Winter - 2012 & 2013

 

We shut down the project at the end of the year. Maybe it was my lie to V, but more likely my lie to Lester brought on the curse - Grandmother had Anaplastic thyroid cancer. She went to a German hospital with a lump on her neck and was given less than 6 months to live. We met in Cologne planning to spend our last Christmas together in Berlin. Before we left Cologne I met her friend Markus Reinhardt; we talked about music and his great-uncle.

“The Sinti have been in Germany almost 500 years. Django means ‘I awake.’ Uncle awoke for the first time in Belgium in 1910. He moved to France where gypsies are called Manouche and Uncle’s music became ‘manouche jazz.’ I prefer “gypsy” jazz. Some Reinhardt’s gave up the traveling life to stay in one place. There are 18 of us living on this street in Cologne.”

“Sounds like a family I knew in L A.”

“Come on, we’re gonna miss the plane.” Grandmother rushed me out the door.

A couple of days later we were walking through the art gallery on the top floor of a retro-fitted school building. Grandmother was drawn there because of history; the Museum The Kennedys had just opened on the 3rd floor. The museum’s docent knew her Jewish German history.

“Originally this building was built in the Mitte in the 30’s by Berlin’s Jews. It was called Judische Maedchenschule - Jewish Girls’ School - now they call it Ehemalige Judische Maedchenschule - Former Jewish Girls’ School. The first Jewish girls’ school had been open almost a hundred years. There was a need for more space because the Nazis passed a law excluding Jews from public schools, so Jewish children had to be sent to private Jewish schools. The Judische Maedchenshule was closed in ‘42 as part of the final solution.. After the War this part of Berlin was in the Soviet sector and the school became Bertolt Brecht Secondary School. It was closed about 15 years ago because the building became decripit. The oiginal architect was Alexander Beer. He died in a concentration camp.

“A year or so ago Michael Fuchs and Stephen Landwehr were opening a new art gallery and a restaurant. They found this place, leased it, renovated it and the Kennedy Museum moved in from Brandenburg Gate. Now new Germany eats old German food and buys art in this building.”

Grandmother whispered in my ear. “Angela Merkel’s behind all this remembering. She grew up in East Berlin so she knows suffering. I doubt many well-to-do Germans feel uneasy about the girls who went to school here. An ironic place where we enjoy ourselves in memory of those who never did.”

Museum The Kennedys was a step back in time filled with memorabilia. The 50 year old JFK  Hermes’ leather briefcase - $700,000 in 1998 - was in a glass display case. A video of the “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech was being projected onto a wall.

“There are so many stories about him. Do you think he was a good man?”

“Irrelevant Grandmom, he was a politician.”

“Maybe I should move to Berlin like all the other freaks.”

“What?”

“This goiter.” She touched her neck.

“I wish it was a goiter. They’re non-cancerous.”

“When did you fall in love? ”

“What a question, why do you ask?”

“You’re not wearing the pentacle I gave you. You must have given it to someone. What kind of woman is she?”

V had sent an email asking where to send the amulet. I hadn’t answered because I didn’t want it back.

“Her name is Virginia Kaldera. She lives in LA.”

We stood in front of a huge photo of Jackie and JFK.

“Kaldera? A gypsy? You haven’t said a thing about her the whole time we’ve been here.”

“Yes, she’s Roma. We split up.”

“For good?”

“I guess.”  

Grandmother hobbled to the stairway.

“She’s ending it, not you.”

“Yes. She loves me but she wants me to quit my job. I said no.”

“She knows that as long as she has the 4th pentacle, you and she must stay together?”

“She wants to send it back but I won’t take it. I have moments when I don’t believe in the magic of King Solomon.”

“You are inviting disaster. The 4th pentacle is the most powerful love invocation. Those words on the pendant are “voces magicae.” King Solomon’s magic is respected by Jews, Arabs, and Christians, even Freemasons. You never knew your grandfather. He was a Mason. When I met him I had no money and was barely making enough to buy food and pay the rent. He came to the dance studio with his girlfriend to learn to tango. I taught my students to breathe deeply and stand opposite their partner. When I stood opposite Clifford I felt his energy like I’d never felt any other man’s. I went home and prayed to the pentacle. I prayed every day. He didn’t come back for several weeks but when he did he was alone. He didn’t want dance lessons, he just wanted to talk. Told me he’d been engaged. Broke it off after he came to the studio because he felt the same energy I felt. We married and went to San Francisco for his job with the FBI. He was killed just before your mother turned 5. I knew he was the only man I’d ever love. I had no interest in finding another. I raised your mother with money the government gave me after your grandfather was killed.”

