The rapidly rising cost of bribes had us -- well me, in particular -- worried about the cash supply. Additionally, our visit to the Canadian consulate shed light on an unfathomed, yet, far from trivial complication, immigration politics: one's optics must promote the current Canada brand. Un-trendy sods -- or those from countries out of political favor -- are kept from Canada at all cost. Well, maybe not at all cost, just really high cost. Keeping up appearances requires filtering out the riffraff -- like Elena, or Jews fleeing Nazi Germany -- with draconian financial and legal conditions. Of course, these eh hem conditions are mere trifles to the elite, the warlords, the disgraced dictators, the mobsters, and the perpetrators of crimes against humanity. In short, 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 tourist visa. That's not even taking into account the many crazy-stupid-impossible-to-get documents her parents were holding ransom.
With my ninja, ostrich-like 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 called her weird Uncle in Volgograd; the one that promised her twenty thousand shares of Gazprom.
I left her perched on the living room windowsill, clutching my supposedly untraceable cell phone, and looking cadaverous. From the kitchenette, I caught dulcet wafts of contrite groveling from her side of the conversation, Then, silence.
"Everything okay?" I hollered. "I made tea, or something like it."
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." Elena stated, quite mater-of-fact.
My turn for stunned silence.
"Don't look at me like that. Russians don't have bank accounts."
"Whoa! 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 that he gave you a shitload of stocks."
"Gave to my mother, to buy for me and Dima an apartment."
She'd either forgotten to tell me that part, and the bit about all her resources all being under the control of the bank of Mama, or I'd missed the memo. "Well, shit on a stick! Money, shares, whatever, in someone else's account, sure won't get you past the Canadian visa sentinels."
Elena, staring out the kitchenette window, was unresponsive.
"I guess we can set you up with a bank account, right here, in Kiev. Then seed it with who-in-hell-knows what funds." That it would be in Ukraine which -- Mr. Putin, you might want to take note of this -- is not Russia, and that it would only have been in existence for mere days, were complications that hadn't made it through my brain's electrical storm of synaptic activity at the time.
The phone rang.
Elena bolted from the kitchenette to answer it. Her tiny, purple cell phone -- the one Uncle Kolya had the number for -- was lying on the table, not ringing. It didn't hit me until she'd picked up the apartment's land-line. Maybe it was a wrong number, or the consulate, or Ed McMahon with my Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes check. Yeah, we're okay. Calm down. Breathe in, breathe out. Then, the police department! Yeah, that's it, someone found her passport, turned it in.
Elena sounded nervous, shrill, contrite -- frightened. The scary uncle! My blood ran cold. He called the land-line! With a reverse look up he'd know exactly where we are.
I whispered, "Give him the Embassy's address."
She waved me off.
The receiver clattered in its cradle. Elena marched into the kitchenette, grabbed the Nemiroff. "Mama went to him. I know it." She poured herself a recklessly stiff belt of the 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, but it was still there when she banged her glass down. "Then, to me he told that Dima brings money to Kiev if I say address." Hand shaking, she raised her glass. The pepper danced in the golden vodka, the mescal worm's fiery proxy.
"I never told him I was in Kiev. He knew nothing about me and Dima before." Glass to lips, she started to sip, then her eyes crossed and rolled down. "Oye, Pepper!" In Russian. She fished it out, dropped it into what was left of the bottle. "Oh Meg, I don't think I should have called him."
"Yeah, and he called the apartment phone. Have you ever called anyone in your family from that phone?"
"Of course not. I do not know how could he get this number."
"I do," I whispered, mentally kicking myself. "We gave it to the police."
Something was up. The gatekeeper didn't bother leaving his shack at our approach. "Maybe the cop-shop's closed for renovations?"
"Nyet, behave yourself." Elena chastened. Then, in Russian, "Hello? Anybody there? Can we come in?"
A sheet of semitransparent glazing slid aside. Mr. Machine-gun's mug filled the opening. "No! Your detective friend doesn't work here anymore. Go away!"
"We need a police report regarding my stolen passport. This is the detachment that dealt with my case. Can we see someone else to..."
The scuffed, acrylic panel shut with a bang.
From a pay phone, back at our beloved McDonald's, Elena dialed up our friendly detective. No answer. She called the detachment's front desk and got the same runaround: "Doesn't work here anymore." It wasn't a total bust; whomever she had spoken to, provided directions to a Bureau of Investigations that might know where to find him.
