April 11th, 1943
The abandoned apartment's corridors echoed with the booming, patronizing voice of their commanding officer. He paced up and down the small disheveled room that made for what he called their "headquarters," addressing all the agents that stood before him. There was one agent conspicuously absent, 909. She had been captured and turned over to the local militia. No doubt, she was already being interrogated as he spoke to them. The agents all had despondence and shame worn plainly on their faces, as this had been the second failure to destroy the American in a row. Chertov was well in his place to be furious. At least, that is what 340 told herself as he ranted on and on.
"That was an colossally stupid thing to do!" he spat in indignation. "Now that 909 is in the hands of the militia, it's only a matter of time before she gives us away. This will compromise the entire mission!"
Chertov's heavy steps shook the floor as he came to 340, staring squarely into her blue eyes with his scowling dark chocolate brown ones. 340 instantly felt like wheat cut down before the reaper's scythe as Chertov silently demanded an explanation for this atrocious failure. She hesitated, her eyes and lips trembling in fear of what he might say or do no matter what explanation she gave. This was a grave injustice not just to the mission and to her superior, but to her comrade-in-arms as well. She gulped a hard lump in her throat as she slowly formed a sentence.
"909 told me to go and leave her, sir."
"And you fucking did it?!" Chertov screamed, gripping on the blonde's collar out of frustration-induced impulse.
His dark chocolate brown orbs almost turned red with demonic rage.
"Are you not the ranking officer of the squad? Since when does a sergeant take orders from a fucking junior officer?!"
340 never felt so helpless and intimidated. Cold sweat was dripping from her forehead. His grip was so strong, she felt almost lifted up off the ground. Her frightened legs were on the verge of collapsing at any moment, as if he was about to drop her from a great height. There was a strong fire in her superior's eyes, and she feared she would be thrown into it. Who knew what this boy was capable of when given the opportunity to lash out.
"With all due respect, comrade Lieutenant," 340 shakily rebutted, terrified of the fury in Chertov's face, "the boy was armed. Even if I did try to retreat with 909, he would have gotten both of us."
Chertov was silent, and his scowl only deepened. Perhaps the fact she had a point was what made his mood so foul, she thought as he turned away from her in a angry huff. As he walked down the line of agents again, 271 spoke up in defense of 340. That stopped him right in his tracks.
"I agree it is a very fragile situation, but 340 is right. If she tried to extricate 909 from the house, both of them would be captured, and we would be short two squad mates instead of one. That would make this predicament all the more dire."
Again, Chertov was silent, coming to terms with the fact that 271 and 340 were right in this case. Having one agent captured was better than two, but it still meant they were all at risk. Unless something was done quickly, the entire operation would likely fall apart. Chertov walked to the wall and rested his head against it, sighing tiredly. Why did revenge have to be so complicated? And why did it have to be so difficult?
The redheaded girl stepped forward, lacking in any of the fear or trepidation 340 had experienced in that moment.
"You know 909 personally, do you not?"
"I do, sir."
"How long do you think until she cracks?"
"It is impossible to tell, however it is vital we move quickly."
"I know that already. I don't need you telling me, 578…"
578 stepped back into line, noting that Chertov was done hearing platitudes and inanities of what must or must not be done. 340 took up on 578's sentiment, and offered a plan of action. In the end, this was her responsibility. The mess 909 was surely in now was her fault, and she would make this right.
"If I may, sir, we should get her back before she talks."
"Very original of you, 340," Chertov retorted sarcastically. "And how do you propose we go about that? Who's going to get her back from the militia? You?"
"Yes, sir," she said firmly. "I left her behind, so I will take full responsibility."
Chertov chuckled…somewhat threateningly. 340 felt regretful for even offering the idea of a rescue mission as her superior slinked up to her. His boots heralded a fate that seemed worse than death or discharge. To earn the ire of this young officer was to earn the wrath of Hell itself. His brown eyes flashed as the morning light shone through the windowpane, and she felt the Devil staring her down. His gaze burned through her civilian clothes, underneath her cloak and hood, and burrowed into her soul until she felt she would collapse on the spot. Yet she could not look away no matter how much she tried. She was not afraid but rapt.
