Ramón Mercader was plucked from the front of the Spanish Civil War by the Soviets and conscripted to murder the great intellectual Leon Trotsky, a leader of the Bolshevik Revolution who was exiled in the 1920s for opposing Joseph Stalin.
As Ramón is trained for the task and assumes a new identity, he lives a lush life in Paris, befriending Frida Kahlo and other artists of the time. He falls in love with a left-leaning Jewish woman whom he is ordered to seduce as a means of getting at Trotsky.
From Barcelona to Paris and New York to Mexico City, the group controlling Ramón—including Ramón’s mother and her lover—guides the assassin on the inevitable resolution of his grim task as he must penetrate Trotsky’s compound.
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About the Author
John P. Davidson is a writer from Austin who is publishing a major undercover story in the January issue of Harper’smagazine.
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The Obedient Assassin
A NOVEL BASED ON A TRUE STORY
By John P. Davidson
DELPHINIUM BOOKSCopyright © 2014 John P. Davidson
All rights reserved.
The men could see the car coming on the road for a long time. It would appear on a rise, then disappear, a black sedan moving through the landscape of white limestone hills. The road was a rough track. Jeeps came that way and trucks, mules, and wagons, but a car was rare.
It was cold that afternoon, the temperature hovering near freezing. Rafts of slate-gray clouds marched south. As far as one could see, the ground had been stripped of anything that would burn; brush, trees, and even weeds had been cut down or ripped up. Tin cans radiated out from the old farmhouse and the entrenchments dug along the ridge. The smell of rotting garbage and human excrement filled the air. Across the valley, on the opposite hillside, the Loyalist camp looked like stone-age dwellings dug into earth. Occasionally, soldiers the size of ants would appear, and a lone voice would echo through the cold dry air. Or, with a resonant metallic snap, a loudspeaker would come on and one of the Loyalists would drone on about General Franco saving Spain and how the Republican Army was filled with comunistas y maricones—Communists and queers. The sound of gunfire was desultory and usually distant—the pow-pow-pow of a rifle or the staccato of a machine gun.
Lieutenant Mercader lay huddled on his cot in a low stone shed that stank of sheep. He heard the car arriving, the voices of men talking excitedly. "Es una dama con su joven." It's a lady with a boy.
Women didn't come to the front, not even peasant women trying to sell food. The lieutenant was cold and exhausted, but he put his feet to the ground and reached for his steel-frame glasses. The shed was filled with gloom, the sound of snoring. When he pulled the tarpaulin from the opening, he saw the Peugeot, elegant despite the crust of white mud, sliding into the farmyard. As he watched, his mother got out of the car. Tall, as tall as most men, she was imposing and inevitable with her shock of white hair. As she walked to the farmhouse, she wrapped a black shawl around her head. She knew the protocol. She would see Commander Contreras first.
The lieutenant considered going to the car to talk to the little boy, his half- brother, sitting in the back. Instead, he let the tarpaulin drop and returned to his cot to wait, pulling the wool blankets over his boots and up to his chin. The ache of shame lay like a chunk of ice in the pit of his stomach. His face rigid, his eyes moving rapidly from side to side, he thought of the words he would say, the hard truths that must be told. Shivering, listening to one of the junior officers snore, he inserted a hand into his pants to scratch at the lice feasting in his pubic hair.
After a while, voices came from the farmhouse, the sounds of departure. She was talking to Commander Contreras, saying goodbye. Then, as was inevitable, she stood at the opening to the shed. "Hijo, ven! Es Caridad, tu mama." Son, come! It's Caridad, your mother.
"Voy," he answered, his voice deep and hoarse.
With a blanket wrapped around his shoulders, he pushed the tarpaulin aside and stepped out of the shed. He studied her face for signs of grieving and saw the flush in her cheeks from drinking brandy at the commander's fireside.
"Here," she said, handing him a pack of cigarettes.
"Where did you get them?"
She shrugged, refusing to commit.
"What are you doing here? What do you want?"
"Is that how you greet me?"
He didn't answer. The expression on his face did not change.
"I wanted to see you. We have to talk."
"I need to tell you about Pablo."
"I know what happened. What can you possibly say?"
"We have other things to discuss."
"Where can we talk? In private?"
"Not here. In the car?"
"No, there is the chauffeur and Luis."
"Then come this way. It isn't nice, but nothing is."
He led her down a path through the farmyard and around the corner of the barn. The men, trying to get out of the north wind and looking for privacy, had been shitting against the wall. So much shit accumulated, Contreras ordered them to find another place. Now the dung was dry, frozen, and relatively odorless. Dead rats hung from a wire fence, a warning to their surviving brethren.
She snapped open her handbag to withdraw a second pack of cigarettes, offering him one along with a small box of wax matches. He lit hers, then his, taking a deep breath. "This will make my head spin."
"What is the ration?"
"Two a day."
"Keep these as well. There are more in the car."
