Now this was news. In the 1950s, Communism was our sworn enemy. Cousin Morris did travel “behind the curtain,” as he called it, because the British seemed to have more opportunity, with their then socialist government, to connect with the East Bloc. But the only spies I had heard about were foreign agents stealing atomic secrets here and in England, plus the American spy plane that the Russians shot down. My mother didn’t wait for me to ask what happened, but launched right into an explanation of how he had been arrested and charged with being a British spy.
“He was in Romania on business and needed to stay over the weekend. It was a warm Sunday and he went to the local beach like all the people there do in summer. Then they just arrested him. They said he was taking pictures of some ships in the harbor, but he said he was only photographing the girls in their bathing suits. They kept him in some dirty jail for almost a week before the British government got him out and brought him home.”
“Scary,” I said, and meant it. I wondered if he’d been tortured, but at fifteen, the idea of real torture was an abstraction. Did they drop water on your forehead or just beat you up till you confessed?
“How did you find out about all this?” I asked, and she handed me a news clipping. “His mother, my first cousin Irene, sent this to your aunt Ida, and she passed it to me.”
I read the story. The paper had given it a lot of space, but I rushed to his interview near the end where he categorically denied the charge. Some speaker from the Foreign Office backed him up. My mother and I agreed it was a horrible experience, and wondered whether he might come to New York in the near future so we could hear more of the story.
But he never came back to New York, rode the subway to Brooklyn, or delivered another box of fancy rich chocolates, so we never learned anything further about his experience in that Romanian jail. We heard that he had moved to South Africa and accepted a position with his wife’s family partnership in their Capetown firm. The years flew away. I went to college and then graduate school. I vaguely recall learning that Morris had died, and he all but vanished from my memory, except when I passed a shop window with a display of Godiva chocolates.
More time passed, and by my late forties, I was coincidentally working for an international trading company that dealt in metals, not machinery. I was a generalist and traveled, but neither to India nor Africa, and concentrated much of my efforts on buying copper and aluminum in South America and then selling in the Far East and Western Europe. In the late 1980s Communism began to show significant cracks. That’s when a previous experience with a German steel venture proved useful just when a unique Hungarian steel project materialized.
I’d spent the night in London before flying to Budapest. Had dinner with Charles Woodbridge, the retired managing director of our London office at his club. We had just ordered after-dinner glasses of port and cigars, when he asked me how the Hungarian project was going. I filled in the business details, and remarked how friendly the Hungarians were to me.
“The East Bloc wasn’t always such a reasonable place to work in,” he said, “and it still isn’t. On my last visit to Moscow, one could get a luggage cart at the baggage claim for a one ruble coin. The only problem was that you weren’t allowed to take currency out of the country, so if you used a ruble to get a luggage cart after you landed and then appeared at customs with a luggage cart, it was prima facie evidence you had illegally gotten rubles out of the country, and you could get arrested on the spot for a currency crime. Actually very clever, if you like that sort of thing.”
He smiled at the irony, raised his glass, sipped at his port, and brushed a finger across a neat white mustache. I tilted my glass, smooth heady stuff. Rested my hand on the chair’s arm. His sharp blue eyes told me he had more to say.
“But things could be dicier than that. I went to school at Oxford for a year with a chap who was arrested and harassed by the Romanian secret police. They even charged him with spying, whilst on a business trip for a British firm.”
He let the words hang in the air like wood smoke, and I gulped some port. I couldn’t believe where he seemed to be headed, but needed to be sure. Maybe it was someone else. I asked what ever happened to the man.
“Oh, he was released after a week, but they clearly gave him a hard time. Lots of official protests afterward, but then it all died down. I believe the man, his name was Shaw, Morris Shaw, left England for Australia or South Africa.”
It was South Africa, Charles, but I kept my mouth shut.
“Anyway, several years later, he wrote a book about his experience. It was published somewhere abroad, but found its way into the London book shops. Made the tabloids briefly and then disappeared. I never did read it, but understand he admitted that he had been recruited by MI 6 and operated as a spy for several years. Remarkable deception, don’t you think?”
“Remarkable,” I agreed, while not quite sure who was being deceived: was it the Russians, the British public, or his American cousin? We toasted democracy. The Berlin Wall would fall within two years, yet while its collapse had already begun, the secret police were still out in force.
Charles lit his cigar, and I had a moment to think while I watched him share space with a blue cloud. So Morris was a spy after all. I’d have to tell my mother. She was still sharp enough to get it all. It would make great conversation for days down in West Palm. Then it hit me. The call from the CIA. My flight the next day to Budapest. A sudden hand tremor made me splash port on the rug. He didn’t notice. I lit my cigar and sat there as a tiny seed of discomfort began to grow.
Late the next afternoon I caught the last direct fight to Budapest. That steel mill joint venture, the one that seemed to interest the CIA so much, still needed to be finalized.
I was back in the Hyatt. I stood and stretched. Went to the window. Lights on the bridge were out. Heavier snow now. There would be no trip to the mill tomorrow. Need to stay in my room most of the day. That’s what I’ll do. Just get through the week. Just needed to be careful. And when she called back next week, throaty voice and all, family history had already prepared me with a few red flags to raise.
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.