Christmas Eve 1989
Replete and feeling pleasantly tipsy after the annual charity Christmas Eve dinner at his restaurant, Robert McCall sat back in his armchair and stretched out his feet towards the fireplace. The lights on the Christmas tree twinkled and the brightly wrapped presents around the tree glowed in the firelight.
It was warm and cozy in his apartment but the pictures on the TV screen had transported him back across the years to a time, earlier in his life, when he had done things he would sooner forget.
The news reports had been full of the details of the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Cold War, a war that Robert had been fighting for most of his adult life. A war that had cost him dearly.
Not wanting any more reminders, he looked around for the remote control for the TV and saw the book sitting on the coffee table. The new brown leather binding was soft and the gold lettering on the spine read ‘The Diary of Samuel Carmody of Franklin County, Pennsylvania’.
Robert smiled to himself; Mickey had been so pleased with himself when he had found it in an antique bookshop in London in the summer. He’d had it re-bound and had given it to Robert the previous day as he was going to be away over Christmas.
He picked up the book and opened it carefully; the pages were yellowed with age and the ink was faded in places. He turned to an entry and read for a moment.
His thoughts once more returning to the images on the TV, Robert sighed, war never changed. It had been the same when he worked in Europe in the late seventies at the height of the Cold War. And to what end? With the Berlin Wall down, everything had changed, the old swept away in a matter of months.
An image on the TV of St Stephan’s cathedral in Vienna caught his attention; he’d been there in 1979. When he thought back, he remembered that it had also been Christmas Eve when he’d brought Mickey home from a disastrous mission for the Company. Because of the foolish risks he took, it had nearly been his last too, Robert realized with belated concern…
23rd December 1979 - Vienna
Mickey paced up and down Robert’s secure office, his vitality making the senior agent feel tired, "So let me get this straight, McCall, all I have to do is meet this scientist guy and, assuming he has all the right answers, I bring him to the hotel."
Resisting the temptation to get up and pace too, Robert instead sat back in his chair and followed Kostmayer’s path up and down the room with his eyes. "Yes, it is a straightforward piece of business. Valeri Yelmalov has been checked out by our Moscow station and they say he is on the up and up. We need his knowledge of Soviet rocket technology and he wants to leave Russia. So everyone is happy."
Mickey stopped and grinned, "Yeah, except his government. They’re gonna be pissed they lost their man."
"Quite." He studied the young man standing in front of him; thank God he wasn’t one of the Princeton graduates that seemed to be the flavor of the month in the Company nowadays. Kostmayer was a throwback to the old school of spying, he wouldn’t mind getting his hands dirty. It had been a good day’s work when he had proved Kostmayer innocent of the Navy's charges and had persuaded the younger man to join the Company.
"Remember, Kostmayer, no heroics. You are not going to win the war single handed."
"Yes, mother," he muttered under his breath.
Robert pretended not to hear. Kostmayer would go far if he could learn to keep his head and not take unnecessary risks.
Mickey leaned forward as though he was telling McCall some great secret, "Anyway, I don’t have time for anything else; it’s the twenty-fourth tomorrow and I’ve got a hot date."
Robert remembered to ask, "With whom?" Even though he already knew the answer. Mickey didn’t know that the secretary he was supposed to be meeting the following day was one of McCall’s people and that the date was part of an advanced training program he was running for the younger man.
"Alexandra, the ambassador’s secretary, the one who arrived a couple of days ago. She was complaining about being posted out here just before Christmas so I told her I’d help her celebrate and make her feel at home."
"Just remember, she isn’t to know what you are."
"Shit! I know that." He looked at Robert sadly. "It’s difficult though, I’ve tried telling them I work for the government like we are supposed to and they all take one look at me and think I’m lying and am a crook or something."
Nearly twenty-four hours later, Robert was starting to regret selecting Kostmayer for the job. He’d vanished and there had been no word at all from any of his contacts about a captured agent. All that Robert had been able to find out was that Yelmalov was being sent home. The hope that a buxom fraulein might have waylaid Kostmayer had crossed his mind but, to Robert, it was inconceivable that Mickey would be guilty of such dereliction of duty on account of a woman.
He’d done some checking and Yelmalov had left the conference on time to meet with Mickey.
Robert was still at his desk checking more leads when the phone rang, "Is this Robert McCall?"
"Who is this?" McCall snapped. "And how the hell did you get this number?"
"How I got the number is my secret. But, I do not want to talk now, this line is not secure." The English was heavily accented and tantalizingly familiar.
