A doubtful sanctuary
Shadowy black fingers cast by the old buildings of medieval Tallinn’s narrow side streets, gave the ghostly, almost claustrophobic impression, of closing in as if they were trying to force Nick and David into the light at the centre of the street as the two men followed their route to the safe house. They silently entered the walled garden of the safe house and melted into the shadows beside its cellar door. David carefully and quietly drew back the bolt that held the two halves of the door together and pulled open one side, allowing Nick to descend down the steps into the darkness, before silently lowering the door as he joined him in the cellar. Motioning Nick to follow, he led the way courtesy of the small torch in his hand, along a narrow corridor that led to the kitchen and the old servant’s scullery of the sixteenth century house. He opened another door at the end of the corridor giving access to a staircase used in the past by the house’s former servants, which ended in the attic space above the upper floor where the servants previously slept. They were safe here for the rest of the night. David’s Ukrainian contact would collect them in the morning for their journey across the border with western Russia. Ithis watched over them while they slept.
The following morning, no one took any notice as three workers strode along the busy street that ran beside the railway tracks and turned in through the gate to the marshalling yard. They walked along a row of goods wagons, checking the destination marks of each wagon, making sure that the sliding doors were closed. When the long goods train at last departed Tallinn’s busy yard, the three workers had vanished. “How long before we cross the border Katya, when will we be able to jump off?” David asked. She ignored him for the moment as she peered out through the railway goods wagon’s slatted sides at the passing countryside. Katya Veranova is his contact for the Russian Federation. She is a homely, slightly plump Ukrainian in her mid-thirties. While outwardly professing her loyalty to Moscow, Like most Ukrainians, she secretly wishes for independence, longing for the day when her homeland will finally be free from the constant meddling by the new Russian government in the Kremlin. While the outward appearance of the relatively new Russian democracy was being shown to the world, in reality it was still being run by men from the former ruling elite. After the fall of communism in the mid nineteen eighties they were still in control within a thinly disguised democratically elected government as witnessed by the appointment of the previous president, whose former occupation had been as a senior officer in the KGB.
The train passed south of a small lake before stopping briefly on a siding in the rail yard at Pskov. Katya motioned for them to keep silent as someone passed by outside. The wagon lurched briefly when it was disconnected from the train. Moments later it was being pushed backward into a goods shed by a small diesel shunting loco. She allowed a few seconds to pass before carefully sliding the door open just enough to check that the way was clear. Happy that it was now safe, she led them in silence through the old goods shed and out to a waiting ex-army Lada four wheel drive vehicle, similar in appearance to a Toyota land cruiser. Once they were underway with her at the wheel, she relaxed and for the first time since they had met back in Tallinn, she smiled. “We have a long way to go David,” she said fluttering her eyelashes at him while placing one hand purposely on his knee, before gradually sliding it along the inside of his thigh to give his crotch a gentle caress, making him feel decidedly uncomfortable.
Nick sat in the back of the vehicle inwardly smiling at his friend’s predicament. “Where are we going Katya?” he asked, trying to bring her mind back to the task.
“Velikije Luki,” she replied, as she changed gear before replacing her hand lovingly on David’s inner thigh. “We stay in my cousin’s house until I can arrange further transportation to the Molochna valley where you wish to go?” she replied, mouthing a kiss at David. Four hours later, the old vehicle drove into a shed behind an unpainted weather board house surrounded by an overgrown garden, in a small three house village beside a railway line. Katya greeted her cousin and introduced his two guests. Vitaly proved to be a good host. By the time Nick had consumed his tenth shot of their host’s mind numbing homemade vodka, the mixture of raw alcohol, plenty of plain and simple boiled food, plus the warmth from the red hot potbelly stove in one corner of the tiny living room, made him pass out in drunken oblivion where he sat.
