A/N: Well you know the phrase, better late than never. I'm sorry with how long it took me to upload this. I've been very busy with preparing for the move to Washington DC for my new job. I'm actually posting this from my hotel room up in Lake Tahoe right now, and tomorrow I go on to West Wendover Nevada, near the Utah border. It'll take me about a week to cross the country, so I won't be able to update much on the road. However, enough excuses. We got the chapter, and it features a new character and a surprise plot twist. Hope you guys enjoy it and be sure to review!
March 21st, 1943
Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean
The freighter on which they all rode wasn't designed for so many passengers (six, including their officer), so the agents had to make do with the quarters given to them. Chertov, however, did not wish to impose on any of the girls who were now working under him and so often was found in some makeshift bed. He was wont of the lack of accommodations for sleep, after spending a year and a half at the front and devoid of any comforts. It was not something 340 was going to argue with, since it left each of the agents with one bunk. She was sleeping very comfortably, remembering her life in Stalingrad as a law enforcer before this business started. In those days, she would have been lucky to run into counterrevolutionary activities, but most of her duties involved tracking down petty criminals and keeping vagrants off the street. With the coming of war, everything suddenly changed.
There was a sudden and desperate call to arms, one neither she nor her comrades could ignore. The firestorm swept them all to service for the Motherland, and she bore witness to horrors no girl her age would normally see. She saw friends she had made with the force die before her eyes. She saw men blown apart by a single shell. She saw children crying for their mothers as they bled on the battlefield, alone and helpless. It seemed like a nightmare to even contemplate.
Just as she was in the midst of dreaming about a nice patrolman she met in Stalingrad when she received a nudge on the shoulder.
She groaned, and turned on her side, not wanting to be disturbed. However, a night of peaceful sleep was not to be. She received another nudge to her shoulder and now she lazily opened her eyes to find Agent 271, the closest person she could call a friend on this mission. It was a relationship based out of physical proximity: they met each other on the train. They sat together at meals. They slept on the same side of the compartment. Truthfully, 340 knew nothing about 271 other than her code number and her origin. They were miles apart, much like how the entire team was assembled from all corners of the Soviet Union.
"What is it, 271?" she grumbled. "I was having a good dream too…"
"Chertov says we're approaching American waters. We have to be ready to leave the ship."
"Skol'ko seichas vremeni?" (A/N: What time is it now?)
"Seichas dva chasa." (A/N: It's now two o'clock.)
340 groaned again, remembering how she didn't have to wake up at such outrageous hours before the war. How much times had changed. She shooed 271 away to leave her to change. Rising slowly, she looked to see the entire compartment was empty except for the two of them. Evidently all the other agents had left and changed in preparation for this moment. As she rose from her bunk to change out of her nightgown and into her uniform, 340 was faced again with her present circumstances.
She had been roped into this mission by a lieutenant colonel who all but threatened her, and was now being commanded by an officer who was surely no older than the target himself, and who seemed in as ill command of his senses than the lieutenant colonel was to be going after a mere boy. Still, she was a servant of the state above all else. Part of her job meant carrying out assassinations. Whether it was criminals causing problems, counterrevolutionaries, or otherwise enemies of the state, an order was an order. Even if it meant…if it meant…
…did that mean she was willing to kill a child?
She willed the terribly heart wrenching thought away as she pulled her light blue cape and hood over her shoulders. Those were questions she would face another day. Surely the assassination would not be quick; they rarely were. She would have to assess patterns in behavior, movement, human associations, and ascertaining the location of a target before moving in. Perhaps in the time that would come, she would have a better sense of why this boy had to die, and if the mission was worth it at all. In any case, she had to go along with it for now. It was still too early to discern anything yet.
340 opened the door and turned out into the long corridors, searching for her co-agents. The only sound that reflected her internal struggles came from the humming of the engines deep within the bowels of the ship. Under her feet she felt the deck rock from side to side, occasionally gently pushing her into the wrought-iron walls. However, they were less violent than when they were on the open sea, where the hull cut through tall waves as finely as knife cuts a thread. There she remembered many a night on rough waters when all in the compartment were pitched and thrown around like ragdolls. The seas were calmer now after five days.
She opened a door to the outside decks, and was immediately greeted by the cold night wind, which whipped at her cape. The night was clear with a bright full moon shining above them, illuminating the seas that seemed to be filled with dancing diamonds. There was not a cloud in the inky black sky, as the night was lit up with the myriads of stars that silently shone and twinkled before 340's sky blue eyes. The air was peacefully still, the only sound being the soft lapping of waves at the hull of the ship, which had almost all of its lights out except for the bridge. Even the freighter seemed to be in repose under this blanket of darkness.
On the boat deck, 340 spotted the silhouettes of her co-agents and her officer, waving for her to come to them. How long had they been waiting? And for what purpose? It was clear, she thought as she trotted up the steps to the boat deck, that they had not yet reached a port. As far as she could see, they had not even crossed the Golden Gate. What reason did Chertov have for waking them all up so early? The answer was apparent to her as she reached the deck.
A longboat had been swung out and lowered in preparation for launch. Chertov sat by one of the davits, and had an impatient glare in his eyes as if he was being held up. The rest of the agents had evidently long prepared for this moment; they were fully dressed in their uniforms, and even their matching capes and hoods. All eyes stared at 340 with a note of expectancy.
