A n FBI Agent assigned to Poland helps the new Solidarity government solve a series of gruesome murders that lead him into an underworld of drugs and smuggling.

"Jay Porter paid his taxi driver and ducked under a string of red-and-white incident tape to approach the sprawl of police cars..."

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Opening

WARSAW, POLAND 1992

A seagull fished the gunmetal river.

Jay Porter paid his taxi driver and ducked under a string of red-and-white incident tape to approach the sprawl of police cars. Their swirling blue lights bounced off the close-in sky. Basia Husarska got out of her own car—bright red and sporty—and tossed aside a cigarette. She looked like a bruise on the ice in her leather boots and black everything else. “Dzien dobre, Agent Porter,” she said.

Jay shook her hand. “Good morning, Director Husarska.”

“Detective Kulski waits for you before moving the body.”

He followed her down the riverbank.

Two bridges spanned the sludgy water. Even at that early hour, their steel girders boomed thunderously from vehicles speeding overhead. It had snowed during the night, then rained, leaving a hard crust. Głodedź. Was that the word? Snow crusted over by ice. The first word his tutor had taught him in a language short on vowels. With his feet crunching through it, Jay asked, “Is this głodedź?”

“Gołoledź,” the Director replied, by her tone correcting everything: his spelling, his accent, the presumption he could speak a word of Polish. “We have gołoledź only in winter. Now it is spring.” Her voice, rough from smoking, made everything she said sound even more foreign.

Detective Kulski, standing next to a body on the riverbank, was finishing up with his police team. “Bring back the clothes this time,” he instructed them, and stuck out his hand for Jay to shake. The detective didn’t let his hand linger like some men, but pumped once and let go. “I’m glad you were in your room.”

“Me too,” Jay answered, wishing he were still there, in a warm romantic bed instead of bending over a body on the icy riverbank. He studied the dead man’s face, not really seeing him but only the evidence of him: a slackened chin, blood smeared on his ears, lips blued by cold death. He hadn’t shaved for four or five days, maybe a week. “Is he the fourth courier?”

Couriers, mules, runners. Smugglers. Post-communist Poland, with its porous borders to the East and West, had quickly become a freeway for unlawful trafficking. A native-born mafia was suspected of three execution-style murders in as many months. Each victim had a cheek goulishly slashed before a bullet to the heart killed him. From the looks of it, the dead man on the riverbank was the fourth victim.

“Some things are different this time,” Kulski pointed out. “He was killed here, not someplace else and brought here.”

Jay knew the detective was right. There was too much blood and dead men don’t bleed. “That is a big difference. What else do you know?”

“He fell here.” The detective indicated where the victim had fallen facedown, his heart leaking into the snow. “The killer rolled him over to cut his face.”

“So he was dead first,” Jay said, “and not tortured this time.”

He slipped on rubber gloves and squatted next to the dead man. His open cheek revealed an almost full set gold teeth. Blood matted his woolly hair to the snow, and his eyes were open, staring dully at what, his last conscious moment? Jay wanted to develop his retina, make a print, see what he last saw.

Director Husarska pulled a pack of cigarettes out of her coat pocket. That morning she had shed her usual full-length fur for a shiny “wet look” jacket that could not possibly have kept her warm; but perhaps like Jay, she had been summoned to the crime scene at an awkward moment, and wore whatever was handy. Tapping out a cigarette, she slipped it between her lips, also red like her car, and another rare spot of color in that blurry morning. She snapped open her lighter; its blue flame danced atop the silver case. “He is Russian,” she said, so flatly that Jay halfway expected her to poke the body with her toe, as she might something washed up on the beach.

“What makes him Russian?” Jay asked.

Basia sucked on her cigarette so hard he could almost taste the tobacco. “Look at his teeth,” she replied, the wind snatching smoke from her mouth. “Only Russians use so much gold.”

The dead man’s overcoat had fallen open, revealing a thinner jacket soaked in blood. Jay touched its flap. “May I open it?” he asked Detective Kulski.

“Of course.”

Before he did, Jay paused for a last look at the undisturbed body.

Or so he thought it was undisturbed, until Director Husarska remarked, “The labels are removed.”

“I thought the body had not been examined.”

“It is only my conjecture. Or would you use the word guess?”

“Guess.”

Basia smiled; she heard his tease in the one word. “It is only my guess,” she replied. “If they are missing, then he must be the fourth courier.”

“The real proof will be radiation on his hands.”

Jay folded back the man’s jacket. Heavy with blood, it clung to the shirt. Immediately they all looked for a label, and saw the jagged tear in the lining where one had been cut away. Jay touched the scalloped edge of what remained. “It’s not a razor cut,” he said. The other victims’ clothes had been cremated along with their bodies before Jay arrived, but the forensic reports described how all the labels had been removed with a blade so sharp it never snagged a thread.

“Here is not a convenient place to undress a man to remove his labels,” Basia said. “The killer was rushed.”

“Definitely not convenient,” Jay agreed. “If we have only one killer, he’s letting us know, it’s him. If we have a copycat, he knows about the labels.”

Remembering that Detective Kulski had described the other couriers’ hands as soft—“not calloused like workers”—Jay lifted the dead man’s right hand by its wrist. Even in death it felt light, fragile: an old man’s hand. He looked to see if the man had hair in his ears, and he did. “He’s older than the others,” Jay said. “Easily mid-sixties.”

“The Russians, they drink vodka, they look like this,” Basia told him. “In Russia, you can be twenty years old or one hundred, and you look like this.”

“You don’t like Russians, do you, Pani Husarska?” Jay asked, addressing her with a Polish title of respect.

“It is not liking them, Agent Porter. It is knowing them.”

Jay turned the dead man’s hand, and noticed a pronounced bump next to the little finger. He pressed it; it felt like the writer’s bump he had through high school, going away after he started using an electric typewriter in college. He showed it to Kulski. “What would cause a bump like that?”

The detective, looking closer, shrugged. “I don’t know.”

Neither did Jay, who couldn’t imagine what repetitive task could create a callous in that spot. He lowered the man’s arm to the ground, and stood and pulled off his rubber gloves. “Ask the pathologist about it. Will Doctor Janiak do the autopsy again?”

“I can ask for him,” Kulski said. “He is not always available.”

“It would be a good idea. In cases with multiple murders, often the same pathologist makes a connection we overlook.”

“I will guarantee that Doctor Janiak is available,” Basia said, and tossed aside her cigarette. Its butt, rusty with her lipstick, rolled down the riverbank, compromising the forensic field.

