Guardians

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Chapter 8

January 1992

Bucharest, Romania

Nick was surprised to hear a knock on his door, and even more surprised to find Felix Candito standing outside it.

“Hey, Nick,” he said, as if they were old friends. “It’s been a while. Four years?”

“Closer to five.”

“Free for dinner?”

Nick didn’t have anything more exciting than a microwaved meal in front of the television planned. And frankly, even if he wasn’t particularly eager to talk to Candito again, he was curious as to what brought the man all the way back to Romania.

“Yeah,” Nick allowed.

They went to a restaurant Nick had frequented a few times before and sat down to a meal of tomato soup, stuffed cabbage rolls and roast beef, downed with the help of a large quantity of red wine.

“I still can’t get over this thing’s coming to an end,” Candito said. “It shaped my whole life, you know? I was born in Havana. I was eight when we had to leave everything behind, go to Miami.

“Even leaving the country, we thought Castro wouldn’t last long. In fact, my father and my uncle were both at the Bay of Pigs. My father was captured, and stuck in jail for months before he was traded back to the United States, and my uncle didn’t make it back at all. In college – that was how I got into intelligence, being involved with Mongoose.

“Now? It’s just a matter of time before the island’s free of the most evil motherfuckers in the history of the world.”

Nick’s grandparents on his mother’s side were Ukrainians who left the Soviet Union in the early ’20s, eventually settling in western Pennsylvania. His grandfather’s feelings about the Soviets weren’t much different from Candito’s. If anything, they were more intense. His country wasn’t just taken over by Communists, but by the Soviets themselves, and his disdain for them came on top of the contempt he already had for Russians in general as a Uniate church-going West Ukrainian. (He even said the Russians weren’t “real” Russians, just latecomer savages that the glorious Kievan Rus – the “shining light of Dark Ages Europe” – took under its wing, only to watch them betray it later.)

Nick had wondered once what grandpa would have said if he were still alive today, but really he wished Candito would just hurry up and get to the point.

“I’m working in the private sector these days,” Candito said. “A lot of guys who were in our line of work are going there now.” From the way he said it, Nick knew he was referring to a very specific part of the private sector. “Ever given any thought to it?”

“Some.” Not much.

Candito told him what he had in mind, mentioning a firm named Argus.

“You’ve got the languages, the area specialization. Not just Russian, but Ukrainian and Romanian too. It doesn’t hurt that you’re in the know about certain things, either,” Candito added, clearly referring to their previous meeting.

Now that was why he came to Bucharest, Nick thought.

A burst of raucous laughter from a nearby table drew his attention. A half dozen people, three couples. Tourists, Germans he guessed from a word he caught here and there. (German wasn’t one of his languages.)

Grandpa hadn’t been crazy about Germans either.

Nick turned his attention back to Candito, and the job offer, which got a lot more interesting when Candito started talking numbers.

“We did good,” Candito said while picking up the bill. “Now it’s time for us to do well.”

It would be nice to do well, yes. “When would you need a decision?” Nick asked flatly.

“The sooner the better. But you can let us know the next time you’re in the U.S.. Just call me at this number.” Candito produced a business card.

Nick would be back in the States the next week, and Candito probably knew that. Very well. He’d bring it up with his wife then, tell her in person rather than over the phone.

Nick planned to broach the issue over dinner, but his flight ran late. It was after midnight when his taxi pulled into his house’s driveway.

As it was a weeknight Kevin and Emily were asleep, or pretending to be. Kate was still up though, sitting at the kitchen table in her robe, nursing a mug of coffee.

She looked put out.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said.

“It’s not that,” she said.

“Oh. What, then?”

“Kevin.”

“Yeah.”

The same one, he guessed, over his grades, and school, and his career plans, as Kate confirmed soon enough. He’d got an “F” on a math test, and the teacher required him to take it home and get a parent to sign it.

“What do I need algebra II for?” he’d said dismissively of the grade. “When I go to college, I’m studying film.”

