“A TOAST,” SAID OUR HOST AND CONTACT, SKURATOV. LIKE MOST of his countryfolk he flashed steel teeth, and resembled a car’s grille when he smiled. He’d treated us to the Brotherhood of Money restaurant on Gorki Street. In Moscow restaurants the first decor systems noticed, once eyes unblinded beneath overhead flood’s glare, were the enormous wallpapered ads. From each the long-rotted leader glowered at his descendants as they chowed. In twelvecolor holograph the Big Boy modeled furs, guzzled kvas, smirked at his reflection in freshly waxed Lenin, patted puppies’ heads, spun the wheels of Hungarian sportsters and proffered tubes of holistic nostrums. If his icon was on it, Russians bought it. Stalin sold everything from laser printers to pantyhose. “To great general–”
“Spassebo. Retired general,” I reminded. Retired, with reason. Twenty-seven army years proved overmuch. In business was no less danger but the pay was twice tripled.
Marx’s and Lenin’s dead pans were found, too: in the Buros, on apparatchiks’ desks, in the wallets of workers for the Ministry of History.
That team couldn’t leg it like the Big Boy when it came to pumping profits. BBDS & S, Dryco’s ad arm, discovered this through countrycrossed demoteering analysis done for Krasnaya while Russian-backed Saharan forces assaulted a tenth, final time American-supplied Zairian troops. We sustained a personnel realignment of 275,000 in that entanglement–by chance, the same number of people who were surveyed. Didn’t matter; the casualties would have never spent like the survivors.
“To great retired general, Robert Luther Biggerstaff,” Skuratov continued, hoisting his complimentary glass of mineral water. I raised mine, examining it against the light; saw it unsullied clear, as in a stream, on a field nonbattle betrammeled.
“Na zdorovye,” I said.
‘das vydanya,” said Jake, for whom one lingua sufficed. I wondered how Skuratov saw my associate. Jake’s first impression was glacierlike; showing as something immeasurably cold which crushed all before it. Skuratov smiled, hearing the error. Jake knew why he smiled. I activated the minicam sewn into my jacket, rolling the tape. Our host and guide drummed fingertips against the crimson tablecloth with a five/four beat, Morsing the code.
OVERHEAD CAM ANGLE DESTABILIZED. SHOOT.
“A young man still,” he said. “Thirty when generalship conferred, yes?”
“Thirty-five,” I said. Generalship conferred unwanted, lived with thereafter. “I lucked.”
“Turnover rate in your army gloriously high at the time if memory serves true. We know great men take their place in history with little need of luck, even in America where you negritanski suffer such difficulties–”
“Black.” Suffered little; my family held money bushelsful before the collapse. Joining the army was the sole method to thrive and prosper further at the time, and I joined as a second lieutenant. “Like Pushkin,” I added. He drained his glass and rephrased.
“To all poets of color.”
NO SIGN ALEKHINE, he tapped. I pressed knee against table’s underside, muffling vibes to throw overaware readers. THREE WEEKS GONE. So long as the cassette spun anything misread could be decoded later, reviewed in-hotel. If you wished to plug Russian ears this was standard op. In Russia, even when trees didn’t fall, they were heard.
WHERE? I wondered. Solid cover alluded to my meeting reps of our company’s Russian arm, Vladamer–true, in a sense; Maliuta Skuratov, as he called himself, was our leading subcontractor. Jake came as my enabler, undesired by me, an extra ingredient to spoil the sauce. We were meeting none but Skuratov for none other than to effect Alekhine’s transfer to our department.
HE WALKS THE WIND.
“Why aren’t we knived?” Jake asked, shaking his contagion-free-stamped dinner packet. In his, as in ours, was but a napkin, spoon and fork with rounded tines. Said cutlery looked metal, felt plastic; was some unwarranted alliance of both, like that solid used in rocket-part production which always failed when most essentialled.
WE TAKE HIS ASSOCIATE.
