by Triss Stein
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story by mystery author Triss Stein.
Of course we were all little pint-size patriots in those days. We had a small gang there on North Indiana Avenue when it teemed with the post-war baby explosion. There were four of us, just from our end of the block, all in the same room in elementary school, and we were all red-blooded Americans; after all, every one of our fathers had fought in the war! It seemed unlikely to us, the very idea that those staid grownups that went off to work every day and mowed the lawns on weekends, had ever done something that adventurous, but all the houses had a framed photo of a very young dad in a uniform. Ricky’s father was still in the reserves and every once in awhile we saw him in a uniform in person. He looked like a hero and also kind of scary.
The president himself, who looked just like my grandfather, was in that war too. He told us Communism was ruthless and hostile to our American way of life, and of course that great American hero, J. Edgar Hoover, had a lot to say on the subject. We did not really understand what the “Communist threat from within” meant exactly–or even approximately–but it sounded awfully scary. Any Saturday morning we could watch television programs about the military. We didn’t exactly understand them either, but there were masses of men in uniform, marching, marching, marching and lots of tanks.
The time when the name Rosenberg was all over the TV and radio was not so long past. They had done something very bad that was spying for Russia; we understood that much. Also, we lived right next to a real foreign country. The Canadian border was so close my dad once went over it by accident on a rural road. You could take a motorboat there; it was right across the river. How hard would it be for a spy to just sneak right in? It could happen, if there was a scary world power out to destroy our way of life. That worried us.
Maybe our letter to J. Edgar Hoover was inevitable. We told Mr. Hoover that we were on the alert for possible Communists or spies and we were keeping our eyes on a suspicious person in the neighborhood. Yes, indeed, we also had a real-live suspicious person, Mr. Szabo, who had moved into the house next door. What made him suspicious? We kept a secret list, carefully numbered and hidden under my mattress. It was the summer after sixth grade; we had an awful lot of free time for our spy activities. One, the whole time he was there, he did not fly the Stars and Stripes on holidays.
Two, he didn’t seem to go to work like the rest of the men we knew. What did he do all day at home? We lurked, trying to find out, but he didn’t make much noise and his windows were too high to look in. Sometimes we heard a radio or a conversation in a foreign language–really foreign! It sure wasn’t the French we sometimes heard on Canadian TV and it wasn’t the Italian real old people spoke in some of the groceries.
Three, he got newspapers and magazines in a foreign language that had lots of marks and squiggles. Could it be–we whispered to each other–Russian? How did we know about his mail? Ah, well, that was our secret. One time it was mistakenly delivered to my house. My mom asked me to drop it off for him. After we saw that writing, we knew we had to keep an eye on things.
Sometimes one of us sneaked onto his porch and took the mail from the box hanging next to the door. It was breathtakingly exciting to watch his house until he was out, then wait to see if the Mr. Combs, the mailman, left something. Then we would dare each other to make the run, up the steps, grab the mail, run back, without being seen.
Mothers stayed home during the day then, so there was a considerable chance of getting caught. After we looked it over, we had to reverse the process to put it back. After we did that successfully a few times, we started adding our own notes to his mailbox, telling him firmly he was not to try any funny stuff because we had our eyes on him. We were very clear about that, and the only reason we did not sign our names was that we did not want to get into trouble.
We knew perfectly well our parents would skin us if they found out, and as for Mr. Combs? It was too scary to consider. We had been in the post office. We had seen the posters that said interfering with the mail was a Federal crime. Still, we were firm in the belief that spying on Mr. Szabo was our patriotic duty and we knew we would be pardoned if our motives were understood.
The defining item on the list was that Mr. Szabo hated Boy Scouts. To hate Boy Scouts was the most un-American thing we could imagine and we knew he hated them because he told us. Ricky’s little brother tried to sell him light bulbs in his Cub Scout uniform and Mr. Szabo snarled at him to go away. When older boys we knew went to him in their Boy Scout uniforms, collecting for the March of Dimes, he yelled, “Off my porch. Never come back. I never again want to see children in uniforms.” That’s what we thought he said, anyway. He had that accent.
