Excerpt-Red Sky

It was the stillness that woke Ben. He looked at his watch. Nearly 7:00 p.m. Two hours of daylight left this far north in June. He used his sleeve to wipe away the moisture on the window. Cold rain washed against the glass. The train sat on a siding in front of a station with the sign Starodub hanging from it. Ben brought up the map of Russia in his mind. A small city in the hills just before crossing into Ukraine and starting down into the Dnieper Basin.

He walked to the end of the car through the door to a vestibule connecting to the next car. One of the conductors leaned on the half-door that opened to the platform. The air had a bite to it. “Why are we stopped?” he asked.

The conductor smoothed a gray goatee. “I think they are looking for someone. We are to wait for army troops to come and make a special inspection. That is all I know.”

“Strange weather,” Ben said.

“We get these late spring storms from the arctic every couple of years. We’ll be socked in for a few days and then it blows through.” The conductor looked at Ben for a moment. “You have a Ukrainian accent, but a little different. Where are you from?”

“I am from the south, near Odessa. But I have been working in Moscow.”

Three truckloads of army troops pulled up in front of the station, and the soldiers in the first truck formed a sentry line around the train. The others divided into search teams and marched toward their assigned cars. The wind gusted and sluiced the rain in sheets.

Ben and the conductor leaned down with their forearms resting on top of the half-door, watching the soldiers. Ben pointed to his right. “Look. More troops are coming.”

When the conductor turned, Ben struck down with a rabbit punch that traveled no more than twelve inches, striking the conductor at the base of the skull. He went limp and sagged to his knees.

Ben put on the conductor’s jacket and cap, and walked out onto the platform. He said to a junior lieutenant who was in charge of the troops guarding that side of the train, “I have to see the stationmaster. I will be right back.”

The lieutenant motioned Ben through the line.

Ben walked through the small station and into the town, dropping the conductor’s jacket and cap in a trash barrel outside the station. He ducked into a bar two blocks away to get out of the pounding rain. Shivering, he ordered hot coffee and asked the bartender about a taxi.

The bartender, cigarette drooping from his mouth, said, “We have one taxicab in our town. It is Saturday night and he is busy, but I will call.” He punched in some numbers, mumbled something into the phone, and listened for a moment. “You are lucky. He just dropped off a fare. He will be here in five minutes.”

Ben sipped his coffee and waited, hoping the troops hadn’t yet revived the conductor. He tried to carry on a conversation with the bartender, but gave up after getting one-syllable replies. A very old Mercedes taxicab pulled up to the front door of the bar, and a short man in his fifties with thinning brown hair and a walrus mustache walked in. “You called a taxi?”

Ben followed the driver to the cab. “What is the nearest town on the Ukraine side where I can catch a bus or a train?”

“Novgorod Severskiy. But that is over seventy kilometers. The fare will cost you a czar’s treasure.”

“How much?”

“I would have to charge two thousand for a trip like that. But I have my regular Saturday night customers to take care of, so I cannot go tonight even if you could pay.”

“You will be back by midnight to pick up the drunks from the bars,” Ben said. “Besides, I am a generous tipper.”

“How generous?”

“What about an extra thousand. Total of three. Half now, the other half when we get there.”

The driver stared with rheumy eyes. “Are you making a joke with me? Let me see your money.”

Ben handed him fifteen hundred rubles. “You get the rest in Novgorod Severskiy.”

“You are soaking wet and stink of brandy. I thought you would not have a ruble to your name. But come on. The sooner the better.”

With his hand on the taxi’s door handle, he glanced up the street and saw soldiers pouring out of the railway station and charging into town.

In the taxi, he said, “Make it quick or you will lose the other fifteen hundred.”

The driver looked in his rearview mirror and nodded. “I just hope this old bucket starts. Battery is weak.” He turned the key. The starter motor turned with a pitiful groan, but nothing happened.

Ben heard the thudding of boots on pavement as the soldiers surged down the street toward them.

“Come on, little sweetheart,” the driver said, turning the key once more. The starter motor groaned again, but this time the engine caught.

As they pulled away, Ben saw two of the soldiers peel off into the bar he’d just left. Wind-driven rain beat against the taxi.

The driver turned on his wipers. “Did you leave a tip?”

“A hundred rubles.”

“Don’t worry, then. He will not say anything. This close to the border, we are used to smugglers and black marketers. A nice tip and his memory goes bad.”

They drove south, winding through dark hills. “I am not crossing at the regular place. Too much red tape. A gravel road crosses the border five minutes ahead. There is a guard hut, but they do not always bother to man it. Especially at night in rainy weather.”

As they approached the Ukraine border, Ben saw that the guard hut was lighted and the red-and-white-striped barrier arm was down. A soldier wearing a rain slicker, a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder, emerged from the hut.