A Radioactive Incident
She lay dozing in a bed of pine needles in the Mogosoaia woods, wrapped in a gray shawl against the chilly summer night. In her hand was a letter from her aunt Aegypta, gone now five years. Ma petite chère . . .
Waiting for darkness, surrounded by enemies, she lay on the west bank of the Colentina River in a stand of old trees, nineteen kilometers northwest of Snagov Portal, the tram line, and the broken wall of Bucharest.
But in her dreams she was far away. Miranda had discovered—or was it a coincidence?—that if she closed her eyes like this, with the onionskin pages of her aunt’s final letter clasped between her fingers, images would come to her in the moment before sleep, images that were new to her, though on waking, she could recognize them as memories.
At that instant she imagined her seventh birthday party, which she had celebrated in Mamaia by the seaside. English fashion, her aunt had arranged a picnic on the sand dunes with the servants’ children, and there had been small cakes and ices. The Chevalier de Graz had stood above them, guarding against an accident or an assault, though he was dressed in his best uniform and ornamental braid.
Now he also stood watching her, twelve or even seventeen years later, scruffy and disheveled but still vigilant. In his left hand he held her father’s pistol. His right hand ached from his wound. He was looking toward the river and the ford, where under moonlight they would learn if they’d escaped their pursuers’ net. There was nothing for him to do but wait and watch till then, and take a confused comfort in Miranda’s presence. Bending down in the uncertain light, de Graz could just make out the small French words under her thumb: . . . si vous êtes comme je crois . . . If you are as I think a princess of Roumania . . .
A lock of her dark hair had fallen over her face. She mumbled something. The letter slipped from her fingers and fell open. But de Graz was more interested in studying her cheek and lips, feeling the tug of small emotions he didn’t understand.
He would have scorned to read further even if he’d been curious, even if he’d been able to decipher in the half-light Aegypta Schenck von Schenck’s tiny handwriting. Casting his mind forward into the next hour, biting his lips with a nervousness that nevertheless contained an admixture of wordless joy, he would not have had the patience for an abstract argument of any kind: My dear niece, by this time you must suspect that there is more to the world than the evidence of your senses. By this time you might picture to yourself our globe with its little circle of illumination, a circle with its center in Great Roumania, and showing at the limit of its bright circumference the nations of Africa and Asia, and to the west the North American wilderness, dark and trackless beyond the Henry Hudson River. Closer to home we find the Byzantine Turks, and Russia, and the German Republic with its tributary states. We find barbaric Italy and unpopulated France, and Iberia behind the curtain of ice mountains. In the North Sea there are the submerged remnants of the British Islands, a proud nation once.
You know all this. It is what everyone knows, every shopkeeper and office clerk. I want to bring you news of another country just as real as these, but it is nevertheless hidden or secret, a landscape of the heart, you might call it, or of dreams, but whose influence can be seen in every natural phenomenon. This is a country that the dead can visit and not only the dead. My dear, though in the ordinary world you must sometimes feel feeble and alone, please take consolation in imagining yourself a personage of terrible importance in this secret country, if you are as I think a princess of Roumania. I mean if you can find the strength to do what’s right, or even if you can’t.
You must suspect all this already. Everyone suspects it. Not to suspect it would make life intolerable. But faith is one thing, action is another, and science is a third. Now I must explain to you that access to this hidden world can be achieved in several ways which vulgar people might call conjuring, a word I despise because of its implication of fakery and fraud. Because of it, many intelligent persons cannot even reach out their hands to touch the strands we others grope for blindly, the nets that make a pattern for the universe, and that constrain the many-colored incidents of our experience like a school of brainless fish. . . .
In Mogosoaia the sun was setting. But earlier that day, two men had stood on a work site near the town of Chiselet on the Bulgarian frontier. “Intelligent persons,” in the words of Aegypta Schenck, they would have rejected with contempt the entire contents of her letter, dismissing it as criminal superstition. But their agreement on these matters had not helped them to explain the facts at hand. Surveying the wreck of the Hephaestion, the night train from Constantinople to Bucharest, they were full of doubt, dissatisfied with their own opinions and each other’s.
