(Read earlier chapters.)
The three women blinked and rubbed their eyes to adjust to the change in light. They had apparently been sitting in darkness for some time.
Ksenia looked different. Thinner. More worn, somehow. Her hair was cropped short. Reuben wondered what she had gone through in being brought here.
“Here are three women you’ve never seen before. You now know that the correct answer is one or two, so this is very simple. Which woman or women will you choose?”
Reuben would not allow himself to show any recognition of Ksenia. Of course, Markku knew who she was. According to Sergei, Kolkhi would have reported everything to him. And, besides, it was just too big a coincidence. Markku didn’t need to go all the way to Moscow to find women to use in his games.
But he had said that Reuben didn’t know her, and Reuben’s instincts told him to play along.
In any case, Ksenia had apparently not recognized him. Or she, too, was feigning unfamiliarity. Reuben wasn’t sure. She had certainly shown good instincts during the ordeal with Kolkhi. But the fact was that none of the three had registered any reaction to the room that had opened up before them. Reuben wondered if the window was a one-way mirror.
“Look, Mr. Markku,” said Reuben, “you’ve made your point. You win the game. I forfeit.”
Markku nodded in what he may have considered an agreeable fashion.
“Of course, that is your option. But perhaps you would like to understand the stakes of the game better before you make such a decision?”
Below the window was a small panel with a microphone and what must be the controls that Markku used to bring up the lights. Markku threw the mike switch and issued and instruction in Georgian. A man walked into their field of view from the left, the side of the room where Reuben assumed the door was. He was a big guy, tall and fat. He could easily have been one of Kolkhi’s goons.
Markku issued another instruction. The man produced a long, broad knife from inside his coat. Its jagged blade gleamed wickedly in the brighter light.
Markku turned to Reuben.
“Your choices are quite simple. You will select one or two women for Besiki to play with.”
Reuben felt sick. He understood, now, where it was that Kolkhi had acquired his rather unusual notion of a good time.
He considered his options. Obviously, the “game” had to be stopped He didn’t think he would have any trouble taking Markku out. There was something uncanny about the man, but he had to be 75 years old. And if Besiki was armed only with the knife, Reuben was pretty sure he could handle, that, too. The real problem was who else might be lurking in the corners of the other room, or who he might meet in the hallway getting there.
Then there was the problem of what to do next. Escape was as unlikely as it had been a few minutes before. Or rather, much more unlikely, with three civilians in tow. The only wild card was Hamilton. He had been opposed to the game. If whatever spell Markku had cast over him wore off, maybe he would help them get out of there.
It was the only chance he had.
Reuben stood up. As casually as he could, he moved in near Markku.
Just taking a closer look at the ladies.
“And if I forfeit?” he asked.
Markku turned and looked at him.
“Then I will give them all to Besiki. And you will get to enjoy watching him work. He, too, is quite an artist.”
Reuben was now standing next to Markku. From this vantage point, he could see most of the other room. It didn’t appear that there was anyone else there. He looked down to make sure that the microphone was switched off. When he made his move, he didn’t want Markku alerting Besiki.
The switch was set to the left. Did that mean On or Off? Reuben couldn’t be sure. There were no markers indicating which was which. And if there had been, he realized, he probably wouldn’t have been able to read them.
He would have to risk it.
Reuben inched slightly away from Markku. His plan was to knock him over. He needed a little more room to pull off the maneuver he had in mind. He would charge with his head straight into Markku’s side. This would take the older man down and knock the wind out of him. If he hit him hard enough to kill him, so much the better. But if not, Reuben would take care of that with his bare hands once he had him down.
Reuben didn’t like having to use his head as a weapon so relatively soon after getting it patched up, but he had no choice.
Without another thought, he bent and lunged in a single, precise motion remembering to swing his head up slightly at the moment of contact. Crush a kidney, break a couple of ribs. It was all good.
The moment of impact was delayed, and it was wrong. Reuben found himself face down on the floor. He had hit it hard, and now he was the one with the wind knocked out of him. Somehow Markku had evaded him. The old guy was quicker than Reuben would have believed possible. Reuben got himself to his feet as quickly as he could, preparing to lunge again.
But Markku wasn’t there.
“You certainly are an amusing fellow, Mr. Stone.”
