June 6th, 1943
She was late.
Vasili tapped his foot impatiently, trying to keep himself from exploding in frustration. Surely patrolling didn't take that long. Then again, with Denisov always in charge, Katarina must be suffering from his long rants. She could also still be struggling with her injuries, having only just been released from the hospital. For two days and nights, he visited her, confided in her, and told her everything he could about the potential suspect who was the cause of all this ire and fuss.
At the same time, Vasili also began to sense feelings of attraction to the Russian private first class. It was intense enough for them to share their first kiss. That kiss established something, but he couldn't bring himself to act on it. He held back, fearing what may happen with a lunatic run amok, threatening not just Peter, but potentially Tanya and himself and Katarina as well. He had to hold back from falling for her, if only until this mess was cleaned up.
Before he could continue on in his musings, Katarina entered the cafe, and Vasili saw her. While she looked around to see where he was, he watched her through the throngs of anonymous civilians. She stood out, and stood tall from the masses. A single, beautiful flower amongst the weeds.
She wore her ordinary uniform, olive green in color, patterned after the Imperial Russian Army during the last Great War. It reminded him of a photograph he once saw in a history book, of soldiers dedicated to dying for the Tsar. That same book told of Russia's suffering in that war, before the Revolution delivered the people from the Tsar's corruption. The same Revolution that had sent countless others like her into exile all over the world. The same Revolution that galvanized madmen like Chertov to abuse and murder innocents like him.
The name made him curl his fists in anger. Malicious thoughts ran laps around his head at the thought of what he could be doing now, and what he would do if they finally met, as he was sure they would. No doubt, Chertov had found out he was still alive. If that were the case, no doubt he would also target him, and anyone close to him…including Katarina.
He would not lose her. The one person he had to depend on in this new world and new life he had forged for himself. This one strong flower that had lifted him out of the weeds and shown him the Sun.
The young boy waved his hand to get her attention. Katarina smiled and walked over to him at his table. He immediately noticed she was alone, not accompanied by her lieutenant as was usually the case. Good thing too, he thought. That stuck-up bastard would never let him get anywhere near her while on patrol.
"Good morning, Katarina," Vasili greeted her as she sat down.
Katarina leaned over and gave him a gentle kiss on the cheek. Vasili flushed at that, and felt in an instant to embrace her, and pour out everything in his heart. But that was for another day and another time.
"I was just about to go look for you," Vasili commented. "It took you longer to get here than usual."
"I know. Sorry about that. The Lieutenant told me to take my time getting to the cafe. I couldn't believe it! Denisov was actually nice to me…that was a welcome change."
"You were wounded in the line of duty," he reminded her. "It's to be expected that Denisov would be concerned."
At that, a waitress came up to their table.
"Would either of you like something to drink?"
"Yes, thank you," Katarina replied. "I'll have some black tea."
"And you, sir?"
Vasili stuttered, and tried to formulate some words. Despite being learning some English phrases from Katarina and Peter, he still had only a rudimentary grasp of the language. Clearly, when this was over, he needed to seriously pick up his slack. He whispered in Katarina's ear, begging for help.
"Kak pa-angliiski chyornii chai1?"
Katarina smiled and explained to the waitress.
"He'll have the same thing."
"Coming right up."
After the waitress left them alone, Katarina looked up at Vasili, who rubbed the back of his head in embarrassment.
"Sorry about that," Vasili said contritely. "I promise when this whole ordeal is over, I'll take some English lessons."
There was a slight pause, before they went straight to the business before them.
"How do you think those assassins reacted when they found the decoy?"
"Pretty shocked and pissed, I'm sure," Vasili chuckled. "Those hooligans are probably getting a verbal beating from Chertov."
Katarina pondered for a moment over the name of the mastermind behind Daniels' harassment. Vasili had often talked at length about him in the wake of the second home intrusion, but she still had only a vague idea of just who they were facing. He struck the image of a cunning fox and a devious serpent, hiding in the grass and waiting for a moment to strike its prey.
