Control forced himself to keep looking at Jason, letting a small smile play on his face. "Interesting," he murmured.
Jason leaned back in his chair, looking as greasy and smug as ever, "I just thought that everyone should know that the former, great company agent, Robert McCall has fallen into senility and incompetence. I asked him to do one small thing for me and, even when I fed him most of the information he needed, he wasn't able to come up with the goods." He grinned.
Control made his face a blank. "What did you ask him to do for you and why?"
"Well," Jason said, "Let’s just say my using McCall was a marriage of convenience. You remember how that goes – don’t you Control? You plant a grain of information with someone outside the Company, putting it where it’ll do the most damage. That way you and the Company aren’t involved and the by-products are that you get your interests taken care of, your hands are almost clean and the fool you manipulated to do your dirty work now owes you one." He pouted. "Or have you forgotten how a good agent does business?"
Keeping his disgust below boiling point, Control continued to stare at Jason, not saying a word. Quiet always makes his type uncomfortable. Leaving them with their own thoughts unhinges them and sure enough, Jason began to fidget as the silence continued.
"Well, now." Jason apparently regained his composure the moment he filled the room with his own voice. "I asked him to do a little nothing as a favor. You know," he winked, "easy stuff. I just wanted to see for myself if McCall was worth of all the mythology and rumor that surrounds him in the Company. And I now I see he isn’t." His smug smile became even more self-satisfied.
Control didn’t change his expression as he nodded at the little worm. Jason was bragging that he asked McCall to do him a favor and thought that Control didn’t have a clue as to the nature of that favor?
Control glanced at his wristwatch. "Look at the time! I need to see a man about a dog." He stood up and grabbed a file from his desk, turned to the closet, shrugged on his coat and picked up his briefcase. He caught a fast glimpse of the confused expression on Jason’s pasty face.
"What the hell are you talking about ?" Jason managed to say. "Are you senile too?" he called out as Control left the room.
Senile? Doubtful, Control thought as he took the stairs down to the parking lot. That idiot doesn’t think one step ahead.
Control had been in the business far too long not to know all about Jason’s plans the minute he heard that Brian was coming to the city. Although he hadn’t dug up the reason for Jason’s hatred against Brian – yet – Control had known about the Achilles heel of the little weasel ever since Jason was thrust into a position of power.
And now, the fool has ruined years of painstakingly set-up lies and rumor and wrecked one of Control’s better strategies by involving McCall. The cover story involving the Company players in the Solidarity movement had held since 1981. And now, because of a personal vendetta Jason held against one man, he’d have to work to save as much of the situation as he could while still keeping McCall happy.
Jason, the little putz.
He got to his car and slid in. Checking the area – there was no one was around – he opened his briefcase, switched on a small button at its side and waited. In moments a slip of paper was spit out. He read the small print and grunted. The location of McCall’s Jag was at the warehouse where Brian’s latest arms shipment had been confiscated by the NYPD.
He started the engine and took off. If McCall ever suspected he had a tracking device in his Jag, he’d blow the thing up and take Control’s head with it. Damn that man. If a few secreted devices hadn’t been placed around McCall for surveillance, the former Company man would still be considered a "terminate with prejudice" code red instead of a "watch with interest" code yellow.
Waiting for the unending masses of Christmas shoppers to cross the city streets at every corner, Control used the time to weave a story good enough to pacify McCall. It had to be well crafted to justify why he kept the truth about Brian’s innocence and General Mischa’s guilt from him.
Well, telling the truth was out. It usually was. Control wasn’t comfortable with the truth. He had little dominion over it.
Turning down the more deserted streets of Manhattan, he finally got to the warehouse. He closed the black briefcase with the tracking device and locked it into a secret compartment under his seat. Making sure the file he had placed in his inside pocket was tucked in securely, he climbed out of the car.
Whether it was the cold December night or the fact that he would have to corral an angry McCall that made him shiver, he couldn’t tell, but he made sure to check his gun’s placement before he buttoned his coat. Force against McCall wasn’t the best idea, but with a man that deadly, it paid to be careful.
Deep breaths, old man, he mumbled to himself as he entered the warehouse. Deep breaths.
It wasn’t difficult to find McCall. The warehouse was brightly lit and the last of the police tape was strewn around, leaving a paper trail that led to a drunken McCall sitting on a crate muttering loudly to himself, a half empty whisky bottle at his feet.