“Good,” Jay replied, and looked around to take in the whole site. He had only seen the other victims in photographs, but a lot was different. They had been killed somewhere else; cleaned up, dressed and brought to the riverbank to be displayed—their only visible wound their ruined cheek. Across the river, a ray of sun broke through the thinning clouds to reflect off the new snow clinging to a church’s twin copper spires. “The other victims were all found on the other side of the river,” Jay was reminded. “On the Praga side.”

Basia lit another cigarette. “It is nothing. Only the courier, he comes from a different direction this time.”

“Something fundamentally changed, and maybe that’s all it is, that he came from a different direction this time. But why?”

No one answered. No one had one. They took a moment to ponder the lifeless man on the ground, and finally Basia asked, “Why does a man cut a face like that?”

“It’s a signature,” Jay said. “He wants us to know that it’s him.”

“But why does a man cut like that? What is inside him to do such a thing? We have not such experiences in Poland.”

“You are certain it’s a man?”

“Can a woman be so cruel?”

Jay thought about women he had seen in prison. Some he had put there. “You would be surprised. “Was anything found?” he asked Detective Kulski.

“Some trash, but it is nothing. Mostly cigarettes. We collected them.”

“Any witnesses?”

“Jeszcze nie.” Not yet. By the way the detective shook his head, he didn’t expect any to turn up.

“Polish people are not in cooperation with the police. It is our tradition,” Basia said, and shivered from the cold. “Have you seen enough?”

Jay had.

The detective signaled for the ambulance crew. Two men hoisted a stretcher and stumbled down the riverbank, obliterating whatever forensic value remained. They heaved the dead man onto the stretcher and everyone plowed back up the hill behind them. The detective had difficulty with his game leg on the icy slope. When they reached a service road running the length of the embankment, his gaze traveled back to the river. As a fellow cop, Jay knew he was engraving the scene in his memory for all the times he would try to reconstruct what happened there.

The stretcher bearers shoved the body into the back of an ambulance, sounded a siren and drove away.

Basia took out her keys and pressed a fob to pop open the locks on her sporty car.

Jay was surprised by them. Electronic car locks were only beginning to appear in the States, and Poland, recently liberated from decades of stifling communism, had a long ways to catch up. “Nice wheels,” he said.

Basia glanced at her tires.

“I mean, nice car. ‘Nice wheels’ is an American expression.”

“I like nice things.”

Director Husarska got in and started the engine. Giving it gas, her tires spun on the slippery cobblestones.

Jay tapped on her window.

She lowered it.

“You call this spring, Pani Director?”

“The Poles are romantics, Agent Porter. Tomorrow it is already April. It should be spring.”

Her window glided back up.

Jay leaned on one fender, Kulski on the other, until her wheels gained enough traction to bolt up the ramp and disappear into traffic. Brushing off their hands, they walked to the detective’s car. Along the embankment stood a row of kiosks with chairs chained to naked umbrella poles embedded in cement blocks. Beyond them, a neglected houseboat strained at its lashings. “What is this place?” Jay asked.

“A park,” the detective told him. “It’s very popular in the summer. Now, it is too cold except for young people.”

Lovers Lane, Jay translated, and perfect for it: an easy turn off the busy road to a quiet spot along the river.

“Who lives in the houseboat?”

“No one is home, so we are checking. Can I drive you to the embassy?”

“I’ll walk. It’s not far.”

“Another storm is coming.”

“I’ll run if it does.”

“I will telephone you about the radiation test.”

“Thanks.”

The men shook hands and the detective drove off.

A policeman was balling up the last of the incident tape as Jay turned into the strengthening wind. The plywood kiosks groaned under its assault. A sign nailed to the houseboat’s side offered daily river tours, but judging by the trash in its lashings, it hadn’t sailed for some time.

A light flickered in the boat’s window.

Had someone returned unnoticed? Jay decided to find out.

The gangplank heaved as the boat rocked in the wind. Jay grabbed the ropes that served as rails and started up it. In a couple of steps, he slipped on the sheer ice, his feet going overboard before the ropes stopped his fall. He looked into the murky, unforgiving water swirling beneath him, and pulled himself back on his feet.

When he looked up again, the light inside the houseboat went off.

PART ONE



                                                    ONE WEEK EARLIER

1

The seismic fall of the Berlin Wall opened more than one route to the West. Smugglers sprung from communism’s ashes to form cross-border alliances that completed a drug trail running from the opiatic hills of Asia to the ports of Europe. Not all routes led through Poland, but a disproportionate number did. In Warsaw, a series of grisly murders, initially attributed to a worrisome though ignorable war between rival mafias, suddenly became an international worry when an autopsy of the third body revealed traces of radiation on the victim’s hands. In the illicit global economy, nuclear smuggling had become the fashionable high-stakes game. At FBI headquarters in DC, it had always been assumed to be a question of when, not if, the world’s illicit routes would turn atomic.

Apparently Poland’s had.

The new Solidarity government asked for help and Jay volunteered for the assignment. His grandmother had worked on the Manhattan Project, his father was a physicist at the atomic labs in Los Alamos, and though Jay didn’t follow in the family’s scientific tradition, any case involving anything nuclear interested him. To learn some basic Polish, he hired a tutor, an auburn beauty as eager to make love to him as he was to her; something which, by their second session, made for an interesting vocabulary lesson. By the time his clearance finally came through, the third victim had been dead over a month and his command of Polish physiology was outstanding. He pieced together his first complex sentence, telling his tutor that he would miss her and insisting on a final exam.

Now only a couple of hours in Warsaw, he barely had had time for a quick shower—but no change of clothes because his suitcase was missing—before his first meeting with the Polish police. He passed through the hotel’s breakfast buffet, downing two passable espressos and a bowl of granola, before jumping into a taxi. After badly mispronouncing his destination, he showed the address to the driver.

“Why don’t you say you go to police?” the man asked.

“I thought that I had.”

Minutes later, the driver pulled up to a crossbar blocking a circular driveway. Behind it loomed a building foreboding for its drabness. Jay paid the fare, flashed his passport at a guard, and started up the building’s sweeping steps, pausing to work out the Polish for National Police Headquarters on a red-and-white plaque. At the top, he pushed his way through a heavy wooden door into a cavernous lobby as brutally austere as he had always imagined official Eastern Europe to be. Nothing softened the hard marble walls or muffled the sounds ricocheting between them.

From inside a glass booth, a security guard eyed him suspiciously. “ID,” she said.

Jay slipped his passport to her through a tray. “I have an appointment with Director Basia Husarska.”

The guard examined his photo, checked it against his face, and dialed a number on her telephone. Jay heard his accented name in the woman’s stream of words. She hung up, returned his passport, and pointed to the foot of a grand staircase. “You wait there.”

