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15 - Going Nowhere

Kyiv's Independence Square
One of Meg's photos of Kyiv's Independence Square, taken from Globus's eastern terrace.

Come from a country that Canada doesn't like, and they make it impossible to get a visa. Unless, of course, you're stinking rich. Apart from a passport, Elena needed to show the Canadian consulate at least ten thousand dollars -- in a Russian bank account -- along with various assets, real estate holdings, and financial ties to Russia. Just to get a lousy, tourist visa!? That's not even taking into account the many crazy-stupid-impossible-to-get documents her parents were holding hostage.

With my ninja ostrich powers of denial -- and a delusional confidence in my ability to survive the impossible or die-trying-and-then-what-difference-does-it-make-anyway -- we concentrated on the least complicated part of the equation: the money. Elena steeled herself to call her weird Uncle in Volgograd; the one that gave her twenty thousand shares of Gazprom.

I caught dulcet wafts of contrite groveling from her side of the conversation. Then, silence.

Elena padded into the kitchenette. "He said he'd call back."

"I suppose he needs to confirm the transfer codes for your bank account?"

"I don't have a bank account."

"Are you kidding me!?"

"Don't look at me like that. Russians don't have bank accounts."

"I've never met anyone over the age of six without a bank account: Russian, pescatarian, episcopalian or otherwise. So what's he going to do? Write a note to the Canadian ambassador, 'Dear Grand Nagus, kindly rest assured, I have vast black-market and money-laundering profits in safe keeping for little Lenna's field-trip to Canada.' "

"Maybe." Elena glared at me through tears. "You told me to call him!"

"You told me he gave you a shitload of stocks."

"Gave to my mother! To buy for me and Dima an apartment."

She'd forgotten to tell me that part, or that her mother held all her so-called assets. "Well, shit on a stick! Money, shares, whatever in someone else's account sure won't get you past the Canadian visa sentinels."

Elena, stared out the kitchenette window. Unresponsive.

"We can set you up with a bank account here. Seed it with who-in-hell-knows what funds." That it would be in Ukraine, not Russia, and in existence for mere days, were complications yet to make it through my brain's electrical storm of synaptic activity.

The phone rang.

Elena bolted from the kitchenette. Her tiny, mobile phone -- the one Uncle Kolya had the number for -- was lying on the table. It was not ringing. Crap! It was the apartment's land-line.

Elena sounded nervous, shrill, contrite -- frightened. My blood ran cold. The scary uncle knew where we were.

Elena dropped the receiver, marched to the kitchenette, grabbed the Nemiroff. "Mama went to him. I know it." She poured herself a recklessly stiff belt of Ukrainian, pepper and honey vodka. An embalmed cayenne, having escaped the bottle during Elena's vigorous pour, spun lazy circles in her glass.

"He said for me to go to Mama. To her, he will tell that I am asking from him, money." She took a huge swallow. I don't know if she saw the deadly pepper -- the mescal worm's fiery proxy -- but it was still there when she banged the glass down.

Kyiv Prokuratura with GESTAPO sign
A brave soul took it upon her/himself to provide the Prokuratura an appropriate moniker: GESTAPO

* * *

Something was up. The gatekeeper didn't leave his hut at our approach. A sheet of semitransparent glazing slid aside. The guard's formerly amiable mug filled the opening. "Your detective friend doesn't work here anymore. Go away!"

"We need a police report. This is the detachment that dealt with my case. Can we see someone else to..."

The scuffed, acrylic panel snapped shut in her face.

Elena dialed our friendly detective. No answer. She called the detachment's front desk and got the same runaround: "Doesn't work here anymore. Don't give out police reports. Don't come back!"

Khreschaitik avenue Kyiv
Scenes from a Sunday afternoon on Khreschaitik

* * *

"Slag it. These poxy sods couldn't get a piss-up in a brewery. Let's take it up the food chain"

"What?" Elena gave me a funny look.

"Go to their boss. The top banana. Demand a freaking police report. These knuckle draggers have to have a head office. Someplace we can file a complaint."

"Complain about militsia! In Russia?"

"No, here. In Kyiv."

"That is what I mean. Oye-yoy-yoy, complain to boss of police about police not giving report. You insane? Nobody does such a thing."

