Years ago, when Pontius was a pilot, I found a cell phone in the lane by my house. It had photos on it of hardened individuals. That was the genesis of the story: what does a character do when he finds incriminating evidence on a laptop’s hard drive? The story gets better when the protagonist is a gentle golf reviewer and the incriminating files on the hard drive implicate the CIA and the Albanian mob. This David takes on Goliath with a golf club instead of a slingshot. On a more serious note, it explores the implications of a government’s foreign policies on both individuals and countries alike.
Miro Daut hid his face beneath a baseball cap; he’d chosen loose dark jeans and an even looser denim jacket so that nothing about his short, thirty-year-old, muscular physique would stand out in the mind of a witness — should any survive. He stroked his chinstrap beard with his thumb and index finger as he looked around, making certain he’d drawn no attention in parking the Porsche Cayenne beside a news kiosk with a larger-than-life photo of Vladimir Putin. He exited the vehicle and connected a cellphone to the brutish steel container welded into the spare tire compartment. He caressed the IED like most men did a lover and welcomed his predictable arousal.
Ninety minutes later he returned at the wheel of a BMW, fuming about the broken taillight he’d found on the SUV. He parked by a dumpster at the opposite end of the empty square. Glancing in his side-view mirror, Miro saw a Moscow policewoman walking towards him. Miro stepped out of the SUV and headed to the back of the dumpster, hoping she’d walk on. She called out to him, pointing to the damaged taillight. He groaned and doubled over as if about to be sick. When she followed him behind the boxy steel trash bin and leaned over him, Miro sprang up, thrusting a switchblade into her heart.
He couldn’t have a cop running the stolen plates or remembering the fateful SUV’s driver with the chinstrap beard. Before sliding her body into the dumpster and concealing it with detritus, Miro ripped the battery from the cop’s radio so its location couldn’t be tracked.
Back in the BMW, he connected another cellphone to wires in the door’s storage compartment and then covered it with a newspaper. He locked the SUV and squatted by a puddle that mirrored the name of the building across the street: the Kopec Hotel. He rinsed his hands and knife in the shallow water, which bloodied the afternoon’s sun’s rippled reflection.
On a golf course, fifty kilometers from the heart of Moscow, the sun shimmered on the distant fantail of water erupting from a fairway sprinkler head. Ruland Nash was on the second of three Russian golf courses he had to review. His translator, Stanislav, at the wheel of the golf cart, bobbed his chin in the direction of the player finishing at the eighteenth, the only other golfer on the course.
“Putin’s acolytes play golf while innocent Russians pay for the greed and corruption of the Russian oligarchs.”
Nash elected not to comment as he registered the distance for his next shot on the cart’s GPS. His ball was 148 yards to the pin in the middle of the seventeenth green. Nash circled the cart to his bag adorned with his press pass for the New York-based Clarington Newsgroup, publishers of the Business Adventurer, the high-end magazine that had relegated him to reviewing exotic golf courses. The bag also displayed an airline tag from JFK to Moscow (DME) and a luggage sticker for the Kopec Hotel.
Nash reached for his pitching wedge, gauged his approach shot, waggled the club and swung gracefully. The two men watched his ball soar, land, bounce and roll, stopping two feet from the pin. Stanislav smiled and shook his head in admiration. Nash’s scorecard clamped to the steering wheel recorded his one-under-par performance on the front nine and his about-to-improve two under par tally on the back nine. Nash replaced his divot before taking cellphone photos of the lush landscape for his article.
He looked around the sumptuous private course, lingering on the pagoda-topped buildings’ broad shadows fingering their way across the twelfth green. The groundskeeper who had been catching up, systematically activating the sprinklers they passed with a remote-control device in his cart, disturbed his eye line.
He and Stanislav had seen the man when they had checked in at the clubhouse. Vodka and perogies, likely, had fattened his face till his head appeared to squat on his shoulders, obliterating any sign of a neck. Skin tags and bulbous eyes gave him a distinctly batrachian look, more toad than frog. The man called out to them in Russian.
“Groundskeeper asks if we are going to be long. He wants to turn on water,” said Stanislav.
“Really? We’re guests here, doing a story with the owner’s permission.”
Stanislav slipped out from behind the wheel and held up a finger to say “just a minute,” as Nash zoomed in to take photos of the deep pot bunkers ringing the approach on the left, and of the ruddy shelducks paddling the length of a long water hazard that stretched beyond where the impatient groundskeeper was parked.
His cell in one hand and a cigarette between his lips, the man turned on two water jets whose arcing spray pitter-pattered against Nash’s golf bag. Nash stopped taking pictures and turned, his arms outstretched in a “what-gives” gesture.
