The girl behind the counter—crisp and trim in her dark blue airlines uniform—smiled brightly and handed me the ticket envelope. “There you are, Mr. James,” she said. “You’re ticketed through to Copenhagen and from there to Warsaw. They’ll be calling your flight in about half an hour. And you will be required to show your passport and visas prior to boarding. Have a nice flight, sir.”
“Thank you,” I said. I stuffed the envelope into my jacket pocket and stopped to pick up my attaché case.
“Oh,” the girl said, “there’s a message here for you. Mr. Roy Wilson asked that you meet him in the cocktail lounge.”
“Roy Wilson?” I said frowning. “I’m afraid there must be some mistake. I don’t know a Mr. Roy Wilson.”
“I’m sure it’s for you,” she said slowly. “The note says specifically, Mr. James going on to Warsaw.”
I shrugged and smiled wryly. “One way to make sure, isn’t there?”
Her bright smile flashed again. “Yes, sir.”
Wilson, I suspected, would turn out to be a salesman of some kind—flight life insurance most likely. But I had half an hour to kill, so what did I have to lose? All I had to do was say no after he’d made his pitch.
If I’d had the slightest inkling of what I did stand to lose, I would have avoided that cocktail lounge like the plague.
But I crossed over to the lounge and stood in the doorway long enough to take off my topcoat and let my eyes adjust to the dimness within. As soon as I could see clearly I glanced around and tried to pick out Wilson. It wasn’t difficult. Groups of two, three, or four clustered about most of the occupied tables. Only one man was sitting alone, at a table near the wall. He rose, half smiling, when I caught his eye and came forward to meet me.
“Mr. James? I’m Roy Wilson.” He grasped the hand I’d extended automatically to meet his. “I’m glad you decided to take me up on my invitation. I hope it didn’t sound too mysterious.”
“Just mysterious enough,” I said, “to make me curious.”
“Fine,” Wilson said, ushering me politely but firmly toward his table. “Curiosity is a trait that should be encouraged. And satisfied. So let me buy you a drink and tell you what it’s all about. Here, I’ll take your coat.”
He whisked my topcoat off my arm and folded it neatly over the back of one of the chairs. Another topcoat—his own, I guessed—was similarly draped over the opposite chair.
We sat down facing each other and Wilson signaled the waitress.
“Another martini here,” he said, “and—”
“Dry Manhattan,” I said. “Very dry.”
After the waitress had left, Wilson steepled his fingers in front of his face and said thoughtfully through them, “You do a lot of traveling behind the Iron Curtain, don’t you, Mr. James?”
I didn’t like the implications of his question. “I have legitimate business interests that take me there,” I said.
Wilson dropped his hands and smiled engagingly. “If that’s any of my business,” he said, putting my thought into words. “You’re right. Why you’re going to Poland is no concern of mine. All that matters is that you are going.”
He paused for the waitress to set our drinks before us and bustle off again He toyed with the bill for a moment, then casually slipped it into his pocket. When his hand emerged it held a small laminated plastic card which he slid across the table to me.
“Don’t pick the card up, Mr. James,” he said. “Just read it from where you are.”
The lamp on our table cast enough light for me to make it out. It identified Roy Wilson as an agent of the Central Intelligence Agency.
I swallowed hard. “And just why,” I said in what I hoped was a normal tone, “is the C.I.A. interested in my trips to Eastern Europe?”
“Not your trips, Mr. James. Just this specific trip to Poland. And the reason, I think, should be fairly obvious. We want you to work for us.”
I stared at him for a long moment, then bust out laughing.
“What’s so funny?” Wilson asked as if he wanted to share the joke.
“You. Me. The whole idea. Look,” I went on when he didn’t respond, “I’m forty-three years old and according to my doctor fifteen pounds overweight. I haven’t fired a shot in anger in my life or even hit anyone since junior high school. What’s more, I have a wife and two teenage daughters, all three of whom I love dearly.” I shook my head slowly and perhaps a trifle sadly. “All in all,” I said, “I’m about the most unlikely candidate for spy you could find.”
“Which,” Wilson said seriously, “is precisely the reason we want you.”
