Speaking In Tongues
Guided by Voices


By Vladimir Vysotsky with Edouard Volodarsky

Translated by Max Nemtsov

It is a foggy morning in May. A camp is seen through the shimmering shroud, with its concrete pillars supporting the electric barbed wire fences, its rectangular barracks and clean-swept parade ground, the commandant's office, watchtowers with machine-gun turrets and dead searchlights.
The caption: It was May 2, 1945, several days before the end of the World War 2.
An SS officer ran out of the commandant's office, buttoning his uniform up in a hurry and shouting something to the sentries at the gates and on tops of the towers. Another officer followed him, reading a telegraph tape on the run. The machine guns started turning toward the silent barracks holding prisoners.
"Quick!" the first officer shouted. "It's Himmler's order! Everyone should go! To hell! All of them! Faster!"
Soldiers with German shepherds on long leashes ran out of the guardhouse. Furious barking broke the morning silence. The soldiers burst into barracks, kicking and shoving the prisoners with butts of their guns. There were clipped commands heard through the barking, the most frequent being, "Quick! Quick!"
The still sleepy prisoners dropped from their plank beds, slowly raised to their feet and exited their barracks. The column was slowly forming. The soldiers and officers urged them with the butts of their guns.
The barking woke up Daniel, the tall gaunt man with the mop of yellow hair. He went down to the floor from the tier of bedding, taking the worn-out copy of the Bible with him.
"Hey, Padre, why did they wake us up so early in the morning?" someone asked in Polish.
Daniel shrugged his shoulders and went to the exit.
Gerard slept so soundly that his neighbors had to shake him, and then a soldier shoved him with the gun-barrel in the ribs. Gerard woke up, crawled from the plank bed, and shivered.
"Are they gone mad today?" someone asked passing him by.
"The Americans are close", Gerard smiled and pricked his ears. "Do you hear it?"
The din of approaching gunfire could be heard through the soldiers' shouted orders and barking.
"And I dreamt of goddamned Marseilles", Gerard smiled.
"They'll show us now both Marseilles and Rio", someone said bitterly.
The May morning sun hurt their eyes as the prisoners went out of their barracks and stopped for a moment squinting. Only one of them looked at the sun steadily and severely, and his angular face was immobile. His name was Vladimir.
The SS officer hit one of the prisoners with the butt of his gun, and the victim winced with pain and pushed away the hand of his tormentor:
"Are you insane, you dog?"
The machine-gun rattled, and the prisoner writhed and fell to the ground. Everyone froze for a moment, unbelievingly looking at his body. In the meantime, the soldiers shouted their orders, the dogs barked in a frenzy and threw themselves at the prisoners. One of the prisoners who looked like an Italian, with black wavy hair, bent over the body suddenly, touched its hand, and shook his head.
"He's dead", he muttered in Russian with a slight Georgian accent. Then he ran his hand over his face with a prominent nose. "They become rabid in the very end".
Daniel stopped by fat Austrian non-com officer in a black uniform that was wrinkled and fit badly. A button was missing on the front. This clearly was a different man from those days in the beginning of that war when he was one of the elite SS corps.
"What the panic is all about today, Daddy Stoltz?" Daniel asked. "They raised us to work thirty minutes earlier".
"This is not about work, Father", Daddy Stoltz answered under his breath carefully looking around. "As a Catholic to a Catholic, I could tell you, this is not about work at all. This is the liquidation. They have received Himmler's orders. To get rid of everyone, and quick".
He fearfully looked around again.
"But… why?" Daniel asked in dismay. "Who's gonna work at the plant then?"
"There's no need to work anymore… Americans are thirty kilometers away. Lord have mercy on our souls! Read your Bible, Father, just read your Bible…"
Daniel was not the only one to hear Stoltz's words. Vladimir stood nearby, and Gerard just emerged from the barracks.
"Looks like a liquidation", Vladimir said softly.
"Quick! Quick!" the senior officer yelled, and the column started moving to the gate.
The prominent-nosed Georgian Vakhtang marched in the middle of the column. He and many other prisoners were suspicious and anxiously looked around.
There were mountains around them, high, with dark crevices and blue ice that sparkled under the sun. The mountaintops were covered with caps of snow. The small camp was squeezed between them, and steep slopes hang over the narrow valley. The winding road went right from the camp gate.
Everything happened in a split second. The column left the camp, with only the last rows still within the fences. There were Gerard, Vladimir, and Daniel. They looked around scanning the barbed wire, watchtowers, machine-guns and their eyes dashed on to the mountain slopes and the road that went into the woods. They had so little time left; it would all be over soon. That bright May morning, when the war was expiring and the liberation was coming to them…
It so happened that Gerard, Vladimir, and Daniel were the last to step out of the gate. The dogs barked hoarsely behind their backs.
Vladimir and Gerard exchanged glances, and Vladimir looked at Daddy Stoltz. Then he started to help Daddy and another soldier close the gate. That was the moment when Gerard jumped to the second soldier, knocked him off his feet with a punch of his powerful fist and grabbed his gun. Immediately, he dashed away from the camp and the column.
Daniel shoved his Bible under his shirt and grabbed the gun from the first guard still confused by that sudden attack. He ran after Gerard. Vladimir pushed Daddy Stoltz to the ground, snatched the pistol from his holster and followed Gerard and Daniel.
It all happened in seconds. The SS soldiers came to their senses and rushed after the fugitives, unleashing their dogs.
The prisoners were agitated in the column. Soldiers screamed, and shots rang out. The mountain echo multiplied the noise. The faraway gunfire still sounded like a dream, like a New Hope for life.
"This is the liquidation!" the voices shouted. "They drive us to the slaughter!"
Vakhtang pushed through to the cordon of guards and suddenly shouted, "Beat them! It's better to die like tha-at!" With these words, he jumped at the SS officer. A one-sided fight ensued, but two dozen prisoners rushed at the cordon, broke through it and ran along the road without knowing where to run and hide.
"Finish them off, Goddamit!" the senior officer screamed in German, shooting at the crowd.
Bursts of the machine-gun fire cut the runners down. Vakhtang with a machine-gun got through, rushing about along the road, not knowing where to run. Suddenly he saw three fugitives: Gerard, Vladimir and Daniel ran up the steep slope under the cover of pines and beeches. They scrambled with what was left of their strength, and three soldiers with their dogs on the leashes closed on them. Vakhtang clambered after them. Sweat was pouring over his face, and his heart seemed to jump out of his throat. His heavy machine-gun was pulling him to the ground.
Vladimir turned around and fired his pistol on the run. One SS soldier tumbled down. Daniel fell down on a boulder under a tree, and the burst of fire hit it above his head. Just then, one of the dogs caught up with Vladimir, jumped at his chest, and sank its fangs into his shoulder. Vladimir shot several times into its belly and threw the limp body off him.
Daniel fired in short bursts. Two SS soldiers lied down and opened fire too.
Behind, Vakhtang loomed over one of them.
"Hey!" he shouted, and when the German turned his head from the stone, he pulled the trigger in a long burst of fire. The next moment he was hit, the bullets struck his shoulder. Another SS soldier was hiding nearby.
In the meantime, Daniel sprang to his feet and dashed to the woods. There he fell to the ground, trying to catch his breath. The last bit of strength seemed to have left him. Rapid and random machine-gun fire could be heard from the road, people yelled there and dogs barked.
Now, the second dog reached Gerard and sprang on him when he turned to the noise. The Frenchman grabbed its throat powerfully and began to strangle the shepherd. The dog tried to break away from him, barking and wheezing, with its bright pink tongue out.
Vladimir lay nearby and saw a prisoner who looked like an Italian firing back and forth with a German soldier hidden behind a boulder. The Italian was lucky: he hit the German who dropped his head to the ground and was quiet. Vakhtang pulled the trigger again, but he ran out of ammo. He raised himself and looked down at the road. Suddenly he cried in Russian, with a strong Georgian accent, "They're killing everyone, the damned beasts!"
The shepherd dog was foaming at the mouth. Gerard let it go, and the animal dropped to the ground and lay still. Its hind legs convulsed. Gerard looked down at it in dismay.
"I strangled it… This is a dog, and I always loved dogs…"
"This is not a dog," Vladimir said angrily, stepping from behind a tree. "They are the SS soldiers, like those bastards, only in dogs' hides. Did you hear? They're killing everyone. Well, you wait and see, bitches…" As Vladimir swore, knots of muscle moved on his face. "Your turn will come. It sure will, you won't get away from it."
"No one's chasing us anymore." Gerard looked around. "They now have their hands filled. Saving their own asses".
"What's your name?" the Frenchman asked Vladimir in German.
"Are you Russian?"
"Russian", Vladimir answered in German. "It seems, I saw your compatriot over there. Or is he an Italian? He shot at that Hans, d'you see him lying there by the boulder?"
"Two Frenchmen, that's grand", Gerard smiled. "An Italian is even nicer. Hey?"
Vakhtang appeared in the trees, wincing and holding his wounded shoulder with one hand.
"But there was someone else", Gerard said. "There were three of us running in the beginning. He had yellow hair".
The shooting at the road went down bit by bit. The roar of diesels could now be heard, some orders barked.
"Here he goes," Vladimir said. "He lost his mind, running back to the road like that".
Daniel indeed was going back. Through the trees, he saw five heavy trucks drive from the camp gates. They stopped before heaps of human bodies, and SS soldiers promptly climbed on the platforms.
"Quick! Faster!" the commands could be heard. "Americans may block the highway to Grunwald!"
Several soldiers still walked among the corpses, stopping over the wounded and finishing them with short bursts of fire.
"Enough!" the senior officer roared. "God damn them all! All aboard!"
The engines roared and the trucks moved along the road, riding right over the dead bodies. Blood was spurting on the stones and spreading in great intricate blots. Drops of blood flew from under the wheels, human bones crunched under the weight. Doubled up bodies were everywhere. Daniel was running toward the road screaming.
"Bastards! Morons! Scum!"
Gerard, Vladimir, and Vakhtang looked at him from the mountain slope.
"He's gone mad", the Frenchman said. "They'll grab him".
"To hell with him". Vladimir checked the ammo in his pistol. "If he wants it…"
"What do you mean, to hell with him?" Vakhtang suddenly asked in heavily accented Russian. "Listen, what are you saying, hey? How can you? Eh-h… Sta-ay there!" He dropped his gun and awkwardly ran after the priest down the slope, holding his wounded shoulder.
"So, is he Russian?" Gerard wondered.
"He's Soviet", Vladimir said. "Looks like… he's Georgian".
The Germans left. The spring sun was shining at the abandoned camp and the mountain road strewn with dead bodies. Daniel roamed among the dead prisoners, muttering a prayer.
"Lord, accept the souls of the deceased with peace…"
Vakhtang appeared at the road. The left side of his prisoner's uniform was all bloodied. Gerard followed him. Then Vladimir who carried all machine-guns.
Daniel bent over one dead prisoner.
"Zbyszek! Stand up, Zbyzsek! Do you hear me? They're gone…" Daniel shook the corpse by the shoulder even more violently. His lips trembled, and his face was distorted with anger and pain. "Do you hear me, Zbyszek? They're gone, those dirty bastards! Gone! Wake up, Zbyszek!"
Gerard put his hand on Daniel's shoulder, but the priest shook it off. All his attention went to dead Zbyszek.
"Zbyszek! Stand up, my dear! We're free. We're going home!" Daniel screamed, and the mountain echo reverberated and returned his desperate cries. "Lord, don't forgive them! What for, merciful Lord? Never forgive them! We'll live, Zbyszek! We'll live despite those bastards! Live, we'll live!"
Gerard tried to pull Daniel from his dead comrade, but the Pole struggled. The foam appeared at his lips, and his eyes bulged madly. Suddenly he went down and writhed in spasms on the road. Tears streamed down his exhausted face, and spit foamed in the corners of his mouth. Vladimir and Vakhtang stood without saying anything and watched Gerard shouldering Daniel and carrying him away from the road.
Vladimir and Vakhtang followed him. Suddenly, Vladimir saw the dead German soldier, paused and started to pull his boots and uniform trousers. Then he tried them on, and took his jacket. He stopped dead when his eyes fell on the German's face. He was so young, that soldier. His handsome face was marble-white, his fair brown hair covered his forehead. Grandeur and cruelty of death left their print on his face.
"Please, take the kit", Vakhtang said. "He's got the kit on his belt".
Vladimir glanced at Vakhtang's bloody shoulder, tore apart the medical kit, and helped the Georgian to take off his jacket. He skillfully wiped the wound with some cotton and dressed it.
"They've put a couple of bullets into you, minimum", he muttered.
On the curbside, Gerard felt for Daniel's pulse and looked at Vladimir and Vakhtang who came up to him.
"He's in bad shape", Gerard said. "We can't leave him here".
"What shall we do then?" Vladimir squatted beside him and wiped the sweat from his face. "The Georgian's wounded too. Two bullets in his shoulder. He also needs the doctor. What's your name, katzo?"
"Name's Vakhtang", the Georgian replied curtly, sitting down.
"Here, take this, put it on". Vladimir handed him the German uniform jacket, but Vakhtang winced with disgust.