He cracked a smile and he breathed on her lips,
"Your sense of duty to your comrades is admirable, 340. This matter will be left to you, then. I have only one warning to give you: do not fail me again."
340 could only salute in response, fearing a simple "yes, sir" or "I'll try, sir" would not be sufficient even for him. Through it all, she still did not know, even at this stage, what they were doing here or why this boy had to suffer. She still understood nothing. All she understood was the need to save her comrade.
Denisov continued to tap his foot in sync with the clock on the wall, as Katarina stood at attention awaiting orders, any orders at all. It had been 5 hours since the detachment on night watch brought the perpetrator back to the office. Since that time she had been held in the brig until the interrogation room had been made ready. He had been off-duty at the time, and Katarina was at home on the other side of town, sound asleep and unknowing of what transpired in the wee hours of the night. There was a quiet excitement in her, as this had been the first major incident the militia had to deal with since her enlistment. Although she participated in nabbing a criminal or two, it was usually because of petty theft or drunk and disorderly conduct. An attempted assault coupled with breaking and entering was a step far beyond anything Katarina had been accustomed to.
She hoped she might have a chance to see the prisoner face to face and actually take part in the interrogation, though if she knew Denisov well, she wouldn't get anywhere near the prisoner. She wouldn't even get to talk with her while her officer did all the talking. In fact, what would Denisov even ask? It's not like a criminal would have much reason to break and enter other than to steal something of value. And who would target Peter Daniels for the object of robbery and assault?
At that moment, Vasili's words were recalled to her, as he shared his fears, his suspicions and his anxieties with her on that long walk together while on solitary patrol. Vasili often told her about a boy who hated Peter with all of his being and would not rest until either he was dead or someone stopped him. Even though she put in an investigation order, nothing had come of it. What else could she expect? It was not likely that the militia would stick their nose into the business of a conspiracy based solely on the suspicions of a young boy, and one who had only recently been picked up off the streets. His fears could very well have been the ranting and raving of a madman.
Yet it was that same madman who treated her with respect and dignity, so lacking among her officers and other enlisted men. It was that same beggar who looked at her merely as another human rather than a lowly militia soldier, and one of the only female soldiers at that. It was that same scruffy vagabond who called her his friend, a title no one seemed interested in pursuing among her ranks. Seeing him again would be the balm soothing her frustration and mitigating the disappointment she would surely face before the day was over. She would have to call upon the Daniels residence when this matter was done and ask if Vasili could meet her again.
At that moment, a knock came on the door.
"Enter," Denisov said, disinterestedly.
A corporal in his early twenties came in, and saluted Denisov.
"Lieutenant, the prisoner has been brought to the interrogation room. Everything is ready; they're waiting."
Denisov smiled expectedly and turned to Katarina.
"Excellent. Private First Class, it is time."
Katarina said nothing but only slung her rifle over her shoulder, following Denisov and the corporal out of the office and to the interrogation room. She was still expecting to be barred from seeing the prisoner.
The militia office, despite being modest in size, proved to have a variety of rooms of varying purposes. The major had his own private office tucked away in the back, which was only open in special extenuating circumstances. Various aides and lieutenants had their shared spaces to discuss the latest maneuvers, training, and incidents around town. However, far in the back part of the militia office was an interrogation room, used very rarely in the event of policemen being unable to detain extra criminals; in times of war, the police force was short on manpower and relied on local militias to assist in keeping order.
The interrogation room was small, little more than 10 by 15 feet. The ceiling was low, and there were no windows to the outside. Perhaps the feeling of complete isolation from the rest of the world was a method of subjugating the prisoner, forcing him or her to reveal what he knew, lest his or her eyes never again see the sights of trees and hear the joys of birds chirping.
Denisov opened the door to the room, a column of light shining its way to the wall. In the middle of the room was an oak table with a chair seated behind it. In the chair sat what Katarina thought to be a teenage girl, no younger than she. The girl had an azure cloak draped over her shoulders, concealing what looked to be a white frilled blouse and matching pants. Her head was drooped down like the branches of a willow, showcasing her fiery orange hair in a double bun. She hardly seemed the character for attempted burglary.
