The Quest for Anna KleinThomas H. Cook
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The Quest for Anna Klein
Thomas H. Cook
No copyright 2011 by MadMaxAU eBooks
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The Slenderness of Bones
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Century Club, New York City, 2001
The question was never whether she would live or die, for that had been decided long ago.
Danforth had said this flatly at one point deep in our conversation, a conclusion he’d evidently come to by way of a painful journey.
It had taken time for him to reach this particular remark. As I’d learned by then, he was a man who kept to his own measured pace. After our initial greeting, for example, he’d taken an agonizingly slow sip from his scotch and offered a quiet, grand-fatherly smile. “People in their clubs,” he said softly. “Isn’t that how Fitzgerald put it? People in their clubs who set down their drinks and recalled their old best dreams. I must seem that way to you. An old man with a head full of woolly memories.” His smile was like an arrow launched from a great distance. “But even old men can be dangerous.”
I’d come to New York from Washington, traveled from one stricken city to another, it seemed, a novice member of the think tank that had recently hired me. My older colleagues had manned the desks of what had once been called Soviet Studies. They’d been very assiduous in these studies. There’d hardly been a ruble spent on missiles or manure that they hadn’t recorded and scrutinized. But for all that, not one of them had foreseen the abrupt collapse of the Soviet Union, how it would simply dissolve into the liquefying fat of its own simmering corruption. That stunning failure in forecasting had shaken their confidence to the core and sent them scrambling for an explanation. They’d still been searching for it years later when the attack had come even more staggeringly out of nowhere. That had been a far graver failure to understand the enemy at our gates, and it had sharply, and quite conveniently for me, changed their focus. Now I, the youngest of their number, their latest hire, had been dispatched to interview Thomas Jefferson Danforth, a man I’d never heard of but who’d written to tell me that he had “experience” that might prove useful, as he’d put it, to “policymakers” such as myself, “especially now.” The interview was not a prospect I relished, and I knew it to be the sort of task doled out to freshman colleagues more or less as a training exercise, but it was better than standing guard at the copying machine or fetching great stacks of research materials from the bowels of various government agencies.
“I remember that line of Fitzgerald’s,” I told Danforth, just to let him know that, although a mere wisp of a boy by his lights, I was well educated, perhaps even a tad worldly. “It was about Lindbergh. How ‘people set down their glasses in country clubs,’ struck by what he’d done.”
“A solo flight across the Atlantic that reminded them of what they’d once been or had hoped to be,” Danforth added. Now his smile suddenly seemed deeply weighted, like a bet against the odds. “Youth is a country with closed borders,” he said. “All that’s valuable must be smuggled in.”
I assumed this remark was rhetorical and found it somewhat condescending, but our conversation had just begun and so I let it pass.
Danforth winced as he shifted in his chair. “Old bones,” he explained. “So, what is your mission, Mr. Crane? The grand one, I mean.”
“Our country’s good,” I answered. “Is that grand enough?”
What remained of Danforth’s smile vanished. “I was young like you.” His voice was even, his tone cautionary, as if he regarded my youth as an animal that could easily turn on me. “Clever and self-confident. It was a very good feeling, as I recall.”
He’d been described to me as reticent, distant, somber, and his experience in what my senior associates still called “the great game” had been brief and long ago. For these reasons, I’d concluded that in all likelihood he could offer little of value to the present situation. But in the still-settling dust of the Towers’ collapse, every corner was being searched, every source, no matter how remote and seemingly irrelevant, gleaned for information. The gyroscope at the center of our expertise had been struck by those planes — so the thinking went — and it had wobbled, and now all its movements had to be recalibrated.
And so, after reading Danforth’s letter, Dr. Carlson had decided that Danforth might have something to add to our intelligence. He’d told me that Danforth did not give interviews, so it was quite surprising that I’d been singled out for this audience.
“Have you ever met the old buzzard?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“Then why you, Paul?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. “Maybe he saw that little piece I wrote in Policy Options.”
“Oh, well,” Dr. Carlson said. “At least you’ll get to see the Century Club.”
Which was indeed something of a treat, I had to admit, as I glanced about the room in which Danforth and I now faced each other, its bookshelves lined with works written by the club’s members.
“A very impressive place,” I said.
“If one is easily impressed,” Danforth replied with a slight smile. “I read your article on the current crisis. You seem very certain, I must say, in regard to what should be done.”
I shrugged. “It’s not really a very prestigious publication,” I told him with slightly feigned modesty. “More of an opinion sampler where graduate students attempt to get noticed. Which I did, evidently. By you.”
