Read The Obedient Assassin: A Novel Online

Authors: John P. Davidson

Tags: #Historical

The Obedient Assassin: A Novel (2 page)

BOOK: The Obedient Assassin: A Novel

s the train crept toward the tunnel at Portbou, Ramón watched a strip of beach and the cold gray water of the Mediterranean slide along beside the railroad tracks, wondering when he would see Spain again, whether he would ever return to Barcelona. He felt ridiculous dressed in a wool suit that was too small, as if he were a schoolboy traveling with his mother. Caridad sat across from him knitting, her fingers moving quickly, pulling the black yarn, the needles clicking softly. He didn't know how she'd managed to coerce him to leave the front, much less convinced him to get on the train.

They had fought for hours in the wretched farmyard with the dried human feces plastered to the wall and the dead rats hanging on the wire fence. He had been adamant, certain that he wouldn't go with her. He was entrenched, engaged in a battle. But she had argued him into submission, appealed to all of his vanity, his fears, dug her fingers into the tender places of vulnerability that only a mother knew. She told him she needed him and knew what was best for him, had sources of information and contacts he could never imagine. And in this way, the afternoon had passed, the two of them fighting, smoking her cigarettes, the crows pecking at the dead rats. Occasionally, there was gunfire in the distance, the metallic voice on a megaphone decrying the Republican soldiers as
comunistas y maricones
. The day waned, a cold breeze blowing from the north. As the sun set, a line of pink ran between the gray clouds and the dun-colored horizon. In the end, it was the cold that had driven him into the car with her, the fundamental desire for warmth.

Now, after they had spent three hours on the train, the light dimmed as they entered a tunnel, a wall of rock replacing the view of the Mediterranean. In a familiar transition, a reminder of all their crossings into France, the train groaned and shuddered in the dark. Then the wheels rolled freely and they came to a halt at the platform on the French side of the tunnel. Ramón glanced at his mother, who was putting her knitting away. She looked fashionable in a wool suit, with a stole of martens around her shoulders, each biting the tail of its predecessor.

While Ramón pulled the suitcases from the overhead rack, she gathered up her handbag and a small case. By the time he found a porter, she was on the platform buying cigarettes at a kiosk. The station at Cerbère was small, and, it being the south of France, was open to the cold salt air and the sound of the gulls. As if drawn by a magnet, Ramón walked out to look up at the rugged foothills of the Pyrénées tumbling down to the Mediterranean. He felt the presence of Canigou, the sacred mountain looming out of sight.

The year before the war broke out in Spain, the spring when it felt as if life was still beginning, he had hiked up through the groves of orange and lemon trees at the base of the mountain. As he climbed, the vegetation changed, the mountain air becoming cool and dry, the intense sunlight burning his skin as he rose higher through pine and fir thickets, the snowy peak above glistening white against a cobalt blue sky. He had slept on a bedroll, looking up at the constellations and galaxies of stars wheeling in the night sky. In the afternoons, he looked south toward Spain, the smell of orange blossoms wafting up to mingle with the scent of pine and fir in the thin mountain air. He spent a week exploring the flank of the mountain, drinking icy water from the rushing streams and eating bread and ham he bought from peasants he met along the way. On one of the last days, he encountered an Englishman, outfitted with climbing equipment, who led him up one of the steep ravines to the lip of the glacier.

Standing outside the station, he remembered those days and wished that was where he was going. Then, feeling the call of duty, he went back inside, where he found Caridad sitting at a table in the café, reading a Paris newspaper and smoking a cigarette, a pot of tea before her. “Where did you go?” she asked, glancing up at him.

“Nowhere,” he answered, pulling out a chair.

He watched as she exhaled two thick streams of smoke from her nostrils, drawing it voluptuously into her mouth, her lips scored with faint vertical lines.

“Still angry?” she asked in an amused tone of voice, expelling another cloud of smoke.

“Who said I was angry?”

“You've been pouting since we left Barcelona.”

He looked away.

“You know, a man speaks up, says what's on his mind. It isn't my fault that you couldn't find Lena. You shouldn't put the blame on me.”