Katarina stepped to the right of a lamp hanging over the girl.
"Zaitseva, hit the light. Corporal, you may leave us."
Katarina turned on the lamp, timing it perfectly with the corporal shutting the door behind them. The lamp cast a ring of illumination around the prisoner, who refused to look up at her captors. Katarina could hear the girl breathing through her teeth in frustration as Denisov turned his eyes to her. She could almost feel the heat from her breath as Denisov leaned over the table. He spoke, directing his words at her.
"Lift your head."
The girl said nothing, only breathing through her teeth. Frustration kept her silent.
"What's wrong? Don't want to look me in the face?"
She raised her head, her strange gold eyes staring at Denisov, as if her mere gaze was enough to strike him down dead. Denisov was undeterred, and about to begin the interrogation when the girl spoke up.
"Where am I? And who the hell are you?"
"That's not important," Denisov said. "What's important right now is who you are. Now, I'm going to ask you a bunch of questions and I'd like to have them answered immediately. Do you understand?"
The girl refused to answer. Her breathing was heavy and filled with more anger than before.
"I said do you understand?" Denisov repeated.
Again, no answer. Denisov turned to Katarina and nodded. Katarina only nudged the girl with the butt of her rifle in response.
"Just answer," Katarina coaxed.
"Speak only when spoken to, Private First Class," Denisov snapped.
Katarina instinctively shut up immediately, and Denisov continued with the interrogation. However, the girl's defiance portended what was to come for its entirety.
"What is your name?" Denisov asked.
"I have no name," the girl muttered angrily.
"Well, that's rather odd," Denisov laughed. "A human with no name? Did your parents forget to give you one when you were born?"
Yet again, the girl refused to speak. Her eyes contorted to a hard glare, determined to silently beat him into submission. However, Denisov was stronger than that. He was a grown adult, after all.
"What is your name?" he asked again.
"I can't give you my name," she grumbled. "Even if I did, it would mean nothing to you."
"Are you sure about that?"
"I won't ask again: what is your name?"
"I SAID I CAN'T GIVE IT TO YOU!" the girl screamed, a frayed strand of her orange hair falling between her eyes.
"Then what can you tell me about yourself?"
The girl again remained silent, looking more worn than before, but it was clear her stalling was working. Denisov removed his officer's cap and straightened out his hair before proceeding onward. Katarina knew the interrogation could prove explosive, as Denisov was an officer notorious for his short temper. She gripped the stock of her rifle tight, tight enough to leave her fingers numb. Denisov was known to give her and many other soldiers a verbal lashing on patrol if they were to misspeak, but she shuddered to think what kind of punishment he would give this young girl.
"Come now, let's be sensible," he started again. "We have three witnesses, all of whom can put you at the scene of the crime. We found you detained by Daniels himself. You have no alibi, no excuse. Unless you want to make this harder on yourself, I suggest you start talking."
"And if I don't?"
Katarina nudged the girl in the shoulder with her rifle butt, more forcefully than before. The girl winced in pain as Denisov smirked, hoping his message was now clear.
"That is what awaits you. Now, again, your name."
"I can…only give you my code number."
"What is it?"
Denisov scribbled the number down in a notepad in front of him.
"Now, why would you have a code number? Are you a spy?"
"Maybe I am, maybe I am not."
"You're trying my patience, little girl," Denisov spluttered. "If you cooperate, this whole thing could go a lot smoother. Now why don't you tell me what you were doing at the Daniels residence?"
"Fuck you," she said abruptly.
"Daniels said there was another girl with you. Who is she and why did she leave you to be captured?"
"What were you two doing invading the Daniels residence in the middle of the night?"
Katarina looked back at the girl and then at Denisov. Things were definitely getting intense by each question and insult that ping ponged across the table. She could already sense an aura of impatience, agitation, and anger coming from her superior. It was only a matter of time before this interrogation turned ugly.
"Who else are you working with?" Denisov asked.
"Kiss my ass, you son of a bitch!" screamed 909.
Katarina struck 909 on the back with her rifle butt, trying to coerce her and keeping this interrogation from spiraling out of control. She may have to stop Denisov if things got out of hand.
