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Who's on First
A Blackford Oakes Mystery
By William F. Buckley Jr.
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1980 William F. Buckley, Jr.
All rights reserved.
He heard the roar of an oncoming truck. The noise broke the silence of his fourth-floor apartment on Dohany Street. It was the first sound of a motor vehicle he had heard since late in the afternoon of the preceding day, when, finally, the last sniper's shot was fired. The last, he gathered from the shortwave radio, of the resistance in Budapest.
During the breath-catching days of liberty — one full week, the high emotional point reached with the elated release from prison of Cardinal Mindszenty on Wednesday — rumors had swept Budapest that the Russian Army was grouping for an assault. But optimism had been overwhelming: Russian tank drivers would refuse to fire on the students ... The Secretary-General of the United Nations would fly in to abort any attempted Soviet military reoccupation ... The people of the other satellite states were in open revolt ... Khrushchev would call back his divisions from Eastern Europe before the week was out.
When the Russians did move — with eight divisions — at 4 A.M. on Friday, the protests poured in from European capitals. The Security Council was convened at three in the morning, New York time. President Eisenhower publicly deplored the turn of events. But the voice of BBC soon lost that flush of excitement, and the announcers once again sounded — Blackford Oakes recalled George Orwell's phrase — "genteel and throaty" — as they acknowledged the fall of Budapest and the "desultory resistance" in the countryside. The BBC attempted to coordinate transmissions from pockets of resistance, relaying directly broadcasts from the freedom fighters who had begun by using government facilities — they controlled them: They were, were they not, the legal government of Hungary? When the Communists, with their unerring eye for the ganglia, seized the radio stations, the broadcasts resumed from shortwave transmission sets secreted in the outskirts of the city, and in the country. These dwindled in number, and then there was that last haunting voice at 0924 which had addressed the outside world and ended with the simple words "Help! Help! Help!" It was fifteen minutes after midnight when broadcasting resumed, and the Hungarians informed that they had been saved from "the rebirth of fascism."
Blackford Oakes sat in a stuffed easy chair, in the little suite at the Hotel Sarkany with the heavy furniture, which once was red, perhaps the same color as the heavy drapes, though over the generations their colors had polarized. Now the ample couch and armchairs were a dirty brown, the sun-bombarded curtains an anemic pink, the carpet just that shade of gray designed to conceal dirt of almost any hue, a rectangular section of it, shaded by the husky oak table he used as a desk and to eat from, darker than the surrounding area in the congested little living room, where Blackford reflected mordantly on the comforts of home during other people's carnage. But the window was imposing, as if once it had served grander purposes: Perhaps a larger room had been subdivided. He could adjust the venetian blinds and see out clearly; or he could turn the latch and draw open by as little or as much as he wanted, one-half the vaulted glass, and run his eyes up the ancient Gothic street, cobblestoned, of medium width, lined with shops and apartment houses; closed now, though three days had passed since the fateful Sunday morning when the troops and the tanks came. They alone had come; no one else. The leader of the free world, as people liked to call him, and as he was not entirely averse occasionally to calling himself, was apoplectic. But not about the Russians. About the British and the French, who had elected the week before to invade the Suez, bound ostensibly for Cairo. Besides, only yesterday he had been recrowned by the American voters, and today, Wednesday, he was expected to fly to Denver for a little golf. How how how, Oakes wondered, could providence have been so perverse as to synchronize a rebellion for freedom with a venture that would be denounced as imperialism? Yes, from the office of the stricken British Prime Minister reproaches were directed at the Soviet Government, which heard also from the French. But the Soviet press swiftly retaliated with denunciations of British-French imperialism. The American Secretary of State was so overwhelmed with frustration by the furtive operation in the Mideast mounted by our closest friends, without consultation, that he had had to be hospitalized. So that as it happened, nothing emanating from the White House or the State Department would have stopped a Russian ballet, let alone two hundred Russian tanks. The American ambassador at the U.N. uttered a sharp rebuke. Oakes could imagine Khrushchev and Gromyko playing games the Sunday before — Khrushchev liked that sort of thing, though he was heavy-handed — imitating the excoriations from the West, including gestures. Gromyko, Oakes thought, reaching back over thirteen years' experience at, or near, the top of the Soviet diplomatic establishment, would say: "The more emphasis the Americans put on the U.N., comrade, the less we have to worry about."
