Chapter 4

The flight was uneventful. The Astra Jets 1125 was cozy and quiet, carrying only three men. Jesse had met the pilot, Lars Millsen, at a recent faculty meeting. Jesse's nervous finger tapping caught the attention of Milssen on one occasion, prompting him to whisper something to his first officer. A moment later, he was sitting next to Jesse in the front row of the cabin and placing a hot drink on each of their tray tables. Jesse instinctively steadied the mug, but Milssen put him at ease.

"Don't worry, the bottoms are magnetic," Milssen said, gently tipping his own mug from side to side to show the resistance of the magnet. "One of the perks of these corporate birds."

Jesse smiled and took a drink, trying to ease the knot in his stomach. Green tea. One of his favorites. Jesse had already slogged through the 65 pages of minutiae related to the trip, undoubtedly written by the same smiling administrative assistants who handled all of the university's laundry. He was bound for Warsaw, Poland, a place that he had visited twice for pleasure. The third visit would be a tense one.

"Ready for duty?" Milssen asked with a smile.

"Not a chance," Jesse said, "but I'll do what I can. These kids really stepped in it."

"The bits of news that have made it to my ear haven't been good. Be careful, and we'll see you Thursday evening. Give me a call when you're packed up. We'll be starting our descent in about twenty."

Milssen handed Jesse a black prepaid mobile phone, shook his hand, and walked back to the cockpit.

Jesse knew that tomorrow, Wednesday, would be a tense affair. He kept his nerves hidden, but his bowels never got the memo. I won't be doing this until I retire, unless they let me go at 32, he thought, looking out the tiny window at the hills of central Europe.

The kids had really stepped in it. One student, the son of Polish immigrants, had enrolled in the new investigative journalism program at CUNY with a personal mission to prove that his father's failed bid for a seat on the Warsaw City Council in 1986 had been illegally sabotaged. The family was convinced that an opponent had floated a rumor about his father's marital fidelity shortly before the election, and that another political rival had abused her position of power at town meetings as a soapbox for making inaccurate statements about the family's intentions. The student, Sam Rzeznik, had recruited two of his classmates to join him in Poland for a month to investigate the case.

The true story, however, had only come to light after the team of students was arrested by Interpol for breaking into the offices of a local political party and installing recording devices. The official application for funds had stated that the team would be investigating instances of polling irregularities at a handful of small voting precincts outside of Warsaw. The low-key nature of the trip, and the delicate issue at hand, had won over the review board and brought praise from William Tweedie. The team had been awarded a travel and research grant for $8,000, enough to keep them fed and mobile for 30 days.

It was the voice recorder in the men's room that led to their arrest. The team had installed surveillance equipment in two conference rooms, the office of a senior staffer, and the men's room. The argument for putting microphones near the toilets was simple: plenty of informal chit-chat and joking happens when people are washing their hands. If they could soak up the official line from the board room and grab the raw, unalloyed truth from the loo, then the team had an odds-on chance of landing a good story.

A week after the team had installed the equipment and left the building without raising an alarm, a pipe in the ceiling above the men's room had burst, soaking the voice recorder and flooding two rooms. The office hired a pair of plumbers to repair the pipes and assess the damage. The workers had no reason to suspect foul play when they found a waterlogged voice recorder, and they threw it into a strap pile with everything else that had shown water damage. When the office manager came around to get an assessment from the men and learned about the voice recorder, he immediately dialed the chief of police. After pulling the tapes from the office's own video surveillance system, it took less than an hour to work out what had happened.

Legally, Sam Rzeznik needed a miracle. The police and Polish immigration authorities were able to match the images on the video tapes to photos on the students' visa paperwork, making the investigation quick and decisive. If his case went to trial, the prospects were grim. The evidence against him was devastating. His academic career would be over for violating the terms of his admission to the investigative journalism program. Even if he was acquitted, his extended family who still lived in Poland could face harassment, physical threats, or worse. The other students on the team were in a better position to negotiate a reduced sentence, but they would still face jail time if convicted.