Read The Last Hundred Days Online

Authors: Patrick McGuinness

Tags: #Historical

The Last Hundred Days (28 page)

BOOK: The Last Hundred Days
2.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

‘And what’s our role in all this?’

‘We stir,’ Leo said simply. ‘With very long spoons…’

At four o’clock the next day I heard something slide under the front door. A brown envelope, A4 size, was half obscured by the mat. It was old and battered, and the original address label had been torn off. I opened the door and listened out. Nothing, just the echo of what might have been a step clearing the porch. I ran to the balcony, from which I could see a few dozen yards in each direction. Again nothing.

There were three poor-quality colour photographs and one black and white. All four were of the security ‘emplacements’ Manea had mentioned, and they certainly fulfilled a deterrent function when you saw them. In one picture a huge circular saw blade rose like a serrated moon from the water. Rusty and discoloured with moss, it protruded by a metre at its highest point and covered almost the breadth of this narrow bend of Danube. Two other shots showed different lengths of the river: what looked like a miasma of flies was in fact clouds of barbed wire clotted across whole stretches of the water. In the final shot three metal spikes reared out of the water. Typed on the back of each image was its location. The photographs were taken at three different points on the Romanian side of the Danube. They were separated by a distance, I calculated, of about two hundred kilometres. The date and time in small digital lettering at the bottom of each image showed all were taken within twenty-two hours of each other. Whoever had taken these had expensive equipment and had the petrol and permits to travel freely.

The phone rang: ‘Fancy a
Kojak
?’ Half an hour later Leo was examining the photographs. ‘We’ve got your mate Manea to thank for this. I’ll get these out to the German press in no time. I’ll try the Brits too. I’ll need to make copies as back-up.’

‘I think I owe Wintersmith,’ I said. Though the man made my flesh creep, he was the one who had given me the lead. After all, these ‘emplacements’, as Manea had called them, were secret. Only escapees or those charged with preventing escapes could get that close. Wintersmith might be able to do some good with them.

‘OK,’ Leo said doubtfully, ‘you may be right, but he doesn’t get the originals. Tell him you only got photocopies, and don’t say anything else. In fact, you’re such a bloody amateur, I’ll come with you.’

‘There’s something I’m worried about,’ I told him. ‘I’m worried that we’d be doing Manea’s bidding. I mean, Manea’s no philanthropist. He’s trying to find ways of getting Stoicu into trouble and taking his job. He might find factory-sized saw blades in the river disgusting…’

‘Inelegant, even,’ Leo offered, tying his shoelaces.

‘Leo, I’m serious – what’s to say he doesn’t have better, cleaner, less obvious and ultimately more efficient methods up his sleeve?’

‘What, fill the Danube with piranhas? Genetically engineered freshwater sharks?’

‘I mean any number of sophisticated forms of intimidation, repression, brutality… physical violence… what’s to say he won’t be worse in his way?’

‘Nothing. You know what they say: “You can’t choose your friends”.’

‘No, Leo, they say that you
can
choose your friends; it’s your
family
you’re stuck with. That’s the whole point of the saying.’

‘Oh yeah? That explains where I’ve gone wrong over the years,’ he grinned, punched me on the shoulder and headed out.

We walked to the department first. Micu raised himself up and saluted Leo, showing me the cautious sycophancy reserved for underlings with powerful patrons. Rodica stood up and congratulated him. He waved away the compliment with a generous sweep of the hand.

‘We’re all equal here, Rodica, I don’t want you to treat me any differently. Well, perhaps just little,’ he added, leaning his cheek into her face for kissing. ‘The boss in?’

‘Yes, yes, he is, er… Professor O’Heix…’

Professor?

‘You’ve been so busy with your footling affairs that you’ve missed out on my recent and much overdue promotion,’ Leo announced.

‘A promotion? Leo, you’re barely even here. You don’t do your lectures. Haven’t been to a meeting in months!’ We locked the door and stood over the photocopier xeroxing the photographs.

‘There’s a dossier of records and attendance notes that says I’m a model lecturer. Who am I to argue?’ The quality of the copies was surprisingly good. It was hard to tell how they would come out in the press, but their appalling gist would be clear enough.

‘What is it you’ve got on Popea?’ I asked Leo.

‘Trade secrets, I’m afraid. Let’s just say that for a man who believes in rigid hierarchies in the workplace, he has a very fluid sense of the gender divide when it comes to clothes…’

‘You mean he’s a transvestite and you’re blackmailing him?’

