Warplanes in exercises darted over the Red Sea like kites in fights. Kochanski turned from watching them from his window to the wall screen where Black Shadows began playing. A parting couple stood, the solemn man in uniform and the woman’s face tearful. Their hometown was under attack from the mountain rebels. Mournful music played. The camera turned to other young men leaving for battle while wives wept and hugged their children.
He would watch the episode again with Eleanor, the facility manager, who translated the dialogue and interpreted the culture. Elegant and intelligent, the petite elderly lady was half-Saburian and half-English, more proper than anyone he had met in England. He would find her at a breakfast in the kitchen, drinking sweet milky tea and scooping an egg from a porcelain cup with a tiny spoon, her bird-size meal lasting long enough to explain one episode.
“Watching this show helps me to connect better with the local culture,” he told her. Actually, the only Saburian he cared about was the king who approved the airing of each new episode.
The phone rang — Trisha Talwar, his lawyer in Chicago.
“Michael,” she said in a warning voice, “the police here want to talk to you about the security guard’s murder. His ID papers were faked.”
She paused. “I think Detective Dodd is interested in this one. I told them you were out of the country, and they said you can call them. Do you want me to sit in on this?”
“Thanks, Trisha, yes I need you,” he said. “Please set up a three-way tomorrow, Chicago time. I’ll call the superintendent to check the storage room in the Pierre to see if anything’s missing. Sanchez had the keycode, you know… sure hope nothing is gone. It’s all insured, of course.”
They hung up. They would discover that the painting was missing from the climate-controlled vault.Then he would claim the insurance money sooner than he had planned.
His art fraud scheme had failed. He had plotted to sell the original painting and replace it with a forgery. Then in the future, by claiming that his art had been stolen and a copy had been substituted, he would collect on its insurance policy and be paid a second time for its value.
Oscar Sanchez had been taking the painting at night to Marion, the art forger. Would the artist keep his mouth shut or ruin his painting career? Still, it would be best to collect the half-completed fake and give the forger some cash. Who would do that for him? He was stuck in Saburia. All the king’s men, of course.
Kochanski touched the campus phone and rang up the Main Office.
“I need to speak to Salim,” he said. “Please have him find me.”
The Pierre building superintendent had called him over a week ago. “Michael, the security guard, Oscar, who was living in the basement, he’s missing.”
Kochanski’s therapist had coached him on the “7/11 rule” to manage his panic at such times: “Count to seven as you take one deep breath in, and then count to eleven while you exhale. Do it seven times.”
“So, Oscar did not return to his room last night?” Kochanski asked after only one slow breath in.
“No sign of him, Michael.”
Did he expect to hear a different answer if he asked a second time. Like a child? Magical thinking is a sign of insanity, they say.
He had searched online news sites for news about Sanchez. Nothing.
A few days later, the superintendent called again. “His body was found floating face down in the Chicago River. I had to go to ID it, just saw his face and his clothes.”
“Did it smell horrible?” Kochanski asked.
“That may tell us how long Oscar had been underwater.”
“Lost my smell with COVID, never came back. But the body was bloated under the drape.”
Sanchez was undocumented. Kochanski gave him fake ID papers, duplicating Garcia’s. With his stolen identity, Sanchez made essential deliveries of messages, cash and goods. A government sting operation for money laundering had caught Sanchez in its net. When Sanchez’s body and fabricated ID were recovered, ICE realized their mistake and released Garcia.
After leaving the message for Salim, he closed his door and sat down in his office to process the bad news. The therapist diagnosed his nausea at such times as a “generalized anxiety disorder” — F41.0 in her medical coding book — and recommended that he see a psychiatrist for medication.
He last felt sick like this in Chicago two years ago when a silent server had poured iced shots of his vodka. Garcia took one only polite sip and switched to water. The Dew calming his nerves, he had slipped in the king’s request for the Purple project.
