The old woman didn’t say a word. Her eyes glinted as she pointed down one of two corridors. Peltsin marched, heels pounding on marble. His heart raced as he fingered the syringe in his pocket. Triumph etched the back of his throat with acid.
Catching Dmitry in Athens with the Americans would smash Borin’s career and mark the beginning of a swift, glorious climb to power for himself. A eventual seat on the Central Committee of the Communist Party was surely in play!
He eyed room numbers. There! He raised a fist and pounded on the door. “Dmitry Fyodorovich Borin! Come out now! Now, I say!” He pulled the syringe out and cocked it back, prepared to inject a powerful muscle relaxant into whoever tried to rush past him first.
He put his ear to the door. Total silence.
He put his hand on the the knob. Turned. The door swung open. He wedged his body in the frame to prevent escape, then poked his head in. Rumpled sheets. A bare tile floor with a lone pillow sitting in the middle of it.
A tap on his shoulder sent him jumping into the ceiling. The woman was staring at him. “What!?” he screeched, voice betraying his nerves.
“They go, Mister. Ten minutes before you come. No more here.” She shrugged her shoulders. “They take bags and go.”
He opened his mouth to demand his money back from the corrupt old hag, then his face turned white. He sprinted back to the lobby, out the door, and into the cab. “Get in here now!” he screamed at Makharov’s men. Move!”
While he waited for them to squeeze in beside him, he shouted instructions to the driver in poor English. “To the Piraeus! Hurry, to ferry docks as much fast as you can driving.” He threw a shocking wad of cash up over the seat. “I give more if we beat them to ship! Much more!”
A refreshing breeze cooled Dima as hot sunshine streamed over his bare chest and legs. He pillowed his head into his backpack, the ferry rocking him with the gentle swell of the sea. He sighed with sleepy happiness.
Squinting against painful light, he could just make out the blue and white superstructure above him as it merged into azure eternity. White clouds drifted about as a Greek flag snapped in the wind. A tangy smell of salt and sea mingled with a trace of diesel while a lone gull spiraled and swooped, piping a feral descant above a multilingual chorus assaulting Dima’s ears.
He was sprawled out on the deck with his friends, surrounded by fellow passengers, students on holiday by the look of them. A few English words floated about. The girls behind him trilled like birds in rapid French, but most of the din was tinny cacophony.
Lots of the guys had thrown their shirts off to soak up the sun, just like he had. He gazed around in appreciation, buzzing with erotic pleasure. He was safe out here in the middle of the Aegean, free to feel what he wanted to feel. He glanced at Ian curled up beside him on the varnished wooden surface, snoring lightly.
He reached out a hand without thinking and ran his fingertips over the sun-fired skin of his friend’s bare shoulder. A boy with black curls seated just a few feet away must have noticed. He caught Dima’s eye and smiled knowingly, throwing him a discrete, lap-level thumbs up.
Dima flushed and snatched his hand away. Then he thought better of it and put it back, squeezing possessively. What a different world he was in! The black-haired boy nodded and looked away, not scandalized or even very interested.
Ian snorted and rolled over, throwing a sleeping arm out to brush Dima’s torso. The brief contact sparked a chain of vivid thoughts in Dima’s mind even as Ian’s breathing returned to a hypnotic cadence. His days with Ian since that amazing winter afternoon at Green Week replayed in snatches of color and music.
How far he’d come, drifting out here at sea! His audacity astonished him. His ability to act amazed him. And somehow all of it; the crazy, dangerous, reckless deeds centered around this man. This friend. This American. This …
He didn’t allow the next word to form in his mind, but he knew it and tasted it. It made him smile with guilt and pleasure. The shape of the word filled him, urged him to reach over and pull Ian into him, merge into his body.
He turned his head and examined his friend’s features closely — smooth cheeks glowing, fine stubble hedge-hogging out of his chin, golden hair scattering in the wind. Strong jaw. Peaceful in sleep.
He sighed, admitting to himself that he hadn’t ever stopped thinking about Ian’s looks, about his body, about his physical being. He considered that fact thoughtfully, even as he kept looking, kept feeling.
