The Assassin’s Birthday
Lustig was waiting for the man who nearly thirty years ago they had called “The Killer.” A very effective fellow—the cleanup man who got rid of traitors and other undesirables.It was strange that he was late. Lustig had arrived an hour early at Estiatorio Milos’s sushi bar, which was attached to the Hilton, an Athenian landmark. Things had changed since the Cold War when it was the dark-paneled Pan Bar and the staff from the US embassy would sip cognac and try to feel out informers. Everything had changed. The Warsaw Pact was a distant memory. Greece’s fire-breathing socialist prime minister, Andreas Papandreou, was dead. Greece’s new leaders weren’t threatening to withdraw from NATO—and they were begging for more loans.
Lustig realized that blood had been shed; but it was surgery to prevent the Cold War from turning into a shooting war. He was ready to reminisce. Now you only reminisced when you fought a war nobody gave a damn about.It was five minutes past six pm. What had happened to Ben Zephyr, prowling killer who had been so meticulous and obsessive about details?
Just then he emerged from a group of Japanese tourists and walked deliberately into the bar. He didn’t look like he’d aged much in the past few decades; he was wearing a short sleeve shirt, which showed his veiny arms and developed chest.
Lustig on the other hand was unrecognizable to Zephyr.
“Like wine, you age beautifully,” Lustig said.
Zephyr gazed for a moment into his eyes, not sure if it was him. His hair was gone and he’d grown a Santa Claus beard. “Mitch,” he finally said, giving Lustig a brisk handshake.
“You didn’t recognize me without my flop of hair,” Lustig said, tapping his head, which made a slapping sound. He laughed, revealing his perfect teeth.
“Happy birthday! No place like Athens to celebrate turning a half century old.” Lustig grinned.
“Thank you.” Zephyr turned to the bartender and ordered a gin and tonic.”
Lustig took something out of his pocket and handed it to Zephyr. “This is from the boys at the agency. Don’t open it until after I’m gone.” Zephyr looked at the box. It was made of cherry wood, not very heavy, with two steel hinges attached to it. He put it in his pocket.
“Thanks for thinking of me, Mitch.” “So far you’ve only been saying thank you. What’s new in your life?”
“I just got married.” He pulled out a photo of a brunette with a bright smile who looked like she was at least fifteen years younger than Zephyr.
“Real cute,” Lustig said. “Wait until you get to my age. You’ll need Viagra to keep it up. The mind is so willing but …” Lustig raised his glass. “To the Cold War that clothed and fed us for half a century,” Lustig said. “When was the last time I saw you?”
“The night of July 18, 1987,” Zephyr said, closing his eyes.
“You remember that well.” “Sure do. Not every day you have to kill someone.”
“That morning, I picked you up at your apartment in Paleo Psychico and drove you to the airport. And when I came back everything changed. Twelve hours in Washington … They say the Internet age means things happen fast, but in those days …”
The bartender, a ringer for a diplomat with thick-rimmed glasses and a deferential air, suddenly turned on the TV and raised the volume. Some terrorist had tried a suicide attack on French embassy in Africa.
“Nobody did that stuff during the Cold War,” Zephyr said looking at the TV. “So you want details about Gorcek right?” “All the details …” “You’re weird.” “I know.”
“It was funny, that masquerade. You planned it so well, Lustig—I’m the RCA man, he’s the freelance engineer. When I first saw him, he looked older than the photos you showed me of him. His eyes were cold, mean. He was one guy who I didn’t mind killing. You gave us tickets to a soccer game—for some reason he was a fan of Olympiakos, probably since he was brought up in Poland. What a fucker, after all the Russians did to his people.”
Zephyr took a sip of his drink.
“Anyway, we were in Karaiskakis Stadium and he was cheering like crazy. I don’t even think they were playing a great team—maybe it was OFI, maybe it was Ethnikos—but they scored against Olympiakos and he was like, ‘mother fucker, goddammit.’ He went completely berserk and I was watching and saying to myself, ‘this is the least of your worries.’
Lustig nodded for him to continue.