Garcia asked questions and then observed wryly, “You’ve got a rich voice with an Eastern European accent. It’s soothing. Maybe it helps you to coax people into proposals like this. I’ll think about it.”
After the scientist left that day, Kochanski drank some more, had a rare steak and chain-smoked a pack of cigarettes.
He had not told the therapist that there was something that already worked for his nausea. Americans had an odd attitude about alcohol, preferring medication instead.
“Heavenly Father, I’ve never done drugs, and I’ll not start now.”
Now, he could only recall vague details of the twilight end of that conversation with Garcia. He had been hammered. They had discussed the new Chicago Mob and its resemblance to the old Godfather movie, or was it the Vatican’s connection to the Italian mafia? As fellow Catholics, he showed Garcia pictures of the new chapel in the Pierre Building, named after his mother, its baptismal font and antique crucifix.
Garcia was more interested in the GFCI power outlets.
Garcia had said he did not believe in the devil. But for Kochanski, the drinking made him more fearful. Braving the Chicago wintry blasts that night, he had walked to the Pierre chapel, sat on a pew in the dark and prayed before falling asleep.
Dawn would greet him with another punishing hangover the next day when he whipped himself with shame and prayed, “God, I promise never to do this again … not for a while at least.”
Later Garcia had renamed the king’s Porphyry project. “Too fancy a name,” he said, “Michael, porphyry is an antique marble imported from ancient Egypt to build imperial monuments. I’ll call it the Purple project.”
They were sitting on the rooftop of the Pierre. Garcia then updated him. “Your king’s idea is becoming real faster than I expected. I think this is how Oppenheimer felt about the Manhattan Project.
“ART is Artificial Reproductive Technology. I’m spending time in Pandolf’s embryology lab helping a Dr.Safire with using the Drukker. He gave me new ideas to discuss with Soria for their ART center in India.”
“You mean like test-tube babies?”
“This technology is way more advanced,” Garcia said.
“So you think it’s possible — what the king wants?”
Garcia hesitated. “Full disclosure, Michael, human germ-line experiments are prohibited by all the major governments and can result in criminal prosecution.”
Waving his hands in excitement, Kochanski rebutted, “No one will care fifty years from now about that. For now, we can always find a way to deny that we knew anything. Cancer treatments will become just one thing we do in Saburia.”
That evening, the breeze had come up off Lake Michigan carrying faint music. Kochanski hummed, “As Time Goes By.”
“Manny,” he said, “you learned about America through science, but me, I have learned about my new home from its old movies.
“I mean don’t worry. I’m not saying that cancer trials will be the storefront while illegal gambling happens in the back — Casablanca, Bogart movie. I mean that the king’s extra funding will help your cancer research.”
A few drinks later, Kochanski brooded, saying, “Why do so many people worry about cancer? Everyone dies! You know, I sit at these board meetings. They get critical about selling computers to medical centers, saying ‘we’re practically giving away the product,’ saying how the military pays 50 percent more for basically the same machine and internationally the world’s queuing up for them— price is no object.
“OK. I know you disapprove of my drinking when we’re discussing important business. I’m happy to be among friends and talking freely.”
Hungover the next morning, he apologized to Garcia. “I’m sorry, Manny. That was the vodka mouthing off. Knowing what happened to your wife, maybe I was too blunt.”
“But you’re right,” Garcia said, “That royal money will help support my cancer research. I wasn’t offended, just thinking of my trip to the Drukker Dock.
“The kids there love me. I love them back. On the walls, I saw photos of their Chinese factory and cheerful tech support in Bangalore — international collaboration.”
Kochanski nodded. “You do look happier than the man I first met when you were working at the NIH.”
“Technology is not just about profit,” Garcia had mused, “because those kids working at the Dock, all that labor has a soul too. Human beings like to think we own this world. We used to believe that the Sun revolved around the Earth too. But human existence revolves around the truth.”
Despite his nausea now, he could not order the steak or start smoking or drinking — yet. First, he had to greet Dr. Sheraton, the pediatrician, Campbell, and the rest of the caravan arriving soon from the airport.
