the watcher a short story by j. leslie adams
THE WATCHER ÂŠ1999 Jon L. Adams All rights reserved. Colophon: Cover: Gorky, Eurostyle Bold and Adobe Jenson Pro Book text: Adobe jenson Pro
he radio crackled in his ear. He lifted the handset, prepared to answer. Rain sprinkled the windshield. The squelching sound in his earpiece caused a sudden warmth that spread through his stiff limbs and seemed to radiate through the little automobile. “Twenty-three... Center... Stand by...” He relaxed his grip on the microphone and leaned back into the snug seat. It would be his boss, Menkin. The man never let his mind rest, the watcher thought. As the night shift supervisor, Menkin regularly checked on the stakeouts by radio or in person. You could never be sure enough to catch a little nap or to even leave your post to pee. The man might be checking on you, looking at you from a car somewhere, peeking through the window, watching the watcher. Preobazhinsky noticed his breath was starting to fog the glass. He rolled down the window a centimeter and exhaled a stream of vapor out the crack. The few raindrops that were now falling could still get him wet, so he raised it again a fraction.
Stand by. Nothing important, believe me, he thought. Momentarily, Menkin would be in his ear with some stupidity guaranteed to make the job even more difficult than sitting in a car and watching doors and windows. The cold returned and brushed across his knees. “Twenty three. Center. Anything to report?” It was Menkin sitting there in the Lubyanka communications room, next to the duty operator, leaning over the desk microphone and performing one of the many checks on his night crew. Preobazhinsky pictured the boss with his hands propped on his legs, carefully dressed for desk duty in his fresh pressed KGB uniform with his service hat on his
bald little head. He would reek of fish and onions. The odor might even include peppered vodka tonight, cold as it was. He cued the microphone. “Center. Twenty three. Nothing. Lights are on, but there’s nothing new since last time. Nobody in, nobody out.” He took his thumb off the button and waited for the answer. “Twenty three. Center. Carry on. Out.” The squelch returned, a tinny electronic half-whistle that always gave him a headache. Standard methods said it wouldn’t do to have even a quiet radio noise in a watch car.
Preobazhinsky tried to recall if anyone had ever shown an interest in any of his location cars. Never. A KGB stakeout, run from an automobile, was not something the public cared to stop and examine. So who really cared if the radio could be heard or not? He looked up at the side of the old brick building across the street. From his vantage, the three-story block ran from a hundred feet to his left front down the narrow street to the next corner. The subject’s flat was on the top floor, third and fourth windows along the near side from the street. They were lit, shades drawn, and revealed no sign of activity. That had been the case since he relieved the first shift around twenty-
one hundred, or nine o’clock. Nobody had entered or left the building since then. The subject was probably reading or enjoying the television. At least the subject could stay warm, he thought. Saturday night duty was a pain in the ass. Tatiana would be putting the children to bed about now, and he imagined the scene. She was wearing that old torn house robe he had found in the flea market over in the Lenin Hills. She put it on soon as she got home from the school and wore it until they went to bed. The children were allowed to remain up late on the weekend, and usually he got home to spend that time with them, the boy, the girl, and his wife. Not this Saturday night.
