Gregory’s cardinal rule of survival had always been, beware of unexpected changes in normal procedure. Yet Gregory had broken his pattern, telephoning rather than writing, coming here in the midst of a December snowfall. Urgent, he had said. Immediately, he had insisted.
Anton touched the pistol taped beneath his table. A second weapon was under his arm, a third in the sheep’s wool overcoat hanging on a nearby peg, the fur collar jeweled with melted droplets of snow.
He felt as secure here as anywhere. From his vantage point, in the bay window of the coffee shop, it was possible to see anyone approaching from a distance of two hundred meters. On a clear day, peering down the irregular street, he could observe the usual throng of tourists from Germany, France and Italy. They came during the summer months to Interlaken and arrived at this overlook breathless, seeking a grand view of the Jungfrau south, Lake Brienz and Thun in the valley below. To reach this crest took determination and a stout heart.
There were no tourists. The day was not clear. And Gregory no longer had a stout heart.
Angina, he’d said on the telephone. “A nuisance, Anton.” Again he touched the hidden weapon.
Snow silvered the glass to form a mirror and he saw his reflection in wavy panes. It was the visage of a man older than he remembered.
To the Castilian owner of this place, he might have been a Spanish brother. Or Indian, from India. Mexican, perhaps.
As he looked into his eyes, they shifted from yellow to verdigris, an effect he could produce at will, like a chameleon responding to patterns of thought.
Behind him, a huge clock ticked sonorously and with only a slight shift of vision he could read the dial. Gregory was late by half an hour. That too was disturbing. Punctuality had always been inviolate.
He owned this building, although the proprietor would have been surprised to learn so. He’d bought it for the purpose it now served. From this table he could see all means of public access. Before he leased it to the present tenants, he’d mapped the various exits, explored the rooftops of adjoining shops. He knew about the cellar, an underground passage constructed during World War II connecting similar buildings for a full city block.
He felt as secure here as anywhere. Nevertheless his belly was taut. All the while he gazed past the deeply set eyes of his own reflection, watching the snow-obscured street.
Always, even under the best of conditions, when he had to meet Gregory, he had conflicting emotions of anticipation and dread. It was a lingering concept from childhood, the unreal perceptions of a son for the father, seeing the swarthy Slovene not as shorter and stouter, but always taller and stronger. Except for Darinka, Gregory had been the longest relationship of his life, since the final violent days of World War II.
A shadow moved and Anton listened to his ears ring. The figure paused, shoulders rounded, the face hidden by the brim of a fedora. He stood in a far alcove, a man seeking relief from the elements. When he walked again it was as if preoccupied, glancing neither left nor right, intent on the space where next his feet would fall—and yet, Anton knew, Gregory missed nothing.
As he came abreast of the window, Gregory paused, turning to survey the gradient he had climbed. He removed his gloves, took a vial from a pocket, his breath a gust of moisture, quick, short. He placed a capsule beneath his tongue, capped the vial and shifted from foot to foot, unbuttoning his coat and shaking it vigorously to dislodge snow from the shoulders. He shoved the gloves into a coat pocket. Or so it seemed. Anton knew the gloves went through to an inside lining. In the pocket was a pistol.
As Gregory entered, a bell announced him with a musical tinkle. Gregory surveyed the room to determine his position. When the portly proprietor appeared from the kitchen, Gregory nodded, smiling, gesturing at Anton. “We are together.”
Anton had arisen. “How are you, Gregory?”
“Well enough. You?”
They clasped hands, then hugged one another. Gregory shed his coat, folded it carefully, and hung it over the back of his chair.
“The coffee smells good,” Gregory said. In fluent German he inquired of the proprietor about pastries, then in English asked, “Would you join me in an apple tart, Anton?”
“No thank you.”
“One then,” Gregory said. “No—two. What the hell.”
His twinkling eyes traversed the room, the empty tables, the ticking clock, the wall lamps casting a flickering glow, then settled on Anton. He was a genial man with disarming mannerisms, his cheek muscles tugging as if a smile were never far removed from his full lips. He had a way of tucking his chin, almost shyly, when called upon to speak. As he put his hat aside, his balding scalp caught the light and he ran a hand over the dome to stroke the wisps of hair into place.
Both men sat back while coffee was poured, the hot tarts delivered on a heavy, glazed warm plate. Gregory waited until the proprietor had disappeared into the kitchen. “Once I grieved over sins of the flesh,” Gregory said. “Now I am consumed by transgressions of another sort. Calories.”
“You seem fit.”
“You lie, Anton, but thank you. How have you been?”
Gregory blinked hard, twice, nodded soberly. He said, “That last job—excellent.”
