Pews and Paranoia
By Adam Dixon
It was October 1979, and Vasily knew that his life was in danger. He had no real proof to confirm it as of yet, but his recent occupations had as good as signed his death warrant. His colleagues and friends called him paranoid, but he knew better. Vasily was a journalist who had made it his business over the years to obtain valuable information and see it revealed to the world. This information was often top secret, and to certain parties it represented power. Vasily was a freelancer, which gave him a great degree of flexibility as he did not need to be chained to one corporation or another in order to ply his trade. Feeling chained down had been one reason why he had left the U.S.S.R. in the first place, back in the ‘50s. 1958, to be exact, the year he had realised how dangerous the Soviet Union had become and how the death of Stalin had done precious little to thaw the Cold War. Nikita Krushchev had ousted his rivals to become its undisputed leader, and that was warning enough for Vasily to flee to Western Europe. Just like the Western capitalists, Vasily saw his former government as bear-like: aggressive and prone to raging destruction. As a young, liberal-minded intellectual, Vasily had been the kind of man whom the authorities in the Soviet Union would have considered potentially dangerous. Inevitably, he had found himself being watched. However, he had cunningly evaded the authorities in Russia and fled to the relative safety of Paris right under their noses. Twenty years had passed, and now it was Leonid Brezhnev who held the reins in Moscow and Vasily was in London, determined to continue working against them.
Vasily was acutely aware of the danger that his line of work could attract. Persistent journalists who refused to be quiet were irritating to governments who had secrets to keep; they were like flies buzzing incessantly around their heads. Sooner or later, though, those flies would get swatted. Vasily knew that only too well, with the frighteningly recent example of Georgi Markov to prove it. Markov had been something of a hero to Vasily. He had admired him on a professional level, seeing as they were both dissenter-journalists, but it stretched further than that. Vasily had found himself inspired by Markov’s unwavering tenacity and his sense of justice; a man to emulate if ever there was one. But now Markov was dead. A tiny ricin-filled pellet on a crowded London street was all it had taken. Markov had believed himself to be safe in London, safe from the tyrants in Sofia. He had been wrong.
It had been a year since Markov’s assassination and it still weighed heavily on Vasily’s mind. He reasoned that Markov had underestimated the reach of the Bulgarian government, but he also reasoned that it would have been impossible for Markov to anticipate the manner of his execution. That was what frightened Vasily the most; he was afraid of the endless invisible agents of his own silencing. It now meant that Vasily avoided travelling via the London Underground whilst alone, he vetted his drivers thoroughly before employing them and he was overly suspicious of any meal he hadn’t seen prepared with his own eyes. Unsurprisingly, he also became nervous around anyone who carried an umbrella. He was aware of how unbearable his paranoia was making him, but he simply couldn’t take any chances. He planned to live to see Brezhnev overthrown, and he hoped to be a helping hand in the process, if possible.
A soft knocking on the door of his study made Vasily start.
“Come in.” He called, silently chiding himself for being so jittery. Vasily’s wife, Natalya, came gliding into the room. As always, Vasily’s heart lifted at the sight of her. She was tall, dark and strong-limbed with piercing blue eyes and the permeating will of a tsarina. She was a quite a bit younger than he was, and he still counted his lucky stars that she had agreed to marry him before their flight to Western Europe. He had been in his mid-thirties back then, and she had not quite been twenty. He felt that he didn’t deserve such good fortune.
“Some letters have arrived for you, my husband.” Natalya chimed in her slightly rough accent. “I also bring tea for you.” Natalya smiled and placed a simple stainless-steel tray on his desk. It held a steaming pot of tea, a single mug and a small pile of letters.
“Ah, thank you, my love.” Vasily smiled back and took her hand, giving it an affectionate squeeze. Natalya let her hand remain in his for a few moments before pulling away and moving back towards the door.
“Do not be working too hard, Vasily,” she called, with a trace of humour in her voice. “The world will still be here in morning if you decide to relax for one day.”
