The Russians followed a plain clothes officer to a locked room on the second floor. "You wait. I will talk to your parents first, then you." He addressed Elena.
She found herself alone in dark corridor. Large windows at either end glowed colorlessly. Light making the one and a half million kilometers to Earth, ricocheting through overcast, then surviving the crusty windows, got no more than a couple of meters before succumbing to the gloom. Elena turned to her right. She could have gone left, it didn't matter. She barely knew where she was. Stress gnawed at her. Visceral sirens screamed, panic, terror, confusion. She knew I was outside in a winter storm, and that everything she had known about her life and family, growing up, was a lie. She defied an overwhelming desire fall apart, crumble.
She shuffled her feet on the gritty floor. Large tiles had come lose. Some had broken. They screeched, cracked and popped under load. One step at a time, she made it into a delta of dead daylight at one end of the corridor. Through the window, and its lacy coating of filth, Elena saw me out in the compound. Her heart beat a little slower, a bit stronger. I was still there. I hadn't run away. It gave her hope.
Loose tiles crunched and screeched behind her. "Lady! You there..." Scrunch, skreee.
She turned, struggling to make sense of a hulking shape, silhouetted in the gloom by the opposite window.
"You can not be here. It is off limits." A youngish officer towered over her. He didn't wait for a response, just kept going. Past Elena, down the stairs, and then, out a side door. A moment later she watched him plow a track through the deepening snow, straight for the iron gate, we had all come through, a lifetime ago.
"Shit, shit, shit..." I muttered under my hood. It felt like an eternity -- but was probably, only fifteen minutes -- since my run-in with the telephone-hating gate-Nazi. Then, all of a sudden, a side door crashes open and some Mack truck in a police uniform is coming right at me. What now? I just stood there: my turn for deer-in-the-headlights. My boots had probably frozen to the tarmac anyway. Whew! Robocop trudged right past. Turning my head to watch him pass, I got a face-full of polyester fur lining. Apparently, my mastodon hide coat was ice encrusted and frozen solid. Kind of like wearing an igloo.
More than an hour later, having accumulated a nearly bulletproof layer of rime ice, I was still standing there. Literally, freezing to death. It had occurred to me, that between the cops and robbers, bets on my endurance were being made. I figured, it was only a matter of minutes before retreat to a public building, like McDonald's or the train station, would save my life. Maybe that was the deal the cops had in mind. Regardless, it would come down to being damn sure I was actually going to die before I abandoned Elena. Anyway, if it came to that, my life wouldn't be worth a tin kopek -- so I froze.
A door opened in the corridor. Elena heard footsteps and her parents' muted voices. The plain-clothes officer they'd gone in with passed Elena and headed down the same stairs big cop descended earlier. Mama lurched toward Elena, the overnight travel bag she clung to, throwing her off kilter. Elena was pretty sure, that's where her passport was, but was still in too much shock to ask for it. She turned her back on them.
Mama cranked up the theatrics, putting on a show: such a travesty, red face, tears. Papa held the brave lioness, keeping her cub from the hyenas until the very end. Embarrassing, Elena thought, moving away from them. Further down the corridor, she faced the opposite window. Aware of something within her psyche, pleased with whatever it was: determination, strength, and the will to fight for herself.
"Hey, woman!" Someone yelled from across the compound. "You, there! Come here."
Boredom and the onset of hypothermia had me blissfully meditating on the turbulent flow of my own breath. I was watching it with detached interest, forming a condensate that swirled from the ice cave formed by my hood. Earlier, I had managed to produce smoke rings; well, not actual smoke rings, but fog rings. Concern, pain, frustration, and boredom made for a Zen-like opportunity to get up-close-and-personal with the physical properties of the universe. It's kind-of a ninja, mind-deflection technique for dealing with stress.
"You there! Amerikanka..." Then in English, "Ahhh-mar-eee-can lay-dee!" Louder this time. From somewhere close.
Ah ha! I clued in. Being the only American human popsicle around, it must have been me getting yelled at. My boots really had frozen to the ground, and it took a bit of effort to break them free. With the swipe of a hand, I broke the icicles from my hood and looked up.
The gate guard stood, half in, half out of his shack, gesturing toward a man holding the side door of the police detachment open.
"It is very possible, we see this all the time, I am a detective. This is the work I do. I save girls like you from fates worse than death. The ones I do not save, I hear about, or they are never heard from again. I see it in movies. They are getting killed. Right there, on film." The plainclothes cop did his level-best to get through to Elena. To save her from me: the evil foreigner, sitting right there beside her, pretending I didn't understand a word he said. "Your parents know what is best for you. This woman," he gestured at me, "she is a cult leader. She takes innocent girls and turns them into prostitutes." It was Elena's and my turn in the bare office -- interrogation room -- with the plainclothes man on the second floor. Mama and Papa waited in the corridor.
