The day began with sun, but by the time he’d finished coffee the clouds of middle Europe had rolled in, a lead weight pressing down on the city, turning everything gray. They crossed the Vltava over a different bridge, downriver from the Mala Strana.
“Is this the right way?” Nick said. “I don’t remember this.”
“Just keep going to the end. Soviet Tank Square.”
“They call it that?”
“Mm. Namesti sovetskych tankistu,” she said, the accurate pronunciation its own joke. “Of course in those days they were liberating, not invading.”
“How do you know all this?”
“All what? It’s just tourist stuff. I had a lot of time to get to know the city.”
“Are you going to see him, your friend?” Maybe the split hadn’t been as casual as she had said.
“Jiri?” She was looking out the window. “No, not this trip. One reunion’s enough, don’t you think?”
There was no one near the tank and they drove around the traffic circle once, then parked near the corner and pulled out a map, pretending to plot the trip. The place names, brimming with consonants and accent marks, might have been Chinese.
“Let’s hope he doesn’t drive too fast,” Nick said. “I could never follow this.”
But his father had thought of everything. When the Skoda pulled alongside, he got out to switch cars. In the daylight he looked less drawn, more like himself, and Nick felt a jolt again, as if a photograph had come alive.
The woman in the passenger seat was handsome but full-faced, and when she stepped out to change sides he saw that her body was thick, rounded by time and gravity. To his surprise, she was shy and nervous, brushing a stray hair back in to place with the automatic gesture of a girl wanting to look her best, and Nick realized that she was apprehensive about meeting him. She smiled hesitantly, glancing into his eyes.
“Anicka, this is my son,” his father said. “Nick, my wife, Anna.” So easy. The whole tangled mess reduced to a simple introduction. She held out her hand.
“How do you do,” she said, a formality from a phrasebook, but her eyes were warm, scanning his face now, tracing her husband’s features. “You are very like,” she said pleasantly.
“Miss Chisholm, would you go with Anna? Then no one gets lost.”
“Molly,” she said to Anna, shaking her hand too.
Anna placed her hand on Nick’s father’s sleeve, familiar and affectionate, and said something in Czech. Then she got in the car and started around the tank, noisily shifting gears.
“What did she say?” Nick asked.
“Not to be too long. I thought I’d show you the sights. We don’t want to travel in convoy.” He walked toward the passenger door.
“Why not? Do people follow you?”
“No.” He smiled. “Force of habit, that’s all.”
Nick started the car. “Where to?”
“Just drive around. Head for the castle.”
“Can I see where you live?”
“It’s just up here. Up Holeckova. We’ll come round the other way. We don’t want to surprise anyone.”
Nick drove along the river, then climbed the steep hill to Hradcany. His father said nothing, glancing in the rearview mirror.
“I suppose she’s my stepmother,” Nick said, and then, when his father didn’t answer, “How did you meet?”
“At the institute. In Moscow. She was an archivist.”
“When was this?”
“Well, when? Fifteen, sixteen years ago.” Nick counted backward No, not right away. A decent interval.
“Do you love her?” he said, surprised at his own prurience. But how else could he ask it?
His father looked at him, then back at the street. “I married her. We’ve had a good life. I owe her this.” He motioned his hand to take in the city. “I never would have got out of Moscow otherwise. She’s a Czech national.” He paused. “I loved your mother. It’s different.”
Nick looked straight ahead at a church with several towers, green copper domes. “How long have you been here?”
“Just a year. She retired, you see, so they let us settle here. Kind of a gold watch. Ordinarily you have to stay put. But I guess they knew I wasn’t in any shape to worry about, so why not?”
“What’s wrong with you?” Nick said quietly. “Is it cancer?”
“No, my heart. I’ve had one operation, but it doesn’t seem to have done any good. That reminds me.” He took out a plastic vial and opened it. A different pill from the one last night. “Thins the blood,” he explained. “Of course, if you cut yourself you have a hell of a time, because it won’t clot. Fix one thing and something else goes.” He swallowed the pill without water. “Anyway,” he said, steering away from the subject, “we came to Prague. My gold watch too, I guess.”
“Hitler thought so too. He made it an open city. That’s why it’s still beautiful-no bombs. Imagine, having Hitler to thank for this.”
“What’s Moscow like?”
“It’s like Brooklyn. Everyone there thinks it’s special and you can’t imagine why.”
Nick smiled. The same rhythm.
“At first I couldn’t get used to the quiet,” his father said. “It’s very quiet for a big city. You never hear an ambulance or a fire truck. I don’t know why. Not much traffic. And then in the winter the snow muffles everything. Sometimes I used to open the window and just listen to the quiet. It was like being deaf. You think you want quiet, and then when you get it-” He paused. “But after a while you get used to it. Like everything else.” He took out a cigarette and rolled down the window. “The funny thing about that was in the bad old days, they used to send the cars at night, so no one would know. But it was so quiet everyone did know. You’d hear a car in the street-you couldn’t miss it-and you’d know it was an arrest. The whole block. Maybe they planned it that way. You didn’t go back to sleep after that. You’d just lie there, waiting to hear the next car. But that was before, when Stalin was alive. Turn here by the church. We’ll swing around the Strahov.”
Nick said nothing, imagining the nights, now just an anecdote. People talked about the knock on the door, but it had been something else, a car motor idling in a quiet street. No screaming, no people being dragged out, just the faint sound of a car door being shut, a deaf man’s terror.
“Were you ever arrested?”
“No. Of course, I was debriefed. That took months. I still don’t know where. But after there was a flat. In the Arbat. Two rooms-a palace, then. And a job. They gave me a medal.”
Nick heard the tone, a hint of pride, and was disconcerted. Was he supposed to congratulate him?
“What kind of job?” he said, not sure again how to ask. “Did you-work for them?”
“As an agent, you mean?” his father said, almost amused. “No. Who would I spy on? The diplomats, the journalists — they were already taken care of. There wasn’t anybody else. Just the defectors. We kept to ourselves-maybe we were kept to ourselves, I don’t know. For a while I worked with Maclean on International Affairs. The magazine,” he said to Nick’s unspoken query. “Like your Foreign Affairs. I think with the same level of accuracy. A nice man. A believer, you know. Still. But the others-” He let the phrase drift off. “Not exactly people you want to spend the weekend with. Besides, I was trying to learn Russian, not speak English. I was never very good at languages. I still can’t speak Czech, not really.”
“I thought you could.”
