A Lighter Shade of Night
Vasily took his position in the deeper shadow formed by the corner of a building near the path. The struggle going on under the weak beam cast by a decorative pathway light bothered him. He gave a questioning shrug to Misha standing a few yards away.
It was not the team’s policy to play knight in shining armor, but the last few days had been too much like that other time, that other American girl, the one that… Vasily tried to be as still as Misha but could not help clenching his fists. Even the gloom was the same this time.
They had followed Nick to the campus, briefly lost him and now found him trying to rape some college girl. Vasily saw the flash of Nick’s knife at the same moment his friend did, but Misha was quicker and already responding.
"Cut her and I cut you," Misha told Nick. He made him stand, chin up, with the blade at his throat, then nodded to Vasily and withdrew the knife.
Working Nick over took no more than a few minutes — a richly deserved lesson in the inadvisability of crossing the professionals who hire you to do a simple job watching one man. The small-time hoodlum would be more reliable in future. After his bones healed.
Louis had helped the girl up and dusted her off while Vasily prepared his attack, so he did not recognize her in the murk of a cold Chicago dusk until he caught up with them while they waited on a bench near the parking lot. The light was better here. Her wild, curly brown hair moved wisp by wisp in the light breeze. She wore a singularly unflattering skirt and carried a large bag filled with notebooks. Gazing at her, Vasily was struck by differences and similarities between this one and that other one. What the hell was her name? She had been pretty. This one was compelling rather than beautiful. But both were Americans, with that innocent faith in the safety of their world, or so it had seemed that other time.
Louis and Misha walked ahead.
"I will not be here on Saturday to take you to dinner as I promised," Vasily told her. "We will leave before then."
She looked disappointed. He marveled that even now after it had been explained to her by people she trusted, now that she knew what he was, she did not have the sense to be relieved at this news.
He wondered how he could soften her disappointment. "I never had any intention of having dinner with you," he said, hoping to cause a healthy disdain for him.
Her eyes fell, studying the yellow circle of light at her feet from the lamp above them. He led her out from under the direct beam into a soft shadow where he was more comfortable and where she could hide the tears dropping to the pavement until she gained control of them. He could see that his words had failed to repulse her. He had said them for her own good, but they were painful nonetheless. He could not bear it, not when he remembered… What was her name?
He gave in to regret. "But I would like to have dinner with you," he told her. "It may take some time, though. Your government does not often welcome me."
The trusting smile disturbed him, but the lips that formed it were irresistible. He kissed her and discovered how much he wanted her.
"When will you meet this new watcher?" asked Misha when Vasily climbed into the car.
"Does he know Nick?
"You must make certain he knows what happened to Nick and why, so that he does not repeat Nick’s mistake."
"If he is any kind of decent watcher," said Louis from the back seat, "he will hear about it soon enough."
Misha pulled the car over as an ambulance turned onto campus. He looked at Vasily.
"We do not have time to depend on your new watcher’s network to inform him. Tell him immediately. Tell him in a way he will understand."
The new watcher called himself Colt, probably in reference to the old handgun he had stuffed in his waistband under a dirty flannel jacket of green and black plaid. The jacket blended well with the decor prevalent in the alley where they met. Shadows of skittering animals flitted through trash and dirt, moving in an out of occasional jagged breaks in a wall or fence. Distant rectangles of light from scattered windows overlooking the alley and the ambient glow of the major city around them against a cloudy night sky provided the only illumination.
Vasily began the interview by shoving Colt against a wall and divesting him of that ancient revolver. The man protested when he saw him open the cylinder and empty its contents into a pile of rotting garbage. After a quick check for other weapons, Vasily spoke for the first time, still holding the watcher against the wall and increasing the pressure.
"You will not come into my presence carrying a weapon, or you will die. Do you understand?"
It took a bit more duress to get his point across and elicit a satisfactory response. Vasily continued his directions.
"You will tell me immediately when Grayson moves. Nick failed in this. You should visit him at the hospital to appreciate the consequences. I put him there."
Misha had warned him not to be ambiguous.
Vasily had Colt’s attention now and explained the procedure for contacting the team. Unlike Nick, this watcher repeated the method precisely and with apparent understanding. That fact and the man’s excellent choice of subdued jacket gave Vasily hope that the series of bad luck and obstacles keeping them far too long out in the cold might, just might, end soon.