“Then this Greek guy sitting behind us—funny looking dude. He had one of those ugly beards like he’s Al Qaida or something. He starts to tell Gorcek ‘katse kala,’ which translated means ‘sit and be a good boy.’ So the Pole turned around and blew the guy a kiss.”
“Sounds like fun,” Lustig said.
“I tell you Mitch, it was as if his beard had caught fire. ‘Gamato, Malaka!’ he starts shrieking. Gorcek looks at him and doesn’t even blink. Then the Greek guy starts to laugh, but you could see the threat in his eyes and boy I felt it.
“He hit him?” Lustig asked.
“Worse,” Zephyr said. “He missed Gorcek and jammed me in the nose. I could feel blood spurt out. Gorcek was laughing.”
“I would’ve been too,” Lustig said, chuckling into his drink.
Zephyr ignored him and continued. “Now I don’t hit the deck for long. And this Greek was a peanut by comparison—I could’ve had him picking his teeth off the floor. But I didn’t want to get arrested. I had a job to do.
“The Greek looked shocked, even a little afraid of Gorcek’s weird hyena laugh. Anyway his friends were holding him back now—in those days they didn’t arrest you in a stadium unless you were really out to kill someone.
“‘Are you okay buddy?’ Gorcek asked, putting his arm around me. He pulled Kleenex from his pocket and gave it to me.
“‘Shit it hurts,’ I said, stuffing the Kleenex in my nose. But Gorcek suddenly rose to his feet and started to scream like a maniac; Olympiakos had scored. Some guy with long curly hair, Papa something his name was—”
“Dopolous?” Lustig suggested.
“Christos—Papachristos.” Zephyr said. “That crowd went berserk and my nose was still bleeding and my vision was blurry. Then some nut threw a flare. Greek cops in the eighties, they tolerated some violence, but throwing flares at the referee, you didn’t do that. A few guys with shields and batons ran into the stands and started to beat up some guy wearing a leather jacket. I’m sure that dude ended up with a broken arm and some missing teeth. Then people in the stands started to throw bottles at the cops. It was turning into a riot so I suggested we get out of there. Gorcek said he needed a drink anyway. The funny thing is that for some reason, after an hour or so of Gorcek, I liked him. I liked his company on a human level, but back then I had just gotten out of the army. Remember the haircut, Mitch?” “I remember it well. You were stud then,” Lustig said and laughed. “You probably screwed every girl in the embassy, married or not.”
“So it was hell trying to get out of Karaiskakis Stadium. It was a much nicer place then and the crowds turned out. Not like now. Then again, the country wasn’t up to its neck in debt. Anyway I had illegally parked near some sex shop. Remember when they still had those?”
Lustig laughed. “Syngrou Avenue was a great place for many of my dirty tricks.” “Transvestites made blackmail easy,” Zephyr agreed. “Anyway, as we were getting into my car, this policeman approached. You know those eighties types from the villages, PASOK party supporter, never wore deodorant in his life, pinky fingernail jutting out about two inches. He says something in Greek and I’m supposed to be a trade representative from RCA to interview a Polish engineer, so I act like I don’t understand him. Gorcek looks at him and starts to laugh, ‘Do you want see my papers comrade?’ he asks sarcastically.”
“That must’ve gone over well,” Lustig said.
“The policeman did the very Greek thing, jutting his chin out to say fuck you. Then he says to me, ‘You have parked your car illegally here. Do you know what the fine is for this?’
“’Oh officer, I’m sorry. I’m just a tourist renting a car. I work for RCA. We’re opening an office in Athens and I’m entertaining one of our engineers. Didn’t see a ‘no parking’ sign so I assumed …’ And I took out my wallet.
“‘Keep it,’ he said with disgust. ‘If you make more problems, it’s 190,000 drachmas and one week in jail, so please only park between the lines.’
“‘Want to see my papers comrade?’ Gorcek asks again.
“‘Piss off,’ the officer says—even PASOK party members watched Mike Hammer on Thursday night.”
“Who didn’t?” Lustig said.
“Gorcek wanted to go the Plaka after that—not the clubs like I thought though, just someplace low key for tsipoura. We drove down Vassilis Sofia—a hell of an artery for a city, eh Mitch?” “Yeah, Broadway on steriods,” Lustig agreed.