"It's about damn time you showed up!" Chertov barked. "We are ready to set off. Into the boat, comrades. All of you!"
Without a word, all the agents filed into the longboat, and Chertov took a place near the tiller. His brown eyes cut through the darkness of the night and spoke to the agents, with the two younger ones in particular.
"578. 909. Lower away."
"Yes sir," they returned in unison.
Slowly, in fits and starts, the two agents carefully dropped the boat from the deck and into the dark cold waters below. The falls creaked and groaned quietly like a fussy old woman from their combined weight. An awkward silence possessed all as the sound of ocean waves lapping at the ship's hull grew closer and closer to them. The further down they went, the darker their surroundings became, as the full moon was hidden behind the freighter, shrouding all of them in a veil. Only Chertov's lust-filled eyes stood out in the darkness, glaring off into the distance, towards the coastline off in the distance.
"Comrade Lieutenant?" 340 asked, her words cutting through the stillness.
"What is it, Agent 340?" Chertov asked, obviously agitated.
"Does the rest of the ship know about us?"
"They stopped the ship and gave us the boat. What does that tell you?"
340 instinctively shut her mouth as the boat's keel touched the dark water at last. After detaching the falls from the boat, all the agents shifted out the oars, and began rowing across the waters and away from the ship. Chertov simply manned the tiller, steering in whatever direction he willed them to go, and ordered the agents to keep rowing until they reached land. Not a word was spoken by any of them, with the exception of Chertov encouraging them to keep pulling away at the oars. Secrecy was key to this operation. They managed to get past the Coast Guard undetected just by being on a Lend-Lease ship. The last thing they could do now is arouse suspicion from a bystander.
"Stay in the shadows," Chertov whispered.
With that, he guided them underneath the towering curtains of darkness that veiled them and their longboat.
Agents 271 and 340 looked up, as they were sitting on the same thwart, and gazed at the monolithic skyscraper of blackness that made their sanctuary. They looked to be tall cliffs with broad faces towards the sea. On the top of these cliffs they could spot sparse trees and waves of grass swaying in the spring wind. Such a stunning and dramatic sight, unlike anything they saw back in Russia.
"Ani krasiviye…" 271 muttered as she pulled on her oar. (A/N: They're beautiful)
"Those are the Marin Headlands, comrades," Chertov spoke, "Lovely scenery, that, no?"
"To think the American Russian grew up around these," 909 said aloud, looking up at the towering bluffs.
"We're not here on vacation, 909," 12 reminded her sternly. "We are here on a mission."
"Doesn't mean we can't look," 578 countered as she brought her oar around.
"Nyet razgavora," 340 ordered. "Keep pulling." (A/N: No talk)
A deathly silence again possessed all of them as they continued to row. They skirted the coastline, taking note to stay under the shadow of the bluffs. At times, the situation was harrowing as the waves crashed into the earthen walls with all the force of a hurricane. Chertov maneuvered the longboat away from the jagged rocks along the edge, fearing they would run aground. It soon became apparent to all five agents that the intention was not to go into the harbor, as they saw the Golden Gate Bridge, lit up against the spring night sky, fade away behind Chertov. 909 asked their commanding officer quietly as she pulled on her oar,
"Sir, where exactly are you taking us?"
"A beach. Any place with sand where we can disembark."
They rowed on, past the headlands that stood like tall sentinels guarding entrance of a fortress. The tall bluffs gave way to mounds of dirt, grass, and sand, indicating they were getting close to a beach. A rogue wave crashed against the hull of the longboat and almost capsized it. While the younger, more inexperienced agents panicked, Chertov took it as a cue. He pulled hard on the tiller, and forced the boat to move to starboard…into the path of successive waves.
"Sir, what are you—?!" 340 protested
"There's the shore! Look over there!" 12 interrupted, pointing off into the distance.
Sure enough, there were signs of the approaching beach, guarded on either side with high sand dunes. The wind picked up and carried the sand into the air, creating a small whirlwind on the beach, dancing like a maiden at a gala ball. It was so mesmerizing for the agents they almost didn't notice the wave breaking against the bow of the longboat. The force of the wave sent the boat up off the water two feet before coming down again with a splash. 340 and 271 received a spray against their capes, as if the wave was a priest baptizing them with holy water. Despite the resistance from the waves and the outgoing tide, Chertov urged them all onward, onward to the shore and to the place that would commence their operation.
"Pull! Pull, blast you!"
The boat thrashed up and down the further they drew to shore, their only guide being beach's the glimmering white sand. Such a pristine and lovely sight, a beach still and peaceful in the dead of night. A wave swept under the keel of the boat, and brought them to shore, and Chertov immediately ordered the boat vacated.
"Ubiraityes', tovarishi!" (A/N: Get out comrades!)
All the agents vacated the boat and stepped onto the shore, not minding the cold sensation of the water swiftly moving beneath their feet. 340 reached for a rope in front end of the longboat and threw one end of it to her comrades. Chertov, remaining in the longboat, tied the other end of it to the bow, and all five agents pulled with as much might at their disposal. Chertov quickly left the boat as well, and slowly moved past the line of straining girls, keeping an eye out for any passerby that could jeopardize the mission. The immense weight of the longboat made the task of beaching it a difficult one. Nevertheless, the other agents gave words of encouragement and impetus to each other to get the job done.
