If asked or pressed on the matter I recall most minor details, almost didactically if under oath. Recited and rehearsed now over the years to the “rememberings” of once said or done things. Much like an obligation, if it ever was one; capturing another time, another thought out of sight, out of earshot, but still there. Just beyond the edges—graying, fraying, fading forever. Like time creeping up through a cold chill when the soul starts to slowly slip away. Crumbling the little bits, and pieces, until they fall victim to a grinding leather sole of another. But that’s service with a smile.
Moments tend to define us. They stand behind us, pushing at our backs; pillars for our next moments to rest on. Getting caught between the two, living between those moments, changes you. And no matter how much time passes, it won’t fade, not the memories you wish would. Those memories that haunt, they were of the real you, the you caught in the in-between, with no rehearsed lines to recite. Hard-pressed and feeling eager to escape to the next, some try to force the change, others accept their defeated fates like cult members.
Not reciting, but remembering how we met the first time. Grinding out someone else’s cigarette on the sidewalk in front of a Pimp’s bar, Fat Jack’s Stacks of Fat Jack. She was wearing turquoise and diamond encrusted Valentino stilettos. Had I’d known what that meant at the time, it might have made a difference. But those heels went with ankles and up to a slender figured self confident woman, who was real and had stainless steel eyes.
“You the guy?” she says in her accented voice, staring me down through her dark rose framed lenses.
“I am the guy.” I tell her.
“What do we do now?”
“Go, wait for a call … I got a place by the square.” I told her.
“So you’re not really the guy. But you got a place and you’re going to take me to the guy.”
“I’m the guy that’s here. Can you trust me, Tysha?”
She takes her time, making sure she gives it apparent consideration, “No.”
“Don’t trust anyone. That’s good advice, thanks.” I hear my smartass say as I turned to leave, “Have a good night.”
She stops walking, “Then what the hell am I supposed to do? Can’t trust them, can’t trust you, can’t trust myself. Tell me then why should I trust you? You know my name, good for you,” she says as she starts to point from person to person walking along the boulevard, “I bet he does too, and she does and everybody who cares to stop and look.”
Approaching the unknown is not an easy thing to do. It’s harder by yourself, on the run, alone. I knew that. I also knew she was a woman with determination and she wasn’t going to become a victim—whether I was there or not. But I was here, and that was going to make all the difference in the world.
“Right now, we look normal.” I say stepping up to her, “A couple meeting up on the sidewalk before going to eat. Anyone watching you is taking notice of that. Asking themselves, Who is this mysterious new man in her life? My recommendation, find a nice bistro. Talk things over, each step, okay? If I was hired to kill you, it’d already be done. So, trust me,” I tell her, “or, be stuck here, living the underground life. That’s all up to you. You gonna give me trouble?”
It was a lie the second she thought of the word, “None.”
I shook my head. None meant tons, and we both smile like we mean it. And like a pro with years of training under her belt, she links arms with me, turning us both and stepping off into the first place with real seats and glasses.
In the courtyard for everyone to see, we drink red wine and sample local cheeses and breads. Pointing and looking and watching everybody, sightseeing tourist taking in the marvelous architecture, embracing the local’s culture of carefree living. We look very much the role of young lovers. And I can see the appeal it has for the first real time in my life, and the last.
Getting sucked into the moment, caught me off guard. An overhand right straight to the mouth, a time I have never been able to never forget. The one time when—for a split second—I relaxed, and found myself accidentally happy. No rules but to smile when she laughed. Feeling normal, for what I would guess, was the first time for each of us.
“Did your, people, tell you who I am?” she says.
What you know and what you chose to give away, in the moment, doesn’t matter. You say the truth. It’s the easy thing to remember. Caught up, off guard, with the soft lighting reflecting in the fountain’s rippling water, the truth was all I could find to say.
“They told me to go find a girl and bring her home for my mother to meet. They drew a very good picture about a specific type.” I tell her, “You fit the bill. I’m the lucky one, the picture they drew doesn’t do you justice.” Of course I knew everything about her. Her accent, her region, her family’s name and their position in the party. The truth is still the truth, even if you don’t mention every detail.