“You did? Oh, the committee. No, I never could. I picked up a few words from your grandparents. But they tried not to speak around me. They wanted me to be-” He paused, framing the words. “An all-American boy.” Nick said nothing, letting the thought sit there. “I was, too. I had a paper route. I still fold a paper like that, like I’m going to throw it on a porch. Sixty subscribers-a lot for then. The things you remember.”
Nick heard the fade in his voice and resisted its pull. “Too bad about the language. It would have come in handy,” he said lightly, indicating the street.
“Well, Anicka takes care of all that. That’s a little like being deaf too, when you can’t speak the language. People talk to you and you just look. You even get to like it, not hearing things. When I first got to Moscow, I would spend days not hearing anything. It was quiet. Like the streets.”
The sound, Nick thought, after a door had closed.
They had made the circle and were coming back down Holeckova. “Slow down a little if you want to see it. Where I live. Third building there on the left. The white one. Not too slow,” his father added, automatically putting his elbow on the window to cover the side of his face.
It was a multistory apartment building with simple art moderne lines in a section of the street that must have been developed before the war, when straight edges and glass were still a style. The white was tired now, but had escaped the cracks and watermarks of the newer buildings across the river, put up on the cheap. It was set back from the street, reached by a flight of concrete steps set into the hill. There was nothing remarkable about it at all, except that his father lived there.
“We were lucky to get it,” his father said. “The views are wonderful. Not the Old Town, but then the plumbing’s better. Two bathrooms.”
Nick glanced quickly at him, feeling again a peculiar sense of dislocation. He was in Prague with a ghost, discussing real estate. He noticed the hand at the side of the face.
“Does someone really watch the house?”
“Or do I just imagine it?” his father said wryly. “No, the Czechs take a look from time to time. The STB. You see, to them I’m a Russian. They want to know what I’m doing here.”
Nick took this in, toying with it. A Russian. They passed the Soviet tank again and headed across the river.
“What did they give you a medal for?”
“Services to the state. All of us got one. Mostly for going there. Once they’ve brought you in, they don’t know what to do with you, so they give you a medal. It’s cheap and it gives you something to hold on to. So you don’t wonder why you’re not doing anything anymore. They don’t trust foreigners-they can’t help it, it’s in the bone. After the magazine, I got the job at the institute, so at least they thought I wasn’t going to do any damage. Some of the others-English lessons, make-work.”
“What did you do?”
“Policy analyst. American policy. Of course, by the time they trusted me to do that, I’d been away from Washington so long I didn’t know any more about American policy than the next man. They have a habit of defeating their own purpose. But maybe that’s what they wanted all along. Anyway, they never listened to anything I had to say.”
Nick realized that the answer, easy and smooth, was what he wanted to hear, and for the first time he wondered if his father could be lying. Had he really done so little? For an instant he felt as if he were back at the hearing. So plausible and persuasive, and all the while- Nick stopped. Was he Welles now? The inquisitor to outflank? Who cared whether they listened to him or not? And it might after all — which was worse? — be the truth, a glib answer to mask a marginal life.
“Seems a shame-for them, I mean,” Nick said.
“Not taking advantage of my wisdom? Who knows? I was wrong about Cuba. I never thought we’d go that far.”
Nick paused. “We who?”
“We Americans,” his father said softly, clearly thrown by the question.
There was nothing to say to that and Nick drove quietly, skirting the top of Wenceslas to follow the streets behind the university. The mood in the car was uneasy now, as if, improbably, they had nothing more to say.
“Tell me about your mother,” his father said finally. “Tell me about Livia.”
“She’s-fine. Busy. Lots of parties. You know.”
“Yes, she loved parties.” A beat. “Does she ever talk about me?”
The word, blunt and final, hung between them, and the instant Nick heard it he wished he had lied. Another door closing, louder this time. The silence, as leaden as the sky, was its own response, and there was nothing to break it but the sound of the car. At a corner, Nick stopped and reached into a back pocket for his wallet. He pulled out a photograph and handed it to his father, then put the car back in gear and drove on, allowing him to look in private.
“She’s cut her hair,” his father said quietly. “She used to wear it longer.”
Nick kept driving, not wanting to intrude. From the corner of his eye he saw his father holding the picture, absorbed.
“I may have this?” he said finally, a foreign intonation. Nick nodded. “She’s the same.” He put the picture in the breast pocket of his jacket. “Don’t tell Anna,” he said, and Nick felt drawn against his will into some odd complicity. Why was even the simplest gesture tangled?
“Would she mind?”
“It’s better this way,” his father said, not answering.
“Sometimes the way she looks at me,” Nick said, “I think I remind her of you.” A small offering, to soften the no.
But his father wanted to move on. “No. Just the eyes.” He was looking at Nick now. “So tall.”
“We’re the same height.”
His father smiled. “Well, you used to be smaller. And now. You still bite your nails.” Involuntarily Nick moved his hands on the wheel, turning in his fingers. “Always something going on inside.”
You were going on inside, Nick wanted to shout. Instead, he said, “Do you have children? You and Anna.”
“No, there’s only you. We’re not so young.” He paused. “She’s nervous, you know, about you.”
His father shrugged. “She thinks you’ll change things.” He took out another cigarette. “But what is there to change?”
“Are you supposed to smoke those things? With your heart?”
“No, of course not. I’m not supposed to do anything. No excitement. If you listened to them, you’d be so careful you’d go without knowing the difference.”
“Is it bad for you? My being here?” A new thought.
“Very bad,” he said, teasing gently. “It’s the best thing in the world.”
The houses-smaller now, with patches of garden-were thinning out, and they could see the country ahead.
“Is this right?” Nick said.
“Yes, keep going. I want to show you something.”
“Are you going to tell me what?”
“It’s not a mystery,” he said, making it one. “Everything in its time.”
Nick glanced at him. There was an agenda, everything planned. And what was at the end? The Wallenstein, the switch of cars, the country. Step by step. Even their conversation now seemed to him a kind of testing, his father leading him further into his life, where nothing was open. Secrecy became a habit. He saw now that his father wanted to be sure of him somehow, and he felt unexpectedly wounded. Wasn’t it enough that he had come?
In the woods there were still blossoms on the trees, not the lush flowering of Virginia but a thin sprinkling of white, a Bohemian lace.
“Remember the dogwood,” his father said, seeing them too. “On 2nd Street? I wonder, is it still there?”
“Magnolia. I don’t know. The neighborhood’s changed.”
“But not the trees,” his father said, not hearing the shift in Nick’s tone.
“I’ve never been back. We sold it. Right after.”
“Ah. What became of Nora? Do you see her?”
