Yellow Mama Archives II

M. E. Proctor

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Zimmerman, Thomas
Zumpe, Lee Clark

A Thin Thread

By M. E. Proctor

 

 

How hard could it be to keep an eye on a housewife? I was used to more demanding assignments. Sam said we were part of an information-gathering project that would last several weeks. The fee was generous, hourly rate for both of us, all expenses covered, and the promise of a bonus. We wouldn’t be in touch with the client who wished to remain anonymous. That wasn’t unusual. Discretion was a must in our sensitive business. Sam handled the relationship with the intermediary that hired us for the job. The man had law enforcement connections. It was unclear what that meant. It could be anything. Sam had law enforcement connections, too.

I was told to rent an apartment in Irving, not too far yet not too close to the subject, shop in the stores where she shopped, use the same hairdresser, become part of her surroundings but avoid direct contact. It was subtle, which I liked. What I didn’t like was that Sam gave me no reason for the job, no ultimate objective. Why was I asked to tail that woman? Her name didn’t tell me anything. Marina Oswald.

“I watch her,” I said, “and then what? If she decides to jump in a lake, I rescue her, I let her drown, or I push her deeper? Talk to me, Sam. Who is the woman?”

He pulled out his cigarettes. It was a delaying tactic I knew well. He took his time lighting up.

“Her husband is the person of interest,” Sam said. “She matters because of him. If she throws a fit or decides to pack and leave him, we need to know because he’ll be rattled and there might be trouble.”

“What kind of trouble?” I hated ambiguity which was a problem in our “fixing” business. Most cases were clear as sewer sludge. And murky rhymed with money, at a stretch.

“There isn’t much I can tell you, Anna.” He raised the hand that held the cigarette and the smoke twisted around his head like a halo. It made me smile. Sam wasn’t a saint, more a free spirit with a mean left. “I don’t know shit myself, and to tell you the truth, I like it that way. I sleep better.”

I never believed that ignorance was bliss. Hit me on the head with the truth. “You’re watching the husband?”

Same shook his head. “I’m on cop duty.” His face twisted in a brief spasm. Memories of his years as a Dallas detective were as unpleasant as a stomach ulcer. “Drinking with old buddies and listening to gossip. If I hear anything about the husband, Lee Oswald, I flag it. Haven’t heard a peep yet. I’m paid to sit on my ass and chug beer.”

I didn’t push. I’d known Sam for eighteen years. He might have saved my life—something he’d deny. I was a refugee in rags. He brought me to America with his luggage after the war. I don’t know how he made that happen. Sam had friends in all kinds of places.

“The woman is Russian,” he said, after a long pause.

“Glad I don’t have to make contact. My Russian is rusty. Two words and she’ll know I’m Polish.” I perched on the couch armrest. “There’s Russian émigrés around here.” I stayed away from them, from all the Eastern Europeans. I’d left that world behind. It reeked of death.

“She’s not one of them. Got here last year.”

That was astounding. In the middle of a Cold War? “She’s a Soviet Union defector? She’s a ballet dancer, a nuclear scientist?”

Sam burst out laughing. “Not by a mile. They let her out.”

I slipped off the armrest. People were shot full of holes trying to get over the wall in Berlin. You had to be pretty big in the Party to be allowed to travel beyond the Bloc’s borders. Not to mention America had no business letting her in. Unless … “I have no taste for spook games, Sam.”

He grabbed my leg and pulled me onto the couch. I didn’t resist. There was comfort in Sam’s arms even if I knew he was doing it because he needed something.

“The husband is American,” Sam said. “He’s a shaky one.” He tapped the side of his head. “Confused, borderline loopy. He decided the U.S. of A. wasn’t for him and defected to Russia. He married over there. When he wanted to come back, the Soviets let the wife go with their child. To avoid bad publicity is my guess.” A deep-throat chuckle. “I think the guy was just too much trouble, he must have exhausted the patience of the KGB.” He kissed the top of my head. “It’s good money, Anna, and no risk. All we have to do is watch and listen. You tell me what you see, and I report to the guy who hired us. When the job is done, we get paid. That’s it. The client won’t even know you’re involved.”

Of course he’d know. Everybody knew I was Sam’s girl. We might as well be married. We should be married. Have a couple of kids and a dog. Live in the suburbs. I shivered.

“Who all is involved?” I said.

“No idea. I’m in touch with that one guy. He told me he also has a single contact, it’s all hush-hush. You know the model. It’s the way you operated in the resistance, to limit the damage if one rung of the ladder was compromised.”

Except it was cells, not individuals. We still lost a lot of people. The enemy could climb that ladder. Never underestimate the opposition. The lesson, then as now, was simple: don’t get caught.

“There is a significant risk, Sam. Oswald and his wife must have files in places where you don’t want to have files.”

“Why is he free if he’s a Soviet spy?”