“Too handy in event of nondinner maneuvers,” said Skuratov. His crust of dark wool suit sufficed for daily performance, but his footwear betrayed the lie that lay always beneath truth; calfskin Italians in brown and white, handstitched by Neapolitan serfs, cozied his toes. His family was of the old nomenklatura, who had eased so fittingly into Krasnaya ways after the reimplementations (the Czara and Politburo answered to Krasnaya as the President and Congress answered to us, to Dryco). In younger life–he was my age–he was one of the zolotaya holodyozh, or golden youth. ‘so the belief is ruled. Risk of contretemps, yes? Russian food tender enough not to demand sharp utensils.”
SHE IS A HOYDEN. A TERMAGANT.
From his white vest Jake slid his switch, flicking it open. Bladed, his utensil stood fourteen inches, appearing suitable for dropping trees. He gracefully slashed the packet as if lending a birthmark to one heretofore unblemished, spilling contents across his place mat. He tabled his knife to the left of his spoon.
“We hear so much that is interesting concerning Jake,” Skuratov said, staring. Peacekeeping is my natural; wasn’t Jake’s. Our waitress happened upon our table just then, extracted her pocket computer from her filthy apron’s crevasses, prepped to doublecheck menu availability. She gleaned my accent immediate.
“Ischo Amerikantski,” she said, her voice rising, as if she’d found worms in the honey. “Borghe moy!” Narrow-minded Russians found state policy of businessing with America inconsistent with the existing thirty-three-year intercountry war, but held tongue upon penalty of removal. Krasnaya oversaw each and every: it fought the war in chosen countries; decided the output, traded the surplus; treated the adults and readied the children. The old way never approached Krasnaya’s success. Two dozen species of police assured propriety; of all those units the most problematic were the Shnitmilit–translated colloquial, the Dream Team.
LEFT DUBNA TWO NIGHTS PAST. IN MOSCOW NOW.
“No coffee?” I asked.
“They’re washing the cup,” she said, stonefaced. Russians hated Americans as we hated Russians, to similar purpose and with like result. Thus the war continued, with negotiations essentialled only when time came to split the booty.
SENSORED THIS MORNING. NO MOVEMENT SINCE.
“There’ve been many trying efforts recently bringing cargo in from Indonesia,” interrupted Skuratov, shrugging. “Nichevo; can’t be helped.”
“Under present situation, what have you?” I asked.
“Armenian cognac.” Eyeglassing, she parroted her screen. “Tsinandali wine from Georgia. Milk. Pepsi in hygienic reusables. Pepper and lemon vodka, vodka with buffalo grass. Scotch–”
HIDING IN NORTH QUARTER. BAD NEIGHBORHOOD.
“Made from vintage Scotch grapes,” Skuratov said, winking.
SHE HAS IT. UNDOUBTED.
Untabling his hands, he lapped them stomachways. His face lacked all but laughter; his smile’s rictus certified caution. Whether someone truly fixed us or whether he only felt nerves was unbeknownst. Transactions within Russia problematicked; feasting with those who might moneyfy you or kill you with equal ease and reason poured no syrup over the already indigestible. My boss thrived under such. I always held out for honorability’s illusion, if no more, had I choice.
“Pepsi,” said Jake.
“Bottle of Tsinandali,” I said.
“Jug only,” she said. Russian staples came packaged economy sole if availabled. Potatoes left stores only in fifty-kilo bags. Sliced bread sold by the meter. If shoes wanted, you imagined yourself a spider, and provisioned accordingly. Hereby overblown inventories and farm surpluses left over from military application forever turn-overed, and cash flow ran as rain.
“When does performance begin?” Skuratov shouted after her as she stomped away.