“We could have waited another day.”

She shook her head, narrowing her eyes into a slight grimace. “No,
mi hijo
, we couldn't wait. We have an important meeting tomorrow in Paris.”

“What time tomorrow?”

“After we get in.”

“And who will be there besides Eitingon?”

“His chief. Others.”

“Are they coming from Moscow?”

She frowned slightly. They were speaking Catalan, but everyone spoke Catalan along the border.

“Where are they coming from?”

“Don't ask so many questions. You will find out when you need to know.”

A waiter brought the menu and set a small pitcher on the table.

Ramón looked at it with wonder. “Milk? We didn't even ask for it.”

She smiled. “Yes, and cream and butter and plenty of meat. You'll see. You won't be sorry you came.”

She touched the sleeve of his jacket with her long fingers, recalling how she'd watched him starving as a baby, his tiny hands clutching desperately at the air, looking into her eyes with panic. He couldn't eat. A mysterious disease, marasmus, afflicted infants after the war. She had tried everything, including seven different wet nurses. Finally, in an act of desperation, a stroke of genius, she had soaked horse meat in cognac, knowing that he needed something strong, that she wouldn't let him go.

She smiled sadly, rubbing the fabric of his jacket between her fingertips. “Don't worry, we'll get you a new suit in Paris. This one is threadbare and no longer fits you.”

n the night train to Paris, they shared a compartment with four other passengers, whose presence precluded a conversation between Ramón and his mother, allowing him to pretend he was traveling alone. From the seat opposite Caridad's—across this small distance—he observed her, the way she jerked impatiently at the yarn she was knitting, the way she smoked, lighting one cigarette from the end of another. Everything about her—her self-absorption, her patronizing regard for others—grated on his nerves. She had always been knitting, even when he was a boy. It was a way to stay calm, like fingering the beads of a rosary. He watched the tips of the needles and the thread, wondering if it would be a sock, the sleeve of a sweater.

He finally made himself look out at the French landscape rolling past as dusk fell, at the sere winter fields, the olive groves and small stone villages; the train rocked at a steady clip, the constant and rhythmic clicking of the rails constant. That morning he had been standing in the small tiled vestibule of Lena's parents' building, impatiently ringing the bell for apartment 3C. He was so close, he could see her deep brown eyes, the way she would laugh when she realized he was there. But the buzz of the doorbell went unanswered. Again and again he rang, then he walked out to the sidewalk, looking up at the windows of the corner apartment. The building was on one of those small squares sprinkled throughout Barcelona, once pristinely manicured, now shabby, littered with trash. It was ten in the morning. Where was she? Her mother and sisters? He went to the café where he often waited for her, where he could watch the front door of her building. With the minutes slipping past, he drank a
, then, unable to believe that he would really miss her, wrote an awkward note on a napkin that he slipped into her mailbox.

s night fell, the passengers in the compartment began turning on their reading lamps, the window becoming a mirror that looked in rather than out, a reflection accompanying the compartment, the passengers swaying slowly.

Permiso, permiso.”
He stood, making his way to the door of the compartment.
“Pardon! Pardon, si'l vous pla
Swaying, touching the walls of the narrow corridor, he walked to the end of the car, a tremendous rush of noise and cold air greeting him as he stepped out onto the platform, the locomotive hooting in the distance. He was walking back, against the motion of the train through another car of compartments to the bar car. He avoided the Spaniards—it was occasionally difficult to tell Fascists from Communists—and, speaking French, asked for a brandy and then, as if a second thought, writing paper, which he took to one of the small tables at the back of the car. Lighting a Gauloises, he stared at the blank page for a moment before writing,
Querida Lena

She was his
. There had been many other girls, but that was only expected. It was important that he be able to teach Lena about sex after they married.

