Read an Excerpt
Marco Polo, If You Can
A Blackford Oakes Mystery
By William F. Buckley Jr.
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1982 William F. Buckley, Jr.
All rights reserved.
After the first day Blackford Oakes wondered why the court, as everyone persisted in calling it, went on and on, in such tedious detail. Not that he was physically uncomfortable. During the preceding seventeen days he had even dreamed, during the acuter moments of workaday distress, of the comforts of a straight-backed chair, while the ritual removal of the manacles made him feel like the man on the flying trapeze. One thing that greatly and uncommonly bothered him was the density of the cigarette smoke. On the other hand, he reflected, why should he have supposed that just because you're not allowed to smoke in courtrooms in America, you wouldn't be allowed to smoke in courtrooms in Moscow? That old cultural chauvinism — his face broke into just a trace of a smile causing the prosecutor, who was going on at great length about the atrocities of the United States and its paid agents, to stop in mid-declamation and wave to the generals sitting on the raised platform, behind a long desk serving all three, who for reasons Blackford had given up trying to penetrate were always leafing through heavy manuals while the prosecutor spoke, as though they were in hot pursuit of any violation of judicial punctilio.
"See, Comrade Generals, the smirk on the face of the defendant? The smirk of fascism!"
The prosecutor wore civilian clothes, a double-breasted, ill-fitting, broad-lapeled brownish suit that looked as if it had been washed in clam chowder. Thus Prosecutor Gorchakov — the names of the court officials, neatly typed, had been given to him by his defense attorney, who during the past five days had sat in the chair next to Blackford, smoking cigarettes end to back, taking notes without ceasing. Blackford wished he had even a rudimentary knowledge of Russian: he had not even been trained to identify Cyrillic characters. What could Dr. Valerian Ryleyev be writing? Letters? A pornographic novel, maybe? Whatever. At least it gave him an excuse, which Blackford didn't have, for avoiding hour after hour of looking at the face of Prosecutor Gorchakov, heavy with a kind of saggy, bluish fat as though Nature, early on, had reached out and given his whole face a black eye — and how gladly Blackford would have changed places with Nature to make that happen.
But, come to think of it, there weren't many people Blackford Oakes wouldn't right now gladly change places with. He permitted himself to close his eyes. In order to avoid a tirade like yesterday's — when his request for a handkerchief had indignantly been ruled in contempt of court — he contracted his features, so that the prosecutor could plausibly pass off the closed eyes as a sign of mortification as the prisoner took in, through his earphones, the recitation of his crimes in the jerky English of the three female translators who relieved each other at intervals of twenty minutes exactly. Blackford had visual access to the great old clock just under the picture of Lenin, behind the judges: how he wished he might have his wristwatch back. But the absence of a watch was as nothing compared to the absence of any reading material; nothing — he had even asked for a copy of Das Kapital, but the jailer thought this calculated insolence, reporting it to the major, who took the trouble of coming down from his upstairs office to tell Blackford he would not get his dinner that night, the black bread, cheese, and lukewarm soup. The soup. Ugh. Boiled, Oakes had from the beginning supposed, from the carcass of a seditious fish, the species sentenced to genocide by Prosecutor Josef Gorchakov during his early career, when he was just practicing. But then, No-Reading was itself an improvement on those three nightmarish days which he struggled, with strain, to forget; that odd surrealistic admixture of physical pain, a drugged consciousness, the insistent questioning, the bright light: what was it — he had allowed himself, briefly, to wonder — that caused his whole body to contract in spasms of pain? Electricity perhaps, but applied where? He couldn't remember. He had taken to bellowing out nursery rhymes during the questioning, for some reason favoring especially the two or three French ditties he suddenly recalled from the old nurse with whom he had frequently been left in Scarsdale, in the preschool years when Blackford's father would go off endlessly with his mother to compete in the air shows. "Savez-vous planter les choux?/ À la mode de chez nous?" he would sing out, again and again. "Sur le pont, d'Avignon/L'on y danse, l'on y danse ..."
The chief interrogator, the ghastly Yakubovich, knew better than to take this as calculated anything, let alone calculated insolence. He was too experienced in his profession: prisoners, under torture, were capable of anything, from cursing to screaming to praying to — singing nursery rhymes. Blackford suddenly stopped his rumination. The prosecutor was going now into the background of the prisoner.