“Just Christmas cards. She’s still there somewhere. Arlington, I think.”
“I always wondered, was she working for the FBI?” his father said easily. “Old Edgar had a real fondness for housekeepers.”
The words, like a trigger, exploded something in Nick. This was crazy, yet another descent through the rabbit hole. Even Nora. Who cares? It’s not important. He felt things fall away until there was nothing but the gulf of all the years between them. Why were they talking about this? The realtor view from Holeckova. Two bathrooms. Moscow in the snow. Surreal, all of it. They gave me a medal. Talk to me.
“I loved that house,” his father said dreamily.
It snapped again. Everything in its time. Now. He felt his breath shortening and gripped the wheel, bringing the car to a stop on the side of the road, his foot on the brake. He heard the motor, his own breathing, sensed his father turning in alarm.
“Why did you do it?” he said, his voice wavering, staring straight ahead, pulling the words out of himself, not enough breath for a wail. “Why did you leave me?”
Then there was no sound at all, a suspension even of air.
“I didn’t leave you,” his father said finally, in a whisper. “I left myself.” A distress real enough to touch. Nick knew it was true and knew that if he reached out for it they would lose the moment, put everything aside in some evasive forgetting.
“No,” he said, still looking at the wheel. “Me. You left me. Why did you?”
His father said nothing. Nick kept his eyes ahead, afraid to look. What could there be on his face but loss?
“I want to explain-” his father said weakly, then stopped.
“Why did you ask me here? What do you want from me?”
At this his father stirred, flustered. “If we could wait,” he said hoarsely. “The right time. So I can explain.”
“Now,” Nick said angrily, finally turning to him. “Tell me now. What do you want?”
His father met his eyes, the nervous fluttering gone, giving in. “I want to go home.”
Nick started driving, too stunned to do anything else. “Please, let me explain in my own way,” his father had said, and then, when he didn’t, Nick didn’t know how to press. The outburst had unnerved them both-they were afraid of each other now-so that driving seemed a form of apology. Don’t worry, I won’t do that again. It was safer to concentrate on the road.
“You know that’s impossible,” Nick said. But it had been impossible for him to come, and he had driven right in. A two-lane road, through the wire.
His father said nothing, determined to follow his own timetable, and Nick went back to the road, the ragged asphalt and lacy trees. Had he actually worked out the logistics? Nick’s imagination couldn’t take it in. Passports and border crossings and newsmen at the end, like the men in hats. No. Not that. It was a kind of metaphor, a way of talking, one of his father’s riddles.
“Turn up here.”
Nick saw the sign. “Terezin?”
“In German, Theresienstadt.”
“The model camp. Where they took the Red Cross.”
His father nodded. That’s right. The model camp. In the museum, by the Jewish cemetery in Prague, they have the children’s drawings. They are-well, you’ll see them.“
They parked outside an old fortress, the walls of a castle town.
“Why are we doing this?” Nick said. “I don’t want a history lesson. I want to talk to you.”
“This is what we’re talking about. I want to start at the beginning. So you’ll understand.”
There were no other cars, and when a guard appeared, grumbling in Czech, Nick thought it must be closed, but his father flashed some card in his wallet and the guard, straightening himself, nodded a salute and passed them through.
The air was utterly still, not even moved by birds, and it carried the crunch of their shoes on the dirt. All the buildings were not just empty but abandoned, like a western ghost town whose mine had played out. There had been no attempt to turn it into a museum park, no flower beds or lawns, as if the ground itself had resisted any signs of new life. Just the graveyard stillness. The buildings, some of them old, pieces of architecture, had been left to rot, exhausted by their own terrible history. It was not the kind of concentration camp Nick had seen in a thousand photographs-the railway tracks to the smokestacks, the long barracks, wrought iron twisted into messages-but there was no mistaking the stillness. They had left their dread behind, and it still hung in the air, as real as blood.
“People have the idea that it wasn’t so bad here,” his father said, taking them farther into the compound. “You know-the orchestra, the children’s drawings. Like summer camp. But sixty thousand died here. The rest they sent to Auschwitz, the other camps. Everybody died. You see the bunks.” He gestured toward an open door, where Nick could see bunk beds stacked to the ceiling. “Nine in a bunk. Sometimes more. You can imagine. Typhus. Dysentery. Well, you can’t imagine. Nobody can. People think that because there were no ovens-but over sixty thousand. Here, not shipped out. They didn’t need gas chambers. They just shot them, one by one. Or the gallows. Not very efficient but maybe more satisfying. They could watch.”
Nick followed him down the dusty street, saying nothing. This happened in my lifetime, he thought.
“At the end there, through that gate, is where they shot them.”
“I don’t want to see this,” Nick said, claustrophobic.
“There’s just one thing.” He stopped at a house near the end. Next to it was an empty swimming pool, with bunches of old leaves stuck in rain puddles on the cracked concrete. “This was the commandant’s house.”
“He had a swimming pool?”
“For his daughters. Little girls. The prisoners would march by here on their way to the firing range.” He pointed again to the open area through the gate. “They shot them over there.”
So close. The sharp crack of gunfire. Not once. All day.
“They would hear,” Nick said, picturing it.
“Yes. While they were swimming. The first time I saw this-what kind of people were these? Little girls swimming, and all the time-”
“Maybe there was a fence,” Nick said dully. “So they couldn’t see.”
“No. No fence.”
Then the prisoners would see them too, Nick thought. Splashing. The last thing they would see.
“Why are you showing me this?” he said, turning away from the pool.
“I want you to understand what they were. Nothing will make sense without that.”
Nick looked at him, sensing where he was heading. “You don’t have to explain yourself to me.”
“No? I think I do. The politics of another generation — they’re never real, are they? What was the point? Thirty years from now, they’ll ask you. What was so important? But it was important.”
Nick thought of Jan Palach. Important enough to light a match.
“In Prague,” his father said, “you see all the statues. Hussites. Catholics. What was that? Nobody remembers. But at the time, if you lived then.”
Nick looked down, moving his shoe across the dirt like a visible thought. “You didn’t know about this. Not then.”
“The swimming pool, no. But we knew what they were. All you had to do was listen.”
“And no one was stopping them. No one. America First. It’ll all just go away. Or maybe it’s a good thing. People thought that then, you know. We had our own Nazis. My God, Jim Crow. People with sheets over their heads. That doesn’t seem real anymore either, does it? Father Coughlin on the radio, that prick.”
Nick glanced up, oddly reassured by the familiarity of his father’s scorn. Still an anti-cleric. But his father was racing now.