“Pick me up? Like I’m that kind of lady? Oh go on. Let me hear it. What would you say if you saw me in the States, Come here often?” She says changing the subject, “I take you for a meat man—and beer. If I’m wrong, you tell me. Hit the gym a little harder so you can enjoy the fat from the land of plenty. Mom, pie, the fourth of July. Hard-worker, determined. A real Yankee Doodle bully.”
“Taking my job?” I remember asking, “That’s me, I’m guilty.”
“No,” she tells me, “you’re not. Guilty is for the wrong. You know you’re right. That’s worse. I bet you are the bully too, Mister Have-to-fix-it Man. It’s not a job for you anymore, all of this, is it? It’s personal. I can see your eyes. What happened, to the little boy you? A family tragedy force you to embrace this? Or … are you really just, Johnny America?”
“Johnny America, I like it. If I ever have a son maybe I’ll name him that.”
“And his mother?” she says.
“What about her?”
“See? Bully, you don’t care. I told you. Maybe his mother would want something else, like Johnny Yenko?”
“What? It’s a family name. What you call a ‘nickname’, get used to it.” she says with a playful smile, caught up, in the moment, momentarily enjoying her role.
“Is there more to it?” I ask, knowing damn good and well I shouldn’t have.
She sat uncomfortable for the briefest second, “You can’t ask me, I won’t tell you, I can’t. You get used to that too … Do you trust me?” She winks.
“No.” I laugh, thinking about being struck stupid by a poisoned cupid arrow out of the blue.
“Are you going to be trouble?” She says.
I don’t even have to think about it. I tell her, “Yes.”
“You’re terrible. Johnny—”
“You’re afraid of attachment, if anyone asks.” I say, caught up, again. “I understand, I am good looking. You were just afraid all the ladies would love me. Even I love me, I get the fear. But after a long time spent stalking you, you finally submitted to me—is that too much for you?”
“I’m afraid you’re already hooked.”
“That’s right. I could reel you in right here. Steal you forever, with just the promise of a simple, little, kiss.” I remember she said, me watching those full lips form the words. Surprised that life has a funny way about messing up your plans.
“I’m not a fish. And even if I was, there aren‘t any others like me, I promise you.”
“Are trying to be clever? Maybe you shouldn’t, you are not very good at it.”
“Yeah. I see you. When you’re not glancing through windows and ’round corners. Pretending no one’s watching what you’re meaning to put your eyes on. But you have to break away from the job every few seconds to see that your being watched by someone else too. And now I’m thinking … I’m absolutely finished calling you Agent Johnny in my mind, you need a new name.”
“The Great, Marcus Aurelius. Emperor of Rome, at your service.”
“All that? Here—in great Peter’s city?” she says.
“On the spot? Yeah. Why not? Do I look like a Peter to you?”
“No, Max, I guess you don’t look like a Peter.”
“Max … nice to meet me?” I ask.
“Nicer for you, I think, to have met me.”
“And the name you’ve given yourself on this secret rendezvous?”
“Is Lady X a good name?” she says with a smirk.
“I am not calling you Lady X.”
“Bully. I told you. Maybe I don’t want Lady X anymore anyway. Maybe, I have the perfect name picked, like Cleopatra. And everyone will love me and remember me forever.”
“Yeah, is it Cleopatra?”
“It could be.” she says, and I break away from the job again to steal a glimpse of her almond shaped gray-blue eyes.
Walking down the brown cobblestone side-ways of Saint Petersburg, flirting, creating fake past moments, it all became real. Both of us adding small things we didn’t realize we had wanted until now. Little things, stacking and building, creating the details that make remembering the past fun. I got swept up and she said, “You’ve been at this awhile.”
“Nah, just started a couple months ago.” It’s a lie she didn’t bother responding to.
“Maybe, too much awhile,” she says smiling her lips in away that left the lower one pouting.
“You have it figured out already, don’t you, lady? Less than a day and after one pretend date. Two kids, a dog and cat, living off a pension I don’t have yet.”
