This is how the end of the world began.
It was November, 1994. Reuben had been in Moscow for two months.
He was staying at the Hotel International, part of a complex of offices, shops, and restaurants near the parliament building, just a short distance from the Kremlin and the center of the city. The Russian name for the hotel was the "Mezhdanarudnaya," and it was called simply "the Mezh" by English-speaking expatriates. Built for the 1980 Winter Olympic Games, the Mezh was designed to showcase the technological and cultural prowess of the Soviet state to visitors from all over the world. At that time, it had been the jewel in the crown of the Russian hospitality industry. Fourteen years later, very much worse for the wear, the Mezh was dimly lighted, smoke-filled, grimy. The seediness of the place was surpassed only by the seediness of its clientele.
Reuben liked it.
He had learned that the place was an important Chechen hangout. Most evenings, he would stop in at the Café Vienna, one of the better restaurants in the Mezh, where he would dine on "Steaktoast mit salad" or "GulashSoup," as the English version of the menu read, while surrounded by a collection of what he was told were the most dangerous players in the Chechen underground.
These were not the turban-wearing freedom fighters that were to crop up on CNN a year or two later; these fellows were more urbane in an unkempt Russian way. Bad suits. Bad haircuts. They were obviously more comfortable in the city managing drug deals, whores, and protection rackets then they would have been back in the motherland putting it all on the line for the Cause.
Even regular Russian gangsters, Reuben was told, were afraid to set foot inside the Café Vienna. The tough guys from Chechnya were universally feared. This should have stopped him from becoming a regular, but it didn't. Having learned the truth about the place, he found it strangely compelling. Though he had no professional interest in the Café Vienna or its clientele, he had the background and training that instructed him how to behave in such a setting.
It was all about routine. Get your routine down right, and you could hide in plain sight.
You don't interact with anybody. Not because you're afraid, but because you're "shy." You go in almost every night, but not every night, so it doesn't particularly register if you're ever not there. You watch the room without looking at anything, you don't try to make eye contact, but you don't go out of your way to avoid it, either. Once in a while - for breakfast, never for dinner - you bring one of the other suits in with you to emphasize how the Café Vienna is nothing more to you than a place to eat.
Oh, and most importantly, you never stick around too long. Especially when the boys were drinking, which was often.
After a couple of months of measured observation, Reuben had the lay of the land down pretty well. He knew who the players were, and he had a good idea of who reported to whom. The man in charge, whom Reuben had nicknamed (inappropriately enough, he realized) The Czar, was a slim fellow of about 50 who dressed a notch or two better than his men. The Czar made only occasional appearances at the Vienna. He always spoke softly. And he always left early.
The Czar had two Lieutenants, whom Reuben had named Boris Badinov and Mikhail Barishnikov. Under the Lieutenants, there were about a dozen men who made regular or semi-regular appearances at the Vienna. It was hard to get the count exactly right, with new faces arriving and familiar faces failing to re-surface sometimes for weeks on end. Reuben could never be sure when somebody had made his final appearance. Whatever their number, these foot-soldiers were the dangerous ones. They made no secret of the fact that they were armed, and several of them seemed all-to eager for the chance to do something more than just wear their weapons.
And how they did love their vodka.
On more than one occasion while making a hasty exit designed not look particularly hasty after the festivities got particularly boisterous it had occurred to Reuben that he was as conspicuously unarmed as these guys were armed. He had returned his 357 Magnum when he left the company, and had not sought a replacement for it. It would not have been easy to get a weapon into Russia. His new employers were not interested in arming him, at least not yet, and he had thus far avoided trying to acquire a new weapon via the extensive black market. He wasn't suffering from withdrawal, and he didn't feel "naked" or any of that nonsense, but he did have a heightened sense of his own vulnerability.
Though he had made some progress in classifying who these guys were, Reuben still had no idea what they were up to. His Russian wasn't that good. He could tell when something was about to happen a hit? a heist? that he couldn't say but whatever is was, it was always preceded by at least three consecutive evenings in which the Czar and a set of six to eight men were in attendance. Reuben took this to be the forming of a crew for a specific task. He could also tell when something had happened (usually within a week or so of the last appearance of the Czar and crew) because there would be one or two evenings when nobody would show up: no lieutenants, no soldiers. Nobody. This was probably a laying low or cooling off period. What the point of that was, Reuben couldn't guess. These guys were apparently free to act with impunity.
Still, it was a routine. He could respect that.
All told, he had the players down, and he was beginning to understand their patterns. It was a good start. If he were on, say, an 18-month assignment to infiltrate this bunch, he would have been on schedule. But he wasn't. This wasn't part of his job. It had nothing to do with why he was in Moscow. Old habits die hard, he would tell himself.
Some nights, it was all he could do to keep from writing a report when he got back to his room.
His room was on the twelfth floor of the Mezh. He was just three doors down from a room where, company rumor had it, a WorldConneX employee had been stabbed to death by Russian gangsters two years before. At that time, the company was setting up one of Russia's first cellular phone systems. The business development team quickly learned that the budding crime syndicates were looking for exactly the kind of prestige and flexibility in addressing their business communications needs (as the brochures read) that the new mobile phones offered. Many of the best and brightest from the ranks of these syndicates became what the strategic marketing plan described as early adopters. It was a great business fit new technology meets new market niche.
The trouble started when WorldConneX began sending out bills for this service.
To be more precise, the problems really started when they went ahead and shut off the service of a few of these early adopters who were wracking up thousands of dollars in charges each month, and who weren't paying for it. In preparing for this job, Reuben had read a lot of background material on WorldConneX, including a number of their business operational manuals. The Standard Policies and Procedures for Customer Service Center Operations (WCX SPP 147: 00 - 283) contained no instructions for what to do when four huge guys come strolling into your customer service center and butt through the line right to the front, where one of them whips out a knife and puts it to the throat of one of the Customer Service representatives and requests that his boss's service be re-connected, immediately.
They just never thought of that.
It turns out, Reuben had learned, that the correct answer is you re-connect the service and from then on you send the guy a zeroed out bill every month. Of course, that was the correct answer. That isn't what they actually did. Things had to get a whole lot uglier before the WorldConneX executives came up with a few of these more, as they call it, "out of the box" management practices.
But none of that had anything to do with what happened to the guy who stayed in the room down the hall from Reuben. No, he was an enterprising sort who had branched his dealings with his mobile telephony customers into various alternative markets. There were any number of money-making deals a guy could get into right then: mail-order-brides, drugs, shady real-estate speculation the kind where little old ladies met with untimely automobile accidents, leaving apartments in central Moscow ready to be refurbished into luxury condos. No one was sure what the unfortunate fellow from three doors down had gotten himself mixed up in. But whatever it was, it had turned out to be a distinctly bad career move.
For his part, Reuben knew better than to try anything like that. He might dine with these guys nightly, he might conduct unasked-for and totally pointless surveillance of them, but he didn't want to do business with them. That was the primary reason he had not gone looking for a gun. And he had to be extra careful to keep in line with this policy with the one group who was actively soliciting business from him on a daily basis: the ladies.
Coming back from the office each night required walking from the lobby of the office complex into the hotel lobby (the two buildings were connected). At the hotel elevator, there would be a crowd of Russian women, ranging in age from about 16 to roughly 35. Friendly, friendly girls. They all had the same patter: "Hello, Meester." Most of them looked and sounded pretty dead to the whole thing; a few actually seemed to be having fun. These must be the new ones, Reuben decided. Either that, or they were coming from circumstances so desperate, that they would make life as a Mezh hooker seem happy and carefree and fun by comparison. These were circumstances that Reuben didn't care to dwell on.
The girls would offer their wares as the businessmen waited for the elevator. Some really persistent ones would get on the elevator and ride up with them, boldly extolling their own youth and beauty, getting right in somebody's face (Reuben's, often as not) asking him for his name, asking him how he was doing, asking if he was sure really, really sure that he didn't want a date for the evening?
The Mezh ladies never got anything more than a sad smile and a shake of the head from Reuben. This was partly a philosophical problem he had with paying for it, partly hygienic concerns, and partly the realization that even a transaction at this level would constitute doing business with the mob.
By and large, Reuben was content with this new life and this new home. Moscow seemed like the right place to be, and the Mezh was a diverting, sometimes even interesting, place to live.
Then one night it got more interesting than he had expected.
Reuben had just drifted off to sleep after a perfectly normal evening. He had come back from the office at six sharp and stopped off at the lobby bar for a quick vodka. He downed the drink in a couple of gulps, not really interested in it (exceptional quality of the vodka notwithstanding), but committed to the ritual of having a drink after work. He would often run into two or three of his fellow expatriate managers at the lobby bar. Such a meeting inevitably led to a more prolonged session of drinking, grousing, and flirting with the cocktail waitresses.
But the bar was almost empty, so there was none of that tonight.
Leaving a few thousand rubles to cover his tab, Reuben went back up to his room and dropped off his briefcase before heading back down to the Vienna for dinner. It was a quiet evening there. A couple foot soldiers came in and sat down in a corner booth, where they proceeded to smoke, drink, and eat in sullen and absolute silence. They weren't joined by any others. After making short work of his schnitzel and potato dumplings, Reuben managed to spend an hour actually reading the book he had brought with him.
Finishing dinner, he made another ritual stop, at the hotel casino. The casino was a small dim room on the second floor. It featured a roulette table, two blackjack tables, and a bank of five slot machines backed by four video poker machines. That was it, except for a tiny bar fronted by three uncomfortable iron barstools.
Reuben visited the casino on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Upon entering, he would immediately dispense with his gambling obligation. This would mean, depending on his mood, anywhere from five to twenty dollars all gambling was done in US currency usually lost in a matter of minutes at the roulette table. That duty discharged, he was free to take a seat at the bar and proceed to while away the evening chatting with Vladimir, the bartender, while having a drink or two and, once in a while, one of the exquisite Cuban cigars that Vladimir kept in the humidor behind the bar.
The main attraction at the casino was not the gaming tables, however, nor was it the booze (which could be had more cheaply in the lobby bar, not to mention much more cheaply at any of a number of kiosks less than a hundred yards from the front door of the hotel), nor was it even the cigars, although Reuben was admittedly partial to them. The main attraction, and the reason that Reuben visited the casino on those nights in particular, was Ksenia.
Ksenia was one of the casino's two cocktail waitresses. Perpetually underworked - there was barely sufficient business in the casino for one waitress, much less two she would spend much of the evening standing at the end of the bar looking hopelessly bored and making the occasional comment in Russian to Vladimir, who would nod, or chuckle, or shake his head as appropriate. Reuben was one of the few people ever to sit at the bar. One evening, after an hour or so of just watching her while downing perhaps one more drink than he realized, he decided to strike up a conversation with her.
"Ah, dobraye vicher," he began. Good evening.
"Zdrasdye," she replied, uncertainly. Hi.
"Ah, let's see ya Amerikanyetz," he ventured. I'm an American.
Vladimir and Ksenia shared a confused, if slightly amused, glance.
"Da, ya znayoo," she said earnestly. "Ya Ruskaya." Yes, I know. I'm Russian.
"Da, da!" Reuben was suddenly enthusiastic. This was his first attempt to speak Russian, and it was working. "Minnya zavoot Reuben." My name is Reuben.
"Iz vinitye," she answered, excuse me, turning curtly with her tray full of drinks and making for the gaming tables. She returned a moment later and set the empty tray on the bar.
"Ya Ksenia," she said.
"Ochyen priatna, Ksenia," Reuben answered, extending his hand to her. Very pleased to meet you.
She studied his hand for a moment, then glanced at Vladimir. He nodded. She shook his hand briefly and started to turn away.
"Ah, wait, oo vas yest " Reuben said quickly, trying to keep her attention. "No, that isn't it "
She turned back to face him.
"Let me think," he said, straining to remember the words.
"Vui gaveritye po-Ingliski?" Do you speak English?
"Da. Nyemnogo." Yes. A little.
"Horosho." Thank God. "I'm all out of Russian."
"I speak not much English," she responded, smiling nervously.
"Then maybe we can help each other."
So it began. The three nights a week that Reuben visited the casino, he would practice his Russian on Ksenia, and she would practice her English on him. Their conversations were often halting and awkward. Once and a while Vladimir, who spoke perfect English, would step in to help one or the other of them out.
Ksenia was initially shy, and Reuben thought she might be more than a little intimidated by his foreigness. She was a beautiful young woman. The shyness worked in her favor, as did the fact that the casino dressed its female employees in floor-length black skirts and modest white silk blouses. Juxtaposed with the frank, sometimes downright pushy professional girls in the lobby and on the elevators, she was something of a breath of fresh air.
Over the weeks, he had managed to learn a few things about her. She was 23 years old. She grew up in a little town just outside of Moscow. She had two older brothers: one in the army, one working on his doctorate in Germany. Her younger brother lived in Moscow. Both parents were dead - the mother from cancer, the father either from drinking or suicide. From what she told him, it was hard to be sure. Besides, he knew that the line between those two causes of death could be pretty vague in Russia.
Reuben liked Ksenia. Quite a bit. But he didn't have any particular designs on her. She was just a distraction, like the Chechens in the Café Vienna.
Or maybe a bit more than that. She was human contact, after all. A friend. A pretty face.
But whatever she was, she was not there, in the casino, this particular evening. So Reuben had lost his money, had a quick brandy with Vladimir, and made his way back up to his room for an early lights out.
He awoke with a start to the sound of explosions alarmingly close to the window. Looking up, he could see brilliant flashes of light around the edges of the thick curtain. Although there had been no hint of trouble in the past days' headlines, something serious was apparently coming down. He had heard that a couple of years earlier, WorldConneX employees staying in the same hotel had a perfect vantage point from which to observe passing military convoys and even the exchange of gunfire as the hard-liners stormed the Parliament building and battled it out with the progressives.
That had essentially been the communists' last stand, or at least it was supposed to be.
But what he was hearing now sounded like more action than any of his colleagues had described. There were blasts near his window, but he could also hear them coming from farther off, including a few faint ones indicating that whatever was happening was covering a good piece of the city of Moscow. This was no limited raid on one building.
What the hell?
So he did something stupid, something that violated both his training and common sense. He got out of bed and made his way over to the window.
Anyone with any experience of warfare would know that a window is not a smart place to stand when the flak starts flying. Reuben had no such experience, but he knew better, anyway. Still, he needed to get a better look, so he could determine whether it was time to hide under the bed or start making his way to the U. S. Embassy. He pulled a narrow slit of the curtain back in time for another tremendous boom and brilliant flash of light. As he opened the curtain wider and wider, a scene unfolded before him that he couldn't have expected.
It was a fireworks display.
Actually, it was not just one, it was several fireworks displays. From his twelfth-floor vantage point, he could trace the path of the Moskva river as it wound its way past the Parliament building, on towards the Kremlin and Red Square and into unknown quarters of the great city. The fireworks were being set off at the same time, spaced at regular intervals along, and on either side of, the Moskva river. He could count nine different displays.
Not the outbreak of war at all, which was a tremendous relief, and also perversely disappointing. This was a big celebration, covering the entire city, or at least as much of it as he could see. It seemed kind of late in the evening for fireworks. Reuben didn't check his watch, but his internal clock reliable again after a prolonged period of jet lag told him that it was about 11:30.
He watched the rest of the show (it didn't last very long), and then stumbled back to bed wondering what in the name of Mother Russia he had just seen.
The next morning, Reuben arrived at the office still wondering what the fireworks had been about.
He dropped his briefcase on his desk and made his way to the cramped little kitchen behind the copy room, where a big, serious woman named Ola would prepare the staff's lunch each day. She had not yet arrived. He poured himself a cup of hot water into which he spooned some instant coffee and milk powder. He stirred his coffee and turned his attention to a report he needed to review in anticipation of his 8:30 meeting with a Finnish manufacturer of switching equipment.
He found he wasn't ready to focus on technical detail. He needed food.
Without Ola there, he was free to rummage for something to eat. The Mezh breakfast had been particularly unsatisfactory that day, some kind of hairy salted fish and cheap, smelly red caviar. Reuben had in mind a couple of those chocolate-and-graham-cracker cookies with orange jam inside that the Russian staff liked so much. He was attempting his third drawer in this search when into the kitchen walked Sergei.
"Dobraye utra, Sergei," he said, nodding and wishing him good morning in his native tongue.
"Good morning, Reuben."
Sergei was a little older than Reuben, but looked ancient. He was a handsome fellow, with big shoulders and once-sandy hair that had gone gray on him a little early. He was painfully thin, and was always neatly and precisely dressed in a suit that was just this side of shabby. It was no secret that he and a couple of the other Russian guys were ex-KGB hired on by WorldConneX' local partners because of their connections and their ability to see to it that things got done. They could run interference both with the government and the mob (assuming there was occasionally a difference.)
As Reuben understood it, Sergei's main task was greasing the skids to ensure that the myriad of licenses and permits required to do anything in Moscow, much less run a phone company, were received and kept up to date. He also suspected that Sergei played some role in seeing to it that the company didn't have to give away too much service to those mid-level gang bosses who tended to send knife-wielding underlings the company's way any time they had a serious bill dispute.
"So you are going to meeting this morning," Sergei said, uttering one of those Slavic inquisitive-declarative sentences which are not really questions, but which serve the purpose adequately. He reached into the middle drawer and produced a box of the very cookies Reuben was looking for out from under some paper napkins.
"Um thanks," he said, grabbing four cookies from the box. "Yeah, I was just reading over some stuff." He gestured towards the report.
But on to the topic of pressing interest:
"So, Sergei, what did you think of the fireworks last night?"
Sergei returned the box of cookies to the drawer.
"I did not see fireworks."
"What? Were you out of town? How could you possibly have missed them?"
"Well " he half-smiled. "Perhaps I heard fireworks after all."
"Perhaps you did. What were they about?"
"Twice a year we have such fireworks in Moscow. In November, is Revolution Day. You know this day; you have seen on television parade in Red Square, yes?"
"Sure," said Reuben. "I've seen that. It's quite a show, with the banners flying and the missiles rolling by. Only I thought that was in October."
"No. Many people make this mistake. Seven November is Revolution Day, commemorating October Revolution. It has not been decided whether this will continue to be holiday. Was good holiday for Soviet Union, maybe not so good for Russia."
"But you had the fireworks, anyway."
"Da. Konyeshnye." Yes, of course.
Well, sure. That made sense. You can always decide later when your holidays should be, but let's use those fireworks while we've got them. Why not?
"Other day we have fireworks will not change. Is 12 April; also sometimes 9 March."
Reuben wracked his brain, trying to think of what those could be.
"Lenin's birthday?" he guessed.
"No, I think we will no longer have fireworks on that day, which is 22 April. You don't know these dates?
Reuben tried to think what they might be. Something to do with World War II?
"Maybe they have fireworks on 20 July in US?" Sergei prodded. "Or on birthday of your Neil Armstrong?"
Ah. So that was it. The first man in space.
"So Sergei, you're telling me that they have fireworks to commemorate Yuri Gagarin's first space flight."
"Da. Nine March is birthday; 12 April is anniversary of flight. Sometimes in March, but always in April, we have fireworks."
"We don't do anything like that for our astronauts, I'm afraid. So Gagarin is still very much revered, isn't he?"
Something changed in Sergei's expression; he stared hard at Reuben. His eyes were moist and his voice trembled just ever so slightly when he answered.
"Da. Yes. He was good man, Reuben. Good Russian. He was very good man."
His voice cracked as he spoke. He turned suddenly away to pour the water for his tea. Reuben was astounded, not so much that Sergei had strong feelings about Gagarin, but that he had such feelings about anyone or anything.
That just didn't fit the profile.
He wondered - could Sergei have known Gagarin? He studied the back of his head. That would make him somewhat older than Reuben had taken him for. But even if so, this display of feelings was all wrong.
Reuben took a sip of his coffee and munched one of the cookies while he pondered whether it was appropriate to leave Sergei with his deep feelings and wander off as though nothing had happened. He was leaning heavily towards doing just that when Sergei turned back, tea in hand, with all trace of the previous moment's exchange gone from his face.
"You should know Yuri Gagarin, Reuben. All Americans, all peoples, should know. What you know of him?"
"I know a little. He was a cosmonaut, the first man in space. Before that he was an air force pilot. He died a few years after his space flight when he crashed his MiG on a routine training flight. "
Sergei smiled. Reuben sensed that he had handled the question better than expected.
"Da, those are facts. Essential facts. But you should know more. It would help you. To understand more."
"In your work, Reuben."
He took a long sip from his tea. The emphasis on the word was unmistakable.
"My marketing work, you mean?"
Sergei let out a little snort, then treated Reuben to a look of abject perplexity
"Is there other work? What other work? You are head of Special Projects for WorldConneX Russian International Business Unit? Da?"
His tone and manner had shifted. For an instant, Reuben could picture this guy doing a real Cold War style interrogation.
"Da. That's what they tell me."
"So what other work I could possibly mean?"
Reuben didn't know how much Sergei knew about his actual job. He probably had a few suspicions, which there was no point in supporting or worse yet, confirming. He decided it was best to deflect the question.
"Oh, you know. I have some other projects. I've been perfecting my roulette system in the casino. And I've been trying to master a technique for hitting on the Russian ladies."
"Okay, Reuben, we take it one at a time."
The Russian cop was gone, the jovial colleague was back.
"Roulette I know from visit to Monte Carlo, long time ago. I have friend, we both play roulette. His system is bet red. Always bet red."
"Another good Russian."
"Da. Good Russian. He always bet red, he win every time."
"So you're saying that I should just bet red on every spin?"
"Not so simple. Every time I bet red, also. But I don't win every time."
"How can that be? You and he were betting on the same spins of the wheel?"
"Ah. Now we come to point. When I bet on red with friend, I win. When I bet on red without friend, I don't win. I win sometimes, maybe. Sometimes red, sometimes black, sometimes zero. Only one zero on French roulette wheel, but ball land on zero many times when friend is not there."
"Huh. That's not good. And you know, these Russian casinos use an American wheel."
"I know this. Two zeroes. So how to win without winning system?"
"So you're saying that the winning system in roulette is to be with your friend?"
"Nyet. No, Reuben. You must understand. There is only one winning system in roulette."
"And that is?"
"Must be lucky."
Both men took a sip from their cups. Reuben took another bite of cookie and thought about this. Sergei eyed him for a moment and then spoke again.
"Are you lucky, Reuben?"
"That," he answered, swallowing a bite of cookie, "I just don't know. But I'd like to be. Maybe that's what I need to help me with my other project."
"Here I can help you little bit, maybe. But first I ask question. What it means when you say you want to 'hit' woman? Why you would do this? I can not help you with that."
The tone was scolding.
"Go back to U.S., hit American woman. No. Don't. Don't hit woman. Why you ask me this?"
"Sorry, Sergei." Reuben played along. Sergei had surely known what he meant. "I would never hit a woman.
"Well, I would never hit a lady," he amended. "Anyway, I don't want to hit anybody. 'Hit on' is just American slang for picking a woman up. You know, trying to get lucky. "
"I see - hit on. A most unfortunate expression. Sometimes is hard to tell, what is hit, what is hit on. Also, what is woman, what is lady, da? But never mind. You answer your own question. Just like roulette table, you want to be lucky."
"So luck is the answer to everything."
"I think no. With woman, you must be more than lucky. Must be very careful. Anyway, get lucky, that is American expression again, yes? It means the girl talk to you. She like you. Maybe she come back to hotel room with you. No?"
"No. I mean, yes. I guess. Well, to be precise, I think you'd say the whole lucky part kicks in sometime after you get her to the hotel room. But, yeah, close enough.'"
"So you tell me, Reuben. Is get lucky what you want to do with Ksenia?"
Reuben knew he had to answer quickly.
"Now, Sergei. She's just a kid, after all."
He had never mentioned Ksenia to Sergei, or to anyone else at the office. He had made a point of it.
"She is kid, you think? Looks plenty grown up to me."
His tone and expression had not changed. Just two guys talking about a girl.
"You're right. She's an adult."
He snorted again. Then he slowly shook his head with his eyes cast upward, a patient man sent beyond his limits by this American and his nonsense.
"Everything must be so complicated with you, da? She is kid; she is adult; she is lady; she is woman."
"Well, Christ, everything is complicated, Sergei. Ksenia and I are friends, that's all. I've thought about asking her out, but I don't know if it's a good idea."
"Not good for you or not good for her?"
"Either one. For me, I've got to get used to being single again."
Reuben suddenly wondered whether Sergei was keeping tabs just on his life now, here in Moscow, or whether he had access to his past.
"I see. Forgive me, Reuben, but how long it has been since you separated from, who, girlfriend? Wife?"
"My wife. She passed away two years ago."
Closer to three years now, he realized.
Sergei exhaled, sharply. So he didn't know. Or if he was acting, he was doing it very well.
Reuben didn't handle sympathy well, and he didn't handle pity, period. Sergei spared him both. He could see genuine pain in the older man's face. The guy seemed pretty sensitive for ex-KGB. He had obviously endured his own loss or losses somewhere along the line.
Gagarin? No, that was ridiculous. It had to be something else.
"I'm very sorry, Reuben."
"Yes," Sergei sighed. "Is very hard. People tell you, two years is long enough. Is time to start new. They say this to you, da?"
"All the time."
"Again I am sorry. I do not say such things. It is foolish."
"Well. They mean well, after all."
There was a long, long pause, as Sergei and Reuben stared off into the near distance and contemplated the countless horrors wrought upon this world by those who mean well.
Or at least Reuben did.
"Then you must also tell me, Reuben," Sergei said after a while. "Why is bad for Ksenia if you try to hit on her?"
That question broke the mood, to their mutual relief. It also reminded Reuben that he was in Moscow talking to, not a close lifelong friend, but a stranger - a man he knew hardly at all, except that he was, like Reuben himself, an agent. An operative. Let's face it, a spy. And not just any spy, but one who - as the saying goes - knew too much.
That needed attending to.
"Oh, it's not bad for her, I guess. We might have some fun. But we'd be
coming at this thing from awfully different points of reference. I just wouldn't
want her to get hurt."
"I see. You don't want to hurt girl. That is ochyen dobri, Reuben. Very kind."
"If you say so. Or maybe I just don't like feeling guilty."
"Why you would feel guilty?"
"Well, say we go out a few times, have some fun, everything is okay. And then she wants to take it up a notch. Tangle things up a little."
"Well, say she wants to take me home to meet her parents?"
Sergei didn't show any sign indicating that he knew this scenario to be impossible.
"So you meet them."
Reuben shook his head.
"No thanks. Besides, you don't think they'd have a problem with me?"
Sergei pondered this.
"Because you are, pardon me, black man? Da. Yes. They might have problem, might not have problem. Is also the case for you with white girl in America, da?"
"I wouldn't know, actually. I've never gone out with a white girl."
"So? Maybe Russia is good place to try something new. Besides, if they have this problem, is no cause for you to feel guilty. For them maybe, not you."
"No, not about that. I suppose I could. Meet her parents, whatever. But you see what I'm getting at. A girl like Ksenia - she's looking to meet somebody, you know what I mean? Meet somebody. I've heard some stories from the guys I work with. Some of the local girls can get pretty attached to expat guys pretty fast. Ksenia's just asking to have her heart broken."
"You are right," Sergei responded, a little of the slyness beginning to work its way back in. "You are right, she is asking. So why you are refusing?"
"It makes no sense to feel guilty, if the girl ask you. If she say 'Break my heart, please' and you refuse, then you feel guilty. Because you don't give her what she want. But do not disappoint girl, even girl who wants broken heart."
"I like that, Sergei. It's really twisted."
"You don't like my advice; you don't have to take it." He drained his tea and put the cup down.
"Well, maybe I'll take your advice after all. I mean about trying something new, not about breaking any hearts. But where should I take her?"
"You have been to ballet?" Sergei asked. "She would like that, I am sure."
"No, I haven't been. But that's a bad idea, Sergei. Too romantic. We want something more neutral " The sentence trailed off as Reuben considered his options.
"Neutral?" Sergei looked perplexed. "Take her to Art Museum. They are showing Chagal; my wife asks me to take her. Women like this."
"Hmm, that's not bad," said Reuben. "The Art Museum sounds pretty good, but I'm not so sure about Chagal. Still too romantic, I think."
"Is just pictures," Sergei protested. "How neutral this place has to be?"
They both paused for a moment, considering neutral venues.
"Take her with you when you go to buy snow boots," said Sergie. "That is not so romantic."
"Don't be a wise guy. Actually you've given me an idea. I've been meaning to find my way over to the space museum. Maybe I'll go this weekend. I guess I could learn something about Yuri Gagarin there."
"Yes. Is good idea."
"So, maybe I'll see if Ksenia wants to go with me."
Sergei laughed, and nodded approvingly.
"Ha. You will never break her heart if you take her to such a place."
"That's the idea, right? But let me ask you something: who told you about Ksenia?"
"I'm sorry Reuben, forgive me," he said, turning towards the door, "I believe you are late for meeting."
Reuben glanced at his watch. Sergei was right.
He was late.
A clear November afternoon in Moscow was a rarity. To have one fall on a Saturday struck Reuben as a lucky break, one that he doubted would last. Clouds were gathering and the brisk wind, which had begun as the faintest breeze, was gaining momentum as the day progressed. He set out from the Mezh and crossed the Moskva river on foot, making his way to the Hotel Ukraina.
Reuben liked the Ukraina. It was a product of the Stalin era: massive and powerful. It looked like a cross between the Empire state building and a medieval castle, much more interesting than the glass-and steel Mezh.
It was a short walk, not ten minutes from one hotel lobby to the other. He found the main lobby and, glancing at his watch, took a seat in a red leather armchair. He was five minutes early.
The place was almost empty; he noted that it was bigger, better lighted, and much cleaner than the lobby of the Mezh. He wondered what the guest rooms looked like — maybe it was time for a change of scenery. He could think of only one thing he would miss at the Mezh.
And there she was.
Ksenia had been there all the time, but he had not immediately recognized her in her heavy coat and red wool cap. She had not seen him, either. She was sitting on a sofa in the corner, next to a young man of about her own age. He was obviously another Russian — dark curly hair and a lean Slavic face. He was dressed in a long brown coat made of unconvincing fake leather The two of them were having what appeared to be a serious conversation in hushed tones.
He got up and strode over to the other side of the lobby to greet them. The young guy saw him first and nudged Ksenia, who smiled in recognition. They both stood up.
"Hi, Ksenia," said Reuben. "Dobraye Din."
"Hello, Reuben," she offered her hand in greeting. "Good day," she added, translating his Russian for him.
If this was a date, he thought, shaking her hand, it was getting off to a slow start.
"I’m really glad you were able to make it."
"I am glad for invitation. Reuben, may I present my brother, Pavel Victorvich Teremov. Pasha, this is my friend Mr. Reuben Stone, from the United States of America."
"How do you do, Pavel." He extended his hand to the younger man, who smiled and took it enthusiastically.
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Stone." He shook Reuben’s hand vigorously. "Please to call me Pasha if you like. You are Ksenia’s friend, you are my friend."
"Pasha it is. And you must please call me Reuben, or I’ll feel like an old man."
"Okay, Reuben," he laughed, enjoying the unusual name.
"Pasha has said that he will be so kind as to drive us to museum. It will be long ride on the Metro, so we are lucky to have driver."
"That’s great, Pasha. Thank you."
"Come. If you will wait in front, I will bring car."
They proceeded out the front door of the hotel, where Pasha left them to retrieve the car.
"So," said Reuben. "You look very pretty today."
"Oh," Ksenia said, looking away. "Thank you."
In fact, she looked quite a bit different in daylight and wearing something other than the uniform in which he had seen her at least a dozen times. Her face was flushed, both with the cold and maybe with a little embarrassment. Reuben liked the change. She was more real now, somehow. She turned back to face him and smiled. She seemed nervous. That was normal. They had always been awkward around each other.
"Anyway," he continued, "I wasn’t expecting you to bring your brother. Is he the reason you wanted me to walk over here today?"
"Yes," she answered. "Is little bit easier for Pasha to drive from here. But I had other reason."
"Is not important. But I am not allowed — no, ‘allowed’ is not right word — I am…" she clapped her gloved hands together, struggling to find the right word, "I am almost not allowed to be friend with hotel guest."
"Ah, I see. ‘Almost not allowed.’ You mean the hotel discourages you from socializing with the guests."
"Yes, that is it. Discourage."
"Well, I hope you’re not risking getting into any trouble."
She smiled. "We go from here, is no risk. Is no risk, in any case. Just, as you say, discourage…they discourage."
"What about Vladimir? He heard me ask you and he heard you accept. Do you think he’ll tell anyone?"
Ksenia considered this.
"I don’t think so. Vladimir said I should go after first time you ask. He likes you. He said you are okay for…for American man."
She quickly looked away again, once again embarrassed. Reuben couldn’t help but wonder whether she had edited out some racial overtones to Vladimir’s comment.
"That’s good. I’m glad he’s on our side."
"Yes," she answered, turning back to him. "And he is only one who knows."
That, of course, was not entirely true. The other person who knew, perhaps not that they were together today, but that he had taken a social interest in Ksenia, was Sergei.
Reuben suspected that Sergei had let Reuben know that he was being watched as some kind of warning. It was not made explicit what he was being warned about, but an obvious candidate was his nightly routine at the Café Vienna. Maybe his regular presence there was needlessly raising his profile. Going there served no purpose whatsoever, it was a pointless indulgence. Reuben had decided to phase it out.
Pasha arrived, driving a tan Lada that appeared to be in fairly good shape, which was itself something of a rare sight. Reuben was not sure what the seating protocol should be. Should he and Ksenia sit together in the back set, taxi-style? Or should somebody ride in the front seat with Pasha? It depended on whether Pasha was the chaperon, the chauffeur, or just the annoying fifth wheel.
Ah, to hell with it, he thought. He opened the back seat door for Ksenia, and then followed her in. This was the arrangement he preferred. If it was rude, it was no more rude than bringing your brother along uninvited.
He needn’t have worried. This seemed to be the seating plan that everyone was expecting.
"Okay!" said Pasha, enthusiastically. "Now we go to cosmonaut museum. Reuben, you have been before?" He drove the car out of the hotel parking lot and into Moscow traffic.
"No, it’s my first time."
"Oh. You will like this. I go when I was in school. All Russian children go."
"Really," Reuben said, turning to Ksenia. "You mean you’ve been there before?"
"Yes. When I was maybe seven, maybe eight years old."
"And you want to go back?"
"Is interesting place," she said, "And there are two museums, not one. One is Museum of Cosmonautics—this is where everyone goes when they are in school—and the other is Cosmos Pavilion at the VDNKh."
"What’s the VD…KNH?"
"VDNKh. It is the Exhibition of Economical Achievements. One of the exhibits is the Cosmos Pavilion. And you may wish to look at some of the others."
"So we’ll go to the Museum of Cosmonautics first?" Reuben liked the sound of the Cosmos Pavilion.
"Yes," Pasha answered, smiling once again. "Is easier to go there first, then to Pavilion. Is little bit of walking, if you don’t mind."
"Not at all," said Reuben. "It’s a nice day for a walk. And I can really use the exercise."
The drive took about half an hour. The time passed quickly, with Reuben fielding numerous questions from Pasha about life in the US. A couple of times during the course of the drive, Pasha took a call on his mobile phone, which Reuben recognized as one of the brands supported by the WorldConneX system. He wondered what line of work this young fellow might be pursuing, to be driving such a clean car and carrying a status-symbol telephone known to be a favorite of pimps and drug dealers. The kid was definitely mixed up in something, it was just a question of what.