The results were all too predictable. Still, a lot of kids fantasized about exciting but unlikely careers, and eventually got practical enough to pick something that would pay. Hell, when he’d been a quarterback for his high school football team, Nick had fancied himself going pro. But he wasn’t quite good enough to make a college team, and hopes of a leisurely four years at school went down the drain when the economy turned bad and his dad’s business went under (which also meant that he wouldn’t be able to fall back on working for dad, which had been his back-up plan). His father died a little while after, in a car accident that his sister never stopped thinking wasn’t an accident.

With his old plan shot to hell Nick started thinking about the army, which he’d never seriously considered as an option before. His father had put in his time in the army in Korea, and came away hating it. He’d been openly relieved when he found out the draft would end before Nick became eligible for it.

But the army also seemed to be something that would let him support himself and help his mother and sister and help pay for college later on. Besides, after Vietnam it seemed to him like it would be a long while before the country went to war again.

As far as he was concerned, things had worked out.

And in all fairness, Kevin wasn’t really such a bad kid. Of course, he’d have been happier if the kid went out for sports (an idea Kevin scoffed at, seeing it as something for the “Al Bundys” of the world), or even if he got straight “A”s (the way he almost did in elementary school). But it wasn’t as if Kate had picked him up from a police station, or found a joint in his room. He knew full well how much worse things could be, had seen plenty of it, being in the army at a time when officers didn’t walk into their troops’ barracks unarmed. Kevin didn’t even get into half the trouble Nick himself had at the same age.

But that wouldn’t impress Kate, who pictured Kev as class valedictorian, perfect scorer on the SAT and Ivy League graduate. Besides, he knew that he was always away while she was dealing with all of it, and because he didn’t really have any idea what to do himself, being accommodating seemed the thing to do.

“I’ll talk to him tomorrow,” Nick said lamely.

“It’s all right. Sorry about it coming up like this. You’ve barely got in the door.”

“It’s okay.” He found himself hesitant to change the subject, but told her what was really on his mind all the same.

“I got a job offer,” he said plainly.

“What kind of job?”

“Private sector. Money’s better, a lot better.” He quoted her the number Candito mentioned.

“What’s the catch?”

“I’ll still be away, a lot.”

“Oh.”

They weighed the pros and cons. A big pro was that money. His new salary would be much more than the two of them were making now together.

Kate had been talking about going back to school, maybe training to be a psychologist, something she’d planned on doing when they’d first met, but which she hadn’t mentioned in years. It’d be easier for her to do that if she could cut back her hours at the hospital, or even quit nursing and go to school full-time, which would be a real option if he took the job offer. She’d been worried about how they’d put the kids through college, too, especially since she didn’t want to send them to a state school; the money would make that easier too.

The cons . . . they’d been together sixteen years, not particularly easy ones. They’d got together when they were very young (he’d still been in Ranger school), and their wedding had been of the shotgun variety, after she’d found herself pregnant with Kevin. Her family hadn’t been happy with any of it, the enlisted man who knocked up their daughter in her freshman year of college very far from being the son in law they’d hoped for, and things were tough in the years afterward. Money was always tight, and there was the stress of the relocations. His ISA work made things better in those ways, but long separations also became routine.

This took its toll on anybody, and Nick knew neither of them was perfect. There were temptations for an affluent-seeming American away from his wife in a foreign country, and he didn’t have an immaculate record that way. Some things she knew about, others she didn’t, and he knew she’d had temptations herself when he was away so much.

There was a time when it had looked like they were calling it quits. She never actually dropped the “D” word, but the possibility had hung over the conversation, unmistakable to him. But here they still were, together, after a lot of couples they knew whose marriages had seemed a lot more promising really did split up.

It helped that she’d expected he’d eventually get a more settled job, maybe a desk post here in the D.C. area, or the local office of the Defense Language Institute. It hadn’t happened yet, and he had to admit that he hadn’t particularly wanted it. He wasn’t sure he was cut out for sitting at a desk and punching a clock day after day.

Besides, they’d come this far. And they both knew they really could use that money. Making a pile, even a little one, would make it that much easier to think about switching to something else later.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s too good an opportunity to pass up,” she said, without much enthusiasm, and not just because of the hour.

That was good enough for him. The next day he called up Candito and told him he was taking the job.

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