Rivers meandered lazily below as the aircraft flew due north. The threads criss-crossed through a vast water-filled landscape, emptied of all colour by mists that shrouded them in secrecy. The M-17 engines throbbed and as Mikhail sat in the passenger cabin he could feel every beat of the pistons, driving his blood through his veins. They powered a wonderful sense of being cut free from the earth.
It was a long time since he’d felt like this, as good as this. Which was crazy because he knew he was in serious trouble whichever way he looked, but somehow that all faded into insignificance up here. He was with Sofia and he was flying again, and he was determined to find Anna Fedorina. Reality on the ground seemed a long way down.
‘Are you all right?’
Sofia turned her face from the window and gave him a smile, that crooked little curve of her lips that he loved.
‘Not nervous on your first flight?’
‘No, I love it. How high are we?’
‘Around three thousand metres.’
She nodded but looked tense. He put out a hand across the narrow aisle that divided them and stroked her arm, soothing her.
‘It’s the continuous juddering,’ he said. ‘It sets nerves on edge if you’re not accustomed to it.’
She nodded again, a little dip of her chin. They hadn’t spoken much on the plane, because in the small cabin every word could be overheard. There were nine seats set out in pairs, four each side of a narrow central aisle and one at the back. The two passenger members of the squadron, whose job it was to arrange the films and distribute the pamphlets, were seated at the front, but even so they were close and conversations were far from private.
‘How far will we fly?’ she asked in a low tone.
‘The Krokodil ’s range without refuelling is seven hundred kilometres. ’
‘We’ll go that distance?’
Her eyes changed as they stared at him in disbelief. Then she tipped back her long throat and released a silent shout of joy.
‘I thought,’ she said in a voice that struggled to sound casual, ‘that we would just be taken… out of that field and put down somewhere nearby.’
‘No,’ he laughed for the benefit of listening ears, ‘the Captain is taking us on quite a little jaunt. He wants me to give my professional assessment of how these propaganda trips are working out. As my secretary, you must take notes.’
‘Of course,’ she responded in a demure secretarial kind of voice, but she rolled her eyes dramatically and mimed typing in the air, so that Mikhail had to bite his tongue to stop a laugh. As the shadows of the clouds chased each other over the flatlands below, she asked, ‘Did you arrange this?’
She nodded and was silent for a while, gazing intently out of the small window. Eventually she turned to him again. ‘Mikhail, what about Pyotr?’
‘He’ll be all right. Zenia is going to take care of him while I’m away.’
Her eyelids flickered but he couldn’t tell why. Was it anger at the boy?
‘I didn’t expect that from Fomenko,’ she murmured.
He gave her a long look. Chyort! Was that man still in her mind? He put his head back and shut his eyes. Concentrate on Anna Fedorina, he told himself, this is your one chance. Concentrate on her.
The Krokodil touched down. The surface of the landing field gave them a bumpy ride but the plane rolled quickly to a stop and they climbed out. From the air the town of Novgorki was an unpleasant black scab on the landscape, but on the ground it looked worse, drabber and darker. After hours of almost nothing but forests of massed pine trees and silver shimmering waterways with an occasional fragile village clinging to the banks, the dirt and squalor of the streets of the northern town of Novgorki came as a sharp reminder of how easily people could make a place ugly.
It was a purpose-built town dedicated to minerals, with belching chimney stacks that soared into the grey sky, thickening the air with chemicals. Yet oddly Mikhail liked it. It was an unpretentious place – he could sense an undercurrent of wildness as strong as the stink of the sulphur, a town on the very edge of civilisation. That suited him just fine.
He thanked the pilot of the Krokodil, a handshake was enough. Sofia observed them with a thoughtful expression but passed no comment, just kissed the pilot’s cheek, which made him blush to the roots of his gingery hair.
Mikhail was glad of the walk into town as it gave them time to discuss what lay ahead. It was evening when they reached the centre of Novgorki, but in July the days were long and the nights no more than a darker shade of white. The main road was called Lenin Street, as was usual, and held a crush of shabby concrete buildings. All the same monotonous shade of grey, they stood alongside squat wooden shops that had a greater air of permanence than the concrete. Rain-filled potholes littered the road – even at this hour it was busy with trucks and cars making the most of daylight hours.
‘What now?’ Sofia was looking round warily.
‘A bed and a meal.’
Groups of men stood around on street corners, cigarettes hanging from their lips and bottles in their pockets. Mikhail approached one man with a thick Stalin moustache who leered at Sofia but directed them politely enough to a workers’ dormitory, a bleak building where they showed their identity papers and paid a few roubles in advance. They were allotted a couple of camp beds and soiled quilts, in separate communal sleeping areas.