“He must be useful to somebody. Maybe he’s a plant or he’s under surveillance. By other people than the ones we work for. Or the people we work for are the spooks. How would we know?” I plucked his pack of cigarettes from his pocket and lit up before he could beat me to it.

“You scare me sometimes,” Sam said. “The money is too good to spit on, Anna.”

“So’s our lives.” I blew a little smoke of my own. It dissipated without making a halo. That was okay. “They have puppet shows in Asia, where all you see are the shadows. This one looks more like little stick men. And the sticks feel like sweaty dynamite.”

#

I didn’t sleep much that night. There was a time when lovemaking drew all the tension out of me. These days it was no longer a guarantee. If anything, sex left my nerve endings too much awake. Sam was snoring lightly by my side. He looked like a kid dreaming, smooth, slack-faced, all worries erased. I resisted poking him. He’d passed a ton of foreboding over to me and my mind couldn’t stop churning. An unhinged man who flew to Russia, found himself a wife, and came back as if borders were made of vapor, not to mention the cost of plane tickets. He was in a cobweb and he looked more like the fly than the spider. If his wife made trouble, it could disrupt the web. If the cops took an interest, it could disrupt the web. Sam and I were hired to keep the threads from vibrating. This had to be a big deal. An end game with a huge payoff. Our fee was too rich for a routine job. What kind of scheme was unfolding out there? The puzzle was so delicate, so fragile that a breath of wind could ruin the spiderweb. I’d never heard of a plan like that. It was either genius or stupid.

And no matter what, I was afraid we would get hurt. We were flies in a web too.

I had slit enough Nazi throats in the dark alleys of Warsaw to know that you never, ever worked with your back to the wall. And after the fact was too late to figure out an exit strategy.

I put my head on Sam’s shoulder and he wrapped his arm around me without waking up. I dozed off thinking strategic thoughts.

#

In the morning, I told Sam I would handle the woman, but I refused to rent an apartment. Putting my name, even a bogus one, on any kind of document was out of the question.

“Neighbors get nosy, Sam. And a single woman attracts too much attention. I can do the job without putting down roots.”

“No need to tell my contact we’re deviating from the script,” Sam said, in sync with me. He also believed in keeping a couple of cards up our sleeves.

I thought I might know a way to keep us safe. The solution was brutal and I did not share my ruminations with Sam. Not yet. I wanted to see how things evolved.

Marina Oswald lived with a female friend. She was young, with a fresh face, pretty and soft. I could picture her with a ponytail in a cheerleader’s outfit. She could have stepped out of a high school class photograph. Not how the commie-bashers imagined kerchiefed socialist workers. Marina was heavily pregnant, and due any moment. I didn’t see the husband during the week. He showed up on the weekend. It wasn’t an unusual arrangement. I knew other couples that were in the same situation, with men working remote jobs or having to slog through long commutes. The guy didn’t own a car, relied on public transport. He was younger than I expected, in his early twenties like his wife, not bad looking with a slight build. There were dozens like him on college campuses and factory floors. Put him in a suit and he could sell insurance or ask you if you wanted cash or preferred to deposit the money in your bank account. But he had a look about him that marred the bland all-American picture. A quickness of gesture, a furtiveness of glance. He was shifty, with blurred features. I doubted he kept a job for long.

“He’s got a chip on his shoulder,” I said.

“You’re in charge of the wife, remember.”

I shrugged. “She smiles more when he’s not at home. I think he slaps her around. A weak man who needs to lord it over somebody. You know the type. Puffs himself big but he’s still a frog.”

“Is that one of your quaint sayings?” Sam’s eyes crinkled at the corners.

“A fable. About delusions of grandeur. Anyway, Marina will have the baby soon. That’s bound to distract her husband for a while. He’ll have to spend more time with her. Is there any indication when that grand plot might unfold, Sam?”

“I have no idea,” he sighed.

After following Marina and her big belly all day, I was in a homemaking mode. I cooked dinner, a fish casserole accompanied by a nice white wine, with an apple crumble for dessert. It was more sophisticated than usual. Sam would wonder why.

He waited till after dessert. “You’ve been cooking something else than fish.”

“Your contact wouldn’t go to so much trouble with that jerk Oswald for a little ruckus,” I said. “We’re talking major event.”

He nodded. “We established that from the start. A lot of money is riding on this, whatever it is. We’re not the only operators being generously paid to do the work and keep our mouths shut.”

“Swearing that we won’t say a word won’t cut it, Sam,” I said. “There’ll be a cleanup afterwards. It won’t matter that we’re at the bottom of the pile. Actually, the lower we are in the pecking order, the more vulnerable. The danger won’t come from the authorities. We both know how slow they move.”

He had to see where I was going. He had been undercover and behind enemy lines. His thoughts must have followed the same path as mine.

“You’re saying that we’ll have to strike to avoid getting struck,” Sam said. “Sever the thread. Cut all our connections to the plan, eliminate the man who hired me, and the one above him, to make sure. Have you ever had to do a thing like that, a preventive execution?”

