Number One grunted. "I knew Ljubo well. You must realize that his arrest was before my time. I had no power to aid him. It was, of course, after my being elected to the Secretary Generalship that he was exonerated and his name restored to the list of those who have gloriously served the State. But then, of course, you bear no malice at this late date. Ljubo has been posthumously given the hero's award."
It wasn't exactly the way Josip knew the story, but there was little point in his objecting. He simply nodded. He said, unhappily, "Comrades, I feel some mistake has been made. I ... I have no idea--"
Kardelj was chuckling, as though highly pleased with some development. He held up a hand to cut Josip short and turned to his superior. "You see, Zoran. A most average, laudable young man. Born under our regime, raised under the People's Democratic Dictatorship. Exactly our man."
Zoran Jankez seemed not to hear the other. He was studying Josip heavily, all but gloomily.
A beefy paw went out and banged a button inset in the table and which Josip had not noticed before. Almost instantly a door in the rear opened and a white-jacketed servant entered, pushing a wheeled combination bar and hors d'oeuvres cart before him. He brought the lavishly laden wagon to within reach of the heavy-set Party head, his face in servile expressionlessness.
Jankez grunted something and the waiter, not quite bowing and scraping, retreated again from the room. Number One's heavy lips moved in and out as his eyes went over the display.
Kardelj said easily, "Let me, Zoran." He arose and brought a towel-wrapped bottle from a refrigerated bucket set into the wagon, and deftly took up a delicate three-ounce glass which he filled and placed before his superior. He took up another and raised his eyebrows at Josip Pekic who shook his head--a stomach as queasy as his wasn't going to be helped by alcohol. Kardelj poured a short one for himself and resumed his place at the heavy conference table.
Jankez, his eyes small and piggish, took up a heavy slice of dark bread and ladled a full quarter pound of Danube caviar upon it. He took up the glass and tossed the chilled spirits back over his palate, grunted and stuffed the open sandwich into his mouth.
Josip's eyes went to the hors d'oeuvres wagon. The spread would have cost him six months' income.
Number One rumbled, his mouth full, "Comrade, I am not surprised at your confusion. We will get to the point immediately. Actually, you must consider yourself a very fortunate young man." He belched, took another huge bite, then went on. "Have you ever heard the term, expediter?"
"I ... I don't know ... I mean think so, Comrade Jankez."
The party head poured himself some more of the yellow spirits and took down half of it. "It is not important," he rasped. "Comrade Kardelj first came upon the germ of this project of ours whilst reading of American industrial successes during the Second World War. They were attempting to double, triple, quadruple their production of such war materiel as ships and aircraft in a matter of mere months. Obviously, a thousand bottlenecks appeared. All was confusion. So they resorted to expediters. Extremely competent efficiency engineers whose sole purpose was to seek out such bottlenecks and eliminate them. A hundred aircraft might be kept from completion by the lack of a single part. The expediter found them though they be as far away as England, and flew them by chartered plane to California. A score of top research chemists might be needed for a certain project in Tennessee, the expediter located them, though it meant the stripping of valued men from jobs of lesser importance. I need give no further examples. Their powers were sweeping. Their expense accounts unlimited. Their successes unbelievable." Number One's eyes went back to the piles of food, as though he'd grown tired of so much talk.
Josip fidgeted, still uncomprehending.
While the Party leader built himself a huge sandwich of Dalmatian ham and pohovano pile chicken, Aleksander Kardelj put in an enthusiastic word. "We're adapting the idea to our own needs, Comrade. You have been selected to be our first expediter."
If anything, Josip Pekic was more confused than ever. "Expediter," he said blankly. "To ... to expedite what?"
"That is for you to decide," Kardelj said blithely. "You're our average Transbalkanian. You feel as the average man in the street feels. You're our what the Yankees call, Common Man."
Josip said plaintively, "You keep saying that, but I don't know what you mean, Comrade. Please forgive me, perhaps I'm dense, but what is this about me being uh, the average man? There's nothing special about me. I...."
"Exactly," Kardelj said triumphantly. "There's nothing special about you. You're the average man of all Transbalkania. We have gone to a great deal of difficulty to seek you out."
Number One belched and took over heavily. "Comrade, we have made extensive tests in this effort to find our average man. You are the result. You are of average age, of average height, weight, of education, and of intelligence quotient. You finished secondary school, worked for several years, and have returned to the university where you are now in your second year. Which is average for you who have been born in your generation. Your tastes, your ambitions, your ... dreams, Comrade Pekic, are either known to be, or assumed to be, those of the average Transbalkanian." He took up a rich baklava dessert, saturated with honey, and devoured it.
