Authors: Greg Dinallo
The guard paused in midstride, cocked his head curiously, and turned around.
Andrew was hanging directly above him—
like a skewered pig at a Texas barbecue,
he thought, hoping it wasn’t a precursor of things to come.
That’s when the guard noticed the headlights of an approaching car and, instead of looking up, started walking toward the entrance gate.
Andrew sighed, relieved. He swung his legs down from the limb, and continued hand over hand toward the dacha. He was soon hanging above it, his feet about four feet from the roof. He had planned to just drop onto it. But the house was occupied now, and he didn’t want to make a thud when he landed. He realized that the limb and up-sloping roof were at converging angles, which meant the distance between them would diminish as he moved outward. So, he kept going—the limb bending slightly under his weight, the roof rising toward him—and finally, the waffled tips of his Reeboks scraped against the slate surface below. He inched a little farther, and let go, landing silently in a crouch.
The car that had gotten the guard’s attention pulled through the gate and crunched to a stop on the gravel next to the other vehicles.
Andrew had made his way to the center of the dacha’s roof, behind two sharply peaked dormers that concealed him. His eyes widened in amazement when first Gorodin, and then Melanie, got out of the Volga, and were ushered into the dacha by the guard.
Pasha drove off in the Volga.
The guard resumed his rounds.
Andrew crawled around to the front of one of the dormers. Two small French windows were set into the recessed facade. He slipped the blade of a pocketknife between the overlapping frames. The latch had been painted over, and it took three tries before he broke the bond and it flicked open. Despite his father’s assurances that only ground floor doors and windows were alarmed, Andrew opened these with apprehension, expecting to hear the piercing shriek at any moment. But his anxiety was unfounded.
Next, he unslung the jack and set it on the roof. It wasn’t part of his plan to get into the dacha, but into a locked room inside it. Placed horizontally across the door at lock level, the jack would easily bow the jambs the one half to three quarters of an inch necessary to expose the deadbolt, allowing the door to be opened. But now that the house was occupied, there’d be no using the jack, not with its noisey ratchet; once inside, he’d have to improvise. Andrew left the jack behind, and climbed into the attic without incident.
* * * * * *
Gorodin showed Melanie to a guest room on the second level and put her suitcase on the bed. She went to a mirror, took a brush from her purse, and began running it through her hair. En route from the airport, he had informed her of Deschin’s stake in the current political scene, and she was thinking about that now, thinking about
father becoming the Soviet Premier.
“Ready?” Gorodin asked.
She straightened her clothing, and took a moment to compose herself. “Yes,” she said nervously.
“Remember,” Gorodin warned, “Pasha and I are your father’s friends. We share his secret. But
you’re a representative from an American dance company, meeting the minister to arrange a tour.”
Melanie nodded, and followed Gorodin from the room.
The guard at the stone fireplace behind the house thought he had a fair-sized blaze going. But only the paper he had stuffed beneath the wood was burning, and it soon went out. He was trying to relight it when the patrolling guard arrived.
“Give me a hand with this,” the inept fire-maker said. “The minister will be out here any minute.”
“I doubt it,” the other replied. He broke into a salacious grin, adding, “And so would you, comrade, if you’d seen what just arrived.”
“Ah, he’s starting a little fire of his own.”
“Precisely. I can’t imagine he’ll be interested in yours until she leaves.”
It was a natural conclusion. The state-supplied women were dispatched here as well as to the Moscow apartment. And the guards had seen many arrive.
Gorodin showed Melanie into a large study, shutting the big wooden doors behind him as he left.
The room was ringed with chestnut wainscoting, and covered in dark floral-patterned paper. Bulky thirties furniture, and heavy draperies, gave it the gloomy feeling of Deschin’s Moscow apartment.
He was sitting in a big square armchair that swallowed him. A cigarette burned in his left hand. Smoke rose into the light that came from a reading lamp. The glow grazed the side of his face, leaving his features obscured, and sent a bold shadow across the floor in front of him.
Melanie remained where Gorodin had left her, and stood unmoving until Deschin broke the electrifying stillness.
