written by lauren d. h. miertschin

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Excerpt from" Beyond the Pale," Chapter 9

Chapter 9

1890, Kiev, Russia

Jov Baklanov tossed a tattered, leather boot at the black, long-haired mutt perched up against the sofa. She barked wildly out the window at a white cat that pranced about in the littered alleyway, seemingly enjoying the dog’s frustration.

“Someone shut that dog up. Before I kill it.” Jov said. He winked at the dog, as in actuality, the two were best buddies.

Her tail curled under, the dog whimpered and ran along the old, but well cared for sofa, jumping into Axel’s lap.

“She’s all right. Aren’t you lady?.” Axel stroked her back then growled at the dog to play along with Jov’s puffed up aggression.

“Dasha, get this dog out of here. Damn it!” Jov fought back a toothless grin and continued delving into his stack of papers.

“Like I said . . .” Axel cleared his throat. He felt embarrassed rushing his friend. “I need something right away.”

So far, it looked as if Saint Petersburg was his only answer. Contacts might shed news on the fisherman; they’d have a rundown on safe houses, some printing sources, possibly an exchange for a few gems.

“Sure, I understand. Important business our friend has.” Jov thumbed through some more papers. “You’re masquerading as one of us then, eh?

“One of you?”

“A gentile.” Jov smirked. “I barely recognize you comrade.” But neither the absence of a beard nor mustache really threw Jov. After pawning a diamond for a mere fraction of its worth, Axel had a new look tailored in town, something more “establishment”, less traditional – stiff, high collared white shirt, black trousers, matching vest and coat. Getting around in Saint Petersburg meant looking the part.

“Of course, a gentile.” Axel tugged at his bow tie in discomfort. “Something to get me across the border,” he admitted, then butted noses with the dog he had known since she was a pup.

“Well, I’m your man.” Jov waved a piece of paper about. “Here’s one Filip Kakovka . . . No, he’s sixty-five.” Jov shook his head before he cleared his throat and spit into a tin can on the table. “How about Mishenka Rachek? Thirty-six, Moscow. Sure, he fits you. Brown hair . . . eyes brown. What color your eyes comrade?”

“His eyes are blue,” Dasha said. She surprised the two as she stood in the doorframe and silently admired Axel’s affection toward her dog. “Steel blue.” Dasha smiled and waved to Axel, not to further interrupt her husband.

“Good to see you Dasha.” Axel pushed the dog from his lap and stood to greet the woman.

“There you are. Now get that mutt out of here.” Jov sneered at the dog before returning to the task at hand. “Errr. I know I’ve got a perfect passport for you somewhere.”

Fiddling with the waistline of an oversized, second-hand dress, Dasha took a seat next to Axel on the sofa. “This new look suits you,” she said. “If I hadn’t known, you’d gone and found yourself some kind of official position – with the government perhaps?” She patted her leg for the mutt who jumped up into her lap and showered her face with kisses. “Oh, Sabina, that a girl. Calm down. Yes, calm down, puppy.”

“How about Fyodor, thirty-one? Wait . . . no good.” Jov eyed the dog and shook his head smiling. “Good; I’m glad to see that what the man of this house says goes.” He pulled another stack of papers from the floor and barked at Sabina. The dog yiped back, to which Jov let out a hearty laugh.

“You should come around more often,” Dasha said in a lowered voice. Her dark hair fell on bare shoulders where the neckline had slipped off. She blushed and looked away, using one arm to quickly pull it back up over her milk-white shoulder.

“Stefan, twenty-nine. No . . .”

Axel squeezed Dasha’s hand. Her eyes darted to her husband who shuffled still through his jumbled stack of counterfeit papers.

“Always a pleasure seeing you both. You know that.” Axel patted the couch for Sabina who eagerly switched laps to shower an abundance of licks upon his face.

“That damn dog still here?” Jov swatted at a fly that lingered about his face. Suddenly his hand shot up and snatched it midair.