"Is this one more promising than Nick?" Misha asked when Vasily returned to the safehouse.
"I think so, yes."
Louis pushed a cleaning patch soaked in solvent through the barrel of his Modelé. "I am certain that you provided motivation, did you not, my friend?"
Vasily responded with a half smile and asked Misha, "Do you think Grayson will be able to broker the deal for them?"
That was all he said. Flat and starkly pessimistic.
Misha sipped his coffee slowly. "We must find their safehouse. They are soft and lazy, but they know their business. They have an army of watchers and six fighters."
"I am close to finding it," said Louis. "Their excessive number of watchers is a weakness. One of them will lead me to the place, no doubt They are no better skilled than the ones we have been able to hire, like Nick."
Vasily poured coffee into a cup and sat opposite Misha. "And then? Three against eight?"
"Besides the AK’s," said Misha, "we may need explosives."
"Of course, but they also have sufficient plastique to bring down a skyscraper, and their bomber is adequately competent with it."
"Not as competent as you are, Vasily," said Misha.
Vasily began first watch as the others slept. With more coffee and the challenge of the puzzle presented, he had no trouble staying awake despite the galloping exhaustion of the last ten days. How to design charge configurations, if needed, that would be effective, targeted, versatile and above all, satisfactory to the Americans? Or, how to dismantle the enemy’s placements before they could be detonated, assuming the enemy got what they needed in the end? There was a reason Americans felt so safe and thus willing to pay his team’s high fees. Their government had no patience with large explosions. Such things were bad for business.
Despite total ignorance of what the actual setting would turn out to be, he had already reached a firm idea of how he would approach the problem when Frank arrived.
Frank was the one American Vasily had little use for. He was their babysitter, providing food, shelter and transportation on behalf of his government while shielding that government from association with the likes of them. Vasily could feel the nervousness of the man increase, if that were possible, when Frank realized Misha was not present to protect him from his fists. This agent practiced good tradecraft, but not always, and that other girl… that was Frank’s mistake.
He had come with news. "There’s been a message. Grayson’s moving."
"Go wake the other two."
Vasily opened a foot locker and began laying out three AK-47s in their cases. He rummaged for magazines and belts, looked up to see Frank still standing as if paralyzed, and quietly said, "Now."
That was the peculiarity of this man, Vasily thought. The best way to make him obey was to whisper.
They left the equipment and the AKs in the car and made their way on foot to the location in time to see the girl walk through the main entrance of the apartment building. This one’s name was Alex, Vasily reminded himself. He still could not remember the other. He wondered, was Alex dirty after all? Was Frank wrong again?
Louis followed the girl up the stairs like a shadow. Misha and Vasily climbed more slowly, clearing hallways before proceeding. When he reached the second floor landing, Vasily could hear Grayson’s voice above them. There was but one more flight to climb when he heard the soft zip of Louis’s suppressed Modelé. Misha took the last few steps two at a time, swearing softly.
The discussion began, in French, when they were safely inside the girl’s tiny apartment. Grayson’s body lay in the bathtub.
"Fool!" said Misha. "We will never flush them out now. Grayson was our only link. Why is there no connection between the trigger and your brain?"
Louis’s face formed a recalcitrant sneer. "He was about to shoot the girl!"
"So what? Let him! Maybe after that he would have led us to the targets."
"She is important to Vasily," said Louis. "I saw him kiss her."
Misha’s rage made him more still than ever, always a warning sign with him. Before he could speak again, Louis switched to English and said, "And she knows where the icon is."
Vasily wondered again whether Frank was wrong about her. He looked at her carefully. She stood trembling under Misha’s penetrating glare. This meant she had good sense, and her occasional trusting smile was for him alone.
"You know where the icon is?" Misha asked her.
It was time to interrupt. Vasily used Polish. "Do you think she is dirty, Misha?"
"No. But she is unusual."
"Too intelligent and too ignorant at the same time. Also, she pushes her luck."
"That is what attracts me." Vasily met Misha’s stare. "This one must live. If she is not dirty, that is."
"She will not thank you for interfering. It will cost her."