"As you know, Comrade Generals, it does not at the moment suit the convenience of the state to divulge the true name of the prisoner. Accordingly the valiant guardians of the socialist motherland, who never rest in their struggle against imperialism abroad and counterrevolution at home, have requested that the prisoner's name be kept secret, in order to confound his masters and give us the time we need to penetrate the whole of the plot against socialist independence and unity. The court docket refers to him merely as the American Defendant McKINLEY. Now, Comrade Generals, although he is only thirty-four years old, McKINLEY has engaged in a squalid career of espionage and other forms of hateful work against the Soviet state ... for most of the past nine years."
Gorchakov, without giving details, stressed that McKINLEY had worked for the CIA "in England and France, Hungary and Germany and Sweden. ..." Gorchakov gave examples of the hideous behavior of the reactionary elements in each of these countries. Oakes wondered at the prolixity of it all: on and on it went, no expletive without an intensifier, no accusation without the finger pointed at him — as though the generals could forget where he was situated, there being no one in the prisoner's box save Blackford; and, behind him in the little courtroom, only a half-dozen uniformed KGB guards, one or two officers and three civilian officials. But the court stenographer, to judge from her concentration and the rapidity of her finger movements, was not missing a word. This was very far from a "show trial" — Blackford had reflected on this every day. On the other hand, it was also far from the summary justice the military courts of the Soviet Union are constitutionally permitted to mete out in extraordinary situations involving the national security. Clearly a record was being built. To what end one never knew, but such are the habits of cautious totalitarians. Blackford wished he could summon the powers of concentration to think it all through.
Why was he so weary? What — since the torture stopped — was it that drained him of his strength? He managed, in the small, chairless cell, to do his calisthenics every morning, but during the day mostly he dozed, hoping the endless days would pass; hoping that today Washington would make its move; wishing, above all earthly things, for reading matter; wishing that, while at school, he had devoted himself more assiduously — as Sally always reproached him for not having done — to committing a body of poetry to memory. His training in mechanical engineering gave him problems to hypothesize and wrestle with; with these he would begin to occupy himself, but then he would run out of mental strength. Was it the diet? He wondered what he weighed under his normal 170? Perhaps, if ever he got home, he could remember it all and write a book: The Lubyanka Reducing Formula — Guaranteed to Work in Just 17 Days, or you get to shoot the author; he'd be rich, and maybe Sally would marry him. If he was rich and also promised to leave the Agency. Having been kicked out of it only three years ago, why hadn't he left it behind, once and for all?
He recalled the physical principle of hysteresis, describing the lag between bodies that theoretically should move in synchronization. Three cars stop behind a red light, light goes green, three cars resume motion? No. The first does. Then the second. Then the third. ... If there is a fifth, the light has probably turned red again. If he had maintained his secular momentum, gone on the green, where would he be now? Right now? Again he closed his eyes.
"Sally darling, would you bring me my slippers?"
"Get your own goddam slippers, pretty boy. You forget I'm not some Third World flunky of the kind you've been used to bossing about. I am an assistant professor of English literature at Georgetown University, and just as Jane Austen would have done in our day, I believe in women's rights."
Blacky would have picked up her slender body, stretched her out on the couch, and joyously and lasciviously consumed her. ... "Guilty, this man McKINLEY, of every crime against socialist idealism, rapine, plunder, and, of course, espionage." How did that goddam Gorchakov know that Blackford was just plundering Sally? Thought control, that's what is. ...
Why oh why didn't they get on with it? There was the goddam airplane, a huge picture of it anyway, right there in the courtroom; big arrows pointing to the tail section where the camera had been. And the incriminating materials in his seat pad: military identification cards, U.S. and international driver's licenses, Selective Service card, social security card, PX ration card, medical certificate, two flying licenses, American dollars, French francs, Turkish lira, Chinese yuan, Italian lira, German marks, Soviet rubles, two gold watches, gold coins, seven gold rings, pistol with silencer, morphine, flares, a large silk American flag poster in fourteen languages reading, "I am an American and do not speak your language. I need food, shelter and assistance. I will not harm you. I bear no malice toward your people. If you help me, you will be rewarded." And, to top it off, a needle dipped in curare. Why was it going to take five days in court — seven? twenty? — to prove that McKINLEY had landed in the Soviet Union when his airplane suffered a flameout, that his aircraft had been equipped with a camera, substantially destroyed along with the exposed film? Any idiot could deduce beyond a reasonable doubt after fifteen minutes — let alone fifteen times fifteen times fifteen minutes (How long would that be? He concentrated: fifty-six hours, a good, round, seven-day trial. At this rate it would go the full seven days. Gorchakov hadn't even begun to denounce the airplane.) — anyone who couldn't figure out that old McKINLEY was up to no good in the skies over the Soviet Union shouldn't ought to be ... a great big Soviet general, certainly not in Khruschev's army. L'on y danse, l'on y danse, tout en rond.
