My apologies ... I got a bit wordy this time. When I was a teenager, some of my favorite authors included Ian Fleming (James Bond), Leslie Charteris (Simon Templar),
Robert Ludlum (Jason Bourne) and Martin Cruz Smith (Arkady Renko). I was a spy junkie, and continue to be so as an adult. So, having said that, I give you ...
Calvin Mourant had vowed a lifetime ago never to return to Bratislava.
Yet here he sat, warming a cognac between the palms of his hands and staring out the lounge windows at the Presidential Palace. A piano played softly, somewhere over his left shoulder, and he tried to let the music soothe his frazzled nerves. He knew when he’d agreed to take this job that it could easily be a mistake, yet something inside him felt compelled, as if he had something to prove.
He had nothing to prove to anyone … except maybe himself.
Calvin took a sip of cognac. The alcohol was smooth and it warmed his throat as he swallowed. He never used to drink on the job for fear it would dull his senses. Now? Well, now his senses were dulling naturally, with age and weariness. He could only pray that his next mistake – and there would be a next one – wouldn’t prove fatal.
It was a young man’s game, and he had too many years behind him. He scratched his chin, the prickly stubble rasping against the rough pads of his fingers. When had he shaved last? He couldn't remember. Sometime before he got on the plane in Tel Aviv ...
He’d only agreed to come to Bratislava after a very persuasive old acquaintance had made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. In truth, he was burned out. According to the plans he’d made years ago, by now he’d be retired and living a life of luxury in a small coastal Mediterranean town, his bank account full and his worries over. No more looking over his shoulder. No more taking orders. No more lies.
Of course, that future had included Elise.
Elise. Fresh pain tightened Calvin’s jaw and he took another sip of his cognac. What would she think of him now? Would she shake her head, gently chastising him for missing her so much that it immobilized him emotionally? Would she call him a fool for submerging himself in his work so completely that some mornings he didn’t recognize the face staring back at him in the mirror?
My sweet Cal, the past is nothing but a teacher from which you learn. Each disappointment brings knowledge.
Calvin watched as a young woman perched on the edge of the fountain in front of the palace while her companion took her picture. She tilted her head, laughing. If he squinted, he could almost see Elise’s face in hers, could almost hear Elise’s laughter in his mind.
He’d met Elise in May 1985, two months after he’d been assigned to deep cover at Comenius University, infiltrating the institution as a professor in the department of nuclear chemistry. On one glorious spring day, he’d taken his lunch to a nearby park, as was often his routine. He hadn’t planned on sharing it with the blue-eyed beauty who introduced herself as a fourth-year medical student. He hadn’t planned on being swept off his feet. He hadn’t planned on being consumed by her, spending the next three years having his apartment invaded, first by her belongings and her artwork, then by random family members who occasionally needed a place to crash, and then by her student friends and their revolutionary ideas.
He certainly hadn’t planned on falling in love.
As their lives became more intertwined, his lies became reality and his reality became a lie. He found it harder to stay focused on his objective, and harder still to separate himself from the potential risk that she and her friends posed. He was in too deep, completely taken by her exuberance and her charm, her obvious joy in life, and her heartfelt desire to serve humanity for the good.
He knew that some of Elise’s friends were being watched, that some of their late night comings and goings were seen as suspicious. But he couldn’t convince her of the danger without compromising his position … and without revealing that everything she believed about him was predicated on a deception.
Looking back, he wished he’d taken the risk. On the night of March 25, 1988, Elise and five of her friends entered Hviezdoslav Square with three thousand other souls in what history would call the Candlelight Demonstration, a protest against the communist regime. Calvin had been working late that night, so he hadn’t known she’d been persuaded to go, hadn’t known how passionately she supported the revolutionary cause, hadn’t known that her petite body would be in the direct line of fire when the police opened up with water cannons.
When the first reports of the unrest made their way to the university in the late evening hours, Calvin’s instincts told him that he needed to find her. He’d fled his office and ran home, only the apartment was empty. It was adrenaline that propelled him to the square, and fear that made him desperately search for her for hours.
He finally found her, propped against the wall of a bakery on a side street, abandoned by her friends. Several of her ribs were broken and she had a concussion from an angered policeman’s baton. He’d carefully gathered her in his arms and debated the wisdom of calling for help. Deciding it was best not to draw attention to themselves, he’d picked her up and carried her to the university-affiliated hospital. A rib had punctured her lung, but there was limited space available, even for one of their own. As he brushed the matted wisps of hair from her forehead, he told her how much he loved her, then watched the life fade in her eyes as he cried for the first time since he’d been a child.
It was in that moment that Calvin vowed he’d leave Bratislava and never return.
In reality, it was another eight months before he was recalled and reassigned, but he returned to the United States a changed man. He never challenged authority, but his methods were risky, his reputation daring. He never crossed the line to rogue agent, but when the agency decided it was time for him to come in from the cold he’d quit, seeking work privately. For twenty-five years it was the only life he’d known.
The hair on the back of Calvin’s head stood up, a warning sign that something wasn’t right. He turned slightly, allowing his peripheral vision to sweep the end of the bar and the lobby beyond. There. Up in the mezzanine overlooking the lobby. He’d noticed the man standing watching him, his reflection captured in the floor-to-ceiling windows. Careless. Nonchalantly, he tipped his head back and took another swallow of cognac. Dark green golf shirt, tan trousers. He suppressed a chuckle. A young man’s game indeed. If only youth possessed the wisdom of experience. With a satisfied sigh, he placed his snifter on the bar and leaned back on the barstool, waiting.
It was only a matter of moments before Mr. Green Golf Shirt strolled into the bar area, his hands deep in his pockets, looking for all the world like a bored traveler. Calvin slipped a pack from his inside jacket pocket and shook a cigarette out. He took his time replacing the pack, then patted his all his pockets until Green Golf Shirt was within hearing distance. “Hey, barkeep,” Calvin called in a cognac-warmed voice, “got a light?”
Green Golf Shirt waved the bartender off. “Here. You can keep them,” he said, his Slavic accent thick, as he tossed a box of matches on the bar in Calvin’s direction. Calvin deftly caught them and nodded his thanks before removing a match from the box, being careful not to expose the rest of the contents, and lighting his cigarette. The smoke was bitter as it burned his lungs, and he watched Green Golf Shirt order a beer from the bartender and take a seat at the other side of the lounge.
Calvin took another deep draw off the cigarette. He wasn’t sure if he was violating any non-smoking rules in the hotel, but he didn’t really care. He had what he’d come for. The matchbox contained a key to a safe deposit box behind the hotel desk. In that box he expected to find copies of plans for an experimental energy source. Industrial espionage wasn’t nearly as exciting as working for the government, but it paid better. A few more jobs like this one and he could give retirement serious consideration.
He rose from the barstool and slipped a generous tip under his glass, then walked back through the lobby and out into the early afternoon sunshine. Taking a final drag on his cigarette, he dropped the butt and crushed it with his heel. The safe deposit box could wait a few hours. He had something more important to do.
With a wave of his hand, he hailed a departing taxi cab. “Hviezdoslav Square,” he said as he slid in the back seat. “And take the scenic route.”
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