The revolutionary politics and chaotic history at the heart of Olen Steinhauer's literary crime series set in Eastern Europe have made it one of today's most acclaimed, garnering two Edgar Award nominations, among numerous other awards. Upon reaching the tumultuous 1980s, the series comes full circle as one of the People's Militia's earliest cases reemerges to torment its inspectors, including militia chief Emil Brod, the original detective on the case. His arrest of a revolutionary leader in the late 1940s resulted in the politician's imprisonment, but at the time Emil was too young to understand how great the cost would be. Only now, in 1989, when he is days from retirement and spends more and more time looking over his shoulder, does he realize that what he did in the line of duty may get him--and others--killed.
By fusing a story of revenge at any cost with a portrait of a country on the brink of collapse, Steinhauer masterfully brings the personal and political together with devastating results and once again raises crime fiction to a stunning new level.
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August 01, 2008
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Excerpt from Victory Square by Olen Steinhauer
It started six days before. Only a week. Gavra Noukas would later fill in the details I wasn't around to see, and he's checked what I've written to verify it all, at great cost to himself. Despite everything, I stand behind his version of events. The young spy has always been straightforward with me, and if anyone in this new world wants to prosecute him for what he did in the old, he can call on me to speak in his defense. But I don't think he needs my help anymore.
He'd been traveling a long time. First, a TisAir flight to Zagreb, where a cramped JAT jumbo jet brought him to JFK Airport. On that long flight he'd distracted himself by flirting with the Croat stewardess who, after bringing him vodka on the sly, told him her name was Radmila. He gave her the name on the passport he'd switched to after leaving, but before reentering, Zagreb International, and her head popped back. "You're kidding."
"That's my father's name."
His passport, like all those issued by the Ministry for State Security, was worn and authentic-looking. Lieutenant General Kolev had chosen the name Viktor Lukacs, which just happened to be the name of this stewardess's father. With that name, Gavra cleared New York passport control and took a 3:00 a.m. taxi to LaGuardia. While waiting for a Delta flight to Virginia, he bought a baseball cap emblazoned with the letters N and Y.
Though he was nearly forty-five, this was only Gavra's second time in the United States. It felt loud and foreign to him, but by the time he rented a blue Toyota Tercel in Richmond and was driving westward toward Midlothian, that fish-out-of-water feeling started to fade. He cranked up the heater and yawned into his fist, merging onto the highway. After twenty-seven long hours, he was getting his second wind, but his arms and legs still ached. Sleep, though, would have to wait until he'd made his preparations for the capture of Lubov Shevchenko.
The travel and fatigue would have been more bearable had he known why Yuri Kolev insisted he find this Shevchenko. The Lieutenant General simply appeared unannounced at his apartment Monday evening with two assistants, clutching a lumpy manila envelope.
"May we come in?"
"Of--of course," said Gavra.
Perhaps it was more than luck that they'd shown up just after Gavra's roommate, Karel, had left. Perhaps they'd been waiting in their car.
Lieutenant General Yuri Kolev untied the belt of his thick, fur-lined trench coat, letting one of his assistants, a huge, broad-shouldered thug, take it off his back. The old man settled on Gavra's sofa and examined the room with approval, sniffing and scratching his thick gray beard.
"Nice place. We got it for you?"
"Through a friend."
"Not bad at all," the Lieutenant General said, though in fact it was just another third-floor block apartment, not worth the appreciation.
"Something to drink?"
"Thought you'd never ask."
Gavra collected four glasses and a bottle of plum brandy from the kitchen.
"Just two," said Kolev.
His assistants shifted, just slightly, in disappointment.
This was the first time Gavra had spoken to the Lieutenant General outside the confines of state security headquarters on Yalta Boulevard since the retirement party for Brano Sev, his mentor, three years before. Brano, still sturdy at sixty-nine years, and more than a little drunk, had whispered a few final words of advice to his old pupil: "Keep your eye on all these men--you hear? But listen to Kolev. He's the only one I'd want watching my back." The next day, Gavra went to Brano's apartment, if only to get him to elaborate on the warning, but Brano Sev was gone, his apartment completely empty. Without telling anyone, the old cold warrior had disappeared, and Gavra hadn't seen or heard from him in the three years since.
It was common knowledge that Lieutenant General Kolev sometimes visited people whose careers were shaky. He would walk in and share a drink, then deliver a warning, leaving before the cushions got warm. But the old Lieutenant General, peering at a small, obligatory portrait of General Secretary and President Tomiak Pankov to the right of the television, seemed in no hurry to leave. He peered up at his guards. "Bal?nt. Vasili." Then he nodded at the door. The two men went into the corridor and closed the door behind themselves.