“And you could see what the Nazis were doing. Austria-just like that. They weren’t going to stop. Then Czechoslovakia. The Sudeten, but we knew it meant the whole thing. Why not just hand it over? The English,” he said, waving his hand. “And nobody in Washington lifted a finger. Couldn’t. It would have been bad politics. Nobody was trying to stop them.”
“Except the Communists,” Nick said quietly, following his logic. “That’s when you became a Communist.”
“Yes. After Munich. That was the last straw. Strange, in a way. I didn’t have any special feeling for the Czechs. Your grandparents had family here-in the Sudeten, in fact — but I never felt Czech. I don’t feel Czech now. I think it was the helplessness, the feeling that you had to do something.” He stopped, then managed a shrug. “Another generation’s politics. How do you explain it? Maybe I was ready, and then Munich came along.” He glanced up at Nick. “I wasn’t the only one, you know. A lot of people joined in the thirties. There were good reasons then. Well, we thought there were.”
Nick looked at him. “They didn’t become spies,” he said. He turned back toward the entrance gate. “Let’s go.”
His father followed him. Outside the walls, near the car, he touched Nick’s elbow. “Let’s walk for a bit.”
Involuntarily, Nick drew his elbow in. “Not in there,” he said, but he began to walk. “What made you ready?”
“I was impatient.” Nick caught the tiny barb and slowed to his father’s pace. “The times,” his father said vaguely. “You can’t imagine what things were like then. You remember where Grandma lived?”
They had visited a few times when Nick was a child. Collieries and slag heaps and cookie-cutter company houses. The big coal stove in the basement kitchen, where his grandmother seemed to live, held by the warmth. A photograph of Roosevelt on the wall. The Last Supper, draped with a frond from Palm Sunday. Upstairs, the parlor with doilies where the priest visited once a year and no one sat.
“People literally went hungry in those days. I had friends, children, who worked in the breakers. Half the miners were on relief. You picked up coal by the tracks, the pieces that fell off the cars. In a burlap bag. You had to drag it home if it got too heavy. But I was lucky-I got out. I was going to change all that.”
“She never believed you did it,” Nick said. “Grandma. She wouldn’t look at the papers. She said it was a mistake.”
His father stopped and took a breath, as if he’d been punched.
“In the early days we did change things,” he continued, refusing to be distracted. “Washington was exciting. The New Deal.” He pronounced it for effect, like a foreign phrase. “We were just out of law school-what did we know? We thought we could change anything. Nothing could stop us. But they did. I think we just knocked the wind out of them, and then, when they caught their breath, there they were again. The Welleses, the Rankins-they were always there, you know. We didn’t invent them after the war. Defenders of the faith. Whatever it was. Themselves, mostly.”
He turned, looking at Nick. “You know, when I first went to Penn, I remember I had a suitcase. Your grandmother bought it for me, and I saw right away it was all wrong. I hid it in the closet. Embarrassed, you know? And then I thought, what the hell? I’ll catch up. This was my chance. I had the scholarship and the job, and sometimes I didn’t even sleep, there was so much I wanted to do. But what I couldn’t understand-it was the first time I’d met people who thought they deserved their luck. They didn’t know they were lucky. They didn’t think at all about the ones who weren’t there. How can people be like that? Not see they’re lucky? Not have some-” He searched. “Compassion.”
“They’re afraid someone will take it away,” Nick said simply.
“Yes.” His father nodded. “But what makes them think they should have it in the first place? That’s what’s interesting. What do they believe in? What did Welles believe in? I still don’t know. Of course,” he said, a faint smile on his face, “they’re not very bright, are they? Maybe that’s all of it. Kenneth B. Welles. I remember when he first came to town. Not even a lightbulb on upstairs. He never did have anything except his amour propre.”
“And the right suitcase.”
His father glanced at him appreciatively. “Yes, he had that. His father-natural gas, of all things. That certainly ran in the family,” he said, a throwaway. “Anyway, things just-stalled. Maybe we ran out of steam. Maybe Welles and the rest of them learned how to block. Bills just sat in committee. After a while all we were doing was fighting them. Not politics, schoolyard stuff. And meanwhile things kept going to hell-there wasn’t time.” He stopped. “Impatient, you see. So I was ready.”
“What did you do? Walk into some office and sign up? Like that?” Nick said, sounding more sarcastic than he intended.
“No, they come to you,” his father said, ignoring the tone. “They fish. First the bait, then they play the line-it turns out that’s what they did best. In those days, that’s all they were doing, but I didn’t see that. No change. Just recruiting.”
“Who recruited you?”
His father stopped and looked toward the fortress walls. “Names. Well, what difference does it make now? He’s dead. Richard Schulman, a teacher at Penn. He was never exposed. You’re the only one who knows this,” he said, his voice suddenly conspiratorial.
Nick looked at him. “It was thirty years ago,” he said. “No one-”
“Cares,” his father finished. He shook his head. “Old battles. Still, it’s not easy, you know, even now, giving names. Anyway, he kept in touch. He came to Washington now and then. We had dinner. I think he saw I was — what? Discouraged. Ready for something else. It was a long process. A seduction.”
His father smiled. “Like the Brits? No, he had four wives. I think he changed them if they got suspicious. None of them knew, not even them. I think that’s what he liked, the secrecy. Of course, in my case it made sense, being a secret member. If you were in government, you couldn’t be public. That’s how it started. We were secret for my protection, so I could keep the job. At least I didn’t have to go to the meetings,” he said lightly. “Self-criticism, that was the thing then, you know-all that breast-beating. I heard the stories later. I don’t think I would have made it through that, so it’s just as well.”
He glanced at Nick, expecting him to be amused, but Nick was still looking at the ground, waiting. “So. I was in place. Secret and in place. What else could the next step have been? It started with the trade agreement. We were being stupid about that-still trying to collect old war debts. Anyone could see the Soviets didn’t have that kind of money to spare. They couldn’t rearm against Germany without hard currency. But the talks just dragged on and on.”
“So you decided to give them a push.”
“Yes, a push. A little one, to move things along. It was important for them to know how to speed up the negotiations. We’re not talking about tank designs, just position papers, memos. Half the people involved had access to them. They weren’t sensitive.”
“Then what good were they?”
“Well, you have to understand the Soviets. They have a mania for information. It comes, I think, from feeling so isolated. During the war, they took planeloads of documents out. On the lend-lease planes-bags of them. Memos. Newspapers. Useless, most of it. Paper. But they always wanted more.”
“I don’t want to know what you gave them,” Nick said, flustered. “What matters is, you did.”
