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Authors: John P. Davidson

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BOOK: The Obedient Assassin: A Novel

new fedora on the back of his head, his overcoat folded over his lap, Eitingon sat in a chair near the ring watching Ramón spar with the Québécois, their jabs and feints informed by the multiple rhythms of the gym, the sound of a speed bag, a rope rhythmically tapping the floor. The Canadian had a thug's face and was fifteen pounds heavier.

“Ramón! Up! Up!” the coach was saying. “Left, left, right!”

Ramón wasn't terribly powerful, but he was quick and lean, sweat glistening on his olive skin. He danced in, jabbing with his left, then swinging with his right, he took a punch in the face. He staggered backward as the bell clanged, blood trickling from his nose.

“Here,” Eitingon said, wiping away the blood.

Ramón tipped his chin, looking up at the ceiling while Eitingon packed his nose with a bit of cotton. Ramón was breathing heavily, his chest rising and falling, his forearms resting on his thighs, the large gloves dangling between his legs. He accepted the water bottle from Eitingon and drank, his Adam's apple rising and falling.

“Enough?” asked Eitingon.

Ramón frowned, not understanding what he meant.

“Had enough?”

Ramón shook his head. “I'm not going to quit because of a nosebleed. I'll go another round.”

When the bell clanged once more, he stood up, rubbing the back of a glove across his mouth, and returned to the center of the ring. He knew he wasn't going to hurt the Canadian, but Ramón resolved to box smarter. Concentrating, biting his bottom lip, he jabbed at his opponent, feinting and fading away as he swung. They were both panting when the bell clanged again.

“Well done, Alonzo,” Ramón said in French, clapping a glove on his opponent's shoulder. “That was a good thump you gave me.”

He let Eitingon remove his gloves, accepted a towel, pressing it to his nose, then raised a water bottle to his mouth.

“You looked good!” Eitingon said.

Ramón smiled ironically then hung his head to catch his breath.

Ramón led the way to the locker room, where Eitingon removed a folded sheet of paper from his suit coat. “Are you ready?” he asked.

“Yes, I suppose. Let me put on my glasses.”

“You have three minutes.”

Eitingon consulted his stopwatch then waited as Ramón went down the list of French kings and the dates of their reign. The lists were growing longer and more complicated, but after two minutes, Ramón handed the paper back and began to recite what he'd just read.

“Very good,” Eitingon said. “Your memory is remarkable. I don't understand why you did so badly in

Ramón shrugged. “I had a bad attitude and the cops wouldn't leave me alone.”

“Now, some laps in the pool.”

Ramón squinted at him, pushing back his damp hair from his forehead. “Laps? I thought Trotskyists were intellectuals, not sporting fanatics.”

“No matter. I want you in top form mentally and physically. You might have to memorize documents quickly. We don't know what sort of physical challenges you might face. But tell the truth, you're enjoying this, aren't you?”

Ramón smiled. “Yes, I suppose I am.”

The locker room smelled of sweat, liniment, wet towels, and soap. Ramón sat down on a bench to take off his plimsolls, then stood to undress. He was neither modest nor immodest. He was simply physical, a physical being. Except for pubic hair and beneath his arms, his body was almost hairless. To Eitingon, his skin looked satiny, his veins a coppery green beneath the surface. Naked, a towel over his shoulder, Ramón pushed through a heavy door to the pool, an echoing tile chamber of water, chlorine, and moving shadows. “Swim a few laps to warm up, then we'll check your times,” said Eitingon.

Ramón made a face as he dropped into the shallow end of the pool, then pushed off. He looked strong but swam without style. When he stopped, he complained that his arms were tight from boxing.