Dasha shuddered, Axel’s grin displayed some amusement.

“Damn Fly,” Jov grumbled, and threw it to the ground where it lay lifeless. “Now where was I? Dog out, fly dead. Yes. Here it is,” he said. “Alek Raskolnikoff, thirty-six, brown hair, blue eyes.”

Dasha threw her head back and laughed. “Sounds like a character out of a novel,” she said. “But then again, our friend here is just like a character in a novel. Wouldn’t you say, Jov?”


“Dasha, our resident romantic.” Axel shook his head in mock pity for all poor romantics amongst Mother Russia. Funny he didn’t realize he was one himself. Romantics seldom ever do. Sabina hopped from his lap, her tail wagging, she nudged at his feet as if she agreed.

To signal that Dasha knew darn well Axel was a romantic too, she sneered and rolled her dark eyes away from him when she stood to grab at her dog. Who in the movement wasn’t a romantic? One had to be in order to take the crazy risks involved with subversion.

“Come on Dasha, knock off that book stuff will you? We’ve got business to conduct. Take the mutt and leave.” Slapping Dasha’s rear with his spare hand, Jov handed Axel his new identity.

“Oh, she’s harmless, let’s go Sabina.” Dasha leaned forward and hugged Axel. “Stop through on your way back,” she said. “Stay a few days.”

Jov agreed and extended the welcome. He slapped Axel hard on the back. Then with both hands he grabbed his friend’s shoulders and turned him to face head to head before he kissed both of Axel’s cheeks.

Axel embraced Jov a bit longer than customary. He didn’t leave before he paid his friends generously – a quarter-karat diamond for their services, double what he’d planned on paying. Said he hoped he’d be back by fall. Then departing, he sadly reflected on whether he’d see them again, or whether like the fisherman back home, and so many like him, they’d disappear in the night.

* * *

The train parted a thick layer of fog as it rolled into Saint Petersburg. Axel peered out his compartment window, scrutinizing strangers’ faces. A small group of people walked in and out of the mist on the platform. An old man sat hunched over the stool of his shoeshine, reading a newspaper as he waited for the morning rush.

Axel waited for a good portion of the travelers to exit the train before disembarking himself. When he did, he made a deliberate attempt to appear confident – as if he belonged there. He had mastered the look. His strides were long, his attention forward, in a straight line for the dispersing crowd. The conductor’s uniform a dark blob in the corner of Axel’s eye, vanished with distance.

“Paper! Get your paper here,” hollered the paperboy who was not actually a boy. Thinning, gray hair indicated middle-age. Yet he measured a little over three and a half feet tall.

“Get your paper here!”

A policeman emerged from the fog, casually meandering toward the train. He stopped to chat with two women who waited for their luggage. The women were pretty and young, batting eyelashes at the officer as he lit his pipe. The officer’s presence did not appear to shake Axel, who kept up his pace on past the “paperboy”. He would have kept on walking right through the station and out, directly to his contact’s flat downtown, had a single finger tap on his shoulder not stopped him short.

“Excuse me,” the conductor said looking over the rim of his glasses. Axel sensed a tinge of hostility in his voice. “Please sir. What does it take to get your attention?”

“I’m terribly sorry,” Axel said. “How can I help you?”

The conductor sighed. “Double checking passports,” he said. “You walked right past me on the ramp. Now, please. Your passport, Sir.” He held out his palm.

“Why, certainly.” Axel set his bag on the ground. Making an effort to appear unconcerned, he stepped back from the conductor to gain some space.

“Mandatory re-check. With this cholera outbreak, never can be too sure. Just last week we caught a quarantined family of four trying to enter our city with false papers. Can you imagine?” The conductor shook his head, apparently disgusted.

“I can assure you . . .” Axel pulled at his tie, then abruptly stopped fiddling.

“Passport?” The conductor held out his hand again.

