Read The Obedient Assassin: A Novel Online

Authors: John P. Davidson

Tags: #Historical

The Obedient Assassin: A Novel (4 page)

BOOK: The Obedient Assassin: A Novel
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FOUR

E
itingon picked up an oyster from the bed of ice and slid it into his mouth, closing his eyes to taste the cold ocean waves and appreciate the exquisite texture. He gave his head the slightest shake, then took a swallow of the Sancerre to wash away the faint metallic taste of the oyster. “These
Portugaises
are very good. Should we have another dozen?”

“Yes, but I wish we'd ordered a different wine.”

“Yes, this is modest. We'll drink the Pétrus with the
civet de lapin
.”

The restaurant was Eitingon's discovery, a storefront with a zinc bar and paper tablecloths, a proprietor chef who wore a white toque and shouted at his daughter when she didn't serve the plates fast enough.

“Here, suffer the last of this,” Eitingon said, filling Ramón's glass. He wanted to loosen Ramón's tongue, to find out what he was thinking. He took another swallow of wine, remembering the old stone farmhouse outside Toulouse, a ruin with the vines and arbor. Records playing on a wind-up gramophone, they had eaten at a table beneath an oak tree. Caridad was such a beauty. He assumed she was a wealthy Spanish bohemian, looking for a new life with her children in France.

“You know about Pablo,” said Ramón.

Eitingon studied Ramón's face.

“He didn't deserve such a death. I don't understand how she let that happen.”

Eitingon looked down at his wineglass, which he turned slightly on the table. “What could she do? She wasn't there. Pablo left a corpse on the street.”

“A father,” he hesitated, biting his bottom lip. “A father would have saved his son.”

“Perhaps. You can't be sure. Caridad knew she was being watched, that her loyalty was being tested.”

“And she passed the test.”

“And this is her reward. I wasn't there, so I couldn't help her. But I could give her this assignment.”

Eitingon glanced away, then took a deep breath and exhaled. He had a vivid memory of Ramón in Toulouse. A week or so after Caridad had driven him from the house with her histrionics, he had gone back to see if there was anything he could do. The other children had somehow drifted away, but Ramón, at his mother's side, attempting to attend to her, had that shell-shocked look, that haunted gaze of soldiers who had been in battle.

“Caridad isn't an easy person,” he said.

Ramón laughed.

“How old were you when we met in Toulouse?”

“Ten, more or less.”

“What do you remember?”

“Everything, I suppose.”

“Do you blame me for what happened?”

Ramón blinked. “No, should I?”

“She was angry at me. She would have said things. I know I made mistakes. I didn't understand how sheltered her life had been. I thought she was another sort of woman, had had a more worldly life. And then …” He hesitated. What had happened had been so appalling he couldn't imagine what that time had been for Ramón, an ambulance coming to the house, neighbors standing at the gate.

Eitingon gave his wineglass another turn. “I think religion was the problem for Caridad.”

“Religion? She's an intellectual, an atheist.”

“Not then. She kept talking about the church. That's what she kept saying, that she was lost because she had abandoned the church. She's a complicated person. Ramón, all of this Marxist theory, dialectical materialism is mumbo jumbo to me.”

“Yes, to me as well. On the front, anytime a group of soldiers got together, they would argue about who was a Stalinist and who was a Trotskyist. And, of the two, who was the true Marxist. And then there were all of the arguments about all of the socialist organizations in Catalonia and which of them were Trotskyist.”

“And what did you make of it?”

“I didn't listen to the arguments that much. As far as I'm concerned Lenin was the father of the revolution.”

“And Trotsky?”

“Perhaps he was the spoiled son who made trouble when Lenin chose Stalin to be his successor.”

Eitingon shrugged. “For Caridad, Marx and the
Manifesto
is like Holy Scripture. You know she wanted to become a nun?”

“Yes, but her parents made her marry Papa because he was rich.”

The sounds of pots clattering came from the kitchen.

“Ramón, I did some things wrong, but I hope you don't blame me.”

“No, I was sorry when you left. Particularly after Thorez came.” Ramón shuddered with distaste. “He was cold and distant.”

“I don't imagine Maurice Thorez was much fun, but I suppose that's what she needed.”

“You mean all that theory. I guess I'm not smart enough for it.”

“You're smart enough. Theory just doesn't interest you.”

Eitingon urged Ramón to take the last oyster, then pushed the tray of ice and shells aside. “We need to talk about your assignment.”

“Yes, I don't really understand what I'll be doing.”

“The beginning is the most difficult. We have to study the situation and wait for the right opening. You need to start thinking about your cover.”

“I thought you would assign me a new identity.”