Lenin and other sociopaths
Paintings of Lenin and other sociopaths are now enticing buys for the discerning collector of totalitarian talismans.

* * *

A crumbling, Napoleonic barracks housed the police headquarters. Officers lolled on the front steps, shirts unbuttoned, smoking, drinking and belching.

There was no sign on the chief's door. No pompous, star and shield emblem promising to serve and protect. Given this was the office of the loftiest cop in Kyiv, someone could have at least dangled a big pine cone from the doorknob. A pair of rough, middle-age women -- hair bleached with industrial solvent -- sat behind desks, smoking and yacking.

"Eh-hem." Elena tried to get their attention.

"What!" One of the charmers snapped. "Who do you think you are? You can't be here!"

"We would like to see the chief of police. If you would be so kind." Elena said.

"No!" She stormed toward the counter. Her compatriot made a chainsaw-like, raspy noise. "Nobody sees Him. Get out of here!"

Black market kiosks in Kyiv
Acres of unheated but covered, black-market kiosks provide Kyivians with otherwise unattainable goods: cosmetics, tobacco, pharmaceuticals, electronics, entertainment, shoes, clothing, software, car parts, even financial services.

"But... my passport was stolen and..."

"Go to a police station. We don't handle crimes here."

An unspeakably well-dressed gentleman emerged from the inner office. Instantaneously, both women character-morphed into something more human.

Elena took advantage of the distraction. "I have already reported the crime. I am here to complain that the police at the station where it happened won't give me a police report."

"So what? We don't do that sort of thing here."

"Then I want to speak to the chief!" Elena growled. I was impressed, growling and hackle raising had always been my prerogative alone.

"Young lady, do you think just anyone can see the chief of police?"

Elena turned to me and said in English, "Meg, it is useless to deal with these women, nowhere it will get us."

Time stopped. In that very nanosecond the entire universe shifted.

English. Was. Spoken!

Absolute silence ensued, until: "... But ladies, The Chief is a very busy man. It may be difficult to get an appointment..."

"Meg, she wants a bribe!" Elena spun to storm out. She nearly crashed into the nattily attired gentleman.

Black Market shopping in Kyiv
More black market shopping ops for the big shishkas (in the Mercedes) and regular sods (marsh-root-kah mini-bus), alike.

He was quietly perusing the contents of a manila folder behind us. "Tanya, Svetlana," he called the office lovelies by name. "I have just been with the chief. He is not busy. Perhaps he will see these ladies now."

In perfectly accented English, he told us, "You must forgive the girls here. They take their jobs a little too seriously. Shall we see if the chief will see you?" He breezed past the counter and opened one of the double doors.

The air -- if you can call it that, given it would kill anything that breathed -- was thick with swirling cigar smoke. Deeper into the murk, a desk you could land a plane on materialized through the smog. Then -- and this is where you'll want to imagine the theme from The Godfather -- Don Corleone leaned forward. A sickly shaft of light through clouds of smoke illuminated his face. "You never betray the family..." Or that's what I expected to hear. More than likely, he said, "What is this? Who are these women?"

Elena told him the whole story and requested a police report, or better yet, her passport back from the woman who stole it.

The chief reclined, sighed, turned his hands palms up, like he had to carefully count his fingers. "What you have done is terrible. How dare you barge into my office demanding that my officers participate in your depravity. Against your own parents! My heart hurts for your mother, for your family. I do not know how it is that you got away with this... Were I there, you would have been on that train to Russia and you would be at your poor mother's feet, begging her forgiveness."

Elena interrupted. "I have committed a crime?"

"Sadly, no. All I can do is say how dangerous Ukraine is for certain kinds of people."

"I don't understand. What kinds of people, criminals?"

He leaned forward. Looked the two of us up and down. In my trashed, ice-age megafauna hoodie I looked like something thawed from a glacier. Elena slumped forward, defeated. "He thinks we are gay." She said in English.

"Are you not?" Nobody spoke. After a pause so pregnant it might as well have been in labor, the chief switched to English. He told us that nice girls can't possibly love each other. To stop our nonsense and go home to our boyfriends in Russia and Canada. Satisfied, he sank back in his overstuffed chair and asked for our address in Kyiv.