Off we went. Marsh-root-kahing -- riding a crammed, private taxi-bus with a couple-dozen others, all breathing the same cubic meter of air -- across town to, get this, the former offices of the KGB! "Oh yay, spies! This just can't get any crazier." I joked, sidling up to a reception counter with Elena. Unfortunately, I was wrong.
And, right! The K.G. used to B. turned out to be useless. Less than useless, given our wild goose chase ended us up in the bloody middle-of-nowhere. We stormed out onto unfamiliar streets. We could have been in Pryp'yat, for all I knew. Not to mention, how desolate and abandoned the surroundings looked. Menacing gaggles of strangely lurching men leered at us appraisingly.
Forgoing an uncomfortable and possibly life threatening wait for a bus, I flagged down the first reasonable looking car that came bouncing down the icy road. It's what you do in various third-world countries and former Soviet dictatorships: stop a private vehicle, hope the driver isn't an axe-murderer, and negotiate a ride-sharing fare to somewhere close to your destination. Kind-of a psychic-Uber way of getting around.
Elena asked the driver for the closest subway station. I stopped her, wondering if the man -- who, for some reason, I thought looked an awful lot like a lawyer -- knew where we might find the chief of police. Surprise, surprise, he did, and was more than happy to take us there! That's when I got that familiar, sickening feeling, that for going so far out of his way, I'd be covering his next couple of car payments.
A ramshackle, red-brick structure -- looking like it came from the Napoleonic era -- housed the police headquarters. Uniformed officers, their shirts unbuttoned, lolled on the front steps; smoking, drinking, belching and bragging.
In a maneuver I likened to crossing a rocky beach through a giant herd of rutting California sea-lions, we tiptoed between the bellicose giants to find ourselves inside at some kind of central nexus. Corridors spoked off in various directions, giving no hints as to which one we should take.
"Look for stairs." Elena suggested. "The man who drove us," she'd forgotten his name. Neither of us is good that way. "He said, 'the office is on the third floor.' "
Little did we know, a pile of rubble, just off the nexus, was actually the main stairway. Or, it had been, once upon a time. A plywood barrier, sporting the only signage in the place, declared the cavern filled with demolition debris, "Closed for repairs." That's it. No helpful alternatives, no, "You are HERE, but ought to be THERE." Floor-plan layout.
A crash echoed from down one of the corridors. Then a hunched, bear of a man in a trench coat, swinging a heavy briefcase, like a pendulum, emerged from the gloom. He stopped beside us, dropped the briefcase, dug out a cigarette, and then, while lighting it and simultaneously becoming aware of our existence, asked, "What are you ladies doing here? This is not a shopping center."
Whatever he smoked reeked of burning tar, or PCBs from an exploding transformer. We were literally gasping for our lives. I guess he had affinity for Turkish cigarettes. "Gasp, wheeze... choke. Stairs... Cough, hack." Elena started. "Stairs, we need... wheeze, to get to the third floor."
The bear grinned. Inhaled forever, turning half his cancer stick to ash. Then, as though he yearned for the capacity of a third lung, he pinched the butt from his lips, examined it, probably startled to see so much left. "Stairs are out!" Each word generated a towering cumulus of blue smoke. "Go there!" He pointed down the corridor he'd emerged from. Exhaling completely, he made the air totally unbreathable. "Use the fire escape."
No sign adorned the peeling, slab door. No pompous star and shield emblem promising service and protection. Someone could have at least dangled a big pine cone from the doorknob; given this was the office of the loftiest cop in Kiev. A pair of rough, middle-age women -- looking like they bleached their hair with the same bucket of industrial solvent -- sat behind desks smoking, yacking, listening to some god-awful crooning from a boom-box. It's like they were oblivious to us, standing at the counter-barricade in their tiny office.
"Eh-hem." It was either an honest phlegm clearing reaction to the atmosphere, or Elena was trying to get their attention.
"What!" One of the charmers, spat a butt to the floor. Stomped it out with the toe of a stiletto pump. "Who do you think you are? You can't be here!"
"We would like to see the chief of police." Following an uncharacteristically snide pause, Elena added, "If you would be so kind."
