“Amos,” Boris said. “We’ve done this the same way so many times and we are not having the results we want.”
“We’ve always done it that way before,” said Amos, being one of the usual spies.
“Yes, Comrade, we have. That is my point. And we keep getting the same result: nothing. It’s time to change the plan.”
“But we’ve always…” You can see that Amos only rode one horse.
“Comrade,” said Boris, slapping him on the back as they walked into the back room together. “Have I ever told you the definition of insanity?”
They joined the rest of the comrades in the back room. It was rare to have all the spies there at the same time. Usually, several were gone to take a bathroom break. Regulations did not permit smoking, and as for personal calls–forget it. But they needed to take all these breaks, because, let’s face it; when you’ve been secluded in one room with a bunch of guys, day after day, and some of them really like pickled herring, and there are no decent showers–it’s important to get some personal space, isn’t it?
So Boris told the rest of them his plan. In effect, it was a plan for a new plan. Boris knew his audience–change came slowly in Mother Russia, so he had to bring them along gently. Let them get used to the idea of a new plan before actually springing the new plan on them. Even this was met with much head scratching and eyes darting about to see how the other comrades were taking this radical new thought.
All in all, it went pretty good. Nobody laughed–that was a point in his favour. Although, nobody was volunteering a high-five, either.
It could have all gone south right then, when Amos started to open his mouth with his usual “we’ve always…” But Boris, who was standing, clamped a very firm hand on his shoulder and, sorry to say, because Boris could be rather a bully at times; he squeezed. Amos looked up at him reproachfully, but Boris kept smiling and waiting for the others to get used to the new idea. And squeezing. He kept squeezing, which was not quite fair of him, since Amos had shut his mouth completely.
Now, we must give some credit to Amos here, for he finally did get it. Light began to dawn and the squeezing miraculously stopped when he blurted, “What have we got to lose, eh?” He had picked up the “eh” from a stint he had done in Canada a few years back and he found it quite handy to insert in his communications. He felt it gave him a somewhat international savoir-faire, and an air of mystery. Which tells you all there is to know about Amos. But his comment broke the ice, and in his own way, Amos cleared the path for the other boys to at least consider that there might be another way to get the job done.
That’s when “Operation Broccoli” was born.
The idea was that an Operative was to set up the usual clandestine dinner-meeting with the Western Counterpart, order broccoli with that dinner, then unobtrusively add the special broccoli unit he had previously secreted on his person, say, in his suit pocket.
Little would the evil Capitalist Pigs know! Tiny micro cameras and recorders would be hidden in some of the little floret bulbs, which had been hollowed out to accommodate them. What a feat! What a masterpiece of engineering! What a brilliant, cunning, diabolical plan! Feel free to shake your fist in the air and laugh triumphantly here, Boris.
It really was quite an ingenious plan. And the risk? Minimal. Caught at the border and searched? No problem. Why, comrade officer, I forgot to declare all of my fruits and vegetables. Here, let me eat that, so there is no possibility of contaminating wonderful American soil with bad Russian bacteria. Caught at the dinner? Again, all that is needed is to eat the evidence. Now, mind you, these scenarios were worst-case, because… darn, those electronics were expensive! However, if this was a way to gain World Domination–ahem–World Peace, through Mother Russia’s benevolent intervention after vanquishing her Western rival, then what were a few rubles to compare with that?
It all would have gone swimmingly, too. Boris had the overwhelming support of the boys in the back, who probably were just bored with the same old, same old. Amos the Whiner was now Amos the Cheerleader, and the Russian government bureaucracy, which did take a teensy little bit of time to set things in motion for production, finally came around and gave it the green light.
Alas, it was on the first trial run where things went wrong. Badly.
Boris had been selected, naturally, as the Operative to demonstrate the effectiveness of the new brainchild. A meeting was set up, and Boris dutifully flew into that smog-laden American den of iniquity, New York. He easily cleared the obstacles at the airport. They didn’t even pat him down. Fat American slugs! Ah! The taste of victory would soon be theirs!
He quickly unpacked at his designated hotel, though he would only be staying one night. He had, of course, already memorized the address of the meeting. He would be secretly talking to one of the top generals and if he could get the goods on him on record, it would be worth all the herring-fumed days he’d had to endure in the back room.
That evening, he had the concierge order him a taxi. He shook his head in disgust as he gave the address to the scruffy, longhaired driver. He snorted to himself; they knew what to do with such people in Mother Russia. But even the smell of onions and curry that wafted its way into the back seat was not enough to put him off. He was on his way!
Tacos R Us.