“It's much better if you create your own, something you're comfortable with, something you like.”

“How do I do that?”

“Stay as close to the truth as you can. If you invent too much, then you forget and get confused. For example, you have Caridad in your life. So whoever you become might have a mother who interferes, who smokes too much, perhaps she knits. At the core, that will have truth for you. You can be who you want, just as long as your story fits together. It has to be sturdy enough to hold up under pressure. You must remember it in your sleep and be able to cling to it should you be tortured. But let's not dwell upon the negative.”

He poured more wine in their glasses. “How good is your English? Could you pass for an Australian or American?”

“Not with my accent.”

“You can't be Spanish. That would wave red flags.”

“I could be South American, from Argentina or Chile.”

Eitingon put the wine bottle down in the center of the table and looked fixedly at Ramón. “No, if they hear Spanish they'll suspect you're from Spain. You must blot Spain from your memory and the Castilian language from your identity. You've never been to Spain. You don't know a word of the language. Your mother tongue is French.”

“So, I'm from France.”

Eitingon thought for a moment. “But if you're from here, where is family? Friends? What schools did you attend? No, you can't be a Frenchman,” he reasoned. “It might work in New York or Moscow, but it obviously won't work in Paris. You must come from another French-speaking country.”

“Morocco? Algiers?”

“Do you feel like a Moroccan? An Algerian?”

Ramón's spine stiffened. “No, please! I'd rather not.”

“I didn't think so. How about Belgium! That's the ticket! It's just north of France, the way Spain is just south. You can be Belgian. That will explain your lack of family in Paris and any little discrepancies in your accent.”

Ramón looked into the distance, imagining the implications of his new nationality. “And what about Trotsky?”

Eitingon waited.

“I suppose I must learn all about Trotsky if I'm going to be one of his adherents.”

“No, no, no. You're not going to be one of them. That world is too small. You're not going to be like them, but acceptable to them as someone quite different. In fact, you should be from a world they don't know.”

They finished a second round of oysters and watched with interest as the owner's daughter presented the bottle of Pétrus. Eitingon tasted it, blinked both eyes, then handed his glass to Ramón. “Yes,” Ramón concurred. “It's excellent.”

The stew arrived on a large white platter, in a rich and fragrant sauce containing small translucent onions, slices of carrots, and a sprinkling of parsley. “This rabbit tastes as if it lived on wild thyme,” said Ramón after they started eating.

“Yes, it probably did. Remember the rabbits in Toulouse?”

“How could I forget?”

“What about your name? You might want to keep your initials. It's much easier with monograms and such. Something with an
R
? Robert?”

“My first name is Jaime—Jaume in Catalan.”

“Well, then, something with a
J
.”

“Jacques is a name I've always liked. I had a little friend named Jacques when we lived in Toulouse.”

“Jacques suits you very well, but you should get rid of those steel-rim glasses. They make you look like a soldier or a German factory worker.”

“You know what I would like to be,” said Ramón. “I've always wanted to be an aristocrat.”

Eitingon, knife and fork poised in midair, smiled at the young man, pleased that he wasn't an ideologue like his mother. “An aristocrat? Now that's antithetical.”

“Antithetical to what?”

“To Marxism, Stalinism, Trotskyism for that matter.”

“But there are natural aristocrats, people who are superior, who are simply born that way?”

“My dear Ramón, that's exactly what aristocrats tell us, that they are our betters because of the blood running through their veins. Because of their pedigree.”

“But you know what I mean.”

“Yes, I suppose so—that some people are exceptional, naturally superior.” He cut a piece of the rabbit, pushing it through the sauce. “If that's what you want, posing as an aristocrat has a certain genius. Nothing would be more foreign to Trotskyists. You could be an aristocrat estranged from your family in Belgium, a black sheep on his own in Paris.”

“Yes, and of course I like good food and wine.”

FIVE

R
amón lay in bed, thinking about Lena. He had sent her three letters from Paris but had yet to get a response. He knew that something must be wrong—in addition to Barcelona being a war zone. Lena wouldn't let him worry. But if she hadn't gotten his letters, if she thought he had disappeared … if she imagined that he was being inconsiderate, then she would be angry. She had a temper, much like her mother's, and remembering her mother, Doña Inez, he could imagine the old woman hiding his letters, wadding up the message on a paper napkin that he'd stuffed into their mailbox. Doña Inez had always disapproved of him and done everything possible to direct Lena toward more suitable young men.