A pair of dirty headlights unwashed by the storm flashed around the corner behind his car, faintly casting the shadow of his head on the windscreen. His silhouette was surrounded by a halo of glistening raindrops that clung to the dirty window. The car slowly came down the street and crawled past, murmuring the protestation of a sour motor, chuffing and chugging about the poor maintenance record of Soviet automobiles. He reached for the wiper control and gave it two tugs when he noticed the fading car was difficult to describe for his next report. Tatiana’s parents had been there when he left for the office at eight that evening. They brought a toy for Semyon and a new
book for Katya. Her mother had given Tatiana a kilo of pork sausage from their visit to the state store in Tula, where they now lived and prospered. Her father was a bureaucrat in the Ministry of Agriculture, and he ran the collective farm truck cooperatives in the district just south of Moscow. Tati’s mother didn’t work and didn’t need to. They had all the privileges of party membership and higher status. The gifts were always appreciated, as was their dacha in Kuntsevo where Preobazhinsky took his family for a few weeks each summer. When they had first married, he thought the career at the Center would gain him the same status one day. That had been
a long time ago, twelve years to be precise. It had not happened and it looked as if it never would with all the changes that were taking place in the country, in the world. He used to believe in all of it, too. The schools, the pep talks and the carefully contrived propaganda engineered to keep the foot soldiers happy in the service of the Rodina, the Motherland. A KGB career was not an uncommon goal for young men in a country where there were no serious options for not working on the government payroll. His first ambition had been to go to sea, either with the fleet or as a merchant ship’s officer. That was before he met Tati and realized the life of a sailor meant long absences. He could not believe in much of it anymore. The children had brought a new perspective. He desired a better future for them. He knew they were going to be faced with the same choices he and Tati had known. No more, maybe less. Unless the changes causing havoc in the country really took hold, they would be just like him, maybe even worse off for it. Tatiana’s parents talked constantly about the hardships the changes would mean. They cautioned against free markets or anything that smacked of Western
decadence. Her father warned often about what unemployment would mean to a society whose citizens had never gone without steady jobs. A couple, arm in arm, turned into the street in front, walking toward him. Two other cars were parked on this side. The walkers passed the corner and drew near his car. They were older, not in a hurry to get home and out of the light rain. Slowly, they ambled past, eyes straight ahead, pretending they didn’t see him in the Lada. He looked up again at the two yellow windows. The enemy was in there, the subject whose name he knew, whose photo he carried and about whose particular problem he had been carefully briefed. He was a man of some esteem, well known in academic circles and whose name was mentioned quietly by average folk as a person with principles. In the KGB, the subject’s name was spoken with derision, often accompanied by a sneer or some facial expression that condensed contemptuous feeling. The man was a known companion of certain Westerners. He often met American newsmen and had been on trips to Europe unaccompanied by official watchers. This was part of the problem.
Preobazhinsky had been informed that the subject was often seen in the company of visiting American businessmen, on their opportunistic way toward making the Soviet state a marketplace for western goods and values. He taught at Moscow University, where he lectured in structural economics. His favorite food was dried beef and gravy. His mother had been Ukrainian, and his dog was recently dead and buried.
The Lubyanks, former KGB Headquarters
He knew more about this fellow than most people knew about their own family. Center research had been thorough: Two years in the camps during the early eighties for anti-Soviet slander; sentence overturned by a magistrate who turned out to be a friend of the Party Chairman, now President. He had a bad back and sometimes went for late night walks to work off the pain. He read and reread Shakespeare and Dickens, English writers
dead as his dog. He once owned a dacha near Tatiâ€™s parentsâ€™ cottage, but lost it when he went into the Gulag. The man had a big following of Moscow liberals. They attended his free lectures on market economies that he gave evenings and weekends. There were lots of known dissidents and wreckers among his friends. He was generally dangerous, not only for his radical anti-Soviet ideas of economic reform, but also for his foreign contacts.
Many suspected espionage agents and possible couriers were frequently noted in that same circle of friends and dissidents. The Directorate had a theory that the subject, central to these names and persons, could possibly be a clearinghouse contact for some kind of spy ring. He was the common denominator in a series of suspicions, and he was being closely watched for a sign of confirmation. That would be a good code name for him, his watcher thought: The Common Denominator. The lights remained turned on in the apartment and he could not see a flicker of shadow or sign of movement inside. That would be the essence of his hourly report, due in a couple of minutes, at midnight. In the rearview mirror he saw the old couple cross behind him and disappear into the murky black tunnel of the street. Rain ran in steady welts down the rear window, blurring the darkness. No streetlight lit the view behind.
