Cloud Cover

Toronto, The Globe and Mail
Saturday, May 19, 1984 (Morning Edition)

A high ranking Yugoslav military official has asked for political asylum in Ottawa, Ontario, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported last night.
  Ljubo Kolaja, a Yugoslav air force captain, slipped away from a trade convention of the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization on Friday afternoon and made his way by train to Ottawa, where he requested asylum from Canadian authorities, who called in agents of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
  The CBC report said officials in both the Foreign Office and the RCMP security service plan to interview Kolaja today in relation to several sensitive matters, including Soviet intelligence-gathering activities, which have been stepped up in recent months.

• • •

Toronto, The Globe and Mail
Sunday, May 20, 1984

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police announced Saturday that a defecting Yugoslav air force captain has died in police custody. Detective-Inspector George P. McKenna of the Ontario Provincial Police told The Globe and Mail that Capt. Ljubo Kolaja was found dead in a holding cell at 6:50 p.m. Saturday, May 19, two hours after a medical exam had found him to be in good health. Officials of the RCMP had intended to interview Kolaja regarding “sensitive issues” relating to Soviet intelligence operations in Yugoslavia. An autopsy will be performed to determine the cause of death.

• • •

Blueberry pancakes!
  Michael Higgins sat in his office in the American Institute Library off Via Fabio Filzi, in Trieste, a book on astrology open before him, daydreaming. It had been two years since he’d last tasted blueberry pancakes.
  A gnat had landed on the right page of the astrology book; it was now meandering over a description of Taureans. Higgins noted the page number, slammed the book shut, and then reopened it. The gnat was squashed on top of the word “methodical.”
  He closed the book again and discarded it. His mind was not on reading: First, he was too hungry for blueberry pancakes—(when he closed his eyes, he could see a stack of golden brown cakes, could smell the aroma of buckwheat drifting upward, could almost taste the maple syrup as it streamed over and down the cakes); second, his ten-year-old Fiat 850 had been stolen two nights ago—(No more parking at corners. Why didn’t they look for Alfa Romeos?); and third, just this morning Bice said someone had been calling him every fifteen minutes since seven a.m. Only when he arrived at nine, two minutes after a call, they stopped. He looked at his watch. Two hours had passed and still no message.
  Michael got up from his desk. For two days now, an attractive blonde had come into the library at eleven and stayed till around noon. She usually scanned the recent nonfiction shelves, found a different book each day, skimmed through it, and then took a few notes before reshelving the volume. He’d never been quite close enough to see what books she looked at, but today he was going to try.
  He moved his felt hat, looking for the mints he’d bought that morning at the tabaccheria on the first floor. The unopened package lay disguised in a pile of pens, pencils, markers, and note pads.
  He set the hat on a stack of books. He’d worn it that morning for the first time all spring. When he left for work it was raining too hard to go with nothing. His umbrella, its broken ribs hanging at grotesque angles, still lay in the apartment lobby’s waste receptacle. The night before, with his car stolen, he’d had to take the bus home. He was standing on the steps at the rear door of the bus trying to close the umbrella when the accordion doors slammed shut, breaking two of the wire stays. This, he’d concluded, was not going to be his week.
  The hat was a gift, rarely worn. Higgins had a strong natural wave to his dark brown hair and didn’t like hats compressing it. It was his only concession to vanity. His head, with its tangled mass of windblown hair, dominated his body and made him look younger than his thirty-six years. A lanky, broad-shouldered man with a narrow waist and thin but muscular legs, he’d played center on the basketball team in high school because of his jumping ability, even though two other guys were taller.
  That morning, when he’d arrived at the library, the custodian Luigi, a wizened fellow in his sixties hired to watch the public wardrobe, had praised the hat, in his semi-intelligible Triestine dialect, marveling at its deep green color and simple elegance.
  “Signor Luigi,” Michael told him, “the hat is yours.”
  But Luigi protested. He couldn’t take it when it was raining—and Signor Higgins had no umbrella with him.
  “Let’s make a deal. If the rain stops by evening, you take the hat. If it’s still raining, I’ll keep it.”
  Luigi, smiling with pleasure, had been forced to accept.