"This? No, never…"
They spoke in Russian, and Gerard didn't understand them. He asked in German, "Do you remember, they took us to the plant? There was a big estate to the side of the road. A farm, or something like that. Do you?"
"Yeah… I do", Vladimir answered after a pause.
"This isn't far. We could get some food there. Some clothes and maybe some medicine".
"We can't carry him all the way, he's too heavy. And my legs are shaky".
"I can carry him", Gerard smiled. "The Bosches are running. It means there's no one at that farm." He fished the Bible from under Daniel's jacket. "They called him Padre in the camp. Does it mean he's the Catholic priest?"
"Yeah." Vladimir stretched on his back and looked into the clear sky.
"We can't leave the priest," Gerard said seriously. "They take care of our souls".
"You can't leave the priest, but you can leave a human, eh?" Vakhtang shook his head.
"You don't speak German, do you?" Gerard asked him.
"I don't want to speak German", Vakhtang answered in Russian again.
"What did he say?" Gerard asked Vladimir.
"He said he doesn't wish to speak German", Vladimir grinned.
"Parlaiz-vous Francais?" Gerard asked. Vakhtang shook his head. "Habla Espanol? Do you speak English?" Gerard continued. "Latinos?"
Vakhtang shook his head again.
"See, Vakhtang?" Vladimir had fun listening to them. "If you learnt at least one language, that could have come in handy now".
"He learnt five", Vakhtang nodded at Gerard. "And what good did it do him?"
They laughed softly, and Vladimir said, "There's nothing we could do, Gerard. He'll speak only Russian, and I'll interpret for you".
"I can speak Georgian", Vakhtang said.
"Well, then I can't interpret", Vladimir said confusedly, and they laughed again.
They reached the estate by the mid-afternoon. Breathing heavily and awash with sweat Gerard carried Daniel who still was unconscious and moaned now and then, saying "Zbyszek! We're coming home, Zbyszek!"
"Let me carry him", Vladimir said, giving his machine gun to Vakhtang. "You're ready to drop dead". He reloaded the Pole onto his shoulders and almost doubled up under the weight. Then he moved forward, heavily putting one foot before the other.
The estate's stone wall with cast-iron grille could be seen from the bend of the road. On the other side, there were neat lawns and paths carefully covered with red brick sand. There was a black car by the garage, the "Meibach".
Vladimir put Daniel on the ground and wiped his sweaty face.
"Stay here. I'll see who's there." He took his gun from Vakhtang and headed to the farm, crouching. Gerard looked at Vakhtang, whose wound dressing was all soaked in blood. The Georgian trembled with fever.
The first person Vladimir saw was the driver in the lance corporal's uniform who came out of the garage with two cans of gas. Vladimir peeped out from behind the garage and then he came out. The lance corporal gave a start when he saw him, and dropped the cans, but the German uniform reassured him. "Where are you from, the front lines?" he asked.
"I'm from the netherworld, you scum", Vladimir replied in Russian and fired at him. The German driver bent in half and dropped to the ground. Vladimir quickly inspected the garage and headed for the house.
The estate was abandoned. In the rooms and in the grand hall with a huge crystal chandelier there were the traces of hasty retreat: clothes strewn everywhere, ware shards, and empty baguette frames. Vladimir watched his step. An overthrown armchair, carelessly thrown dresses, stockings, hats and boots. Glass and china crunched under his feet. There was the Fuhrer's portrait opposite the doors. They left it behind. Some heavy brass candelabra with guttered candles, some empty bottles on the floor.
"Hey, Vladimir? Where are you?" Vakhtang called from the hall.
"Come here! There's a load of food here!"
Vakhtang appeared in the doorway, followed by Gerard.
"Where's the Pole?" Vladimir asked.
"I've put him on the sofa in the sitting room," Gerard said trying to catch his breath. "It would be good to call a doctor for him". He came up to the table, grabbed a piece of cold cut from the dish, and tore at it with his teeth.
Vladimir ate several pieces too, then he took a bottle of wine and read the label:
"Moselle… To hell with it, let it be Moselle". He broke the bottleneck on the table edge and pored the wine into his mouth, holding the bottle at a distance not to cut himself.
"You sure can do the trick," Gerard smiled and took another bottle, broke the neck, and drank without taking it away from his mouth, but instantly he jerked his head away and cried, "Shit, I cut my lip!"
"Want some, Vakhtang?" Vladimir asked. "It's not your favorite Gurdjaani, though, but after all this you could drink gasoline, I suppose".
"No, thanks", Vakhtang said, sitting in an armchair nursing his wounded shoulder.
"Where are from, Vakhtang?" Gerard asked.
"Tbilisi. Have you ever heard about it?"
"He says he's from Georgia, Tbilisi', Vladimir interpreted.
"Where the hell is that?" Gerard's eyes popped.
Vakhtang contemptuously shook his head and clicked his tongue. Vladimir threw the empty bottle away, found a pack of cigarettes, lit up and hungrily inhaled the sweet smoke. He sighed.
"That's good. Finally, I feel like a real human".
They were in the sitting room now, Vladimir sprawled on the sofa, smoking and sending the rings of smoke to the ceiling. Daniel lay beside him, still unconscious. Vakhtang was in the armchair across from them, and Gerard was telephoning vehemently, and shouting into the phone semi-drunkenly, "Freulein! We need the doctor, immediately! This is the estate of…" He covered the mouthpiece with his palm and asked Vladimir, "Whose estate is it?"
"I haven't the slightest. This doesn't matter now," Vladimir said lazily. "Ours".
"…The one close to the underground plant, yes! Immediately! The master is sick!"
"Tell them to send two nurses, nice ones", Vladimir suggested. Gerard giggled and repeated into the phone:
"And two nurses! What? You've got only one? Send one then!" He giggled again, covering the mouthpiece. "They told me they'd inform the hospital." He slammed the phone down and started tuning the radio. They heard the Russian voice through the white noise and static. It said that today, on May 2, 1945, after the prolonged and violent combat, the Soviet troops took the Fascist Germany's capital, the city of Berlin.
Vladimir jumped from the sofa and listened intensively, Vakhtang was all ears too.
"This is in Russian," Gerard said. "What is he saying?"
"Ours took Berlin," Vladimir whispered and repeated louder: "Vakhtang, did you hear? Ours took Berlin! Ours!" Then he said the same in German to Gerard, "Do you get it? Our troops took Berlin!"
Vladimir rushed to Vakhtang, hugged him abruptly, and the Georgian winced and moaned from pain, but smiled:
"Ours, Vladimir! It was our boys, oh mother of mine! Let them all burn in hell! It was ours!"
"It means the war is kaput!" Gerard cried. "Vivat, Vladimir! Vivat… what's his name?"
"Vakhtang! His name is Vakhtang, God damn you!" Vladimir shouted triumphantly, grabbed another bottle, and drank straight from it.
"Vivat, Vakh-tang!" carefully repeated Gerard. Then he saw the gramophone in the corner of the sitting room wound it up and put the first record on the plate. An old tango sounded. Gerard approached Vladimir and bowed.
"May I, Mademoiselle?"
They danced awkwardly and smiled at each other. In the meantime, Vakhtang stepped to the window and turned his back on them. He looked out in the park and a tear was making its way down his motionless unshaven face. Then there were more tears. He cried and looked at the world that was distorted by his sadness.
Daniel moaned loudly at the sofa. Gerard looked at him anxiously and muttered:
"I'd sure like to know where is that Goddamned doctor!"
"To Berlin!" Vladimir shouted. "Gerard! Vakhtang! Let's go to Berlin! I'd like to see those Nazi swine bowing before us!" He grabbed the pistol from the belt and fired several shots at the chandelier. Crystal shards flew everywhere.
Daniel sprang from the sofa and looked around. The look in his eyes was still meaningless.
"Where am I?"
"Berlin is taken!" Gerard told him in German. "Russians have taken Berlin! Hey, priest, what's your name? Are you a Pole?"
"Yes", he answered. "My name's Daniel".
"Are you a real priest?" Gerard smiled mistrustfully.
"Why were you called Padre then, in the camp?"
"Because the Bible was always with me. I flew on my missions with the Bible." Daniel sagged to the sofa again. His forehead was covered with sweat.
"You flew?" Vladimir started. "Are you a pilot then?"
"A pilot", Daniel echoed almost imperceptibly.
"That's weird", Vladimir muttered. "I'm the pilot too. What were you? A fighter? A bomber?"
"Bomber… My last mission was Hamburg. They burnt my craft right over the city…"
"You're a pilot! And he is a pilot!" Gerard laughed. "And I'm the aircraft mechanic, ha-ha! What a jolly company we have here! Vakhtang, what are you?"
"Company commander", curtly replied the Georgian. "Infantry".
"He's the infantry, the queen of the fields, as they say," Vladimir interpreted joyfully. "Senior lieutenant, or have you made it to the captain?"
"Senior lieutenant". Vakhtang was still looking out through the window.
Suddenly they heard the car engine from the outside. Vladimir grabbed the machine gun and dashed to the window.
A car approached the entrance and stopped at the bottom of the marble stairway. A small dried-out old man emerged. He was dressed entirely in black, there was a black bowler hat on his head, and he carried a black doctor's bag. A girl in a white smock was the next to appear. Vladimir aimed his gun at the old man, but Gerard quickly pushed the barrel aside.
"Are you crazy? It's the doctor!"
The old man saw the dead lance corporal, approached the body, bent and felt for his heartbeat. Then he headed for the mansion. Vladimir was waiting for him at the steps with the machine gun in his hands.
"Your patients are in there, doctor. Come in", he said in German.
The old doctor and the girl entered and followed Vladimir. In the sitting room they saw Gerard in the striped prisoner robe. They slowly took in the whole room. There was a second man, seminude, with a bandaged bloody shoulder, who stood by the window. The third one was sprawled on the sofa.
"They've got to be helped", Vladimir nodded toward Vakhtang and Daniel. "And if you don't help them…" He raised the machine gun barrel menacingly.
The old man obediently minced to Vakhtang, but the Georgian shook his head and said in German:
"He's the first", and pointed at Daniel with his eyes.
The old man inspected Daniel, felt for his pulse, opened his bag and took the tonometer out. He checked the Pole's blood pressure. The nurse assisted him. Then he took a metal box out, gave the syringe to the nurse and said pleadingly:
"This should be boiled thoroughly".
Gerard led the nurse from the room. The doctor approached Vakhtang and undressed his wound, taking off the crusty bandages. He took a bottle of alcohol and some cotton from his bag and cleaned the wound. Vakhtang suffered without saying a word.
Vladimir sat comfortably in the armchair with the machine gun across his knees. Then he asked sharply:
"Do you know, you scumface, that the Russians took Berlin?"
"Yes, I do", the old man said softly.
"That'll be the end of all you Germans! Germany kaput!"
"He needs the bullets extracted", the doctor said without raising his voice, and started taking his surgical tools from the bag: the pincers, the scalpel.
Gerard and the nurse came back. The Frenchman pointed at the girl and winked merrily. Vladimir laughed abruptly.
The doctor gave the tools to the nurse and said, "Boil them too". With the syringe, he came up to Daniel, took an ampoule out, and rolled the Pole's sleeve up. He performed the injection accurately and unhurriedly, then turned to Gerard.
"He needs to rest. He'll be better now. He can take a little wine".
"We'll all have plenty of rest", Vladimir chuckled.
The old man returned to Vakhtang when the nurse brought the sterilized instruments back. He wiped his hands with the alcohol-soaked cotton, took the scalpel and said:
"You've got to be patient… It will hurt now".
Vakhtang only scowled.
"God damn it, where is that… Georgia?" Gerard asked Vladimir in German. "Is it a country? A state? What is it?"
"It's both, the state and the country," Vladimir answered. "One of the republics in the USSR. Take it easy, Gerard, an air mechanic doesn't need this information… Do you know though that Comrade Stalin is a Georgian?"
"Oh", Gerard said and shook his head with admiration. "Is Vakhtang a Georgian too?"
"Exactly", Vladimir smiled.
"Then they are the great people". Gerard poured some wine into the crystal glass. "Mister Stalin, vivat! Mister Vakhtang, vivat!"
He didn't notice Vakhtang's grimace, either with pain, or at his mentioning the name of Stalin. Blood streamed down the Georgian's shoulder.
The doctor extracted the bullet with the pincers and dropped it on the floor. The small piece of lead rolled, and Gerard picked it up.
"Vakhtang, you should have it as a souvenir".
Another bulled dropped to the floor. The doctor washed the wound again, applied the tampon, and the nurse dressed his shoulder. The doctor was putting his instruments back into his black bag. When they finished, the doctor took the bag.
"Excuse me, may we go now?"
"Tell me, doctor, if our patients are loved by a beautiful girl, will they get well faster?" Gerard asked jokingly.
The old man shrugged his shoulders, avoiding the nurse's eyes. Vladimir laughed sharply.
"You, doctor, you may get out of here. She'll stay".
The girl shuddered, and looked at the doctor pleadingly.
"What id they get worse?" Gerard went on with seemingly innocent merriment. "They need kind words and consolation like no one here. And who's going to console them better than a beautiful girl? Do you see my point, Freulein?"