“I never knew about him until now.”

“I’m telling you so you have some idea of the amulet’s power. Your were named after him and he believed in the amulet’s power. If you love this girl and she loves you, you must be together. If not she must return the amulet or the power of Venus will turn against you.”

“But grandma, I don’t believe what you believe.”

“That is your problem. Kaballah is the Wisdom of Truth. You need it. I hope you find it. I wish I could be here when you do, but my time is running out.”

Grandmother was right, time was running out. By March she was dead.

 

Spring 2013

 

Grandmother wanted to be buried near her mother’s grave. Initially she thought Auschwitz was in Germany, not Poland so she lived with the Reinhardt’s in Cologne. She learned the woman who smuggled her out of the camp as an infant was a German married to a Pole who had stayed in Poland. That turned out to be lucky because the Polish family knew Auschwitz and helped Grandmother get around.

The Hauptbuch (Gypsy Main Book) containing the names of Sinti-Roma killed was saved by Pole prisoners working in the administrative offices of Auschwitz. To find out what happened to survivors’ families, it proved invaluable. Grandmother reviewed the Hauptbuch and with help learned that her mother was Marienka Wajs and raised Catholic. Most Sinti in Auschwitz were Catholics. Gypsy oral history has it that Auschwitz survivors were protected by Holy Mary of the Gypsies. The Sanctuary of Holy Mary is the only Roma pilgrimage site in Poland. It contains the Roma Chapel dedicated to Blessed Ceferino Gimenez Malla, the first Roma to be called Blessed by the Catholic Church.

Marienka Wajs had been a musician in the Women’s Orchestra of Auschwitz recruited by its leader, Alma Rose. Alma and her father Arnold had met Marienka in an Austrian cafe before the war. Marienka had been playing violin since she was 4. Alma’s father, himself a renowned violinist, was so taken by Marienka’s talent that he recruited her for Alma’s Die Wiener Walzermädeln (The Waltzing Girls of Vienna) in the early 30’s. When Alma learned that Marienka was in the Zigeunerlager (Gypsy Camp) she managed to get the Catholic gypsy violinist into the camp orchestra, even though most of the orchestra members were classically trained and Jewish.

Marienka was made pregnant by an SS officer. My grandmother’s father engaged a German nurse to smuggle his bastard daughter out of the camp before her mother was gassed. How Grandmother wound up in the hands of the Berger’s is uncertain. What is certain is Grandmother became Sarah Berger named after the patron saint of the Roma. About a month before she died Grandmother left Cologne for Poland to spend her final days among the Sinti. Lucky for me Sinti made all the arrangements. Grandmother got to know the families of Inowrocław and they walked her casket to the cemetery. It felt like a New Orleans strolling funeral with violins and trombones sounding a serenade. Grandmother’s final resting place is in a cemetery with her mother Marienka and cousin Bronislawa Wajs, the gypsy poetess Papusza. Sarah Berger’s story is all too common among the Sinti...mother Marienka was killed by the Nazis at Auschwitz, cousin Papusza was an artist at one time thought to be a traitor, and Grandmother herself, raised as a Jewess who didn’t know she was Sinti until late in life. They all sleep together in St. Joseph cemetery.   

 

When I returned to the hotel from the funeral Lester’s email was waiting for me.

“There’s an opportunity in Ankara next month. I need you and Aleksy to meet me in Istanbul. Turkey’s making attempts at e-gov. They want to streamline government processes and move up in the EGDI. The UN recommended us for the project. Print and read the attachment. My secretary will be in touch with you with travel arrangements in about 3 weeks. She’s booked Aleksy to Dharhan with you.”

EGDI was the E Government Development Index that rated countries’ readiness for computer technology and the Internet. I printed a copy of the UN’s E-Government Survey   and was reading it on the flight. “Leave it to Lester. He knows the flesh to press. Turkey’s one of the world economies that has shown steady growth over the last 10 years. I’m sure he’ll be there looking for investments to make.”

“Aamira’s picking me up at the airport. We’ll give you a lift.” Aleksy finished his martini.

