“That is not enough.”
The inevitable response. “Then, there is no point in our discussing this family further,” I said, “because this family never tries to make bargains. This family has precisely the sum of money mentioned, no more and no less, and there is no point in our wasting our time.”
And I shook hands warmly with him and went back to the bar from whence I had come.
I outwaited him. It took some doing, because he was fairly certain that I needed him more than he needed me and he was dead right. But I had no more chips left, and the sooner he realized as much, the easier things would be all around. I waited an hour, nursing beers and talking with some Norwegians, and then Ander came in, passed me, brushed my arm with his, and nodded shortly at the door.
I met him outside. In an alleyway he said, “The price is acceptable. The trip is dangerous but may be made safely. We can speak plainly, you and I. How soon can you be ready to leave?”
“A few days.”
“The crossing must be made on a Sunday night. It is much simpler and safer then. Tonight is Thursday. Can you be ready Sunday night?”
“And the money?”
“You will be paid when you land us on the Finnish coast.”
“And if it turns out that you do not have the money?”
“Then you can shoot us and throw us overboard.”
“And if I take the money without delivering you to Finland?”
“Then we can shoot you,” I said, “and throw you overboard.”
“We understand each other, my friend.”
“I think we do.”
“For men of intelligence nothing is impossible.”
“I will explain where you must be and at what time. There must be no delays, you understand that. Of course you understand it, I don’t have to waste our time.” And he explained, in careful detail, just where his boat would be moored in the gulf to the east of the harbor proper. It would be essential that we be there a half hour before midnight Sunday night. No sooner and definitely no later.
We shook hands on the price, the time, the place, and the brotherhood of intelligent men. We had a final drink together. I left him then and spent a few hours trying to decide whether he would feel it was more to his advantage to ferry us across the gulf or sell us down the river. I decided that he would be all right. Not for moral reasons, certainly, but because we had to be more profitable to him on my terms than in any other way. And I was fairly sure he would realize as much; the one thing I trusted about him was his judgment.
I took my time getting back to Riga. I wanted a look at the embarkation point before dragging everyone north and I wanted sight of it in the daylight. It wasn’t a bad spot, a few miles down the gulf coast. There was a massive industrial complex a few hundred yards away, with a high wire fence around it, but of course it would be sound asleep by Sunday night and no bar to our plans.
I was back in Riga by late afternoon. I’d caught a few decent rides and had been careful not to do too much walking in between. My shoes, I noticed, were getting a little down at the heels, and that was bad; if they wore much more, the cans of microfilm would fall out.
I knew something was wrong the minute I walked in the door. I looked at Zenta and at Sofija and knew something was very wrong, but their faces wouldn’t tell me what it was. I looked at Minna, and she made her eyes very wide and nodded toward the sisters. These people are foolish, her eyes told me.
“Where’s Milan?” I asked.
“He went outside. He was nervous, he went next door for a cup of tea.”
This was odd. Milan, however nervous, had the good sense to stay put.
“Evan.” Zenta took a step toward me. “I fear I have been stupid. I have done something wrong.”
I glanced at Minna, who raised her eyebrows and nodded.
“The other members of our gymnastic troupe,” Sofija said. “This one told them of our plans.”
“Oh, yes. This one, who is a year younger and an eternity stupider, this one with the large mouth-”
“They are sisters to me,” Zenta said. “Years we have performed together, always without secrets, always as sisters-”
“There is a time for secrets,” I said.
“I know, Evan.”
“This was the time, too. How many are there in your troupe?”
“Twelve all told. Sofija and myself and ten others. Twelve good, decent Lettish girls.”
“Then, we might as well hang ourselves,” I said, “because if ten of them know, five of them will talk.”
“Oh, no, Evan.”
“It stands to reason, does it not? Of two good, decent Lettish girls, one talked. So of the ten remaining…”
I looked at Minna. She was closing her eyes in a burlesque of pain. It gets worse, she seemed to be saying. But how?
“They will not talk, Evan.” This from Sofija.
“When did they learn?”
“Just a few hours ago, at our daily training period.”
“Then at least one of them must have talked already.”
“No. None has talked. And none will.” Zenta stepped forward, smiling bravely through incipient tears. “Because they are here now, Evan. They all want to come with us, you see, to come with us to America, all of them, and so Sofija said we had to bring them here right away, you see, so that none of them could have the opportunity to be stupid as I am and to tell anyone, and so they are here now and they will come to America with us, Evan.”
“They are here?”
“Here?” I looked around foolishly. “I don’t see them.”
