A Labyrinth of Shadows
Julie insisted on accompanying him to the airport. Her equanimity was totally disrupted, her patience exhausted, apprehension in her voice, “You can’t just leave me here! What if something happens to you? What will I do?”
The situation was spinning out of control. James MacKay’s employer, World Grain, Inc. was only interested in results. They had dropped him and Julie into Warsaw on short notice and with little preparation. “Honey, I’m sorry about this. It’s important. We have a chance for a deal that will establish the company in Eastern Europe as a major player. I don’t want to leave you like this, but please, you have to suck it up and work your way through it. I’ll be back as soon as can.”
“Suck it up!” Her voice raised a notch. “What about those phone calls every night? What about that man in the hotel foyer, the one that watches and follows me when I go out alone or with that bitch from the Ministry of Housing. What if he or those people at night do something to me?”
“What man? You said nothing to me about that.”
“I was sucking it up, damn you!”
“Julie, I didn’t know. You should have told me. I’ll have a word with Olenski at Rolimpex when I get back. They want us here. I’m sure he can fix it.”
Again her voice rose, “Olenski is just another Communist bureaucrat. He won’t do anything.”
James lifted his hand, signaling her to lower her voice. “Honey, making a scene at the airport won’t solve anything and could jeopardize everything we’ve been working for here.”
“Everything you’ve been working for you mean,” her eyes shooting sparks, “you and that oily bastard Lucas Henderson.”
“Honey,” he lowered his voice, “Henderson’s my boss. I didn’t choose him.”
Her voice quieted, taking on a different tone, “Yes, he chose you. What do you think that means?”
Her insight startled James. He didn’t entirely trust Henderson, a feeling provoked more than anything by the vagueness of Henderson’s explanation of the sudden move of James from Venezuela to Eastern Europe. James knew the business in South America, but Eastern Europe?
He dismissed the thought for later consideration. “Let’s get a bite to eat. We have a few minutes before the flight goes.”
Taking her hand he guided her toward a cubby-hole snack bar selling beer and sausages. She allowed herself to be led without comment. They ordered and sat in silence, both fearful of saying something that could provoke a new flare-up between them. James knew they’d resolved nothing. “But what can I do? Damn it! Why can’t she see this is a passing thing? We’ll settle in just like we did in Venezuela.
He glanced across at her as they were served. Her eyes were sad, resigned. He knew he’d let her down. There’s nothing I can do now, he told himself. It’ll only be a few days and I’ll do what I can to speed things up.
James reached for his sausage just as a stubble-faced old man, dressed in baggy, ill-fitting trousers and a dirty un-matching suit jacket approached their table and attempted to start a conversation. Neither James nor Julie understood Polish. James attempted his Spanish to no avail and Julie did the same with her college French with the same result. James pushed his beer and sausage across the table to the oldster who smiled gratefully and hoisted the beer.
Two policemen stepped out of a small room near the entry to the snack-shop and grabbed the old man from behind. The beer fell to the floor and the glass shattered. The scuffle jolted the table and the sausage followed the beer to the floor. The policemen took the man by his arms, grasped his belt and frog-marched him into the room and slammed the door behind them.
James and Julie sat helplessly and stared at each other in astonishment. They listened to sounds of blows and yelps of pain that persisted for several moments. Other customers in the small shop studiously avoided eye contact and feigned ignorance of the incident.
James opened his mouth to speak, but Julie was already on her feet, face white. “James, I’m going home.” She stared down at him furiously as he attempted to absorb what she had said. “James, “she stated, “I mean home . . . to Iowa. I will not stay here. I will not live in a Soviet prison.”
His eyes riveted on her face. “James, come with me? We can’t do this. This is horrible. They don’t want us.” She waved her hand at the door where the policemen and the oldster had disappeared. “This is evil,” she cried. “They hate us.”
He fastened desperately on her last words. “Honey, they don’t hate us. They’re desperate to find links to the West. We can’t just up and walk out on this.”
Her eyes were wet, but now empty of emotion. In a flat voice she stated, “You won’t come with me.”
He spread his hands, “How can I? Not now! My flight leaves any moment.”
She stared back at him, like he was a stranger.”
He tried again, “Honey, can’t we talk about this when I get back?”
“James, I won’t be here when you get back.”
His flight was called over the public address system. James MacKay glanced toward the flight departure display and confirmed that his boarding light was blinking. He turned his gaze back to Julie. She was gone.
The Turpolev slid into its glide path for landing in Bucharest. The few dim lights from the urban surroundings of the airport flashed by the window as the Russian-made aircraft settled gently toward the tarmac and the pilot greased it in so smoothly that James MacKay felt no more than a soft jolt as it rejoined earth and began its roll-out. The engines roared as the Turpolev braked to a crawl and then began a slow advance toward the poorly lit terminal. An errant thought passed through MacKay’s mind that the lights of Europe had been extinguished when Hitler began his conquests. Thirty-five years later Hitler was long gone and Western Europe was thriving. Here the lights are still out, he thought.
The aircraft came to a halt some distance from the terminal and the engines spooled down. They sat and waited. The steward spoke in Romanian conveying instructions for separating foreign visitors from Romanian nationals at the immigration booths. It surprised James that he could understand, a benefit of his fluent Spanish that shared a common source with Romanian through Vulgar Latin, the ancient Roman soldiers’ tongue that gave birth to both languages.
Stepping out of the aircraft onto the stairs leading to the tarmac, he was startled to observe two parallel rows of soldiers standing rigidly at port arms, forming a path to the immigration reception area. Transient light from the terminal glinted on burnished bayonets, and shadow concealing faces beneath helmets gave the soldiers a menacingly robotic cast. Welcome to Romania, we hope you enjoy your visit.
Their arrival in Warsaw weeks before had prepared him for the procedures designed to intimidate western visitors with a sense of hostility, suspicion and constant surveillance. The hard-eyed glare of the uniformed immigrations officer, the meticulous review of all the entries in his passport, the sudden return of the hard-eyed glare, studying his face closely in mid-examination of his documents, added to James’ sense of unease. Another uniformed officer stood back from the booth where James had presented his documents, arms folded across his chest, fixing a hard stare on James’ face. When James retrieved his passport and visa, he noted that the observer’s gaze shifted to the next foreigner who followed him into the process. Choreographed, a ritual designed to intimidate, he smiled to himself.
