The Price of Dreams

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Chapter Four

‘WE SHOULD run,’ said Tamara. ‘He won’t be able to get us if we can make it back to the promenade.’

‘It’s too late for that,’ said Ruslan. ‘We have to stand up to him. Murad, me and you just concentrate on Mingrelsky. Josep, you hold the others off. If we can get Mingrelsky, his friends won’t give us any trouble.’

‘Yes, okay,’ said Murad.

‘I’m up for it,’ said Josep.

‘Let’s just run,’ said Tamara.

‘You run,’ said Ruslan. ‘We have to do this.’

They all got to their feet as Mingrelsky and his minions approached.

‘Well well well,’ said Mingrelsky. ‘If it isn’t our multi-ethnic friends.’

‘Hello there,’ said Ruslan. ‘Brought your important papa with you?’

Mingrelsky pointed his finger right into Ruslan’s face. ‘Look here you Rebel-loving piece of shit, this is my beach, so you take your multi-ethnic scum and go and piss your pants somewhere else.’

‘What? Is your papa going to make us?’

‘No. I am.’

‘Oh yes?’

Mingrelsky grabbed Ruslan’s collar and went to head butt him, but Ruslan managed to turn his face away and avoid the worst of it. Murad stepped forward and thumped Mingrelsky, while Josep jumped behind him and yelled at his cronies, ‘Come on you jokers. Think you’re hard?’

Mingrelsky pushed Murad away. Then he aimed a punch at Ruslan’s stomach and launched a right hook that caught him above his ear and sent him sprawling onto the sand.

Ruslan jumped straight back up. Josep was keeping Mingrelsky’s friends at bay, but Mingrelsky had turned on Murad and brought him down with a flurry of punches.

Ruslan attacked from behind, whacking Mingrelsky in the ear. Mingrelsky elbowed Ruslan in the ribs and then turned and seized hold of him with both hands. He tried to head butt him again and Ruslan fell backward.

Mingrelsky ended up on top of him and hit him twice on the side of his face.

Ruslan shielded himself with his arms and Mingrelsky tried to punch him again and again. Then he stopped.

Tamara was on top of him, scratching and pulling his hair.

It took Mingrelsky a moment to react, but then he grabbed Tamara by the hair and hit her in the face. She screamed and he yanked her off.

Ruslan lashed out. His punch hit Mingrelsky in the throat.

Mingrelsky thumped him in the temple.

Murad leapt at Mingrelsky, pushing him off Ruslan and down onto the sand.

Ruslan lay stunned for several seconds. Josep’s ferocious bellowing seemed very distant, and he had no idea where Mingrelsky had gone.

Then he saw Tamara’s face, her mouth all bloodied. ‘Are you okay, Ruslan?’

The sight of her brought him back to reality, and with her help, he got back to his feet.

Josep was still holding Mingrelsky’s friends off, roaring at them and lashing out with his fists, a lion surrounded by hyenas. But now Mingrelsky was straddled across Murad, aiming punches at his face. And Fatima was on her hands and knees on the sand next to them.

Ruslan jumped on Mingrelsky. He got his left arm around his throat and pulled it tight with his right. Mingrelsky reached up and punched Ruslan twice in the mouth, but Ruslan refused to let go.

Murad grabbed hold of Mingrelsky’s arms and Tamara kicked him in the flank. Mingrelsky struggled to free himself and tried to butt Ruslan’s face with the back of his head.

One blow caught Ruslan right on his tooth. The pain was excruciating, but there was no way he was going to let go.

He tightened his arm across Mingrelsky’s throat. Then he pulled him off Murad, and the two of them fell onto the sand, Ruslan’s arm still throttling him.

Mingrelsky fought back with his elbows and feet, but still Ruslan clung on. Then he saw Murad get up and kick Mingrelsky in the stomach.

Mingrelsky moaned and doubled up, and Ruslan pulled his arm tighter.

Tamara and Fatima joined in, kicking at his legs and stamping on them.

Murad went to kick him in the face, but Mingrelsky managed to bring his arms up to protect himself. Murad stamped on his arms, once, twice.

