The uniformed man was standing at the window, looking across at a blank wall of stone. The wall, while not fascinating, did appear to hold his attention as the other man in the room gave his report. When the report was completed, the uniformed man spoke.
“Good. I want no mistakes, Vadim.”
“No mistakes,” Vadim said.
“The consequences of a mistake will be-”
“No mistakes,” Vadim repeated. “We have him. As Lenin said, a single claw ensnared and the bird is lost. We have that claw ensnared.”
The uniformed man at the window said nothing for perhaps half a minute and then turned and spoke.
“We have him when it is done. Understand that. And no one will be involved, have any specific knowledge but you, me, and Nikolai.”
“I understand, Comrade,” Vadim said.
The uniformed man now faced Vadim and looked into his eyes.
“The times are perilous,” he said. “The romantics are taking over all across the Soviet Union. Weasels who cheered us yesterday, today call for rebellion, chaos, all in the name of freedom. Religion is no longer the opiate of the people.
Vadim was attentive. Basically he agreed with his superior, though he thought the game they were playing was less philosophical and more pragmatic than the uniformed man had stated it. He was also uneasy about his superior’s sharing of his thoughts about the project in which they were engaged. It was generally best simply to act and not to carry information that might later be an embarrassment, an embarrassment that his superior might decide to remove.
“Report again tomorrow,” the uniformed man said abruptly, perhaps sensing that he had said too much. He moved to his desk and Vadim turned smartly and left the room. The corridors of the KGB building echoed with the clap of his shoes. It was late, but he still had work to do, things to check. There could be no mistake. His superior was certainly right. A mistake and they could both be facing something far more fearsome than the presence of the Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company.
Boris Trush rubbed the top of his head where he had just been hit with a stalk of celery. The stalk had exploded from the unexpected, at least to Boris, collision with his head, and pieces of vegetable had sprayed around the room.
“The man is dense,” the young man said, looking back at the older man.
In the past few hours, Boris Trush had discovered the names of his captors. The older man was Peotor Kotsis, the younger his son Vasily. The other four people at the crumbling farmhouse had gone unnamed and, essentially, unseen since Boris had pulled the bus into the barn where he had been directed. Three men had climbed into the bus and had begun to move the body of the laborer as Vasily and Peotor had led Boris to the main house and the small room in which he now found himself nursing the emotional if not physical bruise of having been hit on the head with a stalk of celery.
“Look what I did,” Vasily said.
Boris was seated on a bed in the corner.
“Look what I did,” Vasily repeated, and Boris looked at the various pieces of celery he could see from where he sat. He also looked at the older man, who stood against the wall near the door, arms folded.
“Look what you made me do,” Vasily amended. “You are stubborn and stupid, Boris. I’m not trying to offend you here. Are you offended?”
“I’m not offended,” said Boris.
“Good,” said Vasily on his hands and knees, looking for a missing piece of stalk. “But you are stupid. You understand your situation here. If you weren’t stupid, you’d be agreeing with me.”
“But-” Boris said.
“No!” shouted Vasily, getting to his feet and throwing celery pieces on the table. “If you’re not going to make sense, don’t speak!”
“You wish to live, Boris,” said the older man against the wall.
“Yes,” said Boris.
“It wasn’t a question,” said Vasily with a sigh. “He was telling you. My father was telling you, reminding you.”
“But we will be killed,” Boris said in anguish.
Vasily removed his gun from his pocket and moved toward Boris on the bed.
“And what will happen if you don’t?” he asked.
“This isn’t right,” Boris appealed to the elder Kotsis. “I’m just a bus driver.”
“And that is precisely what we need,” Peotor Kotsis said gently.
“You want me to drive all of you into Red Square so you can blow up Lenin’s Tomb,” Boris said. “We’ll all be killed.”
“Not necessarily, Boris,” Peotor continued. “We do not wish to die, though we are willing to do so if necessary. We, Vasily, you, I, will all die eventually. This day, a year from now, ten years from now. There are causes bigger than ourselves, Boris.”