The man was forty yards away but with the late day sun on his face, Nash could see the tobacco-stained smile beneath his sunglasses. When Nash continued taking photos, the man triggered two more sprinklers that flanked the fairway, the burst from the near jet smacking Stanislav so hard he spun around and slammed his head against the side of the cart before falling to the ground. The groundskeeper laughed and yelled at them, then mimed Stanislav’s fall as he related the incident in a mocking tone to someone on his cellphone.
Nash scrambled to get Stanislav seated before he booted their cart out of water range. “The hell’s wrong with him?”
Stanislav wiped the blood trickling from his temple with the towel Nash handed him. “He say I am just translator.”
“Please, Ruland. He is right. I need these work. So, is okay — ”
“No, it’s not. Not okay to humiliate someone because of his job. Our sunavabitch comrade here needs a lesson in manners.”
As the groundskeeper eased back behind the wheel of his service cart, Nash scrambled to his bag to fetch ten balls, took his seven iron out and whacked low-flying knockdown shots. They whizzed so close to the groundskeeper that he spun his cart over without looking and snarled the front wheel in a bush.
One of the next three balls shattered the acrylic windshield. The groundskeeper freed his cart but the last mini-meteorites were so close he swerved in a panic and lost control. He screamed as he slid sideways down the wet embankment and into the catch basin, leaving him to swim away from the submerging cart, his cigarette floating in his wake amidst puzzled waterfowl.
“See, Stanislav,” said Nash, dropping his club back into the bag, “golf balls are like hand grenades. They only have to be close to make your average Joe shit himself.”
“I think you are more than just golf writer, yes?” said Stanislav.
“Investigative journalist … once upon a time,” said Nash wistfully, rolling his wrist to indicate the past. “And as for the future…”
“We must play cards we are dealt,” said Stanislav. He answered Nash’s questioning look by saying, “I protest Putin’s theft of the election. For my trouble I lose job as first violin in symphony. Then they take apartment. Mine.”
Nash slid behind the wheel. “Wow. I’m so sorry. That’s government bullying. It’s, it’s horrible. …” He stepped on the accelerator and slowly steered them back to the cart path. “We obviously both need a change of headspace. And I’ve got just the prescription: vodka, cards and tall tales. Did I mention vodka?”
The next morning, Nash accompanied his hangover to the market across from the Kopec hotel. He was no pushover at 6’ 1”, 180 lbs. Yet a collision with a man with a chinstrap beard spun Nash around so hard his hip slammed into a double baby carriage. He mumbled an apology to the two women pushing it, both wearing identical, ethnic-looking black hair scarves. As he walked on, he saw the same stout man hand each woman a cellphone. Something about their furtive manner left him thinking chinstrap was controlling the two women’s means of communication. Wife, sisters or cousins perhaps? Either way, not your country, he thought, so pick your windmills, Don Quixote.
Nash weaved his way through the Moscow market crowded with Saturday morning shoppers choosing from Uzbek melons, Kazakhstan dried fruit, Georgian hard cheese, Azerbaijani honey and dark-crusted local breads. Kids dropped a parent’s hand to run to a bakery display and plead for a treat before returning to the safety of the family orbit. Although he neared thirty-three, Nash’s current relationship status meant his desire to have children did not have much chance of fulfillment. Right now, the children’s laughter and clamoring exacerbated his hangover’s dull throb.
At booth number eight, Nash held up three fingers and was rewarded with three cups of steaming, spoon-gripping coffee. The merchant snugged the cups into three holes he expertly cut out of a stiff piece of cardboard. Nash paid and headed back to the hotel, keeping his headache well away from the accordion player who sat at the entrance to the market square between a Porsche Cayenne and the news kiosk’s photo of Putin.
The door to his room closed behind him. He foot-swept the golf balls on the floor out of his way. He freed one of the coffees and placed it for Stanislav on the ottoman by the couch where the Russian sprawled passed out. Before plunking his own two coffees by the little sink, he one-handed his putter and cart bag to the side of the room. He poured some coffee out of one cup, cooled it down with tap water and drank it in one long go. The bottle of Tylenol yielded two precious gel caps that he washed down with a big sip from the second cup.
Nash ignored the playing cards, poker chips, pizza box and empty vodka bottle on the round table — that’s why he tipped chambermaids. He did tuck his open bag of M & M’s into his golf bag so the cleaning staff wouldn’t take or toss them.
He stepped through the glass doors and leaned on the balcony railing, where he took another hit of strong coffee. The third floor of the boutique hotel gave him a great view of the market and a handful of joggers gathering at the entrance to the marketplace, human metronomes swinging spandex-covered legs front and back as they waited for their quorum to appear. The overcast sky dampened the accordion music wafting up from where the old woman serenaded Putin’s photo.
The explosion buckled Nash’s knees and sloshed hot coffee on his wrist. He turned to see an SUV rising in the air in slow motion. Its shattered carcass crashed to the market’s cobblestones.
“Shit, shit, shit, holy shit. Holy —” said Nash, staring at the spot in the market where he’d stood a moment ago.
