WINDFALL:4 The Body: Dead or Alive? by Ronald Mackay
With the corpse on his back, his heart thumping under the strain, Balfour struggled from the rail bed back up into the pines. A fine snow had begun to fall. It melted immediately on his sweating forehead. ‘This is all I need – a dead body and more snow!’
Relieved, he dumped the cadaver unceremoniously onto the bed of pine needles he’d made alongside his skis and pack.
‘What now?’ Besides frustration with this unwelcome complication, he felt pity for the man he’d taken from the train. ‘How desperate do you have to be to ride an open railcar through the Carpathians in winter with only a tarpaulin against the cold?’ He saw frost in the pinched nostrils and on the hair that stuck out below the cap. He removed the cap and looked inside. No label! He turned the body over and pulled the jacket open. No label!
‘Hasn’t been dead long. Limbs barely warm but still flexible, thank goodness.’
Turning the body on its back, he searched every pocket and the lining meticulously. ‘Nothing! Nothing more than the film I was looking for and retrieved while on the train.’ He pushed a warm arm down the man’s back under his shirt, fearful of missing anything. His fingers searched for even the smallest item taped to the skin or sequestered within a fold of flesh. ‘Nothing.’ He turned the body face up.
‘Bury the body or leave it to the wolves and the bears?’ Balfour wondered. What would Campbell expect him to do? Cadavers were an embarrassment.
Suddenly his scalp rose. He was being watched. He looked around very, very slowly. ‘No movement. Rough bark on pine trees. Nothing else.’ Puzzled, he looked up. The dark pupils of a buzzard were focused intently on him from a dead branch.
Balfour nodded a relieved acknowledgement to the bird. The fierce raptor bobbed its head once as if in anger, opened its wings and disappeared into white silence.
‘Back to the problem at hand.’ But the body had moved. It had apparently rolled off the bed of pine-needles onto its front. Balfour was startled. ‘The slope can’t be that steep!’ He turned the body over again. Its eyes were open. Staring vacantly at him.
‘The frost on the hairs in its nostrils and on its eyebrows has melted.’ Balfour took a sudden step back. He felt his flesh creep. ‘The man’s alive!’
Quickly, he covered the man’s upper body with his own warm jacket then roughly kneaded the man’s chest, face and limbs. After minutes at this task, through his fingers he felt a tiny warmth return to what he’d taken for an inconvenient cadaver.
Meticulously, he searched for any broken bones or damage that might have resulted from his flinging the body so savagely off the flatcar into the snowbank. To his relief, he found none.
‘He’s uninjured!’ He felt relief flood him. ‘Uninjured, he’s going to be easier to deal with.’
His mind raced over options. ‘Leaving a naked corpse to the Carpathian bears and wolves would have been relatively easy. Taking responsibility for an agent – if that’s what he is – a man who must have jumped the train from the USSR knowing that it was heading to the port of Constanza, presented many more complications. In a communist country, it’s courting immediate arrest to be without an ID and a creditable reason for being where you are.’
Now, propping the body to sit upright against the rough bark of a pine, he warmed the man’s feet and then his hands. ‘Let’s avoid frostbite if we can.’ The eyes had closed now but there was a regular, shallow breathing. The thin face looked more at ease.
‘It’s OK for you, you old S.O.B. But what do I do with you now?’ Balfour looked at the man. He appeared at peace. ‘Who are you? Where do you come from? You have a family? Is it the British you’re working for or the Russians? Why remain on the train? Where were you going without identity papers? Did you tackle our agent who took the photographs and kill him so you could take his place?’
For the first time, Balfour felt out of his depth. His training for the secret war in Cambodia hadn’t prepared him for this. “Nor anything even close,” he muttered to himself. “Campbell, I’m going to need you!”
But Campbell was pacing his office on the upper floor of the British Embassy on Strada Jules Michelet. He was willing Balfour to be successful. ‘If you are, and I know you will be, I have more for you to do. Much more!’
Balfour straitened up brushing snowflakes off his face. ‘Only one thing for it! You’re coming back to the embassy villa with me. There, we’ll figure out what to do.’ He looked at the unresponsive face and corrected himself: “I’ll figure out what to do, “he muttered.
Balfour had carried heavier objects on his back in Cambodia, but not on skis. Even though the body couldn’t weigh more than 110 lbs, he had to lean well forward to find a centre of gravity that would let him push one ski in front of the other. Bare patches in the forest slowed him up. He had to walk from snow patch to snow patch before he could use his skis as they were intended. It took him a gruelling three-quarters of an hour to come to within sight of the villa. He was sweating from the effort but the thought that his increased warmth was helping to revive his living burden encouraged him. Still within the treeline and out of sight of the villa, he stopped and laid the body down. The dogs always stuck close to the building. They knew the harm wolves could do.
Carefully, he advanced. Cobianu, the ancient caretaker was doing his best to split wood for the stoves with an axe that once had been right but now was too heavy for him.
“I’ll do that! Tell the dogs to withdraw.”
Cobianu willingly surrendered the axe. “Interior!” At his command, the two dogs returned to the basement. Cobianu and his wife, who’d lived for decades in the rambling basement, were now beyond being effective caretakers, but the Ambassador knew what the couple were owed for their years of loyal service. Their loyalty went back long before the Second World War and the brutal communist takeover. The Ambassador also knew that if he retired them, they’d be replaced immediately by informants selected by the State. Not that the Cobianus themselves weren’t questioned from time to time. Nobody escaped the attention of the Securitate. But they would respond to the questions posed by the Secret Police with feigned puzzlement and incomprehension, a cunning that the rural Romanian had developed over the centuries. They’d long been oppressed: bow-wielding warriors from the Steppes, Roman legions, and predatory Ottomans in search of fair-skinned slaves and other riches. Centuries of oppression had skilled Romanians in survival. Whole generations had learned the wisdom: “Capul plecat sabia nu-l taie”: “A humble head is not severed by the sword”. But every Romanian knew the real trick was to adopt “cunning” not “humility”.
‘Yes, Romanians were a proud and able people,’ Balfour reflected. ‘They’ve no need to be humble. They’ve got skills and resources in abundance.’
“Çiorba de perişoare? – Sour soup with meatballs? Madalina is preparing it below, in our kitchen.” Cobianu accepted the axe back from Balfour. In a bare twenty minutes, the younger man had split enough blocks for several days. Ceramic stoves were supremely efficient. He’d split more tomorrow. A plan was forming in his mind.
“Ciorba de perisoare – yes! Tell Madalina I need a huge portion. Lots of broth.” Balfour raised both hands to show how much. “Ask her to leave it in the kitchen upstairs. And a loaf of bread and goat cheese for an early breakfast. I’ll need nothing more from either of you tonight.” He knew Cobianu and Madalina wouldn’t stir before mid-morning the following day.
Grateful for the consideration, the old man withdrew through his private door down to the basement. Balfour knew that once Madalina had struggled up the interior stairs into the main kitchen with the soup, bread and cheese, he’d have the entire upstairs to himself. Himself and, of course, his new ‘friend’. The old couple would snooze companionably, moving only to creep into the bed that was built over the warmth of their stove’s wide tiled surface. Atop the slow-burning ceramic stove was how rural people kept warm throughout the long Carpathian winters.
Assured now of privacy, Balfour returned for the body.
He caught himself. ‘No! Not a body. At least not a dead one. But surely, an inconvenient one. The scavenging bears and roving wolves would’ve made a corpse vanish without trace. Now I’ve got to try to figure out what to do with a live one.’ He picked the man up, gently this time. ‘Not only figure out what to do with you but to find out who you are and where your loyalties lie.’