"Just talk to me," Denisov said, frustrated. "It's your only way out of this."
"Don't you morons get it?" 909 hissed rancorously. "If you really think your state-sponsored brutality can break me, you have no clue who you are dealing with."
909 breathed heavily, unflinchingly glaring at Denisov. She was not giving up easily.
"I have nothing to gain from talking to you."
"Think about what you have to lose."
Denisov turned to Katarina and as she was about to give her a hard jab, 909 did something unexpected. Katarina heard what sounded like hocking from the sinuses. Then a projectile flew across the room, landing right on Denisov's cheek as he turned it. Katarina looked down at the prisoner and saw she had spittle hanging from her lips. She spat on her officer's face.
Katarina could visibly see the silent wrath building up in Denisov, as he calmly wiped his face and cleaned his mustache with a white handkerchief. There was an errant twitch in his eyes, betraying the rage that was about to explode in the room. He was trying to maintain the facade that he was in control as he put his officer's cap back on. The facade had not only cracks in it, but outright gashes. She tightened her grip on her M1 Garand, knowing of what was about to come. In fact, it came almost immediately, but not as she expected it to.
909 leaped up and tried to grab Katarina's rifle, wrestling with her for control of the firearm. Denisov immediately rushed over to her defense and pulled 909 away from her, only to receive a punch in the gut and then the eye, knocking him down as she again tried to wrest the rifle from Katarina's hand. However, Katarina swung her rifle like a cudgel and landed a blow on 909's head, throwing her off.
"CORPORAL!" Denisov called frantically. "GET IN HERE, QUICK!"
The door flung open, and in rushed the same corporal that had guided them both into the room. The corporal quickly subdued 909 with a clubbing of his pistol. 909 fell to the floor in a crumpled heap, and the corporal quickly slapped handcuffs on her before dragging her out of the room. Denisov spoke harshly.
"Put her back in her cell. She is obviously not going to cooperate. And don't let her get anywhere near me again."
Katarina and Denisov were left alone, as he tended to his subordinate. She ran her hands over her body to make sure nothing was bruised or broken. There was only soreness and frustration to be felt.
"Did she hurt you?" Denisov asked.
"I don't think so," Katarina replied. "Seems to me gleaning any information from her will be difficult."
"Don't remind me. We'll get nothing out of her at this rate."
Denisov opened the door and led Katarina out of the interrogation room and back to his office, his anger evident with each hard step he took. His boots practically shook the floor with the force of an earthquake while he pondered and wondered what could be done regarding the prisoner. Evidently, nothing they had at their disposal here was going to work. The agent was a tough nut to crack.
As he came back into his office he immediately went to the phone and dialed the operator. Katarina in the meantime was confounded with what could be done now. Unless they had a tougher interrogation, one where the prisoner could be readily controlled, the information they needed to continue with the investigation would be hard to come by.
"Sir, what do you propose we do?" Katarina asked.
Denisov raised a hand, indicating for her to wait while he was on the phone.
"Operator, connect me to Battery Fremont, please…yes, I'll hold…"
"Lieutenant, who are you calling?"
"We might not have the means to extract any information here, but there is a detachment who can."
Katarina tilted her head to one side in confusion.
Denisov shushed her as someone evidently came on the line.
"Hello? Is this Captain Wallace of F Company?…Yes, 303rd Regiment…this is Lieutenant Denisov. Look here, there is a situation down here in Mill Valley that we'd like your help on."
Katarina leaned in to try and catch what this "Captain Wallace" was saying on the other end of the line. She could barely make out his voice as Denisov swatted her away.
"Yes, we found someone at the Daniels residence forcing an entry. We've been trying to get some information out of her, but unfortunately, no dice…I don't suppose you…you do? Excellent! When can we arrange a transfer?…Next week?…Perfect. I shall send a detachment over with the prisoner on the 18th, then…Thank you, sir. Goodbye."
Denisov laughed triumphantly as he rubbed his hands together in anticipation. The stage was set.
"I assume everything worked out, sir?" Katarina asked, though she knew full well the answer.
"Yes," Denisov smiled in response. "I knew Wallace wouldn't let me down. We shall have her over there in seven days' time."