“Not if Brezhnev isn’t careful, my love,” Vasily replied, half-joking. The door closed behind him. He sat in silence for a few minutes, musing over his words. Vasily fully believed that Brezhnev was the single greatest danger to the world at present, and that it was imperative that the world became aware of it. People like himself had a duty to cast light on this danger, to illuminate it and force back any shadows of doubt or indifference regarding it. Of course, a large part of the peril was Brezhnev’s repeated baiting of the United States whilst under the pretence of friendship. The United States were hardly innocent or ignorant of the proceedings, however, as they had been playing their own games of guile and forced courtship for decades. Thus the insane Cold War was perpetuated, and smaller countries surrounding the two superpowers were dragged into the maelstrom it created with very little choice in the matter. The world was a vast cauldron set over a raging fire, threatening to boil over at any moment.
Vasily glanced down at the letters on his tray. Most were the uniform tan colour of bills, but one caught his eye. It was a small white envelope, with his name and address printed in standard black typing. Vasily picked this one up and carefully ripped it open. Inside was a single sheet of paper with only three lines. However, the contents of those lines caused Vasily to sit bolt upright in his chair. It was written in Russian.
“It would appear that you were correct. The bear extents his claws to the south. I have something for you. Meet in the usual place at the usual time. Be vigilant.
Vasily’s mind raced. His correspondent was a disgruntled K.G.B. man who had access to highly sensitive material regarding Soviet activities. This man had occasionally seen fit to throw Vasily a juicy bone in the form of government secrets, and those bones had been juicy indeed. The abbreviation “N.S.M.” was how he referred to himself, the letters standing for “New Soviet Man”. It was a term used by Communist ideologists to describe the desired modern archetype among the Soviet people. They were supposed to be intelligent, strong-willed and loyal, among other things. This seemed to be a joke, although from the half-a-dozen times they had met Vasily had become fairly certain that the man did not possess a sense of humour. “The bear extends his claws to the south.” There was no doubt in Vasily’s mind as to what that could mean: the Soviet Union was preparing to invade Afghanistan. Tensions had been building for months surrounding the country and it’s in-fighting, with the capitalists and communists of the world alike looking on with interest. It would appear that matters were not proceeding in the way the Soviets had hoped they would, and that they intended to force an outcome. The Soviets had invested a lot of time and money in Afghanistan and could not afford to let her slip away. An invasion would not come as a surprise for the rest of the world, but revealing their scheme before it happened would undoubtedly have serious ramifications, even if they attempted to supress the article. It would worm its way into the public attention, and it would humiliate the leadership in Moscow. The man had something Vasily could use, a potential rod for Brezhnev’s back. At the very least it could be another small fire to set under his feet.
Of course, that would also greatly increase the frustration directed at Vasily. He could embarrass them this time, and they may not take it lying down. The thought turned Vasily’s blood to ice, and he became aware of a fine sheen of perspiration forming above his eyes and his lips. He wiped his face with the back of a shaking hand and forced himself to calm down. There was absolutely no question of not taking advantage of such a potential game-changer; this was the kind of information that political journalists hungered for. Of course, Vasily would require some hard evidence to support any story he wrote on the subject, but he had faith that it would be provided; New Soviet Man had not let him down on that front yet. “The usual time” was two o’clock in the afternoon. Vasily glanced at his wristwatch; it was a quarter to twelve. He had plenty of time, and he simply had to meet him, even if he was frightened to leave the house.
