The Nearest Exit


Excerpt

(September 2009 draft)

There are three emergency exits on this aircraft. Take a few moments now to locate the exit closest to you. Please note that, in some cases, your nearest exit may be behind you.

 

PART ONE:
“The Last Flight of Henry Gray”

Monday, August 6 to Tuesday, December 11, 2007

 

           1

When DJ Jazzy-G hit the intro to “Just Like Heaven,” that Cure anthem of his youth, Henry Gray achieved a moment of complete expat euphoria. Was this his first? He’d felt shades of it other times during his decade in Hungary, but only at that moment—a little after two in the morning, dancing at the ChaChaCha’s outdoor club on Margit Island, feeling Zsuzsa’s lips stroke his sweat-damp ear lobe…only then did he feel the full brunt and stupid luck of his beautiful life overseas.

Eighties night at the ChaChaCha. Jazzy-G was reading his mind. Zsuzsa was consuming his tongue.

Despite the frustrations and disappointments of life in this capital of Central Europe, in Zsuzsanna Papp’s arms he felt a momentary love for the city, and the kerts—the beer gardens that Hungarians opened up once they’d survived their long, dark winters. Here, they shed their clothes and drank and danced and worked through the stages of foreplay, and made even an outsider like Henry feel as if he could belong.

But not even all this sensual good fortune was enough to bestow upon Henry Gray such intense joy. It was the story, the one he’d received via the unpredictable Hungarian postal service twelve hours before. The biggest story of his young professional life.

His career thus far had rested on the story of the Taszár Air Base, where the US Army secretly trained the Free Iraqi Forces in the Hungarian countryside as that unending war was just beginning. But that had been four years ago, and in the meantime Henry Gray’s career had floundered. He’d missed the boat on the CIA’s secret interrogation centers in Romania and Slovakia. He’d wasted six months on the ethnic unrest along the Serbian-Hungarian border, which he couldn’t give away to US papers. And last year, when the Washington Post was exposing the CIA’s use of Taliban prisoners to harvest Afghan opium and sell on to Europe—during that time, Henry Gray had been mired in another of his black periods, where he’d wake up stinking of vodka and Unicum, with a week missing from his memory.

But now, the Hungarian post had brought him salvation, something that no newspaper could ignore. Sent by a Manhattan law firm with the unlikely name of Berg & DeBurgh, it had been written by one its clients, Thomas L. Grainger, former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency. The letter was a new beginning for Henry Gray.

And Zsuzsa, who had been standoffish for so long, had finally caved to his affections after he read out the letter and described what it meant for his career. She—a journalist herself—had promised her help, and between kisses said they’d be like Woodward and Bernstein, and he had said of course they would.

Had greed finally bent her will? In this moment, the one that would last a few more hours at least, it really didn’t matter.

“Do you love me?” she whispered.

He took her warm face in his hands. “What do you think?”

She laughed. “I think you do love me.”

“And you?”

“I’ve always liked you, Henry. I might even love you someday.”

At first, Henry hadn’t recalled the name Thomas Grainger, but on his second read it had dawned on him—they had met once before, four years ago when Gray was following leads on the Taszár story. A car had pulled up beside him on Andrassy utca, the rear window sliding down, and an old man asked to speak to him. Over coffee, Thomas Grainger used a mixture of patriotism and bald threats to get Gray to wait another week before filing the story. Gray refused, then returned home to a demolished apartment. 

June 8, 2007

Mr. Gray,

You’re probably surprised to receive a letter from someone who, in the past, has butted heads with you concerning your journalistic work. Rest assured that I’m not writing to apologize for my behavior—I still feel your articles on Taszár were supremely irresponsible and could have harmed the war effort, such as it is. That they didn’t harm it is either a testament to my ability to slow their publication, or the inconsequence of your newspaper; you can be the judge.

Despite this, your tenacity is something I’ve admired. You pushed forward when other journalists might have folded, which makes you the kind of man I’d like to speak to now. The kind of journalist I need.

That you have this letter in your hands is evidence of one crucial fact: I am now dead. I’m writing this letter in order that my death—which I suspect will have been at the hand of my own employer—might not go unnoticed.

Vanity? Yes. But if you live to reach my age, maybe you’ll be able to look upon it more kindly. Maybe you’ll be able to see it for the idealistic impulse I believe it is.

 

According to public records, Grainger had run a CIA financial oversight office in New York before his fatal heart attack in July. But public records are public for a reason—they tell what the government wants the public to believe.

Around three, they fought their way off the dance floor, collected their things—the seven-page letter was still in his shoulder bag—and crossed the Margit Bridge back to Pest. They caught a taxi to Zsuzsa’s small, eighth-district apartment, and within an hour he felt that, were his life to end in the morning, he could go with no regrets.

“Do you like that?” Zsuzsa asked in the heavy darkness that smelled of her Vogue cigarettes.

He caught his breath, but couldn’t speak. She was doing something with her hand, somewhere between his thighs.

“It’s tantra.”

“Is it?” He gasped, clutching the sheets.

This really was the best of all possible worlds.

I will now tell you a story. It concerns the Sudan, the department of the CIA I preside over, and China. And, unsurprisingly for someone like you, it also concerns oil, though perhaps not in the way you imagine.

Know too that the story I’m about to tell you is dangerous to know. My death is evidence of this. From this point on, consider yourself on your own. If this is too much to bear, then burn the letter now and forget it.

Afterward, when they were both exhausted and the street was silent, they stared at the ceiling. Zsuzsa smoked, the familiarity of her cigarettes mixing with the unfamiliarity of her sex, and said, “You will bring me along, right?”

All day, it hadn’t occurred to her that the story had nothing to do with Hungary, and Hungary was the only country where her language skills were of any use. He would have to fly to New York, and she didn’t even have a visa. “Of course,” he lied. “But you remember the letter—it’s dangerous.”