“Yes, that's why we're doing this.” Eitingon took out a stopwatch. “Now, let's get your time for a hundred meters. Next, we make it lower.”

amón took a long hot shower then lit a cigarette at his locker and dressed leisurely, enjoying the feel and smell of his new clothes, the fine cotton underwear, the soft wool of his trousers. The morning out was cold and gray. “If you're going to pose as a Belgian aristocrat living in Paris, then you must not only look and dress like an aristocrat, you must also know the city,” Eitingon said as they walked to the tailor's shop. The names of the streets and bridges, the arrondissements, the great monuments and parks, the Métro, the markets, and cafés, Ramón must know it all

They stopped at a
for a coffee, a glass of white wine, and a smoke. The tailor's shop was nearby on one of the small streets behind St. Michel, a modest establishment that felt warm and inviting. The proprietor, Monsieur Emile, greeted them by name, bringing out two suits in progress, the pieces of fabric held together with large white stitches. Ramón put on the first suit and stood before the mirror while the tailor and an assistant moved around him, marking the fabric with chalk, pinning the seams to make small adjustments. “When these are finished, we'll need two for spring and summer,” said Eitingon.

“For the summer in France?”

“Yes, and perhaps the tropics.”

“Then a very light wool. Like this, perhaps,” he said, pulling down a bolt of cloth. “Very fine wool properly spun and woven can be as cool and comfortable as cotton. It's what the Arabs wear in the desert.”

Eitingon felt the fabric in a thoughtful way, moving it between the tips of his fingers. “Tell me, Monsieur Emile, what would … let's say, a young aristocrat have in his wardrobe? What would be authentic?”

“Ah, that would depend entirely upon the young man and the family,” said Monsieur Emile, touching his thick mustache in a thoughtful way. “Of course, he would have suits for each of the seasons, heavy woolens for winter, lighter for the fall. And clothing appropriate for the various hours of the day. At least one smoking jacket for the high season, a white dinner jacket for summer and spring. A morning suit for weddings. Perhaps tails, but not necessarily. Then, of course, all of the furnishings—overcoats, raincoats. The trench coat has become very popular. Sweaters, shirts, scarves, hats, gloves, neckties. Pajamas, a robe, a dressing gown, slippers. And shoes. Shoes and boots that would be made to order. If he hunts, that is a wardrobe unto itself.”

“This would be a significant investment?”

“Yes, but an investment made over time. Everything wouldn't be new. In noble families a young man might wear clothing that had belonged to uncles, his father, older brothers. If a jacket is of excellent quality and is one of many, then it will last forever. Quality is always what matters. Quality, not quantity.”

“What about jewelry?” asked Ramón.

“Jewelry!” Monsieur Emile's eyes grew larger, verging upon alarm. “Discreet! It must be very discreet. Either gold or silver—perhaps a ring, but a ring only if it has special meaning, never decoration. Cuff links, studs, a cigarette case, and a lighter. Rarely gemstones and never diamonds.”

“And if the young man is a playboy?” Ramón suggested.

“That might be a different matter. Most men of fashion look to the Prince of Wales as the beau idéal, but the nobility aren't necessarily fashionable. They believe they are beyond style, but, as you may have observed, there is always a certain tension between the world of fashion and the aristocracy.”

Outside a fine mist had started to fall. “And what about luggage,” Eitingon said as they stepped onto the sidewalk, avoiding two adolescent girls in overcoats strolling by, their arms linked, their shoulders pressed together in companionship. “You're going to need suitcases and probably a trunk.”

“I like pigskin, and they say it lasts longer than calf.”

“Well, prowl around and see if you can find something in the secondhand shops. Sudoplatov has given us carte blanche, but it wouldn't look right if everything you own is new.” The Russian glanced at his wristwatch.

“Anything else?” asked Ramón.

“What do you mean?”

“That I should be doing. An assignment?”

“No, no, just familiarize yourself with the city, think about your new identity.” Eitingon cocked his head, fixing Ramón with a look. “Is something the matter?”

“I don't feel as if I'm doing much.”

“This is the waiting phase of the assignment, and that can be the most difficult time. You're an actor preparing for a great role. Don't worry, you'll eventually have your hands full.” Eitingon smiled. “Anything else?”

