The firebird affair



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THE FIREBIRD AFFAIR


A novel

by Dusko Doder

@2011

AUTHOR’S NOTE



This book is a work of fiction. It is set against the background of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Although some of the events depicted in this novel bear a similarity to those in my own life, the characters are a product of my imagination and any resemblance to actual persons is entirely coincidental.

I would like to thank those who helped me in various way during the preparation of this novel: Barbara Rosenfeld, Nancy Lieber, Suchma and Mark Palmer, Carol Simons and my agent Ronald Goldfarb. A special thanks goes to my wife, Louise, to whom the book is dedicated.

Dusko Doder


For Louise



What’s never known is safest in this life.

Under the skysigns they who have no arms

Have cleanest hands, and, as the heartless ghost

Alone’s unhurt, so the blind man sees best.

--Dylan Thomas

1

My former life caught up with me at a party on P Street in the shape of a man I never wanted to see again. His name was Holz and he entered the room as if he owned it. Tuxedo. Pleated dress shirt. Malachite studs. Patent leather shoes. He looked more like a successful plastic surgeon than what he really was—one of those curious public servants whose trade is secret, violent, and thankless. When our eyes met for a brief instant, his eyebrows made a little jump as if signaling, Ah, there you are.



It’s curious how an almost imperceptible jump of the eyebrows can disturb one’s inner peace. He’d come for me, I thought. It was an odd intuition. Definite. I turned toward the back of the house and for a brief moment, it was touch and go whether I’d quickly slip out the back door and go home. Then I told myself I needed to think things through, I mustn’t be cowed by Holz, mustn’t let him spoil my evening.

The fact is that I had been looking forward to the annual reunion of old Moscow hands; I enjoyed stepping back into my old life for a day. Anticipation itself was half the fun: getting the old tuxedo from the plastic bag, putting on the ruffled white shirt, struggling with the bow tie and the gold cufflinks with my initials—a gift from Emily on my thirty-fifth birthday. In front of the mirror, I had looked the same as I used to. Or so I told myself. Alcohol emboldens normally cautious people, or perhaps it was a bond we had—our shared experiences in Soviet Moscow—that quickly washed the starch out of our collars and made us feel young again. I was quite shocked when my young (fourteen years younger) significant other announced last year she’d never attend another Moscow reunion. “It’s creepy,” Jennifer had exclaimed, dismissing as boring our recycled Cold War tales: “Rich old farts and has-beens talking gibberish.” She’d suddenly reminded me just how much the world had changed; it was as if the new generations had the nerve circuits of their brains rewired to eliminate all memories of communism.

Holz’s arrival changed the acoustics of the party. The hostess was uttering shrieks of delight and treated Holz and his wife Jane with that special consideration reserved for persons of high rank. Other guests, some in dinner jackets and long dresses, others in smart-casual, surrounded them and clinked glasses.

I thought I’d make myself invisible. Not like Claude Rains in The Invisible Man. More like playing the game we used to play as kids, a type of hide and seek called come to my den. Whenever you saw another kid first, you’d get a point. You’d win if you avoided being seen by others.

The house seemed to offer lots of hiding places. Its deceptively modest Georgian Revival front on P Street concealed a structure of substantial proportions. I moved back to the sunroom—I guess that’s what they called this recent addition—which was about as large as my Rosslyn condo and had cathedral ceilings and a wall of glass with a view of a large deck and an outside swimming pool. Other walls were covered with paintings framed in gilt with little plaques to identify the artist and two oversized TV screens.

It was a warm and humid spring night, and inside the house it was pleasantly cool.

The barman poured me three fingers of amber vodka from a bottle kept in the freezer. It poured viscous, like oil.

“Careful, Todd darling.” Maggie Dobbs materialized behind me, running a finger down my neck. She wore a flowing satin trouser-suit which offered a bird’s-eye view down the highly revealing front. “What’s new in the world of chess?”