“No. It’s important for you to know. For what I’m going to tell you.”
“It was never anything military. Office paper. Like emptying a wastebasket. Things we should have told them in the first place. Why not? We could tell England, but not them. They had to rely on-people like me. Just to know. But what could I tell them? Diplomatic reports. What Ambassador so-and-so thought, assuming he thought anything. What was the harm? I never gave them anything that would hurt us. I never had anything like that. Just my in-box.”
“Your in-box,” Nick said, facing him. “Is that why you sent for me? To tell me how innocent it all was? Just a little private Lend-Lease, out of the goodness of your heart? My God. Don’t you think it’s a little late for this?”
“No,” his father said, shaking his head. “I didn’t mean that. I knew what I was doing. I thought they had a right to know. It was never-innocent. The point is, I never gave them anything important.”
“So why bring me out? Do you think I was Philby? I wasn’t. What made me so important to them?” It was a new idea to Nick, unexpected, but his father’s voice was even, the patient tone of a teacher leading him through a theorem proof. “All that trouble for me. Why?”
“You got caught.”
“No. I was accused. I was never caught.” Nick looked at him, picking up the odd, twisted pride in his voice. “What did they have? A salesgirl who said she knew me. Her word. My word. We could have beat it,” he said, a lawyer again, still preparing the case.
“The papers said she had more.”
His father waved his hand, an easy dismissal. “What more could she have? She was the messenger. That was Welles grabbing a headline. He did that, you know. On Fridays. By Monday people would forget he hadn’t actually told them anything. He was just trying to turn up the pilot light, make that poor girl think he had something. Shake her up a little and see if any more came out. It’s been known to work. Anyway, this time it went with her. But he didn’t have anything.”
“Maybe she’d already talked to him.”
“No, we’d have heard. Why would he keep it to himself? It cost him, that hearing. Smoke and no fire. People get fed up. He started looking like a bully. She didn’t tell him anything about me. She couldn’t have-there was nothing to tell. She sold the shirt, I left the papers. That’s all there was to it. Simple. Nothing to connect either of us. Of course, one way or the other, after the hearing I’d be out of business. That kind of spotlight doesn’t go away. As far as they were concerned, I was finished. But Welles was stuck-he didn’t have enough to put me away. So why not just retire me? Why bring me out?”
Nick stopped, rattled. “I thought it was your idea.”
“No.” His father slowly shook his head. “I had no choice, Nick. You believe that, don’t you?” He took Nick’s elbow, a physical plea. “To leave everything- No. I thought we could sit it out.” He took his hand away, dropping it with his voice. “We could have.”
“What are you trying to say? That it was all a mistake? Somebody jumped the gun?” This was worse somehow, their whole lives turned around in a careless haste.
“I did think that at first,” his father said, starting to walk again. “I tried to tell them. But there were orders. You didn’t argue with that. Ever.”
“In the phone booth,” Nick said quietly. “In Union Station.”
His father turned, amazed. “How did you know that?”
“I followed you.”
“You followed me,” he repeated. When he looked at Nick, he softened, as if he could see a child’s face again. “Why?”
“I knew something bad was happening. I thought, in case-” He stopped, surprised to find himself embarrassed.
“In case,” his father said, still looking at him. “So I made you a spy too.” Then he smiled. “A better one, it seems. I had no idea.”
“You weren’t looking.”
“We’re supposed to, you know,” he said wryly.
Nick shrugged. “People don’t see kids. You had things on your mind.” He saw him again, in the herringbone coat, walking slowly up the hill, looking down at the snow, preoccupied. “Is that when you decided? After the phone call?” As if the chronology mattered.
“I didn’t decide, Nick. I did what I was told.”
“But if Welles didn’t have anything?”
“We didn’t know that then, only later. I suppose I believed him too. That there was something. I didn’t want to go to prison.” He stopped, turning. “So I went.”
“Without us,” Nick said, picking at it.
“Yes. Without you. It was usual to have the families follow. Like Donald’s.”
“But we didn’t.”
“No. Did I think your mother would come? I don’t know. At first I hoped, but I never heard. And then-well, by that time I knew Moscow better. It was the terror all over again, until Stalin died. No one was safe. War heroes.” He snapped his fingers, making them vanish as casually as the black cars in the night. “Even Molotov. He denounced his wife. The fool thought it would save his job. She spent seventeen years in the camps. Soviet justice.” He turned to Nick. “It was no place for you. I didn’t want you there, can you understand that? It would have killed your mother, that life. Later, when things got better-” He spread his hands. “You were already someone else.”
They had made a circle through some trees and were heading back to the fortress, to the stillness. The guard had left his post and in their absence was inspecting the car, running his hand along the smooth finish as if it were an exotic animal.
“It’s clearing,” his father said, looking up. “We’ll have sun.”
“Then let’s finish.”
“Yes.” He stopped, touching Nick’s elbow again. “A moment.”
The words sounded translated. Nick looked at him quickly, wondering whether the walk had tired him. Or was he trying to keep a distance from the guard? But his face, lost in thought, showed something else: an old man trying to find his place in a prepared speech.
“So why bring me out?” he said finally, picking up the thread. “The propaganda? That was part of it. Just being there. They like to show us off. Like the Africans they bring to the university. Living proof. Marx is everywhere-even in the jungle. No color bar in the International. Of course, the people think they’re savages-they just stare at them in the metro-so who’s fooling whom?” He paused, catching himself. “But they never used me that way.”
“They gave you a medal.”
“Yes. One press appearance, then no more. A lot of trouble to take, don’t you think, for a minute on the stage?”
“They had to help you. Isn’t that part of the deal?”
“For a Russian, yes, they would do that. But the rest of us — it would depend on what we knew. And what did I know? So why take the chance, if I was being watched, for instance?” he said, glancing slyly at Nick. “Someone had to get me out. Why put anyone at risk? Why not just leave me to the wolves?”
His father looked at him, his eyes burning, finally there. “To protect someone else.”
For a moment Nick was silent, trying to take it in. “Do you know that?” he said quietly.
His father nodded. “I’ve had a lot of time to think about it. At first you flatter yourself-you want to believe you are important. But I wasn’t. It was never about me, Nick, what happened. It was always about someone else.”
Nick stared at him, so carefully led to the point that now he felt pinned by its sinking inevitability, the event of his life reduced to an accident. Not about them at all.
“Who?” he said.