He opened a drawer. Next to his stolen Gideon Bible, he found packs of cigarettes for that night. Saburia was good. Unlike Americans, the locals and Chinese did not find his smoking bothersome. There would be time tonight for that steak cooked rare, its steaming juices dripping, morsels dipped in kosher salt, and for smoking and sipping vodka, slowly escaping, reminiscing about his teen years working for the Butcher.
He had never told his American therapist about his past, ashamed and fearing deportation. Instead he read self-help books and diagnosed himself with “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, code F43.12 in a medical database of numbers for insurance claims — also claiming in its ledger the human story.
Even now, drinking and smoking, Kochanski found escape with friendly old ghosts in his gang family. Drugs back then were mostly for sale or for girls. At least in his gang, he was safe from being treated like a girl. Other boys he knew hadn’t been as lucky.
Growing up in small town Poland, he had learned to slaughter animals by day which segued into killing people at night. Few were as good as him at disappearing — with only a touch of a knife like a feather to the throat — their best assassin — no line between animals and people and great pride in how fast he worked. Almost painless!
Gangs used boy-men like him for executing people they did not know for bosses they had never met. A hooded crone handed out assignments and train tickets at night on a street corner.
Garcia had once said: “Faster than the speed of light, it comes and goes — life’s train on the rails of time.” Tears now came for those passengers left behind at the death stations.
The cost of doing business, killing, became distressing when he grew older and he couldn’t cross the line into torture and terror. His disappointed bosses gave him other jobs instead.
After a hit, successful or not, he used to take the train back home to his safe zone. Behind the local bakery which oozed warmth and delicious smells, two dumpsters exhaled the stench of yesterday’s trash. Skinny enough to hide between them where nobody could smell or find him, he retreated in a gloomy daze, smoking and drinking cheap vodka with salt. Hunger drove him to eat the old pastries, bread and cheese the shop discarded.
The gang called him White Rat, running to safe spaces between trash heaps, smelling like them. Like everyone else in his little, secretive town, where generations grew up connected by the local sense of community, the baker shrugged off outsiders hunting for him. The old man also had a tender spot for his single mother and childhood friend. Kochanski left what he had not eaten for the stray dogs he befriended; they had saved his life once by growling away pursuers.
In his mid-teens, waking up one morning next to the oven in the shop, his mother hovering over him, the baker warned him, “Too drunk to know better, you’re lucky you didn’t freeze to death. Next time, I’m calling the police station.”
“I know you don’t worry about our local police,” his mother had told him later, “Because your friend, Jakub, is the Chief’s nephew. But someday when you’re running from your own, not just those others in the cities you travel to, you’ll want to find a place to hide that your friends don’t know about. He was warning us. When your own people turn on you, there’ll be no mercy, and no one — but me — will try to help you.”
Then he found other places — only the dogs knew — and didn’t go home the nights he drank, instead leaving his mother some of his money to pay bills. She did not ask him questions and always had a loving blessing and warm meal for him.
No one had cared much about another fatherless boy who roamed the streets while his mother cleaned houses. A charity kid at the town’s Catholic school, he had found a mentor in a physics teacher and planned to become a scientist himself.
The science teacher had moved on to a bigger city, and the local butcher recruited him for criminal work. The paunchy meat-man had relatives in the police and court who looked the other way.
Then came sixteen year old Irina.
In Russia, she said she had lived with her father after her mother walked out on her father’s drinking and married an American.
“But she couldn’t get me out,” Irina said.
When she was six years old, her father moved her stepmother into their home.
“Evil Woman stayed in bed,” she said, “and had me do extra chores in the morning, wouldn’t give me a school excuse when I was late, stole my lunch money and if she was angry, she would even throw away my homework. Then she had a baby and I was the babysitter too.”