After a while, Pasha pulled over to the side of the road.
"Okay!" he said, turning to face them with a grin, his enthusiasm back in full force. "I leave you here now and you walk to Museum. Is not far from here. Excuse me for now, I have…appointment."
"Well, thank you very much for driving us, Pasha. It was nice meeting you." Reuben extended his hand.
Pasha didn’t take it.
"Oh, no," he said quickly. "I see you later and drive you back.. Is now," he glanced at his watch, "half past one. I meet you in front of Cosmos Pavilion at six."
Ksenia said something in Russian. Reuben recognized the word zdyes, here. Pasha seemed to disagree with whatever she had said.
"Ah, should we just meet you here at six and save you the walk?" Reuben asked.
"No, no," Pasha said, suddenly displaying the severity that had been previously reserved for his Russian exchanges with Ksenia. His smile was gone. "Is already decided. I meet you there."
This was neither an invitation nor a request.
Suddenly seeming to remember himself, he smiled again.
"Okay?" he said.
Reuben looked at Ksenia, who shrugged.
"Sure," he said. "If you really don’t mind, that will be fine."
"I don’t mind. Then maybe I take you both for dinner, yes?"
This day was not shaping up at all as Reuben had planned. But what choice did he have?
"That sounds great, Pasha."
They both climbed out of the car. Pasha drove on.
"Well," said Reuben, getting his bearings. "I guess we’re heading towards that thing." He gestured towards a gleaming tower a short distance from where they stood.
"Yes," said Ksenia. "Reuben, I am sorry for Pasha. Sometimes he also…discourages me." She looked puzzled. "But only sometimes. He also helps. Was kind of him to drive us."
"He just wants to watch out for his sister. There’s nothing wrong with that."
"Come," she said, taking Reuben’s hand with a smile "I show you ‘that thing’."
That thing was the Space Obelisk, a shining metal tower standing about 300 feet tall. It’s shape was that of a plume of exhaust streaming out of an ascending rocket. Something about the curve of the tower as it swept both in and upward suggested tremendous velocity. At the top of the tower stood a stylized replica of a rocket.
"This is Alley of Cosmonauts," said Ksenia, pointing out the statuary that lined either side of the walkway leading to the tower. These were not full statues, but busts of the cosmonauts mounted on pedestals.
Reuben studied the faces of the cosmonauts as they passed. There was Gagarin, looking very somber. A little further down, they came upon Valentina Tereshkova.
"Hey," said Reuben. "She’s kind of pretty."
"So? You think everybody is pretty."
"That is patently not true. But I always heard that that first woman you guys sent into space was kind of…well, butch I guess. It must have been Cold War propaganda. I mean, look at her; she’s lovely."
"They make statue to flatter, not to tell truth. However, she was very brave."
He studied the bust for another moment.
"You’re right about that. I guess brave is more important than pretty, isn’t it?"
"Is more important for cosmonaut, anyway," she said.
"Anyhow, I don’t think that everybody is pretty. Just you. You and the first woman in space."
They pressed on to the museum, which stood at the base of the obelisk. Reuben paid the admission, a paltry 100 rubles, and in they went. He could see at once that there wasn’t much to the place. It was a single room, with just a smattering of memorabilia. There were replicas of the first Sputniks and other satellites, two scaled down space capsules, and two full-size replicas of the heroic Russian dogs who had given their lives to the exploration of space. Next to the dogs were their absurd-looking pressurized dog space suits.
Within half an hour, they had seen everything there was to see at least once. Reuben thought that Ksenia was woefully unimpressed by the significance of the Sputnik display. But then again, most people were. She was considerably more interested in the dog space suits and a blown glass sculpture of the Zodiac characters that ran along the far wall, but even these got old pretty quick. Reuben could sense that Ksenia was growing bored of the whole thing, and he couldn’t blame her.
"Well, what do you think?" he asked her. "Should we see if we can find this VDNKh?"
"If you like," she said, cheerfully enough.
As soon as they stepped out of the museum, Reuben knew that he had been right to suspect that the weather wouldn’t last. It was noticeably colder, now, and completely overcast. The wind had picked up, too, and was beginning to spit a few tiny snowflakes.
They started out across the plaza that led to the entrance to the Exhibition of Economical Exhibits.
"Sorry to take you out on a day like this," he said.
"Why? Is normal." She gestured at the sky.
"You don’t mind going out for a walk in the snow?"
She gave him a look of tolerant pity.
"Poor Reuben. Is not snow, today," she said. "Not yet. Soon we will see snow, real snow, and then you will ask who does not mind to go for walk."
"Meaning I won’t want to? Hey, I love snow."
She looked at him skeptically.
The VDNKh had a certain fading grandiosity to it. There were arches and columns everywhere, though many of the structures were crumbling or needed paint. Most of the buildings were boarded shut. A few that were not had been converted into small shops selling the ubiquitous matroshka dolls or other Russian souvenirs. Reuben could see stacks of toilet paper and dish washing soap in some of the windows. One particularly impressive building boasted a display of power lawnmowers. Walking past the open front of the pavilion, Reuben could see inside that there were rows of washing machines and dryers.
"I thought this place would be like the World’s Fair or something," he said. "It’s nothing but an enormous K-Mart."
Ksenia didn’t ask.
They stopped at a kiosk and had shish-kebabs. Reuben wanted to be close to the wood fire as much as he wanted the food. He was freezing.
Ksenia made short work of her kebab.
"Now we have ice cream," she said.
"Is Russian tradition to have on cold winter day. Even on nice autumn day like this, is good. Will warm you up, Reuben. Come, I buy for you."
"Da," said Reuben, "Konyeshnye." Yes, of course.
After finishing their ice cream, they walked on past a fountain, not working, which was encircled by a ring of golden statues of girls holding hands. Ksenia explained that each of the girls, displaying a particular ethnicity, and dressed to match, represented one of the nations of the Soviet Union.
"This shows friendship forever of the nations," she explained.
"It’s pretty," said Reuben, stopping to take a longer look.
"For once you are right to use this word."
"I’ve been right more than once. Too bad about the nations, though."
"Yes, it’s a pity."
Reuben looked around him. He had never heard 700 years of Russian history summed up so succinctly: it’s a pity.
It certainly was.
They continued on their way. The snow, which Ksenia had not deemed worthy of the name, had grown much heavier, and was now mixed with rain. Turning a corner, Reuben could see what had to be the Cosmos Pavilion directly in front of them. In front of the building stood an enormous Vostock rocket. Reuben couldn’t tell if this was a full-scale model, or the shell of a real rocket which had never been used. It was flanked on either side by Aeroflot jetliners.
From this distance, it was impossible to see whether the building was open, or boarded shut as so many others had been. There were no kiosks out front. Nobody was selling cigarettes or Vodka or Snickers bars.
As they got closer, Reuben could see that the door of the pavilion was, in fact, open. There were people going in and out. They reached the front door, stepped inside, and saw what use had been made of this temple to the Russian conquest of space.
It was a car showroom.
All makes, all models, everything American or European, with a few Japanese. There was no place for even a clean Lada like Pasha’s, here. Just big Mercedes, Cadillacs, Volvos, even a pair of bright red Corvettes.
"Ochyen krasivi," said Ksenia, under her breath. Very beautiful. Reuben had to admit, the cars did look remarkably clean and new, especially in the midst of so much decay.
The place was crowded, although Reuben suspected that most of the people there were just having a look. The main hall of the pavilion was a long hallway. It was the car showroom, but beyond it, in a circular atrium with an even higher domed glass ceiling, it looked like there were still a few space exhibits.
Reuben left Ksenia to admire the cars while he had a look.
There were several panes of glass missing from the Atrium ceiling, and Reuben realized that he had to be careful where he stood as he admired the old space capsules, or he would get dripped on. He spent a few minutes looking at the displays. There was a full-scale model of the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz linkup. There were also replicas of the Russian Mars and Venus landers, plus several of the earlier Russian space capsules. These looked to Reuben like huge cannonballs with hatches.
Reuben noticed a false wall blocking off a portion of the atrium. Behind the wall, he could see parts of other satellites and spacecraft sticking out. They had apparently been pushed aside to make room for the cars.
On the far wall was an enormous photo portrait of Yuri Gagarin. Gagarin was crisply dressed in his military uniform. He was smiling, looking much happier than his bust back on the Alley of the Cosmonauts.
This was what Sergei had sent him to see, Reuben realized. He walked over to take a closer look.
This young man, hero to his nation, admired by all the world. In the moment the photo had captured, obviously some time shortly after his historic flight, he was beaming, on top of the world. A snow-white dove had been released just in front of him, and its spread wings made the perfect emblem for his chest.
Yuri and a dove: it was a ten-thousandth of a second of time, captured and preserved on the far wall of the Cosmos Pavilion.
Reuben stood there and studied the photo for a long moment. He didn’t know what he was supposed to see.
The he realized that he was no longer alone. Ksenia had joined him, and was also silently studying the portrait.
"I am sorry, Reuben," she said after a while. "I am sorry that you find museum in such condition."
"This is what life in Russia is," he said. "What life is."
"Da," she answered.
They stood that way for a long moment.
"How did you like the cars?" he asked at last.
"Cars were okay. Were — how you would say it? — pretty."
Reuben smiled at her.
"I see you’re learning."
"Yes, from you I learn how to say that everything is pretty."
"Well, you said you wanted to improve your English."
"Oh, is good English to call everything by same word. Now I know."
On a sudden impulse, he took her other hand and pulled her close to him. She turned her face up towards his.
"You need to ease up on the attitude," he said. "Besides, I don’t think everything is pretty."
"Oh, no? So tell me — what is one thing that you don’t think is pretty?"
"Well…" Reuben looked around. "That," he said, gesturing at one of the space capsules, "is not too pretty."
She looked at it.
"No," she said, turning back to him. "Is not pretty."
"So you see?" he said.
Not impulsively, but as naturally as anything could be, he bent down and kissed her. Her mouth was soft and warm. Her response was not one of surprise, and all traces of shyness or awkwardness were gone.
She drew back after a moment, and then looked at him, smiling.
"I do see," she said softly. She drew in close, this time taking the initiative.
She kissed him with a certain eagerness, perhaps curiosity, and Reuben sensed a passion he had not guessed at. She pulled away abruptly, apparently realizing that she was committing an impropriety.
The shyness returns, thought Reuben. He knew that taboos against public displays of affection are hard to shake off, but still. This wasn’t much of a public place; they were all alone in the atrium.
The voice from behind explained everything. Reuben turned around and saw Pasha, more than two hours early and looking more cheerful than ever.
"Hello," Pasha said again. He approached them. Cheerful as ever, but the smile looked strained.
"Hello, Reuben; hello, Ksenia. Excuse me, please, I do not mean to interrupt."
Ksenia stepped just a little to one side, and let go of Reuben’s hands.
"Not at all," Reuben said. "We weren’t expecting you so soon."
"Yes, I see that." Pasha eyed his sister. His smile looked even more strained.
"I finish my work sooner than expected. I hope you have enjoyed museums?"
"I did. But I think it was all pretty boring for Ksenia."
"No, no," she protested. She met her brother’s eyes for a moment and looked away.
Pasha laughed, not in a pleasant way.
"You see?" he said. "Not so bored. Ksenia is good at finding something to do."
No one said anything for a moment. Pasha looked at them both, still smiling, but abandoning any pretense of being cheerful or good-natured. Instead, he seemed tremendously satisfied, as though coming upon them as he did proved something, or gave him some advantage. His eyes were hard and cold.
Ksenia broke the silence.
"What shall we do now?" she said. Her tone was lighthearted.
"We go now," Pasha answered. "Too early for dinner, so I take you for drink. Yes, Reuben?"
Reuben was inclined to say no, but he wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Ksenia just yet.
"Sounds good," he said. "Where shall we go?"
"I know good place, not far from here." He turned to Ksenia. "Come, it will be good time with our American friend, no?"
Ksenia once again took Reuben’s hand.
"Yes, Pasha," she said. "It will be good time."
They made their way out of the Cosmos Pavilion and into what was now, by anyone’s definition, a full-blown snow shower.
"So Reuben," said Pasha, "how you like this weather in Moscow?"
"I was just telling Ksenia how much I love snow."
"Yes? There is good skiing in US. Do you ski?"
"A little. I used to live in Denver, near some excellent skiing."
Pasha slowed down, apparently taking a keen interest in this answer.
"WorldConneX is in Denver, yes? What you do at WorldConneX?"
"I’m in marketing. I manage several projects." Reuben recognized an opening. "What about you, Pasha? Where do you work?"
Pasha eyed his sister again.
"Ksenia did not tell you?" he asked.
"No, she never mentioned it."
He stopped and looked at her. She met his gaze with some defiance.
Pasha turned back to Reuben.
"I work at Mezh Hotel, same as Ksenia. I found job for her at Fortuna Casino."
"But you don’t work in the casino, do you? I’ve never seen you there."
Pasha glanced Ksenia’s way once again, but whatever it was he was looking for, he wasn’t finding it.
"Oh, no. Not in Casino."
"So what do you do?"
Pasha considered this question for a moment, and then laughed the unpleasant laugh again.
"I also manage some different projects. Is nice to be business man, no?"
"Sure," he said.
They continued walking, past the fountain with the golden girls and back towards the Space Obelisk. Reuben noted that the crowd at the VDNKh had grown throughout the course of the afternoon. A row of makeshift kiosks was being set up along the walkway leading out of (or into) the exhibition. The place was turning into a small flea market, with men and women setting out clothing, trinkets, and books. Many of the kiosks were not much more than card tables containing a box or two of clearly pirated audio cassettes, with a ghetto blaster providing a sample of the available merchandise. Almost all of the music was Russian.
They passed a girl of about 15 holding a up a white kitten. Next to her stood a boy of eight or nine with his small arms wrapped around an unwieldy cardboard box. Reuben remembered seeing something like this in front of the Kievskaya train station a few days before. That time it had been just one person, a middle-aged woman, holding up a puppy with a covered box on the sidewalk in front of her.
"What are they doing?" he asked.
Pasha ignored the question.
"They look for…home for cats," Ksenia answered. "Who will take a cat?"
"I see," said Reuben. "Where do they get them?"
Ksenia glanced at Reuben, not sure whether he was joking. She treated him to a reprise of the look of sympathetic condescension that she had offered earlier on the subject of snow.
"In Russia, we get little cats from big cats," she said.
Pasha said something to Ksenia in Russian. They both laughed. The mood lightened.
They proceeded out of the VDNKh, past the Space Obelisk, and back to the approximate place where Pasha had dropped them earlier.
"Wait here; I come back with car," said Pasha, and continued up the street on foot.
"So," Reuben said, guiding Ksenia a couple of steps back from the edge of the street. "I think I get it. The kids we saw have a cat at home who gave birth to a litter of kittens. They’ve weaned the kittens and are now here giving them to anyone who will take them."
"Yes, Reuben. I am sorry. I don’t mean to joke at you."
"Don’t worry," he said. "I’m just glad that Pasha cheered up."
"Yes. Again, I am sorry."
"Never mind that," he said. "But he did pick a hell of a time to re-appear, didn’t he?"
"Yes. Next time, we go without Pasha." She stepped back a little. "But today we will try to keep him ‘cheered up," okay?"
"Okay," he said. "But I hope I get to see you again soon."
The Lada appeared at the curb. Reuben and Ksenia climbed in.
The drive along Prospekt Mira (Peace Avenue, Ksenia told Reuben) and towards Pasha’s undisclosed "good place" was much like the earlier trip. Pasha was affable and talkative, as before. Ksenia seemed to be paying close attention to where they were going, although this time the two of them did not confer on the subject. It was a meandering route, quickly straying from the main street into a run-down, industrial section of the city. The streets narrowed; on either side of them loomed low edifices of brown and gray, many without windows.
At length, they arrived at a crumbling four-story building that sat a little way off the street. Between the street and the building was a yard enclosed by a chain-link fence. Within the perimeter of the fence, there were several mounds that Reuben assumed were pieces of machinery or piles of construction materials. But he couldn’t be sure, because they were carefully covered with tarps, which were by now mostly covered with snow.
Pasha drove the Lada to the gate and flashed his headlights. A moment later, a hulk of a man appeared wearing a shabby black coat and fur hat. He stared at the car for a moment and, registering some minimal recognition, proceeded to open the gate.
Ksenia said something in Russian. Whatever it was, Pasha ignored it. He drove them into the yard and stopped the car not far from what appeared to be the building’s back door. Reuben noted that there were a few other cars parked there, most of them foreign models.
"All right," he said cheerfully enough, switching off the ignition. "Here we are."
"Great, Pasha," said Reuben. "But where exactly are we?"
Pasha looked at the building and seemed to think about his answer for a moment.
"Is club," he finally said. "Is private club."
"Reuben," said Ksenia, "we do not go here if you don’t want to go. Pasha will take us where we like." Her eyes met those of her brother, and this time there was no mistaking her look of defiance. Pasha looked away.
Reuben admired Ksenia’s strength, but he doubted what she said was true. Glancing up at the rear view mirror, he could see that the giant had already closed the gate behind them. And he had been joined by two others, beefy guys of about the same size. One of them held a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag.
In this light and with the snow, it was hard to be sure, but Reuben suddenly had a very strong suspicion.
"Thanks, Ksenia," he said. "Pasha, if you don’t mind, I think I would prefer not to visit your club today. Could we go someplace else, maybe back to the Ukraina? I’d like to try the bar there."
"Yes," said Pasha, "of course. We go back to Ukraina and try bar there. But first, you must come in with me and have drink."
Ksenia said something in Russian, which Pasha ignored.
"I think I’d rather not, Pasha. Not today."
Pasha sighed and then turned to face them.
"I have friends here who want to see you. I promise them I take you here for them to meet. You must not refuse. Is very big insult if you refuse." He spoke coldly, no longer bothering to smile.
Reuben was suddenly angry at himself. If the kid’s car and phone had been red flags, his job at the Mezh had been more like 12-foot high sign reading CAUTION.
Distracted, he thought. By a woman.
"All right," said Reuben. "Let me be clear. I don’t want to go into your club. But if I refuse, your friends back there are going to persuade me otherwise, is that right?"
"You understand very well," he said.
Reuben turned to Ksenia.
"I’m to understand that you knew nothing about this?" he asked.
Ksenia’s wide eyes were moist with tears. Her voice trembled with rage.
"I did not know," she said.
"She thinks I serve as driver for her and [expletive]" — a Russian word Reuben could not understand, but guessed the meaning of — "because I care so much. She is stupid girl."
"Right," said Reuben. "Stupid. But she still has nothing to do with any of this."
Pasha looked puzzled. He looked at Ksenia for a moment.
"What you mean?"
"Don’t be an idiot. She’s your sister."
Pasha said nothing.
"None of this involves her, Pasha. Whoever is in that building, they want to see me, not Ksenia."
"So let her go. Now. Go tell your friends back there to open the gate and let her leave, on foot."
"Why should I?"
"Because you don’t care what they do to me, but you don’t have any reason to expose her to them. These are dangerous people, aren’t they, Pasha?"
Pasha said nothing.
Ksenia started to say something in Russian, but Pasha shushed her again.
"Besides," said Reuben, "it will be much easier if you do it this way. I’ll go willingly, as soon as she has been allowed to leave. I won’t put up any kind of fight."
"You only get hurt worse if you do," said Pasha, but Reuben could see he was wavering. He glanced again at the rear view mirror. The three of them were still standing there, staring at the parked car. There wasn’t much time.
"Just go back there now, and tell them that you’ve decided you don’t want the girl here, and you’re sending her away. I’ll watch through the mirror. As soon as the gate is open, I’ll send Ksenia. You make sure she gets out safely, and then I’ll go in with you."
Pasha glowered at Reuben. Then he sighed and opened his door.
"You are pretty smart, Reuben. You still be smart and don’t do anything stupid, okay?"
He looked at his sister with disgust and said something harsh to her in Russian. She didn’t respond.
Reuben gave a thought as to how easy it would be to smash Pasha’s nose right into his sneering face. He could have this punk out of the game before he knew what hit him. The real trouble would be the three goons behind them. Could he take them all? He was unarmed. He couldn’t risk it.
Pasha stepped out of the car and trudged across the yard towards the gate. Reuben watched him through the rear view menu.
"Reuben, I don’t want to — " she started.
"No," he interrupted. "There’s no time. Listen carefully. You get out of here as quickly as you can." He glanced at his watch. "I want you to meet me at the newspaper kiosk in front of the Kievskaya train station in one hour. If I’m not there, I need you to call someone for me."
He glanced up. Pasha was talking to the three men. They were passing the bottle around; one of them took a drink. They were laughing.
"Yes, I understand."
He told her the phone number. She repeated it.
"Good," he said. "Ask for Sergei. Tell him who you are and everything that happened today. Tell him where I am as best you can. Don’t agree to meet him in person, and don’t let anyone know you spoke to him. Do you understand?"
The man in black had swung the gate open. Pasha waved at the car.
"The main thing is for you to get out of here safely. Go now."
"Reuben, I am so sorry." She was trembling.
"Never mind that," he said. "This will probably be fine. These guys just want to talk to me. But if something happens…you’re the only person who can help me now. Don’t let me down."
Pasha waved again and called out. The guy with the bottle shouted something at the car, to the great amusement of the other two.
"Don’t be afraid. Just do what you have to do."
She let go of his hand.
"Yes," she answered, her voice clear and strong.
She had stopped trembling. Their eyes met for a moment.
"Go on," he said.
"See you again," she said.
She opened the car door and walked out into the snowy evening. Reuben watched as she strode past Pasha and the thugs. Her brother gave her a slight nod. If there was any response, Reuben couldn’t see it from where he sat. The other men said nothing to her, and didn’t seem to pay her much attention. After she passed through the gate, the guy in black closed it behind her.
Pasha walked back to the car. Reuben had already stepped out. The younger man walked past without looking at him or saying a word. Reuben fell in line obediently. They walked up the steps, where Pasha stopped at the door to check it. Locked. He pushed the buzzer, and they waited. A short while later, the door swung open.
It was dark and smoky inside. Reuben could see that they were in a hallway, at the foot of a staircase. The floor, the walls, and the stairs all seemed to be made from the same batch of crumbling gray concrete. He looked closely at the man who opened the door. He was tall and fat, dressed in an ill-fitting double-breasted suit.
Pasha and the Bad Suit had a brief and surly exchange of words. After asking Pasha what must have been the Standard Questions, he turned and made his lumbering way back up the stairs. Pasha sighed with exasperation, and lit a cigarette. The two men stood at the foot of the stairs for several minutes before the Suit returned.
He descended about halfway and then stopped and gestured back towards the top of the staircase. Pasha started up, with Reuben following. The Suit allowed Pasha to pass, but stopped Reuben in his tracks. He then proceeded to subject Reuben to a rough and thorough frisking. It went on much longer than necessary, and ended with the man giving Reuben a swat on the backside.
"Nice club you got here, Pasha," Reuben said, continuing up the stairs. "I’m still kind of new in town. Should I have tipped him?"
"Shut up," Pasha hissed at him.
Reuben said nothing more. They reached the top of the stairs, where suddenly the floor was carpeted, and the walls paneled with dark wood. Two high-backed red leather chairs lined the hallway, which led to a pair of double doors. Above the chairs were brass light fixtures with clouded glass shades in the shape of tulips; between the lamps was mounted a large painting, a gaudy mountainous landscape. They continued down the hall and through the double doors. The room they entered was designed for more of the same effect. It was a parlor, with white marble floors covered with intricate Oriental rugs. There were more paintings, more brass light fixtures. The furniture was dark and solid and heavy. There was a snooker table; there were bookcases. There was an enormous fireplace at the far end of the room. A sofa and several chairs were gathered around it.
Reuben followed as Pasha walked purposefully towards the small group of men seated around the fire. There were two men that Reuben had never seen before, but three that he recognized immediately.
"Hello, gentlemen," said Pasha, sounding quite pleased with himself. "May I present to you Meester Reuben Stone of the United States of America."
They turned and looked at Reuben. Now it was obvious: he had seen two of the guys at the gate before. And now, seated in front of the fire were two men Reuben had never seen before, along with the Czar and Comrades Mikhail Barishnikov and Boris Badinov.
Must be a slow night over at the Café Vienna, Reuben thought.
The Czar muttered something in Russian.
"Come here," said Barishnikov.
Reuben approached the Czar, assuming that Barishnikov was acting as interpreter.
"How do you do," he said to the Czar. Barishnikov translated.
"You must be fucking crazy," came the reply. "Who the fuck are you, and why the fuck are you here?"
Reuben eyed Barishnikov, which would be a breach of protocol even under more civilized circumstances.
"Just translate," he said. "I can do without the embellishments."
A brutal, crushing blow to the lower back brought Reuben to his knees. He struggled to catch his breath. The room went wobbly for a moment, and he thought he might vomit. He looked back and saw that the blow had come not from Pasha, who was nonetheless pleased with it, but rather from one of the men he had never seen before. He was a tall and lanky, cross-eyed fellow wearing a powder blue suit. He looked like a stork. He was holding some kind of rod; maybe it was a riding crop. This wasn’t one of the foot soldiers from the Café Vienna. Reuben would have remembered seeing him before.
"You will address only the man in charge," said Barishnikov.
"I understand," Reuben gasped.
The Czar took a sip from his oversized brandy snifter.
"Whom do you represent?" he asked, through the translator.
"I’m with WorldConneX, an American telephone company."
The Czar said something to the group, all of whom laughed in response.
"Don’t be stupid and don’t waste my time. Who has sent a black savage like yourself to spy on us? What is your interest in us?"
"Sir, please understand me," Reuben said. "No one has sent me to spy on you."
The Czar’s eyes grew narrow. He asked Pasha something. Pasha responded with a quick nyet.
"This is not credible. Do not deny that you have been performing surveillance on us for some time."
Reuben knew that the correct answer was to keep his cover: he should say that he was never spying; he just liked hanging out in the Vienna. Then they could beat up on him until he admitted it. Or died.
"I don’t deny it."
Screw the cover. He wasn’t trying to keep the world safe for democracy any more. He worked for the phone company.
The Czar looked surprised at this admission. The he grew visibly angry, his face reddening, his eyes growing darker and more narrow.
"Then why have you done this?" he demanded.
"It’s hard to say."
"I will be much more difficult for you if you do not say" the Czar said coldly.
"I guess it was sort of a hobby."
This statement took a while for Barishnikov to translate and, once translated, its meaning took a moment to sink in with the Czar. This time the blow came from above, the stork whacking Reuben hard across his shoulders. He fell the rest of the way forward, his hands not finding their place fast enough to avoid the impact when he landed forehead first on a Persian rug, which provided very little padding against the marble beneath.
Reuben opened his eyes. He was disoriented, lying in bed in a strange room. He could not remember where he was or how he had come to be there. He blinked hard a couple of times and tried to make sense of his surroundings. The ceiling was a long way off. His head hurt. There were people laughing. He turned his head to see who was laughing only to be hit by a powerful wave of vertigo and nausea. And more pain. He swallowed hard and blinked again. He could see chair legs, marble floor, black wingtip shoes, fire.
He was cold and wet.
It made no sense. Then it did. He was not in bed, he was in that place. That place where the …
He couldn’t remember what the place was. Then he was asleep again.
Pain. Hot. Burn.
Reuben sat upright and cried out. Everything was clear. He remembered where he was. His interrogators had made two attempts at revive him, first by throwing cold water on him and second by burning his forehead with a…
He looked around the room, though his head and neck shrieked in protest when he moved them. He remembered the faces, now. It was the stork. He had put down his riding crop in favor of a fat, smoldering cigar. No doubt, it had had a glowing red tip at the time it was crushed into his forehead.
Reuben coughed. The pain was like a blinding light.
"You will get up now."
He attempted to do as he was told. He got to his knees and tried to stand up. It didn’t work very well the first, or second, or even third time. An outburst of laughter accompanied every failed attempt to get to his feet. He made it on the fourth try. He was wobbly, but he managed to stay up.
He turned slightly to meet the Czar face to face.
"Tell me why you are here and what is your interest in us," Barishnikov translated smoothly. "And no more foolishness."
"Okay," said Reuben. "All right.
"My name is Reuben Stone. I was an operative for the Central Intelligence Agency from 1974 to 1991. For the past three years, I’ve been a private security consultant. Corporate espionage."
The Czar looked attentive as he took in the translation of what Reuben said.
When he had a moment, Reuben would consider the fact that he had fatally compromised himself. His cover, such as it was, was blown. He was out of a job.
"Explain corporate espionage," the Czar said, after a moment.
"Securing information for competitive advantage. I try to find out what the other operators are doing; I try to protect my own company’s position. "
"This does not explain," the Czar said after a moment, "why you have been subjecting us to surveillance."
"Well, you see, I must apologize for that…" a wave of vertigo washed over him. It took him a moment to steady himself. "The company I work for owns a mobile telephony company in Moscow. It’s called MoscowX. As you may know, MoscowX is the second-largest mobile carrier in Russia, and the first to offer GSM digital service."
It was marketing blather. But they were listening. He continued.
"We know that our chief competitor, Moscow Cellular, is selling heavily to…businessmen such as yourselves. We wanted to get a bigger share of this market. So I started watching your activities to get a feel for how we could better do business with you."
It was an absurd answer to anyone who knew anything about WorldConneX and its Russian subsidiary company. Both were already up to their eyeballs in mob connections.
There was a short discussion.
"You want to sell us phones?" the Czar asked.
"Yes," said Reuben. "That’s all. We just want to sell you phones."
The Czar conferred with his men again.
"You are a very stupid man," he said after a moment. "I don’t like stupid people, and I don’t like black savages who come to this country thinking they know so much. Maybe we kill you."
The Czar issued some commands, untranslated, to Boris and the stork. Reuben flinched when Boris put his hand on his shoulder, but it was all right. He escorted him, roughly, to a chair. Reuben took a seat gratefully. The stork appeared with a bottle of vodka and several glasses, and began pouring out tallish drinks.
"You must understand that what you did is a serious offense," the Czar said. "I hope for your sake that you have told no one about us."
"I haven’t," Reuben answered, truthfully enough.
The Czar’s eyes narrowed again, and his manner grew cold.
"If that is a lie, we will know that it is, and we will kill you."
"I understand. It’s not a lie."
"If you had another reason for watching us, not because you wanted to sell us phones, we will learn this reason. And again, for lying to us, we will kill you."
"Then we drink," said the Czar. He lifted his glass.
"Na zdarove," he said
"Na zdarove," they all answered, including Reuben, and drained their glasses. The vodka was good. It warmed him inside, after lying on the marble floor and being splashed by water, and it immediately took some of the edge off the pain in his head. It did little to help his dizziness, however.
"Now for our surprise," said the Czar, "and our special guest. Let us drink now," he said, "to the lady"
Then the Czar said something loud enough to be heard in the hall. Reuben looked towards the double doors through which he and Pasha had passed. The doors opened, and in walked the Bad Suit, holding his charge roughly by the arm.
It was Ksenia.
She scanned the room carefully, registering no response to seeing Reuben or Pasha. The Suit walked her to a spot in front of the sofa that the Czar was sitting on. The Czar gave a slight nod, and the Suit left. The bald guy handed her a glass of vodka.
"Now we will have one more drink before we have some sport. I understand that you enjoy games of chance, Mr. Stone."
Once again, the Czar held his glass aloft. Everyone followed suit. Ksenia held her glass out with utter defiance. When the toast was made, she tossed back the vodka with grace and utter nonchalance, as though she drank that way all the time.
The Czar set his glass down and headed for the door. The others made it clear that they were all expected to follow. At the bottom of the staircase they turned left into the main room of the building’s ground floor. This room was about the same size as the parlor immediately above it, but it was rough and unfinished. A single light bulb hung down from the ceiling on a long cord. The bulb was fairly bright, but not up to the task of illuminating the whole room.
Under the light stood the Czar and Boris. Standing in a rough semi-circle behind them were a dozen or so others. The audience. The guys from the gate may have been among them; Reuben wasn’t sure. The group from upstairs entered the room and completed the circle under the light.
"We are ready to begin the game," said the Czar.
"I will explain the game," he continued. "It is a game of simple elimination, like a child’s game. When it is over, two will be eliminated, and one will remain. Luck will decide."
Boris handed the Czar a revolver.
"This is a revolving firearm." He held the gun up for everyone to see. "It has six chambers for bullets. Maybe all six chambers are full, maybe fewer. The empty chambers have been capped, so there is no way of knowing. Each of you will be given the weapon and the chance to fire in turn. The last one standing wins."
Reuben closed his eyes. He felt his knees going weak. This could not be happening.
It was a variation on an old game, and not much of a variation at that.
Russian. Fucking. Roulette.
Only one way to win, Sergei had said. Must be lucky.
Ksenia said something. Pasha shouted something that was not translated. The Czar said "nyet." Then Ksenia asked a question, also untranslated.
Barishnikov did translate the Czar’s response, however.
"You may refuse your turn if you wish. However, if all three of you refuse to play, all three of you will be killed."
Reuben looked over at Ksenia.
"Sir," he said, to the Czar. "Don’t you think we would have better sport if the lady was not involved? Those two are family, which puts me at a disadvantage. Besides, this is a game for men, is it not?"
The Czar nodded
"Yes, it is a game for men," he said. "But more importantly, it is a game for three players."
"Well perhaps," said Reuben, "one of your men would like to play?" He looked directly at the stork. "Unless they’re too afraid, of course."
The stork laughed nervously.
"You shut up," he said. "You do not decide who plays game."
"Nyet," said the Czar, followed by something else which was not translated. He asked the stork a question. The others laughed. The stork began to look nervously around the room.
He said something in Russian, untranslated, which seemed to indicate that he had decided to play.
"It is decided," said the Czar. "The lady will not participate. She will kindly move to the center, directly here. And you will join the circle of players, there."
The stork stepped into place, hesitantly.
"Now," the Czar continued, "each player will take one shot at one of the other players, it does not matter which. If there is a bullet in the chamber, that is a shot. If there is no bullet, that is also a shot. After taking a shot, the player will pass the weapon to the player to his left. If a player tries to take more than one shot, he will be immediately disqualified."
He gestured towards the bald man and Barishnikov, who were both holding handguns of their own..
"If a player aims his weapon at anyone besides one of the other players, he will also be disqualified. The game will continue until only one player remains. Do you all understand?"
Reuben and Pasha nodded slightly. The stork muttered something, which was taken as acceptance. Once again holding the revolver aloft, the Czar gave the chambers three good turns, so that even the man who loaded the gun would not know what the first shot would be. Ksenia started out of the circle, followed by Boris. The Czar stopped them.
"One more thing," he said. "The lady will choose who goes first."
He handed the revolver to Ksenia and left her standing alone under the light.
Ksenia looked at Pasha, and then at Reuben. She was terrified. Pasha said something to her. He sounded desperate. Reuben looked directly into her eyes.
"It’s okay, Ksenia," he said. "You can do what Pasha says. Or you can give it to me. The whole thing is random, anyway. You can’t control it. Nothing that happens will be your fault."
Barishnikov translated what Reuben said. The stork said something, probably complaining that he was not being considered for the first shot.
Pasha was trembling badly, and weeping. He pleaded with his sister for a moment longer. She looked at Reuben once again and then, trembling herself, handed the gun to Pasha.
