Dear Miss Malikov,
It appears you are needed. Report to my office immediately. Attached are train tickets to DC. Immediately.
I hope all is well. I, personally, do not keep track of your affairs, but if at all possible I would like to request the presence of Ben too. This war is not over and it will not be over soon, I hope you know.
The reason I ask for Ben is short and concise. You two need to work together, which if what I am assuming is correct, you are not a stranger to. There is an opportunity for you two in the eastern lands. At the moment, this is the only thing I can disclose. Desperate times call for desperate measures, no lies there.
Praise the Lord, and Long Live These Great United States,
Colonel Lewis, June 9, 1943
I stare at the letter in the middle of my kitchen. Louis looks at me from the small dining table. “Lewis?” He asks quietly and I nod. There was never time. Louis had to leave for Moscow in less than a week. This small week in Virginia was all we had left. After all he had taught me in St. Petersburg, and in Leningrad, it would be hard to leave a man like Louis Antonov behind.
As for Ben, he left after he saw Louis kiss be back in Germany. Ben didn’t understand, I had been falling for him, but when he left Louis was there, warm and waiting. I didn’t expect it to develop into anything, truly, but then Louis kept coming. To my house, to my job, and into my life. It was like a storm I couldn’t stop, but the thoughts of Ben Hoffmann that always happened to permeate my thoughts. No matter the connection Louis and I shared in the Soviet Union, there will always be this pull between Ben and I.
“I have to go.” I say quietly not looking at the Russian boy. From the corner of my eye I see him stand and nod.
“I’ll be here when you get back. Waiting.” He walks out of the room and I run a hand through my loose hair. The tickets fall out of the back of the envelope, I had almost forgotten them entirely. There were two. One for myself, and one for Ben. I would only be using one. Ben was probably back in Arbor Town, or maybe he was already in Washington. It was impossible to know the whereabouts of the German. Frankly, I’m not sure I had the energy to find him.
As per usual, Lewis’s letter made me exhausted. I was prepared for this, and pulled open the drawer under the oven to find a bag all nicely packed, perfect for the international espionage that was about to partake. Not even Louis had known about the bag, and I wanted to keep it that way, before the temperamental man came out of his room to try and persuade me not to leave, I grabbed the bag and a hat and left. I knew there would be no turning back, and I knew in my heart that I didn’t want to come back to Louis. Not that Louis anyways. I wanted the Louis who would stay up and teach me to read Russian, or who would show me all of the little quirks of Leningrad or St. Petersburg. That Louis was my friend. This Louis tread the thin and argumentative line to becoming my enemy.
Virginia was foggy, and I assumed that if Louis had looked out of my window, he wouldn’t have even been able to see me leave. Maybe a glimpse, but even then, it would be just enough to know the intentions of my departure. Lewis was right, the war was not over. The war may never be over, but even then, a war is a war. No matter how long it takes it will not be an easy war. That’s why Lewis needs operatives like Ben and myself. That is the least I can do for my country, Louis should expect nothing less, after all, that is exactly what he does for the Soviets.
Washington was not foggy. It was sunny and clear, yet people still looked grim. Three years of war had not left the center of this nation happy or at ease. Everyone was strained, economically, politically, socially, and most of all physically. Our fathers, sons, brothers, and friends were out fighting a power that was surely capable of our total destruction. Lewis wanted me to walk straight into the den of that beast, straight towards the eagle of death, and I was happy to comply.
Lewis’s office was a boxy grey building that wouldn’t stick out to any passerby, and it was meant to be that way. Somebody with as much government experience as Lewis needed to be hidden, the extent of our espionage was not something the public needed to know. The interior was cold, and I hugged my slim fitting jacket to my body, holding the bag in the crook of one arm. His waiting space was behind a closed wooden door, one of those invitation only type deals, but his secretary, Anne Towers let me in every time, regardless of a proper invitation. The waiting room was empty, as it usually was, except for a soldier bent over, elbows resting on his knees. His face was blocked from view, but his uniform suggested navy. I had never met a man in the navy. It was unlike Lewis to recruit someone who had just come home from service, and from the looks of the disheveled man sitting in the chair, he had just come home. When he looked up I realized who it was. The blonde hair, strong jaw, confident blue eyes. It was Ben. He was here.
“Ben.” I say quietly, taking a step back and blinking several times, making sure my tired eyes were correct. He stands, gripping his navy cap between his hands with white knuckles. His eyes, usually so full of this hidden magic, were darker, droopy even.
“I’m sorry if I had known-” His crisp white navy uniform crinkles as he tries to exit the room.
“You enlisted?” My words stop him in his tracks and he looks perplexed for a second, only a fraction of a second, before shaking his head and sitting back down in defeat.
