(Read earlier chapters.)
The facility struck Reuben as an odd place. Very odd, in fact.
It was a massive slab of concrete, gray and windowless. It sat uneasily near the top of a green hill, surrounded by three separate perimeter fences. The drive from the airstrip was a long and bumpy one, mostly on single-lane dirt roads. Along the way, Reuben did not see so much as a farmhouse in the distance, much less any sign of the city of Tbilisi.
He now sat in a leather armchair in a dimly lit room somewhere deep inside the facility. It was a good-sized room, sparsely furnished with two chairs and a huge wooden table. Behind the table, on the wall opposite Reuben, was a red velvet curtain. He assumed the curtain was decorative; a window would be pointless in the middle of the building.
The walls of the room were concrete blocks; the floor was poured concrete. Aside from the furniture and the curtain, and some decorations hanging from the walls, the place could easily have been a room from the prison Reuben had left some hours before.
The decorations were what really set the place apart.
Birds. They were everywhere. Starlings, crows, falcons, vultures, and numerous varieties that Reuben didn’t recognize. All of them black. All of them dead. Reuben hadn’t bothered to count, but he estimated there were three dozen of them, mounted on the walls and hanging from the ceiling. Seven more were lined up on the table, in descending order from the tallest to the shortest aligned to resemble an un-nested Matroshka doll.
Reuben had given no thought to trying to escape, even though he had been left alone in the room. He assumed that Hamilton’s men were standing right outside the door. And even if they weren’t, he would have to get past two checkpoints to get out of the building, and then three more if he didn’t feel up to scaling the barbed-wire perimeter fences, which he did not to get out of the facility.
Besides, there was nowhere for him to go. He doubted that he would be able to “blend in” in Tbilisi (if he could even find it.) He could try to make his way through the countryside to Turkey, but crossing the border would be next to impossible. Reuben was no better off in Soviet Georgia than he would have been in Russia itself. If he were caught anywhere along the way, he would be right back prison. Possibly a much worse prison.
It was better to wait it out. After all, if Markku had wanted him dead, he surely would have killed him by now.
“Here’s that coffee I promised you.”
Reuben looked up. Hamilton was standing in front of him with a coffee pot in one hand and a couple of brown mugs in the other.
“The service in this place is kind of slow,” he said, taking one of the mugs. “But I love the ambiance.”
Hamilton nodded. He filled Reuben’s cup and then his own.
“Yeah, it’s charming all right.” He set the pot down on the table and took a seat next to Reuben. “And just so there’s no misunderstanding: the coffee stinks. It’s probably the worst I’ve ever had.”
Reuben took a sip.
“I think I’ve had worse,” he said after a moment. “But then I haven’t had any in a quite a while.”
“Markku will be here in a few minutes. From your reaction on the plane, I get the impression you know who he is.”
“I’ve never met the man. I did have a run-in with his nephew in Moscow.”
Hamilton registered surprise at this.
Hamilton sighed with disgust.
“I take it you know him, too,” said Reuben.
“Psychopath,” Hamilton replied. “Sociopath. Nutcase. Extremely dangerous.”
He took a sip from his coffee.
“Yeah, I’ve met him.”
Reuben sat back in his chair.
“From what I‘ve been led to understand, that particular acorn didn’t fall very far from the tree. Although they say that Kolkhi’s a rank amateur compared to Uncle Nino.”
Hamilton nodded tensely. The subject apparently made him uncomfortable.
“You heard right,” he said.
“So, what the hell? What are you doing hooked up with him?”
Hamilton cleared his throat. He took another sip of coffee. The hand that held the mug was trembling.
“Look, Reuben. There’s a lot you don’t understand.”
“So, enlighten me. What are you doing working for Markku? And what does he want with me?”
“Those two things are connected. It’s a long story. The short version is that he needed me to help find you. You should have been easy enough to find. You stood out like a sore thumb in Leningrad. But Markku can’t…make certain distinctions that are easy for us to make. And he makes distinctions that we can’t grasp.
