Noticing Masha’s disappointment, Elizaveta sorted the office mail and switched on her computer. The inbox was almost empty, but one e-mail caught her attention. “Fortunate!” the subject line blared. This was quite strange. Elizaveta glanced at the bouquet, feeling out of sorts, clicked on the message, and began searching for meaning in the tiny symbols that comprised the image on the screen.
“Masha, check this out…” She was about to wave her co-worker over, but the screen suddenly sprang to life. The symbols swirled, danced, and settled into the shape of a large heart. It turned crimson.
“What?” Masha said, looking up, but Bestuzheva waved hastily at her, “Nothing, nothing,” feeling a blush creep across her cheeks.
The words “Click this!” appeared on the screen. She poked it obediently with the mouse pointer, and the heart was replaced with a list of short commands.
It was a formula for calculating her “Soul Number” – at least that’s what the bold-face heading said. Intrigued, Elizaveta followed the instructions twice to make sure she made no mistakes in the calculations, and typed the result into the box at the bottom, above the Decode button. She didn’t have to wait long: “Your number is SIX,” the screen blinked. “Your sign is VENUS. Your stone is DIAMOND. Your nature is LOVE, MOTHERHOOD, DOMESTIC BLISS.”
The words disappeared and the heart returned, only to disintegrate into shards and dissolve into nothing. Elizaveta tried to bring the image back, but to no avail. The e-mail refused to come to life again, giving her nothing but a scrambled row of symbols.
Bestuzheva felt unreasonably sad. She glanced at the bouquet again, as if it could give her a hint. When that didn’t come, she shook her head and leaned back in her chair, thinking about her morning, her Soul Number, and her entire life.
She languished like this for the rest of the day and left work with a headache, irritated at everything. The bookstalls had disappeared and fruit dealers, southerns with oily eyes, had taken their place. Elizaveta got a fleeting sense of the transience of her surroundings, with the office and her apartment providing the only tenuous stability. She walked downstairs, crossed the square, and headed slowly down Bolshaya Lubyanka, shaded by the famous edifice that still oozed menace and struck inexplicable fear into some people’s hearts.
Elizaveta wasn’t affected by the granite building or any other specters of the Soviet epoch she barely caught and had no reason to take seriously. Moscow boasted brand-new values, and Bestuzheva was quite content with them – especially since she didn’t have a choice. She turned toward Kuznetsky Bridge, which sparkled with boutique shop windows, and headed toward Tverskaya Street. The high-end stores neither she nor most of her fellow citizens could afford had long ago lost their allure. Her eyes glided absently across expensive clothes, bedding, and accessories illuminated by brilliant lights, safe behind thick glass. Next was a row of jewelry stores. Elizaveta slowed her pace, thinking back to the diamond from the morning e-mail, but felt suddenly ashamed and sped up again with a slightly arrogant expression on her face.
The workday was coming to an end, and Kuznetsky Bridge was packed with pedestrians. Elizaveta noted with annoyance that they all looked alike, like drops of wax or some other liquid that easily shifted form. It was some kind of trick, she felt, an offensive injustice, though she couldn’t tell how or why it should be different. The setting sun, along with reflections of other people’s lives, diluted and distorted the figures around her, making them seem unremarkable, nearly incorporeal. They glided back and forth like shadows or characters from hastily written novels, their movements guided by the simplest of instincts and needs. Their desires, ambitions, and problems were all too predictable. The city had given them a respite and they submitted to it, just as they had succumbed to the burdens of their workday: the rudeness of their bosses, the headaches and accusations, bad food at the nearest coffee shop. They lacked something crucial, and Bestuzheva didn’t want to put a word to that something; naming it would only make things more depressing. She felt like a foreigner to all of them, an alien from another planet, though she quickly reminded herself that this sentiment was fleeting and she would eventually have to grow up.
“Eventually, but not now,” she mumbled. “You lucked out, gorgeous!” With secret satisfaction, she thought there could be no other way. And that “gorgeous” no doubt defined her very well.
Beyond the Rozhdestvenskaya Street intersection, the Kuznetsky went downhill, literally and figuratively. Boutiques gave way to regular stores and cafés. Elizaveta entered one of them, named after a Hindu god, and ordered a citrus smoothie.
She sat and watched the bustle outside. The structure across the street housed the embassy of some newly minted country, irrelevant and largely unessential. The store next to it offered foreign trinkets. Farther down the street, the once-famous Writers’ Bookstore now sold postcards and souvenirs, its only window blocked by a billboard advertising cranberry lipstick. The advertising slogan, like the taste of a lingering kiss, reminded Elizaveta of last night, which left nothing but fatigue and frustration.