Josip Pekic and his associates had wondered at some of the examinations and tests that had been so prevalent of recent date. He accepted the words of the two Party leaders. Very well, he was the average of the country's some seventy million population. Well, then?
Number One had pushed himself back in his chair, and Josip was only mildly surprised to note that the man seemed considerably paunchier than his photos indicated. Perhaps he wore a girdle in public.
Zoran Jankez took up a paper. "I have here a report from a journalist of the West who but recently returned from a tour of our country. She reports, with some indignation, that the only available eyebrow pencils were to be found on the black market, were of French import, and cost a thousand dinars apiece. She contends that Transbalkanian women are indignant at paying such prices."
The Party head looked hopelessly at first Josip and then Kardelj. "What is an eyebrow pencil?"
Kardelj said, a light frown on his usually easygoing face, "I believe it is a cosmetic."
"You mean like lipstick?"
Josip took courage. He flustered. "They use it to darken their eyebrows--women, I mean. From what I understand, it comes and goes in popularity. Right now, it is ultra-popular. A new, uh, fad originating in Italy, is sweeping the West."
Number One stared at him. "How do you know all that?" he rasped.
Josip fiddled with the knot of his tie, uncomfortably. "It is probably in my dossier that I have journeyed abroad on four occasions. Twice to International Youth Peace Conferences, once as a representative to a Trades Union Convention in Vienna, and once on a tourist vacation guided tour. On those occasions I ... ah ... met various young women of the West."
Kardelj said triumphantly, "See what I mean, Zoran? This comrade is priceless."
Jankez looked at his right-hand man heavily. "Why, if our women desire this ... this eyebrow pencil nonsense, is it not supplied them? Is there some ingredient we do not produce? If so, why cannot it be imported?" He picked at his uneven teeth with a thumbnail.
Kardelj held his lean hands up, as though in humorous supplication. "Because, Comrade, to this point we have not had expediters to find out such desires on the part of women comrades."
Number One grunted. He took up another report. "Here we have some comments upon service in our restaurants, right here in Zagurest, from an evidently widely published American travel reporter. He contends that the fact that there is no tipping leads to our waiters being surly and inefficient."
He glared up at his right-hand man. "I have never noticed when I have dined at the Sumadija or the Dva Ribara, that the waiters have been surly. And only last week I enjoyed cigansko pecenje, gypsy roast, followed by a very flaky cherry strudla, at the Gradski Podrum. The service was excellent."
Kardelj cleared his throat. "Perhaps you receive better service than the average tourist, Zoran."
Jankez growled, "The tourist trade is important. An excellent source of hard currencies." He glowered across at Josip. "These are typical of the weaknesses you must ferret out, Comrade."
He put the reports down with a grunt. "But these are comparatively minor. Last week a truck driver attached to a meat-packing house in Belbrovnik was instructed to deliver a load of frozen products to a town in Macenegro. When he arrived there, it was to find they had no refrigeration facilities. So he unloaded the frozen meat on a warehouse platform and returned to Belbrovnik. At this time of the year, obviously in four hours the meat was spoiled." He glowered at Kardelj and then at Josip Pekic. "Why do things like this continually happen? How can we overtake the United States of the Americas and Common Europe, when on all levels our workers are afraid to take initiative? That truck driver fulfilled his instructions. He delivered the meat. He washed his hands of what happened to it afterward. Why, Comrades? Why did he not have the enterprise to preserve his valuable load, even, if necessary, make the decision to return with it to Belbrovnik?"
He grunted heavily and settled back into his chair as though through, finished with the whole question.
Aleksander Kardelj became brisk. He said to Josip Pekic with a smile, "This is your job. You are to travel about the country, finding bottlenecks, finding shortages, ferreting out mistakes and bringing them to the attention of those in position to rectify them."
Josip said glumly, "But suppose ... suppose they ignore my findings?"
Number One snorted, but said nothing.
Kardelj said jovially, "Tomorrow the announcements will go out to every man, woman and child in the People's Democratic Dictatorship. Your word is law. You are answerable only to Comrade Jankez and myself. No restrictions whatsoever apply to you. No laws. No regulations. We will give you identification which all will recognize, and the bearer of which can do no wrong."
