An icy fog clouded the eighth-floor windowpane in the Hyatt as soon as I eased my face against the glass. Specks of snow masquerading as white ash danced and twirled in eddies atop the wind that blew across the Danube. The falling snow seemed to be rising, as if caught in some metaphysical struggle to avoid landing in Communist Hungary. Feeble light fought to leave the cables from the Chain Bridge that spanned the river. The Danube, polluted and brown with sewage and chemicals, snaked through the Eastern Bloc and ferried coal or steel in dark barges toward the open sea. Those left behind could only steal glimpses and blink away damp eyes.
The bridge joined Pest to Buda across the river, yet its long string of lights that hung atop the cables struggled to dominate the view at midnight. Either the wattage was low or the bulbs old and tired, since the effect produced no more than a hazy gloom. Murkiness engulfed the pedestrian tramway that rose from the far side of the bridge into the Buda hills, and swallowed it into total darkness before the halfway point, as if it were a vanished dissident.
Budapest’s lights dimmed early in 1988 to conserve power. Everything in Eastern Europe — buildings, cars, and faces in the crowd — all seemed dark, even during daylight, yet small pinpricks of change had begun to appear in the seven months since my first visit.
The country was desperate for foreign investment, and I had been charged with negotiating a joint venture with a Hungarian steel mill. This was my fifth visit to Budapest since the project began. My plane had been delayed leaving London and had only arrived at nine that evening. The road from the airport was nearly empty, yet the taxi driver stayed well below the speed limit and practiced very credible English with a nonstop staccato of questions about my visit.
“How long will you stay in Budapest?” The last syllable was pronounced “pesht.”
“Maybe a week. Maybe less. Depends on how things go.”
“Will you travel outside the city?”
“To the north,” I said. “To Miskolc.”
“Ah, to the steel mill,” he said. “And what will you do there?
At first his queries seemed innocuous gestures at conversation, but an alarm went off after my first few answers. I didn’t want to talk at all, so I feigned jet lag, and closed my eyes until we were at the hotel.
I dropped my bag at the Hyatt and headed next door to the Forum hotel for a bowl of goulash soup and a Heineken. An hour later, outside again, the air was chilly and white specks began to flutter aimlessly. Heavier snow was forecast. I walked around the block before I headed back to the Hyatt. I needed the space after so much time in airports.
“Money changed? Dollars for Forints. I give you good rate.”
The voice appeared from a shadow. A quick glance to my right. Flash of a large nose and black bushy mustache, dark heavy coat and peaked fisherman’s cap. Ignored him and walked faster. The hotel was less than a hundred feet away, but he was persistent, and matched strides.
“Please sir, I have family. Need money for food. Have babies, too.”
I kept my head down and walked right toward the entrance. I heard his footsteps echo on the cement. Black market money changing can land you in jail.
“Sorry. No,” I said without a backward look, and then felt stupid for having said anything.
Reached the revolving door. Turned but the street was empty. Looked both ways again. How did he disappear like that? Picked up some Telex messages at the desk. Rode the elevator, a glass-enclosed capsule, and watched the lobby fall away, but felt a chill dance across my neck. Was I getting paranoid? I thought of the phone call two days ago on the morning I’d left. The C.I.A. wanted to meet with me.
“This is routine,” crooned a female voice. I guessed mid-thirties, but how can you tell?
“We see from immigration records that you’ve had a number of recent trips to Hungary.”
I didn’t answer. Dead air. Hell, if she knew about the other visits, I didn’t need to confirm the obvious. Then, “We’d like to come and chat with you about Hungary if you have some spare time.”
More dead air until I told her I was leaving that night for London and then on to Budapest. Wouldn’t surprise me if she knew that already. Agreed that she’d call back in a week.
“Till then,” she said, the voice all throat. The words sounded like something out of a ’40s movie.
The chill didn’t go away. I tried but couldn’t read the messages. Maybe later. That’s when I moved to the window, but the snow had started and the window angle was too tight for me to see the street below. The man couldn’t still be there.
“Who was he? The man who wanted to change money. And the taxi driver who kept asking questions? Not possible,” I spoke aloud into the empty space, my breath misting the glass. “I said we’d talk after I got back. I haven’t agreed to anything.”
The window pane was cold against my cheek, as if the outside wanted in, wanted to question me, like the taxi driver. I pulled back and dropped in an armchair opposite the television. A warm lone bottle of mineral water sat on the cabinet above the television. I unscrewed the cap and drank greedily. Then my thoughts carried me back more than 30 years as if time froze.
“Did you hear what happened to your cousin Morris?” My mother spoke that way knowing full well I had walked through her front door five minutes before, and there was no possible way I might have heard about Cousin Morris in the interval since I had gone off to school that morning.
Moreover, I had only met Morris three times in my life until then, but that was my mother’s way of announcing that I should sit still while she provided some news bulletin. Cousin Morris was about to be served up like a Sunday pot roast.
He lived in England. The bulk of my mother’s Schwartz family had immigrated directly to New York from Russian-occupied Minsk, but Morris’s father had stopped off in London, settled in the East End, changed his name to Shaw, and never left.
Morris was born and raised there, read history and economics at Oxford, and worked for a small international trading company that dealt in machinery. He would periodically stop in New York, and time permitting, would undertake the subway ride from Manhattan to Brooklyn, so we could all have dinner together.
“Noisier than our Underground,” he had once said after arriving with a box of Godiva chocolates just in time to keep the chicken from overcooking.
He fascinated me. His short trim body rose into a compact round face, which was never without exceptionally large horned-rim glasses, and topped by a large stretch of pink scalp. I first met him when I was perhaps only 10, but was immediately gripped by his accent. Years later I would learn that the smooth cultured flow of language this short man produced was known as a university accent, a product of England’s finest secondary schools and colleges, yet at that first moment, the clipped resonance flowed like liquid chocolate. My absorption with the man, however, went far beyond his speech. He spoke several languages, and traveled to places one barely dreamt about.
He entertained us with vignettes from his business trips to the Far East, Africa and Communist Eastern Europe. He described the shimmering white image of the Taj Mahal in a morning sun, wild striped antelope blindly racing across the African veldt, and the dour gray faces of Eastern Europeans.
“Well, what happened to Cousin Morris?” I asked as my mother slid a plate of cookies across the table. She’d already poured the milk.
“He was arrested,” she said, and pushed the cookie plate a few inches farther, as if there were some connection between the Oreos and my cousin’s detention.
This brief announcement did not at first seem so very unusual, and I said as much. Even my older sister had been warned, although not actually arrested, when she and some friends attempted to pocket some barrettes from the Woolworth’s on Flatbush Avenue.
“No, this is serious,” she said. He was arrested in Romania. By the Communists. They said he was a British spy.”
To Be Continued
Allan Retzky, who has previously contributed fiction to The East Hampton Star, lives with his wife in Amagansett. His debut novel, “Vanished in the Dunes — A Hamptons Mystery,” recently climbed to number one in Amazon’s Kindle mystery sales.