Suddenly, her back prickled with cold goose bumps again. She felt she was being watched from somewhere nearby. Elizaveta craned her neck – abruptly, angrily – to catch the interloper, then leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. “My nerves are completely fried,” she complained in a whisper. “I’m just imagining crap.”
She was mistaken: her suspicion was not unfounded. From a reasonable distance, a nondescript man was watching her every move.
Earlier that morning, he could be glimpsed outside the gray house on Solyanka – and everywhere else Elizaveta went. He followed her like a relentless shadow.
The nondescript man was a private investigator. His first assignment was to give the subject a hint of his presence, but not so much that she could spot her pursuer or even be sure she was being tailed. So far, he had lived up to his reputation and carried out the task brilliantly. He didn’t know the client; all he had been told was that the man was from out of town. That was enough to fill him with sympathy for Elizaveta, caught by misfortune in the web of some provincial fat cat.
But the fat cat was far from provincial: born on Ordynka, he’d spent his first twenty-seven years in Moscow. Had the PI known this, his remorse for Elizaveta’s plight might have morphed into solidarity with a fellow Muscovite. On this account, though, he would have also been wrong. Contrary to stereotypes, the client had an enduring hatred for Moscow.
His name was Timofey Timofeyevich Tsarkov. Once upon a time, he had been one of Bestuzheva’s classmates: a poor student who got his education somewhat late in life, after a youth wasted on black-market dealings, amateur rock, and a stint in the army. Through it all, he never lost his optimism and easygoing nature. One day, their eyes met over flasks and Bunsen burners – they got to talking, then to urgent groping between the sheets, and then to infatuation and fervent passion. Elizaveta fell for him like a teenager, with a wide-open heart, and he loved her youth and vigor. Yet their romance was short-lived. The city dealt Timofey a mortal offense, and his life changed forever.
It was the slippery road that did it. Timofey’s car skidded and crashed into an expensive Jeep. The two vehicles drifted across the highway, hitting a few others along the way. Miraculously, there were no injuries in the ensuing pile-up except the totaled cars. As Tsarkov, slight and skinny, climbed out of his demolished ride, the owner of the Jeep stomped over, tossed Elizaveta aside, ignoring her terrified squeal, and smashed his fist into Timofey’s face, hard enough to give him a serious concussion.
In the hospital, he realized he could no longer live like this. He lost interest in college, friends, and Elizaveta Bestuzheva. His life narrowed to a single point: the desire to take vengeance on the world. He wanted to do it with the same weapons the world had used against him: brutal force, money and power, and a right to be cruel. His uncompromising nature set a high bar for his future endeavor. But he was a reasonable man and knew he couldn’t reach his goal in the capital – he had neither the cash, nor, more importantly, the connections. And so Timofey Tsarkov’s heart hardened with a bone-deep loathing of Moscow.
During the first two days of his hospitalization, Elizaveta barely left his side. But he was sullen, distant, burdened by her presence. She got upset, and her visits grew infrequent. Then, right before he was discharged, Timofey had a quickie with one of the nurses, which he admitted to Bestuzheva with secret relish. He couldn’t forgive her for witnessing his disgrace; he wanted to punish her, and he succeeded: they ended on a very bad note. Soon after, he dropped out of school and fell completely off the radar.
Having disposed of his past and made his present a blank slate, Timofey moved to Ekaterinburg, closer to his uncle, a jeweler. He found no overnight success and the uncle proved to be a real scoundrel. Eventually, however, fate smiled upon him. As is often the case, fortune came in an unexpected package.
One day, he did something he had never done before: he approached an unconscious man lying helplessly just outside a bus stop. To his surprise, there was no smell of alcohol. Timofey flagged down a cab, took the guy to the hospital, and, as it turned out, saved him from almost certain death.
The man happened to be an out-of-town hot shot with business interests all up and down the Volga. He had come to the Urals incognito on highly personal business, and it had nearly cost him his life: on his morning walk, he had an epileptic seizure and lost consciousness. The physicians said this was caused by a nervous disorder, combined with a congenital vascular defect. Without immediate treatment, the seizure might have killed him.
Within two days, the patient was patched up and discharged. He carefully recorded the obscure diagnosis in his notebook, said a few choice words about his hometown doctors, who were obviously in for a severe punishment, and headed to the nearest church to donate all his cash. When he returned to his native Sivoldaisk, he took Timofey along as his personal aide.
