"Hey, it's me..." the word came out slowly as if the man had to struggle to say it.
"Dima?" the tone of the woman's voice changed immediately. It went from cheerful and upbeat to alarmed. "Dima? Is everything all right?"
"Hey..." the man sounded a little better now, as if hearing her voice brought him relief. "Listen, there was some trouble..."
"What kind of trouble, Dima? You don't sound good," she spoke quickly.
"Oleg is dead..."
"Oh my God, Dima. Where are you?"
"Remember that diner... The one we went to the first... the first time."
"I'm in the parking lot... Can you come?"
"Oh God, Dima. I'm coming. Do you want me to call an ambulance or something?"
"No. No ambulance... Just come..."
"I'm on my way, Dima. Hang tight, I'll be there as fast as I can."
"I'll be waiting," the man, Dima, said and disconnected the call.
He put the phone in the cup holder between the driver's and passenger's seats in his car. The black plastic was slick with blood and Dima let it slip out of his hand. With his left he was holding a bloodied rag against his side, using it to apply pressure to a wound that had soaked his shirt with blood.
How quickly it all went wrong, Dima wondered as he leaned his head against the seat's headrest. It was not that long ago, a couple of hours in fact, when everything was looking so good. When it felt like his life had finally come around and the future was bright. And now his best friend was dead – not just him but many others as well – and he was sitting alone in his car with a bullet hole in his side. Hoping to live long enough to at least see her one final time.
Teatral'naya Station, Dima realized as the subway came to a halt with a screech of brakes. The car was packed but a lot of the passengers were also getting off at Teatral'naya so Dima didn't have to squeeze through the crowd to get out but, rather, could flow with it. Another crowd waited on the platform and pushed its way into the car just as Dima got out, filling it before the doors slammed shut and the subway continued on its never-ending journey through Moscow's underground.
He was lost in thought and tired after another sleepless night so he had almost missed his stop.
It's been almost two years now and the nightmares still continued. On and off.
Sometimes he could go for weeks without them and then they came back night after night where he would wake up drenched in sweat and with his heart racing. Even leaving the nightmare did not bring relief right away as it always took him a couple of minutes to realize that he was back in his Moscow apartment and not in blood stained mountains of the North Caucasus.
Even the smell of burning diesel, cordite and charred flesh seemed to linger in the air for those few minutes as if he was still back there. Back in those beautiful but accursed mountains that promised adventure but, instead, exacted such a high price from the men who had gone into them. Mountains from which he had almost not returned as well. Mountains that claimed so many lives in a slow-burning war that didn't look like it would ever end, and that kept affecting his own with those damned nightmares.
Dima followed the the crowd as it flowed through the elaborately decorated subway station towards the world that lay outside. Opened in 1938, Teatral'naya was supposed to give the masses a taste of beauty and show them just how glorious the Soviet system was. Although, Dima always thought when he passed its marble faced walls, fluted columns and mosaics, the masses would have probably appreciated a bigger ration of bread instead. Or an alternative to the squalor of the communal housing, the kommunalka, where people lived like rats and dozens of strangers shared the same kitchen and washroom.
Just like today.
Although the kommunalka was now largely a thing of the past and there was plenty of food in the stores, Dima could imagine that most Muscovites would still gladly exchange Teatral'naya's marble for better schools, cleaner streets or decent wages. At least the crowd at Teatral'naya was always a little better dressed and less concerned with finding the next meal than that at the subway's other stations. This unlike the one that could usually be found on the platform of his own neighborhood station.
Here, right outside the Red Square, where the streets were lined with fancy boutiques, the people that got out of the subway cars were not the same gray, tired figures that lived where Dima did. Maybe except those who, like him, came here to work among all of the luxury that they were never going to enjoy themselves.
After a couple of minutes of walking through corridors and riding up long escalators, Dima was outside.
Another beautiful, Moscow day, he thought sarcastically as he looked up at a sky filled with gray clouds. Autumn was here already and the bright summer days were definitely gone. Although more bright ones were coming soon, these were going to be of the ice-cold variety when winter swooped down on Russia's capital. Then the brightest days were going to be the coldest ones where the thermometer dropped to temperatures that often were not much better than those in the Arctic.