Elena rattled off the Canadian Embassy's address.

The Chief went nuclear. The two of us and the well-dressed man flew from his office like teenagers from the liquor cabinet at the sound of the garage door.

In the corridor, Dapper Man warned us to get out of Kyiv and do it quickly and quietly. Walking away, he added, "Make sure you aren't followed."

The Ukrainian Prokuratura building
The Prokuratura from Elena and Meg's flat. The watched watching the watchers.

* * *

It takes special negotiation skills to get a police report in a former Soviet republic. By then, I was good enough at it to write a For Dummies book on the subject. I marched toward the central train station's police detachment, fixed a steely gaze upon the gatekeeper's hut, called out in a loud, clear voice... and offered a bribe.

Twenty bucks got us inside. The officer we hired for the police report didn't give a rat's ass about the incident at McDonald's. He hunched over a desk in one of the interrogation rooms and took dictation from Elena. She would get out a tiny phrase or a sentence fragment. He'd raise a hand to stop her then translate her spoken Russian into excruciatingly slow, longhand Ukrainian.

Elena could have told him anything -- flying saucers, alien abduction, getting mugged by her own parents: totally unbelievable stuff -- and he would have written it down. Finally, we all signed it. I slipped the officer a couple of twenties, and he escorted us off the premises.

Outdoor shopping in Kyiv
Outdoor shopping in Kyiv

* * *

I'm pretty sure the inspiration for Star Trek's evil Borg collective came from what's left of the USSR. The Russian Embassy and Consulate in Kyiv even resembles a Borg cube. Ironically, the building was draped with a huge banner for the environmentalist, Green Party of Ukraine. A nod toward a kinder, gentler Russia? A bizarre opposite color statement about the Orange Revolution? A Borg cube in drag? Nobody knows.

The ground floor was a yawning expanse of row upon row of long, narrow tables, bulletin boards and form dispensers. Dozens of people moved in shuffles, broken, bent over, dragged down by their heavy coats. Endless sheets of printed instructions were pinned to the walls. If there had been a piped in funeral dirge and a dead, bald guy under glass, it could have been the Lenin mausoleum's warehouse outlet.

Ukrainian militsia in Kyiv
The boys in blue polyester. Gatherings like this, Elena and Meg thought best to avoid.

Elena found the instruction set for replacement of passport and started reading through the steps. Her face got whiter, her cheeks redder, eyes hollower, and then, "This is impossible! Let's go home." She needed dozens of impossible to get documents, statements, permissions, references and letters.

"This is a consulate, right? We need to speak to a consular official, agent or clerk."

"Nobody will talk to you."

I felt for my wallet. It was dangerously thin. She might be right. "But we have to try."

The consular officials were a couple of men in a dingy office off the foyer. They prattled on, finishing each other's sentences like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. And just like Shakespeare's beloved characters, they turned out to be just as useless. They clung to the list of required documents, finally concluding that nobody in the entire history of Russia had replaced a passport anywhere but back home in Russia.

And then, they threw us out.

Percherskaya Lavra
Kyiv's Percherskaya Larva a close by retreat for Elena and Meg.

* * *

Wandering aimlessly on Khreschaitik, Elena had a sudden urge to buy a world map. "Need a destination, a goal, something to work toward, Meg." She handed the clerk several Ukrainian hryvnias. "I need to know where we are going, where I can go."

In Kofe Hauz at the Globus Mall our new map became an impromptu tablecloth. Ukraine was a cinnamon roll sized, amoebic shape. My coffee press occupied the Black Sea. Poland had been invaded by sugar packets. Bright red gloves obscured Western Russia. Canada dangled off the table, down by the floor.

I pointed at a narrow strip of Russia between eastern Ukraine and Kazakhstan, covering the city of Volgograd with my thumb. That's where Uncle Paranoid and most of Elena's relatives were. "Look, it's easy. We cross Russia here, go overland, hitch-hike, blend in, slip into Kazakhstan unnoticed, and then make a beeline for China."

"China?" Elena raised her seriously over plucked brows.

Kofe Hauz in Globus Mall Kyiv
Kofe Hauz in Globus Mall's above ground atrium.