He’d been up all night and he controlled his temper with effort, hoping this had to do with Kostmayer’s mission. "What do you want?"
"Want? I want nothing." McCall was sure he heard a faint laugh, "I have something for you."
"What is it?"
"A Christmas present. Go to the northern end of Morzinplatz at once and wait, I will contact you there."
Abruptly the line went dead.
Robert hunted through his memory. The voice was one he had heard before and it was someone who knew him. Was it related to the failure of the mission and Kostmayer’s disappearance?
A gust of wind straight out of Siberia whistled through his overcoat and he shivered as he waited. He thought about getting back into his car again but he wanted to keep his limited options open.
Five minutes later a dark blue car pulled up beside him, the familiar Mercedes badge on the bonnet. The driver reached over and pushed open the passenger door, gesturing for Robert to get in. The car’s interior light illuminated a face he knew well, Vassily Scriabin. They had last come face to face in Berlin in sixty-nine – then they had both been on the fast track to promotion.
Robert wondered what the hell was going on to draw Scriabin out of his lair in Moscow. He also wondered for a moment if he had been stupid to come to this meet. He stuck his hand into his pocket and gripped the automatic there – at least he was armed.
"Get in, McCall. It must be very cold out there."
Leaning down to see more clearly into the vehicle, Robert was buffeted by the wind. "Vassily Scriabin, I am surprised to see you here, I thought you never ventured outside Moscow."
"I do on occasion, your watchers are just not good enough to keep up with my movements. Get in the car, McCall, I would prefer to be moving."
He’d dealt with Scriabin in the past and Robert weighed his options for a moment, he had the feeling that he needed to find out why Scriabin had arranged this meet.
He got in the car, appreciating the warmth. "So what do you have for me? Information?"
"Let us find somewhere we cannot be observed."
Scriabin drove the car expertly, heading west for around thirty minutes, before pulling off onto a small snow covered side road. The surrounding fields and the sky were almost the same color and lacking any sense of perspective. It would be very easy to freeze to death out here. The sense of desolation made Robert shiver again.
"Can we talk now? I am rather busy at the moment." Robert was curious but he didn’t want to let the Russian know that.
"Yes, I imagine that sorting out the Yelmalov affair is taking most of your time."
Robert kept his face expressionless, "I have no idea what you are talking about."
Vassily sighed, "Look, McCall, we have both been in this business for far too long. We don’t need to play games. I know that Yelmalov contacted your people and said that he wanted to defect and I know that you sent someone to meet him."
Robert waited; he wanted to know more before he revealed anything to this man. Scriabin had always been a formidable opponent.
Scriabin shook his head, "Don’t try my patience, McCall or this meeting can end now. Listen carefully to what I have to say. I was following Yelmalov when he met your man. Yelmalov panicked when he recognized me – I think he must have seen me in Moscow – anyway, he tried to cover his tracks and pulled a gun." Scriabin gave a wry smile, "I thought for a moment that he would shoot me! But the man is as bad a traitor as he is a scientist. He shot your agent and then tried to pretend that he had performed some great feat of bravery for the motherland."
Robert pushed his glasses back up his nose, it was a bloody shame, Kostmayer had had such potential. Well, at least he knew why the young agent hadn’t checked in.
"Will you return the body? His family will probably want to make arrangements." Robert kept his voice matter of fact, "And what will happen to Yelmalov?"
"Yelmalov will be returned home. He understands that I know his true part in these events. He will be very careful in future." Scriabin rubbed his hands over the steering wheel.
"Quite." Robert wished he could kill Yelmalov, that imbecile, himself.
"I imagine too that you will make sure that he will never be trusted by another western security service." Scriabin’s voice held the chill of a gulag.
"Of course." There was something here that didn’t ring true; Scriabin wouldn’t have met with him just to tell him about a dead agent. The KGB way was to use such an event to humiliate the opposition. "Why this meeting? And why all the secrecy? You could have informed me through official channels that you had terminated one of my people."
The Russian smiled, "Your man isn’t dead. Yelmalov is a bad shot. He merely wounded him."
Robert rubbed his hand over his face; he was too damn tired, "Why are you telling me this? It’s not like the KGB to want us to know in advance about their new publicity coups."
Scriabin looked around and, like a bolt out of the blue, Robert realized that he was acting for himself. "I have decided that I will return him to you as a personal favor. A Christmas gift perhaps."
Robert allowed the silence to build for a few moments before he replied, "What would you want in return?"