“Thanks, but that’s not necessary. I’ll catch a shuttle. You want another?” I pressed the Call button overhead.

“Yep. Don’t be ridiculous. It’s no trouble. Besides Sana will probably be with her sister for company. It’s an hour to the airport and an hour back. We can stop for dinner on the way home and expense it.”

Aleksy managed expenses better than most, certainly better than me. It was 60 KM from Dammam International to Dhahran. He had booked transfers for us that would be re-imbursed and we’d pocket the money. I hadn’t spoken to Sana for some time and without V around maybe it was time I did.

“You and Aamira keep in touch?” Aleksy had finished his work on the project at end of the year and was living in Poland.

“She comes to Warsaw the weekends.”

“How is Sana?”

“Better than ever.”

“Two more, please.” I sent the stewardess for more martinis.   

We arrived at Dammam after our layover in Istanbul, exhausted and drunk. Aleksy’s prediction was right on; Prosperity and Brilliance were both there. Stunning as usual, they wore Chanel’s Pret-a-Porter. I had seen their outfits on television. With no woman in my life and censored Saudi programming my erotica had become TV fashion shows. The twin’s black slacks and black-and-white jackets with a Pollock-like abstract uniquely geminated. Aamira and Sana waited in the terminal like 2 of the video models in Robert Palmer’s Addicted to Love.

“How many offers did you get?” Aleksy leered, then kissed Aamira sensually.

“Such a gentleman. How are you, Cliff?” Aamira offered me her cheek. I kissed both as expected.

“Fine. Good to see you.” I turned to Sana. She offered her cheek and I repeated.

“We had an idea while we were waiting. How does dinner at La Gondola sound to you two?” Aamira held Sana’s hand.

“Criminals return to the scene of the crime?” Aleksy looked to me for an answer.

“After six martinis I was thinking of falling asleep at a steakhouse.”

“They have steak or the veal chop.”

“OK, let’s do it.” I shook my head and wondered how I’d stay awake, but staying awake through dinner sitting next to Sana was a non-issue.

“You mind dropping us off? You can have my car to get home. Cliff’s in no shape to drive.” Aamira jiggled the keys at her sister.

“I’ll drive Cliff home and pick you up in the morning.” Sana took the keys.

“Thanks.” I patted her hand.

“You see twins can be accomodating.” Aleksy turned to us, breaking into a smile.  

Ten minutes later we split into 2 couples when Sana pulled up in front of Aleksy’s hotel. It was obvious what Aleksy and Aamira had in mind.

“Any luck getting your mom and dad to Dhahran?”

“Mostly a matter of money, now. We found somebody who’ll help us.”

“I guess it’s all on you now that Aamira and Aleksy have hooked up.”

“What do you mean?”

“She’s not making any money.”

“Aleksy told you that?”

“No, I just assumed.”

“She’s cut back but not stopping. She can’t. We work for people who think they own us. Aleksy helps her out. They want to be together.”

“My offer still stands.”

“I think I’ll have enough in another 2 months.”

“I know some people.”

“What kind of people?”

“People in the system who can get them out of the camp fast without paying for it. They’ll do it as a favor but you’ll have to go to the USA.”

“That’s not what I want, but Aamira and my parents might want to. What are the details?”

“I’ll tell you over coffee.”

“The cafes are closed.”

“My place. I can make an Irish coffee.”

“What is Irish coffee?”

“Coffee, heavy cream, Irish whisky and sugar.”

“One only. You shouldn’t drink anymore tonight. Martinis, wine and Irish coffee sounds awful to me. You understand, I’m not fucking you.”

I laughed and lied.

“Farthest thing from my mind. I just buried my grandmother. Sometimes death gets in the way of the living.”

“I know about death and liars.”

I told Sana about the immigration people I knew as she watched me blend Jameson’s with Starbucks. The people who helped me get Akram out of Baghdad were still around USCIS and it was no problem getting refugees out. I lied about the money. It would cost me money, but I needed to do for others once in a while, especially when the others looked like Sana.

“I’ll talk with my sister and one of us will get back to you. I appreciate your help.”

Sana offered the customary two kisses. I wished her cheeks were her lips but I was hesitant. She had told me where we stood in the taxi, but I could feel the winds of change were blowing.

