Jesse tipped his taxi driver and stepped out of the cab onto a busy street in Warsaw. Opening his umbrella, he looked up at the massive stone columns that flanked the entrance to the historic courthouse. To his right was a series of shops that included a barber shop, a Greenpeace branch office, and a small coffee shop that had a cupcake protruding from the wall above its traditional-looking iron door. Checking his impression against the description written on the napkin in his hand, he convinced himself that it was the right venue. Jesse had no idea what to expect for the next two hours, but William Tweedie had sent him for a reason.
The cafe was busy but had a very European charm. Jesse unbuttoned his overcoat, walking slowly toward the rear of the cafe as his senses took in the environment. At the bar that lined the left side of the cafe, a woman was animatedly telling the bartender something about a bracelet that she was wearing. Next to her, a bearded man in a suit turned to stare at Jesse as he walked past. A waitress brushed against Jesse's arm, startling him and prompting terse apology. On the other side of the cafe was a set of staggered four-seat tables, and along the back wall was a pair of high tables with two seats each. At one of the high tables was a young-looking man with wiry hair pulled back into a ponytail who was reading a newspaper. He was dressed in an expensive dress shirt and had draped his sport jacket over the back of his chair. As Jesse approached, the man glanced up from his newspaper and looked him over.
"Jesse Winter?" the man said. His voice was clear despite an accent that Jesse couldn't place, but the accent didn't concern him as much as the lack of friendliness. Jesse reminded himself that he shouldn't expect to make friends today. Time to go to work.
"Pleased to meet you. Mr...?" Jesse said, offering his hand.
The man stood up, shaking Jesse's hand. "Jasna. Marcel Jasna. You may call me Marcel. May I call you Jesse?"
"Sure," Jesse said.
"Shall we sit, then?" said Marcel, gesturing to the empty chair across the small table.
Jesse pulled off his overcoat, draping it over the back of his chair, and sat down. Immediately, a waiter was beside him to take his drink preference. Recalling that Marcel had a glass of scotch on the table, he ordered a gin and tonic. Stretching his shoulders, Jesse turned back to Marcel and offered a disarming smile.
"Well, Jesse, it's no secret why we come here today," Marcel said simply. "The manager of my brother's political office caught your students in his building. It was clear to us that they were spying on our meetings and attempting to sabotage our campaign. We have video and audio evidence from the night when they entered the building and left recording devices. This is, as you say, an open and shut case, don't you think?"
Jesse opened his mouth to respond, but Marcel had paused only for rhetorical effect. He went on: "My brother has no interest in ruining the lives of young people. But he finds your program that encourages students to become foreign spies for the United States to be distasteful and shameful. If students go to jail for a time in order to bring the proper shame on your program, very few Polish citizens here will pay attention. Your program is unpopular in your own country, yes?"
This time Marcel stopped to wait for a response, but Jesse sensed a trap. "The program enjoys strong support from many quarters," he offered.
"Yes, there are always those who see public servants as corrupt by definition. Have you noticed that foreign politicians are always corrupt, but your government does not look at its own face in a mirror?" Marcel took a drink from his glass, then cleared his throat. "This is not so simple as you think, Jesse. You are thinking of your students, their future, their families, your president, perhaps your job. We understand that it is far deeper. Each time our politicians are painted as corrupt, Poland suffers. We have suffered under the heel of such injustice for most of a century."
Jesse shifted in his seat. "Marcel, these students lied to us. I understand your position on spying, and I know that from your vantage point we seem to be training a new crop of young spies. You need to know that these students were not authorized to conduct themselves in this way. They lied on the application, and they lied to the review committee."
"This does not change substance of the situation."
"That's correct. But it changes the details of the situation that you and I care about. We're not here to debate state philosophies on espionage. This is about the welfare of a group of kids who, while they showed themselves to be overzealous, have passion and talent that must be put to productive uses. Do you see?"
Marcel responded immediately. "With respect, the fate of the students is beside the point. This is an issue of national and political sovereignty, and we intend to treat it as such. I must admit that I do not think we will reach a settlement. We must not appear weak in the face of interference from America, even if the face is that of a young spy ring."
The waiter returned with Jesse's drink, taking the unspoken hint that the men were not interested in ordering a meal.
"Our university is prepared to work with you, sir," Jesse continued. "We have no interest in inflaming the relationship between the U.S. and a friendly nation such as Poland. We know that despite your feelings about espionage, it would not bode well for your campaign to be associated with the arrest of a Polish student." Turning his palms upward in a conciliatory gesture, Jesse added, "What options remain on the table?"
Marcel leaned back in his seat and tilted his head to the right, clearly wondering what had been in Jesse's mind as he spoke those words. It was a moment before he spoke again. "You offer us money, Jesse?"
"We are prepared to cover the costs of the repairs to your brother's office, as well as any legal costs that you've absorbed. Beyond that, well . . . this is a negotiation."
"Please excuse me for a moment, Jesse," Marcel said, rising to his feet and walking toward the back door of the cafe.
Time for a side-conference during the powwow, Jesse thought to himself. He took the moment to enjoy a taste of the gin and tonic in front of him that had so far been ignored. As the strong flavor filled his senses, Jesse talked himself through the next few minutes of his conversation. The man in the other chair suspected that Jesse was out of chips in the negotiation. Jesse was certain of that. Jesse also knew that his own case was weak and that offering money for repairs and cooperation was small potatoes to these guys. Someone who cares about national and political sovereignty wasn't going to let a group of foreign kids with an agenda go without making a point or making some demands to make the American politians squirm. And Jesse was just a pawn in all of this. He knew that Marcel felt no personal sympathy for him.