Oakes's ruminations were interrupted as the sound of the motor got louder, and he rose and opened the window discreetly to look down the street, in the direction it came from. He saw leading the column a jeep with four men, the civilian next to the driver holding in his hand a clipboard. Behind him two officers, one of them studying a map spread out over his knees. There followed a half-track armored car, six soldiers with machine guns seated on the platform to the rear of the heavily armored driver's cabin. There rose from the same platform what looked like a small gantry. Swinging coquettishly from it — Oakes stopped breathing — was a clearly discernible noose. Instantly his eyes turned to the building across the street, two doors down. Theo! — the word formed itself in his throat. But no. The room in the quiet old boardinghouse, the small, tidy room maintained by the little salesman who regularly paid the rent but was seldom there, was surely inviolate. When on the Wednesday night two weeks ago young Theo told him the action was about to begin, Oakes had made a human gesture. "If it goes sour, you'll be safe." Had Theo taken refuge there? Theo had taken to sleeping at Frieda's house whenever Frieda's mother was in Vác, looking after her orphaned nephew and niece. Perhaps Theo was hiding at Frieda's. Perhaps he had been captured.
Oakes remembered the utter elation in the young student's face when he met Blackford at the tavern, during the tense week before the assumption of power by Imre Nagy. At twenty, Theophilus Molnar was slight of build, but the star soccer player at the university. His fingers were slender and his voice had a premature gentleness, that of a philosopher who, along the way, decides that, really, there is nothing left in the world worth raising one's voice about. His excitement was internalized. Theo knew Blackford Oakes as a young engineer hired by an Austrian firm to be the purchasing agent for special American equipment required to construct the huge new municipal aquarium. They met first irregularly, and then two or three times a week, usually at the same tavern, a favorite of the students and the younger teachers. At first Theo talked mostly about the soccer games, occasionally about his absorption in classical studies: but gradually about his determination, and that of his friends, to strike out and free their country from the Soviet Union. One night he introduced Frieda, almost as tall as Theo, with bright eyes and intense manner, passionate in her convictions, inquisitive about Blackford, exultant over her command of English, so much more fluent than her fiancé's. She laughed a lot, her political passion notwithstanding, and the hours went quickly as they had beer, and chicken, and peasant bread, and tea, since coffee was rare. Always, as summer turned to fall, the conversation would turn to the imminent emancipation of Hungary, and of Theo's and Frieda's plans. They would travel the following summer. Might they visit Harry — as they knew him — in the United States? Theo had a maiden aunt, he told Harry, who had divulged to him where she kept gold she had hoarded beginning when she started to work during World War II, and it would be his when she died; and she was very feeble, at seventy-six. She was a woman of great thrift, Theo explained, and although she had never specified how much gold she actually had, she loved to tell him that it would all be his, "so you can travel, anywhere you want, before you become a professor of Greek or whatever it is you are doing," Theo imitated his aunt's prim accent. "I will marry Frieda first," he said — "and you, Harry, will you come to my wedding? For a wedding present, you can give Frieda and me an aquarium." "Just a little aquarium, Harry," Frieda interrupted, holding Theo's hand across the table. But it all depended, Theo said, on the success of the great venture ahead of them. His almond-shaped eyes would light up at every mention of the prospective freedom about which at first he fantasized cautiously. He spoke usually in German, occasionally in a lilting English into which he effortlessly insinuated the German when he did not know the English word. He had told Harry that their plans were not mere abstractions. That they intended to take power. How? By actually forcing the resignation of the satellite Prime Minister and replacing him with a patriot. What would the Russians do? The Russians, he explained earnestly, his dark hair falling down loosely over his young, unlined forehead, could not hope to hang on to the satellite empire. Theo spoke in his still, soft way, playing with a breadstick, which he looked down at as he whispered discreetly. The Russians, he reminded Blackford, had had troubles earlier on in the year in Poland. Czechoslovakia was restive. Bulgaria and Romania would be tougher to pry loose, and East Germany probably the last to assert itself. But — he smiled, showing his small, even teeth; a smile with the assurance distinctive to the truly innocent — the Russians would accept fatalistically the nationalism that was about to take over. Stalin was dead. He had been denounced only eight months ago by Khrushchev himself. Khrushchev had spoken of a thaw and released millions of prisoners. It is God's will, Theo said, that man should be free. The emancipation of the satellites was a necessary next step, didn't Harry think so?
