Olen Steinhauer

Victory Square

26 DECEMBER 1989


There are things you know but forget. Truths that don’t stay in your head because you’re distracted by daily affairs, by the manic effort of living your life. Then, unexpectedly, the knowledge returns and changes you. It makes murder possible.

Leaning through the high stone window of the Grand Hotel Duchi D’Aosta, I looked down at tourists and pigeons vying for space on the damp marble floor of the Piazza dell’Unita d’Italia, Trieste’s central square. In the cold wind blowing through from the Adriatic, a basic truth came back to me: Old men die every day.

They submit in overstuffed chairs across from blaring televisions, slip in the bathtub, sink deep into hospital beds. They tumble down the stairwells of barren apartment blocks and face heart failure in swimming pools and restaurants and crowded buses. Some, already sleeping on the street, go quietly, while others take care of it themselves, because that’s the only power left to them. Their wives are dead and their friends as well; their children have fled from the stink of mortality. Sleeping pills, razors, high terraces and bridges. Usually, old men go alone.

Before that week, I’d never been to Italy, though when I was a young man I dreamed of it, and of a famous bridge in Venice that spelled out a metaphor I could understand. No longer. Metaphors help you boil down the complications and ambiguities of your too-long life into a picture book. They help you lie to yourself.

My wife, Lena-she was the one who traveled, and for a long time I didn’t know why. In truth, I knew nothing about her. Only later, among whining Vespas, garlic-scented streets, and bombastic Italians, feeling every one of my sixty-four years, did I finally understand. I understood her, and I understood everything, for just a moment. To the left, beyond the square, the Adriatic glimmered.

The pedestrians below didn’t notice me. Bald on top, white along the sides; my one striking feature was that I had bright eyes that should’ve been on a younger man. Not tall-neither in height nor stature. That was me. A normal man in all ways, with the cold sea wind flapping my gray blazer. I owned nothing; even my clothes were borrowed from Brano Sev, who, until I betrayed him, was probably the luckiest man I’d ever known. Borrowed, too, was the still-warm Walther PP I kept in the blazer’s stretched pocket so the tourists below wouldn’t be frightened.

I wasn’t thinking of the man I’d shot, who made quiet noises in the room behind me. No, I’d thought about him far too much over the last week. I was thinking, instead, about the greatness of life. All the sensations and people and moments that, if you don’t hold on to them, disappear forever. And once they’re gone, they might as well never have existed. That’s one reason I’m telling this story, to make them last a little longer. The other reason will explain itself.

I turned back to the room. It was one of those Italian prestige hotels filled with corroded grandeur, the most expensive in town. The old man groaned on the blood-wet bed, clutching his left knee. He wasn’t even looking at me now, because he knew it made no difference.

I settled into a chair, told him I would finish this, and watched as the tremors began. He let go of his knee and seized up. His right leg shot out, then the injured one, and that movement made him scream. I didn’t react.

This man, descending into epileptic spasms, had an unbelievable resilience. He’d survived so much over the last century, been near death so many times, beaten down but always rising again over eighty years, despite being crippled by the falling sickness. I even felt, briefly, a measure of respect. In comparison, my own life had been soft and simple. But old men die every day-yes, women, too-and this day was no exception.

20 DECEMBER 1989



It started six days before. Only a week. Gavra Noukas would later fill in the details I wasn’t around to see, and he’s checked what I’ve written to verify it all, at great cost to himself. Despite everything, I stand behind his version of events. The young spy has always been straightforward with me, and if anyone in this new world wants to prosecute him for what he did in the old, he can call on me to speak in his defense. But I don’t think he needs my help anymore.

He’d been traveling a long time. First, a TisAir flight to Zagreb, where a cramped JAT jumbo jet brought him to JFK Airport. On that long flight he’d distracted himself by flirting with the Croat stewardess who, after bringing him vodka on the sly, told him her name was Radmila. He gave her the name on the passport he’d switched to after leaving, but before reentering, Zagreb International, and her head popped back. “You’re kidding.”

“I’m not.”

“That’s my father’s name.”

His passport, like all those issued by the Ministry for State Security, was worn and authentic-looking. Lieutenant General Kolev had chosen the name Viktor Lukacs, which just happened to be the name of this stewardess’s father. With that name, Gavra cleared New York passport control and took a 3:00 A.M. taxi to LaGuardia. While waiting for a Delta flight to Virginia, he bought a baseball cap emblazoned with the letters N and Y.

Though he was nearly forty-five, this was only Gavra’s second time in the United States. It felt loud and foreign to him, but by the time he rented a blue Toyota Tercel in Richmond and was driving westward toward Midlothian, that fish-out-of-water feeling started to fade. He cranked up the heater and yawned into his fist, merging onto the highway. After twenty-seven long hours, he was getting his second wind, but his arms and legs still ached. Sleep, though, would have to wait until he’d made his preparations for the capture of Lubov Shevchenko.

The travel and fatigue would have been more bearable had he known why Yuri Kolev insisted he find this Shevchenko. The Lieutenant General simply appeared unannounced at his apartment Monday evening with two assistants, clutching a lumpy manila envelope.

“May we come in?”

“Of-of course,” said Gavra.

Perhaps it was more than luck that they’d shown up just after Gavra’s roommate, Karel, had left. Perhaps they’d been waiting in their car.

Lieutenant General Yuri Kolev untied the belt of his thick, fur-lined trench coat, letting one of his assistants, a huge, broad-shouldered thug, take it off his back. The old man settled on Gavra’s sofa and examined the room with approval, sniffing and scratching his thick gray beard.

“Nice place. We got it for you?”

“Through a friend.”

“Not bad at all,” the Lieutenant General said, though in fact it was just another third-floor block apartment, not worth the appreciation.

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