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THE PALE RUSSIAN youth whom Odile had engaged as her driver displayed neither fear nor pity as he sent his battered panel truck hurtling through the streets of north Moscow, and he now assailed her additionally with the plot development of a movie in which he seemed to be inviting her to invest. Odile spoke no Russian and he no French, so he framed these imaginings in an imperfect English that from time to time required him to take both hands off the wheel and, for her benefit, shape the vectors of his desire in the air before them. It was a slate-gray afternoon in March that threatened snow.
Odile, having been in Moscow for three days, found herself quite ready to leave. Assuming the success of the present outing, her fifth of the day, she and her partner, Thierry Colin, would in less than three hours be boarding the train that would return them to Paris. Though she had no regrets about agreeing to this venture, all was not well at home, and only her driver’s studied recklessness kept her from brooding over her troubles.
In due course, they arrived intact at an open cobblestone square off Tsvetnoy Bulvar, not far from the Circus and the old Central Market, now padlocked. Along the square’s eastern periphery ran a row of dilapidated kiosks, only one of which, lit feebly within, might conceivably be open for commerce. Her driver stopped a short distance away, executed a brisk three-point turn, and backed his vehicle up to the mouth of the scorched-looking structure. The day’s business had taught them that it was impolitic to leave the engine running, as prudence might otherwise dictate, and he hastened now to shut it off.
After taking a moment to collect herself, Odile got out of the truck and headed with as much aplomb as she could muster to a spot behind the kiosk where three men stood smoking in the frigid air. They didn’t look particularly surprised or happy to see her.
“Good afternoon,” she said in English. “I am told you are well stocked with the merchandise I require today. Perhaps we can discuss it.”
The spokesman for the group, a compact, muscular youth barely out of his teens, considered her carefully. “You like drugs, sweet-pie? Hash from Afghanistan?” He smiled accommodatingly. “Or maybe you like big American refrigerator? Anything you need, gorgeous, we fix you up.”
Odile had left Paris somewhat impulsively and hadn’t thought to pack for the weather. She had been cold since Warsaw, her pleated plaid overcoat was self-evidently French, and the offer of refrigerators struck her as an insult of some kind. She shrugged and said nothing.
As if they had been waiting for just this signal, the other two men approached a steel storage bin appended to the kiosk. One produced a key and, cursing immoderately, set about unlocking it.
“We have also souvenirs, patriotic mementos. Maybe this is what you come for? Very good merchandise. Kick-ass.”
In fact it was what she’d come for, and she was annoyed to realize that the men had known this from the start. Russia more and more impressed her as a place of thundering redundancies, and in the spirit of this recognition she had learned to state her purpose clearly.
“I’m looking for May Day flags of the Soviet years. If they are the right kind, I will buy them all from you immediately in dollars.” She waited a beat while they inspected her person thoughtfully. “The money is in the truck with my driver. If I like them, he will pay you. He has a gun.”
These words had an instant and enlivening effect, and shortly four grandly oversized Soviet banners, perhaps nine feet on their longer side and made of red velvet, lay spread out on the cobblestones for Odile’s consideration. Fringed extravagantly with fine gold braid, they bore across their faces, along with the lately defunct hammer and sickle, a multitude of meticulously appliquéd decorations in satin, cotton, and lightweight wool. Each flag was unique, depicting the several architects and contractors of Soviet communism grouped together in attitudes of slightly pained farsightedness. Different periods were represented, and the personnel varied accordingly. One flag featured a likeness of Stalin, who, by a quirk of handicraft, gazed slyly at the viewer with an expression of robust good humor. He seemed to be sharing a joke.
“Very interesting,” she said after examining the merchandise. “How do I know they’re real?”
A small silence ensued as all present pondered the question.
“I will tell you,” her interlocutor finally said. “Straight up, no bullshit. In all of Moscow you do not find flags like these. Handmade by Russian factory workers to be entered in May Day competition for whole Soviet Union. These are objects of . . .” He turned to the man who had unlocked the bin. “What is English word, Leonya? Cultural . . .”
