Leopoldville, Republic of the Congo – summer 1960
Anastas Molotov, a KGB officer in Soviet State Security, was troubled by the heat. Damp and perspiring heavily under his summer suit, squinting behind his Ray-Ban sunglasses, his forehead moist under his Khrushchev-style Panama hat, Molotov moved quickly and uncomfortably down the wide cement sidewalk. Moments before striking out on foot, he had driven around town for a frantic hour in a rented car trying to make sure he wasn't being followed. He had hidden it finally behind a tall building two blocks away and left it quickly, uncertain whether he had been observed.
Now, alongside him stretched a wide downtown boulevard divided in the center by colorful landscaped traffic islands. His left hand was deep in his pocket and in his right he clutched a tattered guidebook to the city published in French. Periodically, he slowed and stopped to flip it open and pretended to find his way. All the while he checked with utmost caution to make sure he was not being followed. Thoroughly trained by the KGB, Molotov knew well enough to suspect when he was being tailed, but he wasn't so sure about the expertise of the Czechs who were his hosts in town.
The Soviets had not yet established their embassy in Leopoldville, the former colonial capital of the Belgian Congo so Molotov, along with a small team, had been dispatched from Brussels as advisors to the fledgling African government. Relations between the representatives of the two Soviet-bloc countries were distrustful, and occasionally downright frigid, with both sides eager to transmit to the Communist Party and Moscow the transgressions of the other. Czech operatives would follow him occasionally, though it was a haphazard schedule and he could never be certain when they would be out on the streets. Molotov made a show of scanning again the avenue lined with nondescript white buildings in the colonialist style, the street crowded with ancient European automobiles.
As Molotov slowed and discreetly checked again for a tail while pretending to review his directions, another of the ubiquitous, battered "fula-fula" buses roared past spewing diesel smoke over the sidewalk. They were open-air flatbed trucks outfitted with metal benches which carried passengers, the riders often standing with their arms and legs protruding from either side as the vehicles careened down the roadway. On his first trip to Africa, Molotov found the Congolese transports highly unusual, even by Soviet standards. Satisfied for the moment he was not being followed, he moved on but now faced the unpleasant task of pushing his way through yet another group of idling and unemployed barefoot men crowding the limba tree-lined sidewalk. They descended on him as he approached, trying to sell him Belgian cigarettes, British toothpaste, and green and yellow packs of American chewing gum. As he made his way delicately through the crowd, shaking his head, waving his free hand and repeatedly muttering "non merci," Molotov tried to focus once more, one final time, on what he was about to do.
Ahead, was the busy roundabout, the intersection where he knew he would have to leave the avenue and make his way down a side street. The final clandestine meeting he was about to have with a British MI6 intelligence officer would forever change the course of his life.
Seven months ago, shortly after being assigned to Leopoldville for a yearlong special assignment to help the newly independent Congolese government establish a security apparatus, Molotov had made plans to meet in secret with an official from the British consulate. Whomever it proved to be Molotov was certain the diplomat would listen to his story with interest then refer him to one of the undercover MI6 intelligence officers invariably stationed at many of Her Royal Majesty's embassies and consulates throughout the world.
In an amateurishly executed, but carefully engineered scheme Molotov invented the symptoms of a severe intestinal flu. It was his way of arranging to meet a certain British doctor who worked at a local hospital, the Reine Astrid Clinic. He had learned of the man from his Congolese hosts. The general understanding around town was the physician was well connected with the European community and, most importantly, was the doctor to whom employees of the British consulate were routinely referred. Molotov felt certain the man – whose name he did not know – could put him in touch with a British diplomat. Molotov was well aware he and the other five members of his KGB advisory team were under observation by the Czechs. Walking into the British consulate was out of the question, though he had made a point of locating it, and even arranging for a simple doctor's appointment could be a difficult proposition. Communist Bloc diplomats were often shuttled back to their respective capitals to be seen, rather than run the risk of being compromised by a local physician who might be secretly on the payroll of a Western intelligence service. As Molotov's invented symptoms worsened, the diplomats at the Czech consulate finally relented and arranged for him to be driven to the clinic.
It was an old, columned white structure on the banks of the Congo River. On the appointed day, while his Czech escort waited out front, and leaned against his small, black Volkswagen listening to music on the radio, Molotov went inside. A pleasant nurse at the reception desk, standing under a lazy overhead fan, took his name and showed him to an examination room. A doctor soon entered and they spoke for a moment about Molotov's invented symptoms. Unfortunately, the attending physician was Dutch, and not the British doctor Molotov had hoped would be on call. In the end, after receiving a prescription, and while trying not to make a scene, Molotov was finally taken around and introduced to the Britisher while he made his rounds.