Mother and son, they stood in the cold, smoking. Crows cawed in the distance. The black shawl wrapped around her head suggested a peasant woman in mourning, but her back was too straight and there was something innately haughty about the cut of her lips and her prominent cheekbones. She took a deep breath, exhaling audibly through her nostrils. Her eyes drifted over the holes pocking the plot of ground next to the barn, trying to decipher the mysterious rectilinear pattern, slowly understanding that there had once been an orchard. The soldiers had cut down the trees for firewood, then come back to dig up the stumps to burn, too.
He turned to face her. "So, tell me about my brother."
"You said you knew."
"I said you were wasting your time if that was why you came. But now that you're here, tell me. I want to hear your version."
Her eyes moved, appraising him, looking for a way past the anger. He was twenty- two, aged by the war, fully a man. His cheeks were hollow, his lips chapped and red. Though dirty and tired, he was handsome with his thick auburn hair. He had her looks, his olive skin shading into the faintest lavender beneath deep green eyes.
"Tell me," he insisted. "How did they kill him?"
"It was a disciplinary action. Pablo disobeyed orders. He knew the rules. You don't leave bodies in a public place after a political execution. You never leave a body on the street. What Pablo did was no small thing."
"They could have warned him."
"They did. They warned him. He was seeing a woman who belonged to POUM, a suspected Trotskyist. They told him to break it off, but he refused."
"That was Alicia. He was in love with her."
"He put himself above the cause."
"You didn't defend him?"
"What could I do? I wasn't there. The orders had been given."
"With all of your connections, all of the strings you pull, you let your comrades make an example of Pablo? You let this happen?"
She laughed, the silent bitter gesture of a laugh. "I didn't let it happen. You overestimate my power."
His voice choked as tears stung his eyes. "Is it true they strapped him with dynamite? Is it true they marched him in front of a tank? Tell me, is it true?"
"They had him run down like a dog. They gave him a sporting chance, then crushed him in the dirt like a miserable cur."
"I want to hear it from you."
"Please, Ramón! This is cruel."
"He was my brother!"
"He was my son!"
He looked away. The wind was blowing; a crow, its black wings ruffling, had landed on the fence to peck at one of the dead rats. "The shame. His. Ours. He had to be shitting his pants with terror. And all of his comrades watching!"
She met his eyes, her own blurring with tears. "You have to understand. He was going to be punished. The decision had been made and I could do nothing. Everyone was watching me, waiting for me to break. But no, I held my head up. All I could control was my own behavior. I made the ultimate sacrifice and kept silent. I proved my loyalty beyond a doubt and now they owe me."
"What are you doing here? What do you want?"
She tossed away the end of her cigarette. "You know this is a lost cause."
"If we lose to Franco, we'll be without a country."
Her chin lifted, indicating the entrenchments. "Those are Spaniards you're shooting at on the opposite side of the valley. They're like you, no different. They're hungry, scratching at their own flea bites, freezing in their own shit. This is a revolution we should have won. This is archaic, rooting in the mud. You don't turn people into revolutionaries by shooting at them. You indoctrinate them. We would have won had it not been for Trotsky, splitting the left, setting the people against each other."
"I know about Trotsky. You needn't preach to me."
"You have to understand that the fight has moved on; a bigger war is coming."
He shuddered, feeling the cold once more. "What do you want from me?"
Her eyes settled on his. "I have been given an opportunity. I'm leading a mission that will change the course of history. I am second in command. It's a great honor for all women. I've come here with an assignment for you."
"As you see, I'm engaged in fighting a war."
"No, you have to listen to me. This is undercover, intelligence. Our orders come directly from Stalin."
"How did this plum fall into your hands? Is this a reward for your loyalty?"
"Perhaps in part."
"Who is first in command?"
"Colonel Eitingon. Leonid."
He laughed. "Of course, Eitingon! Hasn't he done enough to us?"
"What do you mean?"
"He left you when you were pregnant. I remember your misery."
"I behaved like a bourgeois girl. He did what he could. He never left us. He helped us. He paid for you to go to school."
"He abandoned you."
She winced, shaking her head. "That isn't true."
"That's his bastard sitting out there in the car."
"Leonid wanted to stay with me."
"But he had two wives, two families. Walking out on Papa the way you did, dragging all of us to France, you ruined our family."
"I had to leave Barcelona. I was dying on Calle Ancha, and I didn't know it."
"I don't trust you."
"Ramón, you want to hate me, but we're alike. You have so much to gain, but you must face the truth. We have to think beyond Spain."
"Without our country we have nothing. We'll be like the Gypsies, the Jews, wandering from place to place."
"That's why we have to win the bigger war. Ramón, we have to think ahead. I can take you out of all this. Tonight in Barcelona, you will have a hot bath and a good meal. You can see Lena. You'll sleep in a warm bed, and in France ..."
"Yes, Paris. We would leave tomorrow. What I am offering you is something far better than this, perhaps something glorious."
"What is the assignment?"
"I can't tell you. Not here. But you will know soon enough. Trust me!"
