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.
Press play to hear chapter one, or scroll down to read.
Moscow, Saturday, June 2, 8:30 A.M.
Ruland Nash couldn’t have known that the bearded man who banged into him had made the bombs – both of them. Ruland was no slouch at 6’, 180 lbs. Yet the collision with the stocky, bearded man’s shoulder spun Ruland around so hard, his hip slammed into a double baby carriage. He mumbled an apology to the two hijabbed-covered women pushing it. As he walked on, he saw the man with the chinstrap beard hand each woman a cellphone. Another ethnic, male-dominated family, assumed Ruland, where the man controls even their means of communication. Not your country, he thought, so pick your windmills, Don Quixote.
Ruland weaved his way through the Moscow market crowded with Saturday morning shoppers. He squinted as he passed stands too brightly hued right now, with 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’d just turned thirty, Ruland had no desire to have children. Their laughter and clamoring just exacerbated his hangover’s dull throb.
Following Stephan’s suggestion, he stopped at booth number seven. Ruland held up three fingers and was rewarded with three cups of steaming, spoon-gripping coffee. The merchant snugged the cups into three holes he cut out of a stiff piece of cardboard. Ruland hovered a hand over the cups. The merchant produced three lids. Ruland paid and kept his headache well away from the accordion player at the entrance to the market square. He shuffled past the news kiosk’s photo of Vladimir Putin and back across the street to the Kopek Hotel.
The door to his room closed behind him. He foot-swept the golf balls on the floor out of his way. Not a good morning to challenge his sense of balance. He freed one of the coffees and placed it on the ottoman by the couch where Stanislav sprawled passed out. Before plunking his 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, cooled it down with tap water and drank it in one long go. The bottle of Tylenol yielded two precious gel-caps, which he washed down with a big sip from the second cup. He would gladly give the inventor of that fast-acting formula a free golf lesson – two even.
Ruland glanced at his schedule lying on the desk, under his book of crossword puzzles and beside his press-junket passes. He’d had the wisdom not to book his last round of golf till after lunch today.
Ruland ignored the poker chips, pizza box and empty vodka bottle on the round table – that’s what chambermaids were for. He did tuck his open bag of M & M’s into his golf bag so the cleaning staff didn’t take or toss them. He left the glass door to the balcony open to dissipate the odor of stale smoke that had loitered since before he arrived two days ago. He leaned on the balcony railing, looked out at the market he’d just left, and took another belt of strong coffee. The third floor of the boutique hotel gave him a great view of the market that had set up, like most farmers’ markets, in the early morning hours.
A handful of joggers gathered at the entrance to the marketplace, human metronomes swinging spandex covered legs front and back as they waited for their quorum to gather. The overcast sky dampened the accordion music wafting up from where the old woman serenaded Putin’s photo. BOOM!
The explosion buckled Ruland’s knees and sloshed coffee on his wrist. He turned to see an SUV rising in the air in slow motion. It’s shattered carcass crashed back to the market’s cobblestones. Vendors’ goods rained down on the smoke filled market.
“Shit, shit, shit, holy shit. Holy-” blurted Ruland, staring at 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. As the dust started to settle 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 paint-ball. Ruland gagged. He gulped air and shivered at the thought of what he’d just dodged.
He realized, with a nanosecond of guilt, that this nightmare could be his lucky break with the Clarington Newsgroup. Ruland 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,” barked Ruland 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.
The Russian pointed to the wreckage and said, “Ruland, I am not medical practitioner, I am translator. And this is not golf story-”
“Exactly. Let’s go. NOW,” yelled Ruland digging 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 about what lay behind the smoke that filled their view.
As he pushed Stanislav through the revolving doors Ruland hit record on his phone. He usually documented golf course vistas or wildlife that he could refer back to when writing his articles. The man with the chinstrap beard stood on the steps videotaping the conflagration. Why wasn’t he looking for the two female members of his family? YouTube was going to get a lot of uploads thought Ruland. He’d have to hurry to get his own story to head office. The stunned doorman, his visored hat in hand, swayed 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 scrambled for proximity.
Ruland tugged on Stanislav’s elbow, then sprinted through the Moses-like parting of the traffic seas. A charred car door lay wobbling in the middle of the road. Ruland was slowed by the enormity of the carnage he captured on his phone. 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 Ruland saw, with an arm or a hand missing, clutched their stumps and looked for missing limbs. One woman still held her tattered net shopping bag. She stared at the wall freshly sketched with bloody Rorschach death sprays. He recorded her head swaying in front of her private wailing wall.
The guilty BMW SUV lay in a V-shape. Inching their double baby carriage forward, the two scarfed women emerged from a side street. They alternated which end of the obliterated market to stare at.
He 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. Ruland and Stanislav hurried over to pull rectangles of corrugated metal off the blood-soaked shirt of a boy who couldn’t yet have celebrated his ninth birthday. Ruland cleared a path, oblivious to the splinters from the stand’s rough-hewed frame.
The two medics Stanislav waved over pushed them aside. One started chest compressions on the boy. The other clamped an oxygen mask over his sooty face. The boy’s eyes fluttered open. A medic dug through his kit for a saline bag. The other jammed an IV line into the skinny arm.
The two women huddled with their stroller by a pillar that stood incongruously unscathed. Ruland captured the women on his phone as they leaned into the big stroller and pulled out AK-47s.
“Down,” screamed Stephan as he knocked Ruland to the ground. The women swiveled to either side of the market and opened fire. The bullets whizzed overhead. Stanislav jerked around like a puppet suffering a seizure before falling on top of one of the medics. Ruland slithered behind a sculpture. First responders scurried and crawled back to their vehicles. The shell casings from the AK47s stopped clattering. Ruland raised his phone. It was still recording. One of the women turned a cell phone toward a Porsche Cayenne parked where the ambulances and fire trucks had to stop at the opposite end of the market square. Ruland covered his head with both arms. BOOM!
The explosion bounced his head off the cobblestones. In the post-apocalyptic silence, hand-sized pamphlets released from the Porsche 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.