The only belt-tightening I can unequivocally get behind is my own when a particularly satisfying dinner does the tightening. All other uses of the phrase are false flags designed to trap some poor schmuck in the hierarchy or to divert much needed funds into somebody else’s favorite promotion scheme du jour. 'Less is more' is a close cousin of the tighter belt and can be summed up as somebody with less understanding making a decision that causes more death, with at least some of the victims innocent and all of them far removed from the decision maker.
The kid delivering the champaign is a case in point. He’s dead, and my competence and veracity as an intelligence operative have been permanently besmirched among the very people who have the power to kill me in an instant. Worse, I still have to deal daily with the guy who made that decision and also, on occasion, with the guys who wanted to kill me because of it.
Let me set the scene.
Just before I flew to Berlin for the usual life and death part of my job, our boss took a vacation. He appointed as acting head of the Section a nincompoop colleague of mine, nicknamed Jello, who had finagled the gig with some fancy political footwork. Within twenty-four hours of the boss opening a beach umbrella in a distant paradise, I confronted Jello about his latest bone-headed edict limiting message traffic between the Section’s vault and agents in other time zones.
"You’re creating a disaster waiting to happen, Jello."
"Besides the cost savings in scheduling, Buddy, it’s necessary for security. We can’t have all kinds of messages floating around the world for the enemy to pick up anytime they want."
"Cost savings? Security? Information is our bread and butter, and everything is encrypted!"
"So was Enigma."
"We have procedures. Single use and all that. I always need background when I’m out. You’re cutting my throat here, figuratively, at a time when I’ll be dealing with somebody who specializes in it literally."
He gave me the condescending beatific smirk that always makes me want to hit him. "Read up on people in the area before you go, Buddy. Inch will give you all the files you request — in the vault. Nothing leaves here in any form."
"We’re talking about Berlin, Jello. How many Warsaw Pact operatives do you think might be there at any one time? I don’t know who we’ll come across until I get there, and Inch closes the reading room down promptly, no matter what, at four-thirty. I take off at seven tonight."
I landed in the capital city of cold warrior spooks with no access to the treasure trove of information back home, so I immediately sought help from the station chief. He was on compassionate leave back in the States because of a death in the family. I was referred to a deputy
"You should get the information you need from your own people," he said. "We send it back there to your office as soon as we get it. I have no proper established procedure for releasing it otherwise."
"But surely you can make an exception in this case." I tried to sound self-assured and persuasive, but it’s hard when you’ve been on the road and in the air for twenty hours and the spaghetti they served during turbulence over the Atlantic decorates the front of your shirt.
"I don’t have the authority to make an exception."
"But you’re in charge."
"I’m only the acting chief. It’s a named authority and my name’s not on it."
Somehow separation by an ocean had given two different definitions to the word 'acting' within the same government department.
I provide operational support for a team of specialists, the term sometimes used for those who specialize in tricky situations that involve death. I am called a babysitter, and the trade name of the team I support when they are working for us is Charlemagne. Evidently, their business was booming. They had bought themselves one of those new private jets that were becoming popular among the well-heeled in the late sixties and were flying into Tempelhof in style. I knew they worked for other governments as well as ours, and as I watched the shiny new thing land, I caught myself wondering if foreign babysitters had to deal with crap decisions by the Jellos in their organizations. Of course they did, I realized. It is in the very nature of any human endeavor subject to bureaucracy.
I pulled up next to the airplane and opened the trunk of the car I had rented. Nobody spoke as they stowed their gear. I did my best not to let on that I was more uncomfortable about this op than usual. Being in their company always made me nervous, so I figured a difference in degree shouldn’t register. But, of course, it did. Their point man reads minds.
"What is wrong?" Mack said.
The cut-throat son of a bitch knew my thoughts again. I would never get used to that. The other two young men sat in the back seat. Louis, whom I usually refer to as the Frenchman, chuckled as I stammered. Vasily Sobieski, talented son of another legendary assassin, sent me silent waves of disapproval.
"N… n… nothing that will affect the operation," I said, "just some political shit in my organization. Don’t concern yourself."