“We parked near the Benaki Museum. It was a walk, but the time to kill was near midnight. I couldn’t let him escape. I didn’t want to do it—something inside me was telling me it was a wrong night for it.”
“‘No parking nearer?’ Gorcek asked, smiling.
“‘Nope, Mario,’” I said, thinking how he wouldn’t be blinking or smiling in the next few hours.
“We walked through these interweaving streets, Gorcek guiding me along. What a hell of a photographic memory. I knew why the Russians trusted him—even when giddy from drink and drugs or both he was always alert, always sharp. I respected that son of a bitch.
“‘This is the best place,’ Gorcek said. It was a shabby taverna, where none of the waiters wore uniforms and a sad looking guy with a curly moustache and worry beads around his fingers sat on a chair greeting people.
“‘You don’t want something with more pep?’ I asked.
“‘Maybe later. I just want my tsipoura,’ he said. ‘This will be a celebration for me, since—’
“‘Mario!’ A waiter came over wearing jeans and a pink polo. ‘You came for one last time. Shall I get you the usual?’ “‘Yes Takis, efharisto,’Gorcek replied.
“‘What is this about one last time?’ I asked. This was getting weird. I wondered if he was leading me into a trap.
“‘I can’t speak now, my friend. Later.’ His gray eyes suddenly looked tired.
“Within a couple of minutes the pink polo shirt guy had brought out a medley of tiny plates with bite-sized appetizers: meatballs, tarama, octopus, all that crap that clogs your arteries.
“‘What’s going on?’ I asked. I was young then, couldn’t keep my composure too well.
“‘A celebration for my friend Ray,’ My cover name. Gorcek hoisted a bistro glass of red wine. ‘To my wonderful friend Ray!’
“None of you guys prepared me for how weird he was. He ate like crazy and it was sad—like a last meal of the condemned. He’d keep on saying things like, ‘Here this is skordalia, you will love it.’ But I wasn’t hungry. Didn’t want to deprive him of anything. It was his night.
“‘Have any kids, Ray?’ he asked. The drinks were loosening him up.
“‘None that I know of,’ I said. My life was going into one girl after another. It was like exploring a box of chocolates: try one, tastes good, get sick of it and so on.
“‘You know, this is a bloody ugly life. We only have the now to enjoy and that ends quickly. But just maybe we can achieve some degree of life after death by having children.’ He reached for his pocket and took out his wallet, showing me a photo of a heavy lady with blonde hair and too much eye makeup and she was carrying a little girl with a round face and Gorcek’s wicked smile. ‘That’s Marjia and Teresa, as you would call her, my sweetie.’
“‘Beautiful family,’ I tried hard not to look at them. It would make things more difficult.
“‘I want Teresa to grow up in a free country, to be a person, a human being, to have choice, not to have to march like a robot.’ He drank more wine and I don’t know if that’s how he was but his eyes became watery. It definitely wasn’t the talk about freedom—it was that kid and that fat wife. He loved them. Even the hedonist prick I was back then could tell that much.
“I encouraged him to order more wine. He was drinking like crazy. The waiter then intervened. He gets right up in Gorcek’s face and says, ‘Hey, remember what happen last time?’
“Gorcek nodded. So I paid the bill and got him out of there. We walked into the heart of the Plaka. The old Plaka, whores, pimps, clubs—”
“Utilize any of those whores?” Lustig asked.
“Didn’t have to in those days. Come to think of it, never have. They were tempting all right—young, creamy skin, full lips, black hair. Anyway, I had to set it up right, get him drunk, then do it. Just do it.” “What a talent you had, what a talent.” Lustig said.
“Military training, you kill without thinking. Anyway, I tried taking him to a club. Thought maybe he’d go with a whore, get into drugs, anything that might weaken him. But he just shook his head, which by that point was wobbling like a bobble-head doll. He led me down an alley—it all felt wrong. I wondered if he was going to try to turn the tables on me, and if so, how. Ahead of us, I could see steps leading up to the Acropolis, which was lit up so beautifully. I wanted to be a tourist just then. I didn’t want to associate the Acropolis with a kill.