Summer 2013

 

Getting the girls’ parents out of Syria went as planned. My USCIS friends got Aamira her green card. She met her parents in Cairo and they went to live in West LA with an Iraqi family. Aleksy planned to work for Lester in LA after Turkey. He and I were going to meet Lester for the e-gov pitch to the Turks. Ten AM was a little early but we were more than sipping our Bloody Marys.

“I hate working for douche bags but I need the money.” Aleksy’s leg shook. He’d been without a cigarette for three hours.

“Lester’s ruined my love life but he’s saving yours?”

“In a way. Sana’s waiting for you to make a move, you know? I think it’s time to get over what’s-her-name.”

“I’ll never get over V, but you’re right I have to move on. She hasn’t answered any of my calls or letters. I even wrote her one about the LA move. Thought she might want to help Aamira get acclimated. Tried subtlely telling her what a nice guy I am. Never heard back from her. How do you know Sana’s waiting on me?”

“Aamira.”

“What she say?”

“Just that Sana changed her mind about you when you got their Mom and Dad out of the refugee camp.”

“It doesn’t mean she wants to go to bed with me.”

“You’ll never know if you don’t try. Time to move on like you said. Back to Lester. I’m working for him, but I’m working against him too. A while back I met a Melanesian guy playing soccer when I played for Poland. He played for West Papua. We toured the South Pacific and became close. Iambakey was a freedom fighter in his country. He died of unknown causes. They said it was liver cancer, but he told me he was in danger because of politics. They probably poisoned him. I told him if anything happened to him I’d try to help his cause. So I am. We planted a mole in Lester’s mining company. We’ve got proof the Indonesians killed some American school teachers by mistake. That’s what that email address I sent you was all about, but I decided to keep you out of it. The less you know the better. These guys play hard ball when they’re threatened.”

“We all can use somebody to watch our back.” I raised my glass to Aleksy. “You know you can count on me.”

Aleksy talked while I listened.

Lester had interest in an international mining company that was levelling a mountain for gold. Another Virunga - gold in West Papua, rather than oil in Africa. Gang-bangers and local profiteers telling the same old lies to their own people:

  • we will improve your quality of life

  • we will bring education to the community

  • the next generation will be more educated and better equipped to live in the modern world

  • Businesses with security forces will make the world a better place.

The 21st century form of genocide in full swing. Indigenous peoples, cultures and animals don’t matter to the corporate mind. The world’s a better place without them; they’re primitive; corporations have the right to disembowel them and their land where money’s to be made.

West Papua’s Melanesians had been promised sovereignty by the Dutch before they left in the early 60’s but politics and business didn’t let it happen. The USA, as part of embracing Indonesia, stepped in and brokered the Ellsworth Bunker Proposal that allowed the transfer of the rule of West Papua from the Dutch to Indonesia. Naturally, Papua’s natural resources had nothing to do with that. A fixed election called The Act of Free Choice delivered the promised sovereignty of West Papua to Indonesia. Indonesian rule has proven to be a nightmare for West Papua in the same way as it did in East Timor.

Aleksy was supporting  rebel efforts to regain control of West Papua. Business interests in the region were just that, business interests, nothing of interest for the people who lived there. Aleksy was preparing a report for presentation at the UN that accused Lester’s mining company for everything from environmental and human rights abuses to murder.

“We’ve been at this a while. We’re on top of it.”

“Who’s we?”

“A group helping to get justice for the people of West Papua. They were promised sovereignty but never got it. It’s one of the richest places on earth for gold and minerals so the white power players have made sure native Melanesians don’t benefit. They did an international racist PR job to convince the rest of the world West Papua was full of  savage cannibals. When Americans were killed a survivor got the FBI involved. The FBI, influenced by you know who, allowed Indonesia’s military to investigate. A bad choice given their track record for dishonesty and genocide. There were no surprises. The Indonesians blamed a West Papua rebel. The FBI convinced the woman it was an honest investigation and gave her a consulting job with the State Department. She was politically naive from what I know and bought what happened at the West Papuan’s trial. Who knows the threats and torture the Indonesians used in the so-called investigation?”  

“What happens next?” I raised my glass and 2 fingers to the stewardess.

“I’m meeting our mole in Ephesus. He’s got everything on a flash drive.”

“I always wanted to see Artemis’ temple.”

“Not much left of the temple. Most guys go because of Artemis’ breasts. Haha. I’m going down there this weekend before we go to Ankara. You wanna come?”

“Yeah, might be fun.”