“Soon.” Skuratov’s jaw muscles belied his grin’s peace as they drew up, throbbing, seemingly exposed to unexpected G-force. I read the room’s faces, hoping to nail whomever he’d spotted. Under carcinogenic fluorescence profiteers dispersed vast rewards grifted through the Second New Econ Policy; NEP II, it was officialled. Barrel-waisted Ukrainians welded into dinner jackets rang crystal with anorected Lithuanian women. Wiry Buryats guzzed cognac, rewinding after long Gobi pipeline months. Dark Kazakhs and Afghans, looking as if they’d been imprisoned for years in similar tanning rooms, abandoned religious principle to attempt drink-by-drink seduction of tight-skirted Finnish market analysts. Cubans and Siberians pored over spreads, rigged Monday’s margins, traded inside rumors, at intervals tablerapped knuckles, spurring waitresses with the crack of gold rings. Jake and I, nonsmokers, sucked in what oxygen remained in the fume.
Full-dressed Krasnaya lackeys bedeckled the crowd, so ignorable and as appreciated as rocks in a salad. None but one eyed us overmuch. Skuratov’s respect towards him underwhelmed. “The alert one there is Kidin,” he said. “Grazhny brazhny. So ugly, when he looks in window poor people inside think someone is climbing in ass first.”
“Is this subject proper?” I asked, stilling lips. Skuratov always showed overmuch among his lessers, in my opinion, so used was he to freedom of action befitting high command. In theory such conduct was disallowed.
“I’ll tell you secrets everyone knows. Not long time past he oversaw drug company in Smolensk. Pharmaceutical Patrol called upon all producers to manufacture more penicillin-ten capsules for use in Iraqi refugee fraternities. Smolensk company produces four times as much overnight to great acclaim. They make quotas by putting no penicillin-ten in capsules. Russian inventiveness America’s equal any day.” Expecting a laugh, we received a shiny smile no warmer than the metal shown. “Now again he rises in Observance Buro as if from dead. Pushing shit deeper through bowels till one day all pours out. I know worse things he did than that. Thus, no worries.”
Kidin studied the Kazakhs as they palmed warm Finnish hips. He looked as a type I forever assigned to disinfo; his eyes’ look awared that he would never know joy so long as truth left his lips. Twenty polished medals secured his chest from gunfire’s blessing. The ad above his head showed waterskied Stalin, drawn by hydrofoil. Be Young in Yalta, the copy read.
“Eyes and ears everywhere,” said Skuratov, forwarding, flattening hands tableside, readying to pick up where he’d paused. ‘stukachny; informers mad to further themselves while keeping Rus pure. You watch me watch you, we say. Once it was tried a plan whereby all newborn citizens would be implanted with needed sensory device to make future days more workable. Didn’t work. Most died from–” He stopped. Skuratov’s English sufficed, yet still he needed often to rifle his mind for suitably innocent phrasing. “Unforeseeables, yes. Technology carries us so far through the swamp, till we sink or float, depending. Dream Team developed more productive techniques later on in either event.”
His fingers actioned anew. SAFE NOW. Never, truly. As the prop claimed, the Dream Team knew what wasn’t known; saw what wasn’t seen. They were termed the Dream Team because they picked thoughts even if thoughts emerged but in sleep. You never knew them; anyone might be one, though they didn’t exist. If you spoke to yourself, the Dream Team heard. The Dream Team’s reflection showed in your lover’s eyes; their fingerprints smudged every soul. So, as said, the prop claimed.
“Here citizens tell all they know without nudge,” he continued. “Krasnaya has prophylacted dissent of those eternally unsatisfied. There is backlash to this. People do right thing like maintenant without seeing that for them it could prove wrong thing. A six-year-old girl last June handed over her parents on political-irresponsibility charges and so they were delivered to Lubianka.” He drew finger crossthroat. “The right thing, no question. It followed, sure, that small devotchka then paid her own price for showing disrespect for essential family structures. She accepted punishment with ‘smiling heart.”
SHE DOESNT EXPECT ATTENTION AS YET.
“What punishment fit?” asked Jake, shielding his lids with his hands. “Gulaged? Steady-state tranquilized? Thirty years’ labor at Baikal Chemical?”