“I’d like to choose my own causes,” said Boris, cautiously keeping an eye on Vasily.
“But you do not have that luxury in this case,” Peotor said. “You waited too long. Would you rather die with a bullet in your head here or die having changed history?”
“I don’t want to make the choice,” said Boris. “This is a nightmare.”
“Life is a nightmare, Boris,” Vasily whispered into his ear. “If you could enter my head for five minutes, you would know it.”
“You have another ten seconds to think about it, Boris,” Peotor said.
“No,” Boris whimpered. “There are no bus routes near the square. You take the Metro or a trolley. We’ll be stopped before we-”
“Eight seconds,” said Peotor. “You’re not even looking at your watch!” Boris cried. “Six seconds.”
“I need a toilet!” Boris pleaded. “Three seconds.”
Vasily raised his pistol and aimed it at Boris’s right eye. “I’ll do it!” Boris shouted.
Vasily put the gun at his side and said, “Welcome to our cause.”
“He’s just a man, a man at sunset,” the apparently male voice shrieked from the phonograph.
Elena Vostoyavek looked at her son across the room and considered telling him, asking him to turn down the screaming man or woman, but Yuri seemed lost in thought, on a distant planet. He sat slouched in the worn sofa in the corner, the sofa Elena’s husband had died on five years earlier. Yuri resembled him, was even sitting in the same position in which she had discovered Igor early that March morning. Elena wanted to tell Yuri that if he wouldn’t turn the music down or off maybe he could move to a different position, unfold his hands, take that look from his face.
The man on the record shrieked more words about someone going to a meeting. Drums beat, horns blared.
“Come and eat before you go to work!” she called, waiting for something that resembled a lull in the sound her son thought was music.
“I’m not hungry,” Yuri replied, closing his eyes as if any question she asked him, any comment she made, was a burden he could no longer bear.
Their apartment, two rooms, was in a block of 1960s ten-story white concrete squares near Vostochnaya Street. If an identical building did not block their view they would have been able to see the Palace of Culture of the Likhachev Auto Works.
“You’ll be late,” Elena said gently.
Yuri sighed deeply with the weight of the world upon him and stood up. He was, Elena tried to judge as objectively as possible, a handsome boy, blond, blue eyes, a bit slender, with a pouting mouth. She moved to his side to pull down his loose-fitting gray sweater, and he suffered her to do it for him.
“The music is loud, Yuri,” she said gently.
“It is supposed to be,” he whispered.
“But the neighbors …”
“… think nothing of getting drunk, fighting all night,” he went on, moving to the table to examine the bread his mother had put out. “If we are to hear every word of their banality through these walls of paper, then they can be entertained by my music. Besides, they’ve all left for work by now.”
“Mrs. Gruchin is an old woman. She’s …”
“… almost deaf,” Yuri said, moving to the record player as the singing man shouted as if warning him not to stop the concert, but Yuri did not heed. He pushed a button, and the noise ceased in midbeat. The arm of the phonograph rose and moved to the right, clicked off as the turntable stopped. And all was silence.
“He’s louder than the American.” Elena tried moving to the table to prepare him a thick slice of bread and a piece of cheese.
“The American is English,” Yuri explained, moving to the table and accepting the bread and cheese. “He used to be a Beatle.”
Elena worked at the Moyantka Carpet Store on the Arbat. She worked in the factory room and hardly ever saw customers, which suited her just fine. Elena and Vladimir Tsorkin cut remnants, trimmed rugs, kept the records, and supervised the cleaning and maintenance crews. Tsorkin was getting old and smelled musty like the old specials, the Oriental rugs in the locked room, but Elena liked him and looked forward to getting to work.
“I’ve got to leave, Yuri,” she said. “I’ll clean up when I come home. I’ll get something special for dinner.”
“I won’t be home for dinner,” he said between bites.
“Well, I would like to make you something special,” she said, moving to the rack in the corner, where she retrieved her coat. “It’s supposed to be cold and wet tonight. You could use the rest. You haven’t …”
He looked up at her, pausing in midbite of a piece of cheese.