"What’d you want Control, you lying bastard." McCall opened one bleary eye at him. "Better yet, bugger off!"
"Right," Control said as he first tested and then sat on a heavy wooden box.
McCall moved his right hand an inch and revealed a gun. "Even better, perhaps I should just blow your brains out so you can’t lie and manipulate me or anyone else ever again."
If McCall were going to shoot him, he wouldn’t have announced it. Control waited impatiently for the man to spout his usual indignant complaints, but no more were forthcoming. "So, McCall, You figured it all out eh?"
"Once Jason, that little twit, told me Brian hadn’t betrayed Angela and the children and that it was General Mischa that had her killed, your self-serving secrets and lies unraveled nicely."
The crate was hard, the warehouse was cold and filthy and he was staring down the wrong end of a gun. Suddenly, the idea that he had to defend himself against character assassination turned Control’s stomach sour. "I might be a bastard, but I don’t do it for self aggrandizement."
"Bollocks," McCall grunted. "Maybe you aren’t as bad as Jason, but you’re no damn prize."
Control let the words roll off him as he leaned back against the wall. "When General Mischa let it be known that he no longer controlled the west road, we all thought it was clear. I didn’t know that he had retaken it until after you were stopped – that’s the bottom line there. He said he had been under orders to retake the road but he proved his dedication to the covert contract with us by saving our agent’s hide – your hide. At the time I had no idea that our mole had turned against us."
He sat for a moment and tried to read McCall‘s expression. Nothing. "If I could have saved the woman and the mission, I would have." He stared at his old colleague. "You know that."
McCall’s hooded eyes remained on the bottle of whisky for a long time, as he seemed to weigh the facts. Then he nodded.
Control continued. "And then, when Brian went AWOL that afternoon with a boatload of money and arms, we all thought he had sold out."
McCall grimaced. "Too easy a coincidence that. Was it true?"
"Yes, he disappeared and did a damn good job of it. I think he left when he discovered the information he gave you that the west road was safe turned out to be false," Control raised his eyebrow. "I imagine he didn’t want to face you when he heard that you’d escaped. He knew you’d go for his throat before waiting for an explanation."
McCall lifted the whisky bottle, tipped it to his mouth for a moment, swallowed and sighed. Then he offered it to Control.
Leaning forward, he grabbed the bottle and lifted it to his lips. He drank and savored the fine fumes rising into his head. "Good stuff for a bad drunk?" He handed it back.
McCall drank deeply again and sighed. "Ahh, the balm of forgetfulness." He shook his head. "For all these years, how could have I missed the fact that Mischa was the traitor – and more importantly, how did you?"
Setting himself deeper into his warm coat Control chose his words carefully. "Happy as I was that you were pulled from the bus and taken away to safety by Mischa’s men, a lot about that story bothered me. The cover we established for you, that you were a British citizen who helped Solidarity out of a misguided love affair, shouldn’t have gotten you out of that situation alive. Under normal circumstances you should have been shot and buried in the ditch, right next to that woman –,"
"Angela," Robert said, his voice filled with bitterness. "Not ‘that woman’. Her name was Angela Chorzempa, and she was one of the bravest and most admirable women I have ever met in my life." He took in an open mouthful of air and blinked watery eyes. "A ditch? That lovely woman ended her life in a ditch?" His voice became louder, acrimonious. "I managed to lead her and a bus filled with children to their demise!" Angry, he smashed the bottle against the wall next to him. "Instead of being Father Christmas, I played the role of the Angel of Death."
The smell of fine whisky filled the area.
What a waste.
Control waited a moment before continuing. "General Mischa’s story that he just managed to rescue you from the main government forces didn’t sit well with me. I had reservations about it."
"So?" McCall glared at him.
Annoyance began to crawl through Control. Always pushing, that was McCall. Pushing until the whole damned scenario came out. "So I managed to find Brian by the end of the week… and I questioned him."
"What?" McCall bared his teeth in a growl. "You found him so soon? Why the devil didn’t you tell me? I was on his trail for months until I finally had to give up." He set his jaw as an idea visibly hit him. "You hid him from me all this time didn’t you?"
"I pried the whole story from him, let’s leave it at that. There was no need to inform you after I got the truth."
McCall gave a half grin that was more like a sneer. "You got your hands dirty with torture did you?"
It was always so easy for McCall to act holier than thou, so easy for him to forget his own hours spent exchanging pain for information. Rabid anger found its way to his surface for a second before Control put it down.