James’ formal invitation to visit Romania, issued by the Ministry of Trade, included a taxi voucher and a reservation in the Hotel Intercontinental in the center of Bucharest. Depressed, he settled back in the threadbare seat of the Romanian-built Renault, a Dacia, and drifted back to the events in the Warsaw airport. Now, despair flooded over him. He had forcefully put Julie out of his mind during the flight, reading briefing materials that had arrived for him by courier at the hotel just before his departure. How could she? Jesus, this is the big career boost we’ve been waiting for. His heart felt like a stone. He retreated into self-examination. It’s the career boost I’ve been waiting for.
Even with all of the frustrations of the past two weeks in Warsaw, he’d been excited, eager to begin travel to the other countries in the region for which the company had made him responsible. He acknowledged to himself that this wasn’t just a career boost, it was a great adventure. At the beginning, Julie had understood and made it possible, as only a wife can, to allow him this adventure, just as she had previously supported his efforts in Venezuela. But she had also made it clear that soon she wanted to start a family. She wanted children and not in an Iron Curtain country. I guess, I’ve had my cake and eaten it, he thought. But what do I do now? I don’t want to quit and I can’t lose Julie.
He said to himself, I love her. And then he felt shame and wondered, is that true, or is that just pro forma? What kind of a man am I?
MINISTRY of TRADE, BUCHAREST
The following morning at 10 am, a black Russian-made Zil pulled up in front of the Intercontinental Hotel and a driver stepped out holding an eighteen inch white placard bearing James’ name. James identified himself and was ushered into the large, luxurious sedan. The driver spoke no English, but smiled courteously. The drive to the Ministry of Trade lasted only a few minutes. James saw large gray edifice, reminiscent of the acme of power and wealth of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the First World War. It had descended into shabbiness; evident in unclean windows, cracked floor tiles and lusterless wood furnishings. James spotted a grand chandelier hanging over the foyer-unlit, dusty and cobwebbed. A wide, once elegant marble stairway curved upward from the main entrance. The guide who retrieved him at the door led him to a peculiar elevator: a series of boxes in constant motion running upward on a belt through the ceiling. Another beside it descended, returning visitors from above. While waiting their turn, he watched as other passengers moved forward into boxes as one after another they emerged from the floor. He and his guide rode upward to arrive on the fifth floor. A passenger had to be alert or be carried to the next floor as the motion of the box never ceased. What happens, James wondered, if a rider misses the last floor. Does he get dumped over the top and ride up-side down to the bottom?
James was ushered into the office of the Minister of Trade, Boian Lucescu. Lucescu was elegantly dressed in a fine, well tailored charcoal suit. It reminded James that Romania was known for its tailoring industry, particularly off-the-rack business suits exported primarily to department stores in the United States and Western Europe. The minister invited James to sit and offered coffee and tuica, a plum brandy popular in various forms throughout the Balkan region. Having tried the potent Yugoslav slivovitz on one occasion, James declined the alcohol and accepted the coffee.
As is often the case in cultures more used to formal rituals and the clichés of civility, they finished their coffee and biscuits with small talk before the minister came to the point. Lucescu spoke slow but precise English with a decidedly British intonation.
“I am sure you are aware that we in Romania and our neighbors have suffered from a severe drought this year. Over ninety percent of our harvest has failed. My task today is awkward, because we are an agricultural nation and I customarily export wheat and maize. Now I am faced with the embarrassment of seeking financing to purchase a minimum of a half-million metric tons of bread wheat to protect our people from famine. I have been informed that American exporters are in a position to obtain financing through your Department of Agriculture. The terms, as I understand them, are quite generous: low interest and long term.”
James rejoined, “The United States permits the Department of Agriculture to shore up domestic farm prices by purchasing surplus production and storing it for years of shortage. The program has spurred American agricultural production to the point that we annually export surpluses as a form of foreign aid, or finance sales to worthy buyers. And yes, the interest rates are very attractive and the loans may be repaid in the currency of the importing country.“
A feeling of optimism came over James, “What are the specifications for the wheat you require?”
“What do you suggest, Mr. MacKay? We require a high quality bread making wheat that we can blend with our poor quality wheat that has survived the drought.”
James had a ready answer. “I suggest a US No 2 Hard Red Winter Wheat, 12% protein, maximum moisture 12%. It has high quality gluten that blended with your weather damaged wheat, should produce acceptable quality bread. “
“Good,” Lucescu smiled with satisfaction. Then eying James cautiously, “Our purchase will be brokered through our agents in Switzerland, S.A.R, Salzer, Arndt & Rousseau. Your recommendation matches their suggestion. I am informed that routine inspection for quality will be conducted by your Federal Grain Inspection Service at the port of embarkation, but we have retained a Swiss inspection firm, SAQ, Societé de Assurance de Qualité, for confirmation of grade and quality upon arrival in Romania. The representative of S.A.R., Mr. Horst Schwabensohn, has his office on the second floor business mall in the Intercontinental Hotel, where we have lodged you for your convenience. He will be able to place you in contact with the Romanian representative of S.A.Q, Mr. Vadim Serban, who also has offices in the same hotel.”
Lucescu’s gaze held something that made James uneasy, but he passed it off as cultural difference. The minister continued, “We have a cable agreement from your Mr. Lucas Henderson that World Grain will bid on the total tonnage. Nicolae Sandulescu, my Executive Assistant, can provide you with printed copies of our proposed tender specifications and documentary requirements.”
“If you wish to make use of our government financing facility, it will be necessary to present your tender requirements to the General Sales Manager of the Foreign Agriculture Service of our Department of Agriculture for approval,” James responded.
“Mr. Henderson has offered to assist us in that regard, as soon as we have worked through the details with you,” Lucescu responded.
The trade minister accompanied James to the door of his office and introduced him to his executive assistant. After the minister left them, Nicolae Sandulescu extended a file folder to James and suggested that he review the terms of the tender with Schwabensohn, who was prepared to be helpful in guiding James through the details.
James left the meeting with an uncomfortable feeling that he was about to become engaged in a transaction that was not a simple cut-and-dried competitive tender for wheat. Why the cut-out agency in Switzerland? The more he thought about it, Why the Swiss quality assurance firm? More to the point, he mused, if this is a scam and the US Department of Agriculture tumbles to it, who gets left holding the bag? Well, let’s hear what Herr Schwabensohn has to say.
