Andrew fingered the manuscript on the chipped formica table in front of him and looked out the cafe window for Vanya. St Petersburg in November is not welcoming. A wide and desolate avenue lay across his view line. Skeletal trees at its edge did not cover the concrete block condominiums that travelled its length in haphazard fashion, as if they had been thrown there from a distance. A veil of grey cloud gave the air a distemporate pallor.
He turned a page in the ring bound book and thought about the conversation he needed to have. Vanya had promised to introduce him to her contacts in the publishing industry, who might get his work published. What he had uncovered after only a few months into his posting with the International Monetary fund – the IMF – needed to be made public. She had vacillated on fulfilling her promise, but after weeks of Andrew’s pleading and urging she had agreed to make the introductions. He was not going to let her muck it up this time. Enough was enough. Now was the time to assert himself. He’d fulfilled his half of the bargain, so time for her to cough up.
He saw a solitary car pull up – a dark Mercedes – and Vanya got out, with another person. He took a swig of his vodka. God how he hated the stuff, the crude thuggery of its onslaught down the throat, but he’d had to get used to it while he was posted here. And besides, it bolstered his courage.
Vanya approached him with a wide red lipped smile. She was as captivating as ever. As usual her hair was pulled back in a simple ponytail, giving him a direct appreciation of the haunted vibrancy of her eyes. She had already loosened the lengthy chocolate puffer jacket she wore outside, and he admired the olive green turtle neck tight across her torso, and her red mini skirt above black tights. He felt his old weakness for her rising within him.
“Andrew!” she called, “I hope you don’t mind, but I had to bring my brother. We have a thing to get to.”
Andrew’s heart sank as he studied the swarthy tattooed intruder who had, by his mere presence, interfered with his plans.
“Ivan,” Vanya turned to her companion and switched to Russian. Andrew had not been in St Petersburg long enough to recognise anything more than ‘Andrew’ and ‘IMF’. Ivan meanwhile remained impassive. Where not tattooed he was as white as the weather and his head was covered in a sparse gravel of close shaven hair. He wore a sleeveless black muscle shirt, jeans and boots. The tattoos clambered over his solid arms, and up his neck and cheeks like he was in some hate-filled throttle hold; two tattoo tear drops seeped from one eye. In an effort to make contact Andrew ventured, “No coat? You’re not cold?” but Ivan made only a smacking noise with his lips as if to say he chewed cold like he chewed a lamb chop.
“Ivan, he’s not so good with his English,” explained Vanya, but Andrew wondered if that might not be fully true. She added, “I know, we do not look that very much alike. Different fathers. His is from Grozny, mine was from Prague. But come, let us sit.”
Andrew moved to return to his place, but Vanya stopped him. “Andrew, could you sit on the other side of the table next to the window, please.”
He thought that was odd, but rose to comply anyway. When he was seated she sat opposite him with Ivan’s bulk squaring off the two of them. She offered by way of explanation “The light is better on your face this side. I like that I can see you more clearly.” But he could not tell any difference in the light. Or maybe he wasn’t yet accustomed to the vagaries of Russia’s afternoon sun.
“I thought,” he started, but Vanya interjected.
“Yes, I understand. I had set up a meeting here with a contact of mine, but I’m sorry, it was not possible after all. It was too late to contact you, so I have come in person.”
“Yes, I am sorry. Did you know, Vanya is from the Russian for Ivan. We are related. I see you brought a copy of the manuscript. I will take it and let me pass it on to my friend. Tell me what you want me to say to them.”
So Andrew set about repeating the elevator pitch he given Vanya on numerous prior occasions, in bed, over meals, in trams and times past. He went through his experiences and ideas, about politics and money flows across the continent and the new wave of conservatism that had risen, its sources of funding and its manifestations in the West. About the money laundering and corruption, and its links to organised crime, and the distortion of markets for the benefit of increasingly dictatorial regimes and private wealth. Occasionally he spoke loudly, or wildly gesticulated, to try to include Ivan, who seemed not the slightest bit interested.
