Today's Reading


He hid under the table, the embroidered tablecloth that hung down almost to the floor making him practically invisible. There he would play with his toys until he heard the footsteps, the women's voices, and saw the painted toenails that would pass by his hideout—red, pink, orange, like lollipops. The women would enter the last room, his father's office, and the moans would soon begin, low and deep, quickly followed by high-pitched screams. His mother told him not to pay any attention to them, that the women were sick and his father was making them well. He hummed to himself so he wouldn't hear those agonizing cries, while continuing to play with his toys.

After some time had passed, the doors would open and his mother would come out pushing a metal cart on wheels. On top of it lay a shiny basin from which protruded several long, metal instruments. She'd roll the basin to the kitchen then return to his father's office and accompany the woman out. Sometimes his mother made coffee for the woman and they'd sit at the table under which he hid, the painted toenails almost touching him.

But this one particular afternoon, a few minutes after the woman left their apartment, he heard a pounding at the door. For a brief moment his parents stood frozen, silent, as if they could pretend no one was home. Then his mother raced to close the kitchen door where she'd rolled the metal cart with the shiny basin.

When his father opened the front door, he saw three policemen in uniform.

His parents stood aside while the policemen walked directly to his father's office as if they knew exactly where to go. When they opened the door, he could see bloody sheets on the floor. Another policeman rolled out the shiny basin from the kitchen, then lifted one of the long instruments, its tip red with blood.

"Doctor, I have to inform you that you are under arrest," the policeman said.

His mother burst into tears. His father kissed her, hugged him, then put on his jacket and walked out with the policemen. After a while his mother stopped crying and started cleaning the office and washing all the instruments.

His father returned two hours later and said they just had him fill out some forms, then told him to return in three days for a hearing. His mother said they needed a lawyer. How about Trent, the lawyer who lived downstairs? His father shrugged. What was Trent going to do? The evidence was all there.

Three days later his father put on his coat, kissed him and his mother, and walked out. Several hours later his father returned wearing a big smile.

"A most extraordinary thing happened," his father said. "Trent and I are standing before the judge, the prosecutor is ready to present his case, when a man I've never seen before walks into the courtroom. He has the bearing of someone important. He goes straight up to the judge, whispers something in his ear, and the judge's face grows pale. The man then just turns around and walks out. The next moment the judge pounds the gavel and says, 'Case dismissed due to insufficient evidence.' The prosecutor stands up to object that he hasn't even presented his case yet, but the judge is already walking back to his chambers. And that was it."

His mother dropped into a chair and crossed herself three times. "Miracles can happen even in communist Romania."

April 1993

The memory had come as a flash, a mote of time. His father was never bothered by the police again. No one ever spoke of that incident, as if it had never happened. From the intel that later passed his desk, he learned that all forms of contraception had been outlawed in Romania during Ceausescu's reign. The dictator had wanted to increase the Romanian population, but birth rates continued to plummet. No one wanted to bring up children in that cauldron of hell. Abortion, though illegal, had become the only option, a routine in every woman's life. He remembered that his cousin Irina had once told him that she had had twenty-two abortions that she could remember. Twenty-two, and she was still in the prime of life. He wondered what the faithful in America would say to that.

Hefflin placed the gun on the night table of the second bedroom and stretched out on the bed. He needed to concentrate on the mess he was in, and figure out how to get this insolent defector out of the country. How had everything gone so wrong? The KGB knew the location of the pickup as well as the alternate rendezvous points. The Agency had preset rescue sites throughout Bucharest, the choice based on proximity. Whoever blew this operation, it wasn't an accident.

He slept for a couple of hours like a baby, meaning that he woke up every few minutes, his nightmares replaying the events of that night. When he woke up for the last time, he heard movement in the apartment. He picked up his gun and slowly opened the door. The noise emanated from the kitchen—footsteps and sounds of clanging china. When he reached the door, gun in hand, he found the defector sitting at the kitchen table sipping from a cup.

"I found some Russian tea, old, but drinkable," the defector said. He was fully dressed in a wrinkled, oversized gray suit and gray tie—the uniform of the communist apparatchiks.

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