May 1st, 1943
In the week since 909's rescue, Chertov issued a new order to lay low and wait. While the first failure only resulted in raising suspicions of Peter Daniels, this latest failure not only confirmed his fears but also aroused the suspicions of the local militia. It was a close-run thing to save 909 and prevent further critical information from falling into the wrong hands. Tensions were running high, as each waited in anxiety for what would come next. 340, however, felt not anxiety but confusion.
Chertov had been obstinate in giving any details about this mission. Ever since the beginning, he was tightlipped about why the American Russian had to die, what purpose it would serve other than providing a martyr for the people to rally behind. He refused to divulge to her, or anyone in Alpha Squad, why he took the mission with no hesitation, no second thoughts, and no consideration of what may become of the war effort by Peter's demise. 340 knew if she didn't ask now, in the moment of silence between attempts, she would never know, and would hate herself for it. She was determined to get an answer.
The abandoned apartment building that provided their headquarters had some small amenities for the squad. Each had a room one could claim for personal quarters. Surprisingly to 340, the building still had running water, which meant a clean, refreshing shower awaited each member after a long day of operations. The only thing lacking was heating, which meant the waters were always cold. Still, better cold water than none.
As 340 gently trotted down the narrow corridor, she ran into 271, the only agent she was close to in the squad. Her dark hair swished as she turned to her, a white smile on her face. So dissonant from the hard-fighting, deadly, and silent assassin that assisted her in 909's rescue merely a week prior. In any other place, in any other time, without that uniform, she would be good friends with her.
"340! Happy Workers' Day1!"
"Happy Workers' Day," 340 returned sullenly.
271 raised an eyebrow.
"Why so glum? We should enjoy this day, comrade."
"I would, but there is something I need to discuss with the Lieutenant. Do you know where he is?"
"He's in the studio room. What are you planning on discussing with him?"
340 looked around, to make sure no one could eavesdrop. Any of her words could be incriminating. She ushered 271 closer and whispered,
"I need to know why we're really here."
"What do you mean?"
"271," 340 asked sternly, "we've been ordered to kill a child, and we don't even know why. Doesn't that bother you?"
271 visibly shrank, obviously troubled by that question she dared not ask.
"Of course it does," she admitted. "But you know how the Lieutenant is. If I asked, he'd bite my head off."
"I'd have rather have a bitten head than not know why we're here. No one has said a damn thing! Not the Lieutenant Colonel, not Lieutenant Chertov, no one! I'm tired of the silence!"
271 said nothing and only blinked. She could understand 340's frustration, but unlike her, she lacked the will to ask her commander. Chertov had already established a reputation for being violent and irritable. One wrong word could prompt a cruel punishment. Most of the squad went along with his plans not out of loyalty, but out of fear. For her, it was enough to keep her silent. 271 could only feel admiration for her superior to so readily stand up to the powers that be.
She hesitantly pointed 340 in the direction of Chertov's personal quarters. Down the hall, and to the left. With one resolute step, she went off in search of her superior as 271 silently wished her the best.
340 hesitantly knocked on the door to the studio room, and was about to identify herself when a voice from within called.
340 quietly opened the door and found the young lieutenant seated at a desk, pouring over the case file of their target, the one reason they were all here. A photograph of Peter hung on the wall by a knife through his face, a lethal portent of the answer that awaited 340. Chertov was hunched over and deeply fixated on the case file, looking obsessed.
Chertov looked up, and the moment his decadent chocolate brown eyes met her light blue ones, he smiled contentedly. He seemed to be delighted to see her.
"Ah, 340! Come in, come in! I don't bite…"
She wondered if the last statement was actually true as she shut the door behind her and approached the desk. It felt like walking a thousand leagues, with each step being harder than the last.
"What can I do for you, 340?"
"Actually, comrade Lieutenant, I was wondering if you could answer some questions I had."
The smile ran away from his face and was replaced with a look of inquiry.
"What about this mission has you vexed, 340?"
340 looked down at her shoes, somewhat hesitant to get to the actual question. Despite her desperation to know the truth, she still had the possibility of a verbal whipping from Chertov, or worse. She decided to approach the question indirectly.
