The place where I find myself at the moment is out of the way, without doubt. Some of my former associates would certainly call it backward: there’s no question it lacks the amenities of more sophisticated cities. What do we have instead? On my first day here the concierge at the hotel told me that in the fall the entire country is caught up in the annual bicycle race; and, he added, people from all over the world come to our upland region to see the migrating birds. Bicycling and birds, not exactly high culture; but for all its limitations, this country does possess a singular advantage: it has no extradition treaty with the one I’ve come from.
I’ve only been here a few months but I’ve been told that this is the region’s most pleasant time of the year, with mild weather and mostly sunny skies. Lately I’ve been having dinner on the hotel patio, idly watching the languid street life. Occasionally my eyes rise above the squat buildings to the gray mountains that cut the city off from the ocean. For centuries the natives of this region believed those mountains would protect them from dangerous outsiders but that geological barrier wasn’t enough to keep back the relentless push of colonialism. Still a stranger here, I live a quiet life. I spend a lot of my time reading, learning about my new home. Everyone, I tell myself, can profit from a period of quiet and reflection.
My residence is a hotel that would never pretend to five-star status, but it’s clean and well-run. The staff is polite and attentive, they ask no questions beyond “Will there be anything more, sir?” I have no complaints. Indeed, I smile at the approach of my favorite waiter, a bright young man named Samuel. He’s a quick learner who no doubt dreams of other places where important things are happening, though that doesn’t keep him from being discreetly present in the here and now.
“A drink, sir?” he asks. “The usual?”
I nod. No longer any need to specify: a Tanqueray martini, straight up with an olive, a glass of ice alongside. It was with the American, Jack Mason, that I got into the habit of ordering the way he did. Why ice? I asked. “Oh, the waiters—the good ones–pay attention when you ask for some special detail like that.” He smiled all the time. It wasn’t a warm smile, it was, I came to learn, more like a protective camouflage. “Besides,” he said, “occasionally I like to drop in a couple of pieces of ice and watch them dissolve. I guess it’s a way of experiencing the passage of time.” It was a curious statement from such a practical man. I decided that what he meant was that the transparent sliver of ice diminishes so gradually against the background of the equally transparent drink that, however closely you watch it, you can’t pinpoint the exact moment when it suddenly isn’t there anymore. Like time itself, remorseless, elusive.
“Call me Jack,” he said with a smile at our first meeting. A big, square-faced man with an athletic build, he’d been described by one of our generals as a man to know. It was hard to gauge exactly what he was doing in our country but this was early in Benda’s administration when a number of Americans began showing up. “It’s very exciting, what’s going on here, Mister Minister,” he said. “I can assure you, Americans are very appreciative. Especially after the last government.” Of course I made my inquiries and I learned that he was a colonel in the United States armed forces but it seemed wisest to continue to call him Jack. We were counting heavily on American aid.
“Sir.” Like a phantom, Samuel is beside me. He places the glass on the table so deftly that the clear liquid doesn’t even shiver. I nod my appreciation and when he’s gone I take the first sip: heaven! In the early months of the Benda regime there were many celebratory moments with Jack in the Crystal Room of the Metropole. He was a sharp observer of our customs and could be counted on to comment insightfully on our folkways. Maybe it’s the memory but, having left some space in my drink, I carefully transport two pieces of ice into the glass. Now, I could tell him, I’m going to contemplate the mystery of time.
Should I look at my phone to see if there’s any more to that story I saw earlier? It was sketchy, without details but, I confess, it brought a chill. No, I’ll make it a test of discipline: I won’t pull out the phone until I’ve finished my drink. I’m sure Jack would approve of that.
When I asked him what he did back in the States his answers were vague. “A little of this and a little of that.” He’d usually shift the focus to me. “How in the hell did you wind up in government? You don’t seem the usual type.” Yes, I’d admit, I started out as an academic. My specialty was sociology, I told him, but I’d begun with literature. Jack would nod and smile, saying nothing. I knew what he was thinking. Why had Benda appointed me Interior Minister, a position that might some day involve hard, even bloody choices, though that seemed unlikely in the euphoria of Benda’s first months. I’ve never seen myself as a saint but I think I’m fairly honest and in that spirit I could have told Jack, though I didn’t, that I was perfectly aware Benda chose me as a figurehead, an academic who’d made an impression with my writing on judicial reform. He could afford this gesture, knowing that my second in command, Terkel, a former policeman, was up to whatever rough work might be expected of him. Benda was a man of ideals, or at least one who was susceptible to their appeal. As it turned out, events took their toll on his beliefs. After all that happened, I try to be charitable to him.