“Sit down,” he said in a strong voice, gesturing to a chair opposite his.
Melanie smiled demurely, and sat on the edge of the cushion. Her eyes hid behind the rise of her cheekbones, flicking nervous glances at him.
“I hope I didn’t embarrass you the other day,” she said awkwardly, in a dry voice.
Deschin neither reacted nor replied, staring at her impassively for a long moment. “You couldn’t,” he finally said. “I didn’t know who you were.”
“And I was so sure that you’d gotten my letter, and were rejecting me,” she said with a nervous laugh.
“It came this afternoon,” he said.
“What do you want?”
“Nothing,” she replied defensively, unnerved by his manner. “I don’t
“Why did you come here?”
“I was curious about you. I wanted to know what you were like.”
what you want.”
“I guess so. Yes.”
“Why now? Why at this time?”
“I didn’t know you existed until about a month ago. I found out after my mother died.”
Deschin didn’t expect that, and stiffened.
Melanie saw it, and regained some of her confidence. “You know, Gorodin told me what’s going on. I can’t believe you think I came all this way to hurt you. Why are you being so hostile?”
“You—threaten me,” he replied, surprised by her directness, which pleased him. “You always have.”
Melanie blinked in astonishment.
“Yes, I knew,” he said before she could ask. “I always thought this day would come.”
she wondered. “My mother’s letter was never delivered. It was sealed. I opened it.”
“And so did Military Intelligence,” he explained. “The war was almost over, and they knew our countries wouldn’t be allies much longer. When they saw my code name on the envelope, they steamed it open to examine the contents, then delivered it unsealed—a subtle way of informing me I was no longer trusted.”
“You read it, sealed it, and sent it back—”
“To protect myself.”
“You mean professionally?”
He took a long drag on his cigarette, and shook no. “Emotionally,” he replied. “I was devastated when your mother decided to leave Italy. We’d been through so much together. It took me a year to get over her. When I read the letter, when I saw what we could’ve had—” he paused suppressing his bitterness. “It was a way of denying it. I couldn’t allow myself any expectations.” His chest heaved, and he stubbed out the cigarette and pulled himself from the chair.
Melanie felt saddened, but her eyes flickered with anxiety as he circled behind her. She wasn’t sure what to expect until the light caught his face, and she saw that, despite it all, he was pleased she was there.
“Gorodin told me it’s been a trying quest.”
“Yes, it has.”
“I hope I prove worthy of it,” he said, holding out a hand. She took it, and he helped her to her feet. They were about to leave when Deschin glanced to the mailing tube that was leaning against his chair. He
took it, and led the way from the study.
* * * * * *
After climbing through the dormer, Andrew had crawled across the rafters in the unfinished attic to a ceiling hatch. He eased it aside and reached through the opening into the darkness, running his hand along the ceiling. His fingers found a light fixture and tugged on the pull chain. The bare bulb came on with a loud click that made him flinch. He peered down into a utility room, where a small patch of floor was visible amidst an assortment of tools and equipment, then eased down through the opening.
Melanie and Deschin had crossed the entry hall and were walking down one of the corridors toward the maintenance wing. Deschin detoured to an alcove where a door that opened onto the rear of the dacha was located, and peered outside. The fireplace was unattended. A few lazy flames were licking at the charred stone. He snapped his fingers several times, and the guard came running.
“What’s the problem?” Deschin asked in Russian.
“We thought you’d—prefer to wait, sir,” the guard replied, flicking a nervous look to Melanie.
“I asked you to build a fire, comrade. I expect it to be done. Notify me when it is.”
The guard nodded stiffly and hurried off.
Deschin closed the door and shook his head in disgust. “Something I’d hope to have accomplished before you arrived,” he said to Melanie as they moved off down the corridor.
In the utility room, Andrew was completing his descent, taking care not to dislodge anything that would make a noise. He had barely touched down when he heard footsteps in the corridor on the other side of the door. He stood on his toes, stretched to the light fixture, and unscrewed the bulb a few turns to shut it off.
The footsteps came closer and closer.