"No!" She stormed toward her side of the counter. Her compatriot made a chainsaw-like, snarling, raspy noise, I guess it was a smoker's laugh. "Nobody sees Him. Get out of here!"
The compatriot throttled back her cackle enough to ask, "Sure, you want to see Him, but, what for?" She never took her eyes off her crimson, talons. Fingers spread, polish drying.
"My passport was stolen and..."
"Go to a police station. We don't handle crimes here." Then both women character-morphed instantaneously when an unspeakably well-dressed gentleman emerged from the inner office.
Elena took advantage of the distraction to continue. "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."
"Go to the police station and fill out a complaint form. We don't do that sort of thing here."
"I don't want to fill out a form. I want to speak to the chief!" Lena 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? Go to a police station or I will call for police officers to remove you."
Elena turned to me. Saying, in English, "Meg, it is useless. To deal with these women, nowhere it will get us."
Time stopped. There was silence. In a nanosecond, everything changed.
Reader direction: Imagine your inner narrator saying the following line in a deep, booming voice with tons of echo.
INT. YOUR MIND -- LATE AFTERNOON
Sound cue: Drum roll
English was spoken!
Ting, that, by the way, was the sound of a pin dropping.
The crimson taloned office-girl dragged her cigarette down to the filter, before she veritably drawled -- if that's even possible in Russian -- "Well, since you have come all the way here... But, ladies, The Chief is a very busy man. It may be difficult to get an appointment..."
"Meg, she wants a bribe!" Spinning to storm out, Elena nearly collided with a nattily attired gentleman.
He'd been standing behind us, perusing the contents of a manila folder. "Tanya, Svetlana," he called the office beauties by name -- although, who knows if those were their names. But, seeing as there really are only four Russian names for females, there's a darn good chance they were either: Tanya, Svetlana, Natalia, or Elena. Unless they were older than we thought -- born during Stalin's reign -- in which case they could have names like: Industrialization; Electrical Power Station; Glorious Revolution of the Workers United Against the Evil Capitalists Growing Fat on the Backs of the Downtrodden Proletariat; or Tractor. "... I have just been with the chief. He is not busy. Perhaps he will see these ladies, now." Dapper man continued.
Then smiling calmly, and in English with a perfect accent, he told us, "You must forgive the girls here; sometimes they take their jobs too seriously. Shall we see if the chief will see you?" He breezed past the counter, past the cowed office girls, and opened one of the double doors.
We were just as stunned as Tanya and Svetlana -- or Tractor and Light-Bulb, as the case may be. "Please follow me, ladies." Dapper man ushered us into The inner office. Thick, dark, velvet drapes, hanging from brass rods near the ceiling, went all the way to the ankle-deep, wall-to-wall carpet. Every other surface was paneled in something dark that had once been a tree. The air -- if you can call it that, given it would kill anything that breathed -- was thick with swirling cigar smoke. Wading though the rug, 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, making it through clouds of smoke, illuminated his face as he spoke. "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.
He reclined, sighed heavily, looked at Dapper man with the deepest expression of unspoken disappointment. Then, turning to Elena, he intoned, with eye watering solemnity, "What you have done is terrible. How dare you barge into my office, demanding that my officers participate in your depravity. And, against your own parents! My heart hurts for you, for your mother, for your family. I do not know how it is that you got away with this... this, this travesty! Were I younger, and on duty at the train station, you would have been on that train to Russia, and you would be at your poor mother's feet, begging her forgiveness."
Just as I was thinking, this isn't going well, Elena interrupted the Don of police. "I have committed a crime?"
"Sadly, no." The chief gestured toward Dapper Man. "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 Elena up and down. Then glared at me, nostrils flared. In my trashed ice age, megafauna hoodie I looked like something thawed from a glacier. In English, I provided the definition of certain kinds of people: "Gay. He thinks we're sex crazed lesbians."
"Are you not?" Nobody spoke. After a pause, so pregnant it might as well have been in labor, the chief went on, in English. "Not-gay people do not say to the other that they love to them. Do not tell to people this. Very bad to tell in Ukraine! Tell to Ukrainians this, you can to be killed." The guy was clearly concerned for us -- or for his rug, given our proximity to the fires of hell. Eventually, he decided that we were clearly not lesbians, and that we couldn't possibly love each other, and to stop our nonsense, and go home to our boyfriends in Russia and Canada.