“How cruel you think us, Jake,” said Skuratov, shaking his head as if hearing a plea. “Certainly such things aren’t done.” Afterthought: “They shot her.”
Muffled backstage crashes alerted me that the show readied to underway. Our waitress ripped her cart through the crowd’s blanket. As dishes fell from bumped tables I whipped round, frozen, set to hit; over years control again settles over everalert muscles but some reactions always respond to the big red light. Jake, unmoving, lifted his eyebrows. As the waitress posted us Skuratov Amexed her; once promised, she allowed us our food. He penned in a five-percent tip; repenning, she adjusted to twenty. After a moment’s heat they settled at twelve. Receipting him, she plodded off.
SHOULD BE PUSSYCAT ONCE SECURED.
“Your first visit to Russia, Jake?” he asked, changing tone, his cig’s smoke shunning him, seeking us. “How do you find us so far?”
Russians mastered paranoia, whether causing it or suffering from it. Eversuspicious of how outers perceived, they demanded constant reassurance as to their worth, no matter what bluster moved their tongues. I’d suggested applicable responses to such questions to Jake before we left. He proceeded unmindful, with his usual detachment; Jake was one of few I’d known who never vomited, before or after a kill.
TOMORROW AT EIGHT-THIRTY. DETSKY MIR SECOND FLOOR. The toy store; a toy, after all, was our ultimate catch.
“Schizo,” said Jake. “One face lips, another voices.”
“Americans equally accomplished in similar technique.”
WE GO FROM THERE.
Jake smiled, showing rotting American teeth. “Channel official and the party line draws an old old picture. Econ equals. Europe’s spectres loosed free. Toss the chain and run. Peace first, profit second. Worker’s triumph as tradition demands. Fancies and delights, nothing more.”
I WILL PILOT.
“Myths and legends passed from father to son, yes?” Skuratov remarked, popping a radish from his zakuski platter into his mouth. “As in America every child becomes President.” My pirogi, ordered boiled, arrived fried. I wouldn’t touch them. An actor behind-curtain screamed. Jake’s lids pressed as if to squash; he despised scream’s sound. “Our country remains the worker’s state, it is said.”
“Shopper’s state, more like,” said Jake. “Buy or die. Lookabout, blind boy. Every store passed teemed with mob. Peddlers hustling corners all. Heaven’s Mall.”
“Housing, free. Medicine, free. Essentials provided to all without taxes. Money earned must be spent, Jake. Most useful method in calming domestic tension is to employ best of both worlds.” Skuratov held a lump of saccharin between his teeth, slurping his tea through its fabric. “Bourgeois liberalization has purpose so long as spontaneous movements remain minimalized, said Lenin, or so we now hear. Ergo, sozializtkapitalizm. Nation owns producers. Producers sell goods. Buyers sell goods to other buyers. A most productive state.”
I TOO REALIGN PERSONAL SENSIBILITIES.
“And all money returns to Krasnaya,” I said, “but for drips and drabs.”
“Krasnaya invests big. Others invest small. In time small money becomes big. Thorough success.”
“Which makes happier citizens.” I unscrewed my jug’s cap, pouring a cupful of wine. Varnish’s smooth poison shellacked my mouth. The culpable grapes might have been Georgian; the bottler of this grand old label was Stolichnaya, subbrand of Vladamer, a Dryco subsidiary. Dryco–our company–convinced me to retire when I did so that I might join them in spirit, having worked for them in flesh since my first day at boot.
“That some become happier and wealthier sooner than others is unavoidable dysfunction of near-perfect system,” Skuratov said. “Eventually monies reach all society members.”
“Popular in America many years too, yes?” he said, laying the saccharin on his plate as he would a pulled tooth. “Here it works. Fresh techniques satisfy long-hindered desires. Russian people have money now to buy fine products at last available in plentitude.”
“They have to buy,” Jake said, lifting and twirling his switch between his fingers as if keen to plant it. Russians failing to meet their monthly purchase quotas were investigated by the Consumer Patrol. If matters were beyond their hands, the Dream Team settled.