Dima wondered if it was going to rain today as he walked down the sidewalk. He didn't catch the weather forecast on the radio this morning and did not think to bring an umbrella so he hoped that it would not. Recently his life was depressing enough that he did not need to get soaked to make it even worse.
It didn't take him long to reach the shopping center where he did security work. At the entrance, standing in front of the glass doors rimmed with shiny brass, he saw Igor, another veteran of the fighting in the North Caucasus, who was doing the first shift of the day.
“Nice day, eh Dima?” Igor said by way of a greeting.
“Heard it's going to rain.”
“Great,” Dima commented as the men shook hands.
“Hurry up, brother, so I can get home before it comes down,” Igor told him as the man glanced up at the gray sky with a look of concern. “I forgot to bring my stupid umbrella today and I still have to go and pick up the kids.”
“Sure thing,” Dima answered and went inside.
He made his way past the boutiques with their fancy merchandise that he could not even hope to afford and to the shopping center's administrative area. A key card in his wallet unlocked the door and then he was in the gray corridor.
The utilitarian appearance of this part of the complex was so different from the glitzy interior of the rest of the shopping center that it felt as if stepping through the door took Dima into a different world. And, in a way, it was a different world. The world of people who barely made a living while on the other side of the door was the world of those whose only worry was finding ways to spend their money. On fancy cars, expensive restaurants, diamond studded jewelery and vacations in exotic countries that people like Dima only saw on television.
Dima headed straight for the locker room where he changed into his uniform – a suit with the logo of the security company on its breast pocket. Not a bad suit either, Dima always thought when he inspected his appearance in the locker room mirror. Not as nice as those sold in the men's wear stores in the shopping center but not bad either.
There was a piece of lint on his shoulder so he brushed it off with his hand and noted with some satisfaction that he was ready to begin. The bosses wanted the security men to look presentable so that the rich who shopped here would not complain. Broken noses, missing teeth or visible bullet or shrapnel scars were definitely not appreciated. And fortunately Dima was presentable enough. Average height and build, short cropped blond hair, clean shaven, gray eyes. The suit regularly cleaned and well pressed by the women from the cleaning services and the white shirt underneath it spotless.
He inserted his radio's earpiece into his ear, the thin plastic cable that ran to it barely visible. Double checked that his battery was fully charged and the radio turned on.
And that his cell phone was turned off. The last thing he needed was the phone going off when his supervisor was around. There was only one warning he would get for that and the second time it happened he would be looking for a new job. And even though Dima hated this one, he could think of worse ways to earn a living so he was not in a hurry for that to happen.
Another man entered the locker room. This one tall and dark haired. His gray eyes slightly slanted to show a hint of Mongol blood, a relic of a brutal rule that saw millions dragged off to the slave markets of the Muslim world.
“Hey, Dima,” the new arrival said and the men shook hands. “Igor asked me to tell you to hurry. Something about having to pick up his kids in the rain.”
“Yeah, I know. I'm going,” Dima replied and took one last look in the mirror. “See you out there,” he said and left the locker room.
He made his way through the shopping center and noted that the after-work crowd already started to fill the place. He passed a group of fashionably dressed teenage girls. All four of them walking, talking loudly and texting at the same time.
When he reached the main entrance, the first drops of rain already started falling from the gray sky.
“Hey, Igor. You can go,” Dima said to the other security guard.
“Thanks, brother. Did you bring an umbrella, by the way?” Igor asked hopefully.
“No, man. Sorry.”
“Too bad. See, it's already raining.”
“Well, let's just hope it doesn't start pouring. All right, I'll see you tomorrow?” Igor said after a quick glance at his watch.
“Sure will,” Dima replied.
They shook hands and the other man disappeared inside the shopping center to get changed.
With the rain starting to fall, the shopping center would fill up faster than usually, Dima thought as he observed the people who were coming and going.
Some teenagers returning home from expensive private schools, businessmen, secretaries, two elegantly dressed middle-aged women walking slowly and talking softly as they looked at the storefronts. The usual crowd for this part of Moscow. All of them well-to-do with decent, well paying jobs and a good future ahead of them. Even the regular office workers or salespeople around here were well dressed. They had to be because appearance at the firms that had their offices this close to the Kremlin mattered.