“What are you so nervous about?” he asked.
“Me? I’m not nervous. I just don’t want you getting into … I don’t know,” she said.
Yuri shook his head, put down his bread, and moved to his mother at the door. He was about five inches taller than his mother and looked down at her.
“I worry about you, Yuri,” she said. “You’ve been … thinking.”
He smiled, put his arms around her, and kissed the top of her head.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly, his head above her so she couldn’t see his face. “I’ve had a great deal to think about.”
“Don’t do anything silly, Yuri,” she said, pushing away from him and looking up into his face.
He grinned, the same grin he had grinned since he was a baby.
“I never do silly things, Mother,” he said.
“I mean … the girl,” Elena said. “You’re going to see her tonight. That’s why you won’t be home.”
Yuri didn’t answer. He continued to smile down at her like a parent at an ignorant but much-loved child.
“Bring her here,” Elena insisted.
Yuri shook his head no.
“Are you ashamed of me?”
Yuri shook his head no.
“She’s not trying to get you to … do bad things, is she?”
“No,” he said with a false laugh. “Where did you get such a crazy idea?”
“I’m late,” she said, pulling her coat around her, checking her pocketbook, counting her change, fidgeting, unwilling to go through the door and leave him.
“I’ll clean up and go to work,
Elena smiled at him, a most unconvincing smile, and went out the door.
Yuri did as he said he would do. He put the bread, cheese, and tea away and cleaned the table with a damp rag. Then he washed his face, brushed his teeth with the last of the Czech tooth powder his mother had purchased almost a year ago, and combed his hair. He had much to do. He would go down to the phone in the People’s Room of the housing complex and call Comrade Sukov-Helmst at the Telegraph Building. He would cough, speak hoarsely, say that he was going to the clinic with a terrible chill and temperature. Comrade Sukov-Helmst would be very understanding. Yuri Vostoyavek was not only a good worker who never missed a day, he was also Comrade Sukov-Helmst’s favorite nephew.
Yuri moved to the phonograph, turned the screws holding it with his thumbnail, lifted the top of the turntable, and reached down to remove the small pistol wedged among the wires.
Lydia Tkach, much to her son’s surprise, had not taken badly the news of her forthcoming expulsion from the household. At first, this had filled Sasha with relief. After she had changed the baby, Maya had left the apartment claiming that she had promised to visit Olga Stashak on the floor below.
Sasha had calmly, insistently told his mother of the decision, explained the difficulty of the situation, alluded to Maya’s discomfort while insisting that the decision, the painful decision, was his. He had painted it as brightly as it could be painted, telling her that they would be nearby, that Lydia would be with someone her own age and with her own interests. Sasha had talked, waiting, expecting to be interrupted, but Lydia had said nothing. He was afraid he was speaking too softly, that with her poor hearing she had absorbed none of it, but when he paused to ask her if she understood, she nodded. And he had gone on, talking subsidies, visits, relatives, love, understanding, the cultural revolution, the history of Russia, the history of their family as far back as his memory would allow him to recall. Sasha, sure he had begun to sweat, had refrained from reaching up to push the hair from in front of his eyes.
And still Lydia had said nothing.
“What do you think?” he had concluded.
His mother had smiled knowingly, as if she had just received confirmation of some irony she had long suspected, but she said nothing, got up, took her teacup, and moved into her room.
For five minutes after she left the room, Sasha Tkach, who in the course of his career had shot a young man and several times almost been killed himself, who had confronted rapists, murderers, drug users, and religious and political fanatics, sat trembling.
The explosion from Lydia would come later. That was it. Lydia needed time to plan, to construct a response, a scenario. She would spring it on him late at night, the next morning, sometime when he didn’t expect it. He would have to be prepared. But still he was grateful she had said nothing.
That was last night. Now it was morning, and the three of them sat at the table in silence, drinking tea, watching Pulcharia eat small pieces of boiled kasha with her fingers. Cups clinked, the baby babbled. Under the table, Maya touched Sasha’s hand reassuringly.
