On First Acquaintance
“If they live, they’ll be the best,” he said.
What he didn’t say was ‘Here’s hoping you live to see it happen.’
I did live and I saw it happen. They were, are, the best. Back then, they were just kids. At least that’s what I thought when I saw them step out onto the platform at the Gare du Nord in Paris. Each differed from the others. The blond guy was the youngest, with remarkably blue eyes and a knack of not seeming to move even when he walked. The tallest was French, a trait he let you know right away, with curling dark hair, long legs and laughing countenance. The third, also still in his twenties, looked at me with old grey eyes that had seen too much and done too much. He brushed the sandy hair from a slavic brow and seemed to decide just how he’d like to kill me. I noticed he was missing two fingers on his right hand. It didn’t seem like it would hold him back from his decision regarding me.
I now know that old grey eyes was weirdly connected to my boss, whose wife had spirited him out of Russia at age four after she killed his father, who was her lover. Now that’s a story worth telling. I wish I knew all of it. I don’t, but I know this. Vasily Sobieski was every bit the killer his father had been. I could see it in all of them as their feet hit the platform, but especially in Sobieski.
He was also the only one whose name I knew. They called their team Charlemagne, no doubt for some esoteric reason important only to themselves. The other two called the Frenchman Louis, but after I felt the blue-eyed stare of death freeze my blood when I called the blond one Misha as they did, I decided on simple direct address with eye contact and no names given. More polite than ‘hey you’ but not by much. I have always referred to the Frenchman as just that, and by the end of that op, dubbed the blond guy Mack for reasons you shall see.
I led them to a less than luxurious Fiat I had rented.
“This is unacceptable,” said Mack. We spoke German. I spoke the hoch Deutsch,he a clearly Austrian form with an accent I had never heard.
“It is a good car,” I said.
“It is not what was agreed.”
“I could not find a Mercedes to rent.”
“Then you should have bought one,” said Mack.
Looking back, I confess he was right. It was a drop in the bucket compared to what we were paying them, even then.
I suppose the silence was better than the grumbling I was used to with other teams, but I was conscious of the animosity from the driver next to me, Mack, and the desire to kill me from Sobieski behind me. The Frenchman’s amusing chatter should have lightened the mood, but it’s hard to relax when you’re sitting in front of a killer.
Mack’s lip curled when he saw the safehouse. The Frenchman became silent. Sobieski never said anything anyway, so no change there. I got the impression they were unhappy with me. It was an upper story flat above a cafe on a busy street in a fashionable area. I had rented a room in the apartment next door for myself. It was a sty. My landlady was a single mother with a twelve-year old daughter and not big on housekeeping.
Gear stowed, refrigerator declared inadequate, chairs scraping across a torn linoleum floor in the kitchen of Charlemagne’s safehouse, we sat down for my briefing.
I began with the name of the target. I even had his address. “He’s an American. One of ours. The counterintelligence division has determined he has been turned. Here is the verification.” I handed Mack the document. It was another stipulation in the contract. I hoped he would be happier with CI’s work than he was with the car.
“What are you looking for?” he asked after passing the verification to the others.
“We want any couriers you can spot, dead drops, his route past any possible live drops, alarms and signals would be very nice. We would like him to go…accidentally. The French are interested in his case officer and we intend to share some of this information with them, so his handler should not suspect a termination.”
“When is sunset today?”
I didn’t know. The Frenchman helped me out.
Mack addressed me again. “Bring the correct car by 19:30. We begin at 20:00.”
“Also food,” said the Frenchman. “It should not be difficult to find.” He pointed down, meaning the cafe.
I felt dismissed, which I was, and should have been a little put out, but I wasn’t. I couldn’t wait to get out of there and a Mercedes was not going to fall in my lap without hustle, so I made tracks. By the time I entered my own rented accommodation it was past nine o’clock and the landlady was out. I unlocked the door and turned on the light. The girl stood by the hallway entrance, big brown eyes staring wide, brown curls on her head quivering.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
She nodded very short nods very fast, like she wanted to cry. I closed and locked the door and she ran to a room at the back. I heard a television turn on.
I was so discouraged and weary, I did not undress. I slipped off my shoes and hung up my coat and lay down on top of the bedclothes fully dressed. Had my bozos scared the girl? They seemed all business to me. Would they go in search of entertainment if time permitted? I later learned that indeed, they would, even if time did not permit, but never with children.
I consoled myself that she was safe now. I was there and had locked the door. In a state of ignorant bliss, I fell asleep.