The passenger compartments had tumbled off the high embankment. Three cars lay on their sides. Roumanian work crews, pressed into service from the town, labored with dour resentment under their German overseers. They had not yet managed to repair the tracks. For the time being, all trains had been rerouted to the old line through Calarasi.
The Hephaestion had driven over a mine that had blown up the baggage car. Pushed in front of the engine as a precaution, it had exploded and burned. Nothing much was left of it now. This was due not so much to the power of the mine as to the effect of the ordnance that had been packed inside the car, contravening international and local regulations.
“Many things . . . are not good,” said Joachim Beck.
Dispatched as a consultant by the German embassy, he combined several useful areas of expertise. A medical doctor and a professor of industrial design, he nevertheless spoke Roumanian like a three-year-old. This was especially galling to Radu Luckacz, who was fluent in all central European languages. To labor in this unproductive way, to ignore all Luckacz’s attempts to answer him in his own language, was obviously a form of condescen-sion. The other possibility—that the doctor was playing some kind of doughy, Teutonic practical joke—Luckacz had examined briefly and then discarded. There was nothing in the German’s cold fat features to suggest a sense of humor.
And of course the circumstances were quite serious. There appeared to be some sort of epidemic in the town. Whether it had been caused by exposure to a biological, chemical, or radioactive contaminant, or was unconnected to the accident—none of that was sure. The work crews, however, had been recruited under duress. The men wore gauze masks over their faces, and so far none of them had gotten sick. Since the previous day, German cavalry were stationed in the town.
Now the German doctor and the Roumanian police chief walked along the berm under the embankment, a quarter kilometer from the wreck. Several lead canisters had been laid out in a line beside a bush. They were evidence of the forbidden cargo and had broken open during the explosion; they were empty now. They had contained African pitchblende or radium. Luckacz was unsure of the details, which had not been shared with him.
“This, you hide—pah! Herr General . . .”
Luckacz gritted his teeth. It was only because he knew in advance what the man was trying to say that he was able to understand him. Communication was not meant to function in this way. At this rate Luckacz would be competent to host an emissary from Borneo or Hindustan. Interpreters would not be necessary!
“. . . Herr General . . .”
Antonescu, Luckacz almost said. And it was true what Beck was toiling to explain. His enormous bald white forehead was lumpy with effort, but Luckacz had gone on ahead: It was true he’d tried to keep the news of the accident from the German authorities, but that was more of an official reflex than any kind of subterfuge—this was an internal police matter, after all. It had been General Antonescu, as part of his terms of surrender, who had personally delivered one of the lead canisters to the German headquarters in Transylvania.
“But . . . this is nothing . . . pah!” said Dr. Beck.
With the toe of his brown leather boot, he prodded at the row of blackened metal tubes under the bush. What did he mean? No, Luckacz could guess: He meant the risk of contamination from this incident was not significant in his opinion. After all, the pockets of his brown raincoat bulged with dosimeters and radiation tubes, none of which he had bothered to consult.
Luckacz, though, was far more nervous, and he winced to see the broken canisters shift under the doctor’s toe, as if an oily, snakelike poison could still seep from them. He resented how, for appearance’s sake, he had to walk along with his hands in his pockets as if unconcerned, conversing (if it could be called that) with this idiotic German. When Radu Luckacz had responded to the wreck, the first thing he had done was to cordon off this entire area.
“But this is . . . bad. . . .”
So which was it? Nothing? Bad? Luckacz turned toward the doctor as he labored to speak, imagining for a moment he could pry open with his fingers the fellow’s thick red lips, perhaps insert a gloved hand into his mouth and extract some kind of slippery meaning—this was an important subject, after all! What did the Baroness Ceausescu call these Germans? Potato-eating fools, she said.
No, it was not productive to think of Dr. Beck as a potato-eating fool. The man was an eminent professor at the University of Heidelberg. Luckacz was fortunate to have the benefit of his expertise, no matter how much he felt like seizing him by his cravat or pounding him on the head.
