Winner, 1st Place, LDStorymakers Conference 2011 First Chapter Contest, Mystery/Suspense Category
Finalist, The 2011 Sandy Contest, Crested Butte Writers Conference, Suspense/Thriller Category
As a Soviet living in Paris, and a woman, I had multiple fronts to defend. But the most devastating attack would come from a quarter I’d never anticipated. I would remember everything except the blast.
Though my father must have considered how accepting a favor from the Americans would affect the treaty negotiations, he’d done the political calculus and apparently this was his answer. I couldn’t muster the same confidence, nor could I stop worrying my ring’s rounded edge as I followed Papa across the broad court to the waiting maroon Packard.
For now, I had to help my father maintain the political balance as best we could. None of us could afford another war.
I stopped my restless hands and stepped into the Packard. The US Secretary of State touched his gray homburg’s brim. I settled onto the collapsible seat in front of him, but even the familiar, faint scent of cigarette smoke and leather couldn’t make me comfortable.
“His Excellency James Byrnes,” my father gestured to the slight, silver-haired man.
The Secretary of State held up a hand. “Titles aren’t necessary.” He certainly didn’t look like a capitalist, but then, they never did.
My father set his briefcase with the others at my feet and climbed into the seat by me. “My daughter, Yekaterina Korneyevna Mikhailova,” he said in his slight accent. “Our cultural attaché.”
“Mikhailov,” the fat American next to Byrnes addressed my father. “Who’d’ve thought? You’ve got a beautiful daughter. She must take after her mother!”
I pushed back a wave of memories of my mother and every other loved one I’d never see again. My father forced a smile, despite the American’s brash laughter. Byrnes angled away from his comrade on the red leather seat, pressing two fingers to his temples. Weariness sank into the fine lines around his eyes and dark eyebrows.
“Trudnyi den′?” I whispered, as if I hadn’t observed yet another difficult day from the gallery. Papa gave a minute headshake. Today, at least, it wasn’t a Soviet-American problem holding up progress: the border between Austria and Italy had occupied most of this week’s debate. The treaty negotiations were seizing like a machine in need of oil.
I just had to prevent the situation from getting worse right now. My father gave their driver our embassy address, then checked his pocket watch. We must’ve had an appointment to keep.
“So, young lady.” The loud American leaned toward me, though at thirty I hardly qualified. I barely turned my head to acknowledge him. “What’d you do in the war?”
Only an American—someone whose land and people and spirits remained unscarred by the Great Patriotic War—would ask such a thing. I’d spent years perfecting English, but I wasn’t about to let him know that. I answered in French, skirting the edge of courtesy to close the subject. Papa translated. “She worked in a factory. Tanks.”
We sank into silence until the car merged into heavy traffic. The fat American shoved aside his window curtain. “Should’ve gone through Île de la Cité,” he muttered—a route nowhere near our embassy.
Why had they offered a ride if we were so inconvenient? We could’ve called our own car. I resisted the urge to shift in my seat, rubbing my ring again. Uncertainty curdled in my stomach. What did being trapped in close quarters with these capitalists gain us?
The fat American began to sort through dinner options, soliciting my father’s opinion of restaurants on Rue de Grenelle near our embassy.
“I’m afraid we have no taste for French cuisine,” my father said. “We Soviets are simple people.”
“Shchi da kasha?” I murmured.
Papa flashed me a smirk, appreciative of the Russian proverb, though we rarely ate cabbage soup or porridge. But once his smile passed, a distinct unease crept into the corners of his mouth. Was he rethinking the calculations that led us to these seats? I tried to ignore the worry rising in my stomach. He checked his watch amid deflecting the fat American’s continued queries.
The driver turned off Boulevard Raspail, but our narrow street was equally busy, and we had a few hundred meters to go at a crawl. I willed my hands to still and tried not to second guess my father.
As if he were trying to make me more uncomfortable, the loud American leaned forward and across the seat, sucking air through his teeth centimeters from my neck. “Pity.”
I looked back and raised an eyebrow.
“Pity wasting your life on a career and Communism.”
I felt a flush flooding my cheeks. Everything they said about capitalists was true. A retort rose to my lips.
But my pride wasn’t worth risking the treaty and perhaps another war. I swallowed hard, my anger sliding into my stomach like hot, bitter stew. With one more deep breath, I shook my head as if I hadn’t understood, playing the true diplomat.
Finally we reached our embassy. My father had the driver pull in front of our tall gates.
“Thank you for taking us.” My father opened the door before the Packard had fully stopped. “See you at Bidault’s reception next week?”
“Looking forward to it.” Byrnes touched his hat brim again.
Papa left from the car and helped me out, too. As soon as my shoes touched the pavement, he hurried toward our gates. The soldiers flanking the heavy wooden doors moved to open them. I took the first deep breath since we’d left. Though I was ready to fly after my father, I nodded to the Americans and started at a more respectable pace.
“Wait, miss!” the fat American called. “Come back!”
I fought the urge to pause. I wasn’t about to give him a restaurant recommendation or anything else.
“Monsieur? Mademoiselle?” the driver called.
Even though I knew it was irrational, my heart seized. Now I had to stop, just a meter from the sanctuary of our gates. I turned back.
The driver stood by the still-open car door, holding a briefcase aloft. “Votre mallette?”
“Non.” Papa shook his head and gestured to the case in his hand. “Pas le mienne.”
I squinted at the driver’s brown leather case. Had Papa grabbed the wrong one?
As I started back toward the street, my father took my elbow again. “Katya.” He sounded as though he’d stopped me from filching a cookie instead of doing a favor. “They’re waiting.”
He was right, but it would only take a moment to be sure.
The driver arched an eyebrow and started around the car. As I reached him, he held out the briefcase—then everything flashed hot and white, then nothing.