The first time I realized Sobieski wanted to kill me, I was leaning into a double-paned window twenty floors up from a New York street. I rested my forehead on the glass, my eyes on the stream of lights at the bottom of a skyscraper canyon and my psyche in the movement and freedom of people and cars in the darkness. It was the briefest respite from the newly heightened tension of an already stressful job. Sobieski destroyed the moment with a shove and an expletive, pulling the curtains closed with a powerful yank.
He said some other words besides the expletives I understood, but these were in Polish. I’m sure they were all unfit for polite discourse. He never says much, so I figured the earful he was giving me was significant. He emphasized his point by shoving me again.
I heard my boss trying to calm the situation. At least I think he meant to sound soothing. I didn’t have any Russian at the time, so I don’t know what he said. I understood the words the team leader used, though, because they were in German. Simple. Direct.
I didn’t even know the name of the team then. We called them WEDGE, because that was the highly classified code name for the file we kept on them. The file held precious little information and there was no time to read it anyway, before my boss had pulled me out of my new office and dragged me to the airport for the flight to New York.
He briefed me on the way.
"How do you like your new office?" he asked.
"It’s nice, good. I’ve been meaning to thank you for the promotion, Fred."
I was grateful for the promotion. I had a growing family and mortgage. But the first part of my answer was a lie. I hated the tiny cubicle of a room in which my desk barely fit and the painted cinder-block walls reminded me of a cell. There were no windows anywhere in our building, but the blank closeness of cement made me yearn for the transparency of glass. The ops room where my desk had been didn’t have any windows either, but it was large and noisy and usually full of men coming and going. I had been promoted out of it. I work in the secret world, but when it comes to living, I prefer normal spaces of light and movement.
"Buddy, I think it would be wise to give you a new game name," said Fred, "You’re now Frank Cardova."
He pulled a manila envelope out of his coat pocket and handed it to me. It contained the usual driver’s license and passport in my new name, and to my surprise, a charge card as well.
"The card is live and in our budget," said Fred. "Be careful you don’t lose it. I’ll be there for incidentals this trip, but. you’ll be on your own in the future. I promoted you in order to save Jello’s life. I hope it doesn’t cost you yours. I know you guys are friends, so I’m sure you’re happy that I won’t be letting him kill himself. I think you have more of what it takes to stay alive. They say you two served together in Southeast Asia."
I nodded. I did not give my boss the details of my 'friendship' with Jello. During our service as advisors in SEA, he had given me survival skills by consistently doing things designed to get me killed.
Fred continued, "This specialist team concept is new and, I think, practically invented by the guys you’re about to meet. Each of them is formidable on his own. Together, they are nothing short of awesome. They have been making a name for themselves in Europe and the Middle East and I am determined to secure a working relationship with them for Uncle Sam. Problem is, I have history with one of them, so I can’t be their babysitter."
I widened my eyes in surprise. I knew Fred had been around just about everywhere in the black world, but he was pretty senior to have formed an acquaintance with an up and coming twenty-something foreign specialist. He saw my surprise and explained.
"I am hoping Sobieski will not remember me, but I must handle this op myself. I tried appointing Jello last spring. He created a disaster that almost killed them all. They were seriously displeased, and it took everything I had to convince them to do this new job for us. I promised I would be there to handle logistics. You will be my assistant, my silent, unobtrusive assistant, to get them used to your presence .Then, on the next op that comes up, you will take over as babysitter. Sobieski was four years old when he met me, and it was for no more than five minutes, but memories are tricky things when trauma is involved and I don’t want him connecting me with that trauma."
No doubt my face betrayed my continued ignorance. He sighed and spoke more quietly, perhaps so that our driver might not hear.
"His old man was the deadliest solo specialist working against the Soviets shortly after the war, and I was babysitter on the op that got him killed by the two things all specialists fear, cunning and treachery. I managed to get the boy to safety, but couldn’t save his mother. The KGB killed her shortly after. The kid was sharp for four years old. He knew what was going down. He had a stony, serious way about him. No noise. No drama. Now, he’s already better at killing than his dad was."
We did not talk about the team or the operation during the short flight to La Guardia, for obvious reasons, but as we walked into the terminal, Fred muttered, "Remember, once I introduce you, stay strictly in the background. Don’t be noticeable."