Suddenly Ruslan realised his friends were out of control.

‘Stop it!’ he yelled at them. ‘Stop it.’ Then he tightened his arm around Mingrelsky’s throat once more: ‘Give in, you fucking cockroach.’

Mingrelsky tried to say something, and Ruslan loosened his arm enough to let him speak.

‘I give in,’ Mingrelsky gargled. ‘I give in.’

Ruslan let go of his neck and pushed his face into the sand.

He stood up and looked at Josep, who was standing with his fists up, still shouting at Mingrelsky’s friends: ‘Come on, you fucking half dicks. Who’s next?’

Two of them had bloody noses, one had retired hurt, and it was clear none had the stomach for another attempt to get past Josep.

‘Right, you lot,’ Ruslan yelled at them. ‘It’s over. Take a look at fucking Mingrelsky.’

They all lowered their guard at the sight of their leader defeated.

‘Take him back to his important papa,’ said Ruslan. ‘And then the whole lot of you go and find yourselves some goats to fuck.’

Ruslan and his friends stood back, and three of Mingrelsky’s cronies stepped forward to help him. He shook them off and got to his feet of his own accord. Then, without once looking at anyone, he turned and hobbled away, his head bowed, his arms hugging his torso.

His minions and their girlfriends followed him, to a barrage of taunts from Ruslan and the others.

‘What a bunch of half dicks.’

‘Fucking losers.’

‘Where’s your important papa now, Mingrelsky?’

Murad picked up the champagne and they passed it round and toasted their second victory, all full of excited chatter.

‘Did you see it when Murad kicked him in the stomach?’

‘I thought he was going to kill you, Ruslan.’

‘That Tamara. Christ, what a vixen.’

‘Fatima, I never knew you were a fighter.’

‘Did you see Josep? He was really scary.’

Ruslan raised the bottle to Josep: ‘The hero of the hour. It took four of us to get Mingrelsky, but Josep held five of the fuckers off singlehanded.’

‘Show us how you did it Josep.’

Josep raised his fists and shook them: ‘Grrrr!’

They all fell about laughing.

But in the morning, they woke up sore and sober. Ruslan got up early with a splitting headache, staggered into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. He had cuts and bruises on his chin and his lips, and the whole of his left cheek was swollen and painful. He had another cut above his right ear and bruises on his ribs, his forearms and his shins.

‘Shit.’

No running for him this morning.

He went back to the bedroom. Josep was awake. His worst injuries were on his knuckles.

‘God’s fucking nails,’ he said when he saw Ruslan. ‘Are you okay?’

‘Probably feeling better than Mingrelsky.’

‘I wish I’d had the chance to clobber him. Just once would have been good.’

They went to Murad’s room, where they found him battered and bruised, but not as badly as Ruslan. The three of them performed their ablutions together to make sure nobody was caught alone in the bathroom by Mingrelsky or his cronies. Then Ruslan put on his work clothes and went outside to find Tamara.

She was standing anxiously in her usual spot, waiting for him to come running back from the jetty.

‘Hi.’

She turned round, and Ruslan saw there was bruising around her mouth.

’Christ, are you okay?

‘I’m fine,’ she said. ‘I was worried about you.’

‘I’m okay.’

‘You don’t look it.’

‘Well actually I do feel pretty crap.’

They exchanged a kiss and an embrace.

‘Not running this morning?’

Ruslan smiled and then grimaced with the pain of it. ‘No way.’

‘Are the others okay?’

‘Yes, Murad’s about like me.’

‘Do you think Mingrelsky’s okay?’

‘He’ll be pretty sore.’

‘I didn’t sleep a wink last night. I was expecting the police to come for us at any minute.’

‘Don’t worry, Tamara, he’s not dead.’

‘I hope not. I’m so ashamed of last night.’

‘We didn’t have any choice. It was him or us.’

‘I know that. I’m not ashamed because we fought back. I’m ashamed because I enjoyed it. When you had him on the ground and we were all kicking him, I loved it. I never thought I could do that to another human being, but I loved it.’

