I also had to get those Chinese documents from Milan. We went to the lavatory together and we untaped the packets and added them to the load I was carrying. I didn’t want those Chinese documents getting into the wrong hands, not until I could find out what the hell they were.
“Tell them as little as possible,” I told Milan. “Don’t mention the Polish microfilm or Minna or the Chinese garbage or anything. Pretend you don’t understand the questions. Just keep insisting that you want to get to New York and work on your book in peace. Tell them-”
“You do not have to explain, Evan.” He smiled brightly. “I will tell them just what I would tell any government. I will tell them nothing.”
“And call me in New York.”
“How can I reach you?”
“I’m in the Manhattan phone book.”
Then I collected Minna, and we waited for the plane.
We didn’t have to wait very long. After an hour or two someone in a uniform came along and told us that our plane had arrived. Minna was sleeping soundly. I carried her to the plane. There were two men on board, neither of whom I recognized. One of them said, “Tanner?” I nodded, and he told me to climb aboard. I carried Minna inside and put her in a seat and belted her in. I sat down next to her.
“No one said anything about a kid,” the man said.
“Nothing,” he said, and we took off.
I don’t know where we flew, how high or how far or how fast or even what direction. The windows of the plane were entirely blacked out except for the cockpit, and the door to the cockpit was closed. After a while Minna woke up and wanted to know where we were. I told her we were on another plane but that we were in America now, still. If we were in America, she said reasonably, then why did I not speak to her in English?
“Because you do not understand English,” I said.
“Can you not teach me?”
The plane ride, with no possible view through the blacked-out windows and no notion of where we were going or when we would get there, was exceedingly monotonous. The monotony was considerably lightened by the game of teaching a difficult language to an eager pupil. English syntax varies considerably from Lithuanian and Lettish, but a child’s mind is nicely equipped to bridge gaps of that sort.
“Hand,” I said, touching her hand.
“Hand,” she repeated dutifully.
And so on. By the time the plane landed, she had a working knowledge of the parts of the body and the articles of clothing, plus an understanding of the way possessives are formed in English, plus a surface acquaintance with the present tense of the verb to be. Most important, she spoke a clean English, with no discernible European accent. Because she was a child and a natural mimic, she duplicated my speech exactly rather than coloring her words with a Baltic accent. She had learned Lettish in a few hours: it would not take her more than a few weeks to learn English.
Well. The plane landed, and the door to the cockpit opened, and one of the men motioned for me to follow him. “Minna’s foot,” said Minna, and placed it upon the floor of the plane.
“Evan’s arms,” I said, lifting her in them and carrying her off the plane. I set her down upon the ground.
“Minna’s foots,” she said. Then, correcting herself, “Minna’s feet,” and began walking with them.
“Minna’s hand,” I said, holding out mine. She took it, and we followed our man down a tree-lined path toward a small concrete block building.
We were somewhere in the country, somewhere in deep woods adjacent to a private flying strip. That was as much as I could tell. Our man rang a bell, and another man opened a door. This man was one I had seen before, in Washington. His name was Joe Klausner, and he had liberated me from a jail cell in the basement of the CIA offices.
“Tanner,” he said, and gave me a smile. “Hello,” he said, and smiled at Minna. “Go right inside,” he said. “The Chief’s waiting for you.” He took the arm of the man from the plane, and the two of them walked away.
We went inside. There was a fireplace with logs burning furiously within it, and there were four massive leather chairs, and there was a rough oak table with a bottle and two glasses on it.
And in one of the chairs, filling the glasses from the bottle, was the Chief.
I had never seen any man look happier.
“A favor for a friend,” he said. “Just an errand for a friend. I knew you were onto something big, Evan, but Lord knows I never dreamed it was this big.” He began to chuckle. “Good they called those SAC planes back in time. I’m afraid you gave some of those military types a scare. Serves them right, I’d say. Can’t hurt to test our automatic recall system now and then. But it would have been a bit much” – another involuntary chuckle – “if you’d had us bombing Moscow. Not quite what peaceful coexistence is all about, eh?”
We were on our second round of drinks. During the first I had tucked Minna into one of the leather chairs and suggested in Lettish that she take a little nap. When she said she wasn’t sleepy, I advised her to pretend to take a nap, and she thought that was a fine idea. Either she was an excellent actress or the pretending had turned into reality.