A siren blared far off, warning of a speeding engine, either a militia or police car or maybe a fire brigade. It seemed to pass from his right rear to the front, and it grew suddenly, then it abruptly quit. Who cared if the subject had his own ideas about improving the economy? The country was in terrible shape since the Brezhnev gang had wrecked it. Nothing of value ever showed up in the stores. Nobody could afford a good car. A television set needed repair soon after you bought it. You could wait ten years to get a telephone and it never worked right when you finally got it installed. Goods on the black market were easy enough to find if you had hard western currency or saved piles of rubles. This man, the enemy, a classified philosophical and political traitor according to the bosses, had different ideas. That made him dangerous, not because they really believed he was a spy or a contact in a spy ring. They always used that kind of excuse when it came down to explaining to the troops why a subject was in the sights. It was the same with all the official organs, the way they covered the issue with their own rationale to hide the real truth, the real fears they feared. They branded and jailed many dissidents with phony charges to get
them out of circulation. The dissidents’ ideas were corrupting the sanctity of the Party’s grip on Soviet minds. People were listening to them and reading their pamphlets. Citizens talked about them and smiled at the ideas they promulgated. That kind of activity drove the bosses up the walls at the Center. Deep in the dirty, green painted dungeons of the old Lubyanka, where the leaders of the KGB held court, somebody had decided that this guy was the origin of dangerous ideas. They had dusted off his dossier and sent out the watchers to cover his every move. When he left, when he came home, what time he went to bed, and what time he awoke and pulled up his window shades - that was information the state required. Preobazhinsky was one of the watchers who kept this guy, The Common Denominator, under twenty-four hour surveillance, just because of his ideas. Someone slammed a door. It sounded like it came from inside a nearby building, maybe in a hall or stairway, muffled and with no echo. Looking round, Preobazhinsky saw nothing had changed. Time for the radio check. He reached for
the mike and keyed the button, speaking softly and in a monotone. “Center. Twenty three. Nothing new to report at midnight. Acknowledge report.” The radio broke squelch three times in quick succession before a new voice, female this time, came on the air and said its hourly message through the tiny plug in his ear: “Twenty three. Center. I confirm your report. Out.” The hiss of squelch returned as the night wore on and grew colder and wetter. A little dog barked somewhere. He gripped his upper arms and tried to knead some warmth into the bones. It would be time soon to start the motor and get the heater going. If anyone heard and noticed, who would really care? What if the guy turned off his lights? Then, as duty prescribed, he would pick up the microphone and report it. What if the subject came out the door and walked away? He had to report that, and carefully follow him, probably on foot. In any event, the procedure was to radio the news, accept instructions, and comply with whatever Central commanded. The lights went out. He gripped the radio mike and
his thumb found the button, prepared to send. There was no movement visible in the street. The front door to the building remained as it had for hours, shut and dark. He hesitated, then keyed the microphone as he raised it to his lips. “Center. Twenty three. Lights out.” No answer, just squelch. “Center,” he repeated, “Twenty three. Subject’s lights just went out. No other changes.” “Twenty three. Center. I confirm your report that lights are now out.”
He waited but there was no more from the radio. He replaced the microphone and gently turned the key. The Lada’s motor sprang to life and he made certain he didn’t race the engine. The heater would take a few minutes to warm. He rubbed his hands together and blew on his fingers, numb from the cold. The windscreen fogged into an opaque pearl sheet. He reached out and wiped a space clear. A view of the building’s front door appeared in the peep-hole of moisture. He saw that the door had swung open, and
again he gripped the microphone, prepared to send a message. A bundled figure stepped onto the outside landing, paused and carefully closed the door behind. It was an older man, wearing a long dark overcoat and a fur cap pulled down close to his ears. The figure stood still in front of the door and looked up and down the street, closely examining each vehicle, checking for occupants. Then he stepped off the low porch and proceeded up the street away from his watcher, shuffling his feet along the broken sidewalk.
Preobazhinsky laid his thumb loose on the sending button and waited a few seconds. His thoughts flashed across the scene in front of him, and the fog began returning to the finger wiped glass. Slowly, quietly, the world outside the auto faded and the warmth of the heater crossed his legs for the first time. He relaxed his grip on the microphone and lowered it to his lap. So much had changed and more changes were coming every day. Soon, the old patterns would not matter, as each person made his way into the new, metamorphosing society. Maybe one day, even the watchers would have no reason to go on watching. Even Preobazhinsky might find a cozy job behind some desk in a far off hallway where the heat came from pipes and radiators. His subject, now vanishing into the night would find himself back in the good graces of society, barking at his students and writing long dissertations on the matter of his choice instead of the government’s. Wherever he was going on this late wet evening, he might be meeting anyone, after all, a courier, a spy, another dissident or even a mistress. Who cared? In a few months or years, what he was doing wouldn’t even be a punishable offense. It
really didn’t matter anymore, to him, the watcher, or to the society that didn’t give a damn about it anymore. He saw the image of his own back slouching down the street to the corner. His hand was reaching out to grasp the door handle to his own apartment. His children would be in bed, but Tati would be right behind that door, waiting up for him, a hot cup of tea beside her on the table. He released his hold, put the microphone on the hook and reached for a cigarette.
Soviet era Makarov pistol, 9x18mm, 8-round magazine.
Published on ISSUU February 10, 2008 www.issuu.com ©1999 & 2008 Jon L. Adams
Published on Feb 10, 2008