“Perfect.” Gregory’s eyes flitted across Anton’s face. “I was thinking, coming here on the train, we’ve been associated twenty-seven years now.”
That was true, but Anton said, “That long?”
“Since this time of year, 1940.” Gregory took a bite of flaky crust, lips rolled away from thick teeth to avoid a burn. A hot stream of syrup made him pant around the morsel to cool it. “Have you invested well, Anton?”
“I believe so.”
“Could you leave here tomorrow, let us say? Forfeit all with no regrets?”
“The tart is superb. Would you enjoy the other?”
Gregory glanced toward the kitchen, leaning forward slightly. “Ours has been a symbiotic relationship. Mutually profitable and in every way professional, wouldn’t you agree?”
A trickle of cold sweat crawled down Anton’s spine.
“Yet,” Gregory said, “all things must terminate.”
Anton massaged his leg toward the knee, nearer the weapon beneath the table. He watched the older man eat.
“The world has changed, Anton. When I recruited you, there was a vacuum between powers, a need for our expertise. One could rationalize that ours was war on a more private level. There was an order to it, even in the chaotic postwar years.”
Gregory blew across his coffee, then drank. He contemplated his second tart. “Now the Arabs and Israelis stalk one another around the globe, Anton. Two peoples intent upon retaliation. Like the mountaineers of America, feuding—the Hatfields and the McCoys—killing one another off for having killed one another off.”
The clock kept cadence, the snow growing heavier as evening fell.
“The Catholics and Protestants in Ireland,” Gregory said softly. “Whites and blacks. Emotion, nothing more. Hatred is their motive and madness the result.”
“Do I hear a note of regret?”
Gregory furrowed his brow, winced. “Where violence serves no purpose, there is no order. Slaughter for the sake of slaughter. What can possibly be derived from such things?”
Anton lit a cigarette and blew smoke at the ceiling.
“War is a systematic act,” Gregory said. “Politics of a more direct nature, but a political necessity. It has structure. You win or lose, kill or be killed, gain or nay. Are you sure you wouldn’t like a taste of the tart?”
Anton shook his head.
“But today,” Gregory continued, “there is no structure to what is happening in the world. In Vietnam the Americans fought not to win, but to avoid losing. Terrorists kill for the purpose of terror and they do it indiscriminately. It is destruction without purpose.”
He patted his lips with a coarse napkin, sipped coffee and stared out the window.
“What are you telling me, Gregory?”
“Over the years,” Gregory replied, again softly, “our protection has been the threat of retaliation against our employers. If they put one of my people in jeopardy, they did so knowing that they would become a target themselves. But of late, Anton, I do not like those who seek our services.”
“Who are they?”
“Governments. How do we retaliate against an entire government? Having institutionalized the act of assassination, and then having those acts exposed by defectors, now they seek assistance from neutrals. Any criminal will do. Well. You cannot trust a criminal. If he could be trusted, he would not be a criminal. Criminals are usually stupid and unprofessional. But the governments do not care. In point of fact, they are relieved of suspicion if the criminal is caught. The dumb bastard is not even aware he has been controlled.”
Anton offered a cigarette and Gregory declined, touching his left breast with a forefinger. “Verboten,” he said.
Gregory took two pills from his pocket, swallowed them with coffee and grimaced. “Nevertheless, Anton, the governments need a professional now and then. They offer no loyalty in return for success, and they have no fear of our retaliation if they are not honorable. They hide behind multinational corporations and they draw on individuals who have used our services before to reach us.”
“You speak of our friends to the east,” Anton affirmed.
“And west. South. North. Acronyms change, but their methods are identical. I no longer accept a contract if I cannot identify the employer to my satisfaction. Which is what brings me to the purpose of our meeting. You remember what I have always counseled about what to accept?”
“I think so.”
“Nothing which is personal,” Gregory said. “Nothing at any price if you are unsure of success. Never accept remuneration directly. Do nothing to spoil your sanctuary.”
“By those precepts we have survived and prospered.”
“Now I bring you a proposition which breaks those rules. If you reject it, I agree. If you accept it, I agree. But if you do it, this will be our last venture, Anton. After this, there will be no haven anywhere, ever.”
“It will be done by somebody,” he repeated Gregory’s reasoning from nearly thirty years ago.
“Not this one.”
They drank coffee, looking at one another’s reflections in the darkening window. The proprietor came to pour more and returned to the kitchen, closing the door behind himself.
“I’ve been studying this for months,” Gregory said. “I’ve set a price that would have discouraged any sensible person—”
“Two million dollars.”
“Yes, it’s a government,” Anton concluded. “The target?”