The doctor, in his long, white coat, looked surprised. He gave Molotov a brief superficial reading then shook his hand indifferently. Murmuring and nervous, and moving to stand closer to him, Molotov lied and identified himself quickly as a Russian diplomat and asked to speak to someone from the British consulate. Now, the doctor looked him over critically, as if seeing him for the first time and then nodded. Molotov quickly gave him his first name and a local telephone number at work; it was a Congolese government line he knew was not being monitored. The physician used his prescription pad to jot down the information and assured him his message would be passed along. The encounter had taken under a minute and Molotov was certain he had been unobserved by his Czech handler who had now drifted into the lobby to escape the heat and was pacing up and down impatiently.
A small "milk bar" establishment in downtown Leopoldville was known for its Western-style milk shakes, ice cream, and espresso coffee and was popular with European diplomats, and often their families on weekends, but was off-limits to the Czechs, and consequently the Soviets. It was the site of Molotov's final meeting with his MI6 contact, whom he knew only by his cover name Albert. He was middle-aged and of average height with a head full of shocking white hair, narrow shoulders, long fingers and frequently given to wearing a grave expression. He had a lilt to his step and Molotov found he could be impressively agile. Molotov guessed Albert would have been more than midway through his career, though the difference in their levels of experience was hardly a stumbling block.
Their first clandestine meeting had been held at the back of the stark and empty St. Anne's church in the Kalina district. Molotov was taken aback by their surroundings, but later came to appreciate it was probably one of the more discreet meeting places in Leopoldville. And later, after he had introduced himself, and gone over the peculiars of his situation, he listened to Albert quietly outlining the protocol for their future meetings. As he did, he found he could detect none of the insincere British bluster and stiff upper lip arrogance he and his classmates had been warned about at the training school in Moscow. Instead, Molotov imagined Albert to be more like an American, though he had never met one and only studied them. In fact, Albert reminded the Soviet favorably of a now long dead, but much admired uncle. The MI6 man exuded a warm, friendly manner and when he laughed it was with a soft, pleasant rumble that belied his general air of concern and he treated their first and subsequent meetings as if they were enjoyable fireside chats. In the end, Molotov was pleased to believe Albert had acquired a tremendous expertise in the matter of handling the often nervous Soviet intelligence officer willing, but hesitant, to betray his country to the West.
That afternoon, as Molotov approached his final and pre-selected rendezvous location from the opposite side of the street, ready to continue walking if he sensed, or noticed he was being followed, it came to Molotov again how much he wished he could have shared his impressions of Albert with Marina his wife on whose opinion he could always count and very much valued. As with many wives of younger KGB officers who were not yet trusted completely by Moscow Center, she had been instructed to remain behind in Brussels for the duration of his assignment.
Molotov turned awkwardly, the bright unbearable sun burning his face. He glanced up and down the potholed asphalt street as if uncertain of his location and noticed only a pair of local men laughing and talking as they travelled noisily down the street, side by side toward him, on their gas-powered scooters. Wearing aviator-style sunglasses they seemed intent on their conversation. And along the sidewalks, on both sides of the street, were the usual string of silent "Mamas" wrapped in long, tight colorful native dresses with heavy baskets balanced on their heads. He guessed they were making for the central open-air market several blocks away. Molotov glanced nervously at his watch and saw it was three o'clock. As always, he was precisely punctual. He held his breath and crossed quickly over to the other side of the street as the scooters roared past him, then ducked without hesitation into the "milk bar" establishment. Inside, it was air-conditioned and busy and he welcomed the refrigerated air after the stuffy, Congolese government building in which he spent most of his days. He removed his sunglasses then replaced them immediately with a pair of bifocals with unattractive metal frames. Molotov looked around anxiously for Albert. He saw him seated behind a small, round table in a far corner with his back to the wall. The jacket to his tan suit was wide open, recklessly-so, though his regimental tie was neatly in place over the placket of his white shirt and held in place by a narrow gold tie bar. Molotov heaved a sigh of relief; the open jacket was Albert's signal he had surveyed the room and found it safe to meet.
Copyright © 2013 J.R. Rogers. All Rights Reserved.
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