"Do not leave me here, Herr Glauck!" The nurse's eyes were wide with terror. "I'm begging you, don't abandon me!"
"Move it, what are you staring at?" Vladimir snapped, gripping the machine gun.
The old man went out slowly, and even his back showed that he was waiting for a final shot. The nurse was following his retreat with her eyes filled with tears. The car door banged. The engine started, and the car drove off.
Vladimir stood up, threw the machine gun on the table, approached the girl and put his arm around her shoulders roughly.
"She's all a-tremble", he chuckled. "Are you afraid of us?"
"No, gentlemen," the nurse said in a fearful voice. "I'm sure that you're all… kind and decent people".
Vladimir laughed hoarsely, Gerard smiled, and Vakhtang was looking at them without saying anything and without expression.
"You're right, we're the most decent people on earth. We've been working like mules for your country, your damned Great Germany! And Herr Commandant ordered to execute all of us without a thjank-you! How do you like it, kitty?"
The girl trembled, unable to utter a word. Her eyes brimmed with tears.
"It is you who should thank us, girl". Vladimir pressed her harder. "D'you hear me?"
"Yes… yes, sure, gentlemen". Her lips twisted nervously. Vakhtang frowned when he looked at her, and Vladimir hungrily kissed her on the mouth and winked at Gerard.
"Who's gonna be the first, Gerard?"
"They?" Gerard nodded toward Vakhtang and Daniel. "They're invalids, they need some tenderness. Let's go!" He took the girl by the hand, pulling her from Vladimir's grip and led her across the sitting room. Vladimir followed them.
Gerard threw the bathroom door open and flicked the light on. The bluish tiles sparkled, there was a lot of small bottles and jars of perfume, creams and powders n a shelf beneath an ancient mirror.
"Wow, they've got Cotie and Chanel here!" Gerard exclaimed as he sniffed the bottles. Then he unscrewed one and poured its contents into the bath. The strong aroma hang in the bathroom. Vladimir shut his eyes tight and shook his head.
"After all this fragrance you'd want to sniff a piece of shit!"
"Haven't you smelled enough of it in the camp?" Gerard asked joyfully. "S'il vous plais, mademoiselle! Baths like this are prepared only for queens!"
The girl looked at the bath with fearful eyes and imperceptibly shook her head.
"No, no… I can't… I don't want to…" She made a step back and bumped into Vladimir. She looked in his eyes. "Spare me, gentlemen, I have a… fiancé".
"Is he with the SS?" Vladimir scoffed.
"No, no! He's an invalid. He lost his leg".
"What a pity!" Vladimir said with a mock compassion. "Do you hear it, Gerard? Her fiancé lost his leg at the front!"
"I beg you, gentlemen!" the girl muttered through her tears.
"Undress, you German whore!" Vladimir snapped and ripped at her smock, grabbing her old dress with it. The cloth tore, and a frail shoulder bared with her thin breastbone.
Vakhtang's figure appeared in the doorway behind Vladimir's back. He grabbed the Russian by the shoulder and faced him.
"Go away, katso… Your turn is not yet", Vladimir breathed out heavily.
Vakhtang drove his good fist into his cheek. The punch was sudden and powerful. Vladimir sprawled in the doorway. The girl cried out thinly.
"This won't do, listen. She's a woman, after all", Vakhtang said softly and with some reproach, and tuned to go into the sitting room.
"You… you hit me… for a German bitch!" Vladimir wheezed and sprang on his feet.
"Wait, Vladimir!" Gerard cried, but the Russian reached for his gun in two giant leaps and blocked the Georgian's way, pointing the gun at him.
"Don't do it, listen", Vakhtang said calmly. "You'll be sorry for it".
"Let me pass!"
"Enough, guys", Gerard said, coming out of the bathroom. "That'll be the last thing for us, to kill each other".
"Let him step aside!" Vladimir raised the machine gun and poised with his finger on the trigger. The girl shrieked and darted from the bathroom to the sitting room, shutting the door after her.
Vakhtang stood in front of Vladimir without moving. The Russian was shaking with rage.
"You feel sorry for them, right? You're so noble, right? You forgot how they killed us? Starved us to death? Beat us? Did you forget how they threw us to their dogs?"
"She is a woman, listen…"
"Get away from me! She won't leave this place until I sleep with her, do you get it?" Vladimir squeezed the trigger but Gerard managed to hit the barrel from behind and grabbed his arms. Vladimir fired, but the burst of fire hit the ceiling, and the plaster flew. Gerard snatched the gun from his hands and pushed the Russian to the floor. Vladimir fought back and shouted, "Let me go, d'you hear me? Let go, I'll kill all of you!"
"Let him go", Vakhtang said in German, and Gerard did.
Vladimir struggled to his feet but did not pick the gun up. Vakhtang put his hand on his shoulder and said softly, "Sorry, friend… I understand".
"You don't understand shit", Vladimir brushed the hand from his shoulder and limped along the corridor.
The German nurse was sitting on the sofa with lying Daniel, sobbing. The Pole woke up to the shots and looked at the girl questioningly.
"Who… are you?"
"I'm Magda… I work at the hospital. Your friends ordered me to…"
Daniel searched under his jacket with his hand.
"The Bible… Where is my Bible?"
"I didn't take it", the girl said fearfully. "By God, I didn't".
Vladimir descended to the semi-lit cellar and looked around. The old wines were stored there. There were cobwebbed bottles in pyramids and some barrels. Vladimir shook his head.
"This is a real treat. We'll drink here to out heart's content." He shouldered a crate of wine and scrambled up the stairs.
Gerard knocked at the sitting room door, listened and turned to Vakhtang.
"Why does it take them so long, eh? The life here is like the pirates' ship." Gerard laughed. "Where in his Poland will he find this love and care from his friends? See, Vakhtang, she didn't want to come with us but ran to that Pole herself. Do you understand me?"
"I do", Vakhtang answered curtly in German.
"He's a pilot, why does it take him so long? What kind of a pilot is he then?"
Vakhtang didn't reply. He went into the dining room, took a piece of meat from the table and started eating. Gerard went after him, still talking.
"I did it for the first time at thirteen. And she was over forty, ha-ha! She had a cafe for longshoremen in the port. By God, she loved young boys, ha-ha! I was shit-scared when she dragged me into her bed. I was mooing like a cow. And the following night, I crawled through the window to her myself. That was fun, ha-ha! What about you?"
"I loved a girl…" Vakhtang said slowly after a pause. "But her parents gave her away to a different man".
"I just happened".
Vladimir tumbled into the dining room with a crate of wine and banged it on the table. He took one bottle out, broke its neck, and drank.
"I'm all eager to see what they are doing there", Gerard said. "Or had he forgot how to do it with girls after two years in the camp? Listen? Vladimir, you drink too much".
"I don't need your nagging", Vladimir snapped. "I didn't spend two years in the camp just to listen to your damn orders!"
Daniel in the meantime caressed and kissed the girl, saying, "You look like my fiancée… Don't be afraid, we won't hurt you… Oh, your perfume is heavenly!"
"It was your friend who poured the perfume in the bath", smiled the girl through her tears. "I've never seen so much perfume in my life".
Daniel kissed her again, and the girl reached for him trustingly, pressed her body against his, and whispered, "You are so beautiful… you're awfully beautiful… what is your name?"
Daniel frowned suddenly and pushed her away. "No, no. You'd better go. It's the best for you to go".
"Don't you like me?" She was genuinely distressed. "Do you think I'm like that with everyone? I didn't tell them the truth about my fiancé. He's no more. He was killed in Russia, last year. Do you believe me?
"I do believe you". Daniel wet his parched lips. "But we shouldn't. If I do it like this, I'll think that my fiancée can do it like this, too. Do you see my point?"
"Yes. I'll go. And your… friends… will they let me go?"
Suddenly, they heard the roar of vehicles and motorbikes from the outside. There were human voices, some barked commands.
"Germans!" Gerard gasped jumping to the dining room window. Vladimir and Vakhtang looked out too. The motorcycles were slowly moving by the park paths, with the SS soldiers and officers astride and on buddy-seats.
"More than a company here…" Gerard whispered. "Goddamit, we're in shit!"
"Help me load it". Vakhtang took the machine gun and handed it to Vladimir who chuckled and took a swig from the bottle.
"Now we'll get them good".
The motorcycle with two officers stopped in front of the marble staircase. One officer shouted something to his soldiers, jumped off the bike, and headed for the door.
Vladimir took the gun from Vakhtang, inserted the clip, swallowed more wine, and prepared to fire. The bottle was thrown away. Gerard grabbed him by the arm.
"Are you crazy or what?"
"Cowards!" Vladimir tried to grab the machine gun from the Frenchman's hands. "Vakhtang, take another one! Now we'll show them how Soviet officers can die! Fire at the Nazi bastards!"
Gerard squeezed Vladimir with his powerful arms, lifted him from the floor, and carried upstairs. Vakhtang picked the guns up and hurried after him.
Daniel and the nurse ran out of the sitting room and froze. They saw the column of Nazi motorcycles too.
The nurse pointed at the second floor with her eyes and stammered, "Don't be afraid. I won't tell".
At the second floor, Vladimir wheezed, pinned to Gerard's body.
"Cowards! Cowards with women! Cowards when you fight! They've made cowards out of you in the camp! Vakhtang, take the gun! Take it!"
"Shut up, you!" Gerard pressed his palm to the Russian's mouth.
They heard the front door slam, the steps sounded in the hallway. An officer in black mud-stained uniform entered the sitting room. He saw a scared girl with an expensive robe on her shoulders and saluted her.
"Why do you have the killed lance corporal at the entrance? What happened here, Freulein?"
"I don't know… There was some shooting… Some prisoners escaped from the camp… The owners have left… I'm alone here…" The girl's eyes were huge with fright, her hands were clasping the robe on her bosom.
"Bury the man in the orchard, near the fence", the officer ordered to his soldiers who entered the room. He looked at the nurse. "We're in a hurry, Freulein. Be careful, the Americans will be here any time now".
"Yes, yes", the nurse nodded readily. "Do you need anything, Herr Sturmbahnfuhrer?"
"Something to eat", the officer smiled wearily. "And to drink… Oh, you've got some wine here!" He came up to the table and picked up a bottle. "Moselle. Goddammit, there's still the Moselle wine in the world! Take the crate with you!" he ordered to one of his soldiers.
The nurse burst into the kitchen and started searching through the cupboards and shelves, looking for food. She found some sausages, bread, some parcels with more food.
Upstairs, Gerard, Vakhtang, and Daniel stood frozen. Gerard and Daniel had the guns. At their feet Vladimir was sprawled in a drunken stupor.
The nurse brought the food into the sitting room, and the soldier put it into his knapsack. The officer saluted the girl again.
"Good luck, Freulein. I hope the Americans won't hurt you".
They left the room, and there was silence. The bikes roared outside, and some barked commands were heard.
Daniel rushed to the window to see the German soldiers departing on their bikes through the orchard. The naked spring trees were enveloped in blue clouds of exhaust.
"They're gone", Daniel said with great relief.
"Look, that one's asleep", Gerard said wonderingly pointing at Vladimir, shook him by the shoulder and slapped his cheek. "Hey, Vladimir, wake up!"
Vladimir opened his eyes with difficulty and sat up heavily on the floor.
"Damn, I'm always losing consciousness after that contusion… Have you shot all Hanses without me?"
"We were a split hair from the death", Gerard said.
"We've been a split hair from the death for the last five years". Vladimir stood up with difficulty. "It's time to get used to it. Where's the wine? I brought the whole crate from the cellar".
"Enough of your drinking", Daniel said, "the war's not over yet".
"Listen, Padre, this is not your damned business". Vladimir moved down the stairs, the rest of them followed. "Read your shitty Bible and keep your nose clean".
"Another word about the Bible…" Daniel doubled his fists involuntarily.
"Don't get into that", Gerard said softly. "Don't you see he's sick…"
"Yeah, you'd better not to screw with me, dear Gerard." Vladimir passed through the sitting room to the hall, without looking at the nurse. He tripped over something in the hall and swore loudly.
"We've got to get out of here," Daniel said. "The Germans might come back any minute".
"That's right," Gerard said. "But where to?"
"Doesn't matter." Daniel sat heavily on the sofa and wiped his sweaty forehead. "I've got no strength left in me… me knees are weak".
"Do you want me to make coffee for you?" the nurse suddenly asked. "I've seen some coffee in the kitchen…" She left the room quickly.
Vladimir emerged with a new crate of wine on his shoulders, all covered with cobwebs. He landed it on top of the table with a bang, muttering:
"They'll put a ban on my drinking, ha-ha!" He uncorked the bottle, took a swallow, and made a face. "This Moselle is piss-awful, the vinegar tastes better. Vakhtang, maybe you could try it?"
Unexpectedly, Vakhtang came to the table, poured some wine into a glass, and looked at Vladimir.
"To your health, Vladimir. To us, being alive".
"You're the one who understands me". Vladimir looked back at him. "I'm a pilot, do you understand it? I flew nine missions daily. I've got seven shot "Messers" to my personal account!"
