We flew to Bucharest almost as soon as the shooting had stopped, landing at Otopeni Airport just after midnight on December 29, 1989. As the semiofficial “International Assessment Contingent,” the six of us were met at my Lear jet, escorted through the confused milling that passed for Customs since Romania’s revolution, and then herded aboard an Office of National Tourism VIP van for the nine-mile drive into town. They had brought a wheelchair to the bottom of the aircraft ramp for me, but I waved it away and made the walk to the van myself. It was not easy.
Donna Wexler, our U.S. Embassy liaison, pointed at two bullet holes in the wall near where the van was parked, but Dr. Aimslea topped that by simply pointing out the window as we drove around the lighted circular drive connecting the terminal to the highway.
Soviet-style tanks sat along the main thoroughfare where cabs normally would be waiting, their long muzzles pointed toward the entrance to the airport drive. Sandbagged emplacements lined the highway and airport rooftops, and the sodium-vapor lamps yellowly illuminated the helmets and rifles of soldiers on guard duty while throwing their faces into deep shadow. Other men, some in regular army uniforms and others in the ragtag clothing of the revolutionary militia, lay sleeping alongside the tanks. For a second the illusion of sidewalks littered with the bodies of Romania’s dead was perfect and I held my breath, exhaling slowly only when I saw one of the bodies stir and another light a cigarette.
“They fought off several counterattacks by loyalist troops and Securitate forces last week,” whispered Donna Wexler. Her tone suggested that it was an embarrassing topic, like sex.
Radu Fortuna, the little man who had been hurriedly introduced to us in the terminal as our guide and liaison with the transitional government, turned in his seat and grinned broadly as if he were not embarrassed by either sex or politics. “They kill many Securitate,” he said loudly, his grin growing ever wider. “Three times Ceausescu’s people tried to take airport … three times they get killed.”
Wexler nodded and smiled, obviously uncomfortable with the conversation, but Dr. Aimslea leaned into the aisle. Light from the last of the sodium-vapor lamps illuminated his bald head in the seconds before we entered the darkness of the empty highway. “So Ceausescu’s regime is really over?” he said to Fortuna.
I could see only the slightest gleam from the Romanian’s grin in the sudden darkness. “Ceausescu is over, yes, yes,” he said. “They take him and that bitch-cow of a wife in Tîrgoviste, you know … have, how you call it … trial.” Radu Fortuna laughed again, a sound which somehow sounded both childish and cruel. I found myself shivering a bit in the darkness. The bus was not heated.
“They have trial,” continued Fortuna, “and prosecutor say, ‘You both crazy?’ You see, if Ceausescu and Mrs. Ceausescu crazy, then maybe the army just send them away in mental hospital for hundred years, like our Russian friends do. You know? But Ceausescu say, ‘What? What? Crazy … How dare you! That is obscene provocation!’ And his wife, she say, ‘How can you say this to the Mother of your nation?’ So prosecutor say, ‘OK, you neither one crazy. Your own mouth say.’ And then the soldiers, they draw straws so many want to be the ones. Then the lucky ones, they take Ceausescus out in courtyard and shoot them in heads many times.” Fortuna chuckled warmly, as if remembering a favorite anecdote. “Yes, regime over,” he said to Dr. Aimslea. “Maybe a few thousand Securitate, they don’t know it yet and still shooting peoples, but that will be over soon. Bigger problem is, what to do with one out of three peoples who spy for old government, heh?”
Fortuna chuckled again, and in the sudden glare from an oncoming army truck, I could see his silhouette as he shrugged. There was a thin layer of condensation turning to ice on the inside of the windows now. My fingers were stiff with the cold and I could barely feel my toes in the absurd Bally dress shoes I had put on that morning. I scraped at some of the ice on my window as we entered the city proper.
“I know that you are all very important peoples from the West,” said Radu Fortuna, his breath creating a small fog that rose toward the roof of the bus like an escaping soul. “I know you are famous Western billionaire, Mr. Vernor Deacon Trent, who pay for this visit,” he said, nodding at me, “but I am afraid I forget some other names.”
Donna Wexler did the introductions. “Doctor Aimslea is with the World Health Organization … Father Michael O’Rourke is here representing both the Chicago Archdiocese and the Save the Children Foundation.”
“Ah, good to have priest here,” said Fortuna, and I heard something that may have been irony in his voice.
“Doctor Leonard Paxley, Professor Emeritus of Economics at Princeton University,” continued Wexler. “Winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize in Economics.”
Fortuna bowed toward the old academic. Paxley had not spoken at all during the flight from Frankfurt, and now he seemed lost in his oversized coat and folds of muffler: an old man in search of a park bench.
“We welcome you,” said Fortuna, “even though our country have no economy at present moment.”
“Goddamn, is it always this cold here?” came the voice from deep in the folds of wool. The Nobel Prize–winning Professor Emeritus stamped his small feet. “This is cold enough to freeze the nuts off a bronze bulldog.”
“And Mr. Carl Berry, representing American Telegraph and Telephone,” continued Wexler quickly.
The pudgy businessman next to me puffed his pipe, removed it, nodded in Fortuna’s direction, and went back to smoking the thing as if it were a necessary source of heat. I had a moment’s mad vision of the seven of us in the bus huddled around the glowing embers in Berry’s pipe.
“And you say you remember our sponsor, Mr. Trent,” finished Wexler.
“Yesss,” said Radu Fortuna. His eyes glittered as he looked at me through Berry’s pipe smoke and the fog of his own breath. I could almost see my image in those glistening eyes—one very old man, deep-set eyes sunken even deeper from the fatigue of the trip, body shriveled and shrunken in my expensive suit and overcoat. I am sure that I looked older than Paxley, older than Methuselah … older than God.
“You have been in Romania before, I believe?” continued Fortuna. I could see the guide’s eyes glowing brighter as we reached the lighted part of the city. I spent time in Germany shortly after the war. The scene out the window behind Fortuna was like that. There were more tanks in Palace Square, black hulks which one would have thought deserted heaps of cold metal if the turret of one had not tracked us as our van passed by. There were the sooty corpses of burned-out autos and at least one armored personnel carrier that was now only a piece of scorched steel. We turned left and went past the Central University Library; its gold dome and ornate roof had collapsed between soot-streaked, pockmarked walls.
“Yes,” I said. “I have been here before.”
Fortuna leaned toward me. “And perhaps this time one of your corporations will open a plant here, yes?”
Fortuna’s gaze did not leave me. “We work very cheap here,” he whispered so softly that I doubt if anyone else except Carl Berry could hear him. “Very cheap. Labor is very cheap here. Life is very cheap here.”
We had turned left off of the empty Calea Victoriei, right again on Bulevardul Nicolae Balcescu, and now the van screeched to a halt in front of the tallest building in the city, the twenty-two-story Intercontinental Hotel.
“In the morning, gentlemens,” said Fortuna, rising, gesturing the way toward the lighted foyer, “we will see the new Romania. I wish you dreamless sleeps.”
Copyright © 1992 by Dan Simmons