Chapter 1 – Simferopol
The Antonov’s single spinning propeller tears the night’s sleet backward into a stream of angry twisting coils. Blowing ice reflects as a million white points against the black, swept back mathematically helical from the plane’s engine, stop-motioned in the brilliant staccato of wingtip strobes.
Thomas Kozak flinches as he steps across the threshold of the Antonov’s warm, dim womb out into the freeze. He hesitates at the top of the rusted air stairs, and for a moment surveys through squinted eyes what he can see of the airport. The grandly-named Simferopol International is the one major civilian airport of the Republic of Crimea. It is composed of two long runways the Soviets built forty years before to launch maritime bombers over the Black Sea, and a decrepit terminal that looks like a poorly-built church, pierced by a control tower instead of a steeple.
Thomas descends the stairs to join the other passengers. He finds his Kevlar travel bag where the ground crew left it near the plane’s double-tired landing gear. He lifts it from a pool of slush on the tarmac and begins walking toward the terminal, following the trail of shadows of the others, all of them hunched against the weather.
A glance backward finds the battered Antonov crouching like an animal in the frozen wind. The left propeller marks a still gray ‘x’ of negation, already gathering frost. The right one remains spinning, free now from its engine’s transmission and slowing, a cross stopped in time with each flash of the strobes. The image stays with Thomas as he walks forward, eyes closed against the wind. The spinning propeller, the cross, seems some kind of sigil, with a significance he is meant to understand. He remembers now that he had been dreaming on the flight. Strange because he cannot actually recall falling asleep. The dream had featured sun and sky, the air unnaturally clear, the sunlight brilliant, slowly shifting in patterns, as if the light itself had its own intelligence. The light had faded and Thomas watched himself walking in a field at dusk, dark forms of trees in the foreground and hills on the horizon, darker still against the darkening sky. Then a sudden looming shape had overtaken him, blacker than the night, with a feeling that something horrible was about to happen.
He breathes in deeply and holds the air inside for a moment, then tries to force the thoughts aside. He is too tired to search for deeper meanings now.
Inside the heat of terminal, he queues behind the other passengers in the line for border control. He checks his watch, a scuffed early-model Storm Series he has carried for more than a decade—an ugly quarter-kilo of stainless and glass, reassuringly heavy on his wrist. Only eleven thirty at night. The Republic of Crimea keeps Moscow time, same as Saint Petersburg, where Thomas just departed. No excuse for jetlag.
Perhaps he is only hung over from the night before, when he celebrated his last full day in Petersburg with Dima and Adigozel, two of his drinking buddies from the political desk at Nezavisimaya Gazeta. At some point, the Seven Deadly Finns joined the celebration—a pack of freckled marketing girls on vacation from Sonera Telecom, whom they had met by happy accident at Tsinik Bar. He enjoyed the fresh naivete of the girls too much, stayed at the bar too late. Too many rounds of good cold pivo.
Connecting through Rostov-on-Don made it worse. Thomas was trapped with himself for two and a half hours in the bare airport lounge, the air thick with cleaning fluid fumes and stale tobacco stench. Thomas had sat alone in a plastic terminal seat, trying not to look at his watch, trying not to think, his skull feeling like brittle crystal.
He reaches the single passport window and steps into the gate. The officer manning the booth is dressed in the solid green military fatigues of the Crimean border guard. He hands his passport through the slit—the gold print worn away from the battered blue cover, glinting now only from depressions in the texture, the American eagle screaming without pity, that symbol of empire, now almost completely effaced by time and distance. Too many flights.
Thomas smiles at the officer and tries to look harmless. The blank-faced guard slowly scans every page in the passport with their many-colored stamps, looks up at Thomas with a frown and rips off a long question in Russian too quick for Thomas to catch.
“Uhh…” he waffles as his brain lurches back into Russian. “Izvinitye mne, yeshó raz pazhalsta?”
That doesn’t work too well either. “You will wait,” says the soldier in Russian, then stands and walks through the door in the back of the booth, taking the passport with him. After two or three minutes, the officer returns with a younger guard also in green fatigues, who monotones “You will follow me.”
The new guard carries an evil-looking weapon slung over one shoulder, some kind of stubby Kalashnikov. Thomas looks away from it. As far as he knows, he is not carrying anything that could be considered contraband, but his pulse begins ticking faster. The second officer ushers him into a small white-painted room to the side of the concourse.
The officer closes the door and says “Please place your bag on the table and sit down.” The room’s only decoration is an official photograph of Grigory Chernorukov. The President of the Republic’s fleshy face and close-shaved white hair are set against a backdrop of red, white and blue Crimean flags.
The officer zips open the bag and unloads the contents on to the table. Spare sets of clothes, socks, underwear, a small pouch with toiletries, two cameras—a small and concealable compact digicam, and a larger Canon with a zoom lens for more detailed work, rechargers for various electronics.
Thomas has learned the hard way how to travel light.
The black on green nametape on the left side of the officer’s chest reads PONOMARCHUK in block Cyrillic capitals. His epaulets bear two green fabric V’s, no stars.