The nurse came in with a huge tray in her hands. There cups of hot coffee on it and some sandwiches. She smiled looking at Daniel.
"Here you are, gentlemen. We'll drink some coffee together".
"And still it was us who took Berlin, Vakhtang, our boys!" Vladimir said to the Georgian alone. "Do you have any friends, Vakhtang?"
"Used to…"
"I used to have friends too. Now there's none". Vladimir tensed, as if before another seizure. "Damn the head. Two contusions, do you see it? Then they kicked it with their boots in the camp. Oh what friends I used to have, Vakhtang! They burnt alive. Bor'ka Polukhin, the navigator. Ivan Chernov, the gunner. We burnt over Kuban', in 1942. The friends till the dying day." Vladimir exploded and turned to Daniel sharply. "Six "Messers" against one, have you ever dreamt about it, you rotten Pole? Six on one! And we didn't bolt! Chernov burnt two! Two of them! And they died… but I lived. Why, can you tell me, Vakhtang, why did I have to live? Oh, what's the use talking to you?"
Vladimir waved his hand and left the sitting room, asking, "Were there some cigarettes here? Have you seen the cigarettes?"
He exited the room, and everyone in it was silent, their heads low.
"We had guys like this in the hospital", the nurse said softly. "Our soldiers from Stalingrad. They stole the alcohol and drank themselves senseless. This is terrible what the war does to people. Just terrible".
"Paris has long been liberated", Gerard sighed and smiled weakly. "Before the war I met a swell girl once. We flew in from Marseilles to receive a shipment of English aircraft, and I saw her. The pirate's dream! All pilots and mechanics died of envy when I brought her to the airfield. That was fun!" He smiled dreamily remembering his girl. "That's strange. It was only five years ago and it seems like a life. Like it never happened. Or it happened but not to me".
"Is she alive?" Daniel asked.
"I don't know", Gerard shrugged. "We had fun for a couple of nights, that was all. I can't stay with the same girl for long. The reason why I never married".
An uptempo march sounded from the radio. Daniel poured some wine and tasted it cautiously. Gerard took a sandwich and took a bite, saying, "I liked to roam free more than anything. God, the places I've been! Rio, Santiago, New York, Madrid, Vienna, oh so many beautiful cities!" Gerard shook his head. "And I had good friends eveywhere".
"What did you do there?" Daniel asked.
"What d'you mean, what did I do? I'm an aircraft engine mechanic. Why do you think the Germans packed me into that damned underground plant? I know engines like a priest knows the Bible. Sorry, I didn't mean to offend you".
"That's nothing. And I'm not a priest". Daniel wiped his brow and smiled a guilty smile. "Will you excuse me if I sleep a little? No strength left in me."
"I'll see you to the bedroom", the nurse said. "Let's go".
Gerard sadly watched her supporting Daniel by the waist and leading him out of the sitting room.
Vakhtang was sitting at the table erect. He twisted an unfinished wineglass in his fingers, deep in thought. He was thinking about something deep and hard, which no one else could understand.
"Why are you silent all of the time?" Gerard slapped his shoulder. "A penny for your thoughts".
"I'm thinking about our future lives", Vakhtang answered in German, very slowly.
"The less you think, the longer you live", Gerard laughed. "Now we have a holiday after this terrible war, Vakhtang! We have the right to have fun, without thinking about anything, don't we?"
Vakhtang didn't say anything, still gazing into space in front of him.
In the morning, Gerard was busy with the "Meibach", taking the engine apart, cleaning, and fixing something. Under his breath, he softly sang something simple. From time to time, he looked up at the mansion, but no one came out of it. Gerard climbed in the car, revved up and listened to the engine. Then he shut the engine down and bent over the open hood again.
Vladimir woke up when the rays of sun fell on his face, and painfully opened his eyes. He wet his parched lips, then stood up and looked around. Vakhtang was sleeping nearby, in an armchair. There was no one else in the sitting room. Vladimir went into the corridor and stood in the hall. The bedroom door opened, and the nurse came out, holding her smock on her breasts with both hands. Daniel was seen inside, lying on the wide bed.
"Gugen tak", Vladimir greeted the nurse glumly.
"Guten tag", the nurse replied in a fearful voice. "How do you feel?"
"I feel like I'm in my grave, it's peaceful and quiet", Vladimir answered, heading for the kitchen and muttering, "That Pole got himself a piece of life".
He came up to the sink, turned the tap and drank water for a long time, then splashed it on his face.
"Do you want any coffee?" the nurse asked standing in the doorway.
"You'd better make it for Daniel." Vladimir bent over the sink again and drank greedily.
Gerard tested the engine again, listened to the sound, and snapped his fingers with satisfaction. The car worked fine. He tuned the radio and turned the dial. Through the static, he could hear something in Russian, in English, then in French. When Gerard heard his own language, he froze. The male announcer's voice was saying excitedly that on that day, in Berlin, at six o'clock in the morning, the Hitler's Germany signed the unconditional surrender. Gerard started, and cranked up the volume.
"Today, at six o'clock in the morning, in Berlin, the complete and unconditional surrender treaty was signed by the Hitler's Germany. The signing ceremony was attended by the Soviet representative Marshal Zhukov, British representative Field Marshal Montgomery, French representative General de Gaulles…"
Gerard grabbed his submachine gun from the seat, jumped out of the car, and ran to the house, firing long bursts and screaming something meaningless. The gun rattled madly in his hands.
Vladimir heard the shots and screams and rushed to the sitting room to grab his gun, then run to the window. Vakhtang woke up and reached for the gun, too.
Daniel ran out of the bedroom.
"What? What? The Germans again?"
Gerard burst into the house, shooting at the ceiling, the windows, the empty frames on the walls, and the Fuhrer's portrait. When his clip was empty, he threw the gun at the floor and smiled at everybody without saying anything. Everyone was looking at him, uncomprehending.
Then Gerard came up to the radio and turned it on, twisted the knob, and all of them heard the solemn Russian voice: "…Germany's unconditional surrender was signed".
Daniel paled, shuddered, and almost fell down. Vakhtang barely managed to break his fall with his good arm. Vladimir's face twisted, he clenched his teeth and swallowed hard. The nurse sobbed and covered her face with her hands. And Gerard danced across the sitting room, kicking the table, chairs and armchairs.
"It's over, you sons-of-bitches! It expired, and to hell with it! We're all free people now! We're the winners! Do you understand that, you camp rats?" He hugged Vladimir and kissed him on both cheeks, did the same to Vakhtang, and rushed to Daniel, singing at the top of his voice, "It's over, I'll be damned! It's over, tra-la-la!" He grabbed the nurse and waltzed her across the room. "It's over! Over!"
The radio was filling the house with the victorious march.
At night, they had the candlelight dinner. The wax melted and dripped on the ancient bronze candelabra. While the nurse was laying the table, Gerard, Daniel, Vakhtang and Vladimir sorted through the wardrobes, choosing something to wear. Their prisoners' robes were carelessly thrown to the floor.
Gerard tried the next suit on, but it was too tight for him again.
"You try," he told Daniel, tossing the suit to him, and picked up the next one. It was hopeless.
"With my figure of a horse, I've got to have my personal tailor", he muttered displeasingly, trying the third suit on. He buttoned up, looked in the mirror, and winked at the nurse. "I could've been a nice bridegroom, what d'you say?" But he moved his shoulders carelessly, and the suit ripped at the seams. Daniel, Vladimir, Vakhtang and the girl laughed in unison.
The fourth suit was the same: too tight. Gerard was sore; he dug in the wardrobe, swearing, "Don't they have any decent suits in this stupid house for me?"
In the meantime, Vladimir put on a foppish suit with sharp lapels and looked at himself in the mirror.
"This is not me", he complained. "I don't look like him".
"A smashing gentleman", Gerard slapped his shoulder. "Do women tell you how handsome you are?" He winked at the nurse. "What do you think, is he handsome?"
"Yes," she smiled. "He's a very handsome man".
Vakhtang put on a dark pinstriped suit and clicked his tongue.
"I'm the most handsome of you all! Look, friends, this is how I looked before the war".
"You probably didn't have so much salt and pepper in your hair", Daniel smiled.
Vakhtang didn't answer him, he only looked in the mirror at his reflection.
Vladimir brought a heap of shoes from the hall and piled them on the floor.
"Close-down sale! Everything must go!"
"I don't have my size anyway", Gerard sighed.
The four of them tried the shoes on. Gerard was right, everything was too small for him. He furiously threw them one by one against the wall.
"Hey, Gerard, try this". Vakhtang found a tuxedo with satin lapels in the wardrobe, bow tie, and a white starched shirt. Gerard put them on and looked at Vakhtang questioningly. The Georgian nodded and raised his thumb as the sign of approval.
"You're a real bridegroom now".
"Wow, Vladimir, your compatriot speaks some German at last", Gerard smiled, took an empty frame from the wall and lined it up against his upper body. He looked like an old portrait indeed. The nurse laughed, Vladimir and Daniel smiled. Vakhtang said, "Now you look like a relative of mine".
"What was he if he wore a tux?" Vladimir asked carefully putting a tie on.
"An old Georgian family… He was a prince". Val frowned.
"A prince?" Vladimir looked at him in surprise. "So you're of noble blood too? Gerard, Daniel, did you hear that?"
"A prince? A marquis?" repeated Gerard and laughed. "So they have princes in Georgia?"
"Every second man is the prince there", Vladimir chuckled.
"Enough of that already. I was kidding", Vakhtang said gloomily and stepped to the window that was black and steamy.
Gerard was admiring his reflection in the mirror and snapped his fingers.
"Can you imagine me like this in Paris?"
"Divine", Daniel said. "Like a Rembrandt portrait".
So they sat at the table in their nice suits and white shirts. The nurse was in a sequined dress with a decollete. She put the dishes on the table.
"For the freedom!" Gerard toasted everyone. "Admit, you sons-of-bitches, you never suspected what it was before?"
Vladimir and Daniel drank silently, and Vakhtang said, "For the freedom of all who are now in slavery".
"Why do you look so glum?" Gerard inquired. "Aren't you glad?"
"We are", sighed Daniel without raising his head.
"We all can go home now. I'll go to Paris, Daniel to Poland, Vladimir to Russia, and Vakhtang to his Georgia".
"Now the Russians are masters of Poland", Daniel frowned. "They betrayed the Poles in order to invade the country. I have nothing to do there".
"Another word against the Russians…" Vladimir banged his fist on the table, and crystal glasses clinked.
"Yes they did!" Daniel raised his voice. "When Buy-Baranovsky started the rebellion in Warsaw, your tanks were on the other bank of the Vistula, waiting. Watching the Germans destroy Warsaw and the Poles".
"I don't care a spit about your Baranovsky! Where were your brave warriors when the Germans destroyed Kiev and Kharkiv? When all Minsk was in ruin?"
"The Poles were fighting in the underground!" Daniel said hastily.
"Ha, the guerrillas!" Vladimir laughed venomously. "You were hiding in Britain with your lousy government!" He was on his feet, his fists clenched. "Shut up, or I'll smash your mug!"
Gerard pushed Vladimir aside and shielded Daniel with his body.
"You sons-of-bitches, you're crazy or what? Those Slavs have always amazed me. When they get together, they start jumping at each other, like gamecocks! Enough, or I'll beat both of you. And tie you up, so that you lie quietly while Vakhtang and me drink our wine and enjoy. Vakhtang, I hope the Georgians are not Slavs, are they?"
"No", Vakhtang shook his head smiling. "But they're Christians too".
"Glory be!" Gerard crossed himself. "We're all Christians here, Jesus Christ watches over us".
"He watched over Germany, too", Daniel said.
"No way!" Gerard frowned. "Fascists, like Communists are Godless." He caught himself and put his hand against his heart. "Oops, sorry, I seem to have said something wrong".
"It's nothing, we'll live", Vladimir grumbled, sitting down again.
"But you're not Communists, are you?" Gerard asked cautiously. "You're just a Russian and a Georgian, right?"
"I was a candidate to join the party", Vladimir said. "But you won't understand it anyway".
"My father was a Communist", Vakhtang replied.
"I beg your forgiveness", Gerard said ceremoniously.
For a while they ate in silence. The cutlery clinked. Vladimir drank wine, then suddenly he made a face and spat on the floor.
"I can't drink this piss any more", he said and stood up. "I'm going to the town. To get some schnapps or spirits".
"What if they catch you?' Gerard asked.
"Who?" Vladimir chuckled and shoved his pistol into his jacket pocket. "The town is long taken by the Americans".
"He's right". Gerard thought for a while. "What do you say, guys? Let's go for a ride. Enough sitting in this hole already. The car is big, we'll all fit into it".
They all climbed in the wide "Meibach", Vladimir took the wheel, turned the headlights on. The engine roared, and the car jerked and flew along the straight ground-brick path.
They reached the highway soon enough. The headlights cut through the darkness and the engine hummed evenly.
"I have a feeling that I'm flying again", Vladimir chuckled.
"Please be careful". Gerard was sitting at the front with him. "You have living people in your car".
"How long does it take to get to the town, Freulein?" Vladimir asked.
"About thirty minutes' ride", the nurse said. She was sitting in the back, between Daniel and Vakhtang.