Vasily stood up slowly, gripping the desk with one hand and holding the letter in the other. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his silver cigarette lighter. He casually flicked open the lid in an upward motion with his thumb before striking the spark wheel as he brought it back down. A flame ignited in his fist, and he paused only for a moment before passing a corner of the letter through it. The flame licked the paper greedily, leaping upwards to consume it like a starving animal. Vasily turned his hand to spread the flame more evenly, strangely soothed by the destruction it caused. He stood watching the flame devour the page before dropping it into the empty waste-paper basket at his feet. There it smouldered resolutely for a second or two before extinguishing itself. Vasily wondered briefly if his next report would have that effect on the U.S.S.R. He smiled to himself, shaking his head at the thought. Foolish for him to be thinking so ambitiously at this stage when he didn’t know what information he would be receiving, or whether anything he wrote would have that kind of tenacity. But still, he enjoyed the thought nonetheless.
Filled with new confidence, Vasily turned to leave, striding towards the door. As he reached out a hand to open it, he hesitated. Glancing back over his shoulder, he looked at the untouched pot of tea on his desk. He should leave Natalya a note, rather than just leaving without a word. He scolded himself for his lack of concern, and moved back to his desk. Pulling out a plain sheet of paper from his desk drawer, he wrote a short message in his characteristically spider-like hand. It was short and to the point:
“My dearest one,
I have left on business. I should not be gone for more than a few hours. The bear sharpens his claws.
All my love,
Vasily nodded to himself and placed the note gently on the tray. With that, he straightened up and left the room. As he walked through his front door and was embraced by the London air, his fears threatened to come back to him once again. He started, one hand still on his door handle as an old lady pulling a shopping trolley passed nearby. For one ludicrous moment he expected the arthritic, white-haired pensioner to rummage into her trolley and come up brandishing a pistol. She merely tottered past him, oblivious to his wild day-time fantasies. Vasily shook his head, angry with himself and feeling more than a little bit foolish. He pulled the door closed with a resolutely firm thud in order to take control of himself before striding off into the afternoon.
A couple of hours later, after two tense train journeys and a nerve-wracking bus route, Vasily arrived at the rendezvous point. It was an area of quiet countryside, with rolling green hills in the background and ragged woodland nearby. Vasily had trudged through said woodland for a few minutes, actually enjoying the solace it provided. He now stood in front of a small church, which had clearly fallen into a state of disrepair. It was a quaint little building, with the classic weather-worn stone walls and elegant stained-glass windows associated with English country chapels. Although abandoned, it was still a fairly impressive building, with its tower and steeple soaring proudly and defiantly above the landscape. Vasily was not religious, but he still felt a thrill of appreciation whenever he approached a church, which was often mixed with a feeling of sadness at their neglect in the modern age. They were examples of a cultural heritage, and should be preserved in his opinion. Perhaps he would write a paper on the subject one day, if he found the time. He sighed in resignation and set off up the path towards the entrance. As he passed through the graveyard, his mind whispered that the decrepit, moss-strewn gravestones must be an omen of some kind, a thought which he angrily and forcefully dispelled. There was no question of turning back now.
Vasily pushed open the heavy door and was immediately assaulted with a mixture of scents; a trace of spicy incense, a whiff of damp paper and the pervasive odour of mouldy wood. The stained-glass windows generated a soft glow within the church as the light passed through them, and dust motes swirled in front of him as a breeze disturbed them. Vasily walked inside the church, noting how his footsteps echoed ominously around the building. Leading up towards the altar were five rows of wooden pews with a pathway in between them. Vasily’s informant was seated on the second pew from the door on the right-hand side.
New Soviet Man was as Vasily remembered him: large. He was tall even whilst sitting, with broad shoulders and a shaved head. He had intimidated Vasily the first couple of times they had met face-to-face, as he had a dangerous quality about him. He supposed that was to be expected; after all, you could hardly expect an agent of a powerful national security organisation to appear meek. He was also wearing a tan-coloured trench-coat, which was odd. It looked like something out of an American sleuth drama on television. Vasily assumed it was just another example of the man’s strange sense of humour. He approached the pew behind the man, feeling nervous. Previous meetings with him had always been short and sweet, a quick relay of information followed by some form of proof. Vasily hoped today would be the same, as he felt distinctly uneasy this time. He sat down behind New Soviet Man, unsure what to do. The man was slumped forward with his head resting on the pew in front of him, his arms on his knees. He appeared to be praying silently, another surprise to Vasily. He glanced at his watch. It was ten minutes to two; he was early. He decided not to disturb him right away and sat in awkward silence as he waited.