I stopped laughing and Wilson continued in the same sober tone, “We don’t expect you to go in and steal the plans to the latest Russian built rocket or kidnap Gomulka or anything like that. That kind of stuff happens mostly n the movies anyway. But there is a man—pretty highly placed in the party too—who wants to come over to the West. Of course, we want to help him. But it’s an extremely delicate situation. The slightest whiff of a rumor—” Wilson snapped his fingers sharply—“and that’s it. That’s why we can’t use any of our regular people or try to bring the man out over the usual political refugee routes. Instead we plan to smuggle him into this country disguised as a U.S. tourist returning from abroad.” He nodded toward his topcoat. “Sewn into the lining of that coat,” he said, “is an American passport and the other papers he’ll need for the trip. We want you to take them in to him.”
“Who is this man?” I said. I was surprised to find that my hands were trembling.
“It’s better if you don’t know.”
“Then how could I contact him?”
“You wouldn’t. In fact, you and he would never meet. The way we have it planned is like this. On your second night in Warsaw you go to a small restaurant not far from the Old Town Market Square called Golden Eagle. It’s an excellent restaurant, so it wouldn’t be out of line for a foreigner to visit the place.
“Arrange to get there about seven and hang your topcoat on the coatrack near the door.” I noticed that Wilson had subtly shifted his tenses as if I had already accepted his proposal, but I didn’t interrupt him. “Our man will arrange for someone to be in the restaurant ahead of you. When he leaves he’ll simply take your coat as if by mistake. All you have to do is not ‘discover’ that the coat is missing until he’s had twenty minutes or so to get clear.” Wilson laughed shortly. “And considering the quality of service in Polish restaurants these days that should be no problem at all.”
“You’re very persuasive,” I said, “But how would this man recognize me?”
“Simple,” Wilson said. “He’ll arrange to get a glimpse of you when you check into your hotel.” He smiled. “Don’t worry. It’s not difficult. Americans aren’t that common in Poland these days. In any case, that’s the plan. Now it’s up to you. If you decide to go along with it just pick up my coat instead of yours when you leave.” He glanced at his wristwatch. “Not to rush you, but if you’re going to make the plane you’ll have to leave now.”
I rose involuntarily and stood beside my chair trying to organize the thoughts crowding into my brain.
As I think back on it I realized that I really had no choice—not with Wilson gazing up at me, his eyes half mocking, half challenging, and ready to reflect that terrible judgment, pity, if I refused.
I picked up his coat.
Wilson nodded approvingly. “You made a good decision, Mr. James,” he said. “And don’t worry. Positively nothing can go wrong with this one.”
I didn’t answer. I turned and left the lounge. As I stepped out into the lobby they were just beginning to call my flight.
* * *
Each time I go east of the Iron Curtain two things impress me anew. One is the ubiquitous red banner with its awkwardly phrased, bombastic slogan that even without the cold war connotations would be embarrassing to the Westerner. The other is the almost paranoid preoccupation with espionage and security.
I spent my first fifteen minutes alone in my hotel room searching for the hidden microphone I knew would be there. I finally found it clipped to the inside of one of the bed legs. Not that I intended to destroy it or block its use in any way. That would have been foolish, not only because there were probably others more cunningly hidden, but also because any tampering would have merely called official attention to me—something which even under normal circumstances I could do without. No, it just made me feel better to know where the bug was located.
The next day—my first full one in Warsaw—was filled with the details of business that had brought me to Poland in the first place. The people I dealt with made some vague suggestions bout dinner that evening, but I think they were secretly relieved when, pleading fatigue from the long flight, I begged off.
As Wilson had said, The Golden Eagle was just off the Old Town Square. It was an unpretentious building and looked almost out of place beside the elegant, lovingly restored facades of the coffeehouses, restaurants and wine cellars that comprised so much of the square itself. But I’d traveled enough to have learned that the best restaurants are often the least pretentious. Wilson had been wrong about one thing, though. The coatrack wasn’t near the entrance. It was about halfway back on the wall leading into the interior of the main dining room. But that seemed a minor point, so I hung my topcoat on it and followed a black-jacketed waiter to my table.
I was no sooner seated than a small man on the other side of the room left his table and beelined for the coatrack. Once there he glanced around furtively, grabbed my coat, and scuttled toward the door with it still clutched in his hand.
He couldn’t have done a better job of calling attention to himself if he’d tried.
My waiter dropped his order pad and shouted after him. I don’t understand Polish, but there was no mistaking his cry: Stop thief!
The small man panicked and began to run. A second waiter materialized to block his path. The small man swerved and careened into a table. The two waiters pounced and dragged him kicking and screaming from the jumble of chairs, plates and food.
By the time it occurred to me that I should have slipped out in the confusion it was too late. The police were there. Nothing can go wrong, Wilson had said. Positively nothing can go wrong. But somehow it always does.
