Khabarovsk, Russian Far East
The battered Trabant taxi faded to a speck of blue. Jack Steele’s boots pounded the compact snow. He scanned the unfamiliar horizon and made his way down from the road to the frozen Amur River, scattered with white chunks of ice and snow. Its surface seemed solid enough. The river was one mile wide at this point, but Jack Steele’s destination was much closer.
“Zdrazvyute!” he called. Hello!
No reply, though three fur-clad figures stood just thirty yards away. One of them, hopefully, was his contact, Natasha Klimova. Beyond the group, the ice plateau stretched away toward distant mountains inside China. Cloudless sky. Sun on the descent. North Korea was just a few hours south, and China lay twenty miles to the west.
The fur shapka of the woman he thought was Natasha had crept down over her eyes, but her doll-like face was still clearly visible. Even at a distance, she was as kraseevaya, striking, as the crusty old babushka at the hotel had described. Perhaps it was the contrast of mink fur against her milky skin, or perhaps it was simply that it was three months to the day since he’d seen his wife. He’d left London on a six-month assignment to Russia, but already it seemed like six years.
Odd that Natasha Klimova wasn’t alone. On the telephone, it was Natasha who had insisted on meeting him in person and alone. She’d said it was a matter of life and death concerning three UN officials who had gone missing. Perhaps she didn’t trust foreigners? Most Russians didn’t—the legacy from a century of communism and its authoritarian masters. Still, the frozen river seemed an inappropriate place to talk after flying all that way—seven time zones—for the interview.
He’d have to get her away from this group, sit her down over a Turkish coffee, or something stronger—this was Russia, after all. Take off all the fur, get comfortable, and extract her story.
Steele’s slender silhouette and slightly darker complexion than the average Caucasian was a contrast to the heavier, pale locals who usually frequented the river. He crunched across the ice toward the small group.
“Zdrazvyute!” he called again.
Still no response from Natasha or the other two. They were clad from head to toe in fur and veniki—the Russian winter boot made of felt and insulated with rubber—and they were huddled together. Their attention focused on a hole in the ice directly in front of them. The smallest figure—possibly a young boy—appeared to be fishing.
The boy cast a line, then tripped and stumbled headfirst into the large hole. The old man, also carrying a fishing rod, lunged forward in an attempt to save the boy. He grasped the edge of the boy’s overcoat but lost his footing. He slung his cumbersome wooden fishing rod away to one side, stretching out his now-free arm to maintain balance. Drenched in a thick fur coat and shapka, he resembled a crazed prehistoric caveman as he called on God. “Bozhe moi! Bozhe moi!”
Natasha started forward and plucked the old man back from the edge, but the boy was already in trouble in the water.
His arms flapped like a deranged duckling caught in chicken wire. It was clear he couldn’t swim. The disturbingly calm look on his face flicked the adrenaline switch in Steele, who then began to sprint across the ice as he mentally calculated the seconds needed to lose his jacket, jump in, and save the child before both of them perished under the thick layer of ice.
“Move! Out of the way!”
Natasha and the old man stood aside.
Steele yanked off his jacket and boots, held his breath, and plunged into the ice hole feet first.
Every muscle tensed involuntarily. The shock of freezing water made him retch. He inhaled and exhaled to calm the convulsions and then submersed. Seconds later, numb to any sensation, he tried to get his bearings. His clothes ballooned, forcing him upward. Wrong direction. He struggled to force himself down and sink below the surface.
Three feet underwater, Steele wrestled one arm around the boy’s torso. Spinning him, he tore off the boy’s coat, grabbing his legs and pushing them upward while pumping his own legs like a frog. Kick! Kick! Drowning, given the choice, had always been his least preferred way to die.
The boy was one foot away, twisting, panicking, arms flailing. Someone had thrown in a lifeline—literally a length of fishing line that led back to the outside world. Bubbles dwindled from the mouth of the boy who hopelessly clawed at the fishing twine. Time slow marched.
Dark shadows loomed above the surface. A rescue attempt was underway, Steele presumed. He shoved the boy’s feet up to the surface, but flinched suddenly from a sharp blow to his nose from the boy’s boot. Steele recoiled. Around him, swirls of blood—his blood—bellowed in slow motion. His arms sliced like wild pistons, trying to stop the boy from sinking further. Bubbles danced from the boy’s mouth as he drifted away into the darkness.
Steele was alone. He’d lost sight of the boy. He twisted full circle. It was dark below the ice, and he couldn’t decipher where the boy had gone.