We told Mr. Hoover the whole story and proudly assured him we would be on the case, observing for more evidence. Donna, my older sister, had better penmanship than any of us, so we bribed her to write it out in her perfect Palmer Method. Off it went, neatly addressed to “Mr. J. Edgar Hoover, FBI, Washington, DC.”
There were four of us at the core of the gang. Donna condescended to join us if she had nothing better to do, and some of the little ones tried to tag along, but really, it was us: Ricky, Gary, Tommy and me. Ricky was the bravest, living up to his strict dad, Gary was the fastest runner, the meanest fighter and the leader in the mail stealing. Tommy was funny, but nervous. Who was I? I would have said the smartest, but they might have said the bossiest. In my mind, I hear Donna snorting, “Might have? MIGHT have?”
I was the one who looked up Russian in the World Book Encyclopedia and said that couldn’t be what Mr. Szabo was reading, because Russian letters are different from ours. The letters on his mail looked the same as ours, except for all the marks. I was the one who watched the Big Picture on TV and knew the names of the tanks and planes. I was the one who knew when the FBI came to town. They were tall. They wore suits. There were two of them, big as life and twice as natural, right there in the middle of the day, walking up Mr. Szabo’s front steps. Who else could it be?
I was torn between getting my bike and rounding up the others, and staying put to keep an eye out for developments. Our only phone hung on the kitchen wall, where my mother was ironing, so that was out. Real live g-man! I could hardly breathe, I was so excited. I tried to get Donna to come look, but she told me to buzz off, she was busy reading Seventeen. Tommy came by and shouted up to the window, asking me to come and play and I motioned back to him to shut up and come in. He finally got the idea.
“Look! Right out there. Look!”
“What? Two grown ups. So what?” I thought of how my mother sometimes said, “Lord give me strength.”
“What do you think they are doing, knocking on Mr. Szabo’s door? Offering to mow his lawn?”
His eyes opened up real wide…finally. We ran downstairs, shouted “Mom, I’m going out,” and found a spot behind the hollyhocks where we could see without being seen– we hoped. I bullied Tommy into getting the others, leaving me to continue surveillance. Binoculars would have been good. If I was a real spy, I’d sure have some. In almost no time he was back with the rest of the gang.
Those men knocked hard on Mr. Szabo’s door and called his name, checked their watches, knocked once more. When one of them took a seat on the porch swing, his jacket fell away. Just for a second, we glimpsed a badge and a gun. That was the moment it became for real for us. Not a game we pretended was real–really real.
I looked around and saw my friends with white faces. The men turned to leave the porch. “We have to talk to them.” I said, with more firmness than I was feeling.
“Let’s go.” Ricky stood up; he was ready. The others looked doubtful, but as we moved out from behind the hollyhocks, they followed, even while they were arguing about it. Ricky squared his shoulders, military fashion, and walked right up to them.
“Sirs, we are glad to see you.” He saluted. “We sent the letter.”
“What are you talking about?” The taller of the two men squinted down at us.
“You came because of a letter, didn’t you? We wrote it.” I could barely get the words out.
The tall man squatted down to be able to look at us eye level . “Now listen, kids. I don’t know what you are talking about or what game this is, but it has nothing do with you. Nothing at all. We’re here for something important.”
“Not a game…we wrote…we saw…”
The other man said, “In other words, scram. No kids allowed.” He let his jacket open up, just a little, just enough to display the badge clipped to his belt. He tapped it with his index finger.
Just then, Mr. Szabo’s door opened a tiny crack. “Who is there?”
“Andras Szabo? We need to talk to you.” They held up their badges.
The door opened and we ran. Suddenly we knew they were right. We were not spies. This had nothing to do with us. We didn’t run far though. Without even needing to talk about it, we slowed down as soon as we were safe behind the screen of my mother’s gigantic hollyhocks. We waited, panting, to see what happened next.