Katarina took a step back, visibly surprised. Surely it would give whoever the girl's accomplices were enough time to stage a retrieval. If 909 was lost, it meant they were back at square one, with nothing but suspicion and the report of a local hero to go on.
"Seven days? Lieutenant, wouldn't you say that that is a bit too long a wait for a prisoner transfer?"
"The Captain didn't offer any other time to take the prisoner. Until then, we keep her under lock and key."
She knew better than to argue the point with him, as much as she disagreed with it. Denisov was surely on edge after receiving physical assault and spit from a prisoner. At the same time, she knew this was folly. It would be much better and safer to transfer her quickly and thereby act on the gathered information sooner. This was merely inviting aggression. If Vasili asked why things would play out as she knew they would, she would only say to speak with her commander.
April 18th, 1943
Two red eyes peered at a Studebaker truck that sat idling in front of the militia office beneath a blue cloak and hood. For seven days, they waited for a development. For seven days, they were denied any such progression of events. However the arrival of a transport heralded something. The two red eyes narrowed when they saw three soldiers escorting someone out of the front door. They squinted hard, trying to see through the escort for the more important person: the prisoner.
She stuck out like a sore thumb with her cloak draped over her shoulders. Evidently, in only about a week, she had been spiritually shaken. A thatch of her orange hair hung between her eyes, her double bun fraught with strands and frays. Her golden brown eyes looked tired and weary, on the verge of surrender. It was clear that even if she had not given anything away yet, it was vital to get her back, lest the militia breathe down their necks. They already were.
The prisoner was loaded into the back of the truck, and the three guardsmen followed. With a revving of the engine, the truck drove away slowly, heading out into the wooded area to the west. the two eyes watched intently as it coasted further and further down the road, out of town. However, where that truck was going was anyone's guess. But the owner of the two red eyes had one reasonable lead. A feminine voice called on a communicator.
"Alpha Squad, this is 12. Truck has left the town and is heading west to Point 4-1-2. 909 is confirmed to be in the truck. Interrogative: any ideas where the truck is heading?"
"This is 340. Most likely the truck is heading to Fort Fremont. It's the only major military installation in the area."
"Understood. 578 and I won't get there in time, but you're close."
"Very. 271 and I will head over there now."
"Use caution. We don't know what quality of soldier we're up against with these militiamen."
"Roger. We'll be careful."
"And be quick, or else Chertov will have all our heads."
"And nobody wants that."
Fort Fremont, California, USA
To call Fort Fremont a major military installation was an overstatement. In truth, it was nothing more than an outpost. The garrison manning the fort was little over a hundred militiamen, armed with weapons many of their fathers had fought with. The fortifications themselves were leftovers from the Mexican War, built in the traditional Spanish Mission style, whose strategic usefulness had long past. Then again, it was not like there would be an Axis invasion. Nothing exciting ever happened here.
Fort Fremont resided in the Marin Headlands, overlooking the entrance to the bay and covered from view by the shade of tall, mighty redwood trees. Those same trees concealed three hooded figures conversing through their communicators beneath the thick trunks. 340, 271, and 578 were waiting intensely for the arrival of the truck carrying their youngest agent, 909. Tensions were running especially high, after the verbal whipping administrated by their commanding officer.
Of the three, 340 was the most determined to get her back. Responsibility for her capture weighed heavily on her conscience. If it hadn't been for her leaving, she would not have been handed over to the militia by the Daniels household. As if that were not enough, 340 still shivered in her boots frightfully at the thought of Chertov giving her punishment for failure. Fear was not always a healthy motivator. She refused to let her commanding officer invade her thoughts for this operation. Her blonde hair danced as she fervently shook her head; she needed to focus!
Minutes felt like hours as the three young ladies waited. Finally, 340 spotted a target in the distance along a curved road, piercing through the heavy woods. A Studebaker truck had pulled up and stopped to offload. From the back of the truck she could see three soldiers, no older than twenty, escorting 909 out of the truck. She had handcuffs on her, meaning she had no way of breaking free. They led her down the road and up to the fortress, where she would receive further interrogation.
She pressed on her neck and spoke softly.
