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Friday, 5:50 P.M., St. Petersburg
"Pavel," said Piotr Volodya, "I don't understand."
Pavel Odina squeezed the steering wheel tightly. He looked unpleasantly at the man sitting next to him in the passenger's seat of the van. "You don't understand what, Piotr?"
"You forgive the French," Piotr replied, scratching a woolly sideburn, "so why not the Germans? Both of them have invaded Mother Russia."
Pavel frowned. "If you Can't see the difference, Piotr, you're a fool."
"That's not an answer," said Ivan, one of four men seated in the back.
"It happens to be true," grinned Eduard, who was seated beside him, "but Ivan is right. It isn't an answer."
Pavel shifted gears. This was the part of the nightly, half-hour commute to the Nepokorennykh Prospekt apartments that he hated most. Just two minutes out from the Hermitage, they had to slow as they neared the bottleneck at the Neva River. They were mired in traffic while his political nemeses were proceeding at full speed.
Pavel pulled a neatly-rolled cigarette from his shirt pocket and Piotr lit it for him.
"You still haven't answered me," Piotr said.
"I will," Pavel insisted, "when we've gotten onto the bridge. I Can't think and curse at the same time."
Pavel swung the van suddenly from the center lane to the left lane, jolting the men to the other side. Having fallen asleep when they left the Hermitage, both Oleg and Konstantin awoke with a jolt.
"You're too impatient, Pavel," Ivan said. "What are you in such a rush to get home to, your wife? Since when?"
"Very funny," Pavel said. The truth was, he wasn't hurrying to get to anything. He was in a rush to get away from the pressure, away from the deadline that had consumed them for months on end. Now that it was nearly over, he couldn't wait to go back to designing computer animation software for Mosfilm.
Shifting gears again, Pavel zigzagged between the rows of small Zaporozhets-968s, with their sputtering forty-three-horsepower engines, and the larger, five-seat Volga M-124s. There was also a smattering of foreign cars, though only government officials and black marketeers drove them; no one else could afford to. He and his comrades wouldn't even be driving this van if the TV studio hadn't provided it. The powerful Swiss-made vehicle was the only thing he would miss.
No, that isn't true, he thought as he glanced west. He savored the sight of the Peter and Paul Fortress on the opposite banks of the Neva as the setting sun glinted off its tall, graceful spires.
He would also miss St. Petersburg. He would miss the beauty of these blazing orange sunsets on the Gulf of Finland, the calming flow of the blue waters of the Neva, the Fontanka, and the Yekateringofki rivers, and the simple splendor of the many Canals. Though the waters were still somewhat dirty from years of Communist neglect, they were no longer thick with foul-smelling industrial waste as they wound through the heart of the ancient city, Russia's Venice. He would miss the majesty of the ruby-red Belozersky Palace, the gilt interiors of the Alexander Nevsky Chapel, where he sometimes went to pray, the towering golden onion domes of Catherine the Great's palace, and the peaceful gardens and cascading fountains of Peter the Great's palace, Petrodvorets. He would miss the sleek, white hydrofoils that skimmed along the Neva looking like something from a science fiction novel by Stanislaw Lem and he would miss the magnificent battleships that dwarfed them, coming and going to the Nakhimov Naval School on Aptekarsky Island in the Neva.
And, of course, he would miss the incomparable Hermitage. Though they weren't supposed to wander in the museum, he always took time to do just that when Colonel Rossky was occupied. Even if someone did see him day after day, he was supposed to be an employee there. No one would give it a thought. Besides, a religious man Can't be put among the likes of Rembrandt's Descent from the Cross, or Carracci's Lamentation of Christ, or his favorite, the School of Ribalta's St. Vincent in a Dungeon, and not be expected to look. Especially when he felt such a kinship to the trapped but resolute St. Vincent.
But he would be happy to get away from the work itself, from the stress and the seven-day workweeks and especially the watchful eyes of Colonel Rossky. He had served under the bastard in Afghanistan, and cursed the fate that had brought them back together for the past eighteen months.