Josip was flabbergasted. "But ... but suppose I come up against some ... well, someone high in the Party, or, well ... some general or admiral? Some--"
Kardelj said jocularly, "You answer only to us, Comrade Pekic. Your power is limitless. Comrade Jankez did not exaggerate. Frankly, were cold statistics enough, Transbalkania has already at long last overtaken the West in per capita production. Steel, agriculture, the tonnage of coal mined, of petroleum pumped. All these supposed indications of prosperity." He flung up his hands again in his semihumorous gesture of despair. "But all these things do not mesh. We cannot find such a simple matter as ... as eyebrow pencils in our stores, nor can we be served acceptably in our restaurants and hotels. Each man passes the buck, as the Yankees say, and no man can care less whether or not school keeps. No man wants responsibility."
Josip was aghast, all over again. "But ... but me ... only me. What could you expect a single person to do?"
"Don't misunderstand, Comrade," Kardelj told him with amused compassion. "You are but an experiment. If it works out, we will seek others who are also deemed potential expediters to do similar work. Now, are there any further questions?"
Josip Pekic stared miserably back and forth between the two, wondering wildly what they would say if he turned the whole thing down. His eyes lit on the dour, heavy Number One, and inwardly he shook his head. No. There was no question about that. You didn't turn down Zoran Jankez. He looked at Aleksander Kardelj, and in spite of the other's smiling face, he decided you didn't turn down Number Two, either.
Josip said carefully, "From what you say, I ... I can override anyone in Transbalkania, except yourselves. But ... but what if I antagonize one of you? You know ... with something I think I find wrong?"
The second in command of the Party chuckled, even as he fitted a fresh cigarette into his curved holder. "We've provided even for that, Comrade. Fifty thousand Common Europe francs have been deposited to your account in Switzerland. At any time you feel your revelations might endanger yourself, you are free to leave the country and achieve sanctuary abroad." He chuckled whimsically again. "Given the position you will occupy, a man above all law, with the whole of the nation's resources at his disposal, I cannot imagine you wishing to leave. The Swiss deposit is merely to give you complete confidence, complete security."
Number One was radiating fury as he stalked heavily down the corridors of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. On the surface, his face displayed nothing--which meant nothing. There was simply a raging aura of trouble.
Veljko Gosnjak, posted with one other before the office of Aleksander Kardelj, winced when he saw the Party head approaching. He muttered from the side of his mouth, "Watch out. He's on a rampage. In this mood, he'd as well set you to filling salt shakers in the Nairebis mines as...."
But Zoran Jankez was now near enough that he might hear, and Veljko Gosnjak cut himself off abruptly and came to even stiffer attention.
Number One ignored them both and pushed on through the door.
Even as his right-hand man looked up from his work, Jankez was growling ominously. "Do you know the latest from that brain-wave experiment?"
Kardelj was close enough to the other personally to at least pretend lack of awe. He grinned and said, "You mean young Josip? Sit down, Zoran. A drink?"
The Number Two Party man swiveled slightly and punched out a code on a series of buttons. Almost immediately, an area of approximately one square foot sank down from the upper right-hand corner of his desk, to rise again bearing two chilled glasses.
Jankez snorted his anger but took up one of the glasses. "These everlasting gadgets from the West," he growled. "One of these days, this confounded desk of yours will give you an electric shock that will set me to looking for a new assistant." He threw the contents of the glass back over his palate. "If I don't start looking before that time," he added ominously.
However, he savored the drink, then put down the glass, pursed his lips and rumbled, "Where do you get this excellent slivovka, Aleksander?"
Kardelj sipped part of his own drink. He said lightly, "That is the only secret I keep from you, Zoran. However, I will give you this hint. Its proper name is sljivovica, rather than slivovka. It does not come from Slovenia. I am afraid, once you know its origin, I will no longer be of use to you."
He laughed again. "But what is it that young Josip has done?"
His superior's face resumed its dark expression. He growled, "You know Velimir Crvenkovski, of course."
Kardelj raised scanty eyebrows. "Of course, Vice chairman of the Secretariat of Agriculture."
Zoran Jankez had lowered his clumsy bulk into a chair. Now he said heavily, his voice dangerous. "Velimir and I were partisans together. It was I who converted him to the Party, introduced him to the works of Lenin while we squatted in foxholes in Macenegro."
"Of course," the other repeated. "I know the story very well. A good Party man, Comrade Crvenkovski, never failing to vote with you in meetings of the Executive Committee."
"Yes," Jankez growled ominously. "And your precious Josip Pekic, your expediter, has removed him from his position as supreme presider of agriculture in Bosnatia."
Aleksander Kardelj cleared his throat. "I have just been reading the account. It would seem that production has fallen off considerably in the past five years in Bosnatia. Ah, Comrade Crvenkovski evidently had brought to his attention that wild life in the countryside, particularly birds, accounted for the loss of hundreds of thousands of tons of cereals and other produce annually."