I thought the question was pointed, as if to remind me that after years of covering diplomatic and national security issues for the Washington Tribune, I was now in the lower depths of journalism—writing about chess. Perhaps I imagined this, being overly sensitive to possible slights. Granted, chess was no longer as sexy as it used to be way back when Bobby Fischer “taught commies a lesson” and when ninety percent of New York bars had their television sets turned to the Fischer’s match with Soviet champion Boris Spassky instead to the baseball game. I remember New York Post reporters going from bar to bar to check; the score was 18 out of the 21 bars were tuned to the chess. But with the days of Cold War competition over, chess was just a cerebral board game and I enjoyed writing about it.

I ignored Maggie’s question and raised my glass to her. “You haven’t changed a bit since last time.”

“Liar,” she smiled, looking over my shoulder the way important people do at parties. “Hey. Holz is here, did you see?”

A white-haired black waiter in a white jacket pushed a silver tray of canapés between us. I skewered a shrimp and Maggie took asparagus wrapped in bacon.

Maggie’s large brown eyes slid away from me and back across the room. “God, haven’t seen him for ages. Not since Moscow.” Her face became a puzzling grimace. “I don’t remember him ever coming to one of our reunions.”

I shook my head, no.

“They say he’s going to be the next DDO, you know, the nation’s top spy,” she said, patronizingly I thought, as if the acronym had to be explained to me.

For a moment before she moved away, I recalled the pretty young foreign correspondent I first met in Moscow long ago. There was still something girlish about her—same freckles and slightly snubbed nose—despite a hint of vertical lines above her upper lip. But now there was an air of unshakeable self-confidence about Maggie and something else that reminded me of my younger self: I saw quite unmistakably in her gaze a flash of the audacity of a huntress. By God, her eyes said, I have to find out if Holz has already been offered the job.

The barman gestured if I wanted a refill. “Three fingers?”

I nodded to him. He winked.

How quickly we forget our own frailties and follies. Once I relished political rumors. I, too, had used social functions to elicit comments from high officials on the latest rumor about this or that personnel or policy change—a few off the cuff remarks a skilled writer could tease out to twenty inches of the thumb-sucking we used to label news analysis. Nowadays, I sometimes resorted to rumors to liven my column—say one about Hitler playing chess against Lenin at Cafe Landtmann in Vienna in 1909; or Ivan the Terrible dying suddenly in the middle of a chess match in 1584 (some historians suspect his opponent of poisoning the czar with mercury). But who reads stories entombed deep inside the Tribune’s D Section? That’s what Maggie’s final look seemed to say; in her eyes, I’d been sentenced to perpetual irrelevance.

That was when I noticed a red glob of shrimp sauce on the left cuff of my white shirt. Shit! I had taken it to the dry cleaners only last week.

I downed a couple of vodkas in quick succession to calm the nerves, then tiptoed cautiously toward the bathroom, determined to wash off the shrimp sauce with tepid water. An antique lacquered cabinet was in my way and I knew I was heading toward it as if someone had put a spell on it, as if possessed by demons who drew me to it. As I tried to get around it, I stumbled with cartoonish inevitability straight into the lacquered piece, bringing several framed Webster family photos crashing down. Thank God, I thought, the noise of conversation was high; the guests were flushed from vodka toasts and talked all at once. Only Betty Webster, the big la-di-da on the Georgetown social circuit, saw everything and was staring at me from the other end of the room, giving me one of those smiles that show the gums above the teeth.

Would the earth crack open and swallow me up? I managed an embarrassed smile before escaping to the bathroom.

I dabbed at the red stain on my cuff with a wet napkin until it started disintegrating into white flakes that resembled dandruff. One part of my brain kept wondering: why is Holz here? He had never once attended the annual get-togethers of those of us who worked in Moscow in 1991—diplomats, journalists, spies. He may have been present at the 1992 reunion to mark the first anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but I couldn’t say for sure.

Before leaving the bathroom, I stood in front of the mirror and finger-combed my hair into place. Then I saw the sparklingly shiny black shoes in the hall. Holz was waiting for me. “I’d like to have a word with you,” he said.

“About what?”

“Emily. Your late wife.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”


Suddenly I felt nauseated, like I had stepped barefoot on a lizard. “You didn’t give me the time of day when I wanted to talk to you about Emily,” I said. “Remember?”