 

--------------------------------------------------

“Well at least we’re not swimming it.” Aleksy flipped his cigarette into the Bosphorus.

“But we are crossing it.” Swimming or crossing the Bosphorus might have religious significancs for some, but not me and Aleksy.

We ferried the waters of Jason and the Argonauts to Kadikoy in Asian Istanbul where we took the M4 commuter train, then  the high-speed overnight. I was looking forward to my first 150 mph train ride.

Our overnight train bore no resemblance to the Orient Express. Its sleeper was modern, minimalist and comfortable. I couldn’t envision Sean Connery and Robert Shaw slugging it out in our fabricated plastic accomodations; I did dream about Daniela BIanchi though.

We arrived in Selcuk next morning. It was a short walk to the archaelogical ruins. I almost stepped on the world’s first billboard for a gentleman’s club on Marble St. A marble slab (what other kind of slab would it be on Marble St.?) showed a foot heading to the next interesection, money pouring into a purse and a woman. Ex-US Navy men can relate to the sailors of antiquity following a sidewalk sign to the corner of Marble and Curetes Streets where the women of antiquity practiced the world’s oldest profession.

Ephesus was built 3 thousand years before I ever set foot there. I’d never been anyplace that old but I could sense the energy of the people who lived and worked the streets. There’s no place in the States with Ephesus’ sense of history; kind of a Baghdad without bloodshed.

“Twenty-five thousand people watching a Greek tragedy or attending the silversmiths’ riot. Can you imagine?” Aleksy marveled, overlooking the Great Theatre from the last row.

“Twenty-five thousand people watching a play? Never happen today. Would be hard to see Oedipus Rex from these nosebleed seats. Why did the silversmiths’ riot?”

“Saint Paul preached against Artemis in Ephesus. The silversmiths made a living making statues of her, so they rioted in the theatre. It’s written up in the Bible.”

We were to meet Aleksy’s mole in Selcuk. On the way there we passed the Temple of Artemis. Aleksy was right, there wasn’t much left of it. Wasn’t one of the Seven Wonders of the World anymore. One remaining column in a swamp of storks. The original was a football field long, 70 yards wide and 60 feet high. Back-in-the-day the Temple of Artemis was the Staples Center to the Acropolis as the LA Forum.


 

Ephesus Museum provided my first look at the Ephesian Artemis. Standing at her feet, I read about the icon in my brochure.

“Hey Alex, it says here, maybe they’re not boobs.” A bunch of spheres hung from Artemis’ chest. They looked like breasts. “Experts aren’t sure. Could have been bulls’ balls or bee eggs. Both were symbols of fertility in their culture. ”

“Fucked up culture, man. I have to pee.” Aleksy laughed.

According to her legend Artemis was born in Ephesus, so consequently her cult flourished there. There were 2 statues in the museum, both of them eye-openers. The neckpieces of both was the zodiac, one headress was crowned by a building while both robes were banded by animals with Artemis’ arms outstretched. To the Greeks, she was the go-to goddess when it came to the hunt, childbirth, wild animals and virginity. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that combo. Given what was to come I should have paid more attention.

Returning from the men’s room, Aleksy bumped into an obese man in a rumpled suit. “Let’s go,” he said, and took me by the arm.

“What’s the rush?” I shook free for a last look at the statue.

“I have what I came for.”

“That fat guy’s your mole?”

“You don’t need to know.”

Two hours later we stood on a platform in Izmir waiting for the overnight back to Istanbul. The streets of one of the richest cities in the Roman Empire, the in-your-face view of one of antiquity’s most worshipped goddesses and a visit to the home of the Virgin Mary had left me with warmth that felt like hope. “You think she lived there?”

“Before I went I figured it was a money-making scam. Never know though. Felt special.”

Aleksy offered me a smoke. I lit up. “Me too. Guess I have to read The Testament of Mary now. Heard about it from V.”

“Aamira read it. Sana too. Said they wanted to learn about the mother of Christ from a Christian POV. Sure didn’t get the Catholic church’s approved version from Colm Toibin. He must have gone to the house. I wanna stop to get a copy made.” Aleksy showed me the flash drive the fat guy handed off.

“I knew it when I saw the rumpled suit. Looked like somebody in Casablanca.”

“You didn’t see a thing.”