Kolev tugged a photograph from the envelope and handed it over. "I want you to go to Virginia, USA, and find this man. Lubov Shevchenko."
Shevchenko was in his late fifties; he had thick black Ukrainian eyebrows below a mane of white hair, and deep-set eyes above a fat drinker's nose.
"You make sure he stays alive. That's most important. Then you call me."
"I just track him down and call you."
"Exactly. He's in Midlothian, Virginia. Working at a high school, probably in administration."
"What's it called?"
"What's what called?"
Kolev rubbed the side of his nose and sniffed again. "Our information's sketchy. We don't have his home address either, but we do know he lives in a housing project called Brandermill. You're smart, though. You can do this with your eyes shut."
Kolev liked to ply his subordinates with outrageous compliments.
"When you're set up, call me directly. Don't go through anyone else. Understand?" Gavra did. "Then call again when you've got him. If anything goes wrong, return to Zagreb and switch back to your passport. As if you never left."
Gavra refilled their brandies and waited, but Kolev didn't continue. "You're not telling me more?"
"I don't think it's necessary."
"I'd like to at least know who he is. Know what to expect."
Kolev threw back his shot. Clear spirit spilled into his beard, but he didn't notice. "He's a defector. Went to the Americans in eighty-one. Shevchenko is the name they gave him."
"And his real name?"
The Lieutenant General wiped his big nose with his fingertips, then shook his head.
"If you don't know who he is," said Gavra, "then the order's coming from someone else. Who?"
The Lieutenant General went back to his nose. "I do know Shevchenko's real name, but it's not necessary you know it."
"Sure it is."
"No," said Kolev. "And you're right, there is someone else giving the order, and he agrees you should only be told what you need to know."
"Then tell me who's giving the orders."
"Because he asked me to keep his name out of it."
It was infuriating, but this really wasn't such a strange thing--in the Ministry, ignorance was a common companion. "And me?" said Gavra.
"I keep a desk at the Militia station. You've certainly got more qualified people to send."
Kolev pursed his lips. "You were specifically requested."
"By the person giving the orders?"
A nod, and nothing more.
Gavra pressed, but the Lieutenant General's reticence didn't falter. He would only admit that they were getting their sketchy information on Shevchenko, even the photograph, from a contact in American Central Intelligence. "Some low-level mole." Then he tired of Gavra's questions and handed over the envelope.
"Passport, tickets, and dollars. Your flight leaves in two hours." He stood, patting his thighs. "Remember, you call me when you're set up. Direct to my office."
Gavra helped him back into his trench coat, and they shook hands at the door. Bal?nt and Vasili, in the corridor, looked as if they were freezing.
Dawn glimmered over the Midlothian Turnpike, empty except the occasional blue-and-white police car. Off to the right, he noticed a green sign with clearly printed words ahead of a two-story building surrounded by pine trees:
stop & drop motel
The bearded man at the check-in desk looked more exhausted than Gavra, kept awake only by the staticky voices coming from a black-and-white television. Dallas. One of the few American programs shown in the Eastern Bloc--a pristine example, the information minister once told him at a party, of the decadence of the American ruling classes. And it says something that the American working classes take these cretins as heroes. Gavra didn't bother mentioning that their own classless society did the same thing.
"Wanna room?" the man said with a thick southern drawl.
When Gavra told him yes, he'd like a room, the man cocked his head. "You Russian or something?"
"Something like that." Gavra didn't feel up to a geography lesson. He counted out crisp American dollars from Kolev's envelope.
The man squinted. "Say . . ."
"You guys got television over there?"
"Of course we do." Gavra nodded at the screen. "Dallas is very popular."
"You don't say! Remember who shot J. R.?"
"Sue Ellen's sister, Kristin, of course. And she was right to shoot the bastard."
The bearded man laughed. "You really do watch it! Hey, if you got some time on your hands, I'll buy you a beer. How about that?"
"Maybe later. Thanks."
"Freddy," he said, sticking out a damp hand. "I'm right here all day."
They shook. "I'm Viktor."
The room was better than he expected. It was warm and had its own bathroom, a working color television, and a view through trees of the turnpike. The water was hot immediately, unlike his apartment back home. To wake himself, though, he took a cold shower, then turned on a twenty-four-hour news station as he toweled off. A mustached black man, sitting in front of a superimposed banner that said freedom in eastern europe, introduced a series of brief segments where reporters--some British, some American--reported on what had been an eventful year in our part of the world. Everyone focused on Berlin, and the Wall, but the other nations had been even more surprising.
