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First pages

1 – Katya Kondrashov

I hit 140 km/h on the Moscow Bridge, siren on hi-lo, lightbar on max, and decelerate as I cross over Trukhaniv Island. Midway I brake and motion for a second patrol car to pass. I check for a gap in traffic before reversing my patrol car across two west-bound lanes.

I exit my vehicle wearing a reflective vest and high visibility gloves, and look for the kids who made the 112 call. Two boys wait beside a cable mooring on the north pedestrian walkway - nighttime Kiev glows behind them, and the suspension tower rises overhead. Officer Tomysak, from the second patrol car, approaches the kids and engages, before making a sprint toward the base of the tower.

I lift a stack of traffic cones from the trunk and move rapidly to set up a safety zone. It’s nine-twenty p.m. and traffic flow from the east bank isn’t at peak volume, but it’s substantial for a Friday night. I leave a third westbound lane open.

Sirens on the right bank build in volume; I return to the car and retrieve an illuminated traffic baton from the door well. A Voskresenka firetruck arrives and swerves in ahead of Officer Tomysak’s patrol car. A paramedic unit angles in behind it.

I wait until red-suited paramedics hurry from the ambulance, before I use the baton to feed vehicles onto the far-right lane. They slow as they pass the flashing lights, but there’s little to see. A traffic barrier along the walkway hinders line-of-sight, and the paramedic unit is shielding the activity of the rescue crew.

Officer Tomysak shepherds the two kids to his car, deposits them in the backseat, and walks over, holding up a smart phone. The two were filming for a video channel.

“It’ll kill the parents.” I say.

“They rode the metro here. I’m going to run them home.”

I jerk my chin toward the huddle of rescue workers on the walkway.

Tomysak grimaces and shakes his head. Moments later he pulls away with the two boys. Behind me motorists sound horns in a sustained volley, and I swing the traffic baton in an arc, smearing the night with orange glow.

A stretcher is wheeled to the ambulance. As its doors close, I raise a hand to halt traffic in the third lane until rescue units depart. Once they’re clear, I move my car alongside the traffic barrier, lightbar still strobing, and begin packing up traffic cones. This is when I’m most likely to be struck by a motorist. Fortunately, not tonight.

I deposit the cones in the car trunk, and step over the traffic barrier onto the walkway. I tilt my face upward. Three bundles of cables feed into slots on the suspension tower, and the Ukrainian daredevils of YouTube have made this a notorious location for kids hoping to prove themselves. If they reach an opening in the tower, via the cables, they can slip inside, and ascend to an open platform at the top. Tonight a-thirteen-year-old has fallen twenty meters onto the bridge deck. He didn’t survive.

The first snowflakes of an approaching storm drop from the darkness above the river, eddy past the steel ropes of the bridge tower, and melt on my eyelashes.

2 – Instagram Glam

A quick check of the street clock at Arena City shows 5:10 a.m. A predawn storm buffets the capitol of Ukraine, and snowplows are clearing the boulevards in advance of rush hour. In the downtown’s trendiest quarter, an Express taxi discharges a fare at the Mirrors Hotel.

The new arrival rides an elevator to a seventh-floor suite, conveys a satchel and tray-box within, and nudges off wet boots. She accepts an offer of tea, and reciprocates with a box of Ana Pavlova meringues.

A breakfast table draws her eye, and she removes a brimming ashtray before resting her tray box. “Shall we start?” She extracts a folder from her satchel, and fans out a collection of photos. “You may find these upsetting,” she cautions.

The photos depict knife and gunshot injuries.

Her teenage hostess raises a hand to restrain champagne tresses, before bending over the display. “I’m fine. I don’t spook easily.” She scans the pictures, and taps her favorites with a glitter-painted fingernail.

She straightens. “I’ll wake Alex. He hasn’t decided how he wants to die.”

The girl knocks at a bedroom door, and after repeated urgings, a young male emerges and moves with single-minded purpose toward an electric kettle. The artist waits briefly as her clients, Instagram stars Alexei and Alexandra, fill tea mugs and sample her gift of sweets. She thumbs the metal buckle of the tray box and lifts the lid.

Two hours later, the scent of spirit gum permeates the suite. Alexandra oozes stage blood from knife gashes, and her eyes stare from smoky craters. A detached section of Alexei’s trachea dangles above his shirt collar. The make-up artist inspects her handiwork. “Too much?”