Recibiste la nota que te dejé esta mañana?
I rang the bell to your apartment again and again, and can't believe that I missed seeing you—if only for a moment. I was in town for one night and left early this afternoon for Paris. I'm on the train now, sitting alone with a brandy, thinking of you. You might laugh when you read that I am with my mother. I can't tell you what we're doing because I still don't know. And I can't tell you how she talked me into this. I find her infuriating but somehow impossible to refuse. She is so certain about everything, so sure that she's right. She said there was nothing she could do to help Pablo, that all of the decisions had been made, etc. etc. I don't know when I will come home, but I will write to you often. I would ask you to come to Paris, but I know how your parents feel, that they would never agree. My darling Lena, I hope you think of me often. Te adoro, R

He folded the sheet of paper, slipping it into his breast pocket. After finishing his brandy and smoking a second cigarette, he went back to the compartment, where most of the lights had been turned off, and Caridad, in her corner next to the window, was sleeping, her head back, her mouth slightly open.

In the morning when he woke, she was applying lipstick. They went to the dining car for coffee and bread, and were once more sitting in the compartment as the train approached the outskirts of Paris. He watched as she powdered her face and fretted with her hat, driving a long pin through her hair. Glancing up from a small round mirror, she looked at him anxiously. “Now, you won't be churlish with Leonid, will you?”

“No, Mother, I promise to behave.”

“I don't want sarcasm. This is very important. He's giving us a great opportunity. Do you understand?”

“Yes. I understand.”

“There he is,” she said, waving at a man standing on the platform.

By the time Ramón had gotten their bags, Caridad was outside, embracing Eitingon. Ramón hung back, a bit embarrassed and sad for his mother, who was holding on too tight, squeezing too hard. He winced as she threw her head back to gaze ardently into Eitingon's face.

Holding a gray homburg in one hand and wearing a black topcoat with a collar of Persian lamb, the Russian looked like a rich banker rather than a revolutionary. He had thick black hair, pleasant gray-green eyes, and a romantic-looking scar on his chin. Replacing his hat, giving the brim a slight tug, he gave Caridad a last squeeze, then, laughing, held out his hand to Ramón. “My boy, I hardly recognized you out of uniform,” he said in French.

“And I could say the same of you,” Ramón answered, also in French.

Eitingon blinked, noticing the coolness, then forged on, clapping Ramón on the shoulder. “Well, you look splendid, handsome as ever.”

“Thank you, sir. You look quite well yourself.”

“Let me help you with that.” He picked up one of the suitcases and led them outside to the waiting car, scattering the pigeons on the sidewalk. It was cold in Paris, and the traffic whirling around the Gare de Lyon was much heavier and faster than any in Barcelona. A driver helped stow their luggage in the car's trunk, then the three settled in the back of the car, Caridad sitting between the two men.

“Well, are we ready?” Eitingon asked.

“I'm not sure,” said Ramón. “I still don't know what we've come for.”

“Ah, your mama is being very strict with you,” Eitingon said, gripping Caridad's gloved hand in his own. “And the children?” he asked her. “Luis? You got them settled?”

“Yes, with family in the country near Ripollet. It's a lovely farm. They'll be safe.”

Eitingon gave the driver an address, then the car lurched out onto the street. Despite his misgivings, Ramón felt his spirits lift when the Seine came into view, stunningly beautiful, iconic. On the opposite bank, a long row of apartment houses uniform in height and proportions looked down upon the cold silvery river where a tug was pulling two flat barges upstream. They crossed a bridge to the Boulevard St.-Germain, the gray sky fragmented by the bare black limbs of the chestnut and plane trees. Eitingon pointed out Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots for Ramón, then began to tell him about the dinner he'd had the night before. “You can't imagine guinea hens roasted so tenderly,” he said, his French seasoned with a slight Russian accent, his grammar slightly askew. “The hens were so succulent, so simple. I'll take you, a modest little restaurant no one knows about. The cheeses and wines, perfectly selected. And the carrots! They were sautéed in olive oil, with slivers of those black olives from Nyons, garlic, and parsley. The colors were beautiful.”

“I know that dish. It's Provençal.”

“Yes, of course you do. I don't suppose you've had the chance to cook anything?”

“There's nothing to eat in Spain.”

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