Chapter 42, in which an ominous warning is delivered in the heart of Moscow
GET IN LINE
The two friends see the line forming and join the others. A middle-aged woman in front of them turns. She can’t help noticing one man’s crutches and missing right leg. She gestures for the two veterans to go ahead of her in line.
“Please,” she says.
“We are fine here. Thank you for your kindness,” the man on crutches responds. He lights a cigarette.
Like all Muscovites, the men are accustomed to standing in lines; like nearly all Muscovites, they will gladly stand in line for ice cream.
“I think we’ll have an early winter this year. More cold weather, even more than we’re used to,” the smoking man’s companion muses.
“The weather is a funny thing. What we feel here is affected by weather in parts of the world that are rarely noticed,” the veteran on crutches replies.
More Muscovites gather behind the two men as the line moves slowly towards the ice cream vendor at the Moscow River embankment.
A man wearing a gray suit, a royal blue shirt, and a black fedora approaches the veterans. His shirt’s color is identical to the background color of KGB shoulder boards. He sometimes wears it as a courtesy to his fellow citizens, his way of letting them know they are to take extra care in his presence. He stops. The woman in front of the veterans leaves the line in a hurry at the sight of the man in the royal blue shirt.
“What are they selling here?” he asks the veteran on crutches.
The veteran takes another drag on his cigarette before responding.
“I don’t know. I just saw the line and got in it.”
They both laugh at the old Russian joke born out of a need to see humor in deprivation.
“I’ll take her place,” the man in the fedora says as he slips into the line in front of the veterans. He knows no one in the line will dare object.
The smoking veteran throws his cigarette on the ground. The KGB agent puts it out with his foot.
“You shouldn’t smoke. It’s bad for your health.”
“Many things are bad for my health.”
“It would be nice to take a vacation in the tropics.”
“What do you recommend?”
“The Black Sea over the Caribbean.”
“What if I’ve already bought my ticket?”
“See if you can get a refund. Anyone holding such a ticket is a target.”
“Is that your personal opinion?”
“It is, but I don’t agree with it.”
They both chuckle at the standard quip from the worst days of the Stalinist era. The one-legged veteran lights another cigarette. The line continues to inch forward.
“Your young traveling companion may be forced to change his plans.”
With that, the man in the fedora leaves as abruptly as he came. The veterans gaze after him.
“He works for Proykiev.”
“He’s taking an awful risk.”
“Maybe he wants Proykiev to fail.”
“He will. He should never have sent that fool Kropotkin. He’ll make a dog’s breakfast of it.”
“Will you tell our young friend?”
“He’ll have to figure it out on his own.”
“A man goes on a journey?”
“Quoting Tolstoy? Are you now a member of the intelligentsia?”
“Never. It’s too dangerous. I’d rather be back in Berlin killing fascists.”
They chuckle once more. The line moves again, slowly inching its way towards a small, sweet diversion from the mundane brutality that is too often life in the Soviet Union’s capital city.