“It’s perfect,” declares Alexandra. She admires the grisly injuries along her arms, on display in a sleeveless, crimson dress. She pivots to Alexei and adjusts the bow tie beneath his slashed latex windpipe. “Like it?” she asks.

“I’m breathless,” quips Alexei.

3 – Ivan Chai

 Welcome to Katya’s world! A sixteen-wheeler games the light on Saperno-Slobidska and flings a tsunami of icy slush over me. For a few seconds, I’m paralyzed.

I’m standing at a motorist’s window, and I’ve assured the driver that I have the right to request his documents. He’s twisted his dashcam in my direction, in the hope of catching me soliciting a bribe (on camera, no less).

That’s when I get slushed.

My instinct is to climb into my patrol car and punch the siren, but the truck is hauling a two-tone, camouflage green T-40 combat tank, on a flat-bed, and my guess is it’s heading for E-40 east, on its way to the war zone. I let it go.

I return to my car, scan the barcode of the combative motorist’s license, and print out a ticket. I deliver it and thank the gentleman for his cooperation. Back in my car, I pull off my boots and wring out my socks. I’m quaking from cold, sick of winter, and still haunted by a kid who fell off the Moscow Bridge two nights ago. My shift began at midnight, it’s now 6 a.m., and I’m seriously considering chucking my job.

I wave my socks near the heat vent and focus my attention on a travel brochure I’ve taped to the radar. India - lovely, distant, warm. Biryani and bougainvillea, no icy slush. If I move to Goa, I can sign on with a Russian oil company, and sun myself on the beaches, and engage in brief, intense relationships with Russian expats.

That’s what I’ll do. No lie.

**

Whenever I swing by the Ivan Chai coffee house, I wonder if I'll find its doors open, and the two ancient sisters at work in the kitchen. It’s past time the ladies retired. At least thirty years past.

I pull the patrol car, a new Toyota Prius befouled by winter’s street slime, onto the café sidewalk.

The coffee house is famous for its namesake herbal tea, Ivan Chai, and if the first aroma that hits you is home-made cherry jam, bubbling on a stove, or cinnamon cookies cooling on the rolling racks; underneath you will detect, at nearly any hour, the scent of wild rose and willow herb that infuse the country potion we know as Ivan Chai. If you’re wondering how the ladies obtain fresh willow herb in February, you’re not alone. Vera Andreyevna, the younger of the sisters, shuffles toward the display case from the kitchen as I browse.

“Good morning, Miss.” She catches sight of my slush-begrimed uniform, sends me a look of sympathy. “I've just the thing for you, kitten.”

She fills a china cup from a samovar, and I point out a fruit tart with cherry syrup. Her knobby, liver-spotted hands reach for tongs, the tiniest bit shaky.

The mic on my shoulder chirps, I press listen, hear the crackle of static. Reprieve.

My attention lingers for a micro-second on a lemon bar, and Vera Andreyevna adds it to my plate, and nods to the table nearest the kitchen, where oven air wafts.

I'm salivating as I pull off my knit cap and safety vest. My trousers cling to my calves and ankles, I'm cold and grungy and ready to collapse, but heaven awaits. A table adjacent the kitchen, hot tea, a needlepoint witticism on a linen doily - I sleep with a knife under my pillow….in case a cake breaks in!

My shoulder mic sputters to life. “Kondrashov? Can you swing by Sky Towers?”

“What's up?”

“Not sure. The security guard who phoned was out of breath. Maybe an asthmatic needing medical assistance?”

I return to the counter with my plate. “If you’d be so kind, I'll take it to go,” I tell Vera Andreyevna.

Her tongue clucks. “My dear, you deserve better.” She bags my goodies, and pours my tea into a take-away cup.

4 - Ice Drifting

Timur Volkov listens to vodka bottles shift and clink in the rear of the battered, Libyan-made, Iveco van as it wallows along icy ruts on the E40 highway. During the trip to Lvov the cases of boutique vodka seemed like treasure, but now Timur aches with secret shame, as if he has fathered an ugly child.

“Your glove box is busted,” says Tim’s younger brother Nikita. “It flops open, uninvited.”

“Hit it.”

Nikita pounds it, too hard. The glove compartment fails to latch, instead springs open again. He’s broken it, thinks Timur.

Control issues. Timur reflects that twenty-year-old Nikita hasn’t been the same since a six-month stint in a Chinese prison. Exactly what’s altered in Nicky’s tiny brain is murky, but it appears that a clause in his private contract with the universe has been voided. The clause that says: I’m bound by normal social constraints.