"It’s okay," said Reuben.
Ksenia stepped out of the circle and walked to a far corner of the room. From where he stood, Reuben couldn’t tell if she was facing the game or had looked away.
So the three of them were left, forming a triangle around the perimeter of the light. Reuben took a step back, as did the others. They were standing about twelve feet apart. The circle of spectators abruptly dissolved; they all fell in place behind Pasha. Pasha, no longer crying, cradled the gun in his hands. He looked up at the stork for a moment, and then turned toward Reuben. He raised the gun and aimed it at him.
Reuben assessed that if he had had the first shot, he would have taken it at the stork. You have to eliminate the stronger enemy while you have the chance. But there was nothing rational about Pasha’s decision. His face was eaten up with hatred.
He aimed the gun squarely at Reuben’s head. He was still trembling badly. Reuben studied Pasha, trying to keep an eye on every muscle in his face and hands simultaneously. The trick was to move right before the shot was fired. Too long before, and the shooter had time to adjust. And after was, of course, much too late. Still trembling, Pasha lowered his aim to Reuben’s chest. He started to say something to Reuben, still speaking Russian. His voice grew louder as he apparently came to some point.
Three things happened at once. Pasha squeezed the trigger just as his shouting reached a crescendo. But Reuben was already moving, turning away and down in a swift, jerking motion, realizing at the last possible instant that his previous injuries would force him to turn to the left, exposing his right side. The bullet had ripped through his shoulder before anyone heard the shot fired. Reuben was on the floor, hit.
First chamber was loaded, he thought.
He lay on his back, staring up at the light bulb. He was mostly numb. He could feel something hot and wet pooling around his neck. His blood. His shoulder didn’t hurt; he had felt the impact and nothing more. He could hear voices, and a sound he didn’t want to hear coming from Ksenia. And then there was a face looking down at him.
"Can you stand?" The question came from Barishnikov, a few feet away.
The Czar offered his hand, and Reuben took it with his left hand. As soon as he began to pull himself up, there was an incredible wrenching pain in his right shoulder. The room turned red, then purple, and all the sounds of voices were muffled by a roaring like that of a passing train. He was on his feet, somehow, and the noise subsided after a moment.
A man was standing in front of Reuben. He handed him a glass of water. Reuben started to drink it, and gagged. It was vodka. He dropped the glass and vomited on the floor. The man stopped him from falling forward by placing his hand on his left shoulder. The pain returned on the other side, brilliant and exquisite, and Reuben’s mind cleared.
Pasha passed the gun to the stork. The onlookers had already moved to the left, taking their positions behind him. Reuben had an insane thought: it’s like the crowd at a golf tournament.
Reuben shook his head; he had to keep his mind clear. The pain of movement helped. He was certain that the thug would use the same rationale as he had, and go for the stronger enemy. He was surprised when the stork casually aimed at Pasha. And then he realized: he had been twice beaten and once burned; he had consumed a copious amount of liquor; he had just been shot, and lost the use of his presumptive shooting arm; he was vomiting.
He was not the stronger opponent.
As Pasha had initially, the stork aimed directly at his victim’s head. Pasha was whimpering pathetically. Reuben glanced at Ksenia, who had her hands against her face, just below her eyes. She would witness whatever happened. Like Pasha, the stork spoke threateningly to his victim, his voice rising to a screaming climax. Just as he screamed, he shook the hand holding the gun. It was a perfect bluff; Pasha flinched and then tried to dodge as Reuben had done, although it would have been much too late had the stork actually fired.
Then, as Pasha crouched there, his eyes closed and his face clenched in a grimace of horror, the stork fired his shot. It was a perfect hit, blasting a hole in Pasha’s forehead. The young man slumped forward, dead.
Second chamber was loaded, Reuben thought.
There was a general murmur of approval for the stork and his shot. Reuben glanced over at Ksenia, who had dropped to her knees and was moaning, her face buried in her hands.
The Czar walked over and took the gun from the stork, and handed it to Reuben. Then he stepped back. The onlookers dutifully took their place behind him.
Reuben knew that this was his only chance. He raised the gun with his left hand, and aimed squarely at the stork’s chest. He held the gun out with a rock-steady hand for a long time. Half a minute, a minute. He was staring directly at the target, the center of the stork’s chest. Time ticked away. And then, with so little warning that his victim would have no chance to flinch, Reuben squeezed the trigger. There was a loud, hollow clicking sound.
Third chamber was empty, Reuben thought.
There was a sound of sniggering laughter from Boris. Not waiting for a cue, Reuben walked slowly over to the stork, his good arm extended, the gun lying flat in the palm of his hand. The stork reached for the gun. Reuben began to hand it to him and then, in one quick motion, pulled his arm back and clouted the stork with all his strength, the gun making a dull, meaty thud as it smashed into the side of his head. The pain from delivering the blow was incredible; Reuben struggled to stay on his feet. He let the gun fall to the floor.
The stork staggered backward, reeling from the blow. Regaining his balance, Reuben moved in on him and, just as the stork started to steady himself, kicked him hard in the groin. There was some hooting and laughter at this. As the stork doubled forward from the blow, Reuben moved in closer and pulled back his fist to deliver what he hoped would be a finishing to the back of the head.
Just then, the Czar shouted an order, and Barishnikov translated: "Enough!"
Reuben stepped back..
Boris, the bald man, and the Czar approached the stork, who had slumped all the way to the floor and lay there face first, his body jerking spasmodically. Blood ran freely from the side of the head where Reuben had hit him with the gun. It pooled with the substantial puddle that Reuben had left there a while before. Reuben was still bleeding, and he knew that consciousness couldn’t last much longer. He had done what he could to disable the stork before he took his shot at him. But he doubted he had done enough.
It took a while, but they were eventually able to get the stork to his feet. The Czar handed him the gun, and turned to Reuben.
"Perhaps you are not so stupid as we thought. Perhaps you are more interested in staying alive than you are in good sport?"
"That is understandable. But there will be no more of what you did. There is to be no further contact between the players. Do you understand?"
"I understand," said Reuben
"That is good," said the Czar. "if you do find a way to survive, we may have further use for you."
And I for you, thought Reuben.
The Czar and the others cleared out of the way, leaving Reuben facing the stork. He didn’t look good. Reuben had managed to mess up the left side of his head even better than he’d realized. He’d struck the temple, and a huge black and yellow swelling had emerged around the eye, probably blocking his vision. The blood continued to flow, creating big purple blotches on his jacket. Most importantly, he looked wobbly on his feet — as wobbly as Reuben knew that he himself was.
The stork raised his weapon, aimed directly at Reuben’s head. His grip seemed steady. There was no malice to be read in the look on his face. He was either too smart or too dazed to respond emotionally to the beating Reuben had given him. He had the look of a man deep in thought, carefully considering what he had to do. It was hard to say what strategy to use now. The stork would know that his bluff, which had fooled Pasha, would not work on Reuben. On the other hand, Reuben didn’t think the stork would have any readable tells, either. He would never be able to anticipate when the shot was coming.
It was an even match, a push.
The stork held the gun that way for a long time, just as Reuben had done. There was something else happening peripherally: car noises and voices coming from outside, people behind the stork talking, making for the door. On some level, Reuben knew all of this was taking place, but the stork apparently did not. He seemed to have only one level, and it was dedicated to killing Reuben.
Reuben never heard the shot. He saw the flash, and the impact drove him to the floor. Then all was darkness.
Fourth chamber was — what?
Reuben awoke with a start, looking into the light. It wasn’t right; it should be farther away. As he was calculating where the light should be, he realized that he was not there any more. He had moved, or been moved, to this new place.
He blinked, trying to get the light into focus. He would often awaken disoriented, uncertain whether he was still lying on that floor, still surrounded by enemies — which meant he needed to be thinking about how to get her out of danger, and how to save his own life— or whether he was someplace else, which meant that he didn’t.
Other times, he would not wake up. He would be in a dream place, crowded with faces and voices. All were familiar, but he couldn’t quite place any of them. She was there. He would strain to identify her. She was not the woman he had lost; nor the woman who had been in danger. He could never quite focus on her face. But she was so kind. There was so much comfort in her presence.
She would take his hand in hers and whisper the truth: everybody dies.
Reuben blinked again and looked around. He remembered his surroundings as he took them in. He was lying in bed; there were curtains, white, on either side of him; the wall directly in from of him was a pale green color. This was a hospital room.
He remembered, now. He had been there for several days. At least that.
This was good news, however many times repeated. It meant that he had managed to get out of the game alive. Relief enveloped him: it was over. Then the next wave of questions began, as they always did. What about her? Ksenia. If he had somehow managed to make it out alive, then surely she had. But he couldn’t remember how.
He lay that way for a long time, fading in and out of consciousness, never completely able to shake the delirious fear — Who has the gun? — that would grip him just as he drifted off or just before he awoke. Sometimes he would wake up at night, with the room completely dark, and it would take him longer to put it together. A nurse would appear from time to time and change his IV or make other adjustments. Once in a while, she would give him a sip of water, for which he was extremely grateful. And he would try to tell her thank you in Russian, but he couldn’t remember how to say it; and then he would try to tell her in English, and would realize that he couldn’t quite speak.
He also had images of a doctor, who came in much less frequently and changed the dressing on his head and shoulder. These impressions were fuzzy, and he realized in a more lucid moment that they must increase the drug dosage before the doctor came.
So he was drugged. Of course he was. Maybe for the pain; maybe for other reasons. Not that he minded. The drugs had apparently taken care of that.
It became a routine. And whatever else Reuben knew about himself and his life, he knew that he liked having a routine. This one was easy to get used to. He would awaken afraid and disoriented. Then he would begin to remember. The nurse came often; the doctor, rarely. This continued for quite some time — maybe days, maybe weeks, it was hard to say — before he began to notice some changes. He was not waking up disoriented as frequently. He was remembering from day to day that he was in a hospital. And he was beginning to hurt: only a little at first, but gradually it grew worse.
Then one morning, the nurse gave him a sip of water. She was plump, he noticed for the first time, and probably about 45 or so. The hair peaking out from under her expertly placed nurse’s cap was reddish. He took the water, and afterwards said "Thank you."
"You’re welcome," she replied, in lightly accented English. And then added, "Don’t talk."
"What’s your name?" he asked
"Olga," she said, fluffing his pillows. "No more talk. We are glad to see you are feeling better. But don’t talk, not until after you see the doctor."
She came back a while later with the doctor. Reuben had never seen him while in such a lucid state. He was also on the heavy side, with dark hair and sharp features.
"Mr. Stone," he said. "Olga tells me that you are beginning to feel better."
"The truth is," Reuben answered, finding speech to be a greater effort than he expected "now that your drugs are wearing off, I feel worse.."
The doctor nodded sympathetically.
"Yes. I hope you understand that we kept you sedated only for your own protection."
Reuben tried to shrug; then winced.
"You see? Mr. Stone, you have suffered some very serious trauma. I don’t know if you can remember any of that?"
"Yes, I can. Most of it. May I have another drink of water please?"
Olga responded with another sip from the yellow plastic cup. It felt good on his throat.
"I have some questions for you, doctor."
"Only a few today." The doctor reached behind one of the curtains and produced a stool with rolling legs. He sat down. "What would you like to know?"
"I had…I have a friend who was also there. Where I got these injuries. I need to know whether she’s all right."
The doctor frowned and glanced at Olga. She shrugged.
"I can’t tell you," he said. "We wouldn’t know about that. You have friends who are eager to see you. I will allow one of them pay you a brief visit tomorrow, and another the next day. I’m sure they can tell you about your friend."
"Well…" Reuben thought for a moment. "Are any of these friends who want to see me women?"
"I’m afraid not. Two men. I’m sorry I can’t tell you more."
Reuben sighed with exasperation.
"Okay, then I have another question. What is this place? And who are you?"
"Forgive me, Mr. Stone. I am Dr. Chevlenko, and I believe you have already met Olga. This is a private clinic, a small private clinic. We are not far from the city of Moscow."
"Does the clinic have a name?"
"It does not."
Reuben sighed again. It was hard to talk, and frustrating not to get answers.
"Do you expect me to believe that WorldConneX put me here?"
The doctor chuckled.
"Mr. Stone, I see that you are a suspicious man, nearly as suspicious as a Russian. No doubt this is a great aid to you in your work, whatever that might be. If one were asking questions, one might seek to know how a man as cautious as you appear to be ever came to such great harm. Yes?"
Reuben didn’t respond.
"In any case," Chevlenko continued, "you can believe what you wish about who has placed you here and how the accounts are being settled. Once again, that is a question for your friends, not for me."
He stood up.
"Wait," said Reuben. "Fine. There’s something you can tell me. What happened to me?"
The doctor sat down again and looked at his clipboard.
"What do you remember?"
"Just about everything you have written there, I guess. I took a blow to the small of the back. I took another one to my shoulders and neck. And I had a gunshot to my right shoulder. Did you have to remove the bullet?"
"No, it passed through. Do you know what else happened to you?"
"No." He thought about it for a moment. "Wait. Something to my head? I banged it on the floor. And there was a burn from a cigar?"
"Yes. The bump on your head was not too severe, and there was also a very nasty burn. But you sustained another head injury as well."
Reuben thought back, piecing together scattered images of the bizarre duel.
"I see," he said, after a moment. "He got me. So what, the bullet grazed my head?"
The doctor looked at Reuben sympathetically. He tapped the closed end of his pen on the clipboard a couple of times, pondering the question.
"You must pardon me," he said after a moment. "Sometimes my English is less than perfect."
"It’s been perfect so far," Reuben said. "Why are you stalling? What happened to me?"
"Well, when you describe a bullet ‘grazing’ one’s head, I’m afraid you have an image of something substantially less severe than was actually the case. It might be more accurate to say that the bullet passed through your head, just as the other one did your shoulder, though I must add that this was to a much lesser extent than what occurred there. Still, much more damaging in its own right."
Reuben nodded, considering this.
"Um, what about my brain?" he asked.
"Only a superficial injury, it seems. The bullet entered here," he placed a finger an inch or so above his own left eye, "and exited here," he moved his finger leftwards and around to the edge of the temple, a distance of maybe three inches. "I’m afraid the bullet broke off a piece of your skull in this area and we have had to replace a section of your forehead."
"I see," said Reuben. "What you’re telling me is that I got lucky."
That was the trick, after all, to winning in roulette. A wave of exhaustion washed over Reuben. He no longer wanted to talk.
Dr. Chevlenko shrugged.
"I would hesitate to describe as ‘lucky’ a man in the condition you were in when they brought you here. But in fact, had there been even a slightly different entry point or angle of the bullet, I doubt that you and I would be talking right now."
"Are you sure about my brain?" Reuben noticed that his speech was slurred. He didn’t want to talk any more, but this was important. "Never heard of a superficial brain injury."
The doctor looked him in the eye.
"Perhaps I chose my words badly. I can see no reason to expect that the injury to your brain was severe, but the brain is always a mystery. And I will tell you frankly that I am no expert. However, it is quite encouraging to see you awake and talking. Over the next few days, we will work on getting you back on your feet. We’ll know soon enough whether there is any particular reason for concern."
"But you don’t…think there is." That was it; he was finished talking.
"Not at present." Chevlenko stood up. "What’s important now is that you rest. If you need anything, Olga or Maria will be checking on you regularly."
He returned the stool to its place behind the curtain.
"Good night, then, Mr. Stone."
He turned and to leave, followed by Olga. On her way out the door, the nurse set the room’s light to the dim setting. The message was clear; he should sleep.
But there was a lot to think about. It seemed that his desperate Russian Roulette strategy had worked. Roughing the stork up had surely contributed to the thug’s inability to fire an accurate shot. That had saved Reuben’s life, but he still had no idea how he got from there to here. Or what had happened to Ksenia.
He was certain that he didn’t get up and fire at the stork after taking a bullet in the head; so he had, in fact, not "won" the game. He couldn’t imagine the Czar being overcome by a generous impulse and letting them go. Something had happened. He tried to remember. In the moment just before he was hit, there were sounds coming from outside, and voices. He tried to isolate the last thing he saw or heard. The last time he saw Ksenia’s face.
It was all a blur. A thick, warm blur.
It was later.
Reuben glanced up, and slowly realized that he had been asleep. The doctor was once again standing at his bedside. Only it was a different doctor, older.
"Hello, Reuben," he said.
Reuben tried to answer.
"Don’t," said the older doctor. "They’ve given you a sedative so that you’ll sleep. It might be hard for you to talk. I’ll be here in the morning and we can talk then."
Reuben tried to nod.
"I just wanted to look in on you. They said you were feeling better, and I wanted to see for myself."
Reuben couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. But he felt reassured, almost safe, seeing this man. He liked this doctor, who was really not a doctor at all. Reuben had known this man for a long time. Forever. He couldn’t think of what his name was, or even who he was. But it was there.
"Good night then," said the old man. "I’ll see you in the morning.
Reuben closed his eyes. That was it.
The old man.
He awoke to a crisp "good morning" from Olga and brilliant light. She had pulled the curtains back, revealing additional beds on either side, empty, and a window to his right through which daylight was streaming. The window looked out over a white field of snow with trees in the distance. The sunshine was dazzling on the snow.
"Good morning," Reuben managed. He smelled something good. Food. He was struck by a wave of hunger, then nausea, the hunger again. He shakily lifted his hand to where he could see it and realized both that he could lift his hand and that the IV tube had been removed.
"Yes," said Olga. "It’s gone. Now let’s see if you are ready to sit up."
Olga took hold of a remote control; the bed slowly raised Reuben to a more or less sitting position. This was much better. He could feel his mind clearing.
"How soon can I get out of this bed?"
"Maybe tomorrow; maybe later today. The doctor will decide. But now you will try some breakfast."
She swung an arm-tray in front of him. It was mounted on a pole next to the bed that also had, Reuben noticed, a control panel for the bed and an intercom for calling the nurse. The tray would serve as his table.
The other nurse, Maria, entered the room carrying a small breakfast tray. She was younger than Olga, and thinner. She placed the tray in front of him and removed the cover from the plate. Reuben thought he might faint from the smell. It was two small pieces of toasted rye bread with butter, a poached egg, and a sliced tomato. There was also orange juice and water.
Reuben dug in. He noticed that the china and silver, as well as the preparation of the food, reflected a higher standard than he would expect from a hospital. But this was, after all, a private clinic and — then he remembered. The old man. He had put him here.
"How is your breakfast?" Olga asked him.
"Great. I don’t suppose I could get some coffee?"
She looked disapproving.
"You Americans and your coffee. Tea would be much better for you, you know."
"Fine," he said, agreeably, "tea it is." Then he added, as casually as he could. "So do you know whether Mr. Keyes will be coming to visit this morning, or later?"
"I don’t know," she said. "He may be busy this morning. We shall see."
So he had not dreamed it. Not only was the old man there, he was going by his actual name.
Michael Forrest Keyes had always been the old man to Reuben; his father had called him that. At a remarkably young age, Julian Stone had built a lucrative shipping business in his home town of Kingston, Jamaica. When he was 25, he took a trip to New York, where he wangled a meeting with Keyes — shipping was one of the old man’s many business interests — to propose a joint venture in South America. The two men had never met, although their interests had sometimes overlapped, and sometimes been at odds with each other.
Keyes took an instant liking to Stone and to his proposal. Before the meeting was through, he had purchased the ambitious Jamaican’s company and hired him on. Julian Stone was to work for Keyes for the rest of his life, in a position that would be given a number of different official titles over the years, but he would always be referred to by his employer as simply the brains. For his part, Stone began calling Keyes the old man the day he accepted the job, although Keyes was himself at the time barely 40.
The name had stuck and had, in fact, been passed on to the next generation.
The old man was an enigma. He had amassed a great fortune over the years in shipping, oil, and precious metals. The arc of his success was almost anachronistic, a story befitting an industrialist in an earlier, grander, more heroic era. Keyes was famously charismatic and a notorious individualist; he viewed his fortune not as a means of fame, but rather a license for reclusiveness and eccentricity. He had an extensive collection of private jet aircraft, yachts, and personal rail coaches. And he had a renowned fascination with the paranormal, with a particular interest in UFOs and lost ancient civilizations.
Olga brought Reuben his tea, and whisked away his breakfast. His initial appetite notwithstanding, he had managed to down only a few bites before beginning to feel queasy. The tea was supposed to be able to settle his stomach, but it seemed to be having the opposite effect.
Reuben looked around the immaculate and well-appointed room, and thought of the old man. There was a time, many years before, when Reuben had sworn that he would never need the old man’s help again. And that even if he did need it, he would never accept it. But he was young, then, and angry. He considered the room. And Olga. And the food. Whatever this place was, it was a far cry from what he would have expected a Russian hospital to be. It was downright luxurious. More importantly, he sensed that he was much safer from the Czar and his men here than he would have been in a hospital.
In case they were still looking for him, which he didn’t know.
He took another sip of the tea and thought that maybe it was doing the trick after all. But he didn’t want any more. He swung the arm back out of his way, and thought about sitting all the way up. There were rails raised on either side of the bed, and Reuben could not figure out how to lower them. He fussed with them for a while, until he began to feel a little tired and dizzy. He lay back on his pillow.
There would be time for that later. Maybe what he needed now was some more sleep. He was about to close his eyes, when there was the sound of someone at the door. Reuben looked that way and was surprised to see not one visitor, but two.
There stood the old man, looking the same as ever. Or maybe a little tired. He had dark patches under his eyes and his shock of wavy silver hair had flattened somewhat and was a dirtier gray color. He was stout and broad-shouldered as ever, however. And Reuben had almost forgotten how tall he was: the old man stood a good half a head taller than Sergei, who was next to him, smiling broadly.
"Reuben!" he said, stepping into the room. "I am so glad to see you are sitting up. How you are feeling, my friend?"
"I’m better, thanks."
They both approached the bed. The old man took Reuben’s hand.
"We meet again," said Reuben.
"I’m glad you’re all right, son. So is Betty. You had us worried there for a few days."
"How is Betty?"
The old man nodded, seeming not to hear the question. Sergei picked up a chair from against the wall and set it by the bed for the old man. Then he pulled the rolling stool around for himself.
"So, ah, anyway," Reuben began, "I take it you two have met?"
Sergei laughed. "Mr. Keyes and I first met long time ago, Reuben. I maybe know him longer than you?"
"You think?" said Reuben.
The old man turned to Sergei. "Haven’t you two told each other anything? I’ve known Reuben, here, his entire life. I’m his godfather." He sat down.
"Oh," said Sergei. He digested this fact for a moment, a few odd pieces apparently falling into place. "I did not realize that. Reuben, Mr. Keyes and I first met in 1979, it was a —"
"Forgive me, Sergei," Reuben interrupted. "I’d like to hear the whole story, and a lot more besides. But can we please start with how I got here? And what happened to Ksenia?"
Sergei sat down. Reuben realized that he also looked tired.
"Of course. Pardon me." He looked at the old man, seeming to grasp for where to begin.
"The girl is fine," Keyes said. "She told us the whole story. That was an ugly business." He shook his head. "She knows you saved her life, Reuben. She’s very grateful."
Reuben nodded. "I did what I could for her. But I don’t think I saved her life. I just bought her some time. Whoever got us out of there saved her life." He looked towards Sergei. "Not to mention mine. I think you get credit for that."
Sergei looked uncomfortable. He stood up and walked to the window.
"No," he said after a moment. "For me there is small credit. And much blame."
He turned and looked at Reuben.
"Ksenia has told me that, when you sent her out of car, you ask her to call me. I am ashamed, Reuben. What you do not know is this: was already my job to watch you, to keep you safe. Mr. Keyes ask me — before I ever meet you, before you come to Moscow — he told me you are coming and I will be expected to watch you and keep you safe until he arrives."
Reuben looked towards the old man, who would not meet his gaze. He wanted to be annoyed with Keyes, wanted to protest that he was capable of taking care of himself and that he didn’t need any protection. But under the circumstances, the argument seemed a little weak. He decided to let it go.
"So that’s how you knew about Ksenia? You had people watching me?"
"I know about Ksenia from Pavel. Since you are staying at Mezh, I keep an eye on you through my contacts there. Pavel manages health club at Mezh. One day I go for sauna; this is just before you arrive. I ask him to keep watch out for you. To let me know what you are doing. He agrees."
Reuben weighed this.
"He managed the health club?," he asked, after a moment. "That explains why I never saw him. I never went in there."
Reuben considered this a little further.
"That’s interesting," he said. "I had him pegged for more of a player than that."
Sergei walked back towards the bed. "Health club is important job," he said. "Good exposure, many good contacts. In Russia, much business is transacted in such places. Many important decisions are made at Mezh sauna. And in bar, no? Pavel was doing very well for boy his age."
"So what about Ksenia?" Reuben asked. "Was she in on it? Just following Pasha’s orders?"
"No," Sergei said. "He is told that you are often going into casino, so he ask her about you. Just making talk from brother to sister. Has she seen you? What does she think of you? And what do you know — she has seen you, many times. She tells how you come in and" — he smiled weakly — "hit on her. Pavel is very interested. He tells her is good idea for her to make new friend, American friend. She must be careful, but is good idea."
"But that’s as far as it went?" Reuben asked.
"You tell me, Reuben," he answered, sitting back down on the stool. "Ksenia went with you that day because she wanted to be with you, or she was spying for her brother?"
"I can’t say for sure. She certainly didn’t know about the Chechens."
Sergei and the old man shared a puzzled glance.
"Reuben," said Sergei, "where do you get idea that those men were Chechen?"
"I can’t remember. Somebody from the office told me, I think."
Sergei shook his head.
"Well, somebody from the office was wrong," said Keyes. "Those guys are from Georgia. The ringleader is named Tengiz Kolkhi. His uncle is a fellow called Markku, if that name means anything to you."
Reuben considered this. So the Czar had a name. And he was Georgian, not Chechen. It was the sort of thing he should have been aware of, especially after spending all that time watching them. He eyed the old man.
"No, I never heard of any Markku."
"He’s a powerful man. He controls or has a hand in just about everything that goes on in the Caspian. Legit or not."
"Some buddy of yours, no doubt?"
"No friend of mine," said Keyes.
Reuben looked at the old man impatiently.
Keyes cleared his throat
"Well, yes," he said after a moment, "I’ve had dealings with him. A few years ago. To tell you the truth, he’s always struck me as pretty level-headed for a man in his…line of work. Anyhow, he was smart enough to send Kolkhi to Moscow to run things for him there. Got him as far as he could from Georgia. You may have gathered, Kolkhi has a reputation for being a dangerous character."
"Yeah," said Reuben. "I gathered. So that charming game he had us playing, that’s not a standard thing?"
"Is standard for Kolkhi," said Sergei.
"I’ve got a full dossier on him and his gang if you’d like to look at it later."
"Now where would you get your hands on something like that, old man?"
Keyes shrugged. "I’ve made a few friends over the years."
"No kidding," Reuben said, with a trace or irony. "Well I wish I’d seen that file. I guess it would have saved me some wear and tear. And there wouldn’t be a certain two-word phrase hanging in the air right now."
"What phrase is that?" asked Keyes.
The old laughed heartily at that. Sergei, however, looked serious.
"Reuben," he said, " I don’t know what is ‘rookie,’ but was I who made serious mistake, not you. I still don’t know why you were conducting surveillance of Kolkhi, but I made mistake that tipped him off. I ask Pavel to keep an eye on you in hotel, and he notice that you spend too much time in Café Vienna. Pavel was not stupid. He knows who I am, and that gives him idea who you are."
"So Pasha was working for Kolkhi? I seem to remember he said something about that."
"Pavel was playing dangerous game. Mezh hotel is Russian operation, run by Russian outfit. Pavel works for them. Mezh tolerates the presence of friendly gangs like Georgians. Other gangs they work with."
"Chechens?" Reuben asked.
"No," Sergei shook his head and half-smiled. "Not for long time. Not at Mezh. But, when they were there, two years ago or more, they did often go to Café Vienna. So your information is not wrong, just out of date."
"Right. So Pasha was trying to get in good with Kolkhi. He saw me at the Vienna and correctly deduced that I was watching the Georgians."
"I get it. He’s been doing the odd favor for Kolkhi, and now here’s his chance to deliver him something substantial. A chance to make a name for himself."
"Da. Yes. He knows he must do this away from Mezh, or he risks that his real bosses will learn that he is working also for Kolkhi. So when Ksenia tells him that you have asked her to go with you to Museum of Cosmonautics, he sees his chance."
"So is it fair to say that he didn’t know about the Russian Roulette game?"
Sergei shrugged. "Everyone who knows anything about Kolkhi knows about this game. But Pavel did not know that game would be played that night, or that he would have to play."
"Thinking things through was evidently not the boy’s strong suit," said Keyes. "He never considered the fact that he was exposing the girl to danger, or that he might be in danger, until it was far too late."
Reuben sighed. He felt a great weariness coming over him. Talking about this was exhausting. But there was more to cover.
"I’m guessing," he said, "that Kolkhi’s goons went after Ksenia as soon as Pasha and I walked into the building."
"Yes," said Sergei.
"Okay. And I know what happened next. So just tell me, please: how did you get us out of there?"
"Intelligence man always thinks he is smart," Sergei began. "This is great danger of being in KGB. Or in CIA, no? When I ask Pavel to watch you, I think I am smart. Then when Pavel mentions to me that he thinks you may be watching Kolkhi, I think I am smart to tell you that you are being watched in hotel. I do not say those words, but you received message, eh, Reuben?"
"I sure did."
Sergei smiled. "I did not want to say too much, but I wanted to say something, knowing that you would probably see risk and decide to lay low or abort operation."
"Only there was no operation," said Reuben. "I was just killing time."
"Well, you see, then," Sergei continued. "You think you are smart, same as I. You can conduct surveillance only to satisfy curiosity, and no one will know. Probably would have worked, too. If I do not mention you to Pavel, he does not mention you to Kolkhi."
"Maybe you’re both just a little too smart for your own good," said Keyes.
"Maybe smart isn’t really the right word," said Reuben.
"How about clusterfuck?" Keyes offered. "That’s what this was. Each of us made at least one essential contribution. If I hadn’t told Serge to keep an eye on you, he would never have talked to the kid."
"Da," said Sergei. "Was clusterfuck. Everybody smarter than everybody else; everybody taking steps to make sure no one is hurt; people end up getting shot."
"Didn’t you KGB guys have your own phrase for a botched operation?" the old man asked.
"Da. We would call such an operation an Amerikanski. Also sometimes a Bay of Pigs."
"I guess that’s fair," said Reuben, "seeing as Kolkhi’s game is called Russian roulette."
"So then I begin to have doubts," he continued. "Doubts are other great curse for intelligence man. Always drive me crazy, thinking did I miss something? When I ask Pavel does he know what you are doing on this particular day, at first he says he does not know. Then he admits that he is driving you and Ksenia to museum. And I begin to wonder if I need to send someone to watch him."
"A spy to keep an eye on your spy," said Reuben
"Da, is standard Russian practice. A little insurance, like placing bet in the basket on American roulette table. I have doubts. I wonder if I was smart to put trust in Pavel in first place. And I wonder why he is slow to admit that he is driving you. Still, I don’t expect anything to happen. I just do it. For precaution.
"My man calls me in early afternoon; tells me that you have left Ukraina with Ksenia and Pavel and that he is following you on Prospekt Mira. Pavel lets you out near Museum. All seems normal. Later I get call that Pavel has returned and you are leaving VDNKh together."
Sergei stood up again and walked to the window again. He looked out for a while, and then turned back to face them.
"Short time later, I get another call. Pavel has driven not to Ukraina, but to old workshop for garment makers. I know this place, know that it belongs to Kolkhi. And I know that ground floor of this building is where he most often plays his game. My man reports that Ksenia was allowed to leave, and then brought back.. I tell my man to stay close by.
"Immediately I try to call colleague, who has connections with Moscow City Militia."
"Militia," Reuben repeated, puzzled.
"City cops," said Keyes.
"Da," Sergei continued. "Relations have never been good between intelligence division and police force. I call FSB, say it is emergency, and manage to get captain. I don’t know him, but he has heard of me. I tell him to send out militia immediately. But he says that he can not. Not against Kolkhi.
"I tell him that Kolkhi is holding American and there will be serious repercussions if this man dies. He does nothing. Then I tell him that this American is son of Mr. Keyes — I did not know you were godson at the time I said this. When I tell him this, he decides to call his superior. It is simply good luck that his superior is former colleague. But this man knows that Mr. Keyes has no son. So I tell him that this is American, important American, friend of Mr. Keyes. I tell him that later he will not want to be the man who could have saved this American’s life and did not. So he agrees to send militia. But he tells me I must not go there; and that I must tell my man to leave. He can give order to Militia that will not be traced back to him, but he doesn’t want Kolkhi to know that FSB has moved against him. My man and I are not FSB, but we were KGB, and that’s too close."
"That’s ridiculous," said Keyes. "Hell, Markku is former KGB."
"Nyet," Sergei responded sharply, followed by more Russian that Reuben couldn’t understand. "Mr. Keyes, Markku was not KGB. He was NKVD, was right hand of Lavrenti Beria."
The old man’s eyes grew wide.
"Oh?" he said.
Sergei looked away.
"You guys have lost me," Reuben said.
Keyes cleared his throat again.
"The NKVD were Stalin’s secret police. Think of them as the Soviet SS. Under Beria, they performed assassinations, a lot of them. But they also did large scale exterminations, killing thousands of people at a time."
Sergei turned back and looked at Keyes.
"Da. This man is not sensible businessman as you have said. He is murderer, mass murderer. His nephew is a very small man compared to him."
"I know that KGB has done much evil," Sergei continued. "So has CIA."
He turned to Reuben.
"We are not children, here, da? Some of the evil that is done is necessary, and some is done because evil men find ways to do it. But KGB and NKVD are not the same. One evil is different from other evil."
"I…apologize, Sergei," said the old man. "I didn’t mean any offense. "
"Is okay. But Mr. Keyes, you should know who you deal with. You should know what they have done."
"You’re right. The dossier only detailed Markku's activities beginning in the early sixties. It said that he had previously held an administrative position with an intelligence agency. I assumed too much about what that meant. "
Sergei turned back to Reuben.
"How is it that you are CIA agent and you know nothing of NKVD?"
"I’m not sure. Russia was never really my area. Obviously. But still...to tell you the truth, it all starts to sound kind of familiar." He wearily raised his hand to gesture towards the bandage on his head.
"I’m not a hundred percent sure of my memory."
"Of course," said Sergei.
"Please continue with your story," said Reuben.
Sergei sighed, gathering his thoughts.
"So I call my man and tell him to clear out, that others are on the way. Then I go there myself, but I keep my distance. I wait a long while for militia to come, Reuben. I am sorry. I thought they would never come."
"Why are you sorry? They came, didn’t they?"
"Yes, but while I wait, you are being shot and shot again. You were almost killed. Ksenia might also have been killed. And the boy was killed."
"The boy had it coming," said Keyes. "You can’t waste any grief on him."
"I can," said Sergei, "and I do. Is not waste, Mr. Keyes. He did much wrong, there is no question. But how does young man like Pavel become what he was? Maybe at first he wanted to do something good, be good man. But how? If he becomes criminal, there is money and power. And pride. So he becomes criminal. I meet him, do I say don’t be criminal? Do I say be honest man? I do not. I hire him because he is gangster. So he is treacherous and murderous and a liar…what did I expect? What did anyone expect."