“I warned you, it breaks all the rules.” Gregory unfolded a paper and placed it before Anton.
It was a chart, a graph showing the chain of command of an organization. Four names had been circled.
“Four targets then,” Anton said.
“Is this possible?”
“I think I’ve figured out how.”
“But why me? I’ll be as obvious as a beacon, Gregory.”
“I have no one else who could do it.”
“My chance of success?”
“Very slight. Another broken rule.”
“Suppose I don’t then? Suppose I get there and see it isn’t possible?”
Gregory shrugged lugubriously. “You will have lost all for naught.”
“KGB,” Anton declared.
“Who knows? Maybe. I don’t think so. They wouldn’t dare.”
“My contact is a southern American banker. He’s a pillar of his community. I’ve checked that much and found it true. But he is for his employer what I am for you, an intermediary, a conduit. His employer could be anybody. It isn’t who he thinks, you can be sure of that much.”
“Four targets. We should have four of us.”
“I deny that on the grounds of security.”
“I suppose so.” Anton studied the names.
“I have their biographies, their home addresses. They live from coast to coast, Anton.”
“What sort of security do they have?”
“Surprisingly little. Except for the first name listed, they all walk their dogs, ride unescorted from place to place. The act of getting one, or two, is fairly simple. It is getting all four that makes it difficult.”
“That amount speaks eloquently,” Gregory cautioned. “It speaks of a wealthy employer and a desperate need. You may be assured the American government will be upon you with a vengeance that is unceasing. You and I will be forced to disappear forever, never to see one another again, for your protection and mine.”
A sense of impending loss surprised him and Anton concealed the emotion by cupping his forehead, massaging the flesh with thumb and forefingers. “I’m not encouraged to accept,” he said.
“Nor am I urging you to do so.” Gregory took the vial from his pocket, fingers trembling. He put a tiny tablet beneath his tongue.
Anton reached across the table and grasped the man’s wrist, turning it palm up so he could see the container.
“Glycerine?” he asked.
Gregory set his jaw, teeth clamped, and nodded once.
“If I refuse, would you get somebody else?”
“It’s me or nobody?”
“Do you have access to the money now?”
“I have a quarter of a million in escrow. It’s in the account. If we refuse, supposedly, that much is ours. We know better, don’t we?”
“You could have taken it and retired. Why not?”
“I am not a thief,” Gregory said resentfully.
“No, of course not.”
The older man did a rare thing. He put his hand on the hand of his companion. “The question is, Anton, are we both ready to retire?”
“I have considered it.”
“This much money would make that possible.”
“Do you need the money, Gregory?”
“My children do. Grandchildren. I think of them as surely you must think of Darinka in your plans for the future.”
“At forty-seven,” Anton confessed, “I find myself reviewing life now and again.”
“It will become more common in the next decade. Wait until you are sixty.”
“I have no children. No woman except Darinka. No life as men have known it. I see myself as a professional, as you’ve always assured me. I have always seen why you recruited me, of course.”
Gregory straightened his back, wary.
“You’ve always been ahead of your time, Gregory. The governments have all followed your lead. They too recruit the unhappy isolated product of an abused childhood, psychological abuse preferred over physical, since physically abused children tend to become bullies and craven. The psychologically abused child is inclined to become withdrawn, a silent, moody thinker, the kind of personality who feels disenfranchised, craves recognition. To such a man, membership in a secret organization is appealing. Because he wields life and death, he gains dominance over everyone else and it is more for his ego than money that he does your bidding. You have always known that.”
“I am impressed,” Gregory said, without emotion. “But then, your intelligence and perception have always been your most valuable—”
“With flattery and fatherly attention,” Anton interrupted, “you nurse the shriveled ego and imbue loyalty. You reward and rebuke, stroke and berate and it’s carefully orchestrated. It is very effective.”
There was no geniality in Gregory’s eyes now. They were as cold as the walls of a glacier. “Have I offended you, Anton?”
“Ours has been a symbiotic relationship, as you said.”
“Have you regrets?”
“This is true?”
He watched the man relax. A few years ago, Gregory could have concealed trembling hands, anxiety or fear. This was what he would become, and he knew it.
“I have regrets,” Gregory whispered. “I find myself examining things from the past, questioning actions and reexamining events from thirty years ago. It is no longer so easy to label right and separate it from wrong. I am growing old, and I see it in your face, Anton. I see that you see it, too.”
“You’ve always been a man who questioned, Gregory. You are a thinking man.”
“Now who is flattering?” Gregory asked. He stood up, putting on his coat.
“Are you planning to eliminate me, Gregory?”
“Two insults in a single meeting,” Gregory said. “First, that I would steal, and now that I would turn on you.”
