Ian trudged up out of U-Bahn station, eyes red, shoulders slumped. The confrontations with Juliette and Bill echoed around his aching head. His heart sped up as he approached the pharmacy and realized the two Russian guys in their cheap business suits were staring him down. They weren’t even pretending not to see him.
They put their shoulders together and blocked the sidewalk as he tried to pass. “Dobroye utro, mal’chik,” hissed the bigger one in Russian while the other chuckled. ‘Good morning, boy.”
Shocked by their boldness, Ian muttered, “Eb tvoyu mat’,” and elbowed his way through them. “Fuck your mother!”
They stood aside and laughed as he hurried across the street. On his way up the stairs, he started to shake. They were huge! And almost certainly armed. If they’d ganged up to shove him into a car and whisk him away, he’d have been at their mercy.
He pushed the fear aside as he opened the door. “Dima! I’m home!”
The kitchen was empty. Dima’s blankets weren’t neatly folded on the futon like usual. They were strewn all over the floor. Mark’s bedroom door stood wide open. A quick glance inside revealed nothing but balled-up workout clothes and scattered books. He pushed open his own door, beginning to worry. Dima should be drinking tea at the breakfast bar.
When Ian saw nobody, his thoughts ran wild. Dima was nowhere! And those Russians had been so cocky! He gave in to panic, starting to breathe hard and fast.
Then movement caught his eye. His blankets weren’t just crumpled up on his bed. They were humped up in the shape of a person, and they were shaking slightly.
“Dima?” he asked. “Is that you? What’s wrong?”
The blankets moved even more, and Dima’s head poked out. He didn’t look at Ian, though. He just lay on his back and stared up at the ceiling, face expressionless. Ian walked over to the bed and sat, pushing a bulge into the mattress that broke up his friend’s rigid posture.
Dima sighed and opened his mouth to speak, then hesitated and closed it again.
“Talk to me,” Ian murmured. “What’s wrong?” He hated seeing Dima like this. His own stomach clenched in sympathy. But when Dima just shrugged and turned his face away, Ian fought a surge of annoyance. How could he help if he didn’t know what the problem was?
“Do you want to take the day off? We don’t have to study English today.”
An ambivalent shoulder shrug under the blankets told him nothing.
“Have you had breakfast?”
Dima shook his head.
Not even a shrug this time. Ian didn’t know what to do. He thought about getting up and leaving Dima to himself for a while. He probably needed to be alone. He reached out a hand first and rested it lightly on his friend’s shoulder. “Listen, I know you’re upset. Anything I can do, just let me know, OK?”
When Ian started to stand up, Dima finally spoke. “There’s nothing you can do. There’s nothing anyone can do.”
Ian winced at the lifeless tone. “But what’s the matter? What’s going on?”
Dima sighed and pulled himself into a sitting position, letting the blankets fall away from his shoulders. He was fully dressed. “We’re out of tea,” he said flatly.
“Tea?” Ian asked, confused. “You’re upset about tea?” He shook his head. “Give me five minutes and I’ll run down to the store!”
Dima shook his head and spoke softly. “I got up when Mark left for work this morning. I took a shower, got dressed in this expensive stuff Juliette bought me, then went to make tea.”
Ian listened carefully, not comprehending.
Dima looked straight ahead, voice flat. “I forgot we used the last of it yesterday.”
“But what does …”
“And I couldn’t go down to the store to get any. I can’t do anything for myself here. I can’t go home. I can’t talk to my father. I can’t let him know I’m OK or ask how he is. I’m trapped.” His voice grew stronger and his face turned red. “I’m not in charge of my life anymore!”
“Yes, you are,” Ian insisted without hesitation. Then he sat and thought.
Dima said nothing, face blank again. But he swung his legs off the mattress and planted them on the floor. He scooted over and pressed his shoulder into Ian’s. A minute or two tiptoed by in silence.
“I don’t understand you,” Dima finally said.
“That night at the French reception? I thought… Maybe I misunderstood, but I thought something. I thought you felt like I feel. What happened? Did you change your mind or am I just a fool?”
Ian sighed. “I felt it. Of course I did! Just… it’s complicated. And it’s scary. I’m sorry.”
Dima reached over and cupped Ian’s chin in his hand. “Don’t be sorry, and don’t be scared. Please?”
Ian tilted his head forward without even meaning to, a nest of snakes coiled up in his stomach. Dima pressed his lips in and Ian returned his kiss firmly, feeling warm and untroubled for a few seconds as he breathed in a sweet, familiar scent. Then Dima’s hand wandered onto his upper thigh and squeezed. Ian felt a shock, pulled back quickly but carefully, and jumped to his feet.
“Damn, man,” he stuttered. “Your kisses … the best. Trust me, I feel it. But …”
Dima reached for Ian’s hand, but Ian just shook his head. “Let’s have breakfast, huh? Then maybe we can talk about it. American breakfast! You Russians and your bread and butter. Sheesh!”
He walked to the door and looked over his shoulder to see Dima smiling at him. “I’ll be back up in two minutes, huh? Tea, eggs, bacon, and orange juice. That’ll cheer anyone up!”