He wanted to believe Ian was right. A large part of him did believe. They were each moved by the other to be better, to be more virtuous in the silly language of Classical philosophy. But an important part of him withheld belief — doubted.
How could a kid like him go against the Party and be right? That was breathtakingly hard to accept, even though he was emulating his father and uncle. Who were they to dismiss the thinking of the men of the Central Committee? Is that what they were doing?
A shudder ran through his body as he fought with himself. Had he made his audacious choices out of shallow, vain, sexual affection for this American? He allowed the word to form on his lips. For this person he wished was his lover?
How ridiculous that his heart should beat harder when his friend smiled at him, how ridiculous that he worried so much about what he thought of him. More ridiculous that he trusted him so completely!
Then Ian jerked in his sleep and grunted. He half opened one eye, catching Dima’s gaze, returning an intimate, sexy, completely unaffected smile before drifting off again.
Dima closed his own eyes and let the sun caress him. He studied his own breathing and wiped his mind.
If this wasn’t virtue, then virtue be damned.
Ian cracked an eye open and yawned. Some subtle change in the ferry engine’s vibration must have woken him. He glanced around. Mark and Juliette were nowhere, the portside rails were crowded with gawkers, and Dima was sprawled out on his back, apparently sleeping. Ian drank in the sight of friend’s tanning skin. Tanning, or… ?
“Yo, Dima!” he yelled, toeing him lightly with bare feet. “Wake up. I think we’re here. And I think you need to put your shirt on. You’re gonna blister, man.”
Dima’s eyes popped open, and Ian pointed up past the superstructure. “Check it out!” Mykonos loomed above, a rocky promontory far above their heads, dotted with signs of habitation only lower down near the water. Clouds of gulls swooped in screaming as the ship chugged in close to shore.
Dima jumped up and ran to the rail. Ian threw his shirt at him. “Seriously, sexy, much as I love looking at you, put this on before you fry!”
Dima snagged it out of the air and half glared, half laughed. He put a finger over his lips in a shushing gesture.
“What, like anybody else around here speaks Russian?” Ian shouted. “Just wait til we get to the hotel! I’m going kiss you for 20 minutes straight if you aren’t too crispy to touch!”
“Hey, look at those,” Dima said 15 minutes later, pointing as they stood at the rail watching the island enlarge. “Windmills! Can you believe how white and sparkly everything is?”
Ian followed his friend’s finger to the top of a small rise where three windmills seemed to stand guard over a blindingly white-and-blue village snuggled down around a cove they were entering.
“I expected something like the Black Sea,” Dima said. “This is really different. Amazing different.”
“It’s taking forever, though,” Juliette grumbled. “I wish we’d land already.”
Ian nodded. The ferry was barely moving. Their progress was so slow he had to close his eyes and open them again after a while just to notice any change. Finally, they inched up alongside a wooden pier. The engine roared once, shaking him to the bones; water churned, sailors shouted, and a dozen ragged boys on the dock caught ropes as thick as their thighs, scrambling to fasten them around splintery posts.
Ian watched the gangplank creak down slowly then thunk onto the pier. The four of them pushed together through the crowd of sunscreened-scented tourists toward the gate a white-clad officer was unlocking.
Cardboard signs dotted the dock, guides searching for their groups. Young men and boys shouted in English, French, and German.
“Hotel! Good price! You come now!”
“Restaurant! Great fish! Lick the bones, Mister!”
“Wine, beer, Ouzo! You come!”
Juliette grabbed Mark with one hand and Ian with the other. “Let’s get of this mess!” She turned her head sharply and shouted, “Dima, catch up, come on!”
They hurried along, Mark in the lead, Dima bringing up the rear as they escaped the crowds by crunching their way onto a tiny strip of stony beach just off the pier. They ducked under clusters of hanging fishnets.
Dima poked Ian. “What the devil is that?” he asked.
Mark answered, chucking. “What? You guys don’t eat squid in Crimea? Looks just like SoCal to me, buddy. The fishermen hang them up to dry for a while. They’ll be lunch for somebody soon.”
