The Wrong Girl
It took a moment for Taylor to get his bearings when he woke up, an effect he was finding more common over the last year. In the military, while he moved around a lot, army barracks had a comfortable uniformity to them that kept them from ever feeling new. But spending so many nights in hotels, traveling for this case or that, he’d started to find the first minute after he woke disorienting.
The effect this morning was more pronounced, waking in an average room instead of one made specifically for travelers. Pictures of people he didn’t know were on one wall, a relatively large cross on another, a worn but still cozy blanket pulled over him.
His wits finally about him, Taylor pushed himself out of bed and pulled on clean clothes. He could hear a shower going somewhere in the apartment and found Katarina already dressed, with Pavel at the table eating oatmeal or portage.
“Would you like some breakfast?” she asked cheerfully.
“Just coffee please,” Taylor said
She gestured him to a seat next to the boy, who looked at Taylor, spoon half in his mouth when Taylor sat.
“Good morning,” he said to the young boy, who shyly just nodded.
“Yana has already left for school,” Katarina said, setting down the coffee. “Pavel and I have a big day planned, don’t we?”
The boy nodded.
“What are you doing today, Pavel?” Taylor asked.
“Going to the park. Mamma wants me to hear a man play old music. She says if I practice I can learn to play old music.”
“Stravinsky, dear,” she said, rustling his hair. “Not old.”
Taylor smiled at him. The child had said ‘Strah-riy,’ which was one of the more common ways to say something was old. The five-year-old had jumbled the word with the unknown name, switching it the way children sometimes do in every language.
The correction bounced off the child, who went back to eating.
“His piano teacher is having a recital at the park with some of his older students.”
“Hopefully your mother lets you play at the park some too, and not just listen to ‘old’ music,” Taylor said grinning at the boy, who answered with an enthusiastic nod.
“I’m sure we’ll find the time.”
Andre came out, wearing a light brown uniform with rank badges on the shoulders and patches on the sleeves. That was one thing Taylor did remember from his last trip to the country was that people from all walks ended up wearing military-esque uniforms, even if they weren’t in the army, proper.
Russians loved their uniforms.
“Ready?” he said, picking up a briefcase.
“Yeah,” Taylor said. He’d decided to leave his bag at Andre’s home until he figured out the next move.
They took Andre’s car, which had the proper tags for parking, and headed to the ministry, which was a rectangular, extremely official looking building on one corner of Red Square. Andre must have had some juice, since he could get Taylor through security with a temporary badge, only having to go through two security check points on his way to the meeting room on the top floor.
Taylor had been smart enough to stash his gun in Andre’s glove box before coming inside, rightly assuming the Russian security services would not look kindly on an American bringing a loaded firearm into their inner sanctum.
Once off the elevator, Taylor followed Andre through a twisting series of halls until they reached an unlabeled door, which his friend promptly opened. Taylor couldn’t hold back the small smile that creased his lips. The Soviet Union may have gone, but the weird paranoia that kept doors anonymous remained.
Inside, three men stood in a straightforward meeting room, with a single long table surrounded by chairs. There were no screens, no white boards, and no windows. One wore the same military style uniform as Andre, with different insignia he did not recognize, the other two were dressed in what Taylor thought might be stylish suits.
“Mr. Taylor?” the older gentleman in the suit asked.
Taylor just nodded.
“Excellent. I’m Donald Ellis from the State Department,” the man said, extending a hand and showing a perfectly aligned set of impossibly white teeth.
The other man in the suit, clearly a translator, said the same thing, but in Russian, directed toward the unknown man in the uniform.
It should have amazed Taylor that the State Department would send in someone representing the US interests to negotiate with the Russians, and that person wouldn’t speak any of the country he was stationed in’s language. If he had to guess, he figured Ellis probably knew nothing about Russian culture either.
That was anathema to his SF training, which focused on soldiers learning not just the language, but the culture of the groups they were assigned to. They were taught, repeatedly, understanding and respect were the key to ensuring effective integration or assistance from local allies.
The level of hubris in expecting the country your diplomatic staff served in to deal with you in English, rather than the other way around, was stunning, but not unexpected. He’d seen the same kind of attitude in the Middle East, from both higher-level military and civilian officials sent to ‘rebuild’ the country. They all went in not understanding the region, not understanding the various mixes of cultures and religions, some of which coexisted very poorly together, then expected an easy transition to a functional democracy. It was almost laughable the way they were all surprised when everything went to shit ... or it would have been, if it hadn’t gotten so many American servicemen killed.
Still, the State Department—or at least the upper levels of it, which existed solely to communicate, and insure US interests, with both allied and hostile nations—couldn’t even be bothered to learn the language.
“And this,” Ellis said, “is Colonel Vasili. He has been assigned to assist us in locating the missing girls.”
Taylor reached across and shook hands with the colonel. He couldn’t help but notice neither the colonel nor Ellis acknowledge Andre’s presence.
“If you will excuse us for one second, Colonel,” Ellis said and after a nod from Vasili, lightly gripped Taylor’s arm and led him to the far side of the room, without the translator.
“I have been working on fixing this mess since it came across my desk yesterday.” He said, his toothy grin replaced by a smirk and his voice dripping with condescension. “I know you got Washington in some sort of tizzy over this, but you’re in the real world now. Please just sit and let me do the talking, so you don’t sink all the work we’ve done to this point.”
Ellis released Taylor’s arm, plastered on his near Cheshire-Cat-level smile, and returned to Vasili and the translator.
“Let’s be seated,” the colonel said in Russian, gesturing at the seats. “We have looked into the history of this ship, the Petrograd, your government forwarded to us. We have reached the company that owns and operates the ship, and they have assured us they were unaware of any illegal activity that was discovered while it was in United States waters. We did additional searches, but found no other record that the Petrograd was scheduled to offload to another ship after it left port.”