"Potyanitye!" 12 called out. "Davai! Davai!" (A/N: Pull! Come on! Come on!)
"No Russian!" 340 responded after another strong tug on the rope. "Speak English! Only English!"
Chertov chuckled on 340's command.
"That is good advice, 340," he said in English with an obvious Slavic accent. "But I wonder how well all of you speak it."
340 said nothing, and only continued to pull the longboat in along with her comrades. She felt his gaze as they heaved with all their strength, inching the boat further inland. So many questions bombarded her mind, and she was left with few answers to all of them. Further evidence mounted before her that the benefits of this mission were questionable. Speculation whirled around in her head about the true intentions of their commanding officer. Why was the American Russian commanded to die? What was there to gain from his demise other than martyrdom? What was a young teenaged officer doing leading the mission? Why was the Lieutenant Colonel so obsessed with seeing the boy dead?
"I still understand none of this," 340 muttered under her breath with another pull on the rope.
"With time, 340," 271 whispered encouragingly, "we all will. Chertov said so himself."
"I hope you are right, 271."
With one final heave from the five girls, the longboat came ashore, beached far enough inland that there were no worries about it being swept out by the tides. If, heaven forbid, anything went wrong, this longboat on this plot of beach would be their only means of escape. With the business of beaching finished, all agents gathered the equipment necessary for their mission from the longboat. A radio kit. Weapons. Suitcases with civilian clothes. All things needed for a covert assassination. Chertov then addressed the girls, his expectant, leering grin cutting through the night.
"Comrades, welcome to the United States of America."
March 22nd, 1943
Mill Valley, California
Two militiamen strolled down the busy main street, observing all manner of vignettes and scenes playing out on the small stage of their little valley town. One, an officer, walked on ahead as if intent on leaving the other, an enlisted girl. The girl gave the appearance of a dog dragged by a leash, as her eyes threw a cutting gaze to her superior whenever his back was turned. Their uniforms, like the rest of the local militia, was taken from Imperial Russian influence, evoking a sense of romance of the days before the violent October Revolution that shattered everything in old Mother Russia. Khaki green in color, consisting of a pullover tunic and matching breeches.
The officer was in his mid-thirties, and wore a Sam Browne belt that crossed behind his back, holding on his left hip a sword and sheath, and on his right a .45 caliber pistol tucked inside a holster. His shoulder straps bore the insignia of a second lieutenant, consisting of one gold bar on either side of the strap. Every step the officer took his boots clopped, as if he was a cowboy wearing spurs. Beneath his peaked cap was a full head of slicked light brown hair, dissecting brown eyes and a toothy smile beneath a neatly trimmed full mustache.
The girl was in her mid-teens, and she wore a brown ammunition belt across her waist, and instead of boots wore tight leggings above her brown shoes. Over her back was slung her weapon of choice: an M1 Garand rifle, though she and any other militiaman had little need for such weapons in this town. Her ebony black hair hung to her shoulders, with a thin renegade strand hanging between her strong hazel eyes. On top of her head she wore a peaked cap, bearing the emblem of their newly adopted nation, the one that took them in when their own had betrayed them. The only distinction of rank was a single chevron on her sleeves, denoting the rank of a lowly private first class.
"Ah, Zaitseva, listen!" the lieutenant called jovially. "Do you hear what I hear?"
"No, Lieutenant Denisov," the private first class answered with a degree of irritation. "What do you hear?"
"Look over there, will you?"
The private first class turned to her right and saw a large crowd of small children, the age of the eldest never exceeding 10, walking towards the local grade school. They all seemed quite happy, laughing and skipping with each step as they filed through passersby on the way to school. Denisov laughed.
"Such a lovely sound, is it not, Zaitseva? The merry laughter of innocent children on their way to school!"
Denisov fished out a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, and placed one in his mouth. He searched his person for a match or a lighter while continuing his musing.
"School. A great institution if ever there was one. What would this blasted world be without it?"
As he found a match to light the end of his cigarette, the private first class responded to the lightweight philosophical banter. It was something common between the two since she had joined the militia little over a year prior.
"Yet, for everything we learn in class, we keep making the same mistakes over and over."
"Right you are, Zaitseva," Denisov said, nodding ruefully. "Such a sad truth, that."
They turned a corner as the hazel eyes of the private first class gazed around town, keeping a lookout for any potential wrongdoer or suspicious activity. Despite the prospect of an attack by the Axis forces on the home front to be incredibly low, the militia was given the task of keeping the peace and maintaining local security. This patrol was something humdrum for her by now. This valley town, this little hamlet where she and her parents had lived for as far back as she could remember, was quiet, sometimes too quiet for her liking. If it was not a patrol, it was cleaning duty. If it was not cleaning duty, it was getting coffee for the officers. If it hadn't been for her parents pushing her, then she…
"Tell me, Private," Denisov interrupted her musing.
"Private first class, sir," she corrected.
"Whatever. Would you enlighten me as to why you are not in school, like the other children?"
"I get the education I need from home, sir. Besides which, I enjoy serving my country like this."
Denisov raised an eyebrow at her, suspecting a lack of sincerity.
"Is that how you really feel?"
"What do you want me to say?"