"I wonder if they have already cleaned the bodies from the road", Vladimir mused.
"Enough said about bodies", Gerard begged. "We're going to get some schnapps. Like we used to before the war".
"I'm afraid, it will never be like before the war", Vladimir said.
Suddenly they heard some strange humming in the quiet of the night. Vladimir stopped the car and climbed out on the road. He listened for a long time, his head raised to the sky. The he muttered, "The bombers. Going east".
"Are going to get the schnapps or not?" Gerard asked from inside the car.
They entered the town that was dark and quiet. The buildings stood with empty holes instead of windows. They could not see a single light anywhere.
"Wow", Gerard said. "It looks like a cemetery".
"Where's the local restaurant, Freulein?" Vladimir asked. "Or something like it?"
"I don't know", the nurse answered fearfully. "I never go to restaurants".
"Where do you live?" Daniel asked.
"Terlinger Strasse. It's very close. It's the third turn, to the right".
A well-lit building appeared before them. American jeeps were parked in front of it, and a sentry was walking back and forth. They heard some snippets of music and laughter from the open windows.
The "Meibach" drove by, speeding down.
"They're having fun", Gerard said with envy. They turned to another dark and silent street and saw another well-lit building.
"This is the hospital", the nurse said.
Suddenly, a patrol emerged from around the corner and blocked their way. There were three soldiers and an officer, who waved at them with a torchlight, ordering them to stop.
"We're in shit", Gerard said.
The officer approached the car and asked in English, "Who are you? Let's see some papers".
"We're the prisoners from the camp", Vladimir answered in German.
"Do you have any documents?" the officer frowned. His hand rested on his holster.
"We don't have any papers," Daniel said in English, getting out of the car. "Three days ago we escaped from the camp. I'm Polish, you see? He's the French, this one's Russian…"
Vladimir got out of the car too and stood on the road with Daniel.
"Your documents, damn it!" the officer swore and produced his pistol. His soldiers raised their machine guns. One of them approached Daniel and said, "Lieutenant, I'll be damned if they're not the masked SS. And they have a woman with them".
"Everybody out!" The officer gestured with his pistol.
"Daniel, get in the car!" Vladimir shouted and hit the officer in the jaw. The blow was precise and powerful. The officer sagged on the pavement.
But Daniel didn't have time to get in the car, he was grappling with one of the soldiers, trying to push him to the ground. Two Americans aimed their guns but didn't dare to shoot, afraid to hit their comrade. Gerard reached for his gun at the backseat. Vakhtang got out of the car from the other side and grabbed the American with his good hand, trying to free Daniel from his grip.
"Away, you!" Gerard shouted and fired a short burst above the Americans' heads through the open car window.
The officer was on his feet again ordering his soldiers, "Take one of them at least!"
Three of them attacked Daniel. He fought back shouting in English, "I'm Polack, you idiots! Polish!"
The officer fired at the car, aiming at Gerard, and the bullet smashed the windshield. The Frenchman fired back. In the meantime, the soldiers fought with Daniel and Vakhtang. The Georgian's shoulder was disturbed and he fell to the ground, squirming with pain. The soldiers kicked him. Vladimir then fired at the officer, and the American fell to his knees, shouting, "Fire! Shoot them!"
Vladimir jumped in the car, Gerard fired a long burst. The soldiers saw their officer on the ground and grabbed their machine guns. Their bullets struck the car, the nurse screamed. Daniel helped Vakhtang to his feet and pushed him into the car. The "Meibach's" tires screeched on wet stones, and the car speeded up madly. There were cries behind them, the rattle of machine gun fire. More soldiers ran from the hospital. Two of them jumped into the "Willis", and in a second, the American car was chasing the fugitives.
Vladimir was blindly turning into alleys and speeded through intersections. He seemed the one with his car, and his eyes were fixed on the darkness ahead of him. Then he braked and sharply turned into a dead end yard. The car stopped, almost crushing into the cast-iron gate. Vladimir shut the engine down. It was quiet. In a second, more engines roared along the street, and two "Willises" sped past them, smudging the walls with their headlights. They disappeared in the streets, and the night was silent again.
Vladimir turned the ignition on, and the "Meibach" backed to the street, U-turned and roared along in the opposite direction.
"The schnapps was good", Daniel joked glumly. "I can still taste it in my mouth".
"Listen, what shall we do now?" Gerard asked.
"Get out of here", Vladimir said sternly. "I killed their lieutenant, they'll never forgive that. Vakhtang, how's your shoulder?"
"Fine. I'll live. I shouldn't have gotten out of the car".
"It was me who killed the lieutenant", Gerard said. "I fired the machine gun".
"Who cares?" Vladimir said. "The Americans won't ask questions, they'll shoot everyone without much ado".
"I told them we were from the camp". Daniel was indignant.
"Is it written on your face that you're a prisoner?" Gerard asked poignantly.
"What about the numbers? We have the numbers tattooed on out hands", Daniel went on stubbornly.
"They don't care shit about your numbers", Gerard said. "The main thing is to get out of this damn town".
"I live here", the nurse suddenly said.
The car stopped abruptly. Everyone was silent and motionless.
"Au revoir, mademoiselle", Gerard smiled. "I hope we had enough time to like each other".
"Think kindly of us, little sister", Vladimir smiled turning to her.
"WE could have taken you with us", Daniel said with difficulty, "but we don't know what happens to us now".
"I understand", the nurse said meekly and unexpectedly threw her arms around Daniel and kissed him. "I had enough tome to love all of you. And you -- you I shall love forever".
Daniel caressed her shoulders and tried to smile.
"I shall pray for you". She climbed out of the car and slowly went to a dark entrance.
The American commandant's office was in turmoil. A sergeant hastily telegraphed all posts: "Attention all checkpoints. Unknown persons attacked an American patrol. We have one casualty, the lieutenant was killed. There were five of them, four men, and a woman in a "Meibach" car of German make".
The patrol sergeant was sitting near the telegraph wiping blood from his cut lip with a handkerchief.
The news went by phone from one checkpoint to another: "Unknown persons attacked an American patrol. We have one casualty, the lieutenant was killed. There were five of them, four men, and a woman…"
The morning broke. The "Meibach" was hidden in the greenery off the highway. Vladimir, Daniel, Gerard and Vakhtang were sleeping in the seats, shriveling from cold. Gerard was the first to wake up. He stretched and yawned.
"Where's my morning coffee, gentlemen?"
Vladimir woke up and rubbed his face with his hands.
"Everything was so fine until those damn Yankees interfered", Gerard growled.
"I could use a drink now", Vladimir sighed wistfully. Without saying a word, Daniel produced a bottle of Moselle from under his seat.
"Shit, Padre, you're one of us, after all!" Vladimir exclaimed approvingly.
"It wasn't me, Vakhtang took it", Daniel said. Vakhtang only smiled, without saying anything.
"We could drive East, to Dresden", Gerard said thoughtfully.
"There are Russians there", Daniel replied. "Three of us will get busted immediately".
"What if we head for Paris?" Vladimir asked.
"There are Americans. They're probably looking for us", Gerard sighed and suddenly exploded. "Goddammit, yesterday we were free people, we could go anyplace, and today we can't go anywhere!" Then he thought for a moment and had an idea. "Listen, sons-of-bitches, we're going to Vienna! It's the shortest ride. I know every nook and corner in Vienna!"
"But the Americans are there!" Daniel replied.
"And the Russians. And the French", Gerard said. "We'll get to the French mission there, and they'll help us. Enough moaning, let's go!"
Vladimir turned the ignition on and backed the car to the highway. In a second, the "Meibach" sped along the desert morning highway.
"By the way, they never bombed Vienna", Daniel said after a pause.
"It means the restaurants and other dens of iniquity are intact", Gerard snapped his fingers. "We'll have so much fun there!"
"So far, we don't have too much of it", Vakhtang chuckled. Everyone looked at him and roared with laughter.
They passed by a roadhouse. It was a small cottage under a red-tiled roof, surrounded with a wire fence. They could see some barns in the yard and some dependencies. There were a woman and a German shepherd dog by the gate. The woman was looking at the car.
"Hold it a moment", Gerard asked, and Vladimir stopped the car close to the woman and the dog. Gerard leaned out of the window, grabbed the dog with his long hands, and pulled it into the car by the neck and hind legs.
"That was necessary, wasn't it?" Vladimir frowned. "What the hell do we need the dog for?"
Gerard smiled looking at the shepherd dog. He held it so skillfully and tight with his paws that the dog instantly took to him and suddenly licked his shoulder. Daniel had to squeeze into the corner of the back seat.
"You see, sons-of-bitches! It knows I'm it's master", Gerard laughed. "I can bet it's a smart and really kind dog." He caressed the dog's ears. "I loved dogs since I was a kid. In my neighborhood all stray dogs adored and followed me all the time".
The woman hid behind her fence and shook her fist at them from her shelter. "Bastards! Thieves! Shame on you!"
"We should pay her", Vakhtang said.
"But we don't have any money", Daniel replied.
Vakhtang fished three bottles of wine from under his seat and several packs of cigarettes, got out of the car and put everything at the curbside near the gate.
The car moved on. Vladimir said, "After that camp I want to shoot all dogs at sight".
"You're evil people." Gerard was stroking the dog. "This is the most beautiful, cleverest dog on in the world. There can't be any dogs, there are only bad masters".
They drove in silence for some time, deep in their thoughts. The dog was standing on its hind legs, looking at the rolling landscape through the window.
"I could use some food now", Gerard said. "Don't they have any beerhouses along this road?"
"We don't have money", Daniel reminded him.
"And we should be careful to avoid all Americans", Vladimir added.
"I don't care!" Gerard got angry. "I spent two years in the camp while they were getting their Second Front together".
"Words dear to my heart", Vakhtang smiled.
Four unshaven men in dusty suits entered the beerhouse in the end of the afternoon. One of them was wearing a tuxedo but was barefoot. The beerhouse was empty. Two ancient old-timers were sitting in the corner drinking beer. The fat and flabby owner was wiping the tables with a wet rag. Vladimir gestured to him. The owner came up and spread his arms.
"I'm very sorry, gentlemen, but we don't have any beer left".
"We need something to eat".
The owner showed them to a table, brought a plate of cold meat, half a loaf of dark bread and sighed, "This is all I can give you. You know what the times are now".
"Don't you have any fresh meat?" Gerard asked.
"Are you kidding?" The owner suddenly seemed afraid. Gerard put two packs of cigarettes on top of the table. The owner shrugged and promptly pocketed them. "Let me see, maybe I'll find something".
"Is a gas station far?" Vladimir asked.
"Thirty minutes along this road".
"Who is there? Americans? French? British?"
"The looked like Americans, gentlemen. If your papers are not in order, you'd better not go there".
"How far is it to Vienna?" Daniel asked.
"About three hundred kilometers".
The "Meibach" was on the road again. Two long beams of light were probing the darkness ahead. Gerard fed the dog at the backseat.
"We don't have a bite to eat, and he's feeding meat to the dog", Vladimir grumbled.
"I'll feed you in Vienna to your hearts content", Gerard promised.
In the meantime, a "Willis" drew to the beerhouse, and in barged four American soldiers.
"Beer!" the sergeant demanded, and the owner fussed behind the counter, filling mugs with foamy liquid.
"Did you have any suspicious persons here?" the sergeant asked.
"What do you mean by "suspicious persons"?"
"Four men and a woman in a "Meibach" car". The sergeant eyed the owner threateningly.
"No, gentlemen, no one like that came here", the owner shrugged. "The times are such now, that everyone prefer to stay at home".
The fugitives drove into Vienna by day. There were cars bustling along the streets, heavy military trucks roared, "Willises" and jeeps carried headquarters officers. The men in the car could see open stores, windows full of goods, and lines of customers.
Gerard was turning his head, taking everything in with pleasure and amazement. Some bookmakers' offices were open, some weird joints, restaurants and cafes, the jewelers… The customers were everywhere, crowding, bumping into each other, civilians, American, French, British and Russian soldiers and officers.
"Jesus, it's like we'd never had war here!" Gerard wondered. "I'm sure, even the whorehouses are open. Vienna is Vienna after all. The golden city".
They passed a restaurant under a huge tarpaulin canopy.
"It smells of roast meat", Daniel sniffed the air.
"Patience, you sons-of-bitches!" Gerard said. "I know a special place here. We could get some money there, to buy me some shoes. I can't walk around in a tux and with no shoes."
"How could we get some money?" Vakhtang asked.
"They will lend me. Do they lend money in your Georgia?"
"Oh, they do. Very often", Vakhtang smiled.
"They don't like it here, but they will. Follow my orders and don't ask too many stupid questions. Turn to the left".
They stopped by a huge three-storied department store. Gerard got out of the car and inspected the building for awhile.
"Well, everything's in place. Like there's never been a war. The owner's office is at the third floor".
"Do you know the owner?" Daniel asked.
"I know everyone in Vienna", Gerard replied.
"Will he lend you money?" Daniel asked mistrustfully. "I don't think so".
"What do you know about our ways in the West?" Gerard grinned. "Let's go, on our way I'll tell you how you should live in this damned Vienna and not starve".