A stranded eighteen-wheeler waits in sideways-blowing snow and Tim inches past, fighting to keep it together, tired, frazzled, and hungry. The snow plows have created a single lane of transit in both directions on E40, and a seven-hour trip has stretched into ten. The two brothers consumed lattes and hotdogs at a gas stop five hours ago, but nothing since.

It’s past midnight, forward visibility has diminished to five or six meters, and highway floodlights illuminate sagging, snow-burdened boughs on either side. Nikita glances up from his phone to take in the storm, his eyes slitted with cozy inner contentment. He’s posting selfies online, looking fashionably cool in a grey beanie cap and black quilted jacket, while his brother Tim wrestles with the Iveco’s steering.

“How much longer?” queries Nikita, adopting a bratty whine for comic effect. He grins and his black eyes glow.

 “An hour to Kiev, if I can keep this wreck on the highway,” says Timur, not bothering to feign optimism.

He nose-dives into sticky, viscous self-pity. The trip has resulted in a major set-back. Six sample cases of Shock Vodka, which were to be distributed to merchants in Lvov in exchange for promises to promote it, have had no takers.

Pig Spittle. Head Shot. Sudden Death.

Tim is heartsick, all his aspirations are jeopardized. Not only has he signed a lease on a new apartment on Kiev’s east bank, but he’s also been invited to purchase a partnership at Club Ultra-Vegas, where he’s employed as the creative director.

He snuffles, on the verge of tears. Stupid Timmy, to have hoped for so much. Now he yearns only to reach home and bury himself under the bed covers, but even that may prove unattainable. His two-decade-old van isn’t up to the challenge of severe weather, and he and little brother Nikita are in immediate peril of being trapped in a blizzard.

The van slows, Tim stomps the accelerator, the Iveco fish-tails. Cases of vodka once again shift and clash. “I’ve got ice in the wheel wells.”

Nikita returns his attention to the glove compartment, picking at the lining.

“Don’t trash my van.”

“There’s a card wedged behind the panel,” reports Nikita.

Tim returns to brooding. Elder brother Max is also a partner in their mutual business venture, and he’ll be waiting anxiously to learn how the enterprise fared. It’s weighing on Tim that he’ll have to recount a disaster.

“Magnetic strip,” announces Nikita, who’s now tearing back the lining of the glove compartment. “It’s a gift card.”

Tim remembers. “It’s a key card.”

“Key to what?”

“Mezhyhirya.” Tim flashes on images of the ex-president’s estate north of Kiev, where he entertained a girlfriend the previous summer.

“The Yanukovych crib?”

“It’s a museum, since they booted him.”

The van begins to spin out, Nikita laughs, Tim pumps the brake and eases off the accelerator.

Damn. A case of vodka has fallen over, bottles are broken. Does it even matter?

The bar and club managers of Lvov, already locked into their suppliers, have shaken their heads over the herb-infused concoctions, and laughed at the imitation “Kinder Surprise” plastic toys at the bottom of each Shock Vodka bottle. Sudden Death, for example, contains a hooded cobra. (Tim’s contribution, of which he was exceedingly proud, until today).

A persistent clunk clunk clunk commences on the driver side, immediately below Tim’s left foot, signaling slush build-up in the wheel housing.

An abandoned gas station and mini-mart looms, and Tim exhales pent-up anxiety. A haven. He slows, pulls in. The van’s headlight’s briefly illuminate a poster-ad for red carnations in the mini-mart’s blackened windows, and then the van dips, hits the parking lot pavement, and initiates a smooth, slowly accelerating slide past the mini-mart’s far side, and Tim cuts the wheel barely in time to keep the vehicle from slamming against a guard rail at the rear of the blacktop.

“What?” asks Nikita, finally glancing up from his phone screen.

“Skating rink.” Timur groans. He kills the engine, opens the van door and slides out, slips and falls painfully on one knee, scrambles up. He kicks at chunks lodged behind the wheel, then step-slides around to Nikita’s window and raps. “A little help?”

Nikita grins and climbs out, and both men begin to kick at the mass of frozen sludge that’s hampering the Iveco van.

“How’d you score a key to Mezhyhirya?”

Timur thinks back. “Someone left it at the club.”