INTERCONTINENTAL HOTEL, BUCHAREST
James’ interview with Horst Schwabensohn further mystified him. While going through the details with Schwabensohn James focused on the European delivery port, Rotterdam. “Why are you delivering the grain to Rotterdam and not a Black Sea Port? Do you intend to rail the wheat to Romania?”
Schwabensohn responded glibly, “The cost from Rotterdam to the Transylvania Region of Romania is more economical from Rotterdam than from the Black Sea. Ocean freight to Rotterdam is much cheaper than Black Sea freight; the port elevator in Rotterdam is much, much more efficient than the portable grain handling equipment at the Danube-Black Sea port of Constanza. We will also achieve better transportation economies arbitraging Swiss Francs from Romanian Lei than from US dollars. Minister Lucescu must pay the ocean freight in US dollars and the financing does not cover that part of the cost.”
James had missed that detail in the short briefing he had received in Kansas City.
Schwabensohn continued, “A 60,000 ton bulk carrier from the Gulf of Mexico to Rotterdam today costs about US$ 9.50 per metric ton. Constanza can receive only vessels of 20,000 tons and the freight rate is close to US$ 35.00 per metric ton. The efficiency at the port of Rotterdam will avert the high labor costs and demurrage charges that will surely accrue in Constanza”
Schwabensohn eyed James with a bland expression that gave James an even greater sense of discomfort. He was in over his head and he began to wonder if his presence in Europe for World Grain had less to do with a promising future and more to do with something else . . . his innocence in dealing with the complexities of European grain trade. Finding the Swiss in the middle of the business lifted his sense of unease to acute apprehension. Swiss bankers and traders weren’t in business just to be helpful.
When he left Schwabensohn, the Swiss broker assured him with a sly smile, “Herr MacKay, I am fully confident that with your collaboration here in Europe and Herr Henderson’s connections in the US Department of Agriculture we can make this transaction work to the benefit of all concerned. Leave the details to me.”
James left the Swiss broker without voicing his misgivings. What am I getting into? Does Lucas know and approve of all of this? Schwabensohn gives me the impression that he’s a principal player. Where do I fit in? I need a drink, he thought, forgetting that he should also touch bases with the representative of the Swiss inspection company with offices in the hotel. He got to the bar and at a cost of almost twenty dollars ordered a double of Glenfiddich single malt.
His thoughts involuntarily fled to his personal agony over Julie. Maybe, I should try to call her tonight. But fury welled up. The confusing complexity dealing with his Romanian counterparts and Julie’s untimely ultimatum: he closed her out of his mind. Another thought intruded: five hundred thousand tons of 12 protein winter wheat plus ocean freight to Rotterdam would invoice out at somewhere around 125 million US dollars at current market. Port handling and rail shipment could easily add an additional $50 US per ton or its equivalent from Rotterdam to Transylvania. Christ, that’s another 25 million! Fraud is common in such transactions, but how do the players shave off a piece with the USDA looking over their shoulders? Of course, routing through Rotterdam has to be the trick! How does Lucas Henderson fit into this? James nursed his drink, Julie forgotten.
MINISTER Of INDUSTRIES- BUCHAREST
Into his second single malt, a stir in the bar drew MacKay’s attention. Drinkers sitting around the circular bar stared at a comic-opera character in the entry. The man wore an ankle length shiny black leather greatcoat. He wore a wide brimmed black fedora. Standing straddle-legged, arms akimbo on his hips, he looked like a grotesque of a Gestapo agent from the years of the Third Reich or, James smiled inwardly, an old silent film villain. All he needs is to stroke a pointy little mustache. Two hard looking characters in short black leather jackets stood behind at his shoulders. Strong-arm goons, James thought. The Gestapo agent glared at each occupant of a bar stool individually until his eyes settled on James. He lifted a hand to his companions and nodded toward James. The goons entered the bar, each passing around an opposite side of the circular bar until they reached James. There was no way to avoid them. One placed a hand on James shoulder and nodded toward their boss.
Mildly befuddled by his second double whiskey, James realized that he had no option but to accompany the two goons. He reached into his pocket to pay for his drinks and the nervous bartender waved him off. The other patrons pointedly ignored the event. His tension built as they escorted MacKay out of the bar to the elevator that took them to the lobby. Neither the arresting goons nor their boss spoke a word to him or exchanged comment among them. Even as his level of fear elevated, James marveled at his passive compliance without protest. What is this, he thought, arrest, abduction? The soldiers with fixed bayonets at the airport crept into his thoughts.
They escorted him out of the front of the hotel. Darkness had fallen. It didn’t seem to him that he had been sitting in that bar that long. The air bore a distinct chill, perhaps auguring a late fall cold spell. The Gestapo agent opened the passenger door of another black government Zil sedan and motioned James in, closing the door. To James surprise, the vehicle sped off, leaving the three men standing on the curb in front of the hotel.
Recovering from his strange sense of detachment, James blurted, “Where are you taking me? What do you want with me?”
The driver continued without a word in response.
“Godammit! Why am I here? What’s going on?” Silence.
James sat back. The vehicle never slowed sufficiently for him to open a door and flee. He didn’t even know if the doors would open. He tried surreptitiously to unlock the door against which he sat, but couldn’t make the handle depress.
The Zil travelled at a brisk pace through the outskirts of Bucharest. The farther they moved from the center of the city, the greater evidence of poverty, of a mind numbing grayness. People who appeared to be homeless crowded around urban bonfires, warming themselves. They stared sullenly at the luxury limo as it passed. Featureless apartment buildings lined the street, an occasional window showed a dim glow, a suggestion that perhaps a family gathered around a table at an evening meal: of possible warmth and homely comfort. The Zil’s headlights illuminated a man, shoulders hunched into a threadbare overcoat walking a gaunt mutt on a leash. James wondered . . . How do people live like this? How can they tolerate this? Will they starve if they don’t get the wheat World Grain or other exporters want to sell to their government?
The driver entered a narrow wooded lane. It appeared to allow for the passage of no more than a single vehicle. The headlights lit up a low stone wall separating the road from the encroachment of brush and trees. Belatedly, James realized the shrubbery and trees were part of an extensive landscaped park. Rounding a curve a brilliantly lit mansion awaited them. The Zil swung under a pillared portico, illuminated by a crystal chandelier. The driver stopped in front of a massive front door, stepped out and held the passenger door of the vehicle open for James.