"Come, now, 340," Chertov said impatiently. "I can't read your mind."
"W-when will we make our next move? The other squad members are rather antsy."
"Well, they better get used to doing nothing for a while. Thanks to the last failure, the entire militia is on high alert. Unless we all want to get caught in the act, we need to lay low."
At that thought, Chertov leaned over and looked again at the target case file. It held everything, even some information that none of the agents ever received. He smirked deviously as he tapped his finger on a line of print.
"But…we have one window of opportunity."
"When is that, sir?"
"Daniels' birthday. June 3rd. He'll be 17 this year."
"Are you proposing we attack then?"
"If we catch him on or near that day, it'll do tremendous damage to him mentally. Even if we don't catch him, the knowledge it will be his last birthday will leave him weak."
"So you mean—"
"Destroy him from within before dispatching him from without," Chertov said as he leaned back into the chair, smiling. "Call it what you will: Mind games. Demoralization. Psychological warfare. We weaken our prey so it cannot fight, making it easier to kill. Does that answer your question, 340?"
"Yes, sir, it does," 340 replied unaffectedly.
Her stomach turned at the very thought of this kind of torment, insidious and subtle. She had presided over interrogations of prisoners beforehand, but this was completely different. To destroy someone internally before killing him seemed torturous, like shooting a wounded animal. Nonetheless, she had to keep her head and not lose sight of the reason she came in to see him for.
"Is that all, 340?"
"No, sir. There is one other thing I wish to know."
Chertov folded his hands in his lap, and blinked. 340 inhaled deeply, bracing herself for what was sure to come after this inquiry.
"Sir," she asked, hesitantly, "I still don't know why we have to kill the boy."
The mood quickly soured as Chertov sat up, making sure he heard her correctly. Surely, he thought, this matter was settled.
"I am sure I told you and the others," he recounted, his voice threatening, "but that is not for you to know. All you need to know is he poses a threat."
"But why does he pose a threat? If I may say so, comrade Lieutenant, he's just a child. What purpose would his death serve? We'd just make a martyr out of him. He hasn't harmed our cause in any way."
Her lieutenant's eyes narrowed, as he ushered her closer. She feared the worse as her step echoed in the studio room.
"I am not at liberty to discuss in full the reasons why he must die," he said in a tone of warning. "If you are really determined to get those answers, I suggest you talk with the Lieutenant Colonel upon returning home. I cannot provide you anything."
340 wanted to say more, but the glare in Chertov's brown eyes told her not to. She feared pressing the matter further would provoke an angered response. Still, she was not satisfied, and so chose a more subtle question.
"In that case, sir, may I at least know why you chose to lead this mission?"
Chertov raised an eyebrow in confusion.
"The Lieutenant Colonel could have chosen anyone to lead the mission, but he chose you. Why?"
She thought for sure the lieutenant would lash out at her for asking something so personal, but he chuckled. He laughed for the first time in a long time. Seeing him laughing was like seeing a completely different person. Perhaps someone was masquerading as him and had stolen his uniform.
"While I cannot tell you the reasons the Lieutenant Colonel wants him dead, I can tell you why I want him dead."
340 smiled inwardly in triumph. Finally, she would get some long overdue answers. Granted, they weren't exactly the answers she was hoping for, but it was better than walking blind. Chertov surprised her by standing up and walking over to the dinette of the studio room, and turning on the faucet. He then proceeded to fill his canteen with water as he continued to address her.
"This is going to take some time to explain, so you may want to take a seat."
She did not quarrel, and found a spare chair near the windowsill. She watched as the late morning light streamed into the room, casting a yellow glow on the back of her superior, distilling through his matted brown hair.
"The truth is, 340," he continued, shutting off the faucet, "that boy and I have a history."
The revelation hit her like a bomb. Chertov never spoke about his personal life, and he made no mention of even knowing the American Russian. This new development only raised further questions. If they knew each other, why did he take the mission that would ensure his death?
"A history, sir?" 340 repeated. "Are you saying you know the target?"
"I've known him for a long time…and he and I have a score to settle."
