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The Formula


“Some people would pay a lot of money for that information.”
It wasn’t said with menace, but that was the effect.
In her purse she had the tiniest camera
anyone in the control room had ever seen.
Like many widows her age she had transferred
her suspicion from the Germans to the Russians.
Berlin remained the center of the struggle,
which it had been since 1945 and maybe even earlier.
Of little use to her now was the pistol she kept in her underwear drawer.
Love had left her life except in its abstract and spiritual forms,
yet in her loins desire waxed and waned with the moon.
She had a matter-of-fact attitude toward sex.
It had been months since her last confession.

The formula was encrypted in a postcard of the Stephansdom
she had given her niece to mail to London
from the postbox at Friedmanngasse 52
three weeks and four cities ago, but
the man in the black trenchcoat couldn’t know that.
“I shall have to ask you to come with me,”
he said, and she tried to place the accent.
Latvia? The Ukraine? They were arguing about something
inside, but the voices subsided when they led her into the room.
“Relax. If I wanted you dead, you’d have been—”
He left the sentence unfinished. “Oh yes,” he said,
“I’ve had my eyes on you. Your perfume is nice,
very nice, but you may not get to wear it
where you’re going.” At his signal the others left the room.
“Unless—” There was a bottle of whiskey
and two shot glasses. Outside the fog rolled in
and dour men in motor caps rowed their small craft
in the canal to the base of the dungeon
while two black cars idled down the road.


David Lehman

The New Criterion

December 2011


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