"Simply the truth, Private First Class Zaitseva. Why are you really in the militia?"
"I would think you know, sir, considering your relationship with my father."
Denisov laughed knowingly, noting a kernel of truth in the girl's statement.
"Ah, yes. You father, God bless him, saw an opportunity for you here, and took it upon me to give you a recommendation for a position with us."
"And yet I am still stuck on cleaning duty every Wednesday…" she grumbled.
The lieutenant apparently caught her mutterings and swirled around to face her with flaming brown eyes, like earth set afire.
"Private First Class Katarina Zaitseva, you forget yourself!"
He stomped over to her, and what was once a rod's distance between them became a hair's breadth.
"You may be the only daughter of a former noble family, but I am still your commanding officer. Pray you don't forget that."
"And face a discharge? Heaven forbid."
Denisov smiled in approval, and returned to their usual rounds. Katarina, however, kept throwing daggers at the back of his head as he continued his musings. On and on he went, waxing on about things as varied as the number of fish in the sea. She bore it tacitly, long accustomed to his rants on politics, war, nature, life, even things as mundane as the town itself. And its inhabitants.
"You hear the latest about that Peter Daniels?" Denisov asked as they entered a general store.
"Come, now, Zaitseva, surely you've heard the rumor."
"I don't keep up with local gossip, Lieutenant."
Denisov took one last puff on his cigarette before throwing it into a nearby ashtray and facing her.
"Our little war hero managed to find himself a girlfriend!" he said with a smile, his teeth stained by the tobacco. "And rumor has it…"
He ushered her closer, as if to swear secrecy.
"…it's that girl he brought home from Stalingrad."
Truthfully, Katarina cared little about the local town hero. In truth, she was rather envious of him, despite never meeting the boy. He had managed to escape the monotony and tedium of this town and venture outside to see actual combat, a hope she dreamed of fulfilling one day. Sadly, in the many months since America's entry into the war and throughout the many ups and downs of fortunes overseas, her regiment, this militia, was never given any orders to move. It had been more than a year since she first signed up to this establishment when she was a chit of a girl at 15, and she had nothing to show for her enlistment. If there was a way, any at all, out of this life and into the rigors of actual combat, she'd take it without a moment's hesitation.
Perhaps, Katarina thought to herself as she and her lieutenant moseyed out of the general store and back onto the cobblestone street, she could find a way out of the militia, or a transfer to a unit that would be deployed overseas. The question is which unit? To which theatre of war? And just how long would it take before the war was over?
"I was a mere corporal when Daniels came into the world," Denisov started again. "His mother and him were the prettiest sight you could ever hope to see! Such a shame she died when he was so young."
"You knew them, sir?" Katarina asked with marked interest as she slung her rifle over her shoulder.
"Not particularly well," Denisov tempered. "I knew the mother a little, and the father always had crops to sell in the market. It was after the mother died when his family came here. Had to sell the farm, poor soul."
A few hours passed as they continued patrol through the town. She carried on in her role as Denisov's sounding board; true, his ramblings proved grating, but at the same time he was her benefactor. The sole reason she even had this job. God help her if she committed some faux pas and was forced to go back to her parents on a matter of discharge. Her father especially wouldn't forgive her for it. It was about mid-afternoon when after much traversing about in search of a cafe to have lunch when Denisov led her to a tavern near the square.
"How are your parents these days, Zaitseva?"
"As well as they can be," she returned. "Father is busy with bills, and Mother doesn't come home at night from Marinship often enough."
"We're at war. That's just indicative of the times, private."
"Private first class, sir."
Denisov held a hand up, and his brown eyes suddenly narrowed to a razor sharp focus on something across the street. He appeared to be staring someone down, calling upon the force of his mere gaze to subdue a ne'er-do-well. Then he motioned for Katarina to look across the street herself. Katarina's hazel eyes did so, and she found nothing out of the ordinary. Small mom-and-pop stores lining the sidewalk. A birch tree providing shade for a few weary pedestrians. A woman leaving a florist with a bouquet of white roses.
"What do you see, Lieutenant?"
"Look there. By the bookstore."
She turned her gaze to said locale, and saw what appeared to be a young boy, leaning on the clapboard wall of the store, and looked to be asleep. His face was obscured by his stance, and didn't give one hint of maliciousness. But Denisov eyed him with the piercing, cutting gaze one looks upon a nefarious troublemaker.
"A vagrant," he hissed to her.
Katarina looked at him as if he was crazy.
"A vagrant. Get rid of him."
"Lieutenant," she protested, "he's just sitting there. He's not doing anything wrong."
"There's no loitering in this part of town, private first class!" Denisov snapped. "Now do as you're told!"
"Where should I take him?"
"There's a homeless shelter on Fremont Boulevard. Take him there."
Denisov made his way into the tavern with a ringing of the bell on top of the door. Katarina turned to him in shock, aghast that her superior would leave her there to do the work herself.
"Where are you going, sir?"
Denisov looked to her with plain brown eyes, as if such a question didn't need an answer.
"To get a drink."
With that, the door shut in front of Katarina's face, and she was confronted, like so many times before, with the knowledge that this was grunt work she had to do herself. She turned on her heel with a huff and crossed the road, waiting until Denisov was surely out of earshot to mutter her disgust.