My waiter pointed me out to one of the policemen as the small man was carried, still protesting loudly, out of the restaurant. I felt my stomach curling into a tight knot as the policeman approached me with that deliberate arrogance you see in certain types of police the world over. He spoke abruptly, in Polish.
I tried to smile. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I don’t understand—”
Without waiting for me to finish, the policeman turned and beckoned peremptorily to my waiter. They spoke together at some length. Or rather the policeman spoke and the waiter listened.
When the policeman stopped, the waiter turned to me and said almost apologetically, “That man want to steal your coat. He must be punished. You must go with this man to the police station and make statement.”
“Look,” I said in what I hoped was a reasonable tone, “I’m a stranger here and I don’t want to cause any trouble. Tell him I don’t want to press charges against the man who took my coat.”
The waiter stared at me blankly.
“I don’t want to go to the police station,” I said. “I don’t want to make a statement. Tell the police they can let the man go. It was all just a mistake.”
“No,” the waiter said. “You must go. You must make statement.” His voice had grown desperate as if he knew he would be punished if I failed to obey the police.
Throughout all this the policeman was regarding us both contemptuously. And I had a sudden intuition that he spoke English at least as well as the waiter.
I rose wearily. “All right,” I told the waiter, “tell him I’ll go.”
* * *
I sat for three hours on a hard bench in the police station, forlorn and ignored, while a bored desk officer doodled on a pad before him and a sleepy-eyed guard braced his back against the wall beside the entrance. The bench grew harder and harder. And as my physical discomfort increased, my apprehension mounted. It didn’t help my peace of mind, either, when another policeman appeared and held a whispered conversation with the desk officer and afterward the officer ceased his doodling to gaze speculatively at me.
It also didn’t help that my topcoat with the incriminating papers sewn inside had been taken by the police as evidence.
It came as a relief when the policeman who had brought me from the restaurant appeared at a doorway at the far end of the room and beckoned to me. Not a word was said—just that curt peremptory motion of his hand and I responded like a puppy after a morsel of meat. And, of course, that was the reason I had been left sitting and fidgeting for three hours.
The policeman waited for me by the door, then closed it immediately behind me.
The room was bare of furnishings except for a wooden table and three chairs. Two men were sitting at the table and a third stood at the single window, gazing out. They were in civilian clothes but they had policemen’s eyes. What captured my attention, though, and what I fought to keep from staring at lay on the table: a small pile of papers topped by the green and gold pasteboard oblong that was a U.S. passport.
The man at the window glanced at me without curiosity, then resumed his study of the outdoors. As if on cue, one of the men at the table—a thin man with a pale triangular face as expressionless and predatory as a fox’s—said harshly, “Come forward.”
I stepped up to the table, uncertain as to whether I was expected to sit or not. Apparently, I wasn’t, because Foxface went on, “Who sent you to Warsaw?”
I cleared my throat nervously. “I came here on business,” I said. “I work for a firm of American importers—”
He cut me off with an impatient wave of his hand. “We know all about your ‘firm,’ And we know it is a cover for your criminal acts of espionage against the Polish People’s Republic. Now, who sent you here and why?”
“No one,” I said, and my voice was the barest whisper.
Now the man at the window spoke up. Still without looking at me he said, “Does the prospect of twenty years in prison please you?”
Twenty years! Irrationally a scend from a novel I’d read years before flashed through my mind. In it the author had conveyed the astonishment and shock that a group of young men who had joined the Irish Republican Army as a lark had felt when one of their number captured by the British had been sentenced to twenty years in prison. To these young me, barely out of their teens, twenty years had seemed a lifetime.
Well, twenty years was a lifetime—the rest of my lifetime anyway. I thought of never seeing my wife and daughters, of never walking down a free American street again.
The man at the window had whirled to face me. “Well,” he insisted, “does it?”
I finally managed to croak, “No.”
“Then answer this man’s questions if you hope to avoid it.”
“Well?” Foxface said when the silence had dragged on too long.
I took a deep breath. “Before I say anything,” I said, “I want to talk to someone from the United States Embassy.”
Foxface’s eyes flicked toward the window, then back to me. “As you wish,” he said coldly. To the policeman rigid beside the door: “Take him away.”
* * *
For some reason the picture of a Polish prison I had built up in my mind was something out of The Count of Monte Cristo: a dungeon deep underground, dark, with dripping stones and a straw pallet and perhaps a small barred window high up on one wall. Instead, the cell I was taken to was a steel cage—stark and modern and filthy. A metal bunk was set into one wall, and sanitation was provided for by a bucket in one corner. Out of reach overhead and screened by a fine wire mesh that in no way diminished its intensity, a light bulb burned fiercely. It wasn’t turned off even once the whole time I was in that cell.