“So you didn’t get the letter? Well, doll, it appears you missed when I asked you if I should enlist.” My hands clasp in front of me and I take a step forward before stopping, he seemed mad, and I wasn’t about to get near an angry Ben Hoffmann, not when I didn’t know how he would react to me. “You ran off with him, and I- well, I felt like I had no reason to stay in the US, moping and waiting for you, so I left. Not left, more like enlisted. I served under Halsey, strange man, but it was eye-opening.”
“So, you’re okay?” I ask, treading water within a conversation. It had been only a few months, but it had felt like an eternity had passed. He was different, changed in the strangest ways.
“I’m here, aren’t I?” He wipes his brow with the back of his hand, tilting his head to look down at me. “Lewis had to call me in from active duty. I arrived last night.”
“Ben I swear I didn’t get that letter-”
“Don’t worry, Carina, I wouldn’t put it past that tool of yours to hide your mail.” And there it was. His anger and resentment towards the Russian boy. A part of me deep inside knew what Ben was revealing was true, but I couldn’t bear it. He comes back and instead of embrace me or even miss me he just disgraces my friend. Once, Louis was his friend too. I remember that.
“I did not come here to disgrace my friend’s name. Just know, Ben, that if I could have I would have stopped you, I would have made you realize your necessity here.” Ben chuckles and takes my hand lightly. It is only a gesture, there is no meaning behind it, that much I can see in his eyes.
“As much as you think I need you, I needed enlistment too. I learned things I couldn’t have possibly learned here watching you and him.” He says in a rather bitter tone.
“Do you not hear me? I’m saying I would have fought for you…” I whimper.
“Yes, well, I fought for my country. I fought for what’s right. I fought to keep you safe even after I felt you had betrayed me. After he had betrayed me. I’m tired of fighting Cora. I need honesty and something certain. Out there, on that boat, my life wasn’t certain. Coming home and seeing you again wasn’t certain, but Lewis needed me, so I am here. So, when you are ready to be honest and faithful to someone who isn’t Russian or your superior, maybe our friendship can exist again.” His words were clear and honest. Just like he needed me to be. I wanted to pour out to him, scream at him, hit him. If I were being honest, it was he who abandoned me. Louis was my friend, yes, but Ben, Ben was my partner. It wasn’t Lewis or enlistment that had initially separated us, it was Ben. Before I could retaliate on my own, Lewis stepped out of his office.
“A welcome meeting I’m sure.” Ben turns from me sharply at the sound of our superior’s voice.
“Yes sir, quite nice. Now, do you want to meet with me first or Miss Malikov?” Lewis furrows his brow at Ben’s formal dialect, but quickly straightens himself looking to me instead. I, in the interest of holding my tongue and not waging all out war against my partner, give a weak smile to Lewis, which appears to confuse the poor man even more. Last he saw we were sharing a heartfelt homecoming after returning from our European stations. He clearly hadn’t seen us since.
“Well, surely she told you this would be a joint mission? I’ll need to meet with both of you at once.” He says and Ben chuckles, running a hand through his hair with the left hand and wadding up his navy cap even more with his right.
“My apologies, sir. We hadn’t exactly reached that part of the conversation yet.” Ben steals one more suspicious glance at me before following Lewis into his office. Once inside we both sat. His familiar decor put some of my nerves to rest, but the tension surrounding Hoffmann still stood as a barrier between the two of us.
“So, I am sorry to have to tell you two this, but if all goes well this will be your last mission with us during this war. God hope it will end soon. I need the two of you to pose as a married couple in Nuremberg. The personal information is in the files you two will receive, background and such. While in Nuremberg, Ben you will work closely with government officials and Carina you will work with the locals and the families of government officials. You will have one month to prepare before we send you to the location. You will fly into Britain and then take the train to Nuremberg. Risky, but necessary. You will stay in Nuremberg until it is safe to evacuate you directly. When it is safe your mission will be accomplished. There is a lot to train for, for instance teaching Carina some deeper German, her surface level German is impeccable but I want her German to be as good as her Russian. Oh, and look the part. I don’t know what the hell is going on between you two, but I thought at least one of you would be thrilled about this. Look, Ben is your apartment settled?” I look to Ben, unaware he had an apartment at all. When he had been here last he took care of his parents in Pennsylvania in the hopes of deterring discrimination because of their German heritage. Certainly at the height of the war he wouldn’t live by himself by choice.
Ben doesn’t glance at me, but continues to stare at Lewis. “Yes sir. I had just been able to set up everything before I came here. Thank you again for giving me accomodations.” Lewis nods and smiles.
