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Dusk in Kalevia: Chapter 12

A downloadable package of this chapter (.pdf, .epub, and .mobi) is available in the Sparkler Monthly Issue #020 back issue.

“He said what to you?”

Agent Chernyshev stared at Kaija, his eyes narrowed with disgust.

“Kill the hostage.”

“Well, son of a bitch!” Chernyshev struck one of the bare pipes on the wall, producing a hollow clang. “I knew something was up with that fucker!”

“Why would he–ow!” Kaija flinched away from the disinfectant-soaked gauze in Agent Valonen’s hand.

“Sorry,” he said. He looked up sheepishly, but continued to swab the crusted blood from her thigh.

The hot steam of the industrial laundry down the corridor wafted in through the vents, leaving the storage room in the Chairman’s basement damp and smelling of soap flakes. Kaija sat on a pile of bags full of dirty linens, her skirt hiked up to her haunches, Valonen crouched beside her as he dug through a med kit. If it had been anyone else, she could see herself pulling her baggy dress awkwardly around her legs, concealing her wounded body like an animal–but Valonen had none of the predatory qualities she ascribed to other men. She felt no need to hide weakness from him. Besides, something about the steady, benevolent gaze of his eyes made her feel as though deception was futile.

Chernyshev, however, was a different story. He stalked about the room, both flippant and deadly serious in the same breath, his aloof persona belied by a quiet rage that threatened to erupt at every reminder of Kuoppala’s plot. He made Kaija incredibly nervous–a beautiful, unsettling person whose glare made her shrink with inexplicable discomfort.

“Ever since the kidnapping, all anybody can talk about at headquarters is his fucking task force.” Agent Chernyshev gestured impatiently. “Chairman Uusitalo’s just sitting there, letting him do whatever he wants…”

“A consolidation of power.” Agent Valonen finished dressing Kaija’s leg, and snapped the kit shut with a decisive flick of his wrist. “Manipulating the rebels into attacking someone close to the Chairman, then using it as an excuse to expand his own control.”

“‘Desperate times, desperate measures,’ and all that.”

“Precisely.”

“It’s brilliant. The man rivals our own.” Chernyshev saw the affronted expression on Valonen’s face and gave a bitter little laugh. “No, I don’t mean yours. Mine.”

“He’s not like you,” Valonen argued quietly. “Not even.”

Kaija had begun to lose the thread of the conversation. As she watched Valonen place a hand on Chernyshev’s shoulder to reassure him, she was struck by the odd tenderness that passed between them. The unlikely comrades conferred with each other in hushed tones that reminded her of lovers, and she looked away, suddenly embarrassed.

“So neither of you knew about this?” asked Kaija, trying to steer them back to the matter at hand.

“We had our suspicions,” Valonen said, shaking his head. “But nothing definite. Until now.”

Chernyshev bristled. “I should have seen it! It’s been staring me in the face the whole goddamn time! And where’s Mika with the uniforms?” he finished, just as a knock came at the door. They all jumped.

“They were right where you said they would be.” Mika stooped to enter the door, head bowed to avoid the ducts that ran across the low ceiling of the basement. Three dress uniforms, fresh from the steam press, hung over his arm. “Too bad some of the boys are gonna miss out on the festivities tonight.”

“Absent for lack of proper attire,” said Agent Chernyshev, a smile teasing at the corner of his mouth. “Demerits all around.”

Valonen handed Kaija a guard uniform. She held up the jacket against her chest. It would fit well.

“Get changed,” Valonen said.  “And we can go find Vesa.”

**

This day is probably the worst yet, thought Vesa.

Whenever he thought his life had hit its absolute nadir, the universe was just full of clever surprises. His low point hadn’t been, in fact, the day he’d been dragged from a bullet-riddled car and seen his driver’s bloodied corpse, nor when he’d been bound hand and foot and tossed in a hole in the ground. Vesa had assumed seeing the first girl he’d ever loved fleeing wounded into the woods to die was as bad as it could possibly get, but somehow, this was worse. This holiday was worse. It was as if his grim reality hadn’t actually settled upon him until faced with a country that expected him to be happy.

