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Authors: John P. Davidson

Tags: #Historical

The Obedient Assassin: A Novel (3 page)

BOOK: The Obedient Assassin: A Novel
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“Well, it's all here. The markets are brimming, you'll see.”

They turned onto a street lined with apartment buildings, the façades forming a wall capped with mansard roofs. The one they entered was much like the others. Ramón waited with the luggage while Eitingon and his mother went up in the cage, their voices echoing above like the chattering of birds. When Ramón got off on the fifth floor, a door stood open to a flat. Caridad and Eitingon were sitting on a sofa in their coats, talking and smoking cigarettes, pale yellow sunlight coming through the glass doors to shallow balconies.

“I think it will be fine,” Caridad was saying.

“Ah, Ramón! I should have helped with the luggage!”

“That's all right. The lift is so small.” He took in the flat, the high ceilings, the ornate moldings, the parquet floors that squeaked beneath his feet. “This is quite grand,” he said, stepping out onto the balcony for a view of the city all gray and silver and black, the stone buildings smudged with soot, the only color the red clay chimney pots with ribbons of smoke trailing up to the leaden sky.

“What do you think?” Eitingon asked when Ramón came in for a cigarette.

“One could be comfortable here.”

“It's only temporary. You and Caridad will have your own flats.”

“And what is it that we will be doing?”

Eitingon smiled.

“There's a meeting this afternoon?”

“Ah, yes, my friend Pavel Sudoplatov has come from Moscow to inspect the team your mother and I have put together. He's quite congenial, a lovely chap. When I dropped by his office at the Kremlin, he couldn't have been more charming. It was my dear fellow this, my dear fellow that. And that was just at the time when anyone who had been in Spain was suspected of being a Trotsky sympathizer. Everyone else in the Kremlin was creeping around frightened they're going to get caught in one of those internal purges and end up before a firing squad. Everyone in Moscow is suspected of being a Trotsky sympathizer. Everyone's suspect—especially if you've been in Spain.

“But Pavel was sitting pretty. He had his secretary serve tea, then started telling me about this assignment, got it straight from Stalin and Beria. Said he was called into Stalin's office with Beria, looking the villain with that horrible monocle and pencil-thin mustache. Stalin starts pacing around the room as if he's alone, gazing out the windows and reflecting upon the state of the world, Hitler, Germany, the coming war. Then Stalin sits down at his desk, and suddenly sits up straight as if he's been goosed in the ass or received an electric shock. ‘The Trotsky problem must be solved,' he announces, or something like that. Trotsky mustn't split the Left in an international war the way he did in Spain. They gave Pavel the assignment and promoted him, made him director of the Foreign Department at the NKVD. Pavel's a clever fellow, made his reputation as an assassin when he rigged a box of chocolates as a bomb. Some greedy bastard thinks he's opening a present and, kaboom, it explodes in his face.”

“You mentioned a team?”

“Ramón, you understand about Trotsky, that he has to be eliminated?”

“Yes, I understand.”

“Did you ever run into David Siqueiros in Spain?”

“The Mexican painter?”

“Yes, that's him.”

“I heard about him. He was famous on the front for his uniforms.”

“Yes, well he's an artist and quite the peacock,” Eitingon agreed. “He designed his uniforms and had them made in New York. But he's also a brave soldier, a hero of the Mexican Revolution.”

“I know his reputation.”

“He's going to lead a strike against Trotsky in Mexico. We'll provide the money and he'll assemble a small army of men. The conclusion is foregone, a fait accompli.”

“Where in Mexico?”

“A suburb outside the capital city, one of those Indian names.”

“Coyoacán,” said Caridad.

“That's it. Trotsky's living in a house there that belongs to Diego Rivera. Siqueiros knows the place. All of those Mexican painters are pals, or at least they know each other. And, of course, Caridad knows Mexico. She's been there, understands how the Party operates, and she knows all of the Mexicans who fought in Spain. The whole operation has simply fallen into place one piece after another.”

“And will I be part of this small army in Mexico?”

“No, nothing so crude.” Eitingon looked to Caridad as if for guidance.

“We need someone to infiltrate Trotsky's organization here in Paris,” she said. “With your French and English, you can fit in easily.”

“You will work as an undercover agent for the GPU,” Eitingon assured him. “It's, how do you say, a plum as these things go.”

“And you and Caridad will be running the operation?” Ramón asked.

“That's right. You'll have to be careful not to be seen in public with Caridad. She's well-known to Trotskyists. But at the moment, the Fourth International is so screwed they wouldn't know their own mothers.”