Mystified, James descended uneasily from the Zil. A thin, gray little man in butler’s livery greeted him in accented English. “Welcome Mr. MacKay, would you please follow me.”
Thankful to find a person who would speak to him, and in his own language, James opened his mouth to ask where he was, but found himself about to address the man’s back. The butler looked over his shoulder, “Please, Mr. MacKay,” and again indicated that James follow him.
A tall, scholarly appearing man of middle years awaited James offering his hand. His long, narrow face held a slightly amused smile, “Welcome to my home Mr. MacKay. Please forgive us the unorthodox manner that brought you here.”
James took the man’s hand, it was firm and warm. He was again silenced before he could gather his thoughts to speak as the man introduced himself. My name is Constantin Zeklos. In Romania I head the Ministry of Industries. The wheat that Minister Lucescu proposes to import, possibly from World Grain, will be processed in the mills under my charge. I thought it essential that we should meet. I had hoped to arrange this meeting through the good offices of my friend, Vadim,” gesturing to the other occupant of a large library as they entered, “but you failed to visit him this afternoon at his office in the Intercontinental.
“Mr. MacKay, may I introduce Vadim Serban, who represents Societé de Assurance de Qualité, S.A.Q. as we refer to the company that Mr. Serban represents in Romania. S.A.Q. is the entity that I employ to protect the quality and condition of the grain I purchase in Romania from the Ministry of Agriculture or on those rare occasions when we import grain through the Ministry of Trade for special purposes, or as now, when we are faced with dire shortages. I am certain you are aware that S.A.Q is a world-wide company based in Switzerland. They provide quality and price assurances to importers of goods and services around the world.”
James recognized S.A.Q. To his regret he had briefly made use of their services in Venezuela until he discovered the adeptness of their representatives at manipulating the results of their inspections and surveys to their own ends. He was on the receiving end in Venezuela, contracting S.A.Q. to confirm the landed quality of the wheat he imported. But the standard contract provided that the service would be paid for by the seller/shipper, so that in fact S.A.Q. was in no sense a guarantor of the quality received by the buyer, but rather covered the coattails of the seller. Now, James stood in the shoes of the seller.
So what is the meaning of this cozy tete-a-tete with Zeklos and Serban? S.A.Q. is a subsidiary of a Swiss bank, I can’t remember which one, but I’ll find out. The complex interaction of the three ministries in Romania was not unusual, but why are the Swiss involved? This is a World Grain deal, if it flies, financed by the US Department of Agriculture. Why all these extra players? Does Lucas Henderson have any idea what’s going on here. Am I over reacting?
James exchanged amenities with Zeklos and Serban, skirting anything related to the half-million ton wheat deal. The unsettling manner in which he had been shanghaied from the hotel bar had produced a sobering effect on him, but now he was holding a chilled glass containing the popular Romanian tuica. It was fire water! James sipped it sparingly. As Zeklos guided him and Serban into his dining area, he noted James’ glass was still half full. “Do you find our tuica is not to your taste? I can offer you scotch.”
“I find it just fine, but I still have no idea why I am here and your drink is strong. I want to keep a clear head. “
Zeklos laughed. “I have heard that Americans always like to go directly to the heart of a matter. We Europeans tend to enjoy amenities before turning to serious matters. We shall compromise and introduce our concerns as we enjoy, as I hope you will enjoy, a typical Romanian meal. First we will have a ciorbă, a soup made from fermented bran, bacon, potatoes and chicken. Then we shall have mititei. Sometimes we call it mici, meaning little or small ones. They are rolls of minced beef, lamb and pork with garlic and other spices. It is a favorite of the Romanian people. We will follow with smoked fish and rice.”
Zeklos looked up as another servant entered, “Vlad, would you please serve us the Fetească neagră.” Turning to James he remarked, “It is a dry red wine, a local variety with a bouquet reminiscent of black currant. I hope you will like it.”
James, not particularly conversant with wines, simply took a sip and nodded his approval. The soup was good and the mititei proved to be rich and tasty. By the time the fish and white wine was served Zeklos had gotten to the point.
“The wheat which survived the drought is located in our lower regions of Moldova, Bucovina and Mutenia, but our greatest concern is for those regions hardest hit by the drought. For this reason I have spoken with Minister Lucescu and Herr Schwabensohn about bringing the wheat via the Rhine-Main Canal to the Danube and from there to the upland regions of Transylvania, Maramures, Banat and Orisana. Considering the disparities of ocean freight rates from the Gulf of Mexico ports to Rotterdam and Constanza we can move the wheat by barge at a competitive cost, because Herr Schwabensohn’s employers own a barging company with capacity adequate to our needs. We will store the grain in Rotterdam and move it south as we need it.
James’ mind whirled, Now, we’re talking barge, not rail. Am I getting a snow-job? He asked, “Won’t the storage of 60,000 tons in Rotterdam add substantially to your costs? Surely, you can’t secure sufficient barge capacity to move it all south immediately?”
“That is a matter of our internal logistics. We require about 30,000 tons for milling purposes each month so bringing in 60,000 to Rotterdam every two months will serve our needs while an even flow south on the Rhine to the Danube makes logistical sense to us. Storage in Constanza is at a premium and grain handling facilities are primitive. These costs are a wash.”
“Then,” James mused out loud, “it will just be a matter of convincing our Department of Agriculture that the Rotterdam alternative is sensible and viable.”
“Your boss, Mr. Henderson, has assured us that he can arrange the financing with the US government to place the grain in Rotterdam and we, through the agency of Herr Schwabensohn and SAR, will take possession of the grain and transport it from Rotterdam to the locations required. My friend Vadim’s firm will collect samples from your inspectors at the Port of Houston and again collect samples and compare analyses at all stages of the shipment process until the wheat reaches its destination along the Danube in Romania.”