"Svoloch." (A/N: Bastard)
Upon reaching the other side of the road, she got a closer look at the vagrant that aggravated Denisov. What struck her first is how young he was, easily no more than 17. The boy's black hair was disheveled and tangled, oily from what must easily be weeks, even months without a proper bathing. He wore knitted fingerless gloves, which betrayed his grubby hands, almost black from dirt and grime. Over his shoulders was a grey coat, tattered at the hem and the collar torn on the left as if cut by a knife. Underneath the coat was a yellow scarf, a bleached white shirt, and black corduroys tucked into matching boots.
What on earth was a boy her age doing on the street?
Katarina swung her Garand off her shoulder and gently nudged the young tramp with the muzzle to get his attention.
She heard a small, low groan from him.
"Sir, I hate to do this to you, but you can't stay here."
The boy looked up at her, and she was met with melancholy sky blue eyes. They spoke volumes to her without one syllable uttered from his lips. Words of hardship, wandering, and days upon weeks of loneliness. Even without knowing where he came from or even his full name, she already felt an inkling of pity for him. Still, as much as she hated doing this, she had a job to do. Orders were orders.
"There's no loitering here, sir. You have to leave."
The boy blinked, and there was a moment of silence between the two of them. The only sound that broke the stillness was the distant chirping of blue jays. He reached for a black hat at his side and held it out with both hands to her, begging. His words suddenly betrayed everything about him.
"Lishnyeye dyen'gi, pazhalusta?" (A/N: Spare change, please?)
Katarina's eyes contracted, as those three words in her language suddenly indicated to her this boy was not just a mere beggar. He was more than a wandering drifter. Something was not right here.
"Viy nye amerikanskii?" she asked in her native tongue. (A/N: You're not American?)
The boy's eyes widened at the Katarina's comprehension of their shared language. She was a native Russian, a fellow child of the Motherland. What was a Russian doing all the way out here?
"Nyet," the boy responded slowly. "Viy govoritye pa-russki?" (A/N: Do you speak Russian?)
"Akh," he sighed with relief, "zdarova. I was starting to fear I'd never find someone here that could speak my language." (A/N: Ah, good.)
"There are plenty of immigrants around. What are you doing way out here?"
"I'm looking for someone."
"Looking?" Katarina laughed, slinging her rifle back over her shoulder. "I'd say you've found someone!"
She offered the boy her hand, like a priest offering some damned soul a path to salvation. Surely, she thought, there had to be something more to this boy. He was not just a vagrant. He was a lost soul, scared and confused in a world that was foreign to him. The boy, seeing a chance at a better life, took her by the hand and he stood up. She noticed, however, a slight struggle with his rising.
It was at that moment when a faded blotch of red on his coat stuck out to him, along with what appeared to be a bullet hole.
"Are you hurt?" she asked.
The boy looked at his wound, and sighed.
"I got it last month," he said indifferently. "It's nothing."
"Like hell it isn't!" she countered. "I'll take you to a hospital. There's one down the road."
"Look, girlie," the boy retorted with a note of irritation, "if you want to help me out, just tell me where I can find Peter Daniels."
Now even more questions were raised in Katarina's mind. How does this young Russian transplanted here across the ocean know a boy like Peter? True, he traveled to Stalingrad twice now, but it was impossible for this boy to be familiar with him. Unless…
"I…I know about him," Katarina replied slowly. "Do you know him?"
"Yes, I know him, and I have to find him! It's really important that I find him quickly!"
The boy looked around, his black hair swishing from side to side. Who could be listening in on them as they speak?
"It's a long story," he whispered. "I promise I will explain everything, but I need to find him first!"
"I don't know where he lives, I'm sorry. But I know someone who can help you. Come with me."
She took him by the hand, and led him down the sidewalk, in the direction of downtown.
"Hey, wait! Wait! Where are we going?"
"To the militia office," Katarina said, looking back on her newly found nomadic tagalong. "They can help you find him."
So it was that this little recruit took this little beggar through town, past shops and homes that looked better placed in a dollhouse catalog. Across paved roads and sidewalks of cobblestone. Shuffling by passersby of various origins. Some longtime residents who witnessed the ebbs and flows of their country. Others, wanderers like him, who came to this place in search of hope.
The major, decked out in full dress uniform, sat behind his desk eyeing the young girl and the scruffy vagrant she had brought in. His green eyes gleaned over the boy with a note of suspicion, and a glance of disappointment was cast upon the private first class. The militia was not in the business of taking in hobos off the street, especially when there were institutions for such people. He rubbed his white goatee intently as he leaned back in his chair, peering behind his glasses as Katarina tried to explain everything.
"He's obviously not from this country, Major Volkov!" she pleaded, making her case. "He traveled God only knows how many miles from Russia to find Peter Daniels!"
"Daniels, you say?" Volkov repeated with curiosity. "So you're saying this vagrant knows the boy?"
"He says he does, sir. I've tried to ask him before, but he says it would take too long to explain."
The major turned his eyes back on the young drifter picked up from the street, and immediately spoke in an interrogative tone.
"How do you know Peter Daniels?"
The boy tilted his head and his blue eyes blinked in confusion. He slowly formed some basic words to communicate his ill comprehension.
"Sorry, sir…English…I…no English."
"He can only speak Russian, sir," Katarina reiterated. "There has to be a reason for that!"