Leo beamed at me: ‘Actually I think there’s an odd sense in which he likes it – blackmail I mean. In a kinky way, you know… it’s another sort of
régime
to kow-tow to, and there’s a kind of person who just can’t do without fear, can’t live without it…. Anyway, I won’t tell you how I found out about him – let’s just say it was a close shave for both of us. I was a little drunk, it was dark… and you’ve got to hand it to him, he scrubs up pretty well as a lady, which is more than I’d say for his wife.’

I shook my head. What shocked me more – Leo’s grotty blackmail scam or the thought of Popea in drag? The poor man: being a transvestite in a surveillance society must have been almost impossible. Until Leo, Popea had somehow managed. It was probably Leo’s hold on him that had ensured Ionescu was working in the university library and not unblocking drains in Turda.

The nameplate on my door still read
Dr F. Belanger
, but Leo’s had already been changed:
Professor L. O’Heix
. On the Professor’s desk, a thin fur of dust attested to his not having earned his title by conventional means. He sat and swept it with the palm of his hand and set about putting the copies and photographs into envelopes. With the fourth envelope, he wrote in fat childish letters
GILES
WINTERSMITH
ESQ
. He then dialled the embassy number and handed me the phone.

Wintersmith was waiting on the steps, wearing spy’s sunglasses behind which his eyeballs slopped greyly like creatures in an aquarium. He was uncomfortable with Leo and wilted at his thick, exaggerated handshake. Leo had made our meeting as obvious as possible. I may have been repaying my debt to Wintersmith, but Leo was using him as a decoy.

‘You must be mad,’ the diplomat said to me as we arrived, ‘calling me at the embassy from a bugged phone. Bloody stupid. Amateurs!’

‘It’s called the double bluff. Basic rule of espionage,’ Leo countered.

We found a table in the Shit and Hassle where Wintersmith examined the photographs. ‘Interesting, yes. Thank you. I imagine you won’t say where these came from? Who gave them to you? So we can … er… follow up their authenticity?’

‘You’ve got a problem with their authenticity? Tell you what, Giles, you come with us, and we’ll drop you in the water upcurrent from
this
,’ he indicated the saw blade, ‘and while you’re sewing your ballbag back on you can
authenticate
it for us. How about that?’ Leo jabbed his finger into the triangle of red skin in the open neck of Wintersmith’s shirt.

‘They were given to us anonymously,’ I said, ‘pushed through my letter box.’

‘Photocopied?’ Wintersmith was sceptical.

‘Photocopied.’ Leo got up for another pint. ‘Take ’em or leave ’em. If you don’t want them they’ll go somewhere they will be wanted. And if you
do
want them, you bloody well use them.’

Wintersmith took them and slid them into his briefcase. ‘I’ll see what I can do. We don’t like working with unauthenticated material. That’s why we really need your source.’

‘You need our “source” as you put it so you can chase them up for a load of useless info about oil or arms sales, and so you can help your chums in the trade missions to negotiate better deals.’

‘Are these the only copies?’ Wintersmith ignored Leo and addressed me.

‘Human rights? That’s for pantywaists…’ Leo was levering himself up from the table, empty glass in hand, ‘don’t want to offend the comrades if they’re about to buy some tanks from us…’

‘So far as I know,’ I answered. ‘But since they’re copies, I imagine the originals are somewhere. No idea where.’

‘And you didn’t make copies yourselves?’ Leo was at the bar, so in this lie I was on my own.

I looked him in the eye and furrowed my brow in wounded disappointment, the way politicians do when someone attributes base motives to them. ‘No. I told you I’d owe you for the info on the two bodies. Here it is.’

‘Ah, the two bodies…’ he said, suddenly reminded. ‘What came of that?’

Leo had begun a darts match so I lied on solo. ‘Trail went dead. We asked around, Leo made enquiries. Turned out they were a couple of gypsies smuggling a boatful of hi-fis in from Yugloslavia…’

Wintersmith finished his half and excused himself. He had taken the information grudgingly, but he would get any credit that was going. He would go to his boss and claim he’d received a tip-off from one of his local sources, someone from his network, build himself up as a ‘Bucharest hand’ with eyes and ears all over the city…

‘He won’t use them,’ Leo decided. ‘He might have a go, run it by the top brass. They’ll dither, sweat a little, then decide to refer it higher, then higher, and on and on until it magically disappears into the clouds. Wintersmith will remind them of the need to keep things sweet for the next trade mission, and off it goes, into the file marked “No Action”. Waste of time.’