"Yeah, China. They have snake-heads: people smugglers. They smuggle people to Canada. I left out the bits about sinking boats, disease, death, starvation, drowning, arrest and internment in Canadian concentration camps then forced repatriation to China. No point dwelling on the negative when it's all you've got to go on.

"China, it is not so close. Not small to cross." Elena lifted the eastern edge of the map. "It is huge. So also is Kazakhstan!" She had the map unfurled nearly to the next table. "And you speak Chinese?" She had a way of raining on the best of parades. "You think they won't arrest us crossing Russia to Kazakhstan? Oye yoy yoy, choo-meech-kah, it is impossible." She let the map and everything east of the Ural Mountains drift floorward. "Why so far? Maybe Poland is better?"

"I suppose it would be easier to get to. It's European Union. It's closer. We could buy some winter clothes and hiking boots. Sneak across the border on foot in the dead of night, then what?" I lifted my mug from Norway, slurped lukewarm, designer coffee. I was pretty sure that a couple of tough guys, one with a Mohawk, were watching us. It felt like absolutely everyone was. "We'd be in Poland, but we'd be illegal. Still couldn't go anywhere. Could be arrested at any time."

Typical losers at the Globus mall
Globus Mall's atrium gawkers. Usually men, stupefied by boredom.

"Maybe passport, I can get one there?"

"How? Buy one?"

"Yeah, buy one. Meg, what choice do we have? My country won't give me passport here in Ukraine." She stared at a mystery pastry she had big eyes for when we ordered. Before our spirit crushing quest-for-destination stifled her appetite. "What it would cost?"

"A lot! Besides that, it's bloody illegal.

"But jail in the West is better than mental hospital in Russia." Elena stabbed at her pastry with a plastic fork.

It drove me crazy! Did she think I was made of money? "Just eat it. You ordered it." I had night sweats over every dollar or hrvynia we killed along with time. Counting every kopeck and cringing inside when she scanned display shelves and pointed at her stomach's desire. "They would only put you in jail long enough to send you back to Russia."

She impaled the overpriced, mini carbohydrate-cow-pie through its crown of fluorescent jelly. She started spinning it like a top. "Meg, I hate that because of me, you are stuck here."

"Oh for dog's sake, give me that!" I snatched the pastry. I'd have to eat the damned thing anyway, or it would end up partially gnawed on, wadded into a paper napkin and stuffed into a pocket to rot. I sure as hell wasn't wasting it. "I'm not stuck. Neither are you." I took a bite, the pastry was horrible. I wondered how many RPM it would go before flying apart and killing someone at an adjacent table. "We will get out of here... soon. It's not like we have an alternative."

Khreschaitik Boulevard Kyiv
Khreschaitik Boulevard closed to traffic on Sundays, becomes an interesting, politicized and rather inebriated stroll by late afternoon.

* * *

Leaving the Percherskaya subway station, it was a sure bet we were being followed. We shoved our way up the escalator and out onto the Central Election Commission's public square. Blowing snow provided some cover, but the square was deserted. "If that guy was following us, and we don't high-tail it, we're sitting ducks."

"Ducks!? Meg, what ducks?"

"Forget it! I'm just weird." A clot of pedestrians had almost cleared the Kutuzova Boulevard crossing. I grabbed Elena and hauled ass toward them. Nearly there, the howling of a seriously over-revved car engine stopped me dead. A white Lada, its tires snarling on the ice, fishtailed though the red light right at us.

I shoved Elena toward the curb a microsecond before the compact's grillwork buckled my knees from behind. My ass caved in the car's tin-can hood. It still had more than enough momentum to bounce me off the windshield on the passenger's side and slam me, back first, onto the road. The impact drove my knees up and into my chest.

On my back, winded, hugging my knees, I saw in photographic detail, the right door leave its frame. The passenger -- looked like a skinhead -- was shouldering it open. His expression was not one of concern for my wellbeing! Pivoting off my shoulders and arching my back, I pistoned my feet toward the opening car door. My gloriously heavy, clod-hopper, wedgie tall-boots impacted the door squarely. It crumpled like a beer can at a faculty barbecue. From the screaming I heard over all the car horns, I figure it got the guy's fingers. Like lightning, I was on my feet and scrambling for the curb.

corner of Kutuzova and Lesi Ukrainki
The corner of Kutuzova and Lesi Ukrainki. Where Meg got hit by a car.