Jay crossed the cavernous room and loitered in front of a kiosk tucked behind the stairs. Its window displayed everything from disposable razors to baby bottles to panties. When he heard the clickity-clack of high heels, he glanced up at a pretty brunette coming down the stairs. “You are Mister Porter?”

“That’s me.”

“I am Pani Husarska’s secretary. Please, you follow me.”

He did, and asked, “Do you have a name?”

“Of course. Everybody has a name.”

“I meant, what is your name.”

“Oh!” The young woman laughed at her mistake.

A man in plain clothes, coming down the stairs with a pronounced limp, said, “Goodbye, Hanna.”

“Goodbye, Detective.”

“So I guess your name is Hanna,” Jay said.

“Yes!” she replied, and laughed again.

Up a second flight, they entered a long corridor lined with heavily padded doors. All of them were closed, and everything—walls, doors, ceiling—was all the same dingy yellow. Hanna brought them to an office with the nameplate Basia Husarska, Director BPZ.

“BPZ?” Jay already knew what it stood for, but wanted to hear it pronounced correctly in Polish.

“Biuro Zorganizowanego Przestępstwa,” Hanna told him. Bureau of Organized Crime.

They entered the office, and in a couple of steps, she crossed to a second door and knocked on it. From the other side, they heard an annoyed, “Tak?”

Hanna opened the door as Director Husarska, on the telephone, swiveled around to face them in a towering leather chair. On the wall behind her was a long red banner emblazoned with Poland’s resurrected eagle stitched in gold. With the telephone receiver pressed to her ear, she puckered her lips as if tasting something sour. “He is here just now,” she said in English and hung up.

“This is Mr. Porter,” Hanna said.

“James Porter. FBI.” He flashed his badge.

“Yes, I know.” Basia, a smile fixed to her face, stood to shake his hand. He had seen her photograph, but nothing had conveyed her exotic beauty, her feline movements, her eyes—the green of a leopard’s eyes, and equally calculating and seductive.

“You are not expecting me, are you?” Jay guessed.

“Only now have I received a call from your embassy.”

“I was told that I had an appointment. My apologies. I can come another time.”

“No, of course not, you are here. Please sit. Hanna, two coffees. Unless you prefer tea?”

“Definitely coffee. I’m still jetlagging.”

Hanna slipped out, closing the door behind her.

“It is a pity, Agent Porter, that just now—”

Her office door swung open.

“—you missed Detective Kulski.”

“He didn’t miss me,” said the detective. He was the man with a pronounced limp descending on the stairs. “You are Mister Porter from the FBI?”

“Agent James Porter.”

They shook hands.

“Welcome. I asked the security guard who you were. You didn’t look Polish, so I was curious. I didn’t know you were coming today.”

“Apparently only Agent Porter knew that he was coming today,” Basia said. “Please sit, Detective.”

Hanna, carrying a tray, backed her way through the door.

“Detective Kulski will need a coffee, too,” Basia said.

“I already prepared three cups.” The young secretary slid the tray onto the desk and left again.

The three chunky espresso cups formed a triangle, and in its middle was a bowl steeped with sugar cubes. Basia dropped three into her cup and Kulski took two. It made Jay worry how bad the coffee really was, and unintentionally watched the Director stir her spoon.

“You look at me curiously, Agent Porter,” she said.

“I look at everything curiously.”

“It is your nature?”

“It’s my job.”

“The FBI must be a very curious job. Sometime I will ask you questions about it.” Basia picked up her pack of cigarettes, tapped it until a couple popped up, and offered them to Jay.

He had to restrain himself from taking one.

Apparently it showed because Basia asked, “You are trying to quit, like all Americans?”

Jay plucked one from her pack. “I swear it’s my last one.”

“Of course it is.”

She reached across her desk and flicked her lighter, and he leaned forward to catch his cigarette in the flame. He enjoyed the first rush of the tobacco, and exhaled slowly. “It seems that everybody speaks English here,” he remarked.

“We are capitalists now.”

Exhausted from a night in economy class, he needed caffeine and sipped his coffee too soon. No one had warned him about Polish coffee—made by boiling grounds without filtering them—and his teeth were suddenly covered with grit.

Director Husarska watched him running his tongue over them, and smiled sincerely for the first time. “You are not the first foreigner to discover our Polish coffee.”

“It’s unexpected, that’s for sure.”

“You must drink it very slowly,” she said, and took a sip. “So, Minister Brzeski tells me that you are an expert.”

She had mentioned her de facto boss, head of the ministry responsible for law enforcement and security, who had requested the FBI’s help when the case shifted from a murder investigation to nuclear smuggling. “What kind of expert did he say I am?”

“He only said, an American expert is coming to help.”

“So how do you think I can help?”

“You must ask Minister Brzeski.” Basia tapped off an ash. “It was not my idea to ask for help. So, Leszek, show Agent Porter what you have.”

The detective snapped open his briefcase and piled three files on the desk. “It’s lucky that I have these with me. I was meeting with Director Husarska to show what I prepared for you. There is a file for each victim.” The detective flipped through one folder to reveal documents meticulously organized and labeled: Investigation, Pathology, Photos.

“You’ve been busy,” Jay said.

Basia told him, “Leszek is very thorough.”

“I tried to translate the reports, but I am not very successful with the technical words. What do you know about the case?”

Jay quickly summarized what he knew. Three murders with traces of radiation on the third victim’s hands. Speculation that they might all have been nuclear smugglers. Witnesses, evidence, motive, victims’ IDs: they had none of the above.

Kulski found a map and pointed to three red dots straggling the east bank of the Vistula River. “The first victim was here, the second here, and here, the third.”

“I want to see each site. Any clue to their identities?”

“They are Russians,” Basia answered.

“Have the Russians reported any missing persons?”

“Many people are missing in Russia, Agent Porter.”

“What’s your theory, Detective, on the radiation? Why did you even look for it?”

“Doctor Janiak, who made the examination, was director of the committee to investigate the Chernobyl problem in Poland. By chance he examined the third victim.”

“By chance?”

“We have more than one pathologist in Warsaw,” Basia answered.

“Doctor Janiak always tests for radiation,” Kulski explained. “He takes every opportunity to continue his study.”

“Did you go back and test the first two for radiation? It’s been unclear to me if you have, or why not?”

Basia stubbed out her cigarette. “The bodies have been eliminated.”

“Eliminated?”

“It is normal after thirty days.”

“Even in murder cases?”

“In all cases. We have photographs and a report, and we have no space to keep every extra body.”

“Why not exhume them up and test them? That’s been unclear to me.”

“Exhume them?” Basia asked.