Though he kept his voice dispassionate, Robert’s mind was racing; he had to use this incident to the Company’s best advantage. Sacrificing Kostmayer, though inconvenient, would be necessary if Scriabin wanted too much in exchange. On the other hand if he could somehow use Kostmayer’s release as a bargaining lever…
After more silence Scriabin said, "I am growing increasingly disillusioned with those on the Central Committee. This business in Afghanistan…"
"Yes?" It seemed Scriabin wasn’t toeing the party line this time.
"They are behaving like children, deciding to overthrow Amin, all because they are scared of what the Muslims in Iran or the Chinese might do. We should never have sent in our troops." Scriabin looked directly at him, "Do you have any children, McCall?"
Robert was thrown, for a moment, by the change of subject. "Yes."
"Take my advice, my friend, if you have sons don’t let them join the army." Scriabin held up his hand before Robert could say anything, "I know you were a soldier and I too am a soldier, at one time it was an honorable trade, but not any longer."
"I’m sorry. I don’t understand."
"I want you to arrange for my son and his family to leave Russia."
"What?" Robert was taken aback by the enormity of the request.
"Yuri and his family are all I have left. He is a soldier and he heard last week that he is going to be sent to Afghanistan."
"Think carefully, McCall. Your colleague is still alive." Scriabin touched the front of his jacket, just where Robert knew he would be carrying a weapon, "But if we don’t come to an agreement, that can change." He shrugged and added sadly, "At least a bullet between the eyes is a lot kinder than what will happen to my son if the Afghans take him."
"What about you? What will you do when it becomes known that your son has defected?"
Scriabin smiled, "If you do your job well, they will never know. He will simply disappear."
Robert saw that Scriabin was deluding himself; when his family vanished, suspicion was bound to fall upon him. But, with Scriabin’s collusion, it would be relatively easy for Robert to smuggle his son out of Russia. And, until action was taken against the KGB man, it would be good to have a highly placed contact inside the Kremlin who owed him a favor. "You know I cannot guarantee anything. It would not be up to me alone…"
"Yes. But if you give me your word I will trust you. You are considered to be an honorable man in our business."
Robert took off his glove and held out his hand, thoughts of the damage he could inflict on the KGB uppermost in his mind. "I give my word that I will do my best to bring your son and his family to safety."
Scriabin removed his gloves and they shook hands. "Thank you."
He opened the door and began to get out. "Come. Your man is here." He gestured at a small wooden hut, almost hidden in the trees.
Pulling up the collar of his overcoat, Robert followed the big bear of a Russian as he moved easily through the snow. The idea that Scriabin would sacrifice everything for his family astounded Robert but at the same time made him pause to question his own motives. His job had already cost him his marriage and his relationship with his son would soon be another casualty. Who was more moral, his enemy for making his family more important or he himself for giving up everything he had ever held dear for his country?He was still mulling this idea over in his mind when Scriabin pushed open the hut door.
Robert stood near the doorway, careful not to be silhouetted against the iron-gray sky while Vassily walked into the hut. He heard noises. The scrape of a match, then light flared and he watched as the Russian lit an oil lamp.
Robert walked in and closed the door behind him; the hut wasn’t warm but at least it wasn’t as cold as outside. He let his gaze travel quickly around the room, taking in everything, but checking for another doorway or any signs that this might be a set-up.
When he was sure it was safe, he let his eyes return to the figure he had spotted lying on the wooden bunk in one corner of the cabin. In the dim light he couldn’t make out much except that Kostmayer was partially covered with a musty looking blanket.
Faint embers glowed in the fireplace and Vassily put a few more sticks on the fire, then walked over and sat down beside Kostmayer.
Concerned, Robert looked at him as the fire began to burn brighter and the light in the room increased. The bandage on Kostmayer’s shoulder was stained with fresh blood.
"Is he alright?" He tried hard to make his voice sound indifferent, but he knew the Company could ill afford to lose an agent with Kostmayer’s potential and he had to admit to a growing fondness for the younger man.
Vassily checked the bandage, "Yes, it is only bleeding slightly now. I had to stitch the wound after I dug out the bullet or he would have bled to death."
Seemingly unaware of the other men in the room, Mickey stirred, mumbling in an uneasy sleep.
"Is he unconscious? Will we need to carry him to the car?"
Scriabin laughed and the deep sound resounded around the hut, "We will have to carry him, but he is not unconscious, just drunk."
"Yes. I had to pour damn near half a bottle of vodka down his throat before he would let me help him. He’s a stubborn bastard."