Minutes passed slowly. Vasily began to fidget in his seat. He was sure the man must have heard him enter. He didn’t expect him to stop his religious contemplations right away, but he had hoped that he might hurry it up a bit. They had important matters to discuss, possibly world-changing matters. As the seconds and minutes dragged past, Vasily felt his impatience becoming unbearable. Perhaps his extended residency in Britain had caused him to absorb that country’s culture of excruciating politeness, as he found himself resisting the desire to interrupt the man and seize his attention. In fact, he was certain that five years ago he would have done just that without any such internal dithering. After nearly fifteen minutes had passed Vasily finally forced himself to clear his throat. The soft noise echoed weirdly around the church, reverberating duly off the cold stone walls. New Soviet Man did not move or show any indication that he had heard the noise. Vasily grew angry quickly. He repeated the action, more loudly this time. The man did not move.
“Excuse me, comrade,” Vasily broke the silence with a sharp, irritated outburst in Russian. “I see that you are occupied, but deliberately ignoring me is extremely rude. I have travelled a long way to speak with you and I will not treated in such a manner. Now, kindly end your prayers and tell me what were are dealing with today.” Satisfied, Vasily folded his arms and waited expectantly. Still New Soviet Man did nothing. He simply sat there, slumped forward in silence. Vasily started to feel uneasy again. He leaned forwards slowly, stretching out his right arm.
“Erm, excuse me? Are you listening to me?” Vasily grasped the bald man’s shoulder and gave it a vigorous shake. New Soviet Man’s upper body moved with the motion, his forehead scraping along the pew in front of him. Vasily let go, and watched with alarm as New Soviet Man began to slide to the right. His head lifted from the pew as his body listed sideways and he collapsed onto his side without a word. His eyes were wide open and glazed over, his mouth slack. There was an indentation on his forehead from the pew. New Soviet Man was dead.
Just as Vasily’s mind was feverishly attempting to process this information, he heard the muffled creak of a floorboard behind him. Without thinking Vasily threw himself to the right. As he moved he heard the rapport of a gunshot and a bullet smashed into the pew in front of him, passing through air where his back had been half a second before. The wood was old and belched out a shower of dust and splinters, coating Vasily’s prone body. He rolled to his left and fell to floor between the pews, his heart hammering in his chest. He heard a voice curse in Russian followed by quick footsteps. Vasily lurched forwards in a crouched run, barrelling down between the pews towards the wall. He reached the end of the bench and turned left towards the front of the church. Another bullet shattered the wood next to his head, ripping a cry of fear and panic from his lips. Vasily ducked his head and ran forwards, keeping low. Gunshots fired twice more, with one bullet ricocheting off the wall to his right and burying itself in the floor. Panic flooded Vasily as he ran; it was a trap! New Soviet Man had been murdered and no-one else knew where he was this afternoon. He was in an abandoned church in the middle of nowhere with a gunman on his heels. He should never have come in the first place!
As Vasily reached the front row, he was momentarily wracked with indecision. Now what? The pews had provided rudimentary cover from his assailant, but another step and he would be exposed. The door to the vestry was to his right, but it was securely locked with a padlock. The only thing in front of him was the stone altar, a mute sentinel observing the ensuing chaos with indifference. Vasily whimpered in desperation and ran towards the altar, making himself as small a target as possible. Two more shots were fired. He felt a bullet flash past his left arm, hearing the material of his jacket tear as it was nicked in its path. The second bullet hit him in the shoulder like a tiny freight train. Pain exploded through Vasily’s arm and he screamed. He dove forwards, landing heavily on his right and desperately scrambled behind the altar. Blood seeped out of his now useless arm, rapidly staining his shirt and jacket. He leaned his back against the stone, eyes closed, panting.
