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The Olaf Conundrum

by Gary Clifton

“Ms. Nightingale, you’ve indicated in your application you visited the Soviet Union previously... 26 years ago. What was the purpose?”

“Oh.” She fidgeted, her ample backside wedged between the arms of a padded desk chair. “As a college senior, I accompanied a group of other students to Moscow. It was just a three-week study abroad opportunity on the cheap.”

Brodski had spent 26 years in the fast lane as a Drug Enforcement agent before retiring three years earlier. A studious, thoughtful man, he sang in his church choir. In retirement, he’d been contacted by a firm in Virginia that advertised it was in the international private investigative business. When he heard the salary — twice what DEA had paid — he signed on with zero hesitation.

He’d agreed to “complete investigative tasks as directed.” After assignments shooting photos on a nude beach in Brazil and gathering medical waste from a surgeon’s trash in Ecuador and shipping the package to Langley, Virginia — both in the first month — he figured out he was working for Central Intelligence in some capacity

His superior, who Brodski was never certain worked for the CIA or only worked for a guy who worked for a guy, called to ask if Brodski could fly to Denver. He was to work up a security clearance investigation on a State Department applicant slated to work in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. He’d agreed without question.

The next afternoon, an envelope, arrived, containing a thick package and a brand new set of U.S. State Department credentials bearing Brodski’s photo.

Gertrude Nightingale’s appearance did not match her name. Fiftyish, with mounds of flesh drooping from the back of her arms, she was a personnel specialist at a large Denver hospital. She also taught advanced computer science courses evenings at a community college.

Her previous travel to an Eastern Bloc nation required a few extra questions. From a list of standard questions, he asked. “Do you have any contact with a Russian citizen at present?”


“Were you approached by anyone to gather information on behalf of the Russians?”


“Please describe contact with Russian citizens while you were in Moscow?”

“Just a tour guide. Oh, and he took us to several dances sponsored by the government, at the University of Moscow. But I never really met any Russians.”

Brodski completed his questions, stood and prepared to leave. As a passing afterthought, he asked, “Do you dance?”

“Pardon me?”

“How did you spend three weeks attending dances in Moscow and not meet any Russians?”

“Oh, that’s where I met Olaf. He’s the most handsome Swedish Army officer you’ll ever see,” she said in present tense as she pointed to a framed photo of a fiftyish man in a military uniform on her desk.

Instantly interested, Brodski held his poker face. He was no spy expert, but he’d seen a doper or two. Olaf reeked of clandestine ops, and this lonely applicant was his unwitting tool.

“Is he still in Moscow?”

“No, he works here in Denver for an international trade firm. Is that some sort of problem?” The crow’s feet around her hazel eyes twisted into a squint.

“No, no problem,” Brodski answered quickly. “You’re still socially connected? It’s good to have someone—”

“Oh, God, yes. He’s marvelous. Olaf says if I get this job in the U.S. embassy, his company will transfer him to Moscow so we can still be together.”

Brodski, still standing, wondered if Olaf’s name was actually Ivan in another dimension. The implications of a computer specialist working in personnel in the U.S. embassy in Moscow with a boyfriend of questionable pedigree were a mental klaxon horn, even to an old dope cop.

“What’s his full name, please, and the name of his employer? It’s just another question on the form,” he lied.

He jotted down the information, drove away from the hospital and called his boss in Virginia. When Brodski had explained the situation, the boss said, “Damn, we better not put her on the payroll.”

At that, Brodski realized his “boss” was a Langley employee, not a contractor.

“Well, boss,” Brodski said, “I’m only a humble domestic cop, and you folks are the spies, but if they put Ms. Nightingale on the payroll in Moscow, you have leverage against old Olaf. If this was a dope deal, we’d feed that Russian posing as a Swede something that would put him in the jackpot box. I hear the new version of the KGB still periodically shoots spies who fumble.”

“Hey, Brodski,” the boss said, “let’s let somebody else worry about it. It’s above our pay grade. Send in the report right away.”

* * *

Four months passed. One day, in casual conversation with his boss, he ventured a question about Olaf.

The reply, which was marked “classified,” told Brodski that Olaf was still on the radar. Brodski’s hunch had had some validity.

Curiosity got the better of him. He called the hospital where Ms. Nightingale had worked only to be informed she’d retired and moved to Moscow.

He dug through notes and called Olaf’s firm, half-expecting to reach a den of spies who routinely answered the telephone in Russian.

“Oh goodness,” the receptionist said. “It’s a horrible story. We transferred Olaf to our Moscow office, and he died of a heart attack last week. And he’d just passed a full physical before he left.”

He leaned back in his chair, pondering whether misinformation Langley had fed poor Olaf warranted assisted heart failure. Any guy who could cultivate that homely specimen for over twenty-five years somehow deserved a better reward than a dose of poison in his vodka. But Olaf must have known he was in a deadly business. Or perhaps he really had suffered a heart attack?

Brodski knew he would never really know. “Better luck in the next world, Olaf,” he said, a twinge of brotherly remorse niggling at him.

Copyright © 2018 by Gary Clifton

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