"I expect people to be responsible for their actions," said the old man.
"Yeah," Reuben said. "That’s true. But sometimes people have to make some shitty choices." He thought about the girls at the Mezh.
"Sergei, I think you may be right about Pasha. The kid was a mess. He tried to kill me, and I think he would have even killed Ksenia to save himself. But there was something else there. Anyway, whatever he did wrong, he’s paid for it."
"In any case, Sergei, you have nothing to feel bad about," Reuben continued. "It sounds to me like you did everything you could. There’s no point talking about how they could have killed Ksenia or myself. Hell, Ksenia could have turned me down when I asked her out; Pasha could have decided against selling me out. That’s all beside the point. The point is, you saved my life."
Reuben extended his hand towards Sergei.
"I owe you one, buddy."
Sergei walked across the room and took his hand. He shook his head.
"I did not do all I might have," he said. "But I’m glad I was able to help,"
"While I am waiting for militia to arrive, I call Mr. Keyes, to tell him what is happening. Only then do I learn that he is already in Russia. The secretary cannot patch him through, but she says she will give him urgent message."
"I was out of the pocket just for a few minutes," said Keyes. "I called Serge about, what, ten minutes later? He explained the situation to me. He told me where you were, and that you might need medical attention. And that you would definitely need to be moved to a secure location. This turned out to be less of a tall order than Serge expected, because I was already setting this place up. Then I called a guy I know who owns a private ambulance service. So there was an ambulance with paramedics on the scene a few minutes before the Militia arrived."
"Was good thing," Sergei explained, "that ambulance didn’t arrive too long before militia. Was big surprise for Kolkhi’s men. Otherwise they might do something about it, but they are completely overcome by police when they arrive. Militia used element of surprise and superior numbers to take charge of the compound quickly and with no bloodshed. None of Kolkhi’s men, nor Kolkhi himself, could believe that anyone would actually move against them.
"I kept promise and stayed out of sight. By making calls behind the scenes, I make sure that both you and Ksenia are taken away safely to clinic. Other ambulance comes and takes away Pavel’s body. Then captain of militia offers sincere apology to Kolkhi, and quickly withdraws his troops. He drinks a vodka with Kolkhi before leaving."
"Of course no arrests were made, and no reports written," said Keyes.
"I still wouldn’t want to be that militia captain," said Reuben
"Da, we are fortunate that such a man was on duty. A man who would accept this assignment. Most would not."
Olga entered the room looking quite stern.
"Mr. Keyes," she said, "Dr. Chevlenko has asked me to remind you that this institution, though small, has strict regulations the same as any large hospital. Perhaps even more strict. The doctor would like to speak with you about this. Now."
Reuben couldn’t believe what he was hearing. But the old man just smiled in a good-natured way and stood up.
"Of course, Olga," he said. "Come Sergei, I think I may have got us into some trouble with the Big Man." He turned to Reuben.
"Get some rest, son. You need it. We’ll talk again soon."
He turned and started out the door.
"See you again soon, Reuben," Sergei said hastily, and followed Keyes out.
"Wait," Reuben protested, but it was too late. They were gone. But what was the old man doing setting up a clinic in Russia? And where was Ksenia now?
"I had some more questions," Reuben protested.
Olga took the control and leaned his bed back.
"There are always more questions, Mr. Stone," she said.
Reuben spent the first few days reading and sleeping. He would occasionally see Sergei or the old man, whom he questioned incessantly about Ksenia. He learned that she had arrived at the clinic with him in the ambulance, but stayed only a short time. Sergei arrived soon after, and he and Ksenia waited together while Reuben was in surgery. As soon as it was clear that Reuben would survive, she insisted on leaving. Sergei protested, but Ksenia was adamant.
Her brother had died and she would be needed at home.
After that, Sergei kept a close watch on her, unsure as to whether she was in any danger. Kolkhi might decide lash out because he was annoyed at having been crossed, but Ksenia seemed an unlikely target. She was merely Pasha’s sister, a person of no significance.
"To him, she is not worth wasting bullet," Sergei had opined, and he was probably right.
Kolkhi might decide to go after Sergei or the militia captain, but Ksenia was not worth killing. Reuben and Keyes, on the other hand, were probably too important to be considered targets (Reuben only by way of his close association with the old man.) Going after either of them would require Markku’s approval, which he was not likely to give.
Sergei speculated that, in fact, Kolkhi couldn’t go after any of them — not even Ksenia, had he been so inclined — without his uncle’s approval. Reuben found that surprising.
"You mean you have this big crime boss in Moscow and he can’t hit anyone without phoning home first? Sounds like Markku is quite the micro manager."
"Da," Sergei said, "he may be micro manager like executives from WorldConneX. But normally I think he doesn’t care who Kolkhi moves against. Kolkhi plays game all the time, I don’t think he checks with Markku first."
"Right," said Reuben. "And he doesn’t have to check in every time an old lady who owns a prime piece of real estate gets hit by a speeding car."
Sergei winced at this, and looked away.
"Yes," he said after a moment. His voice had grown cold. "But to move against any of us it will be different."
"Why?" Reuben wondered how what he said had brought about this change in Sergei.
"Because militia have been involved. Because Mr. Keyes’ name has been raised. Markku does not like it when profile is raised."
With Pasha gone, Ksenia had soon lost her job at the Mezh. Keyes offered to help her find another, but she refused any help. She was certain that she could find employment on her own. She spoke to Sergei once or twice a week, and always asked about Reuben. She promised to come and visit when he was stronger, but so far had made no appearance.
Meanwhile, Reuben continued his recuperation. A few days after being taken off the medication, he was able to get up. Before long he was taking daily walks around the clinic, which he quickly learned occupied two wings of a sprawling country manor. The old man referred to it, as the dacha, a term used by well-to-do Muscovites for their (usually modest) weekend country homes.
It took Reuben a few days to get the lay of the place. He first explored what he was told was the south wing of the dacha. His own and several other ward rooms were located on the first floor of that wing. All of these, save his own, were unoccupied. Dr. Chevlenko and the nurses also had offices on that floor, and there was a sitting room with books and television, all in Russian. (The nurses had provided Reuben a few English-language books and magazines in his room.) Upstairs there was a laboratory, which Reuben was not allowed to enter, and several rooms that he took to be meeting rooms or classrooms. The third floor was closed off, Chevlenko had explained to Reuben, because of weather damage.
The main building was where Keyes and the staff lived. Its first floor consisted of an impressive entryway, a huge expanse of empty space called the Great Hall, and a surprisingly small dining room in the back, where the old man and the staff ate.
There were large windows on the outer wall of the entryway, two on either side of the front door, facing a grand double staircase. The windows were mostly boarded up, with just a few panes of glass remaining. The marble tiles of the staircase were chipped, its banister was mostly missing. The second floor contained a library, empty, and a ballroom which, like the rest of the house, had clearly seen better days. The staff quarters were also on that floor. The old man lived on the third floor.
The stairways leading to that floor were always locked, and Reuben had not so far been invited to pay a visit. He was also not permitted to visit the north wing of the dacha, which housed the rest of the clinic. No one would tell him anything about it. In fact, no one would say much of anything about the dacha or its history; and the old man never seemed to get around to explaining to Reuben why he had happened to buy a clinic in Russia, or what he was even doing there.
This mystery was cleared up one afternoon when Reuben, up for an afternoon walk which had, to that point, been in compliance with all (or at least most) of Olga’s clearly stated regulations, tried the door leading to the north wing and found it unlocked.
Well, he thought, somebody made a mistake.
Although he had been explicitly told to stay out of the north wing, he decided that — with the door unexpectedly unlocked — he should just check in and make sure everything was all right.
Anyway, that would be his line should he be caught.
He found the north wing to be the mirror image of the south. The clinic wings were in much better condition than the main house. The patient rooms looked empty, although in one the bed was made and there was a vase of fresh flowers on the bedside table. When Reuben reached the end of the hall, he found a sitting room, furnished and lighted better than the one in the south wing. Sitting on a small sofa, wearing pajamas and a pink bathrobe, a woman was hard at work marking up a manuscript, which was strewn out on the coffee table in front of her.
It was Betty Keyes, the old man’s wife.
Betty was a small woman, and thin. She had always seemed petite when contrasted with her larger-than-life husband. But now she looked as though she had been worn thin; she had grown frail. Reuben had not seen her in a year or two, and the change was more than noticeable.
"Hi, Betty," he said.
She glanced up and was clearly surprised by who she saw. Her eyes were bright as ever, and her smile as warm. Reuben realized that he had missed her, just as he had the old man.
"Reuben," she said. "I wondered when I was ever going to get to see you." She set her work down and reached out to him. Reuben came into the sitting room. He bent down and hugged her, and kissed her on the cheek. Then he sat next to her on the sofa and held her small hands in his. They felt brittle and cold.
"I had no idea you were even here," he said. "It’s good to see you."
"Let me look at you," she said.
She studied his face. Then she looked at the bandage on his head and what she could see of his shoulder through his blue flannel pajamas. "Oh, dear," she said, and then "oh, my." She looked at his face again and gasped, noticing the burn mark, partially covered by bandages, for the first time.
"My poor Reuben," she said, reaching out to touch the burn. "Oh, my God. We’re so lucky to still have you with us."
She treated him to a severe look.
"I knew it," she said. "I knew something like this would happen. This is why I said I would never approve of your cloak-and-dagger ambitions, and I was right. I knew it would come to something like this. Or worse."
She glared at him.
"What do you think your mother would say if she were here?"
Reuben sighed. He wanted to laugh, but didn’t.
"She would say exactly what you’re saying," he said, realizing how much he had missed this oft-repeated argument. "But she would be wrong. Remember? I quit the Agency a while back. All this happened to me while working for the phone company."
She made a dismissive gesture. "Don’t try that with me. I’ve heard the whole story. None of this would have happened if you had just worked for the phone company like you were supposed to."
"Maybe you have a point, Betty. If it will make you feel any better, I’ve been giving some thought to my next career move, what I’m going to do when I’m better. WorldConneX probably won’t take me back. I was thinking about seeing whether the old man needs any help."
Betty’s face lit up. She forgot all about being severe.
"Do you really mean it?"
"I said I’m thinking about it. I haven’t said anything to him yet."
"Oh, that’s such good news," she said. "That’s the most wonderful news. It will mean so much to him, Reuben. To both of us."
This subject had come up many times in the past. Keyes had never pressured Reuben to join him in his business, although he made it clear time and again that there was a place for him. Betty, on the other hand, had not been shy about telling him where she thought he belonged.
But Reuben would never hear of it.
Reuben’s parents were killed in an airplane crash when he was fourteen. The old man and Betty, who had never had a child of their own, took him in. The situation was awkward at the start and only grew worse. Reuben had known and loved them all his life. But at fourteen, having just lost his parents, he could not accept the Keyes in this new role. He eventually settled the matter to his own satisfaction by applying to, and being accepted at, an exclusive boarding school in Europe.
The Keyes reluctantly let him go. So at age fifteen, he moved out.
Reuben saw them only occasionally after that. He usually made it home for Christmas and a week or so in the summer. When he turned eighteen, he called the old man and told him bluntly that he had won a scholarship to a state university, not one of the Ivy-League schools that he could have easily been admitted to, and that he had a job (he would not inherit his parents’ estate until he turned twenty-three); therefore he would no longer accept any financial assistance from the Keyes. Reuben would never forget how hurt the old man sounded when he told him that he respected his decision, even if he disagreed with it. And that he knew his parents would be proud of him.
After that, things warmed up somewhat between them. Once Reuben established that he didn’t need the Keyes’ money, it seemed easier for him to be around them. He began to visit more often.
Reuben majored in political science. He told the Keyes that, after his time in Europe, he was thinking about a career in the Foreign Service. He wouldn’t listen to Betty’s suggestions that the old man could help him get posted anywhere he liked. Just before graduation, he announced that he had decided against diplomacy in favor of espionage. He had been recruited as an analyst for the CIA. He knew there was no point trying to maintain a cover with the Keyes — the old man was bound to find out what Reuben was doing through his own channels. Even so, he wouldn’t allow the old man to make any calls or pull any strings on his behalf.
The years passed.
After Reuben’s wife died, he decided to leave the Agency. For the first time, he made a concession in the old fight. He wanted to go into corporate intelligence work, and he let the old man get him a job with WorldConneX. (A list of the members of the board of directors for WorldConneX would include the name Michael Keyes.) Now that that job was apparently over, Reuben was thinking about throwing in the towel.
He was nearing forty, after all. He had proved that he could fend for himself. Except for some cousins on his mother’s side whom he barely knew and an ancient grandmother in Jamaica whom he had seen only a few times (but with whom he corresponded two or three times a year) the Keyes were the only family Reuben had. Maybe working with the old man was the right answer, a way to re-connect with the Keyes and (in a way) with his parents.
He wasn’t sure. He was still thinking about it.
"We can talk about all that later, Betty," he said. "What I really want to know is: what is this place? Really. The old man has been evasive, more than usual. And what are you doing here?"
Betty sat back and seemed to think about the questions for a moment. Soon she was staring into space, and Reuben could tell that her thoughts were far from this sitting room in the dacha. After a long while, she seemed to remember herself. She smiled.
"I’m dying, Reuben," she said after a moment.
Reuben coughed; he felt like he was choking. Somehow he was stunned but not surprised by the news. There had to be a reason for all this, after all: a reason for the old man to buy a private clinic, a reason for him to be so evasive, a reason that Reuben had not heard any news of Betty in the weeks he had spent there.
"I apologize for the melodrama, but it’s the simple truth. Of course, Mike doesn’t see it that way, doesn’t want to see it that way. He brought me here because we’re through with the doctors back home. There’s really nothing more they can do. I got them to admit that much.
"But here Mike is free to pursue…well, different avenues, I suppose."
"But what’s wrong with you?"
"That’s the mystery. There have been as many theories as there have been specialists. All we truly know is that I don’t have cancer. Or lupus. Or AIDS. Or three dozen other things. It may be a virus, but they can’t seem to isolate it. It might be a genetic problem — perhaps I’m poorly wired, like this old house. Or it may just be age."
"But that’s crazy," Reuben protested. It occurred to him that he didn’t actually know her age, but he she was certainly younger than the old man, by at least a dozen years.
"Not crazy," she said. "But also probably not true."
"What…what are your symptoms?"
"Weakness," she said. "Some days it’s overwhelming, other days not so bad."
"Well, that could be a lot of things."
"So I’m told, dear. Then there’s dizziness. Nausea. Occasional bleeding, both internal and external."
Her tone of voice was completely matter-of-fact as she worked her way through the list.
"Let’s see…shortness of breath. Kidney problems. Heart palpitations. It just quits on me from time to time. Occasional problems with vision, with hearing, with speech. Oh, and pain. A lot of pain."
Reuben nodded. He felt disoriented and strangely detached. It was almost as if he was observing this conversation take place between two strangers.
"So if nobody knows what’s wrong with you, what goes on at this place?"
Betty looked around the room as though making sure no one else was there. She lowered her voice and moved in close.
"Just between the two of us?" she whispered, conspiratorially.
"Okay," said Reuben, also lowering his voice. Not that there appeared to be any need.
"Quackery goes on here," she said, her eyes wide with mirth. "It’s as simple as that. And you have no idea, my dear, what a vast menu of snake oil this world has to offer. But Mike does, not that he sees it in precisely those terms."
"So this Chevlenko is some kind of fraud, you think?"
"Oh, no, absolutely not. He’s an old friend of Mike’s and a very good doctor. It’s the others who come in. Psychic surgeons from the Philippines. Experts in crystal healing from Egypt by way of France. Herbalists from California. A shaman here, a witch doctor there. We’re covering all the bases. When I finally admitted that traditional medicine wasn’t going to work and agreed to start looking for alternatives, it was like giving your godfather a gift. He had so many ideas, so much information. You know how he is."
"Yes, I know."
"I couldn’t see the harm in letting him try. Not when it means so much to him. Mike believes, really believes, that there’s some kind of magic out there hidden in the world that can help me. So this is where we carry out the search for it. We decided on Russia because I’ve always wanted to come back here, and because it’s easier for Mike to sneak people and things into this country than it would be back home."
Reuben didn’t know how to respond to any of this. He felt great sorrow at the thought of losing Betty. But what was worse was the frustration that the old man would put her through this ordeal, rather than letting her spend her remaining time with some peace and dignity.
"Betty, I —" he started. He put his hand to his forehead, touching the scar from the burn. This had become an instinctive move for him when thinking. "I don’t know what to say," he continued after a moment. "Do you want me to see if I can do anything? Talk to the old man?"
She shook her head.
"There’s nothing for you to do, my dear. Nothing for you and Mike to talk about. This matter is settled; I’ve agreed to it."
"Don’t worry. This may sound strange, but it’s wonderful to be able to spend so much time together. You know how Mike has always tried to juggle a dozen different projects at once. Well, right now he has only one. Or at least only one big one. And I’m it.
"Besides, I attached some strict terms to allowing him this indulgence. I insisted on doing whatever we were going to do in a real medical setting, with real medical supervision. That’s where Dr. Chevlenko and Olga and Maria came in. And I told Mike that I wouldn’t proceed with anything that seemed too painful or silly, or that the doctor recommended against. And most importantly, I told him that whatever they did, it couldn’t be allowed to interfere with this."
She held up the manuscript page she had been working on when he came in.
"A new book?" he asked.
Betty had once been a journalist. She had met the old man while working on a series of articles about him. She continued writing after they were married. As long as Reuben had known her, she had always been working on a book.
"Yes. My last, almost certainly. It’s about Russia. Russian saints, to be precise."
"Yes, saints. That surprises you."
"No topic you pick could ever really surprise me. You’ve been all over the map. It just seems a little out of character for you. You’ve always been so hard-nosed. Or is this some kind of exposé?"
"You know me too well. I started out doing a history of the Soviet collective farms, focusing on the personal stories of individuals who were a part of the system. The saints were just going to be a literary device; I would start each chapter with the story of a saint whose life made a good counterpoint to the person whose story I was telling. But then I got more interested in the saints than I was the farms. So the gimmick became the whole book.
"Even so, it’s hardly an exposé. Debunking the saints? To what end? To try to take away the one glimmer of hope in the lives of some very poor, very old ladies? Do you think I’m that cynical?"
"No. I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just a subject that seems more up the old man’s alley than yours."
"It’s true that, in this marriage, Mike has always had the market cornered on the eccentric. If I had any interest in debunking, he has provided plenty of material worthy I could work with. And he continues to do so. Anyway, the book is not an exposé, just a re-telling of some of the stories. I’m thinking about making it big and colorful, with imprints of iconographic art. You know, a coffee table book."
"That sounds really nice," said Reuben
Betty laughed again.
"My God, how did such a miserable liar ever decide he wanted to be a spy? You think I’ve gone off the deep end, don’t you?"
"No, Betty," he protested. "It just sounds like a real change for you. I think of the important books you’ve written. They’ve always been about serious topics, current topics. You know, wars. Political scandals. That one about the train wreck in Turkey."
"You’re right. This is a departure from those books. It won’t be a bestseller, but then I’ve never really written one of those, anyway. But I hardly need worry about whether this book sells many copies. We seem to be doing all right financially. And I’m certainly not concerned with my place in the annals of literary greatness."
"Well, I always liked your stuff. If anybody could make Russian Orthodox saints interesting, I suppose you could."
"Oh, they’re quite fascinating," she continued. " And I do consider them to be a serious subject, perhaps all the more so because they aren’t current. When we’re both feeling up to it, we’ll take a trip to the Monastery of St. Sergius. It’s not too far from here. You can learn a little about one of my favorite saints; you might be interested in this one yourself."
"Oh yeah?" said Reuben, seriously doubting that he would.
"Yes. Hers is a beautiful story. A little sad, perhaps, but very touching. And she had a lovely name."
"What was her name?"
Betty smiled at him.
"Her name was Ksenia."
Reuben coughed and looked around the room for a moment.
"Yeah, that’s cute," he said at last. "That’s really cute. But all that tells me is that you’ve been keeping up on what’s going on with me, while I didn’t even know that you were here. Much less that you were —"
The end of the sentence hung in the air between them. Dying.
Someone had just said that to Reuben. Just the other day. Who was it?
"That you were so sick," he said after a moment. His head hurt.
"I know. You have to forgive Mike. He was worried about you, Reuben. You had been through so much; he just wanted to hold off on breaking the bad news to you. Until you were stronger."
Reuben stood up, angry.
"I know," he said, not meaning it. "I know. The old man did the right thing."
He paced to the other end of the sitting room and looked at the bookshelf. The books on this room’s shelf were in English, he noted absently. He looked for the television, wanting to see if the old man had hooked up a satellite dish for Betty. But of course, there was none to be found. She had always hated TV.
He walked back to the sofa and sat down. The rage had passed, but he was still trembling.
"Anyway," he said, "I’m glad I know that you’re here. This will be great. We can keep each other company."
She put her hand against his cheek and brushed away a tear that he hadn’t even realized was there.
"That will be marvelous," she said.
He made his way back to the south wing without being discovered. When Keyes dropped in on him late that afternoon, Reuben told him about his excursion to the other side of the dacha and what he had found there.
"I’m not surprised," Keyes told him. "I knew if I kept putting off telling you, you would find out sooner or later. Not that that was my plan, mind you."
"How long has she got?" Reuben asked.
Keyes frowned at the question, and let out a long sigh.
"That’s hard to say," he began. "Especially when we don’t know for sure what it is she’s suffering from. But she’s shown some improvement since we got here. Chevlenko has her on a new diet that’s got her feeling a little better. And starting on a new book has made a big difference."
Reuben could see that. Having something to be engrossed in, and something to accomplish, could only make life more vital and interesting. But what would happen when she finished?
She had described it as her last book.
"But that’s just the start," said the old man. "I have resources at my disposal, and I'm putting them to work."
He went on to describe in detail the program he had put together for his wife’s recovery. It was an elaborate plan, involving all the treatments that Betty had listed, and many more besides. Some of these were just a shade or two south of respectable. Others were almost comic in their strangeness and improbability.
"Reuben," said Keyes, "I know how this all sounds to you. And maybe you’re right, it does all look like a longshot. But only one of these things has to work, and it’s all worth it."
"That’s for sure," Reuben said. But none of them will, he thought.
"Well, there is one other possibility I recently learned about. It may be worth pursuing."
"What is it?"
"I’ll tell you in detail later, when I know more. It’s different. Really different. It’s going to require some travel and a little bit of snooping around. I was thinking maybe in a month or so, when you’re feeling better — "
"Of course. Whatever I can do."
Keyes smiled. A little of the gleam had returned to his eyes. The old man had a limitless capacity for hope, Reuben reflected. He wished he could have the same.
"Thank you, son," he said. "I’ll tell you more about it soon."
Over the next few days, Reuben began to join Betty in her sitting room on the days she wasn’t being treated. Sometimes they would have lunch together. Some days they would talk the afternoon away; others, he would sit and read while she worked on her book. From time to time, she even allowed him to read a few pages. The old man was sometimes there, often disappearing for long stretches of time to make phone calls or attend to some other piece of business.
The weeks went by. The dressing on Reuben’s head got smaller, and his shoulder and back began to itch infernally, indicating that they were healing. In the intervening time, neither the doctor nor Reuben could see any sign of brain damage, superficial or otherwise.
On a bitter December afternoon, Reuben and Betty paid a visit to the Monastery of St. Sergius. Betty had mentioned the place frequently. It took several tries, but Reuben was able to persuade Dr. Chevlenko that a change of scenery and some fresh air would be the best thing for both his patients. The old man opted out, claiming he had calls to make. Keyes’ driver, a wizened fellow named Anatoly, drove them there.
Reuben was amazed by the monastery’s huge white walls — fifteen feet high — which surrounded the compound. Betty told him that the fortifications dated to the time of the Mongol hoards. Inside, the white and blue onion-domed churches seemed out of place somehow: their beauty and grace were difficult to reconcile with the massive fortifications that surrounded them. There was almost an other-worldly quality to these churches; he could imagine them as living things which had sprung in all their intricate detail from the surrounding ice and snow.
Inside, however, with their candlelight and incense, their ornate metal work and stone floors, the churches were clearly the work of men. The work of men, but not belonging to them. Although the priests were men, and the few monks and seminarians seen around the grounds were young men or boys, these were not the true citizens of that holy city. The compound belonged to a small army of grandmothers, scarved and bent, as dutiful in their sweeping of the churches’ stone floors as they were in the singing of their part in the Mass.
Betty took him through each of the churches, looking for a priest whom she had met on one of her previous visits. Father Alexy, she explained, could tell not only the story of Saint Ksenia, but of any other saint whose story Reuben would care to hear. Reuben didn’t bother reiterating what a short list that would be. They looked for the priest for an hour or so, but to no avail. No one seemed to know where he was; and anyone who claimed to know was wrong. Or was thinking of a different Father Alexy, of which there appeared to be several.
As the afternoon passed, and the day grew colder, it became apparent to Reuben that there was something desperate in Betty’s urgency to find this priest. She stood outside the third church they had visited and looked one way and then the other, trying to decide where to go next. Her face had a bluish tint; she shivered violently.
"We haven’t been to the museum yet," he said to her. "Let’s go warm up there, maybe sit down for a while and have something to drink. Father Alexy will probably find us."
Betty said nothing, seeming not to hear him. She continued to look around anxiously.
"If not," he continued, "we can always come back and find him ourselves after we’ve had a chance to rest."
She still didn’t respond. Reuben took her by the hand.
"Come on, Betty. What do you say?"
She glanced up at him, looking almost startled to realize that he had been talking to her.
"I’m cold," she said, not really looking his way.
"I know you are," he said. "I am, too. Let’s go; we can find him later."
She looked off in the distance, her eyes moving from place to place, from figure to figure. But the elusive priest was nowhere to be seen.
"All right," she said at last, with supreme resignation. Now she looked directly at Reuben.
"Let’s go, dear," she said. "Take me home."
Reuben put his arm around her shoulder. He could feel her trembling.
"This is something we’ll have to leave undone," she concluded.
"For now," he said. "We’ll come back when it’s a little warmer. Or we’ll try again in the spring."
Reuben knew how unconvincing he sounded. Betty simply nodded.
They walked out together, through the arched gate that revealed the thickness of the compound wall. Anatoly was still sitting in Keyes’ gray Mercedes, parked near the entrance. Reuben opened the back door for Betty, then bent down so he could see in and talk to the driver.
"Anatoly, before we go, I need you to come help me with something."
The old driver sighed and slowly got out of the car. Betty gave Reuben a puzzled look.
"What are you doing?" she said. "I’m cold."
"Be right back," he said.
He and Anatoly walked back to the entrance of the Monastery. A boy stood just under the archway, holding up a black puppy. There was a cardboard box at his feet. The puppy was small and scrawny, with oversized paws and pointed ears.
"Tell him we want to see them," Reuben said to Anatoly.
Responding to Anatoly’s request, the boy opened the box. Reuben bent over and peered in. Two others lay huddled in the corner, also black.
"Guess we’ll take the black one," Reuben said. "Ask him what kind they are."
Anatoly asked; the boy said something in response.
"Well?" said Reuben.
"Don’t know how to say in English. Is dog for…lambs. Sheeps."
Reuben looked at the pup. German shepherd, maybe.
"Ask him whether they’ve been weaned."
"Oh, um…ask him if they still need milk from their mother."
"No," said Anatoly. "He wouldn’t give dog if it needed milk."
"Just ask," Reuben said.
Anatoly shrugged again, and said something to the boy.
"Da da da," the boy said. Impatient Russian for yes, what a stupid question.
Anatoly looked at Reuben.
"Is okay," he said.
"Great," said Reuben. On a sudden impulse, he reached into his back pocket and found his wallet. He had several ruble notes as well as some US currency. He found a five dollar bill and handed it to the boy, then took the puppy.
Both the boy and Anatoly looked astounded.
"Dobri!" the boy shouted., holding the bill up, and then quickly thinking better of that and stashing it in his pocket.
Anatoly muttered something in Russian and started back towards the car. Reuben followed with the puppy. Betty sat in the back seat with her eyes closed, not even bothering to open them when Reuben opened the car door.
"Look who I found," he said, setting the puppy in her lap. "I think we should call him Father Alexy."
Startled by the sudden weight on her lap, Betty opened her eyes. She looked down and let out a little gasp.
"Oh, my God," she said.
She lifted the puppy so she could see it better. It began licking her lazily on the face.
"Oh my God, Reuben," she said. "Are you crazy?" And she began to laugh.
"I just didn’t want the trip to the monastery to be a total loss."
"The poor thing is freezing!" she said, hugging the pup close to her. "What will Dr. Chevlenko say?" She laughed again.
"I don’t know. Maybe we just won’t tell him."
Six weeks to the day after coming to the dacha, Dr. Chevlenko removed the stitches from the exit wound in Reuben’s back; shortly before, the last of the stitches in his shoulder had been removed. A week later, on December 21, Dr. Chevlenko unwound the bandage on Reuben’s head for the last time, and carefully pried off the plastic cap which had held everything in place while Reuben’s forehead slowly knit itself back together.
"Looks like we’re unwrapping the present just in time for Christmas," observed the old man.
"No, we’re early," said Betty. "This year we’re going to celebrate Christmas in January, like proper Russians."
"Careful, old man," said Reuben, wincing as Chevlenko adjusted his grip on the cap. "The Saints are getting to her. Pretty soon we’re going to have a full-fledged babushka on our hands."
"Quiet please," said the doctor. And in one quick motion, the cap was gone.
Everyone was there: Chevlenko, Olga, Maria, Betty, and the old man. Reuben could tell from the strained and careful smiles, and the carefully composed we’re not shocked looks on all the faces, that this was not going to be pleasant.
"Well, Reuben," Betty said bravely. "I think the doctor did a fine job. It’s good to see you’re in one piece."
"Uh huh," he answered, far from convinced. "May I have a look now?"
Maria handed him a mirror. He had been right.
Pleasant it was not.
Now fully visible, the scar from the cigar burn was bigger than Reuben had realized it would be. It should have been just about the size of a quarter and located in the center of his forehead, but either the stork had moved the cigar while holding it to Reuben’s head, or his own quick motion in getting up had pulled the cigar, and thus the burn, down and to the right. Dangerously close to his eye. It was gray in color and shaped like a big comma on his forehead.
The burn scar was not as big as it might have been, however, because apparently some of it had been blown off along with the rest of the right corner of his forehead. This area, about half the size of the palm of Reuben’s hand, was an odd-looking salmon color, especially odd when contrasted with the deep brown of the rest of Reuben’s face.
"The color will be more normal in time," Dr. Chevlenko said helpfully.
One word caught Reuben’s attention: more.
However, color aside, it was plain to see that Dr. Chevlenko was a skilled surgeon. Reuben’s head was shaped more or less the way it should be. Moreover, as Betty had pointed out, Reuben’s first priority where his head was concerned — ahead of both coloration and shape — would have to be integrity. The breach had been sealed.
"Thank you, Doctor," Reuben said after a moment.
Chevlenko nodded at him.
"And thanks to all of you," he continued. "I’ve been to the edge. You all had a hand in pulling me back, and I appreciate it."
Before anyone could respond, Sergei entered the room.
"Ah, I am late for big unveiling!" he said.
"You look good, Reuben," he said after a moment. "You don’t look any different from before."
Reuben laughed at the preposterousness of the statement. Once he started, he found he couldn’t stop. He hadn’t laughed so hard in a long time. Sergei laughed, too, along with the old man and Betty.
"No, to be serious," Sergei said after a moment, catching his breath. "I can see that there has been change. Big change. I won’t lie."
"That’s better," Reuben said.
"But don’t worry, my friend, " Sergei continued. "Is change, yes, but maybe is improvement, yes?"
The laughter erupted again.
Dr. Chevlenko and the nurses smiled uncomfortably, but couldn’t really get with the joke. After another moment the doctor cleared his throat, said a curt "good evening," and left with his nurses in tow.
An uncomfortable silence ensued.
"Well," Keyes said after a moment, "looks like you managed to scare off your doctor."
"Don’t worry," said Reuben. "He’ll be back. Did you see the look on his face? I think that for the first time, he’s truly worried about brain damage."
"Don't say that," said Betty. "Not even as a joke."
"All right," said the old man. "I think we should check on Father Alexy before he chews something else to shreds."
The puppy now officially lived in a box in the kitchen, but could usually be found wherever the old man was. This included Betty’s room, much to the doctor’s disapproval.
"Come on, sweetheart. We’ll let Reuben talk to his friend. He’s had enough excitement. Besides, tomorrow is a big day for you."
"Helium detox?" Reuben asked.
Betty shook her head.
"I’ll be listening to bells tomorrow. Tibetan bells. Talk about brain damage."
The old man began pushing her wheelchair towards the door. She turned for a moment and looked at Reuben.
"Don’t worry about your scars. Mike knows some excellent plastic surgeons back home."
"We’ll talk about that later."
Reuben wished her and the old man a good night, and they departed. Sergei closed the door.
"Now we can talk," he said, seating himself in the doctor’s chair.
"Yes. So what have you learned?"
"Things have been very quiet. Kolkhi is not in Russia, he is on trip to Germany right now."
"Do you know what it’s about?"
"No. Some business of Markku’s. But what, I can not say. Meanwhile, his people have been mostly inactive. Pulling off a few small robberies and making their normal collection runs, that is all."
"Any sign of interest in Ksenia? Or any of us?"
"Not so far. Again, I don’t believe Kolkhi will take action. But I keep my eyes open, of course."
"Right," said Reuben. "What else can you tell me, Sergei? How is she?"
"She’s okay." He shrugged. "Here, read for yourself." He produced a small envelope from his pocket and handed it to Reuben. The paper was heavy and coarse; nothing was written on the envelope. Reuben tore into it. The note was written, neatly printed actually, on a small sheet of paper, equally coarse as the envelope.
Sergei told me that he would go to see you and that you are well. I want him to give you this letter to tell you that I am well also. I write to say thank you for what you did for me. And to say I am sorry for the many terrible things. You have been kind and brave. You are good friend for me and always I will remember you. I wish for you health and happiness.
I remain your friend,
Reuben read it over several times.
"So?" said Sergei after a while.
"Well, she’s okay. She says she’s okay."
"That is good."
"But you don’t look happy."
Reuben set the letter down.
"Sure I’m happy. It’s just that…"
Sergei sat back in his chair. he crossed and re-crossed his legs.
"Is just what?"
Reben looked up from the letter.
"Well, she doesn’t say anything about wanting to see me." He scanned the letter again. "This thing reads like a goodbye."
"Oh, I see," Sergei said. "That is good. Must be relief for you, eh?"
Reuben looked at him, puzzled.
"What are you talking about?"
"You don’t remember, Reuben? Forgive me, maybe it was bump on head?" Sergei’s voice abruptly changed to a flat twang.
" ‘Oh, I don’t want girl to get hurt. Ya know, don’t want to confuse girl, so young and innocent. Want to take her someplace, ya know, neutral.’ "
It took Reuben a moment to realize that what he was hearing was an attempted impression of an American accent. He eyed Sergei.
"What the hell is that? Is that supposed to sound like me?"
"Da," Sergei said. "It sound exactly like Mr. Reuben Stone."
"I think not," Reuben said. "You sound sort of like a Texan, but not very much."
Sergei waved his hand in a scoffing gesture.
"Cowboy from Texas is American," he said. "Is all American."