Boris was fuming. They had set up the bloody meeting at a bloody Taco stand! Boris liked words like ‘bloody’. He’d first heard the adjective in London, where he had done a stint once. It sounded very hard-nosed and tough, which was an image he coveted.
Now he scowled at the man, whom he assumed to be the general, seated at the outdoor picnic table. He was with another man and they both wore identical navy crisply tailored suits. Boris hated them on sight. The chances of getting broccoli on his plate here were pretty slim, but he had to try.
“Broccoli?” he asked the vendor. He was met with an unfriendly stare. He tried again, but it came out sounding even feebler.
“I say, do you have any bloody broccoli?” he said, taking refuge in his British hardboiled fantasy.
Nope, no broccoli here.
He turned to the men at the picnic table. Protocol dictated that they speak to him first, but what was the point? He knew who they were. They knew who he was. One thing was certain; they would have to change the meeting place.
“I am allergic to bean,” he hissed.
“What?” one of the suits asked. They were shocked that he had spoken to them first.
“I said, ‘I am allergic to bean.’”
“What beans? There are no beans in tacos, only ground beef and sauce.”
“I allergic to beef,” Boris said.
“Who cares? Order a soft drink, then, you moron. We’re not here to eat.”
Boris stood his ground. “No,” he said. “You will not insult my dignity by discussing business in a…a…”
He couldn’t thing of any word insulting enough. But he couldn’t stop now.
“A…a…Fast Food Restaurant!” he shouted.
The men looked at each other and sighed.
“It’s not a restaurant, Nimwit; we’re outside. It’s a Fast Food stand. A Taco stand. Don’t you have Taco stands in Russia?”
Boris drew himself up in haughty grandeur. “Mother Russia have best taco stand in world! I demand treatment to which I deserve, as befit my station. We change meeting to civilized place.”
“Whew boy, what do you suggest, Comrade?”
“Make new place. Elegant place. Meat. Potatoes. Vegetable. Lots of vegetable. I like vegetable. You find three place. I choose.”
Both men exchanged grim glances and rose to leave. “We’ll be in touch.”
Boris waited by the phone in his room but there were no calls. He had to book another night in the hotel and still there was nothing. He couldn’t very well call home, either, as he was certain his calls were monitored. They wouldn’t know what had happened to him, and perhaps they might even think he was defecting! He would just have to deal with that later.
Finally, the call came. There were no greetings, just three short phrases: The Garden Terrace, The Madagascar, and The Luxor, and a snide remark that they would call back in an hour to accept his selection. He knew they had taken all this time to vet each location, and get their men in place, and they knew he needed time to… Come to think of it, what did they think he needed time for? No matter, this was obviously some new way to play the game.
Boris left the hotel and walked three blocks before hailing a cab. He asked the driver to wait for him in front of the bus station where he headed to the nearest pay phone. He knew how to use these; it was all in the training.
He made three phone calls and each was the same conversation.
“You have broccoli? You have it tonight? Are you absolute? What is your name? What is your manager’s name? If you lying to me, and no broccoli when I come there…”
When he was satisfied with his research, he hopped into his cab and headed back to his hotel.
The Madagascar was indeed elegant. Boris was inwardly impressed with the chandeliers, fine table settings and plush seats. Soft music from a live band in the corner of the dining room set the tone for quiet conversation and a relaxed evening. Greedy Capitalistic Swine! But his toes did sink into that thick carpet rather nicely.
“Does this meet with your approval?” asked one of the same men he had met at the Taco stand. He had since learned this was the general’s Aide, John: obviously a fake name. Boris called the general, “The General”. The men still looked the same, only now they were wearing identical black suits.
The sarcasm was lost on Boris. He nodded curtly, hoping they could order soon, so he could put his broccoli to work. He had examined it in the hotel room before he had left and it was looking a little limp. Although the camera would not be seeing anything yet, he had still activated the recorders. A small switch was imbedded through the stem and came out at the base. A tiny green broccoli leaf cleverly hid it. No one was going to ask how a leaf could grow out of the base of a cut broccoli floret, now were they?
The hopes for a quick meal were dashed when the waiter, complete with suit and bowtie brought iced water over, distributed embossed menus, and declared he would give the gentlemen time to consider the evening’s offerings and then return.
Boris had asked for elegant, and elegant took time. All right. As long as he was recording the conversation, when the meal came, all he had to do was activate his broccoli to get the damaging footage to substantiate what had been said. The General was in the crosshairs.
Somehow Boris made it through the meal. There was the salad, the soup, the bread, the wine, and finally, the entrée was about to make its appearance. He had chosen roasted glazed duck. True, he almost got into an argument with the waiter over the vegetable choice.
“I don’t want baby-kissed garden peas or braised leeks,” Boris had told him.
