The note looked innocent. Simple card stock folded once with care. The sassy, narrow-waisted photographer from Naples whom Finn had brought up with him from the foreigners’ lounge scooped it off the floor as they entered his hotel room. Laughing, she held it behind her for the ransom of a kiss. And he paid her price. Three times.
But what he read stunned him, and he lingered on it until he heard the click of her heel. She had taken a step back and folded her arms. Her dark eyes had narrowed to slits. “It’s true of you, how they are talking," she said. "You love work more than people.”
Moments later, with her bitter stream of Italian fading behind him, he trotted down the worn marble staircase, crossed the lobby, and headed into Warsaw’s unlit streets. Rain fell on grimy snow and except for soldiers huddling miserable in doorways, the city prepared for sleep. His throat burned from the smoke of coal stoves that wives had lit to warm husbands returning from the day’s demonstrations, and curtains drawn to hold the heat made the night seem thick with secrets. Underfoot, slush masked ice.
Finn didn’t see the pair of soldiers until they had flattened him against the door of a bank. They were surly, not young, and when his ace in the hole—his American passport and press ID—failed to appease them, he grabbed the first thing that came to mind. “I’m on my way to the cathedral to pray for your countrymen.” His perfect Polish caught them off guard. Not pausing to consider the cathedral was behind him, they released him with smiles and thumbs up.
Further on, as he turned up his collar to ward off the rain, his feet slid in different directions on a patch of ice. He didn’t fall—he’d grown up in snow country—but he took a moment under an awning to gather himself and to check the address. The note was written in a confident hand: Strategy meeting. Come on foot and alone to the fourth floor. No recorders, no pen or paper. It was signed with a red ink stamp. Solidarnosc. Solidarity, Poland’s trade union, which had become, in effect, the sole representative of the Polish people. Finn understood the caution. Any leak from a meeting of union leaders could hand advantage to their opposition at the Round Table Talks, Jaruzelski’s Communist government. Still, he felt naked without the tools of his trade.
Behind the old school at Kowalski 137, he found a matchbook inserted between the doorjamb and the strike to keep the heavy wooden door unlocked. Once inside, he headed up the darkened stairway onto which the door opened, lighting a match at each landing. His footsteps echoed. Through his shoes, he felt the swales that countless feet had worn into the stone treads.
Had he been using all his senses, he might have smelled the man who grabbed his arm on the third-floor landing. Russian tobacco left a bitter odor on the breath.
“Kill the light if you want to live.”
Finn’s hand jerked. The flame died.
“What are you doing here?” The voice was thick with phlegm. The accent wasn’t local. Finn put the man in his sixties.
“I’m here for a meeting of . . . some old friends.”
“It’s late for a meeting, isn’t it?” There was wariness in the voice, with a splash of amusement, as if the man held a strong hand of cards.
Finn wondered which card might get his attention. “Some soldiers kept me standing in the rain, so I’m later than the note specified.”
“The one slipped under my door this evening. Sometime before ten-thirty.”
The man’s chuckle rumbled in the stairwell. Or perhaps he was clearing his throat. He flicked on a flashlight. It cast a weary glow on heavy wool pant cuffs gathered on street shoes. “Go to the next landing. If you’re the right man, we may meet again.”
Finn climbed another flight and felt for the knob. The door scraped on the concrete. Dim overhead bulbs lit a long hallway. A sturdy fellow leaned against the wall, hands in jacket pockets, his breath steaming in the air.
“The hot-shit journalist who speaks Russian.” He was in his late thirties, heavy browed. A thick mustache conveyed virility. The hand he extended was missing the index finger.
Finn shook it, wondering how he managed a pencil. “Yes, I speak some.”
The man inspected him up and down. “And your Polish is good.”
“My mother was born in Poznań.”
“You have no recorder, correct?”
Finn shook his head, trying to imagine why his knowing Russian was important. Most Poles spoke some or could get by because it was a sister language. Perhaps Solidarity had caught a spy or someone had defected to their cause. A Western journalist’s wet dream. Definitely a prize for his paper, the New York Times.
His wife would argue otherwise. The day he’d left for this posting, Clarissa had made him promise to quit rushing into dangerous places. “The Soviet Union is a coiled snake right now,” she’d said. “Be smart.”
“Arms out,” the man said. “Spread your legs.”
Finn’s credentials usually spared him being frisked. Excited that perhaps Wałęsa, the head of Solidarity, had asked to see him, he raised his arms. Hard strokes on his torso and legs threatened his balance.
The man poked his chin down the hall. “Follow me.” In a distant room, voices rose in bursts, overlapping each other like waves on a beach. The cadence of fierce debate.