His father began to walk again, his voice slipping back to its instructor tone. “Well, who did I know? The logical person was Schulman. It fit. He recruited me. He must have been valuable to them. He would insist on being protected. Richard Schulman. I didn’t know it was possible to hate someone that much. During the bad times I had that to hang on to. He’d get caught-it would happen to him, too. It didn’t, though.” He took a breath. “Which was just as well. It wasn’t him, you see. It was someone else.”
“Who?” Nick repeated.
“That’s what I want to find out.”
For an instant Nick wondered if his father was all right, his anger finally curdled over the years into an old man’s obsession. “Find out? How?”
“The woman is the key. I was sent away and she-died. So someone would be safe. Schulman? No. It should have been him, but he died too.” He glanced at Nick. “Quite naturally — later. There was no question about that. I saw the coroner’s report.”
Nick looked at him, appalled. How long had his father been working out his old puzzle, playing detective while his life passed by? Then he saw himself in London, arranging index cards like clues.
“So,” his father said, a blackboard pointer in his voice, “a new question. Who else did she know? Who recruited her?”
They were almost at the car now, and Nick turned to him, away from the guard. “Does it matter anymore?” he said gently. “So many years. Maybe he’s dead too.”
His father shook his head. “No, you don’t understand. It does matter. He’s still there.”
The guard, no longer shy, called over to them in rapid Czech, and Nick stepped aside when his father answered, jarred by the sudden volley of foreign words. Even the familiar voice seemed different, guttural and slurred. He looked at him, half expecting to see his face changed too, broad and Slavic.
“He wants to know what it can do on the highway, how fast,” his father said.
“I don’t know,” Nick said, his mind elsewhere. “What do you mean, he’s still there?”
“Later,” his father said quietly, then spoke in Czech again, affable now, sharing a foreign joke. Nick watched the guard widen his eyes, then shrug. “I told him ninety easy before it starts to rattle. He says his Tatra would fall apart.” The guard gave the car an admiring pat. “I think you’ve made a convert to the West.”
“Stop it,” Nick said, annoyed at his tone.
“Just smile and get in the car,” his father said, almost under his breath, and then spoke Czech to the guard again. Nick watched them chat for a minute, idle car talk outside the old camp walls, and felt again how surreal ordinary life was here. The past wasn’t forgotten, just ignored. Down the road, little girls had played in a pool.
“Never leave a bad impression,” his father said, getting in the car. “People remember.”
Nick put the car in gear and pulled away. “How do you know he’s still there?”
His father lit a cigarette. “Because I’ve been following him. Every agent has a pattern.”
“Well, at first by accident,” he said, blowing smoke, easing into it. “We always acted alone in Washington. Burgess staying at Philby’s house-that kind of thing would have been impossible for us. We never knew each other. I had my contact, my control, at the Russian embassy, and that was it. No one else.”
“Then how do you know-”
“The code names. They liked to group us-it’s a convenience. Fish. Birds. Mythology. Whatever came to someone’s mind. I’ve often wondered who did that, who assigned the names. They’re supposed to be completely at random, but you know how it is, someone can’t help being clever. San Francisco was Babylon, Washington Carthage. Capitals of fallen empires. Some clerk’s idea of a joke.”
“What was yours?”
“Coal. I thought it was because of the union work, but it turned out we were all minerals. It had no significance at all. Schulman was Gold. Panning for gold? Maybe he was just first. Of course, I never had the cross-files, only the code names. But it became a kind of game to figure it out, to see whether I might have known any of them. I was pretty sure Iron was Carlson over in Commerce-the reports had his tone, just as dull as talking to him, and sure enough, when he died the reports stopped, so it must have been. Copper was someone at the Post, but I’m still not sure who. The others were mostly illegals, Soviets who were there without diplomatic immunity, so I wouldn’t have known them even if I had had the cross-files. Not that it mattered. It was just a game, to help pass the time.”
Nick stared ahead, amazed. A boys’ game for grownups, code names and passwords.
“Of course, this was all later,” his father continued. “After Josef, my embassy control, came home. At first I didn’t see anything. They had me reading newspapers. I was a sort of Reader’s Digest for Moscow Central. Then I got the traffic from the San Francisco residency.”
“They had an office in San Francisco? What for?”
“Originally to monitor the UN conference in ‘45,” his father said easily. “Afterward, well, some of the old GRU contacts were still there. It was useful to keep tabs on the Soviet merchant marine. Sailors had a bad habit of jumping ship once they were in Babylon. Defectors. That kept the office busy.”
“What happened to them, the sailors?”
“Does it matter?” his father said quietly.
“They were found and shipped back home.”
Not a game. Hunted down, thrown into ships, sent back to prison camps.
“With your help,” Nick said.
His father was quiet, then sighed. “Yes, with my help. What do you want me to say, Nick? That I didn’t know?”
“No,” Nick said, absorbing it. “Go on.”
“So Josef came back-this would be after they finally got rid of Beria, lots of changes then-and we got together. He liked a drink. I’m a political analyst, I said. Isn’t it time I had something to analyze? I’m wasting my time here. No one is going to waste time now, he says. We’re going to clean house. You’ll see. Very important. As if it were up to him. It’s the drink talking, I thought. But no, reports did start coming. They threw out half the section, Beria’s goons, and Josef had everything his way for a while. He liked me, I don’t know why. I never liked him much, but we don’t pick our commissars, do we? I finally had some real work to do.
“Then, one day, a funny thing. Josef used to assign the reports, but he was out, so his secretary brought them straight over from cryptology. She was the type who knew everything-she came with the place. No one could ever get rid of her, not even Josef. I think maybe she had a protector. Anyway, she handed me a report and said, ‘So Silver’s back. Now we’ll really have something,’ as if I knew all about it. ”Good,“ I said. ‘It’s about time.’ Conspirators, you see. And she was right-we did have something. Committee minutes. House appropriations. Much better than the other stuff I was seeing. So where did this come from? I wondered. Not Carlson. Not an illegal-the access was too good. The next day I said to Josef, ‘Who’s Silver?’ Not that he would tell me-that wasn’t allowed. But I thought he might say something, a hint. For the old network. It only took a second, that look of surprise. He shouldn’t have hesitated — we live for seconds like that.”
Nick thought of the guard, of his father’s seamless affability, not even a second’s pause.