Tim occasionally rummages the lost-and-found drawer at Club Ultra-Vegas for free eyeglasses. “I called a number, and Mezhyhirya Museum staff asked me to mail it in,” he adds.

“Why’s it stuck behind the glove box?”

“It dropped down the air vent.”

“The glove box isn’t connected to the air duct.” Nikita delivers a parting blow to the Iveco. “What’s it access? The front gate? The mansion?”

“Don’t know, Nikki.”

They return to their seats, and Tim fires the engine and pumps the accelerator, while the van revs loudly and begins a lazy, unintended spin across the parking lot ice. Nikita bursts into gleeful laughter.

“Remember that video? The Swedish dudes ice-drifting?”

Tim smiles for the first time in hours. He cuts the wheel hard, accelerates into an engine-racing loop, and the rear tires strew snow as the van rotates in a slow, screaming circle.

He relaxes the wheel, and the van careens sideways, suddenly whipping in a double spiral, before coming to a halt, tilting briefly on two wheels, and slamming down in a rocking jounce. Vodka bottles fly free and shatter.

Nikita chortles happily, his laughter is infectious, and Timur’s gloom thaws.

Timur reverses the Iveco, again cutting the wheel sharply, and as they veer toward the eastern edge of the blacktop, a stranger’s headlights blaze for an instant in his rearview, and Timur glimpses a car exiting the highway onto the ice-glazed parking lot. He feels a jolt as the rotating rear of the Iveco van collides with the rear bumper of the newcomer, like a hockey blade tapping a puck, and the second car disappears.

“Oh Christ!”

Whump!

Followed by a second, much louder whump and shattering glass.

“Oh no no no…!”

Nikita seizes a flash light from the open glove compartment, and both men leap out and run/skid toward the guard rail.

Nikita aims the flashlight downward. A car is lodged on a wooded slope below, upright, its grill caught against the tree trunk, it’s rear wheels free of the ground and spinning at full throttle.

Timur’s heart sinks. The crushed roof tells the story: the car has flipped and overturned, then flipped again and landed upright. A back door of the sedan is twisted backward like a broken wing.

“Geez, we walloped it.” Nikita’s mouth forms a weird rictus of appreciative wonder. “We gave it a boost.”

Timur appropriates the flashlight, climbs over the rail, starts down the slope, immediately falls on his backside, slides, and grabs onto saplings for support.

Carefully he descends through underbrush toward the car, giving the rattling rear wheels a wide berth, and peers past the mangled rear door. “There’s a woman in here.”

“Is she injured?”

“Can’t tell. Come down.”

Nikita, too, slides downhill, past the car, all the way to the bottom. Moments later he returns, grasping shrubbery to haul himself upward. “There’s a vineyard down there.”

“That’s nice, Nikki. How’s the driver?”He aims the flashlight across the car roof into Nikki’s face, as fresh gusts of wind coat the car with snow.

Nikita brushes moisture from the driver’s window and peeks inside. “He looks dead.” He wrestles with the door, opens it, sticks his head in, switches on the overhead light, turns off the ignition. “Nope. He’s wheezing and gurgling.”

“Call 102.”

Nikita obligingly extracts his phone from his jacket and dials. “I can’t get a signal.”

“Come around to this side. We’ll lift the woman out.”

Nikita steps cautiously past the still-whirling rear tires. The woman is regaining her senses.

“Is someone there? Please, god!”

Tim plays the flashlight over the passenger. She appears to be in her forties, medium height, heavyset, and dressed and coiffed for a festive night out. A rivulet of blood runs from her nose and drips from her chin, but she’s oblivious. “Ma’am? We’re here to help. We’re going to move you to safety.”

“Has an ambulance arrived?” she quavers.

“We’re not able to reach emergency services, we’ll have to transport you ourselves.”

She wipes her chin, studies the blood on her glove.

“Let’s have your hand,” encourages Tim, and he seizes the bloodied glove shakily extended. “Here we go...” She gasps. “Oh Lord…my knee.” After a moment, “Be careful.”

Tim senses Nikki at his side. They cautiously extricate the woman from the passenger seat, as she groans. She struggles to walk, yelps and slips off Tim’s arm, and nearly collapses but is caught by Nikita.

“Don’t try to move. We’ll carry you.”

“Valeria…” she says. She struggles to look around.

“No Valeria here, ma’am,” says Nikita. “Different night, different movie.”

“You don’t understand. My daughter’s with me. Lera?” she calls out.