When he could trust his voice to give away nothing, he spoke. "Brian confessed to stealing arms and money from the States and the Company. He had been planning his new career in international arms sales when he managed to steal a dozen used Russian tanks from the Polish Government. It brought him a hell of a windfall."
A headache was starting to throb and Control rubbed his forehead, "He thought that the time was right that day to jump ship. He confessed to that, but never varied, no matter what was done to him, that he was not the one who set you and the busload of children up to be captured. After that, I ah… renegotiated his relationship with the Company. I’d hide him from you and he’d take the occasional order from me, while filling me in on the details of the more important illegal arms deal negotiations."
Blowing air out of his lips, McCall looked with obvious regret at the broken bottle and whiskey splashed on the floor and wall. He then pushed to his feet and staggered towards Control.
"Why didn’t you say something?" he barked, "You permitted me to think Brian was the traitor and let me search for him for all this time, instead of looking for the real culprit."
Control looked away from the swaying man looming above him. "Follow your own logic, will you? It was December of 1981. Poland's government established martial law and suspended Solidarity's activities. Walesa and hundreds of other union leaders were imprisoned and that’s why we took their children under our wing – for their own safety."
McCall glared down at him.
"Ok, also, so the Soviets couldn’t use them as pawns to force the leaders to capitulate to their orders. The plan was sound, many of the children stayed out of harm’s way. True it helped us, but their safety also gave many of the leaders of Solidarity the freedom to keep working."
McCall swayed a little more while he appeared to be thinking. "Why bother? Solidarity is dead. Now, give me full disclosure, man!"
"In October 1982, when the government outlawed Solidarity, we still had most of the children hidden in other countries away from harm. Walesa was released in November and the plan is that the other prisoners will be freed over the next couple of years. The Polish people haven’t given up on Solidarity and because their leaders are unhindered by the fear of reprisals on their children, there’s a good possibility that it can be restored to life."
"What has this to do with Mischa?"
"We still have him on contract, paying him for information. I knew you could have gotten your hands on General Mischa easily enough –"
"Right!" McCall was boiling with rage, his fists were balled tight, "and he would have paid for his crime."
Control couldn't put up with being loomed over for one more moment and he stood, forcing McCall to take a step backwards. "And then he’d be dead and of no use to me."
"Use? Use?" McCall sneered, "Of what use is a man who would arrange for the death of such a woman as Angela – and for God’s sake, those children. I’ve only heard rumors of what happened to that busload of children, I’ve never found out their fate. I know that the truth of what happened might rend my soul from my body."
Oh Lord. Control reached into his inner pocket and pulled out the file. He’d better do this before McCall passed out, "Here. Here’s the story of all the children. All of them are fine. Merry Christmas."
McCall speared him with a stare and then took the file and leafed through it.
"They’re all there, old son. All of the children in your bus were later used to blackmail their parents into disavowing the cause. In exchange for the children’s safety the leaders of Solidarity traded their hopes of a new life in the future, for the immediate lives of their children. As we knew they would, those parents folded and denounced the movement."
His attention deep in the file, McCall grunted. "But all alive."
Control sighed. "Yes. When we help the next push of Solidarity, we’ll make sure that the families of the new leaders are out of Poland right away.
McCall studied the file some more. "The next push?" he finally asked.
"That’s why I wanted General Mischa alive. Misinformation is sometimes a very powerful weapon for us."
"You’re telling me that Solidarity will be revived soon?"
Throwing his own glare at McCall, Control nodded. "We haven’t been sitting twirling our thumbs. Solidarity is the key we’ve been looking for to take down the whole Soviet Union."
McCall shook his head. "I think that’s a rather over confident statement."
"Not at all. I’m telling you – no, promising you – that by the end of this decade, Solidarity will be resurrected and it will herald the fall of the Soviets. I swear it."
Rheumy eyes wide, McCall gaped at him. "My Lord Control, you’re either a mad man or…"
"Or calling the truth."
Suddenly exhausted, Control sat back down on a crate. "I’ve been working on this since the moment Lech Welensa first spoke about it in public. And by God it’s going to be a reality, McCall. Within a few years it’s going to be a certainty."
"Are you telling me Mischa has a part in this?"
"He had a part. We’ve used him to spread misinformation to the Soviets as much as we can, but the man has become a liability. He’s drowning in vodka and the extra money we’ve been sending him. If he opens his mouth, all the false information we’ve planted with him will be ruined."
