"It is only just past the border. I attended a gymnasium there, for a little while. My uncle…"
Misha interrupted. "Vasily, you are under a death sentence because of what happened in Gdansk."
The balding American who sat with them in a dark corner of a seedy restaurant spoke up. "What happened in Gdansk?"
Vasily and his two friends responded with the malignant stare this question deserved. Vasily debated switching to Polish for privacy. Louis and Misha were fluent, but Frank had been studying too much and had added both semi-competent French and some basic Russian to his repertoire. Vasily did not want this American to take up his own language. If he had had any habit of introspection, he might have asked himself why, but he had no such facility and contented himself with an unmistakeable glare, correctly interpreted by Frank as a threat.
Misha set his empty glass on the table.
"If you will not wait here, then wait in Prague, if you are able to avoid the Czech secret police, but not Krakow. It is too dangerous for you, Vasily. The commission is simple. We will kill the target and be back within the day. Frank will wait with you if you stay in Vienna."
At the last words, Frank’s already bulbous eyes opened even wider in alarm. This made Vasily smile. Sweat formed on Frank’s forehead.
"It is not simple," insisted Vasily. "He is very high level KGB, First Directorate. He will have body guards, an armored car and a classified route."
"I will know the route within an hour of our arrival," said Louis.
"But your rounds will not penetrate a ZIL 117. He will not stop and his entourage will annihilate you."
"Then prepare a charge for us that will stop the ZIL, and we will use it. You need not be there."
"I must see the route to find where best to place it without detection and the most effective method to detonate. You will need me. I must go."
Misha signaled for more beer.
"You are wearing your most intransigent face, my friend. I concede your arguments are persuasive, but you do not become stubborn like this without a reason. What makes you so determined to risk summary execution?"
Vasily drained the first third of the new glass of beer before answering. They had a right to know, he mused, but then they would feel obligated to help, and he could not bear to endanger them for this. But they should know, he decided finally as he licked the foam from his top lip, because this is what it means to be a team.
"I have had a message from my uncle Henryk in Warsaw. My great-uncle Mateusz is under suspicion. I must convince him to leave."
"How many uncles do you have, Vasily?" Louis asked with a furrowed brow.
Vasily did not answer because he sensed Frank’s interest. The man would put the number in an American file and to be stolen eventually by the KGB.
Louis did not press the question. His glance at Frank told Vasily that his understanding had caught up and he now regretted asking.
"Where is Mateusz now?" asked Misha.
"In Krakow. He is a professor of medieval history at Jagiellonian University. I lived with him during the year I attended the gymnasium there, when I was fifteen."
"Your presence could put him in more danger."
Great-uncle Mateusz repeated Misha’s argument when they arrived.
"Your presence puts the entire family in more danger, Vasily. Why are you here?"
The three young men stood uncomfortably in the professor’s cramped quarters, surrounded by books and boxes of papers, spilled coffee mugs and the dank smell of old beer. Vasily had difficulty expressing his thoughts at the best of times. The old man’s glare robbed him of what little speech he might have had and he welcomed Misha’s rescue.
"Sir, we have had a message from Henryk in Warsaw," said Misha. "He says that you are in particular danger and must leave Poland. We are here to help you do that."
"Leave Poland? I cannot leave Poland. I do not wish to leave. I have my work…" His scrawny arm swept over stacks of books and boxes in the narrow space. He dropped the arm and frowned, then pointed to the top shelf of one bookcase.
"And I have a cat. I cannot leave her."
The cat blinked slowly down at them with yellow eyes.
Misha’s face showed no reaction, but Louis blanched. Vasily ventured a question.
"Uncle, why are you under suspicion?"
"Because it is well known that you are my great-nephew. That is why. When I let you shelter with me, I did not know you would become a killer. I am ashamed. They say you killed a young woman. What kind of monster does that?"
The mixture of truth and injustice in this speech left Vasily momentarily silent, but the injustice spurred his voice.
"She killed Dominik, Uncle."
"The KGB shot him. It was reported in the newspaper. He blew up a building…"
"I blew up the building. Dominik was not involved. The woman knew that but arranged his death regardless. She was arranging mine and my friends’ deaths as well when I shot her."
Louis’s eyebrows rose in surprise at both the length and vehemence of Vasily’s explanation. Great-uncle Mateusz dropped his gaze in defeat.
"Then what they say about you is true," he whispered. "I had hoped it was the usual lies."
"It is like always, Uncle, a mixture of both. There is some other reason why you have been threatened. What is it?"