All the problems were solved. That's why The Chief got the big bucks. Satisfied, he sank back in his overstuffed chair and asked for our address in Kiev.
Elena provided the Canadian Embassy's address.
The Chief went nuclear. Elena and I, and the well-dressed man, flew from his office, like teenagers from the liquor cabinet at the sound of Dad's car.
In the corridor, Dapper Man warned us to get out of Kiev, and to do it quickly and quietly. Walking away, he added, over his shoulder, "Make sure you aren't followed."
Acquiring a police report in a former Soviet republic demands a specialized set of negotiation skills. I had, by then, become good enough at it to write a For Dummies book on the subject. Why I didn't put my expertise into practice, long before ending up at the offices of the K-G-used-to-B, or the Don of Police is beyond me. Marching toward the central train station's police detachment's gate, I swept back my fake-fur hood, fixed upon the machine-gun gatekeeper's shack with a steely gaze, 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 we'd become familiar with, and took dictation from Elena. She'd 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.
I'm almost certain, the inspiration for Star Trek's evil Borg collective came from what's left of the USSR. The Russian Embassy and Consulate in Kiev 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?
Other than a long row of blast-proof doors at street level, the entire complex was a massive, square block of featureless concrete. Getting into the foyer required running a gauntlet of Ukrainian militia. What the phalanx of Ukrainian cops were doing there, lined up in front of the doors, was a mystery. It's just a bloody good thing they weren't demanding passports, or neither of us would have gotten in.
Better than half of the ground floor was a yawning expanse of row upon row of long, narrow tables, bulletin boards, and form dispensers. Dozens of zombie-drones, stood at the chair-less tables, staring at forms. Some shuffled, broken, bent over in heavy coats. Endless sheets of printed instructions were pinned to the walls. If there'd been piped in funeral dirges, and a dead, bald guy under glass, it could have been the Lenin mausoleum -- warehouse-outlet.
I stuck close to Elena, expecting Locutus of Borg to clamp his cyborg pincers around my neck and tell me, "Resistance is futile!" She found the instruction set for replacement of passport and started assimilating the zillions of listed steps. Her face got whiter, her cheeks redder, eyes hollower, and then, "This is impossible! Let's go home." She needed: the number of her missing passport; an official financial statement from her bank; a letter from her employer; a list of family members with proof of their relationship and identities; proof of strong ties to Russia; notarized spousal permission to travel abroad -- or proof she wasn't married; her birth certificate; her labor book; a police record check; and a valid reason to leave Russia, officially issued by a travel company, employer, host, educational institution, or doctor. She had none of these.
"Right, that's a bit of a bummer." It was going to take some of that good old, and now, well practiced, former-Soviet-republic negotiation technique to get around the ludicrous list of requirements. "This is a consulate, right? We need to speak to a consular official, agent, adjunct, minion, clerk, whatever."
"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 Leisure Suit Larrys in a dingy office off the foyer. Sitting across a table from each other, they prattled on, finishing each other's sentences like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. True to form for Shakespeare's beloved characters, they turned out to be just as useless. Either, they had no idea how to deal with bribes, or we didn't look rich enough to make it worth their while. Stalwartly -- to use a more polite term than what I had in mind -- they clung to the list of required documents. They finally concluded that nobody, in the entire history of Russia, had replaced a passport anywhere, except where they are legally registered to reside: back home in Russia.
And then, they threw us out.
Elena's less than heartwarming conversations with Mama were getting her nowhere. When it was clear, the only way she'd get her passport back was by prying it from Mama's cold, dead hands, she gave up trying. Apart from the apparent futility, Elena's entreaties simply opened her up to more nuts-o-rama shit and abuse. It was time to pull the plug, which she did by grinding her SIM card into the icy crud, butts and filth coating a busy street. Then Dima's silver, Santa Claus icon ended up in a donation tray at the Percherskaya Lavra. That's the sprawling, medieval, walled, religious complex, we spent many an afternoon wandering through. It's not like we were looking for god, or Santa Claus, but a break from the intractable hopelessness of our situation; and, of course, the noise, traffic and cops outside the Lavra's ancient walls.