“I don’t suppose you miss the academic life,” Jack smiled at me and I smiled in return. Why did Jack cultivate my acquaintance, I wondered, when he was well aware of the limits of my power? On the other hand, there was no mystery about why he was so much at ease with our military people. He was assessing us from the beginning, I suppose, all of us, trying to determine who he could count on. Of course, I was doing the same with him.
I look out at the street, at my fellow diners. Did I just see an unfamiliar face entering the hotel? If so, I remind myself, there would be nothing unusual about that. This is a hotel, after all. Maybe someone’s come here to look at the migratory birds. I’ll have to ask Samuel if any new people have arrived. Above the buildings on the street the mountains are turning hazy in the changing light, making them seem less solid. I take another drink.
“What do you think about what’s going on in the northern villages?” Jack asked me once to my surprise. We’d been talking about something completely different, my academic career, maybe, or something Jack had seen in his extensive travels. His sudden interest in what was going on in the north surprised me. As far as we in the government were aware, there were some pockets of unrest there, mostly involving local issues.
“We don’t regard that business as especially important,” I said, a little annoyed.
He nodded, clearly unconvinced. “Maybe it bears watching.” Then he threw up his hands and said. “But, hey, I’m just a visitor. What do I know?”
When I was a boy I used to go to the north in summer to visit an uncle and aunt who lived in rustic circumstances. I loved it there. I hiked the woods, paddled my canoe to a hidden lake where I’d swim in the clear, cold water, then lie in the sun. At night I listened to traditional stories. Sometimes my aunt took me to one of the village festivals where old folk plays were performed. My favorite was a local version of the Faust story in which the title character was portrayed not, as in some modern versions, as a man seeking to understand the world, but rather as a prideful human trying to usurp the place of God. There was no ambiguity about who was good and who was evil in this kind of performance and we children who watched squealed with delight as horned and caped devils brandishing pitchforks carried the terrified scholar off to Hell at the end of the play.
I didn’t share these memories with Jack, any more than he shared his with me. Our relationship was social, superficial. Or so we’d chosen to pretend. He’d turn up at the presidential palace on some vague business or another, he’d suggest a drink or lunch, we’d chat about things in general. Calling my attention to the trouble in the northern villages was the exception, not the rule, though it was a telling exception.
Of course I was flattered when Benda’s people contacted me about the offer of the ministry. I had an academic reputation but I wasn’t happy, especially after Magda left me. I was a lonely man, and bitter, I suppose. Such acclaim as I’d achieved in my field no longer gave me satisfaction and when I saw the chance to do something purposeful—and to exercise power, if I’m being honest—a certain zest returned to my life. Of course I looked forward to participating in what was being called the rebirth of our country, I heartily endorsed Benda’s program of public works and the improvement of living conditions for all our citizens. I wasn’t naive. I’d heard similar slogans before. There was also no reason to believe that Benda would be any more faithful to his promises than many of his predecessors had been when things became difficult. In the end, though, however perishable the ideals of his administration may have been, there was still the ministry, the imposing office, my secretaries, my driver. And I was sincerely committed to carrying out the humane portion of our agenda, which, in the government’s early months I cheerfully did.
I’d encounter Jack by chance in the corridors of the palace, sometimes by himself, sometimes with a mysterious associate. He was just a private citizen, he insisted, who happened to have a lot of contacts. He was enthusiastic about our programs, especially in the honeymoon period. I played along with his fiction of acting privately but I drew my own conclusions when I spoke about him to one of our generals who was ecstasizing over new equipment the army had acquired at bargain prices.
There was, I came to realize after a time, a cabinet within the cabinet of which I wasn’t a member that met on special occasions. I’d accepted that I was part of Benda’s window dressing—after all, I could keep my hands fairly clean that way–but I rankled at the sense of exclusion. I realize that once I’d recognized that important meetings were being held without me I might have said something, maybe even left the government; but I managed to persuade myself I was still doing more good than harm by staying in my position. Of course one couldn’t have everything one wanted.