-------------------------------------------------

 

“Turkish breakfast’s second to none.” Aleksy finished the last of his kaymak with honey while I chewed on my borek. The coffee was strong and sweet. We were sitting in a narrow street of al fresco cafes in Kadikoy.  “I can get the flash drive copied in Eminonu. There are some great tasting fish sandwiches near the bridge. We’ll do lunch then meet Lester at the Galata Tower after for drinks.”

The sea bus was an air-conditioned catamaran, fast and expensive. We put it on Lester’s dime. Helping Aleksy bring down Lester felt like being Brutus to Caesar. When I remembered how much grief Lester had brought me the feeling didn’t last.

Aleksy copied the flash drive at an Apple store after we docked. I followed him through the maze of streets without a clue. Istanbul’s history reads like an endless war chronicle. The winners were sometimes Christian, sometimes Islamic; the city is pocketed now with Turks, Armenians, Jews, Italians, Greeks, Africans and Middle Eastern refugees fleeing the 21st century’s conflicts. We stepped onto the Galata Bridge where the Golden Horn empties into the Bosphorous. The waters of Jason’s Argonauts flowed beneath the crowd of fishermen dangling their rods into the sea; we could have been walking on Venice Pier if I didn’t know better. Halfway around the globe it was the same old, same old. Poor Turks fishing to feed their families the same as Tinseltown’s poor Latinos fed theirs.

Aleksy handed me a red and black flash drive. “You keep this. Anything happens to me somebody will get in touch with you. Don’t read what’s stored here. The less you know the better. I’ve already told you everything about West Papua. There’s some other stuff on there about other projects Lester’s involved in. Nothing incriminates you.”

“What’re you going to do?”

“On my way to LA there’s a UN meeting. I’m the delivery boy. Where it goes from there is none of my business. Yours neither.”

On the Kadikoy side of the bridge we queued up for lunch behind 20 or so locals.

“I’m bettin’ Lester doesn’t know about Emin Usta and I’m bettin’ he’s not eating better than we do. Emin’s been here a long time. I stumbled on him by pure luck about 5 years ago. Best balik emekci in Istanbul. All the places we passed on the bridge and the little boats selling fish sandwiches come in a distant second. Talk to the people in line, they’ll tell you this is the best fish sandwich in Istanbul. Sometimes you have to wait more than an hour. Not too bad today.”

A chubby guy with a moustache stood behind a grill smoking a cigarette. By the time he handed me my sandwich he had smoked 3 more while picking bones with the other hand, flipping onions on the grill and pointing to the sauces to be poured on the sandwiches.

“You want?” He pointed to a bottle of sauce.

“What is it?” It looked like salsa to me.

“The ‘you can’t know’ sauce.” He laughed and winked at Aleksy, handing me my sandwich.

“Made from pomegranates. How are the fish runnin’, Emin?” Aleksy laughed, pointing to the ‘you can’t know’ sauce.

“Same as always.” For the first time since we’d queued up, Emin smiled.

We took our sandwiches and ate on the dock.

“I don’t see any fish bein’ delivered anywhere to the vendors.”

“And you won’t. You’re eatin’ frozen fish from Norway. Cold water fish’s the best. No fresh fish in Emin’s sandwiches. None in any of the other vendors either.”

“Fuckin’ sauce’s incredible.”

“You want another?”

“Nah. Wait’s too long.”

 

We walked from the docks through narrow streets bordered by cafes of chatter.

“Feels like Italy for a reason. Genoa ruled here in the 12th century. They built the tower.”

Aleksy pointed to the Galata Tower. It stood seven stories in the middle of two intersecting streets.

Lester waved. “I made a reservation, so we don’t have to stand in line. We can take the elevator to the restaurant. Long way from Baghdad, heh? How you guys doin’? ” A large group of tourists were lined up for the walk to the top of the tower.

“Fine. We already ate.” Aleksy shook Lester’s hand.

“You can drink, I’ll eat. You’ve never been to Istanbul, Cliff?”

“Nope, first time.”

“Like it?” Lester draped his arm around my shoulder.

“Cool beans.”

“Too bad we don’t have more time, I’d like to go down to Ephesus. They say the ruins are almost all in tact. I’ve seen pictures of the main street. Impressive.” Lester led me into the elevator, arm still draped around my shoulder.

“You’re preachin’ to the choir, boss. We took a trip down there yesterday.” Aleksy saved my ass, I wasn’t sure what to say. Was Lester probing for Aleksy’s mole?