Still dreaming about other things, my mind incorporated the noises into the dream so that I was completely disoriented when I reached full consciousness. Screams, a man’s shout, and the sound of blows came through the thin wall my room shared with the next so clearly that I thought the emergency had come to me. I leapt off the bed, drawing my Walther PPK and searched for the light. My room was empty but my head had cleared. The noise did not stop so I manfully went to stop it.
Barging into the next bedroom, I was in time to see a man backhand the girl. She fell on the bed, only partially dressed.
“What the…?” I said.
The man turned. He was a good six inches taller and considerably broader — I was a bit more trim back then. He clocked me immediately and I fell against the door frame. My gun was still in my hand so I stepped out of the room, used a two handed stance and sighted on his heart. He was only a few feet away and there was enough of him. I was bound to hit something.
“Get out,” I said.
To my disappointment, he raised his hands and scooted past me. He slammed the door shut on his way out. After I made sure the girl was okay, if anyone can be okay in such a situation, I showed her how to make it difficult for anybody to get in that door. It seemed the man had a key.
I spent the rest of the night waiting in the team’s safehouse next door. I never did figure out what their alarms were as I came in. I was only sure I had tripped them all and would probably wind up shot as a natural consequence.
It was the smell of gun oil and bacon that woke me. I lifted my head from the cradle of my arms on the kitchen table. Sobieski was pushing a dry patch through the barrel of his Makarov and staring at me with those expressionless gray eyes.
“He is awake,” he said quietly.
The Frenchman turned from the two-burner stove, a spatula in his hand. “Misha,” he said, “our babysitter has had his eye decorated by a fist.”
Mack inspected it and waited. They all waited, giving me the ultimate open-ended question. I could say anything I wanted, but I had the sense that silence was not an option. I suspected also that lying would be unwise. So I told them.
“He had a key?” said Mack.
“Yes. My French is not very good, but she said he had a key. She would not tell me who he was.”
“Describe him again.”
“You must stay here. Do not go back.”
“I should tell the mother.”
“She will not thank you for reciting the words she already knows to be true but has chosen to ignore.” Even as a twenty-something youngster, Mack could pinpoint human character with uncanny nicety.
Of course he was right, the first example of many I have received from him over the years. My landlady sent me away with a flea in my ear.
Now I could not be on hand to protect the girl but had to listen from next door as the alarm I taught her to make to stop an intruder came crashing down. I left it to other neighbors on the floor to intervene and quell the screams. They did not. The male voice ran down the cafe steps shouting invectives and the screams subsided into sobs. I heard the girl re-stack the plates and pans on the chair under the doorknob. At least I had taught her to fight.
I woke to the sound of chairs scraping the linoleum around me, lifted my head and beheld three very tired young men with red eyes and heavy stubble. It was dawn and they were hungry. I could tell by the pointed glances toward the empty refrigerator. The cafe downstairs would not open for another hour and a half.
In slow, deliberate movements, Mack brought out from his pockets three film canisters, several handwritten notes, and an up to date cypher book. The Frenchman drew a notebook from his inside coat pocket in which were detailed directions to every post office location the target’s cell used and the signals for occupied drops.
Sobieski said nothing and produced nothing, just regarded me with those light eyes of disapproval and calculation.
He was the one I addressed. “Where is he?”
The Frenchman answered. “Montmartre. Very unfortunate.”
They were the last words I heard in that room. Charlemagne was gone before I could blink twice, payment in gold in the Frenchman’s pocket. I locked the door behind me and slipped the key through the letter slot of the cafe. I could hear the chefs behind the door beginning their day, firing the stoves and whisking omelets.
At Montmartre, my counterpart from the French Secret Service, Guy, stared down at the dead American lying on a bottom step.
“Very unfortunate to break one’s neck at the end of so many shallow steps,” he said.
We pondered the corpse. The cypher book was timely and of no use other than immediately, so I handed it to him. I also read to him the locations and signals of various dead drops around the city, but I kept the films to myself. My bosses would decide whether to share them.
“The Sûreté have told me of another unfortunate, shall we say, accident, “ said Guy. “Would you like to see it?”
Did I have a choice? I am at least smart enough to know when I do not. He led me to a narrow street not far from the Tuileries. At the end of a cul de sac off the Rue de Archives a familiar, though pale, corpse lay in a large pool of blood, already heavily populated by flies, its carotid neatly nicked.
“He appears to be the brother of a woman who lives above a nearby cafe,” said Guy. He regarded me calmly, letting me know how thoroughly his service had tracked us.
“How unfortunate,” I said in bad French. “Would that be the woman who has a very young daughter at home with no one to protect her?
“Vraiment,” he said. We have heard the same. My superiors are concerned only that Mackie Messer has not come to Paris to stay.
I saw them again a few months later. I do not remember in which city. But I do remember the food. I made sure it was delicious and plentiful.