When he was finished Vanya said, “Is this your only copy?’
He replied that he had a soft copy backed up on a USB. She said, “Andrew, we have to go. I won’t be home tonight, Ivan and I have to attend to things overnight.”
They rose. Ivan’s seat clattered on the floor. She entwined her arms about Andrew’s neck and kissed him. There was tongue, urging him to forgive. And pay the bill.
She left him with a niggling sense that he had been used in some fashion. He knew part of it – that he was willing prey to her charms – but he sensed here was something much more going on of which he was totally oblivious.
Night had arisen. He pulled his collar up round his neck and looked above the square residential towers at the dark. It was crisp and crystalline with stars forming wild white patterns low and clear in the cold air. They seemed close enough to touch and yet too distant to be anything other than a mystery. He was caught in between, compelled by forces far greater than his understanding. A meteor struck a green line across the sky and was gone. The stars had moved, and he stood on the barren street edge watching for their changing shapes, and waited for the serpent to fall out of the sky.
It did, and was venomous and ruthlessly swift.
Before his red and white tram had reached his stop his face was plastered all over social media. Photos flooded the web, of him and Ivan the brick, in earnest conversation in the Red Star Cafe.
He looked in horror as he swiped through the images and reports on his phone. Image after image appeared of him talking, debating, gesticulating – doing deals – with the less clear but still recognisable, Ivan, a notorious apparatchik of the global ultra-right. There was no photo of Vanya. Somehow she had managed to remain invisible; one would not know she had been there. It was just himself, clearly defined in the better light for the camera, and Ivan, intimate in the window beneath the fading wooden sign advertising the Red Star Café.
He crossed the tram tracks and stepped on to the cobbled footpath that led to his apartment block. A drizzle had started, and the cold etched its way into is joints like fear. What will happen to me, he thought. He stopped apprehensively as a black cab slowed beside him. The driver gesticulated inquiringly. He shook his head and waved him on.
The open parking area outside his apartments offered no cover from the wet. He skipped between two Ladas and climbed the stone steps to the lobby. What could happen?
In the lift to the fourth floor his mind began to panic. What mess had he got into? Was he safe?
He paused outside his door, the dark stained wood offering a familiarity that he craved. He was about to insert his key when the thought struck that there might be someone waiting inside for him. He stopped, key in his hand, conscious of the crimson carpet and beige fabric wall paper in the corridor. Fear welled in his mind. Another resident strolled past him, muttering something in Russian.
He was cold, wet and alone in a country that now suspected him of malfeasance. He had been set up, by an organisation he had had no idea existed. His sudden brutalising on social media said Vanya and Ivan were concerned about the contents of manuscript he had given them. Would they be concerned enough to have an intruder waiting in his apartment? Or an assassin even?
He peered through the peep hole in the door and saw no-one, only the interior of his apartment at a long distance distorted by the lens. He inserted his key as quietly as he could into the lock and turned the door handle slowly, his heart pounding. He reached around and flicked on the light.
His flat had been ransacked. All his belongings were strewn about the floor – his books lay open and ripped, curios smashed, clothes strewn about the floor. The contents of drawers littered the carpet, chairs had been upturned and their cushions ripped in a frantic search for something hidden. No doubt, Andrew thought, the USB I mentioned in the café.
The kitchen and bedroom were the same. Nothing had been untouched. In addition, Andrew noted it was more than just a search. Crockery, furniture and mirrors had been smashed, his clothes had been shredded and foodstuffs poured across the kitchen floor. A porridge of alcohol, milk flour and rice blistered on the lino. The violence of it said it was a threat from whomever it was not to mess with them.
Andrew kicked his door shut and took off his jacket. He decided the easiest place to start was the bedroom; they hadn’t broken the bed frame and he’d need to sleep tonight; he could turn over the mattress. He had begun piling his clothes in the corner when there was a sharp rap on the front door. This was followed by a man’s voice.
“Mr Benson. We know you are home. Open the door please.”
