When the engine died, the silence of the mountain climbed down from the tall trees. Nothing stirred, no buzz of insects, no breeze to break the afternoon heat rising from the valley below. The car, parked on the far edge of the clearing, tilted slightly to the east. From there the land fell away, gently at first and then more steeply, the thin cover of soil giving way to a few steps of smooth, bare rock before it vanished into seven hundred meters of untroubled air.
It wasn’t a surprise, seeing the car. I hadn’t expected them on any particular day, but it was always clear they would show up. Even if there had been some way to avoid them this time, some way to open a door to the past, I wouldn’t have tried. Sooner or later everything was meant to lead to here. I could reconstruct all I’d ever said, redo all I’d ever done, but it would only lead back to this moment, looking out at that car. Maybe this was as good a time as any. It was autumn, and autumn marked the spiral down.
I watched from the window, waiting to see how the process would unfold. They would do it by the book, I felt sure, no surprises. That was how these things were done.
The telephone rang. I picked up the receiver.
“You see them?” It wasn’t a voice I knew. “Don’t go outside.”
“Who is this?” We had never done this sort of thing, called before we went to pick someone up. It always led to fretting.
“Worry with that later. I repeat, don’t go outside.”
The phone clicked, dead.
When I went back to the window, there were two of them, leaning against the car, their jackets off in the stifling air. People forget that on a mountaintop in October, it can still be so hot. The one on the left, the driver, looked toward the trees when he saw me. The other one said something out of the corner of his mouth; then he stuck his chin out and stared straight ahead. After a while, he shook his head, and they went away. Odd, I thought to myself. Not the way we used to do it.
A week later, the phone rang again. The wind had been blowing hard all day, but now it stopped abruptly, so it seemed even more quiet than usual, the way an autumn afternoon can get when the year has nothing left to say. Late afternoon quiet, late afternoon light; you could blow your brains out at that time of day in October and nothing would happen. Everything died in autumn. The afternoon wouldn’t notice.
“They’ll be at your place in a few minutes.”
It was the same voice. This was annoying, this abrupt familiarity. “You have a wrong number again.”
“Yeah, must be. I’m just dialing at random, making obscure comments to pass the time.”
“Do we know each other? I don’t recognize the voice. You called before, right? Maybe we should introduce ourselves, if this is going to get regular.”
“That’s fine. Listen, this time when they drive up, you go out to meet them.”
“And if I don’t feel like it?”
“There’s no interest in your preferences, comrade. Put on a coat and tie, and be outside when they pull up. The whole thing won’t take very long. You’ll be back in time to fix dinner and to sand wood far into the night.”
I hung up. Even if the driver was suicidal, he couldn’t get to Pyongyang and back in time for dinner. He probably couldn’t even do it the same day. It didn’t matter—I wasn’t putting on a tie.
As I closed the door behind me and walked out to the car, I could see that this time there was no “they.” The driver was by himself, sitting in the front seat, staring out the front wind-shield. It wasn’t even the same driver who had been here the week before. From the side, he had the pointed face of a ferret. When he turned toward me, I could see he was very nervous around the eyes. His lips were jumpy as well. I thought about sitting in the back, but that would have looked strange—me in back as if a car and driver had been sent for my convenience. With a two-man team, there wouldn’t have been a question about where I sat. That made sense; it’s one reason why we always sent a team. We gave some thought to these things. It was never simply routine. Before we left, we’d sit in my office and go over what to say, how to handle questions, how to keep things from getting out of hand. It wasn’t easy, bringing people in. They were upset. Some of them stared out the window, thinking about their lives, but quite a few babbled, pleaded, made offers if we would only pull over and let them go. We did what we could to calm them down. We never copied SSD’s approach, though. SSD liked to make them show up voluntarily. They’d call and tell so-and-so to show up at thus-and-such address at ten in the morning. They thought it was a good way to break people’s spirits, making them drag themselves in. Maybe that was more honest, in a way. Even if it was, that wasn’t why SSD did it.
“I don’t know anything, and I’ll recognize less after all these years,” I said as I opened the passenger side door. “I don’t even want to try. Leave me alone. Tell them I went away and wasn’t around when you got here.”
The driver’s hands shook. He gripped the steering wheel to make them stop. “Not possible. You can’t stay out of what’s happening. Anyway, it will only be this once. You have the memory, the bridge that goes across the—”
“Nope. No bridge, no key, no memory. Look at me.”
He glanced quickly in my direction.
“I’m older than my grandfather was when he died. What do they want with me anymore?”
“Get in the car. Tell them yourself. I’m tired of arguing with people.”
It took thirty minutes down the winding road to the floor of the valley, past the shack with the covered porch where the guards sat on their haunches and watched the flowers grow alongside the fields. When we got to the river, I told the driver to turn around and go back.
“Either we go back or I get out right here.”
It took another half hour, past the guard shack again, up the winding road to my house. I went inside and took my time going through the box of wood chips. I already knew the choices were limited. Pine, oak, and chestnut—not an ideal mix under the circumstances. Something—some part of the ancient brain—warned me to keep looking. I rooted around for what ever could cope with complexity or anxiety, or both. Pine was too simpleminded; oak and chestnut were both stubborn in their own way. I remembered a piece of larch, a very calm tree, leaning against the back wall and was thinking of cutting off a couple of chips when a horn sounded, four impatient blasts. Back in the car, the driver was annoyed, eyes blinking furiously like a ferret that has been told it is not an ox.
“Late,” he said. “We’ll be late and they’ll want to know why.”
“Tell them it was my fault.”
“That’s what I plan to do. Don’t say we went back to get your damned wood chips. They warned me about you and wood.”