That was seven years ago. Working side by side, Timofey Tsarkov and his patrón didn’t waste any time. The patrón moved into local government, where he was even more at liberty to do as he pleased. Timofey, in the meantime, discovered in himself an aptitude for financial scheming and built his own little “outfit,” as he liked to call it. His assets were quickly approaching the levels he’d once conceived of in his hospital bed.
Disaster, like good fortune, came out of nowhere, in the form of the patrón’s daughter, who had suddenly grown up. Her zealous father wanted nothing but the best for his child and had long been exploring various matrimonial prospects. But then, his “little girl” – who, at twenty-something, became a burly Russian matron, dressed to the nines and accustomed to denying herself nothing – took matters into her own hands. All of a sudden, she fell head over heels for Tsarkov, whom she’d known since she was a giggly kid with freckles and a ponytail.
Now that she was an adult, she scared him. She embodied a thousand devils, a handful of hardened bitches, and Albert Einstein adapted to the Russian plains. She was stronger, smarter, and more ruthless than anyone he knew. Her temper terrified everyone around her. Timofey imagined she could probably bite her lover’s head clean off like a female praying mantis. Plus, he didn’t like chubby women. In other words, catastrophe loomed on his horizon, and all his senses screamed to get away.
After the first failed attempt to lure her would-be husband into bed, the daughter, Maya, marched into her father’s office and demanded a wedding. “Love will come later,” she explained. “That’s how everyone does it these days.” And, really, who could resist a treasure like her?
Nobody, her father agreed, slightly dazed by her onslaught. Placated for the moment, Maya took off for Cleveland on a cultural exchange program, tasking her parents with making all the arrangements. She was scheduled to return in three months or so. The first month was nearly over, and Timofey realized this delay – a generous gift from the gods – was his only chance of escape.
His patrón called him in for a man-to-man talk. Both chose their words carefully. In a shrewdly perceptive move, Timofey brought a modicum of ambiguity into the situation. He was suitably incomprehensible and mysterious, alluding to some vague events from his past he couldn’t talk about just yet. His speech was peppered with “honor” and “duty,” words that resonated in the heart of his patrón, a member of the old guard, shaped by obsolete rules. The conversation resolved nothing. It only proved that both parties had serious intentions and the hapless bridegroom was in for hard times.
If Timofey was going to defy the dangerous clan, he needed a damn good reason. His patrón’s bruised pride – not to mention the fury of the rejected Maya – could crush him like a bug. He could tell them he was into men, but that wouldn’t work in Russia’s backwoods; no one would ever shake his hand, let alone do business with him again. He was left with just one option: he quickly had to arrange an alternative marriage – a retroactive and sufficiently credible one. He put everything else on hold and dove headfirst into this project.
Finding a fake spouse proved to be a hard task. Timofey needed someone he could trust completely, and, mulling over the candidates’ credentials, he felt increasingly hopeless. He knew plenty of women – now he saw them from a new perspective and even thought he had treated many of them unfairly, with little regard. But still, they were local, living in plain view, with pedestrian biographies, transparent right down to their birth. There was no way he could change that. He needed an outsider, but all his old contacts were gone. What was he supposed to do – invite a stranger, the first one who came along, to join this delicate and cunning game?
Timofey was close to despair, but then a brilliant thought occurred to him. He congratulated himself and breathed a sigh of relief. His salvation might not be a slam dunk, but he certainly had a chance.
He had to marry Elizaveta Bestuzheva, who fit nearly all the parts of the profile. She knew how to hold on to secrets, knew how to keep her word – he just had to press her into making a promise. Unlike almost everyone else, she was honest and incapable of deceit. Timofey had a soft spot for sincere people: he never failed to be surprised they hadn’t gone extinct.
Yet she was stubborn, and that could be a serious problem. He saw that clearly, thinking back to the turmoil of their breakup seven years ago. Still, he had no other avenue of retreat. He had to bank on Elizaveta’s big heart and romantic nature – and his own charm and skill – to get his way.
It took him a single night to come up with a detailed plan. It might seem too intricate to idle eyes, but Timofey disdained easy solutions. He always relied on complicated schemes, and they miraculously paid off, to the surprise of his hardheaded partners. His customary tactics relied on piling up a heap of accidents until they grew into a clear inevitability – or at least into the likeness of one. Inevitability was something you couldn’t argue with – this was the secret of success. And so, armed with an understanding of causation, Tsarkov made bold decisions and knew no doubts.
He approached his pre-existing marriage plan in the same way. Unseen patterns began to swirl around Elizaveta, building a chain of disparate events that moved along the same vector, aimed at the spot soon to be occupied by Timofey himself.
Genre – Literary Fiction
Rating – PG13
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