‘What do you expect? Your blood was up.’

‘We might have killed him if you hadn’t stopped us.’

‘No you wouldn’t.’

‘I hope not, Ruslan, but I don’t know.’

‘It’s a good job you and Fatima helped us. Me and Murad were no match for Mingrelsky. He would have hammered us if it wasn’t for you two.’

‘I surprised myself a bit there, but I hope to God I never have to do anything like that again.’

‘Me too.’

At the start of the breakfast shift, the kitchen staff gave Ruslan and Murad a round of applause when they heard what had happened. They were outraged when they saw what Mingrelsky had done to Tamara. Most of them were West Ksords for whom there could be no greater shame than an attack on a woman.

Mingrelsky was nowhere to be seen, but his two cronies, one of whom had a shiner of a black eye, came and sat sheepishly at their second-choice table. Ruslan went over to them and gave them pencils and notepads.

‘Why don’t you go and serve those tables over there? You do know what to do, don’t you?’

‘Yes.’

‘Don’t forget to write the table number, and there’s no strawberry romanov, and no buckwheat blinis today either.’

They got up and, and for the first time ever, Ruslan saw them do the job they had been paid to do for the last five weeks. In fact they ended up doing far more than Ruslan, whose headache was joined by a growing nausea as the shift progressed.

The guests stared at their waiters in astonishment. Ruslan was reluctant to answer their questions, but Tamara and Fatima gave the Russian journalists Sergei and Natasha a full account of what had happened.

‘Sounds like that Mingrelsky finally got what he deserved,’ Natasha said.

News of the fight spread rapidly, and staff from reception and the spa pools came up to Ruslan and the others: ‘Is it true you beat Aleksander Mingrelsky’s son up? Well done.’

The sanatorium manager, unfortunately, took a very different view of the matter. As soon as the last guests had left, he and the restaurant manager assembled all the waiters. The managers sat down at one of the tables, leaving the waiters standing.

‘Do you mind telling me what’s happened?’

‘Last night Mingrelsky and these two plus three other lads attacked us,’ said Ruslan. ‘And we defended ourselves.’

The manager turned on the other two: ‘Is that true?’

They looked down and shuffled their feet.

‘Well?’

‘They started it.’

‘No we didn’t,’ chorused Ruslan and his friends.

‘Be quiet,’ said the manager. ‘So how did they start it, exactly?’

‘They took our table.’

‘What table?’

‘That one. We always sit there during the shifts, but last night at dinner, they wouldn’t let us. So we just went to kick them off the beach to teach them a lesson.’

The manager turned to Ruslan. ‘Why didn’t you let them sit at that table?’

‘They’re not supposed to sit anywhere. They’re supposed to be working. But they never do any work. They just sit there and make snide comments at us.’

The manager turned to the others. ‘Is this true?’

They mumbled and fidgeted, and eventually one of them managed to say, ‘We do work.’

‘No you don’t,’ chorused Ruslan and his friends.

‘Be quiet,’ said the manager.

‘Ask anyone in the kitchen,’ said Ruslan. ‘Or ask any of the guests.’

‘Have I asked you a question?’

‘No.’

‘Then don’t speak. Look at the state of you all. You’re a disgrace. God only knows what the guests must think. I’ve got a good mind to sack the whole lot of you. Or maybe I’ll call the police and get them to sort it out.’

They all looked down, avoiding eye contact. Ruslan began to realise that they might be in big trouble. No sanatorium manager could afford to offend Mingrelsky’s father.

‘I’m going to confine you all to your rooms. You’re to stay there until I decide what to do with you. And if there’s any more fighting, I’ll call the police at once, do you understand?’

Being confined to his room suited Ruslan fine, as his headache hadn’t gone away, and the slightest effort brought back his nausea. He just wanted to lie down and sleep, but he and Josep had little time to themselves. The kitchen staff brought them a breakfast that Ruslan could only pick at, and people from all over the sanatorium kept popping in to offer support and pass on the latest rumours.