  Now, Michael hoped the sky cleared. He’d been wanting to get rid of the hat ever since he’d received it. Unfortunately, this May was the wettest in Northeastern Italy in a century. And with no umbrella …
  He slipped a menta inglese in his mouth and then stepped outside his office. From his vantage point on the third floor, cut away in the center to form an atrium, he could see the general reading room one story below and half of the recent nonfiction stacks. Two elderly Italian ladies bent over a magazine at one table; the other reading desks were deserted.
  He couldn’t see the blonde.
  Bice, he realized, was staring at him. Her desk sat outside his office next to Clara’s on the walkway around the atrium. No sign of Clara, his administrative assistant, but Bice, the new Italian acquisitions clerk, looked as if she expected a reprimand, still nervous her first week on the job.
  He smiled to put her at ease, said he was going down to the reading room for a while, and asked her to inform him immediately if any calls came.
  He spent a half hour scanning the shelves, reading the first lines of books chosen at random. The sun, slanting through windows from high on the east wall, struck the bindings, illuminating a mosaic of spines, some soft and soothingly dun, others glazed and shiny. He paused by the section for translations of American classics into Italian and drew out an old, slightly padded, leather-bound volume of Twain, its pliable richness contrasting with the harder board-bound books. When he opened the book, the dry powder of yellowed pages sifted lightly upward in the sun.
  Behind him, down the main cross aisle, he could hear the squeaking of rubber-soled shoes on the marble floor, probably Bice’s, and then, unrecognized, the slapping and cracking of hard leather heels. A crisp staccato.
  Suddenly, as if brought back from a reverie, he realized someone was staring at him from the aisle beyond, visible above the top of a ragged line of books. Startled, he caught only the eyes with their soft brown eyebrows, and then the face disappeared.
  A woman. Had the blonde returned? He could hear muffled steps, moving quickly down the aisle toward the window.
  He replaced the Twain novel and moved in the same direction, his heart beating like that of a nervous schoolboy. Near the end of the aisle, suddenly unsure what he would do were he to face the woman, he stopped. At the same moment, the nasal tickle of book dust overcame him and he grabbed for his handkerchief, stifling the first sneeze, and then, handkerchief ready, sneezing loudly.
  When he looked up, wiping his nose, she was standing in front of him, the hint of a smile on her lips. “Salute!” she said, and laughed.
  Michael cleared his throat and dipped his head, feeling his cheeks grow hot. Great, he thought, a thirty-six-year old blushing like a teenager. It wasn’t often such a … a head-turner came into the library. A quick glimpse was like running full speed into a tree at night. Only it felt a lot better, as if you’d been vouchsafed an undeserved gift from the gods. He hated to think in cliches but what other words were there? Stunningly beautiful. One of those faces that made you look twice, trying to find some imperfection so you could hope she wasn’t stuck-up. A model for Valentino or Versace.
  Before he could speak, she said, “Another book lover with allergies.”
  He gestured helplessly. “A little book dust. Occupational hazard.” He liked the way she grouped them both in one category.
  “Some jobs do have them, don’t they?” When he didn’t reply, she said, “Perhaps you can help me. I’m looking for a book on physiognomy.”
  “On physiognomy?”
  She nodded. “I find people’s features interesting. Don’t you?”
  He didn’t know what to say.
  “Yours, for instance.”
  She stared at him and he blushed again.
  “So,” she said, “what about the book?”
  “I’m not sure … we may have something. Come with me.”
  Walking toward the subject catalogue, he tried to think of a way to broach the subject of what she found interesting about him—something subtle. Yeah, right; that was him, Mr. Subtle. So subtle he couldn’t speak.
  Suddenly he realized she’d been talking behind him. “Pardon me?” Apparently he’d lost the thread of the discourse. Trying to think too hard.
  “When I mentioned your features, you seemed surprised. Women don’t often approach men first, do they?”
  “I guess,” he heard himself saying. “I don’t know.” Now he was Mr. Dumb. He shook his head. Great. “I mean, if you’re one of the beautiful ones, blessed by the gods, let’s say,”—Jeez, he was starting to sound like a Classics professor describing Venus de Milo. Next he’d ask her how she broke her arm—“it must be easy … ah, in your case … well, you’re very striking.” Damn. Made her sound like a weapon.
  She pursed her lips. “I’m a person just like anyone else—”
  “Only more beautiful.” He smiled, pleased to be able to compliment her so openly, at the same time thinking, Man, could I have come up with anything more banal?