Because my watch had been taken from me along with my necktie, belt, and shoelaces, I quickly lost track of time. I tried for a while to keep count of the meals brought to me, figuring that three would make a day. But I began to suspect that they were deliberately brought at irregular intervals, and since they were always the same—watery soup and a chunk of coarse bread—breakfast become indistinguishable from lunch or dinner and I soon gave up the attempt.
Hell, I thought, must be like this: time stretching on interminably and filled with an improbably mixture of boredom, fear and anguish. I wondered about my wife and daughters. Had they been told of my arrest? And if so, what did they think of it? Were they like the wives and families of other men held captive behind the Iron Curtain, seen occasionally on television, hoping against hope that all would come out right in the end? What was Wilson doing to get me out? Anything? Unlikely. What could he do?
And where above all else—where was that man from the Embassy? The longer he delayed, the more convinced I became that he wasn’t coming at all. I would rot here in this cell.
And then one day—or night—the door clanged abruptly open and two guards filled the doorway. To my shame I found myself crouching beside my bunk in terror. The guards exchanged contemptuous grins, then one of them motioned me to come with them.
As I left the cell, I felt a sudden panic. The cell was known to me, I was familiar with every square inch of it. Now I was leaving it—but for what? The urge to turn and flee back into its safety was almost overwhelming. As if he could read my thoughts, one of the guards clamped onto my arm and pulled me roughly along.
And perhaps he did know what I was thinking. This must have been an old story to him and certainly one prisoner wouldn’t react too differently from another.
I was taken through a maze of echoing steel corridors to a door at the end of a short hallway. The guards halted at the mouth of the hallway and shoved me forward.
“In there,” one said in English.
Clutching the last shreds of my self-control I went forward and opened the door.
The room was similar to the one where I had been interrogated before: the same kind of wooden table and a scattering of chairs. But this time only one man awaited me. Tall, youngish, sandy-haired, with the round smiling face of a friendly Irish pug, he half sat, half leaned on the edge of the table.
“Mr. James?” he said. “I’m Paul Lafferty. From the American Embassy.”
Like a marionette with cut strings I dropped onto one of the chairs. “Thank God,” I breathed.
Lafferty had started forward at my sudden collapse; now he leaned back against the table. “Looks like they’ve been giving you the deluxe treatment,” he said. “How long have they been holding you?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know. Day—night, it’s all one. They picked me up on the fifth.”
“Two weeks then,” Lafferty said thoughtfully. “Today’s the nineteenth.”
“It seems longer.” I was surprised at how old and tired my voice sounded.
Lafferty nodded sympathetically. “I imagine it does.” He paused then blew out a great gust of breath. “To put it mildly, Mr. James,” he went on, “you’re in a mess. The Embassy will, of course, do everything in its power to help you. But quite frankly there’s very little we can do. Espionage is a serious charge in any country and especially for a Westerner in a Communist country. Serious not only for the individual accused but for his country as well.
“So you’ll understand that our official position must be that we know nothing about you.” He smiled wryly. “And oddly enough that happens to be the truth. We don’t know anything about you. Oh, it’s not inconceivable that the C.I.A. would send in an agent without informing us at the Embassy. But if that agent were caught and we queried Washington about him we’d be told the truth. And the word from Washington is that nobody there has ever heard of you. So whoever you’re working for it’s not the U.S.”
“But,” I blurted out, “he had an identification—”
“I’m sure he did,” Lafferty said. “But tell me honestly, Mr. James, would you recognize a C.I.A. or F.B.I. identification card? I mean, do you know what they’re supposed to look like?”
“No,” I said weakly.
“So,” Lafferty said, “the ‘identification’ you were shown could very easily have been counterfeit.” He pushed himself off the table and walked over to the window. “If you want my honest opinion, Mr. James,” he said, looking out, “you were suckered into this by the Communists themselves.”
“No,” I said incredulously, “I can’t believe that.” Or could I? If it were true it would explain the extreme clumsiness of the attempt to switch coats at the Golden Eagle. But on the other hand—
“Surely,” I said half to myself, “if they wanted to arrest me they wouldn’t have to go to all that trouble. It would be simpler to find some pretext after I arrived in Poland.”