“The Fourth International?”

“Trotsky's organization,” Eitingon answered.

“I see, as if the Third International has been replaced.”

“The cheek, suggesting that the Soviet Union is no longer the revolution! Not many have heard of the Fourth International, and if we're successful, not many will. Trotsky's son was running the Fourth International here in Paris and it seems the poor chap had to have an appendectomy. You know how it is when you're sick, how you always want to be with your countrymen, with people who speak your language. So, Sedov—that was his name, Lev Sedov—checked into a clinic here in Paris that's run by White Russians. He had the surgery, a routine affair, and was recovering splendidly. Two days later, he died of mysterious causes.” Eitingon winked for Ramón's benefit. “Silly bastard used a French alias at the clinic, thought the Russians wouldn't get on to him. But then we already knew he was there. His secretary is one of our operatives.”

“You had someone inside?” asked Ramón.

“Yes, an excellent fellow, a student at the Sorbonne. Anthropology, I believe. His code name's Étienne. You'll meet him.”

“If you have him, why do you want me? I thought my job was to get inside?”

Eitingon and Caridad glanced at each other again. “Étienne isn't working for us,” Caridad explained.

“He isn't GPU?”

“Yes, but he's not our agent. We aren't informed of all of the operations under way in Paris. And we need someone unknown who can go to New York and Mexico. We will want you in Trotsky's house in Mexico so that we know what he's doing.”

Eitingon clapped his solid hands together, rocking forward on the sofa. “Well, I'm sure you want to wash up and rest a bit. I'll come back at two and we'll go over to the Hotel Lutetia to see Pavel.”

THREE

O
utside, the cold winter air smelled of wood smoke and roasting chestnuts. On the opposite side of the street, a peasant in a dark blue smock, his face red and grizzled, was selling live chickens from the back of a truck, while two women stood smoking cigarettes, waiting for a dog to defecate. Eitingon and Caridad walked quickly ahead, arm in arm. Following on the narrow sidewalk, Ramón had one of those sudden and dreamlike feelings that made his scalp prickle, as if he had fallen through time and was once more a boy in Toulouse, homesick and out of place, following in the wake of Caridad and Eitingon, hoping they wouldn't forget him.

Ramón stopped in his tracks on the narrow sidewalk. He had taken a wrong turn, regressed. Eitingon and Caridad were unaware of him, talking, and moving away. And from this distance, he saw that they were no longer young, Caridad no longer beautiful. With her white hair, tailored suit, and the fur stole of martens wrapped around her shoulders, she looked like a dowager of some sort, a person to be contended with, but not a woman who fell in love. She was aging more rapidly than Eitingon, who, though stout and bearlike in his overcoat, retained his virility, vivid complexion, and dark shining hair.

“Is something wrong?” Caridad asked, stopping to wait for Ramón.

“No, no, I'm coming.”

He was in Paris. The cold air smelled delicious. An old man pushed a wheelbarrow filled with coal; a concierge slowly polished the brass on a door. Men at the counter of a café talked over cups of espresso and glasses of wine. They knew about the war in Spain, and that Hitler was massing his troops just across the border. But France was at peace.

As they turned a corner, the Hotel Lutetia rose above the street, a Beaux Arts wedding cake with layer upon layer of rich icing. As they entered, a man stood up from one of the overstuffed chairs facing the door. He was tall, had thick black hair, a long narrow aristocratic face, and an aquiline nose. He looked very dramatic in uniform, a gray cape, jodhpurs, and riding boots. As he embraced Eitingon, the cape opened, revealing the scarlet silk lining. He kissed the Russian on both cheeks, then, clicking his heels together, bent down to kiss Caridad's hand. “And this is Antonio Pujol, my
compa
ñ
ero
and aide de camp,” he said, introducing the man at his side. A Mexican Indian, Pujol had pockmarked cheeks, a flattened nose, and thick lips. “Antonio is a Marxist prodigy, with a remarkable understanding of theory. And he's also a fine artist. I found him in the market in Mexico City.”

As Ramón was introduced to Siqueiros, he noticed the sharp cut of the painter's lips, the oddly sensuous, almost feminine mouth. Siqueiros insisted that he had met Ramón.
“Si, claro! Conozco muy bien el hijo de Caridad
.

“So what is this about?” Siqueiros said to Eitingon. “What is it that Sudoplatov wants?”

“He wants to see the team we've assembled.”

“But we can't assemble our team here,” Siqueiros objected. “We have to do that in Mexico.”

“He wants to see us,” said Eitingon.