As long as the guy didn't pull a gun, Jesse could handle this. Several years of dealing with stuffy, arrogant university administrators had given him a thick skin. He took another drink. The cafe had grown louder as the lunch crowd began to assemble. Still, the footsteps on the hardwood floor were distinct. The conference was over.
"My apologies, Jesse," Marcel said as he took his seat. "My brother can be very detailed."
"Not to worry. How is he doing?"
"Very busy these days. This issue with the students has taken a lot of his time, and he is eager to wash his hands of them."
Didn't expect that, Jesse thought. But he's not finished.
"However," Marcel said, leaning back in his seat and slowly turning his glass, "a detail has come to his attention today. One of the students, Sam Rzeznik. You know of him?"
"Yes," Marcel continued. "It seems that his family has a history. A history that complicates things for us. What do you know about this?"
"I know that Sam is of Polish descent," Jesse said. "He mentioned in his interview with our review board that his grandfather was a public servant, but no serious problems came up during the proceedings. Everything that Sam told us was verified before he was allowed to start his research project."
That much was true, but Jesse wasn't revealing his hand just yet. The political problems had not involved Sam's grandfather, who had been involved in municipal government for most of his life. Sam's father, on the other hand, had found himself the victim of circumstances entirely beyond his control. The review board that CUNY had convened to consider the applications submitted by the investigative journalism students had learned about Jesse's father's political past after conversing with Polish authorities, but the board had given its stamp of approval after reviewing the facts.
"Yes, his grandfather served in the city government with my grandfather. Those were very good days for Poland, despite the problems of the world. It was the next generation that began the divisive era of our politics that we still see today. The dishonesty. The posturing." Marcel paused, looking pointedly at Jesse. "And the spying. It is this generation that Sam's father helped to assemble.
"My father was in his third year on the city council when Sam's father declared himself a candidate for the same seat. My father had worked for ten years to clean up this city, and to restore pride to Warsaw citizens. He had done every task to match the letter of the law. His constituents trusted him. Sent him letters of thanks each year. He knew the spirit of the people, and knew how to bring money and business to Warsaw. He understood the real purpose of a public life."
Marcel took a deep breath, clearly incensed by the memories that he was bringing to mind. "When Sam's father declared himself a candidate, he . . . he knew nothing of politics. He knew nothing of campaigns. His only public achievement was to manage the local library, and poorly at that. The library was never lower on funds. He began to attend city council meetings, asking impossible questions. There was never a more irritating man. He knew nothing of the business of government, but he made it his mission to lecture everyone on what he called the `proper order of the gathering'.
"It was known that he visited women other than his wife. After he declared his candidacy, this secret became known to the public. It is not clear how this information became known. He never recovered from the stain on his reputation, and he lost the election. It was soon after that his family left the country, and we see now that he reaches through his son in an attempt to blame us for his past mistakes."
Marcel paused to finish his scotch. "There will be no deal, Jesse."
"Are you familiar with the phrase `catch-22', Marcel?"
"Yes, of course. It is a situation in which every available course of action carries negative consequences. Why do you ask this?"
"Since you are familiar with your father's political story, you might remember an incident involving an old woman in June of 1986."
Marcel's face clouded, and he shifted in his seat. "Yes," he allowed, "I am familiar."
"If I told you that we had an voice record of that conversation, would this change the substance of our discussion?"
Jesse could sense the man's tension, and he didn't admire the mental quandary that he was inflicting on someone he had just met. He probably believed honestly that the popular account of his father's involvement in the story about the old woman was a deliberate smear. It was also clear that he had not expected Jesse to have the ace, much less to throw it now.
Marcel considered Jesse for a long moment. "You attempt to deceive me."
"It is not your claims, sir, but the way that you abuse the trust of the people with one hand while smoothing their feathers with the other that make me doubt you," Jesse said, making it clear that he was uttering a quotation. The old woman had spoken with an east Warsaw accent.
Marcel stared at him. He would have remembered that decades-old quote. Just when Jesse was sure that he had collected his thoughts and had worked out a stinging train of logic, he took a deep breath and pulled a cash clip from his pocket. He placed three Euro notes on the table before replacing the clip in his trousers. Then he met Jesse's eyes.
"Your students will meet you at the airport tomorrow, Mr. Winter," Marcel said.
Marcel was out of his seat and halfway to the door of the cafe before Jesse fully processed what had happened. The students were absolved of their legal worries. An impossible situation had been turned on its head. But there was no way that this was the end of the story. These guys didn't quit that easily. Jesse's trump card had ended the contest, but he knew that he would hear from Marcel again before he retired. Unless I retire at 32.
The next day at the airport, Jesse stepped out of his taxi and was ambushed by a phalanx of relieved CUNY students. It was obvious that they had all been crying. Jesse reassured them that the university was concerned about their behavior but had committed to do everything it its power to protect them from unfair litigation. That would be much easier once they were home, and Jesse wasted no time in moving them through a series of security checkpoints and onto the private jet.
The students were asleep before the jet had taxied to the runway. Lars and his first officer looked over the exhausted students before nodding to Jesse and settling into the cockpit. The jet would need to refuel in Iceland, he was told, and they would be home by morning. Then the real questions would begin. The review board would be reconvened to look for any clues that someone knew more about Sam Rzeznik's family than what was discussed. The press would be there to get the scoop on the students and take their stories. The FBI and the State Department would want to know everything.
Jesse had a feeling that this would be the best sleep that he would have for a few days.