“Unbury them. Dig them up. I don’t know how to say that in Polish.”

“They are cremated,” Detective Kulski clarified.

“Oh.”

“The third victim is also eliminated,” Basia told him.

“Even when you knew about the radiation on his hands? Why?”

“There was a mistake with the paperwork. It is a normal confusion with bureaucracy.”

“I thought no more communists, no more bureaucracy?”

Basia smiled sincerely for a second time, and said, “We are the same people.”

“So, these are copies for me?” Jay asked about the files.

“Yes,” answered the detective.

“Great. Thank you.” Jay slipped them into his briefcase. “I’m sure I’ll have questions. And how do you want me to operate? If the FBI can help, that’s what I’m here to do.”

Basia said, “Leszek is handling the investigation.”

“Can we meet tomorrow?”

“Of course,” Kulski replied. “Please telephone me in the morning to set a time. It is a problem that I have too many cases.”

“I can definitely understand that.”

They all stood and shook hands. “You can contact me at the Marriott.” Jay mentioned his room number.

Turning to leave, he noticed the poster hanging alongside Basia’s door: a whitewashed village in a field of lavender running downhill to an azure sea. “It’s beautiful. Where is it?”

“Hvar,” Basia told him.

“Yugoslavia?”

“It is my dream to live there.”

“Everyone dreams to live in such a place.”

“I will, Agent Porter. I will live in such a place. I am certain of it.”

“Then you’ll be one of the lucky ones,” he said, and walked out.

2

Lilka puckered her cherry-red lips as she looked in the bathroom mirror. Carefully she outlined them with black eyeliner, occasionally dabbing her pencil into Vaseline to imitate the glossy look of models she’d seen in fashion magazines. When she finished, she gave her thick hennaed curls a last toss. Her eyes were turquoise, her skin as smooth and unblemished as a porcelain doll, yet Lilka did not think herself beautiful. Even on those rare occasions when mood and light coalesced sufficiently to allow her a glimpse of her true beauty, she didn’t trust herself a moment later. Men admired her, but she didn’t trust them either, certainly not the paunchy businessmen in the airport’s Executive Lounge where she worked, serving drinks to first-class passengers who always found excuses to touch her.

Jacek barged in. “I gotta’ piss. I can’t wait.”

“Lift the seat, Jacek. Haven’t I asked before?”

“Fuck off.”

Lilka left the bathroom.

Jacek finished relieving himself and turned, shaking his sex at her through the open door. “You want some of this?”

She dropped keys into her purse. “Go to hell,” she said.

He lunged at her and grabbed her arm. “Go to hell yourself!”

“Let go!”

He forced her hand to his crotch. “This isn’t good enough for you? Not like your first-class tricks?”

She squirmed, trying not to touch him, but he was stronger. “Jacek, please, stop…”

He fell back on the couch to zip up and yank off his muddy boots. “Fucking first-class whore.”

Lilka rubbed her wrist. She wanted to wash her hand, but if she did in front of Jacek, she was afraid he might break it. “Where’s Stefan?”

“I don’t know.”

“Wasn’t he with you last night?”

“I’m not his babysitter.” Jacek flung a boot against the wall. “I’m sleeping in your room today.”

“No Jacek, please.”

“No Jacek, please,” he mimicked her. “I drive a fucking truck all night. I have a fucking right to a fucking bed.”

“We have an agreement.”

“Call the police.”

“You’re impossible.” Grabbing her overcoat, she slipped into the hallway before his second boot could hit her.

It hit the door instead.

“Kurva!” he called after her. Whore!

Lilka fought back her tears, not wanting to smudge her make-up. She headed for the stairwell—its door was missing—and smelled her neighbor’s warm bread before she saw her. Agnieszka emerged a moment later out of breath from climbing six flights. Two bread loaves protruded from a bag slung over her shoulder. To Lilka, they smelled like mornings, when families woke up, sipped coffee with toast and talked of the day ahead. Her father had always gone out for the breakfast bread. Agnieszka’s yeasty loaves reminded Lilka of the happy family she didn’t have herself. No one went out for bread; no one sipped coffee with toast. No one cared what she would do that day or any day. That unhappy realization brought on the tears she had struggled to hold back.

Alarmed, Agnieszka asked, “What happened?” She tried to look at the side of Lilka’s face. “Did he hit you again?”

“He didn’t hit me.”

“Not this time.”

“He was just being his usual mean self.”

“They shoot mean dogs, don’t they?”

Lilka dabbed her eyes. “He’s not worth the bullet.”

They both laughed, knowing their black humor was a cover-up for what they were really feeling. “Come in and have a coffee,” Agnieszka said. “It might be your last chance to see Wojtek in his Micky Mouse pyjamas before he puts them away for summer.”

Agnieszka had a repaired palate, and whatever she said had the comforting sound of shushing a baby to sleep. Her “Micky Mouth pyjamath” cheered Lilka, and she kissed her friend’s cheek. “I’d love to, but I can’t be late for work.”

Lilka started down the stairs. The smell of fresh bread had been overcome by the more familiar stench of old piss, to which no doubt her husband—ex-husband, she reminded herself—had contributed. They had been divorced over three years, in itself something close to a miracle in Catholic Poland. At least the secular communists had recognized that the sanctity of marriage could be sacrificed on the altar of wife abuse. Still, Lilka had been forced to remain in the same apartment with Jacek: the communists had a waiting list for housing longer than the Church’s list of sinners.

She felt dirty by the time she reached the ground floor and pushed the bar on the door to let herself outside. A thin layer of virgin snow covered everything. She brushed it off her windshield, using the snow to wash Jacek off her dirtied hand. She pulled on her mittens and got in the car.

Lilka prayed it would start. It had been acting up lately, and stalled out the day before. She pulled out the choke, turned the key, and tapped the gas pedal.

As soon as the engine turned over, it sputtered and died.

Again she turned the key and tapped the pedal, and that time, it turned over, coughed and stayed running. She let the engine warm up before backing out of her space. The sun shone through a break in the clouds, reflecting so brightly off the snow that Lilka was forced to put on sunglasses. That definitely improved her mood. Her hands were clean, the sun was out, and as she swung into the street, she was thinking how glamorous she always felt wearing shades.

3

Outside police headquarters, Jay consulted his map and decided the embassy was walking distance. He followed hectic Puławska Street under trees that poked knobby branches into the steely sky. It was neither raining nor drizzling, yet the sidewalk was wet as if water had seeped from the ground and formed inky puddles.