“They are in the bedroom.”
“Ten of them? Ten good, decent Lettish girls in the bedroom?”
I walked slowly, hesitantly, reluctantly, to the bedroom door. I took hold of the knob and turned the knob and opened the door.
And they were there, all right.
Milan was in the cafe, lurking morosely over a cup of tea. I hissed to him from the doorway. He looked up, saw me, nodded, put money on the table, and got to his feet. We walked a few yards down the street and turned together into an alleyway.
“You have been upstairs, Evan? You know about them?”
“I will get Minna, we can’t leave her behind, and tonight the three of us will leave Riga.”
“First, to prevent disclosure of the fact, I shall personally strangle those twelve idiot girls.”
“You are a man of peace, Milan.”
“I have never been so provoked. Evan, this is an utterly impossible situation.”
“You made arrangements in Tallinn?”
I nodded. “For a party of five,” I said. “We now seem to be fifteen.”
“I propose we once again become a party of three. What sort of arrangements did you make?”
I gave him a quick account of the bargain I had struck with Anders. Milan was surprised to learn that I had a thousand dollars in my possession and a little nervous at the thought of buying our way across. I told him I thought Anders was reasonably safe.
“But fifteen instead of five. Will he take such a party?”
“If not, we can leave the extra girls behind at the last moment. But we have to keep them with us until we go so that no one talks. If he has room for the extras, they can provide some extra money. If not, they can come back to Riga.”
“How will we get them there?”
“They said they can get access to cars. Men will lend them cars. We could make the trip in three cars, five to a car.”
“I don’t like it. I could drive, and you could drive. Can the girls drive?”
“They say they can.”
“I still do not like it.”
“Neither do I, Milan.”
“We will have to think about it.” He was silent for a moment. Then he said, “There is only one difficulty with this Lettish language. I do not know the word for manure, and it is not the sort of word I can ask Minna to teach me.”
“Prens,” I said.
“Zirgs-prens,” said Milan. “Forty-eight hours before we may leave, in a cramped apartment with a dozen women. Zirgs-prens!”
The next day I asked one of the girls – her name may have been Lenja; there were two Lenjas, a Marija, a Natalja, two Katerinas, and a variety of others – about the prospect of acquiring cars. She assured me that it would be no problem at all to get hold of three of them.
I still didn’t like the idea of splitting up the group that way. I had considered bundling the ten girls into two cars and sending them scampering off in the wrong direction, a notion that had Milan dancing with glee when I mentioned it to him. The more I thought of it, though, the less I liked it. They were almost certain to get into trouble, at which point they would talk, at which point Russian agents in Finland would know we were coming.
Besides, I couldn’t avoid feeling a vague and pointless responsibility for the lot of them. They were, as Zenta had assured me, good, decent Lettish girls. And they did want desperately to get out of Latvia and into America. We were so overburdened anyway that another ten girls couldn’t make things too much more difficult. Even if it did, there was something in the idea of liberating an entire gymnastic troupe that appealed to my sense of comedy.
“It could have been worse,” I assured Milan. “Suppose Sofija had belonged to the Bolshoi Ballet.”
He hadn’t thought it was funny.
Now I asked Lenja, or whoever she was, just how the troupe traveled from one engagement to another. There was a private bus reserved especially for their use, she assured me. A driver was provided whenever they had occasion to travel anywhere.
That made it simple. Sunday afternoon Milan and I left the girls with strict instructions to go nowhere and say nothing. Then we went to the garage, knocked the attendant over the head, tied him up, gagged him, locked him in an office, and stole the bus.
We loaded Minna and the Lettish girls into the bus an hour after sunset. I had managed to find a driver’s cap and jacket that fit me and I sat in front over the huge steering wheel and piloted the bus through narrow streets to the road to Tallinn. Milan sat directly behind me with Minna at his side. The back of the bus was filled with singing girls, the majority of whom knew only half the words to each song and sang them off-key. A merry group were we.
The bus was an old crate, and I was no bus driver. At first I found myself taking curves at the speed I’d have taken them in an ordinary automobile. This was a mistake – each time it happened, the singing in the rear of the bus was interrupted as the girls were tumbled unceremoniously from their seats. After a few miles I adjusted my driving to the vehicle, and we took it slow and steady into Tallinn. It was almost eleven o’clock when we entered the city. By ten minutes after eleven the bus was parked in a quiet lane just half a mile from the rendezvous point.
“Keep everyone here,” I told Milan. “I’ll check with Anders and make sure nothing has gone sour. And I’ll find out if he has room for fifteen.”