BY TIM DADSWELL
Copyright is held by the author.
ON A wintry evening in Vyshkovia, a car parks outside a tenement in a deserted street. Two men get out. One bangs on a weather-beaten door.
Inside, sitting by a coal fire, eight-year-old Yuri Zolkov is reading.
“Yuri, let’s play hide and seek. You hide. Take your book!”
Yuri’s shoulders tense at his father’s anxious tone. Instinct tells him this is no game.
He runs up wooden steps into the attic and closes the hatch. He climbs into a wicker storage basket. It has spy holes in the base, aligned with cracks in the floorboards.
Although able to see his father standing to attention, the visitors keep moving around, out of sight. There is conversation, not loud enough for Yuri to understand.
There is a pause. He hears a muffled gunshot and a heavy thud.
One visitor opens cupboards and drawers in each downstairs room and stops at the bottom of the steps.
Yuri covers himself and his book with a dustsheet and holds his breath.
He hears the gunman opening the hatch.
There are no footsteps. The hatch closes.
Two minutes later, the sound of talking renews his courage. In beams thrown by the downstairs light, he sees a man kicking his father’s legs. As he steps backwards, the man’s hawk-like expression sears itself into Yuri’s brain.
After the visitors leave, unsure what to do, he falls into a restless sleep.
At sunrise, hunger drives Yuri downstairs.
The ashes of yesterday’s fire lie in the grate. He absorbs the reality of his father’s death, gives him one last hug and pulls a blanket over his body, not wanting to cover his face.
He needs help.
Along gritted streets piled high with banks of snow, he walks. It has been a few weeks, but he finds a familiar flat on the ground floor of a tower block.
A woman opens the door. “Hello Yuri, this is a nice surprise.” She notices his forlorn expression. “Where’s my dear brother?” She looks up and down the street but sees no one.
She does a double take. There is a car parked next to the playground railings. It has two occupants, staring in their direction.
Twelve years later, in a government laboratory, Yuri is not expecting an ordinary day. With his hands in thick plastic gloves, inside a fume cupboard he combines the contents of two test tubes in a flask.
Four men in dark suits enter the lab, followed seconds later by a fifth. Yuri knows it must be the President.He refuses to stop work.
President Kurynov tours the lab, speaking to each technician.
Finally, he reaches Yuri’s bench. “Here’s a busy fellow. What are you working on?”
“I’m trying to find a stable solution for our current project, sir.”
“I see. One that would make our enemies tremble, if they knew,” says Kurynov.
“Excellent. Are you close?”
“I believe so, sir. And I have an incentive.”
“After this, I want permission to work on something more constructive,” he says, looking the President straight in the eye.
The President smiles. “If you succeed, you will have earned that right. Tell me, what do you do for fun?”
“Well, tonight, I’ll be glued to the hockey final.”
“Ah, me too.” Kurynov turns to his protection team. “Leave us.”
The four men study Yuri, before taking up position in the corridor. Yuri’s colleagues troop out after them.
“As a young Turk, I want your ideas for our country’s future,” said Kurynov, “You may speak freely.”
Twenty-two, in a suit and tie, Yuri stands in a line of people stretching along a corridor in the former royal palace. He reflects on how long ago it feels, since he was taken to the laboratory after graduation, ending his cozy home life.
He marvels at the gilded ceiling and oak-panelled walls, hung with paintings of monarchs mounted on black stallions. Drifting down from the entrance, a brass band is playing a patriotic song.
The next man in line leans towards him, smiling. “I’ve met President Kurynov before. He won’t remember. We were in the same regiment, but he soon moved on to better things. He’s come a long way. I’m surprised he hasn’t started his own dynasty. That’s what all leaders do.”
“You must be successful, otherwise you wouldn’t be here,” says Yuri.
“Yes, you’re right, I’m what they call a wealth creator. But what about you? You’re very young to be invited to one of these receptions. You must either be lucky or a genius!”
Yuri gives a rare smile without replying.
In the basement of a barracks next to the laboratory, Yuri removes his earmuffs. His eyes focus on the silhouette of a soldier, racing towards him on an overhead track. There are bullet holes in the centre of the target, more in the next ring.
“Good, you’re improving,” says Corporal Guba, peering over his shoulder.
“Thanks, I’m grateful, you don’t have to allow me in here.”
“That’s okay. I get a kick out of telling the other guys I’m training a top egghead. Besides, after your day at the palace, I’m surprised you’ve got time for the likes of us.”
Yuri laughs. “It’s a dangerous world. Even a scientist must learn how to defend himself.”
That evening, Yuri is at home in his state-owned flat when security radios crackle outside.
Last time, Kurynov brought him a scientific report to translate into plain language. Tonight, it’s a bottle of vodka, which he breaks open straightaway.
“I’m angry about these street protests, Yuri. Why don’t people trust me?”
“People are impatient, they want change now,” replies Yuri, knowing his colleagues talk of little else. “You’re moving things in the right direction. Maybe they need more explanation from you.”
Kurynov swigs his drink.
Yuri is close to winning a hand of cards, when there is chatter in the street.