Borin slipped up to the counter, ill at ease. He wasn’t accustomed to being out of uniform in public. His driver had dropped him off at Checkpoint Charlie then headed back to base to wash and wax the Zil. The general was on his own for the day.
The clerk shot him a surly look as he pushed his passport across the counter. “Travel orders?”
“I have none, Comrade.”
The functionary seemed to perk up a bit, his boredom momentarily relieved. “Then you can’t cross, Comrade. Military orders are required.”
“That’s Comrade General to you, young man,” Borin said mildly, smiling and opening his passport to the correct page. “You see?” He looked up to see the clerk’s face twitch as he realized his mistake.
“I’m exercising the Allied military prerogative to travel freely in all four occupied zones. I authorize my own travel. I will be most grateful if you will please give me the correct paperwork to sign, Comrade Clerk.”
Ten minutes later as Borin approached the American side of the checkpoint, he wondered if Peltsin managed to cross so easily. Probably not. He supposed cartons of American cigarettes were involved. Peltsin was corrupt to the core, a sad example of the dominance of the Soviet mediocracy. He’d probably purchased his position in the Party.
The political officer continued to occupy Borin’s mind as his presence created a stir among the American soldiers. They seemed startled by his unannounced arrival. He let them buzz around and make excited phone calls while his thoughts returned to the night Peltsin had returned without his son.
He was ashamed of himself for believing the corrupt commissar. He’d needed Dima’s letter to make him realize how wrong he was. He still remembered every word of it.
I know you must be very worried, and I am sorry to be the cause of it. I hope you find this letter quickly. I put it where I thought you would look as soon as you knew I was gone. Please also send my apologies to Uncle Arkady. Tell him I can’t allow myself to be used against the two of you. I can’t let you betray your principles to protect me. I know what you and he are doing, and this is my way of helping you.
I know you still think of me as a child, and I don’t mind. I’m sorry I grew up while you weren’t looking. I’ve thought long and carefully about what I’m doing. I believe you’re right about Marxism seeking a new level and a new equilibrium. I’m acting out of patriotism, of love of Rodina and Revolution.
You will hear from me again after I reach your friend and the woman who took care of me. You know who I mean. Until then, please know I love you and would never betray you.
Borin had walked to the kitchen in shock, letter in hand. He read it three times, memorized it, then turned on the stove and thrust it into the blue flame. He sat at the table for an hour with a bottle of vodka and a framed photo of his wife. The paper smoke that filled the kitchen smelled sweet as summer fields of wheat.
The morning after Dima disappeared, Borin took control. He met Peltsin and his KGB ally in his office. He showed up thirty minutes late just to put the two conspirators on edge.
He immediately dismissed Peltsin to his outer office and the tender care of a squad of armed soldiers. He noticed that Leonid Makarov, the KGB major, was eying the soldiers through the door, a sweaty forehead betraying his nerves.
Good. Let him worry. “So, Comrade Major? You’ve been working with Peltsin. Interesting. And so unfortunate for you.”
Color rose in the KGB man’s face, but he said nothing.
“Tell me,” Borin continued mildly, settling back comfortably in his chair while the major stood, “what’s the going price these days to plot against the commanding general of a numbered air army?”
Still no response other than some minor jaw clenching and obvious teeth grinding.
“Sit down, Makarov. This isn’t personal. Relax. Let’s be honest with one another, hm? Is that agreeable to you?”
Borin drummed his finger on his desk while the KGB major sat down and nodded, adam’s apple bobbing up once, then down. “Yes, Comrade General,” came the strangled reply.
“Fine, then. Shall I make this simple? Understand that Peltsin is finished. With him it is personal. My brother-in-law and I have all the evidence and influence we need to destroy him. He’ll be lucky to land a junior foreman’s post at a collective farm by the time we’re finished with him. If we let him live. Hm?”
“The only remaining question is what we do to you.”
“Comrade General! I can… Listen to me, please, I need…”
“No, no, listen to me for a moment longer if you don’t mind. Peltsin plotted against me. He tried to used my son. But for you? I feel nothing. Besides, you’re KGB, so you enjoy a degree of protection. I could fight you and make your life miserable for a long time, but that would bore me and annoy me. I have more important work to do.”
Makarov smiled for the first time that morning — broadly, with plenty of sharp white teeth showing.
“Ah, I see you follow my thinking, Comrade,” said Borin as he stood and walked to the window, looking outside casually, as if the matter were of small importance to him.
“Comrade General, if I may make an observation?”
“Yes?” Borin turned and raised an eyebrow. He’d set out the bait, and the rat was nibbling.
“This entire investigation has been completely unofficial. I’ve reported nothing to my superiors. If I gave you all my paperwork, it would be as if it never happened.”
Two hours later, Borin had it all: phone records, surveillance photos, and agent reports. He also had Makarov’s assurance that he was working for Borin and only for Borin from this point forward.
The general chuckled as he reviewed photos of the three American lieutenants. He fully understood Makarov was lying. No matter. He was lying predictably, transparently, and reliably. That would do for now, and they both knew it.
This has been chapter 12 of the second act of a Cold War geopolitical thriller, gay coming-of-age romance. Settings and characters are pulled directly from my own life, but the story is fictional.