At the embassy, a Marine guard checked Jay’s passport, and smiled when he handed back his FBI badge. “Always like to see you guys around,” he said, and buzzed him through a security door. A receptionist steered him in the direction of the Ambassador’s office. On his way, he sniffed out an alcove that housed a coffeemaker. He looked for anything resembling a ceramic mug, and ended up filling a Styrofoam cup with coffee from the charred pot. He took a cautious sip and poured it out.

He found the Ambassador’s office. At her desk outside it, Millie, the Ambassador’s secretary, scratched her head of thinning white hair while staring at a blank computer screen. “I will never figure this out!” she complained.

“It helps to turn it on,” Jay said, and reached over to press the button on the systems drive. Instantly her screen lit up.

“Oh, thank you! I know these new things aren’t that complicated, but sometimes I can’t remember what to do first.”

“I’m James Porter. FBI. The Ambassador is expecting me.”

“Oh dear, is Carl in trouble?”

“No, not at all. But I am in a little bit of trouble myself. The airlines lost my suitcase. By any chance, did someone call? I gave them the embassy’s telephone number as a backup to the hotel’s.”

“I don’t think so,” Millie said, fingering various slips of paper on her desk, “but I don’t always remember to write things down.”

The Ambassador swung open his office door. “Millie, when that FBI fellow shows up— Oh, it looks like maybe he has. Are you Porter?”

“I am.”

“Good. Come on in. I just got a phone call from Basia Husarska.”

“Here’s my boarding pass.” Jay slipped it to Millie. “If you could check on my suitcase, I would appreciate it. Thanks.”

“Millie, tell Kurt Crawford we’re meeting now,” the Ambassador said. “He should join us.”

With a clap on his back, the Ambassador propelled Jay into the room, and strode in cowboy boots back to his wide mahogany desk flanked by American and Polish flags. Behind him a picture window roiled with clouds the color of pencil lead. Carl Lerner had to become an Ambassador: he had the looks—tall, amiably handsome and lanky-jawed, with a pale rose handkerchief sprouting from the pocket of his charcoal suit. He also had an affecting Texas drawl, too, and said, “I’m afraid, Porter, that Millie forgot to set up your appointment. We had it on our calendar, but she never put it on theirs, which is why you may have found the police a bit surprised to see you.”

“They were.”

“It didn’t go well?”

“An awkward start but salvageable.”

“Well, I do apologize. Millie has worked for State since Waterloo, and unfortunately has a better memory for Napoleon than this morning’s schedule. Also unfortunately, I am tasked with drop kicking her butt into retirement, and it might take that.”

There was a knock on the door.

“Come in,” the Ambassador said.

A black man entered. He had crew-cut hair and his face was peppered with shiny jagged scars. A tiny ruby pierced his ear.

“Good, you’re here. Introduce yourselves. Kurt Crawford meet James Porter and vice versa.”

“James Porter. FBI.”

“Kurt Crawford. Acting Security Officer.”

They shook hands.

“Please sit.” The Ambassador waved them into leather seats that exhaled under their weight. “How much of a briefing did they give you in DC?” he asked Jay.

“I read the cable traffic, which was short on detail. Clearly Eastern Europe is a whole new game. I have a lot of questions.”

“Do you want to start with your questions, or shall I have Kurt give you some background?”

Jay answered by asking Kurt, “What’s your involvement in the case? I thought SOs usually handled kidnappings and evacuations.”

“Kurt works on jobs that don’t fit into anyone else’s job description,” the Ambassador replied.

“That’s clear,” Jay said, instantly concluding that Kurt worked for the CIA. Wary of having his case hijacked, he added, “I didn’t know Langley investigated murder cases.”

“Ah, hell!” growled the Ambassador. “Is there nothing confidential any more? You might as well go ahead, Kurt, and get into it.”

“The murders are all yours,” he told Jay. “We’re just glad for the extra eyes and ears. In case you’ve missed it, there’s a war in the former Yugoslavia that’s spreading. The Serbs are making expansionist moves, not to mention setting up concentration camps for Muslims. Last year the UN slapped an arms embargo on everyone in Yugoslavia, but that hasn’t stopped the Serbs from acquiring weapons, and Made in Poland is stamped on lots of them.”

Jay asked, “What does this have to do with my case?”

“Right now, we don’t know who the bad guys are. Who’s buying, who’s selling, and how the weapons are moving south. We’re hoping you’ll learn something useful from where you’ve landed in their system.”

“I’ve landed in Organized Crime, not border patrol.”

“Mafias control almost all the trucking in the country. We suspect that’s how the weapons are being delivered. They’re easy to conceal inside trucks. It’s a big enough operation that someone inside Husarska’s unit has to know who is moving what to where, and possibly even helps for a bribe.”

“Do you suspect Husarska herself?”

“Let’s not jump to conclusions,” the Ambassador interjected. “We don’t know enough to suspect anyone.”

Kurt said, “What we do know is that the weapons are coming from PENZIK. It’s a state-owned factory that’s been scrambling to survive ever since the Soviet Union crashed and burned. The Soviets used to be its biggest buyer.”

“It took the radiation on the third guy’s hands for them to finally ask for help,” the Ambassador added. “The implications have everybody scared.”

“The radiation wasn’t a plant, was it?”

Kurt broke into a big grin. “Naw. Langley’s good but not that good. What’s the Bureau’s take on the radiation?”

“We thought this stuff would start showing up. Too many underpaid Russian generals have keys to too many nuclear pantries,” Jay answered. “I have my assistant tracking down recent DOE inventory reports on uranium stocks in the former Soviet republics. It’s a long shot, but we might see something that ties into the couriers. Basically, she’ll be looking for missing fuel. If enough is unaccounted for, then we know we have a problem.”

Ambassador Lerner tilted back in his chair. “Are you suggesting someone is trying to put together an atomic bomb?”

“Or more than one of them. You can blow up Manhattan with a soda can filled with plutonium, if you can deliver it.” The fact was astonishing, and the men’s expressions turned appropriately incredulous; that’s why Jay always liked to tell it. “In reality, plutonium is literally too hot to handle and hard to deliver. In cases like this, we usually assume we’re dealing with HEU-235. That’s high grade highly-enriched uranium. With U-235, it takes about twenty-five kilos to make a bomb. That’s only the fuel. The delivery mechanism is extra weight.”

“Delivery mechanism?” the Ambassador asked. “Do you mean the warhead?”

“I mean some way to set off the bomb where you want it to go off.”

The Ambassador’s intercom buzzed. “Yes, Millie,” he answered.

“Please let Mister Potter know that the airlines found his suitcase. He can pick it up at the airport.”

“Can they deliver it to my hotel?” Jay asked into the speaker.

“You have to clear it personally through customs,” the Ambassador answered, and instructed Millie to have a car ready for him. “Now where were we?”