The major removed his glasses and produced a white notepad and a pen to write. He again addressed the boy.
"What is your name?" he asked in Russian.
The boy hesitated for a moment, but received a nudge on his injured shoulder from Katarina. He winced slightly from the contact of his wound.
"Prodolzhai," she coaxed. "Tell him your name." (A/N: Go on)
The boy cleared his throat and spoke. His voice was deep for one so young.
"K-Koslov," he said hesitantly. "Vasili Petrovich Koslov."
"When were you born?" Volkov continued.
"19th of May, 1926."
"Where are you from?"
At that, the pen dropped to the floor and all went quiet in the room. This boy was from Stalingrad? That martyred city the American Russian fought in alongside their brethren? It was certainly unexpected, to say the least, and only added more evidence to Katarina's claim that there was something more to this drifter.
"THE Stalingrad?" a sergeant asked.
"What other Stalingrad is there?" Katarina quipped in response. "I told you there was something more to this!"
Volkov leaned back in his chair again in thought. It was not every day when a Russian émigré comes from a battlefield. And it was of even lesser occurrence when that Russian claims to know the local war hero who made his name on that battlefield. Despite all of that, however, this vagrant could easily be an escapee from a local asylum, with all these so-called connections conjured out of his head in delirium. Silent wars seemed to wage in the major's head, when a captain spoke up.
"Sir, permission to speak freely."
"Granted, Captain Grey."
"Why don't we call up Peter Daniels and have him come here?"
"And risk this vagrant harming him?!"
"At least we'll know if he's telling the truth. We can hear it from Daniels himself."
Volkov paused for a moment, and nodded, seeing the soundness in the plan.
"Very well. Zaitseva, take him to the brig out back."
Katarina immediately stepped forward in protest.
"The brig?! But you said that—"
"He needs to wait somewhere until Daniels comes. Until then, you are to keep watch over him."
Katarina wanted to protest her superiors treating this wanderer like a common criminal, but knew in her heart she could not. Even though she was trusting enough of this young boy, her officers clearly were not. How could they trust him, a boy who didn't even speak English, came from their home, and claimed to know a war hero?
With a note of reluctance, Katarina saluted Volkov and motioned for the boy to follow her. Through a backdoor and past the desks and offices of various executives and administrators, she led him through an open field, smelling of a strange mixture of earth and asphalt. The boy's blue eyes studied in wonder at the sights that passed the two of them. A shooting range with bull's-eyes. Crates carrying munitions and rations. Stacks of weapons of various types. To an inexperienced eye, it was the training ground for would-be soldiers before marching into combat. To Katarina, it was just her workplace, filled with tedium and frustration.
On the other side of the grounds was a small stone building in the shape of a cube. The white sign above the door read in black letters CELLS, indicating a place for holding felons. As Katarina reached for the door, she passed by two lounging enlisted men, both in their mid-twenties. Both laughed in apparent derision at the young recruit as she opened the door.
"Leave it to the rookie to bring in extra trash!"
"Hey, kid, looking for someone to read you a bedtime story?"
Katarina said nothing and only closed the wrought iron door behind her, escorting the young ruffian to an empty cell on the right.
"Get in," she coaxed unaffectedly.
"Why put me here?" Vasili asked, taken aback by the cell. "Did I commit a crime by wandering the streets?"
"The officers don't want to hold you in the building while you wait."
Vasili reluctantly entered, and sat down on what could only be called a cot. Katarina slowly closed the door to the cell with a clang, and both were left alone in the empty jailhouse. Many days it was like this, and the militia was frequently strained to find an offender to lock up. Truthfully, she was rather grateful sometimes for the town being so quiet. She didn't have to worry about being caught in a gang fight or in a shootout with gun-toting criminals. There was comfort in a town where everything felt so predictable.
She looked at her watch. Quarter past one o'clock. School was not due to let out until three today, so it would be some time before the revered Peter Daniels came by to see if this ragamuffin was indeed a friend of his. That was not even counting if he had work today. Now that she thought of it, she knew very little about the now legendary boy. Did he go to school like other children? Did he work? Where does he live?
Surely none of those questions would be answered today, she reasoned. A boy as well-respected as he surely wouldn't pay mind to a lowly militia soldier like her. With nothing else to do and the prospect of a long wait ahead of them both, they stared talking again.
"I'm sorry about the accommodations," Katarina lamented, swinging her Garand off her shoulder. "The officers are all stubborn bastards like that."
Vasili shrugged as he stretched out on the cot.
"It's fine," he muttered unaffectedly. "Certainly better than sleeping on the streets."
"How did you get all the way out here, anyway? It couldn't have been easy, coming from a place like Stalingrad."
"Believe me, it wasn't. Had to fight tooth and nail to get out. I'm still amazed I got out at all."
Katarina turned, and leaned on her rifle while staring at her newly found ragamuffin friend with strong, entreating hazel eyes.
"Who are you, really? And how do you know Peter Daniels?"
The boy hesitated for a moment, as if reluctant to share his true relationship with the hero.
"Well you know my name," he sighed, running his fingers through his hair. "Vasili Petrovich Koslov. As for how I know Peter…I'm just an old friend. I'm just a kid who lost his home, and needs his help. I'm just trying to warn him about something coming. Something terrible."