"I wonder what he is plotting right now."
"What is there to plot?" Vasili asked. "As long as we keep Peter's whereabouts a secret, there's nothing he can do."
"What if he figured it out somehow? Mill Valley has a tendency for gossip. In a place as small as this, nothing stays a secret for very long."
Vasili said nothing, knowing she had a point. Regardless, it was something they were determined to not let happen. God only knew what would transpire if word ever did break out. If he went off in search of him, the militia would only be trailing behind, striving to catch up. There would be hell to pay.
"Let's just hope it doesn't come to that," Katarina said quietly.
"I think we can agree there."
The waitress came back with a platter carrying their teas. As she set them down, she engaged the two youngsters in an innocent interrogation.
"Here you are. By the way, are you two together?"
Vasili did not know much English, but he certainly understood that, enough to blush and look away. Katarina giggled in response.
"Well, sort of."
"Sorry for prying," the waitress said sheepishly. "You two just seemed so well acquainted with each other. I just had to ask. Anyway, enjoy your tea."
The waitress left, and an awkward silence held them in a tight grip. As Vasili poured cream into his tea and Katarina deposited sugar in hers, both contemplated the question. In different circumstances, certainly they would be together. To him, it meant putting the question aside for another time, to settle privately and with no distraction. Especially not one that threatened their very lives. To her, it meant settling the matter now, before anything happened to either of them.
"So, Vasili," Katarina asked jokingly, "are we together?"
He turned to her with striking blue eyes, piercing like falling icicles from a cave ceiling. There was a time and a place for everything. He would gladly answer her question, if it weren't for Chertov and his goons terrorizing the place…and him.
"Katarina," he said sincerely, "I think it's best we hold off on that until another time. We have a psychopath running about trying to harm my family."
Katarina sighed, as if she saw his response coming from a mile away. The smile ran away from her face, and the mood turned more serious.
"Did that kiss in the hospital mean nothing to you, then?"
He could not help but feel a pang of hurt when she said that. Of course, it meant something. It meant the whole world to him. Never before did he feel more alive, more anchored, and more at home than he did right there beside her lying on that bed. If only that kiss had lasted longer, and he could have told her so much more then. If only Chertov had never bothered with getting revenge, and they might have a completely different conversation.
"Just because we're chasing a madman doesn't mean we drop everything else, Vasili. I don't want to leave this up in the air."
Vasili stared into Katarina's hazel eyes, hard as steel. Why wasn't he saying everything he felt right here and now? He had the courage to fight the Germans in Stalingrad. He had the resilience to live in abject misery in a warzone. He had the strength to spend days and nights living on the street with next to no comforts until she came along. Why couldn't he have that courage, that resilience, that strength to confess to her and himself at a time like this?
Peter had been right. Being honest with one's feelings was the hardest thing one could do.
"You really want an answer? Even with everything that is at stake?"
"I'd rather have an answer now than spend the next few days not knowing."
Their faces drifted closer to each other, each waiting for a response of some kind. Should he go first or should she? Could he even put everything he felt right now into words, synthesize all of his emotions into a single sentence? Or would doing so only make it simplistic?
"I can't tell you right now, but I can show you."
Before she could protest, their lips pressed, and it was enough for her. True, it wasn't all she was looking for, but in a time of tension and crisis, something this small and simple would satisfy her feelings. However, when it was all over, and when things went back to normal, both had to come to terms. Not just with each other, but themselves as well.
"That'll do," Katarina whispered against his lips, smiling. "For now. But when this is over, we need to have the talk."
After that quick exchange of affection, the two young Russians set to work, discussing all the possible moves Chertov could make, and what could be done to prevent him. She heard childhood stories, giving insight into just who they were dealing with. A bratty, slimy opportunist with a violent temper. Slimy, but smart. He was not an opponent to be taken lightly.