“Good for you. Sightseeing clears the mind, I’ve found.”

“Yeah, we were lookin’ for a whore house and found one.”

Lester laughed at my joke. “There’s one in every port. I saw an Internet pic of the sign in the street. I’m glad you guys got to enjoy yourselves. Ankara’s going to be a bitch of a pitch. We’ll go over it upstairs.”

We had reached the restaurant. Lester ordered a bottle of raki and meze.

“Where’d you eat?”

“Fish sandwiches near the bridge.”

“Bridge eating is for tourists.”

“Not what we had. Aleksy knows the guy.” I couldn’t resist cutting Lester’s superiority.  

“Aleksy knows a lot of guys. You’ll have to introduce me when we get back.”

Lester briefed us on Ankara. He finished his kabob and ordered another bottle of raki.

“When in Turkey drink Turkish and when in Greece drink Greek. Never been able to tell the difference. Raki, ouzo. Both go down the same way. I didn’t know much about eating or drinking in the Middle East at first, but I’ve got a taste for it now.”

“When you eat a fish sandwich by Emin, then you can brag about your taste for the food here.” Aleksy followed my lead with a dig into Lester’s ego.

“Speaking of taste, what’s going on with those two Syrian chicks now that we’ve replaced you at Saudoil? Good job by the way, guys.”

“We’re waiting on the visa for one of them, so she can go to LA. How long’s it gonna be, you think?” Aleksy knew the answer but asked me anyway. His way of making small talk and seting the tone.

“With luck it oughta get there while we’re in Ankara.”

“You two like to play with dynamite when it comes to the women in your life. First there was V, now two Syrian refugees. At least you didn’t bring them to Istanbul. Fucking dangerous to be Syrian here right now.”

“I’m the crazy one. Aamira and I got married before she went to LA.”

“Good luck, you’re gonna need it. I could use some air before dessert. The view from outside has to be seen.”

“Me too. All the licorice’s gone to my head.”

Our view of the Blue Mosque was interrupted by a two-way parade of people walking the outdoor balcony that ringed the restaurant. We joined the parade single-file with Lester taking the lead sandwiching me between him and Aleksy.

“You gotta smoke? I left mine on the table.” Aleksy poked me in the back. The three of us stepped out of the parade for a moment. Every now and then small groups stopped to  look at Sophia Hagia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, or some part of the city’s skyline. Three black-bearded men huddled against the wall ahead of us lighting cigarettes. We walked toward them. As we passed, they broke huddle and one grabbed Lester, just as what felt, like a brick struck the side of my head.

Lester was staring down at me when I regained consciousness.

“Both of us were out cold. Lie still. An ambulance is on the way.”

It took a minute before I could remember what had happened..

“Where’s Aleksy?”

Lester looked into the distance. A crowd had gathered around us. They weren’t paying attention to Lester kneeling and me lying on the ground; most of them were leaning over the stone balustrade encircling the balcony.

“Ah fuck no, man.”

“Take it easy.” Lester restrained me from getting up. “I told that dumb Polack don’t fall for women from the Middle East. Outsiders aren’t wanted. If I said it once I said it a hundred times ”

In a flash Lester had it all figured out and in a flash I knew he was the man behind it all. It took self-control to stop from tossing him over the balustrade and more control to let him think I agreed with him.

“Me too.”

Twenty minutes later we were on our way to the hospital. I tried to get a look at Aleksy before they loaded me into the ambulance but he had been signed and sealed for delivery to the morgue. A plastic body bag lay in the street where Lester met us a couple of hours before.

“He was a crazy ass but I liked him. You guys were pretty tight. Hard one to take.” Lester peered into my eyes from the ambulance bench.

“Got through Iraq and Baghdad together. Aleksy taught me a lot, especially about international business and politics.” I regretted those words as soon as I said them.

“He wasn’t such a dumb Polack. You don’t get to be a Grom easy. How many languages did he speak?”

“Five or 6.”

“I heard some things about extracurriculars in West Papua.” Lester wasn’t subtle.

“News to me. Told me his family were aristocrats. I learned Russia was one of the reasons we were in Iraq from him.” I fed him a smokescreen.

“Poland hates Russia. Been breeding intellectuals for a long time. Brezinzki’s ideas back in the 70’s made a big impact on the world.”