My arm was nearly de-socketed by a sudden lateral course change into a bookstore. Wandering aimlessly on Khreschaitik: our downtown Kiev, go-to distraction, Elena had a sudden urge to buy a world map. "Need a destination, a goal, something to work toward, Meg." She explained to me, handing the clerk several Ukrainian hryvnias. "I need to know where we are going, where I can go."
In Kofe Hauz -- the above ground one, in the Globus Mall -- our fresh, new map become 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. Someone's bright red gloves -- our clothes had since become interchangeable -- obscured Western Russia. Somewhere, fallen off the end of the table and dangling by the floor, was Canada.
I pointed at a narrow tongue of Mother Russia, barely two fingers wide, between eastern Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Sure, I covered 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 in my general direction.
"Yeah, China. They have snake-heads: people smugglers. They smuggle people to Canada. They are showing up all the time. Hundreds, even thousands of them." I didn't mention the part about rusting, unseaworthy boats; disease, death, starvation, drowning; arrest and internment in Canadian concentration camps, then forced repatriation to China and hard labor for the lucky ones, or snake-head gang retribution for the not so lucky.
It would be different for us. When the Royal Canadian Mounted Police showed up to arrest everyone in the cargo hold of some derelict freighter, we'd be the only English speaking, same sex couple with a home in Canada; waving a pride flag, a Canadian passport, and overflowing faith in my country's gushing propaganda. By krikey, they'd be surprised, but it would all be okay. We were going home, and I was ready to do whatever it took to get there.
"China, it is not so close, not small to cross." Elena lifted the eastern edge of the map. "Huge, it is. So also is Kazakhstan!" She had the map unfurled nearly to the next table. "And you speak Chinese?" She had a point. "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 better to Poland we should go?"
"It would be easier to get to. It's European Union. But the border guards wouldn't let you through without a visa; let alone, without a passport."
"But Meg, you say to go all the way to China! Would not Poland be easier?"
"It's closer. I suppose we could buy some serious winter clothes and hiking boots. We'd 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."
"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. Maybe Russian consulate is different in Europe. I don't think that it would be." She stared at a mystery pastry she'd had big eyes for when we ordered; before our spirit crushing quest-for-destination stifled her appetite. Then she looked up, straightened. "Buy! You mean not from Russian consulate. What it would cost?"
"A lot! Besides that, it's bloody illegal. Get caught and there is no chance you are getting to Canada. There would be no passing Go. It would be straight to jail."
"I do not know what is this 'passing go,' but jail in the West, better it is than mental hospital in Russia." Elena stabbed at her pastry with a plastic fork.
It drove me crazy! What did she think, that I was made of money? "Just eat it. You ordered it." I was having night sweats over every dollar or hrvynia. 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 absently impaled the overpriced, mini carbohydrate-cow-pie through its crown of fluorescent, hypersweet jelly. She was actually spinning it, and the paper plate it was served on, like a top. "Meg, I hate that because of me, you are stuck here."
"Oh for christ sake, give me that!" I snatched the pastry. I'd have to eat the damned thing anyway. Either that, or it would end up partially gnawed on, then 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 withstand 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."
The subway decelerated. Voices in my head -- you know the kind: you won't admit they're there, usually arguing about something, casting doubt and aspersions on everything you do -- were shouting at me, "Don't get off! Go to the next stop. You're being followed..." If I could have responded, without looking like someone with voices in her head, I would have reminded them, they sang the same refrain of paranoia, every bloody time we were skreeling to a stop at Percherskaya. Our home-base, subway station.
Riders mobbed the wagon's doors, the train stopped, the doors opened, and the commuters commenced battle. Hey there, you voices in my head, think a tail could keep up through that melee? I argued back, smugly, silently and safely in the privacy of my head. There was no response. I smiled.
The Kiev Metro Authority, attempting to soothe the savage breast -- I know, everyone thinks it's savage beast, but it's not -- of the riled Kievian commuter, pipes the soothing strains of Chopin's Raindrop Prelude throughout the Percherskaya station. The hypnotic piano piece was nearing the end of its second repetition when Elena thought she spotted our friendly detective.
The guy she thought was him, was a good hundred meters behind. Down one of the endless escalators and stuck in a crowd that was happy to stand there, blocking him, listening to Chopin. What I saw was a man on the phone, blatantly self-conscious, looking everywhere but in our direction.
We shoved our way up the last dozen or so steps, then out onto the Central Election Commission's public square. Blowing snow provided some cover, but it was deserted. "We're sitting ducks if we don't high-tail it."
