Ian’s Shocking Encounter at the Ball – James Finn – The Blog


Ian scratched his right ankle in the back seat of the cab, annoyed that Juliette had insisted he wear the garters that came with his formal uniform. “They keep your shirt in and your socks up. Just be glad you don’t have Mark’s hairy calves.”

He gawked as they wound their way through twilight into the heart of Berlin’s most exclusive neighborhood. The taxi’s headlights reflected off the waters of the Wannsee lake as they passed imposing neoclassical and Greek revival mansions nestled in stands of dark pine.

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Bill had offered to drive them, but Ian insisted he not waste any more of his Friday night than he already had bringing Debbie over. Now he wished he’d accepted. He realized Bill had probably wanted to come along as far as he could. It really wasn’t fair that he wasn’t invited.

They cresting a small hill overlooking the dark lake, then pulled to a stop. A stone mansion more imposing than any they’d passed glowed rose in the last rays of the setting sun. Taking Debbie by the arm, he stepped onto a gravel path edged with sparkling yellow lights no bigger than fireflies. They followed Mark and Juliette up to a set of french windows that stood open to a soft May breeze.

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A phalanx of formally attired staff bustled quietly and efficiently in a warm glow of paper lanterns — taking wraps, comparing invitations to RSVPs, making lists, and gently organizing. Ian smelled soft pine and heard violins sing in the distance.

“This way, monsieur,” he heard as his elbow was grasped and he was directed firmly toward a set of open doors in the wake of a scarlet-coated British major and his bejeweled wife.

He felt Debbie’s arm tighten on his as they stepped into a large ballroom. Bright chandeliers dripped crystal over a floor of chestnut parquet. Elaborately gowned women mingled with black-clad men. Taffeta and crinoline rustled and whispered below the murmur of the crowd and the thrum of a string quartet.

Ian nudged Mark and whispered. “Aren’t you glad Bill ironed your pants, bro?”

They followed the British couple along a narrow red carpet, shuffling toward toward a small knot of people. “Thank you, Ian,” Debbie whispered into his ear. “This is beautiful.” He felt uncomfortable as she leaned into him, warming his arm.

He saw waiters circulating with trays.

“Mark, no!” scolded Juliette. “Reception line first, then drinks.”

Their turn came soon enough. Ian handed his invitation over to a French captain in white tie and gold aiguillettes.

The man coughed politely then spoke in accented English. “Lt. Ian Collins, United States Air Force, U.S. Army of Occupation Berlin, and Miss Deborah Greening. Lt. Collins and Miss Greening, may I present His Excellency, the French Head of Mission for Berlin, Monsieur Olivier Calvefer and Madame Calvefer.

Ian shook a warm, dry hand, contemplating an aquiline nose set between pale grey eyes. “Enchanté,” he mumbled, thinking he’d come a long way from rural Michigan.

Madame noticed his French and chatted with him briefly, charming him.

“What’d she say?” whispered Debbie as they finished with the formalities and hurried away.

“Just that your slip was showing,” he teased.

“Ian!” she gasped, smoothing the front of her dress frantically and looking down toward her feet.

“Kidding!” he apologized. “She said you’re beautiful and that white is your color. Seriously.”

He was backing away, afraid she was about to kick him in the shins when Mark walked up and interrupted, snagging a glass off a passing tray. “So, the old bird hit on you too?”

“Mark!” Juliette growled, hurrying up from behind. “Madame was being a gracious hostess. If you’re an ass all night, I swear I’m gonna chuck you in the Wannsee.”

Her voice was harsh, but Ian thought she looked like she wanted to laugh.

“Ian?” she asked. “I wonder if you could find us some drinks? I see somebody’s already helped himself.”

Ian chuckled and patted Mark’s shoulder sympathetically as he set off in search of a waiter. By the time he returned, balancing three champagne flutes in his hands, he saw that his little circle had expanded by two more midnight blue uniforms.

“Ian, my boy!” Colonel Spitz greeted warmly. “So glad you could make it. I know these evenings aren’t exactly scintillating, but I do like seeing my junior officers show up.”

“Thank you, sir,” he enunciated carefully, gingerly passing glasses around, trying not to spill.

“The major here was just telling me that he spotted some Zils pulling up,” Spitz continued. “It’s always interesting when our Soviet counterparts participate. They often don’t, you know.”

Juliette glanced at the main entrance. “Oh! Is it all right if we talk to them, sir? In Russian, I mean?”

“You might as well. I always do. It’s hardly a state secret that we listen in on them. Might as well keep them on their toes.”

“So what’s on the agenda, sir?” she asked. “We’ve never been to one of these before.”

“Oh, nothing, really. It’s all purely social, especially when the French are in charge. They do the best hors d’oeuvres and drinks! No dinner, I’m afraid. Dancing after the reception line winds down. Mostly waltzes, but starting around 9:30, they usually play some newer stuff so you younger folks can let your hair down a little.”