Gerard was donning a laborer's tarp jacket over his tux. There were coils of wire, screwdrivers, and pliers sticking from its pockets. He was standing on a stepladder at the third-floor landing in the department store screwing light bulbs in. From his position, he could see the entire corridor and a heavy door with the copper plaque on it, saying DIRECTOR.
One flight of stairs below, Daniel and Vakhtang were standing, looking up at Gerard. Below them, there were the department store halls, with their bustle and voices, speaking different languages.
"Why does it take so long?" Daniel asked impatiently, and wiped his brow with his sleeve. "maybe they won't be coming today at all?"
"Gerard said they will", Vakhtang replied softly. "We can trust this honest man".
Suddenly, the elevator door slammed below them, and in a second, its cabin went up unhurriedly. Gerard looked down at Daniel and Vakhtang and made a signal.
The elevator stopped, the doors opened, and two men with black bags, accompanied by two uniformed policemen stepped to the landing. The men with bags headed for the director's office, and the policemen froze by the sides of the open elevator door.
Minutes later, the men emerged from the office, went down the corridor and entered the elevator cabin. The policemen moved in too, and in that instant Gerard dropped a light bulb from the top of his stepladder. It exploded on the floor, and Daniel and Vakhtang rushed up the stairs and jammed into the elevator as well. Vakhtang pointed his pistol at the policemen and ordered, "Hands up!" adding something in Georgian.
The bewildered policemen obliged. Daniel grabbed two black bags from the men's grips, and a second later Vakhtang and Daniel were out of the elevator. Daniel pressed the button, the door closed. The elevator with robbed money collectors slowly crawled down, while Gerard, Vakhtang, and Daniel ran down the stairs, taking two or three steps at a time. When the elevator still was somewhere between the third and second floors, they emerged from the store and unhurriedly headed for the "Meibach" parked nearby. Vladimir waited for them, and backed the car up to pick them up. Three of them got inside, and the car sped up along the street, scaring the pedestrians, screeching, and turned into a side street.
Gerard laughed like mad and petted the dog. "Live and learn, sons-of-bitches! I thought of that trick a long time ago, before the war! We came to that department store with a friend of mine, a pilot, in 1936. Hey, Vakhtang, how's your shoulder?
"The left one hurts", Vakhtang chuckled, "but I carried the bags in my right hand. Listen, who was your friend, a Georgian?"
"No, he was an Italian, ha-ha!"
"Listen, Gerard, that first time was the last one", Daniel said sternly.
"Sure it is, I'm all for it", Gerard agreed readily. "But we played it out beautifully, didn't we? Any gangster could envy us. Guys, we're rich men now. We'll get ourselves a nice suite in the hotel and live like humans. And my dog will live like a human".
"Stop the car", Daniel said suddenly.
"Why?" asked Vladimir but stopped the "Meibach".
Daniel got out of the car, fished the Bible from under his jacket, and stopped the first passer-by. He was an elderly man in a cap, with a long checkered scarf. Daniel said something to him and gave him the Bible. Then climbed back into the car and said, "That's it, we don't need the Bible any more".
Gerard laughed, though everyone else was deadly serious.
The elderly Viennese was perplexedly following the black "Meibach" with his gaze, holding the Bible against his chest.
The department store was in panic. The military policemen were crowding in the director's office. The representative of the American administration was sitting in the middle of the room. the scared money collectors were standing in the doorway. The director was enraged.
"This is outrageous, gentlemen! All daily receipts are gone!" he yelled. "The city is filled with soldiers from four great countries, and you can't maintain law and order! All my daily receipts, this is a nightmare!"
"Calm down, sir!" the American was saying coldly. "We'll take all necessary measures."
"The witnesses are there, major", one of the policemen said. "What shall we do with them?"
"Call'em in", the major replied. A tall and thin old man with glasses and a heavy walking stick entered. His neck was wrapped in a checkered scarf.
"Did you see the criminals when they exited the store?"
"Yes, I did. There were three of them. One of them carried two black bags".
"Where did they go?" The major fired his questions fast.
"They didn't go, mister major. They sat in a car and drove off".
"A car? Did you notice the brand?"
"I did. It was the "Meibach". A very good car, but it had two or three bullet holes in the windshield".
"The "Meibach"?" The major quickly raised his head. "Did you notice a woman in that car?"
"A man was driving. In the car, there was also a dog. A German shepherd".
"The memory might have played some tricks on you, sir", the major said looking at the old man with great doubt. "If it was a car that we've been looking for, it have had a woman in it".
"I don't know what car you have been looking for, mister major, but the car I saw had a man at the wheel and a dog".
"Are you sure you haven't made a mistake?"
"I am an old man, of course, but I am still able to distinguish a dog from a woman", the old man said with dignity.
Gerard, Vladimir, Vakhtang and Daniel were walking along the hotel's corridor. A smallish porter was mincing ahead of them together with the hotel owner, who was a gaunt black-suited man with gray hair. The porter stopped in front of one door and rattled his keys on a chain.
"This way, gentlemen. This is one of the best suites in our hotel".
They could see a huge room cluttered with old black-wood furniture. Other doors opened into that room.
"We need the very best", Gerard said, without looking back at the owner.
"This is not cheap, gentlemen", the porter smiled thinly and politely. The gaunt owner was silent.
"How much?" Gerard asked.
"It will be six hundred marks a night, gentlemen".
"My friend, pay him what he asks", Gerard said to Vladimir, who took a think roll of banknotes out and carelessly handed it to the porter. The owner sized the roll with his eyes and said, "I could offer you the best deluxe suite". His voice dropped to a whisper. "Himmler himself lived there when he visited Vienna". The owner magnificently led the way along the dark cherry-colored carpet, four friends and the porter followed.
"Almost forgot", Gerard said. "We have a dog with us, a wonderful friendly animal".
The fat porter ran forward and searchingly looked into the owner's eyes. The latter nodded imperceptibly a second later.
"Well, who would object if the gentlemen love animals so much?" the fat porter smiled obsequiously. "But you'll have to pay for the animal extra. I'm sorry, gentlemen, these are the rules".
"My friend, pay him", Gerard uttered royally.
Vladimir grimaced, but produced another roll and threw it to the porter who caught the money in flight. Vladimir growled almost inaudibly, "In the end I'll just poison the bloody beast".
Vakhtang snickered but controlled himself and his look was again impenetrable.
The owner suddenly stopped and turned to the four of them.
"I'm sorry, gentlemen, will you be actually living in the hotel?"
"Of course, we shall", Gerard replied.
"All of you in one suite of rooms?" An almost imperceptible smile touched the owner's dry lips.
"No, my friend, we're not pederasts", Gerard thinly smiled too. "We need another suite. Or two. Same quality".
"The ones fit for Ribbentrop, at least", added Daniel.
"Or Kaltenbrunner", Vladimir said. "And another thing. Bring us some Russian vodka and Georgian wine. Tsinandali".
"Gurjaani's better", Vakhtang prompted.
"Make your arrangements, my friend". Another roll of money quickly changed hands.
When they entered the suite, the dexterous porter closed the door behind them with the words, "I hope, you will like the stay in our hotel, gentlemen".
Gerard immediately ran to an old massive armchair with eagles carved in the back, raised it above his head with some effort, and brought it down viciously. The wood cracked, and the armchair legs fell off.
"What are you doing?" fearfully asked Daniel.
"I want to feel that I'm a master in this kennel. And even more so because Himmler was probably sitting in this armchair!" Gerard forcefully jumped on the wide bed with both feet. Its legs gave way, and the springs broke. "And he was probably sleeping in this bed. And, of course, he drank from these glasses, let him die again in the netherworld!" Gerard started throwing the heavy crystal wineglasses against the wall, one by one. The shards flew everywhere, clinking melodiously.
"What a music!" Gerard was saying with his eyes dreamily half-closed. "The real Viennese crystal!"
Vladimir laughed looking at him raving, then handed him a huge dish.
"Smash this one. Seems like a real Bohemian glass".
"All right!" Gerard threw the dish against the wall and clicked his tongue appreciatively. "The real Bohemian glass indeed".
"Stop it!" Daniel cried. "Have you gone insane? Vakhtang, why are sitting there like you're at the funeral?"
"I'm waiting for my favorite Gurjaani", Vakhtang smiled. "I've been dreaming of it for more than four years".
"Stop it immediately!" Daniel cried again. "Barbarians!"
"Everything is paid for", reasonably said Vladimir.
When the porter accompanied by a waiter who carried a tray laden with bottles and plates entered the suite, the porter's jaw dropped. The suite looked like a herd of bulls stormed it. The drapes were torn, armchairs broken, ware smashed. Gerard was prostrated on a broken wide bed with his arms outspread and shouted, "What else can we break in this whorehouse? Vladimir, Vakhtang, think of something else to smash, my hands are itching".
"Oh, we'll have a break now!" Vladimir saw the waiter, rushed to him, and poured some vodka into a glass. He took it in one swallow, grabbed some sausages from a plate, and turned to his friends. "Vakhtang, they've brought your favorite Hurjeini!"
"Gurjaani", Vakhtang corrected him and approached the waiter. He took a bottle from the tray, weighed it in the palm of his hand, and squinted at the label. Then the Georgian smiled and said softly, "Hello, my dear one. I've been waiting for you so long".
"Gentlemen… What is all this supposed to mean?" the dispirited porter muttered. "This is the expensive furniture… Eighteenth century, gentlemen… very expensive…"
"Don't you worry, friend!" Vladimir said reassuringly, chewing on a slice of sausage. "It was just we had a little extra strength left after this damned war, and we decided to have some fun. Aren't we entitled to it? Or only Himmler and Kaltenbrunner are allowed have the fun here?"
"Eighteenth century… My God…" the porter babbled.
"We heard you, friend, the eighteenth century! It means the extra charge, right? Here you are". Vladimir fished another money roll out and shoved it to the porter. "Now get out of here, my friend, don't spoil the fun! Move it!" Vladimir unceremoniously pushed the porter and waiter to the door and shut it after then.
The restaurant was noisy and smoky. American soldiers were the loudest bunch. They occupied several front tables close to the stage. To the back of the room, there were some French tables, and four Russian officers in the corner. One had a guitar slung across his shoulder on a wide red band. A youngish blond woman in a long silvery dress cut almost to her hip was singing on stage. Her naked leg could be glimpsed in the cut. Her face was furrowed with wrinkles of premature fatigue, and it was only when she smiled, one could see the beauty in it, that swam to the surface from the depth of her soul burdened with many difficult years.
Gerard, Vladimir, Vakhtang and Daniel entered the room searching for a vacant table. Gerard gestured to the maitre'd with his finger, whispered something into his ear and slipped some money into his palm. The man showed them to an empty table and gave some orders to the waiter, who left promptly.
The four friends sat at the table.
"There are some Russians", Vladimir said, "two chief lieutenants and a captain. I could've been a major by now, or a lieutenant colonel".
"But instead you are alive", Vakhtang replied.
"And free", continued Gerard. "A citizen of the world!"
"A thief and a killer", Daniel added sarcastically.
"We seem to be in the same boat, don't we?" Vladimir replied.
"I wish I knew where it would take us", Daniel said.
"I'm afraid we don't want to go there", Vakhtang replied pensively.
"Look, the singer seems to be OK", Gerard informed them. "Just look at her, you sons-of-bitches!"
Vladimir looked at the singer it seemed to him that she looked back. She was singing and swaying on stage, and the small back-up band was doing its best. The French cheered loudly, clapped their hands, and someone threw a bunch of violets to her feet. She graciously picked it up and blew a kiss to the Frenchmen, singing on.
"The Austrians are merry people", Daniel smiled sadly. "War or no war, they go on having fun. Unlike us…"
"They haven't seen a real war", Vladimir said without turning his gaze from the singer. "Gerard, what do you think, does she have a good voice?"
"She's got the great voice!" Gerard was ready to approve of anything and he winked at Daniel and Vakhtang. "Real operatic. And her figure is like a Greek goddess'".
"Is that right?" Vladimir was suspicious.
"Do I look like a dealer who wants to foist some rotten merchandise off on you?" Gerard was offended.
Vladimir stood up and moved between the tables to the stage.
"Looks like we'll be in trouble again", Daniel said following him with his eyes.
Vladimir came up to the stage and waited for a pause, looking up at the singer. She was looking down at him now, smiling. Then she finished a song, and while the audience applauded and shouted bravo Vladimir asked, "Excuse me, Freulein, can you sing in Russian?"
"I can, just as little bit". The singer was a little confused. "I know several Russian songs".
"What are they?"
"Well… I know The Wicket, and… Burn, Oh Burn My Star…"
"Thank you, Freulein." Vladimir bowed and went back top his table. He was clearly preoccupied with something.
"You have arranged it with her with a machine-gun speed", Gerard said.
"I wish I could have a guitar… She could sing The Wicket."
"Maybe I could help?" Vakhtang asked cautiously.
"Can you play the guitar?" Vladimir was surprised.
"Not only the guitar", Vakhtang chuckled. "I graduated from the conservatory".
"Wow!" Gerard was impressed. "A real musician! Daniel, how many talents do you think are hidden in that Georgian?"