“But Sir, the entrée you have chosen comes with the baby-kissed garden peas and the blushed braised leeks. Also, Sir, the tender carrot peek-a-boos.”
Boris had no idea what a tender carrot peek-a-boo was. Sometimes he could see only too clearly the need for the annihilation of the race. Like now.
“I don’t bloody want any of that. I told you I want broccoli!”
The waiter looked at him suspiciously before turning away and muttering under his breath, “So you’re the one who phoned in.”
The conversation with the men had gone well up until that point. There were still a number of matters to discuss which required some clarity.
“Rubles!” declared The General.
Boris laughed. “You have the sense of humour, my General. U.S. Dollars; nothing else.”
It was the turn for the General and his aide to laugh, but in the end, they agreed to the dollars. It was a minor win. They all knew The General would have had trouble getting his hands on that much Russian currency without raising eyebrows.
All in all, Boris was pleased with the meeting; especially the juicy bits of incrimination issuing forth from the General’s own lips. Most importantly, they would be even more pleased with him back home. And now, he positively beamed when the waiter laid his plate in front of him with a flourish.
Once again, the plan met with an obstacle.
No! Imbeciles! They had brought the garden peas after all. The colour was rising to Boris’s eyeballs. Calm, he must be calm. With an effort, he addressed the waiter stiffly.
“I require the broccoli,” he told him through tight lips. There. No need to blow up. No need to deal the deathblow. This was an expensive, cultured establishment. This underling would no doubt grovel, and then Boris could be magnanimous and gracious.
He waited for his apology.
“Imagine that then,” said the waiter with a shrug. “Although I did tell them in the kitchen, you know–that it was you.”
Boris was at a loss to understand what this meant. He shot a murderous look at the retreating man, which was not the same as the real thing, so therefore, not nearly as satisfying.
“Schnell! Schnell!” he called out to him. ‘Schnell’ was another excellent word he had picked up while on a stint in Germany, and he had been dying to try it.
It took longer than he expected, but now the waiter returned with a smile.
“Here you go, sir. Just as you ordered. Bon appetite!”
Ah yes! A generous serving of lightly steamed broccoli! Even the colour matched perfectly to his own little petit chou. That was French for broccoli, if he remembered correctly. Or was that Brussels sprout? He was trying to remember from a stint he had once done in Paris. It had sounded so cute to him: “my little petite chou”. It meant “my little cabbage”.
Oh. It was a Brussels sprout.
“Is that Sophia Loren over there?” he pointed, trying to distract the Americans while he brought out his broccoli.
“Can’t be. She’s dead, isn’t she?” the General asked, not bothering to turn around.
“No, she’s not dead, but she is old. Still looking pretty good though,” said the other one. “Don’t get much in the way of new movies over there, do you Son?” He also didn’t bother to turn around.
Boris snorted bitterly. They needed a more current actress, then? He snapped his fingers.
“No! Not Sophia Loren, what is her name, ah, yes. Jennifer Lopez!”
Both heads whipped around and the broccoli was now in the ball game, as the Americans would say.
“You confused Jennifer Lopez with Sophia Loren?” John asked suspiciously. His radar alerted him that something was up, but he couldn’t figure out what it could be.
Just then, the waiter returned. “A thousand pardons, sir, but this duck is not glazed! I will return it to the kitchen and bring you the proper duck. I am so sorry, Sir!” he said, as he grasped Boris’ plate and started away.
“NO!” Boris thundered, rising up and hanging onto his plate. The waiter, astonished, froze motionless, unsure what to do next. Every eye in the place turned towards them.
“It’s fine! It’s fine-leave it!” He tugged it back. The waiter, stricken, bobbed his head and disappeared.
Boris fell back heavily into his chair. He mopped his forehead with his napkin, looking at his companions. They looked back stonily.
“Do the words ‘under the radar’ mean anything to you?” asked The General. Boris grunted. He realized he had made himself a spectacular laughing stock in front of these men, but he didn’t care. It would soon be Mother Russia who would be laughing. The broccoli would certainly have captured The General’s picture and there would now be photographic proof of his subterfuge and treason. It didn’t matter what happened now. They could keep their duck.
The General rose to leave. He laid his napkin down neatly and said, “Well, gentlemen, it’s been quite an amusing evening, but we are finished here, I think.”
“Yes. Agree. A good evening.” Boris started up.
“Not so fast.”
It was John.
“Boris hasn’t eaten his broccoli,” he said.
“What?” asked Boris and the General in unison.
“His broccoli. He was so insistent to have his broccoli and he hasn’t been able to eat any of it yet. I think he should. Eat it, I mean: the broccoli.” Unsmiling eyes conveyed the message that there would be no reprieve from this.