Ever since his rescue, people had been handling him delicately–even his notoriously imperceptive father walked on eggshells, making solicitous inquiries into Vesa’s mental state, speaking carefully as though one wrong word would shatter his delicate son. Vesa found this behavior both mortifying and infuriating, and it was perhaps the main reason he had barely left his room for the past week. When the doctors had examined him for injury, the bearded Czechoslovakian psychologist had explained that he must be watched for signs of trauma.

Even the Minister of State Security had visited Vesa, conferring with the psychologist in the hallway before entering his room.

Vesa had wedged himself more firmly in the window ledge and stared at the ravens communing on the tiled roof of the mews below.

“I thought you should know,” Kuoppala had said. “Your father signed the order this morning. Our agents will leave no stone unturned until they’re found–every last one of the traitors who did this to you. You’re safe now.”

Vesa had politely asked the man to leave.

Now it was Punaiset Day–the day of Red Celebration, the holiday that commemorated the victory of the Kalevian Communist forces during the civil war. Plenty of parallels had been drawn between Vesa’s rescue and the battle that had vanquished the Whites during the day’s endless, self-congratulatory patriotism. Look at Vesa, the youthful future of the country, the pride and joy of Socialism, snatched from the jaws of the western menace! Look at him, listlessly picking at his salad course, bored by the inane questions of the Estonian Trade Minister’s wife! Watch as he drags his feet to the car, his father trying to get him to wave to the newspaper photographer, glowing with youthful enthusiasm or the wretched cold as he files slowly into the Palace of Culture, its massive portico festooned with red and yellow banners he pointedly ignores!

He knew he was supposed to be relieved about his rescue, or at least back to the stability he’d known before it, but it was all he could do to not run back to his room and draw the covers up over his head. He was cracking–he had to be.

Perhaps Dr. Zahradnik was right, and his poor, traumatized brain was now in the habit of inventing delusions for him to enjoy. How else could he explain the fact that his bodyguard, whom his faulty memory swore had been shot to death, still lived and watched him like a hawk?

And how, that morning, for a split second he’d thought he’d seen Kaija standing in the doorway to his room, heard her low voice call his name? He’d run frantically into the hall only to find the ruins of a dessert tray on the floor and the stairwell door slamming shut in the wake of a clumsy housekeeper, scurrying off in shame to fetch cleaning supplies.

As Vesa climbed the stone steps of the Palace of Culture behind his father, on their way for the man to deliver his traditional Punaiset speech, he fell deeper into despair. Yes, Vesa thought, passing through the entrance to the great building’s auditorium. By this point, I’m probably more than halfway crazy.

His father was escorted to his proper place at the podium, and Vesa was mercifully left alone to take his seat. Uniformed guardsmen filed in and lined up against the wall. There was his bodyguard, Chernyshev, tall and graceful in his dress uniform. Vesa saw him go up to another guard and whisper to him, and they glanced in his direction.

The evidence that he was being talked about rankled Vesa. He had enjoyed somehow avoiding Chernyshev’s baleful presence for the entire afternoon, his scarcity a welcome respite in this otherwise deplorable day. But now there he was, ready to resume his job as Vesa’s shadow, far too neat and commanding for a man murdered with a submachine gun.

Vesa glared at them, and hoped that their commanding officer was watching. Get back in line, he thought.

Another guard tugged at Chernyshev’s sleeve. That guy looks kind of like Mika, Vesa thought idly, although he’d thought the man had a different job these days. His eyes slid down the line…and he recoiled in freezing horror.

The next man in uniform wore Kaija’s face.

Vesa clamped a hand to his mouth to hold back the rush of acid and fled.

Proceed to Chapter 12, page 2–>