Mingrelsky, it was said, could hardly walk, he was so badly hurt. He had been taken to hospital for x-rays. One rumour had it that no bones were broken, another that he had a fractured wrist. A junior receptionist came with news that a senior police officer and the head of the local Party were in with the sanatorium manager.

‘Now we’re up to our eyeballs in shit,’ Ruslan said to Josep. ‘They’re bound to let Mingrelsky’s father know what’s happened, and you know what his first question will be?’

‘What?’

‘“Have you arrested them yet?”’

He was proved right within less than twenty minutes. There was a loud knock at the door, and Josep opened it to find two grey-uniformed policemen outside.

‘Ruslan Shanidza?’

‘No, I’m Josep Machutadza.’

‘So where’s Shanidza?’

Ruslan stepped forward: ‘That’s me.’

‘We’d like you two to accompany us to the police station.’

‘Are we under arrest?’

‘Not if you agree to come voluntarily.’

After a detour to pick Murad up from his room, they went downstairs and out to the car park, where they clambered into a windowless UAZ-452 minibus. Nobody spoke.

A few minutes later, Tamara, Lana, Fatima and two more policemen joined them. Josep made way for Tamara, who sat next to Ruslan.

‘You okay?’

‘I suppose so.’

‘Just stick to the truth. We’ve done nothing wrong.’

Tamara nodded but she didn’t look convinced.

Ruslan squeezed her hand and she managed to force a smile.

Once at the police station, the six friends were separated. A policeman led Ruslan up the stairs and into a small interview room, where he sat him in front of a desk and left him alone for what seemed an eternity.

Eventually a cheerful looking detective breezed in and plonked himself down behind the desk. ‘Hello there. Shall we start with the formalities? What’s your surname?’

‘Given name?’

‘Date of birth?’

‘Nationality?’

‘Occupation?’

‘Which university?’

‘Address?’

His form filled in, the detective put his pen down and sat back.

‘So, in your own words, tell me what happened.’

Ruslan gave an honest account that went from the taking of the tables to the fight on the beach. The detective said nothing until he finished. Then he leaned forward. ‘Who struck the first blow?’

‘Mingrelsky. He tried to head butt me.’

‘You’re sure of that?’

‘Yes.’

‘So it was self defence?’

‘Yes.’

‘Okay. What were the names of the others involved on your side?’

‘Josep Machutadza and a guy called Murad Akchurin.’

The detective wrote the names down. ‘And the girls?’

‘Fatima and Tamara.’

‘Surnames?’

Ruslan bowed his head. ‘I don’t know Fatima’s surname.’

‘And Tamara?’

‘Dadianova.’

‘And what about the other girl?’

‘She didn’t do anything.’

‘What’s her name?’

‘Lana. I don’t know her surname.’

The detective picked up his papers: ‘Don’t go away.’

‘Do I have a choice?’

‘Not really.’ He smiled and swept out of the room, leaving Ruslan alone.

After a few minutes, a uniformed officer put his head round the door. ‘Do you need the toilet?’

‘No, but I could do with a drink of water.’

‘Do you fancy a glass of tea?’

‘Just water, please.’

He came back with a jug and a glass. ‘You okay?’

‘I feel really nauseous.’

‘It’s probably concussion. You look like you’ve been hit on the head. You just need rest and then you’ll be all right.’

Ruslan closed his eyes and wished he could fast-forward until this whole thing was over.

His interrogator came back in, and the uniformed officer ceded the chair to him and left.

‘Comrade Mingrelsky’s son claims you made an unprovoked attack on him. He says him and his friends were just walking on the beach.’

‘Why would we do that? There were six of them: Mingrelsky and five other lads. There were only three lads on our side.’

‘You’re an athlete.’

‘I’m a long-distance runner, not a boxer. And have you seen the size of him? I’d be mad to pick a fight with him.’

‘Well you obviously did pick a fight with him.’

‘He attacked us. What were we supposed to do?’

‘I’ll tell you what you should have done: you should have run like your girlfriend said.’

‘He’d have just come for us another time.’

‘Yes, well you’ve got his father coming for you now.’

Ruslan bowed his head. He cursed himself for being so stupid and for getting Tamara and the others into such trouble.