“The heart knows what it knows. And all this has taught me to live for now, not hold anything back. And right now, if I die right here, you know how I felt.” she says, “It’s simple. Like me, you‘ll get used to that too.”
“All you know is what you see. It’s physical to you. I’m beautiful.” I said uncomfortable with the truth.
“What? Max, my dear, Max, I don’t know who told it to you, but you are not an attractive person. Look at you. All manly and brutish. Probably not a delicate nature in anything you do. All rough and unrefined. And there it is. Max The Bully, The Brute. Sounds like some evil story meant to scare little kids from sneaking cookies up to their rooms before bed. But you’re not the villain I supposed, are you? Frankenstein’s Monster trying to blend in with the rest of us, trying to pretend to be normal.”
The Monster. If she had realized the truth of her statement, she would have picked another name. Honesty can be brutal. “I don’t blend well on my own,” I said to her.
“No, I suppose you don’t care if villagers see you for what you think you are. But you care about something. Or why else would you be here doing what it is you do? Risking what it is you’re risking, for me.” She says, and I can’t help but listen, drawn in and caught up, being pulled down the walkway—hooked—arm to arm. “I think you care. Maybe to much too. And that’s why the reel, Max, and the hook, are attached to each other, my ugly man of legends.”
“Max Legends, they’re calling your name, lover. Aren’t they?”
“And here I was, thinking I was going to do all the work.”
We walked around and after a series of short rail rides made our way to the square. It was at the second of three stops that I picked up the tail. They were good. A couple. A little older than the two of us. Man and a woman heading home from the long day. Good cover. I’ve used it myself—all the time. They didn’t talk to each other, not one word. Not even a glance to see how the other was getting along. Professionals. Partners. Not the married middle-aged couple they were trying to be. It gave them away.
Saint Petersburg is laid out in a series of grids around all the water. An engineering marvel of its time. Grids. Corners. Great for keeping a hidden eye or two on any would-be subversives with little effort. At the third and final stop we all get off. On the platform I pause at the posted signs. So did our tail. I lead the way down the steps to the street below and quickly start down the first road way.
“We are serious now, Max?” She asked me.
“We’re being followed,” I say to her. “Just keep looking straight ahead, at the next left, turn.”
“What are we going to do?”
“Do you want to go back?”
Realizing this wasn’t a game she says to me, “They’ll kill me if I do,” her voice betraying the fear she was feeling.
“Turn here.” I tell her, grabbing her arm and holding her to the edge of the building. “Don’t move.” I say, listening to them step closer, pulling out a little silenced .380. Her eyes widen as I step around the corner, pistol already up. They’ve got zero reaction time. I fire a single shot to each of their head’s, they drop. I turn back around the corner and she’s got a look of relief staring to overwhelm her. “Hey, this is just getting started,” I remind her. “We got to move … there’s more coming.”
“The clock is ticking now … I thought we’d have the day … but—“
“But my people are too good,” she says bending down and taking off her heels.
They were good. Just like she had said. Just as we had thought they would be. The place off the square wasn’t safe anymore, we couldn’t take the risk. I doubled us back and walk away to our new destination. Plan B was an old beat up car in a garage, down by the river.
Charlie Spitoli had drove over from Moscow two nights before and staged it out-of-sight just where she knew we would need it. Everything was well choreographed. We had overlays of the city, a little outdated but we managed it alright. We had to learn all the major and minor ways in and out, in the weeks leading up with prep work.
A slight mist started falling as I put the key into the rusty lock of the garage door. She is not happy with me for rushing her along the narrow byways off the square. When she sees the car I think she forgives me.
“So this is next step … without orders?” She says as she gets in the passenger-side.
“Those two friends of yours miss their report time, and your disappearance officially puts everyone on high-alert. I’m not waiting for orders—my people know we’re coming in.” I give her a wink to calm her down, but she’s already leaning her seat back.
“Now, we take the road north of the harbor and see about a guy with a boat.”
“Yeah, a boat, running the shipping lanes. We’re gonna be a day early,” I tell her, “There’s a bag in the back. You’re going to want to change.”