There was so much he didn’t know about what I had to do in the field, the friends who asked me to pull the trigger because they were already dead. This was different. We were being used. 

“Do we do it now, or do we wait for the event?” I said.

He didn’t hesitate. “If we pull the plug now we don’t get paid.” He padded to the icebox to get another bottle of wine. “We wait, we do the job. I’ll need some time to find out who the client reports to.”

#

October slugged along. My boring surveillance turned into drudgery. Marina gave birth to a daughter and the routine was blessedly broken for a while. Then Oswald went back to his normal schedule, visiting on the weekends. I haunted the grocery aisles and bumped into Marina on occasion. Her English was improving. Her smile was shy.

I sat in cars for hours. Sam drank with his cop buddies. It was messing up his health.

November came. Our bags were packed. Money, safe guns, fake papers. Sam knew who his contact reported to. We were ready. Nothing to do but wait.

The tension strained our relationship. We circled each other, talked little, kissed distractedly, slept fitfully.

“I’m pulling the plug,” Sam said on Veterans Day. “It isn’t worth it. You’re a nervous wreck and I’m growing a beer gut.”

“Agreed.” I was at the end of my rope, bored stiff with Marina and her kids.

“We met December 1, 1945,” Sam said. “You changed my life. We can change it again.”

#

The presidential motorcade and the street closures messed up the entire grid. I wanted to catch a glimpse of Jackie, like everybody else, but I was on Marina duty for another week and my time wasn’t my own. I was fighting traffic and listening to the radio when it happened. I slammed the brakes an inch from the Cadillac that had stopped in front of me. Everybody stopped. Car doors opened and people started running. Where? I had no idea. We were in Irving. Ten miles away from Dealey Plaza. I was out of my car too. Marina forgotten. I ran, like everybody else. My heel snapped and I fell hard on my knees. The pain brought me to my senses.

That was it. The plan. The plot. It had to be.

I put my head between my bruised knees. I cried.

#

Sam wasn’t home. I switched on the radio, had the television going too. I pulled out our prepared luggage. Everything was there, ready to go. Our savings. The passports. The guns. My hunting knife in its leather sheath. I waited for Sam. I died by the second.

Sam walked in after sunset. He wasn’t drunk and yet his legs barely supported him. I saw the man he might be in thirty years, the deep lines on both sides of his mouth and the holes in his cheeks, the tired eyes, the shaking hands.

He dropped on the couch, sobbing.

I didn’t dare touch him. I sat nearby. He reached for me, pulled me close, held me tight.

“I didn’t know. Oh, God …” His voice died in a whimper. “I never … If I’d known …”

If we’d known. Shreds of history classes came back to me in a jumble. What was the name of that beggar, or was he a seer? The man who warned Caesar. He failed to change anything. I saw pregnant Marina and cocky Oswald through a smoky mirror. This was unreal.

“We don’t know if he had anything to do with it,” I said.

“Him or another,” Sam mumbled.

I wasn’t thinking about the next morning, or the next day. If killers had come through the door, I would have welcomed them. For the first time in my life, I could not imagine what came after this moment.

But there was a morning after a long sleepless night, and a full day after that, and we heard it was Oswald.

The news gave Sam a jolt. He shook off the dread like a wet dog shakes off water. “He’ll be dead before he can open his mouth,” he said. “And we’re not far behind. We have to move, Anna. Execute the plan.”

We didn’t talk about the money we were due. The bills were blood-soaked and would burn our fingers and our souls. That was our better angels talking. The not-so-holy ones whispered that we were unlikely to ever see the color of that cash. The dollars would come wrapped in bullets.

That night, Sam went to the hotel where his contact was staying. He took my hunting knife. I waited in the car. The city was a ghost town. The suburbs slumbered under a spell no wizard could lift.

We drove to Lubbock. There were a few cars on the road, all leaving Dallas. I thought of refugees, survivors of a plague, lost orphans with empty eyes. The ragged columns I saw on the roads of exile.

It was before sunrise when we broke into the mansion belonging to the businessman that our contact reported to. He was the next rung up the ladder. Nobody in the house stirred. Sleep is heaviest at the edge of morning, and we were professionals. It had been a while but some skills you never forget.

We were on our way to Canada when we heard on the radio that a club owner named Jack Ruby had shot Lee Harvey Oswald.

Cleanup had started. We were ahead of the killers.

We planned to stay ahead.

###

M.E. Proctor was born in Brussels and lives in Texas. Her short story collection Family and Other Ailments (from Wordwooze Publishing) is available in all the usual places. She’s currently working on a contemporary PI series. Her short fiction has appeared in Vautrin, Bristol Noir, Pulp Modern, Mystery Tribune, Reckon Review, Shotgun Honey, and Thriller Magazine, among others. She’s a Derringer nominee.

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