What happened was nothing much. Mr. Szabo opened the door and the two men went in. We watched and listened for a long time. There were no gunshots, no shouting and there were no cries for help. After awhile the men came out, went to their car and drove away.
“That’s it? That is it?” Gary exploded, throwing a rock over the fence onto Mr. Szabo’s driveway. “After all this? I thought we’d see some action, good guys and bad guys.”
“I thought they would take him away, at least. You know, for official questioning,” Ricky said.
“In handcuffs. At least.” By then it was suppertime. Deflated, we drifted away. Every member of our team of lurking spies had to be home by 5:30 or else.
That night I was restless , wide awake in the dark, looking out my bedroom window just for something to do. The familiar everyday street looked mysterious in the moonlight. Anything could happen: a spaceship could land and a robot could get out, a motorcycle gang could ride into town or a monster could appear devouring everything in his path.
What did happen was that a car drove down the silent street with dimmed headlights. Then another car followed it. The men with the badges got out. They didn’t knock on Mr. Szabo’s door. It was more like a muted scratching. I ran into Donna’s room, and dragged her, protesting, to her window. I wanted a witness, someone who would confirm in the morning that I wasn’t dreaming.
A lot of tall men crowded onto Mr. Szabo’s lawn. Some of them moved around between the two cars. They had Tommy guns. Even Donna gasped. Mr. Szabo came out, fully dressed in his dark three-piece suit, carrying a small briefcase. With one man on each side, they walked him to the car and drove off down the empty, silent street. There were no handcuffs, no struggles and no gun in anyone’s back. But they were taking him away. I had a surprising impulse, wondering what we had started. For just a second, I wished he would make a run for it. Then I forgot it, in the excitement of realizing we had not been wrong! By the light of a flashlight I kept for under the cover reading, I wrote a congratulatory letter to Mr. Hoover.
I never got to send it. Mr. Szabo returned home twenty-four hours later, not seeming at all the worse for his nighttime adventure. No bruises, no missing teeth, no round the clock guards. I didn’t understand. The others seemed to lose interest, but I kept up a watch night after night. The only thing that happened was that he moved away a week later. He left in a taxi with a few suitcases and we never saw him again.
School started that week too. We were in junior high now and we had more important things to worry about. Changing classes when a bell rang and finding the right room in the huge building. Catching the bus for school and carrying lunch boxes, instead of walking home at lunchtime and being in different home rooms from each other for the first time ever. Frightening events like sock hops. Mr. Szabo disappeared from our memories as completely as he had from our block.
Ricky followed his father, the weekend captain, into the military. He chose ROTC in college and when we found ourselves on opposite sides of the Viet Nam protests we stopped speaking. I hear he retired as a colonel a few years ago. Tommy went to the big party university, joined a campus rock band and came back home with a beard, a fiancée and a music teacher’s license. The last time I talked to him was at our 10th high school reunion, the only one I ever went to. Gary kind of drifted away from us in high school, hung out with a tough crowd and left town before graduating. I wouldn’t claim I’m still the smartest, but I’m still the one who finds things out. Now they pay me for it and publish what I learn. I’ve filed news stories from all over the world. Not a bad career for a kid from North Indiana Avenue.
Browsing at the Strand bookstore the other day, I stumbled on a set of those books that used to be so popular, the year in photos. 1956 caught my eye. 1956 was the year I started sixth grade, the last year before junior high. I browsed through the photos, remembering Elvis Presley on Ed Sullivan and how excited Donna was; remembering laughing at Jack Benny. I spotted an ad for the Schwinn bike I got that year for my birthday. Remembering President Eisenhower–I still thought he looked just like my grandfather.
Photos of the Hungarian uprising that fall. Now that was something I did not remember at all, not from those days. I learned about it later in a college class on modern Europe. The Hungarians surprised the whole world by trying to leave the Communist bloc and the USSR sent in the tanks. The book showed them rolling down the streets of Budapest. The leader was executed and 30,000 people were killed. 30,000. At the bookstore, in the photos, I saw the protest banners in Hungarian, a language with a lot of accent marks. For the first time since August, 1957, I thought of Mr. Szabo. I called Donna for a reality check.