Despite the ringing in his ears, he heard a tacatacatac of small objects striking parked cars and the front of the hotel. Amidst the swirling dust, he saw the accordion splayed out. The seat and the woman were gone. Putin’s photo had taken a hit from what looked like a red paintball. Nash gagged. He gulped air and shivered at the thought of what he’d just dodged.
With a nanosecond of guilt he realized that this nightmare could be his redemption with the Clarington News Group, the escape from his golf ghetto. He sprang back into his suite, put down his coffee and saw that Stanislav’s head had jerked up off the couch.
“Get your shoes on, we’re going over there.” Nash said, pointing to the market as he sprinted into his bedroom. He fished for his smartphone among the empty minibar bottles on the bedside table then jumped back into the suite’s living room. Stanislav, his dirty blonde hair in a post-sleep steeple, stared over the couch at the carnage across the square. Sirens filled the air with their eeeeoooo sounds.
“Ruland, I am not medical practitioner, I am translator. And this not golf story—”
“Exactly. Let’s go. NOW.” Nash dug out Stanislav’s shoes from under the couch.
The lobby swirled with activity. Only Stephan, the concierge, showed no signs of wear from last night’s poker game, his manner as crisp as his shirt. Guests and staff stood behind the safety of the hotel’s windows, burbling with speculation and fear about what lay behind the smoke that impeded their view.
As he pushed Stanislav through the revolving doors, Nash hit record on his phone. He saw the man with the chinstrap beard on the steps videotaping the conflagration. Why wasn’t he looking for the two women he’d given the phones to? YouTube was going to get a lot of uploads, thought Nash. He’d have to hurry to get his own story to head office to scoop the other news services.
They passed the stunned doorman, his visored hat in hand, swaying on the steps. Street traffic was being held up by policemen half a block on either side of the entrance to the market. Ambulances and fire trucks maneuvered for proximity.
Nash tugged on Stanislav’s elbow, then sprinted through the parted sea of traffic. A charred car door lay in the middle of the road. Nash was slowed by the enormity of the carnage he chronicled on his phone. It couldn’t capture the pervasive smell of almonds, which he remembered his father saying accompanied the use of C4 explosives in Claymore mines in Vietnam. Thick dust muted the market’s colors. Its goods had been mixed with body parts and strewn around as if by a giant blender with no top.
Zombies reeled about, some with scalp or facial lacerations. Two that Nash saw, with an arm or a hand missing, clutched their stumps, one his severed limb. One woman still held her tattered net shopping bag. She stared at the wall freshly sketched with bloody Rorschach death sprays, her head swaying in front of her private wailing wall.
The guilty SUV, now a charred hulk with blown-out windows and doors, lay on its side. Nash suddenly noticed the two scarfed women emerge from a side street, inching their double baby carriage forward. They alternated which end of the obliterated market to stare at.
Nash saw Stephan running over to the market, his spotless concierge’s uniform adding to the sense of surrealism. A man with an arm bent above the elbow kept calling, “Vladimir! Vladimir! Vladimir!” The man one-armed debris off a collapsed stand. Nash and Stanislav hurried over to pull rectangles of corrugated metal off a boy with a blood-soaked shirt, who couldn’t yet have celebrated his ninth birthday. Nash cleared a path, oblivious to the splinters from the stand’s rough-hewn frame.
The two medics Stanislav waved over pushed past them. One started chest compressions on the boy. The other clamped an oxygen mask over his sooty face. Nash recorded the boy’s eyes fluttering open. A medic dug through his kit for a saline bag. The other jammed an IV line into the skinny arm.
The two women with the identical hair scarves huddled by a pillar that stood incongruously unscathed. Nash captured the women on his phone as they leaned into their big stroller. He watched in horror as they pushed a child aside, reaching under blankets for what could only be AK-47s.
“Down!” Nash knocked Stephan to the ground. The women swiveled toward either side of the market and opened fire. The bullets zipped overhead. The multiple impacts jerked Stanislav around like a puppet suffering a seizure before falling on top of one of the medics. Nash slithered behind a sculpture. First responders scurried and crawled back to their vehicles. The shell casings spat from the AK47s stopped clattering. Nash raised his phone. It was still recording. One of the women turned a cellphone toward a BMW SUV parked by a dumpster and where the ambulances and fire trucks had stopped, at the opposite end of the market square. Thinking, ‘oh, God, not again,’ Nash covered his head with both arms.
The explosion bounced his head off the cobblestones. The impact tipped the dumpster sideways and a policewoman’s body rolled out of it as if she’d been caught sleeping there.
In the post-apocalyptic silence, hand-sized pamphlets released from the SUV fluttered down like giant flat snowflakes. Here and there the blue emergency lights groped through the fog of dust. When a pamphlet broke the beam it flashed like an electric short on the simple message in Russian and English: “FREE CHECHNYA.”