Lafferty pounced on my words. “Simpler,” he said, “but not as effective. This way they’ve got your guilt feelings working for them.”
I signed. “Perhaps you’re right,” I said. I turned my face up to him. “But why me?”
Lafferty shrugged. “There could be several reasons. I suppose they could be planning one of their propaganda trials. But I’m inclined to doubt that. Nobody really believes those trials anymore—not even their own people. And, secondly, there’s been no publicity about you at all. In fact, your wife was even sent a cable—ostensibly from you—saying that complications in your business dealings would delay your return. We didn’t even hear about you ourselves until the day before yesterday, and they know we’ll stay quiet to keep from prejudicing your chances.
“No, all in all, I’d be inclined to say that they were trying to recruit you as an agent on their own.”
I started to speak but Lafferty held up a forestalling hand. “Don’t look so shocked. A man like yourself who has a legitimate reason for traveling back and forth across the Curtain could be very valuable to them. Anyway, let’s hope that is the case. It’s your one hope of getting out of here.”
I said slowly, “Are you seriously suggesting that I—”
“Work for the Communists?” he finished for me. “No, not really. We’ll let them think you’re one of theirs, but we’ll set it up so that you’re actually working undercover for us. Somebody will contact you shortly after you get back to the United States. Remember that. You will be contacted. Don’t try to contact anybody on your own.” He laughed shortly. “You were fooled once and there’s no sense taking any chances you don’t have to.”
“That’s right,” I said. “That’s why I won’t go along with your scheme.”
“No?” Lafferty seemed amused. “I really don’t think you have any alternative, Mr. James. Refuse the Communists and you spend twenty years in one of their prisons. Refuse us and you stand to spend twenty years in one of ours. A case, you might say, of double jeopardy. Either way it’s not a pleasant prospect.”
Lafferty had been standing during this speech. Now he sat down against the edge of the table and let one foot swing idly. “By the way,” he said, “just to satisfy my own curiosity, what were those documents you smuggled in supposed to be used for anyway? Help some poor devil defect?”
I shrugged, “Just the opposite,” I said. “Make the Communists think somebody was planning to defect when he wasn’t, so they wouldn’t trust him any more. That’s what I was told anyway.”
Lafferty stroked his chin thoughtfully. “I see,” he said. “Well, you think over what I said.” He rose, went to the door, and signaled the guards that the interview was finished.
I did think about what Lafferty had said. And I worried. I did more than worry. I sweated.
Finally the Communists broke the tension. I was taken from my cell a second time and brought back to he fox-faced man and his two companions. As Lafferty had predicted, I was given the choice of working for them or of disappearing into one of their prisons.
I told them I’d work for them. Again, as Lafferty had said, I really had no choice.
Twenty-four hours later, shaved and scrubbed and looking on the surface at least the same man as the one who had come to Poland those short weeks before, I was put on a plane bound for Copenhagen and home. As soon as its wheels left the ground I began to tremble uncontrollably.
* * *
I lay over a week in Copenhagen to bring some semblance of order to my jangled nerves before facing my family. On my third night there, I had a visitor: Wilson, disguised as a room-service waiter.
“You get around,” I said from the bed where I was lying fully clothed.
“The wonderful world of jet travel,” Wilson said. He pushed the cart he’d brought into the room off into a corner. “Weren’t you expecting me?”
“Yes,” I said wearily. I sat up, swinging my legs over the side of the bed. “I was expecting you.”
“All right then. What happened?”
“Your man muffed switching the coats and I was arrested.” I smiled ruefully. “I’d still be in jail if I hadn’t agreed to be a spy for the Communists.”
“And they believed you?” Wilson was watching me intently.
I let the smile grow more rueful. “Why not?” I said. “I’m supposed to think I’m really a double agent for the C.I.A. That’s their way of insuring that I do what they want and don’t run screaming to the nearest American Embassy or F.B.I. agent.” As briefly as I could I told Wilson what had happened after my arrest.
“Well,” he said when I finished, “to coin a phrase, very interesting. But, tell me, what made you so sure I wasn’t what Lafferty claimed, a Commie myself?”
“Lafferty,” I said. “No Embassy man—particularly not one as competent as Lafferty seemed—would have talked so freely in a room that a kindergarten child would have known was bugged. And when the Communists still went ahead and put their offer to me, I knew I was right about him.”
“Good thinking,” Wilson said. “And good thinking too when you lied about why we sent you in. You just may have saved our man’s life.” He grinned widely and clapped me on the shoulder. “We’ll make a professional of you yet.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” I said.