‘You’re going to have to make a statement. Just say what happened, like you did before, and then sign it. Okay?’

Ruslan nodded.

As a drained and nauseous Ruslan dictated and negotiated the wording with the detective (resisting all the while the temptation to amend his atrocious spelling), he sometimes felt the whole process resembled a meeting with his defence counsel rather than a police interrogation. When they got to the bit where Murad, Tamara and Fatima kicked Mingrelsky while Ruslan throttled him, the detective said, ‘Why don’t you leave the girls out of it? Just say you were holding him down and Murad kicked him.’

‘Yes, but what if the other statements say different? It’ll make it look like we’re lying.’

‘Look, trust me, okay? Mingrelsky junior’s hardly going to want the world to know that two girls beat him up, is he? So do them a favour and leave them out.’

Ruslan thought for a moment and then gave his consent.

Once he had completed and signed his statement, a uniformed officer led him out of the interview room and downstairs towards the holding cells at the back of the police station. As they passed through the reception area, Ruslan noticed one of the chefs from the sanatorium and Natasha, the Russian journalist. They stood up and came towards him.

‘Are you okay, Ruslan?’ Natasha asked.

‘He can’t talk now.’

‘I’m okay, thanks,’ said Ruslan, speaking Russian.

Natasha turned to the desk sergeant: ‘Has he seen a doctor? Look at the state of him. He looks dreadful. You need to get him examined.’

They took Ruslan downstairs, where they relieved him of his shoelaces, his belt and the contents of his pockets and locked him in a small cell with a bunk bed and a fat man who showed no interest in him whatsoever, spending all his time pacing up and down and muttering to himself in an almost impenetrable West Ksordian accent.

Ruslan climbed onto the top bed and tried to ignore him. The sight of Natasha had given him some hope. Maybe Mingrelsky’s father would be afraid of a scandal if she and Sergei threatened to kick up a stink. (This could be a very real threat, for while the Soviet press was never allowed to criticise the government or the Party, it occasionally took great delight in exposing abuses of power by individuals in high places.)

That evening, they brought a doctor to examine Ruslan and catalogue his injuries. He said his concussion should wear off after a week or two. ‘Call me if he starts puking up, or if you can’t wake him up properly,’ he told the police. ‘And keep an eye on his pupils. Give me a ring if one’s bigger than the other.’

Ruslan hardly slept at all that night, he was so full of worry. At eleven the next morning, just as he was dozing in his bunk, two police officers came in.

‘Somebody to see you.’

They led him up through reception, past Natasha’s concerned stares and up another two flights of stairs to the office of the Police Commissioner. Inside was an enormous desk with a big leather chair behind it and six chairs in front arranged in such a way as to turn whoever sat in them into a supplicant.

Ruslan recognised the figure in the Commissioner’s chair at once: it was Mingrelsky’s father. He was big and powerful, just like his son, much bigger than he looked on TV. He had the bearing of an aristocrat, albeit a member of the red nomenklatura rather than the old blue-blooded nobility.

There were two men in the supplicants’ chairs. To Ruslan’s left was an elderly man whose golden epaulettes marked him out as the local Police Commissioner. To his right was a tall but delicate-looking man who was wearing a three-piece suit in the heat of a Ksord-Akhtarian summer.

Ruslan’s police escorts left him standing in the centre of the room and then departed, closing the door behind them. Ruslan thought he might faint at any minute. The weakness of interrupted sleep plus his concussion and his bruises made him feel truly awful.

Mingrelsky senior nodded at the man in the three-piece suit: ‘Comrade Alavidza?’

Alavidza picked up the papers on his lap and fingered through them until he found Ruslan’s statement. He spoke in a harsh voice that belied his delicate looks: ‘You admit that you held Vakhtan Mingrelsky down on the ground while your friend kicked him.’

‘We were defending ourselves.’

‘A strange way to defend yourselves, kicking a helpless man.’

Ruslan addressed himself to Mingrelsky senior. ‘With all due respect, Comrade Mingrelsky, sir, your son is many things, but helpless he is not. He gave me and Murad Akchurin a right thrashing, and he beat up our girlfriends too.’