Tim speculates aloud. “She was ejected in the crash.”

“I’ll find her,” volunteers Nikita. He snatches the flashlight and disappears through the trees.

Tim slips the woman’s arm through his, but her knees buckle and she sinks to the ground. Tim kneels beside her.

“Please find her,” she urges Tim. “Go!”

Tim rises reluctantly, then follows Nikki’s path back up the slope, and encounters his brother, on the point of returning. They double back, searching futilely.

“So, where is the little bitch?”

“Let’s check the other side,” says Tim.

“Is she there?” cries the woman.

They comb the underbrush. Suddenly Nikita whistles and Tim scrambles to join him.

Again, the woman yells. “Yes?”

A slender teenage girl lies on her side, legs drawn up in the flashlight’s beam. Nikita kneels and adjusts the red coat that’s slipped from her shoulders. “Is she alive?” asks Tim. Nikita focuses the flashlight on her upper body. Her dark hair is restrained by a sparkly headband, and a red sequined choker encircles her throat. Nikki moves the torch down her body - no sign of injury, but her shoes are missing.

The girl stirs. “Mommy?”

A distraught voice responds. “Darling?”

Unexpectedly the mother emerges from the trees, hobbling unsteadily. Nikita shines the torch in her face.

She approaches and kneels in the snow with a helping hand from Tim. “Thank God! Lera, darling, I’m here.”

“Mommy!”

“Don’t worry, sweetheart, help has arrived.” She twists her head toward Nick, who hands off the torch to Timur, bends over the girl, and reaches a hand under her legs.

“Wait! We don’t know that it’s safe to move her. She may have an injury.”

“Ma’am, we need to carry her to the parking lot.”

He delays as the mother expels an inarticulate cry of indecision. Nikita takes this as permission, slides an arm under the girl’s legs, and as he does so the red coat shifts, exposing a hiked-up skirt and pale blue panties.

“What are you doing?”

Nikita freezes. “Nothing.”

She staggers upright. “You forced her skirt up.”

Nikita releases the girl, and rises.

“I’m a Deputy of the Rada,” the woman spits. “If you touch my daughter again I’ll have you prosecuted.”

Nikita seems momentarily disconcerted, and then without preamble he punches the woman squarely in the face. She flies backward, drops into a bush. Timur raises the flashlight.

Both men stand silently, breathing hard, Timur shaken. “What the hell, Nikki?”

“Mommy?”

“She’s fine, sweetie,” Nikita assures her. “Just catching her breath.”

Tim plays the flashlight over the girl, who remains immobile in her snowdrift, eyelids batting rapidly. Timur is pierced by sympathy. A skinny adolescent, returning home from a family occasion, abruptly finds herself lying on a wooded hillside, while strangers hover. “You take her arms.”

“You’re joking, right?” Nikita hoists the girl effortlessly, and balances her over his shoulder. He moves swiftly up the slope, using a free hand to grasp saplings and branches for traction. Moments later he’s at the top, stepping over the guard rail.

Tim pivots, hesitates over the mother’s prone body, then skids down the slope toward the car.

He makes his way around the trunk, opens the driver’s door. The driver slumps, breathing in whistling gasps, head lodged between the door and steering wheel.

Tim gauges the labored breathing, unsure what it means. A punctured lung?He inspects the man briefly with the flashlight. The driver remains unconscious, oozing blood from a groove in the scalp. Timur debates. Gotta do this. He pockets the flashlight and wraps his arms around the man’s torso, slides him out. Fortunately, the guy’s a lightweight. Tim lays him out in the snow, pulls out the flashlight. The sides of the man’s head are closely shaved and the longer tresses of hair on top are gathered in a knot. Bat wing tats wreathe his neck. A hipster.

Timur calls out futilely for Nikita. What’s delaying his brother?

He grasps the driver by the lapels of his jacket with one hand and laboriously hauls him up the slope. At the guard rail Tim bends and cradles the man, lifts him over, bears him toward the van.

As he approaches, the van door opens and discharges Nikita, beanie cap askew.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

Tim has a sickening epiphany. “You violated that girl.”

“Don’t be stupid.”

“You suppurating pile of cancer.”

“Shut up. Everything’s under control.”

Timur shakes his head. “Help me get this one in the van.”

Nikita slides the door, they maneuver the man inside. The girl is strapped into a seat, dazed, her legs parted. “Mama?” she wails.