The following morning Nick woke to the sound of a dog barking frantically somewhere outside the house. His pounding head, churning stomach, and the thick coat of fur in his mouth, reminded him of the heavy drinking session the night before. He lay quietly for a long time, not daring to move for fear of throwing up on the couch he had passed out on. Gradually his stomach began to settle and his bloodshot eyes blearily took in their surroundings. David and Katya were nowhere to be seen. Vitaly sat in the porch smoking a foul smelling Russian cigarette which almost made Nick’s stomachs’ delicate internal balance between being sick and recovering its equilibrium, tip towards the former. He greeted Nick as he joined their host outside in the welcome fresh air with his eyes half closed against the pain of the bright sunshine. “You slept well I think my friend?” Vitaly smiled as he inhaled more smoke from his cigarette before releasing it in a blue cloud that hung in the air around him, which was all it took to trigger Nick’s stomach into violent revolt.
“Where’s David, have you seen him yet this morning?” Nick weakly enquired, wiping his mouth after he had emptied the largely liquid contents of his stomach onto the grass beside the door. Vitaly smiled and pointed back into the house putting one finger to his lips. As if in answer to his question they both heard Katya humming happily to herself from somewhere inside. God almighty, David had pulled! Or rather, he had been pulled by his very own Ukrainian Amazon. Nick was not about to use his friend’s predicament against him in the immediate future, unless the particular circumstances demanded it, but he would dine out on his story of David’s first night of unbridled passion for ages to come. Eventually Katya’s reluctant lover surfaced sheepishly from the bedroom and joined Nick and Vitaly outside. David’s pathetic attempt at trying to insist that his two male companions refrain from discussing the highly embarrassing situation he now found himself in largely fell on deaf ears. Both Nick and Vitaly gave him hell for the rest of the day.
Nick enthusiastically backed Vitaly when he jokingly insisted in a very serious tone of voice that, “now that David had deflowered his beautiful cousin he had to do the honourable thing and marry her!” Ithis laughed silently to herself at David’s expense from her hiding place. His embarrassment was a far better punishment for his careless talk back in Sweden than what she had in mind for him. For once in his life the normally highly organised, if slightly flaky man was completely out of control of his own circumstances. Five days later much to his great relief, they were on their way south to the Ukraine and the Molochna River valley. Katya had now ditched the old four wheel drive vehicle for a more robustly built truck with a canvas covered back where Nick and David hid, buried beneath a pile of empty potato sacks, old fence posts and rolls of barbed wire. She saw her pouting reflection in the old truck’s rear vision mirror as she looked at the road behind, keeping watch for anyone who may be following them. She desperately missed not having her lover beside her as she drove the truck steadily southward towards the small town of Polock, a few kilometres inside the Belarus border. Finally realising she had put enough distance between them and any possible danger, her growing insatiable physical need for David made her stop the truck in the courtyard of an old abandoned pre-revolutionary country house for the night. The house had once been the home of a member of the former Tsars’ ruling elite. She jumped from the cab and quickly climbed into the back of the truck to extract her lover from the jumble, leaving Nick to climb out on his own.
The old building still showed signs of its faded past. A chandelier hung at a strange angle from the ornately moulded plaster ceiling, with tattered remnants of gold leaf desperately clinging to it, like flakes of dead skin about to fall. What was left of a once grand staircase to the now missing first floor living quarters of the houses former aristocratic owners, stood like a wooden island in the middle of the bare boards of the ground floor. Taking David’s hand firmly in hers, Katya rapidly dragged her unwilling suitor off to a room to one side of the main hallway to make up for the many frustrating hours she had spent alone at the wheel of the truck. Nick found himself a spot to sleep on a pile of straw bales that had been left by someone in the past, when the old house had been used as a storage barn for the local collective farm at some time during the communist era.
The following morning they were once again heading south, following the route to the Molochna valley and Katya’s homeland – the Ukraine. Their week long journey south through Belarus took them through Vitebsk and Mogil’ov, past Gomel and across the border into the Ukraine and the town of Cernigov, where Katya finally stopped. Abandoning the truck, she led them to a small apartment on the fifth floor of a shabby high rise block of flats in the town, typical of the old communist era poorly constructed accommodation blocks, and knocked on the door. An old woman opened it and stood to one side as Katya led them into the tiny apartment. “This is my grandmother Anastasia,” she began, “She will feed and look after you while I make the arrangements for the journey to Molochna.” Katya giggled like a young teenage girl as she whispered in her grandmother’s ear, pointing to David while mouthing him a kiss and smiling. The old woman’s toothless mouth broke out in a slack smile as she crossed the room to hug and kiss her granddaughter’s beau. David gave Nick a look that screamed out ‘for pity sake help!’