A sleek yellow sports car passed on the street in front of the shopping center. It was moving too fast for Dima to recognize the make as it flashed by, partly hidden from his view by the people on the sidewalk. Whoever was driving it must have good connections to be going this fast in the center of the capital without being worried about the traffic cops, Dima thought.
He certainly would not drive his twelve year old Lada like this. The cops would shake him down like there's no tomorrow if they stopped him. Unless one of them was also a vet from the Caucasus. Then it wouldn't be so bad because after the men who had served there went though the things they went through, they became brothers. Most of them at least.
Suddenly Dima felt a push from behind. He immediately turned around, fully alert and ready to strike. There hadn't been any terrorist attacks in Moscow for a couple of years and the usual thugs kept away from this part of the city – there was simply too much police patrolling the streets near the Kremlin – but Dima knew that he had to be ready for any eventuality.
His Sambo training kicked in immediately, all the hours of practicing its unarmed combat techniques paying off by making Dima's reaction automatic. This and his experiences from the Caucasus that made him permanently edgy. Having people try to kill you on a daily basis made the men who had served in the mountains like that.
However, Dima immediately realized that this was not a threat. Somebody simply accidentally bumped into him in the crowd. Still, it wasn't going to be easy.
“What the fuck are you doing! Standing there in people's way, you idiot,” the man who had walked into Dima immediately got in his face, his voice raised and his posture aggressive.
Dima quickly sized him up. Black hair, slightly dark skin – not brown but just a shade darker than the average Russian. Perhaps “tan” was the best way to describe it. Shorter than Dima and stocky. Between the skin and facial features he would easily belong in the Caucasus. No beard though, but plenty of them, the rich ones especially, shaved, Dima thought. At least all of those who drove around Moscow in expensive cars with young Russian girls in tow.
“Well? What are you waiting for, you prick. Apologize!”
The man had a girl on his arm. Taller than he was by almost a head. Long straight blond hair, heavy makeup, very short skirt. And at least fifteen years younger. And now the man was showing off to his girlfriend (or perhaps mistress?).
Another rich bastard from the Caucasus that probably made his money in organized crime like the rest of them did, Dima decided. Enough money to live the good life in Moscow, bedding young Russian girls while Russians like Dima earned just enough to survive. It was no wonder that nationalist parties have been steadily gaining in popularity across the country. Perhaps not as much as the ones in the West, where the governments had sold out their own citizens just so they should show how tolerant they were as far as Dima was concerned.
The whole situation seemed to amuse the girl who had probably seen her companion throw his weight around before. Which only made Dima that much angrier. He wanted to drive his fist into the man's face. Break his nose and then rip out his eyeballs. Send the bastard home a cripple. That would definitely adjust his attitude and teach him some respect.
Two years earlier, when he was still in uniform, that's what would have happened if somebody got in his face in the mountains, in some village or town where the locals knew better than to complain about the army. Either that or the man would eat a bullet from Dima's assault rifle.
But now things were different and Dima knew that he did not have a choice. Even if it had been the man who had bumped into him, he was obviously wealthy and thus a valued customer. Whereas Dima was just another security guard. A guard of whom dozens were itching for work and a guard that could be easily replaced. The proverbial common man who would never win against a rich one.
Dima did not have to look up to know that there was a security camera off to the side of the shopping center's doors. At that moment it was probably trained at him and the shift supervisor was observing the altercation. One wrong word or gesture and Dima was finished. Here and with half of the security firms in Moscow. If not all of them because his boss would tell the others what happened. He had no choice but to swallow his pride.
“I'm sorry, Sir.”
The words came out so smoothly that even Dima was surprised. He even took a small step back and off to the side to give the stranger some room.
The man looked somewhat placated. He won. He had showed off to the girl and to whoever had noticed what had happened.
“Next time watch yourself, you idiot, or I'll have your fucking job. Let's go,” the last words were spoken to the girl and the two walked past Dima.
He watched them disappear in the crowd, the girl suddenly laughing at something the man must have said and putting her arm around his shoulder. The whole incident left a bad taste in Dima's mouth. Treated this way – humiliated in fact - by a foreigner in his own country.