“Patrimony,” the man pronounced with satisfaction. “Highly illegal.”
“To take them out of Russia is a crime, but we do not take them out of Russia because we are not criminals. Our business is business—this is obvious to everyone. So enough stupidities.” He blew into his fists a couple of times for warmth and calculated. “I will sell you these four very fine artistical objects at the price of”—his ice-blue eyes scanning the sky for counsel—“at the exclusive price of eighteen hundred American dollars cash, no tax. Almost a gift.”
Odile sniffed. As it happened, she’d been given standing instructions to pay whatever was asked, and though mildly shocked by such intemperance she had purchased twenty-six flags over the past three days, never parting with more than three thousand for any single one. Her employer had given her a fifty-thousand-dollar stake to work with, and this would be the last of it. “Okay,” she said at last. “Pack them up, and we have a deal.”
BACK AT THE HOTEL, Thierry Colin was pacing the parquet floors in a state of some perturbation. A girl he’d met in the bar downstairs had contrived to separate him from his wallet and what remained of his hard currency while keeping up her end of a lively conversation about Russian literature. Thierry was an assistant professor at the Sorbonne.
“It’s the unreality of the place that offends me,” he said. “Nothing here is what it seems. A thief’s not a thief, the police aren’t police.”
“At least the girl was a girl, I hope,” Odile said, checking her watch.
Open on the bed lay the five suitcases in which they intended to transport the flags, now piled against a wall in smoldering array. It was apparent at a glance that space would be a problem.
Thierry ran a hand vexedly through his hair. “I wonder,” he mused. “Do we try to conceal them, or just stuff them in?”
“I’m sure it makes no difference.” She shook out one of the flags. “Here, help me.”
Odile had been put in touch with Thierry by the friend of someone she didn’t really know, a social acquaintance who’d guessed or been told about her current situation. Thierry, for his part, had been brought in by a cousin who happened to play squash with the scheme’s American sponsor, an appraiser for the Paris office of a celebrated auction house. Since Odile and Thierry would each be paid thirty thousand francs on delivery of the contraband flags, it seemed safe to infer that the American intended to make a good deal of money.
“What’s our plan for customs?” she asked as they packed the flags.
“I told you: our employer’s taken care of all the details. When we get to Brest, we just give customs our declaration forms and passports, then merci, bon voyage, we’re on our way.”
“Let’s hope so. With your money gone we have almost nothing left for bribes, fines, whatever they call them. Do we even have a clue what the penalty is for what we’re doing?”
“You don’t want to know, Odile. What’s more, it’s irrelevant. Customs has been paid to take our interests to heart.”
At the train station, a massive beaux arts fortress painted verdigris and cream, Odile ran ahead to claim their compartment and Thierry followed with the baggage cart. All westbound trains originated or terminated here, and as the passengers jostled past one another, conferring in the languages of Europe, Odile felt her spirits lift. She located their assigned compartment without difficulty—a two-berth cabin just far enough from the overburdened toilet—and when Thierry appeared on the platform outside, she threw the window open and took the suitcases from him. Ten minutes later he settled into the seat opposite her, and the train pulled off into an occluded sunset.
THE FROZEN RIVER, the enclosing highway, suburban housing blocks of unfaced concrete, ranks of rental garages built into the railroad embankment and guarded by dogs: they watched the landscape unspool until darkness was complete and nothing could be seen at the window except their own reflections.
“It’s a catastrophe, this country,” Thierry said.
Odile shrugged. There was no disputing his assessment.
The train picked up speed, its horn erupting at intervals that suggested frustrations incompletely contained. Balalaika music issued from unseen speakers, and after awhile Odile recognized it as an American pop song that had been popular when she was at lycée.
“When we first arrived,” she said, “I expected something marvelous. Something you could see on people’s faces, a wakefulness after all those years. It was unfair of me, but I thought they would be drunk with freedom.”
