The greeting was in his desk, the center drawer: a piece of fish-stained cardboard with a clumsily drawn stick figure. It had a circular head and an x for each eye. A fat knife was separating the head from its stick body. The speech balloon said, “We’re on to you.”
His chair wobbled insecurely beneath him.
Emil inhaled slowly, evenly. He sat in the center of the large, stale-smelling office, between two squared columns, and on the far wall two high, open windows did nothing to freshen the air. His tight suit constricted him as he stared above the others’ heads at the clock on the far, yellow wall. It was the dirty, pale yellow of Austro-Hungarian demise. He had only been here forty-five minutes.
It was Monday, the twenty-third of August, 1948. 9:17 am. He still had a whole day to go.
He couldn’t match names to their faces yet, but why should that matter? Along the walls, three of the four homicide inspectors grinned at their wide, steel desks, suppressing laughter. They were all to blame. Through the windows, street noises spilled into the hot room: clopping hooves, shouts, the occasional motorcar.
His grandmother had starched his suit into a hard crust to celebrate his first day in the People’s Militia. He wanted to run his finger between his collar and neck, but knew how it would look.
His exhale finally came.
Only the fourth inspector wasn’t grinning: the stout one at the corner desk with the wide, flat, familiar-looking peasant’s face. Despite the heat wave, he lounged in the leather overcoat of state security. By law, one security inspector was assigned to each Militia department, but no law ordered them to dress like that, like the Russian secret police—yet they all did. And like their MVD counterparts they never laughed. This one stared at Emil with the intensity of a scientist waiting for a nerve-provoked response.
In the opposite corner, beside the windows, the largest of them banged at a typewriter very slowly. He was a neckless lump of clay with tin rings constricting his thick fingers. The sound of striking keys filled the room.
* * *
Emil had spoken to them once when he arrived. A twenty-two-year-old in a stiff suit with a stupid, bashful grin marking his pale features. A blond schoolboy among these dark veterans. “My name is Emil Brod and this is my first day with Homicide.”
A voice he could not match with a face had answered: “Desk’s in the center.”
Even then, they did not show him their eyes. But he was the only thing they were watching.
Emil settled his small hands on the desk.
At another time and place the sketched decapitation would have provoked violence. But now, here, he separated himself from the anger. He let the cardboard drop into his wastebasket, gingerly shifted the chair beneath himself, and opened the morning’s Spark he had picked up on his way to work. There were grainy images of airplanes in the west. Heavy American and British planes over Berlin. Words about remilitarization and effrontery spotted the pages, but he couldn’t focus enough to read whole sentences. The typewriter continued snapping.
The stuffy room grew hotter.
* * *
He had gone dutifully to the desk in the center of the room, just as the voice had commanded, and put down his hat and satchel. Then he rapped timidly on the door with chief painted on the wood. A light curtain covered the dark window beside it. “When does Chief Moska arrive?”
It was an insignificant question, something he almost felt foolish asking, and their agreement was apparent by their silence. He nodded and returned to his desk. When he sat down his chair collapsed beneath him.
They all laughed then, even the security inspector.
He sprang up, shocked. The chair was in pieces. The rope which bound its legs together had snapped, or been cut. Their mirthful faces turned back to their desks as he tied the chair together again with a fishing knot. It wobbled, but held. By the time he was finished, the laughter had been over a long time.
Then he reached for the center drawer, if for no other reason than to look busy.
* * *
Maybe it was a joke. He didn’t know. They had laughed, so perhaps there was nothing more to this than some gentle hazing. Like in the Academy, when they buried his papers in the middle of the firing range, or when he lay in the mud and they gave him one kick apiece. Certainly this was easier than that.
He set the newspaper aside. In one dusty corner sat a brown porcelain heater for wintertime—as tall as a man—and along the walls three desks faced the center—faced him. The fourth desk, the state security inspector’s, faced the wall.
He settled back into his creaking chair and affected a calm he did not feel. He arranged the inkbottle on his desk and straightened the blotter, then placed his transfer papers—triplicate, as required—along the edge. From his burlap satchel he brought out the cigars and the leather-bound note pad his grandfather had been able to unearth in the black market off Heroes’ Square. If he focused on these little things he could make it.
The inspectors lounged at their desks, sweating, chewing dried pumpkin seeds, sometimes muttering into telephones, other times writing or smoking. The big, dark one continued typing. Two of them—one scrawny and very dark, the other heavy and limping, spitting out flakes of pumpkin seed—met beside yellowed wanted notices and joked quietly with one another. The sound of their laughter left small cold spots in Emil’s guts. They left the office together and returned smelling of clear alcohols. The fat one carried a fresh bag of tobacco with nicotine-stained fingers.