“First-time Americans visiting our country find it always difficult to suspend belief in long-heard propaganda even when facts beat them over head with shovel,” said Skuratov. “In America, perhaps, facts so hard to face propaganda is better, yes?”
“You haven’t been in ten years,” I said.
“Russia and America both bloody lands,” he said, frowning. “We transfuse ours. You spill yours. One day you learn as we did.”
INTERCEPT THIS MORNING GAVE NEW INFO.
The curtain rose. The lights brightened. The orchestra’s flaccidity drooped over a synthesizer bank, cracking knuckles, scratching himself.
“A toast. Na zdorovye!” cried Skuratov, lifting his cup, tapping mine, rubbing it against Jake’s box of Pepsi. “Tomorrow you do business in best business place in world. To Vladamer.”
DEVICE IS PROBABLY NOT WEAPON AS SUCH.
WHAT? I tapped.
POSSIBLE TRANSFERRAL DEVICE.
No set showed onstage. Two yellowed posters of New York’s skyline hung from the back wall; a green Statue of Liberty molded from one of the lesser plastics stood at stage center. The Drama Advisers chose to rouse at once; their production–West Side Story–opened with “America.”
“Songs left in original tongue to preserve purity of text,” Skuratov noted.
TRANSFERRAL WHERE? I tapped.
WHERE ALEKHINE WENT.
The Puerto Rican girls wore nuns’ habits and flapping wimples, and possibly came as if from a convent to attempt conversion of the male dancers, boys of Sakhalin shoeblacked to appear more tropical. Backgrounders repeatedly slammed together as if following choreography’s demand. The synthesizist, orchestra’s iconoclast, lent a sixty-piece unit’s sound.
“They’ve punched up the lyrics,” I whispered to Skuratov, noticing a variorum libretto in use.
“Public domain,” he explained. The women tore off their black cloaks during the first bridge, prancing thereafter in glitter and G-strings, headpieces affixed topside. Bending, they wiggled towards us. Russians loved shoving acres of flesh into centimeters of cloth and studying the result.
“What is this agitpop?” asked Jake, unable to pull his look from the action. One of the nuns swung over the stage on a rope, felling the statue as she hit her mark.
“Muzhiki!!” came a cry rearward. At this alert Jake moved; we were up before the splintering rang. A Mongol shattered empties floorways. Before his bottle shards impressed full, the bouncers buried him beneath their tonnage. Onstage nuns wrapped young men around them as if to keep warm. The song concluded with an atonal thud. The clientele–Skuratov, too–stood, applauding.
“All was intentional?” I asked.
“How else?” said Skuratov, reseating with watchful look. Kidin turned his attention from us back to the Kazakhs. The principals onstaged for the next number. Tony seemed not to be of troublesome Polish descent in this adaptation. Maria’s paint, mahogany dark, offset her blond curls. Neither danced; of good voice, they sang “One Hand, One Heart.” Audience murmur supplanted audience roar. Looking up I saw Jake’s face radiate as if lit from within. A tear dropped from his dead-coal eye, perhaps fearful that if seen it might be blown away. His pox-scarred expression fixed solid; he could have been zooing, watching baby ducks at play, or viewing that little girl of whom Skuratov spoke tumble as the echo faded. Hypnotized, I watched that tear shuffle along his cheek into darkness. It was like seeing a tank cry.
“Ochen krasiva!” Jake, drawn from his mourn, swiveled round; the commentator was already set upon by the bouncers, who entwined him like vines strangling a tree. Kidin perked; with fellow Krasnayaviki, advantaging the sitch, they leapt up to beat the Kazakhs with their heavy knouts. The room’s tension peaked. The song’s last bars were swallowed in curse’s roar and crockery’s rattle.
“Khulighani–” Rifles showed, clicked, weren’t yet fired. The performers stepped forward to view the floor show.