Five hours went by as Nick and David waited nervously for Katya to return. Darkness fell and still she had not appeared. “Something is wrong Nick, I know it. She should have been back ages ago. Where the hell is she?”
“What can we do mate?” Nick began, “we’re in a country we don’t know, with a frustrated female guide who wants to have your babies who has seemingly gone missing. We don’t have a clue where the damned valley is, or how to get there, and neither of us speak the bloody language!”
Ithis invaded David’s mind. “Yes I agree, but how?” he said out loud.
“What? Did you say something?” Nick asked from his place behind the curtains of the apartment’s single window where he was watching the street below.
“Ithis thinks Katya has probably been caught.”
“By who – the Order?” Nick replied.
“No. More than likely it’s the local mafia. They’re equally as bad as their Russian counterparts. Who knows why they might have captured her; let alone what they’ve done with her. Maybe the Order’s tentacles do stretch this far after all. But given the fact that this whole part of the world is run by the mafia in one form or another, my money is on them. Although I can’t for the life of me think why?” David said glumly, admitting his concern for the woman who had forcibly taken him to her bed.
A loud knock on the door made them both jump. Grandmother Anastasia shuffled her way across the tiny apartment and opened it. The entire doorway was taken up by a giant of a man who filled it and the space outside the door on the tiny landing. He courteously bowed and handed a note to her, at the same time pointing to Nick. Anastasia gave him the note. It was from Katya. She told them to go with the man who had delivered the note and not to worry; they were now in safe hands. Nick and David followed the giant downstairs in nervous silence to a black van parked at the rear of the apartment block, where they were both quickly hooded and bundled unceremoniously into the back of it. An hour later, rough hands dragged them back out of the van after it had completed its journey. They were led inside a building and up a flight of stairs, where at last the hoods were removed. “Plis,” the giant said unsmilingly, attempting the one word in English that he knew, as he indicated they should go through the double doors in front of them. Beyond the doors lay a short, well-lit windowless corridor leading to another set of double doors. Nick tentatively knocked.
“Come in tovarich doctor, come in.” Nick opened the door and was almost bowled over as Katya flew past him with tears of happiness streaming from her eyes to hug and kiss her lover, practically driving the breath from his body when she squeezed him to her ample bosom.
“Doctor Palmer I am honoured to meet you at long last, please sit down and make yourself comfortable. Forgive me, I am Nicolai Mischevski. Katinka is my one and only niece. Her happiness is very important to me you understand,” Nicolai said, as he cast a disdainful eye over the man that his precious niece desperately wanted to marry. Katya was the apple of his eye. Whatever his darling Katinka wanted, he would make sure she got. Even in this case if it meant he had to hold his future nephew-in-law in chains if needs be. Nicolai and Nick spent the next several hours talking ancient archaeology while Katya constantly subjected David to hugs and kisses while muttering sweet nothings in his ear which she punctuated with even more passionate kisses, all the while stroking his crotch and nibbling his ears.
Nicolai was the head of the largest family in the Ukrainian mafia and a man not to be trifled with. He had an abiding passion for archaeology, and could quite literally quote chapter and verse from most of the papers that Nick had written during his days back at the University of East Anglia. In other circumstances Nick would have been flattered by the compliment. Nicolai knew through Katya what Nick and David were attempting to do and offered the support of his criminal empire, which was put immediately at their disposal. Whatever they needed, he would provide. The only proviso was Nick’s solemn guarantee that he would bring David back to his darling Katinka after the operation was completed, to be married. He made it abundantly clear that he had many contacts across the world that would hunt down his niece’s chosen spouse and kill him if he refused to return. Nick just smiled and nodded his agreement. There was no need to tell David about the conversation for now. Far better to let him concentrate on what he did best, organizing Nick’s next target and the one beyond that.
Ithis smiled from her hiding place in the thick bullet and bomb proof walls of Nicolai’s heavily guarded private apartment, hardly able to contain the pleasure she now felt for the predicament that David found himself in. He was totally out of his depth, having finally met his waterloo in the form of Katya and her doting uncle. From Ithis’ point of view, just occasionally, life could be so good…