Having seen her father's inkjet printed sheets, endured their slurs and accusations in McDonald's, Elena knew the detective was regurgitating her parents' twisted fiction. She turned to me, summed up what he had said, in translation. "He says you are a cult leader, that you will turn me into a prostitute,"
"I got most of that. He's baiting me, they all are." I was running on the assumption that he couldn't follow in English.
"Baiting? What it is that you mean by this, bay-ting?" Elena asked.
"They want you to fight, to act out, get violent. That way they can fight back harder. Makes it look like you are the one fighting. They want to make you go crazy. Lose control."
"You say, 'you.' Do you mean, me?"
"Yes, you... too. Especially you." That's when I noticed the cop leaning over the bare, institutional desk. Okay, so he had some English comprehension skills. I sat back, focused on the plainclothes man, shot him a contrived smile.
Elena caught on, did the same.
He stood, started pacing, went on with his well practiced pontification of the horrors facing pretty white girls sold into sexual slavery. Without much of an audience reaction, he ramped it up by explaining that when they were spent sexually their organs were sold for transplant. So, that didn't work, he changed tack. "Drugs! She sells drugs! That's it. She hasn't drugged you, has she?" Elena shook her head. "She works for a cartel. They," he pointed at me, "bring drugs into Ukraine. Tonnes of drugs: heroine; cocaine... even crack!" This went on for almost an hour. The results were less than stellar. Defeated -- or just plain exhausted -- he sat down, leaned back. Expressed overwhelming concern, with a sigh and a look.
After a pause for some heavy breathing and blank stares, Elena asked, "So, can we go now?"
"Aaaah, didn't you hear me? That woman," plainclothes man jabbed a finger theatrically at me, "is dangerous. Your parents want to take you home and keep you safe. Your fiance is waiting for you. He is worried."
"I am not going back. I have done nothing wrong. Do not I have a right to stay in Ukraine?"
Another blank stare at a totally unexpected response. "Ah, show me your passport."
Elena handed him her Soviet, internal passport. A useless document outside the former USSR. It got her into Ukraine and let her be there for three months. The detective knew it, still he asked, "You don't have an international passport?"
"It's gone. I had it in McDonald's, then it was missing after my mother took my bag."
A look of utter relief flashed over plainclothes man's face. "Ah, so you can't go anywhere, but to Russia." After a paternal sigh, he continued. "Go back home with your mother and father. There is an evening train. You can have a nice dinner, some wine, say you are sorry for such..."
"I can stay in Ukraine: yes?"
He rifled through her internal travel document. Found the Borispol entry stamp. Probably wishing it was in the missing passport, instead, so he could boot her out of the country. "Yes, you have a legal right to stay here, but not for long." Through gritted teeth, he added, "And I can't stop you from letting this woman sell you for sex, drug, kill..."
"Can you get my passport from my mother?" Elena cut him off.
"What a thing to ask!" He flipped the internal passport onto the desk. "What proof do you have that she has it? I can not make such accusations of an innocent person!" He turned to me, demanded I give him my passport.
It took me by surprise. A couple of seconds later, I got that he was speaking to me. "My passport!?" Last thing I'd hand over to that guy. "No! Certainly not."
He glared at Elena. "Tell her, I can have her arrested -- right now. Thrown in jail! She is in a foreign country. She is probably a criminal. Tell her! Tell her that. Tell her that if you do not go back to Russia, right now, your safety becomes my concern."
"Show him your passport, please Meg, I want to get out of here." Elena begged.
He snatched it, stood up and went for the door. "I am making a copy, and one for your parents. They can know who to ask for your remains."
"Holy crap!" I said when he left with my passport.
"This crap," Elena asked, also in English, "why is it holy? Blessed by the pope?"
I laughed. "Good point."
"Good thing we didn't give my mother our address."
I was well aware of the our in her sentence about the address. Damn, did I love her. "Now you can see why I wasn't open to putting her up at our place, or giving her the address?" Also, I couldn't help but notice that Elena was doing better. A lot better than she had been, half conscious, locked in her parents' embrace outside McDonald's. "You don't seem so worried."
"No this is bad. I am so sorry you are in this." She took my hand. "But if the police could send me back, or if they could arrest you, or anything, they would have done it by now."
"Then why am I sitting here, being told I am a serial killer, getting my passport handed to the crazy bastards that attacked us?"
"Because you are a foreigner."
"What, that's illegal now?"
"No. But if you weren't here, I'd be on that train, tied with rope if they had to. It would be over." Elena sat back, looked me up and down. "To them you are a rich western woman. You are wearing fur..."
