An Almost Normal Evening
The Messenger turned to Anya and The Czech. “Task successful. We’ll continue the mission tomorrow. There’s no hurry now.” he wheezed.
Both of them nodded. The three pursuers returned to the train station with leisure.
Anya tarried a few steps behind while The Czech and Messenger discussed the hotel arrangements. Her mind drifted elsewhere. Biting her lip, she considered Chekhov’s actions. It seemed Chekhov had indeed defected.
'Mid-life crisis?' she wondered, 'No… he’s too young for that.'
The Messenger turned to her and said, with what seemed to be a humorous tone behind the hissing and sucking, “The Czech and I have decided that you get the floor.”
She glared and a knife blinked into her hand. “Not if you want to wake up alive.”
The Messenger laughed and was joined by The Czech, who secretly decided to sleep in the bathtub, away from his lethal companions.
Mashka paced back and forth in front of the suburban house where Chekhov had dropped her. The owner of the building had not returned yet, and for some reason she supposed to trust him.
“Where are they?” she asked, looking up at the darkened sky.
Her stomach was dancing with worry. “I’m going to kill them. If they are hurt, I’m going to kill them!” she threatened aloud.
She stopped, detecting a new scent in the area. She found herself, once again, resenting her sensitive nose as she picked up the stench of alcohol, sweaty musk, and very bad breath. She looked over to see a man stumbling towards the house behind her. He was in his mid-thirties, had dark unkempt hair and a beard covering much of his face. He looked like a very drunk Ural lumberjack. She moved to the side, and he did not seem to notice her, as he stumbled up the porch and fiddled with the lock.
“Wait,” she said, speaking in only barely accented English, “Are you, John Ingles?”
“Hmm?” he turned and peered at her with blurry eyes. “You speak Engrish?”
Mashka rolled her eyes, “That is what I am trying to do, yes. But let me repeat, are you or do you know a John Ingles? I was... dropped here by a friend to meet him.”
“Yeah, zat’s me.” he slurred.
She smiled half-heartedly, though she fumed on the inside. 'Your choice in friends never ceases to amaze me, ‘Chekhov.’ '
She was at loss. The inebriated man before her was supposed to be their saviour who could get spirit them out of Russia. This left her to wonder just how many other variables would be throwing themselves in her face, before midnight.
“Do you know a man by the name of Iosif Chekhov?” she asked, hoping that he did not, and that this was all a coincidence. There had to be more than one John Ingles in Karelia, right?
The man blinked. “If you need a place to stay, you don’t have to pretend you know me.” He turned, trying to find the door latch.
“I am not lying!” she insisted, resenting his perception of her. Then she remembered how the conductor had addressed him. “He may go by Yuri.”
“Stilr noth’ a clue.” John replied, shaking his head then regretting it as the world spun before him. He gripped his head, bent over, and vomited a putrid pile of orange post-edibles onto the porch.
She grimaced. 'Atlichna, he might know Chekhov by another name,' she groaned.
He turned to her and sighed, “Look, I really dun’t care at thish hour, so if ya need a place to crash, just come in. Zere’s a spare room, jusht don’t be a jerk and steal anything a’right. I’m not in the mood for trouble.”
“But--,” she began, trying to figure out what to say next. She was embarrassed that he thought she was looking for a handout, or worse. However, Chekhov was supposed to know this man, or at least, that there was someone who once lived at this address, so she would let him explain when he arrived.
“Well, make up ya mind mish, I don’t want to be standin’ here letting in the cold all day.” he barked.
“Alright,” she inclined her head in gratitude, “Spasibo for your hospitality, but really, a friend did drop me off here and he will be here any minute.” she walked up the porch stairs and went in, hopping over the vile puddle.
Mashka had never been in the habit of walking into strange men’s homes, nor did she ever consider the possibility that she would one day. She glanced around the main room beholding the previously unexplored realm of the single male. There were a few bottles of liquor scattered on the kitchen counter, other than that the place was well kept. Either he had a maid, or this drunk had a a decent sense of cleanliness. That thought afforded her a little comfort. She did not fear for her safety. He was clearly inebriated beyond thought, and she, as of late, had certain advantages that made her more than capable of protecting herself.
The man stumbled past her and sat down on the leather couch and flopped onto his back. “Make yourself comfortable,” he said, almost indifferent to her presence.
“Uh,” she started a little hesitant, “could I make some dinner? I haven’t eaten for a while.”