"A well-known fact," Jankez rasped. He finished what remained of his drink, and reached forward to punch out the order for a fresh one. "What has that got to do with this pipsqueak using the confounded powers you invested him with to dismiss one of the best Party men in Transbalkania?"
His right-hand man had not failed to note that he was now being given full credit for the expediter idea. He said, still cheerfully, however, "It would seem that Comrade Crvenkovski issued top priority orders to kill off, by whatever means possible, all birds. Shotguns, poison, nets were issued by the tens of thousands to the peasants."
"Well?" his superior said ominously. "Obviously, Velimir was clear minded enough to see the saving in gross production."
"Um-m-m," Kardelj said placatingly. "However, he failed to respond to the warnings of our agriculturists who have studied widely in the West. It seems as though the balance of nature calls for the presence of wildlife, and particularly birds. The increase in destructive insects has more than counterbalanced the amount of cereals the birds once consumed. Ah, Zoran," he said with a wry smile, "I would suggest we find another position for Comrade Crvenkovski."
The secretary-receptionist looked up at long last at the very average looking young man before him. "Yes," he said impatiently.
The stranger said, "I would like to see Comrade Broz."
"Surely you must realize that the Commissar is one of the busiest men in Transbalkania, Comrade." There was mocking sneer in the tone. "His time is not at the disposal of every citizen."
The newcomer looked at the petty authority thoughtfully. "Do you so address everyone that enters this office?" he asked mildly.
The other stared at him flabbergasted. He suddenly banged upon a button on the desk.
When the security guard responded to the summons, he gestured curtly with his head at the newcomer. "Throw this fool out, Petar," he rapped.
Josip Pekic shook his head, almost sadly. "No," he said. "Throw this man out." He pointed at the secretary-receptionist.
The guard called Petar blinked at each of them in turn.
Josip brought forth his wallet, fidgeted a moment with the contents, then flashed his credentials. "State expediter," he said nervously. "Under direct authority of Comrade Zoran Jankez." He looked at the suddenly terrified receptionist. "I don't know what alternative work we can find to fit your talents. However, if I ever again hear of you holding down a position in which you meet the public, I will ... will, ah, see you imprisoned."
The other scurried from the room before Josip thought of more to say.
Josip Pekic looked at the guard for a long moment. He said finally, unhappy still, "What are you needed for around here?"
"Why yes, Comrade. I am the security guard."
Petar, obviously no brain at the best, was taken aback.
"You didn't answer my question." Josip's hands were jittering so he jammed them into his pockets.
Petar had to think back to remember the wording of the question in question. Finally he came up triumphantly with, "Yes, Comrade. I guard Comrade Broz and the others from assassins. I am armed." He proudly displayed the Mikoyan Noiseless which he had holstered under his left shoulder.
Josip said, "Go back to your superior and inform him that I say you are superfluous on this assignment. No longer are commissars automatically to be guarded. Only under special circumstances. If ... well, if our people dislike individual commissars sufficiently to wish to assassinate them, maybe they need assassination."
Petar stared at him.
"Oh, get out," Josip said, with attempted sharpness. But then, "What door leads to Comrade Broz's office?"
Petar pointed, then got out. At least he knew how to obey orders, Josip decided. What was there about the police mentality? Were they like that before they became police, and the job sought them out? Or did the job make them all that way?
He pushed his way through the indicated door. The office beyond held but one inhabitant who stood, hands clasped behind his back, while he stared in obvious satisfaction at a wall of charts, maps and graphs.
The average young man looked at some of the lettering on the charts and shook his head. He said, his voice hesitant, "Commissar Broz?"
The other turned, frowning, not recognizing his caller and surprised to find him here without announcement. He said, "Yes, young man?"
Josip presented his credentials again.
Broz had heard of him. He hurried forth a chair, became expansive in manner. A cigar? A drink? A great pleasure to meet the Comrade Expediter. He had heard a great deal about the new experiment initiated by Comrade Jankez and ably assisted by Aleksander Kardelj. Happily, an expediter was not needed in the Transbalkanian Steel Complex. It was expanding in such wise as to be the astonishment of the world, both East and West.
"Yes," Josip began glumly, "but--"
Broz was back on his feet and to his wall of charts and graphs. "See here," he beamed expansively. "This curve is steel production. See how it zooms? A veritable Sputnik, eh? Our statistics show that we are rapidly surpassing even the most foremost of the Western powers."
Josip Pekic said, almost apologetically in view of the other's enthusiasm. "That's what I came to discuss with you, Comrade. You see, I've been sitting around, ah, in the local wineshops, talking it over with the younger engineers and the men on the job."
The other frowned at him. "Talking what over?"