"It's fake!" I would've added, and bloodstained, ruined…
"... Wearing an expensive looking coat. You can call your western consulate, make a lot of noise..."
"Right, so, if they know that..." I was suddenly reminded of the gate guard's irrational fear of phones.
"... They think they can get money from you!"
"All of this is a huge freaking show and dance for a bloody bribe!"
"That's how it's done here," then she added, "in Russia."
Plainclothes man burst through the door, tossed my passport onto the desk, and slam-sat into his chair. He stared, first at Elena, then at me. Finally, shaking his head slowly, disapprovingly. "Okay, where are you staying in Kiev?" He slapped down two thick sheaves of copy paper: two copies of my passport, all of its pages, my drivers license with my -- now Bernadette's -- home address. He hauled his chair closer to the desk, and hunched over the copies with a pen at the ready.
Elena asked why. Before plainclothes man could answer, I was rattling off the address of some building that we'd seen, and rather liked, on one of our downtown Kiev sojourns. I really hoped it wasn't some secret police headquarters, or infamous den of ill repute. I knew its first floor housed the South Korean consulate, and for some reason, I had managed to recall its address.
Plainclothes man didn't look up. He scrawled the address onto both copies: one for the cop-shop, one for Elena's parents. "You two are free to go." He half grumbled, muttered.
"Really?" Elena asked.
"Yes," at this, he looked up, conjured up a concerned expression. "Just one thing, be careful here. In Kiev and generally, in Ukraine, your kind is not liked here. It is good to have friends here."
I thanked him, wanting nothing more than to get the hell out of there.
"Thanks: the bread, it will not butter!" Even I recognized the ubiquitous, clichéd line from Soviet detective movies. Believe me, it sounds a lot better in Russian. But the gist of it is, bribes go a lot further than words.
Elena went for the door, let herself out. I stood. Plainclothes man positioned himself between me and the door. "Good to have friends in the police." He chided.
Right. I dug out my wallet, wishing I'd kept my cash in a wad. That way, I could peel off bills without showing the creep my entire stash. Obviously, I hadn't been thinking of the need to bribe the cops on my way out that morning. I slid a bill from my wallet, not looking at it, and opening the wallet only enough to get it out.
He took it, looked at it -- an American twenty. "Chocolates for my girlfriend. Not even flowers and a bottle of wine! Surely, friends don't want their good friends to treat their sweethearts so shabbily."
I thumbed out four more twenties.
He closed his fist on the hundred bucks, sneering, "I'm sure you give much more for your Russian sweetheart, but I am just a Ukrainian bastard to you, rich foreigner."
Elena was in the corridor, standing off from her parents. Nobody was talking. The detective followed me out of the office, approached Mama and Papa to break the bad news: they couldn't just snatch an adult and drag her back to Russia. Of course, it had more to do the bribe than any actual laws, and they probably knew it. Their disposition didn't improve. Papa was ready to come out swinging, plainclothes man convinced him, it wasn't in his favor. Mama started keening. Their plan was trashed. They had failed.
"Go!" Plainclothes man ordered. "I can only keep them here so long."
Mama surged forward. My heart stopped as she grabbed Elena's arm and shoved something into her palm. The detective whirled, ready to drag her off, but Mama had already let go. "The hell with you! Live as you want." She growled at her daughter.
We were literally running over the clattering tiles. Then down the stairs and back into the blizzard. The cold never felt so good. We trudged as fast as we could through knee-deep, unbroken snow. Approaching the iron gate, the guard, still wearing his machine gun, stepped from his shack, taking up a position between us, the gate, and freedom beyond it.
"You, American girl! How lucky for you that I turned those men away." He started in, as we approached.
"What men?" Elena asked, before I could figure out what he was saying.
"You do not know? While you were in the detachment building, men... dangerous men, they came to find your..." he hesitated, "... girlfriend."
Elena translated for me.
"What?" I blurted, in English.
"It is okay!" He assured us. "I have sent them away. I would not let them into the compound to harm you. They do not like girls like you."
"Who are these men?" I asked. "What is going on?"
He ignored my questions, kept talking to Elena. "Your kind is not safe here, but I kept the men away." His gaze darted between Elena and me, looking for some kind of recognition. "Big, dangerous men! The kind that do not like girls like you." Still not getting the appropriate response, he added, "Good thing to have a friend at the gate, to know to keep out the big, dangerous men."
Right! There it was: the keyword -- friend. I shoved a hand into my pocket, one handed another US twenty from my wallet, slapped it into the guard's palm, hoped it was enough. I was pretty sure my well was running dry.
He snorted, spat, and opened the gate just enough to let us out.