“But I must insist to you that Antonescu was the source of this accident. Only the fact that he was in possession of one specimen of these lead tubes has proved this—two hundred kilometers away! These are his partisans who have exploded this train, and it is similar to many of their activities since the conclusion of the old regime—I don’t know how familiar you are with this kind of politics. But Antonescu was the virtual chief of state under the Empress Valeria, deposed five years ago and now deceased, thank all the gods. But Antonescu is a potent enemy of the current government. . . .”
Luckacz let his voice trail away. How ugly it sounded, even to himself! Harsh, nasal, Hungarian-accented, the words pedantic and awkward—this was not his natal language either, after all.
The doctor raised his fat hand. Luckacz wondered what percentage of his speech the man could understand. And his head very much resembled a potato after it has been scraped clean. Doubtless the bulges and depressions would have interested a phrenologist.
“No. Don’t tell. I understand . . . everything.”
Well, that’s a relief, thought Luckacz savagely. That might be useful, to understand everything. Luckacz himself, for example, was quite confused, though he feared the worst. Antonescu had blown up the train. It was obvious he had known there were armaments on board. But who had purchased the cargo? Who had paid for it? What purpose was it supposed to serve?
“Let me remind you that the terminus . . . was in Bucharest.”
Luckacz stared down at the row of canisters. These words so accurately reflected his thoughts that he mulled them over for a few seconds before glancing up, startled. Where had this tongue-tied idiot learned such phrases?
“Ammunition, guns, explosives, and of course these.” Dr. Beck ticked them off on his fingers.
“They could have been intended for international transfer,” suggested Luckacz feebly. “They could have been reloaded at the Gara de Nord.”
“I do not . . . think.”
Luckacz knew where this was headed. The conclusion was obvious, and the policeman had already arrived at it, though he could scarcely yet admit it to himself. But still he might sabotage the German’s train of thought, blow it off its tracks: “So then perhaps it was intended for these other rebels and agitators, of which there are no lack in my poor country. I mean the supporters of Miranda Popescu, the daughter of Prince Frederick Schenck von Schenck, who betrayed our interests in the old days, as we then conceived of them—this is more than twenty years. But do not be concerned. My men have bottled her in the Mogosoaia woods.”
“I do not . . . think. Where is money, influence for these things? To bring from . . . Congo?”
Precisely. Yet the third alternative was painful to consider. Luckacz scratched at his moustache.
“Bah! No reason to guess. Purchasing will make a . . . path.” The doctor shrugged, then changed the subject. “And this . . . disease. Psychosomatical, do you . . . think?”
It seemed absurd. The symptoms, after all, were real: fever, erratic heartbeat, delirium, extreme thirst. Seventy-eight adults had been affected, and more than a hundred children. Thankfully, no one had died. “I had thought obviously the results of this African poison. How could there be another cause?”
But Dr. Beck shrugged his massive shoulders. “The dosages are . . . what is this word?”
Behind them came the sounds of the workmen, the thump of sledgehammers, the whistle of the engine, also cries and shouts. Luckacz rubbed the palms of his gloved hands together. Pondering the mystery, searching for the word, the doctor stared down at his boots. His chin, pressed into his breast, now disappeared in folds of flesh.
“Negligible,” he grunted finally. “After this rain.”
“But of course this radium was planned to be a weapon,” protested Luckacz. “Otherwise what was the possible intention?”
From the marshland on the other side of the embankment came the sound of cawing crows. Suddenly again Luckacz felt an irritation that was almost violent; his hands itched. The world seemed airless under the gray, damp sky. He found himself kicking at lumps of mud. His trousers were spattered—was it possible that he also was succumbing to this sickness? Surely he must go away, return to Bucharest where he had other more important responsibilities. This was a matter for the district health commissioner!
The feet of Joachim Beck, by contrast, seemed rooted in the dirt. “A weapon . . . yes. But not to be . . . employed . . . like so.”
Luckacz clapped his hands together. “Well, I must make my report to the Baroness Ceausescu,” he said. “With any chance we will soon apprehend this woman, Miranda Popescu as she calls herself. I will be able to question her as to her intention.”
At the mention of the baroness’s name, Dr. Beck glanced up quickly. For the first time Luckacz was aware of his powerful small eyes. “Ceausescu,” he said. “You will not mention this . . . to her.”