He met the team at their gate, while I picked up the car and waited outside the international arrivals door. At first sight, they seemed unremarkable. Only the one with dark hair and black eyes topped six feet. The other two had lighter hair and eyes. All three of them wore their hair a little long for my taste, but I chalked that up to youth. It was the sixties, after all. Anyway, who would be dumb enough to make a fashion objection to guys who were so professional, their suits had been perfectly tailored to fit wide shoulders while disguising the bulges of the weapons at their sides? Not me. I had seen plenty of action and dealt with killers of all stripes. Fred was right. These guys were all business.
I kept my mouth shut and merely nodded when introduced.
The blond one had the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen, and he fixed them on mine until I dropped my gaze. The tall guy said something in French that made old blue eyes smile. I didn’t know any French then, but put it on the list of things to correct without delay. The one with sandy hair regarded me silently and with utter indifference. I don’t know why I knew this was Sobieski.
The promotion would help my mortgage payment and start a few college funds. It would do nothing for my blood pressure.
I drove. Fred briefed. The team rode in back.
"The target is Kazar. I’m sure you’ve heard of him."
There was no response from behind us. Fred turned his head and pressed on.
"Do you remember the KGB major who defected to us last year? Well, he has agreed to help us eliminate the threat Kazar poses. Would-be defectors know that the KGB will send their best specialist to impose vengeance.This has a dampening effect on our ability to attract more of them. The Major will play bait to Kazar, who is your target."
After a pause, the blond one said quietly, "Such a target does not require a team."
"He’s very good. Legendary, even. We want to make sure," said Fred.
"You want something else. What?"
I wondered what Fred would come up with besides the unmentionable truth which was that we wanted a lasting business relationship with these new up-and-comers, or perhaps we needed to fix the disaster of our first try. To my surprise, he had yet another reason.
"Kazar always carries a document, the actual order from Moscow. It’s his trademark. He leaves a portion, the clear language portion, near the body every time, but not the torn off encrypted part of the message. That part won’t be on him, but it will be with him, in his luggage, maybe. We want that. Without his people knowing that we have it." He paused as we turned into the underground parking at the hotel, then added, "Also, we’d like the Major to live."
We were booked into a suite that could accommodate five, but frankly, none of us expected to sleep. The press conference to announce the Major’s new book (actually written by his case officers) was to take place at ten the next morning in an event room on the third floor.
As the silent and unnoticeable assistant, I was sent out for food. The details of the op had taken us past sunset and everybody was hungry. My mood lightened the moment I stepped out onto the sidewalk from the front doors of the hotel. It was New York City, after all, and that meant a noisy, busy celebration of life. I needed it after hours of discussions concerning death.
I took my time, looked in shop windows, listened to buskers and gave loose change to panhandlers. A sidewalk art display caught my eye. For ten minutes, the artist and I exchanged views on the nature of beauty. He quoted Keats: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty." I countered with Tolstoy: "It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness." The man’s work impressed me though, so I accepted his card. I still have it.
I’m sure I wore a delighted grin as the Frenchman met me in the hall and let me into the suite. I don’t know where he had been, but he was wearing fresh aftershave. My own sojourn had soothed my soul. The food I bought from a street vendor smelled delicious, and I couldn’t wait. I laid it all out on a long coffee table and told them to dig in. There were hot dogs of every description, from plain old franks to kielbasa, with all the fixings, including onions, peppers, relish, cheese, chili, chili-cheese and sides like coleslaw and potato salad.
Blue eyes, the one they were calling Misha, stared at the food, then at me. I felt uncomfortably visible. The Frenchman was more demonstrative. He wrinkled his nose and curled a lip. Sobieski chose plain kielbasa on a hoagie bun and ate it quickly while the Frenchman told us what he had been doing with his time. Well, some of what he had been doing.
"Kazar has a room on the fifteenth floor," he said. "The housekeeper told me he has checked his briefcase into the hotel safe. I asked a young woman who works with the consigliere. She verified this for me and showed me a copy of the receipt given to Kazar recording the deposit."
Sobieski swallowed the last of his kielbasa and the three of them walked out the door. Just like that. No explanation. Their holdalls were still in the suite. We figured they would be back.
Fred and I dug in.
We were replete and groaning, well, I was groaning — too many onions have that effect on me — when they returned the first time, demanding coffee. I ordered a large tureen from room service and understood not one word of the French they used in a long discussion, sometimes animated, always softly spoken.
Fred snored in an easy chair.