Staring at the ceiling, his eyes settled on a cloudlike stain near the cornice that trickled down the opposite wall. He got out of bed, pulled a robe over his pajamas, and put on his slippers. He went into the bathroom, then out into the hallway, and down the staircase to the flat just below his. The sound of a man's voice came through the door. He listened until he was sure it was a radio broadcast, then tapped on the door.
“Es Ramón,”
he called through the door.

The sound of the radio stopped, a dead bolt shot, then a second. The door opened as far as the chain allowed. Caridad peered out, her eyes moving from side to side.

“I'm alone,” he said in Catalan.

She shut the door to remove the chain, put down her pistol, then let Ramón in. Her flat was almost empty. There was a radio set, a rocking chair, a cigar burning in a saucer, various ashtrays and cups, newspapers and journals. “You're smoking a cigar?” he said, wrinkling his nose.

“When I'm knitting. I don't have to keep stopping to light cigarettes. There's coffee if you want,” she said, returning to the rocker and her knitting.

He picked up a pack of cigarettes, lit one, then went into the kitchen where an espresso pot sat on the stove. He tapped the chrome pot to see if it was hot, then struck a kitchen match to light the burner. “Is there anything to eat?” he asked.

“There's a box of soda crackers.”

“No cheese? No butter?”

“This isn't a café.”

He finished his cigarette, running it under the tap to extinguish it, then placed several crackers on a saucer next to his cup. When a wisp of steam began spiraling out of the spout of the espresso pot, he poured the thick, syrupy coffee into a small white cup, stirring in two spoonfuls of sugar. His mother glanced at him as he returned with his coffee and plate of crackers. “You slept late,” she said, her needles clicking rapidly

“Don't tell Leonid. I'm supposed to be at the gymnasium.”

She shifted her tongue in her mouth but refrained from speaking, her eyes riveted on the needle tips.

“Is that Cuban?” he asked, indicating the cigar.

“Yes.”

“I was thinking about your family in Cuba.”

“Your family, too,” she answered, not quite glancing at him. “You are a del Rio as much as a Mercader.”

She had told about the del Rio family in Cuba—the vast sugarcane plantations in Cuba, the legions of servants, the fiestas, the beautiful horses and carriages. Her life had a mythic, perhaps fantastic quality that defied conventional logic. Had her parents really left Cuba to come to Barcelona so that she could learn penmanship from the sisters of Sagrado Corazón de María? The convent was famous for penmanship. The nuns taught their students to form perfectly rounded letters. Women of the highest class throughout the Spanish-speaking world recognized the handwriting.

He brought his cup to his mouth, closing his eyes slightly as he took a first sip. “Were the del Rios in Cuba aristocrats?” he asked.

Her needles stopped clicking as she reached for her cigar. “They were aristocratic.”

“And very rich?”

“Yes, at one time.”

“But not aristocrats?”

“They didn't have titles, if that's what you mean.”

“Were your parents rich when they came to Barcelona?”

She took a puff from the cigar. “They probably thought they were rich. They were both spoiled. I doubt they knew anything about money.”

He studied her, trying to reconcile the woman smoking a cigar with the stories about her past. Under the tutelage of the sisters, she discovered her religious vocation. She would have entered the convent and become a nun had Pablo Mercader not happened by while she was standing in front of her school with the other girls. He was the most conventional of men, as predictable as a clock. He spent his days walking back and forth from the family house to the family offices, both on Calle Ancha, the wide commercial street that ran parallel to the waterfront. He had never diverged from his well-beaten path until the day he saw Caridad, who stood out from the other girls, a head taller, her long hair as black as a raven's wing, her eyes green. He was almost twice her age, twenty-seven, yet he followed her home. The next day he was waiting in front of the school. For days he followed her until he summoned the nerve to speak. For a year he walked her home before asking her to marry him. Surprised that he didn't recognize her religious vocation, she declined his offer until her parents intervened. The del Rios wanted the alliance with the wealthy Mercader family.

“And the Mercaders,” Ramón asked. “What happened to the money?”

“Your uncle stole it. You know that. Nicolas was the oldest and took control after the old man died. He sold the textile mills and went to Buenos Aires.”

“No one could stop him?”

“They didn't know. He was going to invest in textile mills in Argentina and send money back to Barcelona. Everyone waited and waited, but the money never came.”

“And no one did anything?”

“In the end, it was too late. And you know how your father is.”

Ramón bit into a cracker, wishing for butter and jam.

“Why all these questions about the past?” she asked.

“Eitingon says my new identity should make sense. I'm wondering if it makes sense for me to be an aristocrat.”

She nodded, her eyes focused on her needles, her lips moving as she counted stitches. “You're still Belgian?”

“I'm estranged from my family. I'm not sure why.”

“You married the wrong woman. That will always do it.”

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