“Ha! You mean he wanted a junket to Paris!”

“Perhaps that, too. But should anything go wrong, God forbid, Sudoplatov has to be able to say that he came to inspect his team. You know how methodical Stalin is. Everything has to be done by the rules and everything on the list has to be checked and double-checked.”

Siqueiros switched into French as they started for the elevators, telling Eitingon and Caridad how he'd been rushing around Paris, going to galleries and seeing friends—Braque, Léger, Picasso. Ramón, all the while, studied the hotel. The paneling in the elevator was a dark polished wood, the carpet in the hallway a deep royal blue.

On the fourth floor, they walked down a long corridor to one of the identical white doors that punctuated their passage. Eitingon knocked and an aide let them into the foyer of a large suite; they waited a few moments to be escorted into a drawing room where a fire was crackling in the hearth and pale yellow silk-draped windows looked out at the cold gray sky. Sudoplatov came into the room as he made the last adjustment to his French cuffs. Wearing a navy pinstripe suit with a white shirt and white silk tie, he had deep-set brown eyes, regular features, a strong nose, and the square jaw of a film star. He embraced Eitingon, kissing him upon each cheek, then his mouth. They spoke warmly in Russian for a few moments, then he turned to Caridad. “
Enchanté
,” he said to her, kissing both of her cheeks.
Enchanté
, he said to each of them, which was the extent of his French.

Eitingon stood at Sudoplatov's side, making the introductions, saying a few words about each of them. As Ramón shook Sudoplatov's hand, he remembered the box of chocolates exploding, that the Russian had once had nothing but his youth, daring, and ingenuity. Now as director of the NKVD's Foreign Department, he oversaw the GPU.

Everyone was lighting cigarettes and chatting while a tray of small glasses of eau-de-vie went round the room. The gathering might have been a small cocktail party had there not been a sharp undercurrent. Beneath the hum of conversation Sudoplatov turned to Eitingon. “She looks well,” he said in Russian. “I'm surprised she's still with us. She isn't bitter?”

“No, a loyal comrade. She's proven that. No one more so.”

“The handsome young man is her son?”

“Yes.”

“The family resemblance is striking. They have the same eyes.” Sudoplatov took a deep drag from a cigarette, his nostrils flaring. “Should we begin?”

“Of course. How do you want to proceed? Should I translate for the others?”

“Not necessary and so tedious. They know the plan, don't they? I'm the one who needs to hear it. I may ask them questions as we go along.”

“As you wish. I will explain so they won't feel uncomfortable.”

Sudoplatov took another drag of the cigarette, then stubbed it out as Caridad and Ramón settled on a sofa. Siqueiros took an armchair, Pujol standing just behind him.

“Now, my dear Leonid, tell me about Operation Mother,” Sudoplatov said in Russian, pronouncing the last with the appropriate degree of irony.

As Eitingon and Sudoplatov proceeded, Ramón had the sensation of doors sliding shut. Other than the occasional
da
or
nyet
, the language was impenetrable to him. He wondered how difficult it would be to learn Russian. He had no memory of learning French. For him, Spanish, Catalan, and French were all the same on the inside. Shifting from one to another was subtle and effortless, a response to exterior circumstances, to people. English, which he had learned in the first grade at a British school in Barcelona, felt different in some fundamental way he couldn't quite describe. A shift into English started some place deeper, took longer to reach the surface.

Ramón smoked a cigarette and finished his eau-de-vie, looking up when Eitingon translated a question about Trotsky's residence in Mexico for Siqueiros. Siqueiros, who had been languishing in boredom, accustomed as he was to being the center of attention, responded to the attention like a dry plant to water. Of course he knew the exact house, which belonged to friends, and no, he didn't think it should be a problem. Like every house in Mexico it had a wall, but, as walls went, it wasn't very high or sturdy.

“How many men will you need?” Eitingon translated once more.

“Twenty should be enough.”

And would Siqueiros be able to assemble the men?

Siqueiros shrugged. “Of course. If there is money, there will be no problem.”

Eitingon and Sudoplatov entered into a longer discussion that Ramón followed by watching their faces and listening to the tone of their voices. At one point, Sudoplatov appeared to be unhappy, asking several sharp questions, but in the end he relented.

“He wants to know if you're satisfied with the plan,” Eitingon told Caridad.

“Yes.” She nodded and smiled at Sudoplatov. “Tell him yes.”

A burning log popped in the fireplace.

“And the operation is fail-safe?”

“Yes,” Caridad answered. “Exactly as Stalin ordered.”

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