“Paper! Get your paper!” The paper boy held the headline page up above his head. “Twenty-five traitors face the firing squad . . . Read all about it here!”

His attention torn between the news and the conductor, Axel reached into his coat to retrieve documentation. With it he pulled a watch from his vest pocket. “I’m already running late,” he said feigning annoyance by the delay. His strategy: intimidate with a slight air of authority. That usually worked for him. Only once did he need to outrun a touchy situation. That happened in Kiev when he was twenty-five years old, ten pounds lighter, and his feet could carry him practically as fast as a horse. Axel wasn’t so confident he could do it again.

Briefly looking up from Axel’s finely counterfeited papers, the conductor waved over the officer who still chatted with the ladies. “Ah, Mikel,” he hollered. “I have one for you to clear.”

Excusing himself, Mikel lit his pipe and made his way to the men. “On time for once,” he shouted. “I believe that’s some kind of record. Three times this month, if I’m not mistaken.” The officer let out a laugh and continued so laughing until he reached the two men on an increasingly crowded platform. “Let me have a look.” Mikel took a puff from his pipe and grabbed the passport. He looked over Axel, then diverted his eyes to the bag beside him on the ground.

“Alek Raskolnikoff is it? And what are your plans in our fine city?” He puffed on his pipe, staring intently at Axel.

“Why Gentlemen.” Though Axel didn’t as much as blink, his gut tightened, tiny beads of sweat formed at the back of his neck. “I have the pleasure of visiting your gorgeous city on a matter of business . . .”

Mikel exhaled a puff of smoke at Axel’s face. “Business of what type?”

Axel fanned the smoke away with his hand. The hair at his nape seemed to rise. And he could feel the sweat beading at his temples. He also felt the presence of someone standing behind him, but dared not turn around. They had him trapped now. His best chance, he thought, was to grab his bag and try to outrun these goons. But he’d have to move quickly else lose the element of surprise. A strong hand pressed down onto his shoulder before he could make that move.

“Professor Raskolnikoff, there you are.”

Both the conductor and police officer recognized the man behind Axel. No doubt, Axel recognized Stefan’s voice at once – just like in their school days, Stefan’s influence preceded him.

Axel’s shoulders relaxed. He took in a breath, ready to play the game. But he couldn’t help but wonder what the chances were of meeting his friend again so soon. How could Stefan possibly have known he’d be there? He had after all, deliberately misled his friend about his travel plans when they met on the train.

“Paper! Get your paper here.”

“We were afraid you didn’t make it.” Stefan leaned into Axel and kissed each of his cheeks. A neatly groomed mustache and well-combed hair contrasted the disheveled drunken Stefan he met on the way to Kiev. Though a hint of vodka lingered on his friend’s breath.

“Appreciate you meeting me here,” Axel said.

“Ah, Stefan.” The officer cleared his throat. He puffed out his chest. “You can vouch for this man?”

The conductor eyed Axel suspiciously.

Stefan put his arm around his friend and with the other picked up his bag. “Why certainly, we’ve been eagerly awaiting to hear more about the professor’s thesis at the university.”

“Is that so?” The officer gave Axel a look over again and glanced behind his shoulder to the conductor.

“Say, Mikel,” Stefan said, “you might have caught his piece in The Petersburg Quarterly

“The Petersburg Quarterly you say.”

“Certainly, you must have seen it – “Why the peasant refuses to better his lot” – I know you appreciate the intellectual articles.”

“Oh sure, now that you mention it,” he said not looking directly at either of the men. “It’s a pleasure making your acquaintance, Professor Raskolnikoff, is it?” Mikel’s face reddened as he returned the passport. “Sorry to have kept you.”

“Not a problem,” Axel said, anxious to take his chance at an exit. “Just doing your job.” He adjusted his bow tie.

“Come.” Stefan slapped his friend’s back. “I have a coach waiting.”
(c) Lauren D. H. Miertschin

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