“You asked about a warhead,” Jay reminded him, “and that’s not something a courier can carry. Most smuggled uranium is headed for countries like Libya or Iran that have no way – yet – to deliver a bomb. What’s more worrisome are low-tech terrorists who might use it in a dirty bomb.”

“What’s your next step?”

“I’ll look over the files and forensics, and get more background from Kulski. Basically I’m investigating their investigation and looking for gaps until there’s more to work with. How involved do you want to be?”

“It’s your investigation. All I expect is that you two gentlemen share relevant information. I don’t expect the usual competition between Langley and the Bureau to apply here.”

“It’s no competition,” Kurt said.

The Ambassador ignored him, and asked, “What do you need from us, Porter?”

“An office, a desk, an outside line, and someone who will take messages.” Another broadside of hail ricocheted off the window. “And a window,” he remembered to include. He hated rooms without windows.

“For now, use Millie for your messages,” the Ambassador offered. “We’ll sort out an office by tomorrow.”

Their business over, the three men stood and shook hands.

“Do you lift weights?” Kurt asked.

“The embassy has a gym?”

“In the basement.”

“Sure. We’ll get together,” Jay said, and walked out.

Millie, hanging up the telephone, said, “Oh, Mister Potter, the driver is waiting out front for you.”

“My name is Porter,” he reminded her.

“Oh, I wish I could remember the simple things!”

“Try clue-minders, Millie. Me? I’m the man with the lost baggage. So think baggage and porter. Mister Porter.”

“Clue-minders? What a clever idea. Now don’t forget your passport.”

He patted his coat pocket. “Got it.”

“And your boarding pass.”

“That too.”

“You wouldn’t believe what some people forget. Oh my, I could tell you stories!”

“Another time, I’d like to hear them.”

He had started down the hall when she called after him, “Button up, Mister Potter! It’s cold outside!”

4

Snow plows had steeped muddy sludge over the median dividing the road to the airport. Cars passed at hell-bent speeds, spraying the windshield with snowmelt and salt, which the wipers only managed to smear. Jay leaned over the front seat to peer into the muddy twilight.

The international terminal came into view. No doubt it had been a showpiece when first opened, the communists wanting to prove that they were equal to the West with such a modern building: all glass in alternating clear and red-tinted horizontal bands, and a control tower shaped like a praying mantis perched over it. Over the decades, it had clearly suffered from neglect: where paint was needed, none had been applied, and broken windows had been replaced indiscriminately, making a hodgepodge of the linear design. Floodlights, blurred by a dusting of snow in the early twilight, added a touch of prison yard ambiance.

The driver pulled to the curb.

Jay asked, “Where will you wait?”

The man pointed vaguely ahead. “There. How long?”

“Hopefully not long.”

He entered the terminal through cracked glass doors repaired with packing tape. Birds nesting in the overhead rafters had splattered the floor with chalky droppings. Everything was the color of grit. Poles, it seemed, didn’t so much argue as grumble, and there was a fair amount of that going on in the long lines. His airline’s bright blue logo hung over an empty counter where a notice directed inquiries to the administration office.

Following directions up a flight of narrow stairs to an even narrower hallway, he opened the door to an overheated office where a six-foot blonde stewardess greeted him. Carrying vodka shots on a tray, her feet were enshrouded by clouds. He stepped around the cardboard sylph to find an airline agent at a desk absorbed with scissoring off her bleached split ends with nails polished black.

“Do you speak English?” he asked.

“Nie,” she replied without looking up, instead examining another fistful of hair.

“I have a problem.” When she didn’t react, he tried the Polish pronunciation.

“Problema?” she asked, and the way she did, he knew he better not have one.

“Nie problema,” he reassured her. “Only my suitcase, my bagaz, is missing.” He offered his claim check.

She plucked it from his fingers. “You have boarding pass?”

He handed it to her. “So you do speak English?”

The agent ignored him and picked up the telephone receiver. Her nails were almost too long to manipulate the sluggish dial. She spoke rapidly, but he managed to pick out his name before she hung up. “Five minutes,” she told him, and returned to searching for split ends.

“What happens in five minutes?”

“We wait five minutes!”

“Okay, now I understand. Five minutes.”

Jay circled the room checking out the travel posters mounted on the walls. They all depicted destinations in America. Cowboys lassoing steers. Skyscrapers blinking in nightscapes. Steamboats churning the Mississippi. He pointed to a panorama of red earth plateaus and told her, “I grew up on this desert.”

She shot him an indulgent smile, dialed the telephone again, and swore under her breath when there was no answer. Abruptly she stood up. “You come.”

He followed the agent out the door, winking at the blonde cutout as he did. With the agent’s access card, they bypassed security to reach the Executive Lounge. Her card opened that door as well, and she called, “Lilka!”

She came to the door. “Yes?” she asked, and listened to the agent’s rapid-fire explanation of his problem. “Uh huh… yes, I understand… uh huh,” she murmured, and stole glances at him, assessing the headache being dropped into her lap. “Okay, I tell him,” Lilka said, and told Jay: “There is a strike.”

“A strike?”

“Not for long. Maybe one more hour.”

“Goodbye, Mr. Porter.” His plight told, the agent handed him over and left the lounge.

“Please, Mister Porter, you come with me.”

He followed Lilka into a lounge filled with upholstered chairs patterned with tropical birds. Next to each was a lamp in the shape of a flamingo. Jungle wallpaper surrounded them. Jay was tempted to beat his chest like Tarzan. Instead he simply remarked, “There’s no one here.”

“In a little time, there will be too many people. You want a drink, yes?”

Jay gave a look at the bottles on a rack behind the bar. “You have Black Label?”

“You are lucky, the plane from London is very late.”

“Lucky?”

“We are allotted only one bottle a day.”

“And the British drink it?”

“It is their last chance before Moscow.”

“Last chance for what?”

“Not to drink Russian vodka. Please you sit.”

He slid onto a stool and watched her pour a hefty shot.

“Do you want ice or water?”

“Straight. I only ice Johnnie red.”

“You are an expert on scotch?”

“Only in airport lounges. I can’t afford Black Label at home. Can I buy you a drink?”

“I am not permitted to drink when working.”

“I’m the only one here.”

“There is a camera.”

“Where?”

“It is behind you. Over the door.”

“Good.”

He reached over the bar, grabbed the rail bottle of white wine, and poured some into a water glass. “Is vino biale okay?”

“Pan movi po polsku?” she asked, surprised at his Polish.

“Only tak and nie, and white wine. Cheers.”

“You are very bad,” she said, but the laughter in her voice told him she approved.