One could be fooled by Jack’s smile, even as one recognized that there was no real warmth in it. Things were going well, that smile seemed to suggest, things were going to work out. There was always trouble but trouble was something that could be managed. We’d sip our martinis and Jack would use his spoon to put a couple of small pieces of ice into his drink. I knew now that as the ice melted, he was likely contemplating the passage of time. What was he really thinking of our administration’s chances after the trouble in the north began to spread? Was this investment going to work out for him and his associates? I’d begun to have my own doubts. I’d suddenly come awake in the middle of the night, troubled by a vague alarm; but by daylight I was reassured by the hum of cars, busses and trams, the comforting music of the enduring familiar.
I made the mistake once of being indiscreet with Jack. Protests had broken out in the capital and the police responded brutally: people were beaten and those arrested were charged with serious offenses against the government. It was Terkel’s doing, of course. We’d come to our arrangement early and he was responsible for all the “hands on” business. I was having a drink with Jack and confessed to him my belief that that kind of over-reaction might just spur the protestors to more intense resistance. “You can’t just sit back and let them dictate the terms,” he said. “You have to quash this before it gets out of hand.”
“But force doesn’t always solve a problem,” I said. And then I added, injudiciously, “Look at Viet-Nam.”
For a moment there was no smile, no expression at all. Possibly to keep from responding too hastily, he picked up his drink and sipped it slowly, his eyes on me the whole time. There was something about those grey eyes I’d been trying to identify and could never name. Were they cold, were they distant? What quality was I looking for? Then it came to me: these were eyes that would never admit surprise. When he put the drink down his smile had returned. “You’re right,” he said, “Viet-Nam was handled badly. Each case is different.” He wasn’t saying he agreed with me about our government’s response to the protest, though. I had no reason to believe anything other than that he supported it. At some level I might even have believed he’d advised it.
I could have resigned after Terkel’s crackdown, I suppose. Possibly I’d still be back there if I’d done that, and not here. I actually started writing a letter of resignation one day but I tore it up and threw it away. When I remember those grey eyes I saw so often across the table from me, I wonder what resources Jack might have had to punish such desertion, as he might see it. Though in the end that’s not why I stayed. Call it habit, call it having become accustomed to all the trappings, to a sense of being in the know, to the extent that I was in the know. I once saw a newsreel clip from the States on TV. It was from the 1930’s and it depicted a dirigible landing under windy conditions. A line had been dropped from the airship and, like a cluster of ants, dozens of sailors converged on the line and began pulling on it, trying to bring the ship to its mooring mast; but a sudden gust lifted the craft and as it jerked violently upward the sailors holding the line had to let go. Some released their grips quickly but others fell from greater heights, and must have suffered broken bones. Most terrible of all, three of them hung on too long and the newsreel continued with film from an airplane that showed the remaining sailors far above the hazy fields now, dropping off one by one as their strength failed. It’s one of the most memorable bits of film I’ve seen and its message was stark: timing can be the difference between life and death.
It was Karel, one of the other ministers, who told me of the investment program. Of course he’d heard about it from Jack. “He knows an expert investor,” Karel said. “We transfer our assets into a special fund,” he nodded emphatically. “The profits are extraordinary. And they’re protected, they’re in accounts that can’t be traced.”
“Is this true?” I asked Jack the next time I saw him.
“Absolutely,” he smiled. I said nothing but he could tell what I was thinking. “I didn’t bring it to your attention because there’s a special fund I had in mind for you. A little sweeter deal.”
“Is it really protected?”
“Oh, sure. It’s kind of an insurance policy, you know. Protection is of the essence.”
“Insurance?” I countered. “I’m in fairly good health.”
He laughed. “You could probably beat me up a flight of stairs,” he lied. “But you buy insurance so you don’t have to use it.”
I knew what we were talking about. This was before the real troubles began and things were going well enough. Still, we were making plans for an exit strategy. You always have to think about an exit strategy, Jack would have said. But when I agreed to join the program I felt a jolt of terror, not an uncommon reaction, I’m sure, when you allow yourself to think about the implications of taking on insurance.