There was nowhere else to go. The pain in his shoulder was incredible and he knew that he was going into shock. Footsteps slowly approached the altar. Desperately, Vasily cast his eyes to and fro, seeking something, anything that could help him. He spotted what appeared to be a large piece of wood on the floor next to him. He reached for it, groaning as the movement sent fresh waves of pain through his arm. His fingers curled around the object and he hefted it. Blinking through tears, Vasily brought it close to his face and peered at it. Despite the situation, the realisation of what the object was caused Vasily to laugh weakly. Nestled in his trembling hand was a heavy wooden crucifix bearing a carved figure of the corpse of Jesus. So it had come to this: Vasily’s only hope lay with the physical symbol of a religion he had never believed in, despite the attempts of his parents and his country to force it upon him. He noted the irony of the situation with distaste. Not that it would be particularly effective against a gun, not unless he became impervious to bullets through divine intervention. Vasily judged that it would be somewhat unlikely to happen.
A shadow fell across the wall in front of him and steadily grew larger as the gunman crept closer. With an effort Vasily bunched his legs underneath him and rose up slightly. He groaned as his legs threatened to reject his body weight, but his right hand held the crucifix in a vice-grip. If his enemies wanted him to die, then at least he would not die a coward. God knew that he had nearly been reduced to one recently. But no more.
Vasily waited until the slow, cautious footsteps were right beside him. As a shining black boot became visible past the altar, Vasily sprung upwards, screeching wildly. He spun on his heel and struck out with as much force as he could muster. He had misjudged how close his attacker had approached, and so hit an outstretched arm instead of their skull. Wood struck flesh with a dull thud, and the hands holding the pistol were jerked downwards. The gun went off, punching a hole into the floor between Vasily’s feet. The attacker cried out in surprise and pain, but Vasily barely registered it. He raised the crucifix quickly, this time focusing his full concentration on the head of his assailant. He suddenly noticed that the head was covered with long, shining black hair. The head came up…and Vasily froze. That beautiful face, those hard blue eyes…
“Natalya?” Vasily croaked in disbelief. He couldn’t move. That face darkened, and the gun swung back up. The second-to-last thing to go through Vasily’s brain was a combination of shock, incomprehension and fear. The last thing was a bullet. Blood spattered across the altar, crimson droplets disturbing decades of dust on its surface. The crucifix dropped to the floor from his fingers, clattering on the ground just before his body thumped down heavily. He had fallen backwards, his body forced back by the fatal impact.
Natalya stood over her husband’s corpse. A strange mixture of emotions were bubbling inside her: elation, relief, sadness and pity. However, she did not feel regret. She had loved Vasily in her own way, but she would always follow her orders. Emotions could stand in the way of orders, and so she had learned to block them out. Besides, it had not been her fault that the foolish man had had such grand delusions about publically shaming the Soviet Union. His work had been noticed, and he had become a nuisance. Marrying him had been an ideal way in which to get close to him, to keep an eye on his findings and report back to her superiors. She had known this day would come, and somehow she knew that the task would have fallen to her. How terrifying it must have been for him during those last minutes to realise that he had been right all along, she thought sadly. His paranoia had not been unfounded.
Natalya gingerly felt her left wrist and winced. He had struck her quite hard with that damn cross, there was sure to be some bruising there. Strange how the mild little journalist had proven more difficult to silence than a large, well-trained K.G.B. man. She shook her head. Although she had not once panicked during the confrontation, she had still managed to waste seven bullets before she had managed to take Vasily down. She had not fired so many shots at a target since her very first kill. It had been sloppy work today, and her kind were not supposed to be sloppy. Perhaps it was due to her age – she was not old yet, but forty was old for someone in her line of work. No matter, the job was done. Natalya turned from the body of her husband and walked calmly out of the church. The Soviet plans would go ahead with one less threat. One less buzzing fly to swat. She did not look back.