Thierry was unimpressed. “Drunk, yes. But not with freedom.”
“Now what seems strange is that I had any expectations at all. My ideas about this place came from nowhere, really. They weren’t even ideas.”
Watching her, Thierry took a cigarette from his coat pocket. “You say expectations, but that’s not what you mean.”
“Isn’t it?” she said. And then, with sudden irritation, “I wonder why not.”
From the corridor came a smell of socks, sweat, and pickled cabbage. The provodnitsa, an imperious, moon-faced woman in her late twenties, had locked all the windows before departure, and the air in the carriage had quickly gone stale.
“You’re describing longings, not expectations,” Thierry said. “And you’re hardly the only one. People want to believe a new life is possible, even if not for them. They still have faith in the fresh approach, the original act, all that. Yet this is a world in which everything of consequence is already known.” He frowned, turning the cigarette slowly over in his fingers as if examining it for fine print. “What to do in this painful situation?”
She pulled her sweater close about her shoulders. “I really don’t want to hear this, Thierry.”
“And you can’t smoke that in here.” Rummaging through her bag, she produced a brush and ran it repeatedly through her auburn hair.
Thierry watched and said, after awhile, in a different voice, “Don’t worry. I know you’re a serious woman.”
In the dining car they had to wait for a table, clinging to the safety rail as the carriage shimmied and bucked. Most of their fellow passengers had changed into loose-fitting clothes for the trip—sweatsuits, gym shoes that were more like slippers—and the mood was markedly more festive than it had been five days ago, traveling in the other direction.
They shared their table with an American student who’d come to Moscow from Beijing. The boy had changed all his yuan—five hundred dollars’ worth—into rubles on entry and had just now discovered that the rubles, which couldn’t be taken out of the country, could only be changed back into yuan, of which there were naturally none to be had. Rather than surrender his net worth at the border, he had decided to spend it all at the next stop with worthwhile goods for sale. Odile was worried by this boy—he would arrive in Paris without any money at all—but the thought brought with it a kind of pique. Someone else would have to take care of him.
After dinner, Thierry stayed behind to play chess with a Pole he’d be-friended and Odile returned to their compartment alone. She rented sheets and blankets from the provodnitsa, made up both couchettes, and lay down without undressing. The music program had been changed to Tchaikovsky. Moonlight fell intermittently into the compartment. The rails chattered.
Odile hadn’t considered herself committed to this trip until Thierry received their train tickets from the American, an hour before departure, and in her rush to reach the Gare du Nord a number of practical matters had gone untended. In particular, she’d failed to get a phone call through to her husband, Max, who was in New York visiting his daughter from his first marriage. After trying twice to phone him from Paris, she realized that her return ticket would get her home before Max anyway, and she set aside the idea of the call without ever quite meaning to abandon it. This lapse now unnerved her. Although it was not their habit to give daily account of themselves, Odile was troubled by her negligence, and she wondered what it might portend. At a time like this, she told herself, I can’t take anything for granted.
She woke hours later to the sound of Russian voices raised in song. When she switched on her reading lamp, she saw that Thierry’s berth was undisturbed, and after a moment’s thought she got up and left the compartment.
Their dinner companion had succeeded in spending his rubles at the Smolensk station and now, at one end of the carriage, spilling into the corridor, a party was in progress. Open cases of vodka and Georgian champagne, jars of Caspian caviar, smoked sturgeon in folds of brown paper: the boy had resolved that if he was to arrive in Paris destitute he might as well make the most of it. Half a dozen passengers had joined him in a mood of dutiful excess.
She found Thierry sequestered between cars, a champagne bottle in one hand, a cigarette in the other. There was a glow about him, a halation that went beyond the ordinary flush of someone drinking alone on a homebound train. Fleetingly, Odile was confused. This very scene, she realized, had played out before her eyes on some other occasion, in some other place.