact you again after these matters settle in that tiny little rathole you call a mind.”
“GO!” I commanded, and out he scooted.