A man outside was shouting in Russian. Although the rowdy Russian soldiers that still occupied their small capital disturbed him as much as the next person, at that moment he wanted to be with them, under the sun, rather than in this dim, humid room with his own kind.
* * *
He stood without knowing why. Then, as he approached the massive typist, he knew. He would start with the largest, if only to instill faith in his courage. Emil rapped the big man’s desk beside an empty paper cup blackened by the morning’s grounds. “Where do I get coffee around here?”
He stopped typing and looked at Emil’s hand, as though his finger were a cockroach. This close, the big inspector’s face was pocked and misshapen like a battlefield. “No coffee,” he said flatly. He crushed the cup in his hand, then tossed it in his wastebasket.
Emil’s starched white collar tightened. He smiled involuntarily and stepped back to his desk. He could hear laughter somewhere. It was faint and distant beneath the hot buzzing of his blood. So was the glint of his polished shoes moving across the floor. He was a stiff clown among these wrinkled, dusty brutes. He remembered the Academy director’s words: First District, Homicide. Desk’s been open two years since some old poop named Sergei got himself shot after Liberation. They’ll take anyone, Brod, why not you?
Why not, indeed.
* * *
TheSpark was full of airplanes. It had been full of blockades and planes since June. Muddy newsprint airplanes on cheap, brittle pages, but they were clear enough. Allied airplanes over hills of rubble; airplanes over military convoys; airplanes over the hungry, defeated masses of a crushed Berlin, dropping parachutes with little boxes of food and chocolates and clothing. And—some reports said—guns.
The front page never changed, not even today. A part of him had expected to find the planes replaced by his own face—thin and pale, blond eyebrows almost invisible above his green eyes—beneath the headline: emil brod moves into the working world—no more lessons for him! But there they still were, after weeks: airplanes: imperial underhandedness in berlin! Comrade Chairman Stalin called the institution of a new German currency a provocation. If the Allies had their way, a reborn, capitalist Germany would consume the workers of the world in fire. General Secretary Mihai, whose office was only a few streets away, reminded all citizens that their own country was small and young. It could easily be divided out of existence again by the republics all around it. No one misunderstood his meaning. “Before the Great War, we were only a district of the Dual Monarchy—remember Versailles!” he told a reporter. “The others would claim we are theirs, but we are not pieces of the Ukraine and Czechoslovakia—we’re neither Romania nor Hungary nor Poland! We are our own, indivisible nation!” Then: “Up with the Comrade Chairman!”
The second page listed upcoming trials. It was no longer like the days just after the Liberation, when the lists went on for many columns. But there were still some men and women accused of seeking to undermine the stability of their socialist state. There was a baker and three politicians and two tram drivers—which proved, according to a certain well-regarded Inspector Brano Sev, the democratic sensibility inherent in the instruments of criminal justice.
* * *
Around noon, he tried the smallest one. The wiry, dark inspector who sat beside the cold porcelain stove. He had a face that reminded Emil of the Jews who had appeared at the family dacha in Ruscova during the war. They had come in loose, hungry bands from over the Romanian border, muttering frantically about the Archangel Michael and their villages being burned to the ground. Their families, they said, had been chopped up by the Orthodox. This inspector had that same hungry, war-refugee look.
Emil spoke to him over the hand basins in the empty washroom. His voice echoed unexpectedly against the tile walls. “How long does this go on?”
The inspector stopped splashing cold water on the back of his neck. He looked at Emil in the rusting mirror, hungry brow furrowing.
Beneath Emil’s feet the decaying floor tiles wobbled. “The silence,” he said, trying to make his voice sound light, conversational. “Is this what everyone goes through? I think I know how this works. Initiation?” He twisted his lips into a smile. “Or are you trying to scare me away?” He almost added lightheartedly that this situation hadn’t come up in the Academy lessons, but thought better of it.
The inspector shook water off his hands and used a frayed towel from a hook. His dark features gave away nothing, his eyes hard and small as he dried his neck. He gave Emil only a passing glance in the mirror as he hung up the towel again. Then he left. The creaking door echoed behind him.
* * *
They left the office singly and in pairs and did not return for hours. He assumed they were on cases. The Academy had taught two ways for a homicide inspector to receive a case. Either a switchboard operator sent a message to your telephone line, or the station chief emerged from his office and handed you one. All through the morning the phone on Emil’s desk did not ring, and the chief was never in.