340 sat wide-eyed as Chertov came back to his chair, took a swig from his canteen, and began to tell her stories of the past. Stories from a city that had once been a beacon of the future for their great nation. Stories of a foreigner and his son travelling the world before it would fall to ashes. Stories of a bond forged between the foreigner's son and a family of high standing. Stories of a neighbor writhing in jealousy and anger at the spotlight being stolen from him.
September 1st, 1938
The school year had started again for all of them, and the happy days of summer quickly disappeared. It felt like only yesterday when the entire city had welcomed the American and his father as if they were Soviets themselves. Chertov could only huff in anger at the thought of Peter Daniels as he turned a street corner, heading in the direction of the railway station. A cold autumn wind swept by him and sent a shiver down his spine.
He was dressed in his traditional school uniform, consisting of a black jacket and slacks over a bleached white shirt. Around his shirt collar he sported a red neck scarf, signifying he was with the Pioneers. In reality, he would be heading to the local assembly, but there was more pressing, personal business to attend to.
In the days since the American left, the aura of his neighborhood had soured. The Koslov children completely avoided him, even more than they did when the American was around. The other children grieved at his departure, as if they had all lost a close relative. What on earth were they so utterly sad about? People come and go from the city everyday; it was nothing unusual. It hardly warranted the mood of a funeral, especially from the Koslovs.
The Koslovs' daughter, Tanya, was particularly grief-stricken. Since the day Peter left Stalingrad, she made it a point to stop by the train station for a an hour or two each day, simply watching the trains go by, and waiting. Waiting for an arrival from Vladivostok. Waiting for a familiar voice to call her from the train. Waiting for a return that, in Chertov's mind, would never come. Tanya needed to move on. Two weeks had passed; the time for grieving was over.
It was more than that, however. He wanted her to forget. He wanted them all to forget. The sooner they did, the sooner things would go back to how they were. Ever since the American set foot in this city, all attention had been focused on him. The neighborhood children treated him like one of their own, inviting him in their games, taking him on tours of collective farms, even a weekend trip to Yalta2. And Chertov subsequently faded into the background. It was outrageous, and unfair. Why was everyone so smitten with the boy whose nation was meant to be their sworn enemy? The bastion of the bourgeoisie that threatened to crush their Workers' Paradise? What about the American commanded such attention, while he garnered none?
Chertov approached the station, and shuffled past a young man about his age, wearing a school uniform. He had a full head of tousled black hair, looking as if a tornado had wreaked havoc upon his head. His strong blue eyes appeared distant, searching for something he could not grasp. His steps were heavy on the wooden ramp, reverberating with the force of an earthly tremor. The wind whipped at his face and threw his yellow neck scarf into a frenzy as he stepped onto the cold pavement. Chertov paused for a moment and looked back at the walking figure. He could have sworn that was…
"Vasili…" he hissed, voice barely above a whisper.
The young man said nothing and only hurried on. Did he not hear him, or was he just ignoring him?
Chertov continued up the steps and onto the platform of the station, where he found the person he wanted to see sitting on a wooden bench, under the shade of the station's roof.
Tanya was dressed primly for the first day of school, clad in a black dress with a frilled white apron donned over it. She wore white bows in her dark brown hair, neatly combed back as if she was a secretary in an office. On her feet were black Mary-Jane style shoes complemented by knee-high white socks. Her gaze was away from him, staring down the railway tracks off into the distance. The direction was north and east, towards Siberia and Vladivostok. Beyond Vladivostok was the Pacific, and the country of the boy who was embedded in her mind. The boy he was determined to have her forget.
He approached her silently, and spoke.
"I knew I would find you here, Tatiana."
She turned her head slowly, and found him. Her face was morose, downcast and dejected. If he didn't know any better, he'd say she just experienced the death of her parents. The disconsolate gaze in her grey eyes did not deter him.
"Oh, Ilya, it's you," she said morosely. "Shto tiy khochesh'3?"
"I want to know what brings you here every day. I want to know why you are stuck in the past."
"I would think you know, already."
Chertov was unsatisfied, and pressed further, taking a few steps closer to her.
"So are you just going to waste away your life here every single day, waiting for someone who'll never come?"