Whilst the agents went to the business of investigating where their target could be, Chertov frequented a tavern. The town had taken on a different aura in the night. Almost forbidding and unsettling. A low fog hung over from the mountains, and a cold wind was moving in. If he didn't know any better, he would say the town was in the middle of autumn. It had grown so cold he actually had to don a heavy brown coat to conceal him. While appearing distant and untouchable, he was in truth seeking more help.
He knew the agents could not be readily depended on to get his work done. They had failed three times to dispatch the American he so sought for. Three times were enough for him. Clearly, help was needed, and he'd be damned if he was to send a message to the Lieutenant Colonel begging for more aid. It would take weeks, perhaps months, for any assistance to arrive from there. Instead of waiting forever and potentially missing his chance to land the killing blow, Chertov chose instead to look around town for those who could be of help.
Naturally, he was not about to let on his true intention, and the very nature of his job required he seek out certain people over others. He couldn't just turn to any average man in the street for assistance in assassination. Instead he would look for the reprobates, the victims and the outcasts. Those desperate enough to turn to any job for security, even if it meant committing murder. And to make doubly sure he would find someone, he brought along something extra, tucked in the inside of his coat.
The bell rang as he entered, and he immediately noticed the difference in character compared to the tavern in the afternoon. There was no lively chatter; only the eerie sound of a piano being played in the corner. The tavern itself was almost empty, save for a few unsavory-looking characters scattered in their own corners. The bar was tended to by a lone, fat bartender with a black mustache. Strangely, the bartender didn't even ask for identification when Chertov requested a bottle of vodka be brought to him. Only that he pay for the full bottle.
He sat down at a long wooden table, nervously rubbing his shot glass with his fingers, scanning the room for any potential collaborators.
A slovenly man downing a mug of beer in a booth, with an equally slovenly woman beside him. Two youngsters drunkenly singing the melody of the piano. A well-dressed lady fiddling with her margarita.
None of them seemed appropriate enough for the job. That is, none who currently sat in the tavern.
But with another ringing of the bell, the door flung open to the wild, rousing cheers and chatter of a group of irascible youths. Eight of them, if not more. And he instantly recognized them for the dwellers of the underworld that they were. With baggy pegged trousers, flamboyant long coats with wide lapels, and glittery chains, they piled into the tavern, calling the bartender "amigo" and "compadre." One of them, a tall, slick-haired 23-year-old, presumably the leader, asked for a round of tequila. The bartender immediately fetched a bottle, without so much as asking for identification.
Chertov smirked, realizing exactly what kind of people had wandered in.
They were Pachucos. The object of national attention, stemming from the ongoing riots in Los Angeles. Exactly the types he was looking for.
The Pachucos all congregated around his table, and the leader asked if anyone else was coming to join Chertov. Chertov admitted no, and they all took that as the cue to find their respective seats, swapping stories of revelry and tough street fights. All the while, Chertov fiddled with his vodka, pretending to be deeply intrigued by the stories they spun.
"Remember that gringo who accused us for loitering?" a 19-year-old zoot suiter quipped. "We gave him a throttling he'd never forget!"
"That's nothing, Raul," a 20-year-old retorted. "What about that time when Chuck got in our faces? If we beat him any further, he'd be down in the bay by now."
"I've got a better story," the leader declared.
Chertov leaned in instinctively, eager to hear how capable these Pachucos could be in doing his bidding.
"Do you all remember our first paid assassination against that 'hero' who stole everything from us? That bastard who thought he was going to have a happy life while putting us all in poverty?"
Raul sneered at the mention of their victim.
"That cabrón got what was coming to him. The factory manager didn't deserve any praise."
Chertov smiled inwardly, seeing how closely he could relate to them. He too was dealing with a so-called hero, placed on a false pedestal. A bourgeois pipsqueak worshipped like a god while he was constantly refused any similar treatment, and even rebuked for suggesting that boy anything but a hero. The young lieutenant leaned over and watched as the leader produced a bag of coins from his zoot suit pocket.
