Los Angeles, 1971
"It is the worst thing we can do, Vasily. It exposes us. We must wait for our airplane." Misha did not hide the exasperation in his voice.
"It does not make sense to sit here and wait for hours when we could use those hours to be at the airplane the moment it is repaired." Vasily’s voice was not accustomed to such long sentences. It became hoarse toward the end, but he forced himself to continue. "Staying here will make us into sitting ducks."
Louis weighed in. "But you propose to make us flying ducks, Vasily. There are reasons why we spend so much money on our own jet. Frank has assured us we can remain in this safehouse for a few more hours. When Misha told him your idea, I thought he would have a stroke."
Vasily rolled his eyes. "I never concern myself over Frank’s health. It would save time to fly East on an American airliner and I would find it interesting."
"You want to meet American women. Be honest."
"Very well. That is true, but more than that, I want to understand what it is like to travel like an American. This is the perfect opportunity. We have no gear and are only lightly armed. They cannot object to us. I have no explosives packed in my duffel bag. We should fly to Maryland to meet our airplane there."
"Those sentences contained more words than I have ever heard you say at one time," said Misha. "I think you will find it more uncomfortable than you imagine, but we will do it if Louis agrees."
Louis agreed with a great show of reluctance and a few pointed jibes. They bought three first-class tickets from a travel agent.
"Flying coach would be more instructive," said Vasily.
"I will not fly coach." Louis stretched out his long legs before him on the safehouse sofa as the others packed. "There is no place to put my feet."
"Frank is flying coach. It is the same, but a bit more crowded, I think. Six across instead of four."
"The stewardesses are prettier in first class," insisted Louis.
"That is a myth," said Misha. "They do not make assignments based on prettiness."
"But they do not hire them at all unless they are young and pretty."
"They can work in coach one day and first class the next. But I will concede that the food is likely to be better in first class."
There could be no answer to this, Vasily reflected. His own stomach rumbled agreement. The op had not presented any challenge beyond tolerance of tedium, but they had been working in the cold for too many hours and Frank still did not understand the importance of good food. Louis had shoved him up against a wall when he walked in with a bag of hamburgers from a fast food restaurant. Frank’s choice of safehouses was improving, though. This one was more private, had secure locks, and a functional coffee maker.
"Also," continued Misha, "there are fewer people in first class. I have requested seats at the back of the section, so that there will be no one behind us. Louis and I will take seats A and B, and you will be slightly forward across the aisle in seat E with only a coat closet behind you. There will be plenty of Americans around for you to study. Your curiosity must bow to security, Vasily."
Vasily wore his dark brown suit because it contrasted well with his light brown hair. The suit had been tailored to fit perfectly, with a hint of sheen and lapels that were wide enough but not foppish. In contrast, his hair never laid flat. He had yet to find a barber who could tame the thick, straight mane.The suit trousers flared with understated perfection and his two-button coat closed smoothly over a shoulder holster bearing his Makarov. The mirror showed him a young and prosperous businessman with quiet good taste. He approved the reflection and looked forward to meeting those stewardesses.
The smiles began immediately after Frank dropped them at the departure terminal and drove on to turn in the car. Two lovely young women wearing airline livery and standing behind an information desk gave them directions to the first-class check-in counter. Even Misha smiled back at them. Vasily hoped for opportunities to spend more time with such women beyond asking directions.
He saw Frank standing in a long line waiting to board the back of the aircraft. The worried look on his face made Vasily smirk as he walked past the line and through the jetway to the front of the Boeing 707 that would take them across the continent. Perhaps it was a good thing they were flying in first class. Frank had made them promise to keep their jackets buttoned but remained jumpy and unhappy about the plan. Vasily enjoyed making Frank nervous.
His ticket placed him in seat 5E, across the aisle and slightly ahead of Louis in seat 6B. Misha had the window in seat 6A. Only a curtain separated their backs from the cabin behind them, but it was dark, opaque and kept closed when everyone was seated. Vasily had a coat closet behind him. He glanced into the back of the airplane before the curtain was closed and saw how they had squeezed two extra seats onto each row. Misha was right again. He would have been uncomfortable in that crowd, though he would never admit it out loud.