"This is 340. I've spotted 909. She's under heavy guard."
"We'll have to be careful then. Can't alert them to our presence," 578 spoke up in response.
"Heads up," 271 broke in. "There's a provost detail outside the fort. I count 6 riflemen and one officer."
"We can't let the escort get to the detail. There'll be too many witnesses. We'll have to do this quickly."
The three agents made their way towards the escort, using the bushes and underbrush to screen their movements. 340 hid behind the trunk of a tall redwood on the left side of the road, and checked her equipment, searching for something appropriate to use. In order for this to work, the retrieval had to be quick and clean. The least amount of evidence had to be left behind. On her utility belt, she found something that could be of good use.
It was a metal canister with a linchpin attached. When deployed, it could release an incredible flash that would deafen and blind anyone unfortunate to be caught in its midst. It was an experimental model, and had not yet been cleared for field use. 340 reasoned it would be some time before it would ever see use, maybe not even in her lifetime. Still, it was the perfect tool for what she had in mind.
340 looked across the road, and saw that 271 and 578 had taken positions on the right side. They seemed to know already what she had planned. Either they were psychic, or had good intuition. She prayed, to whatever God did exist in this world, that this would go off without a hitch. Otherwise, there would be hell to pay from Chertov.
The escort came closer and closer, holding 909 on a tight leash. She looked visibly tired and frustrated, with dark circles under her eyes. Her hair was matted and unkempt, like she had just woken up from a long nap. It was obvious that if she went through another interrogation, she could break. They had to get her back.
As the escort reached a position perpendicular to hers, she pulled the pin off the canister and threw it towards the escort. Dark smoke came popping out of it as it hit the ground.
The soldiers stopped, wondering what had just landed in front of them. 340's muscles tensed, fearing the canister wouldn't explode and fizzle out instead. If that happened, the operation would surely get messy. They could not leave any evidence behind!
A few seconds passed as one of the soldiers prodded the canister with his rifle. The minute metal touched metal, there was a loud explosion and a blinding flash of light, like a bright star. The noise was deafening, even for 340 and the others who turned away to avoid being flashed. In an instant, they were left with a ringing in their ears, but they could not stop now. The agents swooped in with great speed, and began their deadly work.
340, being a specialist in melee combat, produced two fighting knives from her utility belt and immediately struck at the soldier closest to her side of the road. The militiaman, blinded and disoriented, was unable to respond as 340 plunged her first knife into his back. He cried in agony as 340 swiftly cut across his throat with the second knife. The soldier fell to the ground and died with a sickening gurgle, blood seeping from his mouth. 271 made for 909, still shackled by her handcuffs and promptly moved her off the road and out of harm's way, tackling her into a nearby bush. That opened the road for 578 to make her attach from the right.
As the two other militiamen slowly regained their bearings and tried to face 340, 578 came in from behind. One militiaman leveled his M1 Garand at 340, and almost fired before 578 stabbed him in the back and snapped his neck in two. The last soldier, less adequately armed, made a charge at 578, bayonet glinting in the sunlight breaking through the thick canopies. 578 blocked his attack with her fighting knife, and 340 came at him from behind, stamping on his calf. The militiaman was sent to the ground, but before he could react, 340 stabbed him in the heart, muting his scream with her hand over his mouth.
The escort was destroyed, and 909 was secured. As they removed the bodies from the road to be hidden, 271 asked 909 what had become of her during this time. More to the point…
"Did you tell them anything?"
"N-nothing useful," she said shakily.
"What do you mean, 'nothing useful?'" 578 interjected as she disposed of a body into a patch of bushes. "Did you tell them who you work for? About any of us?"
"I told them…my code number."
578 struck a hard glare at the young agent, knowing that she had let something slip.
"Nothing else. Just that."
340, seeing 909 was telling the truth, caringly put a hand on her shoulder. She smiled, the way an older sister would to her kin.
"There's nothing wrong with that, 909. You did fine."