"What, we all sound alike?"
Reuben turned back to the letter. "I’ve never really liked you," he said, without looking up. "I think we should be clear on that point."
He read the letter again.
"So what are you telling me, Sergei?" he asked after a moment, setting the letter down again. "That it’s all for the best?"
"Always so complicated," he said. "Reuben, you remember when we talk about roulette?"
"You have ever played roulette and run out of money?"
"Da," Sergei said. "That is exactly right."
"Um, you lost me, there," Reuben said .
Sergei sighed again.
"Sometimes when you play roulette, you lose much of your money. You don’t have much left, but you put all you have on one last bet. Sometimes you do this, and you win."
"Once in a while it works out that way. Sure."
"When this happens, what you do?"
Reuben pondered this.
"If I’m smart, I guess I quit. But usually I keep playing."
"No, I don’t mean that. I don’t care about are you smart gambler or stupid gambler. I mean what you do when you win."
"Huh?" Reuben shrugged. "I don’t know what you mean."
"You know — you do know, of course. When you win on big spin like this, you make loud whooping noise like Indian Chief and give big tip to croupier. Da?"
"I do that?" said Reuben, "I’m thinking you had Pasha watch the wrong guy. What’s the point?"
Sergei looked agitated.
"Point is this: you do these happy things. But what is one thing you never do?"
Reuben looked blank.
"Okay, then what is one thing you never say?"
"I’m sorry, Sergei, but I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Then I tell you," he said, still agitated. "One thing you never say after making big win is ‘it is all for best.’ Da? You never say this."
Reuben let that sink in for a minute.
"You’re right," he said. "I never do."
"No," Sergei continued. "But when you do same thing: make last bet, bet all money, and lose…"
Reuben suddenly saw his point.
Neither of the two men said anything for a while.
"So then what you’re saying is," Reuben started. "I mean…what are you saying? About Ksenia. Is it all for the best or not?"
Sergei folded his arms and sighed.
"I do not know, Reuben. Only you know. Do you still have chips? Do you still want to spin wheel?"
"Do you steel feel lucky?" Sergei asked.
It was the fifth of January, Christmas Eve on the Russian Orthodox calendar. While Reuben was having his breakfast, Michael Keyes appeared in the doorway of his room and said that it was time they talked about the assignment Reuben had accepted. Reuben was to be come to the old man’s office at 9:30 sharp.
Reuben had time to finish his breakfast, get dressed, and read for a while before starting out for the main house. The old man’s office was on the third floor.
A lot had changed around the place in the past few weeks. Contractors were busy refurbishing the dacha. It was a sizeable project that would take months to finish, but the immediate improvements were dramatic. While a glazier replaced all the panes of missing glass in the four front windows, a team of carpenters was at work replacing the banister on the front staircase. The new banister was functional, not ornate, but its major contribution to the room was what it took away: a sense brokeness and neglect.
A six-foot fir tree stood in the great hall. Dwarfed by the overall size of the room and the enormous table which had been set within it, the tree seemed modest. It was trimmed with red bows and white lights. Evergreen and holly boughs were placed on the mantle and in the window sills throughout the dacha, and a large wreath had been mounted over the front door.
The dacha had become a cheery place, and this had to do with more than just appearances. Betty’s health had improved noticeably. Dr. Chevlenko was cautious about saying what the cause of the improvement was, but there was no question that Betty was in less pain, was feeling stronger, and looked better than she had since first coming to the dacha.
She had supervised the decorating of the house and was planning a dinner — the first entertaining that the Keyes had done in their home — for Christmas Eve. It would be a relatively small affair, with only the Keyes, Reuben, Sergei and his family, and the staffs both of the clinic and of the household. Not more than 15 were expected.
Betty had gone on several outings to Moscow to make preparations, bringing Reuben with her the first few times. But now she refused to let him come a long. He was a distraction, she had told him. He was no help with shopping. She decided to hire a girl to help her out around the place, someone who could provide some real assistance.
Reuben used the back stairs (the front stairs being a construction zone) to reach the old man’s office. The door to these stairs, always locked before, was standing wide open. He made his way to the top and discovered that little work had been done on the third floor. The hallway was dark. All of the doors he passed appeared to be boarded shut. At the end of the hall, a door stood slightly ajar; light shone from the open doorway into the hall.
The old man’s office was a simple room: just a bed, a desk, a cabinet, and a couple of chairs. The desk had four or five telephones sitting on it, which was one of the old man’s trademarks. The room was entirely strewn with papers and books. Except for the bed, this place was a replica of every office the old man had ever occupied: a testament to the many different tasks he loved putting himself to at once, the many different ideas he was always entertaining. The old man sat on the floor studying a large schematic.
"Is that the seating chart for dinner tonight?" Reuben asked
Keyes looked up.
"Nothing quite that complex." He gestured at the drawing, which was at least three feet wide by five feet long. "This is an idea one of the guys back home has been pushing for a long time. See? It’s a whole new take on a grocery distribution center."
Reuben looked at the drawing for a few seconds, but couldn’t make sense of it.
"Wait a minute," he said, taking in the scale of the picture. "Are those little rectangles trucks?"
"Yeah, see they drive in here and get their loads pre-assembled off these carousels, here. Meanwhile, other trucks are driving in on this side and unloading produce, which is sorted and put on palettes and loaded onto the carousel."
Reuben shook his head.
"It’s enormous. How much would it cost to put something like this in place?
"I can’t say. It depends on how successful we are at getting the food suppliers and trucking companies and supermarkets to go in on it. Of course, they’ll all save a bundle in the long run if they do."
Reuben looked at the schematic for a while longer. It was a grand vision, a massive undertaking.
"So this is my new project? A grocery warehouse?"
"No," said Keyes. He chuckled. "Lord, no. Don’t I have enough problems?"
He got up and walked over to his desk.
"I got some other things in the same package that those plans came in." He sat down at his desk and lifted a sheaf of papers.
"This is what I want to talk to you about," he said.
Reuben took a seat across from him at the desk. Keyes passed the papers to him.
"Have you ever seen this before?"
It was a manuscript. Reuben couldn’t make out the language, but he would have guessed Latin. The pages were colorful, and were heavily illustrated. Some of the pages looked like they were taken from a botanical catalog: intricate drawings of plants accompanied by what appeared to be elaborate written descriptions. Flipping though, he saw that other pages had detailed geometric designs, and what looked like a zodiacal calendar. Still other pages had drawings of human figures, female, and what appeared to be a complex system of water pipes. Reuben looked at the manuscript for a long while.
"No," he said. "I’ve never seen it. And I’ve never seen anything quite like it, either. It looks old. What is it?"
"What you’re looking at is a copy. The real manuscript is currently under lock and key at one of the Ivy League schools. It was found in the twenties in Italy, part of some old collection of books. But it didn’t fit in with the other books. In fact, it doesn’t fit in with anything."
"How old is it?"
"Depends on who you ask. Anywhere from the thirteenth century to the seventeenth. But they say that there’s good reason to believe that the original document is itself a copy."
Reuben leafed through the pages.
"How would they be able to tell that?"
"Well, first there are no mistakes. That doesn’t necessarily prove anything, but it suggests it. It’s easier to get something exactly right if you’re copying it than it does if you’re making it up. Also, look at the placement of the words. See how the spacing is kind of funny? It looks like whoever was doing the writing was trying to match the word placement from some source document, rather than just rattling the words off."
Reuben stopped and looked at a page with an intricate, zodiacal figure.
"What does it say? Is this Latin?"
"Not exactly. They say there are two different languages represented, or it could just be two different writing styles. Nobody knows for sure, because nobody can read the thing. The text is a combination of Latin abbreviations and Arab numerals. No one can make heads or tails of what it says. If it even says anything."
Reuben looked at it again.
"But obviously you think it means something," he said.
"Yes," said Keyes. "I think it’s a code."
"So you have cryptographers looking at it?"
The old man nodded.
"Not me per se. Cryptographers have been trying to crack this thing for years. I have put a few extra people on it. But I don’t think they’re going to find anything."
"Why not? You said you think it actually says something."
"But there are plenty of others who say it doesn’t. It could just be gibberish, the product of a very early hoax. It could also be the only surviving fragment of a lost language, which would make it pretty damn hard to decipher."
"But you don’t think it’s that, either."
"No. I just think that whoever created it knew what they were doing. They set it up so you can’t decode it unless you have their key. And their key isn’t included."
"Really?" said Reuben. "They came up with this in — what did you say — the thirteenth century? Before computers? Before World War II?"
"It looks that way. Actually, there are encryption techniques that have been around for a long time. You don’t need a computer to create an "unbreakable" code. But even so, I think we’re talking about a pretty smart bunch of people."
The old man sat back, scratching his chin.
"A group of them," he said after a moment. He cleared his throat. "A secret group."
"A secret group," Reuben repeated. "With a mysterious encoded ancient manuscript."
"I know what you’re thinking, son. They’re called the brotherhood of the Magus Majorum. The Greater Magic."
"Aha. I had a feeling we were headed towards something like this. So what’s the Greater Magic?"
"Nobody knows. Like I say, they’re a secret group. They may be alchemists. It’s been suggested that there’s a connection between them and Al Razi."
"Am I supposed to know who that is?" he asked.
"He was Persian, lived in Baghdad in the ninth century. He was a physician and an alchemist. One of the smartest men living at his time. Or ever, I suppose. His surviving writings are all classics. On the medical side, he wrote catalogs of illnesses with effective treatments. But he was also a philosopher, and he wrote about alchemy as both a practical discipline and a set of mystical truths."
Reuben said nothing.
"Are you familiar with the practical side of alchemy?" Keyes asked.
"Not really," said Reuben. "Oh, wait. You mean…turning lead into gold, right?"
"That’s where it starts. The lead-into-gold idea was a kind of proof of concept. Lead was considered a base metal, while gold was higher and more pure. Al Razi’s school of alchemy was all about transforming base things into higher forms. Not just objects — they wanted to change themselves and others into higher beings. Immortal beings."
"I see. And this is all part of the practical side? I’d be curious to know what the other side was like."
The old man got up. On the cabinet at his bedside sat a stainless steel percolator. A green metal tree with white mugs stood beside it. He removed one of the mugs and looked at Reuben inquiringly.
"Sure," said Reuben.
"We’ll just keep it practical for now," Keyes continued, with no trace of irony. He poured the coffee.
"Anyhow, most of the so-called alchemists that we’re familiar with in the west were European charlatans who came long after Al Razi. They practiced a watered-down version of alchemy that had to do with finding the Philosopher’s Stone."
Keyes took down another mug. He opened the cabinet and produced a bottle of scotch. He poured himself a generous shot, then treated Reuben to the same inquiring look.
"Just coffee," said Reuben. "So what about this stone?"
"It was of a sort of catalyst" The old man returned to the desk. He handed Reuben his coffee. "It could change lead into gold; it could bestow eternal life. And that’s all most anybody knew or cared about."
Reuben took a sip of his coffee.
"So what’s that got to do with this manuscript? And what does any of this have to do with us?"
"Well, think about it, Reuben What these folks were after was a way to transmute human life into a higher and purer state."
"They wanted to perfect a kind of human life that’s as different from what we know as gold is from lead. Life as we know it is drab and painful; it’s mired in all kinds of corruption; it ends in death. The higher form is free of sickness and pain; it includes moral as well as physical perfection; it never ends."
"It sounds like going to heaven."
"Similar ideas, but the alchemists believed that this higher state could be achieved in the here and now. You don’t have to wait for some afterlife."
Reuben sat back and sighed. He didn’t much like where this was going.
"And you agree with them?" he asked.
The old man sipped his coffee.
"I know how you feel about this kind of thing, Reuben. But there is more to this than meets the eye. Al Razi may have been more successful than history records. A lot more successful."
"He found the Philosopher’s Stone?"
"I don’t know. I personally think the stone is a red herring. Al Razi believed in it, but I don’t see why doing the things he did would have required the use of a magic rock."
"What did he do?"
"Later. There’ll be time for that. Anyway, it may not have been Al Razi, it may have been one of his successors. But whoever it was that did it, it was recorded, and it has been passed on. It’s maybe even been built on and improved over the years. Who knows?"
"But what was it?" Reuben asked. He stood up, agitated.
"Did he actually change lead into gold? Did he bestow immortality on someone? Did he write that book?"
He bent over the grocery warehouse schematic and studied it for a moment. The old man said nothing.
"Well?" Reuben continued. "I mean, where is the guy? If he uncovered the secrets of immortality, he should still be around. Are you going to send me off looking for him?"
Keyes leaned back in his chair and looked at Reuben for a moment. He took a long sip of his drink. He smiled, remembering something.
"You never had a chance to meet Sergei’s boy."
"No," said Reuben. "No, I didn’t. I didn’t even know he had a son."
"He was a great kid. Always had something smart to say."
"Oh," Reuben said. Something fell in place.
"He was interested in the space program, wasn’t he?"
The old man blinked.
"Among other things, yes. How did you know that?"
"I bet he was a big fan of Yuri Gagarin’s. Could tell you anything you wanted to know about him."
Keyes looked puzzled.
"So Sergei did tell you about Yuri."
Reuben considered this: Sergei’s son, Yuri. Past tense.
Dead, obviously. Along with Charlotte. And Reuben’s parents. And even Pasha.
And soon enough, Betty.
"I guess he did, sort of. Not very much. How old was he?"
"He was just about to turn sixteen."
"How did he die? And when?"
Keyes sighed. He took another drink.
"It was about a year ago. Hit and run; the streets can be very dangerous in Moscow. The driver got away clean, although Sergei still pursues the matter."
Several things made sense now, like why an ex-KGB man would be so sentimental about a dead cosmonaut, and why Sergei had bristled at the mention of a hit-and-run killing.
"I’ve tried to help him all I could with that," Keyes continued, "but it’s hopeless. Sergei is never going to find the man who killed his boy. That’s the way it is."
Reuben shook his head sadly. He looked up at the old man for a moment, then looked away impatiently.
"What’s bothering you?"
"How can you sit there and admit that it’s impossible to solve a year-old hit-and-run case, and yet think that it is possible that we’re going to go out and find some secret society that’s guarding the mysteries of the universe? That we’re not only going to find them, but that we’re going to talk them into giving us some of their ‘great magic’ so we can save Betty’s life. I mean that is the plan, isn’t it?"
Keyes stared hard at Reuben, and said nothing for a moment.
"I’ll answer your question," he said, "but let me ask you something, first." He reached across the desk and took the manuscript. He flipped through the pages until he found the one he was looking for. He held it up.
"What’s this a picture of?"
Reuben looked at it.
"No, it isn’t. Look again." He flung the book across the table. Reuben sat back down. He picked up the page and studied it."
"Look at the petals," said Keyes. "They aren’t right. And look at the seeds. You know what sunflower seeds look like. Those aren’t even close."
Reuben looked at the picture more closely. It was clearly not a sunflower.
"Yeah. So what?"
"It isn’t just cryptographers who’ve studied this manuscript. Botanists have, too. And that plant you’re looking at is definitely not a sunflower. In fact, as far as anybody can tell, it isn’t a plant that’s ever existed anywhere on Earth."
Reuben looked at it again.
"And the same is true for the rest of the plants in the manuscript. Look at them. Detailed, intricate, naturalistic drawings of plants that don’t exist."
Reuben thumbed through the pages once again, looking at the drawings of plants and the odd depictions of naked women happily bathing in the midst of complex plumbing.
What was this thing, anyway?
"I know," the old man continued, "so what? An indecipherable book with pictures of plants that don’t exist. It doesn’t prove anything. It’s just kind of odd. That’s all the botanists think, and the cryptographers. It’s an oddity.
"But my gut tells me different, son. It tells me that we’re right on the edge of something. Sometimes, you can tell when something is right. Can’t you? Or maybe not, maybe you can just tell when something is wrong."
Reuben wondered. He realized that he had been thinking the same thing himself. There was something wrong, something horribly wrong, with the world.
That’s what she had said. Everybody dies, she said.
His head hurt suddenly. It throbbed with the thought: everybody dies.
He stopped himself. What the hell was he thinking? Who was she? There wasn’t anything wrong with the world; it was a simple fact of existence. Of course everybody dies. That’s life. You accept it after a while; it’s called growing up.
Everybody dies, and everybody accepts it.
But there was something else.
"No," he said aloud. "Damn it."
Reuben was on his feet again, and trembling.
The old man looked at him, surprised by the forcefulness of his response.
"It’s what she’s been trying to tell me," he said. He looked plaintively to the old man.
"Who’s been trying to tell you?" asked Keyes
Reuben’s eyes grew very wide and he began to laugh. And he kept laughing. He could feel the laughter pounding in his head, but even this intense pain made him want to laugh harder and harder, and then he was gasping for breath, which made him want to laugh still more, and then —
The old man had come around the desk and was standing in front of him. He placed his hands on Reuben’s shoulders and began to shake him.
"For God’s sake, son. Get ahold of yourself."
Reuben felt the urge to laugh more, but he resisted. He was gasping for air, catching his breath. He didn’t want to laugh any more. Then he felt it start again — beyond his control — his body wracked with trembling fits. He buried his face in his hands, weeping uncontrollably. The old man pulled him close.
"I’m sorry, son," he said, holding on to him.
As he entered the great hall, Reuben marveled at how perfectly Betty had realized her holiday vision. The room was awash with different hues of soft, warm light. There were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of candles flickering in the new chandelier and in candlesticks on the opulently set table, and elsewhere throughout the room. A fire blazed in the enormous fireplace. And the Christmas tree flashed delicate points of red and white.
Standing by the fire were Dr. Chevlenko and Olga, along with Maria and a young man Reuben had never seen before. This would be Maria’s boyfriend.
In the large open area between the fireplace and the dining table, Betty stood with the old man next to a rolling cart on which sat an enormous bowl of eggnog. Betty was fussing over her creation: first seasoning it, then stirring it, then giving her husband a taste. For his part, the old man stood by ready to make his own contribution with a large crystal decanter, its contents a dark, nutty brown.
Either brandy or bourbon, Reuben thought. Depending on the old man’s mood.
On the other side of the dining table, in the far corner of the room, sat three musicians: one playing the flute, one on the violin, and one playing an enormous harp. Reuben could not make out the tune they were playing, but the sweet, light sound of the music blended with the candlelight and the warmth and the cheerfulness of the room. Reuben breathed deeply the scent of pine needles and wood smoke, of candle wax and food cooking in the kitchen.
He felt good, better than he could remember feeling. The memory of the incident earlier that day was still with him, but the shadow had passed. He had connected with something, something that he could not put into words. Or actually, he could, but they were the wrong words.
That was true, but it wasn’t the point. What Reuben had glimpsed for a thousandth of a second was a truth even more dreadful.
But whatever is was, it was real. Something that could be confronted. There was a strange comfort in this. Reuben found that his hope was inexplicably renewed. He felt a surge of purpose, a desire to begin.
He approached the eggnog cart.
"Are you open for business yet?" he asked
They both looked up and smiled at him.
"Merry Christmas, darling," Betty said.
Reuben bent down and kissed her on the cheek.
"Merry Christmas," he said. "And to you, old man."
"How are you feeling, son?" said Keyes.
"I feel fine. And that’s not just my opinion. Isn’t that what Dr. Chevlenko told you?"
The old man sighed.
"Yes, it is. But he also said you should stay here and rest for at least the next couple of months."
Betty looked up, puzzled.
"Why? Why would the doctor say that? Were you thinking about going somewhere?"
"The old man has been talking about putting me to work. Now that I’m ready to go, he’s not sure that he wants to send me."
Betty glanced at Keyes.
"Of course Mike wants you to start," she said. "But why not work here?"
Reuben shook his head.
"No, the job I was offered requires travel, and that’s the one I’m ready to start."
Betty looked from Reuben to the old man and back again.
"So what is this project?" she asked. "And where will you go?"
"I’ve got to find some people who haven’t been seen around for a long time. They have some information we need."
"That sounds shady and dangerous," Betty said. She turned to Keyes. "What have you got him into? This isn’t what we talked about."
"It’s not shady," the old man said, uneasily.
"Oh, meaning that it is dangerous?"
"No, listen," said Reuben. "We don’t know that it’s dangerous. I kind of doubt that it is. But it doesn’t matter. The point is, something significant happened today. The old man thinks I’m losing my mind, but it’s not so. I just saw something very clearly, something that I didn’t expect to see. And now I have to get to work."
"So what was it," the old man asked, "that you saw so clearly?"
"I can’t tell you. And I’m not being coy. I just mean that I can’t say it without misrepresenting it. I have to learn the right words before I can tell you."
"Then what is it that you have to do?" asked Betty.
"Find the people with the information."
"And do what?’ she persisted.
"I don’t know. I’ll figure that out when I find them."
Betty glared at the old man.
"I can’t believe it," she said. "You’ve turned him into you."
The old man shrugged.
"I didn’t do it," he said. "It just happened."
"Never mind all this," Reuben said. "We can talk about it tomorrow. We have a lot of important things to deal with tonight. This eggnog, for example. I have to wonder why I haven’t been offered a cup so far."
Remembering himself, the old man began pouring the contents of his decanter into the punch bowl.
"One moment, son," he said. "I got distracted, but I don’t want you to miss out on having this at full strength."
"Fine," said Betty. "Tomorrow. You’re not going anywhere until we’ve had a chance to talk. Agreed?"
"Well, then," she continued, "what else can we talk about? My new girl is coming with Sergei. So this will be a chance for her to meet everyone."
"Ah, the new girl," said Reuben, "The one who knows how to shop properly. What’s her name?"
"Oh, and I forgot," Betty continued, ladling out a cup of the mixture and handing it to Reuben, "you’ve never met Sergei’s wife and daughter, have you?"
"No," Reuben said, taking a sip. "Hey, that’s good. Really good."
"Is it strong enough?" asked Keyes.
Reuben took another sip.
"Actually, it strikes me as being little weak. But maybe I’ve been living in Russia for too long."
Keyes looked at the bowl dubiously and poured in some more liquor. He then wheeled the cart towards the fireplace, where Anatoly and his wife had joined the party. Reuben and Betty followed. Introductions ensued, and the serving up of the eggnog. As the first cup was followed by the second and then, for some, the third, the conversation grew louder and merrier. It shifted from English to Russian and back, often splitting into smaller tributary conversations along the way. Olga, Maria, and Dr. Chevlenko served as interpreters for Reuben and the old man on one side of the language barrier, and Inga (Anatoly’s wife) and Niklaus (Maria’s boyfriend) on the other. Betty and Anatoly put up a brave front of participating on both sides, but didn’t try to pass themselves off as interpreters.
Inga was especially pleased to meet Reuben. She had seen him around the dacha, but they had never met. Ordinarily, Inga was the cook and housekeeper, supervising a small staff that included Anatoly and two or three maids. But different arrangements had been made for Christmas Eve.
Inga was very much a participant in the festivities, and seemed to have nothing to do with whatever was going on in the kitchen. She was a woman of about sixty, as thin as her husband and with razor-sharp eyes. She had heard some outrageous stories about Reuben — not least of which was the one about how he had paid a small fortune for a worthless dog — and she wanted to know if they were true. Reuben was happy to admit that they were. She asked if he would mind if she touched his head; she had never felt a gunshot wound before. Reuben let her do it. She placed her hand on his head and then quickly withdrew it, looking disappointed. Reuben couldn’t figure out what it was that she had expected.
Dr. Chevlenko and Olga told about their trip to Venice — Reuben finally realizing that they were married — and their planned trip to Canada. Niklaus perked up at the mention of Canada, and asked whether they would be going to the US as well. They weren’t planning on it. Niklaus explained that he worked for a company that manufactured machine parts, and there were plans to begin selling into western Europe and America as soon as the plant re-opened. He didn’t say why the plant was closed, and no one asked. In his threadbare tweed suit, which hung loosely from his narrow frame, he looked like he hadn’t seen a good meal, much less a paycheck, in quite some time.
Reuben was talking with Niklaus, through Maria, about what there was to do in Chicago — a city with which he was inexplicably fascinated — when Sergei’s family arrived. Reuben heard the door open and saw Betty dash off to greet them. Eager to see her new helper, he thought. They filed into the great hall a few minutes later and made their way towards the fireplace. Sergei’s wife was on the short side; she was blonde and plump and rosy-cheeked. Behind them walked their daughter, a girl of about 18, who was a taller and thinner version of her mother. After the girl came Betty, who was having an animated conversation with the woman who must be her new girl. She looked furtive and uncomfortable. She was wearing a familiar wool cap. Even so, it took Reuben a minute to recognize the face that had been so burned into his memory.
Betty’s new girl was Ksenia.
Later, there would be time to ask how Betty had done it, maybe even ask why she had done it, but now what towered above everything was the realization that she was there; she had come. Reuben was overwhelmed with happiness. There was a part of him that, deep down, that sternly objected to this sentimental claptrap, but he had no use for that part of himself at the moment: she was there; she had come.
Sergei greeted Reuben with a hug.
"Happy Christmas to you, my friend," he said. "What do you think of my surprise?"
"Your surprise?" Reuben said. "I figured it to be Betty’s surprise."
"Is true," he laughed. "I am only driver." Sergei introduced his wife, Marina, and his daughter, Dzheyna. Reuben acted as host, serving them eggnog and answering what questions he could about the dacha, although it quickly became apparent that Sergei knew more about the history of the place than he did. Sergei explained that converting the mansion to a medical facility was a project begun by a Brezhnev crony. The project was unfinished and lay dormant during the Andropov and Chernenko years. A friend of Gorbachev flirted with the project, but he was quickly caught up in more pressing concerns flowing out of Perestroika. It was only under Yeltsin’s privatization policies that the house had been acquired by Keyes. It was such a good fit to his purposes, it looked as though it would be finished as a hybrid: the main house would be restored as a stately residence, the wings would be repaired and finished to serve as a medical facility. Although what use, if any, that facility would be put to beyond the immediate care of the clinic’s one patient was unclear.
"But with Mr. Keyes," Sergei explained, "one can never know. He makes plans that reach very far, sometimes."
This was all truly interesting — as was Dzheyna’s lengthy exhortation on choosing a university — but Reuben could not stop glancing around for Ksenia. Betty had steered her over to Maria and Dr. Chevlenko, and she was now standing on the outskirts of a high-spirited exchange between the old man, Niklaus, and Inga. She seemed to be enjoying the spectacle, in a reserved way, but she was also glancing around: looking sometimes Reuben’s way, sometimes in other directions.
It was only a matter of time before their eyes met.
What passed between them was knowing, simple acceptance that the last words she had spoken to him — see you again — had been a promise. Somehow a promise on both their parts. And that promise was now being kept.
"Excuse me," said Reuben, leaving Sergei in mid-sentence on what subject he no longer had any idea. His eyes never left hers as he crossed the distance between them.
"Merry Christmas, Ksenia," he said.
"Happy Christmas to you, Reuben."
Betty, standing nearby, approached the two of them and started to say something. Reuben held his hand out in a halting gesture.
"In a minute, Betty," he said. "I need to show your girl the staircase now that it’s fixed."
Betty backed away. Reuben took Ksenia by the arm and guided her back through the great hall to the dacha’s entrance. Here a smaller chandelier was lit with fewer candles. A moonlit landscape of snow-covered lawn and hedge opened up before them through the new windows.
"Let’s go up one," Reuben said, and guided her up the stairs in the dim light to the second floor landing. Now standing above the chandelier, the moonlight fell on them unfiltered, and brighter than Reuben would have ever guessed was possible.
"I’m glad to see you," he said. "I didn’t know if I was going to get to see you again."
"No, Reuben," she answered softly. "You knew that you would."
"Well, sometimes there’s a thin line between hoping and knowing, and it’s hard to tell the difference."
He looked in her eyes.
"Ksenia, I’m sorry about Pasha," he said after a moment.
"We don’t talk about that now," she said. "This is not time for that."
"Well, what is it time for, then?"
She stepped back and looked at him, examining the scars on his head, looking at his shoulder for any trace of his injuries.
"First, I tell you what I tell Betty. I come and work for her only if it is all right with you. If you don’t want me here, I leave."
"I want you here," he said simply.
"Don’t say that; not if you say it from pity. You are kind man, and brave, but I do not need this job from Betty so much. I can find other job if I wish. So if it is easier for you if I am not here, you must say so. And I will go."
"I want you to take the job, Ksenia. It’s perfect. Betty and the old man will be good for you, and you’ll be good for them."
"How did Betty find you, anyway?"
"She comes with Sergei one day. They surprise me at my house. Sergei leaves her there and Betty and I talk, many hours. She is very wise lady, is Betty."
"That’s for sure."
"She says to me that she needs someone to help her, that she wants young girl like me. And that she would not ask unless she thinks I can do good job for her. I believe her, but I do not accept. Three more times she visits and then I accept."
"Yeah, she’s pretty persistent."
"She loves you, Reuben. She says that you are son to her."
"It’s true. She and the old man are about the only family I have."
"Now I tell you. I take job because Betty is good woman, and I can do good job for her. But I also take job because I want to come here to be with you."
Reuben took her hands in his.
"I’m glad," he said.
"I love you, Reuben."
The words hit him like a heavy weight slammed against his chest, taking his breath away. Charlotte. That was all. Just Charlotte.
"Ksenia," he started, "I have to tell you — "
"Is all right," she said, interrupting him. "Betty tells me everything. I know about your wife. I do not say what I say because I want you to answer."
Reuben drew her in close to him and wrapped his arms around her. It felt good to hold her. They stayed that way for a moment.
He pulled back a little so that he could look in her eyes, his hands locked together behind her waist.
"Why do you still have this on?" he asked, reaching up to remove her cap. He ran his hand through her dark hair.
"I have to tell you something," he said. "I’m leaving, tomorrow or the next day. And I don’t know when I’ll be back."
Her eyes grew wide.
"Why do you go?" she said. "When will you return?"
"It’s something I have to do for Betty. You know that she’s sick, and that the
old…that Mr. Keyes is looking for a way to make her well."
"Well, I’m doing what I can to help him. I don’t know when I’ll be back."
"Then I will wait for you."
"I don’t know. I can’t tell you when I’ll be back. And I can’t say how things will be between us when I do come back."
She turned and looked out the window for a moment, studying the moonlight on the snow.
"I will wait," she said. "You are not wise, Reuben. Not like Betty."
"No. Because wise man knows what he sees, even when he sees things long way off. And you see things long way, long time from now. Don’t you?"
Reuben thought of the shadow that had fallen over him earlier. It wasn’t really a long way off; it was close at hand. And yet it was buried deep. It was under or behind the present moment, somehow both immediate and distant.
"Sometimes," he said. "Sort of."
"This is something I can not do. But I can see it in you, da? And I know is there. Sometimes you can see that something is there and you can…what is word, not admit?"
"Yes, you can deny that you know a thing that you see. But maybe these things you see, you don’t know what are they, do you?"
Reuben thought about that.
"I’m not sure," he said. "I’m not sure that I see anything. Maybe it’s more about what I feel."
"Is strange. You see things and do not know them, is bad enough. But to feel what you feel and you do not know what is it…" her voice trailed off.
"But I know this much," he said. "I can tell you what I felt when I saw you just now. I felt like the world started over."
Ksenia smiled sadly.
"Yes, but you want to live in two worlds — old and new, yes? And now you go to do work for Mr. Keyes, and to help Betty. But also you go to choose which will be your world.
"Is difficult for you," she continued. "Difficult to see differences when everything is the same. When everything in the world is pretty.
"It has always been like this for us. From moment we first meet, and you tell me that you are American, and I tell you I am Russian—when we both know this already. When this is only thing we do know about each other. Then and now, we know what is truth between us."
"So what’s the truth?"
"If this is truth between us, you know already," she said.
"So instead I will tell you something else. I will tell you your future."
"You can do that?"
"Of course. I think you will travel long way, and you will go for long time. Much longer than you think. But I will see you again."
See you again. She had said it once before.
The promise was renewed.
"You will come back to me one day. And then, I think, we will never be apart."
"I like the sound of that," he said, "but it sounds like a fairy tale."
Instinctively, he touched his hand to the wound on his head.
"What you’ve said will happen is what should be," he continued. "It’s a promise. I can’t make that promise, or any promise."
"I see," said Ksenia. "Then before you go, I don’t ask you to make promise. I don’t even ask you to believe. But I do ask for something now, not in future."
"What is it?"
"Kiss me, as you did that day."
It was a long, long while before they made their way down to dinner.
This is how the end of the world begins.
As the elevator doors slide closed behind me, I round the corner and observe that the office is noisy for a Monday morning. The sixth floor of the WorldConneX building is a standard corporate purgatory. Vast banks of cubicles are punctuated by clusters of restrooms, cramped meeting rooms, copy machine cubbyholes, and micro-kitchenettes suffused with that burnt, cheesy odor of poorly made coffee and an over-used microwave. The carpet is gray; the cubicle upholstery is gray-brown. Disgruntled sunshine finds its way through the tinted windows only around the periphery. The main body of the sixth floor resides in the glorious flicker and incessant hum of standard, late-twentieth-century fluorescent office lighting.
This floor is home to a group called Product Engineering and Development, comprising about 150 software developers and related staff. We’re one of six or seven (depending on how you count) software development groups in the WorldConneX family. It’s not entirely clear how we relate to those other groups. The managers from each work together on cross-functional leadership teams and technology focus task groups, where they sign off on joint mission statements and agree to open up channels of communication and share resources and information in a manner reflective of the boundarylessness referred to in the WorldConneX mission statement.
Of course, they all despise each other and mainly attend such meetings out of a fear of what might be said about them in their absence.
A few, however, are more positively focused — the ones who’ve read Sun Tzu or who are otherwise predisposed to view team management programs as a chess board on which they can execute their various Machiavellian strategies. For them, such meetings provide the chance to observe their opponents’ weaknesses, to reinforce alliances with their friends, and to take such small steps as they can toward the final coup that will establish once and for all who the real software development group is.
Monday morning is usually a quiet and reflective, often downright sullen time on the sixth floor. But what I sense as I step around the corner this particular Monday morning is excitement. People are gathered in small groups around the coffee machines or in the clearings at the end rows of cubicles, talking in an animated fashion. Offhand, it looks like the interested and moderately uplifted mood of a group that has learned of someone else’s downfall.
That kind of news is always good for a Monday morning pick-me-up.
As I approach my cubicle, I encounter a gathering of members of my own workgroup, TDP: Training, Documentation, and Process. (We represent some of the aforementioned "related staff" in the PED menagerie.) My boss, Frank Childers, notices me.
"Good morning, Emmett."
"Hi, Frank. What’s going on?"
"PED has been picked for the QC Protocols. Some of us are going to participate." The others nod knowingly.
QC Protocols. Everyone seems to know what this means. How is it that I’m once again completely in the dark? I fight to suppress my long-standing suspicion that there’s an e-mail list from which I’ve been deliberately omitted. Either that, or these guys are having secret meetings and not telling me.
But at least I’ve learned my lesson. This time I don’t pretend to know what they’re talking about. Last time I did that, I ended up in the hospital for two days after getting into a (really) bad chicken fried steak in Wichita — a city I would never even have visited had I known what the ATA Conference was before agreeing to attend. It turned out it was the Association for Telecommunications in Agriculture.
They weren’t a bad bunch, but I’m pretty sure I would have passed had I known in advance.
"So what are the QC Protocols?" I ask. "Part of the QMS, right?"