"I can't even guess", Daniel smiled.
"I'll be right back". Vakhtang headed for the table with Russian officers.
"It seems to me, he shouldn't have done that", Vladimir frowned.
"Gentlemen… My comrade…" Vakhtang said to the officers in broken Russian, "He can sing some Russian songs. May we borrow your guitar please? Two minutes?"
The Russians eyed him cautiously. Then the captain smiled and said, "Vassily, give him the guitar".
Vassily smiled too, took the guitar from his shoulder, and handed it to Vakhtang.
"Thanks!" Vakhtang smiled back. "Vivat! Victory!" He returned to the table, sat and looked at Vladimir:
"Let's try it trio. I know The Wicket too." He brushed the strings with a sure hand, took a chord.
"Let's go!" Vladimir stood up resolutely. "It's only… my voice is… just for a close company".
"That's all right, my dear". They headed for the stage.
"We are sorry, Freulein, but we are ready to sing The Wicket with you", Vladimir said.
The singer signaled the band and the musicians were quiet. The silence hung, broken only by the strumming of the guitar. The singer started softly, "Open the wicket quietly…"
Vakhtang joined her. His voice was heavily accented and hoarse but it was lush and deep. Vladimir was the third to sing. The audience finally paid attention to their voices. Vakhtang played skillfully. The guitar cried in his hands, and the men's voices inspired hope and disturbed at the same time.
When they finished, the audience exploded with applause. Gerard and Daniel tried the hardest.
"When do you finish, Freulein?" Vladimir asked the singer.
"Unfortunately, I'm engaged tonight", she smiled apologetically.
A waiter rushed to them with a basket of flowers, gave it to Vladimir who handed it to the singer.
"Oh, you are very kind", she said.
Vladimir put the wad of bills into the basket, and the singer's eyes widened in amazement. Vakhtang suddenly leaped back on stage and gestured to the musicians to keep quiet.
He started to play and sing in Georgian alone. That was his cry for his native land, a wounded hope for a meeting with it, there were love and suffering in his song. His guttural voice climbed to the top of his notes easily, and then dropped down abruptly. The song ended on a triumphant deep note.
No one in the restaurant understood the language, yet they applauded wildly. Vakhtang kissed the singer's hand, stepped from the stage and approached the table with Russian officers. He handed them the guitar.
"Thank you", he said.
"Listen, you're a Georgian, right?" the captain asked.
"Do you understand Georgian?" Vakhtang asked.
"No, but there was one in our company, he sang a lot. And why are you…" He trailed off, but Vakhtang understood the question.
"I was in the camp". He sat at their table. "Quite recently. The Americans liberated us".
"Do you have any documents?" the captain inquired.
"N-no… We just escaped, that's all… I was thinking about going to the commandant's office."
"With no papers?" the captain chuckled. "And what if you had served in the Vlasov's Army? Or in a nationalistic battalion? How could you prove otherwise?"
"Here's my document". Vakhtang rolled up the sleeves of his jacket and shirt. There was a number tattooed close to his elbow. "Won't that be enough?"
"No", the captain frowned. "We have a lot of different folks now in Vienna. The captives are in general…"
"What -- in general?" Vakhtang tensed.
"Nothing. Surrendered to stay alive, and now…"
"You…" Vakhtang jerked, and his fists clenched, yet he contained himself in the last moment. "I'm sorry, dear. Thanks for the guitar".
He headed to the friends' table. The Russian officers watched his back suspiciously, and the owner of the guitar said, "We should probably take him to the commandants'…"
"To hell with him. We have so much to drink here, we've barely started to relax, and taking him to the commandants' will be a waste of time. Protocols, interrogations till the morning. They'd ask us to write reports… alright, brothers, let's drink to the victory!"
...It was night at the Danube's quayside. There were many small boats on the river, decorated with shining garlands. A neon sign of the restaurant was brightly lit. Vladimir strolled back and forth near the entrance, smoking and looking at the door. Cars came and went. A doorman was busy opening doors and ushering clients. There were four French soldiers standing near Vladimir, with their black-haired, pencil-mustachioed sergeant. The French were discussing something, also looking at the restaurant door.
The singer in her silver dress and fur mantelet emerged, and went straight to Vladimir, smiling. Vladimir looked at her at a loss and muttered, "Freulein…"
But the singer passed him. She wasn't looking at Vladimir at all, she looked past him at the mustachioed sergeant. The Frenchman broke from the group of his comrades and greeted the singer with a gracious semi-bow. Then he took her by the elbow and started saying something fast, smiling and making gestures with his free hand.
Vladimir was vexed and disappointed. He threw the butt of his cigarette aside and started for the restaurant door but noticed four other Frenchmen who followed their sergeant and the singer at a distance, winking, and giggling. Vladimir thought for a second, then followed the group. He lit another cigarette.
He saw the couple descending the wide concrete steps to the wharf. The sergeant went on with his soliloquy, kissed the singers arm above the elbow, and gestured, inviting her to one of the merrily lit boats. The singer obediently stepped on the unsteady gangplank and soon they disappeared in the boat. The French soldiers followed them to the quay, laughing softly. One of them said something to his friends and ran up the gangplank to the boat. Vladimir guessed the meaning by their gestures and bawdy grins. One of the soldiers noticed him and blocked his way, saying something in French.
"But this is… unfair, Messieurs", Vladimir said struggling for French words. "The lady went with your friend, but why do they need the second one? Even the swine don't do that, Messieurs".
"What, do you want a piece of action?" smiled one of the soldiers, tall and long-nosed. "Shall we admit him to our company, guys? This German wants a woman too." They all laughed, and someone friendly slapped Vladimir on the shoulder. Vladimir pushed the long-nosed one aside and headed for the boat.
"No way!" The long-nosed soldier stopped him. "We do it by turns. By turns, do you understand? You're the last in line!" He laughed again.
Vladimir punched him in the jaw, sharply and powerfully. The soldier gasped and fell down. The rest of them were confused for a moment, and Vladimir ran to the boat. The French caught up with him near the gangplank, grabbed him by the shoulders, and started to swipe him on the head. The fight was terrible and silent. Only the crunch of boots on concrete could be heard, hoarse breathing and heavy blows in the face.
Then from the boat, there came a long woman's wail. Vladimir tried to break free from the French to the boat, but every time there was someone blocking his way and the fight went on and on…
Gerard, Daniel, and Vakhtang were sitting in the restaurant. The band was roaring at the stage, and several semi-naked choirgirls danced, kicking their legs high.
"My father was a sailor!" Gerard said trying to cover the music. "I can hardly remember him, he was at sea all the time. He died in the Atlantic, in a storm. My mother survived him by three years only. She died of pneumonia. I was twelve then. And since that time, I've been alone in life. Do you have a family, Daniel?"
"No," the Pole replied. Now and then, he cast glances at the restaurant door. "My father died at the border, when the war started, and my mom was killed in a bombing, together with my sister. All of them died…"
Vakhtang didn't seem to hear what they were saying. He sat deep in his own thoughts, and a deep furrow ran between his eyebrows.
"Yeah, that's a sad life, if you don't have anyone", Gerard sighed. "I can tell you the truth, a man can't be alone all the time. Before the war, I waited and waited to fall in love for real. Oh, I could have been so happy!" Gerard looked at Vakhtang. "Do you have a family, Vakhtang?"
"No father… Only a brother and a sister… Mother died", Vakhtang answered curtly and raised his head. "I think something's happened to Vladimir".
"What could happened to him?" Gerard shrugged.
"I feel it…" Vakhtang stood up. "Stay put, I'll go check it".
"All right". Gerard stood up too. "You stay put, I'll go check it".
Gerard went out of the restaurant and looked around. The traffic was moving along the quay, the cars' headlights bright. The neon sign flashed. Gerard came up to the "Meibach", opened the door, and the dog rushed to meet him, glad, wagging its tail and licking his hands. Gerard petted it, softly repeating, "What, doggy? Are you missing me? That's all right, we'll be going home soon, and I'll give you some meat…"
Several French soldiers ran past Gerard, and he heard one of them saying, "Our guys seem to be fighting there".
Gerard slammed the car door and hurried after the soldiers. From the quay, he saw the fight going on on the wharf. "Vladimir?" he shouted, "are you there?"
"Right here", the reply came from the tangle of furious bodies.
Gerard covered the distance in three giant leaps and cut into the altercation. His heavy blows threw the adversaries away. The tuxedo ripped. One of the French leapt at Gerard's back, but he struggled from his grip and shouted, "Goddamit, I'm the French too, you bastards! Stop it!"
But the soldiers moved the fresh forces in, and the close combat went on.
Daniel and Vakhtang were sitting in the restaurant, waiting. Both looked at the door. Finally, Daniel said, "You're right, something's definitely wrong. Let's go".
They both stood up and left the restaurant.
On the street, they headed for the "Meibach". From the distance, they saw the dog inside. It was raging, beating its muzzle on the dashboard, baring its fangs, and foaming at the mouth.
Daniel and Vakhtang looked around, then Daniel opened the door, and the dog leaped out and ran to the wharf, scaring lonely passers-by.
"Stay in the car, will you?" Daniel said.
"I'm going with you", Vakhtang replied decisively.
"You've got your bad shoulder. Be in the car. By the way, all our money is in the trunk", Daniel said and ran after the dog along the quay.
The dog burst onto the wharf roaring, and cut right into the tangle. It sank its fangs into the shoulder of one fighter, and the man leaped aside, screaming, "They've got a dog with them!"
The shepherd dog was turning round and round in the jumble of bodies, snarling and biting, pushing some to the ground, tearing with its teeth. The soldiers scattered, swearing and shouting.
"What, sons-of-bitches, have you seen it?" Gerard howled and laughed. Then he smashed someone's jaw with the words, "This is my greetings from Marseilles, you scum!"
The soldier went flew over the side into the river, raising a fountain of black water.
"You base rats!" the French soldiers shouted from the safe distance. "But for the dog, we would've taught you a lesson!"
"Yeah, but for the dog, and if you were a battalion", Gerard replied and crouched, petting his dog tenderly. "Oh you doggy. My own dog. My kind and smart dog".
Daniel came by. He was also engaged in combat. One of his lapels was torn off, his cheek was bruised, and he licked the knuckles on his hand.
"God damn you all!" he said, breathing heavily. "We are asking for it, to be taken to the commandant's office. The fools. The stupid boys".
The dog was catching its breath too, licking the abrasions on Gerard's face. The Frenchman was smiling blissfully. "You don't get it. It was an OK fight".
"Why did they start it, at least?"
"Who knows you Slavs? Where's Vladimir? He was here a moment ago".
A woman screamed from the boat again. In the next moment, the mustachioed sergeant appeared on the boat deck. He was missing his beret, his face was all scratched, the tie was askew, and his jacket missed several buttons.
"That damned woman", he swore, running past our friends. He was followed by the second soldier soon enough. He face was also bloodied, and the uniform torn. Gerard laughed looking at them.
"Hey, guys, what's the hurry? How about some Martell?"
The singer and Vladimir stood on the deck. Her silver dress was all torn, and she looked around dazedly, repeating, "My mantelet! Jesus, my mantelet!"
"Fool!" Vladimir snapped. "You damned fool!" He grabbed her by the arm and dragged with him. They passed Gerard and Daniel without even looking at them.
"Looks like we'll spend the rest of the night without him", Gerard said.
The bedroom was dimly lit. They could see the splashes of neon in the window. Vladimir was smoked and looked in the window, saying with suppressed fury, "I can understand those who do it out of need. Not to starve to death. To feed their children. But I don't get it when they just do it… for pleasure! With the first who come along. With the drunk scumbags".
The woman behind his back was softly crying. She was sitting on the bed, completely naked, and her body was shining dimly in the dark, like marble. The singer's hair streamed down her shoulders.
"You wanted to be raped by the whole brave gang of them, right? Like dogs in heat? The whore!"
"Stop it! Stop it!" she cried and shook her head. Vladimir didn't say anything, he angrily chain-smoked, gazing into the dark.
"You don't understand a thing", the singer cried. "How difficult… how impossible to survive. I sing in the restaurant for fifty occupation marks, and a loaf of bread is forty-five. And I have an old mother who is hungry, too. I should dress up, to look nice, I should buy myself powder, lipstick, perfume and stockings. I don't know who suffered more in this war, the men or us, women. I could have been happier perhaps if they killed me in the frontlines. My God, you don't understand anything." She sobbed again. "How I hate your obscene lecherous mugs. The sour smell of wine from your mouths. Your greedy paws."
Vladimir came up to the bed slowly, sat down, and caressed the singer's hair and her naked shoulders.
"I'm sorry", he said with difficulty. "I'm a fool. I'm just a drunk fool…"
"You're not German. You speak bad German. Who are you?"
"I'm Russian."
"Russian?" She recoiled from him in terror.
"Yeah, Russian." He smiled sadly. "Name's Volodya. What's yours?"
"Elise…" She sighed and raised her head. Her mascara ran down her cheeks with the tears in dark streaks.
"You sang great. You sang so great there that I lost my head as soon as I heard you…" He put his arm around her and kissed her lips and eyes smeared with mascara.