Breathing in, he walked over to the door, and put his eye to the peep hole. A police badge placed right in front of the glass filled his vision. He could not make out who was holding it or how many there might be. He cracked open the door and looked out tentatively.
“Mr Benson.” It was not a question.
Four burly policemen stood in the hallway, dressed in navy uniforms and armed, it seemed to Andrew, to the teeth. Their rifles were on clear display. He opened the door fully.
“Yes,” he said.
“We ask that you come with us, please,” said the officer in front of the group. He was stocky, and sported a gruff moustache.
“Am I under arrest?” asked Andrew.
The officer bore into Andrew’s eyes with a blackened stare and said,
“You will come with us please.”
Andrew surveyed the wall of icy officialdom in front of him, and decided it was best not to argue. He fetched his jacket.
He was surrounded in the lift and then jammed between two of the men in rear seat of the car. The police station was strangely similar to the ones back home, with a bald frontispiece and a cavern of desks and mess behind. He was taken to a bland grey interrogation room where he sat at a laminated desk. One wall was obviously a one way mirror.
After what seemed an eternity two new officers entered the room. One stood by the door and the other sat opposite Andrew at the desk. The first was in standard police attire, the one at the desk in slacks, white shirt and black tie, undone at the collar. He had a swarthy three day growth on his jowls and mop of dark hair. He placed a thin file on the desk but did not open it. Andrew could not read the Russian on its cover.
“Mr Andrew Benson,” said the officer.
“Yes,” said Andrew.
“I am Vitaly Yahontov from Sledkom, the Investigative Committee of Russia. You have heard of the KGB, no? We are the KGB of today.”
Andrew’s heart sank. He tried to swallow but his mouth was dry. Yahontov smacked his lips as if something was stuck in his teeth.
“We want to ask you some questions about the photographs that appeared on the web this afternoon.”
“Am I under arrest?”
“No, not under arrest, just for questioning,” replied Yahontov, and smiled dryly. Andrew heard himself breathing.
“Do I get a lawyer?”
“There are plenty of lawyers in Russia. But you are not detained.”
“You mean I can go?”
Yahontov shrugged again.
“If you really want to, you can. We are here for questions only. You can help us.”
Andrew calculated his options, concluding that if he left he would most likely be detained anyway.
“No, it’s okay,” he said.
“Good,” said Yahontov. “And you don’t speak Russian, no?”
“My accent it is perhaps heavy. If you don’t understand my question, we can get someone else with heavier accent to assist you.” Yahontov raised his eyebrows and smiled, evidently pleased with his little joke. He pulled a photograph from the file on the table and showed it to Andrew. It was one of the photos from the Red Star, with Andrew in apparent debate with Ivan.
“That is you, yes?” asked Yahontov, pointing to Andrew.
Yahontov pointed to Ivan.
“You know this man?”
“Yes, well no. Kind of.”
“What is kind of?”
Andrew explained his meeting with Vanya and his desire to publish his manuscript and how Ivan was an unexpected addition and how disappointed he was with the meeting.
Yahontov gazed at him while he spoke, and rubbed a large hand across his stubble. He paused as if choosing the next of many questions to ask from what Andrew had said.
“Who is Vanya?”
Andrew explained his relationship with Vanya – how they had met at a consular gathering awhile back and had struck up a relationship, and she had moved in three months ago, how she came from Croatia and worked in publishing which is why he thought she might be able to help get his manuscript published.
“As in, what is her surname?”
Andrew didn’t know. In the four months they had been together he had never thought to ask her full name.
“I don’t know.”
Yahontov raised his eyebrows again.
“How is that possible please?”
“I don’t know,” Andrew said. “I – I never thought to ask. We were having too much fun.” Andrew was aware of his cheeks going red.
“And you paid for everything and took her everywhere and never met her friends, is that right?” Yahontov was smiling mockingly.
Andrew reflected on the sudden truth of that. Vanya had been less well paid than he, and he wanted to be generous.
“What does she look like, this Vanya?”