He may not have remembered, but I did. That was a time in my life when I wondered if I wanted to wake up the next morning, when I struggled with a form of melancholia for which Dr. Kaiser, our family physician, ordered a battery of expensive tests; when all of them came back normal, he prescribed Prozac. Emily, you see, had died in Moscow while I was covering the beginning of a Caucasus war between the Armenians and the Azeris. I have often wondered, as I wondered now, what course my life might have taken had I not gone on that trip. Could I have protected her? The question remains academic, of course, but my mind often searched its darkest corners trying to imagine Emily’s final moments, and each time there was Holz hovering in the background. How come nobody had asked for a toxicology report before she was cremated? Other questions hung in the air. This was a form of torture that nearly drove me mad.

In normal times, the Embassy would have the answers, or some bureau in the State Department. That’s what consular sections are for. But 1991 was not a normal year in Moscow. The Evil Empire was disintegrating; by Christmas, it had ceased to exist. Witnessing such epochal events diplomats could not be blamed for giving insufficient attention to more mundane matters, which was regrettable, as officials in various bureaus of the State Department reminded me. Except that finding out the truth about my wife’s death was hardly a mundane matter as far as I was concerned. But I got no answers and to know nothing was agony. I began to think the life itself was futile. Finally, I was discreetly pointed in the direction of McKinney Holz, former science attaché, who in reality had been chief of the CIA Moscow station. I had a hard time imagining this aloof dandy with sparklingly shiny shoes doing things secret agents do—steal, pick locks, rifle desks, hack into computers, photograph documents, and use a gun.

It wasn’t easy to find a phone number for Holz. Eventually, I got it from his wife. “Don’t tell my husband I gave it to you,” Jane Holz cautioned. I used to see Jane regularly at the embassy. She always addressed me with sardonic formality when I stopped by the Press and Culture section, which handled the mail for correspondents and exchange scholars. With her long black hair and pale luminous face, she looked like Cher and was great fun.

Holz refused to talk or meet with me. This just goes to show why his presence was a serious cause for anxiety and my secret wish was that he be consumed by hellfire for all eternity.

“That was eleven years ago, pal,” Holz said dismissively. “In the Pleistocene era, as far as I am concerned. Besides, I had nothing to say at the time.”

I was overwhelmed by resentment and could feel a frown taking over my whole face. Fuck you, I thought. I didn’t know what the term Pleistocene referred to.

I tried to push him out of my way, but nervousness made me clumsy and I snagged the edge of an antique Chinese vase with my elbow.

Holz caught it. One-handed.

“You need to sober up, pal,” he said, steering me to a door at the end of the hall. “Let’s go to Chip’s office.”

Fuck you, Holz! I thought. But I followed him anyway, walking unsteadily, his hand on my back.

He showed me into a room full of cream leather furniture. My body sank into an overstuffed chair next to a little teak table. I registered two walls of floor-to-ceiling bookcases and French windows looking out over the property that basked in the yellow glow of Tikki torches and hidden floodlights.

“What’s it exactly you want to talk about?”

His eyebrows lifted. “I have some information, sensitive information,” he paused and watched my expression closely. “Regarding your wife’s death.”

I opened my mouth. Shut it. Opened it again. What now, God, said a voice in my head. Why? This was 2002. It had taken years to bury Emily’s memory, make my peace. Not that she would ever completely leave me; a woman who so abruptly disappears from your life can never do that. But I had got to the stage where I no longer dreamed of her; my palms and my fingertips no longer tingled with the memory of touching her in those twilight seconds just before falling asleep.

“Is this some kind of a joke?” That was all I managed to say.

“No!” He had that seen-it-all world weary aura that you find in people who had been in the same job too long. “I’ve talked to a recent Russian defector. Looks like the KGB may have had something to do with it.” I saw him smile on one side of his mouth, and as he did so, I knew the news was bad. His body language said the same. Now mystery spread through my body as I watched his hands before him, gesturing, shaping some point. His eyes were fixed on me and I read in them the confirmation of my own worst fears.