Zeklos closely eyed James as he spoke. “Minister Lucescu and I have personally spoken with President Ceauşescu. We have his approval. World Grain has been selected as our supplier. All is contingent upon Mr. Lucas Henderson’s promise to obtain the necessary financing from the US Department of Agriculture. We will issue a sealed public tender that will be opened by your Department of Agriculture. But the tender will state delivery to Constanza; we will leave the amount blank in the document that you will submit, but the appropriate sum will be inserted before the tender offers are opened. Mr. Henderson has assured me of that. Your government should find the shifting of delivery to Rotterdam acceptable. We have prepared a document for your signature explaining the rationale for delivery to Rotterdam. We ask you only to sign this document as your personal assessment that the change to Rotterdam is logistically sound, stating your approval.”
Zeklos waved his hand at the servant hovering behind him. The servant produced a glossy folder and opened it, placing the exposed document in front of James. “You need only sign this document, and we will take care of the rest.”
The minister paused, drawing a gold-plated pen from his vest pocket, he proffered it to James. “Mr. MacKay, James, if I may, do you understand what I have explained to you? Do you have any questions?”
“Minister Zeklos, I believe that I clearly understand what you have explained, but I am uncomfortable with the implications of your proposal. In any case I will need to review this document with care.”
“James, this is just business as usual. The trade of grain is a ruthless business. Insider arrangements are made all of the time. Sometimes appearances have to be maintained for public and official records. Once this transaction is completed, all parties will benefit from it: Romania, Minister Lucescu, SAR, S.A.Q., World Grain, Mr. Lucas Henderson . . . and, of course, you and I. What can be more comforting?”
“Minister Zeklos, I will have to think about this. I will have to consult with Mr. Henderson. I don’t feel I have the freedom to act without previous approval from him.”
“But, James, Lucas Henderson is fully aware of our arrangements. He selected you for this mission, because he believes that you have the right skills and attitude to work with us now and in future transactions that may not be as complex as working through the financing operations of your Department of Agriculture.”
Looking at Vadim Serban, James voiced another doubt, “I mean no offense Mr. Serban, but what was the purpose of your presence here? You don’t require my permission to obtain samples of the wheat from our inspection agency. That is routine. Your subsequent role in this begins after the shipment arrives in Rotterdam and then World Grain will no longer be involved.”
Serban spread his hands, “We were not aware that the collection of additional samples would be so simple. In any case my presence here should serve as an assurance to you that we have thought out our project and that we are serious businessmen.” Then Serban smiled, “And besides I will drive you back to your hotel after you have signed the document. My payment for the service as chauffeur is the excellent meal that Minister Zeklos has given us tonight.”
James returned his attention to Minister Constantin Zeklos, “Sir, as I said before, I am not prepared to respond to your request tonight. I can give you my answer in the morning after I have read this document and consulted with Kansas City. It is late and while I do appreciate your unexpected hospitality, I would like to return to my hotel and rest . . . and think.”
Zeklos and Serban gazed silently at James. James repeated his request, “If you please, sir. I will contact you in the morning or meet with you at your convenience. You name the hour.”
Zeklos came to a decision, “I will see you tomorrow afternoon; shall we say 4:30 pm, at my office. I will send my car for you. I appreciate your caution, but I assure you, that Mr. Henderson is in accord with us in this matter.” He nodded to Serban. “Thank you so much for your company this evening. I look forward to your positive response tomorrow.”
THE SWISS CONNECTION- CLARITY
Serban and Zeklos were studies in contrast. Where Zeklos was fair skinned with a full head of white hair, Serban had only a fringe of hair over his ears and around the back of his neck. Where Zeklos was tall, Serban was short and swarthy skinned with thick black brows over brown, almost black eyes. While Zeklos affected a fatherly grace, Serban’s demeanor seemed devious and sinister.
Serban drove back to the city in silence. As they entered the area populated by those hovering around the street bonfires Serban began to talk, “Look around you. What do you see?” Serban answered his own question. “Poverty, ugly, grinding poverty. Do you believe that Romania is so poor in resources that our people must live like gypsies in our own streets, stealing crusts left by others just to survive? You think Zeklos is a man of principal, a Communist deep in the struggle for the working class, for the peasants?”
Serban slowed and allowed an old couple to cross the street in front of him, “Hah, we are like you capitalists. Each of us is in it for himself. How you say it? We eat or we are eaten. Don’t be a fool. You will be richly rewarded if you work with us. There is much money in this deal, enough for all of us. And there will be more in the future. Sign the document. You will share with Henderson.”
James remained silent. Serban glanced sidewise at him and suddenly smiled, “Ah, I see. You wait for a better offer. You want to know how much you will get. I will talk to the minister. I am sure that the others will agree to a more generous share. You are a clever man, MacKay.”
James spoke matter-of-factly, masking his inner alarm, “There can’t be much in this deal. The grain markets are pretty clearly established, so are the freight rates. There are few places where much can be shaved. Why should I risk my job and freedom for small change divided among so many?”
“Ah, you are a clever man, James. You are a sly negotiator. Hah! I think we will get along very fine.” Serban turned suddenly and followed a darkened street until he halted in front of a dimly lit "tavernă, its windows opaque with condensation from the warmth inside meeting outside chill.
James followed Serban in the front door. The place was overheated and dimly lit. James reflected, This country is a warren of shadows. He thought of the day’s experiences and the document he had been asked sign without consideration of its content, and the shadows hide traps for the unwary.
James saw a battered hardwood bar to his left and extending on the right a long room accommodated several wooden booths on each side and a few tables in the middle. Serban walked to the booth closest to the bar. It was occupied by two men. He pounded his fist on the tabletop. The occupants’ beer mugs bounced from the force. Their eyes widened in recognition. Serban said something unintelligible, obviously ordering the others out. They slid out quickly. Serban said something else and they returned for their beers and then without a glance back, sidled to the end of the room and huddled over a table in the middle.
Serban gestured to the bartender and held up two fingers, “Gambrinus.” He sat and motioned James in. “Best beer in Romania. Come, call me Vad. We will soon be partners. I am sick of wine. We will drink a man’s drink. Wait for the beer. Then I will tell you.”
Beer in hand, Serban continued, “Henderson has a man in your Department of Agriculture. He will arrange for the proper allocation of the credit to World Grain. He will retire soon. He needs more money than his pension because his wife leaves him and takes half of all he has.”