"What forced you out of Stalingrad?"
"I was betrayed by someone I knew. Someone who hated me…and Peter."
Katarina raised an eyebrow at that. How could someone from Stalingrad hate the boy that came to their aid when it seemed America was not committed to the alliance? The thought of any Stalingrad native hating the American Russian seemed impossible to even fathom.
"That kid is a hero! Who could possibly hate him?"
"The same thought occurred to me," Vasili acknowledged, chuckling, "many times."
"So why does someone hate him, then? What reason could that person have?"
"I wish I knew. Sadly, all I do know is there is someone who hates him, perhaps far more than we all love him."
Vasili turned on his side and scratched his back, before coughing. It was a hacking cough, the kind one gets when one has a debilitating flu and rendered utterly immobile from exhaustion. Katarina looked at him in concern. At that moment, she noticed how gaunt he was, as if he had not eaten anything in weeks, perhaps months. How long had this boy gone without nourishment while on the run from the Motherland, and wandering the streets searching for the hero?
"Are you alright? Would you like something to eat or drink?"
"I wouldn't mind some water, now that you mention it."
Katarina nodded, and reached for her canteen. She stuck it through the bars on the door and reached out to Vasili.
"Here, take it. There's still water inside."
Vasili immediately took the canteen and uncorked it. Without a second thought, he took a swig from it and she heard him gulp down three swallows' worth of water. As he wiped his mouth, she smiled, showing her brightly gleaming teeth through the dark prison.
"How long has it been since you had something to eat?"
"A while," he said matter-of-factly. "The last time I ate, I was still in the Soviet Union. I wandered for weeks trying to get here. I've been forced to settle for leftovers. Some people here are just stingy."
"I'm sorry. People are just cruel. I know it all too well."
"You're certainly kinder than most," Vasili replied with sincerity in his sky blue eyes. "At least you didn't throw pennies at me."
Both laughed, and Katarina removed her peaked cap, revealing to Vasili her shoulder-length ebony black locks. It was uncontrolled and uncut, flowing like a cascade over her shoulders, with a renegade thatch hanging between her eyes. The free flowing mane accentuated her striking hazel eyes, betraying a young woman both kind in soul, and strong in spirit. She knew there was something more to this dirty, scraggly-haired, slightly malodorous boy who hailed from that nation that betrayed her family.
"How long were you living on the streets?" she asked with concern in her eyes.
"About three weeks. I arrived in San Francisco on the first of the month. Honestly, I'm not even sure how I managed to get this far. I was all alone, with no idea of where to go or who to turn to. All I could do was just search for Peter."
Katarina smiled. How could her officer possibly suspect this boy of being a shady vagrant, when in truth he was just a lost soul, on the end of his rope?
"He'll help you. I'm sure of it."
They talked on through the hour, discussing small inconsequential things and exchanging pleasantries as if they were old friends. In truth, they were friends already, this young inexperienced soldier and this vagabond without a home, searching for a friend. The soldier could not comprehend what great escapades were to follow, but at the time it mattered little. She picked up a person in need off the street, and guided him to someone who could turn his fortunes around. That, in her mind, was enough. The frustrating days of cleaning duty, the hours of Denisov's ramblings that drove her mad on patrol, the tedium of fetching coffee for cigar-smoking officers was but a drop in the bucket of her emotions. None of those things could overshadow the simple show of kindness from one human being to another.
Peter was still at a loss about the call William received. The militia officer said there was a street urchin who knew him personally, and could only speak Russian. In all honesty, he could not think of a single person who would fit a description like that. He reasoned out loud to Tanya that it might be some delusional beggar whose better place was in the loony bin. Tanya, however, was more apprehensive, and all manner of speculations ran through her head.
"Peter," she asked as they turned a corner in the middle of downtown, "do you think it could be someone from Stalingrad?"
"Maybe Vasili made it here."
Peter looked to her with unconvinced green eyes.
"What makes you think that?"
"I don't know," she admitted with vulnerability in her voice. "I just have a feeling it might be him. Maybe he got out of Stalingrad somehow. Do you think Mikhail made it too?"
She looked to him with a hopeful, aspiring glimmer in her snowy grey eyes. Peter didn't want to disappoint her, but at the same time, he was skeptical. How could either of them have managed to get out? He and Tanya barely escaped with their lives out of Russia; he was still lost in amazement that they even survived at all. As much as he wanted to hold out hope, both Peter and Tanya agreed they wouldn't think about Stalingrad anymore; that part of their lives was behind them, and he had to move on. Not just for his own sake, but for Tanya's as well.
"Honestly Tanya, I'd really like it if that were the case. But it's been a full month since we left Russia, and we haven't heard anything from either Mikhail or Vasili since we came home."
"Peter, you're not saying that—!" Tanya protested, her heart clearly breaking.
Peter faced her, and gently kissed her on the lips, trying to stem any grief he may have caused from that comment.
"Tanyusha, I miss them too. There isn't a day that goes by when I don't think about where they could be now, or if they're alive. But we can't go through our lives mulling over the past. That's not we promised. And I know that's not what Vasili would want you to do."
Tanya wanted to protest, but she remembered the promise she made to her brother that night on the station platform in their beleaguered city. Vasili told her to not take one look back upon leaving, and to forge a new existence for herself. No, she would not look back to her past. Stalingrad was not a part of her life anymore. But neither would she forget her dear brothers.