Her voice lowering to a whisper, Irina then described meeting Natasha, a girl her age who lived upstairs and wrote poetry. They shared everything in a secret world where they were two fairytale princesses in a castle turret, high above wild oceans.
She said it was just like he made her feel in their warm nights together, winding their languages and bodies together. Twining her fingers with his, she said he made her feel like butterflies were on her eyelashes.
Irina had liked fairytales. “They have more wisdom than any spiderweb books, well except of course, the Russian ones.”
She had a hardbound collection of fairy tales from her grandparents. Detailed illustrations in brilliant colors: the blue teal of peacocks, the royal purple on princes and the soft pastels on the princesses’ faces and hands were painstakingly printed and covered with a protective layer of tissue.
She said in broken Polish, “Those are the stories I tell you, Michael, like the Arabian princess, Scheherazade, told her king. But I don’t like foreign stories as much. The Russian ones are from my heart.”
Then she narrated tales by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Checkov, names he had not heard before.
“I have only read the children’s versions,” she said. “I hid my books because I was afraid Evil Woman would take them away. I put this china shepherdess in their place where everyone could see her better, high up where my little brother could not break it. I even cracked the statue and blamed him. The witch beat me up for not watching him close enough.
“He was cute, my little brother,” she added. “But sometimes I shut him up in the apartment to go see Natasha upstairs.”
Those were his tenuous recollections of a distant time when he had teased her about all her “chattering.”
With Katya, he once went a London performance of Rimsky-Korsakoff’s “Scheherazade.”
“Your mother loved stories too,” he said, “We had our thousand and one nights.”
“Dad, I don’t need to know that,” his daughter said. “Growing up, you told me so many of her stepmother stories. To think that somewhere in Russia, I have an uncle. I wonder what happened to Natasha?”
“Yes, your mom and Natasha were like you,” he said, “fond of poets, especially the young and passionate kind. Does that explain your impractical course of study?”
Katya only knew a sanitized version of her parents’ meeting and relationship. Their daughter would never know about her mother’s eyes at their first meeting: pupils narrowed from drug use.
She would never know the ugly twist in Irina’s life that her mother had said ended her childhood.
“I paid less and less attention to the real world around me,” Irina said, “no longer bothered to keep up in school even and then, this new man started visiting. Sasha was handsome, not much older than me, fun, taking me for ice-cream. One day he gave me drugged candy, and I fell asleep in his car.”
What had happened next was a truth that he still fought, their shared truth: a drugged, violent world of adult men and women that they entered before they could grow up.
“My parents sold me, Michael; still, I found you!” she had told him, kissing him.
At times he found Irina again in others but would awake the next morning or the next month in blackness, and she was still gone.
Remembering a young man’s pride about Cupid’s first arrow, that no one had ever felt like him before, they fell in love as eons of couples before. Lost in green eyes, brown hair soft like the wing of a baby bird, he too whispered mad words of passion.
Nor would he tell Katya how Number Two later related a different story of how the gangs had taken her mother.
“There was no stepmother,” Number Two had said. “It was her father only. Even I don’t think I could be as worthless as him.”
The crime boss had laughed about how Irina’s father had sold her for “a TV set and booze.”
Still, Kochanski questioned Number Two about the stepmother a second time, hoping for a different answer. The man shook his head.
Then he wondered about all the other things Irina had told him. So she became a spirit in a haunted house: secret rooms, passageways and garden mazes where he could chase her until she disappeared and left him alone.
When Number Two tired of Irina, he gifted her to White Rat. It was often so with the prettiest girls. Number One could not resist them and then passed them down to Number Two, saying it boosted morale even if the girls were not as valuable afterward when they were sent south.
“Why should the Arabs get the first taste?” he had growled. Number One hated wide swathes of people from those who were not white to those who were not Polish.
Tonight he would escape — decades later on the coast of the Red Sea— in an air-conditioned bedroom. After a steak dinner and drinks on the breezy balcony, he would pass out still in his smoky suit and socks on a comfortable bed. Like that Macbeth woman, he too could never wipe all that blood off his hands.