“Yeah, but what money? “
“Listen, Europe is a complex place. The DDR, the East Germans, also have a drought. They require high quality red wheat like you Americans have, but because the US will not agree to recognize the DDR as a separate country, only as a Soviet occupied zone not yet reunited with the Bundesrepublik, they will not deal directly with the US, but do so through intermediaries, mostly West Germans. The wheat we bring to Rotterdam will be sold to a West German trading house that will resell it to the DDR. We will receive an agency fee from the sale to the DDR, above what it costs us to deliver it to the German company. Then we buy French wheat of very poor quality. We have a drought and the Frenchies have too much rain. It is ironic, no? But also an opportunity. Much of their wheat is rotten, good only for animal feed. We buy it cheap; or rather SAR will buy it cheap. SAR has barges. They will move the wheat to Romania through the river/canal system just as we propose. S.A.Q. will collect samples of the wheat shipped from Houston. The wheat from France will be accompanied by copies of the export quality certificates issued by your government in Houston and we will analyze the samples we retrieve in Houston to officially confirm the quality for the public record in the Ministry of Industry. There will be no storage cost for us, because we will purchase the French wheat only as we need it. In Romania we will mill the wheat from France, the bakers will bake it and the people will eat it . . . because that’s all there is. The profit is in the difference of price of the US wheat and the French forage quality wheat, maybe one hundred dollars US per ton. How much is that? The ocean fright is part of the Germans’ cost. We pay only barge freight.”
James estimated quickly and reacted, “Jesus, fifty million dollars to spread among all of the partners!”
Serban smiled, “You think there is enough profit in this for everyone, my friend James?”
James stared at Serban, “I’ll see Zeklos, tomorrow. Now I want to go to the hotel.”
“No, James, one more Gambrinus, then we go.” Serban waved to the bartender.
* * * * *
James refused think about the proposal that he had heard from Serban as he rode back to the hotel. He knew what Julie would say if he told her about it. He could construct it in his mind: Those poor people! How can those monsters do such a thing? James how can you participate in such a travesty?
And he would respond, In a few years we’ll be wealthy. We wouldn’t have to stay involved for more than a few deals like that and after a while, I’m sure our share would be greater.
What if you get caught? You’ll go to prison. What about me, the wife of a felon? What will your mother and father say, your little sister? She worships you.
I won’t get caught. It would bring down the whole lot of them. Besides I won’t have violated any American laws. The only laws broken will be Romanian laws. Henderson might get caught for suborning a USDA official.
And the laws of humanity, of common decency, simple morality? How can you? What of your immortal soul?
It is a world of eat or be eaten . . . the eatees and the eators.
Shit! Julie’s left me. I might as well get used to being on my own. Who knows what kind of a world I could make for myself with that kind of money?
I’ll sleep on it.
ESCAPE from BUCHAREST
But James didn’t sleep on it.
When he entered the hotel, the first person he noticed was the comic Gestapo agent seated in the lobby. The man avoided eye contact and James, having never exchanged a single word with him, decided to ignore his presence. As he retrieved his key at the front desk, it came home to him that Zeklos had arranged to keep him under surveillance. It was reasonable to assume that the two strong-arm goons, or others like them, were posted to make certain he wouldn’t depart through an alternative exit. Besides, where could I go?
James noted his passport resting in his key box behind the reception desk. He felt the eyes of the faux Gestapo agent on his back, and resisted the temptation to request the clerk for the passport’s return. In that instant decision, he realized that he was not going to keep his afternoon date with Zeklos. Riding the elevator to his room, James suddenly felt the overwhelming oppressiveness that the people who reside in this police state atmosphere must live with daily. There is nowhere to hide, he thought. For them there’s no escape!
Having decided that he wanted no part of Zeklos or Serdan, James had further dilemmas to confront. What about Henderson, my career? More to the point, what about Julie? His next thought was, What are the consequences if I don’t play along? That’s the big question. James decided to focus on the immediate problems, rather than worry about solutions that were out of his reach for the time being. I know what Julie would expect of me. Whatever happens, she will back me in this decision! In that instant James realized that is what he had done, made a choice. Then he thought, But for now, Julie will have to wait.
He entered his room, threw off his coat and slumped down in the chair facing the room’s standard writing desk. Serban and Zeklos, all of them, they won’t let me just walk away. There are millions involved! How do I get out of the hotel without being observed? If I successfully get out, where do I go and how do I escape Romania? They’ll be watching the international airport, he mused, but first I have to get my passport without attracting notice. No! First make a plan of action, he told himself, then work out how to retrieve the passport and escape the hotel without notice.
He searched and found a hotel services guide. The part that had earlier caught his attention was the list of tours that could be arranged through the hotel. It described several possibilities and as he studied them, an idea began to take shape. A city shopping tour was offered departing in the morning at 10 am. A cab could take him to the railroad station where he would meet the tour bus. Rail tours were also offered to various places, including the port city of Galati which lay north of Bucharest near the Soviet border. Danube River tours were offered to Belgrade, Budapest, Bratislava and a side trip to Prague, all cities within the Warsaw Pact Bloc.
Galati attracted his attention because it lay north, away from any access to escape from Romania other than flight into the Soviet Union. When seeking him, pursuers would dismiss Galati out of hand. If rail went to Galati from Bucharest, it certainly would also return and could continue to another destination, such as Sofia in Bulgaria. The border check would be the problem. Can I get to the Bulgarian border from Galati before the alert reaches there? I will need another day to be on the safe side, he decided.
It was late, but James had Serban’s card and telephone number. He called the front desk and asked to be booked for the morning-afternoon lunch and shopping tour in Bucharest. He asked if he could make purchases with his credit card or if it would be easier to use Romanian lei to purchase gifts and send them to his wife in Warsaw. He was assured that his credit card would serve, but he would need to show his passport. The clerk also informed him that if James wished, the clerk could personally arrange for the purchase lei. The desk clerk’s voice dropped to a whisper. He could provide James with the favorable parallel rate. James smiled to himself and asked the clerk to ring Serban, and then bring his passport and the ticket for the tour. The completed his arrangements with an insurance policy. He told the clerk he would purchase five hundred dollars of lei from him at the parallel, black market rate. That should keep the desk clerk’s lips sealed until James was well on his way.
When James’ call reached Serban, he explained that he would not be able to speak to Henderson until the following evening due to the difference in time zones. Henderson was presently away from his office and could not be reached until tomorrow. James requested that Serban contact Minister Zeklos and request that he please postpone their interview until ten o’clock a day later, when James would be able to provide a definite answer. A knock at his door soon after, brought James’ passport, tour ticket and a fistful of lei.