In Bulgaria, President Todor Zhivkov had resigned on the tenth of November, after thirty-five years in power. Czechoslovakia, following a half-million-strong demonstration, changed hands with a series of signatures and press conferences. Since June, the previously illegal Solidarity Party had had a majority in the Polish parliament. Some of these changes had terribly poetic names: the Velvet Revolution in Prague and the slow-moving Singing Revolution in Estonia. All were triggered by those new words coming from that youthful USSR general secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev. Glasnost and perestroika--or, in the words of one Soviet economist, catastroika--catastrophe.
When a new correspondent came on, Gavra sat naked on the bed, watching dark, grainy footage from a town he knew well--S?rospatak, or, as it was called by locals, Patak, along the western border with Hungary, straddling the Bodrog River. An hour and a half from the Capital. A large crowd filled 25 August Square, faces lit by handheld candles. A panicked-sounding commentator said that this was the third night of anti-Pankov demonstrations, which began on the president's return, Sunday night, from a diplomatic trip to Libya, "one of this Stalinist's few remaining allies." While the S?rospatak side streets were filled with soldiers from the "hated Ministry for State Security," there had been no shots . . . yet. (He emphasized that last word.)
"For the last three years, this country has been under a literal cloud of darkness. In an effort to pay off the national foreign debt, Tomiak Pankov has rationed everything: electricity, petrol, food. He's starving the country, and the continual power outages leave even a city of seventeen thousand in complete darkness at night."
He turned off the television, because seeing it from the outside made him ill. Like most people--like myself, for instance--Gavra could not dispute the facts. Like everyone else, he knew that the Party newspaper, The Spark, would call the demonstrators "imperialist-financed counterrevolutionary agitators" and never report the reason for their gathering--to protest the recent arrest of a priest, Father Eduard Meyr. But also like the rest of ours, Gavra's time was strained enough with his job, his friends, and himself. All he could do, sitting on an American motel bed, was focus on what he'd come to do: find a man and make a telephone call.
He found a fat telephone directory under the bedside table and flipped through it looking for "firearms." There they were, amazingly, five gun stores. The closest was Bob Moates Gun Shop, on Hull Street. He marked it on his rental car map.
He dressed as he knew the Americans dressed: casually. A pair of Levi's he'd picked up in a private Ministry store last year and a black polo shirt. He took out the NY baseball cap from La Guardia but was already too appalled by his outfit to add it.
The turnpike was busy with morning traffic. It took twenty minutes to find the windowless brick building with a steel door. The inside was lined with glass cases full of armaments. A fat man with a T-shirt and tattoos up his arms ate Ruffles potato chips behind the cases. "Morning."
"Morning," said Gavra.
"What can I do you for?"
"I'm looking for a gun."
"Well, I'd say you came to the right place."
"I suppose I did."
"Rifle, maybe? Just got in two AK-47s. Russian, you know."
"A little smaller, I think."
In the end he settled for a Polish P-83 with twenty rounds of 9mm cartridges, then bought three rolls of quarters. The clerk placed the pistol and ammunition into a paper sack and wished him a good day.
One more thing to do, then he could sleep.
He drove back, past the motel, to where, on the right, a ring of stores spread. At the entrance, a large wooden sign proclaimed brandermill, and beyond it were more trees--it was more like a forest than the "housing project" he'd imagined. Another right placed him inside the paved ring of parked cars and shops. A plaza, they called it.
At the far end was a massive Safeway grocery store. Its windows were decorated with fake white snow and a cardboard Santa Claus leading twelve reindeer into the sky. Near its front door was a telephone booth. At this hour--noon--he had to avoid running over brightly dressed shoppers while searching for a parking spot.
He shoved coins into the pay phone, shivering as he dialed the long number. After ten rings he gave up, cupping his hand to catch the money the phone returned.
It was six in the evening back home, so the Lieutenant General had probably left for the day. He shoved in the coins again and tried the Ministry switchboard's international access line. An operator picked up. "Welcome to Eastern Expressions, the world through the beauty of icon paintings."
The cover always made Gavra smile, but he cleared his throat and gave his ten-digit identification number, then his real name, and asked for Lieutenant General Yuri Kolev's home number. The operator paused, her voice wavering as she said, "You do know about Comrade Kolev, right?"
"What about him?"
The line wasn't so clear that he could believe he'd heard her right, so he made her repeat it. "He had a heart attack this morning, right in the office. We're all in shock."
"Who's taking care of it?"
"Who's doing the paperwork on his death?"
"It's been handed to the Militia," she told him. "I think Emil Brod's working it personally."
"Why the Militia?"
"You think anyone explained it to me?"
When he hung up, the Virginia cold seemed a little harsher, the colors on the American shoppers that much more intense. He returned to his Toyota, which felt stuffy. He'd been sent here with no information, knowing only that he should capture a particular man and then get in touch with Kolev. And now . . .
He didn't like it, but Kolev had spelled it out for him: If anything goes wrong, return to Zagreb.