The voice came, impossibly, from behind Reuben. He whipped around to face his opponent, who was now standing a good ten feet back.
No way, Reuben thought, but he didn’t have time to try to make sense of it. With the element of surprise gone, all he could do was attempt a more deliberate attack. He began walking slowly towards Markku.
“You will stop now,” said Markku.
Reuben froze in his tracks. His legs no longer belonged to him. He couldn’t move them.
“This is all terribly amusing, but I believe I have already explained that we don’t have much time. Will you make your selection?”
Reuben struggled to no avail. He had feeling in his legs he could still stand but it was as if the connection that normally existed between his will and his feet had been cut. He strained with all his might, but didn’t move an inch.
Reuben struggled to keep his growing panic in check. He reminded himself that he had to remain calm, to use whatever was at his disposal. It was a desperate situation, but there were always alternatives. He looked around the room.
Nothing but dead birds.
“I thought you said you wanted me to help you with your project,” Reuben said after a moment. “If you want me to help you, let them all go. If you harm them, I’ll never help you.”
Markku smiled, and somehow managed almost to look sad.
“But you will. You have come here to help me, Mr. Stone. You have come a greater distance than you realize. You can no more keep yourself from the right side of this struggle than you can walk across this room.”
Reuben could feel the sweat trickling down his neck. He was having trouble catching his breath.
“You said that if I forfeit, you’re going to give them all to Besiki. But that’s not right. That’s picking three out of three. It’s not a…” Reuben struggled for the phrase... “well-formed choice.”
Markku shook his head impatiently.
“If you forfeit, the game is over. I will not make a choice from three, I will simply give a gift to a friend. Now make your choice, Reuben.”
Markku turned to look at the women.
“There is one there whom you think you know, although I can assure you that you do not. I thought her presence would add an interesting element to the game. You already understand the game well enough to know that she is in no danger if you make a proper choice. Just choose one or both of the others and have done with it.”
“I can’t make that choice,” Reuben said simply. “I can’t be a party to murder.”
Markku smiled his humorless, mechanical smile.
“Nonsense. You remember playing a similar game in Moscow, do you not? You had no qualms about killing in the defense of your own life. And just now, if I’m not mistaken, you had in mind to harm me. Possibly kill me if you could.”
Reuben studied the three women. All three were of about the same age, size, and build. They all had dark hair, cropped short. Ksenia stood out not only because he recognized her, but because she seemed so much more alert, so much more prepared to act than the other two. She was carefully looking around the room, trying to make sense of where she was and what was happening to her. The other two were lethargic; once they adjusted to the change in light, they just stared aimlessly off into space. Reuben wondered whether they were drugged.
He looked at Markku, who was still facing the window. He tried once again to move his legs. Just for a moment, there was a sensation of something giving. He could step forward. But then it was gone.
Markku turned back and looked at Reuben. This time he didn’t say anything.
Reuben knew that time was running out. Any second, Markku could lose patience and give his thug the go-ahead. He was going to make a decision. Left with no choice, he could do it. At least, he was fairly certain he could. He had been trained for situations such as this, a long time ago.
“All right,” he said at last. “All right. I’ve made my choice.”
“So?” said Markku.
Markku shook his head.
“Do you honestly think that’s an option, Mr. Stone?”
“As you pointed out, I’ve played this game before. Or one like it. The other time I played, a substitution was allowed. Why not now?”
Markku was about to answer when he was distracted by a sudden movement on the other side of the glass. Reuben looked up. It was Hamilton. Apparently back in control of himself, he stood a few feet from Besiki with a gun aimed squarely at his chest. Markku made his way over to the control panel walking directly in front of Reuben, who found his arms to be as immoveable as his legs when he tried to grab the older man by throat.
“Mr. Hamilton, you can’t be serious,” said Markku.
Hamilton didn’t bother to look towards the window. All his attention was on Besiki. The women turned around to watch what was happening.
“I told you I wouldn’t stand for this,” he said quietly, his voice tinny and crackling through the intercom system, “and I don’t intend to.”
Markku laughed. He shook his head, puzzled.
“So much effort wasted in the defense of strangers women who, I can assure you, would value their own lives over yours if put in a similar position.”
“That’s beside the point,” said Hamilton.