Later, as he was changing in the locker room, Dima's shift supervisor passed by to see him. The man, Vladimir Aleksandrovich Kombarov, was in his early forties and also a SPETSNAZ veteran. Too young to have served in Afghanistan, the supervisor saw combat in the Caucasus during both Chechen wars and in the simmering unrest that followed.
“How is it going, Dima?” the supervisor asked.
“Yeah. I can understand.” It was clear to both men that they were talking about the incident at the door. “But you did good. You kept your cool. Didn't let that guy get the better of you even though he was clearly being a dick. Made the firm look good. Well done.”
“I'll make sure the boss knows. This way, if there's a bonus or a promotion to be had, then you'll be on the short list.”
“I appreciate that,” Dima replied with gratitude.
Vladimir could be pretty harsh on people if they messed up but if you did well then you could count on him. Everybody knew that so the guys tolerated his iron discipline.
“Any time. You're good people, Dima, and it's important to have good people on the team. And we have to help each other,” he added, by “we” meaning ex-service members. “Anyway. Go home and get some sleep. I'll see if I can move you to the daytime shift next month.”
“Thanks, boss,” Dima replied and the two men shook hands before Vladimir left the locker room.
“That was a pretty shitty situation you had there,” Roman, the one with the slightly slanted eyes, said after the supervisor left.
“Yeah. I wanted to kill that bastard.”
“Don't blame you. I would too.”
They continued changing in silence and when Roman was ready to leave, he came up to Dima to shake hands.
“The time will come, brother,” he told him in a low voice. “Russia is for Russians and these people are going to learn that the hard way,” Roman added and left.
Dima knew that Roman belonged to one of the myriad of right wing organizations. Not just belonged but was also pretty active in its ranks. Once, when they were drinking, Roman told him and a couple of the other guys from the firm about how they went to some bazaar to beat up on the immigrants from the Caucasus or Central Asia. Supposedly they even put one of them in the hospital in a pretty bad way.
Dima wondered if the bosses knew this too. Vladimir didn't like the immigrants any more than anyone else did but he probably wouldn't tolerate people who did those kinds of things because it would make the firm look bad. And if he let the firm look bad then his own job would be on the line as well.
Although, you never knew, Dima thought. The bosses may suck up to anybody with money in public but maybe even they shared Roman's ideals. After all, the organization he belonged to would not last long if it had to depend only on the donations or membership dues from people with shitty salaries like Roman's. Some of the rich had to be funding it as well.
Dima finished changing and left for home.
He took a deep breath of fresh air once he was on the sidewalk outside the shopping center. Even though he had by now gotten used to the smell of stale sweat that permeated the locker room, he certainly did not enjoy it. Although, according to Vladimir, places like that used to be far worse. Back in the days before deodorants made their way to Russia, locker rooms (or army barracks for that matter) apparently reeked like there was no tomorrow. No deodorant and a bunch of guys that didn't even shower every day. Dima could only imagine how bad it must have been.
He said goodbye to the night guard who locked the door behind him and set off towards the entrance to the subway. The sidewalk was covered with puddles of water after it had rained all afternoon and throughout the evening but at least the rain had stopped by the time he finished work. At one point it had even poured pretty badly as Dima could see from the shelter of the awning over the shopping center's entrance, making Dima wonder if Igor had managed to get his kids home in time before they got too soaked.
Dima began the next day with his usual routine. A solid workout in his apartment and then running the stairs. Six floors' worth of stairs times ten. By the end of that he was usually pretty much burned out.
It was good training even though the place to do it was far from good. The apartment was small so there wasn't much room to practice his Sambo moves – just enough space for calisthenics and the most basic of the fighting techniques. The staircase wasn't much better either. There were always at least a quarter of the light bulbs that were burned out, leaving a portion of it in gloom. And it stank of urine. Especially when he reached the bottom where the local drunks went to piss. It was definitely far from being like one of those fancy new fitness centers with their rows of shiny exercise machines and girls wearing stuff that left little to the imagination.
Dima had a quick breakfast of scrambled eggs, reading the latest book which he had picked up from his public library as he ate. The book was written by a Soviet soldier who recounted the story of his service in Afghanistan. It wasn't very long and revolved around the author's description of how his entire company got wiped out in some valley. Their Afghan guides had led the men right into a mujaheddin ambush where the company was surrounded and wiped out in a day of tough fighting.