Steele kicked frantically and pulled himself upward through the ice water. He scraped in vain at the ice-vault roof, forced to take a huge gulp of freezing water. The pain seared his throat. Completely numb, his fingers bled raw from the ice formed like broken glass on the underside. The cold made him impotent. Every attempt to move drained what little strength he had left—his adrenaline was nonexistent.
He tried to gauge his position in relation to the point of entry on the ice. Twenty feet to the hole? Perhaps more? Even his thoughts were numb. He wanted to swim, but his arms made zero progress, circling like wheels on a paddle steamer. Like the boy he’d tried to save, now he was and sinking and drifting away.
He could make out distorted human shapes moving around above him on the ice. A man shouted … or was it a woman’s voice? He couldn’t tell. God help me … On the verge of blacking out, he heard a voice inside said, For fuck sakes, fight, damn you! Whipping his head left and right, he made one last attempt to grasp the fishing line. The bubbles from his lungs skipped away. He looked back into the black depths of the Amur River. The boy was nowhere to be seen.
Steele felt a ripple and a splash in front of his face. An object had been thrown into the water. He kicked, and kicked again, stretching both arms toward daylight, fingers splayed, tendons stretched.
The fisherman’s line, thin as horsehair, brushed the back of his hand. The attached piece of wood spiraled toward him. He pawed at it; a kitten unable to hold its prey. His brain gave the command to grasp the wood but somehow misfired. The winter current and ruthless temperature were about to claim their prize. No!
Then his hand touched the line. He wrapped it three or four times around his hands and wrists, the weight of his body causing the line to cut deep into his flesh. His limbs were too numb to feel the pain or notice the blood. Tensing every muscle, he used what strength he had left to pull. God help me. I want to live.
He was moving now. Upward. Chips of ice nudged his cheeks; he felt the skin stretched taut from the cold. He reached up. Suddenly, warm hands gripped and pulled him upward and out of the water.
A rush of cold air lashed his hands and face as he broke the surface of the river. He saw a perfect blue sky. The air was paradise.
Safe, on his stomach on the ice, he drank his first breath for more than a minute that felt like an hour. Thank you, God. Thank you!
He was looking straight at the sun creeping toward the horizon. It hurt, but the piercing sunset was a tonic. He exhaled, smiled, rested on his elbows. A passing cloud blocked the light.
He looked around. No sign of Natasha.
Steele was shivering and exhausted. Someone began wrapping him in a woolen blanket. Make me warm. Wrap tighter, damn it. He had to stop hypothermia. Tense, flex, tense, flex. Keep the circulation pumping. A lesson learned on the escape-and-evasion survival course his regiment had sent him on a few weeks after his passing-out parade at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.
A few yards away, a faded green police Jeep idled. Its exterior blue light did a lazy pirouette. Every few seconds, the icy wind changed direction and whipped the Jeep’s fumes toward him, making him nauseous. Two disheveled policemen in thick, blue greatcoats stood over him, both staring and frowning. Through the legs of one of them, Steele could make out tiny dots in the distance—presumably locals—trudged home across the ice, some pulling sleds. But no sign of the boy he had tried to rescue or the woman he had come to meet. What the fuck is going on?
“What is your name?” The first policeman spoke in English with a heavy Russian accent.
Steele looked up, squinting, catching his breath. “Pozhalsta …” Please…
“What—is—yourrr—name?” The second policeman had a heavier accent than the first. He knelt down and rolled Steele over onto his back. “Kak vas a vute? Your name?”
Steele swallowed and tried to lift his head. “Steele … my name is Jack Steele.”
“You’ll survive.” The first policeman nodded. “Eto ohn. Samai glavnoi. Nasha babushka dorogaya pravda skazala.” It’s him. That’s the main thing. The babushka was right.
The policemen bent down to heave Steele’s sodden frame up by his arms and drag him to the Jeep. A setup? Damn it! Someone inside opened the rear door. They bundled him into the back of the fur-insolated vehicle.
“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” blared from two small speakers mounted on brackets above the back seat. A heavyset man sat in the back. He had fair hair and a very short US Marine-style haircut. His half-moon face was wide, and he had a pasty complexion like a peasant from the Russian steppe. The smell of his expensive leather coat said otherwise.
“Back to base?” the first policeman asked. He unfastened the brass buttons on his bulky greatcoat and settled behind the steering wheel, waiting patiently.
“Na vokzal.” replied the man. To the railway station. “Nu poyexali!” Just drive.
The Jeep sped off across the ice, slipping and sliding as it made a huge effort to accelerate up onto the road.
Jack Steele said another silent prayer: Thank you God, but what the hell?