Mingrelsky senior glared at Ruslan with eyes full of contempt.

‘I’m not aware that he broke any of your bones,’ said Alavidza. ‘You and your friends broke his wrist.’

‘That was never our intention and I’m sorry. We were just defending ourselves. We stopped as soon as he gave in.’

‘From what I hear, you’ve been bullying him ever since you got here.’

‘That’s not true.’

‘So you deny that you keep making fun of him and his “important papa”?’

Again Ruslan addressed himself to Mingrelsky senior, ‘With the greatest respect, Comrade Mingrelsky, sir, Vakhtan never did any work in the restaurant. The only reason he was able to get away with it was because he traded on your position. The management here were all scared of him.’

‘But you obviously weren’t,’ said Alavidza.

‘No.’

Nobody spoke for a moment. Ruslan felt obliged to say something.

‘Vakhtan and I clashed right from the first time we met. He told me not to do any work. He said we should leave everything to the Akhtarians and the Tatars, and us Ksords should just sit around and have a laugh. I didn’t want to do that. I’m a bit of a Stakhanovite. At university I study harder than everyone else, in my athletics club I train harder than the others and here at the sanatorium I’m the hardest-working waiter. You can ask anyone in the restaurant, they’ll tell you that’s the truth. Vakhtan was angry with me. He thought I’d let the side down by working.’

‘There could be another explanation,’ said Alavidza. ‘Maybe you hate Vakhtan because his father’s a leading member of a Party you despise.’

Ruslan’s blood ran cold. They knew about him.

‘You’ve been in trouble before, haven’t you?’

‘That was just a facetious remark that was taken out of context. I apologised and I accepted my classmates’ rebuke, and they decided that was the end of the matter.’

‘But you do despise the Party, don’t you?’

‘Of course not.’

‘So do you deny that you’re a nationalist?’

‘I’m nothing of the sort. I’ve got an Akhtarian girlfriend.’

‘Ah, but you’re a Pan-Kuban nationalist, aren’t you?’

Ruslan was horrified at just how much they knew, but he kept his cool and shook his head. ‘Pan Kubanism is dead. There’s no way you can ever make a single nation out of the Ksords and the Akhtarians.’

Alavidza and Mingrelsky senior looked at each other. Alavidza raised his eyebrows.

Mingrelsky’s father gave a slight shake of the head. ‘Get this piece of shit out of my sight.’

Even though he wasn’t actually under arrest, the police made it clear that Ruslan would have to stay in custody. They gave him a lunch and a dinner that he was barely able to eat, and he spent most of the day lying on his bunk trying to sleep while his cellmate paced up and down and muttered.

And then, just after ten thirty in the evening, they came back for him.

They took him back up to the Police Commissioner’s office, where Alavidza, Mingrelsky senior’s companion, was waiting behind the Commissioner’s desk. He dismissed the police officers and invited Ruslan to sit down.

‘Do you have any idea how much trouble you’re in?’

‘No.’

‘If we do you for hooliganism, you’re facing six months to one year inside. But you’re much more likely to face a charge of battery. Up to three years in prison or maybe two years’ hard labour.’

Ruslan tried to show no emotion.

‘That’s a long time, three years.’ Alavidza paused to let the thought sink in. ‘I notice you’ve all agreed to hide the fact that your girlfriends joined in, but it won’t work. We’ve got eleven witnesses, so don’t imagine your little lady friend will get away with it. She’s going down too, make no mistake about it.’

Ruslan closed his eyes.

‘It’s your fault, you know. None of this would have happened if it weren’t for you.’

Alavidza’s words summed up exactly what Ruslan was thinking.

‘And the only person who can get you and your friends out of this mess is you.’

Ruslan looked at him, surprised.

‘I’ve been in touch with our people in Ronkoni,’ (Alavidza’s words identified him as KGB – political police) ’and they say they know all about you. It turns out you mix with some very disreputable people who like to get pissed and slag off the Party. Well, there’s not actually a law against that, is there? Consenting adults in private and all that. Personally I don’t think it should be allowed, but there you go.