Blackford tried to remember what it was the defense attorney Dr. Valerian Ryleyev would find extenuating to say about him. Good old Ryleyev. A distinguished career. He had defended the people at Nuremberg. Wonder what he said about Hermann Goering? Loved animals? He had also defended Beria's chief aides. (All were executed.) When Ryleyev told Blackford about his distinguished former clients at the first of the three conferences they had had, no one of them lasting more than an hour, Blackford had asked, with sudden solemnity, if he might have, to study, an English translation of the defense offered by Ryleyev on behalf of Goering; or von Ribbentrop, for that matter; but Ryleyev said the documents had not been translated, and went on to counsel Blackford to behave demurely in the courtroom, to show contrition, to apologize for his role in U.S. imperialism, to stress that he was, after all, merely the agent of his superiors. Blackford said he understood ... was that what the lawyers called the "Nuremberg Defense"? Dr. Ryleyev looked hard at Blackford, but the boyish face was one of unimpeachable sincerity and innocence, and Dr. Ryleyev mumbled something to the effect that no, the Nuremberg Defense was a little different, but McKINLEY should leave legal theories to the defense attorney to cope with, and Blackford said very well, he would do exactly as he was told. Ryleyev then said that the probability was that the prosecutor would ask for fifteen years, with a strong possibility that he would ask for death. Blackford's heartbeat quickened. But he was not hearing anything unexpected; he had heard it all before, heard it at length at the final briefing at Atsugi, and before that in Washington. After all, he had volunteered for the mission. For Michael.
Dumb bastard. Blackford, not Michael. Michael was dumb too, in a way. He really did love his neighbor as himself, and his only neighbor that afternoon in Berlin, in that garage, was Blackford. Somebody once said it was no use being asked to love your neighbor as yourself if you don't love yourself at all. Right? So that Michael must have loved himself; and even so he did it. ...
A whole hour had passed without Blackford's listening to what the translator had intoned into his ears — mostly this and that about the airplane and its paraphernalia. But now his attention was arrested by Gorchakov's frenzied motions. The prosecutor had suddenly concluded his case, disturbing Blackford's intuitive sense of Soviet judicial rhythm by the startling brevity of his peroration. Prosecutor Gorchakov had wheeled about, turning his back on the generals, and faced McKINLEY, inches separating their noses.
"Comrade Generals, for such enemies of the people, the penalty — the only acceptable penalty — is death."
Blackford had read that during the famous show trials in the thirties, the customary closing was "Death to the mad dogs!" Did Gorchakov's milder exhortation suggest that he was playing favorites? Or maybe he was a little ... queer on McKINLEY. All the girls went after him, but some boys did too. Wonder what Marxism-Leninism says about homosexuality? Oakes, why don't you grow up, for godsake; do you realize that all that stuff in Washington might just not work? You've been exactly twenty-two days out of any contact whatsoever with any representative of the United States Government. Not one living human being on the other side knows for sure where you are, unless we've got a mole in the KGB here you don't know about. Rufus et al. anticipated a public trial. So already we were wrong on that count. It could be we will be wrong on counts two, three and four!
Count four was the one designated to get him home to Mother.
But if we don't get to count four, old McKINLEY will be made to kneel down in the cellar of the Lubyanka and then they'll fire a bullet through his head. Talk about hysteresis! There was a silence in the courtroom. The generals and the officials seemed to be blowing smoke at double the normal intensity. Might they be smoking two cigarettes at a time? But the hour had come now for Dr. Valerian Ryleyev.
The thin, angular, stooped figure, self-consciously academic in the precision of his gestures, dressed in undertaker black, splotches of white hair over each ear, rose, so to speak, in stages. He turned first to the court. "Comrade Generals." Then to the prosecutor: "My distinguished colleague, Josef Antonovich." Then to Blackford. "Defendant McKINLEY."
Excerpted from Marco Polo, If You Can by William F. Buckley Jr.. Copyright © 1982 William F. Buckley, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.