909 nodded firmly, as 271 hid the last body. Without another word, the agents made off into the woods, and left the scene with little to no trace of what had transpired. Just as 340 had hoped would happen. At least Chertov would not bite her head off, or give her a verbal whipping. However, as they followed the road that would lead them back into town, she feared that Chertov would send them off to again try to take the life of Peter Daniels. As much as she was bound to her officer, to her country, and to this mission, she felt there was something greatly amiss about this entire operation. She had to find out what this was truly for.
April 24th, 1943
Despite having been in America for more than a month, Vasili still didn't feel like he belonged. He struggled in speaking English. His wounds were still healing, preventing him from pursuing work. School did not even concern him, as it didn't many other youths his age. In fact, he was surprised to know that Peter and Tanya still attended school when so many others dropped out for the war effort.
Most days were spent in wandering, becoming accustomed to the slower pace of life in a small town. Everything felt more relaxed and less hectic; in Stalingrad, every day was a major event, and the streets buzzed with activity. In Mill Valley, things were quieter and stress-free. He noticed as he turned a corner on a cobblestone street there were few cars around. Back in the old city, the roads would be practically jammed with automobiles, buses and trolleys. Stalingrad once had tall skyscrapers, high-rise apartments, pristine, aesthetic office buildings, and ritzy department stores. In Mill Valley, the highest building was never more than three stories, and most stores looked more like dollhouses than actual retailers. Still, he couldn't help but like this town. It was, after all, the home of his best friend and his sister's boyfriend.
Now that he thought about it, Vasili had very few friends in this town outside of Peter and his family. It was difficult, since he could not speak the language, despite his best efforts to learn. Perhaps once enough time had passed and he was forced to speak it, he could make some friends. For now, the only other person in this town he could count on was Katarina Zaitseva.
Katarina. The name still struck a favorable chord with him, his personal deliverer from a squalid life on the streets. Because of her, he didn't have to sleep on concrete. He didn't have to scrounge for spare change. He didn't have to settle for wearing rags and eating scraps. Vasili owed the existence he lived now, the life he was trying to piece back together now, to her.
What could she be doing right now? Did she serve in the militia on weekends? Surely they would give her a day off, he thought as he wandered into a small park. It had been a while since they last saw each other. She was always being dragged on patrol by her lieutenant, and he'd be damned if he let a boy like Vasili even get near her. Why was it that even after his allegations had been proven true, that he knew Peter Daniels, the militia treated him like a gadfly? It was a shame he didn't know her home address; perhaps her parents would be kinder than the smug officers and enlisted men. Then the thought occurred to Vasili: he never asked Katarina about her personal life.
Ever since he arrived in this country, his conversations with her had been driven by paranoia and fear of someone hunting him and his family. With an intruder caught, maybe this whole mess would resolve itself quietly. Maybe she would talk, and give the others away…give Chertov away. Then justice would finally be served, and they could move on with their lives. He could adjust without looking over his shoulder, live a life of peace.
As he contemplated all of these possibilities, his heavy steps on the cobblestone walkways in rhythm, Vasili spotted someone he thought he recognized sitting on a wooden bench.
It was a young girl about his age, with short black hair cut in bangs and hazel eyes. She wore a white blouse with puffy sleeves and a knee-length deep violet skirt. To complete the pattern, the girl wore a violet ribbon around her collar, tied in a neat bow. He didn't have to think long to know who it was, and why it sent him running over to her.
The girl looked to him and smiled in recognition, waving.
"Vasili! It's been a while!"
He tried to catch his breath after running, which made Katarina laugh effeminately. Vasili had to loosen his trademark yellow scarf. Even though the weather had gotten hotter, he still refused to lose it.
"I almost didn't recognize you without your uniform," Vasili said.
"The militia gives me weekends off," Katarina explained. "One of the few perks they do give me."
"I see. May I sit with you?"
"Of course. I was starting to get a little lonely."
Vasili sat down beside her, and immediately was graced with a closer view of his only friend in this country. Katarina, despite being about his age, had a mature body to be proud of. Her wardrobe only called that further to his attention. Compared to her field uniform, she looked pristine, from another world. The uniform, dark, drag and plain as he recalled, served to hide her more attractive qualities. Compared to the Katarina in fatigues, high boots and with a rifle over her shoulder, the Katarina sitting next to him now looked like a completely different person.