“It was a lucky break having you end up in Russia, that’s for sure. You could have shown up anywhere. Or nowhere. And you could have been somebody else, too. But it’s possible that Markku set this all up as a fairly tight loop, if you see what I’m saying.”
Reuben shook his head.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. But never mind. So Markku needed you to find me. So what? Why do you care?”
Hamilton stared hard at Reuben.
“I’m looking for the same thing you are,” he said. “Markku is the only one who can help me find it.”
Reuben shook his head, puzzled.
“You’re looking for a cure for Betty?”
“No. I don’t know who Betty is. I’m looking for the pre-confluence.”
“The re-contextualizing agent.”
It took Reuben a moment to remember where he had heard that phrase before.
The train to St. Petersburg. Coffey. David Coffey.
“The Philosopher’s Stone.” Reuben said, taking another sip from his coffee.
“Markku is close to it. Very close.”
“Finding it must be awfully important to you, Hamilton. Important enough that you don’t mind partnering up with a what was it again psychopath? Sociopath?”
“Nutcase,” said Hamilton. “I know how it must look. And believe me, I do mind. But I have no choice.”
“Why don’t you? What’s so important?”
Hamilton got up from his chair. He set his mug down on the table, then turned to look at Reuben
“Everything,” he said simply.
Reuben considered this for a moment.
“What, you’re saying that everything is at stake? What do you stand to lose? Your life? Your home? Your family?”
Hamilton shook his head.
“No,” he said. “Everything. Not just me, not just you. Everything. Everybody.”
“Everybody dies,” Reuben said. The words welled up from within him from some distant place an old dream about a shadow.
Hamilton looked surprised, but he nodded in agreement.
“Yes,” he said. “That’s it exactly. Markku may be an evil and twisted bastard, but he’s on the right side where it counts. The dawning has to be stopped, and you’re the one who can help us stop it.”
Reuben was about to ask Hamilton what the dawning was when he realized they were no longer alone. A man was standing just inside the doorway. Reuben thought that he must have been distracted by the conversation. He hadn’t seen any motion or heard a sound. It was almost as though the man had simply appeared there.
“Don’t get up, Mr. Stone. Be comfortable. I am Nino Markku.”
Markku was an old man, wizened, with sharp features and a completely bald head. He was dressed in the standard-issue Soviet Black Suit, but his shirt and tie were also black. His complexion was pale, almost gray in color. He stood there looking at Reuben for a long moment.
There was something unusual, if not unnatural, about his perfect stillness. Only his head moved as he looked at Reuben and it moved too quickly, too sharply. It was a strange, birdlike motion.
“We have only a little time, I’m afraid,” said Markku. “Let us talk together for a while. Before you have to go.”
“Where am I going?”
“This is not your destination, Mr. Stone. Nor do I think you would want it to be.”
Reuben looked around the room.
“You got that right,” he said.
“Still,” Markku continued, “I’m sure you prefer these accommodations to the ones we found you in.”
“I guess. Thanks for getting me out of there, by the way. Why did you do it?”
“My people have been misunderstood for a long time, Mr. Stone.”
So much for getting anything resembling a straight answer, thought Reuben.
“Really? How’s that?”
“We have been accused by others by people like yourself of lacking poetry. Of lacking finer feeling.”
Reuben took a sip of coffee and swished it around in his mouth. It really was quite bad.
“I don’t know much about poetry myself,” he said.
“My people have been artists and poets since time out of mind.”
“Your people…” Reuben repeated. “What do you mean? Georgians? Communists?”
Markku shook his head. His expression was one of disdain.
“Certainly not. You know nothing of my people, Mr. Stone. Few of your kind have ever known anything about us.”
Markku stalked to the window. He stopped a few feet in front of it and stared at the red velvet curtain.
“Your kind have never appreciated our culture, our art,” he said bitterly. He turned towards Hamilton. “Although I must admit that Mr. Hamilton, here, has some vague appreciation. It is for that reason that we keep him on as part of our project.”
“Oh?” said Reuben “And what project is that?”
Markku attempted a smile. As with all his gestures and movements, the smile was too precise. Too angular.
