Stepping on the Throat of His Own Song
Agent: Josh Getzler, Hannigan Salky & Getzler
Kosmo Zablov had no grasp of situations in their whole, though he could execute flawlessly against any detail that protected or advanced his own self-interest. He had never questioned his instincts in this regard and certainly never considered any moral implications.
But right at this moment, he would have given anything for the mental agility that could’ve freed him to apply his gifts of self-preservation to the mechanics of his actual job. It seemed like such a small leap and yet somehow he had never mastered it. If only Kosmo could have been more like his brother.
“Lucky Yakov,” the spy bemoaned, as he pulled his overcoat close and descended into the Prospect Mira metro station.
Yakov was a journalist, and one of some repute, who was always writing stories about exemplary Soviet scientists or engineers. It amazed Kosmo how his older brother never failed to convince himself that he possessed the same dexterity as his subjects and could’ve easily – if he had fancied – become, say, a prize-winning physicist, instead of someone who simply interviewed physicists.
But this was a moot point.
Zablov’s problem was made worse by the fact that he had no insight into his one and only talent, either. It wasn’t a skill he had practiced and perfected, the way Yakov had mastered three-act journalistic structure. As a result, he didn’t know how he had come to the decisions he had made or why things had always worked out for him.
And unlike his good brother Yakov, Kosmo Zablov had no inclination towards self-delusion. He knew very well that he had risen in the ranks of the KGB by manufacturing espionage escapades that allowed him to save the day, and passing off the blame for the very real exploits he had overlooked. Politics and intrigue were where Zablov’s core abilities lay, and it was imperative that he rise out of the KGB and into areas of diplomacy. There, his inadequacies could take years to surface.
For the time being, however, he still had to deliver real results and his terror of getting caught “improvising,” as he liked to call it, was starting to wear on him.
The nightmares, the tremble in his pinky finger, the days of insomnia before any meeting with a superior, and the crushing lower back pain that seemed to start at his arches and shoot up to his buttocks before lodging itself at the base of his spine, had all intensified as expectations of him increased and he began to be considered for the very positions he had been striving for, but never seemed to get offered.
Finally, not two weeks before, Comrade General Pushkin had revealed to him that a diplomatic post was indeed in his future, but not for another two to three years. By then, Pasha Tarkhan would be tendered a seat at the big table in Moscow and Zablov could succeed him on the Lobster and Lafite circuit, as it was called.
“Only the ’45. The remainder of the 40s Bordeaux’s are dreadful,” he mimicked Tarkhan’s Georgian accent to himself.
Two to three years was an eternity under his present circumstances! Not only could an associate stumble upon his shortfalls, but a foreign agent could exploit them as well. He’d seen it happen before.
“I’d rather compose romances for you – more profit in it and more charm.
But I subdued myself, setting my heel on the throat of my own song,” he whispered the Mayakovsky poem, almost laughing, as a fat-faced hag turned at the sound of his voice. Zablov elbowed his way past her on the stairwell.
Poetry – Mayakovsky’s – soothed him; it was the way the words pranced from his tongue and out into the ethos as if he’d composed them. If he was Yakov, he would be certain that he could have, had he not turned his eye towards journalism, of course.
It pleased Zablov to remind himself of his brother’s shortcomings. Particularly as he struggled to shake the curly-headed man with the dented face General Pushkin dispatched to follow him. The Neanderthal had made no effort to hide his intentions and strolled around the metro station – hands in his pockets, admiring the Cathedral ceilings and giant Deco chandeliers –until he hopped onto the same coach Zablov had boarded.
“Try this, you box-eyed bastard,” Zablov grunted as he muscled his way out of the train car’s sliding doors just before they squeezed shut, and jumped onto another train bulleting in the opposite direction. Pushkin’s thug was left wedged behind him – stuck on a coach to Oktyabrskaya.
Zablov needed all the time he could steal in order to get in and out of the secret apartment he kept in Leningradsky Prospect. It had been a stroke of genius on his part to secure the place for his own use – genius and blind luck. The one-bedroom flat had been formerly used to spy on a biologist who ended up brain-dead after a drunken skiing accident. Instead of having the flat reassigned, Zablov had burned all files on the ill-fated scientist and transferred the authorization of residency to a man he’d invented.
While the flat was hardly the type of place he would take anyone but an indiscriminating slut, it did possess one critical perk: It had a working telephone.
“Immediately, please. I want to place a call to Heraklion, Greece.” Zablov used his best Belarus accent to disguise his voice. All outgoing and incoming calls were recorded and deliberated upon ad nauseam by young intelligence officers eager to make a name for themselves. Zablov had spent his first two years out of school scribbling just such painstaking notes and exaggerating the significance of mostly banal conversations.
He hung up the phone and waited for the operator to call back, hoping against hope that for once the Moscow switchboard would operate with a modicum of efficiency. There was no food in the cupboards, only a few satchels of tea, so Zablov prepared a cup and sat a few feet away from the window.