“No, that was all.”

“Then I will see you later.”

Eitingon tugged the brim of his hat and shrugged deeper into his overcoat. Ramón watched him walk down the street, turning at the first corner. He knew better than to ask where he was going. He often didn't know what Eitingon and Caridad were doing or where they were. Collaborating with other agents? Reviving their old romance? The GPU was an opaque and secretive world, a series of cells, one separated from the next, all suspicious of the others. One never knew who might be an agent or whether one might be under surveillance.

Ramón had a persistent uneasy feeling. He had no sense of having joined an organization. No one had sworn him in as Soviet agent; no one had given him a secret badge or an identification card. Perhaps it was the nature of undercover work, but he felt excluded and alone, shut off from important information.

Left to himself, he strolled down to the river and walked along the quays, observing the barges. He would focus on becoming Jacques Mornard.

The air felt cold and liquid, the day full of possibility. He considered going down the steps to the footpath beneath the embankment where couples would occasionally make love. Everywhere he looked—in doorways, on park benches—Parisians were making love. He stopped at a balustrade, his attention captured by a fisherman, his line an angle to the pole, a reflection in the water. Because of the mist, the scene had a granular quality like that of a photograph. He told himself he would wait patiently until the man got a strike, raised the pole, pulled line. Like an unnoticed shadow, he would share the man's vigil. But then, as if waking from his own reverie, he started for the Boulevard St.-Germain.

St.-Germain-des-Prés was beginning to feel like home to him. Eitingon had told him about the famous cafés, which ones attracted artists, which ones were frequented by intellectuals and writers. In the winter, the cafés were enclosed with sheets of plastic, which made them feel like tents.

On his own, he had found a café where young women would sit at the tables for hours, nursing their
while waiters hovered. The girls were like him, works in progress, creations of self-invention. They scrimped to put together one outfit for the season—a hat, a coat, a dress, gloves, and shoes they would wear day after day. When a girl was lucky, she attracted a man to buy her a meal and a glass of wine. For a bit more, she would go to a hotel nearby.

Ramón enjoyed listening to the girls talk about their clothes. Each had a special waiter who took an interest in their romances, who advised and mothered them. The waiter would groom a girl, allow her to linger at a table—conduct a little business on the side.

Remembering Eitingon's instructions, he went into an antique shop near the École des Beaux Arts where he found a silver cigarette case with the initials

“Sterling?” he asked the clerk.

“Plate but it hasn't worn through. No one would know the difference.”

He bought the case, transferring cigarettes from the package in his pocket. A handsome set of brushes caught his attention. “Those are sterling,” the clerk said. “The backs are sterling; the bristles are set in ivory.”

Ramón nodded. “I'll consider them another time.”

He opened and closed the case, admiring it as he walked. Entering the café, he saw a girl with red hair who looked chic in a soft green hat, a green scarf, and gloves. She was playing with a little Japanese fan in a coquettish way, opening it and closing it before her face.

“Jacques Mornard,” he said, offering her a cigarette.

“What a pretty case!”

“Thank you, my father in Brussels gave it to me. It's a family heirloom.” He lit her cigarette, thinking he might take her to a hotel until he noticed that her teeth were rotten.

“Brussels?” she asked, opening the fan. “Are you Belgian?”


“You sound Provençal, like a friend from the South.”

“Of course. I spent summers there as a boy. My mother's family had a place near Toulouse.”

“That explains it.”

“What is your waiter's name?”


“Does he take good care of you?”

She smiled from behind the fan. “Oh yes, he is very kind. He is my family here in Paris.”


he voice came and went, falling beneath a persistent whining sound as if being drowned out by a siren. A dark layer of gray smoke hung in the room, clamping down on the atmosphere of anxiety, fear, and fatigue. Caridad sat by the wireless, hollow eyes staring straight ahead, focused on the strangely impassive voice rising and falling, speaking monotonously in Catalan. Holding a yellow pencil in her left hand, she took notes on a pad cradled in her lap. Eitingon stood at one of the two desks, speaking Russian into the telephone receiver.