"I just…I just hope that he survived," she said, sinking into his comforting embrace. "I've lost so much in this war. I can't bear the thought of losing my siblings too."
They broke apart, and continued on. In a deep, dark crevice of Peter's mind, he secretly wished it might be Vasili or Mikhail. Perhaps he might learn what has become of that martyred city, what became of Chertov, and learn if it was even possible to go back. In truth, he already knew the answer. From what he saw and experienced in Stalingrad, it would be a lifetime before that city would be fit to return to again. And even if Tanya did want to go back…he didn't want her to. Not after admitting his true feelings. Not after opening their hearts to each other.
They approached the militia office, recognizing it only by the armed sentry standing outside the door. It was a squat and indistinguishable building, constructed of grey concrete with only a wooden door adorning the front. The office had a claustrophobic quality about it, as if warding away potential visitors, malicious or not. Not surprising, considering how the militia was comprised mostly of White Russians, who mostly kept to themselves in town.
Both approached the entrance, and found the sentry was surprisingly no younger than they were. He had a free and spritely countenance to him, completely opposed to the job that came with his Great War-era uniform. He hid a head of wild amber hair beneath his visor cap, and brown eyes looked to them both with anticipation, as if receiving the Tsar himself.
"Unless the stories are all lies," the soldier said with an expectant grin, "you are the boy everyone has been longing to meet. Peter Daniels, the American Russian!"
Peter tilted his head, his ash blonde hair gently swinging to one side.
"That is my name, yes. Though I don't like that title."
"Oh, but you're too modest, Mr. Hero!" the soldier laughed. "You've got the whole town wrapped around your finger! Embrace it!"
Peter rubbed his nose tiredly. This kind of praise and fanfare was something he heard all too often, and it was something he'd rather not be bombarded with each and every day. He preferred to readjust to civilian life in silence, and not be sought out for tales of glory and victory from the battlefield.
"I'm just here because I got a call from the militia office. You picked someone up off the street who said he knows me?"
"Ah, yes. The vagrant. A bit too much hoopla over this bum, if you ask me. But now that you're here, we'll soon see if he's batty or not. One of our soldiers is keeping watch over him in the brig out back. If you'll kindly follow me."
The guard led them around a back alley and into the training grounds behind the militia office. None said a word as they approached the small jailhouse, where a black-haired hazel-eyed female soldier was waiting for them.
"Here's Mr. Hero, Zaitseva!" the guard jubilantly called. "Hope that vagrant has behaved himself."
"We were having a nice conversation, actually," the female soldier retorted.
She opened the wrought iron door, and indicated the cell to Peter and Tanya holding the vagrant in question. As they both approached the cell, the female soldier called out.
"Here they are, Vasili."
Tanya's eyes widened and Peter stifled a gasp at that name. No, it couldn't be! It was impossible!
The inmate slowly rose, and revealed his face. He was young, no older than 17, with tousled black hair and strong sky blue eyes that looked to both of them with a plea for help. His clothes were tattered and dirty, and it was evident he had not eaten anything in at least a month. The boy didn't need to introduce himself, as his identity was already apparent to all in that jailhouse. After so many weeks of silence and living with the fear of him being dead, the proof stood in front of them. Vasili Petrovich Koslov, the caring middle brother, the boy who helped both Peter and Tanya escape certain death in that city of their youths, was alive. By some miracle, he was alive.
The door to the cell was opened, and Vasili was immediately greeted by the excited, ecstatic embrace of Tanya, her tears of joy at having her brother alive and well, and Peter's aghast and astonished hesitations and stumbling. Just as a few months prior, they were together again. Together and happy.
Undoubtedly, the allegations of this street urchin were proven true, and he was indeed a close friend of the renowned hero. In truth, Katarina had little doubt that Vasili was telling her the truth; in her talks with him, he hardly seemed shady as much as her comrades and officers would characterize him as a lowly vagabond, seeking only to advance himself by way of the American Russian. Rather, he was a lost soul, robbed of a future and betrayed by his own country. His home was destroyed and his family shattered. With Tanya's own brother and Peter's best friend on the end of his rope, what else could they do but take him home with them?
Not minding the consequences and the scolding he was sure to get from William, Peter lent Vasili a shoulder to lean on as the three of them staggered out of the cell and towards the door leading out and back home. But before they left, Vasili had one last matter to attend to. He turned to the female soldier that had picked him off the street, saving him from a sad and hopeless life, and expressed his gratitude.
"By the way, I never got your name," Vasili said in Russian.
Katarina smiled, and promptly saluted the trio, as if they were her superiors.
"Private First Class Katarina Igorevna Zaitseva!" she said with a note of pride in her voice. "303rd Infantry Regiment of the California State Militia."
Vasili nodded, committing the name to memory. Katarina. Such a beautiful, gentle name. Fitting for his personal rescuer.
"You saved my life, Katarina Igorevna. I won't forget it. Spasibo."
"Think nothing of it, Vasili Petrovich," Katarina said with a sincere smile. "I'm just doing my job. I would not have met you otherwise."
And so they left, and Katarina looked on with fondness on the three figures. She reasoned it would not be the last she would see of Vasili. Or of the American Russian, for that matter.