“If I refuse this job?”
“Then so be it.”
“I don’t want to be afraid of you, Gregory.”
“No need to.”
“But too often you have spoken of the dangers in a sudden shift of status quo. This meeting has been unlike all others.”
“Because it is probably our final one, that’s true.”
“In the matter of this job, how would you counsel me?”
“Do not accept unless you are prepared to give up all that you have here. Do not accept unless you are ready to retire completely.”
Gregory buttoned his coat, standing, waiting.
“When do I receive my instructions?”
“I’ll put them in the post when you say.”
“My deepest regret is losing contact with you.”
Gregory sat again. “As you have so correctly deduced, Anton, you have always needed the uncle, the care and love, be it ever so superficial and fleeting. After twenty-seven years, I suspect you feel as much for me as anyone you’ve ever known. More, perhaps, for adversity we’ve shared. You suffer from what American intelligence officers call ‘emotional attachment,’ a loyalty beyond reason for an old ally. I can advise you impartially on one matter; two million dollars is years of work at great peril. You can take Darinka and dissolve into the ether and live a good life without ever touching the principal.”
“Then you recommend I do it?”
Gregory turned to look out the window. He laced tremorous fingers. “That is your decision.”
“Then I accept.”
They hugged one another, patting backs, and Gregory kissed him brusquely on each cheek, then pulled away, eyes rheumy.
“We will speak on the telephone, of course,” Gregory said. “But, good-bye, mon ami.”
Another hug and then Gregory strode out the door into the snow. From the bay window, Anton watched his past walk away into the future, Gregory’s rounded shoulders more sloped than ever as he disappeared into the night.
Gregory needed the money. He had always aspired to a mystical sum that would lift him above the worries of poverty. Even as far back as the war years, he spoke of someday having a fortune that would assure his security.
Anton knew better. He knew that wealthy men saw jeopardy on a broader level. No wealth was safe from war, pestilence and the fluctuations of markets and politics. There was no such thing as enough money.
“More coffee, Anton?”
“Whiskey, as before?”
The names lay on the table uncovered. It was not carelessness. They were in Gregory’s code, a combination of Croatian and artifice, a senseless jumble to any but a cipher analyst.
Four men. America.
The names were unknown, but how many Americans would recognize them? It was their power that Anton would destroy. The men would be replaced. The nation would survive.
So this attack would be as much symbolic as devastating. And for this, somebody was willing to pay two million dollars?
The coffee was delivered, the steam redolent of fine Irish liquor. He sipped it, gazing into the night as his muscles relaxed, tensions easing. In a few days he would receive a message by mail with step-by-step codes for drafting his share of the quarter million dollars from a bank in Zurich. He would begin to shed the skin that was “Anton.” He would put into motion an elaborate contingency plan of false leads, blind alleys and clever maneuvers. He would destroy passbooks, official letters of credit, driving permits from half a dozen nations. Methodically, he would disassemble an identity carefully constructed for nearly twenty years.
If anything went wrong, he would abandon properties, leave personal and business affairs untouched. He would take no clothing from the closets, nothing to suggest that his departure was final.
He had similar identities in other nations. For example, in the United States.
He reacted to a chemical flow, dating from childhood. His father loathed America. Hatred tinted every remark. Mother always sat by silently, unprotesting, and Anton had never been sure whether she concurred in father’s opinion or not.
As for Gregory, when the job was done, he would bribe an official and some unknown body would be identified and that would be the end of Gregory, by whatever name he lived.
Eventually, “Anton” would be reported missing. Perhaps years from now, his will would be honored on the assumption that he was deceased.
If he failed, he would forfeit his collection of rare coins, the carefully selected antiques which pleased Darinka when she came to visit.
The neighbors would speak of him in vague terms, noncommittal as to his character, unsure of his religion. He was never gregarious, all would agree. But not troublesome, either. In a hamlet such as this, one would believe no secrets were kept from the citizens, but who knew of this man?
He could be sure of three things: The job was not easy, he could trust no one, and he must now consider Darinka as well as himself. Moving her would not be simple. Every man was initially stunned by exquisite beauty, before being horrified an instant later.
She would leave an indelible impression everywhere they went.
He folded Gregory’s list of names and paid his bill, going through amenities with the proprietor before departing.
As he stepped into snow, feet crunching, he worried about Darinka.
It was never easy to leave her even when he knew he would soon return. Therefore, this time, he wouldn’t tell her he was going.
And if he never returned—
He walked with collar up, alert for sounds in the muted night. He had the gun from beneath the table in his hand, wary for movement.
If he never returned?
That would be the end of Darinka, too.