"Worried that the liar will be found out?" McCall mocked him and sat down on his own crate with a thump.
Control chose to disregard the insult. "I had been planning a little surprise for him when he goes on his Christmas vacation with his new mistress."
"Company plying that trade again are we?" McCall sneered.
"Damn it McCall, keep your contempt to yourself. We both know that pillow talk has been known to topple governments. And without it this time, we wouldn’t know how far gone into alcoholism Mischa has traveled. He’s thinking of selling out and then leaving his family and office to live in wealth in an unnamed country, never to be seen again."
McCall’s eyes caught and pierced him. "You won’t permit that to happen will you? You won’t let him get away?"
"Do you think that I’d sit idly by and permit anyone to live long enough to be able to boast that he’d been able to dupe the Company, the government of the United States –,"
"Or you?" McCall finished, "No, not bloody likely, old friend."
"Goddamn it, McCall, let me finish!" Control stopped himself.
Rein it in man.
He took a moment to clear his throat. " – and perhaps ruin the plans we have already set in motion to bring Solidarity back into power." Control permitted himself a small smile. "Two of your colleagues have been working on a plan to visit General Mischa over the Christmas vacation."
McCall nodded, the wheels in his mind visibly turning. "I also would love to exchange holiday thoughts with him."
"Kostmayer and Cook will drop in unexpectedly on General Mischa."
"Ah!" McCall’s eyes were bright. "I knew Kostmayer and Cook were unavailable to me. You picked well, Control. Georgie is the perfect drinking companion, his leg is hollow and he can drink any man under the table. Once the vodka is flowing he fits right in with other bear-like Polish and Russian revelers."
"And his Polish accent is most passable when everyone is drunk. And don’t forget how much Kostmayer enjoys his visits to the Old Country."
"Ah, yes. It’s been far too long a time since I’ve experienced Christmas in Poland," Robert said, his meaning clear.
No need to rush his punch line, Control decided an abrupt change of subject. "Were you and Angela involved?"
Taken aback, McCall blinked. "We never broached the subject. We were working. She was dedicated to the cause and to the welfare of the children in her care. We both would never leave the children alone to… but there was a powerful attraction between us. I was quite optimistic that once the mission was over, we would… I don’t know," he sighed, "something. I regret I never told her, put into words how much I admired her, how deeply I respected everything about her. And then it was too late."
Yes, Control remembered such feelings. Respect and admiration all mixed with desire. Without thinking, he said, "The deepest vows are sometimes never spoken."
"Ah," McCall jabbed, "so a heart does beat within that hollow chest?"
Control felt that barb hit home. Of all the men in the world, Robert McCall knew of his heartache. When Susan left him, McCall was the one who…"That was uncalled for."
McCall’s expression became solemn, "I’m sorry, old friend, that was not fair of me."
Now was the time to make the offer. If McCall accepted, then he’d be sure that the mission would be successful and that McCall would never question any details of the ‘81 mission again. "I hear that Malbork Castle in Gdansk is beautiful at Christmas."
"Really?" McCall lifted one eyebrow, "I’ve never been." Then he hesitated and his face fell. "I’ve been debating the nature of revenge lately."
Blast it. What was wrong with that man? Always thinking, always questioning.
McCall leaned his head back against the warehouse wall and closed his eyes. "You know, there is an old saying that the souls of the dead demand vengeance but that a man who seeks vengeance should dig two graves."
Control felt like laughing. "Fortune cookie quotes? You’re giving me platitudes?" He rubbed his brow, hiding his smile. "Then how’s this? Think of it this way. What we’re seeking here with General Mischa is Justice, with a capital J. And ‘Justice is rendering to every one that which is his due’. Right?"
McCall had a cynical smile on his face. "But as Shakespeare says, ‘This even-handed justice commends the ingredients of our poisoned chalice To our own lips’."
"Oh for –!"Control slammed his left fist on the wooden crate – hard. Pain surged through his hand but it only fueled his anger. "We do our jobs. You and I both took the duty of sipping from that poisoned chalice and digging those extra graves upon ourselves to make certain that no more souls will be added to the voices of the dead to demand vengeance. Who else is there to hear their wrath? We dirty our hands and soil our souls in the name of justice because the world isn’t a nice safe place where good is rewarded and evil automatically impeded."
His knuckles were throbbing with pain and he looked at them as he opened and closed his hand.