James had a light carry-on bag that came in the plane’s cabin with him. It could ostensibly serve as a receptacle to carry purchases from the shopping tour. He emptied it out and repacked what he considered to be essentials for his escape. The large suitcase would remain in the room with his suits and accessories. He would travel in casual clothing.
* * * * *
At 9 am James descended from his room, dropped off his room key at the desk and asked for a cab to take him to the tour bus terminal at the rail station. He recognized one of the goons from the previous day sitting in the lobby. After James departed, he glanced back to see the goon making an inquiry at the desk and apparently receiving a satisfactory answer. When he arrived at the station, James entered and studied the rail schedule and found a train that would depart from Galati in early afternoon, passing through Bucharest, continuing to Sofia where he could change trains and travel to Salonika in Northern Greece. The key point would be the crossing into Bulgaria at 6 pm. As long as no one had become concerned about his whereabouts by that time and a bulletin had not been circulated to border checkpoints, James felt he could be safely on his way.
At first James had planned to take a domestic flight, but he found that a bus departed almost immediately for Galati from the Bucharest railroad station and would drop him off at the rail station in Galati in good time to catch the train that would take him to Sofia. He successfully negotiated a seat on the bus using his Spanish. He did not have to show ID to take the bus.
He arrived in Galati and had a four hour lay-over before his train’s departure, so he bought his ticket to Sofia with lei and still had plenty of cash remaining. He had to display his passport, but Galati being an international seaport, he did not provoke much interest. He sat in the rail station restaurant and ordered a plate of Mititei and a Gambrinus, drawing little attention to himself with his swift and automatic selection as well as satisfying a newly acquired taste.
When the train drew into the station in Bucharest, James thought he saw one of the Gestapo goons standing on the platform, but he was watching for approaching passengers and showing no interest in those already on board. James spent the rest of the brief stop in the lavatory until he felt the jolt as the train began its journey toward the Bulgarian border. Shortly after departure, a conductor checked his ticket. He had purchased a private sleeper for himself. Later, an attendant came by to make down his bed. James ate in the dining car, again Mititei and a Gambrinus, simply to avoid notice.
James retired immediately after eating, so that when the train stopped at the border and a Romanian immigration official knocked on his door, he found James in his underwear and gave a cursory glance at his passport, did an abbreviated stare ritual and moved on. So far so good: no bulletin out demanding James MacKay’s apprehension and return to Bucharest . . . or worse.
On the Bulgarian side of the border, he again awaited immigration officials in his underwear. This time a woman officer knocked at his door and he held up one finger, handed her his passport and closed the door while he hastily pulled on his pants and reopened the door. The woman officer was caught off balance by James performance. He smiled with embarrassment, while she tried to maintain a straight face, checked his face against the official photo in his passport and turned to move on. Then as an afterthought turned back to him and spoke in Bulgarian, and then when he shrugged palms up with a smile, she inquired in broken English if he had any firearms, drugs or alcoholic beverages with him. James smiled and responded, “No guns, no drugs, “and then with a wide smile patted his belly and responded, “Gambrinus.” Receiving a blank look, he said bira, suddenly remembering the Bulgarian word for beer from the dining car menu. She finally broke a smile and waved goodbye without inspecting his bag.
James didn’t sleep well as the train continued its way to Sofia. A subliminal fear remained that the reach of Minister Zeklos might still find him when he arrived in Sofia, but he was committed and that was that.
For the first time since they had angrily parted in Warsaw three days ago, James took the time to reflect on his problems with Julie. How could she just up and declare that she was leaving at such a juncture? But he took a hard look at himself . . . and his ambitions. Why did I leave her . . . abandon her in Warsaw? We had just seen a man beaten for no apparent cause. How could I abandon her when she cried out for my help, my understanding? Damn, she’s in Warsaw! What if Zeklos tracks her down and holds her hostage against my silence? Shit! What have I done? Would Lucas Henderson go along with that? Or is she still in Warsaw. Hopefully, she did what she said and left.
But that was the moment when James Mackay knew with certainty that Julie was still in Warsaw waiting his return. They had had arguments in the past. What couple hadn’t? They’d had differences about leaving Venezuela. She had found friends in Caracas, a beautiful home with a garden full of the colors of bougainvillea and hibiscus, a swimming pool and a moderate climate. But in the end she had acceded, because she understood his ambition.
Anxiety gripped him; I’ve got to warn Julie. He asked himself, But how? He remembered the schedule, the train was due in Sofia at 10:23 am, not quite a half hour after he was due to meet with Minister Zeklos. How long will it take them to figure out that I’ve gone? Damn! If they noticed that I didn’t return to my room last night! Of course they will. My key will be in the box behind the reception desk. They can’t miss it!
James tossed and turned. He couldn’t rest. His fear for Julie’s safety overwhelmed him. What have I done?
By the time the train approached Sofia, James had decided that he would not continue on to Salonika, but remain in Bulgaria, approach the US embassy and make a clean breast to US officials there. Once the matter become public, there would be no need for further action by the Romanians against him. Nevertheless, exposure would likely lead to a set-back to the early overtures coming from the Soviet Bloc countries and even the Soviet Union toward easing Cold War tensions, particularly regarding trade relations.
As the train rolled into the station, James watched out the window of his cabin. A hat caught his attention. He stared as the wearer turned to observe the arrival. James’ blood ran cold and he ducked down to hide his face. That damned comic Gestapo agent! What’s he doing here?
James kept his back to the window and stood to recover his meager possessions from the overhead luggage rack. His thoughts raced: What do I do now? Oh God, they’re onto me! Have they grabbed Julie in Warsaw?
His fears dwelt on his wife. Jesus, if only she did what she said she would. But in his heart he knew she had remained to hash out their problem together. He calmed down, First things first; I can’t do Julie any good unless I get out of this.
I got out of Romania by going north and doubling back. They weren’t onto me until after I crossed into Bulgaria or they would have taken me at the border. Why not reverse myself and continue south and then double back to Sofia and get to the embassy? That comic Gestapo agent must think I’ve headed to the border. But what if he boards and finds me? Does he have authority to detain me here? Ha! Stupid question. Oh, Julie!