He shook his head. "No, I'm sorry. No, never."CHAPTER 2
As the train crept toward the tunnel at Portbou, Ramón watched a strip of beach and the cold gray water of the Mediterranean slide along beside the railroad tracks, wondering when he would see Spain again, whether he would ever return to Barcelona. He felt ridiculous dressed in a wool suit that was too small, as if he were a schoolboy traveling with his mother. Caridad sat across from him knitting, her fingers moving quickly, pulling the black yarn, the needles clicking softly. He didn't know how she'd managed to coerce him to leave the front, much less convinced him to get on the train.
They had fought for hours in the wretched farmyard with the dried human feces plastered to the wall and the dead rats hanging on the wire fence. He had been adamant, certain that he wouldn't go with her. He was entrenched, engaged in a battle. But she had argued him into submission, appealed to all of his vanity, his fears, dug her fingers into the tender places of vulnerability that only a mother knew. She told him she needed him and knew what was best for him, had sources of information and contacts he could never imagine. And in this way, the afternoon had passed, the two of them fighting, smoking her cigarettes, the crows pecking at the dead rats. Occasionally, there was gunfire in the distance, the metallic voice on a megaphone decrying the Republican soldiers as comunistas y maricones. The day waned, a cold breeze blowing from the north. As the sun set, a line of pink ran between the gray clouds and the dun-colored horizon. In the end, it was the cold that had driven him into the car with her, the fundamental desire for warmth.
Now, after they had spent three hours on the train, the light dimmed as they entered a tunnel, a wall of rock replacing the view of the Mediterranean. In a familiar transition, a reminder of all their crossings into France, the train groaned and shuddered in the dark. Then the wheels rolled freely and they came to a halt at the platform on the French side of the tunnel. Ramón glanced at his mother, who was putting her knitting away. She looked fashionable in a wool suit, with a stole of martens around her shoulders, each biting the tail of its predecessor.
While Ramón pulled the suitcases from the overhead rack, she gathered up her handbag and a small case. By the time he found a porter, she was on the platform buying cigarettes at a kiosk. The station at CerbÃre was small, and, it being the south of France, was open to the cold salt air and the sound of the gulls. As if drawn by a magnet, Ramón walked out to look up at the rugged foothills of the Pyrénées tumbling down to the Mediterranean. He felt the presence of Canigou, the sacred mountain looming out of sight.
The year before the war broke out in Spain, the spring when it felt as if life was still beginning, he had hiked up through the groves of orange and lemon trees at the base of the mountain. As he climbed, the vegetation changed, the mountain air becoming cool and dry, the intense sunlight burning his skin as he rose higher through pine and fir thickets, the snowy peak above glistening white against a cobalt blue sky. He had slept on a bedroll, looking up at the constellations and galaxies of stars wheeling in the night sky. In the afternoons, he looked south toward Spain, the smell of orange blossoms wafting up to mingle with the scent of pine and fir in the thin mountain air. He spent a week exploring the flank of the mountain, drinking icy water from the rushing streams and eating bread and ham he bought from peasants he met along the way. On one of the last days, he encountered an Englishman, outfitted with climbing equipment, who led him up one of the steep ravines to the lip of the glacier.
Standing outside the station, he remembered those days and wished that was where he was going. Then, feeling the call of duty, he went back inside, where he found Caridad sitting at a table in the café, reading a Paris newspaper and smoking a cigarette, a pot of tea before her. "Where did you go?" she asked, glancing up at him.
"Nowhere," he answered, pulling out a chair.
He watched as she exhaled two thick streams of smoke from her nostrils, drawing it voluptuously into her mouth, her lips scored with faint vertical lines.
"Still angry?" she asked in an amused tone of voice, expelling another cloud of smoke.
"Who said I was angry?"
"You've been pouting since we left Barcelona."
He looked away.
"You know, a man speaks up, says what's on his mind. It isn't my fault that you couldn't find Lena. You shouldn't put the blame on me."
"We could have waited another day."
She shook her head, narrowing her eyes into a slight grimace. "No, mi hijo, we couldn't wait. We have an important meeting tomorrow in Paris."
"What time tomorrow?"
"After we get in."
"And who will be there besides Eitingon?"
"His chief. Others."
"Are they coming from Moscow?"
She frowned slightly. They were speaking Catalan, but everyone spoke Catalan along the border.
"Where are they coming from?"
"Don't ask so many questions. You will find out when you need to know."
A waiter brought the menu and set a small pitcher on the table.
Ramón looked at it with wonder. "Milk? We didn't even ask for it."
She smiled. "Yes, and cream and butter and plenty of meat. You'll see. You won't be sorry you came."
She touched the sleeve of his jacket with her long fingers, recalling how she'd watched him starving as a baby, his tiny hands clutching desperately at the air, looking into her eyes with panic. He couldn't eat. A mysterious disease, marasmus, afflicted infants after the war. She had tried everything, including seven different wet nurses. Finally, in an act of desperation, a stroke of genius, she had soaked horse meat in cognac, knowing that he needed something strong, that she wouldn't let him go.
Excerpted from The Obedient Assassin by John P. Davidson. Copyright © 2014 John P. Davidson. Excerpted by permission of DELPHINIUM BOOKS.
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