Finn’s escort rapped and silence fell. The door opened, revealing a barren classroom. No desks. Jaundice-yellow paint, peeling. For a moment, cigarette smoke obscured the faces. Finn had never been allowed into the big room when the Round Table Talks were taking place, but the wide-necked man in the worn wool vest whose chair faced the door often spoke to the press during the breaks. Mateusz Dabrowski, an organizer from shipyards in the north, wore a stevedore hat even during the sessions. The word was that he would take over if anything happened to Wałęsa.
Dabrowski smiled broadly. “You,” he said, beckoning with a hand the size of a baseball glove. “You came on short notice. You obviously weren’t with a girl. Don’t you like Polish girls?”
Laughter rolled around the room. Finn met it with brightened eyes. He did like Polish girls, dammit, in particular, the ones who served food and coffee to the press corps. After they cleared the plates and hung their aprons, they poured forth passion and intelligence such as he only heard in places like Rotterdam. And there was one among them he had slept with not ten days ago, though, like him, she was married. That night at least, sex had seemed the only cure for the ache she was carrying for her people. In return, she had eased his loneliness now that Clarissa’s depression had become so intractable.
“A chair for our American guest,” Dabrowski commanded.
“And vodka, too?” The speaker wore ratty boots, unlaced.
“No, though after, he may beg to drink to keep from pissing in his pants.”
A chair was set facing Dabrowski. Finn feigned calm. The slight-shouldered fellow with wire-rimmed glasses on Dabrowski’s left was one of the Solidarity assistants who stayed in their own room down the hall from where the press corps waited for announcements. Sitting on Dabrowski’s right, taking notes was Viktor, wearing his signature bolo necktie. He often drove Wałęsa to the talks. The rough clothes and manner of the other seven men cut a sharp contrast to the cardboard formality of the generals and government party officials. To remember them for any article he would write, Finn linked their faces to friends from high school.
Dabrowski scanned him as if assessing his character, then spoke in perfect Russian. “We have been watching you.” He placed his palm on his chest. “I became a fan, reading your coverage from Berlin.”
Whatever this gathering was for, Finn hadn’t seen the like in his time abroad. He bowed his head. “Spasseba bolshoya.”
“And do you like me?” Dabrowski asked.
Finn considered his answer, looking also for the right words in Russian. “I don’t know you well enough to say, but when you speak to the press, I find complicated ideas making sense.” He paused. “I steal things from you.”
It seemed the room took a collective breath. Several men slapped each other’s shoulders in delight. “He speaks like a Russian.”
“And I intend to sue you,” Dabrowski said with a laugh, “as soon as we have courts that respond to more than money and bullets.” He switched to Polish. “So you’re safe for now. Safe to talk about opinions. Your newspaper proudly says it doesn’t peddle opinion. Is this true?”
Finn realized why Dabrowski could sit at the table and fight with generals who had the power to have him shot. “I try to adhere to facts.” He looked around the room at men whose press had lied to them at every turn and hoped he wasn’t ruining whatever goodwill they had. “But a man who has no opinion probably writes . . .” and he hesitated, thinking again of Clarissa, back in their early days, when she’d taught him to speak directly as things arose in his mind. “Probably writes shit.”
Glasses of clear liquid appeared in the hands of several of the men. After exultations, they finished them off with the confidence of butchers strangling chickens.
Dabrowski raised his hand for quiet. “Good. So how do you deal with opinions?”
Finn hated not being in control of the questions. “If they get too loud when I’m writing, I shove my pen down their throats.”
Dabrowski stood on massive legs, walked outside the circle, and ran a finger across the old slate blackboard. When he came to the youngest fellow in the room, he placed his hands on the man’s shoulders. “And if you could find the truth to an old secret, could you be trusted to tell it and not expose the people who brought you to it? Do you have opinions about that?”
Ah, this was a test. “What does a secret have to do with opinion?”
Dabrowski sucked his lips. “Opinion is the juice that makes a man care. Being true to the facts shows that he does.”
In salute, Finn lifted a glass he didn’t hold.
Acknowledging the gesture with a nod, Dabrowski continued. “And protecting his sources shows his humanity.” He turned to address the wall behind him. “And the Soviets? What is your opinion of their treatment of the Eastern Bloc?”
“My opinion?” Two nights before in the hotel lounge, Finn had argued this very issue with two right-wing journalists from Belgium. “Some worthy ideas poisoned to garner power. Though in that regard, capitalism comes in a close second.”
Dabrowski turned back to face his men. He seemed pleased. “Frankly, I’ve never been able to understand why you Americans don’t all kill each other.” He resumed his pacing. “But here’s what I want for Poland, and it’s something I can’t give my country. Time. More than anything, she needs time. Time to negotiate an end to this oppression.” He speared his index finger into his palm. “These talks are the only ones we’ll get in my lifetime.”