“‘What are we doing here,’ I asked. “A black cat ran past us, looking frightened, then escaped into the shrubbery. I started to sweat for some reason. Mario took his time and then reached into his pocket for something.
“I took a step back—I couldn’t kill him in the Plaka. But it was only a smoking pipe. Gorcek could tell that I was afraid. He laughed. ‘Why are you frightened of me?’ he asked. He opened his vest, one of those vests you see war correspondents wear, and said, ‘Search me, I’m clean.’
“‘I feel like I know nobody,’ I said, which was true. ‘What did you want to tell me that was so top secret back in the restaurant?’ “He sighed and looked up at the Athenian moon. It was that typical fatalistic Eastern European gesture of looking up at the heavens even though most of them believed in nothing. ‘The pressure is getting to me Ray,’ he said. ‘It’s time for me to cross the street.’ “He loved clichés.
“‘You know, I’ve been a good servant,’ he went on and then lit his pipe. ‘I’ve helped you a lot, but they are going to get me. I’m forty-seven years old but I feel like I’m seventy-seven. My sugar is a problem. I can’t sleep. I take pills and they don’t even help me. I want my family and me to be in the United States to start a new life. I’ve been trying to tell Lustig and Lerner that, but they are not listening to me very well.’
“Son of a bitch, I almost started to laugh. He gave us phony information—drips of good stuff, but more often than not his intelligence was wrong—and now he wanted to start his life in the States. Well that strengthened my resolve. But it also threw me into a dilemma. I had to call Lerner. I couldn’t just kill him there. I couldn’t just kill a man who wanted to defect to the States.
“‘You know what Mario,’ I said. ‘I’m young. I’m low level, but I hear you and I will spell everything out for you. In five days, you and Teresa and Marjia will be in Times Square.’ “‘Really?’ he said. He looked like a boy on Christmas morning.
“He ran over to me and gave me a smothering hug that almost broke my ribs.
“‘Let me call them and get the green light,’ I said.
“I went into a Taverna run by a guy who looked like Boris Karloff. and gave him a thousand drachmas to use the phone in his closet-sized office. I called the number and there was Lerner answering with his usual flare: ‘What can I do for you?’ “‘The guy wants to cross the street.’ I said.
“There was no answer for a moment. Then Lerner says, ‘Make sure he doesn’t come home,’ and hangs up.
“When I got back outside, Gorcek was gone. My catch, gone. Someone must have tipped him off, I thought. I was going to be screwed by guys in the embassy and worse still, he was going be on the prowl for me. I walked down the lit streets, squeezing my hands so hard my nails dug into the skin of my palms. And then I heard his voice. I rounded the corner and there he was, haggling with a vendor, a lady dressed all in black, your typical Greek widow. They finally shook hands and she gave him his change. He had a brown bag in his hand.
“‘Ray, to celebrate.’ He had a bottle of mastica liquor in his hands. ‘For you.’ He gave me the bottle.
“‘Thanks so much, Mario,’ I said. ‘Let’s go to Glyfada to celebrate.’ “‘I will drink to that,’ he said and started to laugh. ‘I’m so happy. I can buy Hershey’s anywhere, right?’ “‘You can throw a shoe when you’re in the States and it will hit a shop that sells Hershey’s,’ I said. Can you believe it, Mitch? Folks in Europe like that Hershey’s shit? So, we finally found my car and I was driving him to Glyfada. As we passed the old Olympic Stadium, lights started flashing. What the fuck? I pulled to the side of the road. The cop approached my Volkswagen carefully. He was a dark thin guy, with a face so smooth it looked like he’d never grown any hair on it. ‘Ti egeny,’ he said.
“‘Sorry, I don’t understand. I’m American,’ I said.
“‘Please show me your papers.’ He looked at the car.
“‘Is there anything wrong?’ I asked.
“He waved aside a colony of flying bugs that were attacking him. ‘Routine check,’ he replied.
“I gave him my passport. He looked at it and glanced at me. “‘You too,’ he said to Gorcek, who I could feel sensed something was wrong.
“Gorcek produced his Polish passport. ‘What are you doing in Athens?’ the policeman asked him.
