Guardians

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Chapter 2

August 1991

Bucharest, Romania

Candito’s confirmation that neither the U.S., nor the Soviets, built the ship didn’t surprise Nick. Maybe he’d had his fill of flaky pseudo-science hanging around with people in the regime in Bucharest. Maybe after spending his whole adult career listening to a hundred different people feed him a hundred different kinds of bullshit he had just grown jaded to Big, Important Revelations. And maybe he was “as deep as a puddle” (as his mother-in-law once said he was, but then she didn’t like him much).

At the end of it, Nick simply returned to his routine, the trip up to the border just one more detail of his time in Romania, swallowed up in the torrent of other details that followed.

Seven months after his little adventure with Candito, a strike in Brasov turned into a march, a round of upheavals and backlashes that just went on and on and on.

In April 1989 the Polish government legalized the Solidarity movement, which won the national election that August. That same month the Hungarian government tore down the barriers on their side of the border with Austria, East Germans flooded westward through the gap, and less than two months later the Berlin Wall was being reduced to souvenirs.

As the Wall came down Hungary’s Communist Party gave up its monopoly of political power, and another month after that the Communist Parties of Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria did the same in their own countries.

The passivity of the governments that had presided over half the continent for forty years in the face of these upheavals was unreal to Nick, even more so given how life went on in Romania. During a debriefing Nick’s bosses asked him what he thought would happen if a similar upheaval were to occur in Bucharest.

“Tiananmen Square,” was his answer.

Two weeks after he said so the Romanian government evicted a Hungarian bishop who criticized its human rights record. There was a protest after that, which didn’t surprise Nick. What did surprise him was that the protest metastasized into a riot that plunged the country’s mood into one of national crisis.

President Nicolai Ceausescu, just returned from a state visit to Iran, convened a “spontaneous” mass meeting in Revolution Square, which Nick came to as an observer. To his surprise the rally turned into a revolt. Chanting crowds and improvised flags dominated the streets – quickly joined by soldiers and armored vehicles.

Nick found himself taking cover as fighting more intense than anything he’d personally experienced in El Salvador raged around him. He found refuge in the InterContinental Hotel a half mile away. From a window inside it he watched one of the big, eight-wheeled armored personnel carriers in the street roll into a crowd, glimpsed the removal of a crushed body from below it.

Journalists took notes, snapped pictures; tourists who’d brought along their camcorders made their personal documentaries of their Carpathian adventure. Nick took a seat at the bar, waiting for things to calm down outside.

Before he knew it the “National Salvation Front” claimed to have charge of things, and reported that it had captured the President and his wife trying to flee the country.

Two days after that, on Christmas Day, they were executed by a firing squad.

Since then there had been elections, and talk of reforms of all kinds. Everywhere Nick went it seemed like there were new goods on sale in a country where just a little while earlier people had to be on a waiting list for years before getting a rickety television set, hotels and national monuments being refurbished. They were working on a constitution, and people were talking about starting up businesses, or immigrating to new opportunities abroad, or even the country’s joining the European Community.

Nick stayed in place, however. His job was tougher in some ways: it wasn’t as easy to win friends by handing out a few Western luxuries as before. But the same thing was a reflection of life becoming more livable than in those austere last years, and today he checked out the new café on Calea Victoriei. Just a short walk away from the square where he had dodged bullets twenty months earlier, he enjoyed a cup of coffee with a plate of colaci and the morning edition of the local daily.

The city had a vaguely Southern European feel in that season, and Nick found himself thinking of his first time abroad, his assignment to the 173rd airborne brigade in Vicenza, Italy, after which he’d joined the Rangers. The Army’s Intelligence Support Activity recruited him out of there during its preparations for the Desert One operation.

He’d been with the ISA ever since, though they weren’t called that anymore, and might not be called anything anymore. With the national debt mounting fast, and the economy in the dumps, and peace breaking out, the intelligence budget was likely to be cut and cut deeply. Even if it didn’t, Romania wouldn’t enjoy the priority it had earlier. Nick had heard people talk about local troubles, with minorities, with neighboring countries like Hungary, but local troubles would look like just that, local troubles.

Naturally, Nick had given some thought to what he might do if Uncle Sam gave him his walking papers. He had his foreign language training, his contacts here with the Romanian government; his time in Central America earlier, too. Maybe there’d be work for him with a company doing business in those places. But his ideas were pretty vague at that stage, and he was content to take it all one day at a time. Right now he just wanted to enjoy his breakfast, something that had got a little trickier when he noticed an old acquaintance from the Ministry of the Interior sitting down to take breakfast there too.

Just three years earlier the man had been locking up political prisoners for a Communist government; now he was running for Parliament on a center-right ticket and clumsily editing his life story to match.

Like most of the old functionaries he was just an opportunist, adapting himself to any conditions to get ahead, and shrugging off the inconsistencies.

“The world’s a contradictory place, and we’re a more contradictory people than most,” Nick remembered him saying once. “We’re a Latin island in a sea of Slavs, and at the same time an Orthodox island in the Catholic sea of the Latin world; a dictatorship of the proletariat dominated by a personality cult long past the point of self-parody in a place where Dracula was a national hero; a Communist one-party state embracing Western capitalism, a country devoted to self-reliance in hock to the International Monetary Fund; a Soviet Bloc nonconformist; a Warsaw Pact country led by a man honored by Queen Elizabeth as a knight of the British Empire.”

The fact that he said things like that was Nick’s bigger problem with him now: he found him a pompous bore. Given the chance he’d go on and on about some dead Frenchman, and Nick was in even less of a mood than usual to be subjected to a lengthy discourse on Ball Sack (Nick thought that was the name) or Flaubert. The dutiful thing would have been to say “Hi,” and keep the connection going, but not wanting to be bothered he shifted the newspaper to block the line of sight between himself and the table.

This done, Nick finished his coffee and left without being recognized by his old associate, and walked down the street to where he’d parked his car, thinking about a meeting later in the day with an ex-official who was interested in importing farm machinery. (“Usually you have people leaving the country for the city, but right now it’s in reverse,” he’d told him. “We’re going to have an agricultural boom, and a lot of money can be made equipping it.“)

On his way there he noticed a crowd of people gathered around a shop window. Approaching closer to them he could see they were all looking at a television, making remarks to each other about what they were seeing.

He looked at the screen, saw that the TV was tuned to a news broadcast. There was footage of the Kremlin, and not of the usual stock variety.

“What’s going on?” Nick asked no one in particular.

“They’re saying there’s been a coup in Moscow,” a middle-aged woman answered him.

“Huh.”

Nick ended up watching along with the rest of them, waiting for details.

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