“Slim build, about 170cm tall, brown eyes, and hair of varying colours. She dyes it a lot. Today it was pink. She usually wears it in a ponytail.” He liked her hair dye, it was a respite from the stuffiness of some of the IMF protocols and personnel.
Yahontov turned to the officer by the door and said something in Russian. The officer ducked out momentarily and re-entered, carrying a manila envelope. Yahontov spilled its contents on to the table. A bunch of photographs, some face up and some face down spread across the table. Yahontov went through them one by one, asking if it was Vanya. After five or six, she appeared.
When Andrew nodded Yahontov sorted through the pack and pulled out four more – Vanya in front of a building, Vanya seated in a bus stop, Vanya at a wine bar they had been to a fortnight ago.
Yahontov put the photos back in the envelope.
“What stories you want her to publish?”
“Well not her, but her contacts. Just stuff I had written.”
“Made up stories, like Tolstoy, Turgenev?”
“Yeah, kind of.”
“Kind of again.”
“Based on fact.”
“Are you journalist?”
“No, I work with the IMF, you know that.”
“Many spies have job with the United Nations,” said Yahontov.
Andrew took a sharp breath.
“You think I’m a spy?” He felt a ball of heat rise under his shirt.
“She is not Vanya,” he said. He said with a firmer tone. “She is not Croatian.”
“Then who is she?”
“She is Tatiana Lebedinskya.”
“Do you know Vladimir Anikeyev?”
“No, who are these people?”
“Do you know Shaltai Boltai?”
“No, what’s that mean?”
“It means Humpty Dumpty. What about the Internet Research Agency?”
“No, who is that?” Andrew felt suddenly pressured, and afraid.
Yahontov stood up. He said something in Russian to the other officer who promptly left the room. He turned back to face Andrew and in deliberate movements, placed his hands on the table and bent down low and close to Andrew’s face.
“You are not a spy, Mr Benson,” he said, in a slow and moderated tone. He then straightened himself and said, “You are a fool.”
Andrew’s face blanched. Yahontov ran his hand across his cheeks and continued.
“You have been used, Mr Benson, by some very dangerous people, who we have been trying to catch for a very long time. I will tell you. These people – your Vanya and Ivan – are part of a larger group of militant anarchists with very close terrorist links. Their sole intent is to destroy governments. A few years ago they worked with Shaltai Boltai, a website which aimed to bring down the Russian Government and Comrade Putin. The two men I mentioned are now in gaol for starting it up. Shaltai Boltai means Humpty Dumpty – you see the meaning. When that was exposed, Tatiana fled to the Internet Research Agency. It is a simple name, but is very complex. It is a network of hackers who have done many criminal things. They targeted the American elections in 2016. They trade arms on the dark web and run dirty money throughout the Balkans. If they do not trust you, they will kill you. So you are lucky to be alive, Mr Benson. In fact, take it as a compliment that they thought you were so foolish they could trust you. Only god knows how much information you passed to them while sleeping with your Ms Vanya.”
He paused to let the message sink in. Andrew sat stunned at the table.
“But something in your manuscript exposes them, so they need the USB to stop it being copied. That is why they attack your apartment.”
Andrew put his elbows on the table and let his head fall into his upturned right hand. He began to feel ill.
“You are in a lot of trouble, Mr Benson. You have been passing information to an enemy organisation. You have been photographed with one of their henchmen. But we can help you, if you co-operate. We can do a little deal, yes?”
Andrew looked up at Yahontov, whose imperial scheming smirk rained down upon him like acid.
“First you will give us the USB. Then you will meet with Mr Peter Godwin, a consular official from your country who has been behind the mirror there listening to our conversation. He will tell you how you are going to help us. Then he will tell you to go home and pack, as you will be leaving on a flight tomorrow morning as soon as you have done what is needed. I don’t think you will have much to pack though, do you?”
Yahontov chuckled at another of his jokes. Andrew was about to ask something but Yahontov raised his hand.