Suddenly, my mind was clear and alert. It must have been the adrenaline that cleared it.

I was instantly, terribly alert, and angry. The ghost of Emily suddenly materialized midway between the green screen and the bookcase on the wall behind. She was thin, straight-backed, beautiful, wearing blue jeans and my saffron button-down shirt, sleeves rolled up.  I blinked; she disappeared.  Like fallout from a dirty bomb, the new realization started to radiate through me, sickening me, poisoning me. I felt every fault in me opening at once. Guilt. Remorse. Regret that I was not at her side, that I had not even attended her funeral.

My mind may have been running a hundred miles per hour, but my mouth apparently wasn’t quick enough for Holz. I said, “Your own people didn’t dispute the official medical report on her death. You found nothing wrong with it.”

He nodded.

I felt a flush spread up my face. “Goddammit, man!” I said.

“Calm down, pal,” Holz interrupted sharply. “You’re drunk!“

That stung a bit and I attempted to get out of the overstuffed chair in a small gesture of defiance.

“Oh, sit down for God’s sake.” He frowned, and a look of severe impatience came over his face. Nonetheless, he pushed calmly ahead. “I want to talk to you—but when you’re sober.” He halted for a while and stared directly into my eyes. “And it has to be confidential.”

The fucking rules, I wanted to say. There are no rules for you people. You make up the rules as you go along; you have conversations that never took place. I knew I’d had too much to drink and was slurring certain words. I tried to say as little as possible. “Holy shit, Mac!” I said.

“Let’s have lunch. Tomorrow.” He grabbed a ballpoint from a C-SPAN mug and scribbled something on the back of a credit card receipt which he handed me. “This might be a good time to call it a day,” he added and abruptly left the room.

I leaned back and waited. I wanted to put a little distance between Holz and me. Suddenly, I needed sharp focus to keep the room from spinning and I stared at the yellow glow of Tikki torches outside. I wished to God that the last twenty minutes had never happened.

It seemed an hour later that I pulled myself together and followed Holz into the living room, though it may have been only a minute or two.

2

I wouldn’t want you to think that my anxiety was without foundation. The series of events that were to change my whole life had begun in early May of 1991. My four-year stint as Moscow correspondent was due to end in June. Emily had been making final preparations for our departure home; dealing with the packers; arranging the farewell reception at the Prague restaurant, a centrally- located establishment with proper facilities for such functions. Eager as ever to impress my bosses, I’d been scrounging around for behind-the-scene scoops I could use in my final—I thought of it as valedictory—series of articles. That’s when I met Professor Voronov.



Stumbling into Voronov was a piece of extraordinary luck. It was quite a coup to have a long talk with a physicist who had spent his entire life in the secret world of nuclear weapons; even more exciting was his openly stated interest to establish direct contact with Livermore Lab scientists to discuss his new idea of disposing nuclear waste. This was Page One stuff. As a graduate student, he had solved a theoretical problem that had allowed the Russians to build their first hydrogen bomb and was immediately awarded a doctorate degree on orders of Stalin’s police chief Beria, who personally ran the nuclear weapons program. When other scientists questioned the obvious violation of academic norms, the chairman of the state nuclear commission was reported to have said, “He did something none of you could do!” No other explanation was ever offered.

It’s a superstition with me always to try to get a firm understanding of a person I was writing about. What fascinate readers are the details of a person’s life, and I knew next to nothing about Voronov’s. That’s why I’d gone to the embassy that day. Instead, I found myself escorted by Holz to the top floor of the old embassy building on Tchaikovsky Street. It was the high security area with a coded digital lock, a thick steel door, Marines all round. I looked around for high-tech spy gear, the kind of stuff you see in the Hollywood movies? The place resembled an abandoned warehouse with the super-secret “bubble” sitting like a box perched on Lucite stilts, a room within a room, made entirely of special plastic.

Ambassador Morgan and Joe Garment from the Consular section were already inside the bubble. Morgan had removed his jacket and tie.

“So you interviewed the Voronov? The guy who created the Soviet hydrogen bomb?” Holz did not say this pointedly, I thought, but with an effortless sincerity cultivated over the years to flatter people whenever he wanted information out of them.

