Part 2 of the latest tale from the Exclusion Zone
(READ PART 1 HERE)
- LOOSE BOOTLACES
Nikolai Sokolov, the accountant from Vladivostok, was an idiot.
To be honest, Yuri hadn’t actually met Nikolai yet – another thing he had neglected to tell Zakhar – only two thick necked byki named Kaspar and Gleb who wore silk suits and said they were acting ‘ex parte’ for their boss. Their fancy clothes hadn’t covered all the temhota ink but Latin in their mouths was like a diamond earring on a pig. Yuri had been five seconds from making an excuse to turn them away but then Kaspar had tossed over that wad of bills as a ‘retainer’, and Yuri had decided he could overlook such inconsistencies.
But now Mr. Sokolov and his two shaved head associates were late, which made Yuri angry. Being disrespectful to the Zone was not a quirky incongruity; it was the kind of mistake that landed you in a shallow grave.
Of the half-a-dozen unofficial routes into the Zone, Yuri had decided to bring them in through the ‘Gazprom Gate’: the service track for the old gas pipeline that ran through the Northern cordon fences. It was one of the known weak points in the perimeter, so the area was under regular surveillance, but it was a straight shot to exactly where Sokolov and his bulked-up assistants wanted to go. A brisk hike, they could be there before sunset with low risk.
Besides, the local Zone Security garrison commander was notoriously strict about patrol times and routes – punctuality he was no doubt well compensated for – which was precisely why Yuri had specified a 04:30 start; it was dead center of a twenty-five minute window between drone flyovers. Several other stalkers who had been waiting nearby were already gone.
Yuri glanced at his watch and peered down the logging road for the twentieth time. His old Vostok read 04:41 but he didn’t need it to tell him morning was near. He could feel the sun creeping toward the horizon, bringing exposure with it. The heavy, pre-dawn darkness would only last a few more minutes.
Normally he would have breathed in these moments as ballast for the journey. Pungent soil and pine sap, the last of the night’s wind in the trees… these things centered Yuri against the strangeness on the other side of the fence. But this morning there was only bitterness in his mouth like cigarette ashes he couldn’t spit out, and that made him doubly angry. No ballast and a delay. Two problems and he hadn’t even begun.
Yuri wondered if this was an omen – a bad start to a bad idea that could only end badly. Delays, he’d learned, were like loose bootlaces: comfortable at first, but guaranteed to trip you later, always at the worst possible moment. Backing out was not an option, the retainer was spent. But if the accountant didn’t arrive soon, Yuri would have no choice but to reschedule.
It occurred to him to do it anyway, to teach these Vladivostok boys some manners. Problem there was Kaspar and Gleb had been very explicit about Mr. Sokolov’s ‘itinerary’, and they hadn’t come off as the flexible type.
The Vostok’s illuminated hands were passing 04:43. No accountant. Suddenly everything Yuri was carrying got slightly heavier.
And then, as if the devil had heard instead, there was music – the throbbing, thumping, shouting, nightclub kind.
It grew louder, closer. Its beat shattered the cool morning stillness. White headlights flared between black tree trunks as a civilian car raced up the logging road toward the stand of pines where Yuri waited.
His jaw dropped.
Seconds later, a dark, sinuous sedan skidded to a stop in front of him. It crouched in the swirling dust, sleek and shiny, beaming incandescent white-blue light into the forest, pulsing noise like a giant alarm clock teleported from a robot future. The grill emblem was Mercedes. The windscreen sticker had a Vladivostok registration.
Хера се, Yuri groaned.
As he spoke, the music cut, the lights snapped off, and out stepped Kaspar and Gleb. They were swathed in brand new Halti foul weather gear. Fur ushankas covered their bullet smooth heads. Neck-tattooed Kaspar came around the hood and nodded at Yuri. Pointy nose Gleb stepped back and opened a rear door. A young man emerged with a sneer and a tan. He immediately held up a phone.
“No fucking bars out here. How am I supposed to log on VKontacte in this place?” he said.
The byki folded their arms and waited as the young man huffed and stomped beside the car, waving his phone.
Gleb tried. “Mr. Sokolov,” he began. “This is Yuri Bonyev. I want to — “
Nikolai Sokolov looked Yuri up and down, then scowled. “This? This is all I get for my five thousand? One wrinkly ostolop?”
“Boss,” Gleb continued, “He was recommended. He’s made the trip dozens of times. Best in the area—“
But Nikolai Sokolov was back jabbing at his phone screen with one long, manicured finger. “This is a fucking joke. Take me home. Who cares about this irradiated cow-shit place, anyway?”
Little alarms were blaring in Yuri’s mind now. He opened his mouth to speak, but Kaspar motioned with one hand for him to hold back. The byki shrugged his bowling ball shoulders as if to say, This is how he is. Give it a moment.
Another minute of phone waving before Nikolai Sokolov heaved out a sigh. “Fine, fine. Let’s just get this fucking over with and get out of here, so I can tell my father I did it.”
He made a show of sliding his phone back in his pocket.
“Well?” he snapped. “What are you waiting for?”
Kaspar and Gleb moved to the Mercedes’ rear and pulled three digi-cam rucksacks from the trunk. Yuri couldn’t help but notice they were new issue, Russian military. Slouched against the fender, a sullen Nikolai radiated the indignant resignation of a man forced to pay a heavy speeding ticket or undergo a doctor ordered colonoscopy.
There was a slam, the chirp of a security system, and the three men stepped away from the car toward Yuri.
Yuri was incredulous “What are you doing? You can’t just leave that there.”
Nikolai looked at him like he was soft. “Of course I can.”
“No, you can’t. The security patrols go through here four times a day. It’ll get spotted.”
Nikolai Sokolov shook his head at Kaspar and Gleb. “This is the best guy in the area, hunh?”
He sneered at Yuri. “We paid that piece-of-shit Major enough money, he should wash and wax the fucking thing. Now can we go into your Ukrainian Dead Disneyland or whatever the fuck it’s called?”
Yuri’s blood went cold. “The Zone. It’s called the Zone.”
“Whatever,” the accountant said, and shrugged past him into the tree line. “First thing we’re going to do is put up some cell towers.”
to be continued…