Summary: Mulroney's job is to keep a Cold War spy from spilling secrets under anesthesia. But what Witte reveals is even more chilling.
Mulroney’s tongue swirled against his own molars. He still had the full set, with three Army-issue fillings courtesy of a bored dentist in Panmunjong, just before the armistice in ’53.
“You know the first thing I ate when I got that sucker out?”
“Sir?” Mulroney cocked an eyebrow.
“Peanuts, out at Griffith Stadium. The rookie, Killibrew, hit a homer, but what I remember most is the crunch of those roasted ballpark peanuts.” Witte laughed. “That’s how I cracked the damn tooth. But if you asked me then, is it worth it? I’d say, ‘Hell, yes, and toss me another bag of peanuts!’”
Witte slapped his fingers against the arms of the dental chair. With the linen towel clipped to the chain around his neck, he looked like a middle-aged tyke about to be force-fed his Malt-o-Meal. “Get that dentist, Mulroney. I’ve decoded microfilm in less time than he’s taking with those X-Rays.”
“You know I can’t leave you, sir.” The man was nervous, Mulroney realized. Witte was a legend who’d spent ten years spying on the Nazis and behind the Iron Curtain. The Reds thought he was their double-agent in D.C. But the guy was anxious over a routine dental procedure.
“National security? Screw that!” Witte snorted. “I won’t be out of it. No laughing gas, no ether. Just a local painkiller.”
“If things go as planned, sir, that’s true.”
“This is bullshit. I’ve got no secrets left to spill.”
“It’s procedure, sir.”
Witte resumed the hand-slapping, a complicated rhythm that reminded Mulroney of a heavy bombardment or an old western cavalry charge.
Swift footsteps approached the doorway. Mulroney thrust his hand through the slit of his leather bomber jacket and grasped the butt of his automatic. He’d cut the pocket away when he jumped from the service to the civilian-run CIA. He drew back just enough to feel the slide of metal against polished leather.
The dental assistant, a large-boned woman in starched white uniform and cap, carried in a covered tray as if she were serving hors d’oeuvres at the Officer’s Club. Mulroney nestled the weapon back into the holster and dropped his hand to his side.
“Dr. Malcolm will be with you shortly,” she told Witte with a crease of the lips that served as a smile. She set the tray on a metal table and wheeled it next to Witte’s chair. Water swirled in the porcelain spit bowl on the other side, and the rest of the room was dominated by a squat column sprouting dental appliances like so many misshapen branches. The assistant side-stepped Mulroney and left the room.
Witte lifted the towel off the tray of instruments. He selected what looked like a small pliers and worked the jaws open and closed. “You ever have a tooth pulled?”
“Once, sir, yes.”
“Hurts like a bitch, doesn’t it?"
“It was half out anyway.” Mulroney allowed himself a slight smile. “Took a real bastard of a punch to loosen it up, though.”
Witte seemed not to have heard. “The Nazis pulled the teeth from the corpses. In the camps. They wanted the gold fillings, of course. One of my guards in Lefortovo was with the Soviet army at Auschwitz. He carried dice made from Jewish molars.”
Mulroney twirled his tongue over his back teeth. They were all still there.
Witte picked up another instrument, bent at the end with a thin point. “This one is for picking and scraping at the teeth. On a healthy tooth is one thing, but you dig this point into a soft spot…”
Mulroney cringed, remembering the probing and drilling by the Army dentist in Korea.
Witte tossed the instruments back on the tray. He started the rhythmic slapping again.
“I could take the beatings.”
Mulroney said nothing.
“I could take the stinking prison and the bad food and no sleep. I took the darkness.” Witte’s fingers curved into his palms, hard enough to leave nail marks. “More than a year without light, without another human voice. Alone. I took it.”
“I know, sir.”
“But you’re thinking, why couldn’t I take the rest? You could take it, right? You’re tough.” Witte shook his head. “You’ve got no imagination.”
Mulroney’s jacket seemed too tight, his body too warm in the cramped room full of picks and probes and drills. The chair looked like it ought to have restraints, binding Witte in place. Mulroney pulled down on his jacket, felt the weight of the pistol on his hip.
“You took their money, sir.” Not much, Mulroney knew. Not enough to blow the story of rescue and escape back to the West. Not enough for a big house and fancy car, a glamorous woman or expensive vices. Just enough for the occasional ballgame and a bag of roasted peanuts.
“Don’t kid yourself.” Witte stared at the dental lamps, hanging over him like two dead eyes. “It was never the money.”
Mulroney squared his shoulders. “It’s not what you took, sir. It’s what you gave them.”
Witte drummed on the armrests. “I lied about the cyanide capsule. It makes a good story, but back then? I never had such a thing, no way to end it, anytime.”
He flashed Mulroney a sad, secret smile. “This is not a filling, Mulroney.”
Witte laughed, and Mulroney glimpsed the spymaster still operating inside the disgraced and humbled shell. “A little drilling to hollow out the tooth, then they pop in the capsule and a rubber plug. I hear it’s quick. Ten grains, two minutes.”
“I wouldn’t know, sir.” And Mulroney was damned if he’d let any government dentist near his molars again.
“That was my price.” Witte drummed on the armrests. “I’ll play this double game for them, but if I’m compromised again?”
Witte clenched his teeth.
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