Although that battlefield was different since the rocky and desolate mountains of Afghanistan didn't look much like the forest covered ones of the Caucasus, Dima could relate to the man's story. Especially the part about the treachery of the locals and the incredible, even inhuman, cruelty of the mujaheddin.
He wondered if all those Westerners who applauded the Afghans knew just how brutal their proteges really were. The Soviet Union may have been the evil empire to them but Dima still could not believe that the West with its humanism and liberal values could support people who acted the way the mujaheddin did. Obviously their governments were, despite all the talk about freedom of the press, just as much in control of their own media as the Communists were. Either that or they were really good at manipulating it. Otherwise, if their citizens had seen the mutilated corpses of Soviet soldiers – the ones who died or who were wounded and then captured - Dima did not think that they would keep applauding. Cold War regardless.
After breakfast he turned on his computer. It was an old, second-hand machine which he had bought at an open air market. It took forever to load but it was good enough to read the news and send e-mails. And not good enough to play any games that were less than ten years old. But that was fine with Dima who had never gotten into gaming anyways.
He skimmed the news on his favorite Russian website and then looked at two English-language ones. One British and one American. These he spent more time on. On one hand because his English was only so-so, hence it took more time and effort to get the gist of what the articles were saying. And, on the other, because doing these readings was a good way to improve his knowledge of the language.
It took some discipline, but thanks to his efforts Dima found that he was making steady progress. Now he could read much faster than before and had to consult the online dictionary less and less frequently. Regular watching of English-language newscasts, documentaries and movies also helped. The only thing that Dima was missing was somebody to practice his speaking skills with.
The news itself had nothing beyond the usual this morning. Both the Russian and the Western sites talked about the renewed fighting in Ukraine. Although with the difference that the sites told the story from completely different perspective. On the Russian one, the rebels were freedom fighters, patriots and liberators while the Ukrainians were aggressors and fascists. On the Western sites, the rebels were separatists and aggressors while the Ukrainians were the victims. So much for the objectivity of the press if on both sides it said the exact same thing that its government did.
Then there was another Muslim terrorist that drove a car into a crowd of civilians in a Western European capital. Over thirty people dead and injured and this time the victims included two young children and a baby. At least in this case the Russian and the Western news sites told the story in the same manner. More or less, because one of the Western reporters placed a lot more emphasis on the fear that the attack will lead to a spread of Islamophobia.
As if Islamophobia was a bigger issue than dozens of people getting slaughtered in broad daylight on Europe's streets on what was becoming a pretty regular basis. Which Dima thought was completely idiotic. However badly the Muslims may have been getting harassed – and he did not know how badly because there weren't many examples in the news stories nor had he ever been to the West to see it himself – but at least nobody was going around and killing them. In fact, from what Dima could see, the Muslims seemed to be the only ones doing the killing. And yet no articles talked about Europhobia or Christianophobia or whatever. Dima wasn't even sure if words, or concepts, like that existed.
There were a couple of mentions of the fighting in Syria. Again, here the Russian site was clearly pro-Assad while the Western ones vehemently against him. But at least the Russian one did not pretend to make the guy look like some sort of a democratic leader whereas the Western ones worked hard to spin the opposition as pro-Western. And this was something that Dima was sure was a complete lie. Well, maybe the Kurds weren't bad but he could not imagine the rest of them, the bearded men screaming “Allah Akbar” as they launched anti-armor missiles at government positions, as anything but religious fanatics.
After reading the news, Dima went to check his e-mail. Oh, a message from Oleg, he noted. They hadn't kept in touch much since leaving the army so Dima was a little surprised. Pleasantly surprised too because the two men had had some good times together. And some bad ones too during their service in the Caucasus.
During that ambush which Dima kept reliving in his nightmares it was Oleg that had pulled him away from the burning wreck of the BTR when he lay on the surface of the road, stunned by the explosion and helpless. Dragged him into cover in the ditch where he was able to come to and get back into the fight.
That day, if it hadn't been for the pair of attack helicopters which showed up just in time, Dima wasn't sure if they would have made it out alive. The Muslims did a pretty good job that day – he kept referring to the enemy as such even though the five local cops who died that day were also Muslims. Albeit from the vodka drinking rather than the bearded variety.