“Your father was a professor of foreign affairs,” Danforth said.
My father’s position at a rather modest little college had been mentioned in the brief biography that accompanied my article, so I wasn’t surprised that Danforth was aware of it. Still, there was an air of clandestine knowledge in his tone; he seemed to carry, almost like a mark upon his brow, the faded brand of a spy.
“Yes, he was,” I told him. “He never made policy, of course . . .”
“Which is clearly what you hope to do?”
“Hmm,” Danforth said. He drew a piece of paper from his jacket pocket and read. “‘Our response should flow from passion as much as policy, and should bear with it a hint of the paranoid.’” He looked at me quite seriously. “So there should be no irrationality gap between ourselves and our enemies.”
His remark held no mockery, it seemed to me; Danforth truly appeared to be considering what I’d written.
“My point is that now is not a time for half measures,” I replied. “Not in the face of these medievalists.”
“The target is all,” Danforth said. “Picking it and destroying it. Which is where true intelligence comes in.”
Comfortably seated amid the old-fashioned opulence of the Century Club, Danforth looked very much the worldly intelligence officer who’d once sipped cognac and smoked cigars with the sort of characters one might find in Graham Greene or Somerset Maugham. His suit had passed its prime, and his tie was unstylishly wide, but I could imagine him as a figure from a bygone age, a handsome young man in a white dinner jacket, lounging on some tropical veranda, watching a steamer move out of the harbor. There would be riotously colored birds in the long green fronds of the nearby trees, and on that ship, a woman in a satin dress would be standing with a champagne glass in her long white fingers, lifting it to him silently, Adieu, mon amour. He was part of a vanished time, I thought, a lost world, and because of that, my current mission seemed even more a matter of giving the new boy something to do.
“You’re an Ivy Leaguer,” Danforth said. “Columbia.” His gaze softened, and I saw the wound we shared. “A fellow New Yorker.”
A familiar wave of kill-them-all rage passed over me at the barbarity that had been inflict
ed upon what had always seemed the most American of cities, but I tamped it down with a crisp “Yes.”
Even so, it was clear that Danforth had seen the flame that briefly lit my eyes.
“Hatred is a very legitimate emotion,” he said. “Believe me, I’ve known it well, and certainly at this moment we have a right to our ire.”
This was a different position from the self-loathing justifications for the attack that had lately wafted up from various quarters, and I was relieved to hear it.
“Anyway,” Danforth said, “I’m sure the best think tanks are bloated with boys like you.”
I didn’t like the term bloated but nodded anyway, now a little impatient to get on with the interview, write up my report, and head back to Washington. “So?” I said hastily. “Shall we go on?”
Danforth noted my impatience. “You are a very focused young man.” His expression was quite gentle, perhaps even a bit indulgent. I might almost have called it Socratic.
“Crane,” he said. “An English name.”
“Yes, but I’m really of German stock,” I answered. “At least, for the most part.”
“So a name must have been changed along the way,” Danforth said. “What was it before?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. “My grandfather changed it during the war.” I offered a quick smile. “I suppose he didn’t want to be blamed for things he hadn’t done.”
Danforth nodded. “Quite understandable. No one would have wanted to be accused of things like that.”
“And which he couldn’t have done because he left Germany before the war,” I added.
Danforth smiled. “Do you speak German?”
“Not since high school.”
“That’s a pity,” Danforth said. “Certain words in that language often come to mind. Rache, for example. It has a rough sound, don’t you think? Kind of a snarl. It sounds like what it means: ‘vengeance.’ But others don’t sound anything like what they mean, of course. For example, Verrat doesn’t sound like what it means at all.”
“What does Verrat mean?”
Before I could respond to this, Danforth turned toward the window, beyond which a gentle snow was falling. “There was a lot of fear after the Crash of Twenty-nine,” he said. “People were desperate.” His gaze turned searching. “I’m sure you’ve read about it in your history books.”
“Of course,” I answered.
In fact, I’d read a great deal about that instability: streets filled with the angry dispossessed. Rallies, protests, mobs that surged and withdrew in enormous, roaring waves. Communists gaining influence. Fascists too. Those had been interesting times, no doubt, but Danforth’s backward drift smacked of the mental viscosity common to people of his age, and I simply had no time for it.
“Your activity before the war,” I said. “How did you—”
“We called it the Project,” Danforth corrected firmly. “I later came to believe that the name lacked resonance, that it gave no sense of what had actually been involved. Not like Nacht und Nebel, certainly. Which sounds pretty scary and said what it was.”
I looked at him quizzically.