At the embassy gates Leo pointed out the Securitate man across the street, brazenly staring us out. ‘So we
were
tailed,’ I said.

‘Of course we were.’ Leo raised a James Bond eyebrow. ‘Triple bluff. Basic rule of the game. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about bluffing, it’s make sure you finish on an odd number.’

I heard a few days later that Wintersmith was off work for a week. He had been violently mugged the next night on his way home and his flat had been burgled and vandalised. Now he was unable to move without a Securitate tail and his diplomatic pass had been rescinded.

Two

At his Herastrau flat Trofim was sending out invitations to the Union of Writers’ launch of his memoirs.
A Life of Service
was the safe, on-message title chosen for him. The preface outlined the nation’s giant strides under Ceauşescu, from peasant sump to model ‘scientific’ society. Its ghostwriter, Hadrian ‘The Wall’ Vintile, was vetting the guest list. Trofim let it pass, as he let pass all the other humiliations that had been visited upon his manuscript.

He had finessed simultaneous launches. While we toasted
A Life of Service
at the Writers’ Union on October 7,
Memoirs of a Betrayed Ideal
would be launched, in its author’s absence, at the Club des Belles Lettres in Paris, chosen because it was three doors from the Romanian Embassy. Trofim’s French publisher had sent out the invitations already, but had not specified what the book was, a tactic that had piqued French interest more than the book itself would have done. According to Trofim, the luminaries – or, as he had it,
obscureminaries
– of Romanian expatriate culture would be at the launch: Toninescu, the dramatist of the theatre of the absurd; Ciulan the pessimist philosopher; Elianu the historian of myth; even the nonagenarian surrealist Tristan Isoldou. It would be like one of Toninescu’s own plays: a book launch in Paris for an absent author, while thousands of miles away in Bucharest the same author was launching a book he did not write.

Every now and then Hadrian would note the presence of a discredited author or politician on his guest list and ask Trofim to reconsider: ‘Comrade, Mr
X
is a well-known reactionary, implicated in unsocialist activities… Ms
Y
is considered to have developed a close friendship with counter-progressive
cadres
, and as for Petrescu the icon-maker – a well-known cultist and trafficker in religious imagery…’

‘You see, Hadrian is a model editor,’ Trofim said in a mellow, indulgent voice. ‘Now that he has finished editing the book, he has started to edit my friendships!’

Hadrian looked up from his work with his thin, mutinous smile and announced proudly: ‘I have tried to help the comrade here and there, of course I have. There were a few lapses of memory and tone, and the occasional regrettable tendency to make subjective judgments when such things are better left to the objective perspective of history.’ I had never heard the Party line rattled off with such conviction.

I leafed through the pages. It was like chewing cardboard. Trofim’s eight years at the UN were dealt with in nine pages, three of which were devoted to the visit of Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu. It was leaden stuff, censored for interest-value. Meetings with Nixon, Kissinger, de Gaulle were described in single sentences. The Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam war, the Hungarian uprising, Paris ’68: all events Trofim had been involved in or witness to were simply missing. Stalin featured once, though I knew from Trofim’s genuine book that he had had a close and complicated relationship with him. Randomly injected throughout the book were non-sequitur paragraphs about Romania’s productivity and extracts from homages to Ceauşescu by third-world leaders. The only photograph that did not feature Trofim in attendance upon Ceauşescu was a photograph of him as a baby, and even this had been doctored to remove his rabbi father from the cotside.

‘This will be a very important book, eyewitness history,’ Hadrian raised himself up, emitted his phrase, then slumped back down like a mechanical bunny in an advert for long-life batteries.

We lived in a world of shadows and decoys, Leo’s double and triple bluffs. This book, the product of endless censorships and siftings, was the decoy, the separated twin, of an altogether more explosive and dangerous publication.

Trofim saw them both side by side in his mind: the one marrow-stiffeningly tedious, the other risky and colourful and about to incur him the severest reprisals. ‘Yes, I think it will make a splash. I hope so. I am very pleased with the way the publisher is handling publicity – it will be going to all the major papers, and I shall be invited to help promote it.’

BOOK: The Last Hundred Days
2.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes by Angus Wilson
The Lady and the Lake by Rosemary Smith
Braided Lives by AR Moler
The Swede by Robert Karjel
Moon Spun by Marilee Brothers