“I’ve asked two girls to join us tonight,” announces Kurynov with a wink.
Yuri adjusts his new glasses, which feel awkward on his nose.
After Kurynov retires to the bedroom with the first girl, Yuri makes stilted conversation with the second. When that fails, he plays her a pop LP, hard to obtain without contacts.
Yuri realizes other men would revel in his privileged position, but angst troubles him. Is he providing the President with a taste of ordinary life, away from the burdens of state, or is it more than that? How much does he know?
All Yuri needs is one opportunity, when they are alone . . .
On a Saturday in July, Yuri has just finished his breakfast when there is a knock at the door.
“Morning, Yuri. We’re going for a drive,” says a breezy Kurynov on the step. “We can stay overnight at my hunting lodge.”
Yuri dashes into the bathroom, where he keeps a revolver taped inside the bath panel. Is this his chance? He is aware from history lessons that assassins seldom live long, but isn’t that because they make mistakes? In a slight sweat, he thinks of the armed guards outside. Although he is trusted, a full body search is never out of the question, so he leaves the gun where it is.
The Presidential limo speeds past a series of rural communities, stopping at the entrance to a bunker.
Clench-jawed, Yuri follows the President along a corridor into a lift, which takes them ten levels below ground, into an archive.
A gaunt man, who appears to have been expecting them, holds out a thin file.
Yuri sits and reads a set of notes detailing his father’s crimes – publishing anti-government leaflets and organizing protests. The report by the operation commander names Kurynov as his junior officer. He is astonished to read a postscript: Yuri Zolkov, aged 8. Possible witness. No further action.
“So, now you know everything. If it hadn’t been me, it would’ve been my commander. It was never personal. I had to work my way through the ranks. You’ve every right to hate me, but I feel a responsibility towards you. You’ve made a life for yourself, but I’d like to adopt you as my son. You’re the one person left who tells me the truth.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“It must be a shock. You were so young. Don’t give me your answer now. Let’s get going. There’s a match on TV tonight. And from now on, call me Nikolay.”
An hour before dawn, Yuri is in the bathroom at the hunting lodge.
His mind is churning. Kurynov appears relaxed, but how will he react to a refusal? Memories fill his head — the familiarity, the friendship. Yet the image of his father’s lifeless face won’t be denied.
Outside, all is still. As Yuri is ready to return to his room, he hears a gunshot coming from the opposite side of the lodge.
Passing the mounted heads of stags, he creeps down the corridor. Just before reaching the study, he stops before a glass cabinet full of rifles and shotguns. It’s locked. Yuri removes a medieval battle-axe hanging on the wall above.
Through a gap in the study’s open door, he sees Kurynov on the floor, in a bathrobe, clutching his leg. His hand is covered in blood. He looks helpless, humbled, even broken.
Yuri moves to the edge of the door. Reflected in the mirror over the fireplace, a masked man stands over Kurynov, pointing a gun.
Anger surges through Yuri’s body. With a deep breath, he utters a loud roar and runs into the study.
As the masked man turns around in surprise, Yuri swings the axe at his midriff, sending him hurtling backwards against the fireplace.
The man falls into the grate, impaling his neck on one of its finely wrought iron rods. His legs twitch as a pool of blood spreads outwards, then his movements cease.
Yuri turns his attention to Kurynov, who groans, raising an arm, as though needing help to stand. But no, he’s pointing.
Yuri swings around to see another intruder on the floor, stretching for his gun. Yuri reaches it first and shoots him twice in the gut.
Dashing over to a bureau, Yuri drags off its cloth, tearing it down the middle in one swift action. He rolls up one half and ties it tightly around Kurynov’s leg. Dragging an office chair across the room, he manoeuvres Kurynov into the seat and wheels him into the hall.
He dons a spare overcoat hanging by the door. Outside, one bodyguard is lying on the ground next to the limo, a bullet hole in his temple; the other is nowhere to be seen. The keys are in the ignition, so Yuri tips Kurynov into the front passenger seat and starts the engine.
Once they are on the motorway, he hits the accelerator and glances at his passenger.
“Hold on, Nikolay. There’s a hospital not far away. Why are you smiling?”
“Because now you’ve given me your answer.”
Yuri flicks on the TV in his state-of-the-art research lab, to watch the news before heading home.
There is a short item about Kurynov’s former bodyguard: Alexei Dynko, who conspired with others to assassinate former President Kurynov, escaped from prison two days ago, having served ten years of his sentence. The guards who tracked him across open tundra found his frozen body on the edge of a forest.
It occurs to Yuri that he might have met this fate. He switches off the lights and locks the double-doors.
He collects his daughter Eva from her friend’s house and drives to their detached villa on the outskirts of the capital. His wife Elena comes out to greet him.
Inside, Nikolay rises from his armchair, leaning on a walking stick.
Nikolay and Yuri retire to the study.
Yuri is keen to discuss his plans to stand for election as a representative, to build on Nikolay’s reforms.
Later, if the time is right, Yuri will ask him how best to obtain a state pardon for his father.