Andrew turned the knob gingerly and opened the door a crack.
Deschin and Melanie walked right past him and turned a corner at the far end of the corridor.
Andrew slipped out of the utility room and followed. He laid back and peered around the corner, watching as they continued to a heavy wooden door.
Deschin took keys from his pocket, unlocked the door and swung it open, gesturing to Melanie to enter first.
She stepped tentatively into the darkened space.
The glimmer of a pale moon came through a wire glass skylight, silhouetting what appeared to be an immense winged insect overhead.
Deschin followed, closing and bolting the door. “You said you wanted to know me—” he said, letting the sentence trail off as he turned on the lights.
The room exploded with brilliance and color.
Picasso’s incendiary “Three Women” was directly opposite the entry. A huge Calder mobile hung beneath the skylight. Each wall displayed great works of art from the Hermitage and Pushkin: Cézanne, Gauguin, Matisse, Renoir, Monet, among them. Deschin’s gallery was no match for Churcher’s museum, but the contents would more than hold their own—these were original works.
Melanie was stunned, as Deschin had anticipated.
“Venture about,” he said with a pleased smile. “I’ll be right back.”
Melanie nodded, her eyes darting from the Picasso to Cézanne’s “Woman in Blue” on an adjacent wall.
Deschin went to a workroom within the gallery where paintings were stored and crated. He paused in the door and stole a glance at Melanie, watching her for a moment. A proud smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. Then he entered the room, put the mailing tube on a table, and went to a cabinet. The package Gorodin had stolen from Churcher’s museum was on the top shelf. Deschin put it on the table next to the mailing tube, and returned to the gallery.
Andrew was in the corridor right outside the gallery now. He pulled some crumpled rubles from his jeans, and tore the corner off one of them. Next, he wet his thumb and forefinger with saliva, rolled the paper between them, and forced the tiny spitball into the keyhole in the gallery door, then hurried back down the corridor to the utility room.
Melanie was standing in front of a Degas when Deschin rejoined her. The tiny masterpiece was from the lyrical series of ballet dancers that the Impressionist had painted near the end of his life.
Deschin looked from the painting to Melanie’s splayed stance, and smiled knowingly.
“My mother danced,” he said.
Melanie turned to him, her face suddenly aglow.
“Oh—” she exclaimed in a fulfilled whisper. “I always knew it came from somewhere.”
“Your grandmother’s name was Tatiana. Tatiana Chinovya,” he said, pleased at the effect of his remark.
“Where did she dance?”
“With the Bolshoi,” he said proudly.
“My God—” Melanie said, awestruck.
“In the ensemble,” he added, tempering his answer but not her reaction. “When I was a child,” he went on reflectively, “I would slip backstage and watch her perform. I was always so fascinated, and felt such pride.”
He paused, and touched Melanie’s cheek with his fingertips.
“We both have her face; but you have her fine bones, and no doubt her talent. A man couldn’t ask for more in a daughter. You’re all I have, you know.”
Melanie’s face flushed with warmth.
“Was Sarah happy?” he asked somewhat suddenly.
“Yes, I think so.”
“Good,” he said, trying to sound detached.
Melanie sensed his wistfulness, despite it. “But I always had the feeling her life wasn’t—complete,” she went on for his sake.
Deschin felt his eyes getting misty.
“Your grandfather was in the military,” he said brightly to get past the moment. “He cut quite a handsome figure in his uniform. I have pictures of him—and many of your grandmother dancing.”
Her expression told him he didn’t have to ask if she wanted to see them. He led the way from the gallery, turned off the lights, closed the door, and inserted the key into the lock. But it wouldn’t turn. He removed it, checking that he had the right one.
As Andrew had planned, the key had pushed the spitball to the rear of the keyhole. The speck of paper was only a few millimeters thick, and the key appeared to be fully inserted despite the fact that it wasn’t. Nevertheless, the offset was enough to keep the key’s ridges from properly engaging the pin tumblers—just enough to prevent the lock from turning.
Deschin inserted the key again, with the same result. He shrugged, assuming something in the mechanism had broken, and headed off with Melanie.