Read an Excerpt
A small group of friends had assembled in Mrs. Pollifax’s living room on this warm July evening. There was Miss Hartshorne from apartment 4-C across the hall; Professor Whitsun from the botany department of the university, and various loyal members of the Garden Club, led by Mrs. Otis, the president. For the last hour–without the slightest embarrassment–they had continued to check both their wristwatches and the clock on Mrs. Pollifax’s wall. It was twenty minutes before midnight.
“Do you think now, Emily?” asked the president of the Garden Club anxiously.
“Yes, is it time?” asked Miss Hartshorne.
Mrs. Pollifax glanced at the professor for confirmation. He nodded. “Now or never I should say.”
“Wonderful,” breathed Mrs. Pollifax. “Lights out then, everyone!”
Flashlight in hand, she led the group into the kitchen. The window was open to the sultry night and the screen was already unlatched. Her flashlight played over the grillwork of the fire escape and came to rest on the box under the window. A reverent hush descended upon the group as they hung over Mrs. Pollifax’s shoulder.
“It’s bloomed,” said Professor Whitsun in an awed voice. “I see it!”
“It’s in bloom,” called Mrs. Otis triumphantly over her shoulder to the others. “It’s happened!”
“Turn on the lights and bring it inside,” ordered Professor Whitsun. “Gently now. Are my cameras in place?”
Tenderly the window box was lifted to the sill, embraced and carried into the living room, where it was placed in the center of the rug.
“There are three!” cried Mrs. Pollifax, dropping to her knees beside a trio of delicate, spiky white flowers.
“So that’s a night-blooming cereus,” whispered Miss Hartshorne.
“They bloom just once a year, and then only for a few hours,” said Professor Whitsun, adjusting the tripod for his camera.
“And Emily grew it on her fire escape,” said Mrs. Otis. “Oh, Emily, it’s such a coup for our Garden Club!”
“Speech,” called the corresponding secretary.
“Yes, speech, Emily!”
Beaming with pleasure Mrs. Pollifax rose to her feet and gently cleared her throat. “The night-blooming cereus …” she began.
At that same hour in New York City, Carstairs of the CIA and his assistant, Bishop, were sitting in a shabby Harlem hotel room under a single twenty-watt bulb suspended from the ceiling. The man they had come to see was slouched wearily on the edge of the unmade bed. His name was Shipkov, and he had just arrived from eastern Europe.
“I want the rest of this taken down in shorthand as well as taped,” Carstairs told Bishop. To the man on the bed he added, “You’re telling us that a stranger–a complete stranger–gave you accurate directions on just where and how to cross the Bulgarian border?”
The man nodded.
“Tell us again, slowly. Everything.”
Shipkov closed his eyes in concentration. “It was in Sofia. I’d gone into a shop and he was waiting outside for me. He said ‘Shipkov?’ I turned. He began to speak to me in English–that was my first shock. He said, “Your name is next on the List.’ ” Shipkov opened his eyes and made a face. “There is only one list in Bulgaria. It’s not a healthy one.”
“What did you say?” asked Carstairs, watching him closely.
Shipkov shrugged. “For how long have I lived in Sofia without a soul knowing I speak English? I was in shock. I can promise you it chilled the blood, a man calling me by name on the street and speaking to me in this language. I said nothing.”
Carstairs nodded. “Go on.”
“Next he told me, ‘They’re at your apartment now. If you go straight to Radzoi and cross the border at 11 P.M. tonight the border will be clear.’ All I could think to reply was, ‘Radzoi! That’s the worst place of all to cross.’ ‘Not tonight,’ he said. ‘Not at eleven o’clock.’ ”
“Did he know you work for us?”
Shipkov laughed bleakly. “How can I even guess? The whole thing was wild.”
“All right, go on.”
“He said …” Shipkov closed his eyes, nodded and opened them. “ ‘If you make it across the border get us help. Some of us care, do you understand? Right now we desperately need passports, identity papers. The arrests grow insane.’ ”
“And that’s when he gave you the piece of paper with the address and the instructions?”
“Yes. And then he simply walked away down the street.”
“Amazing,” said Carstairs thoughtfully. “And you’d never seen him before in your life?”
“Never,” vowed Shipkov.
“An educated man, well dressed but shabby. About sixty. Definitely an intellectual. As you can see, the instructions are typed, so he had access to an English type-writer. I’d guess a professor, but how many professors know how to cross the border?”
Carstairs said slowly, “But you would trust this man?”
“I didn’t then, I do now,” Shipkov answered promptly. “I hurried back to my apartment, as I told you. The police had already arrived. Two men were running up the steps, one stood in my window shouting down to them. Needless to say I bolted.”
“And you met no guards at all crossing the border at Radzoi?”
“Not a soul,” said Shipkov. “It was like a miracle.”
Carstairs exchanged glances with Bishop. “The kind of miracle we like to hear about,” he said quietly.
“You want me to go back into Bulgaria with passports?” Shipkov asked. “With a new identity I could do it.”
Carstairs shook his head. “Much too risky. This will need a courier–a particular kind of courier.” He frowned. “Have you any idea how the police got on to you?”
Shipkov sighed. “Too many questions about General Ignatov, I think. I confess to some carelessness there. I got carried away. But something’s definitely up.”
Carstairs leaned forward. “You discovered more?”
Shipkov nodded. “The general’s been courting some of the younger members of the secret police. The new ones, the hero-worshipers. I’ve seen them going into his house late at night when he’s in Sofia. Enough to make up a small cadre of loyal supporters if his ambitions grow any bigger.”
“A dangerous man,” Shipkov said, nodding. “Ruthless. A hero, too, after taking Bulgarian troops into Czechoslovakia in ’68. The Soviets, they are very impressed with him.”
“General Ignatov,” mused Carstairs, and then with a glance at Shipkov he brought himself back to the moment. “You need rest, you look like hell,” he said, and scrawling a few words on paper he added, “Go to this address, the people there will take care of you. On Tuesday I want to see you in Washington and we’ll get the rest of this on tape.” He drew bills from his pocket and handed them to Shipkov. “Get some clothes, too–and for God’s sake be out of this place in an hour.”
“Thanks,” Shipkov said, pocketing money and papers. “Sorry I couldn’t finish the job, Carstairs.”
“Fortunes of war,” Carstairs said, rising. “Bishop?”
Bishop finished locking the tape recorder. “Ready, sir.” With a nod to Shipkov they went out, descended dark, cluttered stairs and reached the street.