"I always concern myself about things that may kill me. Tell me."
I did not name names and kept it vague. I could tell Mack was not satisfied by my evasion, but he said nothing more.
At the safehouse, we went over the plan for that night, with Sobieski being more silent than usual, which means he remained creepily quiet, and the Frenchman actually acting somber, something I’ve rarely seen. I guess it would have been poor form to be his usual joking self when his friend Vasily faced the lion’s share of peril in this plan. They had rehearsed each move ahead of their arrival and informed me how it would go down without need of my opinions, only my obedience to Mack’s flawless direction. I was expected to show up on time at precisely the right spot. The usual 'or else' was implied.
Sobieski’s skill made the plan just possible. He would scale a wall, set a small diversionary charge, slide down, detonate and try not to stop flying masonry with sensitive parts of his body. After following Mack inside and sliding past the bleeding sentry Mack would have taken care of in his customary silent way, Vasily would lead Louis through the labyrinth of holding and interrogation cells to our guy before his next session of intense questioning and, we hoped, bring him out of there alive. The Frenchman’s perfect marksmanship and nearly silent semi-automatic would take the prisoner out if they found they could not get him out. That was the order. I wanted to vomit when I read it, but I’m sure our guy had no illusions about what his capture might mean in the end.
Sobieski would lead this effort because he knew the building intimately, the same way he knew most of the worst KGB hell-holes in Eastern Europe —- through experience. I had never trusted him and knew he did not like me — if he could harbor any such emotion as liking — but I had to respect him.
I promised to bring the car to the rendezvous without fail. I had managed to arrange stand-by medical help through the deputy station chief as well. Even if none of the team were injured, the prisoner would undoubtedly be in bad shape, assuming they were able to save him. I had arranged a place to meet an ambulance.
After the briefing, I offered the team ham sandwiches and potato chips. After suspiciously turning it over, the Frenchman took one bite of a sandwich and spit it out. I have to admit it was a bit dry.
They wore all black clothing and pulled on balaclavas before getting out of the car at the departure point, where they vanished within a few feet of the doors. I know I could no longer see them by the time I counted to three, when I drove away with the lights still doused and began dry-cleaning the traffic behind me before heading for the rendezvous.
The coffee I sipped from a thermos kept me awake and, I thought alert, until a pounded fist on the window next to me told me differently. I was hoping for four men and so counted them as they climbed or were helped or pushed into the car. They were all there. The murderous energy, the smell of blood and, once we were rolling, the stench of vomit coming from the back seat completed the tally by indicating that all four lived.
I stopped by the parked ambulance and handed over our guy to the deputy and the medics. Charlemagne stayed in the car.
"A heads up would have been nice," said the deputy, clipping his words.
"Need to know. I should think my request for an ambulance on stand-by indicated something might be going down."
"Yeah, but this particular extraction is going to need round the clock protection. Do you have any idea how many people want him dead?"
"I was ordered to hand him to you and that’s what I’m doing. Do I need a receipt from you? I’m also taking one of your medics with me. I got a guy bleeding into the front seat upholstery in there." I nodded toward the car.
His glare expressed his views about me and my guys enough to stop me from asking him again about the raw intel I knew I might need before the night was over.
As Sobieski limped into the safehouse and the other two began stripping off their reeking clothes I hoped for a fleeting moment that the adrenaline high was winding down peacefully without a need for that special comfort provided competently only by female company. No such luck. While Mack showered, Louis gave me the name of a fashionable new bordello with an accomplished chef and accommodating women. He even knew the name of the madam.
The message center was a few blocks from the safehouse and fresh air had become essential to me by this time, so I walked to it and was back in half an hour. I had sent home for any raw intel on the bordello and its employees, giving whoever might be on duty the names and address of the madam and the restaurant. Knowing Jello, I did not expect a reply, but you do your job even in the face of insurmountable obstacles and bad decisions in the workplace. Miracles have been known to happen. Besides, I consoled myself, an absence of a reply might mean no information existed.
