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It hadn’t rained in almost three weeks.  It was an anthem for tabloid news outlets: The Drought of 1985.  Now, with the late July afternoon capping another sweltering day, the London sky had slowly transformed into a renaissance fresco of menacingclouds, rolling and merging in a mass of coal and obsidian.Swift silver threads tore scars into the heavens, adding theater to the reckoning about to be wrought on the parched land.

Work done for the day, Oliver stood in the foyer of the shipping insurance firm where he was an underwriter.  The large arch windows were all but opaque, rainwater driving down the glass in thuds.  A reasonable crowd had gathered by the windows and revolving doors, nobody willing to venture into what would be that evening’s headline.  Oliver looked at his watch.  If Finley were too delayed, they’d miss their train.

The door made a rotation depositing Finley before his friend.  He was leaking.  Hair, navy blue suit, gray shirt, black dress shoes all fluid; a man made of water. Bloody hell said Oliver, taking it in.  Finley pushed the sodden clump of blond hair back off his forehead.  It’s raining. Ever the penchant for understatement.

The train was full as, like Oliver and Finley, most had missed the previous one.The air musty and sour with wet and damp clothing.  They had been lucky enough to find a double seat in the last carriage.  Oliver’s suit, a more summery light gray, was now just as soaked as his friend’s, his dark hair slicked back in a side parting.  His glasses gave him the semblance of Clark Kent.So Dan called this morning.    Finley was watching the drenched fields of the Surrey commuter belt roll by.Yeah?He turned toward Oliver who was cleaning his lenses.

The Soviet trip is definitely on.  They got the final approval today.Dan was their mutual friend, a doctoral student in political science.There’s one last spot reserved for you.  Are you in?

Let me talk to Gina.  Call you tonight?  Oliver nodded.

Oliver first met Finley in high school.  He arrived at the all-boys grammar school at the start of tenth grade.At that time he had a slight accent which he attributed to his family’s period of time in Frankfurt.  They hit it off quickly and had remained friends into adulthood.Now, in their late twenties, they lived in neighboring towns in Surrey and both commuted to the city, where Finley was a rising star at The National Archives.  Oliver joked that it was a cover for his role with MI5.Schedules permitting, they would sometimes share thetrain ride back to the suburbs.

Dan they’d met at a rally in support of the miners’ strike the year before.  They found fraternity in anti-Thatcher sentiment, Socialist egalitarianism, rugby, and Bruce Springsteen.  Dan’s university department hadmanaged to secure a four day stay in Moscow courtesy of the Soviet Ministry of Culture.  With the winds of change starting to swirl across Eastern Europe as a region, undercurrents of dissention rife, such a trip could capture a moment in history.  At least that was the pitch Oliver had given Finley as he readied for his stop.

Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement had gained a lot of traction in Poland.  Large billboards prominent with red dotted Warsaw on the ride to the train station.  Dan remarked on the irony of trade unionism forming opposition to Soviet rule.  Oliver tried snapping some photos of the billboards but couldn’t get a clear view.

The group of five had met early that morning at Gatwick, the sun still just a faint gleam along the Sussex horizon.  Oliver and Finley wore shorts, t-shirt, and sneakers.  Dan, some years older, was in scruffy jeans, a creased, green linen shirt and open-toed sandals.Overweight, with unkempt hair and beard, his nickname was Karl because he resembled Marx.  He didn’t mind.  Set a little apart from the group was a younger couple, undergrads at Dan’s university.

Two Poles, men in their forties, met them at the airport and accompanied them to the train station, explaining that they were liaisons for the Soviet ministry who would travel with them until the border.  They wore gray military uniforms without anything distinguishing a particular branch.  Once the clattering, drafty old train eased away from the station on its monotonous twelve hour journey, the liaisons barely spoke.  Their job, Oliver surmised,was simply to listen.

Despite the prevailing sense that Europe’s map was priming for another change, few people from the West traveled this far east.As the train journeyed farther into the Polish countryside Oliver knew the rules were different; fraught with suspicion and double bluff.  Apart from his two friends, who could he really trust?

The train shunted back and forth several times, metal grinding on metal.  The engines growled and revved, then abruptly exhaled into silence.  They had reached the Soviet border.

Their compartment smelled of cigarettes and stale clothing.Finley was sitting on one of the lower bunks huddled over a chess board, his opponent a Polish liaison.  Oliver watched a flash of anger in his friend as he toppled his king, resigning.  The liaison took his ten dollar bill and left, looking smug.  Dan was stretched out on the top bunk engrossed in a paperback.The scene was punctured by three uniformed Soviets striding into their space.  Passports!

          Oliver had expected the officials to look more senior, but the clean shaven men were young, close in age to Dan he presumed.  They wore khaki jackets and pants, knee length black boots, wide brimmed khaki hats with a red star in the middle of a black brim.  They took their time pouring over everything: passports, university and Soviet ministry documents, bags, personal belongings.

          The train set in motion, almost reluctantly.  Nightfall was encroaching, the landscape outside barren, unremitting.  Oliver realized that they were now officially on Soviet soil.  He felt unsettled, as though ushered into an unfamiliar room and hearing a key turn in the lock.

Moscow, the heart and lungs of the empire.  The engine room.Paranoia is borne of uncertainty and fed by mistrust.  But there was no Orwellian suspicion from the three of them, their hosts making little attempt to conceal the surveillance.  In fact, it became something of a distraction, trying to guess which of the stoic men in leather jackets was genuine and which a decoy.  One such man asked Finley for a light as they strolled the wide expanse of Red Square, the iconic structure of St. Basil’s an anachronism under a cloudless sky.  Cigarette in hand, the man said thank you in English and strode away.

The Ministry men accompanied them to the mausoleum, a preserved Lenin keeping benevolent watch over the city, and to the State Circus full of surreal acrobats and Cossacks balancing atop galloping stallions.  On other days Dan spent time doing his university liaison work, leaving Oliver and Finley to explore the statues and wooded pathways of Gorky Park, and the incongruously palatial architecture of the city’s subway stations.

Skillful deception, like sleight of hand, relies on timing and what resides in the unseen.  Oliver was confused, muddled.  He hadn’t had enough vodka to be drunk, yet he teetered unsteadily, his head light and speech slurred.  Two unfamiliar officials flanked him, benign yet escorting him with a firm holdaway from the final evening’s farewell reception.  The small pill had dissolved quickly into Oliver’s martini glass.  Tasteless, undetectable.

More duplicity greeted Oliver as he was released from sleep.  A familiar compartment on a moving train.  Seated opposite, two uniformed men regarded himdispassionately.The men were Polish.  Groggy, slightly nauseous, Oliver looked out at the snapshots of fields and livestock and tried to reassemble all the broken pieces of the puzzle.

The small office was on the top floor of a nondescript building at the end of a side street, a few blocks north of The Kremlin.  Dan leaned back slightly, feet resting on the edge of a mahogany desk, the Soviet officer’s uniform looking noticeably snug on his frame.  His cigar smoke slithered upward, a gray serpent.  Welcome home, Nikolay.  Finley was at the arched windowtaking in the sunrise, patches of its light falling across his impeccable, dark gray suit.Thank you.  It’s good to be back, sir, he replied in the same native Russian.


Image by Michael Siebert from Pixabay

David Patten

David Patten is an educator living in Colorado. He was raised in London, England, but has spent half of his life in the U.S. He loves reading and creating short fiction. He is hoping to increase the audience for his work.

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