‘Trouble is, when we know that there are people behaving like this, we get nervous, and there’s always the danger we might overreact and crack down even though they haven’t actually crossed that fine line between disloyalty and subversion, which is a very serious offence.’

Ruslan knew exactly what Alavidza was proposing. ‘You want me to spy on my friends?’

‘Not spy. That’s the wrong word. Just keep us informed. Let us know what’s going on.’

‘No way.’

’I knew you’d say that. Everybody always does when we first suggest it. It may surprise you to learn that Comrade Mingrelsky would actually rather not prosecute. He thinks his young son needs to learn a thing or two about how to comport himself when he’s away from home. But Comrade Mingrelsky does have a rather low opinion of you, and he doesn’t see why anti-Party scum like you should get away with beating his son up.

‘I suggested an outcome that would teach young Vakhtan a lesson and would get you onside. Everyone would benefit. You and your friends would avoid prison and be able to get on with your lives. And funnily enough, even your rather disreputable friends at university would benefit too. If we know they aren’t actually breaking the law, we won’t have any reason to be heavy-handed with them.’

They sat in silence for a moment, Ruslan avoiding Alavidza’s stare.

‘I’ll leave you to weigh up the alternatives overnight. Think about it. I mean, a good looking young boy like you really doesn’t want to find himself in prison. Not unless you like taking it up the arse, that is.’

Ruslan said nothing.

’Funny thing is, if you do save your friends from prison, nobody will ever know it was you. There are some Russian journalists staying at your sanatorium, and two of them are threatening to create a scandal if you get sent down. I have to admit, when he first heard about it, Comrade Mingrelsky was a bit concerned. But when he found out they work for the Literaturnaya Gazeta, he burst out laughing.

’Do you know why? Well, the editor of the Gazeta’s called Anton Strugatsky, and do you know who his sister Ganna’s married to? To Comrade Zikladza!’ (Zikladza was leader of the Party in Ksordia-Akhtaria.) Alavidza sat back and smirked. ’I don’t think the Gazeta’s going to attack a leading member of the Ksord-Akhtarian Politburo. Do you?’

Ruslan still said nothing. He was concentrating on his poker face.

‘So think about it. You can save yourself and your friends, and you can tell everyone Comrade Mingrelsky had to back down to avoid a scandal. Or you can shit in your own mouth and your friends’ mouths. It’s up to you, Ruslan. I’ll see you again in the morning, and you can tell me what you’ve decided to do.’

All that night, Ruslan’s thoughts raced round and round in a never-ending circle. Three years in prison? Was that really what he and his friends were facing?

But what if they got a good lawyer? What if Sergei and Natasha could protect them? Maybe Alavidza was lying about the editor of Literaturnaya Gazeta’s sister.

But what if he was telling the truth? Three years was a long time, and the thought of prison filled Ruslan with dread.

But becoming an informer was even worse. That was a life sentence. There was no way he could ever betray his university friends.

But what about his friends here? What about Tamara? Did he have the right to shit on her life for the sake of his precious integrity? If he really loved her, he would make any sacrifice for her. He had imagined himself giving up his life for her, but wouldn’t it be a true act of love to give up his integrity for her instead?

‘What would my father have done?’ Ruslan asked himself again and again. ‘If I could work that out, I’d know what to do.’

Next morning, they got him up early and gave him just a couple of minutes in the bathroom before taking him up to the Commissioner’s office. Alavidza was waiting for him behind the Commissioner’s desk.

‘Sit down, Ruslan.’

‘Thank you.’

‘Have you thought about what I said?’

‘Yes.’ Ruslan looked away from Alavidza as he spoke.

‘And you know what will happen to you if you refuse me?’

‘Yes.’

‘And to your friends?’

‘Yes.’

‘Including your girlfriend?’

‘Yes.’

‘So what have you decided to do?’

‘I’ve decided to say this.’ Ruslan turned to face Alavidza: ‘Go fuck your mother, you evil son of a slut.’

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