‘It’s better than nothing,’ Mikhail pointed out.
Sofia raised a doubtful eyebrow at him.
‘Have you noticed,’ she asked when they walked back out on to the street, ‘how few women are here?’
‘That’s why we have to take extra care of you.’
They walked up the main street, aware of eyes watching them.
‘More of Stalin’s economic boom times,’ Sofia muttered under her breath, with an ironic nod towards the empty shop windows.
Even at this hour many of the shops were still open and they chose a prosperous-looking hardware shop for their purpose. It smelled of pine resin and dust inside, where a short man with a broad northern face and well padded cheeks greeted them from behind the counter. His eyes crawled over Sofia.
‘Good evening,’ Mikhail said and let his gaze roam the shop. ‘Busy, I see.’
The place was empty of other customers but did at least have a few goods on display. A sack of nails and screws, a box of hinges, some kerosene cans and paint brushes – but no paint, of course. Lengths of matting and a range of second-hand tools lay in a jumble around the walls, while zinc pans hung from the roof beams, low enough to crack a careless skull wandering beneath them. But behind the shopkeeper’s head were shelves holding a row of cardboard boxes, unlabelled, and Mikhail suspected they contained the better stuff for the better customers. He picked up a roll of canvas and tossed it on to the counter. Beside him Sofia stood silent.
‘Is that all?’ the shopkeeper asked, scratching his armpit with relish.
‘I have something to sell.’
The storeman’s eyes brightened and slid to Sofia.
‘Not me,’ she said fiercely.
The man shrugged. ‘It happens sometimes.’
Mikhail placed a fist on the counter between them. ‘Who in this town might want to buy an object of value?’
‘What kind of object?’
‘One that is worth real money, not…’ he gazed disdainfully round the shop, ‘not Novgorki kopecks.’
The man squinted at Mikhail, his tobacco-stained teeth chewing on his lower lip. ‘Very well,’ he said, pointing to a curtained doorway at the back of the shop. ‘You, comrade, come with me. You,’ he pointed at Sofia, ‘wait here.’
Before the storekeeper could draw breath Mikhail had leapt over the counter and pinned him against his boxes, a hand crushing his throat. He could feel the man’s windpipe fighting for air.
‘Don’t mistake me, comrade,’ Mikhail hissed in his face. ‘I am not one of your peasant fools. I do not walk blindly into your backroom to be ambushed and robbed while my woman is stolen. Understand me?’
‘Da.’ The man’s voice was a gasp, his eyes popping in his head.
Mikhail removed his hand and let him breathe. The rasping scrape of it sounded loud in the silence of the musty store.
‘Now,’ Mikhail said, keeping the man jammed against his shelves, ‘tomorrow morning I will return here at eight o’clock for no more than five minutes. If you know a buyer for a jewel worth more than you’ll earn in ten lifetimes, bring him here. Got that?’
The man blinked his understanding.
‘Do zavtra. Till tomorrow,’ Mikhail snapped, picking up the roll of canvas. He gripped Sofia by her upper arm and strode out of the shop.
‘So you’re not just a handsome face after all,’ Sofia said.
She was teasing him, he knew that, but her smile didn’t reach her eyes.
‘I had to do it, Sofia. It was the only way of showing that man I’m serious. This is a hard town, my love, danger is what they breathe out here. Don’t look so reproachful.’
‘He might have pulled a gun on you.’
Mikhail patted the loaded pistol hidden under her slender waistband, the one he’d stolen from the officer behind the Gaz truck. ‘Then you’d have shot him,’ he said and kissed her nose.
She shivered nevertheless. He wrapped an arm around her to keep her warm, as neither of them were dressed for a cool northern evening, but she pulled away.
‘Don’t,’ she said angrily. ‘Don’t take risks.’
He burst out laughing and felt her fist smack into his chest. He caught it in his hand and pulled her tight to him. ‘This is all one huge risk, my sweet love, so what’s an extra little one or two along the way?’
‘Don’t die,’ she whispered.
‘I intend to live till I’m a hundred, as long as you promise to live to a hundred with me.’
‘To darn your socks and cook your meals?’ she teased.
‘No, my precious, to warm my bed and let me kiss your sweet neck.’
She nestled her lips in the hollow of his throat. ‘I’ll warm your bed and let you kiss my neck,’ she crooned, ‘if you darn my socks and cook my meals for a hundred years.’
‘Agreed,’ he laughed.