“What are they saying?” he asked in French, lowering the receiver from his ear.

Caridad glanced up at him as if waking from a dream. “The names of streets,” she answered. “Intersections in Barcelona.”

“Where bombs have hit?”

“I don't know yet. I can't tell.”

Ramón concentrated on the voice, listening intently for the streets near Lena's intersection. The Italian bombers, SM.79s and SM.81s, had been hitting Barcelona every three hours for two days. He pictured the formation of the planes, the silhouettes against the sky. He could hear the steady and distant drone of the engines, followed by a high-pitched whistling, a moment of appalling silence, then the terrible thud, the deafening explosion, waves of shock pounding the air, the stinging debris, the clouds of smoke rising above the wailing sirens.

As civilians, Ramón and Pablo had fought side by side in Barcelona when the city rose up against Franco's generals who tried to topple the Republican government in Catalonia. Families, friends, neighbors, and workers took to the street, fighting from block to block and barricade to barricade. It had been a glorious triumph of the people. Labor unions took over factories. Workers distributed arms, food, and clothing. For a brief time, it seemed that Spain would throw off the oppression of church, aristocracy, and army.

Now, two years later, Fascist bombs rained down: firebombs, gas bombs, and delayed-fuse bombs that would pass through roofs and building before exploding within, causing the maximum lateral damage mere inches above the ground.

“This is a repeat of Guernica,” said Eitingon. “They're bombing civilians, hitting the working districts hardest. They're not even bothering with military targets. The Republican Army doesn't have anti-aircraft guns, no air cover.”

“Guernica on a bigger scale,” Caridad amended.

Cause and effect, an arithmetic chain of events unfolding, pitting Fascists against Communists. Leon Blum, the Socialist prime minister of France, opened the border to Spain; the Soviets shipped supplies across the border to the Republican Army in Barcelona, and now Mussolini was bombing the city into submission.

Unable to sit still, Ramón got up and walked to the window, pulling back the shade. It was odd to see people below, Parisians, strolling along the sidewalks, odd that it was a sunny March afternoon, still cold and a bit blustery. Eitingon had furnished the front room of the flat as an office—two desks, a telephone, a large black typewriter, the wireless, filing cabinets, and a heavy dark green floor safe. French, Russian, Spanish, and English newspapers were scattered around the room, stacked in drifting piles on the floor. Ashtrays overflowed. Cups and saucers covered every horizontal surface.

Ramón hesitated, then picked up his overcoat and headed toward the door. Caridad looked up, the yellow pencil poised in her hand. “You're leaving?”

“I can't sit here anymore,” he answered in Catalan. “I'm going to Barcelona to look for Lena.”

She frowned, not trusting what she'd heard. “You can't do that. The roads are closed. There's no way in.”

“There's always a way. At least I can try.”

“Leonid,” she raised her voice, switching into French. “Ramón is leaving for Barcelona.”

“What's this?”

“He's going to rescue his sweetheart.”

Eitingon lowered the telephone receiver.

“I have to go,” Ramón explained. “I can't sit here any longer.”

Eitingon nodded, a serious expression on his face, then he smiled kindly. “Ramón, your impulse is noble, but Caridad is right. The roads are closed, the trains aren't running. How would you get there?”

“I don't know. I could catch a ride. Someone has to be going. I can walk if I must. At least we know the border is open.”

“And if you managed to arrive, where would she be?”

“At home with her family.”

“What part of the city?”

“The Eixample,” answered Caridad. “It's a rich neighborhood, relatively safe. The area stands out on aerial maps. Fascists don't bomb the rich if they can help it.”

“Then she's probably safe,” said Eitingon.

“Yes, but I have to see her. I have to be sure.” Ramón opened the door, starting out.