Elena was frozen. I yanked her back to reality. "Run!"

She lurched into a sprint.

The Lada's RPM red-lined. We weren't looking back to watch it mount the sidewalk, but the sickeningly expensive crunch it made was a good indication that should the vehicle survive it was coming for us. The punks in pursuit had urban geography on their side. The wide sidewalk was hemmed in by a palisade of buildings on one side and the boulevard on the other. Ideal for mowing us down.

An opening into a typical Soviet courtyard lay dead ahead. We lateraled right, ducking through before we became road kill. The Lada skidded past. Where to? No idea. We weren't hanging around to find out. The so-called courtyard was a vertical sided crater walled off by several abutting apartment blocks. Those buildings, like the one we lived in, were accessed by stairwells. No corridors, just stairwell shafts up through stacks of flats. For any given unit there was only one way in and only one way out. Communal, exterior doors at the bottom of each shaft are usually heavy, steel and self-locking. I scanned one door after another, desperate to see light leaking out around its edges. A sign it had been left ajar.

Meg Stone is a vehicle passageway is post Soviet Ukraine
Meg loiters in a typical vehicle passageway through a building.

The sound of hollered threats and jack-boots pounding pavement ricocheted around the courtyard.

A sliver of light. "Yes!" I whirled, slammed into Elena. "Don't shut please-please-please!" I got my hand between the door and its frame and yarded it open. We flew through into the stairwell, pulling the handle hard behind us.

Crash! The door slammed and locked. The skinheads piled into it.

Man, were those dudes pissed! And the expletives could've put a longshoremen to shame. Russian, Ukrainian, English, even some unbelievably filthy French.

With the dudes going totally ape-shit on the other side of the door, I propelled Elena toward the stairs. "Go!"

"Where?"

"Up! Just climb." She took off. I lunged for the elevator, punched every button it had, leaped out and followed her up. How long the outer door would hold; how long before some idiot let the shrieking meth-heads in; how long anything!? I had no freaking idea. I was making it all up as we went along.

Soviet residential construction
This landing between floors in Elena and Meg's pod-yest stairwell is typical of this ubiquitous architectural feature of Soviet residential construction.

We stopped climbing five or six stories up. Chests heaving, throats burning. It sounded like the skinheads had given up or gone into silent ambush mode.

"Well, shit! What now, Lenna?" We were up a stairwell with a couple of crazed lunatics down below. Probably extra ornery, seeing as I attacked their little car. "We've been treed."

"Treed? Nyet, etta shest." Elena gave me the correct floor number -- six -- in Russian. If you were paying attention, maybe taking notes in the first chapter, you would know that tree is three in Russian.

"No, my dear, treed, like stupid hikers chased up a tree by a bear."

Elena dropped her ass to the landing. Her forest-green Doc Martin's rested on the step below that. The floors above might have been abandoned. The only source of light was an eerie, mercury vapor glow oozing in through filthy stairwell windows. Hugging her knees, she asked, "So that we not are treed, what now to do?"

"I have no idea." I eased myself down beside her. Everything was starting to hurt. "I guess we wait until they're gone, then leave, one at a time."

Kyiv Prokuratura at night
The Prokuratura is lit by sodium vapor in this shot from Meg and Elena's flat.

* * *

The Prokuratura loomed over us. Sodium vapor light lit everything in extreme contrast, electric-orange monochrome. We were home.

Elena punched in the key code, hid behind the heavy exterior door and pulled it open. I stood off, watching for ambushers. Nothing. Just our own familiar stairwell. We crept up the stairs peering around corners. None of the absurdly upholstered, front doors burst open or sat ajar. Muffled squawking from TV sets leaked into the stairwell along with the usual sounds of domestic life. Our own tufted vinyl door was locked and apparently untouched. Neck muscles tightening, I inserted the key and turned it.

Rediculous doors in post Soviet Ukraine
Tufted vinyl over armor (steel plating), adorns the outer doors of many a post-Soviet abode.

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