"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. We were close, another few meters and we would have made it. Had a horrible, howling scream from a seriously over-revved car engine, not stopped me -- cold. 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 crappy, compact's grillwork buckled my knees from behind. My ass caved in the car's tin-can hood, with more than enough momentum to launch me off the windshield's passenger's side. I slammed into the road, back first. The shockwave drove my knees up and into my chest.
Winded, knees to my chin, I saw, with 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; let me tell you! 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.
Elena was full-on deer-in-the-headlights. I grabbed her coat, yanking her back to reality. "We've got to get out of here!"
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, bottoming out on the curb, was a good indication that should the vehicle survive, it was coming for us. The punks in pursuit, had urban geography was on their side. The wide sidewalk was hemmed in by a palisade of buildings on one side and the boulevard on the other: an ideal place to mow us down.
A passageway through the seemingly endless escarpment of buildings lay dead ahead. We lateraled right, just before becoming road kill, into a typical Soviet courtyard. The Lada skidded past. Where to? No idea, we weren't into hanging around to find out. The so-called courtyard was typical. 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 vertical stairwell shafts to access their specific stack 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, industrial, bombproof, 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.
The sound of hollered threats and jack-boots pounding pavement, ricocheted around the courtyard.
Then, 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, sending shockwaves through the steel slab, the handle I was leaning back on, up my arms, and into the very core of my resolve. A seat on an airliner soaring westward was a seriously enticing thought, at the time.
Man, were those dudes pissed! And the expletives -- could've put a longshoremen to shame. Russian, Ukrainian, English, even some unbelievably filthy French. I was actually a little bit impressed, until it hit me, we were bloody trapped.
With the dudes going totally ape-shit -- pounding, kicking the door -- I propelled Elena toward the stairs. "Go!"
"Up! Just climb. Go. Go. Go." She took off. I lunged for the elevator, punched every button it had, leapt 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.
Five or six stories up, we stopped, chests heaving, throats burning. It sounded like the skinheads had given up, or gone into silent ambush mode.
"Well, shit! What now?" I muttered. There 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," I joked. Inappropriate, I know, but probably a gallows humor kind of thing.
"Treed? Nyet, etta shest." Elena corrected, giving me the 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 hikers chased up a tree by a grizzly bear."
She sat on the landing, her forest-green Doc Martin's 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 not to be treed, what now to do?"
"I have no idea." I eased myself down beside her. Everything was starting to hurt.
She must have known that my body was tuning up for a whole symphony of pain, and put her arm around my waist. Gently, she leaned against me. Even insulated in all those layers, her physical presence felt warm, reassuring. She sighed and lowered her chin to my shoulder. "I guess we wait." I felt her tears on my neck.
The cold forced us down. Behind the steel door that probably saved our lives, we just stared at each other. Then I took a deep breath, cracked the door just a bit, and waited.
Nothing. No gun barrel jammed though the opening. No ultra-extreme, potty-mouth threats.
"Maybe it is okay?" Elena peered over my shoulder, through the few degrees of viewing angle I allowed into the dark courtyard.
We were so engrossed with the view -- or lack of one -- we totally didn't notice a woman and tiny dog get off the elevator. She stared at us. Probably deciding if we were dangerous, nuts, or from another planet -- whatever. With the dog under her arm, she shouldered around us, flung the door wide open, and stepped out. "You two!" She turned. "Make sure you close this door hard when you leave. Otherwise, it doesn't lock and bums get in."
Elena was first. Out into the freezing night, shoulders hunched against the cold. I watched her go, then followed slowly, keeping to the shadows.
The Prokuratura loomed over us. Sodium vapor, outdoor lighting lit everything in extreme contrast, electric-orange monochrome. We were home.
At our own stairwell, Elena punched in the key code. Hiding behind the door, she pulled it open. I stood off, watching for ambushers lying in wait. Nothing. Just our own, old and familiar stairwell. We crept up the stairs, peering around corners. None of the absurdly upholstered, apartment doors opened, or sat ajar, ready to burst open. Muffled squawking from TV sets leaked into the stairwell, along with the usual sounds of domestic life. Our own tufted vinyl over steel-plating door was locked and apparently untouched. Feeling my neck muscles tighten, I inserted the key and turned it.