“Then what precisely is the point? If you were going to kill poor Besiki, you would have done so already. You knew that surprise was your only hope, that I would stop you once I saw you.”
Now Hamilton did turn and look at them.
“Stone doesn’t understand this game. He doesn’t know what choices are available to him.”
He looked at Reuben.
“You might be interested to learn that choosing from four is sometimes better than choosing from two I, mean, it’s complicated; sometimes four is worse than two, and sometimes it’s better than three, even but choosing from five. That’s different. It’s elegant. Always good. As is a choice from seven. And when you combine them…to choose from twelve is what they call a divine choice, isn’t it Mr. Markku?”
“And if I remember right, the divine choice is always preferred. If there are not twelve to choose from, it’s preferable to choose from the highest number available. Five or seven if possible.”
“Seven is not a possibility in this case,” said Markku, apparently following Hamilton’s incomprehensible (as far as Reuben was concerned) argument.
“But five is,” said Hamilton.
“It would, indeed be possible to select from five.”
Reuben understood now, and he wasted no time.
“Kill Besiki, he said.
The shot was fired before Reuben finished saying the man’s name. Besiki slumped to the floor. The woman seated in the middle jumped up, terrified, and ran toward the door. The one on the left turned back towards the window, burying her face in her hands. Only Ksenia stayed still, watching Hamilton.
“We have finished just in time,” said Markku. “Some men have arrived to take you back to Russia, Mr. Stone.”
Reuben couldn’t quite process what Markku was saying. His heart was pounding; the rough prison-issued shirt was soaked with sweat.
I killed a man.
It was not the first time; nor could he be sure that it would be the last. Hatred for Markku welled up within him. He would pay for what he had made Reuben do. And for what he had made Hamilton do.
Reuben looked at Hamilton on the other side of the glass. He hadn’t moved; his shooting arm was still extended before him. He was frozen in place.
“Ah, but perhaps there is time to learn a bit more before you go,“ Markku continued. “We ought to make the most of the time we have, after all.”
“Mr. Hamilton, here, thought it wise to add a few variables to the game. But he must surely realize that if we change the number chosen from, we may also change who does the choosing. Isn’t that right, Mr. Hamilton?”
Hamilton began to tremble. He grunted something, apparently unable to speak.
Markku turned back and looked at Reuben.
“You went out of turn, I’m afraid. Now that we are choosing from five, I have decided that I will be the player. Not to worry, however. I will accept your choice. Besiki is one.”
He smiled hideously.
“But one is not an pleasing choice from five. Two is much better.”
Hamilton whipped around suddenly. The movement was jerky, mechanical. And far too fast. The gun was now aimed in the direction of the door.
Hamilton’s eyes grew wide with horror. He tried to say something, but no words came out.
He fired the gun. The woman seated on the left put her arms over her ears, apparently trying to blot out what she was hearing. Ksenia did not move, although Reuben could see that she was trembling. Hamilton was once again frozen in place.
Reuben couldn’t see the door from where he was standing, but he had no doubt that it was locked. The woman from the middle seat must have been standing in front of it.
“We might even choose four or all five.”
Markku continued talking as though nothing had happened.
“But there is an optimal choice from five, if you will recall. Can you remember, Mr. Hamilton?”
Sweat poured down Hamilton’s face. He made no attempt to speak.
“The optimal choice is three.”
In a quick spasmodic motion, Hamilton turned the barrel of the gun towards his own face.
“Thank you, Mr. Hamilton, for bringing Mr. Stone to me.”
“Wait,” said Reuben, catching his breath. “Hold on a second.”
Markku ignored him.
“That will be all then.”
Hamilton pulled the trigger.
Reuben stifled a scream. He had never known such a feeling of helplessness. If only he could be free for a minute. A half a minute. Ten seconds.
“Now, then,” said Markku. He reached down and dimmed the lights in the other room.
“The game is finished, and I’m afraid you have more traveling to do today.”
He took hold of a corner of the red velvet curtain and pulled it closed. Reuben could no longer see Ksenia or the other woman, but it appeared that their lives had been spared.
Markku walked over to the door which Reuben would have sworn was open already and opened it.
Three men stood in the doorway. It was a replay of the scene in the prison office earlier that day, with one major difference.
The man in the middle was Sergei.Posted by Phil at March 1, 2004 12:00 AM | TrackBack