As he prepared to sit down, he noticed with pleasure a young woman sitting in the window seat next to his. She was reasonably pretty and definitely American, wearing a miniskirt, white boots and pink lipstick. Her hair had been teased at the back and light blue eye shadow matched her eyes. She smiled briefly at him, then returned to the magazine in her hand. He thought she must be a few years his senior, but still, she attracted him.
Vasily felt Louis stiffen behind him. They had been a team long enough now that they could almost read one another’s thoughts. He had been busy looking at the girl when Louis reacted to the large man blundering down the aisle toward them. Warned by the readiness of his friends behind his left shoulder, he had released his seatbelt by the time the man began addressing the woman next to him.
"Dottie, I insist that you sit with me. You are my wife, for God’s sake."
Vasily decided on an upward thrust to the chin, two knuckles to the windpipe and a knee to the groin. There was no space for a kick.
The woman replied to her husband without looking up from the magazine.
"No, Bill, I’m not sitting next to you while you flirt with the stewardesses. You want one of them? Go for it, and I’ll hire a lawyer when we get home."
Vasily debated whether he should stand to give himself more options against this much larger opponent, but though the man had bulk and height, he appeared to lack strength. Appearances were easily disguised, though.
The man looked at someone standing behind Vasily’s left shoulder. That would be Louis, Vasily surmised and remained in his seat. He glanced at the woman next to him. She coolly turned a page. A stewardess walked up behind the man towering over them and asked him to sit down. He smiled at her.
"Sure thing, honey. You can order me around any day."
He went back to his seat; Louis sat down. The stewardess resumed preparing for takeoff. Vasily relaxed his fists, and the woman next to him continued to read. After a series of very fast side-glances, he could see she was looking at a woman’s magazine and that the specific article engrossing her had to do with one of the many mysteries women seemed to care about, something concerning cosmetics applied around the eyes. On one of his glances, he saw that she was looking at him and returned her gaze frankly. She smiled at him.
"Do you travel often?" she asked.
"Yes." So far, the content and speed of her language were within his competence. He had no trouble understanding.
She continued talking, but her speech became more rapid, so that he missed occasional words, but these seemed nonessential. He learned about a sister in Los Angeles with a new baby and a husband superior in every way to her own. He glanced at her bare knees and imagined sliding his hand up between her thighs. The thought pleased him.
"What happened to your hand?" she asked, indicating the missing last two fingers of his right hand on the arm rest between them.
"It was injured," he said.
The clunk of the landing gear folding up into the fuselage beneath them masked her sympathetic cluck. The seat belt and no smoking lights went out and after rummaging in her handbag, she pulled out a packet of cigarettes. She offered him one.
Vasily shook his head. He had spent most of his youth in spartan conditions, in and out of prisons or under interrogation and found it hard enough missing important things like women and coffee without burdening his ability to survive without luxuries. He did not smoke, drank very little alcohol, kept his rooms in Misha’s house free of decorations and dressed without ostentation.
She hesitated before retrieving a cigarette lighter from her bag. Vasily remembered he had once seen a man light a woman’s cigarette in a cinema and wondered if she had expected him to do the same. He added it to a list of things he must ask Louis, the acknowledged expert on how to behave in the company of polite women. He was well enough versed in how to act with the other kind.
She blew out a puff of smoke with a look of contentment. "Where are you from?" she asked. "You don’t sound like you’re from L. A."
He considered the question. Vasily was Polish, but most of the time he had spent in Poland involved prisons or living rough while doing secret work against the communist government.
"I live in Austria," he said finally.
"With kangaroos and koala bears?"
"No. That is Australia. I live in Europe, in Austria."
"What’s it like there?" She stubbed out her cigarette in the ashtray set into the arm of her seat. Before Vasily could formulate an answer to one question, she asked another. "What language do you speak? Is it Austrian? I can tell you have an accent. I wish I could speak a different language, but I was never any good at it in high school."
