July 28, 1945
He might have been a good uncle, sitting at his grand desk with his pipe, his broad face expressive in unguarded moments. But if one knew the truth, the terror and torture and how his cruelty and secret self-loathing eclipsed even that of Stalin’s, a person brought before him would either run or surrender without question, and hope for quick execution.
The small undernourished woman named Kisa Drugov knew this, as she was escorted into his office by two NKVD agents, and deposited into a chair facing him. He scratched away, writing memoranda with a quill tip pen, with the Great Leader’s large portrait behind him. Ignoring her until he was done, and finally putting down his pen and his pipe, he blew on the wet ink, and looked hard at her.
“You know,” he said, “I hate spies.”
The ghostly agent sitting to her left, Lieutenant Maxim Grekov, tapped her ankle once with the toe of his shoe, while remaining otherwise perfectly still and expressionless. It was code for her to answer remorsefully, and to at least try to squirm. Grekov knew Kisa Drugov was too unafraid and honest for her own good. He also knew where she’d been, and what she knew, and where she’d go with it if she were allowed. These were secrets whispered over vodka, by candlelight in a crumbling flat above a butcher shop on the wrong side of Moscow.
And now here they were. The obvious irony—blessing or curse—was that Grekov was the one ordered to bring her in.
Being summoned to 1st Commissar Slivka’s office was unusual. Having Kisa Drugov called in from active duty in Paris, even more so. Normally, Enemies of the People were simply made to disappear by night, without ceremony. Which was why Grekov usually worked on graveyard shift. And if Drugov was truly disgraced, hers would have been just another body in the Seine weeks ago. That was Joseph Stalin’s silently spinning lathe of terror, cutting continually.
It made this meeting a mystery. The Commissar must have caught wind of something.
Grekov’s plan was simple: to get her out alive, without Slivka ordering him to shoot her where she sat. Once that was accomplished, no matter what he was ordered to do, he would arrange for her escape. His fellow agent, Koshkin, who sat to Drugov’s right, was usually too drunk to pay attention. Even now, he was in a daze.
“I understand, Comrade 1st Commissar,” Kisa Drugov said humbly, at risk of saying too much too well. “Spies are liars, and selfish.”
“Yes they are,” the Commissar said. “Even Soviet spies, especially Soviets spies.”
One tap on her ankle.
“Yes,” she said, staring at her hands, “and I have lied in the past for purposes of my own aggrandisement.”
“That’s very honest of you. Good,” Slivka said. “We’re done here.” Waving his hand, and addressing Grekov, he said, “Torture her. See what she really knows, then put a bullet in her head.”
“If I may, Sir,” said Grekov, his belly boiling. “I believe, based on our best information, Comrade Drugov has established herself well within a network of operatives, both fellow Soviets and foreign, and is close to obtaining valuable information regarding a very secret American weapons research operation, supported by England and Canada. She’s very close to obtaining this information. It can be ours, if we return her to the field.”
“She lied about Leningrad,” the Commissar said.
Drugov had not lied about Leningrad, nor had any of the others who had signaled warnings. Comrade Stalin had simply ignored them, and as a result, the city had fallen under a Nazi siege of over eight hundred days.
“But tell me more,” said Slivka, now trying to light his pipe.
“It is a very powerful weapon, Sir,” Kisa Drugov said. “A single bomb able to destroy an entire city.”
“One has already been detonated in the New Mexico desert, a test. There was a mushroom cloud several miles high, shock waves felt a hundred miles away.”
“Forget the torture,” Slivka said. “Take her into the toilet, and shoot her. Try not to make a mess.”
“But the war is ending,” Drugov said, too loudly for her own good, her fists clenched, nearly standing. “For all we’ve sacrificed, Russia may only get a few scraps of Europe in return. The West will take the rest, but not if we have this weapon.”
Now Grekov tapped her ankle twice, and she knew it meant shut up.
“Rubbish,” said the Commissar. “Now you’re lying to save your own life. Next you’ll be on the floor begging.”
“Of course I want to save my own life,” Drugov said. “What fool wouldn’t. But only so I can fight on.”
Grekov tapped again, harder. A kick, really. Kisa Drugov tried not to wince in pain.