As he always did when he reached the bridge of the Kirovsky Prospekt, Pavel made his way to the outside lane, with its low concrete barricade and more intrepid motorists. He breathed easier as he settled in among the faster-moving vehicles.
"You want an answer?" Pavel asked, drawing hard on his cigarette.
"To which question?" Ivan joked. "The one about your wife?"
Pavel scowled. "I'll tell you the difference between the Germans and the French. The French followed Napoleon because they were hungry. They've always put comfort before decency."
"What about the Resistance?" Piotr asked.
"A freak. A reflexive twitch of the corpse. If the Resistance in France had been as strong as the Russian Resistance in Stalingrad, Paris would never have fallen."
Pavel applied pressure to the pedal to keep a Volkswagen from cutting right and getting in front of him. Black marketeer, he guessed from the surly look of the woman. Pavel glanced in the mirror as a truck pulled behind him from the center lane.
"The French are not evil," Pavel continued, "but the Germans followed Hitler because they're still Vandals at heart. Give them time. Their factories will once again be turning out tanks and bombers, I guarantee it."
Piotr shook his head. "What about Japan?"
"Also bastards," said Pavel. "If Dogin wins the election, he'll watch them too."
"And is paranoia a sensible reason to vote for any man for president?"
"It's not paranoia to fear old enemies. It's caution."
"It's provocation!" Piotr said. "You don't get behind a man because he's vowed to strike the Germans at the first sign of remilitarization."
"That was only one reason." The road ahead cleared and Pavel sped up as he crossed the wide, dark river. The men shut the windows against the sharp wind. "Dogin promised to revitalize the space program, which will strengthen the economy. He'll build more studios like ours, and constructing new factories along the Trans-Siberian Railroad will provide cheap goods and new housing."
"And where will the money come from to achieve these wonders?" Piotr asked. "Our little nest back there cost twenty-five billion rubles! Do you really believe that if Dogin wins he Can cut enough fat from the government and from foreign adventures?"
Pavel blew out smoke and nodded.
Piotr frowned. He cocked a thumb over his shoulder. "That isn't what I overheard back there. Number Two was talking to an aide about the thieves-in-law. That's where he plans to get the money, and it's a dangerous association to "
Pavel reacted instinctively as the Volkswagen suddenly angled in front of him. He pushed down hard on the brake and spun the wheel to the right. As he did so, he heard a pop and thick green smoke began pouring from under the dashboard.
"What is it ?" Piotr coughed.
"Open a window!" one of the men yelled from the back as they all began to gag.
But Pavel had already fallen against the wheel, barely conscious. There was no one steering as the truck struck them from behind.
The Volkswagen was partly in the right lane as the truck drove the van into it. The left side of the van's front fender struck the car, skidding and sparking along its right side. Pointed toward the side of the bridge, the van hit the low concrete barrier and rode up and over, propelled by the truck. The right tire exploded, the axle hooked over the top of the barricade, and the van plunged nose-first into the choppy river.
There was a hiss as it struck the water, the van standing upright for a long moment before falling over on its back. Steam and air bubbles rose from the sides, mixing with the dissipating green smoke as the van bobbed belly-up on the surface of the river. The rest of the van was entirely submerged.
The burly trucker and the young blonde woman who had been driving the Volkswagen were the first ones to reach the shattered railing. They were joined by other motorists who scurried from their cars.
Neither the man nor the woman said a word to each other. They just watched as the van drifted to the southwest, twisting slowly in the current, the air bubbles dwindling and the smoke now just a faint wisp. The vehicle was already too far away for anyone to dive in and attempt to look for survivors.
The two drivers assured those who asked that they were all right. Then they made their way back to their vehicles to await the police.
No one had seen the truck driver drop a small, rectangular box in the river as he turned away.
from Op-Center: Mirror Image
Created by Tom Clancy and Steve Pieczenik Copyright ©1995 by Jack Ryan Limited Partnership and S&R Literary, Inc.