The old man hesitated.
"My latest book has been published."
The three young men waited quietly. Mateusz spoke again after a few seconds.
"By the underground press."
During another long pause, the old scholar tidied a stack of papers from a haphazard pile on a small table. He looked up at his still audience and sighed.
"It is a criticism of Soviet revisionist history. I understand they are quite angry. My presence is not requested for a ceremony to unveil a statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky in the Courtyard of Modern History."
Misha threw a significant glance to Louis, who nodded. This must be the destination of their target. What better reason could a high-ranking Russian intelligence officer have to visit Poland but the unveiling of a monument to the Polish founder of Soviet intelligence.
"Do you have a basket for the cat?" Misha asked the scholar.
"Make it ready and pack one small box with your current work. We will leave before the unveiling."
Louis pulled a set of survey maps from his rucksack, swept a table clear of books and coffee mugs and laid the map out.
"Show me where they will put the statue."
"I do not agree that I am leaving. I do not agree with whatever it is you are doing here. I protest your presence and ask you to leave."
"Uncle," said Vasily, "you will like living in Misha’s house. Our old tutor has retired there. You have much in common."
"Not to mention our regrettable common acquaintance with you," said the old man sourly.
The four men got in each other’s way for the next two hours as the young ones devised a plan of escape and another plan they carefully kept from Mateusz. He grumbled at volume as he discarded text after text, sometimes with tears, and filled two boxes with essential documents. Misha stood adamant and after an argument, the old man tediously examined all, discarded some and overstuffed a single box, wrapping it with twine to keep it closed.
"I cannot move quickly," he whined. "Even if I am not burdened, I will be a danger to you. I should stay here."
It was a new tactic in his argument, equally ignored as had been the others. He watched Vasily shape and prepare a charge of plastique, his face registering profound dismay.
Louis answered the old man, "Do not worry, Professor. We will obtain a car and drive to the frontier, then obtain another after we cross."
"Obtain? How obtain? You mean to steal one, don’t you. Not only are you murderers but you are also thieves. I cannot go with you. I will not be associated with such people."
He crossed his arms and stood staring up at the cat. When there was no answer from the young men, each busy c leaning a gun, planning a route or making a bomb, the old man spoke quietly.
"I have an auto It does not run, but it is not stolen. I can ride in an auto that is not stolen."
"How can you ride in an auto that does not run, Uncle?" asked Vasily.
Nonetheless, they made it run. Louis picked the lock to the ramshackle garage down the street. Vasily stole the parts Misha said he would need. They siphoned no more than half a liter from every car they could find during the night, some behind locked doors easily defeated by Louis, others on the street, until they had filled the tank. They could see no reason to burden Mateusz with such details.
The task they had been hired to perform took as much or more ingenuity, tedious research and planning. Louis broke into the college provost’s office and examined his correspondence. Misha climbed onto suitable rooftops along the route. Vasily stood in the deepest shadow of a cloister on the north face of the Courtyard of Modern History and contemplated the shrouded statue in its center. After an hour, he moved silently to the spot he had chosen, lifted the canvas covering and placed the charge he had devised, shaping it to resemble a portion of the raised wreath that decorated the plinth.
They breakfasted on black bread and black coffee to the sound of a running litany of complaints and recriminations from the old man. He did not know where the box had disappeared to. Had they stolen it? Surely one book would not create too heavy a burden. They were young and strong. Just one book.
Vasily bundled his uncle and the cat into the roomy front seat of the ancient German-made relic of the war. He took the wheel, drove to the rendezvous and waited.
"What are we waiting for?" asked his great-uncle. "Where are your friends?"
"They are on the roofs."
"In case what?"
"In case my work fails."
"Your work? What work? You are a disgrace to this family. To every other vice you have adopted, you add the crime of kidnapping an old man. I will escape you and return to my home. See if I don’t."
Vasily set his jaw and said nothing. Between his querulous relative and the wailing cat, he longed for the peace and certainty of a gun battle.
He had already put the car in gear the moment they heard the boom that told them his work had not failed. Louis and Misha poured into the back seat within seconds, wearing clothing as grey as the sky and carrying long rifles. By the time the sirens began, the car had crossed the Vistula and was headed southwest out of the city.
They skirted the mountains as they made their way in an unhurried manner so as not to draw attention. Misha and Louis stayed down in the back seat. The cat cried for nearly three hours. Ditching the car on the outskirts of Cieszyn, they shouldered their burdens, rifles, ammunition, climbing gear, hard black bread and canteens of water, a box filled with papers and books and a cat in a basket. Vasily carried a backpack containing his tools and the box of papers. The Professor carried the cat.