“Mr. Szabo? That strange foreign man who lived next door for awhile? Gee, I barely remember.”
I explained how the banners in those old news photos set off something in my mind.
“Ahh. Actually I do know a little something. It’s coming back to me. When mom was sick, at the end, she liked to look at the old albums. Remember?”
“Yeah. She still knew everyone, even if she could not tell you what she had for lunch.”
“Right. So we ran across one, a barbecue in our yard, and there was Mr. Szabo in his little dark suit, vest and all.
He kind of stood out when everyone else was in Bermuda shorts.”
“Dad in a loud Hawaiian print, right?”
“Of course. “
“And? Are you going to tell me more?” She could be just as annoying now as when we were kids.
“I’m getting there. I pointed to him and she didn’t remember his name but she knew him. She said he was Hungarian, a refugee. And she never really knew why he was there; he was very secretive. Does that help?”
“Was there a night I dragged you out of bed to see some men take him away in a car?“
“That sounds just like you being your annoying little self, but I don’t remember it. Sorry. “
Had I made it up? I might have, turned the everydayness of our lives into something from a comic book. Then, later, Donna sent me a crumpled piece of lined paper, filled with a letter in perfect Palmer penmanship. The attached note said:
“Found when I was cleaning out mom’s house, stuck behind a drawer. It’s one of my practice runs. Funny isn’t it? With all the things that got lost over the years, this survived.”
It took me instantly back to the exact day we wrote it, sitting on Tommy’s front porch with a pitcher of grape Kool-Aid. It was a hot summer day but the huge maple trees on his front lawn kept us cool.
The patriotic opening came from Ricky, the toughness was Gary’s, the little sketch was Tommy, and I was the one who explained the whole situation. We argued about the wording until we were sure it was perfect and fully up to professional spy standard. We dug deep into our pockets for random change for bribing Donna to make a good copy and agreed there would have to be some servitude as part of the deal.
The letter was hilarious. We were so sincere and so very young. We never doubted we were making a great contribution and we never doubted Mr. Hoover himself would read it. I know that because we told him he could send his answer to my address. I don’t think we ever asked ourselves what crucial secrets spies might have been looking for in our small town surrounded by dairy farms.
The chill down my spine didn’t start until I read it a second time. Did we believe it all ourselves, that Mr. Szabo was a dangerous spy, or was it a kind of game, one step up from cowboys and Indians? How far could this have gone? Back then, I had no idea what the John Birch society was, but I did know there was a chapter in our town. The name sounded interesting.
What if we had told our parents or teachers what we thought? And what if one of them was crazy enough to take us seriously? Not my mother, evidently, but Ricky’s father, maybe? A sickening alternate scenario unfolded in my mind. It was funny. And it wasn’t. Not at all. On the other hand, who was Mr. Szabo and why was in our little town?
Just because I could, just because my curiosity was working overtime, I ordered up the records on a Freedom of Information search. When they arrived a long time later, much was blacked out, redacted, very Cold War, but I picked up enough. Someone desirable had escaped Communist Hungary into Canada, after the uprising and was being smuggled into the U.S, with full government approval but complete secrecy. Mr. Szabo was helping. I wondered then if Szabo was even his real name.
So we had it all wrong, and all right, both. He might actually have been a spy– that was not out of the question–- but he was not an enemy. And they were G-men of some kind, but they were not there to capture him. I sent Donna copies and I had a strange impulse to send them to Ricky and Tommy too. It only lasted a moment. I wondered what happened to Mr. Szabo after that incident. I could try to find out. It might make an interesting story, a look back over the years to the Cold War era.
I shot off an email to my editor.
Check out a review of Triss’ mystery novel Brooklyn Bones, and an interview with Triss here in KRL.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.