The team left again just as I was nodding off. I drank more coffee. I did not want to be asleep when they returned, which they did an hour before dawn. The Frenchman woke Fred by kicking his shin, then placed a tiny microfilm canister in his hand. Fred wrinkled his forehead trying to understand.
"The document," said the Frenchman, taking a pen from his jacket pocket and revealing its true purpose as a camera.
It was at this point that the team’s leader stopped Sobieski from punishing me for looking out a window. Then he threw the hotel’s room service menu at me. They were becoming wired for the big event. I was already plenty impressed by the microfilm. I could tell Fred and I were of one mind on that. He considered the message to be the most difficult part of the job. Any yahoo can kill. It takes finesse to act like a ghost and copy a document locked in a safe.
I busied myself ordering breakfast.
The team took off their jackets and used the waiting time to clean their guns, rummaging through the holdalls for supplies. They were done by the time we heard the knock on the door and disappeared while I took delivery of the expensive, and to me exotic, breakfast that I had ordered at their direction.
It did not appeal to me, but then, I was not offered any.
Five of us needed to clean up and shave. There was one pants press. Naturally, the Frenchman took the first turn, I the last, but by 9:45 we were assembled and sporting forged press credentials as we rode the elevator to the third floor after stowing the holdalls in the car in the basement. The team scattered in different directions.
Fred and I entered the room late enough that it was standing room only, which suited us perfectly. One of the Major’s handlers stood at the podium. He wore a wire and his suit was not as well cut as the team’s, or even mine for that matter. I knew what that bulge was. Our divisions are compartmented so that though I didn’t know him personally, I knew what he was; he didn’t even know that I was there.
Fred and I stood on opposite sides, watching the crowd. We knew when Kazar came in sporting a camera and credentials, because we’d seen an artist’s representation. The blond WEDGE leader was not far behind him. The Frenchman appeared on the left side of the room. Sobieski stood on the right near the podium. I moved to the back, with Fred fifteen feet to my right. Kazar positioned himself on the other side of the podium from Sobieski.
The handler introduced the Major, who bravely stepped out from behind a partition.
Describing a sequence that happened in what seemed no more than a second can be difficult, though time courteously slows down when you’re in the thick of it like I was. I had a perfect view of everybody, so I’ll try to recount it, move by move.
I suppose the catalyst, the very first action, had to be Kazar drawing his weapon and beginning to sight it on the Major. Simultaneously, Sobieski flew into the Major, bearing him to the ground and covering him with his own body. The handler with the wire drew his weapon. The Frenchman was nearly sighted on Kazar when he saw the handler trying to form a sight picture on Sobieski’s back. The Frenchman’s bullet went into the handler. The man’s finger discharged the weapon as he went down and his ammo crossed the room, hitting Fred in the hip.
Kazar turned to leave, and I drew my Walther PPK. I held it at my side and was still deciding what to do when Kazar’s white shirt front showed bright red spreading from an object embedded in his chest. He went down. WEDGE’s leader walked to the body and retrieved his knife. I calculated the distance thrown at thirty feet. In a crowded room.
I waded through pandemonium and knelt by Fred.
"Get them the fuck out of here, Buddy. Now. Give them the car keys. Payment is in in the trunk. Seal the room; expose all film; take down names and addresses. Get those useless handlers to help you. I’ll see you in the office tomorrow." He pressed the tiny microfilm canister into my hand.
Two days later, I was busy memorizing present tense conjugations of irregular French verbs when Fred called me to his office. He looked spent and sat in a wheelchair. He shook his head slowly in resignation.
"Jello struck again, Buddy. The guy who drew on Sobieski, and whose bullet found me, had not been briefed. Jello told the guy’s boss he wasn’t cleared. I can’t fire the idiot for overzealous application of need-to-know."
Fred retired two months later, and I was given a bigger office because I am now babysitter for WEDGE. Odds are, Sobieski still wants to kill me. No doubt, I’ll find out for sure during our first op together in the next few days.
I commissioned a picture from that New York street artist and hung it behind my desk. It’s a depiction of the view from a window showing a park, with people walking, running and playing in the sunlight. I installed a curtain rod with curtains over it. I close them only when I discuss WEDGE.
The people who sweep our offices for bugs hate it.
I find it beautiful.
This story resulted from a contest prompt by Reedsy.com. The prompt was: "Start your story with a character looking out of a window in the middle of the night." The prompt may be seen at this link: https://blog.reedsy.com/creative-writing-prompts/