“For some reason, Gorcek was serious, no laughing. The bastard sensed he was at the finish line, ‘I’m an engineer helping with the launch of a company in Athens,’ he said.
“The cop nodded. He opened the rear car door and stuck his head inside. Then he came back to the driver side, ‘Where are you going now?’
“‘The Astir Palace for drinks,’ I said.
“Without saying anything, he walked off.
“‘This is getting funny,’ Gorcek said, when we drove off. ‘Maybe Moscow wants to get me back.’ “‘You’re safe in American hands,’ I told him.
“We drove to the Astir Palace—that was in the good old days before Sheraton took it over. Remember those bungalows on the Med? Five different restaurants. We went to the newest one—I think it was the Aphrodite, nice big lobby. The final stop for Gorcek.
“‘You really know how to entertain a man,’ he said, when we walked through the lobby. A few Scandinavian blondes passed by—tan lines around their eyes from wearing sunglasses all day. I cut them from top to bottom. But Gorcek turned his eyes down. Isn’t it funny, Mitch? He screws us over, then wants to screw the Russians, and then he won’t even look at a girl who isn’t his wife.
“We sat on the terrace and ordered drinks, some strong stuff. Gorcek said nothing. It was as if he felt I was lying—I don’t know. Mitch, from my experience it’s like they expect to die, it’s like they have a six sense. But all of them are guilty. I’ve never executed an innocent man. It would destroy me if I did. Gorcek drank his gin and said nothing. We looked out at the stars and at a few yachts that went by. Greece certainly had a lot of money then.
“I tried to make conversation, but he was monosyllabic. It was easy to be either depressed by the loneliness or soothed by the whoosh of the sea below us on that terrace.
“‘So what grade is your girl in?’ I asked.
“His face lit up. ‘Third grade, 100-percent student,’ he said with a smile, which quickly faded. ‘Ray, you meant what you said right? I’m going to the United States?’
“‘You can trust me. I may be young, but I have clout,’ In the back of my mind, I was thinking that if it wasn’t for the guys at the embassy who knew what he was up to, Gorcek might have had a comfortable life in some suburb after he screwed us left and right. He’d be the neighbor who mowed your lawn and picked up your mail when you were away.
“He looked relieved, but I could tell he wasn’t buying completely. Two Greek guys joined us outside. They were very much of the seventies with powder blue blazers and shirts open at the top. One of them stuck his face in mine and asked for a light. I told him I didn’t smoke. Gorcek tossed him a pack of matches. The Greek lit his cigarette and that of his friend and then went to hand the matches back to Gorcek.
“‘Keep it,’ Gorcek said.
“‘Thank you,’ the Greek said, with a flourish, ‘I’m Vagelis and this is Manos.’
“We shook hands but they were complicating things for me. ‘Nice to meet you too,’ I replied. ‘We are meeting some other friends now. Take care of yourself.’ “I got up and Gorcek followed me reluctantly.
“‘Let’s walk and see the stars,’ I said.
“Gorcek followed me. He was still silent. He opened up the mastica and started to drink from the bottle. It was a nice paved spot, so silent, so mysterious. When we were so far away from the Astir that we couldn’t even see the flickering lights of the bungalows, I pulled out the handkerchief dipped in chloroform.
“‘Hey, you dropped something,’ I said. ‘It’s near those rocks.’ “‘Ha, what?’ He knelt down to look.
“I crept up behind him and smothered his nose and mouth with it. He struggled and started to kick. He tried to elbow me, but his resistance was gone in a few seconds. I then took out a vial of insulin and stuck a huge dose of it above his ankles. I had to bring down his blood sugar and make sure he was unconscious when he landed in the Mediterranean. But I gave him too much. After a few minutes, I felt his pulse and felt nothing. The man that had been alive in front of me was nothing now, just a confused face in death. No humor, no love for his wife and kid, just silence. Creepy stuff, Mitch.”
“Finally something was going my way. I could run over to the hotel and call for help, tell them that my friend had gone into diabetic shock and died. I wouldn’t have to throw him in the sea.
I ran as fast as I could. I could see two dark figures approaching me, walking with urgency—Vagelis and Manos.