‘“Night and Fog,’” Danforth translated. “The German policy of sending prisoners to camps where they would disappear into, as it were, night and fog.” He smiled in a way that suggested not only that my understanding of the Project might be less than accurate but also that he would not be rushed into his discussion of it. “And do forgive me for drifting into modal verbs. Would this and would that. It’s a habit I have, reflecting on things while I talk about him.” He laughed softly. “I also tend to drift into asides.”
“For example, there’s a castle in Vincennes, on the outskirts of Paris,” he said quietly. “Diderot was imprisoned there. So was the Marquis de Sade. Just think of it, Mr. Crane —”
“Paul,” I said, to establish a slightly less formal mood. “Please, call me Paul.”
“Very well, just think of it, Paul,” Danforth went on. “The two poles of human thought within a few yards of each other. The reasoning of a philosopher and the ravings of a psychopath.”
“Why did you happen to think of this aside just now?” I asked.
“I suppose because the castle was used for executions as well as a prison,” he answered.
He went on to discuss the various times he’d been to the chateau at Vincennes, what he would have felt on his first visit had he known of the ones to come, what he would have made certain to see and recall, because these small things would speak to him eloquently and with great poignancy at a later time.
“We act in the present tense and recall in the past tense,” he said at one point. “But we reflect in the conditional and regret in the subjunctive.”
“I’m aware that you are a very gifted student of languages,” I told him, in case he’d been laboring to impress me with that point. I drew a notebook and pen from my jacket pocket and pretended that his answer to my next question was worth recording. “What languages do you speak?”
He spoke quite a few, as it turned out, and as he listed them, I took the opportunity to look him over as I’d been trained to do, evaluate and assess his fitness as a source.
Thomas Jefferson Danforth was ninety-one years old, but his eyes were sharp, and, save for the occasional wince of discomfort, there was little of the creakiness of age in the way he shifted his body or reached for his glass. His mind was obviously quite clear, and his voice never faltered. He might go off the beaten track, but so far his asides had remained tangentially connected to the topic of discussion.
“You mentioned Vincennes,” I reminded him when he reached the last of his languages.
“Mata Hari was executed at Vincennes,” Danforth said with deliberation, the way an etymologist might turn a phrase over in his mind, review the origin of each word, ponder its many facets and vagaries. “And the Germans executed thirty people there in 1944. I once went through the list.”
“Looking for a name,” Danforth said. “And do you know, Paul, the feel of a murder site changes when you know someone who was murdered there.”
“You knew someone who was killed at Vincennes?”
Danforth shook his head. “No, but I thought I might have,” he answered almost casually. “At Vincennes, I was just looking. I did a lot of that after the war.”
“After the war,” I said coaxingly. “So that had nothing to do with the Project?”
“Not all things end abruptly,” Danforth said matter-of-factly. “And some things never do. Acts of war, for example. They ripple on forever.”
This line of talk seemed not at all germane, and so I said, “You were in the army, I believe?”
“Working in London,” Danforth said. “Translating intelligence reports from all over Europe.” He appeared to scan those years for a relevant memory. “I remember a particular contact. A priest, as it happened. His communiqués about Drancy were quite heartbreaking. What happened to the children there, I mean. He claimed to have heard their cries from the steps of Sacré Coeur.”
“But that wouldn’t have been possible,” I said in a rather too obvious effort to show that, for all my youth and limited travel, I was at least familiar with Paris and its environs. “The distance would have been too great.”
Danforth’s smile seemed indulgent, a worldly old man educating an unworldly youthful one. “No distance is too far for guilt to travel.” He shrugged. “But yes, the priest was no doubt speaking metaphorically.”
Despite his faintly pedagogical, didactic air, I had to admit that a certain gravity emanated from Danforth, an intense centeredness; reason enough, I decided, to play it his way a few minutes longer, go at things a little less directly than I’d planned, allow him the occasional digression. Such mental wandering was typical of advanced age, after all, and besides, it was always possible that some little jewel of useful information might be gleaned along the way.
Still, I wanted to hoe a more or less straight row, which is why I made my next statement. “They all spoke several languages. The people recruited for the . . . Project.”
“How do you know that?”
“Robert Clayton’s report to the State Department,” I answered. “I have to say it makes for rather interesting reading, all that cloak-and-dagger business.”
“How old are you, Paul?” Something in Danforth’s voice was at once hard and tender, both the scar and the flesh beneath it.
Danforth nodded. “At around your age, I was a callow young man, running the family business. Picture me, if you can.” He seemed to disappear down the long tunnel of his own past. “A young man with plenty of money and a lovely fiancée, dressed to the nines, having dinner at Delmonico’s.”