Forty minutes after my return from my own private mission impossible, Sobieski’s leg had been stitched up and the team were all three spiffed up and ravenous for dinner. Dinner and other things, in the case of the Frenchman. We took a taxi, the car being too gruesome for habitation.
I stopped to check for messages on our way. There were none.
The meal was delicious. Louis made sure I knew that because of Vasily’s injury, he had carried our guy singlehandedly through the labyrinth of cells and up and down steps to the entrance where Mack could lend a hand. He made a point of reminding me that he did this without having eaten anything since lunch. Sobieski just stared at me with those expressionless, chilly grey eyes of his. My food choices always rankled them.
Madam introduced the woman she had handpicked for her 'most handsome customer'. The Frenchman ordered a bottle of champaign to be brought up to the room before he put down his napkin and followed his shapely diversion, sparing no more than a glancing smirk to his friends. A few minutes later, I saw a very young waiter inexpertly head up the stairs with a bottle in an ice bucket. He tripped on the bottom step and nearly dropped the bucket. Probably his first day in the world of work, I surmised. He looked too young to be shaving yet.
Not twenty seconds after the kid disappeared, the sound of a gunshot blasted into the dining room. Madam reassured her concerned guests, some of them on the verge of panic, that it was just a champaign cork, but we knew better and were already heading up the steps, weapons drawn.
Louis opened the second door on the left as we topped the staircase. He had removed his jacket and holster and loosened his tie. He held his Modelé with its elongated suppressor attached and struggled to buckle his belt with his left hand. He stepped aside and we entered. His lip curled at me in a sneer as I strode past him.
The waiter lay on the carpet just inside the door, blood pouring from a missing piece of his frontal lobe. The woman lay on the bed, fully dressed, with a neat little low caliber hole centered perfectly between her open eyes. Her hand held the unsuppressed .38 revolver that had interrupted everybody’s dinner downstairs. It had also taken the kid’s life.
In terse, expletive-filled French, Louis told us he had laid his holster and its weapon on a bedside table (as you do in such situations) and was busy enjoying the woman’s enthusiasm, when she suddenly reached for it. He grabbed it before she could get a grip, but she had the .38 in her other hand and now raised it to fire at him. Louis ducked and brought an arm across the back of her neck. Her finger continued to squeeze the trigger, the bullet finding a random target in the head of the hapless young man just coming in the door with a bottle of champaign.
I ushered them downstairs in a hurry, found us a taxi and took them straight to Tempelhof, leaving the mess in the bordello to the overtaxed acting chief of station.
Back across the pond at my own office the next day, I found all the raw intelligence the Berlin station had sent to our vault. It detailed the madam’s extensive connections with East German intelligence, including a brother-in-law in the Stasi. It even mentioned the dead assassin by name.
Our boss returned from vacation and the prohibition against message traffic to the field was rescinded.
The madam was arrested for espionage and her establishment closed.
The Berlin station threw darts at a picture of me (illegal — I am covert after all) in their break room because the closing of the bordello ruined a rich and no doubt enjoyable two-year collection effort that had already led to the discovery and arrest of three complete minor cells and was about to ferret out the top guy in a major one.
The deputy was posted somewhere unpleasant.
The rental car company charged me for an entire new interior because of the damage to the seats and carpets and refused my government credit card. I had to pay the charge, in cash, out of my own pocket. Reimbursement took six months.
The Frenchman developed his own procedures for checking an unknown woman. I fielded the consequent complaints each time we went out.
From that day forward, none of the team believed I ever had any intel about unknowns and never again listened to me when I did.
Charlemagne went on to greater and greater feats of doing the impossible and are now the premier specialist team in the West. They bought a bigger, faster jet.
I’m still their American babysitter.
The rescued man lived, had his identity changed and retired someplace nice.
Jello received a step promotion.
The kid with the champaign is still dead.
This story resulted from a contest prompt by Reedsy.com. The prompt was: "Write about someone making a seemingly inconsequential decision, which goes on to have important consequences." The prompt may be seen at this link: https://blog.reedsy.com/creative-writing-prompts/