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Balkan Subversives Go Underground Again - to MIT

Column by Anders Hove

A few days after my strange talk with Ratko, his wife Mirjana asked to meet me for lunch at Camden House, her favorite restaurant. I arrived several minutes early, so I grabbed a seat at the bar and ordered a tall glass of chocolate milk.

As I watched the bartender mix my drink, I noticed a tall rough-hewn man furtively eyeing me from a seat next to the register. Before I could think, my glance met his, and he quickly pulled his coffee cup along the bar till he was sitting on the stool next to mine.

"Allow me to introduce myself," said the man, staring warmly into my eyes. "My name is Colonel Sebastian Moran. Mirjana asked me to meet you two here for lunch. Apparently, we share the same perversions of punctuality."

He chuckled, taking a sip from his dark black coffee. His accent was vaguely British, and he wore the sharp face and stiff upper lip of an aristocrat. But his skin was bronzed and mottled, his mustache grizzled, and his greasy white hair flattened along the back of his scalp. He continued to sip from his coffee - apparently as interested in it now as he had earlier been in me.

"You must have some connection to Ratko, then?" I asked.

"Not a bit of it, I'm afraid," said Moran, looking up, "but with luck I hope to. You see, Mirjana has asked me to find him, and I'm inclined to think I may be one of the few who can."

"So you share Ratko's belief that his life is in danger?" I was warming to the adventure.

"Goodness, no," said Moran, chuckling again into his cup. He paused to wipe some spilled coffee of his chin. "No danger at all, at least not from any Balkan conspiracy, as he would have it. The only danger to Ratko is his advanced age; the bugger's a bit old to be making a new life underground."

I turned back to my chocolate milk. At least some of Ratko's friends are sane, I thought. On the other hand, the drama of his exit had very nearly convinced me that there might be some truth to what Ratko had said.

"I see you two have met." Mirjana slid into a stool opposite Sebastian, jamming her overcoat and shopping bags between the stool's legs. "Has he told you? Sebastian's spent his life chasing around after Balkan emigres with delusions of grandeur."

"That's not quite true, Mirjana," Moran said. "You see, the British and American embassies were eager to grant asylum to even the most lowly apparatchik, but they had no idea these men would go stir-crazy after a few years' domesticity. When my stint with the British embassy in Belgrade ended in '75, they put me out to pasture keeping an eye on the elderly Balkan crowd back home. Not a lot of chasing at all, really, since they travel in slow-moving packs. But you do get to know their ways."

"What brought you to America, then?" I asked, glancing at Mirjana.

"The end of the Cold War saw me out of a job," Moran said. "Fortunately, back then London management consulting firms thought the East Bloc was going to be a consultant's dream. They were nearly drugged with the idea of downsizing the ass off Yugoslav heavy industry, so-called. Anyone with a background in Serbo-Croatian could get work. That is until war broke out and the deal turned sour. I was transferred here - now I'm at Sloan."

"You don't look like much of a Sloanie," I said, a little skeptical.

"I'm still learning," said Moran. Suddenly, he bent down and pulled a computerized notepad from one of Mirjana's bags. He shoved its flickering screen right in front of me and waved his lightpen frightfully close to my face.

"I've written down all of the times Mirjana says Ratko was out of the apartment during the month before his supposed illness. Notice anything?"

"Looks like he spent a lot of time out in the evening," I said.

"Now look what happens when I cross-reference those times with the MIT police blotter. Most of the times when building materials were stolen from Building 56 match, as do several of the references to hacking incidents and suspicious individuals.' What do you make of that?"

"Listen Moran," I said. "I don't believe Ratko Icic would assume the guise of a teen-age hacker just to escape an imagined enemy. More likely that time you spent in Belgrade has gone to your head."

"But you don't doubt that he had an active imagination," said Moran, tightening his features. "And how do you explain that you - Ratko's only contact at MIT - were the only person he told of his plans to fake his death? He'll try to contact you. When he does, notify me. With my years of experience coaxing old Balkan men back to normalcy, I think we can get your friend back."

Before I could protest, Colonel Moran was on his feet, heading out onto the street. Casting me a faint smile as she stood, Mirjana wrapped her hands around her shopping bags and swung them out the door after Moran.

I slipped Moran's number into the pocket of my jeans, wondering if I should have told him about Radovan.

Anders Hove will return to the Balkan Subversive and Revolutionary Bookstore next week.