"Yes, he is." Robert permitted himself a smile. He had known from their first meeting that Kostmayer was likely to be one of the best agents he had ever trained.
He walked over and crouched down beside Mickey, the rough bandage on his shoulder was fixed firmly and he didn’t think it advisable to interfere with it at this moment. He grasped Mickey’s other shoulder and shook it firmly, "Mickey." When he didn’t respond he shook him again, "Mickey, it’s McCall, you need to wake up."
With a groan, Kostmayer opened one eye; even in the dim light Robert could see he was having trouble focusing.
"Whassgoing on?" His voice was slurred.
"I’m here to take you home. Come on wake up."
Kostmayer started to roll over, "Lemme go back to sleep. Don’ wanna move."
Robert scratched his head; he might have known that Kostmayer wouldn’t cooperate. "Vassily, help me to sit him up."
The wide smile on Scriabin’s face made Robert wish he had never taken his call. The Russian thought the whole thing funny. For a moment, Robert was tempted to leave them together and burn the bloody hut down around their ears.
As fast as they sat him up, Kostmayer collapsed back onto the rough bunk. Sweating from all the exertion, in his thick overcoat, Robert suddenly had an idea, "Vassily, let’s try something different."
He walked over to the door and opened it, reaching outside to take a handful of soft powdery snow. With it chilling his hand, he went back over to Kostmayer and rubbed the icy mass over his face and chest.
With a yelp of surprise, Mickey woke and tried to sit up, "You bastard!" His words ended with a howl of pain as he wrenched his injured shoulder.
Robert grabbed his good shoulder and pulled him into a sitting position; for the moment he appeared to have sobered a little. At least he had both eyes open.
"Where am I?" It was a measure of Mickey’s discomfort that he didn’t even notice Scriabin sitting at the end of the bed.
"Very original," Robert said dryly.
Mickey looked at him for a moment as though collecting his thoughts, "Don’t bullshit me, McCall."
Robert nodded and pointed at Scriabin, "That man saved your life and in return we are going to do him a favor. You don’t need to know what that favor is."
Mickey closed his eyes, "Jeez, I feel terrible."
"I think you are going to feel a bloody sight worse before I get you back to the embassy. Can you walk?"
"Of course I can!"
He stood and immediately collapsed and it was only Scriabin’s rapid reactions that stopped him tipping onto the ground. Still smiling, the Russian sat Mickey back onto the bed and gently placed Mickey’s good arm into the sleeve of his parka. Scriabin zipped it closed.
"See, Robert, I told you he was stubborn. He reminds me of my son. Yuri is also pig headed."
Robert allowed himself a genuine smile. Kostmayer was alive and Company involvement was safe. "I think they all are, Vassily. My son is only thirteen, but already he is just as obstinate."
Robert stood on the other side of Mickey and between them they helped him to his feet. Careful not to jostle his damaged arm too much, they half walked and half carried him out of the hut.
The cold air must have cleared Kostmayer’s head a little because before they were half way to Scriabin’s car he doubled over again.
"What’s wrong?" Robert asked, looking at Kostmayer’s ashen, unshaven face.
"I feel sick."
Robert looked over at Scriabin, "Did you have to give him so much of your bloody gut-rot? If he makes a mess in my car I am going to send you the cleaning bill."
"It was the finest Russian vodka." Scriabin pretended to be insulted.
"It tasted like turpentine," Kostmayer grunted.
Surprised that Mickey could even talk Robert said, "Just remember, if you’re sick in my car, Kostmayer, I’ll throw you in the bloody Danube."
Robert shook himself out of his reminiscences; his outlook to life had changed so much since that lonely Christmas in Vienna. He was sure that Scriabin’s actions had set in motion the thoughts that the Company was not the be all and end all of his existence.
Robert would have liked the opportunity to thank Vassily Scriabin for making him take a good look at himself but it hadn’t been possible. He had kept his word and Yuri and his family were relocated in Minnesota. But within months Vassily had vanished and, after making a few discreet enquiries, Robert had discovered that he had been denounced and shot.
Life had certainly turned out differently than he would have ever dreamed it on that Christmas Eve so long ago.
Robert looked at his watch, it was very late and he had to get up early to start his Christmas rounds. He had four places to go to deliver gifts before he had to get to Scott’s apartment to cook Christmas dinner with his son. They were expecting a house filled with an assortment of both their friends, including a certain young musician from Minnesota.
And God Bless Us, Everyone.