“‘There is no Silver,’ he said. ‘What are you talking about?’ But I knew. It was that second. I showed him the report. ‘Oh, this,’ he said. ‘That idiot in cryptology — he keeps getting the names wrong. There is no Silver.’ So I went along with it-what else could I do? I waited for the next one. Of course it never came. So one day I took a report back to the secretary and said, casually, you know, ‘This one’s no Silver. When’s he going to deliver again?’ and the old cow smiled that little superior smile of hers. ‘Oh, Josef Ivanovich reads those himself.’ So there it was. But what? Why not let me see them? I was reading everything else. We used to cross-check the reports, to verify information when we could. Evidently these didn’t need verification. Josef never said a word. I would get him drunk, talk about the old days, but never a word. The others, yes. How Carlson used to bungle the meetings. Lots of stories.
“Then one night he said something interesting. We were talking about the Cochrane woman. ‘That was wrong,’ he said, ‘which surprised me. I thought he was talking about her being killed. Josef wasn’t the squeamish type. His hands were never- Then he said, ’You can’t run things that way. The postman shouldn’t know anyone.‘ ’She knew me,‘ I said, thinking I’d catch him, but he just shrugged it off. ’From the newspapers.‘ He wagged his finger at me, I remember. ’I always said, stay out of the newspapers.‘ Scolding me, a joke. So we laughed. But all I could think was, she knew somebody else.”
“Silver,” Nick said.
“Yes. It had to be. No one else was that important. Maybe Schulman-he was a talent spotter, he would have known names, but he had a different contact. Not in Washington. She never knew him. It had to be Silver. No one in the old network was worth protecting. Not that way-killing somebody. Josef wouldn’t talk about him. They were still protecting him, even from me.”
“What made him so important?”
“His information. They were right-it didn’t need verification. No guesswork, no mistakes.”
Nick glanced over. “You got this from one report?”
“No, I saw others. I told you, I followed him. Nothing lasts forever in the service. Including Josef. He was a good man, too, as far as that went. His problem was, he was from the old days, all the way back to the Comintern, when people believed in things. He didn’t grasp what it had all become. Just smoke and mirrors. And perks, if you knew how to work them. Which he didn’t.”
“What happened to him?”
“I don’t know. We never asked.”
“You never asked?”
“Does that seem strange to you? You see how long I’ve been here. You have to live through the terror to understand. You’d hear the cars. The next morning no one would say a thing, even the neighbors. It happened in my building once. Like a plague-no one wanted to touch the sick. You went to work. You went about your business. After Stalin died it was different, but who knew for how long? It was always better not to ask. So we didn’t. People just-went away.” He paused and lit another cigarette, coughing slightly. “Once a whole hockey team, the WS, national heroes. That was Vasily’s pet project-Stalin’s son, a drunk. Vasya ordered them to fly to Kazan in a storm, on a Politburo plane, no less. It went down. But there were no disasters in the Soviet Union, not even natural ones. So no publicity. They just disappeared, the whole team. No one said a word.” He drew on the cigarette. “Vasya,” he said scornfully. “His father was always cleaning up one mess or another. He tortured people, I heard. For the practice. But what could they expect, given the father? They had to wait until Stalin died before they could send him away. Then he disappeared too.”
His voice had begun to drift, an old man’s ramble, away from Nick, and Nick saw now that he would never know his father’s other life. Even the palace gossip was as chilling and remote as whispers from outer space.
“We were talking about your boss,” he said.
“Yes. Josef. Another victim. But in this case also an opportunity. Now we had Alexei, somebody’s nephew, a kid. He didn’t even know where the files were. Josef’s secretary ran things, when he let her. He was suspicious of everybody — well, he was right to be suspicious-but he trusted me. An American defector. I’d be the one person who’d never have his job. So I helped him. Among other things, I told him that the Silver reports were supposed to come to me, no one else. Of course, it was his department now, and if he felt it would be better to change the procedures- He didn’t. He brought me the first one himself, like a puppy. So I followed Silver.”
“Who was he?”
His father shook his head.
“You never figured it out?”
“Neither did Hoover. But I knew where. Hoover showed me where.”
“Strange, isn’t it, to end up on the same side. We were both looking for him. And he helped me.” A small smile, a twist of history. “You see, I thought it had to be somebody I knew. The mind plays these funny tricks when you don’t know where to look. You turn things over and over-you suspect everybody. Everybody. Your best friend. Why not? He took my wife. Or your housekeeper.” He nodded. “Even Nora. Imagine. The best one was Welles himself. Just the kind of elaborate bluff the comrades would like.”
He stopped and shook his head. “So much time wasted. Then Hoover showed me. I got some of Silver’s early reports, the ones Josef had kept to himself, and that’s when everything began to fall into place. After I left Hoover went on another witch-hunt, this time internal. Right through the Bureau. Now that was interesting. He had never done this before, at least that we knew. So how did we know now? I studied those reports over and over. You see, we’d never been able to crack the Bureau. And now here it was, details, how he was turning the place inside out, what he was thinking. Not low-level information-someone close to him. And everything else began to make sense. The access everywhere, not just one department. The personal information-who else had files like that? Why he had to be protected-Dzerzhinsky would have done anything to keep someone close to Hoover. A prize. And that hunt, for Hoover to go after his own-I know what that’s like. It’s always the worst fear in the service, a renegade agent, someone who knows. Now it made sense why it was so hard for me to track him. The others, they’d reveal themselves one way or the other. You can’t imagine the mistakes. They don’t follow their own rules. Sometimes, by accident, even their own names, or their colleagues‘. But Silver was different. He was a professional, careful. Nothing to indicate where he was. But when Hoover knew, then I knew too. He was there. Our man in the Bureau. If it hadn’t been for Hoover, I never would have known where to look.”
“But you said there’s always a pattern.”
“To the reports, yes. A certain style. But never how he knew. The others, they made regular reports, even when they had nothing to report. But with Silver, months would go by. No unnecessary risks. Then, when he had something, there’d be several in a row, all complete. Then nothing again. You had to wait. When he stopped, I didn’t know it for months. I kept waiting. But he was gone.”
“What do you mean, he stopped?”
“No reports. No documents. It got to be a year. That’s a long time. I thought he was dead, or Hoover had finally got him and covered it up. What else? The others were all gone, one way or another. He had a long run, longer than most. People get caught, or die. Schulman. Carlson. Now Silver. It was the logical thing. You don’t retire, you know.”
“You did,” Nick said.
“I wasn’t in the field,” his father said smoothly. “Just an office worker. With a pension. In the field it’s different. You keep going until something happens. But he was never caught. We would have heard that. He had to be dead.”
“But he wasn’t.”
“No. I didn’t know for years. Of course, I wasn’t in a position to know. They reorganized the department again. I had other things to do. But I could still hear the gossip, and I never heard anything.”
“Then how do you know he’s still there?”