Heads all around nodded. “And though Gorbachev may mean what he says about keeping his hands off—God knows he’s ass deep in his own problems—our informers tell us his generals are pushing for riots here to make him send in the troops sitting on our border.” He placed his palms together like a priest. “Jaruzelski—our beloved president—will gladly crush Solidarity to keep his government in power. For now, he still has to go through Gorbachev, but if two generals act on their own . . .” Dabrowski drew the fingers of his left hand across his neck,“all will be lost on our side in a matter of days.”
As if sensing Finn’s impatience to know where this was leading, Dabrowski continued. “As you wrote so eloquently last month, the Soviet empire is stumbling like a drunk. We need someone to trip them, so they won’t be able to invade us. It can’t be a Pole. It can’t be anyone in the Communist sphere.” He spat. “Pack of thieves and bullies. We need the truth to get out to the West.”
“The truth about what?”
“The biggest lie ever told, at least if you’re Polish.” His face suggested he was going to be specific, but all he said was, “Will you help us?”
The contest for the biggest lie ever told was crowded with entries. New ones cropped up every year.
“My mother was Polish,” Finn said. “Russians kidnapped her father. She saw her grandparents skewered on German bayonets.” Unsure of where this tack was taking him, he stopped, but he knew from the quiet of ten half-wild men that he was in the presence of history. He longed to join it. “What do you need?”
“Go to Belarus. We’ll help you get there. Talk to a man and bring his story to the West. Get your paper to print it.”
The Round Table Talks had been fraught with struggles over minutiae and had been stalled for the last four days, but if Finn was absent when they resumed, the Times would fire him. Something Clarissa would cheer, no doubt. “How long will it take? And the risks?”
“A couple days,” Dabrowski said. “And since you ask, you could create an international incident. Or simply disappear.” He backhanded the air with such disregard it took Finn several seconds to realize it was his life Dabrowski was dismissing.
As Finn’s heart slammed once, Viktor flicked his hand to get Dabrowski’s attention. “Tell him we know what happened to his father.” His voice was not unkind.
Finn snapped his head to look at Viktor. “You know?” His mind leapt to the noir eight-by-ten photograph of the journalist Jordan Waters from the shoulders up. He was standing in the light of a street lamp. A fresh cigarette in his hand hovered near his mouth. The smoke of it still in him. His square jaw so much like Finn’s. Head cocked with a glint in his eye as if just called by the photographer. The rooflines behind hinted at some European city.
Lately, Finn had seen that confidence in the mirror staring back from his own dark eyes. Though the lines around Finn’s carried grief his father’s hadn’t had.
The day after his mother had howled that his father wouldn’t be coming home, Finn, then six years old, found the pieces of that photograph in the trash. In the early years when she slept, he would fit his father back together on his desk. Even now, the meticulously repaired image traveled with him in a laminated cover.
Dabrowski pulled him back. “Viktor’s wrong. We don’t know what happened to your father. We know he was a casualty of . . .” and he made small loops with his hand to signify everything that could go wrong, “the troubles inside the Curtain.”
There it was. The troubles inside the Curtain: a simple way to evoke Soviet tyranny grinding forty distinct nationalities into one ruined tribe. Jordan Waters vanished on assignment in 1956 during the twenty-four hellish days of the Hungarian Revolution. From all Finn had been able to determine, the United States government absorbed the loss of its citizen without protest or homage.
Dabrowski clapped his hands to keep himself on track. “We’re sending you to finish fifty years of mourning and to help us create a new era. In return, we’ll do this for you: If you’re not back in seventy-two hours, we’ll delay the talks another day, even if Jaruzelski begs to give us everything. And we’ll do all we can to get you out.” He looked each of his men in the eye. “If you succeed, Poland will become free in the present and free from the past.” He gazed wistfully at the map of his country that hung crooked on the bare wall to his left. “Her remaining free in the future depends on whether we Poles are idiots or if we are truly tired of being ruled by them.”
Finn had cut his journalistic teeth covering the fall of Saigon. He’d visited Jonestown right after the communal suicide. He’d spent two years reporting on Lebanon’s civil war. Since covering the Chernobyl nuclear accident, he’d been assigned almost exclusively behind the Iron Curtain. But unlike his father, he had never broken “the great story.”
His heart was thundering in his chest. “Promise me, this is news and not spying.”
“Some don’t believe there’s much of a difference.” Dabrowski pointed his finger as a warning. “No one ever needs to know how you get this story. That’s your protection.”
“Where am I going?”
Dabrowski leaned forward and spoke in a stage whisper. “I presume your mother told you about the massacre at Katyn.”
(End of Chapter One)