The roadside bomb which had set the ambush off, trashed the BTR, killing a bunch of the guys who were riding on top of it. Dima was lucky to have been sitting on the far side of the machine from the explosion and was thus shielded from the blast by its chassis and by the bodies of the men sitting on the other side. Same with Oleg. Only that when they got blown off the BTR, Dima was stunned whereas Oleg was all right.
Their second BTR also got taken out - this one by an RPG - and the cops in the two jeeps were decimated by small arms fire. Not even a dozen men, including Dima and Oleg, survived long enough to get into cover and start to fight back. A dozen against what later turned out to be a band of over fifty well-armed insurgents who were more than ready to die. A good mix of nationalist sentiment and religious fervor made sure of that.
Neither the Russians from Dima's unit nor the two local cops who were still alive at that point were ready for death like their opponents. But, at least, they knew that getting killed in a firefight was a much better option than getting taken alive. In fact, given what the insurgents often did to their prisoners, surrender was not an option at all. Neither for the Russians who were seen as Christian occupiers nor for the local cops who were seen as traitors and apostates.
Fortunately, the attack helicopters were close by and, alerted by the smoke coming from the burning vehicles, showed up just in time. One Russian soldier and one of the local policemen had already been killed in the firefight and the insurgents were starting to edge closer to those who were still fighting back.
The helicopters passed low over the battlefield as the pilots oriented themselves to the situation on the ground, the downdraft from their rotors like a small hurricane that swept over the men locked in combat below them. Then the two machines banked sharply to turn around and, once they were facing the firefight again, opened up with their Gatling guns and unguided rockets. These tore into the enemy lines and Dima remembered how the insurgents suddenly disappeared behind all the dust kicked up by the explosions.
The aircraft made a couple of attack runs, strafing the side of the road from which the convoy had been attacked, before the enemy broke off and fled into the woods. Then the helicopters followed them until they ran out of ammunition whence they were replaced by another pair. In the end a quick reaction force of MVD troops was airlifted in by a couple of transport helicopters and finished the job.
A total of fifty three bodies were recovered when the whole thing was over while there were probably others who had managed to slip out. As they always seemed to.
In the end, the military made this sound like a tremendous success. And in a way it was since it didn't happen often that so many of the insurgents were killed in a single engagement.
Dima remembered watching a fat colonel from public relations on television talking about it. He went on about how many of the enemy were killed and underlined the heroism of the Russian soldiers and the local police. There was even a medal ceremony to which the media were invited to show the heroes off to the nation. But to all those men who had died in that ambush this did not matter. And it did not help Dima sleep any better.
After the ambush he was sent to recover away from the fighting because it had shaken him so badly whereas Oleg went back to civilian life. His contract was up and he did not want to renew it. Not after having come that close to getting killed. Not after having loaded the mangled bodies of so many friends into coffins for the return home.
Dima opened Oleg's e-mail and started reading it.
Long time no hear, old friend. I hear you're out now, so how is life on civvy street treating you? I got a security job myself – if feels like that's all that guys like us seem to be good for. But it's in America and it pays well. The boss is a Russian and he's looking to hire a couple more guys. I thought about you and wondered if you'd be interested. Let me know and I'll call you.
Dima finished reading the e-mail. Maybe that is all we are good for, he thought about the reference to the security jobs. That's probably why we ended up in uniform in the first place. Not enough brains or skills to do anything else.
But in America? What kind of security work, he wondered. When Dima thought about well off Russians living abroad, the kind that could afford or needed to hire security, the connotation was always negative. Either they were some oligarchs who had made their fortune by robbing the country blind or they were gangsters. Or at least that's the impression one got from reading the news because they never talked about anyone who had made it the honest way. And there had to be some, Dima hoped.
Well, it wouldn't hurt to find out, he decided and wrote a quick reply.
Always good to hear from you. Glad to hear things worked out. Like you heard, I am out and civvy street is so-so. I'm doing security work in Moscow so I guess you're right about guys like us. It is what it is. I'm sure you know.
Thanks for your offer. I'd like to hear more. I'm working the evening shift so with the time difference you can't really call me unless you're getting up at three or something like that. But I have next Wednesday off so you can call me any time then.”
Dima typed his phone number and then his name at the bottom and pressed “send”.