Scraped, but nothing broken.
Why did McCall always do that to him? Make him so mad that he, who never lost his composure, always ended up shouting. He was there to manipulate McCall’s emotions with the express purpose of getting him onboard to tie up all of the loose ends dealing with General Mischa, and now – he chanced a quick look at McCall – his temper might have ruined everything.
McCall was sitting on the crate opposite him, his jaw set, his eyes blazing. But still Control couldn’t read him.
"Of course I’m right," Control said without thinking.
McCall nodded. "I’ve taken on the mantle of the Equalizer at this time of my life in order to help those without hope, without power or voice, people who have the odds against them. I’m working for justice, and to that cause I’ve dedicated myself and what’s left of my soul."
He stood and walked to Control, his hand proffered to be shaken. "I feel a bit better now that I’ve resolved to do something to ensure a safe future for others. Bringing General Mischa down is not just vengeance or a sense of finality to my feelings about Angela and the mission, but a move to help others, people he might harm in future."
Trying to not show any surprise, Control shook McCall’s hand and then stood to face him, "You’ll have to be briefed and go over the mission specs as soon as possible. Your trip to Poland is scheduled for the twentieth."
"Yes," McCall said, "Good."
They started to walk towards the exit of the warehouse. A sense of peace overcame him. Things turned out well.
"I’ll drive you to your apartment," Control said, "you’re too whisky sodden to get behind the wheel." He glanced at McCall and noted that the man knew enough to give in.
"Then be a nice chap and send someone to deliver the Jag to my brownstone," McCall said as they headed to Control’s car. "And old friend, I think, before I leave for this little excursion to Poland, I will have a small gift for you."
"Gift? We never exchange gifts. There’s no need for any –,"
"Oh but I insist. You’re fronting me back to Poland, thus permitting me a chance to completely investigate Mischa and Brian’s dealings in ’81 and beyond." He cleared his throat, "If at all possible, we'll be bringing Mischa back alive for a proper debriefing."
Control's stomach tuned sour. For Christ’s sake, can the man never leave well enough alone? "There’s no reason to delve into it anymore McCall. Once you deal with Mischa, in Poland, then it’s all history, and best forgotten history at that."
A cold smile showed on McCall’s lips as he stepped in front of Control and turned to face him. "You know me better than that old friend. I never leave well enough alone."
Exhaustion overcame Control. Yes, honestly he knew all along that the truth would come out once McCall had become involved again. And when it did, he’d handle it – as always.
McCall leaned forward, right in Control’s face. "I consider this ride along to Poland with Kostmayer and Cook a gift from you." His voice had a false light ring to it. "And I’ll be sure to repay you in kind."
Stepping around McCall he aimed toward his car. "No need, I don’t want anything."
"But this is something that, I believe, is already yours." McCall’s voice no longer had the false ring of joviality to it. "I can’t help but wonder how you knew where to find me this evening. It makes me sure that you have somehow managed to place an as yet undetected tracking device on me – somewhere.
Control managed not to curse out loud.
"And when I find it – and rest assured I shall – even if it be as small as a grain of sand or as slender as a silken thread, woven in amongst thousands of others in my most dainty of dainties – I shall find it, my old friend. And then I shall wrap it in a gaudy, sparkly Christmas box and deliver it to you."
They had gotten to the car. Control stopped at the driver’s door to glare at McCall, now looking sober as a judge as he walked to the passenger side.
Lord! Control felt his mind racing, his juices pumping. It had been a while since he had been as mentally challenged by a personal encounter as he was today.
Suddenly he couldn’t help but grin. He felt like laughing.
Looking over the top of the car he addressed his friend. "Damn it McCall. Do I ever miss these cat and mouse, master’s chess game maneuvers between us. If you knew what my days are like, battling stunted mental pea-brains like Jason and his ilk, pacifying the plodding monstrous egos of unremarkable men, you’d have an idea of how much I miss you. You’re the closest thing I have to a conscience."
"I also miss our battles of wills, Control." McCall chuckled. "Say, care for some food and further libations?"
"Ah," Control felt all tension lift, "Don’t mind if I do."
McCall pounded on the hood of the car. "Vodka tonight! Do sprawiedliwości! I need to get into training for my trip. Szczęśliwe Boże Narodzenie!"
Control opened the car door and laughed to himself. "To Justice indeed. And right back to you Old Son. Happy Christmas."