Any time you see the letter Q at WorldConneX, you know it’s got to have something to do with the Quality Management System. A few years ago, they put up these posters all over the building that read Q is for Quality. They were part of a set. There were others that read T is for Teamwork and M is for Measurement, plus the big double-sized one which explained that P is for Process, Performance, and People. The posters hung around for four or five years and then just mysteriously disappeared. It’s widely believed that the QMS team finally reached some kind of critical mass of complaints about the condescending Sesame Street approach to explaining their program.
You see, they didn’t all disappear. The Q is for Quality posters are still around; it was the others that had to go. From what I hear, an executive was accidentally strolling the corridors of the lower floors of the building one day and was enraged by these signs. How could we say that T is for Teamwork when it was also his middle initial? (He was the CTO.)
T is for technology, damn it, and nobody better forget it. And P is for Product, not that other horseshit. Q? He didn’t give a damn about Q. It could still be for quality, as long as nobody bothered him with it.
And so, now and always, Q is for quality.
"I don’t think it has anything to do with the QMS," says Frank. "Apparently nobody knows what the protocols are. But Carl here was thinking maybe you would know."
"Only because you spent all that time at Corporate last month," Carl explains.
Carl Ravel is a whiny pustule of a trainer, the only member of the team whom I feel free to despise wholeheartedly. The dislike I have for my other colleagues at least carries a few reservations and qualifications, taking into account mitigating circumstances such as the (exceedingly rare) occasions when their efforts have been of some use to me or the fact that they are — a few of them, anyway — otherwise likable people whom I probably wouldn’t have minded had I met them under different circumstances. But Carl possesses that rare combination of total uselessness and utter pain-in-the-assedness.
My feelings for him are pure.
"We’ll try it again, Carl. I did not spend all that time at corporate last month. I was there for exactly one afternoon, and it was a complete waste of time."
"Yes, I can see how it would have been a waste of time. For you. Wasn’t that meeting intended for trainers?"
That’s an attempted barb.
Carl is part of the Training Team, but he doesn’t do technical. He specializes in what he calls "the human side," which means all the rah-rah-go-team and contemplate-your-navel type stuff. One of his workshops is called "Be It. Believe It. Walk the Talk." I took this one myself, fulfilling a training requirement, and learned the actual meaning not only of boundarylessness, but also delight the customer (which I was picturing very differently) and nurture long-term shareholder value. You think you have a good idea of how repellent a day spent listening to lobotomized corporate blather is going to be, but then they go and throw words like delight and nurture in there, giving the whole thing a creepy undertone that you never could have anticipated.
Anyway, last month Carl was booked solid giving his "Agents of Change" workshop right when the Head Office down at Glen Meadow called for an emergency Diversity Seminar. Nobody was clear on what events had led to the diversity emergency, or even what exactly a diversity emergency was, but it isn’t for us in the divisions to ask such questions. When called upon by Corporate, we jump first and say 'how high' afterwards. You get the idea. Every training group in the company was required to send a representative, and I was the only person with a fairly clear calendar that week.
So Frank sent me.
I’m the first to admit that I’m no trainer (I have a little self-respect), but I am part of a training group. Now that was good enough for Frank, and it was good enough for the Head Office, but no way will it ever be good enough for Carl. There I was soaking up all that rich diversity knowledge and making all those wonderful intra-company connections, not to mention eating the excellent Danish rolls and chocolate chip cookies that the increasingly rotund Glen Meadow staff munch on every morning and afternoon…and it should have been him, damn it.
It should have been him.
Actually, I never did soak up any diversity knowledge. There must have been a mix-up of memos or something, because the meeting turned out not to be diversity crisis management, but rather how to present the 401K plan next year. As I don’t ever actually do that — present the 401K plan, that is — and as I am long since resigned to grudging participation in, with no real true understanding of, the 401K plan, I found that (cookies and Danish notwithstanding) my one and only visit to corporate HQ was even more a waste of time than I thought it would be.
And that is saying something, folks.
I decide to take the high road on Carl’s baiting. Ordinarily, there’s nothing that shakes off those weekend cobwebs like a good Monday morning pissing match. But I want to get to the bottom of this thing.
"No, the QC Protocols never came up."
I turn to Theresa Sandoval, a technical trainer who happens to be friends with some of the administrative assistants up in the executive suite on the 22nd floor. (She used to be one of them, before being "promoted" to PED.) Because of her connections, she’s a steady source of gossip. And a fairly reliable one, at that.
"What have you heard, Theresa?"
"It’s a test, that’s all I know for sure. They show you two boxes and ask you to pick one or the other."
"That much we all know," says Frank, giving me credit for knowing things that I don’t, "but what’s inside the boxes?"
"What I heard," says Lisa, another technical writer, "is that there’s a promotion in one, and a pink slip in the other."
"Oh, bullshit," says Frank. "No way. Think of the lawsuits."
"Yeah," Theresa agrees, "they like toying with us, but never that blatantly." She laughs. "That sounds like Catbert, Evil HR Director."
Carl clears his throat. The awkward silence is palpable.
Ha. What a coincidence. Speaking of diversity crises.
Theresa has apparently forgotten that in the latest round of Diversity Training, we were warned against engaging in the kind of "gross professional stereotyping" found in "a certain comic strip." So now Carl, who of course has not forgotten, would like to call Theresa on her inappropriate behavior, but he’s not sure he wants to say anything to her because she’s Hispanic and he’s a white guy.
There’s been a good deal of covert speculation on the team as to Carl’s sexual orientation. I’ve never had much of an opinion on the matter, mainly because his personal life is a subject about which I have zero interest. But just as a matter of intellectual curiosity, I think Carl’s quandary supports the not-gay thesis. A gay guy would have no qualms about taking a stand, here. I mean, surely gay trumps Hispanic. But no one can say for sure, since a clearly delineated PC-sensitivity ranking is exactly the kind of useful information they don’t give you in Diversity Training.
"All I know is what I hear," Lisa continues, ending the mini crisis without even realizing it had occurred. She pauses for a dramatic sip from her decaf. (Lisa also has admin connections, but with a much lower hit rate than Theresa.) "And what I heard is that a bunch, not just one or two but a bunch of people who’ve done this thing are gone now. Now you tell me. If it isn’t pink slips, what is it?"
Jeff Simpson, the quiet older guy who usually sits these things out, clears his throat. All eyes turn to him.
"It’s layoffs," he says.
Everyone listens to Jeff when he uses the L word. He’s been with the company more than 20 years. Most of us were working here when WestConnect became WorldConneX, but he can even remember the days before divestiture, when WestConnect was called Bell West. He’s seen his share of layoffs and survived them all.
"What have you heard?" asks Frank.
Jeff shakes his head.
"I haven’t heard anything. But I can feel it."
"Feel it?" says Carl. "You’re saying that you can feel it when we have lay-- uh, restructuring?" Carl manages to catch himself in time. We’re never ever ever supposed to use the L word. Even if it weren’t verboten, most people are superstitious about it. Come to think of it, Lisa’s reference to "pink slips" was also out of bounds. That’s one of the problems working for a company like WorlConneX. It’s hard to keep track of everything you’re not allowed to say.
Jeff nods solemnly.
"In my knee," he says.
Nobody laughs at this. You’ve got to respect Jeff’s knees. He used to climb telephone poles with them.
"Well, then, what about the boxes?" Theresa asks. "Who ever heard of a layoff where you have to choose a box? What is this, Let’s Make a Deal?"
"I don’t know anything about boxes," he says.
Apparently none of his joints are tuned to that frequency.
Frank looks at his watch.
"Well, I guess we can stand here and yack or we can all go try to get some work done."
"But what about these QC Protocols?" I ask.
"What about them?" says Frank. He turns and heads off to his office. The rest of the group disperses, leaving me standing there to reflect: you may never be sure what you’re allowed to say at WorldConneX, but it’s almost always safe to answer a question with another question.
Later, the buzz has died down a little and I’m sitting in my cube working on about a three week backlog of timesheets. This is a tricky maneuver, inasmuch as a large piece of my time (sometimes 40% or more) is spent on non-project-related work — filling out timesheets, writing status reports (except for project-specific status reports, which of course may be billed to projects), standing around drinking coffee and speculating about what everybody is standing around drinking coffee and speculating about, and (of course) surfing the Web and sending out personal e-mails — but this presents a huge stumbling block in that no more than 10% of my time can be billed to these administrative or overhead activities.
Getting administrative time down to "between 5% and 10%" is a departmental target. If we achieve this target, we’re that much closer to getting our full departmental bonus, or "bonus opportunity" as the Glen Meadow folks like to say. So in fact, while the target is from 5%-10%, the pressure is on to keep admin time around 5% or less of total work time recorded.
Not a problem, really. All I have to do is bill the time spent on overhead activities to various legitimate projects. The trouble with doing that is that each project has a Project Manager who has an allotted budget and who has a target of keeping hours billed to his or her project to a minimum. So they keep a close eye on who is billing hours against their projects, and how many hours are being billed.
Naturally, I only bill to projects I am actually working on. To do otherwise would be to invite chaos. If I were caught billing time to a project that I’m not assigned to, I would have to
Worse yet, if I bill to a non-assigned project, the project manager might decided that I work for him or her and start assigning me work. I certainly don’t need any more of that.
So in the end, filling out these timesheets becomes a delicate balancing act of discretely adding fifteen minutes here and an hour there to work I actually performed until the whole thing adds up to 40 hours with not more than 10% of that time (preferably less than 5%) billed as overhead.
Oh, add to all that one more complication. I usually only get around to filling out my timesheets about once every two months or so. A three week backlog is a fairly light one by my standards, but even so — imagine trying to reconstruct your precise day the Tuesday before the Tuesday before last with an eye to subtly but thoroughly covering over most of the wasted time, whether that wasted time was the result of your own (lack of) volition or whether it was forced upon you by organizational mandate.
It’s a creative process.
I’m about halfway through two weeks ago when I hear a loud "knock knock" and I turn to see who it is. Of course, when I say I hear a loud "knock knock," I don’t mean to imply that anyone is actually knocking on anything, or that my cubicle has a door or other suitable surface for knocking on. No, an attempt to knock on my or any other cubicle would result in a plastic, upholstered, shuddery sound that would best be rendered as "thwop" or some other equally Dr. Seussian sound effect.
When I say that I hear a loud "knock knock," I mean that someone is standing at the entrance to my cubicle and literally saying the words "knock knock." This is a partly cutesy way we have of dealing with the fact that we work in a sometimes all-too boundaryless environment. There is something so perfectly absurd about standing at an open entrance that we all know really ought to be a door and vocally pronouncing the sounds that the correct introduction of our presence should produce, that it seems a friendly and lightly humorous thing to do, rather than the disturbing, pathological shriek for help from the deep recesses of the soul that it actually must be.
So I hear this "knock knock" and turn around to find my immediate supervisor, Frank, standing at the entrance to my cubicle.
"Mr. Childers," I say in greeting, gesturing towards the guest chair. See I called him Mr. even though we’re on a first-name basis pretty funny huh.
"Hey, Emmett," he says taking a seat. "How is everything coming along?"
A question like this, plus a conscientious collecting — even if never accompanied by any actual reading — of my status reports is what passes for hands-on management in our group. Not that I’m complaining. I’ve had lots worse bosses than Frank. He used to be a tech writer himself (in one of the competing groups), so at least he knows what we do. Or anyway he used to. Plus, he’s a pretty regular guy. The kind of guy you can go out and have a couple of drinks with and always time your punchlines precisely so he’ll end up blowing beer out his nose. He never catches on to the timing, but he does get the jokes.
I’m not sure, but that combination could make him the perfect WorldConneX manager.
"Everything is coming along fine," I sigh. This is the only acceptable answer. Anything too positive would arouse immediate suspicion. Anything too negative would indicate a problem that Frank would have to do something about, and that would mean work, which he doesn’t want. But a resigned "everything is fine" is just about perfect.
"Good. Have you finished cleaning up the product spec for Tweety Bird?"
This is alarming…a detailed question that references not only a project but my deliverable by name. It cannot be a good sign.
"Well, that was actually due by close of business on Friday, but I’m still waiting for answers to some of my queries."
"How many queries?"
Definitely not good.
"Ah, well, actually…all of them. There are 39 all together, but most of them are pretty small. Anyway, I can show that I’ve been sending out daily follow-up e-mails. I called Gloria on Thursday and she promised me that I’d have everything by the middle part of this week."
"That’s fine," says Frank. He makes a note on the little clipboard I have just noticed he’s holding. I don’t believe this. He’s taking notes.
"I assume," he continues, "that you have renegotiated the delivery dates with Gloria?"
"Yeah, of course. I mean, not formally or anything, but she knows I can’t get the document finished until her people get back to me."
Frank drops the clipboard on his lap and lets out a loud sigh. I can’t believe it. He’s annoyed about this.
"Frank. Buddy. Don’t worry; we won’t take a hit on this. I’ll have the due dates changed by the end of the month. Nothing will go out showing that we missed a delivery date, because we didn’t."
He sits back, arms folded, and studies the ceiling for a moment.
"Yeah," he says, looking back at me. "I know you would. I just wished you’d done it sooner."
"Well, sorry I didn’t," I answer. "But what’s this all about?"
"It’s the experiment, Emmett. The QC Protocols."
"Yeah?" The hair on the back of my neck begins to rise.
"Yeah. Sheila called us all over and said that our group was picked." Our group, in this instance is System Development and Support (SDS), one of three segments within PED. Frank’s group, TDP, is one of the workgroups within SDS. "Buddy, Raku, Melinda, and I — " these are all the workgroup managers in SDS — "were all there. Sheila told us we each have to pick one person."
"I’m sorry, Emmett. I wish there was another way. You see, everybody else is tied up in mission critical stuff. And you are the junior member of the group…"
"Wait a minute," I cut in. "Hold it. So you’re telling me I’ve been picked. Okay. That’s okay. I think it’s a bad choice on your part, but okay. But what’s the big deal, here? You’re trying to cover my projects? How long does this thing take?"
I’m in free fall. I never saw this coming.
"It...it’s not like that, okay? It’s not about how long it takes. The point is…you’ll be leaving the group."
"I’m sorry, Emmett. You, uh, need to sort everything into piles. Your own stuff in one pile; company stuff in the other. Security will come by in a while to box it up for you."
I’m staring at the man in complete disbelief. The words are getting through, but they just don’t register. Sure, people get laid off. It happens all the time. But what the hell is going on here? QC Protocols? I make a desperate lunge at reality.
"Frank, if this is a joke or a prank or something, it isn’t funny. Who do you think you’re fooling? I’ve seen people laid off and I’ve seen people quit and I’ve seen people get fired. Everybody boxes up their own stuff, with security standing by. I’ve never seen security box up anybody’s stuff."
Frank stands up.
"I, know, Emmett. This is different. You aren’t being fired or anything. You’ve just been picked for this thing. Security will be by to box up your stuff, but you’ll already be gone."
I can’t think of anything to say.
"They’ll be coming for you in about ten minutes. I hope that gives you time to get your stuff piled up. Oh, and be sure to use sticky notes to say which pile is which."
He sets the marker down and reaches out his hand towards me.
"It’s been a pleasure working with you, Emmett. We’re all going to miss you."
I stare at his hand for a moment, then give it a limp shake.
"Frank." It’s all I can manage.
He turns to leave, then stops and turns back to face me.
"One more thing. Don’t leave your cubical until they come for you. And don’t talk to anybody."
And then he’s gone.
A long moment passes. I turn to start stacking up my stuff. I’m numb. I’m trying to think of what it all means. And then it hits me. I turn back to the empty doorway and say loudly (to no one)
"Hey! What are you saying? My stuff’s not mission critical?"
Two boxes, roughly the size and shape of cigar boxes, sit on the desk. The one on the right is dark gray. The one on the left is slightly less dark gray. The lighter one is labeled with a big black A; the darker one with a big black B. Both are sealed shut with a red seal.
Dr. Bryce has been talking for the past few minutes. He sits behind the desk, looking at his notes as he talks. He looks up for the occasional obligatory eye contact, but you can tell that his heart isn’t really in it. He started out explaining about risk management and actuarial tables and life insurance and stuff. I was following him pretty closely up to a point, but now he’s lost me. It’s all about how everybody spent years working on something called "cubits" or "Q-bits" or something and this other gizmo that I believe he said was called a "C-note," but what they should have been working on all along was the "cue-gate" (or possibly "Q-Gate.")
To make an incomprehensible story short, somebody managed to build one of these cue-gates last year and it sounds like things have really taken off from there.
Dr. Bryce is a big, bearded guy with white hair. I was expecting little and bald with enormous glasses and a white lab coat, but no — he’s wearing a blue plaid flannel shirt and Dockers. Business Casual takes the day.
"And with this foundation, the correct foundation, firmly in place," he continues, "the next step was inevitable. The world’s first true quantum computer was conceived and created at WorldConneX Labs. Here, in this building,."
I look around. That’s right, this is Labs. I had almost forgotten.
WorldConneX Laboratories is the research and development arm of the company. Of the six or seven (depending on how you count) software development groups within the company, two or three of them (again, based on how you count) are located here at Labs. Alternately the Country Club or the Ivory Tower depending on which disgruntled faction within the old guard of the company (i.e., the rest of us losers) you talk to, Labs occupies its own campus of buildings way out on the edge of town.
Labs is where it’s at; where things are happening. They get all the juicy projects and all the pretty girls. Witness Peggy, as I have nicknamed her, the lady sitting to my right. Her real name is Margaret Branch, and her no-shit, I-couldn’t-make-this- stuff-up-if-I-wanted-to job title is Vice President of Special Projects. She’s blonde, and a little on the slight side for my tastes, but she has fine features and a face that could have landed her on the cover of Vogue had she not opted for that MBA.
Peggy has been with me this entire morning. It was she who arrived, along with some little weasely guy who was never introduced, to escort me out of the building. She was there in the car for the ride over, and she was here with me as we waited for Dr. Bryce to finish his prior appointment. Through it all, she has treated me with kindness coupled with a certain crisp detachment. The School Nurse, as it were. I’m not sure if it’s this detachment, or her looks, or her scent (she smells wonderful) or her inaccessibility (a vice president, for crying out loud) or some wonderful mixture of all these elements, coupled with the utter absurdity of this situation, but whatever it is, I’m developing something of a crush.
Even though I’ve never visited Labs, I hear about it all the time. Carl is always coming over here delivering his training. To hear him tell it, he’s made some friends among the Labs inner circle and, at last report, is certain to be offered a position here after the traditional "scorched earth" period in August. It occurs to me that by being here, I have once again treaded upon Carl’s territory. Not as serious as infraction as all that time I spent at corporate last month, but an infraction nonetheless.
But that’s okay: I don’t think Carl would have had the proper appreciation of Peggy. And, at any rate, my new-found love interest notwithstanding, I wish Carl were here in my place right now. I really do.
"The potential applications for the quantum computer are many and varied," Bryce drones on. "For example, it has been suggested that such a device will be instrumental in proving the existence or non-existence of parallel universes. However, we were immediately intrigued by the predictive power that such a machine might provide. And it is that power which we have sought to exploit."
Wait a second. I seem to have faded back in just in time for the interesting stuff. Parallel universes. Predictive power.
"Predictive power." I repeat. "Predicting what?"
"Outcomes," Peggy answers, turning towards me. She seems not the least bit impatient with Bryce’s meander. I can only guess how many times she’s sat through it.
"Well, sure. That makes sense. But it doesn’t tell me anything. I mean, what else could you predict besides outcomes?"
"The point is," says Bryce, "that there are many different kinds of phenomena to which we might try to apply predictive computational capabilities. But all of these have to be defined as outcomes in their own right in order for the technology to be applicable."
I ponder that one for a moment. It doesn’t sound like he’s answered my question; it just sounds like he added the words "in their own right."
"So if I want to make a prediction about which horse is going to win at the racetrack tomorrow, am I trying to predict an outcome?"
Peggy thinks about this, but Bryce’s response is immediate.
"Well that depends, you see, on whether the end you are looking at is an outcome."
I detect no trace of humor whatsoever. From either of them. But it’s pretty clear to me that either this guy is talking in circles, or I’m hearing in circles.
"Well, that’s my question." I persist. "Would the result of a given race be an ‘outcome’ by your definition?
"No, no, you don’t understand. At the quantum level, it is not a question of whether a given result is an outcome. Every result is an outcome. The question is are you looking for an outcome? A particular outcome."
Now some people might find this kind of thing frustrating. But as a technical writer who’s spent the better part of his adult life working with software engineers, I’m used to it. Questions asked and questions answered only synch up in the vaguest, most uncomfortable, most non-informative way.
But no matter; somehow, you find a way to plod on.
I look to Peggy for support. She senses my bewilderment.
"Look, Emmett, all we’re saying is that using the quantum computer to predict an outcome has to do mainly with how you phrase the question. In computer terms."
"It’s a huge task," she continues. "In developing the programming language for the quantum computer, Dr. Bryce and his team have had to re-work two hundred years of math theory. Just figuring out how to construct the questions. If you don’t phrase the question exactly right, the quantum computer doesn’t work."
"So how do you phrase the questions?"
"That’s what we’re still working on," Peggy says. "We have the basic structure for making predictions, but we’re still nailing down the grammar. Some we can make, some we can’t."
"As you will see," says Bryce, "we’ve had some tremendously encouraging results from the MITE project."
"What’s the MITE project?" I ask.
"It’s the Mixed Incentive Test Exercise," Peggy answers. "What you’ve probably heard referred to as the ‘QC Protocols.’ It’s the reason you’re here today."
"Aha, the MITE Project," I say. "I get it — as in trying to predict what mite happen."
"Precisely," says Bryce.
I don’t add that I think it’s a lame and stupid name, needlessly jamming the words test and exercise together, when probably only one of them is needed. For all their scientific prowess, the guys at Labs are apparently no better at naming their projects than the bozos I work with downtown.
Worked with, I mean. Past tense.
"So what exactly is the connection between the quantum computer and the boxes?" I ask.
"Ah," says Peggy. "The fundamental question. Dr. Bryce?"
"Yes, well. The quantum computer is specially equipped with a printer and other equipment so that it’s able to output sealed envelopes containing official company documents. For each person participating in the test, the computer outputs two envelopes, one to go in each of the two boxes. For all participants, the computer outputs a $5,000 bonus check which is then put in box A."
Peggy reaches across the desk and picks up box A. Using a letter opener, she deftly breaks the seal on the box and produces a cream-colored envelope from inside. I am overwhelmed by a familiar sense of foreboding and deep mistrust.
What’s going on?
Bonus, my ass.
She continues with the letter opener, and quickly makes a perfect cut along the top of the sealed envelope. She reaches into the slit and—hey, wait a minute.
"Hey, wait a minute," I protest. "If you show me what’s in there, aren’t you blowing the whole thing?"
Peggy pauses, her hand inside the envelope. Her right eyebrow comes up, and she flashes me an inquisitive, if slightly impatient expression. She really is quite beautiful. But I have to remember that, crush or no crush, she is a part of all this, and I don’t trust any of this. Besides, I’ve always hated people who can do that one-eyebrow thing.
"What do you mean?" she asks, her hand still frozen in place.
"Well I assumed…"
Oh great: equals ass + you + me. Never ever ever ever use that word if you work for a big company. How they delight in shoving it back down your throat.
"What?" they both say together.
Now I’m pretty embarrassed. Oh, well. I have to push on.
"I figured that there would be something good in one box and something bad in the other and you were trying to predict which one I would pick."
"You weren’t listening," says Peggy. "Dr. Bryce just said that a bonus check for $5,000 gets put in Box A for everybody. And here it is." She produces a slip of paper from the envelope, which she hands to me. It’s a company check, made out to me, in the amount of $5,000.
Okay, now I’m really scared.
I'm holding a check made out to me in the amount of $5,000. Basically, it looks right. It looks like a regular WorldConneX check, like the paycheck I used to get every two weeks before I switched over to direct deposit. But there's something wrong. The thing is too simple. It should be attached to a larger sheet explaining all the deductions. And five grand, even?
A WorldConneX check for $5,000 shoul read something like $3716.59. I've never seen so many zeroes. It looks so clean. This thing must be fakea prop like those huge checks they photograph the sweepstakes winners holding. So the trick here is to make me think I'm getting five thousand dollars, when in fact I'm not.
Cruel, but interesting.
"All right," I say, handing the check back to Peggy. "So what’s in Box B? And what am I supposed to do?"
"Let’s try a little test, Emmett."
Peggy puts the check back into the envelope and, reinserting it into the box, puts the box back into its original place on the desk. "Tell me what you make of this statement: all company vice presidents are liars."
She looks at me expectantly, as though I’m supposed to grasp the hidden meaning at any moment. But what hidden meaning could there possibly be in that statement? I do admire her for having the honesty to come right and say it. It certainly tends to back up the notion that the check is a fake.
"Don’t you see a problem with that statement?" she asks.
"Ah, well…" What are we going for now? "I guess it’s a little self-incriminating."
"Right," she sighs.
It’s clear she doesn’t care for my answer. But it beats me what I’m supposed to say.
"Maybe that one hits a little too close to home," she says after a minute. "Let’s try it this way. What would you think if Dr. Bryce said the same thing about scientists?"
"Well, I guess that would surprise me a little."
I clear my throat.
"Because we expect scientists to be truthful and objective. Right? So it would be kind of surprising. But I would understand what he meant. I suppose all people are liars when you get right down to it. You know, to a certain extent."
"No. No." Peggy stops and thinks for a moment. She turns to Dr. Bryce, who looks puzzled.
"No," she says again. "We aren’t talking about anything to an extent. What I mean is, what if Dr. Bryce told you that all scientists are liars; that they tell nothing but lies; that everything they say is a lie."
She is clearly losing her patience with my inability to pick up the thread.
"Okay. I would have to say, again, that I would be very surprised."
"For the reasons I stated."
"So you would believe him?"
"Well, yeah. Why wouldn’t I?"
"Because he just told you that scientists never ever tell the truth!" She has this wild, triumphant expression on her face. This woman is clearly insane. Which I kind of like.
Question: Why am I always attracted to terrifying women?
Answer: Actually, you are always attracted to competent women, women of true achievement. And because you are yourself so mediocre both in your abilities and your accomplishments, and so utterly lacking in self-esteem, you naturally find such women terrifying.
Question: Well, in that case, why don’t I—
No. No time for that. Okay, now I’m seeing the problem. If he says scientists are all liars, it must be a lie. He’s a scientist. I allow a gratuitous expression of realization to come over my face.
"You see the problem now?" She looks a little less manic now, but still. This woman is way too into this.
"Yes. I get it. He must be lying."
Dr. Bryce coughs nervously. Peggy’s eyebrow goes up again, much higher than before.
"Are you sure?"
"Ah, yes. Yes I am." No, not really too sure at all.
"Well, if he’s right, and all scientists really are liars, meaning they never tell the truth, then he’s lying right now."
Dr. Bryce chuckles.
"True, but I think you missed one thing. You said if I’m right, then all scientists are liars. If we’re all liars, then I must be lying. So if I’m right, I’m lying. In other words, if what I’m saying is true, then what I’m saying is a lie."
"Well, granted, that doesn’t make much sense," I admit.
"Now let’s suppose that I’m not right," Bryce continues. "In that event—"
"Hold it," says Peggy. She picks up a yellow post-it notepad from the desk and writes something on it. Then she hands the pad to me. It reads: This sentence is false.
"True or false?" she demands.
I study the sentence for a moment, and I get it.
"I see, now," I say, sitting back in my chair. "If it’s true, it’s false. If it’s false, it’s true. Just like you were saying." I gesture at Bryce. "It’s actually neither true nor false. It’s just nonsense."
"Not nonsense," says Peggy. "Paradoxical. What you have encountered is a paradox of self-reference. Such paradoxes are important to us, because the programming language we use in the quantum computer is self-referentially paradoxical."
"So what does all this have to do with box B?"
"Box B is where the central paradox of the MITE project lies," says Bryce
Peggy takes the ball.
"As I said, we have placed a bonus check for $5,000 in Box A. We have opened the box; you have seen the money. Box B we will not open until you have made a certain decision. In Box B, the computer has placed either a 24-month separation package, or nothing at all, depending on a profile that it has run on you."
A bonus in one box, a separation package in the other.
Lisa was right. Not to mention Jeff's knee.
"This profile," Peggy continues, "is based on observations of your work performance and other data, and has proved useful in predicting employee behaviors in certain situations. You have the choice of choosing either box B alone, or both boxes A and B. If the computer profile predicted that you would pick Box B alone, the computer placed the separation package in the box. If, however, the profile predicted that you would choose both A and B, the computer put nothing in Box B. So far, we have run this profile on a large cross-section of employees and have only proven to be wrong one out of a thousand times. So virtually every employee who picked both boxes has received the $5,000 bonus; while every employee who has picked box B alone has received the 24-month separation package."
"So everybody goes for Box B alone?"
Peggy beams me a flawless smile. "Yes, pretty much."
A 24-month separation package. The very idea. Two full years of salary, and you don’t have to work at WorldConneX any more.
I’ve been through three reorgs: 1994, first quarter 2001, third quarter 2001. In all three, the one and only topic of conversation around the coffee machines and clearings at the end of the cubicle rows for weeks at a time was, "What kind of package do you think they’ll give us?"
Actually, that’s a bit of an oversimplification. There was a little more to it than that. The conversations you heard around the sixth floor actually went something like this:
"Did you hear about Dave?"
"Yes, what a shock."
"He’s been here longer than anyone else in the group."
"I know. How are they deciding this?"
"I have no idea. It’s scary."
"Did you hear what kind of package he got?"
"No, did you?"
Then there would be a long pause, eventually followed by
"What kind of package do you think they’ll give us?"
For any of the layoffs, there were a few highly skilled technical people who were given three or four months. But these were the real Brain Trust types, the ones the company ended up re-hiring as contractors a few weeks later at about a 50% pay increase. And maybe there were one or two really senior suits that got hung out to dry who were offered five or six months. But nobody ever went as high as 10, as far as I ever knew. And 24 months? It was a pipe dream.
And yet here I have it looking me right in the face. Box A contains $5,000, which sounds pretty nice. But Box B has so much more. Two years of pay, plus a free ticket out of this joint, meaning not having to go through the next reorg. Which everyone acknowledges is way overdue.
So this day—which got off to such an iffy start, has now led me to the best offer I have ever been given in my entire career. How strange and wonderful. If I had a little more time and emotional energy, I would give a thought to how sad it is that the best offer I have ever been given involves being laid off. But there’s no time for that.
"So let me see if I’ve got this straight. The quantum computer knows what I’m going to pick. And the separation offer is in Box B only if I’m going to open Box B alone. If I’m going to open both boxes, Box B is empty."
"That’s right," says Peggy. "Would you like a few minutes in which to consider your decision?"
"In a minute. First let me ask you something. What about lifers and people who love their jobs? Can they pick just Box A and take the bonus?"
"No," Bryce answers. "Choosing Box A alone is not within the parameters of the test."
"You want to keep in mind that we are applying this test to a very specific profile," adds Peggy. "It’s possible that people you would call ‘lifers’ are not part of that profile. I’m not saying that’s the case; I’m just saying it’s possible. In any event, anyone who wants to keep their job has a simple choice: they pick both boxes and, inevitably, there is no separation package in Box B."
"And nobody has sued you over this, Peggy?"
The eyebrow again.
"Thank you for reminding me." She reaches into her black leather briefcase on the floor and produces a manila folder. She opens the folder and passes me the top document. It is several pages stapled together.
"You will need to sign this," she says. "It simply states that you understand that you have been laid off and offered the opportunity to participate in the MITE program. By signing, you acknowledge that the terms and conditions of the MITE program are in complete compliance with your original employment contract, which I can assure you they are."
"But I thought I was only laid off if I get the separation package."
"If you choose both boxes and box B is empty, you will have a month with the company during which you can apply for any internally available position. If you don't find anything, you're gone."
"And I won't find anything, will I?"
"I'm not the Quantum Computer, Emmett. I can't predict the future."
"So it doesn't really matter what I do. But if I sign this, it makes it hard for me to sue later."
"Yes it does. Suing WorldConneX is usually not a good idea, anyway, Emmett." This is a threat, but one delivered with empathy and understanding. It says something about WorldConneX that this woman who's turned my life into some bizzare party game is probably the most humane and compassionate member of senior management I've ever met.
"So I hear. What if I refuse to sign, Peggy?"
"You may call me Margaret."
Remember, Emmett? Some things we say, some things we only think.
"I’m sorry, Margaret. What if I refuse to sign?"
"Of course, participation is strictly optional. As I said, you have already been laid off. This file contains the details of that decision, including a standard separation package."
"Which probably isn’t any 24 months."
There’s that smile again.
I’m sitting at a table in a conference room, with a cup of coffee, a notepad, and a pen. I’ve been given a half hour to think over my decision.
I like these conference rooms at Labs. The chair backs are a little higher than what we get downtown.; the cushions are a little cushier.
Even the coffee is good. Peggy told me that every other floor actually has an espresso machine, but we were on the wrong floor. It wouldn’t occur to them that to somebody from the downtown office, taking an elevator ride or climbing some stairs in order to get a cappuccino would be well worth it. We do that anyway: six floors down to the lobby, out the door, down the street to Seventeenth, turn right, two more blocks to Starbuck’s. A jaunt down one floor wouldn’t even register as a trip.
There’s a knock at the door. I glance at my watch to verify that my half hour isn’t up yet.
Nope. I’ve only been in here for about 10 minutes.
I rise to answer the door, but it opens before I can. In steps a guy who I think I’ve seen before. But I can’t quite place him.
"Hi, Emmett," he says, taking a seat across the table from me. He’s got a big smile on his big jowly face. I know I’ve seen him somewhere.
"Hi," I say, and study him for the obligatory two seconds. "I’m sorry, but have we met?"
"Hard to say."
"So," I continue, "are you with the MITE project?"
"I have a sort of loose affiliation with it."
"Well, you seem to have the advantage, here. I’m Emmett Hamilton."
He shakes my hand, his big grin still in place. He has one of those almost-too-firm handshakes — the kind I guess they teach in MBA school.
"You can call me Rick. We don’t have much time here, Emmett, and we need to get right down to work."
"Yeah. Work?" I’m not being quite as articulate as I would like. I return to my seat and take a sip from my coffee.
"Yes, work. I need to walk you through your options on this Two-Box Experiment before you give your answer to Peggy."
I make a mental note:
"Wait a second. I don’t see how you guys can send somebody into a room to think over a decision, and then send somebody else in there to tell him how he’s supposed to decide."
He just sort of shrugs.
"Hey, I’m not going to tell you how to decide. You pick. I just want to make sure you understand what the different options imply."
"Why?" I spit the word out as a challenge.
"You want to make the most informed and intelligent decision you can, don’t you?"
"I want the 24-month package."
"Of course you do. Therefore you will do what?"
"I’ll choose Box B alone."
"If I do that, it means that the computer predicted that I would. Which means that I’ll get the 24-month package." I sense there’s something wrong with this line of reasoning even as I form the words.
"So whatever you do, that’s what the computer predicted you would do?"
"That’s how it looks to me." No, wait…
"So you really have no choice at all."
"What?" I glare at him. "Of course I have a choice. I can choose B alone or A & B. And whichever I choose, that’s what the computer predicted."
"Let me ask you a question, Emmett. Do you think there’s a separation package in Box B, or do you think it’s empty?"
"I think it’s in there." Nobody is going to shake me from that. No way.