“I want to save Russia,” she said. “Make it greater than any other nation, as much as anyone. And we’ve never been so ready, so well positioned, so well-armed. That can buy us time. We could detonate this bomb over New York, when we get it. We have the planes to deliver it.
“Don’t delude yourself, Comrade. Don’t think that Churchill and Roosevelt won’t order Allied forces to roll into Russia, once they’re finished with the rest of Europe. Even now, the Americans are infiltrating Germany and stealing the secret Nazi plans to their own bomb.”
Grekov gave up, and slouched in his chair.
“The West has never been so ready, either,” said Kisa Drugov, “so well positioned and well-armed. The Nazis are finished, and the US will use this weapon on Japan first. Of that you can be sure. Then us, if they can. That’s why with the Axis out of the way, there’s only one logical next step for us to take, Russia and the West. Both must establish new fronts, and fight on, against one another. We must finish it once and for all. If we don’t do it, and win, we’ll have nothing to show for our millions who have died. We need the bomb to assure our victory. I’m so close to acquiring the secrets, but time’s wasting.”
Slivka finally managed to relight his pipe, and blew a foul cloud of smoke.
“Tell me more,” he said. “Be brief.”
“A spy for the Americans says he has a copy of the plans,” Drugov said, “on microfilm. The blueprints and specifications. He’s 90% reliable—my estimation based on past dealings with him. He’s in Paris now, and he’ll sell to the highest bidder. That must be us. Then all we’ll need is the plutonium.”
“Yes, it’s necessary. We can get Nazi uranium, and transmute it into what we need. But I must return to Paris. Now.”
“And what about these two,” asked Slivka, taking a different tack and a sheet of paper off of his desk, “Soho and Dillinger? How will you get round them?”
Kisa Drugov was startled by the question. “You know about them, sir?”
“Someday I’ll drown in a sea of all I know, Miss Drugov.”
“They’re incidental,” she said.
“I think not,” said the Commissar. “My intelligence tells me that they’re very effective, and quite deadly, for two people so invisible. Especially this Soho woman. Though she does seem to have lost her mind, no? But maybe that raises her to some divine next level. Even more dangerous, and invisible.”
“But you’re sorry for her,” Slivka said. “I can hear it in your voice, even though she’d happily cut your throat.”
Drugov remained silent. He left it at that.
“And what do you think, Lieutenant Grekov?” the Commissar said. “Since the two of you are so close, playing house together in that shabby little flat. And exchanging messages since little Miss Drugov was sent off to Paris.”
“I—,” Maxim Grekov began, then swallowed. Slivka had been toying with them all along.
“There are those in the Politburo,” he said, “who insist that there might be something to this. The General Secretary wants to see for himself, though. Have you a way out of Moscow, back to Paris, Miss Drugov?”
“Alright, but don’t fail to return with what you’ve promised. You still have family in Moscow, under surveillance. Gulag bait, or worse. And take Agent Grekov with you. He’d have to be shot if he remained in Moscow, since the two of you are so close. As for you, Grekov, you shoot this little bitch if she deviates from the plan.”
“What plan?” said Grekov, shifting in his seat.
“And no more pillow talk,” the 1st Commissar said. “This isn’t a honeymoon.”
“But I—,” Grekov stuttered again, wishing Slivka would actually drown in what he knew.
“Thank you,” said Kisa Drugov. “Soon the world will belong to Russia.”
“Yes,” Slivka said, “or it will be a mound of ashes.” He picked up his pen again. “Now get out, and have that bruised ankle of yours attended to, Miss Drugov.”
* * * * * *
New Mexico desert, July 1945
The sad eyed J. Robert Oppenheimer drank coffee and read the New York Times in a booth at a diner on the highway outside of Albuquerque. He was already haunted. Little Boy and Fat Man were ready, waiting to be dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was late in the evening, and the faces of the ghosts yet to be, of those two cities were already peering at him, through the plate glass window. Their faces were bizarrely illuminated by a flashing neon sign.
Closing his eyes, he beheld his recurring vision. A little Japanese girl on the ground looking up, as she watches a silver bead falling in the sky. Wonder briefly sets in. Raijū, she says, a second before she is blinded.
Then for a moment, he meditates on the Sanskrit. He could smell Los Alamos on his skin. He would become the destroyer of worlds.