James shook off his fears, resolved to act while he was free to do so. He reached for the cabin door. It slid open before he could touch it. He stared into the face of the silent Gestapo agent. The man eyed him coldly. At this moment there was nothing comic about the man facing him.
“Sit!” the man ordered, the first word James had heard from him. James sat down where the man indicated. The man entered and sat across from James, adding nothing to his single word instruction.
The two sat wordlessly in the cabin. A conductor came to the cabin door to check tickets and the man flashed an ID card and waved him off. The conductor left without comment. The train was preparing to depart, the stop in Sofia brief. A dumpy, grey-haired woman with a lumpy face entered the cabin and glancing at the two men, chose to sit next to James. She deposited a large faded-orange shopping bag at her feet. Again no words were exchanged. She stared out the window, and then pulled the shade across it.
Apprehension grasped at James’ vitals, But maybe the presence of this woman will provide me with an opportunity to take some action. James tensed, ready to act. “Relax,” the comic opera Gestapo man said, “you’re not going anywhere until I tell you.”
It suddenly dawned on James that when the man had told him to “sit,” he had spoken in English and now had followed with words spoken in unaccented mid-western American English. The man reached across and slid the open cabin door until it was closed and fastened the latch.
The engine chuffed and the cars jolted. The engine chuff-chuffed again and the car slowly began to move out of the rail station. James wanted to shout, “Stop!” but managed a conversational, “I want to go the American Embassy.”
Again in conversational American English the faux Gestapo agent remarked tiredly, “They don’t want to see your face. You’re an embarrassment” He added with a sad smile, “Honorable men are always an embarrassment in our world.”
“Whose world is that?” James reacted.
“Forget it,” the man said cutting the question off with a jerk of his hand. He looked at the knobby-faced woman, “Nadya.”
The woman reached into her shopping bag and produced a manila envelope and handed it across to the man, who removed a British passport, handing it to James, “Your name is Roland Bartram. You live in Warsaw, a businessman, in textiles. No one will ask you about it. Give me your passport.”
James was beginning to understand that these were friends. He passed over his own identity document. The man gave him a shiny black leather note case. James opened it. It contained credit cards, a club card and a sheaf of pound notes, Polish zlotys and a few Bulgarian levs. “I’ve given you 437 pounds sterling. Give me your dollars and lei.” James passed over his cash and billfold.
“Nadya is Yugoslav, Macedonian to be exact. You’re not going to Salonika. She will drive you to Skopje. From there you fly to Trieste. Your flight departs at 9 am tomorrow.”
“Who are you?” James had a good idea, but wanted confirmation.
The man ignored the question, “We get off at Radomir,” glancing at his watch, “in less than ten minutes. Just listen, don’t talk.”
James couldn’t resist, raising an eyebrow and waving at the man’s get-up, “Hidden in plain sight?”
The man smiled tightly and continued, “Nadya has your airline ticket to Trieste and will return your personal documents after check-in when you board your flight in Skopje. You’ll be met in Trieste.”
James had to ask, even though he doubted he would receive an answer, “My wife . . .?
The man nodded curtly, “That’s been taken care of. She’s safe.”
Relief flooded James’ chest.” His heart thumping, he opened his mouth to learn more . . .
The train jerked, the engine chuffed, and they slowed, passing blackened brick warehouses and storage yards. “Radomir,” the man said, “Let’s move it.” He stood and offered James his hand. “You’ve been a pain-in-the-ass, but under the circumstances, you’ve handled yourself pretty well. I don’t meet very many honorable men.”
The train jerked to a halt and James grasped the edge of the cabin door. “Honorable?” James shook his head, “I don’t know.” But I want to be. The previously unarticulated thought jolted him. Yes, I want to be. James took the man’s hand and said simply, “Thanks.”
“MacKay,” the man said, using James’ name for the first time, “None of this can ever see the light of day.” He gave James a hard look. “None of it, James. Don’t even speculate out loud. The harm would be immeasurable. You’re an honorable man, James. Understood?”
Nadya led him toward the exit, but the man remained behind. James hesitated and returned, “Grow a waxed mustache, Oilcan Harry.” They both exchanged a boyish grin. James followed Nadya as he thought about that last laugh with his rescuer, even in the face of adversity, and smiled to himself.
SKOPJE to TRIESTE
The drive to Skopje was uneventful, crossing the Yugoslav border a mere formality after the canned antics of Polish, Romanian and Bulgarian immigration officials. He bade Nadya goodbye at the airport in Skopje.
* * * * *
James wearily stepped down the ramp to the tarmac in front of the Trieste terminal and trudged toward the entry to the immigration and customs reception area. There was a fenced area beside and in front of part of the terminal where people waved and called out to arriving passengers. James casually glanced at them expecting that he might see someone holding a placard with his name on it. Nothing. He looked back down at his feet and passed close to the fenced area. He heard a familiar voice! He looked again at the crowd. His heart soared. “Julie!”
Author’s Note: From July of 1976 to July of 1978 my job description included opening up company activities in the Soviet Satellite countries and the USSR itself. The ritual of intimidation at the Bucharest air terminal was identical in every immigration booth in Communist Europe. Years later, ten days before President Reagan’s invasion of Grenada in the Caribbean, I visited the island on business, and at the primitive airfield where my flight landed,(the Cubans were busy constructing a military airfield at the previous international airport), I presented my passport to an official seated at an open thatch-covered shelter. He performed a comic parody of the same procedure. There was an aircraft bearing the Red Star insignia of the Soviet Union parked nearby.
I may someday write further stories about my experiences in Soviet Europe, but suffice it for now that the police beating of the old drunk I witnessed in Gdansk, not the Warsaw airport; the greeting by gleaming bare bayonets in Bucharest was authentic and the strange character outfitted like some comic Gestapo agent in the Intercontinental hotel was actually there. But his role in this story is contrived. I journeyed by rail from Sofia to Bucharest, the reverse of the story. The bleak and deliberately menacing mood is authentic. As far as the grain deal and corruption of officials in Eastern Europe, I did not base the story on any specific incident, but I will state categorically that in my view the international grain trade in most of its permutations is a sleazy business.
Currently I live and write in Ajijic, Mexico, where I enjoy a thriving writer’s community on Lake Chapala, and swap stories with expatriates from all over the globe.
Copyright © 2018 by Robert Bruce Drynan
All rights reserved. This short story or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
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