“We have addressed it already with the IMF. Do not worry. They are upset, yes with you, but they see it is necessary. You will help us in this last little way before you go, yes?”
Andrew looked at Yahontov’s round Russian face, his moustache, and crop of hair, and dark implacable eyes. He nodded, his face drained of blood and feeling.
“Good.” Yahontov waved and a man in a suit entered the room.
“Hello, Mr Benson,” he said. “I’m Peter Godwin, from the consulate here in St Petersburg.”
* * * * *
Sitting on a patch of untorn mattress with a few personal artefacts on his lap, Andrew took stock of the events that had shattered his life that day. From the Red Star meeting to the ransack of his home, and the interrogation in the dim rooms of Sledkom, and subsequent meeting with the consulate, he was utterly exhausted.
He felt stupid, a fool, naïve, too young for this world, too trusting. How had he missed all that? He was writing about it for God’s sake, and yet he missed it, completely missed the point of it all. She had used him. She had crushed his reputation, ruined his career and shattered his future. She had obliterated any sense of trust. He was a stupid stupid idiotic moron fool of a dumbfuck fuckhead. He beat his forehead with his fists and a gaping maw of fear and black anguish opened within him. He curled up on the corner of the bed and wept bitter tears of the sort that did not care if anyone saw him.
He heard the key turn in the front door. It cracked open and Vanya appeared. Andrew stood up, bleary eyed.
“You have the audacity-?” he said.
She grimaced awkwardly. Even so she was still attractive with her pink hair pulled back and pale lipstick. “My passport is still here.” She glanced about the apartment furtively.
“You’ve got three. Use them,” said Andrew.
“Bullshit. You want the USB.”
She sauntered towards him. “I’m not armed, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“The fuck cares if you are. Have you seen what social media did to me?”
“I’m sorry, Andy.”
“Sorry doesn’t cut it. That’s just today. I’ve got weeks of this and more. You used me.”
“There are reasons, Andrew.” She glanced at the bedroom door.
“I trusted you. I gave you a place to stay when you needed a roof. We lived together for Chrissake. And this is how you repay me?”
She took a step back and raised her hands in mock surprise.
“You think you have it hard?”
“I’ve lost everything because of you!”
“I’ve lost everything before, Andy, and yes, it’s not nice. But are you so special?”
“Course I’m bloody special.”
“What do you know? You know nothing. Ty jseš vůl, an idiot.”
“I know you fucking used me.”
“I had to. They had me as a captive. They would not let me go unless I gave them something to fight their cause.”
“And I was that something.”
“A fabrication to attack the West.”
She shrugged and looked sideways towards the kitchen. Andrew struggled to maintain her attention.
“I’m not a fucking pawn, Vanya.”
“You trust too much, Andy.”
“And is that wrong? Am I meant to research everyone who comes into my life? Who the hell are you anyway?”
“You know that.”
“I don’t know anything, according to you. Tatania. And Ivan, he’s not your brother. And you never worked in publishing-“
“I never said I did. You just thought that.”
“You worked for one of the most infamous hacking labs in the world, with men who are now in prison for God’s sake. You are a complete fraud. Why would I believe anything you say? You weren’t a fucking captive, you were using me. And yet you lived here. Did that mean anything to you?”
She did not answer, but looked to the kitchen again, and then back at Andrew. He said,
“What are you, a whore for the cause? We had sex. Did that not bother you?”
She smiled wryly. He continued,
“Yeah, tell me you didn’t fucking enjoy it. Tell me you are a complete fuck head ideologue. Because you are nothing. Nothing, you hear? I might be trusting, I might be young and naïve, but at least I stand for something. I am something.”
Vanya stepped towards him, and fixed him with a stolid gaze.
“No, Andrew, you stand for what you assume. What you take for granted. We on the other hand have to fight for whatever crumbs you let fall from your table of Western privilege. IMF is nothing, a figment of Western guilt. A fob to keep us where we are.”
She started walking around the room, trying to get past where Andrew was standing, but he held his ground.