"Peter WILL come!" Tanya retorted, her voice seething. "He and I promised we'd meet each other again. He swore to me he wouldn't forget me."
"Talk is cheap, Tatiana, and so are promises. Especially coming from the mouth of a bourgeois kulak."
"That is all you see in him. To me, he was…more. So much more."
Tanya's eyes began to water and her heart began to break. Nonetheless, Chertov was relentless.
"Tatiana Petrovna, that boy only stayed here for little over a month. What makes you think he's going to remember you, or any of us? He's a speck of dust! He's a feather, easily blown away by the wind! Why do you waste your time pining for that pipsqueak?"
"Because he was kinder to me and my family in one month than you have ever been in our entire lives. He was my greatest friend in this city. No, in this world."
Chertov choked at what he saw as her heart opened for the whole world to see. How could this girl be so faithful? How could girl be so certain he would return, when it was clear that any chance of this friendship lasting was close to nil?
"You're gagging me with your sentimentalism," he shot back coarsely. "I'm old enough to know friends and acquaintances come and go, like the seasons. If you're content to live in a fantasy, that is your own business. But I am here to tell you: one day, reality will smack you in the face. In a year or two, he will be forgotten in this city."
He stepped closer, now less than a foot away from her. As he knelt down to be at her level, his voice hissed with bellicosity.
"No one will remember him in that time. Not Petya. Not Natasha. Not your brothers."
He pointed an accusing finger at her, making his point crystal clear.
"Not even you."
At those three words, Tanya's brow furrowed deeply in anger. Her eyes still streaming tears, she grabbed Chertov by the neck scarf and stood up, shaking him violently. Never before had he seen her lose her temper. Always she was a calm, meek, and somewhat vulnerable girl. She exercised such control, commanded such power. It was frightening to see her so incensed about anything.
"I'LL REMEMBER HIM! I'LL ALWAYS REMEMBER HIM!" Tanya screeched, her voice cracking with sadness.
"You say that now," Chertov pressed callously, "but when you are older, you will know I'm right."
Tanya slapped him hard across the face, sending him careening to the wooden platform with a thud as she let all her grief flow, just as her tears hit the floorboards.
"And what would a egotistical thug like you know?! He was a better friend than you have ever been to me! You don't care about anyone, as long you get something from them. Peter never sought to gain anything from being my friend!"
She cried uncontrollably as she choked out her testimony to the American's sincerity of friendship.
"He was kinder to me than anyone else in his time here. More than to my brothers…more than to the other children…maybe even more than to himself. And that kindness is something I know you cannot understand…and never will understand!"
"What I understand, Tatiana," Chertov hissed as he lay crumpled on the floor, "is that you're being childish."
"Don't you DARE talk down to me!" Tanya sobbed. "All you ever did was abuse and harass Peter! You treated him like dirt, and you call me childish?! You're just angry because he stole attention away from you, like we all owe you something!"
Chertov struggled up onto his feet, and wiped his hand on his cheek. It felt blistered, as if she had slapped the skin right off it. Then as he swept past his mouth, he felt something warm, and sticky. Gently he dabbed his fingers in it and brought it to his eyes.
She drew blood from him. Chertov had so angered and provoked Tanya that she made him bleed. Now his eyes contorted into a stone cold glare at the girl before him, crying her eyes out. She struck a pathetic image, one that made him fume in rage. As she wiped away her tears, her grey eyes struck a dagger through his heart and he was powerless to stop her from delivering the conclusion of her sorrowful outburst.
"Well, I owe you nothing," she said, her voice shuddering. "You're just a bully, Ilya. A bully and a coward. I won't give up Peter Daniels! I WON'T!"
At that, Tanya ran off bawling, a trail of melancholy following in her wake. And thus Chertov was left alone to contend with her soul laid bare for him to see. As he wiped away the blood from his lip, he could not dig out from him the deep, burning feeling of rage and jealousy. That boy clearly had made his impact on everyone, especially her. It would not be the simple passage of time that would wear away the bond they had forged in merely a month. Much more would have to be done to break it. Even then, it would be hard-going before things could return to as they were before the American came. Chertov huffed angrily as he made his way off the platform.