He heard but didn’t see her snort of laughter.

“What?”

“Terry is right. You are paranoid.”

Gray propped himself on his elbow and gave her a long look. Terry Parkhall was a hack who’d always had an eye for her. “Terry’s an idiot. He lives in a dream world. You even suggest the CIA was in some way responsible for 9/11 and he hits the ceiling. In a world with Gitmo and torture centers and the CIA in the heroin business, how’s that so unimaginable? The problem with Terry is that he forgets the basic truth of conspiracy.”

Self-consciously, she rubbed at her grin. “What is the basic truth of conspiracy?”

“If it can be imagined, then someone’s already tried it.”

It was the wrong thing to say. He didn’t know why, because she refused to explain, but a definite coldness fell between them, and it took a long time before he was able to fall asleep. It was a staccato sleep, broken up by flashes of Sudanese riots under a dusty sun, oil-streaked Chinese, and assassins from Grainger’s secret office, the Department of Tourism. By eight he was awake again, rubbing his eyes in the poor light coming in from the street. Zsuzsa breathed heavily, undisturbed, and he blinked at the window. There was a pleasant ache in his groin. He began to have a change of heart.

While Zsuzsa couldn’t be much use tracking down the evidence behind Grainger’s story, he resolved all at once to make her his partner in it. Did tantra change his mind? Or some indefinable guilt over having said the wrong thing? Like her reasons for finally sleeping with him, it didn’t matter.

What mattered was that there was a lot of work ahead; it was just beginning. He began to dress. Thomas Grainger himself had admitted that his story was shallow—“as yet I have no solid evidence for you, except my word. However, I’m hoping for material very soon from one of my subordinates.” But the letter ended with no word from his subordinate, just the reiteration of that one crucial fact, “I am now dead,” and a few real names to begin tracking down evidence: Terence Fitzhugh, Diane Morel, Janet Simmons, Senator Nathan Irwin, Roman Ugrimov, Milo Weaver. That last one, Grainger claimed, was the only person he could trust to help him out. He should show the letter to Milo Weaver, and only Milo Weaver, and that would be his passage.

He kissed Zsuzsa, then snuck out to the yellow-lit Habsburg morning with his shoulder bag. He decided to walk home. It was a bright day, full of possibility, though around him the morose Hungarians heading to their mundane jobs hardly noticed.

His apartment was on Vadász utca, a narrow, sooty lane of crumbling, once-beautiful buildings. Since the elevator was perpetually on the blink, he took the stairs slowly to his fifth-floor apartment, went inside, and typed the code into his burglar alarm.

He had used the money from the Taszár story to buy and remodel this apartment. The kitchen was stainless steel, the living room equipped with wi-fi and inlaid shelves, and he’d had the unstable terrace that overlooked Vadász reinforced and cleaned up. Unlike many of his makeshift friends, his home actually reflected his idea of good living, rather than having to compromise with the regular Budapest conundrum: large apartments that had been chopped up during communist times, with awkward kitchens and bathrooms and long, purposeless hallways.

He flipped on the television, where a Hungarian pop band played on the local MTV, dropped his bag to the floor and took a leak in the bathroom, trying to decide if he should begin work on the story alone, or first seek out this Milo Weaver. Alone, he decided. Two reasons. One, he wanted to know as much as possible before sitting down to whatever lies Weaver would inevitably feed him. Two, he wanted the satisfaction of breaking the story himself, if possible.

He washed up and returned to the living room, then stopped. On his Bo Concept couch, which had cost him an arm and a leg, a blond man reclined, eyes fixed on a dancing, heavy-breasted woman on the screen. Henry’s mouth worked the air, but he couldn’t find any breath as the man turned casually to him and smiled, giving an upward nod, the way men do to one another.

“Fine woman, huh?” said the man. American accent.

“Who…” Henry couldn’t finish the sentence.

Still smiling, the man turned to see him better. He was tall, wearing a business suit but no tie. “Mr. Gray?”

“How did you get in here?”

“Little of this, little of that.” He patted the cushion beside himself. “Come on. Let’s talk.”

Henry didn’t move. Either he wouldn’t, or couldn’t—if you had asked him, he wouldn’t have known which.

“Please,” said the man.

“Who are you?”

“Oh, sorry.” He got up. “James Einner.” He stuck out a large hand as he approached. Involuntarily, Henry took it, and as he did so James Einner’s other hand swung around, stiff, and chopped at the side of his neck. Pain spattered through Henry’s head, blinding him and turning his stomach over, then a second blow turned out the light.

For a second James Einner held Henry, half elevated, hanging by that hand, then lowered it until the journalist crumpled onto the renovated hardwood floor.

Einner returned to the couch and went through Henry’s shoulder bag. He found the letter, counted its pages, then took out Henry’s Moleskine journal and pocketed it. He went through the apartment again—he had done this all evening, but wanted a final look around to be sure—and took Gray’s laptop and flash drives and all his burned CDs. He put everything into a cheap piece of luggage he’d picked up in Prague before boarding the train here, then set the bag beside the front door. All this took about seven minutes, while the television continued its parade of Hungarian pop.

He returned to the living room and opened the terrace doors. A warm breeze swept through the room. Einner leaned out, and a quick glance told him the street was full of parked cars, but empty of pedestrians. Grunting, he lifted Henry Gray, holding him the way a husband carries his new wife through the threshold, and, without giving time for second thoughts or mistakes or casual observers to gaze up the magnificent Habsburg façade, tipped the limp body over the edge of the terrace. He heard the crunch and the two-tone wail of a car alarm as he walked through the living room to the kitchen, hung the bag over his shoulder, and quietly left the apartment.