"So then what happens if you pick A and B?"
"Well, then…I get both."
That’s right, isn’t it? If they’re both in there, and I pick both, then I get both.
"But wait." I scratch my head. I scratch my arm. Why do I itch all of a sudden? "If they’re both in there, and I pick both, that means the computer made an incorrect prediction. Peggy said if you pick both, you only get A."
"Well, how can that be? Peggy said the computer has only been wrong once out of a thousand times."
"So? Maybe that record is about to become twice out of a thousand and one." Rick isn’t smiling any more. He looks very serious. Grim, even.
"I mean, really. Wouldn’t you rather get the package plus the $5,000 than just the package on its own?"
So here is the actual test. At long last. Now I understand.
They’re trying to see how greedy I am. Of course.
I can pass this, no problem.
"No, no," I say very slowly and deliberately. "The package alone will be fine. I don’t want anything more than just the package."
The smile returns: well, a milder version of the original. "Relax. Nobody is testing you to see how greedy you are. And I’m not trying to talk you out of anything."
How does he do that?
Are you a mind reader, Rick? Hello? Hello? Are you picking up on the fact that I think you’re an enormous asshole?
I must not allow myself to be distracted. I want that 24-month package, damn it.
"All I’m doing is trying to help you understand what your choice means. If you want to pick Box B, that’s fine. Picking Box B alone means one of two things."
Rick stands up and turns around to the whiteboard. He finds a working black marker and writes DESTINY on the board.
"Do you believe in Destiny, Emmett? Maybe you pick Box B because you sense that you are destined to do so. Picking it proves that your sense of destiny is correct, so it becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. More importantly, receiving the two-year package proves that the computer accurately predicted your behavior. You really don’t have a choice, although you seem to. The handwriting is on the wall."
He underlines the word DESTINY.
"Is that the way it works?" he asks.
"Beats me. What’s the other choice?"
"Fair enough," he says. Next to the word DESTINY, he writes OUTCOME MECHANICS. He underlines this phrase and turns around to face me. He gives me this look like I’m supposed to say something.
"I’m not familiar with that term," I tell him. "Is it something like quantum mechanics?"
"Very good, Emmett. The quantum view of reality allows you to assume the role of the manager of the outcome. Since no one knows what the computer predicted, the contents of Box B are a mystery similar to the contents of the black box in the story of Shrödinger’s cat. Are you familiar with Shrödinger’s cat?"
"I’ve heard of it."
"Explain it to me."
Luckily, I know this stuff. I have cable.
"A guy puts a cat in a box. Somehow he’s rigged the box so that there’s a fifty-fifty chance that the cat’s dead. I can’t remember how, but it’s a Wile Coyote setup with a piece of radioactive material, a Geiger counter, and a cyanide pill. Anyhow, looking at the box from the outside, you have no way of knowing whether the cat is alive or dead."
"And what? That’s all I know about it."
"But is the cat dead or alive?"
"You can’t know that until you look."
Wait. There’s more. I’m remembering what I read about this thing. Or, okay, what I saw on the Discovery Channel about it.
"Oh. I take that back. Actually, the cat isn’t dead or alive until you look. That’s right. It is only one or the other when you observe its state. Until then, it’s neither."
"Neither and both. As the physicists say, the wave function has not been collapsed"
"And do you accept that as an accurate description of the way the physical universe operates?"
"That’s hard to say. I guess if the physicists say it’s true, it is. On the other hand, somebody was just telling me that all scientists are liars."
I sit back in my chair for a moment to ponder this.
"So what you’re saying is that my 24-month separation package both is and is not inside the box. And when I look, that will determine whether the quantum computer placed it in there."
"So then how does the computer predict what I’m going to do?"
"Maybe in saying that the computer ‘predicts’ behavior, all we’re saying is that it has somehow managed to establish conditional quantum responses. If you pick Box B alone, the wave function collapses one way. If you pick A and B, it collapses the other way."
"What do you mean ‘maybe’? Don’t you know how the thing works?"
"No. Not entirely. To tell you the truth, I don’t think anybody does."
That strikes me as odd.
"Wait. Not even Bryce understands it?"
"Don’t make me laugh, Emmett."
I think about all this for a moment.
"So by outcome mechanics, you mean that I determine the contents of Box B depending on whether I choose one or both boxes."
"Yes. Of course, it’s even more difficult to grasp this idea than it is to grasp the idea of the computer making accurate predictions. At least you can picture the computer putting the offer in the box, or not, as it sees fit based on its prediction. But in the conditional quantum example, what is the computer doing? It can’t put the offer in there, and it can’t refrain from putting the offer in there. It’s just like the cat who’s neither alive nor dead."
I take another sip from my coffee. Cold.
"Peggy said that the programming language for the quantum computer is paradoxical. Now I understand why. What you’re saying is that this whole test is set up so that what I do now, in the present, determines what the quantum computer did in the past."
"Possibly. But do you really believe that?"
That’s a fair question. Do I believe that geniuses at WorldConneX have invented some kind of time machine?
"Hell, no. The thing is either in there or it’s not. When I look, I’ll know the answer. But I won’t have made anything happen."
"And the quantum computer? How did it make so many accurate predictions?"
"I don’t know. I suppose they made some shrewd guesses. Like Peggy said, those work profiles or whatever. They might be gilding the lily about how accurate they’ve been. But anyway, they have been wrong. At least once."
"Yes. And what happens when they’re wrong?"
"Well…"I have to think about this for a moment, and frankly I’m tired of thinking. "It depends. If the computer thought I would pick just B, and it’s wrong, and I pick both…I get both prizes."
"Whatever you want to call them."
"Sure. And what about the other scenario?"
"Okay. If the computer thought I would pick both, and I pick just B…and the computer is wrong…then there’s nothing in B. I get nothing."
But it’s only a one in a thousand chance.
Yeah, but who are you going to trust?
Those lying bastards. I knew this was too good to be true.
Quantum computer my ass.
They show you the check in box A because they know you’re going to pick B alone and then you get nothing. That’s what this thing is really all about. "Mixed Incentive Test Exercise." It’s some crazy HR thing; it’s Performance Management gone bonkers. They want to demonstrate that they can show somebody a check for $5,000, give them the opportunity to take it — seem to be fair about the whole thing — and then have the subject walk away with nothing.
Of course, the word "incentive" should have given it away. No doubt, they’re on the verge of implementing some vast new "benefit" program in which everybody gets strung along thinking they’ll get one good thing or another. And in the end, they get nothing. They choose to get nothing.
"So what you’re saying," I conclude, "is that I should pick both."
"I said nothing of the kind," he responds sharply.
"Yes. I have to pick both. Most likely, the computer knew I was going to pick both, and there is nothing in B. But if I just pick B, it could have made a mistake and then I get nothing. Or I could take both, and it makes a mistake and I get both. But I can’t run the risk of getting completely skunked."
"Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Here’s a question for you — when they were making their prediction for which box you were going to pick, do you think they knew that you and I were going to have this conversation?"
"I’m pretty sure Peggy knew, if that’s what you mean."
He picks up the eraser, and seems to study the board carefully for a moment.
"Peggy doesn’t know me, Emmett. She has no idea I’m in here. Nor does anybody who had anything to do with programming the quantum computer."
"Well, why are you here, then?"
He erases the words he wrote on the board earlier.
"Let me give you one more scenario, Emmett. Maybe the whole thing is a trick. Maybe they put something in both boxes for everybody, but your co-workers are too afraid to try. They’re all too ready to believe that a computer can predict their every move. So they just pick B like the sheeple they are."
"Be sure you pick carefully," he says, placing the eraser back in the tray.
He looks at me for a long moment, sizing me up.
"Look deep, Emmett. You have to look deep. It isn’t easy for guys like…you, but you have to give it a try."
Before I can think of a response, he opens the door and starts through it. Then he turns and looks at me again, pausing just for a moment.
"Look deep, Emmett," he says for the third time, "The answer is in the stillness. It’s been there all along."
"The what? Stillness?"
"Make a good choice, Emmett. And whatever you do, don’t forget to be happy."
He nods, he turns, and then he’s gone.
As the door closes behind him, I suddenly realize what it is that’s been bothering me about Rick. I knew he looked familiar. He looks like my Uncle Dave. My Dad’s brother. But there’s more. Yes, he does look like Uncle David, but he looks a lot more like somebody else—Grandpa Emmett.
Good old Grandpa Emmett. My favorite grandparent. The man I was named after.
My Mom’s father.
Well, here we are. Back in Dr. Bryce’s office.
The gang is all here—Peggy, Dr. Bryce, Box A, Box B, and of course, Yours Truly. Right now, there is inside of Box A a check made out to me in the amount of $5,000. I’ve seen it. Unless somebody tampered with things while I was out of the room, it’s in there. In Box B, there is nothing at all. Or there is a chance to start my life all over again: a free ticket out of WorldConneX plus two years to do whatever I want. Or there is an uncollapsed quantum wave—whatever the hell that means—which holds both the possibility of the package and of nothing, just waiting for me to observe one or the other. Waiting for me to choose my own fate.
If the box contains an uncollapsed quantum wave, it means that my eyes and my brain play a fundamental role in the ordering of the universe. There is no reality at all until I observe it. The idea is either liberating and empowering or kind if scary and megalomaniacal. I can’t decide which. But the trouble with megalomania is that I’m a tech writer from the downtown office. I’m the kind of guy who thinks that the taller chair backs and the espresso machines at Labs are a big deal. All this reality-manifesting-out-of-decisions-that-I-make business is more than I can handle.
I’m not ready to be God’s junior partner.
"Emmett, I have to ask you for the record, now," says Peggy.
I look her directly in the eye. Her eyes are a deep, violet blue. I’m struck by a tiny wave of giddiness. An absurd thought occurs to me: if I get the lay-off package, I will no longer work for the company. There’s nothing to stop me from asking Peggy out.
Yeah, right. That’s the reason I haven’t asked her out already…because we work for the same company. Right.
"Do you want to open Box B alone, or both Boxes A and B?"
There are a couple of possibilities. Rick hinted at one of them. Maybe the quantum computer accurately predicted that I would pick B alone, because Rick’s little pep talk was outside the confines of the experiment. I was definitely going to pick B alone until he showed up. So it could be that there is a separation package in box B. And maybe I’ll get both by picking both after all.
The other possibility is that I could tell Dr. Bryce and Peggy about Rick and bring this whole thing to a close right now. Surely having this unauthorized person come talk to me during my Thinking Time is grounds for invalidating the entire experiment. Of course, doing that I lose the $5,000, any hope of getting the two years, and I’m still out of a job. I will almost certainly just get that lesser (much, much lesser) package that Peggy has in that file of hers.
No. That one is a bad deal any way you look at it.
"Emmett," says Dr. Bryce. "We need your answer."
"Right," I answer.
One thing I will give these people credit for. You know how people always describe reaching a major decision point in their lives as coming to a fork in the road? Well, these Two-Box folks have created about as distinct a fork as I have ever stumbled across. Or had jammed up my ass, depending on how you want to look at it.
"Right," I say again. "Okay. I’ll take both."
Well, what do you know. I’ve managed to surprise them, or at least one of them.
Bryce holds his own, but Peggy needs to work on the poker face. Here’s a gal who doesn’t get surprised very often (I’m guessing), but look at the cool and dignity with which she handles it. Not bad. Still, the ever so slightly furrowed forehead is enough to give it away. I think—I’m not sure but I think—that had I made the right choice (meaning the choice she expected me to make) she would have given me the eyebrow instead.
Dr. Bryce makes a note on a form laid out in front of him.
"Can I confirm that, Emmett? You’re choosing both boxes?"
"Initial here, please." He turns the form around and passes it to me, along with his pen. It is an almost blank page. It just has my name, the date, two check boxes, and some blank lines at the bottom. One check box is labeled B, the other one is labeled A&B. Two boxes for the two-box experiment. That’s appropriate.
Wait, shouldn’t one box be A and the other be B?
No, I guess it’s right the way it is.
Anyway, the second of the two boxes is checked. I put my initials under it, and pass the page back to the good doctor.
"And will you now please state your reasons for making this choice?" He is poised to write my answer in the blank lines at the bottom of the page. Why not just ask me to write my answer there myself?
Oh, well. Who am I to question these things?
"This is the only choice in which I am ensured of getting something."
"But—" Peggy begins and then thinks better of it. Bryce looks up and gives her a startlingly open look of disapproval. Here’s a new dynamic—the Scientist annoyed by the Corporate Drone who might ruin the crystalline symmetry of his experiment with her two-bit MBA meddling.
I like that. That’s the best thing I’ve seen all day.
Bryce looks back down and apparently writes what I said word for word.
"Anything else?" he says, looking up again.
"Yes. It also seems to be the choice I was not expected to make. That didn’t figure into my actual decision, but now that it’s made, I’m pleased with it."
Dr. Bryce seems to weigh the appropriateness of this answer for a moment. Then he writes it down word for word.
"Well," Peggy says brightly, "let’s see what we’ve got." She picks up Box A, which has been neatly resealed, and hands it to me.
"This part is going to be a little anti-climactic," I say, taking the box. "Or at least it had better be." The box opens easily. Inside, there is the envelope, itself not resealed. I reach in through the precise opening Peggy created earlier with the letter opener, and pull out the check. It’s there. Five large, made out in my name.
"Congratulations," says Peggy.
This is just like Christmas morning, except we’re not in our footy PJs. Well, I guess it’s more like my birthday, since I’m the only one opening boxes.
Dr. Bryce reaches across the desk and hands me Box B. I fumble with the seal for a moment, until Peggy hands me that stiletto letter-opener of hers. Swish! Right through that little red seal. I insert my thumbnail into the lid and begin to pull the lid open —
"Okay, pal. Drop the box. Now."
I look up. Now where did those two come from? And why are they aiming guns at me?
Damn, Labs is an awfully strange place.
This is how the end of the world began.
It was April, 1981. It was the warmest spring Celia could remember. As early as March, there were nights when the clunky, antiquated gas furnace didn’t kick on at all. This was unheard of, summer arriving ahead of itself. And it was a tremendous gift, not just because of what it saved the home in heating expense, but because it allowed the children time away from the common room, the dreary makeshift playroom/classroom in which they were forced to spend so much of their lives.
How much better it was, Celia thought, for them to spend their days outside. In the back yard there was a sandbox to dig in, a jungle gym to climb on, cool grass to lie in. There were swings to swing on. Overhead, the sky served as a canvas for clouds which the children could study, could shape into whatever designs their imaginations (which might be as strong as or even stronger than the imaginations of any other children) would allow. In the distance, far beyond the splintery brown backyard fence, were the mountains—blue-green with stripes of sand and rust in front, and silver-gray snowcapped behind. They could be glimpsed by a boy poised triumphantly, if never completely securely, atop the jungle gym, or a girl at the forward or backward summit of a perfect arch, legs outstretched, the yellow molded plastic seat of the swing pulling the delicate loops of the chains taut for an instant, and then giving way for the downward swoop.
Let the children be outside, Celia thought, for as many long, lazy afternoons as a summer chose to yield. Outside, where the hopes that she bore for them, that they might somehow bloom and flourish like the daffodils shooting up along the edge of the tool shed, seemed more substantial. Outside, where the shrill chirps of the birds, the chattering of the squirrels, the life, tactile and audible—its odor sweet or pungent or acrid, but undeniably there—insisted on itself, insisted that that which lives can change, can grow.
It was Celia’s first official year running the home. She had worked and lived there for nearly 15 years, and she knew every creaking floor board and every dripping pipe. The house stood at the edge of town. It was white, or at least that was the intention behind its most recent painting, which had been done during her first year there. Time and the elements had worn the exterior to a faded, comfortable gray, which was beginning to crack, and would have to be looked to before long.
It was a cloudy morning, the day the boy arrived, and it seemed unlikely the children would be spending any time outside. There had been rain before sunrise, with the threat of more to come. Celia’s office was on the first floor, on the opposite side of the common room from the kitchen. She sat there at her desk, talking with the boy’s parents, listening to the father’s belabored explanation of why he and his wife, and, more to the point, their son, were there.
"This isn’t easy for us, Miss Crawford" he said. "We never planned on it. If I could have kept my job here, maybe we wouldn’t need to come and see you. But I have to take this new job, like I said, on the oil rig. I’ll be gone for six months. And my wife, she can’t do it any more, not on her own. She’s not been doing well. We’re giving up our own place. She’s going back to live with her folks, and there’s just no room there. And we’ve got no more money."
They looked old, these two: old to be parents of a son of seven, anyway. The man appeared to be in his late forties; he was thin but broad-shouldered, with large, callused hands and a face deeply lined by the sun, and by worry. The woman was not much younger; she was pale and slight of build. It was easy to believe that she had not been well. She looked furtively around the room, seeming to listen not to her husband, but to the sounds of children playing in the common room. Their son sat between them. He had his father’s thick black hair, cut short, and his mother’s brown eyes, though more vivid and alert than hers. He sat perfectly still, unnaturally still for a boy his age, and stared at a point on the wall just above Celia’s right shoulder. This was not a vacant stare, however—not a dreamy "looking off into space" kind of stare. There was intensity to it. The boy was looking at something, something that was real to him. His face bore the burden of a prolonged focused mental effort, and the weariness that had resulted from it. It was a look that belonged to a much older face.
"And he’ll be better off, won’t he?" the mother said, distractedly. She shot her husband a nervous glance, looking as though she had almost missed her cue.
"Well," Celia responded, "of course, we do everything we can for our children here. But all things being equal, we believe that a child is better off in a family setting than an institutional one. We do what we can to place our children with families that will care for them."
Celia thought of Grace, the one child in the home whom she was most eager to place. Grace had lived there all her life, nearly five years, but she did not belong in the home. She had no disability. She was born there to a girl who was now gone, who had long since been moved to the State home, which was equipped to care for adults.
Without realizing it, Celia began running the boy’s parents through a mental checklist that she used to evaluate potential parents. There was no point in this. These people failed on the first criterion: they didn’t want a child. In fact, not only did they not want Grace, they didn’t want their own child. To Celia, there was something abhorrent, something fundamentally repulsive in this. She realized that it was unkind, perhaps even unfair, to feel this way. And she knew that, depending on what kind of home life these two had managed to provide, their son might very well be "better off" here in the home. Even so, there was something terribly wrong with this situation; Celia had felt it every time she had witnessed it. It was wrong, parents relinquishing their children to the home like disgruntled pet owners dropping off an unwanted dog at the animal shelter. She might well agree to take this child in. In fact, it occurred to her that she had already decided to do so. But she was not obliged to say things to make these two feel better about their decision, whatever their reasons for making it. On the contrary, she had a professional responsibility to make them see how serious that decision was.
"But if we can’t take care of him any more…" the mother began, apparently looking for someone else to finish her sentence for her.
"And we can’t," the husband put in.
Celia began to thumb through the folder in front of her. In it was a thick stack of papers. She had to admit that the parents had been thorough in trying to get help for their son, and in keeping track of their efforts to do so. Several of the reports were nothing more than cramped comments written at the bottom of forms used to perform standard tests. Others were neatly typed and went on for several pages of observation and analysis. But all came to the same conclusion: autism, severe. She glanced up at the boy again, wondering what those words really meant, wondering what kind of curtain it was that stood closed between his young mind and the world that surrounded him.
"Has he ever spoken?" she asked.
"No ma’am," the husband answered.
"But you believe he understands some of what is said to him?"
"Yes, ma’am.. He’ll sometimes come when we call him. He knows his name, and if we tell him to sit down or go to bed, he knows what we mean."
"And he knows how to dress himself, too," the wife put in.
Celia looked at the boy.
"Corey," she said. "Can you hear me?"
The boy looked away from the spot on the wall he had been studying, and their eyes met for a moment. His face registered no recognition of his name, although he had apparently responded to hearing it. For a moment, he stared right through Celia, before fixing his gaze once again above her right shoulder. There had been no hint of human contact in the look he had given her; it was as though he could see no distinction between her face and the wall.
The boy reminded Celia of Jolene; he had the same dark hair and eyes, and the same intense stare. Celia thought of Jolene in her final days at the home, just after giving birth to Grace. This is how she had become in the end: unable to speak, seemingly unable to recognize the presence of others. And that was also how she had been in the beginning, and for a good deal of the time she lived in the home. Yet there had been that one long period, lasting perhaps five years, when everything was different. There had been so much hope for Jolene, the possibility of a future far different from what the other children could expect. What had brought about this amazing change in the girl was never known, just as there was no explanation for her condition to begin with. But Celia knew the cause of the later change that occurred, Jolene’s reversion to her earlier state. The thought of it weighed on her mind, as it always did.
"Oh, he can hear just fine," said the father, gesturing at the file in front of Celia. "That’s been checked a couple, three times."
"I see," said Celia. "And he understands. Does he like to listen to stories? Does he ever watch television?"
"Sometimes he’ll listen to a book if you read it," said the mother. "Sometimes he even looks at the pictures. But then other times you’ll be halfway through and he just walks away. There’s no telling. But he never had use for TV."
"He likes music, though," said the father.
The woman twitched visibly at the mention of this, and was suddenly very careful not to look at her husband.
"Really?" said Celia. "What kind?"
"All kinds. Sometimes he used to sit by the radio for a hour or two. He figured out how to turn the knob and find different things to listen to. He especially liked old music, you know? Violins and harps and things."
"Classical music," said Celia.
The man nodded
"You said he used to sit by the radio." Celia continued. "He doesn’t do it any more? Has he lost interest in music?"
The man glanced at his wife, as though aware that he had made a mistake.
"Uh, no, ma’am. I imagine he still likes it. That is, we don’t know for sure."
There was a long pause.
"You see, the radio broke, and we never got a new one. So he hasn’t listened to music for a while."
The woman nodded.
"It broke," she said.
"Do you mean that Corey broke the radio?" Celia asked in a helpful tone. It was obvious to her that they were lying, or at least not saying something. "That happens sometimes; children break things."
The man and woman looked at each other.
"No ma’am," the father said after a moment. "I don’t think he ever broke it. It just broke."
"He never broke it," said the woman.
Celia looked at each of them in turn. Something had happened, but they didn't want to talk about it. She tried a different approach.
"Does he ever have bad days?" she asked. She felt uncomfortable asking such a question with the boy sitting there, and wondered whether it was appropriate to do so. Myra had indoctrinated her with the notion that the children were always to be treated with respect. How respectful could it be to delve into the boy’s behavior in the third person when he was sitting right in front of her? But it was her only chance to talk with the parents, and there was no place else for the boy to be at the moment. He had not been introduced to the other children, and his presence at play time might be disruptive.
She looked once again at Corey: motionless, intent on his targeted spot on the wall. Granted, it was unlikely that he would be disruptive, but there was still the possibility.
"You mean like does he get sick?" the father asked.
"He hasn’t ever been sick, not a day," said the mother.
"I’m glad to hear that," said Celia, "but that wasn’t what I was getting at. What I meant was, does he ever have bad moods? Does he ever become angry?"
"Never once," said the mother. "He’s got nothing to care about." She put her arm over her son’s shoulder and looked at him for a moment.
"Do you see what I’m saying, Miss Crawford? If you don’t care about anything, you don’t get mad about anything." There wear tears in the mother’s eyes as she spoke. Celia had not expected this; she had already tried and convicted the parents of indifference towards their son. And maybe they were indifferent, or less caring than they should have been. But the mother still had tears to shed on Corey’s behalf, could still feel anger or frustration at the thought of this life, her child’s life, which was so far from what it was supposed to be.
"Has he spent much time with other children?" she asked, hardly realizing that her tone of voice had softened.
"He used to stay with my sister some when I had a job, before I had to quit on account of my blood pressure," the mother answered, wiping her eyes. "She has three kids. They’re all older than Corey."
"How did he get along with them? Did he play with them? Did he ever fight with them?"
"No, ma’am," the father answered quickly.
"Never," the mother said impatiently. "Don’t you understand? He doesn’t fight; he doesn’t play. He doesn’t do those things, never has. I guess he never will."
"I see," said Celia. "So there were never any problems with other children?"
The father glanced at the mother and then answered too quickly, "No, never."
Celia looked at the mother.
"That’s right," she agreed. "Never."
Celia sighed. She wondered whether there was any point even asking these questions.
"How does he sleep?"
"Good," answered the mother. "Real good. Sometimes he’ll go twelve, fourteen hours. Once in a while he don’t even get up at all."
"That’s interesting," said Celia. "Have you ever noticed a pattern to his sleeping habits? Does he sleep longer after some change has occurred? For example, when you started your job? Or after you quit?"
Both parents sat back and seemed to consider the question.
"No," the mother said after a moment. "I don’t think it’s anything like that. I just think he likes to sleep, so he does.
The father nodded in agreement.
"And what about nightmares? Has he ever had them?"
A shadow fell over the mother’s face. The father cleared his throat. Neither parent attempted to answer the question.
"Why would you ask that?" the mother said after a long moment. There was deep suspicion in the expression on her face and in her tone of voice.
"Well, it isn’t unusual for a child with Corey’s condition to suffer from nightmares. All children have them sometimes. It can be a real problem for autistic children: to be afraid and to have no way of expressing it."
"Let me ask you something," said the father. "I’ve tried to find out what I could about this sickness. Have you ever heard of these retarded kids who can play the piano and solve math problems and that kind of thing?"
"Yes," said Celia, "I’ve heard of that, but I’ve never encountered it. They’re called autistic savants. Some people are as withdrawn as Corey and yet possess brilliant artistic or musical or, as you said, mathematical ability. Why do you ask? Has Corey shown some unusual ability?"
"No, he hasn’t" the mother said, before her husband could speak.
"I guess not," said the father. But then he continued: "Maybe, though, it depends on what kind of ability you mean. Do some of these kids do other things? Not the piano and like that, but…other things?"
Celia shrugged. "I’m sure it can take a number of different forms. What were you thinking of specifically?"
The woman glared at her husband, who now looked away and seemed to have nothing more to say. There was a long moment of silence.
"Look, sir," Celia said impatiently, "anything you can tell me about your son’s condition is going to help us. It’s best for him that we know as much as we can from the start. And whatever it is, I guess I’ll find it out sooner or later on my own anyway, won’t I?"
Neither of them said a word. Celia looked from one of them to the other.
"What are you not telling me?"
"Nothing," the man said at last. "I was just wondering, that’s all."
Celia sighed. She wrapped up the interview as perfunctorily as possible. The boy’s parents grew less responsive with each ensuing question until it became clear that she would get nothing more than she already had. She would have to uncover whatever it was that they wanted to keep secret through the course of time, just as she had said. It might take years, or she might know within hours of their leaving, but no matter. She would get to the bottom of it one way or another.
Corey’s parents left him standing on the front porch of the home. There were good-byes and a few more tears from the mother; Celia noticed that the mother hugged the boy, but that the father didn’t touch him, hadn’t touched him once in the two or three hours they spent at the home. The mother said that they would be back to visit as soon as they could, but Celia knew it was a lie.
It had begun to rain again, this time in earnest. Celia watched as the rusty blue pickup drove away. At her side stood Corey, holding onto a small suitcase which contained a few clothes and some never-used toys. He did not wave goodbye, nor even look in the direction of his departing parents. He would never see them again; Celia was certain of that. She stood there looking at the new boy for a long while after the truck was gone, wondering what he saw as he stared with such intensity out into the rainy afternoon. Wondering whether he had ever seen his parents, or anyone else, at all.
Corey’s first day was trying, but by and large unexceptional. The ordeal with the parents took a toll on Celia that she wouldn’t have liked to admit. The range of feelings that they inspired in her—from curiosity to rage to pity—was exhausting. And it was depressing to have to preside over yet another goodbye in which the child had no concept of what was happening.
With no volunteers working in the home that day, Caroline managed the other twelve children on her own while Celia met with the parents. At age 32, Caroline Gray was seven years younger than Celia. She was in many ways unlike her employer, which both women knew was a key reason they worked well together. Physically, where Celia was small and thin, with fine features and red hair cropped short, Caroline was tall and obese, her black hair tied in a perpetual bun. Her nose was a plump red bulb, and her face was lined by eyes and a mouth that were quick to smile, and a forehead that was quick to furrow. Caroline was the jolly one of the pair, as well as the quick-tempered one, where Celia was slow to respond emotionally to any situation; her even temper was a good fit for the administrator’s job.
The children were not unaware of the disruption in their routine. With the rain preventing them from venturing outside, and with the lack of staff preventing them from breaking out into more specialized activities, they were all forced to spend the day together in the common room. Four-year-old Grace was curious about the new boy, and kept asking who he was and when she was going to get to meet him. Caroline had abandoned an arts and crafts project, papier-mâché hand-puppets, in favor of reading from The Wind in the Willows to Grace along with three of the older girls, Alice, Judy, and Bettina, while the rest of the children, ostensibly listening along, pursued their own activities independently.
Grace was restless, and kept turning around in her chair to look in the direction of Celia’s office door. She would occasionally interrupt Caroline’s reading and ask her to repeat the part just read—although she was paying no attention—and to ask to be allowed to see the new boy. Following Grace’s lead (as they always did), the older girls also began asking about him. They wouldn’t leave the subject alone, in spite of Caroline’s repeated attempts to return to the book, and her insistence that there would be plenty of time to meet him and get to know him later.
At sixteen, Alice was the oldest child currently residing in the home. She was always the first to repeat whatever Grace said. She was less outspoken than Judy, who (at thirteen) continually tried to assert herself as the Head Girl. Though one girl was white and the other was black, there was an odd family resemblance between them. Both girls bore what had until recently been termed mongoloid facial characteristics—the folds of flesh encroaching on the eyes and flattened bridge of the nose were now recognized as indicators of Down Syndrome. Bettina was twelve, a year younger than Judy, and she was considerably smaller and quieter than the other two girls. She had a Raggedy Ann doll, whom she had named Baby Lucy after one of the younger girls, and which she held close to her at all times.
Meanwhile Raymond and Joey, who were eleven and fourteen years old, respectively, and who constantly vied for the position of ringleader of the home’s boy contingent, spent the afternoon bowling in an over-wide lane defined by masking tape on the floor, using a plastic blue ball and multi-colored pins designed for much younger children. The three other boys—Robert, Andrew, and Todd—were younger and less prone to agitation. Robert and Andrew were both eight years old, a year younger than Todd. They played quietly together as they did every day. There was a soberness, a severity to their play. Today their game was trading baseball cards. They could not read the cards, which were in a well-worn deck of about 100 (mostly obscure players with quite a few duplicates), and had no real idea of what they were for, but Robert had picked up from Raymond the notion that they were for trading, and so trade them they did. The boys were content to play this game all day, and in fact did so for hours, waiting for a return to the home’s normal routine.
Todd, who could neither hear nor speak, and who never interacted with any of the other children, sat at the same table with his crayons and coloring book, adding garish red and green and purple strokes to the pages with no regard to the pictures outlined there. Todd resembled Alice and Judy; like them, he had Down Syndrome. He would stop coloring every now and then and reach down to the floor to make sure that his battered, wheel-less Tonka truck was still there. This was a ritual that he performed several times every day.
Meanwhile, the home’s remaining children, Kathy, Estelle, and Lucinda, worked quietly in a far corner. Like Todd, Kathy was deaf. Her mental disability was much less severe than his, however, and Celia had considered from time to time that Kathy might be an example of misdiagnosis, and that she might be better off in a home for the hearing impaired.
Kathy’s best friend was Estelle, who was two years younger than, but almost the same size as, her friend. Estelle was Kathy’s protector, had been so for years. The two girls spent the day crocheting: Kathy working on a blue and silver hat, Estelle making a matching scarf. As the day proceeded, Estelle would not allow the girls to get comfortable working in any one place. She was restless, probably because of the change in routine, and she kept insisting they move to another spot every half hour or so. By the end of the day, they had encircled the common room twice.
Lucinda tagged along with Kathy and Estelle, her crochet efforts limited to one long braided strand of orange yarn. Lucinda’s eyes were lively, her nose was turned up slightly, and her mouth was missing two teeth in the front. She was only six, but was a special favorite of Grace’s, which made her an important person according to home’s peculiar pecking order. For there was no question in anyone’s mind, be they Celia, Caroline, one of the other children, or Grace herself—at age four, Grace was the children’s undisputed leader. She was in charge, she knew it, and she bore the office—by and large— with amazing dignity and kindness.
But dignity or no, Grace could have bad days like any other child of four. And today was one of those. The weather, the lack of things to do, and the attention given to the new boy all served to make her sulky. Her repeated pleas that she be allowed to see him eventually turned to whines, and it wasn’t long before Caroline was at the end of her patience.
She consigned Grace to Time Out, a punishment all too familiar to the home’s youngest resident. But on this particular day, Grace took the sentence badly, and sat at her chair in a far corner of the common room moaning at the injustice of it all. "It’s not fair," she said, over and over again, dragging out the word fair. To Caroline’s utter bemusement, the older girls began to join in, parroting "not fair, not fair, not fair." Caroline was considering a group time-out, and wondering what even more severe measures might be required, when Celia saved the day by walking back into the house with the new boy.
"Children, I would like you all to meet Corey," she said, standing with him roughly facing the common room, though of course not really looking at any of them. The room went silent.
"Say hello to our new friend," Celia said.
"Hello Corey," Grace said loudly, with a delayed echo from most of the other children.
"Corey is seven years old. He’ll be having his birthday in just a few days."
Judy raised her hand. Several of the other children followed suit.
"Oh! Oh! Miss Crawford!" Alice said desperately, her own hand shooting up. She hated it when Judy spoke first.
"Judy?" Celia said placidly.
"Um…" said Judy, indicating that she had been more concerned with the order of her question than its content. "Um…how old will he be?"
Alice snorted. It took a moment, and then Raymond and Joey laughed, too.
"That’s a good question," said Celia. "If Corey is seven now, how old will he be after his birthday?"
"Eight," several voices answered together, followed by an inevitable echo from Bettina, Judy, and Grace.
"That’ right," said Celia. "He’ll be eight."
"Oh! Oh! Miss Crawford!" Alice was for the moment the only child with her hand raised.
"Will we have a birthday party for the new boy?"
The answer to this question was almost as obvious as the answer to Judy’s. Every birthday in the home was celebrated with a cake and ice cream and whatever party games could be arranged.
"What do you think, Alice?" Caroline interjected. "Don’t we always have a party?"
Alice nodded. There were smiles and excited whispers among some of the other children. There’s going to be a party!
"What other questions do we have for Corey?" asked Celia.
There was no response. Having established that there would, in fact, be a birthday party, it seemed the children had nothing more to talk about.
"Now, I think we’ve had enough of story and play time. Why don’t we put everything away and we’ll have Show and Tell. Miss Gray, will you help Corey get settled in? And then he can join us when he’s ready."
Caroline gave Celia a quick, grateful nod as she took the boy’s hand and led him towards the stairs. The children began putting their things away: Raymond and Joey loudly dropping the bowling ball and pins into the toy box; Robert and Andrew placing the baseball cards back in their tattered gray shoe box; Kathy, Estelle, and Lucinda returning their yarn work to the wicker basket; Todd registering no reaction at all as Alice took away his coloring book and crayons. Amid this reorganizing of the home’s activities, a voice rang out.
"Wait! Where are you taking him? I want to see the new boy!"
Grace had at some point abandoned all pretense of facing the wall, and had turned her chair to face the front of the room. She remained seated, however—the notion of Time Out was apparently strong enough to keep her from getting up.