Blackford Oakes, taller than Theo by several inches, older by eleven years, with hair lingeringly blond, his blue eyes expressive, the tiniest crease of experience visible at the corners, bore himself in the relaxed manner of the perfectly proportioned young American male, totally relaxed physically. But he replied in a voice tenser than Theo was used to hearing: "Don't count on it."
"Wouldn't the Americans help?"
"What could they do?"
"What could they do? Harry, what could they do! The Americans control the world! One word from the White House and that's it!"
"Theo. Listen. Listen hard. If One Word from the White House were all that was needed to free Hungary, that word would have been uttered a long time ago. The White House can't give any words until internal conditions are ripe."
"What I'm telling you," Theo said excitedly, "is that those conditions are ripe right now. I meet twice a week with ..." He paused. Embarrassed, Theo looked down at the breadstick and finished his interrupted sentence "... people. People who know. The Americans won't make the mistake of missing this signal. It will be very clear."
"But Theo. What if the White House gives the magic word and the Russians ignore it?"
"There will be chaos, stretching from Danzig to Trieste. The Russians can't contend with chaos."
Blackford said nothing. Then he thought, and spoke quietly, but the tone of voice was decisive: "Be careful about yourself. Now repeat this." Theo looked up, curious, tense, silent. "Repeat after me: 41 Dohany Street, Room 4C." Theo understood, and his clean-shaven face was perfectly solemn when he said, as though an acolyte, "41 Dohany, Room 4C."
"Don't mention that address to anybody."
Blackford rose and shook hands. Theo felt the slim cold object, and deftly he slipped the key unobserved into his pants pocket. Three days later Nagy made his move, two days later the statue of Stalin was ripped down from its imperious domination of the Kossuth Square, to the shouts and cheers of what must have been half the population of Budapest, though not including Blackford Oakes, who had been given strict instructions not to move from his hotel in the event. ...
Blackford closed his eyes briefly and prayed that the convoy would pass by. The lead jeep stopped twenty meters down the road to his right and the soldiers jumped out and deployed opposite 41 Dohany. A detail of three men approached the entrance. Finding the door locked, the leader first rang the bell, then banged on the door, motioning one of his men to enter the abutting building, giving him instructions Blackford could hear distinctly, but did not understand. In a moment a white-haired woman dressed in black and wearing a white apron opened the door, stiffened, and stepped back. The officer pushed her to one side and, followed by his subordinates, charged into the building. There was a silence. Ten seconds? Thirty seconds? A single shot rang out. The soldiers in the street tensed. Crouched behind their weapons, they looked like statues in a war memorial. Two minutes later the detail filed out, dragging their quarry, who was dressed in faded brown corduroys and a blue shirt, his pale hands tied behind him. Although Theo had evidently not shaved in a day or more, his face still looked like that of a growing boy. The official dressed in civilian clothes stepped down from the jeep, adjusted his spectacles, and read out loud from his clipboard in a humdrum voice three or four paragraphs from which Oakes recognized only the words "Theophilus Molnar." He was led forthwith to the back of the half-track and hoisted by the shoulders to the platform. Blackford was not thirty-five feet from him. Theo's face was calm, his eyes closed. Now he raised his eyes and spoke in his soft voice to the senior officer. It must have been a request, because the answer was unmistakably negative. The assistant adjusted the noose around Theo's neck, and shouted out to the driver, and Blackford heard a gear engage. Whereupon, slowly, the hydraulic motor racing, the long arm of the portable crane began to rise, tugging up, slowly, the body of Theophilus Molnar, which, when his toes left the platform, began convulsively to thrash about, a whine of sorts issuing from the throat. Blackford had seen him play soccer, and the hideous parallel in the physical body motions, at play and in death, convulsed him. It required over three minutes before the twirling line hung down straight again, the boy's head bent over like the end of a shaggy black mop. A soldier pulled, from a stack of identical placards banked at the forward end of the platform, one on which had been printed certain words in Hungarian. He exhibited the placard to the half-dozen silent witnesses who had ventured out of their houses, and then tied it about Theo's waist with a coarse line he handled like apron strings. The order went out, and the convoy resumed its promenade down the street, Theo's body a mobile exhibit. The officer in the back seat was staring again at the map.
Blackford Oakes went to his door, unlocked it, and walked down the staircase to the concierge. He asked hoarsely: "What does the sign say?"
"Death to counterrevolutionaries."
"What did ... the young man ask the officer?"
"If he might be permitted to make the Sign of the Cross."
Excerpted from Who's on First by William F. Buckley Jr.. Copyright © 1980 William F. Buckley, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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