“You're acting like a fool,” cried Caridad. “I won't allow it.”

Eitingon put down the telephone, going to the door. “Ramón, it isn't a good idea, and we need you here.”

“To do what?” His face flushed red with frustration and anger. His eyes were staring. “I've been waiting for months. I never know what's happening. You never tell me anything.”

“Yes, waiting is difficult, but Caridad and I have been working our connections. We've been in touch with comrades in New York. Something is about to break and we'll need you here. We can't tell you exactly what's going to happen, but you're an important part of the operation. We're counting on you.”

“I can't stay. I have to look for Lena.”

Caridad stood up abruptly, her pad of paper falling to the floor. “If you leave,” she shook the yellow pencil at him, “we'll report you to our superiors as insubordinate.”

Eitingon wheeled on her. “Don't say that! Don't threaten him! He'll listen to reason.” He turned back to Ramón and said in a calm voice, “We have comrades in Barcelona, GPU agents. I'll get in touch with them now.”

“How? The phone and telegraph lines are down.”

“They have a shortwave radio in Barcelona. We can send a message through an agent in Toulouse. It will take a while, but this will be far faster than you trying to go down there. We'll know something in a day or two. If you leave Paris now, it could be a week before you find out what has happened. Now, what is her address? Tell me her address and I'll telephone Toulouse. If her building hasn't been bombed, will that be enough information to satisfy you?”

“She could have been in a café,” Ramón objected. “Or on the street.”

“Yes, but for the moment. Can you sit still for the moment?”

Ramón tipped his head, a forlorn expression on his face, then shrugged off his coat.

For three days, he listened to reports of the bombing and pored over newspaper reports. The grip of anxiety loosened when he learned through the GPU agent in Barcelona that Lena's building was undamaged. The Eixample was barely hit. Caridad had been right, the Fascist bombs fell primarily on working class districts.

he trees were beginning to bud when Caridad summoned Ramón to her apartment. Eitingon was there, and both he and Caridad seemed excited; they had finally found what they wanted—a young woman, one of Trotsky's followers who was coming to Paris for the Fourth International meetings. She would arrive in Paris the first part of June, which gave Ramón a bit less than six weeks to completely inhabit his new identity as Jacques Mornard.

Not only did Ramón have to get Jacques's story straight, but he had to invent a story for everyone in his family. What did his father do in Brussels? What was his mother like? Did he have brothers and sisters? What were their names and what did they do? Where did they live? If his parents were wealthy aristocrats, they would need to live in an exclusive area at the right address. There was every possibility that one of the Trotsky delegates would be from Brussels and ask these kinds of questions.

Eitingon warned Ramón that all of these details and all of these stories had to remain consistent. Ramón couldn't make things up as he went along or he would forget what he said and trip himself up. He should write down all of the details, commit them to memory, then burn his notes.

To complicate matters and as an incentive for Ramón, Eitingon decided that Jacques Mornard should own a car. Ramón had never owned or purchased a car and was thrilled at the prospect. In addition to all of his research, he began looking for a suitable automobile—something a bit elegant but not flashy.

“Her name is Ageloff, Sylvia Ageloff,” Caridad said at a subsequent meeting. “She comes from a rich family in New York, wealthy Jews who fled Russia before the revolution. They're very cultured, very well educated. She speaks Russian, French, and of course English.”

“She's a Jew?” Ramón asked.

“Don't worry about that,” said Caridad. “If she's Jewish, she can't expect you to introduce her to your family or friends.”

“How did you find her?”

“Through the editor of a Stalinist paper in New York. His secretary knows her. She's also older than you. Twenty-seven.”

“I'll give myself six years and say I'm twenty-nine.”

“She's an intellectual. She has an older sister who travels to and from Mexico as a courier for Trotsky, and a younger sister who worked as one of his secretaries. The editor's secretary in New York will escort her to Paris. She will arrange the introduction.”

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