“The secretary again. What was her name? You’d think I’d remember. Pani Know-it-all. She finally retired, just before Christmas. They gave her a party.” He caught Nick’s surprise. “They have parties, you know, just like everyone else. A big one this time. Toasts all night. Sturgeon. For a secretary. Maybe they wanted to make sure she wouldn’t come back. Anyway, they invited all the old crowd, those of us who were left.”
“This was here?”
“No, in Moscow. I was there at the time.”
“It’s not important, Nick,” he said, impatient at the interruption. “Anicka had to go. I’m not in prison. I’m allowed to travel.”
“That’s right. I forgot. You have a medal.”
“Yes,” he said quietly. “A medal. All the privileges. They gave the secretary one too. Not Lenin,” he added quickly, as if it mattered, “just a service medal. She wore it all night. Pinned here.” He put his hand on his chest. “She was glad to see me. Sentimental. You know how those things are. The good old days. My God, the good old days-Beria. We saw the best of it, she said. Nonsense like that. Tears even, with the drink. So what can you do? You play along. ‘It won’t be the same without you,’ I said. I wonder if she thought I meant it. I suppose so. What else did she have then? A room somewhere out in Sokol? Her medal? ‘You were the last.’ And she nods, the cow. Yes, yes, we were the last. She takes my arm, all tears-I thought she was going to kiss me. ‘Now there’s only Silver,’ she says. ‘He never stops.’ I remember she had my arm and it jerked-I couldn’t help it. ‘I thought he was dead,’ I said. ‘Him?’ She just shook her head, Miss Know-it-all again. ‘Not him. He’s too clever for them. Not like the ones they have now. Amateurs. Not like the old days.’ As if it had been different then,” he said to Nick. “What did she think we were? ‘I can’t believe it,’ I said. ‘All this time.’ She patted my arm, like a child. ‘Yes, just like before,’ she said. ‘Just like before. They don’t retire him.’ And I knew then she’d been forced out-she wanted to die at her desk, I suppose. In the saddle. Nina, that was it. Her name.” He smiled to himself, as if remembering it had been the point of the story.
“And was he?” Nick said. “Still there?”
“Oh, yes. I checked. I still have some friends inside-I saw one of the reports. She was right. It was the same. Same style, same name. So I knew he was operating again. He’s still there, Nick. The one who sent me here. And now I know how to get him. Not Hoover. Me.”
Nick waited, but his father seemed to have finished.
“Why are you telling me this?”
“So you would know it’s not just for me. In case-” He hesitated. “I didn’t know if you would do it for me.”
Nick felt the soft words like a slap. In case.
“I told you. I need your help. To come out.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“Yes. It’s possible.”
“What am I supposed to do? Hide you in a trunk and drive across the border?”
“No,” his father said steadily. “I would never put you at risk, never. You believe that, don’t you? I want you to take a message, that’s all.”
“That’s all,” Nick repeated dully.
“Something for your country,” his father said. “Call it that. You were a soldier. You were willing to-now, just take a message. I can expose Silver. It’s important. Do it for that, not for me.”
Nick was quiet, following his father’s logic. “Sort of a patriotic act,” he said finally, his voice unexpectedly sarcastic. “One for our side.”
“Yes, one for your side.”
“And whose side are you on now?”
He meant to provoke, unable to stop himself, but his father just shrugged. “Sides. We both lost this war. What was it all about-does anybody know? Like the statues. Hussites. Catholics. No one remembers. What war?”
“You’re living behind barbed wire.”
His father shook his head. “It’s over. Look at us here. All those ideas. Pan-Slavism. Only twenty years ago. Now look. There are half a million troops in Czechoslovakia. We’re at war with ourselves. No idea survives that. And America. Communists in the State Department. Now Communists in Asia. They don’t know it’s already over. We’re fighting our children now. That’s how it’s ending for both of us.”
Nick said nothing, surprised at the outburst. What had he been like young, before everything turned to disappointment?
“Then let it go. Make peace.”
“I can’t,” his father said, quiet again. “I can’t let it go. For me it’s personal.” His voice picked up, ironic. “But for you. A spoil of war for your side. I owe that much.”
Nick lowered his voice, sensible. “You can’t go back, you know. It’s impossible.”
“No,” his father interrupted, “it’s possible. I have it all worked out. I can make it worth it to them.”
“Is it worth it to you? To go to prison? They’re all still there. Welles, all of them-Nixon’s the President, for God’s sake. There was a Communist in the State Department — you. Do you want to go through all that again?”
“I won’t go to prison,” he said calmly. “I’m an old man. Aside from anything else, there’s the statute of limitations. That ran out a long time ago. Anyway, I was never charged with anything. Who’s going to charge me now? The witch-hunts are over. Nobody wants that again.”
“Yes, they do. You were a spy. You said so. In public.”
“And now they’ll have a bigger one, brand-new. It can work, Nick. I’m not asking them to roast a fatted calf. Just make a quiet deal. They will.”
“It won’t be quiet,” Nick said, seeing the flashbulbs.
“Maybe they’ll like that. Who knows? Nobody’s ever asked to come home.”
Nick felt the sinking sensation again. The almost jaunty self-importance. The old game. One for our side. Brass bands and bunting. But that was now a country of the imagination, as distant as an old grudge. Maybe it happened like that. Maybe after all the years of dingy streets and bad clothes, America began to be a dream. He didn’t know he’d been forgotten.
“They’ll never let you go. Here.”
He turned to Nick. “That’s the risk. But I can do it.”
“I’ll come see you,” Nick said, a last try. “It’s easy for me. You don’t have to risk anything. We can start over.”
His father was quiet. “I don’t want to die here, Nick. Not here.” He placed his hand on Nick’s arm, a reassurance, not a plea. All worked out. “We’ll talk more,” he said, patting him. “Take that next turning, by the plum tree.”
The tree, heavy with blossoms, had scattered white markers over the one-lane road. Nick thought of Hansel’s pebbles, leading deeper into the forest. A mile later, they forked onto a narrower dirt road dotted with mud puddles.
“It’s almost time for lunch,” his father said, glancing at his watch. “I didn’t realize.”
“What kind of message?” Nick asked, still absorbed.
“Not now,” his father said quickly, as if they could be overheard. “And nothing in front of Anicka.”
“She doesn’t know?” Nick said.
“No. It could be dangerous for her.”
“Why does she think I’m here?”
“I wanted to see you, before it’s too late. It’s natural.”
“Yes,” Nick said flatly. A cover story.
“She’ll be worried,” his father said. “She worries when I’m late.”