"She may blame you. You cannot force her to live when a quick death may be her preference."
"It is my preference that she live."
"The other one was dirty, Vasily. You had no choice. It was not your fault."
"But it was my bullet. I thought she trusted me."
"She was sent to kill you," said Louis. "These thing happen. You never regretted such things in the past."
Vasily knew Louis was right, but he could not explain how this girl was different. She knew what he was and did not fear him. The situation touched perhaps the only romantic corner of his heart. Though the other one had turned out to be dirty, she had created a mythical world of safety around him. He wanted to keep the myth, not see it die again, this time with Alex. He lowered his voice and said, "Misha, I am adamant. She must live."
The night did not go well for Alex. Misha did what was necessary to give her a chance while they fulfilled the commission from her government. It began with tears. Vasily did not doubt it proceeded with screams. He was well acquainted with the levels of pain the enemy would have caused her in the time it took the team to reach her. Vasily’s AK took out the three fighters closest to her. Louis and Misha accounted for three more, but the leader grabbed the girl and ran, pushing her before him with his knife against her neck. Misha pursued them.
Vasily concentrated on the job at hand. He began spotting and quickly dismantling packages of plastique installed at key structural points in the basement of the huge building. Louis ran in search of the enemy bomber who held the detonation device and returned shortly, dragging Alex with him.
When Vasily reached the last placement high on a crossed girder above them, he had come to a decision. The girl sat collapsed on the floor, a puddled mess. He needed to know, even at the cost of his own life, though with Louis covering him, it would more likely cost hers. But he must know if she had been sent to kill him. He handed her his Makarov in its holster.
"Please, hold this."
Then he turned his back to her, registered Louis’s questioning look, shimmied up the slanting beam and completed the job. The building and its occupants were now safe, the tangos dead and the team’s fee payable. And for Vasily, the myth remained intact as he retrieved his gun. There was a living girl, an American raised in safety, who knew all about him and who still liked him.
"Thank you, Misha," Vasily said as they drove to the airport. They had taken Alex to her parents’ home, bloody but alive. Louis had picked the front door lock quietly and she slipped inside.
"I hope she will not blame you, that’s all," said Misha.
"She said no, so she must blame me despite your intervention, but at least she is alive." And with her, the myth of possibility, Vasily thought. He looked out at the lightening sky of a grey dawn over the city.
"She said no to my question, Vasily. You have not asked her properly. Give her time to heal and try putting some words together for a change."
"But we are leaving." Vasily paused, then said more quietly, "And she said she would not come with us when you asked her."
Louis chimed in from the back, using his long legs to push on Vasily’s seat. "That is not the same as coming with just you. Make your offer plain to her. I think she will accept. She likes you."
He knew he sounded cynical, but the words 'she likes you' had already changed the color of this dawn. Others might consider it a cold gloom, but to Vasily the clouds were dispersing.
As Misha turned the car toward the FBO where their jet was parked, he added even more sun by saying, "We will find a reason. We will force Frank to let us in. Then you must not waste the opportunity."
Vasily chuckled, suddenly feeling again the delicious sense of being still alive after an op.
"Louis, you must give me lessons on what to say."
"The fee barely covered our expenses, Misha," complained Louis from the back of the car six weeks later. "And the tangos were hardly worth our time. Amateurs. Dead in five minutes."
"I thank you, Misha," said Vasily. "I know you arranged it by charging so little." He looked out onto another grey day as they approached Alex’s neighborhood. Was Chicago perpetually blanketed by clouds? His only experience with the city remained a memory of various shades of night. He silently rehearsed the words he would use.
But all words deserted him as he stood next to her. He noticed a slight limp, though she seemed otherwise recovered. Her family and friends were busy making Misha and Louis uncomfortable with questions and small talk, but the world had shrunk to a bubble surrounding just the two of them, a bubble lit by an escaping sunbeam from the high window above them.
She smiled at him.
He remembered two of the many words Louis had taught him. He whispered these, but without the recommended question mark.
This story resulted from a contest prompt by Reedsy.com. The prompt was: "Write a story that begins in the light and ends in darkness, or the other way around." The prompt may be seen at this link: https://blog.reedsy.com/creative-writing-prompts/