“Sergeant Ponomarchuk, is there a problem?” Thomas asks in Russian.
Ponomarchuk blinks once, then asks without looking at Thomas, “Mr. Kozak, why have you come to Crimea?”
“I’m a journalist with The Invisible Hand, a British financial magazine, here on a press visa.”
Ponomarchuk pulls a slim silver-colored laptop from the bag.
“This is your computer?”
“Why do you need a computer?”
“I use that to write with.”
“You came to Simferopol from Petersburg?”
“But you work in America?”
“No, I live in London now.”
“But you are an American citizen.”
“That’s right, but I live in London.” Thomas responds patiently. He knows that showing frustration will only make the process longer.
“Have you visited Ukraine recently?”
“I’ve never visited Ukraine. I flew here from Russia.” Thomas purses his lips at the odd question. In his experience, border guards are seldom interested in neighboring countries unless he has just crossed the border from one of them.
“How long are you planning to stay in Crimea?”
“Two weeks, maybe a month. It depends on how quickly I can get my story done. My visa is good until the end of March.”
“Where will you be living during this time?”
“Gostinitsa Chernomorskaya in Simferopol. I have the reservation and stamp in my papers.”
“How much money do you hold?”
“About three hundred thousand Crimean rubles.” Less than he carries, but close enough that it won’t be a grievous lie if he is searched.
Ponamarchuk nods slowly and pages through Thomas’s passport once more. He leaves the room, and Thomas must sit in silence for another twenty minutes, staring at the walls and the photograph of President Chernorukov. After the question about money, he expected to be shaken down for a bribe. He doesn’t like the fact that he wasn’t.
Finally, Ponamarchuk returns with a gray-haired man wearing dark green slacks and a white shirt with epaulets. The second man pulls a folding chair close, sits, and retrieves a pair of metal-rimmed eyeglasses from a shirt pocket. He places the glasses on his nose and holds Thomas’s passport half a meter from his face, reading carefully.
“I see that you visit us on a press visa.” The gray-haired man looks from the passport to Thomas. His accent is more delicate than Ponamarchuk’s southern Russian dialect, harder to place.
“It says you will work in Simferopol while you are in Crimea?”
“Tell me who you work for, what sort of writing you intend, and to whom you propose to speak while you are here.”
“As I said to Sergeant Ponamarchuk, I work for The Invisible Hand. I have a copy of the magazine in my things if you would like to see it. I am writing a story about the Crimean energy economy. The European Union gave Crimea a loan to rebuild an old Soviet power plant on the west coast. I plan to interview the European staff in Simferopol about the loan and what it means for the country.” Thomas banks on these border guards not being experts in the journalistic process. He will need many more interviews than that to complete the story, but he hopes that interviewing foreigners will seem less threatening than the idea of him chasing after local Crimeans.
“Your visa was issued at our London consulate.”
“But you didn’t fly here from London, you came from Russia.”
“That’s correct.” Thomas resists the urge to explain further.
“Where did your flight originate?”
“Saint Petersburg, connecting through Rostov-on-Don.”
“And you didn’t pass through Ukraine on the way here?”
“I’ve never visited Ukraine.”
The gray haired man looks at Thomas, then back to the passport, scrutinizing the colored stamps on each page with great care.
“Very well then. You may go.” He places the passport on the table next to the rest of Thomas’s things and the two men leave Thomas alone in
* * * * * *
Ten minutes later, Thomas walks out from the tiny terminal hall into cold winter mist. He fights off two dodgy-looking taxi drivers clustered just past the door, and peers around for Antanas, his contact. He has traded emails with Antanas the past few weeks, but has no idea what he looks like. Thomas picks the most bewildered-looking of the five or six people who mill around smoking, approaches him and thrusts his hand out.
“Yes. Antanas. You are Thomas?”
Thomas nods as they shake hands. Antanas is tall, skinny and bent, with curly brown hair and a skewed smile. He is likely in his mid-thirties, but his face shows the dark-circled eyes and pallid skin of a heavy smoker and drinker. He wears a thick black overcoat over a denim shirt and jeans.
“It’s good to finally meet you. Am I pronouncing your name correctly?” asks Thomas.
“No, but it’s fine. Call me Antei if it is easier.”
“I’m not gonna call you Auntie.”
“Antei… You know, Antei, like Andy. Hey, what took you so long? Did the tamozhenniki give you a bad time?”
“No big deal. It was strange though, they kept asking me if I’d come through Ukraine. They didn’t even shake me down for a bribe. That’s not normal.”
“No, not normal. A bomb just went off on the other side of Simferopol a couple of hours ago. Killed some soldiers.”
“Yeah, serious bad news, man. Hey let’s get out of here. You need drink?”
“Yes, I very much need drink.”
“Come on, I know a good place.” Antanas buttons his overcoat closed. “Svoloch… It’s cold…”
“I thought Crimea was supposed to be subtropical. They call it the Russian Riviera, don’t they?” Thomas squints his eyes against the blowing cold mist. He lights a badly-needed cigarette from a packet of Russkiy Stil’s he picked up at Pulkovo airport. Waiting to smoke till he is outside airports is a habit he learned from his life in California, one that seven years in Europe still hasn’t erased.