“Thank me again later. For the one month of preparation I want you two sharing a living space. Getting used to your marital confines if that makes sense, and hopefully solving whatever drama this is between you two. I’m not as old as I look. If I know anything, I know my agents, and I know you two. Either way, I guess I have to be the adult here and tell you to get the fuck over it. Now, any questions?” His sly smile made me roll my eyes, but I wasn’t about to turn and recognize Ben’s reaction. I stand and gather myself, running a hand through my hair before finally letting my eyes glance across Hoffmann.
I regretted it.
His face was blank, devoid of emotion. I quickly turned my attention to Lewis, not wanting to look at Ben for longer than I had to. “Sir, I don’t have any questions, but I am sure he does, so I will go collect my things from my apartment if I can just get the address to Ben’s apartment.” Lewis opens his mouth but Ben answers first, cold, icy words.
“3200 Garden Avenue, apartment 344. Lewis, how long do I have to ask questions?” Ben remarks taking a jab at me with his words. I shake my head and walk out of the room, repeating the address in my head to fight the anger I feel at him.
“I don’t have time for a romance, tragedy, whatever the hell Shakespeare wrote. Take your problems and leave them in the waiting room kiddo. She is staying with you and that’s an official order. I’ll meet with you both later. Now, do you have any actual substantial questions? The look on your face tells me you want to bitch, but that’s not what they pay me for.” Lewis shuffles papers, probably to pretend he was busier than he actually was. I turn around, seeing Ben’s stiff frame in the doorway.
“Be moved in by tomorrow. I’ll have lunch for you tomorrow.” He says as politely as he can manage before walking briskly out of the office, brushing past me forcefully as he does so.
“I said, get over it. That includes you girly. I expect you to solve this. My plans aren’t going to change for you two, so get used to it.” Lewis says in parting, closing his office door and leaving me stranded in the waiting room, trying to compose my thoughts into one succinct whole.
A friend I thought I lost came back, yet he wasn’t my friend and I had lost him all over again. Now he was my husband, and in two months time we would be airlifted to the most dangerous place on Earth and expected to act normal. My world was shattered, but I knew. I didn’t want to see Louis again tonight.
Hurrying out of the office I find Ben walking briskly down the street. “Hoffmann!” I call after him, hoping to score my last shot in hell. He doesn’t turn around immediately, so I will my legs to move faster, despite the slight pain I feel from my heels.
When I’m five feet behind him, my heels clearly audible, I call again. “Ben. Let me stay with you. Just for tonight, and I’ll move my stuff in tomorrow. Please. I can’t go home.” I say, my voice strong at first but tapering off as I realize the weight of my words. My life was over. That perfect little life I had carved out for Louis and I was effectively gone. I didn’t want that anymore. I couldn’t want that. My life had been rerouted, and I was confident it was for the better. I wouldn’t let this go, no matter how scarily drastic the change is.
“Forcing yourself on me won’t make me forgive you, or want to be close with you again.” He says, finally stopping to turn around and face me. I have to stop short, almost colliding with him.
“That wasn’t my intention, I just-”
“As long as that’s clear, you can stay. Like I said, my opinion of you isn’t going to change anytime soon, so I don’t want you to get your hopes up.” He grumbles. I move forward to stand beside him, our eyes locked.
“Don’t worry. It won’t be the first time I have been let down.” I say, my snark sneaking through. Ben chuckles, a noise that shocks me, but strangely enough, also warms my heart. That was the friend I missed. That was the friend I thought I had lost. I keep my eyes to the ground as my smile breaks free.
“My German teaching was inadequate, I know. Lewis never let me hear the end of it, I assure you.” He attempts to joke, when we both knew his teaching was impeccable. If he knew anything, it was how to make a Russian sound like a born and bred German girl. That was either the scariest thing about him, or the most impressive.
“Very funny. I’m sure they loved you trying to force German on them when you were out on that boat.” I try to quip back, but this one does not receive a chuckle.
“Glad to see you still think I’m stupid. Of course I didn’t speak German on that boat. I would have been thrown overboard.” As he speaks his uniform seems to become brighter, as if I had offended him and his uniform.
“No, no. It was merely a joke, don’t get all fussy over a joke, we were back on the right track.” I can practically hear him roll his eyes over my words. He doesn’t say anymore though, not until we get in front of a black oak door. The key clicks as it turns in the knob, and then we are inside our home for the next two months.
In this instance, ‘home’ was a forced term, but as soon as I stepped inside the cozy apartment, all my worries and restricting connotations seemed to fade away. There is a small living room with a couch and a radio, with a small hallway off the side that leads to a kitchen. There is another hallway just off the other side of the living room that leads to two small bedrooms. I let out a breath I wasn’t aware I was holding. At least there were two rooms. That was perhaps the part that charmed me the most.
Ben passes me, moving swiftly down the hall to one of the bedrooms. I suppose the other one would be mine then. I pull myself up along my spine, correcting my sagging, pessimistic position, and moving down the hall towards my room.