Down the winding road again, the turns taken close to the edge; past the guards, who were now alarmed and trying to bring their telephone to life; across the river, which was reduced to an autumn trickle over the rocks; another three hours on rutted dirt roads to the highway, and almost two more to Pyongyang. The sunlight was gone by the time we hit the outskirts.
“Why so many checkpoints?” I stared out at the line of cars on the side of the road. “We never needed this many before. Even those we had were seriously overmanned.”
“They’re not checkpoints. They’re places people stop after they go out for a drive. They get food and gasoline.”
“Go out for a drive? You kidding?”
“Relax, why don’t you?”
Up to now, neither of us had said much. But silence can weigh on a situation. That’s why we always tried to keep up some sort of conversation when we brought people in. Nothing too complicated, very normal conversation in a normal tone of voice. A couple of the cars had tape players in them so we could listen to music if we ran out of things to say. This was a new car, but I couldn’t see a tape player.
“You sure nothing is going on?” We’d sped past another checkpoint– rest stop.
The driver didn’t break his blank expression. From the right side, he looked even more like a ferret. I could tell he was ignoring me from the way he watched the road real intently, lips twitching every so often. I tried again. “You got enough gas?”
He kept his eyes glued to the road.
“You’re new,” I said. “I’d guess you’re the most junior, because they assigned you to drive. That’s how we used to do it most of the time. Good practice for the junior ones to drive. Gets you familiar with the roads in a way that doesn’t happen when you’re sitting next to the driver. Drivers pay attention. Passengers don’t. You ever notice that?”
He was still breathing, so I knew he had heard me.
“But then again, you’re by yourself, so you can’t be completely green. There must not be much to do these days if they could spare you to come all the way up there for me. Funny, they didn’t send you up the first time. It was two others. Maybe they were friends of yours? In the old days, we used to like to keep some continuity once an operation was underway. Even if the team had to be changed, we kept at least one of them involved; that way the subject felt the whole thing was connected—kind of a psychological leash, that sort of approach. Usually very effective; calmed the subject in a funny way. Do I look calm to you?”
His lips tightened.
“What happened to the other two?” We bounced over a railroad crossing. “Went on vacation and left you with the chores?”
We were well into the city by now. The driver made a sudden right into a narrow street and pulled over. “Shut up.” He swallowed hard and stared at me.
“Sure,” I said. “I’m only making small talk.”
We drove slowly another thirty meters down the street before he honked the horn, just a tap. A light went on over a gate, the gate opened, and a tall man wearing a long black coat appeared. He motioned for the driver to get out. The two of them spoke briefly, keeping their voices low. The ferret disappeared inside the gate; the man in the coat got behind the wheel.
“Long time, Li,” I said, and looked away. We’d worked together for a while, but then there had been trouble—hard to remember exactly what—and he was sent away to the east coast. It hadn’t been an amicable parting, a few days of nasty looks and tough words before his orders showed up. He came back to Pyongyang, assigned to the Minister’s retinue, shortly before I left for good.
“Friendly, as always, Inspector. You bring a change of clothes?”
“Meaning after a few weeks maybe you’ll get tired of that shirt you’re wearing and wonder about changing into something else. Another shirt, maybe even a tie, would help. It’s a nice touch to change clothes occasionally when you’re with other people and not pretending to be a monk on a mountaintop.”
“Who said I was pretending to be a monk? The deal was I go away and they leave me alone. I kept the core of it real simple so there wouldn’t be any problem with misinterpretation—no complications, no loopholes or contingency clauses. I go up on the mountain and stay out of everyone’s way. They don’t bother me; I don’t bother them. It was supposed to ensure peace and quiet all around. You know that was the deal; you were there when we signed the papers. I’ve lived up to my end all these years.” I brooded for a moment. “Why did you send a ferret to get me?”
Li made a slow left turn onto a wide street.
“I’m not hanging around here for a few weeks,” I said. “No one gets to change that agreement. I went back and forth on the language for weeks. It’s very precise.” I looked at the line of street-lights down the avenue that led to the big square. They were all on, every one of them. “Visitors? Who are we trying to impress?”
“We have lights on most streets now, except where we need it dark. Things have changed a little.”
He shrugged. “Have it your way.”
“If I had it my way, I wouldn’t be here right now.”
“Yeah, I know. You’d be sawing a piece of wood. People still talk about you, O.”
“Nice to be remembered, I guess. Nicer to be forgotten.”
We drove across the square; just past the party’s offices, we turned into a narrow street. The car slowed at a guard post long enough for the guard to read the plates and wave us through. More lights, a turn into a long driveway, then down a ramp into an underground garage, very dark.
The car stopped, but Li let it idle. “Let me give you a piece of advice. For a change, maybe you’ll take me seriously.”
“Turn off the motor, will you, before we suffocate.”
“You don’t know what you think you know.” He turned the key and the engine quit with no complaints.
“That’s it? I don’t know what I don’t know? That’s helpful. I can put that in the bank. Maybe I’ll carve it in wood and hang it over my door. I’ll use beech if I can find any. Beech is the most inane wood on the planet.”
“We’re going inside for you to meet a few people. They out-rank me.”
“You got rank? I’ll throw a party.”
“Save it for when this is over. Don’t forget—these people breathe different air from us. One of them is especially important; you’ll recognize whom I mean as soon as you step in the door. He doesn’t put up with crap. Can you remember that, after living on the mountaintop?”
“It’s only been four years.”
“Five. You make it sound like I’ve been away for centuries.”
“Amazing.” He shook his head. “You can’t even guess what you don’t know, and you’re not smart enough to realize it. Nothing much ever changes with you, does it? Come on; we’re late for this thing.” He took out a flashlight and pointed it at a door. “That way.”
Excerpted from The Man with the Baltic Stare by James Church.
Copyright © 2010 by James Church.
Published in August 2010 by Minotaur Books.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.