The cat accepted its fate, finally and fell asleep in the basket, a lucky circumstance during those times when they were at risk of detection. Great-uncle Mateusz required more persuasion to be quiet. Vasily remonstrated, not always gently. Louis tried unsuccessfully to explain their peril. It fell to Misha to solve the problem.
"I cannot walk another step," said Mateusz. "The basket is too heavy. Be careful with that box, Vasily. One of my papers threatens to escape it because of your rough handling. I am thirsty. Can we not find a comfortable pub along the way?"
Misha stopped and placed the point of his knife under the professor’s chin.
"We will soon cross into Czechoslovakia. If you endanger us with your noise, old man, I will solve the problem silently. It is a talent of mine."
Mateusz’s eyes widened and he spoke through his teeth. "And I will be required to live in your house?"
In answer, Misha raised the knife higher and with it the professor’s chin, making it impossible to utter a sound. They exchanged glare for glare before Misha withdrew the knife.
"Now I understand how you acquired your obstinacy, Vasily. It is a family trait."
Vasily was too stubborn to admit his relief when they hot-wired a roomy sedan near Trinec and began the drive to Brno. After nearly three hours on foot, he discovered that a box of paper can gain weight over time. Eventually, the string he carried it by had cut into his good hand.
Either Misha’s knife or the rugged path he chose across the Thaya River kept Mateusz’s litany of complaints at bay. They had ditched the car in a remote area west of a tiny village and picked up their burdens for the last trek. The old man seemed to concentrate on his feet as they climbed and slithered their way to a remote crossing into Austria.
Frank met them in Hardegg with a car and their payment. It was past midnight before Great-uncle Mateusz and his companion, Nada, had been fed and settled in their new quarters in Misha’s house. The team collapsed in their respective rooms after wishing him welcome and good night.
The main difficulty of having two professors in the same household became evident the next morning at the breakfast table. The two old scholars responded enthusiastically in unison each time a question was addressed with only the word 'professor'. After a few stumbles, it was Louis who devised a shorthand method of address.
It resembled a diminutive in that it was to be used only by the immediate household, but simultaneously maintained the respect due to such academics. He began calling their old tutor, Professor Graf, and Vasily’s great-uncle, Professor Sobieski, professors 'G 'and ’S' as he engaged them in small talk.
This seemed to mollify Mateusz, whose expression became minimally less sour. The plate of eggs and sausages placed before him and an accompanying basket of warm bread passed to him made him visibly fight a incipient smile.
Vasily had no small talk to give, but he caught his great-uncle’s almost-smile as he reached for a slice of bread. It seemed the perfect time to bring it up.
"Uncle, do you still plan to return to Krakow?"
The old man arrested his knife on its way to a pot of jam and narrowed his eyes at his brother’s grandson.
"You know I do."
"I know nothing of the sort. It may be the height of folly since you are implicated in the bombing of the Dzerzhinsky statue, and you are no fool, Sir."
"How am I implicated? I cannot be accused merely because we are related. I will tell them you kidnapped me. I do not answer for the black sheep in my family."
"You do if one of your lambs leaves incriminating evidence behind."
"What evidence? Behind where?"
"An ounce of explosive on your desk."
The knife clattered on his plate; his mouth opened in an 'oh' and he slumped, dropping his eyes.
Misha cleared his throat.
"I beg to differ with you, Professor S. It seems the authorities in your country are perfectly content to accuse those with unfortunate relatives. I have been contacted by your nephew Henryk."
Turning his eyes to Vasily, he continued, "More members of the family have experienced difficulties and Henryk is asking that you no longer visit or communicate with them. I have told Frank not to offer us any commissions that must take place in Poland."
Vasily sat back with a stunned expression. These were the only things in his life that could be considered normal: his vast, hide-bound, gloriously passionate country and his irascible, complicated, colorful collection of relatives.
"If I am no longer Polish, what am I?"
"You are a Sobieski," said Mateusz. "Every bit your father’s son, I am sad to say, but still a member of the family that produced him."
Louis stood and lifted his coffee cup.
"This cannot wait for dinner tonight. I propose a coffee toast to the Sobieskis."
The reply was unanimous.
This story resulted from a contest prompt by Reedsy.com. The prompt was: "Write a story involving a character who cannot return home." The prompt may be seen at this link: https://blog.reedsy.com/creative-writing-prompts/