Jay had definitely warmed to the situation. No longer a beleaguered traveler in search of lost baggage, instead he was a man lucky enough to be having a drink with a beautiful woman in a fancy bar. He stuck out his hand. “My real name is Jay.”

“Your real name?”

“What my friends call me.”

“Ja-ay,” she tested it. “You are first time Ja-ay in Warsaw?”

“Yeah, first time, and I know nothing about Warsaw. What’s fun to do?”

She sipped her wine. “Do you like old things?”

“Old things?”

“Maybe castles?”

“Sure, maybe castles are okay.” He wanted to be agreeable, but castles? Looking at her, he wasn’t thinking about old things or castles. “Are there any good restaurants?”

“Oh yes! Now we have restaurants from French and Italian. You will like them.”

“What’s your favorite one?”

“There are so many,” she said, and he knew she had been to none of them. “Do you go to Disneyland?”

“Only once. It’s on the other side of the country from where I grew up.”

“Tolek wants to go. Always he talks about Disneyland.”

“Tolek?” Jay checked her hands: no ring. “Is Tolek your husband?”

“He is the husband of my sister, Alina. He has a dream to go to America.”

The lounge’s door buzzer interrupted them.

“Please excuse me one moment,” Lilka said, and disappeared into the entry. He heard her speaking to a man before reappearing to tell him, “Your driver has your suitcase.”

The embassy man stepped into the lounge, grinning and displaying the lost suitcase. “All finished,” he said.

“All finished?” Jay didn’t want it to be finished. He wanted to stay in the lounge with Lilka. “How did you finish it?”

The man flashed his embassy ID. “No problem with this.”

“Five minutes, okay?”

“No problem.”

When the driver stepped out, Jay asked Lilka, “Maybe we can go to a restaurant?”

“Go to a restaurant?”

“Yes. You and me.”

Her thoughts played across her face. She measured him with the same eyes that had assessed countless offers and come-ons. He wanted to think he was different, but he knew he wasn’t, he was exactly what he was: some guy talking her up because she was beautiful.

“Okay,” she said.

“Okay?”

He had passed her test!

“That’s great! What time do you stop work?”

“Midnight.”

Six more hours. He would never make it. A tsunami of weariness already threatened to sweep over him. “I’ll call you tomorrow, okay?”

“Yes, tomorrow is better. I will not be so late. You will telephone me here?”

“Yes, tomorrow, I promise.” He pulled out a pen and grabbed a napkin off the bar. “What’s your number?” As he wrote it down, the ink bled into the soft tissue. “I’ll call tomorrow,” he promised again, and went out to join his driver.

5

The streetcar clamored to a stop and the doors wheezed open. Alina stepped down jostling cumbersome bags that rubbed against her legs. The wind tugged at her neck scarf, and she clenched with her chin as she crossed the tracks, remembering too late to look for an approaching tram—had there been one. Even in that weather, cars tooted their way down busy Aleje Jerozolimskie at reckless speeds. Pedestrians, shielding their faces from blowing snow, hurried along the sidewalk. Alina followed where they had tamped it down and soon turned into her neighborhood.

A long park ran between rows of dreary Soviet-style apartments. The fat, wet snowflakes landing on the leafless branches reminded Alina of the linden blossoms of summer. The park had been abandoned by all but a boy throwing sticks across a frozen pond for his dog to chase. Each time, the puppy, on big, clumsy paws, skidded on the ice and the boy hooted with amusement. Alina laughed with him, and was still smiling when she reached her building.

The unheated hallway was no warmer than outdoors. She pressed a switch and a dim overhead bulb flickered on. A faint hum signaled the start of her minute of light. By the third landing it failed, and only the pale illumination seeping under doorways guided her up the last flight. Outside her door, she set her shopping bags on the floor, and relieved of their weight, stretched her neck.

She was bending to the right when Tolek opened the door, and instantly tilted his head to peck her lips. “I’ll help you,” he said, and picked up the bags.

“They’re heavy,” she warned him.

“I noticed.”

Alina hung her coat and cap on hooks inside the door, and plucked free the limp hairs stuck to her forehead. She was a thin, nervous woman, and her movements were quick. She followed her husband into the kitchen. The room, painted a faded green, was cramped with their two-burner stove, a small table, and Alina’s prized, full-size albeit ancient refrigerator that clanked whenever the compressor started up.

The last of the day’s feeble light barely brightened the window. Tolek heaved the bags onto the counter as Alina told him, “It’s all potatoes and onions. There was nothing else fresh today, and the girl didn’t know when any more would be coming. I bought as much as I could carry.”

Tolek dumped the potatoes into a bin. “I want you to be careful, and carrying heavy bags isn’t being careful. You could have slipped on the ice.”

“I was careful and I didn’t slip. You’re home early. Did the power go out again?”

“They made it official today.”

She paused, not really wanting to hear the answer to her question, “When?”

“Today.”

“Today? Without any notice?”

“Today without any notice.”

“That’s not possible.

“We knew it was coming.”

“Knowing it was coming doesn’t change things. What are we going to live on?”

“We have savings.”

“Savings?” For a moment Alina was too anxious to say more. All her worries were creeping up on her. She shook as she unloaded a bag of onions into a basket and snatched up the papery brown skins that landed on the counter. “What savings, Tolek? Do you know how much food costs these days?”

He tried his goofy grin that he used whenever he wanted to cheer her up. “What’s it matter what food costs, if there’s nothing to buy?”

“We still have to eat.” Alina sagged into a chair. “I don’t know how we’ll manage when prices keep going up.”

Tolek rubbed a spot clear on the window. Everything outside was blurred by the slow drifting snow. His shoulders seemed too wide for the kitchen’s narrow gauge; almost as wide as a bear’s, and like a bear he was afflicted with a natural awkwardness. “I’ll go to the embassy tomorrow and ask about our visas,” he said.

“I teach English, Tolek. They don’t need English teachers in America.”

“So, you teach them Polish! Think how many Americans don’t speak Polish!”

“You will look for a job here, won’t you?”

“Not before a kiss.” He pulled Alina out of the chair to embrace her. “Don’t worry so much.”

She stood stiffly in his arms; but smelling him, his peculiar dusty scent, she gave way to his comforting embrace, imagining that his arms, thick as tree limbs, shielded her from the worries and fears that threatened to roust them from their small kitchen. Alina could have cried had she let herself. She could have cried for the food they couldn’t buy, the jobs that didn’t exist, the mourning doves which had yet to return for spring. Times had been worse and she hadn’t cried then, not even when Tolek was arrested. She loved him, and trusted him, and opened her mouth to his. She wanted to take him by his hands and draw him to their bed; his big-knuckled hands that for fifteen years had held her and loved her, and protected her when she was frightened. They kissed hard and long, and when he started to pull away, she pulled him back, using his mouth to stop a buried cry.