“A delicious dinner,” said Skuratov, rising. ‘shall we?”
We jostled through the crowd, stamping the fallen when needed, until we exited. Between interior and exterior one hundred degrees vanished. My lungs rustled like paper when I drew in air. Snow powdered the long blue line of people awaiting entry.
“You’re staying where?” Skuratov asked, thrusting hands into furry pockets. Trim as he was, the type of coat he wore, a shuba, impressioned his look as three hundred kilos heavier. Ten bears gave their lives to warm his final years.
“Sheraton Kremlin,” I said, “on Kitajski Prospect.”
“Not the Moskva?”
“My choice.” A firetrap; too obvious, besides.
“Let me offer you warm ride.” The wind scarred us. Skuratov’s official car, a Chaika, was curbsided on Chudozestvannogo Teatra Prospect. Russian limos resembled America’s; Gorki-Detroit factories built both and supplied both countries as a rare joint venture. Chaikas, Krasnaya’s preferred vehicle, retained the styling of cars forty years old. The Czara, the Politburo, leading members of Krasnaya and old Heroes of the State, all prone to nostalgia in weak moments, rode Chaikas.
“Look. Perhaps we shouldn’t interrupt such pleasure.” The chauffeur reclined in the back seat, eyeing a movie on the TVC. A vodka bottle, full only of air, lay next to him. “Out!” shouted Skuratov, opening the door. ‘do your duty.” The chauffeur tumbled forth, slinking frontways. “Ten minutes, we’re there.” But in vidding time away the chauffeur had drained the battery. Switching from idle to drive, he stalled the car. Striving to restart it, he succeeded in making the engine wail as if it were being beaten. Even while armied I allowed myself to be driven but twice, during state funerals. I felt safer when I guided the wheel, once another started the engine.
“Let us have brisk walk, then,” muttered Skuratov, decarring. “Call for new limo from hotel’s comfortable lobby. Leave this zek here. By morning he’ll feel ice below instead of balls. Come.”
Frost ferns sprouted across the windshield as we cruised away down Gorki. Moscow’s streets dichotomized after the sun fell from daily grace. Krasnaya sealed and patrolled all avenues holding government Buros, the homes of notables, banks and the larger business blocks. Gorki Street, so wide as to allow passage of five tanks tread to tread, was of the secular world, and provided trade’s entertainment nightlong. It might have been noon, so peopled and trafficked was the boulevard. Most businesses on the main strips followed the seven/twenty-four plan, forever open to handle unceasing demand. Citizens passed as if on enforced parade, many pushing red carts topful with freezers, washers, TVCs, copiers; all manner of technologic flotsam. Staring into their puffy, bloodshot eyes disconcerted. Refugees’ faces held similar looks in every land I’d troubled; the look of these fit naught but for breathing and running, forced by us to abandon home and race the roads before the other team, purposeful and timeshort, landed to steal their days away.
“What demands the wait?” Jake asked, spotting one store’s queue running down Gorki and then Belinskogo to a length of sixty meters. “Bread?”
Skuratov perused the storewindowed posters. “Electronic food reconstitutors.”
By using those one metamorphosed sawdust into bread; transmogrified dust into spice. So long as the machines worked, they enabled any semiusable to become the near-real. Russia, as did all countries, traded homegrown goods through standard barter, simultaneously balancing the unpayable debts and obtaining desired goods. With Krasnaya overseeing, the system’s efficiency was twice redoubled. Peru needed no caviar in exchange for guano but that was what reached the Andes in return; Krasnaya ran the homegrown with equally just rationale. For every Odomovana dishwasher assembled, fourteen DL-50 mortars entered inventory as well; for every Chaika rolling off the line, thirty Turgenev rocket launchers showed on the field. By controlling all, Krasnaya kept all bottomlined, and all citizens, if not happy, then quiet.
“A lovely night,” said Skuratov, sliding on sanded ice underfoot. “The stars are so clearly seen in our hemisphere.”