The arrogance of this potato-eating doctor! Again Luckacz felt like pounding him on the head—a reaction which, he had the sense to realize, was not entirely normal. He was not, after all, he reminded himself, a violent or impulsive man. But how could this fellow now presume to give his orders to the police chief of Bucharest? How could he imagine he could tell him not to discuss these matters of importance with the Baroness Nicola Ceausescu? Though her position was not precisely an official one, surely in these dark days of occupation she still represented the unbroken heart of Great Roumania. It was obvious she must be kept informed of these events, if only because they involved the suffering of her citizens.
“You will not . . . mention . . . this . . . to her,” repeated the German.
Recently in Berlin the Committee for Roumanian affairs had approved a motorcar for Luckacz’s official use. As he slogged toward it over a muddy road between two pastures, Luckacz wondered if he should take the time to stop at the telegraph office in Oltenita, perhaps, and send a message on to his personal physician. His wife often accused him of hypochondria. But this was not his imagination, these feelings of anger, this itching in his palms. As he walked, he stripped off his leather gloves, put his hand to his forehead, ran his fingers through his gray hair.
When he reached the main road he had calmed himself. Seated in the back of the luxurious Mercedes, he wondered why he had allowed himself to forfeit his composure. As he opened up his dossier of official papers for the drive, he even allowed himself some generous thoughts about Joachim Beck, who was not the fool he had appeared, and who also had a function to accomplish. Nor had he shown any anxiety about staying in Chiselet. When Luckacz left him he had turned his big back. Hands in his pockets, he had strolled away, returning to the corner of the work site where he was to meet the director of the regional hospital in Slobozia.
So the policeman did not feel any personal vindication in the news that followed him to Bucharest. He did not feel anything but alarm. When the railway crews at Chiselet began their mutiny, Dr. Beck was severely beaten. With several other German nationals, he was among the first patients in the field hospital he had been attempting to set up.
For Luckacz the news only added to the mystery that had already appeared insoluble during the long drive back to the capital over muddy rutted roads. From time to time he fingered his black moustache, glanced at his pocket watch. He had an appointment with the Baroness Ceausescu in the People’s Palace.
After sitting in the back of the car awhile, he began to contemplate another mystery, the problem of the baroness’s beauty and its effect on him after these five years. Nor could he guess that these two mysteries were related, and had their source in what Aegypta Schenck had called the hidden world.
Luckacz would not, he decided, mention to the baroness the details of his conversation with Joachim Beck. Nor would he convey to her the doctor’s suppositions, at least not yet. It was clear, though, what the man suspected: that the baroness herself had purchased the munitions on the Hephaestion, that she herself bore responsibility for this accident.
There was no reason to upset her, not yet. Luckacz would make his own inquiries and decide what to do. In the meantime he lay back in the velvet seats, tried to relax—the road was better beyond Soldanu. He closed his eyes, trying to summon in his mind an image of the baroness’s face as she sat poised over her piano, studying the score of her great work, picking out the themes sometimes with difficulty. In the motorcar, Luckacz couldn’t hear them. He had no ear for music. Instead he concentrated on the little grimace that distorted her small mouth, revealed her perfect teeth. A frown puckered the skin between her eyebrows, brought lines to the edges of her purple eyes—she was almost forty, after all! Still she was beautiful—her chestnut hair cut at the line of her jaw, her creamlike skin—with a beauty that was not only decorative, but seemed to achieve, at least for Luckacz, a desperate significance.
Even intelligent, rational persons, daydreaming and dreaming, sometimes at moments can achieve a kind of access to the secret world. If in his imagination’s eye Luckacz had looked backward through the rear, flat, oval window of the Mercedes, perhaps even he would have caught a glimpse of the disaster that still roiled the sky above Chiselet. He would have seen flashes like lightning burst inside the clouds, which were lit also from beneath by explosions and fires. Near the wreck along the train line there was a raw wound in the earth, a crater almost half a kilometer across. Fires burned in both the marshland and the town among the shattered buildings.
Copyright © 2007 by Paul Park. All rights reserved.