Minutes earlier Sasha had received a call from Petrovka, a call he should be thinking about but could not.
Lydia finished her tea, rose from the table, pulled her black dress down to remove the wrinkles, and looked at her son.
“I have three words to say,” Lydia said.
Pulcharia, startled, looked up at her grandmother and gurgled.
“Ingratitude,” Lydia said. “Irresponsibility. Disrespect.”
With that she strode across the room, grabbing her coat as she moved, and went through the door.
With the slam of the door, Pulcharia began to cry and Sasha Tkach realized that he had to rouse himself and go out in search of a missing bus and driver.
“I’m sorry,” Maya said.
“I’ve got to go,” Sasha answered, getting up.
“You did what had to be done,” Maya said, taking the crying baby from her wooden high chair and kissing her cheek.
“She was right,” Sasha said, moving to get his jacket from the closet. “I owe her a great deal.”
“We all owe our parents a great deal,” Maya said gently. “But we cannot spend our entire lives paying the debt. Parents should understand that. My parents understand that.”
“You are missing the point,” Sasha said with mounting irritation.
“And that is?” asked Maya, offering Pulcharia a bottle that the baby grabbed greedily.
“My mother should have time. She has no friends. She’s alone. Damn. There’s a stain on my jacket.”
“Take it off,” said Maya. “I’ll clean it.”
“No time,” he snapped. “I’m late.”
“I’m sorry you’re so upset, Sashaska,” Maya said.
Tkach hurried across the room and gave his wife and baby identical kisses on the cheek.
“You are blaming me, Sasha,” Maya said as he opened the front door.
“I am not blaming you, Maya,” he said with a sigh.
“And you are not kissing me,” she said.
“I’m late,” he answered.
And he went out the door, closing it hard behind him.
Zelach was waiting for him in a Zhiguli with a defective heater and the tendency to pull to the left. Tkach opened the passenger door and slid in.
“I’ve been waiting,” Zelach said, pulling away from the curb.
“I haven’t had anything to eat,” Zelach went on. “You know that stand at the Kiev Railway Station, the one where the Jews sell those meat pies?”
“Knishes,” Tkach said with a grunt.
“Do you mind if I stop for a few?”
Tkach grunted and Zelach took that for an affirmation.
“Where will we start after we eat?” Zelach asked.
“They found a body,” Tkach said, looking out the window. “Dumped on a road off the Outer Ring. Man named Tolvenavov. Shot.”
“So?” Zelach said.
“He was due home last night,” Tkach went on. “He takes route seventy-five; the missing bus was on that route. Computer put it together this morning after they fed in information from the dead man’s wife. Made a match with our request for cross-checking on what we had about bus and driver. Shevlov called me when it came through.”
Zelach nodded. Even copying machines were a source of confusion to him, a confusion he tried to hide with nods of understanding that sometimes got him in trouble.
“So, where do we go?”
“To the laboratory to see if the dead man can tell us something. Can I ask you something, Zelach?”
Zelach nodded uncertainly.
“Do you have a mother, Zelach?”
Zelach barely avoided hitting a grunting Volga that pulled ahead of him in a hurry as they moved off the Borodino Bridge.
“Everyone has a mother,” Zelach answered.
“She’s alive?” Tkach asked, glancing at a young woman hurrying with a small suitcase toward the entrance of the Kiev Railway Station. He could not see the woman’s face, but her legs were firm and long and he could imagine her heels clicking against the concrete. Zelach pulled over and parked the car, nodding at the uniformed policeman in front of the station who was about to order him on before recognizing the license plate and the driver.
“Yes,” he said. “I live with my mother. You know that.”
“I didn’t remember,” said Sasha.
“My mother has bad legs,” said Zelach, opening the car door. “Can’t walk much. You are lucky. Your mother is well, working, able to take care of herself.”
“I’m very lucky,” said Sasha.
“We’re both lucky,” Zelach amended. “You want a knish?”
“Why not?” said Sasha with a shrug.