“‘Help!’ I shouted.
Manos, who was the slighter figure, immediately seized me by my wrist. ‘What did you to him?’ he asked.
“‘He wrote ‘help’ on the matchbox,’ Vagelis replied.
“They arrested me then and there. It looked like Gorcek was getting the last laugh. They took me to this old interrogation room with a noisy radiator and worked me over a bit. After an hour, Vagelis leaves the room. When he returns he has this friendly smile on his face. He says, ‘Well Mr. Zephyr, I’m afraid you won’t be leaving any time soon. We have a prison called Korydallos. There is no dental care, showers are taken perhaps once a week, and in summers the temperatures reach over 110 degrees.’ “‘I’m an American citizen and I demand to speak to the US embassy,’ I said. ‘You have no right to do this to me.’ “His nostrils flared and he slapped me so hard I saw orange. ‘Shut up,’ he said. ‘You speak of rights … you come into my country and think you can wage a street fight with the Russians? You think we’re going to let you escape from that? No, my friend. You are going to remember this night for a very long time.’”
“‘I did nothing,’ I said. ‘He died of diabetic shock. I was running back to the hotel for help.’”
“‘You underestimate the power of the Greek police. We found needle marks above his legs and the discarded cloth with traces of chloroform, which you used to knock him out. Plus he gave me that box of matches and asked for help. You were good, Mr. Zephyr, but not so good.’
“‘I’m not saying anything unless I speak to the US embassy,’ I said.
“‘No problem at all, Mr. Zephyr, but I fear that this is going to be a huge international incident. You see, my superiors are not in love with your double standards vis a vis Turkey and I will wager that if it came to a choice between giving you an extended vacation in the Korydallos prison system or admitting wrongdoing, you know what your government will do.’ “He left and my stomach was tied in knots. I could see it all. Being raped, brutalized by anti-Americans. All sorts of things were dancing in my mind.”
“You should have called my wife,” Lustig said. “The ultimate comforter, she would have bailed you out.” “After an hour, Lerner came inside. That gnarly fellow, he looked so unhealthy. Sort of like the snake in the Garden of Eden.
“‘You’re going home,’ he said quietly.
“No reasons. He wouldn’t answer any questions. He just said that I would be deported from Greece and that was it.” “And two weeks later we announced that we were selling the Greeks eighteen F15s,” Lustig said.
“That had something to do with it?” Zephyr asked.
Lustig said nothing. He tossed a fifty euro note on the bar. “Keep the change, Stavros.” The bartender stood at attention as if Lustig were a general. “Happy birthday, Zephyr. You’re never too old to find out how you’ve screwed up.” And with that, he walked out of the restaurant into the congested street. The bartender stared at the stool where Lustig had sat. “Great man,” he said. “What do you mean?”
“He did many good things for Greece. He is now a Greek citizen. God bless him.”
Zephyr opened the box and found a slide and a letter. He held it up to the light and saw two naked silhouettes—that of Lustig’s wife and himself. He’d spent a few nights with her back then. She’d been one of those ultra-thin ladies in her forties with an unquenchable appetite for sex. Apparently Lustig had waited a long time for this. There was a caption on the cardboard part of the slide that read: Never screw another agent’s wife. And Lustig had staged everything to scare the living daylights out of him. He had thrown in his lot with the Greeks—Zephyr and Gorcek had been pawns to trade for those fighter jets.
Then Zephyr opened the letter. One side was written in Polish and the other was a translation into English:
Dearest Love of mine Marjia,
If you are reading this, I am probably dead. You have not known this about me, but I work for the Americans. This is not something that is motivated by money. This is something that is born from my hatred for the Soviets. But I do not want you to hate. Don’t be bitter. I want you to take care of yourself and live a rich life. Make sure Teresa studies hard and takes care of people. Try to get her into medical school. I hope I have been a good husband and father. I hope I have not disappointed you. But know that I want a better life and a better future for you and Teresa. I will wait for you in a kinder place than this horribly divided world.
Your loving husband Mario
Zephyr went pale.
Lustig had waited a long time to scar his conscience. And Zephyr would live the rest of his life knowing that he had killed one of his own agents.