  When she didn’t respond, he cleared his throat. Time to be a little original. “And I don’t mean just because of your hair. Your—” He thought fast. What aspect of her features would not have been complimented by others? She’d probably heard about her eyes—which were brown with a faint gray halo around the pupil—a hundred times, about her lips another hundred.
  “Your nose,” he said.
  She laughed. “You like my nose?”
  He grinned. “And your cheeks.” He could tell she wore no makeup, but her cheeks, full and soft, had an early morning glow like the petals of fresh pink roses still in the bud. Just don’t call them peaches, he thought.
  They were at the subject catalogue then and, with some relief, he pulled out the drawer for ph.
  “So what do you think a person’s features indicate?” She reached for his arm, her fingers lightly touching then falling away.
  He shrugged. “Does a beautiful body equal a beautiful soul? I sometimes think it does. Castiglione thought so. It must be hard to grow up beautiful and be bitter. Bitterness is something that comes with being thwarted.”
  “Beauty doesn’t solve everything,” she said dryly.
  He nodded, trying to hide his scepticism. “So features tell you what?”
  “A lot.” She paused. “You, for example. You obviously went to a University like Berkeley.”
  His eyes widened, fixed on hers. “You know me? Were you a student there too?”
  “You probably studied history. Wrote a dissertation on Italo-Yugoslav relations, earned a doctorate, and then couldn’t find a job teaching.”
  Shit! Another government agent. When was Fainsworth going to get off his back? Probably came about the screw-up with Tomasini. That was Fainsworth’s fault, not his. The pick-up crew were the Brigadier General’s men. They made the mistake.
  “Did Fainsworth send you? Who are you, anyway?”
  She smiled. “Now you ask. I’m Canadian, first of all.”
  He felt a prickle of irritation, nettled not that she was Canadian but that his amorous fancies were dashed. If she was an agent for the Brigadier General, this was business.
  “Oh good,” he told her. “We have something in common. I was born in Blaine, Washington, nine miles from Canada. My grandmother was a Canadian citizen. Always told me I must be a Canadian at heart: I pronounced schedule with a soft ch as a kid.”
  She ignored his sarcasm. “That’s the correct way.” She smiled. “So what do you know about Canada?”
  He pursed his lips, trying to suppress his irritation. If she was going to waste her time—and Fainsworth’s—he wasn’t in any hurry. “What’s there to know?”
  “Raleigh’s the capital of North Carolina, right?”
  He shrugged.
  “You probably thought it was Charlotte. And Topeka the capital of Kansas, right?”
  He stared at her and then finally said, “So what?”
  “You sure it’s not Kansas City?”
  Michael was silent.
  He had his back to a book shelf now. She stood in front of him, uncomfortably close. She spoke again. “So tell me the names of the Canadian provinces?”
  “This must be the sixty-four-thousand dollar question. But you’re too young to remember that, aren’t you?”
  She looked at him, refusing to answer, waiting.
  “How about British Columbia?”
  “That’s one. But you probably think Vancouver is the capital. How many provinces are there?”
  “Four or five? Quebec, right? Nova Scotia.”
  She rolled her eyes. “If you keep going you might actually get half of them. But then you probably don’t even know the capital of Maine, let alone of Canada.”
  He just grinned at her. For some reason she liked games. Fine. Let her play games.
  She shook her head, brows furrowed. “You Americans are so provincial. You share a 3,987 mile-long land border and the Great Lakes with a nation that has more square miles than your own and you don’t even know the capital.”
  He raised his hands palms up. “I used to watch Captain Preston and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on TV.” He couldn’t tell if she appreciated the joke. She just grimaced and said, “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon,” in a tired voice. True, he didn’t know what he should about Canada. Better to change tactics.
  “So how do you know all this? About me, I mean.”
  “We know the messages come in with the books,” she said. “You send them on to Fainsworth. What we don’t know is if anything is going in the other direction.”
  The other direction? Was she with Fainsworth or not? And what was this about messages in books? Any messages for the Brigadier General were passed on through secret drops from Michael’s own agents to him and from him directly to Fainsworth at NATO headquarters in Verona. She was mistaken if she thought messages were being passed in books.
  “You’re in trouble,” she said. “I can help.”
  “I’m not in trouble.”
  She stared at him. “You soon will be.” When she saw he wasn’t going to reply, she shook her head and a look of surprise passed across her face. “You don’t know about the messages, do you?” 

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