“Idiot. They’ll check her at the hospital. What if they have us on dashcam?”

As he voices this concern he experiences a flash of panic. He scrambles back to the guardrail, frantically slides downhill to the overturned vehicle, and locates a dashcam mounted next to a Saint Vladimir statuette. He dismantles the camera, removes the memory card, and slowly feels a measure of calm return. He wipes the door handles of prints.

Where’s the old lady? In his terror, he’s forgotten where he left her.

Nikki skids down from above, coming to a neat stop beside him.

“You hit the mom too hard,” says Timur, but without reprimand, unwilling to admit he’s misplaced her.

The brothers rotate in place, listening. Soon Tim makes out distant noises, as if an injured animal is flailing in the brush.

Nikita turns on his heel and bounds away like a hunting dog. Timur hears his brother’s voice soon after, intermingled with low protestations of the mother. Timur joins them wearily, and between the two brothers they haul the woman up the slope, and strap her into a seat.

They back away, both breathing heavily. The wind picks up and shrieks over the roof of the desolate mini-mart, almost, but not quite, drowning out the sobbing of the girl in the van.

“Timmy needs a reset.” Nikita hauls on the van’s rear door, pulls out a bottle of Sudden Death, cracks the seal.

On the highway, a snowplow whooshes past.

“Someone may have seen us here,” observes Tim. Nick raises the vodka bottle, tilts back his head.

The two pass the vodka, gulping short draughts.

“We should drive them to a hospital. We’ll drop them at the emergency entrance.”

“Someone will spot us.”

“We could dump them in a safe location and make an anonymous call.”

No answer from Nikita. They drink again.

“We wring their necks and leave them here,” says Nikita finally.

“Since when are you a psychopath?”

Nikita shakes his head. “I’m not crazy, brother, I’m a realist.”

In the darkness behind them, a tree branch snaps under the weight of snow and Timur shudders nervously. “We leave soon, or we’re stranded here.”

Unexpectedly the van door slides open and the stringy little driver lurches out, his face a horror- show of flowing blood. “You’re kidding me,” says Nikita. He moves swiftly to intercept. “Whoa, fella, everyone stays seated ‘til the ride’s over.” The man swings a fist, connects with Nikita’s ear, and Nikita curses and lurches away.

Timur’s turn. He chases the driver down, but a fist catches his lower lip, a kick narrowly misses his groin. The vodka is having an effect, converting weariness into rage. He clamps both arms around the man and bears him to the ground, where he proceeds to thump the driver’s head ferociously against the ice. The man’s resistance quickly subsides. At Nikita’s approach, Tim stands, breathing in noisy gasps.

“Wow,” comments Nikita, surveying the bloody snow. “Like, all I can say is… wow.”

“Shut it.”

They stuff the unconscious man back in the van, climb in, pass the vodka, sit in silence.

Timur waits dumbly for whatever horror erupts next, aware of a creeping sense of impotence. His chest rises and falls, and a stinging pulsation in his neck indicates spiking tachycardia. He wants to berate Nikita, but instead stares accusingly through the windshield at falling snow, which seems equally at fault.

“This is a crisis, Nikki. If we don’t handle it, we’re screwed.”

Nikita is prying at the glove box lining once more, and voices a triumphant exclamation. He extracts the key card to Mezhyhirya and brandishes it. “It’s not a crisis, Timmy. It’s an opportunity.”

Timur keys the engine, pops the clutch, and the Iveco spins its tires and drifts sideways, like the disastrous sideways day, and the perversely sideways night.

5 - Murder Valentine

Shortly after 8:00 AM, Alexandra and Alexei - social media stars in Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia - stand before the gates of Mezhyhirya. A golf cart races toward them through veils of snow.

The teen sweethearts have been granted off-hour access to the presidential estate north of Kiev. Both are nicknamed Sasha, and both are made up to resemble murder victims.

The golf cart skids up to the entrance, and a museum staffer steps out to unlock the gate. “Hi, I’m Borya, and I’ll be your guide this morning.” His eyes scan the visitors’ faces, lingering on the bizarre make-up, but he secures the gate behind them without comment.

Alexandra slides onto a seat next to Alexei, who playfully bumps shoulders. Borya takes the wheel, and the cart accelerates over freshly cleared walkways. The Finnish built “log cabin” palace looms all too quickly, and Alexandra’s not ready. Not yet.

A zombie valentine?

Dumb idea.

