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Silvanus was hunched over a computer keyboard, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, swearing, when Hradetsky knocked on the doorjamb. The small, pudgy man turned, his scowl changing to a smile when he saw who his visitor was. “Zoltan! Come in and have a seat. It’s good to see someone I can complain to.”

Smiling almost against his will, Hradetsky eased himself into a well-upholstered leather chair. “Everything screwed up as usual, Bela?”

The little bureaucrat threw his hands up in the air, almost knocking over an ashtray in the process. “No, not like usual, ten times the usual!” He leaned forward, looking Hradetsky in the eye. “Today, my friend, I wish I was on the streets, chasing thugs and robbers and all the other wonderful people a policeman meets.”

Suddenly all the anger seemed to flow out of him, like air leaving a balloon. His expression softened to one of sadness. “I like my job, Zoltan. I’m good at it. I made the system work, first under the communists, then under this National Salvation Government. I know where the bodies are buried, which wheels turn and which ones just spin, and I’ve done well for myself.”

Curious, Hradetsky waited. Silvanus was a cheerfully contentious individual, an able and powerful administrator. He had excelled in making connections, storing up favors. He’d survived three separate changes of governments and won promotion each time. He was well liked, by those who hadn’t tried to cross him anyway. So what could be bothering him?

“I can talk to you about this, Zoltan, no one else. Everyone else around here is wearing a happy mask, afraid of losing their ration book.” The bureaucrat paused and sighed. “I am, too.” He motioned toward the door. Hradetsky quietly pushed it closed.

Once the latch snicked shut, Silvanus took a deep drag on his cigarette before going on. “This German, Rehling, is starting to give orders. Troubling orders.

“Not only are all cases involving foreigners being routed to his office, he’s also making major personnel shifts. Our police and plainclothes detectives are being pulled from other cases to protect French or German executives and businesses. Here in Budapest, for example, almost half our people are being assigned to look for what are being called ’subversive elements’ in the work force.”

“My God!” Hradetsky didn’t hide his surprise. Shut away down in the training command, he hadn’t heard about any of this. “That’s crazy!”

“It gets worse. The budget is being altered, too.” Silvanus screwed up his face and adopted a mock German accent. “Never mind the regulations! Never mind efficiency! Take money away from enforcement and operations! Push it into little holes labeled ‘Intelligence’ and ‘Security.’” Nodding toward his friend, he said, “Even the training allocations are being cut back. Pretty soon you’ll have fewer cadets to count.”

“How much of a cut?” Hradetsky asked.

Silvanus waved his hand in the air. “Ah, what does it matter how much? What matters is that more criminals will go free because some German industrialist wants to know how many of our people hate him.”

Hradetsky frowned. “But none of this makes any sense. Why put so much extra effort into looking for so-called subversives? Since the Sopron raid there’s been no major terrorist action against foreign interests. Is some new group targeting them?”

Silvanus shook his head. “I haven’t heard anything.” A small smile crept onto his face. “And you can bet, my friend, that if I haven’t heard about it, it hasn’t happened.”

He continued, “One more thing, Zoltan.” He leaned forward conspiratorially. “There are going to be some personnel cutbacks. A real shake-up.”

“How do you know?” Hradetsky felt suddenly cold. He was the deadest of deadwood. And where could an out-of-work police colonel get a job?

“Because the printshop just got a rush order for a batch of end-of-service forms. We had a year’s supply.”

“And I suppose you already know who they’re going to dismiss.”

Silvanus nodded calmly and handed him several sheets off his desk. “I have a list. Don’t ask me where it came from. Don’t worry. Your name isn’t on it.”

That was strange. His face must have shown his mixed relief and confusion, because the other man shrugged. “Don’t ask me why. Maybe they still want you where they can keep track of you, eh?”

Hradetsky snorted. If they were afraid of him, Dozsa and the other ministry monkey masters certainly didn’t show any sign of it. Probably they’d simply forgotten he’d ever existed.

He took the list and paged through it. Names he knew kept popping out at him. Emil Kornai, in homicide. Imre Zarek, in fraud. Was there a pattern? Not that he could see, but he knew that many of these men were damned fine policemen. If he wasn’t on this hit list, what the hell were they using as a criterion?

Silvanus saw the question on his face. “I don’t know how those names were picked, either, except that the order will be signed by Rehling, not Dozsa, and that there are a lot of good people on that list.” A touch of anger crept into his voice.

There were two raps on the door, and it opened. A thin, blond man with an angular face leaned in, saw Hradetsky in the office with Silvanus, and said in accented Hungarian, “Excuse me, please. I will come back later.”

The door closed behind him.

Hradetsky raised an eyebrow. He nodded toward the door. “A German?”

Silvanus nodded. “One of Rehling’s people, one of his spies. But he won’t be back. He probably just wanted to see who I was talking to.”

“I’m getting you in trouble, Bela. I’d better leave.”

Silvanus waved his hand airily. “Don’t worry about it. The special commissioner and I have already crossed swords. He can’t touch me. Not yet anyway. He knows he needs me to keep this place running.”

But Hradetsky could hear the uncertainty in the other man’s voice. He didn’t know which worried him more: the sudden, radical changes the EurCon appointee was making or the fact that even Silvanus — Silvanus the Survivor, people called him — was growing fearful.

Something had to be done. And fast. This new Confederation was like a cancer cell growing inside Hungary. The time to deal with it was now — before it spread too far for simple treatment and required radical surgery.

Hradetsky made a decision. One of the options he’d been exploring seemed worth pursuing further. Perhaps reform could still come from within the system. He lowered his voice. “Look, Bela, I need proof of what you’re telling me. Documentation on these cutbacks and firings. And on anything else you think is strange. Something I can show people.”

Silvanus sat forward. “Why?”

“Because I think I may know a way to get Rehling’s orders retracted.”

MARCH 17 — NEAR FREEDOM SQUARE, BUDAPEST

The church domes and spires dotting Budapest’s graceful skyline gleamed in the pale, cool sunlight. That same sunlight sparkled off the Danube and cast long shadows down Pest’s broad nineteenth-century avenues and Buda’s narrow, hilly medieval streets. Green leaves were budding on trees that had escaped being cut down for firewood. Hungary’s capital was coming alive again after a long, bitter winter.

Its people were out in force, too. Some were the unemployed, moving from district to district in search of work. Others were shopping, hunting from store to store for the food, clothing, and other necessities their government promised them. Soldiers and policemen were visible on every street corner. The military government wanted to be sure its citizens knew they were being watched.

Hradetsky moved through the crowds with ease. Even years spent working in provincial cities and towns couldn’t erase the skills he’d learned as a young boy growing up in the twin cities. But he couldn’t help noticing the hard looks and angry stares turned his way by some he passed. Clearly many of his fellow Hungarians again regarded the blue and gray police uniform as a visible sign of tyranny.

     

 

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