Guardians

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Chapter 24

Nick’s plane landed at Shermetyevo the next morning. During the minibus ride into the capital his eye fell on three giant Czech hedgehogs by the road, a monument to the battle fought here in the “Great Patriotic War.”

The fortifications that stopped the Germans proved useless in a Cold War fought with dollars against rubles. Market forces swept into the hole the Soviet leadership itself punched in the bubble of their centrally planned economy and instead of rejuvenating the system with a breath of fresh air, they burst it almost overnight.

The broken remnants of that bubble were all around them. Through the minibus’s windows he saw little but white-washed concrete, but beyond it he kept picturing crumbling roads and buildings; idle, rusting plants; thickening poison in the air and the earth and the water; potatoes and wheat rotting in the fields because of the inefficiency of the harvest.

When the minibus reached its stop Nick returned his attention to the here and now so that he could make his way to his apartment building. As expected, the company’s point man in the city was on hand to greet him, accompanied by a crony, a six and a half foot tall man with a suspicious (gun) bulge in his leather jacket who just nodded by way of greeting, and didn’t say anything during their meeting.

Nalchum and his buddy showed him to Emma and Jan’s apartments. Emma was just rising now, while Jan had been sitting up for a while. Nick told them to come to his rooms where they made plans for breakfast. After a brief discussion they got into Emma’s car (a Lada Sputnik hatchback, parked in the lot behind their building) and drove a few kilometers south along Leningradksy, past the point at which it turned into Tverskaya, to get to Pushkin Square, where they saw the world’s largest McDonald’s.

The place was a far cry from Maxim’s just a few days earlier, but Nick would have been as happy with a T-bone in a decent steakhouse as the delicately prepared dishes served there. Besides, the golden arches had the virtue of predictability. There might be a few more or less items on the menu, but anywhere in the world a McDonald’s was a McDonald’s, and he preferred it to taking his chances in a Russian eatery. And frankly, Nick was curious to see the place for himself after seeing it in the news so much.

They parked the car on the street and walked the rest of the way. Approaching it Nick expected to see that line of people winding out into the street he’d seen on TV, but they were gone. Maybe the novelty had worn off, and maybe they’d been driven away by the spike in prices.

They did see a line inside, however, but it was surprisingly fast-moving. There were two people to a register, and they processed their orders faster than at any golden arches he’d ever visited in the West.

Nick had the big deluxe breakfast, which tasted the same as it always had, and continued studying his surroundings as he ate it. There were more than a few foreigners like themselves here, but most were locals able to afford the fare – this fast food place where homeless beggars sometimes got lunch back home a place of privilege here, Nick thought, as he watched a uniformed employee mop the floor.

They made conversation as they ate. Small talk, mainly. Listening to it Nick thought they all knew how to keep up an appearance of friendliness and even familiarity; he’d guessed as much on first meeting them and seen it confirmed since, even in the little time they’d spent together back in the States. But maybe they all guessed there wasn’t much point to fronting with each other.

Everyone knew how things really stood. They’d never even met before last week. Before, they’d been in different organizations, not enemies certainly, but alliance was rarely a simple thing in reality, and by training, temperament and habit the three of them were inclined to be careful with information.

Working for the same employer now didn’t change any of that. Maybe it hadn’t been such a good idea to have them all in the same building, aware of each other, instead of running three neatly compartmentalized operations, especially since if one of them slipped up – talked to the wrong person, got seen by the wrong person – it could spell trouble for the rest. Still, the decision had been made, and acted upon, and they had to make the best of it now, hoping that the assets they collectively brought to the table outweighed the liabilities.

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