For a while the protests seemed manageable. In addition to Terkel’s harsh treatment, there were incentives we had to offer, like lowering the prices of certain commodities, that quieted the resistance for a time, though in the long run it only seemed to make the situation worse. Eventually, though, when things began to unravel they did so quickly. We’d got past our earlier troubles and maybe we’d been lulled into complacency. The first bloody reversals surprised us, then the resistance became a permanent part of our life, eventually it proccupied us. Jack was around all the time now. I once wanted to see Benda about something that must have seemed urgent. There was enough chaos in the administration by then that Hesh, his chief of staff, wasn’t always available to screen visitors and when I came to the office the door was half-open, I heard raised voices. I was only able to glimpse the scene for a second: Jack’s broad blazer-covered back bent toward the seated president, who seemed to be looking dreamily at the ceiling as the American addressed him in an unquestionably menacing tone. I was able to slip away unobserved but there was no clearer evidence of who was really in charge in our country.
Jack was now a person I feared. In a way he was our protector, supplying us with contacts, with training, with advice, even insurance; but he was a fearsome protector. Now when some of us were beginning to acknowledge for the first time that this all might end badly (though nobody dared to say it aloud) I remembered a seemingly abstract conversation I’d had with him. “Security,” he said with a sigh. “I’ve spent a lot of my life working in the security business and the thing is, you can’t ever achieve it, or at least all you can achieve is partial security. Remember that Russian who was killed in London with the poisoned umbrella shaft? Think he wasn’t protected? If someone wants to go after you and wants it badly enough, they’ll get you. Trotsky wasn’t safe in Mexico.”
It was strange and a little unsettling to hear Jack admit to such fallibility. I looked at him. His grey eyes told me nothing, his smile told me nothing. At last he sighed, “You can never be a hundred per cent secure,” he said. “You do the best you can to raise that percentage as high as you can.” His smile broadened. “But why are we being so morbid on such a pleasant day?”
Benda called us in when things were going badly, when, in spite of our efforts, the distant cries of the protestors, the banging of pots, the shrill whistles, thumping of drums, could be heard through the heavy draperies and closed windows of the cabinet room. We had to take a stand, he declared, affirm our commitment to our program. A paper was passed around the room that we all signed. This became the famous “Killers’ Pact” of the opposition press after Terkel’s next, bloodier crackdown, which resulted in the deaths of dozens of women and children. The faces of the entire cabinet appeared in a “Wanted for Murder” poster, my own among them. It was then I knew that in the eyes of the protestors there was no difference between me and Terkel. I bristled at the injustice of it but I shivered with fear.
Somehow the ice in my martini has melted without my noticing it. When the whirlwind caught up our country all pretenses were discarded, each of us had only one goal, to get away. It was then that Jack revealed the list of countries that had no extradition treaties with ours. We had choices to make, he told us, we didn’t have the luxury of contemplation, time was running out. I’d already made my choice. In those terrible final days when the sting of tear gas and burning tires was in our nostrils Jack showed up at the palace in a caravan of dark SUVs with tinted windows. He spoke quickly now, his usual attire abandoned in favor of a khaki field jacket and military boots. His primary mission was to get Benda out of the country but a few of the rest of us were included in the ex-fil operation, as he called it. Some cabinet members balked at the idea of permanent exile and decided to take their chances with the rebels’ justice but I had no second thoughts, I knew the new government was going to be zealous and I eagerly joined that caravan that raced through back streets to a military airport outside the capital.
“Sir?” It’s Samuel, expecting me to order dinner and wine, but I raise my empty glass. “Another of these, please,” I ask. “No ice this time.” If he’s surprised by the break in routine he doesn’t show it.
When he’s gone I take out my phone at last. Not looking won’t have kept things from happening, I know. This capital may be backward but at least it’s blessed with adequate wireless service and the screen comes to life brightly. I click on CNN to see if there’s been more information on the story I saw earlier today. “Abducted politician identified” the headline now reads. Ah, so it was Karel, tracked down in another country with no extradition treaty. I let out a long breath. Those who stayed behind were fools, quickly tried and executed or imprisoned. But those of us who’d wisely planned were safe, we’d thought. The article goes on to quote from a statement released by the kidnapers, who call themselves the Committee of Justice. “The crimes against our countrymen will be avenged, every last one of them. No legal casuistry can protect the guilty from our avenging fury.”
“Thank you, Samuel,” I say, and he disappears. I pick up my glass and hold the stinging cocktail to my lips for a moment before taking my first swallow.