It was sparsely decorated. Not that I minded. The bed was white, the walls were white, the accent furniture was white, it was reminiscent of an asylum. Yet, to me, it still felt more like home than my apartment did at the moment. I set my bags on the bed, disrupting the rhythm of the room with their noisy colorful presence. After allowing myself a moment to sigh and let out all the pressure that was held inside me, I began unpacking. I put my toiletries aside, knowing I would take them to the bathroom later. My haphazardly folded clothes fell in a jumbled mess across the bed, and I hung them in the small closet as fast as possible to keep them from looking worse. My mother’s journal and the picture of Ben, Louis, and I in St. Petersburg I put in the nightstand next to the bed.
I was stopped by light tan parchment, scrawling handwriting, so unexpected and endearing I knew I couldn’t put stuff over it yet. He was always one step ahead of us. Always expecting my next move with near perfect precision.
Sweet Miss Malikov,
I hope you know this won’t be your room for long. When I surveyed the apartment I knew the temptation of two rooms would draw you two apart. I ask you to please remember your mission, remember why I brought you two back together in the first place. While he often sees you as a renegade, an independent soldier of your own misgivings, I know you different. At your core, your allegiance is to this country. So, put aside the awkward and unforgiving consequences that could result, and make him see. The weight of the world rests on your shoulders if my calculations are correct. Be sure you convince him.
Do not be cross with me. I trust your capabilities, but I also know you two better than you think. Your soft exteriors only last for so long, especially in the face of tension. In order to survive you will have to convince me, Germans, Nazis, travel officials, the whole nine yards. Yet, the only one I care about is that you convince yourselves. He will not fall willingly. Ben is a stubborn man, but I feel like if you and I work together, we can wear him down.
I am having lunch with him on June 10. A day after you should arrive at his residence, assuming I understand your drive and persistence. I’m sure you can get something prepared while he is out?
With utmost respect and confidence,
Colonel Lewis, June 1, 1943
P.S. I hope you enjoy the residence, I made it as customizable as possible.
I sit on the bed, letter clutched tightly in my hand. Convince him? How does he expect me to convince someone who doesn’t want to be convinced? The men in the bar were easy targets, with a little bit of alcohol and a pretty girl in their sights you could get them to say almost anything. Ben was not one of those men. He, like Lewis apparently, knew me better than that.
I put the photo and journal in the nightstand, carefully folding up the letter while I contemplate. Ben and Lewis would be gone to lunch tomorrow, most likely to discuss the war and his sudden return. Knowing Ben, he would also manage to insert his angered sentiments about our mission, about me.
My eyes linger on the photo before I close the drawer. I stood in between the German and the Russian, our arms resting on each others shoulders. Louis and I were smiling, clearly in our element, but Ben would offer little more than a smirk. He would say the lack of expression was to be professional, but I knew the truth. Russia scared the shit out of him. He was scared of the unknown, of the fear and worry that surrounded Russian attitudes towards Germans. Maybe that’s how it was with me. Even I didn’t know where we stood. We had been so close, closer than I had been with anyone other than Shirley.
I could write her. I could tell her in the simplest terms possible what was going on. But, how? How could I communicate the jumbled mess I was feeling in something she would understand. I would have to tell her the truth. Something she could never know, not until the Allied flags waved over every fascist shithole in Europe. We would be safe then, it would be safe, but surely by then it would be too late.
I couldn’t help the sigh that escaped my lips. I needed comfort, I needed my best friend, but I was stuck with the boy that would probably refrain from talking to me unless he absolutely had to. I couldn’t go to Lewis either. He wouldn’t stand my bitchy feelings for long. He didn’t like knowing me like that, even though he did, as it was clearly stated in the letter I received.
Ben stood in the doorway, but knocked on the frame before barely stepping in. His hands were in his pockets and he looked down at the floor. I closed the nightstand drawer before he saw the photo. Who knows how he would relate to a memento like that? I wasn’t ready to find out. “I will be going to lunch tomorrow with Lewis. I asked if he wanted me to invite you, and he said no. I didn’t want you to be confused or offended. There are a few things for dinner in the cupboards, don’t wait for me to eat.” He finishes quickly, backing out of the room and closing the door behind him.
I would never understand him. He didn’t want me to be offended, yet he was giving me the cold shoulder with something that seemed as trivial as dinner. It wasn’t like I expected a candlelit dinner or anything fancy. I was already overstepping my bounds, even though that was what Lewis knew I would do, and I did not want to make Ben go any further to make me comfortable. Lord knows he would hate that, going the extra mile for a house guest and all.
I stare at the closed door, bringing the letter to my chest. How was I gonna do it? The task seemed impossible, but I knew, I just knew, I would find a way. Even being so far away, I knew Lewis knew I would too.