The colonel waved across the room, seeming to make eye contact with someone. The cluster of medals dangling from his chest jingled lightly. “If you’ll excuse me? My British counterpart seems to have arrived.”

Then he was off, the major in his wake, calling over his shoulder, “A little, Mark. You can let your hair down a LITTLE.”

Ian snorted behind his hand as Mark protested. “The man barely knows me!” Juliette rolled her eyes.

“This is really good,” Ian said, pointing at his glass. “Real champagne, I guess?”

Juliette nodded. “Wanna find some food? You must be starving. Haven’t you missed second lunch and first dinner already?”

They wandered around the ball room for a while snagging snacks off lacquered trays, listening as the string quartet filled the room with soft music. The trays seemed to float out of the kitchen in waves that Ian got pretty good at predicting and intercepting.

Debby and Juliette had left to find the ladies room, and he and Mark were reaching for more snail-filled pastries, when he heard his name. “Lt. Collins?” He turned to see Colonel Spitz striding up, an elaborately uniformed Russian at his side.

“Ah, there you are,” said the colonel. “General,” he continued in Russian, “I’d like you to meet two of the newest members of my staff. Lieutenants Collins and Carpenter, may I present General Arkady Gerov, commander of the Soviet Third Army?”

Ian watched as the small, thin Russian officer sketched a casual nod in his direction, pale eyes serious and professional.

“It’s a pleasure, sir,” he chimed in unison with Mark, feeling a little awed. The Third Army was a powerful, mechanized juggernaut that stared down NATO forces for the entire length of the inner German border. The commander’s mild look belied the killing power at his disposal. Slim and pale with wispy hair and watery blue eyes, he looked more like an accountant .

“It’s very nice to meet you both,” said the Soviet officer, sounding quite sincere. “Are you enjoying your posting in Berlin?” Not waiting for a response, he turned to the colonel. “Weren’t they right behind us?” He seemed to be scanning the crowd.

“You’re probably both bored silly here tonight,” he continued as he turned his attention back to Mark and Ian. “I would be,” he confided. “Though in my position, it would never do to admit that I actually am.”

Ian smiled noncommittally, wary of Spitz’s presence, but started to warm up to the little Russian general. Had that really been a half wink?

“I may be able to liven things up for you slightly,” the general said. “Though I’m afraid the evening holds no hope for me.” He put his champagne glass to his lips and tipped it back quickly, draining the contents.

“Ah, yes. Here they are!” he said as a tall, black-haired, bulky Soviet officer made his way to his side. “Colonel Spitz just introduced me to these two young officers. Allow me to present Lieutenants …”

Then he looked quizzically up at Spitz, who filled in the blanks for him. “Collins and Carpenter, sir.”

“Ah, yes — difficult language, English. I’ll try to remember. In any case, allow me to present my good friends General Fyodor Petrovich Borin …”

Ian was about to mouth a polite reply, when he realized Gerov wasn’t finished.

“… and his son, Dmitry Fyodorovich.”

Mark let out a strangled cough just as Dima walked around from behind the larger Soviet general.

Borin! thought Ian. Of course! How could I have forgotten that last name? “General Borin, Dmitry Fyodorovich,” he stammered as he caught sight of Dima’s eyes, which were as big as the base of the champagne flute he was trying not to drop.

Mark finished the greeting for him. “It’s a pleasure to meet you both.”

“I was just asking these young Americans how they find Berlin,” explained Gerov. “They only recently arrived.” He turned his attention to Dima. “You all have that in common.”

“Shall we leave the young people to get acquainted?” suggested Colonel Spitz. “I don’t believe you two gentlemen have met the new Berlin Brigade commander. Perhaps I could introduce you.”

He was just ushering the two Soviet generals away when Juliette rushed up. “Mark? Ian?” She looked Dima up and down like she couldn’t believe her eyes. “What are you doing here?”

Ian started to explain, but Debbie walked up, so as Juliette stared, he let Mark make a set of simple introductions instead. Dima played along coolly, and Ian finally had a chance to get a good long look at him, so handsome in an old fashioned black tux, hair slicked back and shiny. He looked liked he’d stepped out of an antique movie set.

Their eyes met, and they held each other’s gaze for too long.

“Listen!” Debbie said. “The music’s starting. Who’s ready to dance?”

“She doesn’t speak Russian,” Juliette said in Russian, smiling sweetly. “Now, Dima, what are you doing here?”

“I came with my father. I didn’t expect to see any of you. He told me it was a French affair.”

“Perfect,” Juliette purred. “Now I can waltz with my three best friends all in the same evening.” Switching to English, she gestured to the group. “Let’s go!”

Ian’s heart finally slowed down a little from the shock of running into Dima, then having to pretend not to know him. He broke into a huge smile. What a great night this would be.

As they all headed toward the music, Dima grabbed Ian’s arm and pulled him back. “Thank God! I needed … Something is … ” His voice broke.

Ian stopped short, his smile dissolving. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s a long story. We have to find a private place to talk. This may be the last time we ever see each other.”

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