“If there’s food in the fridge, go ahead.” he said.
“Spasibo.” She walked to the refrigerator. To her satisfaction, the contents seemed to be standard fare, not what she would have expected from a presumed bachelor. 'Maybe he’s just having a really bad day. Either that or he had a business meeting.' She knew it might be the latter. Though her own family never drank much, most Russians were notorious for their drinking. Virtually everything, from job interviews to birthdays, was accompanied by copious amounts of vodka.
She looked through the cupboards. There were many cans of foods she did not recognise, but she found the staple roots: onions, potatoes, carrots, rutabaga, and beets. An idea came to her. She reached back in the fridge and grabbed some sausage. Soon, she had a large pot of water heating on the stove, as she chopped the vegetables.
Her foot bumped a trash can. She started to move it out of the way but something caught her eye. There was a framed picture in it. Reaching down she lifted it up to see. There was a man, who must have been John, a little more well-kept, but still sporting the beard, with his arms wrapped around a very attractive Asian woman. She noted the scenery behind them, they were standing in front of the giant Ferris-wheel in London, The Eye. They were both smiling, like the world was a perfect place. She began to feel a measure of sympathy for the man, seeing as the house lacked the expected feminine touch.
Placing the picture carefully back in the trash, she washed up and resumed her previous task. Tossing the chopped sausages into the boiling pot of water, followed by the vegetables, she looked to see what spices were in the cupboards. Again to her satisfaction, there was a large assortment of flavours and spices to choose from, including many that did not have Russian labels and were written in some East Asian language. She avoided those, having no idea what the contents could be.
Within forty minutes, the scent of fresh stew wafted through the house. Mashka served some of it up into two bowls. She carried them over to the table in front of the couch, where John was struggling to keep his eyes open as he read a book. She looked at the aged binding and it was covered with unfamiliar symbols. 'Chinese? No, Japanese perhaps?' she wondered.
“Dinner is ready.” she said, laying down the bowls on the oak table.
He put his book aside and sat up. He blinked, stupefied. “It smells pretty good. I didn't expect you t’ go t’ all dis trouble.” he said. “And here I was thinking I was doing yoush a favour.”
“If it makes you feel any less indebted, I was famished. And I also made enough for Chekhov and my brother, they should be here any moment.” she said, glancing at the door.
“You insist that I know this Chekhov.” he said looking at her oddly, “I suppose I’ll know when he gets here.”
“Well, think of the predicament I’m in!” Mashka replied, her face earnest, “I have no idea who you are, but Chekhov kept saying you were an old friend and a reputable person. Instead I run into someone who; has no idea who Chekhov is, and is sloshed beyond coherence!”
“You got me there.” he conceded. “That’s a tough pickle. Who is this Chekhov to you? I might be able to figure out who he is.”
“Well he’s,” Mashka thought a moment. She had a few possible answers: 'Option A, truthfully; he works for a secret organization that kidnapped my brother and I, but is now helping us escape. Option B, half true; He’s my English professor. Option C, roughly believable; A friend of the family treating us to a road trip.'
She chose ‘Option C’ despite her doubts that if this was indeed a friend of Chekhov, he would be aware of his shadier side.
Ingles looked at her suspiciously, seeming to know she was not telling the whole story, but he let it slide for the time being.
Mashka lifted the bowl to blow on the hot soup and noticed the book next to him. “What are you reading?” she asked.
“It’s a novel, Seven Samurai,” he replied, seeming to have sobered up a bit.
“So is it in Japanese?”
“Yeah,” he shrugged, “I always intended to learn Japanese, but I never seemed to get around to it. I guess now is as good a time as ever.” He was quiet for a moment while he ate. His eyes widened in wonder. “This is really good soup. Where did you learn to make this?”
“My mother,” Mashka replied, “But this isn’t the normal family recipe. You have a lot of foreign foods so it was difficult finding something I was familiar with. Are you English?”
“No, Canadian originally, but I lived in London for a while.” he responded, taking another spoonful of her stew.
“You seem to like a lot of Japanese stuff,” Mashka said, lightly prying. There were wall hangings, statuettes, and Japanese literature on every shelf.
“Those weren't mine,” he retorted, “And I would like to eat my food in silence, not to seem ungrateful, of course.”
She nodded in reply. His personal life was none of her business.
The door to the house opened, and both of them turned. Aleksei and Chekhov walked in panting.