“It is subtropical but the winter is a bitch. Too bad you didn’t come in the summer. The girls wear less. You could have driven down to Yalta and bathed in the Black Sea.”
Thomas chuckles. The idea of him finding time to actually relax and swim anywhere, much less the Black Sea, is just too surreal.
Antanas’s car is a rust-stained Lada Sputnik—a faux-sleek mid-1980s model that Westerners tend to think of as quaint and Eastern Europeans loathe like cold sores. Antanas pours himself into the driver’s seat, which is bowed the inverse of the curve of his back. He slaps a weathered white plastic audiocassette into the dashboard. First a male voice sings low and gravelly in Russian, thick with emotion, followed by an acoustic guitar, over tape hiss from too many listenings. Protest songs from the time of stagnation.
Antanas leans across Thomas to open the glove box, and retrieves—what is that? Can it really be an enormous spliff in his hand? Antanas lights the blunt, and thick resinous smoke fills the car. He starts the ignition and pushes the car’s unwilling gearshift forward. The Lada, groaning, lurches into motion.
“How was Russia?” asks Antanas, exhaling blue smoke.
“It was… You know, it was Russia… Intense and fun.”
“You got the story you told me about?”
Thomas nods. “I got it. A German contractor paid off their Russian partner to grease the local government. They’re building a new oil terminal in Primorsk because the Russians are running out of capacity at the big port in Saint Petersburg. A lot of money changing hands. I couldn’t prove the Russian company was bribing the local officials, though everyone knew it was happening. I did stick it to the Germans though.”
“You hurt them bad?”
Thomas shrugs. “I hurt them,” he says, unable to smile.
“I knew you were a hardass.”
“I’m not a hardass all the time.” Thomas closes his eyes and drifts off for a moment. He remembers one of the Seven Deadly Finns from the night before, a girl so pale she could have passed for an albino, and the look of frank hunger she shot him once across the bar at Tsinik. Just once. Thomas rubs his face with one hand. The insides of his eyelids feel like fine sandpaper. The fatigue ambushes him and for a moment his head swims with vertigo, as if the car is banking suddenly to the right like an airplane.
Antanas passes the spliff to Thomas once he merges into traffic on the A-291 outside Simferopol International. Once off the grounds of the airport, the roads are pitch dark. Clouds blanket the moon and stars, the lights lining the streets are dead.
“Whoa,” Thomas says, recovering. “Did the power just go out?”
“No. The government has to keep all the streetlights off to save electricity,” says Antanas. He swerves the car expertly around a discontinuity in the road which Thomas could barely make out in the Lada’s yellowed headlights.
“It’s been this way for years now.”
Thomas takes a long pull from the spliff while processing this, and blows blue smoke up to the ceiling. He nods appreciatively at the taste.
“So tell me what happened. There was a bomb?”
“Yeah man, somebody called a bomb threat to one of the reservist armories. Some soldiers tried to defuse it and it went off. Killed four people.”
“Who called in the threat?” Thomas hands the spliff back and Antanas brings it to his pursed lips, inhaling deeply.
“Dunno…” Antanas exhales slowly and passes the spliff back for another round. “Maybe the Ukrainians.”
“But I thought the old border dispute was resolved.”
“I did too. It’s no good. Chernorukov is going to spit blood over this. Start a war, maybe. Be a good story for you.”
“Trust me, that’s not the story I want. Has he made a statement yet?”
“Chernorukov? I think he is saving it for the morning. It’s gonna be bad.”
“Anything come out of Kiev?”
“Not yet. What can they say? If the Ukrainians wanted a war they would start a war. They’ve got a much bigger army and could probably knock us over in two weeks, so why would they bother with this cheap terrorist bullshit?”
“So it’s—” But Thomas is cut off as Antanas nonchalantly yanks the Lada into a hard right turn, tears down Ulitsa Gagarina and swerves around a slow-moving Kamaz lorry that looks barely held together with chicken wire.
“Uhm… So if it’s not the Ukrainians then could it have been Tatar separatists?” Thomas catches his breath and lets his heart slow down a few beats.
“I don’t know.” Antanas shakes his head and grimaces. “It just makes me want to spit. Everybody here has enough problems. We don’t need more.” He takes a final hit from the spliff, gently stubs it out in the dashboard ashtray and puts the remainder back in the glove box. Then he suddenly throws the car into a barely-controlled deceleration and skidding right fishtail, and slides the Lada to rest on a curb of an industrial-looking part of Ulitsa Gorkogo.
“This is the place, Ace.” Antanas steps from the car and heads toward a dark alleyway. Thomas follows a few paces behind and glances over his shoulder once they are inside the alley. Meeting someone on a message board and inviting them to Crimea in order to mug them seems elaborate, but Thomas has seen a lot of strange behavior in his years as a journalist. He relaxes as they step down into a concrete grotto. At the far end, Thomas can see the glow of red neon and the word “Peshchera” in Cyrillic. Antanas shoulders open a two centimeter-thick welded steel door that faces the alley and the two walk inside the bar, to the sound of voices and music.