When their kiss finally broke, Tolek said, “I should lose my job more often.”

Alina slipped from his arms. “I’ll start supper.” She ran water into a pot and lit a burner, and checked the potatoes for rot. “I suppose they have potatoes in America.”

“Meat, too,” he said cheerfully.

“Who can afford meat? Here, make yourself useful and peel these.” She carried some potatoes to the table and handed him a knife.

The front door opened. “Is that you, Tadzu?” she called.

“Yes, Mama.” The boy dropped his book bag by the door and stepped into the kitchen. “Hello Mama. Hello Tata.”

“Don’t track in,” Alina reminded him.

“I wiped my feet,” he said, exasperated by her familiar nagging. He pulled off his cap, freeing the black curls he had inherited from Tolek; his watery blue eyes came from his mother. He watched his father finish peeling a potato with a single cut.

“Why are you home early, Tata?”

Tolek held up his long ribbon of potato skin. “Now your father is part of the unemployed majority, unless someone is hiring a potato peeler!”

“Hush, Tolek. You’ll worry him.”

“How did you do on your test today?”

“I missed three questions.”

“Did you ask for the answers afterwards?”

“Yes, Tata. I stayed after school and Pan Czarniecki explained my errors.”

Tolek turned another potato in his big fist. “Explain them to me.”

The boy straightened and held his hands at his side. “Yes, Tata.” He recited the equations he had answered incorrectly, which were easy enough, and then explained his mistakes. When he concluded, Tolek said, “Didn’t I teach you that when you do something on one side of the equation, you must do the opposite on the other?”

“I forgot, Tata, I’m sorry. May I practice piano, please?”

“You have time to start your homework before supper,” his father replied.

“I only have to read a story, and I finished that on the bus.”

“Are you sure that’s all your homework?” Alina asked.

“Of course I’m sure. Now can I play the piano?”

Tolek said, “You can practice before supper, but afterward, I want you to reread the introduction to equations. You need to know the basics before you can move ahead.”

“Yes, Tata. May I have some juice, please?”

“Of course,” Alina replied.

“Thank you, Mama.” The boy took a glass from the cupboard and opened the refrigerator. “What’s this?”

Alina looked over his shoulder. “What’s what?”

Tadzu pulled out a bundle wrapped in newspaper spotted by grease. “This.”

She opened it enough to see inside. “Sausage? You bought meat?”

“It’s my severance pay. Two kilos.” Tolek hit the table with his fist. “For twenty fucking years of work, those cholerniks give me two kilos of sausage and a handshake!”

“Watch your language, Tolek.”

“I’ll goddamn say what I want to say.”

Ignoring her husband’s outburst, Alina set the bundle of sausage on the counter. “What were you practicing yesterday?” she asked Tadzu.

“A Chopin prelude. I’m only learning it.”

“It was nice, wasn’t it, Tolek? Why don’t you go and play that?”

“But you study after supper,” Tolek reminded him.

“Yes, Tata.”

The boy went into the living room.

Alina folded open the newspaper. “We can get six meals from this,” she said, and sliced off some links. She measured oil into a frying pan, lit a second burner, and started peeling garlic. In the living room, Tadzu warmed up by repeating the opening chords of the Chopin piece before settling into playing it. “He has talent,” she remarked.

“He needs to learn practical skills,” Tolek replied, and was ready to dump the potato skins into the trash when she stopped him.

“Give me those. I can make a broth with them.” She quartered the potatoes he had peeled and dropped them in the boiling water. “Lilka telephoned this morning. She’s worried about Stefan.”

“She’s always worried about Stefan.”

“He’s started working for Jacek again.”

“At least he has a job.”

“He’s a bad influence on the boy.”

“Jacek’s his father. You can’t change that.”

“He’s not been coming home some nights and Lilka is worried.”

“He probably has a girlfriend. Lilka should worry if didn’t at his age.”

“She says he’s secretive.”

“After you and I met, I didn’t always come home, and I was only a year older than he is.”

“A year at his age means a lot of growing up still to do.”

“Were we so much more gown up? Remember the risks we took?”

“I remember,” Alina replied, recalling all their deceptions; but as quickly as her memories of happier times flooded back, so did her worries. “Oh, Tolek, what are we going to do now? How will we manage?”

“I said I’d look for a job until we get visas.”

She had pushed him enough; she didn’t want an argument, and he was ready for one. He rarely was, but his day had been a special strain; he knew the job prospects better than anyone for a second-rate scientist let go by a government-sponsored and lackluster institute: none. He’d be lucky to sell newspapers.

“I’ll fry the sausage with onions. Would you like that?”

Tolek slammed his fist into the table. “It’s all we have, isn’t it? After forty years we finally got rid of those sonofabitch communists, and look at us, eating potatoes and onions like we’re goddamn peasants, and happy when they throw us a scrap of meat!”

“It takes time for things to change. We have to be patient.”

“Be patient, and live on what? I didn’t go to jail for some cholernik to hand me two kilos of sausage and tell me he’s sorry but I’m out of a job.” Tolek grabbed the vodka bottle off the counter. “I’m going to listen to Tadzu.”

From the living room, Alina heard him say sharply, “Play some Mozart, will you? It’s more cheerful.”

She started peeling onions, and listened to a Mozart sonata that Tadzu had memorized the prior spring. She remembered how the mourning doves had cooed on the window’s ledge as she listened to him practice. She peered out the window into the gelid twilight. When the weather warmed enough to call it spring, she would open the window and strew breadcrumbs on the ledge, hoping the doves would return. She imagined them, grey and plump, pecking at the crumbs, occasionally splaying their tail feathers in a gluttony-induced courtship dance.

Alina started to slice an onion. Her eyes stung, and she wiped away tears with the backs of her hands. Again she looked out the window, imagining the cooing of the doves. Of course she hadn’t heard them. Only silent snow steadily layered the ledge.

She cut into a second onion and more tears ran down her cheeks. Just as she hoped the doves would return, she worried they would not. All her hopes, it seemed, were only her worries reversed. She sliced another onion and another, and the tears blurred her vision. Alina could have cried if she let herself, and she did.

Listening to Mozart, she cried.

Listening for the doves, she cried.

Listening to her own hopes, she cried, because they were only her worries reversed.

 

THE FOURTH COURIER

The Fourth Courier

FINALIST, FAULKNER-WISDOM COMPETITION FOR THE NOVEL-IN-PROGRESS