Sparrows flocked solid on pavement grates, warming chilled feathers. Red stars apexed Kremlin towers downstreet as they had for a century, everstable amidst the nine floodlit domes of Blagovashchenski Cathedral, the Telespire and the three-pronged unistructure blossoming above the Hotel Moskva. Nature gave Moscow little light overall; Krasnaya compensated. Red neon delineated each building’s form along both sides of Gorki. Centerlaned were long-legged metal bugs on tiptoe, balancing upon their backs huge arc lamps similar to those we’d used in our camps, lamps so hot that birds flying into them vaporized. At every second corner a searchlight slashed the sky. Each building’s facade shone with fluorescence and plasmalight and argon gas; holograms and vidscreens displayed vast quantities of purchasable stuff. Signs’ light-formed slogans never reiterated pedantic messages or anti-American saws but sent forth instead the world’s standard litany: Drink Pepsi, Use Bulat, You Deserve, This Is It. Some few phrases showed in no place other than Russia; We Know, said one, But Tell Us. One vast screen hid eight floors; bore nothing but a frozen headshot of the Big Boy, drawn oldstyle, so that he looked to sit not at the hand of God, but on it. The eyes didn’t follow your progress, but if you were guilty–you always were–you thought that they did. The letterscroll continually running beneath read:POSTBIRTHDAY MADNESS AT GRIGORENKO FURNITURE MART. The birthday was three months past.
“Stalin vsegda s nami,” said Skuratov, looking upward, safe from the lure.
“Pardon?” Jake asked.
“He is always with us,” he translated. “That is terrible difficulty with our new mutual friend.” By his squints and winks I secured that, for the second, we might freespeak.
“Difficulty in what way?” I asked, my lips so stiffened by cold that their vague movement could show nothing.
“Krasnaya knows value of symbiosis. The Big Boy suits our purposes so long as his like never again arrives. But our friend is–current phrase? Retrovert. Unnatural love of the past. Commercial images seen as those of great beings, rather than of useful idiots.”
“Certainly. She believes he was–” Skuratov danced across possible phrases. ‘she digs him the most, we said as teenagers. I myself was great fan of Abba and of your own Dean Reed. Our policies work too well sometimes.”
The Czara served as figurehead for imagined popular affection, but no one knew, or cared, how he, or she, manifested; every fool knew every pore on the Big Boy’s face.
“Watch!” said Jake, drawing us close as a man passed full tilt downstreet, two others heeling close, bearing in. “Politicals?”
“Chuchmiki,” said Skuratov. “Asian trash.”
Moscow was no more dangerous than any American city. Between the restaurant and Marx Prospect we traveled six blocks, passing seven robberies, three assaults and something of gray nature, half spat and half rape. Unless political infractions evidenced, on uncontrolled streets all was watched and nothing stopped. Though their vehicles’ sirens forever sent their synthetic pigs squeals across the dark, no police–not the General Militia, the Krasnaya Guard, the Consumer Patrol, the City Druzhinhas, the Okhranha, certainly never the Dream Team–interfered with hooligans’ free enterprise. As in America, one of Russia’s myriad charms was that you could be murdered without reason and not even God would notice, or care.
“We cross under here,” said Skuratov, pausing before a stairway that led to a tunnel below-street. I considered situational inherencies. “We will miss terrible Marx Prospect traffic. Follow.”
The tunnel’s bone white walls seemed never to have suffered the human touch. Concealed vents at each end deflected the piercing wind rushing through from above; the tunnel light cowered along the ceiling’s edge. At the halfway point someone marched down the cracked, stained steps we’d hoped to approach.
“Possible problem,” said Skuratov. The one new-appeared wore checkered trousers, a cloth cap and a knee-length leatheresque coat, and looked to be of the southern mountains, perhaps from Armenia. At five meters distant he extracted a blue-metal long-barrel Omsk .44, a make availabled only through official channels. Most Russian guns reaching citizens’ hands were poptoys, worthless even if usable, and illegal in any event. An Omsk could bring down a small plane.