"So that's how it is, is it, Tatiana?" he muttered angrily to himself. "You won't let go of Daniels? Fine. Then I will break him. And when he comes back…if he comes back…I'll be waiting."
He clenched his fist as he came down the steps, and made off in the direction of the assembly hall. The Pioneers were waiting.
May 1st, 1943
Mill Valley, California, USA
340 sat in silent shock after what felt like hours of a monologue from her superior. Countless stories filled with repressed anger, jealousy, and a desire for vengeance. Chertov's entire raison d'être for this mission was placed before her feet, and with it, his true nature. It wasn't just her commanding officer sitting in front of her, sipping his canteen as if he told her a simple childhood tale. He was a child in a uniform too big for him, seeking attention and recognition. A firebrand who simply wanted a thorn in his side removed and wiped from the face of the earth. 340 suppressed a desire to smack his mouth shut as he concluded the last of his tales.
"So, you see, 340, even if I could tell you the larger reasons why he must die, those aren't my reasons. As long as that bourgeois brat lives, he perpetuates the lie he created the moment he set foot in my city all those years ago."
He set the canteen down on the table, and his tone grew more resentful.
"But I say, screw that. There is no way I will ever accept that boy living in this world, receiving that undeserved praise, and being placed on a fake pedestal, worshipped like a god! I will never accept it!"
He closed statement with a bang of his canteen on the table. The force shook the floor beneath her as he eyed her expectedly, his brown orbs cutting through the afternoon light. As the bang's echo faded, 340 knew that this mission was more twisted and darker than she imagined. If she participated in the murder of a child to restore her officer's damaged pride, she would only share in his sin. If she were to be complicit in this assassination, she was doomed to the fate of a life with a heavy conscience.
"Now do you understand, 340?" Chertov asked.
"Yes, comrade Lieutenant," 340 replied. "I understand perfectly."
"Good. Do you have any other questions or demurs?"
"Not at this time, sir."
"In that case, you are free to go."
340 nodded and left, but the mood had grown blacker, as if she was emerging from Hell, after speaking with the Devil himself. She could only ask herself, over and over: how did she get mixed up in such an underhanded, dark and reprehensible mission?
She failed to find any answer that would satisfy her as she made her way down the steps of the apartment building. The lieutenant's stories of vengeance and abuse reverberated in her head as she walked through the empty streets of the little town. Chertov's crooked grimace and dark glare haunted her every time she closed her eyes, even for a split second.
In the end, all she could do was wander aimlessly through the winding streets to remove the thoughts from her mind.
Eventually, she found herself in front of the Daniels residence. The very home of the boy who caused such ire from her superior. The fulcrum of this game of intrigue, assassination, and revenge. She wondered what could be done for him, his family, and the others who knew him and loved him. No matter what would come next, 340 swore to herself she would not be a willing participant in this vengeful act of murder. From now on, she had to obstruct and hamper this plan in any way possible. Even if it resulted in her death, it would be better to die with a free and clear conscience than to live forever in shame and disgrace.
Without a moment's hesitation and without an ounce of regret in her soul, she strode up the hill to the little bungalow, being careful not to slip on the stone steps. Even if he would never know her, or what she would do, it was better she did something for him than to be complicit in this assassination.
Once she was at the top of the hill, 340 searched her person to find something, anything, that could be of warning to him for what was to come. Then she felt something in her pocket.
A notepad. A pencil.
This would be enough, she thought.
She set pencil to paper and scribbled a note of caution, forewarning him of what was to come. Even though she could not divulge more, this was better than catching him on his birthday, defenseless and ripe for a kill. The message was simple, and clear.
This will be your last birthday.
1 May 1st is known as International Workers' Day, a celebration of the international labor movement. In the Soviet Union, it was an officially recognized holiday, often celebrated with elaborate parades in major cities.
2 Yalta: A city in the Crimean Peninsula, in what is now Ukraine. During the 20th Century, it was the primary holiday resort of the Soviet Union. It received international attention in 1945 when the Yalta Conference between the Allied Powers was held there at the summer retreat of Livadia Palace.
3 What do you want?