“It is a work of art of unparalleled subtlety and grandeur.”
Reuben took a long look at Markku.
“No kidding,” he said, glancing over at Hamilton. “You guys?”
Hamilton let out a nervous cough.
“I’m involved in the project,” he said. “But I don’t see it in the same…aesthetic terms that Mr. Markku does.”
“Right,” said Reuben. “Well, am I correct in thinking that my being here has something to do with your project?”
“Absolutely correct,” said Markku.
“So what exactly is it that you‘re doing?’ he asked. He could feel his impatience growing in spite of himself.
“I mean subtlety, grandeur — that’s all very well. But you’ve got the wrong guy. I‘m not anybody‘s first choice for working on an art project.”
Markku laughed. It had a clanking mechanical sound to it.
What the hell is this guy? Reuben thought. There was no question as to whether that was the correct word. It was.
What was he.
“Perhaps you are better fitted to the task than you realize.”
He walked over to the table.
“Step away,” he said to Hamilton.
Hamilton, who had been leaning against the table, returned to the chair next to Reuben.
“Here is a gold coin,” said Markku, producing a large coin from his pocket. He set it on the table.
“And here is another,” he said, placing a second coin next to the first. “Which one will you choose?”
Reuben glanced at the coins and then at Markku.
“Neither,” he said.
“Excellent, Mr. Stone. A choice of one from two is not a proper choice. It is not well-formed. Such a choice lacks grace.”
“What does this have to do with poetry?”
Markku produced a third coin from his pocket and set it on the table next to the other two.
“Our art is not painting or sculpture. Nor is it words written or spoken or sung. Our art is interaction itself.”
“You mean play-acting?” Reuben asked. “Drama?”
“Games” said Hamilton. “They play games.”
“The word is misleading because it means something much less in your language, but the idea is essentially correct. Now here is a new game.”
He gestured towards the three gold coins on the table.
“Which coin or coins do you choose?”
Reuben scratched his head.
“It’s the same game as before,” he said. “I choose none of them.”
“Now you disappoint me, Mr. Stone. It is not the same game. To select from among three is to make a proper, balanced choice. Can you not see the difference?”
“No,” Reuben said, “I can’t. But I’ll take your word for it.”
“I will give you another chance,” said Markku. “Which coin or coins do you choose?”
Reuben looked at the coins.
“Do we really have to do this?”
Markku’s eyes grew wider.
“If you win this round,” he said coldly, “the game is finished. If I win, we advance to the next round. Believe me when I tell you that the game grows more difficult with each round.”
“Fine,” said Reuben. “I choose all three.”
Markku laughed harshly.
“You lose,” he said. “The proper choice from three is one or two.”
“I don’t get it,” said Reuben.
“Clearly you do not. Perhaps you will understand better in the next round.”
Markku walked across the room and took the corner of the red curtain in hand.
Hamilton stood up. He looked tense. Angry.
“I thought we talked about this,” he said.
Markku looked at him, puzzled.
“Yes. We did. But that hardly matters. He has left me with no choice.”
Hamilton started across the room towards Markku.
“I won’t tolerate this,” he said.
“You will stop,” said Markku.
“We are quite finished with you, Mr. Hamilton,” said Markku. “You will leave us now.”
Without saying another word, Hamilton turned and walked out of the room.
Markku turned to Reuben.
“Isn’t it pleasant when people are cooperative?” he said.
“How did you do that?” asked Reuben. “Hypnosis? Drugs?”
Markku turned back to the curtain, which he slowly began to open.
“That would be a highly diverting subject, to be sure,” he said, “but we have so little time, and the game must be played out.”
The open curtain revealed a glass partition behind which was apparently another room. Reuben couldn’t see anything in the new room; it was completely dark.
“Now the game advances,” said Markku. “A man who will not choose coins may have an easier time with a different kind of choice. We shall see.”
The lights came up suddenly to reveal a room similar in size to the one Reuben and Markku were in. Three chairs faced the partition, with a young woman seated in each.
The woman seated on the right was Ksenia.Posted by Phil at March 1, 2004 12:00 AM | TrackBack