“What complete bullshit. I’m honest, Vanya. I don’t go round gleefully fucking my enemy while I set him up for execution. That’s just perverse.”
She stood in front of him, her eyes darting around its decorated wallpaper. She turned suddenly to the door and shouted something in Russian, and Ivan strode into the apartment, all menace and fire, with a pistol raised and pointing at Andrew. Vanya said,
“You will give us the USB now. One, two –“
“Jesus guys!” shouted Andrew.
A shot cracked through the apartment and Ivan swung to one side, his pistol discharging as he fell. The bullet pounded into the plaster behind Andrew. Ivan’s bulk smashed on to a coffee table and lay still on the floor. Andrew gasped as he noticed a large portion of his head had been blown off.
Vanya turned to him and pulled a pistol from her handbag, just as a fully armed police officer stepped out of the bedroom, rifle raised and ready. Andrew observed how stealthily he moved through the rubble on the floor. A second officer appeared from the kitchen, also with rifle raised. Something was said to her in a calm, undeniable Russian.
Vanya looked at the policemen, and then at the open front door, as a third officer appeared there to block her exit. His rifle pointed directly at her.
She turned to Andrew with a fevered gaze.
“You did this,” she said, and slowly raised her gun to her head.
Another shot ripped through the thick air, and Vanya’s pistol barrelled across the room. She screamed and danced about, holding her wrist in her other hand, blood spitting on to her clothing. Two of the policemen stepped forward and pinned her to the floor as she screamed painful obscenities at them. They handcuffed her, and dragged her still screaming up and out of the apartment. Her shouts echoed down the corridor and up from the lift well.
Andrew stood shaking in the middle of the room. Feeling a clammy warmth in his trousers he realised he had wet his pants. He bent over and vomited at the sight of Ivan’s bloodied corpse and the release of fear that swept through his body. Tears sputtered forth and he gasped and retched and wept.
The remaining police officer laughed and left. Andrew was wiping his face with his sleeve when Inspector Yahontov and Peter Godwin appeared. Yahontov was chuckling.
“The officer, he said to me, ‘first timer’.” Andrew looked at him with sallow eyes.
“You have done good, my friend,” said Yahontov, and clapped him on the back. ‘It is exciting no?”
“No,” said Andrew.
“How do you say, the freedom of the State is eternal vigilance, yes?”
Andrew straightened himself and said, “I’ve had enough, can I go now?”
Mr Godwin spoke up. “You’ll stay at the embassy overnight, and we have a 6am flight booked. Heathrow, connecting to Sydney. You’ll be accompanied.”
As they left, Yahontov said, “Mr Benson – Spasibo.”
* * * * *
Hot and tired from the long haul in a cramped economy seat, Andrew bent to peer out the window as the 787 landed. It hit the tarmac and shuddered disconcertingly; the wings bounced in an unseemly fashion. The engines roared with reverse thrust and the plane began its trundling taxi to the terminal. Airport buildings and vehicles spun about Andrew’s field of vision as the plane turned. He looked up to a blue sky. It was filled with a white light and the vast air it breathed extended beyond the threads of cloud that skimmed its upper reaches. It was a big sky, a warm sky, a sky that had watched many eons pass.
An Australian accent said “Welcome to Sydney Kingsford-Smith International Terminal. The time is now 6.45am,” and continued on with the rest of the script. Andrew knew this accent; it struck a chord within him, and he felt an air of homeliness settle upon him.
He surveyed the cramped quarters that had been his home for the past twenty hours or so, the blanket and magazines crammed into the seat pocket and the bag stuffed beneath his feet. Only two days ago – or was it more, he never could work out the date line – he had been lying in bed with a cute Croatian, hot with cuddles and curves, and now he was back home, bereft of a career, bereft of dignity, bereft of love and, worst of all, bereft of trust in humanity.
People had begun to rise from their seats, eager to get off the plane. He thought, This is home. I feel I can trust this place. And if I find I can’t, I can at least speak the language.
He forced his stiff legs to rise, but kept low to avoid hitting the baggage compartment.