Yes, I said. Emily and I had met the professor at a concert last week. I had a four-hour-long interview with him the next day, I said and proceeded to outline some highlights. They sat, stony faced and silent, listening attentively.

“We’d like to meet Voronov,” Holz said briskly after I’d finished. Can you do us a small favor, wouldn’t take much time, we’d be grateful, and on and on. He spoke clearly. He had no doubt that the embassy would be eager to help the Russian professor.

“Yes,” the ambassador coughed, his hands folded in his lap.

Joe Garment nodded his approval, and tugged at his earlobe. He was famous for being a hard-line conservative. “But how can we be sure this is not a KGB setup?”

Holz said the professor was up front, speaking publicly and saying he wanted to deal directly with his counterparts at Livermore. As the science attaché, he’d do his best to facilitate the contact.

I offered to provide Voronov’s phone number. Holz didn’t trust the phones, he said, what with KGB eavesdropping blanketing the city. The suggestion was that I take a note directly to Voronov. “You put us in touch with him,” Holz added with a meaningful nod to me. “And you’ll get the first crack at the story.”

There was no reason for this crude bait to make me lower my guard, or so it seems all these years later, but that’s just what it did. I’m conditioned to think scoops. Not that I could quite imagine the shape of another possible Voronov scoop—his idea for a joint Soviet-American project on disposing of nuclear waste has Gorbachev’s blessing and would cause be regarded as a scoop when it’s published. Yet it’s always possible Holz had something very big in mind, I reasoned.

I’m obliged to admit another fact that I had long half-hidden from myself: I was seriously tempted. I don’t know how long this moment of weakness lasted before I heard alarm bells ringing inside my head. No, I had said eventually, I can’t do it. I cannot be an intermediary. That’s not my job.

Holz was now staring at me. “Your wife knows the guy, you said. She could help us?”

“Good idea,” said the ambassador, passing a hand lightly over his wavy hair. “Exactly,” Garment chimed in.

“That’s up to her,” I said. I should have known better that say that. That was what it was to be careless. Emily had a mind of her own; her smile may have been as mysteriously as Ingrid Bergman’s in Casablanca but she could have never said, “You have to think for both of us” to Humphrey Bogart.

Those few words—that’s up to her—had haunted me ever since. Also made me feel guilty whenever I thought of Rick. Guilty, because I’ve never told him about the conversation in the bubble, never leveled with him. I’d lied to my son, hadn’t I? Was that enough of a reason for a son to reject his father? It was stupid lie; not a lie at all, I’d often rationalized, merely a failure to mention a few details. Yet it created a void in my life, a sadness of spirit that affected many of my daily activities.

*

I have no memory of leaving the house on P Street. I remember being angry and moaning profanely while looking for my Jeep Cherokee, which was parked by Dumbarton Oaks on R Street.



The wet sidewalks of Georgetown seemed aglow with a mysterious yellow. The rain was not actually falling; it just hung around like lackluster, foggy netting, as it does sometimes in Washington in the spring.

I drove cautiously, watching out for police patrol cars. I didn’t need another DUI. I took M Street, and then crossed Key Bridge. My condo was on the other side of the Potomac, in a new high-rise on North Quinn, just off Wilson Boulevard. I sat in the underground garage for a while, then took the elevator up. Once inside the apartment, I staggered toward the drinks cabinet, poured myself a glass of gin, then made my way to the wet balcony. My only logic was to drink myself into oblivion. Eleven years after the fact, for Christ’s sake, and now they want to tell me how Emily died.

I downed the gin and shuddered as it went down. I felt sick and groggy enough to question whether I hadn’t been hallucinating all along. But Holz’s words came back to me like the tremor of an earthquake, threatening to break open the tightly-woven surface of my life. Something, some faint guilt buried deep, barely accessible, was stirring. I wanted to know the truth.

3

L’Auberge chez Francois is hidden away in Virginia, ten miles from the Beltway. It’s a place of understated elegance where high officials and wealthy businessmen entertain their mistresses or one another.

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