“Evan!” John exclaimed, his inebriation seemed to vanish as he jumped up, almost stumbled over Mashka, and gave Chekhov a hearty pat, “What are you doing here?”
“John, glad to see you again. Sorry about the intrusion.” Chekhov replied, taking in deep gulps of air after their long walk.
“Not at all! So I take it you were the one who dropped off the young lady here.” John said, gesturing to Mashka.
“I hope she was not a problem, giving you a sudden guest.” Chekhov apologised.
“Oh not at all, Evan,” John replied, “We were just having a nice dinner date.” he winked at Mashka. She smiled sarcastically than gave him an “in your dreams” glare.
Mashka stood up and turned her attention to Chekhov, “Did he just call you Evan?”
Aleksei looked between the two men and his sister, who had all been speaking in English. He had only caught a few words here and there. “Umm, who’s this Evan you all are speaking about?”
Chekhov scratched the back of his head, “Well, that’s my name.” he replied in Russian.
Aleksei stared dubiously then replied, “I knew you weren’t Russian when I first met you, but Evan? Isn’t that Scottish? I thought you were Belorussian, Latvian, or maybe even Finnish, but Scottish!?”
“Yes, my real name is Evan, but please keep that under wraps for now.” Chekhov/Evan replied.
“I think I’ll stick to Chekhov.” Mashka said, sounding annoyed. Then her eyes widened a moment, noticing his missing sleeve and bloody makeshift bandage, “You’re hurt! What happened?” she laid a gentle hand on the bandage.
“Just a nick.” Chekhov reassured her. “Ripped a few muscles but I’ll be fine. Aleksei here wrapped me up quite well.”
She looked at Aleksei with a sideways grin, “Bonanza, right?”
Turning towards John she asked, “Do you have first aid?”
John nodded, “In the restroom, I’ll get it.”
Aleksei glanced between Chekhov and Mashka. “Umm Mashka,” he spoke up suddenly, “I’ll take care of it. You’re tired, and it smells like you’ve been busy cooking. Just take it easy.” As a secondary motive, he did not like the idea of Chekhov being in close quarters with his sister any more than necessary.
Mashka looked at him quizzically then smiled, “Well, spasibo. In all honesty, blood makes me squeamish.”
'Me too,' Aleksei thought, feeling guilty about his hidden motive.
John returned with the first aid supplies and Aleksei took them and began unbinding Chekhov’s dressing.
“Eww,” John exclaimed, “That’s pretty nasty. That it a bit more than a "nick," Evan.”
“It’s not as bad as it looks.” Chekhov waved it off, gritting his teeth as Aleksei cleaned the injury.
Hearing John call Chekhov, Evan, made something occur to Mashka. “How is it he knows your real name?” she asked. “No one at The Association called you Evan. Is he an earlier acquaintance?”
“Yes,” John said, “Evan and I here, go way back. I think it was in Bosnia when we first became friends.”
“So you know about The Association?” Mashka asked John.
“Hey, how my buddy employs himself isn't my concern.” He patted ‘Evan’s’ back, heartily.
Mashka rolled her eyes and looked back at the pot of stew on the stove. “So, would you all eat the dinner I made while you catch up on old times? Maybe after a little explanation I can begin to make sense of all this.”
They sat on the floor around the coffee table, eating the warm stew and getting acquainted with one another. To Mashka, it seemed like the most normal thing she had done in a while.
Around the corner, Anya and The Czech sat in the idling car.
“Should we not take them in now?” Anya asked, anxious.
“No,” The Czech replied, “They are not going to go anywhere. We can now track them indefinitely.”
“Why?” Anya asked.
“Because, The Administrator has a plan. I think he wants to see how they would have pulled it off,” he replied, “My guess is that if we cause them to fail just as they are within reach of success, it will force them to realise that they don’t have a chance to defy him. Besides, making a ruckus here would be dangerous. We need to wait for back up.”
She sniffed. “Lately, all his plans have been failing,” she pointed out.
“Who are you to assume such things?” he snapped back, “Everything might be going exactly as planned.”
Anya stared back at The Czech. He had worked with The Administrator much longer than her. Was The Administrator just toying with them? It made her head hurt, thinking how everything her boss said or did, might have dozens of possible motives.
“Perhaps he just knows how to make it look like it went his way, so as not lose face?” Anya suggested.
The Czech shrugged, dismissing the topic, as he pressed his back into his seat and closed his eyes.