“Mother of God!” he yelped, nearly falling off the old piano stool that served as the only chair in the flat. Pushkin’s thug – with his smashed-in face and gait like a rhinoceros – was lumbering down Tverskaya Street, his shape unmistakable under the lamplight. He nodded at an old woman carrying a beehive satchel, and crossed the street, looking up at Zablov’s apartment.
“Bastard!” Zablov cried, crouching to the floor. It would’ve been impossible for the thug to see him, but he was taking no chances. The spy reached up and dialed the phone again, peeking just over the window sill to glimpse the top of the thug’s head as he entered the building.
“International operator,” he begged. It took a little under four minutes for a normal man to walk up to the ninth floor. This allowed time for a half minute rest on the sixth floor and the eighteen paces it took from the top of the staircase to Zablov’s apartment door.
“Operator, I called a few minutes ago regarding a line to Greece. Yes, yes, I know. ” Zablov held his palm over the receiver and took two deep breaths before resuming. “This is an extreme emergency, you see. My mother is very ill. It can be any moment now.”
He nodded his head as the operator explained procedure and ground his knuckle into a groove on the telephone table. “Yes, I’ll hold.”
He imagined the thug’s breath getting more labored with each stair – taken two at a time at first, but not slowing down.
“Another minute, you say?”
It occurred to him suddenly that he hadn’t devised what he was going to tell the Cretan gangster. He couldn’t reveal the truth for obvious reasons – the bald menace had already pocketed his fee and couldn’t care less about the mess Zablov had stumbled into.
Great news, my friend! You can tell your man I won’t be requiring his services – not this time, anyway. Zablov tried it on, but it was wrong. A man like that – with his pair of thick-fingered hands created for one and one only purpose – would never buy it.
Call it off, unless you want to lose your only advocate in Moscow.
“No,” Zablov murmured. Far too much information, and no guarantee that he was the Cretan’s only advocate.
You’re in danger. Call it off.
The message was simple and mysterious – just the right combination to motivate the paranoid mind of a criminal.
“Yes, I’m still holding,” he stuttered. Zablov put the telephone receiver down and crept to the foyer. He held his breath as he put his ear to the door, as if any noise he made could be yet another piece of evidence against him. He could hear, on the seventh floor, the unmistakable thud of a pair of police boots, mounting the stairs at a stoutly pace. The thug was making excellent time, and had clearly foregone the need for a rest. Zablov’s shoulders dropped, surrendering into a slouch. The catalog of his alleged crimes, he realized, was impressive: treason, conspiracy, murder. He could even hear himself listing the evidence against him, as Jarko, his enforcer, stood behind him with a truncheon.
Isn’t it true you met with Pasha Tarkhan in Prague?
Isn’t it true you were his accomplice in treason against the Soviet Union?
Isn’t it true that you hired an assassin to have Pasha Tarkhan murdered before he could corroborate any evidence against you?
“Horrific coincidence,” Zablov wailed.
It was, to Zablov, profoundly unfair that a mere scheme for a promotion had entangled him in much larger events that he had so little control over. If he’d even suspected that Tarkhan was a double agent, he would’ve made other plans! He certainly wouldn’t have had drinks with the man in Prague at the damned Hotel Paris, where everyone and their third cousin could have spotted them.
“Mother,” he cried, his eyes searching the pock-marked plaster of the ceiling. Zablov didn’t know why he called for her. She’d always loved Yakov better.
Tender souls! You play your love on a fiddle, and the crude club their love on a drum. But you cannot turn yourselves inside out, like me, and be just bare lips!
He invoked Mayakovsky – though not out loud this time. Just to himself.
Zablov took a sip of his tea and reached into his wallet, taking out a small, twenty-six year-old newspaper clipping. It showed a picture of Mayakovsky—twenty-two, but looking forty. The article went on to detail his unfortunate end: age thirty-six, playing Russian roulette until he lost.
Both poet laureate and shameless Bolshevik flack, Mayakovsky had always fascinated Kosmo Zablov, and the spy now found disturbing parallels between his own life and that of the young, brooding poet’s. Zablov gazed closely into his imagined counterpart’s eyes. Even then, when he was in the thrall of his Bolshevik hallucinations, Mayakovsky’s eyes looked doomed, and Zablov wondered if his own eyes, at twenty-two, told a similar tale.
The soft rap at the door came in tandem with a voice that was at once kindly and willing to understand. Zablov had heard such a voice a thousand times during various interrogations.
“I’ll be right with you,” Zablov called. “Let me just get a robe.”
Kosmo Zablov gulped the remainder of his tea. It was hot and stung the back of his throat. He flitted to the window, opening it wide and peering all the way down onto the concrete walk spotted with dog feces. Tucking Mayakovsky’s worn portrait into his breast pocket, he eased his buttocks onto the window ledge.
“Comrade Zablov, are you alright?” the voice called.
“Forgive me, yes,” Kosmo said. “I just wasn’t expecting company.”
He knew not to take a breath or endeavor to think. He had been witness to too many poor saps who had lost their nerve and regretted it. So, in a single, fluid motion, he tipped back into the chilly air.
“Comrade Zablov,” the voice from behind the door proffered. “This can all be very civilized.”