Around two o’clock, Chief Moska appeared in the doorway from the corridor. He was another big man, in his fifties, who hiked up wrinkled, mud-spotted pants, rolled a cigarette in his lips, and took off his hat to mop damp, gray hair with a handkerchief. He stopped by desks and whispered to his men, and when they smiled Emil’s stomach shriveled. These men were tight, had been for years. They had probably even fought the Germans together—side-by-side, without his help.
The chief stopped at Emil’s desk and inclined his long, pale face. The smile was gone. He had the worn features of war veterans who believe they have witnessed everything this life could ever show them. “So you’re the new one?” His voice was no longer a fraternal whisper; it was deep and swollen for all to hear.
“Yes, Comrade Chief Moska.”
“Emil Brod from the Fourth District?”
“Fifth, Comrade Chief.”
“Where did you serve in the Patriotic War?”
“I was too young, Com—”
“Too young my ass!” he bellowed. “You were born in 1926, which made you of age in—what?—1942, or at the latest ‘forty-four.” He eyeballed Emil’s little hands on the desk. Emil removed them. “I have a neighbor who fought Germans when he was twelve. Remember who has your file, Brod.”
Emil spoke with as much authority as he could muster. “What I meant to say was that when I came of age, I was not in the country. I was—”
“You were fishing in Finland!” the chief erupted, his sudden, broad smile revealing two holes where teeth should have been. “For little seals no less!”
Their laughter was loud, bouncing off the walls.
“A Finnish company, yes,” said Emil, recognizing a slight warble to his voice he hoped was only in his head. “But I hunted in the Arctic Circle.”
For an instant he was out of this hot room and back in the icy north, among men so much more dangerous than these.
“You speak Russian, I hear.”
“Yes. And German.”
“A scholar,” said the chief. “And now here you are, back at your mother’s tit.”
“In Homicide,” Emil replied, his voice clearing up. “And I’m ready to work. Here are my transfer papers.” He held out the folded pages.
The chief suddenly had the expression of a man about to retch. His nostrils, criss-crossed by a drinker’s red tributaries, retracted. Then he stuffed the papers into his blazer pocket. “Well, Comrade Brod,” he said through a heavy sigh, “don’t make trouble. If you do that, trouble might stay away from you.”
There were sprinkles of weak laughter from corners of the room Emil could not locate, because the blood pumping in his ears had obscured their direction.
“I wouldn’t consider it, Comrade Chief.”
“And don’t comrade me to death, Brod. Makes my skin crawl. Can you manage that simple task?”
They were all watching the exchange, their smiles fading in and out until the chief gave him one last miserable look, turned on his heel, and walked into his office. The door latched quietly.
Emil caught their amused faces as they turned away—the big typist, the refugee, the pumpkin-seed eater sweating in the back, and the state security inspector with the peasant’s features that clicked in Emil’s skull, nagging at a memory that would not come.
* * *
First was the drawing. Second, the silence. Third was the homicide inspector with the face of a starved refugee who met him on the sun-baked front steps at the end of that fruitless first day. Down by the busy street, he smoked with some regular policemen standing in a semi-circle around the head of a fly-nagged horse. Red-faced vendors sold wooden spoons and fabrics on the sidewalk and a butcher hauled a bleating goose into his store. The policemen watched a pair of young women walk by, and hissed admiringly. When the embarrassed girls were no longer in sight, the inspector noticed Emil standing at the top of the steps. He patted the horse’s nose, nodded at his friends, and began climbing toward him. The air was perfectly still.
Briefly, Emil felt a surge of the unreasonable hope that had buoyed him most of his life. It had brought him through the deaths of both his parents in the war and his months scraping out a living on the fishing boats of the frozen north. It had brought him through a brief love affair back here in the Capital, and the brutalities of the Academy. It had carried him all the way to these steps, where the concrete was remarkably bright after the gloom of the station. He sucked hot, wet air into his lungs, and blinked.
“Yes,” said Emil, feeling the warmth of that hereditary hope. “Terzian, isn’t it? Your name? Leonek Terzian?”
Leonek Terzian was two steps down, squinting up at him. “I wanted to tell you something,” he said, his voice lacking anything Emil could call emotion.
Terzian glanced at the crowd of smokers, who were not watching, and as he turned back threw a small, hard fist into Emil’s testicles.
There was the momentary shock as his body doubled over, just before the tide of gut-pain that ripped through his stomach, intestines, legs, then everywhere. The stink of horses overcame him as he dropped, the stone stairs dug into his ribs. He groaned; his face teared. He could smell the vodka but could hardly hear Terzian’s still voice through the watery pain: “You don’t know me, understand? You don’t know any of us.”