I never knew how beautiful she was.
"H-how have you been?" he asked hesitatingly. "It's been a while since we saw each other."
"Alright, I suppose," she said, with a slight hint of sullenness. "Same stuff, different day, as the soldiers like to say."
Vasili instinctively knew something was wrong. He could see the apprehension and depression in her. Katarina's eyes gazed listlessly out into the open meadows in front of them, contemplating over something as if a terrible atrocity had occurred. Before he could press her on the matter, she came back at him with the same question.
"How about you? How has everything been since the intrusion last week?"
"Quiet. Too quiet, for my liking."
"How are Peter and your sister holding up?"
"Petroshka is on edge again. Right now, he has people over the change the locks on the house. Tanya is out with a friend. Speaking of, has the intruder said anything to you lot?"
Katarina visibly sunk, as if hiding something. She didn't have to say one thing; he automatically knew something wasn't right. He leaned over and spoke firmly, wishing to know what she was holding out on.
"Is there anything I should know, Katarina? Did something happen?"
Her head dipped, her melancholy hazel eyes looking down at her white ballet flats. Indeed, something did happen, and none of it was particularly good. She sighed, and spoke candidly, not turning her eyes to him. As much as the news depressed her, Vasili and the Daniels family needed to know.
"She wasn't cooperating. We couldn't get anything useful out of her."
"Is that all?"
"No," she said forlornly.
Katarina laid back against the bench, now looking up to the sky. He could swear she was about to cry, her glistening.
"My CO put in a transfer to a local outpost. We hoped they would have better luck with her than us. But before she reached the post, the escort was attacked. The prisoner escaped."
Vasili was immediately taken aback. He thought for sure the intruder would be safe under the guard of the militia. To escape so easily was inconceivable. Only through negligence or some otherworldly intervention did it even seem plausible to contemplate. Before Vasili could get another word in, a small tear ran down Katarina's cheek, hinting at persona affectation by this unexpected and unfortunate turn of events.
"Three soldiers are dead, Vasili. I knew them all. What am I going to tell their families? I can't make any kind of promise to them! I can't tell them we'll find out who did this! We don't have a single lead as to who is behind all of this! We're back at square one!"
It was obvious to anyone that Katarina was deeply affected by this, as more tears welled up in her eyes. She looked helpless and lost, with no clear way to a resolution of this crisis. Even though they had clear proof something nefarious was happening in this town, there was little evidence to act upon. Or so she thought, as she lowered her head, and a single tear fell on her violet skirt. Vasili, however, knew better, and didn't have to wonder what he could do to help.
Without a moment's hesitation, he took her hand (which he noticed was remarkably soft), and said firmly,
"No, we're not."
She looked to Vasili's strong blue eyes with a note of trepidation, her lips quivering.
"Because I know who helped that girl escape."
Katarina's head tilted slightly to one side, in confusion.
"Yes, or at least, I have a good idea who it is. And Peter does too."
"Then who was it, Vasili?" Katarina said in a sort of plea, leaning in closer to him. "Who helped her escape? Who killed those men?"
He closed his eyes for a moment, to mentally prepare an answer. In the darkness, he was greeted with a sight from his past, one he hoped he would never see again. He was plagued by the same face. Taunted by the same voice. Beleaguered by the same atrocities committed. The personage who hung like a specter over his memories and his current life only left him with a feeling of anger and betrayal. Vasili squeezed her hand affectionately as he communicated his answer.
"It's the same person who tried to kill me in Stalingrad. He's the same one who hates Peter as much as we all love him."
Katarina hesitated, as if the answer he gave was not completely satisfactory. True, that connection made Vasili a high-value person of interest, with key insight into this case. But even with all of that said, she needed something more than a vague abstraction from the memories of this young expatriate.
"Do you have a name, Vasili? I can't act on a description alone."
Now, Vasili leaned back onto the bench, listening only to the sounds of tree branches rustled by the spring wind. He thought he heard birds chirping in the distance. How ironic that the birds would sing so happily in the face of such sad news.
"His name is Junior Lieutenant Ilya Pavlovich Chertov…and he is one backstabbing son of a bitch."
1 Die…(informal imperative)