The Chief had wanted to know who Minna was, and I explained that she was just a child who had gotten in the way and whom I had taken along for the ride. I would take care of her, I assured him, and he needn’t worry about her overhearing anything, as she didn’t speak English.
Then he fussed with the fire some, and we talked about trivia and we finished that first pair of drinks and he poured out a second round. Now it was time to Discuss Things.
“A favor for a friend,” he said again. “I’ve learned to expect great things from you, Tanner, but this almost exceeds believability. The entire Latvian Women’s Gymnastic Team fleeing Russia to seek political freedom in the West. Most extraordinary propaganda coup in ages. We’re happy enough with the occasional ballet dancer or violinist, and they’ve been rare enough lately. But they can always be explained away as isolated malcontents, neurotics.” He sighed heavily. “When you have an even dozen beautiful girls, though, then you have really got something.”
There was no argument there.
“One of them was the sweetheart of a friend, is that right?”
“So that gave you an opening, and then you were able to convince the rest to come along. Rather an astonishing bit of persuasion, I’d say.”
I remember walking into that flat in Riga and learning that ten extra girls were sardined in the little bedroom, ready to join us. Astonishing was the operative term, all right.
“And Milan Butec,” he went on. “Of course he was the prime reason for your trip. That was instantly obvious. When a resistance hero and leading minister of a communist country is anxious to defect, that’s the time to pull out all the stops and go in there and get him.”
“But your sources of intelligence are extraordinary, Tanner. We thought we knew pretty well what was going on in Yugoslavia. The country’s in a constant state of ferment, needless to say, but our own intelligence posts within that country are rather good. At least I thought they were good.”
“Sometimes it’s hard to know everything that’s going on,” I said helpfully.
“Not a word about Butec. Not a single word.”
“And yet you knew well enough in advance to plan a careful trip in there and get him out. The Foggy Bottom boys will be having the time of their life with him right now, you’d better believe it. Understand he’s going to be writing a book?”
“Probably want to publish it under USIA auspices. They’ll want to make sure the thing has just the right slant. The ideal tone, that is.”
Zirgs-prens, I thought. But what I said was, “Butec seemed a bit worried about that, you know. Wants to make sure the book is just the way he wants it.”
“They often take that line.”
“Yes. But what I suggested was that I might do the translation, you see. That way it would come out just right, and of course there would be no question of State Department manipulation.”
“And he agreed?”
“He’s all in favor of it, yes.”
He beamed at me. “Couldn’t ask for better than that. He’ll be happy, the public will be sold, and we’ll be sure of getting just the right sort of, uh, translation.”
They’d get just the right sort of, uh, translation, all right. They’d get an exact and faithful rendering of Butec’s book, word for lovely word. Whether they liked it or not.
“But what I can’t understand,” he went on, “is how on earth you got that plane out in the bargain. Only one of its kind in the world, you know. I understand Air Force Intelligence has been trying to smuggle a man into the Tallinn base for months just to get a look at the damned thing, maybe a stray bit of blueprint or something. Instead we wind up with the whole plane. And the one man who’s been flying it. Understand he’s a little bit of a madman. Is that right?”
“He’s a bit odd,” I admitted.
“Which of course gave you your opening. It must have taken weeks of preparation to con him into defecting. You’re quite the expert at getting people to do what you want them to do, aren’t you, Tanner?”
“Well, he wants to play trombone in an American jazz band, actually.”
“And you hooked onto that and turned him from a malcontent into a defector. Good piece of work.”
I paid attention to my drink.
“Something I heard, Tanner. You were pursued by the sister plane of the MIXK-One, is that right? The MIXK-Two, the fighter, that would be.”
“Our military intelligence must be wrong, then. According to what we have, the fighter’s the faster of the two and a bit more maneuverable.”
“It’s faster,” I said. “Igor, uh, the pilot, shot down the pursuit plane.”
“Shot down the MIXK-Two?”
“With rockets. It, uh, disintegrated.”
“So we stole one plane from them and blew the other one to hell and gone. And their pilot with it, of course.”
Alexei, I thought. That cogstocker.
“Stole one plane and blew up the other one,” he said. He got to his feet, glass in hand, and walked over to where a window might have been had the little building been equipped with windows. He tapped his glass idly against the wood paneling that was hiding the fact that we were in a sort of above-the-ground bomb shelter. He sipped his drink, shook his head, and went on speaking to the wood-paneled wall.