Caroline was proceeding up the stairs, the boy and his small suitcase in tow.
"I want to see Corey," Grace demanded.
At the mention of his name, Corey stopped climbing the steps. Before Caroline realized what was happening, he had let go of her hand and started back down towards the common room.
"Hey," said Caroline, startled that he would show this kind of initiative, "where do you think you’re going?" She followed him down the stairs. Celia looked on with interest. She motioned to Caroline, letting her know that it was all right, that she should leave the situation alone for a moment.
Reaching the landing, Corey stood perfectly still and stared intently in the direction of Grace. He didn’t look right at her, but this was as close as Celia had seen him come to looking at anyone, closer than he had come with his own parents.
He stood there for a moment, looking in Grace’s direction, seeming indecisive about what he was to do next. The other children were meanwhile oblivious; they continued putting their things away, and began arranging chairs in a circle for show and tell.
But Grace beamed with delight at the boy’s return.
"Corey!" she exclaimed, as though he were her oldest friend, just returned after a long absence. "Come here."
Still staring not quite directly at her, Corey started towards her and then stopped. The other children saw him now, and knew that something was up. Rather than continuing towards Grace, he started in their direction, towards the circle of chairs they had just finished putting in place. He took one of the chairs out of the circle, folded it, and turned back towards Grace.
"Hey!" Alice, Judy, Joey, and Raymond all said at once, their unified voice quickly dissolving into a cacophony of he can’t do that, bring that back, Miss Crawford!
Corey continued on, either not hearing or not interested in these protests. He stopped in front of where Grace was sitting. He unfolded his chair and seated himself, facing her. He did not look at her, but chose a comfortable spot over her left shoulder on which to fix his gaze.
Celia remembered what the boy’s mother had said: sometimes he’ll come when you call.
Where most children would be intimidated, Grace was delighted.
"I’m glad you came back, Corey," she said earnestly. "I got a lot to tell you. My name is Grace and I’ll be your friend. We got lots of friends here for you. See? That’s Todd, and that’s Alice, and there’s Estelle…"
She proceeded with naming all the children, pointing at each as she went. It didn’t matter that Corey’s back was to them or that his gaze never wavered from that fixed point on the far wall. Grace spoke, and perhaps he listened
Thus began a routine that over the next few days would make Corey as much a part of the home as any of them. His time was divided between the boys and Grace, who made a point of spending an hour or so "playing with the new boy" each day. She would fill up the time telling Corey "stories," which were rambling monologues on any and every subject that was on her mind. Corey would give these stories his undivided attention (or lack thereof, it was impossible to tell) as long as Grace was inclined to tell them. He never sought her out, but always came when she called. So far, he would not respond to a call from Celia or Caroline, or any of the other children. At any other time, he had to be led wherever he needed to go next.
Corey would sit with Grace, usually facing her, until she announced that she was finished. Then one or both of them would leave: Grace to some other pressing interest; Corey back to wherever he had been summoned from. When not "talking to" Grace, he would sit near where the older boys were playing, as Todd often did, and (like him) would not interact with them in any way.
Each time Grace insisted on playing with the new boy, Celia assumed it would be the last. For the most part, Grace had the same attention span as any other child her age; after making her initial point about getting access to the new boy, Celia expected that her interest in him would wane. But that didn’t seem to be the case. The little girl renewed her interest in Corey each day, and he responded to her as he did to no one else in the home. It was an extraordinary friendship, and the fact that the novelty was bound to wear off eventually, that Grace would surely lose interest sooner or later, did not make it any less so.
Corey’s fifth day at the home was the day before his birthday, the eve of the much-anticipated party. The rain that had accompanied his arrival had hung in for three days, an unusually long time. The fourth day the rain had stopped, but it was still too cool and windy, and the backyard was still too muddy, to allow the children to spend any of the day outside. So this day represented the first outdoor day for the home in quite some time, which was a relief both for the children and the adults.
After finishing up some bill-paying, Celia decided to join Caroline and Sheila, the volunteer girl from the university, in watching the children. She stepped out the back door to see the usual panoply of children swinging, climbing, and digging. Todd sat in the sandbox with Kathy, Lucinda and Estelle. For once, he was actually playing with his truck: scooping sand into the back of it and occasionally dumping it out, while the girls worked on what appeared to be an entire town of sand castles. Raymond, Joey, Andrew, and Robert were playing Army, with the jungle gym serving as their Fort. Alice and Judy were on the two working swings in the swing set, while Bettina stood nearby and looked on, waiting for a turn that would never come without some prompting.
Corey was seated at the red picnic table opposite Grace, whose height made it necessary for her to stand in the table’s built-in bench. Celia was surprised to see that they weren’t "talking;" they were playing a board game. Intrigued, she moved in to observe. It was Chutes and Ladders. There were two tokens on the tattered game board, one blue and one orange, both near the finish line.
"There," Grace said, completing a spin of the wheel, "that’s three for you. One, two, three." She moved the orange token, apparently Corey’s, three spaces on the board. It seemed that Corey was only "playing" the game through the good offices of his younger friend. Grace was actually spinning the wheel and moving the game tokens for both of them.
"Uh, oh. Chute!" Grace exclaimed. She slid the orange token down the chute, which was one space short of the finish line, to a position considerably behind hers on the board.
"Too bad, Corey," she said. "looks like I’m in first place now." It was difficult, Celia noted, to reconcile a desire to win the game with sympathy for a friend. Corey stared at the table, a little to the right of the center of the game board. He registered no reaction to his change of fortune.
Grace picked up the spinning wheel and spun again.
"Five," she announced. She picked up the blue token and began counting out the spaces. "One, two, three, four, five." Celia noticed the mistake: Grace counted the space she started from as "one," and therefore moved the token only four spaces on the board. This landed her on the same chute that had just sent Corey back.
"Oh, no," said Grace. "Chute." She dutifully slid her token down the chute and set it on the space next to Corey’s.
Celia was wondering whether it was worth mentioning the mistake, when something remarkable happened. Corey, his eyes never moving from their fixed spot, reached out and picked up the blue token and placed it on the Finish line where it belonged.
"Hey," Grace said, "You shouldn’t do that." She looked at the board again, and her four-year-old nature got the better of her. "Oh, I won! I won!"
She looked up and beamed at Celia.
"Miss Crawford, I won!" she exclaimed. "Thank you, Corey."
Grace apparently had no idea that she really had won the game, that Corey had caught her mistake and corrected it.
"Good for you, Grace," Celia said. "It’s fun to win, isn’t it? Now will you do me a favor and put the game back where it goes?"
"Yes ma’am," Grace answered, dropping the game pieces haphazardly back into the box, and closing the folded board over them. She took the box and started back into the house.
Celia looked at Corey, sitting there perfectly still, his gaze having not moved from the spot to the right of the now-absent game board. He doesn't fight, the mother had said. He doesn't play.
What else, she wondered, did his parents get wrong?
Celia sat in the swing on the front porch. With the younger children napping, and Sheila helping Caroline supervise the older ones, she could enjoy a few minutes of relative calm before starting her work for the afternoon. She was planning to balance the home’s checkbook, a tiresome chore that she always put off for as long as she could.
She looked out over the front yard as she rocked in the breeze. The rain had stopped for a while; the afternoon sun was shining through occasional gaps in the clouds. The home had a patchy front lawn, hard to keep green in this climate, especially with irregular maintenance. A magnificent flagpole rose from a concrete block in the middle of the lawn, soaring a good 15 feet higher than the roof. How or why the home had come to have such an overstated fixture had never been clear to Celia. And sadly they had no flag.
They had once had a big one, worthy of the pole, but it was buried out back five years earlier, and was not likely to be replaced. Its demise was tied to the most painful of Celia’s duties, that of finding a new home for Grace. Celia couldn’t put her finger on it, but there were somehow echoes of that time here, now, with this new boy.
A girl named Jolene, now gone, was handling flag duty at the time it was lost. Jolene was exceptional. At age 16 she was, by the standards of the home, an outgoing and talkative young woman. Arriving at the home at age five, she had been the picture of the severely withdrawn child, displaying a condition which was just beginning to bear the name autism.
Jolene quickly adapted to the home’s routine, but only as though from a great distance. She was generally responsive to requests and instructions, but she never looked at anyone. She was capable of speech, but would not answer questions. When she spoke, it was aimed at no one, and the words bore no relation to what was going on around her. She spent a great deal of time with books, but whether she was reading or simply looking at the pictures, it was impossible to say.
Then something remarkable occurred.
Around age 12, with the onset of puberty, there was an abrupt change in Jolene. Suddenly she made eye contact with those speaking to her, and she responded to questions that were asked of her. To Celia, it seemed as though she had somehow arrived. All at once, she began to initiate conversation. She would comment on the food or the weather, or approach Celia with questions about her own appearance: Did her hair look better this way? Was she getting too big for this dress? She began to have questions about the books she was reading, for it quickly became apparent that yes, she had been reading all that time.
Only now she put away the four or five picture books that she had been through countless times and began reading everything the home’s small library had to offer. She took particular pleasure in the Little House books and in the three Nancy Drew mysteries she found. When Mrs. West, the missions representative from the local Presbyterian Church (known to the children as the Mission Lady), observed this change in Jolene, she gave her a copy of the Bible, which the girl proceeded to read from cover to cover.
In addition to reading, Jolene began to learn to write. She told Celia that she planned to write a book of her own, which would be about a girl living on the frontier, or maybe a girl detective, or possibly a very rich and powerful king who travels to mysterious places. The Bible had been her inspiration for the last of these ideas; she had read the book as piously as she could, but was unprepared to grapple with theology and always reverted to a fascination with what to her were its exotic elements: kings, slaves, battles, miracles, olive trees (trees growing olives!), camels, golden calves, and on and on.
To Celia, Jolene represented the personification of the hope she nurtured for all of the children. Anyone who spent time at the home knew to avoid phrases such as a normal life when contemplating the future of one of their charges, but it was at least safe to say that more options would be available to Jolene than for many. As the years passed, she continued to read and grow in her understanding of the world. She had done well with the limited schooling that the home was able to provide. There was some talk of having her test for high-school equivalency.
Myra managed to get Jolene accepted as a part-time student at the vocational school. This was the only victory she ever managed in an ongoing war with the Superintendent of the local school system. For years, she had pleaded with the school board to allow her children admission to the school where the townsfolk sent their own special needs children. The Superintendent, a short, squat man with a fat face and a shocking rim of curly red-orange hair encircling a balding head, took the position that that the state funding the home received was intended to support the children’s education, and he was adamant that the home’s schooling facilities were adequate to the task.
Getting Jolene admitted to the vocational school had taken a direct vote of the school board. Myra came to the Board meeting with Jolene in tow, and allowed the girl to make her own case as to why she needed some schooling that the home was unable to give. It didn’t matter what the Superintendent said in response, or how much sway he held over the board. The board members could see the promise for themselves, and voted accordingly.
The vocational school was not the special needs school; it was for older students. Many of the more capable students from the latter were graduated to the former, along with others from the junior high school who, through a mysterious formula, had been selected for a vocational rather than an academic secondary education. At her new school, Jolene learned to type and picked up some appreciation of mathematics, at least to the level of making change. Because she "looked normal," that is to say, because her condition bore no visible mark on her face or in her mannerisms, and because she was a pretty girl with dark hair and dark eyes—tall and maybe just a little on the heavy side—and, moreover, because she had this remarkable facility for talking to other people (even strangers), Jolene managed to do something that no child from the home had ever done: she had made friends with some kids outside the home.
Down the road, who knew what might happen? She might be able to find a job, a real job, and live more or less on her own in a halfway house or some other partially supervised setting. Although that scenario would represent the realization of Celia’s fondest hope, she knew that she could not allow herself to become too enchanted by the possibility.
Up to that point, all of the children she had seen leave the home had been sent at age 21 (recently adjusted down to 18) to the State Home in Palmer. Each of these departures had been a terrible trauma for Celia, if not always for the child. She knew that the State Home was not a bad place, that in many ways it had more to offer than this tiny institution run by Caroline and Myra and herself. But it was always a bitter disappointment seeing them go there, a feeling that she had somehow failed in her charge to find something better for the child, even if her ideas around what better situation might be found for some of these children remained, at best, extremely vague. But this time there was nothing vague; the way forward seemed perfectly clear. And that, above all, was why Celia knew that it was important for her to curb her enthusiasm, to keep it from spilling over to Jolene. She knew that just because the way forward looked clear to her, it might not appear so to everyone else. A disappointment to Celia would be one thing, but a disappointment to Jolene could be disastrous. This was one of Myra’s cardinal rules for operating the home:
"The children have borne enough hardship," she had so often said. "Never build their hopes up with promises that can’t be kept."
But all those carefully guarded hopes came to an abrupt end the night they lost the flag. Jolene met Myra walking back into the home after bringing the flag down. The older woman was sitting on the old metal glider on the home’s front porch, having a breath of air between dinner time and the long procession of showers, pajamas, and toothbrushes that was bedtime.
Watching Jolene approach, Myra observed that the flag was not folded properly and that, as she carried it, the girl had allowed a corner of it to touch the ground.
Good evening, Jolene, Myra said as the girl walked up the steps and to the front door.
Good evening, ma’am, Jolene replied with a smile, and proceeded into the home.
Myra was a kind woman, but possessed of a variety of kindness not uncommon in a person in her position: a kindness tempered by a knowledge of, and strict adherence to, rules and procedures. Because flying the flag was one of the activities that occurred at the home, Myra had acquainted herself with, and made sure that all children assigned to flag duty were acquainted with, proper flag etiquette.
Unfortunately, on this occasion, as it had on just a few others over the years, Myra’s adherence to rules won the day in the struggle with her better nature. She called Jolene into her office and showed her the flag.
Did she think this was the correct way to fold it?
Did she know what the rules were about the flag touching the ground?
Yes, ma’am. That it should never touch the ground.
Did she know what would happen to a flag that had touched the ground?
The flag was buried that night, in a hole that Jolene dug out back by the tool shed while Myra looked on. Celia only learned what happened the next morning, and by then, it was clear that what had been lost was much more serious than a flag.
Jolene was gone.
She left no note, and took nothing with her, not even her Bible. A panic ensued at the home, followed by the realization over the next several days that she was truly gone, that not even any of her friends from the vocational school knew where she was.
What had happened to Jolene? How had the girl interpreted the flag incident? Perhaps she was embarrassed or ashamed. Or frightened. Or even angry. Celia could only speculate.
There was no doubt, however, as to the effect that this episode (and the remorse that accompanied it) had on Myra. She aged 20 years in the span of a few weeks, her plumpness giving way to thin frailty, her blonde hair fading to a dull white. Her voice, which had rung daily through the home announcing playtime, mealtime, bedtime—and every other time—with great cheer was all but silenced. When she spoke, it was barely above a whisper, and only to issue orders to Caroline or Celia.
Myra, who had always been tireless in her management of the home and all its affairs, became listless and uninterested in day-to-day operations, leaving virtually all of the care of the children to the younger women. She also began to lose interest in her administrative duties. Within a few weeks, Celia was managing essentially every aspect of the operation of the home, a situation that would continue (with only one interruption) for the next six years, until Myra finally stepped down and allowed Celia to take over in name as well as in fact. Celia found that she could never quite forgive Myra for her gross mismanagement in the matter of Jolene and the flag. Their interactions, which had always been warm and familiar, became cold and formal, and as infrequent as Celia could arrange.
It would be more than a year after her disappearance before Jolene was seen at the home again. Caroline answered the doorbell one evening to find the girl standing on the porch, dressed in a filthy and shabby coat and carrying a paper bag which later was found to contain only a stuffed bear and some old magazines. Her face was haggard; her once-long hair short and thin. And she was severely pregnant. She would not look Caroline in the eye, and seemed unwilling or unable to respond to anything that was said to her.
In fact, she said nothing at all.
Standing with Jolene was a police officer and a woman from Social Services who had been to the home a few times in the past. Jolene was picked up at the bus station, where she had arrived the day before, from where no one knew. No ticket was to be found. The manager of the bus station called the police after realizing that the girl had been there more than 24 hours, and finding that she did not seem to be able to understand him when he tried to talk to her. The police, in turn, called Social Services. One of the social workers thought she recognized Jolene from her visits to the home, so she and the officer decided to take her there.
Celia cried out in astonishment when she saw Jolene standing in the home’s foyer, and immediately went to hug her. The girl pulled away, seeming not to recognize Celia any more than she had Caroline, and obviously not wanting to be touched. It was only when Myra arrived on the scene of the homecoming that Jolene showed any sign of recognition. She allowed Myra to put an arm around her. Myra showed no emotion at the reunion, but immediately began to rattle off instructions to Celia and Caroline: the girl would need a bath and food and clean clothes, and she would need to see a doctor as soon as possible (this last instruction aimed at the social worker.)
Upon Jolene’s reappearance, Myra once again asserted her authority—at least for a while. She didn’t renew her interest in the operation of the home, but she took Jolene in and cared for her, full time, with no regard whatever for the home’s normal regulations and procedures. With a little help from Celia and Caroline, the old dispensary was cleaned up and turned into a makeshift private room. Myra took this extraordinary step because she knew that a young woman in her eighth or ninth month of pregnancy (they had no way of knowing for sure, but the girl was obviously well along) did not belong in a dormitory room with the younger girls. But she also did it because she was unwilling to let Jolene go to the State Home, where the girl no doubt belonged.
Jolene remained at the home for four months. After giving birth to her daughter, whom Myra named Grace, she became increasingly distant and difficult to care for. She showed no interest in her baby daughter, and could not be prompted to hold her or to feed her. Myra put the baby’s crib in her own room and began to try to care for both child and mother. Inevitably, the baby claimed the greater share of Myra’s attention. This new lack of attention may have been the cause of Jolene’s further withdrawal, or she may have been traumatized by giving birth, or possibly she suffered from postpartum depression.
But Celia believed the cause to be none of these things. There was no way to guess the specifics of the nightmare existence Jolene had known from the time she left the home until the day she returned, and Jolene was, of course, not talking. She had returned to the home because she had one last thing to do, to give birth, before giving up on life altogether.
And give up she did.
In her final days in the home, Jolene showed no recognition of anyone, not even Myra, and refused food and water. She would not bathe, would not allow her clothes to be changed, would not move from where she lay. She was in essentially a catatonic state, although both the doctor and then the psychiatrist sent by Social Services said that this was not technically the case. In the end, she was sent away to the state home.
Celia packed a bag for her before she left, packed her the personal items she had not bothered with when she ran away, and in which it seemed doubtful she would ever again display any interest. Celia saw her off alone: Caroline was too busy with all the other children, and Myra was busy with Grace. She could not spare five minutes of her time with the baby, Celia had thought bitterly; she didn’t even let the child see her mother leave. Not that that would matter, of course. It would be equally meaningless to both of them.
With some prompting, Jolene had been moved into a wheelchair. She was wheeled out of the home by Celia herself, transferred to the care of a social worker and driver from the state home who arrived in a van to take her away. Celia watched for a long time after the van pulled away, remembering the girl who had suddenly come to life, who had arrived unexpectedly. Now she was truly gone, assigned to the same fate as every other child Celia had watched grow up and leave the home.
But that was more than five years ago.
Now it was spring, that unusually warm spring. Myra had retired, having lost interest in Grace within a few months after the baby’s birth, and having never regained her interest in the home or in any of the other children. Her final years there were spent silently, aimlessly, and if Celia had never been able to forgive her, it was clear that she had likewise never been able to forgive herself.
There had been talk early on, from both Caroline and Celia, about moving the baby to a proper orphanage. It was the right thing to do, and it would have been accomplished easily enough. Grace would have been a good candidate for a foster home or adoption: a pretty baby girl with sandy brown hair and wide blue eyes. At first, this idea was blocked by Myra. Celia and Caroline didn’t push it because Myra was still ostensibly in charge of the home. Before long, however, when Celia (and to a lesser extent, Caroline) began caring for the child, the idea seemed just to fade away. It was only after Celia took over the management of the home that she began in earnest to try to find a new situation for Grace.
The decision to send Grace away was not an easy one. Grace had become, in effect, Celia’s own child, and she was the darling of the home besides. All the children loved her, to the extent that they were able to feel such a thing (or perhaps rather to display such a feeling), and she was doted on both by Celia and Caroline. But the home was not the right place for her; Celia knew it, had known it from the start, and knew that she owed it both to Grace and to Grace’s mother to see to it that the child be given every chance at knowing a normal life, which term was not only allowed in this instance, it was required.
Celia started by visiting each of the institutions in Greenwood and within about a 100 mile radius that were set up for normal children, children like Grace. There were five of these, and Celia had found them all wanting. While the facilities may have been better in one or two than what the home had to offer, and while Grace’s chances of being placed in a proper foster or adoptive home would be vastly improved by being placed in any of them, Celia was not convinced that they were able to provide the same level of care that she and Caroline could give. She decided instead to look for a home for Grace by herself. This was not unheard of; children from the home had been adopted before (in years past, before Celia had come to the home, but still she knew it was possible). It fell on Celia to find the perfect home for Grace; though she knew, of course, that there as no such thing. A good home, however, a fine home, even an extraordinary home—all of these were within reach. And it would have to be all of these things.
This is what she, Celia—along with Myra and the home itself—owed to Jolene.
A slight rumble of thunder of to the west roused Celia from her recollection. The sky had clouded up while she sat reminiscing. There was a chill in the air.
She got up and made her way back into the home. With rain threatening, the children who had been playing out back were rounded up and brought indoors. She found the new boy, Corey, sitting in a corner not far from where the other boys were playing.
She watched him for a long time. There was a tremendous stillness to this boy.
But there was something underlying the stillness: an awareness of the world around him that perhaps no one had seen. Or that perhaps his parents had glimpsed, but had tried to deny.
Why? Why would they deny what they could see in him? Why close off the possibility that their son could be more than he was? She shook her head, but she knew the answer.
She had seen it in their faces. It made no sense, but there it was. It was an uncanny, superstitious dread. They had a clear image in their minds of what their son was. They knew his limits. Anything that stood outside of those expectations was disturbing to them, even frightening.
Celia saw things differently. She would continue to believe that anything that stood outside such limits was cause for hope.
He likes music, the father had said. This was particularly troublesome to the mother.
The checkbook be damned, Celia thought. She had more important work to do.
"Corey," she said. "I don’t think you’ve seen our record player yet."
He didn’t move.
"Let’s go listen to some music."
Corey sat in the library, in a chair facing the school’s phonograph. Celia stood to one side, flipping through a box of 33 rpm record albums.
The record player was a donation. It was made of molded gray plastic and had speakers were built right into the lid; they disappeared when the phonograph was closed. At its base, the words Highest Fidelity were etched in a gold script. The turntable had a long stem reaching up from its center, and a retractable arm, so that records could be stacked and played in succession. Celia knew better than to use this feature, however — knew that it would scratch the records even worse than they already were.
“Let’s see, Corey…” she said. “I heard that you like classical music. I do, too, sometimes. I mean, to be honest, it isn’t my favorite. But I do try to appreciate it, you know?”
She looked up at him. He was staring intently to the left of her left shoulder.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” she said.
She came upon a thick box in the middle of the records. It was a four-album collection, entitled Classics of the Great Masters. She smiled at the hokey name, but this was what she was looking for. Obviously another donation, it looked like one of those mail-order specials that people would order off TV. It also looked as though it had never been opened, which was not entirely surprising. But a welcome discovery nonetheless.
“Let’s see what we’ve got, here: ‘First Movement, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; the William Tell Overture; the Waltz of the Flowers and other selections from the Nutcracker; Romeo and Juliet; the Flight of the Bumblebee’…not a very original collection, I’m afraid. But I suppose that’s to be expected. Anyway, the beginning might be as good a place as any to start. Or do you have any requests?”
She let the question hang there for a moment.
“The beginning it is, then,” she said, cheerfully, and removed Album 1 from its cover. She set the disk on the turntable, bypassing the stem-and-retractable-arm gadget, and set the needle in place. There was that moment of loud hissing silence as the needle found its way along the smooth outer rim, sliding to the groove, when suddenly the familiar first four notes of the Fifth Symphony blasted out like an explosion. It was hard to believe that an unassuming little device like the Highest Fidelity machine could produce such an impact. Celia looked down and saw that the three knobs, Volume, Tone, and Amp., had all been turned all the way to the right.
Not surprising, not in the least.
Instinctively, she reached down and turned the volume to a much lower setting. She was about to make similar adjustments to the other controls, when she realized that she had heard something else — something which had not come from the phonograph.
She looked up at Corey. He was staring directly at the center of the record as it turned. Not to left, not to the right. He was looking right at it. His expression bore that same intensity it always did, the suggestion that he was concentrating, working something out in his mind. But there was an added clarity. It wasn’t just that he was no longer looking to one side; he was seeing more. Somehow there was more of him in the room than there had been a few seconds before.
Corey made a sound, just the slightest grunt or yelp, but Celia caught it. It sounded like a protest. This was the first evidence she had seen that the boy had working vocal chords.
“What is it, Corey?” she said. “Do you like it louder?”
She turned the volume knob back to the right. The music was absurdly loud in the little room. Celia wasn’t sure whether Corey responded to the change — maybe he seemed to relax a little when she turned the volume up, she wasn’t sure. She watched him for a moment, then once again she turned the volume back down, lower than she had before.
“Awa,” Corey groaned, his face showing the strain of some vast internal struggle. “Awa, awa, awa.”
There was no question; he wanted the music louder. Celia turned the volume back up. She watched the boy, saw the tension ease a little as he continued to stare at the middle of the spinning album.
“Now why did your parents tell me you can’t talk?” she said aloud.
In fact, she couldn’t be sure that what she had heard was language. But the sounds Corey made were not far from the words I want as pronounced in the softened, nearly consonant-free dialect of Alice and Judy, and of most of the other children at the home. Years of experience made it easy for Celia to decipher this kind of language when she heard it. Corey’s utterances were on the borderline — maybe he was attempting to pronounce words, maybe he was just letting out a primal sound of displeasure.
Corey visibly relaxed as the music continued. His facial expression kept its intensity, but he no longer appeared to be straining. He had the look of a much older boy, or even a grown man, working through some difficult mathematical problem.
“What are you trying to figure out, Corey?” she asked. “How is the music helping you?”
When the piece concluded, Corey did not cry out. He continued to stare at the record, although his gaze began to drift to one side almost immediately. Apparently, he could tell the difference between a piece of music reaching its conclusion and having someone randomly fiddle with the volume. The former was an occasion for protest; the latter was not.
Celia remembered the board game.
Corey listened to each sequential piece, his intensity never wavering, his gaze directed at the center of the record as it turned. Celia had played both sides of the first record before she realized that it was getting close to dinner time.
“What do you say we give it a rest for now?” she asked
Corey didn’t protest (or show any response) when she slid the record back into its sleeve and closed up the phonograph. Celia considered what she had observed as she led him back to the other children. That the boy was interested in music was confirmed. What it was his parents were trying to hide remained a mystery.
She led him into the common room, where the other children were gathering for dinner, and seated him next to Joey. Caroline and Sheila had set out plates with sandwiches and celery sticks for each child, as well as bowls of tepid tomato soup for some of the older children
Grace, who was seated in her booster chair at the end of the table, waved Celia over to her.
“Miss Crawford, come here,” she said enthusiastically.
“What’s the magic word?” Celia prompted, making her way to where the little girl was sitting.
“Please, come here, Miss Crawford. Please oh please oh please.” Celia had already arrived by the time Grace got to her second please, but she decided not to interfere with the elaborate show of courtesy.
“I am here, Grace,” she said. “What is it?”
“Did you play music for Corey?”
Celia nodded. Of course, everyone in the home must have known she was playing music in the library. Even with the door closed, there was no missing it when played at that volume.
“I think Corey likes music,” Celia said.
“Yes he does. It helps him.”
That struck Celia as a curious observation.
“I don’t understand, Sweetie. What do you mean when you say it helps him?”
Grace looked over at Corey, seeming to check whether he was listening.
“Well,” she said, “you know, it kind of helps him sometimes. He wished you would play some music and now you did.”
“Yeah, it helps him,” said Judy, who was seated at the end of the table, next to Grace. She was probably paying no real attention to the conversation. She spoke simply out of the habit of agreeing with, and repeating, whatever the younger girl said.
“I see,” said Celia. “That’s interesting.”
Grace’s imagination was clearly hard at work. The little girl didn’t need imaginary friends, Caroline had once observed, when she had so many flesh-and-blood friends who were essentially blank canvasses on whom she could paint any secret lives she wished. But it was odd that she would use that phrase, it helps him, in reference to Corey’s listening to music. For lack of a more clinical description, that was exactly how Celia would have put it.
“And how do you know it helps him to listen to music?” she asked.
Grace took a bite of her grilled cheese sandwich, and didn’t respond for a moment.
“That’s why he wished for it,” she said after a moment. “Because it helps him.”
“But how do you know he wished for it?” Celia insisted.
Grace eyed Celia thoughtfully.
“Did he tell you?” she said in a half-whisper.
“Did he tell me what?”
She gestured for Celia to come closer.
“Did he tell me what?” Celia repeated, now also speaking in hushed, conspiratorial tone.
“Corey has a secret,” the little girl whispered.
Grace looked up and down the table, apparently considering whether it was appropriate for her to go on with what she was saying.
“I see,” said Celia. “How is he magic?”
“His wishes come true.”
“Oh, really?” said Celia. “How does that happen? Does he have three wishes?”
“No,” said Judy, who apparently was listening after all, even more so now that the conversation had become confidential. “He gets one wish. Then he blows out candles.”
“Right.” Alice chimed in. “Just one wish. Or it won’t come true” she said sternly.
Celia listened as the two older girls spoke, reflecting on Corey’s earlier vocalizations. It was possible that Corey had spoken. Celia was so used to the way the children in the home talked, she heard only the words. To a stranger sitting at the table, the exchange between Judy and Alice would have sounded very different. It might not have been distinguishable as language at all:
“Nuh, ee get wu wish. Din ee bluh ow cando,” Judy had said.
“Rye. Jus wu wish. Oh ee woh coh true,” Alice had replied.
“Candles on the birthday cake,” Lucinda interjected, making the exchange an official free-for-all. The subject of the upcoming party was not from any of their minds anyway.
“What kind of cake?” asked Joey.
“Chocolate,” several voices answered at once.
“Not chocolate,” said Grace. “I don’t like chocolate.”
She looked at Corey.
“Can it please be a pink cake?” she asked in a pleading voice just this side of whiney. “A pretty pink cake? Please oh please.”
“We have to remember whose birthday it is,” Celia said to the group. “It won’t be long until it’s your birthday, Grace. I’m sure you can get a pretty pink cake when the time comes. But tomorrow, we want to have a cake that we think Corey will like.”
“What kind he likes?” Lucinda asked.
“Chocolate,” the chorus answered again.
“Bet he’d like a pink cake,” said Grace.
“I think,” said Caroline, who had just emerged from the kitchen carrying a pitcher of red Kool Aid, “that Corey would like a nice yellow cake with white frosting.”
“Well, that should settle it, then,” said Celia. Caroline would already have made arrangements for the cake to be delivered the next day, and would know all the specifics. With that conclusion, the children lost interest in the subject and resumed numerous other conversations.
“Maybe he’ll wish for a pink cake,” said Grace.
“That’s enough, Grace,” said Celia.
“Well, he wished for music and he got that,” she persisted.
“How did you know that Corey wished for music?” Celia asked. “How do you know that he’s magic? Did he tell you?”
“No. He couldn’t do that.”
“Miss Crawford,” Grace answered with gentle patience. “Corey can’t talk.”
Celia laughed. The seamless mingling of fancy and reality was always startling to encounter.
“You’ve got me there, Missy. But then how do you know he’s magic? And how do you know what it is he wishes for?”
“I dreamed it,” she said, with utter nonchalance. She dropped her remaining crust of sandwich on the plate and turned to Judy. “Hey, after dinner I want to play Chutes and Ladders. I won this morning! Do you want to play?”
“Me, too!” said Alice, before the other girl could answer.
So meeting a magical boy whose wishes come true, winning a board game, it was all the same to a four-year-old. Celia decided to let the matter drop.
Corey’s birthday party took place the next day after dinner. Birthday parties at the home were a simple affair. As strapped for resources as the tiny institution was, it was all Celia could do to keep the children warm, clothed, and fed. Even providing some nominal educational and recreational activities was a strain.
Christmas was one thing. It was the only time of year when the community was able to remember that the home existed, and toys, food, and at least one tree would all find their way there with only a little prompting. But celebrating individual birthdays was a different matter. At times, it seemed like an unnecessary luxury. The practice was an artifact of the Myra years. Celia had changed many of Myra's longstanding traditions, but this practice would be a difficult to discontinue. And for all her reservations, Celia didn’t have the heart to do so.
An old, worn banner reading Happy Birthday was hung over the kitchen door, and a few balloons and scraps of crepe paper were affixed to doorways and the dinner table. The table was set with a colorful plastic table cloth with pictures of balloons. Each child was given a faded conic party hat to wear. The tiny elastic chin straps had long been lost on most of the hats, so few of them would actually stay on.
After dinner, Corey was given a stack of birthday cards made by the other children earlier that day. The cards were colorful and ornate, made from construction paper, crayons, paste, and glitter. Celia opened and read (or showed, when there were no words) each of these to the group, thanking each child individually on Corey’s behalf.
Next came the gift. Celia opened it herself, avoiding the ordeal of assigning the task to one of the children only to be met with protest by the rest of them. By scrounging, she was able to come up with a couple of dollars and had ducked out earlier that afternoon to find something for Corey. She tore off the wrapping paper, which she had applied just a few minutes before dinner. It was a record, a collection of big band music she had found in a clearance rack at the nearby discount store. There had been no classical music available.
The children applauded each of the cards in succession, but the sense of disappointment was palpable when Celia unwrapped the album. What fun could that be? But Grace, who was seated next to Corey, was pleased with the gift and cheered when she saw it. Out of habit, the other children followed suit.
For his part, Corey registered no comprehension that any of this was going on. Celia decided to forego the games that would ordinarily be part of a birthday party. This left only the item that the children were most interested in: the cake. With a nod from Celia, Caroline and Sheila went into the kitchen. A moment later, Caroline came back out and switched off the overhead light in the dining room. She held the kitchen door open for Sheila, who walked into the dining room carrying the cake, brightly lighted by the flames of its tiny candles.
The frosting on the cake was a vivid pink color.
“Okay, everybody?” Celia said, and started the children singing the happy birthday song. She made her way around the table, wanting to ask Caroline about the change of plan with the cake. Why would she choose to indulge Grace this way? Didn’t she know it was inappropriate?
But before she could speak, Caroline had a question of her own.
“When did you do it?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“The cake. When did you call the bakery and tell them to change it?”
Celia shook her head.
“What…what are you talking about?”
“What are you talking about?” Caroline asked. “I ordered a yellow cake with white frosting, same as always. Are you telling me this was some kind of mistake?”
That was an excellent question.
“You’re kidding, right?”
Caroline shook her head.
“I’m kidding? Come on, I know Grace is your favorite of yours, but really. Isn’t this taking it just a little too far?”
Celia shook her head.
“I didn't call them,” she said.
At the end of the table, Sheila and Grace blew out Corey’s candles for him, followed by a round of applause from the rest of the children.
“What did you wish for?” Alice asked Corey.
That, thought Celia, was another excellent question.