"And did Victor pay for our services? MUCHO!"
The purse fell onto the table with a clink. Clearly, these Pachucos could work for spare change, but Chertov had brought some insurance with him just to be sure. The leader turned and spoke to the young officer incognito personally.
"That just shows you how low Pancho and his friends will stoop."
He raised a glass of tequila in a toast.
"Estoy en lo cierto, mis amigos?"
All the Pachucos nodded their heads and drank in agreement. There was a lone hiccup among the gangsters, coming from the youngest, who looked to be 17.
Seizing an opportunity, Chertov went for his trump card from his coat pocket, and called the Pachucos to attention.
"I can tell you've accomplished a lot of things. But, how would you compadres like to make some real money?"
He pulled out a stack of bills, held together by a paper strap. It fell to the table with a light thud, and he grinned in anticipation as all the young men gawked at the amount of money offered. Before he came over, Chertov had counted 10,000 dollars in funds for his stay in America; out of that, he offered 2,000 for their assistance. He tried his best to save it for essentials such as food, water, and small pleasantries. However, now that things had taken a turn for the worse, he needed to use whatever means available to him to get any help possible. Besides, it wasn't like he was going to need the money by the time he finished the job.
The leader, his interest piqued by the large stipend, talked it over personally with the young boy, eager to know what he and his fellows had to do.
"What kind of job are you thinking of, mi amigo?"
Chertov smirked, knowing he had this gangster in his pocket. He couldn't mince words, but he couldn't reveal the true details of his situation, either. Who knows if these men were sympathetic to the American?
"I guess you all know about the riots in Los Angeles, no?"
At the word "riot," all the Pachucos began to hiss and moan in disapproval. Clearly, their pride was stinging just as badly as the flesh of those gangsters in Los Angeles.
"Well, there's a kid in town I'm trying to get rid of, but the militia are protecting him. Naturally, I can't take on those Keystone Cops all by my lonesome."
"Are you saying you want us to go after that milicia de gringos?" Raul suggested.
"…Something like that."
There was a slight murmur of discontent and skepticism amongst the Pachucos. Clearly, this would be a big job, more than just mere assault or murder. This was akin to starting a revolt, a revolution. The leader, Pancho, spoke softly and inquired seriously about the project.
"Look, if you're thinking we're some kind of army, it's not like that. Hell, some of us don't even have switchblades. How do you expect us to take them all on?"
Chertov grinned, his teeth gleaming with the luster of a bayonet.
"Just leave that part to me; I can get the tools you need."
Pancho turned to the others, and there was a small discussion in a mixture of Spanish, English, and some words Chertov couldn't catch. There was still some feeling of reservation among the gang.
"It's risky," Pancho said, nervously.
Chertov's grin began to fade.
"Well, I didn't say the job came without risks. If you're not willing to take it, I know plenty of people who are…"
He reached over for the bundle of bills, but was immediately stopped by Pancho, whose eyes conveyed a fear of opportunity lost.
"We'll take it, we'll take it!"
In truth, Chertov didn't have anyone else who could do this job outside of the agents, but none of that mattered; they fell for his bluff. He let Pancho hold on to the money, and he whispered,
"And I have plenty more where that came from…amigo."
After a shaking of hands and a clinking of glasses to seal the deal, Chertov handed Pancho a slip of paper. On it, lay an address where Pancho and the others could reach him and discuss the deal further. They drank on into the night, swapping stories of past confrontations, both real and imagined. Both made a mental note to prepare their respective entourages for the upcoming battle. There would be a great battle; of that, neither had any doubt.
Many hours later, Chertov stumbled into the abandoned apartment, and 340 could hear his demented, triumphant laughter, proclaiming some great victory that had not even come to pass.
"At last…" he hissed, in-between his obscene cackles, "at last…it begins…"
1 How do you say black tea in English?