‘Because smugglers often file shipping manifests for mid-ocean rendezvous to offload women taken hostage,’ Taylor thought sarcastically but managed to keep from saying that out loud. Barely.
After the translator had finished, Ellis said, “We appreciate your prompt assistance in this matter, Colonel Vasili. And we are working hard on our end to ensure the release of the Petrograd to its owners with as little delay as possible, although not its crew, which must stand trial for their actions, you understand. We understand they still have a schedule to keep, and we wouldn’t want to inconvenience them any more than is necessary.”
Taylor fought the urge to roll his eyes.
“Excellent,” the colonel said. “We have agreed with your State Department’s request to allow you to operate inside the country Mr. Taylor, but I want to be very clear, we do not want any difficulties. While you do enjoy diplomatic immunity, we will expel you from Russia if you step out of line even once. Is that clear?”
Taylor didn’t wait for the translator to finish and replied in Russian.
“I appreciate that, Colonel, and I will try my best to keep from causing you any problems. But those girls are coming to your country. They are either here already, or will be soon. I intend to find them, and don’t plan on letting anything get in my way.”
Ellis’s head whipped around at Taylor so hard, Taylor thought he might actually hurt himself. His eyes narrowed as he watched Taylor, not missing the hard tone in Taylor’s reply. The translator, not expecting the need to translate for the other American in the room into English, more summarized what Taylor had said than directly translated it.
“So! We understand each other,” Vasili said, ignoring the byplay between the other two men and not breaking contact. “I have no love for the people you will most likely encounter, nor will I weep for them if something should happen to them. But I will not let you upturn my country.”
Taylor nodded and stood, shaking hands with Vasili more firmly now that the two men had each other’s measure. Turning, he headed out of the room with Andre, Ellis and the translator scrambling to catch up. Once the door was closed Ellis gripped Taylor’s arm again, to stop his forward momentum. Taylor looked at the offending hand then back at Ellis, challenge in his eyes.
Ellis blanched and released Taylor, but to his credit at least stood his ground.
“What the hell was that? I told you to sit and shut your f•©king mouth, not threaten a member of their security forces. Are you an idiot? These people are animals. They hold grudges like you wouldn’t believe. Are you trying to set back US foreign policy single-handedly?”
Taylor looked at Andre, who was still standing at Taylor’s shoulder, then said, “You realize Andre here speaks English, right? I’m pretty sure the colonel does, too.”
Ellis’s face went even whiter, and he pursed his lips, backing away from Andre and gesturing for Taylor to follow.
“One sec,” Taylor said in Russian to Andre and the translator.
Andre smiled and waved his friend on. Although he didn’t work with US diplomats often, he wasn’t unfamiliar with Ellis’s type.
“You could have warned me. When I get back to my office, I am going to make sure your authorization to stay in the country is revoked, so help me God. You are an absolute menace. If you think...”
Taylor took a menacing step forward, and Ellis stopped talking, only realizing at that moment he’d backed himself into a corner, with no open hallway to retreat to.
“Listen, jackass, do you know who I’m here for? Did anyone bother to tell you who asked for me to be cleared into the country?”
With each sentence, Taylor took another small step toward the man.
“No, I was just told to arrange it by the home office,” Ellis said, his voice trembling as he continued looking for an escape route.
“Maybe you should call them back and find out what’s really going on. If you stopped patronizing me for ten seconds, you might consider this! Someone got your boss to set up this meeting and swing diplomatic credentials for me on short notice. You may want to know what you’re getting into, before you step on your own dick!”
Ellis froze, realizing he may not hold as many cards as he thought he did.
“That’s what I thought,” Taylor said, turning, and walking back to Andre.
“If you run into trouble, don’t expect help from the State Department,” Ellis shouted at Taylor’s back once he was out of arms reach.
“What a putz,” Taylor said when he reached Andre, who smiled and slapped his friend on the back as they returned to the elevator. “That was a bust,” he said when they were in the elevator.
“It was exactly what we both expected. I told you no one was actually planning on helping, officially at least.”
“Yeah,” Taylor said, watching the glowing numbers count down.
“Cheer up,” Andre said as the elevator stopped on the second floor and he gestured for Taylor to exit. “That’s only officially. I have someone I want you to meet.”
Taylor followed Andre through more twisting halls and into yet another unlabeled door. Inside was a bullpen type area, with six desks. Most were empty save the computer and various files, and Taylor saw name plates on the majority of them, although he didn’t stop to read any. Andre led Taylor to the back of the room and one of the last pair of desks, one of which was occupied.
“Taylor, this is Vladimir,” he said, gesturing at an older man, balding with a thin ring of gray hair clinging around the sides of his head. “Vladimir, this is the American I told you about.”
“Good to meet you,” Taylor said, offering out a hand.
“Same,” Vladimir said, half-standing and shaking Taylor’s hand before sitting. “Andre told me about your problem. I guess the meeting with Vasili didn’t go well?”
“It went about as expected. Vasili was more helpful than the person from my own government, at least,” Taylor said with a grimace, “but he made it clear I shouldn’t expect any assistance.”
“Official help anyway,” Vladimir said. “Andre laid out some of what you needed. Are you sure they are coming in through St. Petersburg?”
“No. It stands to reason they still are, but I can’t be positive. They could have docked in France and come overland or come in through the Black Sea for all I know. But since I can’t search the entire country, I’m going to stick with my best guess.”
“Well, I doubt they came in across Europe. It would have required buying off too many people from too many different governments. I looked over a copy of the file your government sent with the initial request, and I agree that St. Petersburg is still your best shot. And I think I have a place to start.”
“Yeah?” Taylor said, sounding hopeful for the first time since he landed in Russia.