A week ago, smoking hookah, sipping Dewar’s, it seemed brilliant.

**

They film themselves entwined in death on a curving staircase, amid strewn roses, and afterward Alexandra discards her crimson St. Valentine’s dress, before she drowns Alexei in a bathtub; and finally, they hang themselves from a ceiling rafter with a tasseled curtain cord.

Alexandra flounders, her usual flair is missing. The shoot is a spilled dumpster of disjointed images. She needs a single, powerful photo to unite the others. But what? She turns to Borya for venue suggestions.

“I need drama,” she pleads. “A shock factor.”

“The old galleon out by the reservoir - I’d be happy to open that.”

“A galleon? Like a boat?” asks Alexandra. “We could do murdered Rose and Jack.”

Alexei does an eye roll. “Hardly shocking.”

She drapes an arm across his shoulders, and circles the inside of his ear with the tip of her tongue. My handsome Sashenko, she whispers. Mollified, he dons a leather jacket with decorative silver chains, she slips on a silver fox fur, and they link pinky fingers.

Borya ferries the teens eastward past the spiraling hedges, and beneath the winter-stripped chestnuts and lindens, and north along the shore of the Kiev reservoir. He gestures into the distance, where Ukrainian flags flutter atop the masts of a ship at anchor. “President Yanukovych had the galleon converted into a private restaurant,” explains Borya, adding, “I’ll scoot you around to the entrance, as soon as the snowplow finishes.”

They slow beside the marina inlet; ahead of them a red and white tractor, mounted with a snowplow, stands idle. Its driver dismounts and glances toward the golf cart, raises an admonitory hand, and slogs through drifts toward the old galleon.

The golf cart pauses too, and after initial patience, Alexei and Alexandra dismount.

“Guys, it looks like there’s a problem, why don’t we hold up a sec?”

Neither of them acknowledges, they link arms and continue along the roadway until they reach the marina piers, where they follow the plow driver’s boot-tracks along a snowy walkway. The fresh-water inlet is frozen save for a patch near the galleon, and Alexei pauses to film the ducks.

Alexandra’s gaze is unexpectedly drawn skyward. The plow operator’s intrusion at dockside has disturbed a gathering of gulls and ravens, which disperses raucously. Moments later the driver reappears, calling out urgently. “Go back!”

The Sashas freeze.

“Stay clear, there’s been an accident!”

“Is someone hurt?” queries Alexei.

“An emergency! I’m notifying the authorities!”

The plow operator races toward his tractor, fumbles inside the tractor cabin, and retrieves a cell phone.

Meanwhile Borya the museum guide abandons the golf cart and hurries forward. “There’s been a mishap. Why don’t we head over to the garage and check out the Bentley?”

The teens are reluctant. Something’s occurred on the other side of the old ship. Something interesting, maybe shocking.

A fresh outbreak of squabbling erupts among the birds. Alexandra drops her companion’s hand, and proceeds toward the galleon with resolute strides. Alexei follows.

“Guys, it may not be safe,” cautions Borya, voice rising in agitation.

The footpath leads past the galleon’s stern, and as the Sashas round the corner to the galleon’s starboard side, the contingent of winged predators again rises in protest.

The teen sweethearts survey the scene. A mammoth anchor displayed dockside has been festooned with a woman’s silver scarf, which flaps listlessly in the breeze.

Alexandra experiences a let-down. There’s nothing else to see. The ship, varnished and lustrous, a thick cap of snow on the cabin roof, possesses an air of protracted abandonment. The interior of the cabin lies behind darkened windows, and the Ukrainian flags topping the masts are bleached and shredded by weather.

Then Alexei points. “There…”

Steps from the dock lead down to the deck, and the snow is streaked with bird droppings and bits of pinkish…meat.

The Sashas approach, and what previously lay just below eye level is exposed.

Cyka!” Alexandra chokes out.

Three figures are seated within a snowdrift at the foot of the steps, trapped but not entirely embalmed. Here a bare foot protrudes; there a face is teasingly disclosed.

She reels backward into Alexei’s arms. “They’re dead,” he reassures her, voice quaking. “They can’t harm us.”

She pushes his hand away and fumbles for her Sony.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Dan Spanton resides in beautiful coastal Maine, and is currently working on a second book featuring Ukrainian patrol cop Katya Kondrashov.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
I was inspired to write about a Kievan patrol cop after years of watching YouTube videos from Ukraine.

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