“Public defender,” said Skuratov, which was local slang for such a mugger. “This might be final moment, friends. Beg for mercy if you wish.”
“Zdrastye,” said the man, in shivering voice. ‘such fine clothes. Shuck them, please.” His Russian was inept; his wrists, where visible, were no larger than mailing tubes. “Off!” Skuratov slipped off his shuba, tossed down his astrakhan.
“Do as desired,” said Skuratov, eyeing me with calm. “If we don’t live it will not matter if we freeze.”
“It will,” said Jake, doffing his own, lighter coat, showing the white linen three-piece he wore yearround, standing in apprehensive reverence as if the national anthem rushed through his ears. Jake wasn’t big, though he impressioned such; wasn’t slow, though he moved so deliberately that he seemed forever to be gliding across gelatin; wasn’t stupid, though until you believed you knew him you wouldn’t have figured. He didn’t seem dangerous at all.
“Uncoat! Please obey, please.”
Our terrorist seemed unnerved and amateurish; any delay might suffice. “What gives, friend?” I asked, wording Turkish, a language unfamiliar to both Skuratov and Jake, but not, I hunched, to him.
“Asian brother,” he replied, in like tongue. “I regret.” Interesting; but before more might pass Jake raised his foot, kicking the pistol downtunnel. He shouted and brokeaway.
‘don’t scream!!” yelled Jake, his voice ringing along the walls. To see his rolling flip was to watch an angel descend from heaven. Leaping up, Jake heeled him twixt the scapulae, felling him timber-style. Jake booted him onto his back, then swung his fist sharply against the Adam’s apple. The fellow’s limbs thrashed as if on motor overload; spasms blurred his features. Close in, he showed fewer than twenty years agrowing; reminded me of one of my many lost sergeants. Jake kneeled over him as if to pray, smoothing the boy’s long hair away from his brow.
“Let’s go,” said Skuratov, recovering his hat and coat, managing to appear both more and less bothered than I felt he should have been. “You are as we hear, Jake. Come now. Babushki will sweep in morning before commuters arrive. Don’t delay.” His voice betrayed no unreasoned emotion.
“Hold.” Jake spun the retrieved pistol twice round his forefinger, testing the balance.
“Leave him,” said Skuratov. “He can consider the errors of his life.”
“Never need to suffer overlong,” said Jake, unclicking the safety. Pressing his thumb and his fingers against the boy’s jaw, Jake squeezed open his mouth, inserted the barrel. “Hurts?” he asked, his voice soft, as if confessing to uncaring mother. “Here. Peace.”
I shut my eyes; once retired it no longer necessitated that violence must be watched. Air’s whuff sounded loud as shot’s blast as the boy’s breath left his body. Maybe too many field trips left me unwilling; maybe too many takeouts left Jake hungry for more. When I reopened I saw him examining the lacy pattern of blood beneath the boy’s head, pondering the flowery petals of brain, as if considering form and texture. Art knew its fashion, whatever the season.
“So pretty,” Jake whispered.
Less blood reddened Skuratov’s face; he looked to have heard the woodcock, in Russian phrase. Had he expected? To enter Russia was to enter a world but roughly correspondent to the one known, a world whose logic demanded that seeds would grow in sand, that plants there grown would look right once paint made their colors more natural. Had he expected? I decided not. There was no greater reason for him to have served us so well over the years. Subtlety was all; there was no subtlety in having us termed in that tunnel.
“What’d he call you, Luther?” Jake asked, pocketing the Omsk for future frolic. Some mutterance sufficed his curiosity as we hoteled ourselves, taking leave of Skuratov until the next morn. Too rarely I’d had men such as Jake with me in combat–over Mexico, in New Guinea, along the coast of Turkey; Johnson was with me on Long Islands Martianed dunes, in the old days, and Johnson was the only one who neared Jake’s level. Still, only with Jake siding me would I always have won.