After Irina died, he took Katya to a clinic in Warsaw for paternity testing. The good news that he was her father — marked the beginning of his belief in science, whereas before he had only believed in God.
People were treacherous, except his own mother, whom he then moved to Warsaw with Katya. Well hidden under a new family name, it would be safer for the two there. Remembering Kasia (her Polish name) in her Catholic school uniform, he smiled, As soon as she was nine and old enough, he had moved her to an even safer British boarding school.
The deep web was the only way he thought was safe to communicate with Katya. But criminal elements flourished there. Also, he didn’t want to get caught in the cyber crossfire between legal groups and governments.
The king’s computer crew and the local Chinese tech support had set him up with a “secure server and private network.” Smiling and joking, spewing technical jargon in a mishmash of languages and wearing blinking name tags, they even came to his Chicago office. Everything can be bought, even if he was not highly educated.
Sometimes he wondered what the techies said to each other about him. Proudly claiming that in China, we have “ knowledge of everything wireless, lawful, lawless,” one techie explained that international governments stayed omnipresent incognito, observing and tracking the wild activities of the electronic night without interfering.
Like God. Kochanski thought, looking up at the brilliant Saburian sky. Somewhere up there was a secure satellite where the stars and strangers heard everything he said to Katya, transmitted on coded electromagnetic waves through a wilderness of networks from Saburia to Cambridge, England.
Katya was in school, getting an advanced degree in Russian literature. That she was fluent in English, Russian, and Polish would amaze her mother. “Maybe your mom is looking down on you even now from the heavens,” he told her.
He rang the buzzer.
“Steak, make it rare,” he said into the intercom, “for my dinner tonight after everyone leaves. And the bottle of wine for Dr. Sheraton’s welcome. It needs to be here by 6 PM, on ice…and nice crystal glasses.”
Then he tapped his keyboard, searching files, the Internet and even the deep web for clues to Sanchez’s murder. Was Jim Sichet involved?
He needed to return to Chicago but couldn’t, not yet, not until this business in Saburia — the king’s project — was wrapped up.
As for Garcia, Pandolf had found loose cables and tools beneath the lab computer after his ICE detention, as well as chunks of time where Garcia had run experiments on the Drukker computer with no record of their content.
Sitting on Drukker’s board, he had learned that Drukker had advised Pandolf that they were unable to discover more about Garcia’s hidden activities. Leery about negative publicity, Pandolf then only demanded that Drukker upgrade their computers with security fixes.
Eyes returning to the now clear skies outside his office window, Kochanski smiled about Mary. Soria Clinics had intercepted her heartfelt letter of gratitude to Garcia, addressed to a PO Box in New York City. They had “de-identified” it and then forwarded it to Kochansi to send to Garcia.
Mary now had hope, maybe that was all that was sacred, not profane like his work for the king, or his fight with Jim Sichet, or Oscar’s murder…perhaps even as timeless as his connection with Irina.
Checking his phone, he figured Campbell’s flight from San Francisco was now landing in Ramses after stopping in Athens. According to a short email from Ramses, the plane had successfully negotiated a joint Drukker/Saburian secret flight experiment.
Campbell would be happy to hear about Garcia’s release from his ICE detention.
“They even apologized,” Garcia told him on video-call, “They got the wrong man. Somebody stole my identity, Michael.”
They were being careful just in case someone was listening in to their phone conversation.
“How weird,” he told Garcia.
“Thank you,” Garcia went on, “for everything, the lawyer and taking care of George. Now I need to find out about my job. Does David have my stuff?”
“You’re welcome, Manny. Yes, David is bringing me your things.”
Garcia raised his brows. “Remember to not mention … well … anything he may not approve of.”
Kochanski laughed. “I know, If David doesn’t approve, oh God, he might leave, return to Texas and then stew until he decides what to do next. You can do that if you’re wealthy and don’t need to get paid regularly.”