They had another four hours, including lunch and an afternoon cocktail to spend this way. Vasily resolved never to admit to Misha and Louis that they were correct. They should have waited in the safehouse for their jet to arrive. He distracted himself by fantasizing about what she must look like, feel like, naked, but he said very little. She seemed not to notice that he never answered her deluge of questions. He watched her face and listened to her talk about her family, friends and enemies and most of all, about herself. His quiet attention sufficiently satisfied her without the need for words.
He knew he wanted to sleep next to such softness on a permanent basis, to wake up with unlimited privileges. He contrasted Misha’s cold, aristocratic wife with this chatterbox and decided neither would suit him permanently, though he would not turn down an opportunity to bed this one. Misha kept a mistress, so he also seemed less than satisfied with his stunningly beautiful wife. But at least she could hold her tongue.
Lunch was indeed delicious, though silence would have improved the experience. Vasily ordered coffee rather than a cocktail. The woman ordered a concoction called a Mai Tai. He remembered seeing small umbrellas like that in drinks served at a Bangkok bordello. She requested and was granted a second one. It did not slow her speech, but it may have slurred it. He could not tell because he was no longer listening to her, though he continued to watch her, fascinated.
Touchdown came as a relief. Louis stood up before the airplane reached the terminal and handed Misha his hanging suitcase from the coat compartment. He ignored the stewardess who told him to sit down. Another stewardess countermanded the first one and looked past the two men toward Frank, now standing on their side of the curtain.
"Your airplane has arrived, Sir," she said to him, "and there is a message that a car will be waiting at the bottom of the stairs at the front."
Frank nodded, looking relieved.
Vasily stood in the aisle and reached for his suit bag from Louis when a hand clamped itself to his shoulder. He whirled, aiming his right elbow at the face behind him but had no room to extend his reach with a kick. The man stepped back just in time to save his nose.
"What the hell, punk," said the woman’s husband. "I heard my wife talking to you the whole time, even over the engine noise. I’m gonna teach you to leave her alone."
His wife stood up from her seat. "Bill, you’re drunk. Shut up."
"I know he must have pestered you the whole ride, Dottie. Don’t worry, I’ll make him sorry."
The man deserved no less than Vasily’s most insolent stare and responded predictably when he saw it. His fist never connected against his more agile opponent, but both of Vasily’s blows landed effectively and dangerously on his jaw and nose in quick succession.
The woman watched, speechless and wide-eyed, as her husband went down in the aisle, his face motionless and bloody. The two men to her left took their hands out of their coats, but not before she saw their holsters. They pushed the man she had been talking to for the last five hours, the man who had laid her husband flat just now, toward the front of the aircraft, where a stewardess opened the primary door. The seatbelt sign remained lit.
"Go!" said a man inside the curtain. He had bulging eyes and a receding hairline.
The three men stepped over her unconscious husband and disappeared through the open door.
Everyone in the compartment remained perfectly still, the stewardesses standing frozen until the man with protruding eyes cleared his throat and said, "Call an ambulance."
As the wheels came up and their jet headed home, Vasily sat back with a glass of mineral water in his hand. He enjoyed the luxury of the water being mit Gas, or, rather, sparkling — reminding himself of the English appellation — but even more because he was being allowed to drink it in silence. Misha and Louis shared a half bottle of a very nice claret.
"Tell me what you are thinking, Vasily," Misha said with a smirk as he drank his wine.
"This is unworthy of you, Misha. First, because it is Louis who likes to tease, not you. More importantly, you already know what I am thinking. Leave it be."
"You are scowling, Cousin, glowering into your mineral water. May we surmise the experience did not satisfy your thirst for knowledge of Americans.
"You know very well it drowned that thirst." He did not need to add 'in a deep lake of English words.'
"Perhaps," said Louis raising his glass in a mock toast, "but not, I think, your thirst for American women."
This story resulted from a contest prompt by Reedsy.com. The prompt was: "End your story with someone finally conceding to another’s point of view." The prompt may be seen at this link: https://blog.reedsy.com/creative-writing-prompts/