Ian wrinkled his nose. The dozens of tentacled monsters dripping mucus smelled disgusting and looked worse. “Are you fucking kidding me?” he asked. “That’s what we’re eating when we order kalamári?”
Mark laughed and pushed him. “Pretend you didn’t see that!”
As the crowds started to thin, Juliette spoke up. “Well? What do we do first? Find a hotel or eat?”
Ian guessed that his and Dima’s harmonized chorus of, “Lunch!” didn’t surprise her much. They found a nice spot after a quick stroll along the cove, which was lined with cafes boasting outdoor tables and umbrellas. Neat little chalkboards announced daily specials and prices.
“Look at that!” Juliette pointed. “Three courses and wine for about three dollars. I don’t think you two are going to starve here. Let’s sit down out of the sun, huh? I’m burning up!”
They parked in the shade of a white garden table, a steady wind cooling them rapidly as Ian downed a glass of the Italian mineral water their waiter had urged on them in fluent English. “Make sure you drink lots and lots,” he warned them. “The air is totally dry, and you’ll dehydrate and find yourself on a ferry to a hospital if you aren’t careful.” He wagged a finger at them. “I see it happen too often, even with Greeks here from the mainland. And put some sunscreen on. You have no idea how fast you’ll burn. Seriously.”
“Kinda like where I’m from,” Mark said. “I get it. Is it like this all year?”
“We’re famous for our wind and dry air year round, but it gets cool for a while in the winter. You from California?”
“How’d you know?”
“I can hear it in your voice. I go to UCLA, bro! I got one year left. I come back in the summer to help the family out. The money’s great.”
Ian sat up straight. “Really? At three dollars a lunch?”
The waiter laughed as he fingered his white apron. “Dude, we feed 500 people a day and we got no rent to pay. Do the math. My family’s owned this spot since before the Crimean War. The food? Check out that fishing fleet. Half the menu comes in on it.”
“That fleet?” Ian asked, pointing at the couple dozen shabby boats anchored around the harbor.
The waiter snagged a tray from a passing boy and doled out plates loaded with charred swordfish skewers and and tomato cucumber salad.
“Yeah, the boats come in every morning around dawn.” He pointed into the distance. “See that one? The shiny one out by the mouth? That’s my uncle’s. That fish you’re eating? He caught it last night.”
Ian quietly interpreted for Dima, who tried out his English on the waiter. “Is so much delicious. And the yoghurt. So excellent! You make it? You family?”
“My father does. Greek men are proud of their tzatziki, you know. I mean, he drains it and mixes in the garlic and cucumber and his so-called secret ingredients. No dill like in Athens. Heresy, bro! But he doesn’t make the actual yoghurt, if that’s what you mean. There’s a dairy over the other side of the hill. They ferment it from our island goats.”
Mark paused with a tzatziki-coated chunk of tomato halfway to his mouth. “Um, did you just say goat, dude?”
“Eat it!” chuckled Juliette as the waiter moved on to take an order at the next table.
“Goat, sheep, horse, donkey, what the hell ever,” said Ian, switching back to Russian and rolling his eyes in pleasure. “I swear this is the best food I’ve ever had.”
Conversation ceased as the four of them tucked into sweet, lightly charred, juicy chunks of just-caught fish. The vine-ripe tomatoes were incredible dipped in garlicky yogurt sauce. Even the bread was fresh baked, hot and yeasty right out of the oven. Ian used a piece of it to mop up his plate before he sat back and sipped at his wine and nibbled on salty brown olives.
“I could get used to this except for the wine,” he complained, grimacing at the pine-resin smell of it.
“I like it,” Mark said, gulping the rest of his glass down.
“You would!” laughed Ian.
“Can I have yours, then?”
“Mine!” Dima joked, grabbing at Ian’s glass just as Mark reached for it. It spilled across the table, spreading into a small puddle with drippy little legs that reached for the sandy floor.
Ian thoughts flashed to mucus dripping from drying squid. He frowned, wondering why he was suddenly shivering. He forced his thoughts back to a happier place. “Let’s order some decent wine,” he suggested, tossing a heavy coin onto the table.
This has been chapter 5 of the third 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.