Prague, Czechoslovak Socialist Republic
April 4, 1970
The CIA needed a union.
Josh, on his fourth cup of coffee and second Tylenol of the morning, wobbly-limbed and poor of focus as he climbed the embassy steps, would go thirteen rounds with anyone who suggested otherwise. Back in the 1890s, when long factory shifts wrung blood from brows and tired men and women lost their hands to hungry gears, American workers unionized, fought, and died for a living wage and a forty-hour workweek. Unions saved lives.
And if unions saved lives on the factory floor, how many more would they save in the field? If Josh put his foot wrong on an assignment, he might die, and his assets might talk, then die, and an American carrier group somewhere might die too. If he misread a critical piece of paper, the whole world might fall apart. A buddy of his, who spoke better Russian, said that the whole “we will bury you” line hadn’t been meant so threateningly in the original—had been some kind of weird literary reference. One translator’s screwup and the world took a collective step toward mutual thermonuclear annihilation. And spies were translators, after a fashion: They interpreted the language of the world to higher-ups back home who decided what sense to make of it.
Forty-hour workweek? Maybe less. Josh had friends in private industry; they worked forty hours and joked about slips on the job. Joked! But then, of course they joked. In their world, a slip on the job didn’t kill.
There was, technically, a government employee’s union. But Josh’s headache suggested that the spy profession sported sufficient idiosyncrasies to demand its own collective bargaining.
Sufficient idiosyncrasies —damn. He really was tired.
As he searched his pocket for his office keys, he realized Edith had passed him, and said hi; he turned to respond, but she was already gone. He found his keys in the first pocket he’d checked, but only after he checked every other pocket and worked his way back around to the first. He shoved the key into the lock, but the doorknob didn’t turn when he turned the key.
The doorknob didn’t turn because someone else was holding it.
Josh followed the hand up the arm to the shoulder and, after losing his way once or twice, found himself face-to-face with Frank.
The CIA station chief did not look happy. Josh would not have included this information in a report: Not looking happy was sort of Frank’s baseline state.
“We need a union,” Josh said.
Frank looked even less happy. “We have a union.”
“We need a better union.”
“You need to get on the job.”
“I was on the job,” Josh said, “last night. Drahomir passed us production figures. It’s all in my report.”
“We have to back-burner Drahomir,” Frank said. “Come into my office.”
“I was just going to.” Josh made a vague gesture with his briefcase. “And then get coffee.”
“That can wait.”
The windows in Frank’s office seemed narrower than ever. Josh set his briefcase down by the door. “Sir, with all due respect, it’s been a long night—”
“Longer for the Russians.”
Frank tossed a folder on the desk. Black-and-white photographs spilled out. Josh knew the Vltava’s course from maps, but he needed a breath to orient himself, looking at the photos. “This is the riverbend at Kralupy nad Vltavou. Is that boat on fire?”
“Flyover took these two nights ago,” Frank said. “With an experimental low-light film. This is as clear a picture as we could manage. Those sparks on the bank, we think they’re muzzle flashes. SIGINT suggests the Russians and the Czechs are hunting the culprits; we don’t know what was on that barge, and it sounds like they don’t, either. Between that and the firepower in evidence here, we’re seeing some interesting possibilities.”
As Josh paged through the photos, the barge burned, like some sick flip-book. What about the sailors? Had they survived? How had the barge smelled, at night, aflame? Were there screams? Irrelevant questions, for the moment. He forced himself to consider relevant ones. “Czech guerrillas?”
“Or organized crime. Either way, we suspect two groups at play, neither of which seems—and I want to stress the seems, here, Josh—”
“—to be on the Soviet side. We don’t have solid leads on the attackers, yet, but we think the barge passed through Prague a few weeks ago, which means its contents should have been registered—but the customs forms show it full of tapioca.”
Josh returned to the first picture, of the flames. “Seems a lot of trouble to go to for tapioca.”
“Some organization moved a shipment of something through Prague without the Soviets knowing, and another organization tried to snatch whatever they were moving. The Soviets and their cronies like being the only game in town. The way they see it, it’s one short hop from organized crime to armed resistance. And even if these aren’t guerrillas we could finance, they could be a way to move people, and information, across the Iron...