Boris felt like he’d been checked in a tense game of chess. Whatever he did now would make or break the situation for him. But he was not Russian for nothing. He would not flinch. He sat back down and took up his fork. Still locking eyes with the Aide, he speared a broccoli floret, first making sure he could see no small leaf at the base. He popped it into his mouth and began to chew.
The aide smiled grimly and proffered the broccoli floret he had forked from Boris’ plate. Boris could see there was no leaf on that one either. He was all for ending this now by playacting indignation and storming out. But as he chewed, he realized the predicament he was in. There was no way these hardened players would let him off lightly; their antennas were now finely honed right in on him. He had not thought about how to retrieve his broccoli! Whatever he did would be closely monitored, and there would be no Jennifer Lopez to bail him out now. With growing horror he realized what he would have to do.
He was going to have to eat all his broccoli.
All was not lost in the end. Boris manfully ate all the broccoli they had piled on his plate. It was a lot, considering the fuss he had made. He made the motions of chewing, but in fact, he did not, afraid to damage the sensitive wires embedded in his own floret, whichever one it turned out to be. It was a wonder he didn’t gag, having to swallow the pieces whole. One thing was certain; if he had thought this through a little better, and could do it over again, he would have picked a vegetable he actually liked. He detested broccoli.
But finally the fiasco was finished, and he glared at the Americans as he rose to leave. They had watched him the whole time, shaking their heads in disbelief.
“I really like broccoli,” he said, reproachfully. “We don’t have broccoli like that in Russia.”
“No doubt,” said the General.
As he relaxed on the plane back to Moscow, he was praying that nature would not take its course on the plane. He could have waited until it did and then flown back, but then it would not have been as easy to smuggle back those contents. How do you explain a bag of rather worse-for-the-wear broccoli? Even narrowing each floret down to the crucial one, and then washing it, the possibility of having to eat it again in the case of being caught at Security was…ahem, not very appealing. Besides, he wasn’t sure how much he could subject the thing to vigorous cleansing without damaging it. He fervently hoped it survived enough to keep even a little of its data while passing through his alimentary system.
He need not have worried. The Techies, looking darkly at him, had assured him the camera had come through fine, which was a miracle. That is, if one believed in the power of God. He did not; he believed in the power of vodka. He would have to distribute some at Christmas for the task those electronics boys had undertaken. True, it was all for the Motherland, but there are some jobs deserving of a bit of an extra thank you.
As his own reward for his outstanding contribution, he was going to be allowed, along with the Brass, to hear and see the recordings firsthand.
Boris tried not to feel smug. He had been worried until Alexis, one of the techies, had told him they had retrieved five minutes of video and several hours of audio. He only wished the other boys from the back room could be there to watch too. Oh well, there would probably be a training manual with his name on it for them soon.
They opened up the audio stream first. There was a crackling swishing sound, which went on for quite a while, and which Boris could not identify, until he remembered that it must have been when he had the broccoli in his pocket on the way to the meeting. That was all right, then. There were several segments when the crackling sound intensified and there was a drone of some kind that rose and fell.
Rose and fell. Like the rhythm of a conversation. Like the rhythm of a conversation they couldn’t make out because the pocket noise was so overpowering.
Not to fret. There were still some words that came out quite plainly. Like, “NO!” and “the“ and “Jennifer Lopez”. Then back to the scratching, swishing, and crackling.
Mercifully, they switched to the video for a break. It was even more entertaining. There was a close up shot of the hairs on his wrist as the camera was aimed back towards his sleeve, then a really beautiful one of the waiter’s nostril and a wider panorama of the restaurant jiggling up and down. That must have been when they wrestled for the plate.
Unfortunately there was not one shot of either The General, or his Aide.
When they switched back to listening to the audio, they were in luck. He had been able to record a whole conversation! It was too bad it was the one about him having to eat his broccoli.
Still, it could have been worse. They could have made him stay to listen to the voyage of that redoubtable little broccoli floret making its way through the bath of stomach acid, down into and through the intestines; gurgle, hiss, pop, splunk. All the way to the end, so to speak.
Now Boris works in a garage in New Jersey. The General knew some people, who knew some people. Boris had spun it that he had the goods on him but wouldn’t turn the evidence over in exchange for being smuggled out of Russia. The General totally bought it when he explained about the broccoli. Boris promised to testify that the General knew all along it was a set up and was only going along with it in order to get valuable intelligence.
Uh huh. But that’s how these things are played.
Boris is doing great. He’s already picked up some new American phrases he likes very much, like, “Up yours!”
And there are rumours through the grapevine about a special branch at Langley dedicated to vegetable research.