Vakhtang was not in the car. Gerard inspected the car and said, "Listen, he seems to have picked my pistol up. It was here, under the seat, before. Where has he gone?"
Daniel didn't say anything, looking around, at a loss. Suddenly Gerard noticed a scrap of paper at the windshield, picked it up, and got out of the car.
"Look what I've found. It's in Russian. Do you understand Russian?"
Daniel took the note and carefully deciphered the uneven Cyrillic letters in the transparent light of a street lamp: FRIENDS, FAREWELL. I'M GONE. I HAVE NOWHERE TO RETURN. I LOVED YOU WITH ALL MY HEART. VAKHTANG.
Daniel crushed the piece of paper in his fist. "Damn! Where should we look for him now? Oh my God, where, where?.."
"What did he write there?" Gerard asked.
"He's gone to shoot himself, do you understand it? To commit suicide". Daniel quickly turned his head left and right, and ran to the quayside boulevard, shouting Vakhtang's name.
Gerard bent to his dog and said, "Come on, doggy! Seek Vakhtang! Seek!" The shepherd dog leaped forward and ran along the boulevard, following Daniel. Gerard heavily tramped after the dog.
Vakhtang was sitting on one of the boulevard's benches. He was hidden by a shadow of a giant tree, difficult to see from the street. He looked at the night river, with its garland-lit boats. The boulevard was deserted, only the hum of the traffic could be heard. Vakhtang looked at the Danube, and one hand with a pistol in it was in his lap. He stroked the pistol with the other hand, and his face was calm.
The Kura River flashed before his mind's eye for a brief moment, squeezed by the steep mountainsides, and there was an ancient monastery at the top of the cliff. Narrow streets of Tbilisi. A brief moment. Vakhtang shook his head, slowly crossed himself, slowly said something in Georgian, shifted the pistol from his left hand to his right and aimed it at his heart. A second, passed, then another second… Suddenly, he heard some heavy and fast breathing in the dark, and a shepherd dog appeared in front of him, with its mouth open and its tongue lolling out to one side. The dog stood still and wagged its tail, then it barked softly, as if happy to see him. Then Vakhtang heard the cries of his friends from the dark depth of the boulevard: "Vakhtang! Vakhtang!"
…Gerard, Daniel and Vakhtang were slowly going along the boulevard, and Gerard was giving vent to his anger.
"How could you think of doing it, without asking us first, you son-of-a-bitch? After everything we've gone through together at this war! In that damned camp! We survived everything! And I thought the most unreasonable people were the Slavs!"
Daniel chuckled, "I wish Vladimir could hear you now…"
"There are even crazier people, the Georgians!"
"Stop it," Vakhtang said softly.
"Why can't you go home? What secrets are hiding there? Why can't understand them?"
"Because you're French", Daniel said for Vakhtang.
"Give me my pistol back", Gerard said.
"This is our joint property," Vakhtang smiled, for the first time.
"To hell with you!" Gerard waved his hand dismissively. "I have decided how we're doing to live".
"Without asking us first?" Daniel smiled.
"You don't know shit about living in the West without me anyway. That's why you should listen to me. We'll travel. First, we do to France, then Italy, then Latin America".
"What about the money?" Daniel asked.
"They'll be lending us money', Gerard winked. "It's all set. Tomorrow I'm going to the French mission and see the best way for us to go to France".
"It won't happen, I'm afraid", Daniel sighed.
"I want to go home…"
"Hot damn you all! I don't want to listen to this kind of talk anymore! This is not what we died every day in the camp for! We've got to grip the life by the throat! Like this!" He demonstrated his powerful fist to them. "And never to fall apart crying and moaning".
They were in bed now, and the moonlight was eerily lighting the room up. Vladimir was on his back, his eyes closed. Elise was looking at him raising herself on one elbow, softly touching his naked breast with tips of her fingers. Then she kissed his forehead, his cheek… Her hair fell down on his face. She smiled and whispered, "Volodja… I'm so happy for the first time in so many years… God heard my prayers…"
Vladimir opened his eyes and looked at her pointblank. "What do you need to be always happy?"
"You…" she smiled confusedly.
"What else?"
"What else?.. A little money… just a little, so that we could start living together…" She bent and kissed him, but Vladimir didn't return her kiss. He still gazed at her hard.
"How much money do you need?"
"I told you… just a little bit".
Vladimir jumped from the bed, dragged the bag from under the bed, opened it, and started throwing rolls of money on the bed. "Here! Take all of it! Will that be enough for you?"
Elise watched the spectacle fearfully, taking in the rolls of money and the bag with a pistol at the bottom of it.
"What are you doing, Volodja?"
Vladimir stood up breathing heavily, came up to a small table near the window and groped for a pack of cigarettes. "Do you have any left?"
"You have smoked everything. You smoke too much, Volodja…"
"Wait here, I'll be back in a minute…" Vladimir left the room.
The street in front of the hotel was empty. From time to time, cars passed by, the signs flashed. Vladimir was slowly walking down the street, asking infrequent passers-by, "Excuse me, could you sell me some cigarettes?"
Some of them were frightened by this strange figure and answered hurriedly, "Sorry, I don't smoke". Others didn't bother to reply at all.
Vladimir shivered. Suddenly, he saw the Russian patrol, three soldiers, and an officer. All of them had rows upon rows of decorations and medals on their breasts. Vladimir unsteadily headed straight for them.
"Guys… Hi guys…" he said in a slightly drunk voice. "D'you happen to have a spare smoke? I haven't smoked a gage in ages".
The soldiers looked at their lieutenant. The officer thought for moment, then reached for the pocket in his wide military breeches. He fished a pack of "Kazbek" cigarettes, held it to Vladimir, and clicked with his lighter. Vladimir inhaled the smoke avidly and smiled, "This is the real tobacco… like nothing on earth. Where are you going from, guys?"
"Stalingrad", the lieutenant said.
"What front?"
"First, the Voronezh, later the Third Ukrainian".
"Have you been to the Kuban' in the summer of '42?"
"No", the lieutenant said.
"Well, that's the thing… You weren't there… And it was very… interesting at the Kuban', guys… very, very interesting…" Vladimir smoked greedily, standing in front of the patrol, swaying a bit, and his shirt was open to his navel, sleeves rolled up. "Thank you, guys".
"And who are you exactly?" the officer said.
"What do you mean, who?" Vladimir shrugged. "A man. A human, and nothing else… Listen, could you give me more smokes? I'll pay you". He started top search through his pockets but couldn't find any money.
The lieutenant drew several cigarettes from the pack, pocketed them and gave the rest to Vladimir.
"Gu-uys…" Vladimir drawled drunkenly, smiling. "You're excellent guys. It's a pity that you weren't there at the Kuban' in the '42… Thanks, guys."
He still stood there, swaying and smoking a Russian gage, as the patrol moved on along the empty street. The soldiers were discussing something with their commander, looking back at Vladimir. Suddenly, they turned back sharply, and approached him.
"Hey, you? Could we see your papers, please?"
"What are you talking about? What papers?" Vladimir produced a drunken smile, and turned his empty pockets inside out. "What papers can I have?"
"You'll have to go to the military commandant's office with us", the lieutenant said. One of the soldiers had his machine gun raised.
"What are you talking about, guys?" Vladimir turned to go, but the second soldier already stood behind his back pointing his gun at him.
That was the moment when the black "Meibach" suddenly stopped by the curbside, tires screeching. Gerard jumped out of it, rushed to Vladimir, grabbed him by the shoulder, and threw him to the wall. Daniel and Vakhtang were sitting in the car, all tensed, holding their machine gun and pistol.
"Hands on your head!" he ordered, pressing the pistol muzzle to the back of his neck. He quickly searched through the Russian's pockets. The patrol was overwhelmed, as Gerard told them, "I'm the MP inspector, gentlemen! We've been looking for this man for a long time. He's the dangerous criminal. Thank you for your help, gentlemen. Into the car, quick".
He led Vladimir to the car with the pistol pressed to the small of his back, and pushed him inside. He climbed in next, and the car roared along the street. The soldiers and their lieutenant were looking after it in amazement.
"I thought this son-of-a-bitch would like to talk to his compatriots," Gerard was saying angrily. "One of you guys had done so, and decided to shoot himself. Now this one. What should I do with you all?"
"I haven't talked to my compatriots yet", Daniel chuckled.
"Try it. You'll probably go drowning in the Danube. To hell with it, let's go to the hotel, I need some sleep".
"I just went out to pick some cigarettes", argued Vladimir. "I walked and walked, asking for some, and no one gave them to me. The patrol was a mistake".
The car turned around the corner, and approached the hotel from a different direction. Daniel suddenly braked hard. They saw two police cars near the entrance, the policemen were running into the hotel, reaching for their guns.
Daniel backed the car, saying, "Looks like we have a company…"
"Put out the headlights", Gerard ordered. "Listen, your singer is a fast one. While you were out for cigarettes, she ratted on you. Instead of loving her proper, you've probably scared her to death".
"The owner could rat", Daniel said. "Or the porter".
"All right", Gerard sighed. "You didn't want to live in the suites where Himmler and other scumbags slept, so now you'll be sleeping under a bridge".
"Like decent people", Vakhtang smiled.
"We like it", Daniel grinned, "but you dog might be against it".
"And we'll have to abandon the car", Vladimir said. "They might be looking for it".
"Oh Vladimir, sometimes you are amazingly astute", Gerard said.
In the early morning, the friends were sitting in the barbershop chairs, and four barbers were taking care of their stubble. Outside, the shepherd dog was sitting, tied to a drainpipe, waiting for its master.
"I'm tired of this stupid city", Gerard said. "It's high time to get out of here".
"Uh-uh", Vladimir replied without turning his head.
"High time indeed", Daniel said, looking in the mirror at his reflection.
"I'm dreaming of it", Vakhtang added.
"How could you speak about Vienna in this way, gentlemen?" the elderly barber smiled sadly and spread his arms. "Vienna is… a fairy-tale city. The city of music and love".
"This is the city of thieves and profiteers", Gerard replied.
"The city of cheating singers", Vladimir added.
"The city of depression and death", Vakhtang said.
"And the four last honest people will leave this city tonight!" Daniel concluded decisively.
Gerard was speaking French when he leaned on the oak barrier, talking to a beautiful girl on the other side. "Please, understand, Mademoiselle, they are decent people…" The girl's big gray eyes studied Gerard's face.
"And what are those people?" she smiled.
"Doesn't matter. But they're my friends, and that should be enough. They want to go to France, and I must help them. Please, understand, Mademoiselle, I have no one else in the world, only those friends of mine..."
"But who are they, what are their last names?"
"Last names?" Gerard was at a loss. "I don't know their last names. We just call each other by our first names".
The girl laughed. Then she became serious again.
"They are POWs", Gerard frowned. "We were in the camp together".
"You should apply to the repatriation commission then", the girl explained. "What is their nationality?"
"The Russian, the Pole and the Georgian".
"Georgian?" the girl raised her eyebrows.
"Have you never been to Georgia? This is… a wonderful… amazing country! It's on the… Nevermind. I have never seen anything more beautiful or exotic than Georgia! I swear. And the people there… Oh, what beautiful people live there… The Georgians are the magnificent people."
"Why one of them doesn't go to his own country then?" the girl interrupted him. Gerard shut himself up and lowered his head. The girl added after a pause, "You can tell me. I was in the camp myself. For almost two years".
"Really, Mademoiselle?" Gerard jerked his head and looked at her anxiously. "So you know what it is like".
"Unfortunately, I do", the girl sighed.
"So why aren't you going to France?"
"So far, we've been discussing you friends who don't have their last names", the girl smiled.
"You see, Mademoiselle, all of them are lonely, restless people. We wouldn't like to part like this. the only thing that is left to us in this world is us. You understand, Mademoiselle, we ourselves…"
Vladimir, Vakhtang and Daniel were strolling back and forth in a small park opposite the French mission, walking the dog. The dog was rushing forward all the time, so Daniel was constantly ahead of the two friends. Vladimir and Vakhtang lagged behind, and Vakhtang was telling Vladimir in Russian, his voice muffled and toneless.
"My father was declared the enemy of the people in April, and May he was arrested. He was a well-known conductor, a lot of people knew him in Georgia. How a conductor can be an enemy of the people, tell me?" From time to time, Vakhtang tossed back his head, and his dark eyes flashed and looked at Vladimir with pain. "He was arrested on May 3, and on May 25 they refused to accept things for him in prison. Then my mother was told in secret that by that time he had been already shot. Without any court process, can you understand that? I had to leave the conservatoire. My sister Manana was driven out of her art school. Oh how beautifully she paints, if you only could see her work! My brother Levan wanted to enter an institute, but they didn't even want to see his papers."
Vakhtang was silent, as if he gathered himself up. "For two years, I worked in a school of music, but they fired me. They said that the son of the enemy of the people can't teach music to children. But I didn't teach them politics!" Anger and bitterness flashed in Vakhtang's dark eyes. "You know, Volodya, I've been thinking for a long time… First at home, then in the trenches, then in the camp. You know, not classes or estates should distinguish the people. The people can only be honest or mean, good or evil, do you see my point?"
Vladimir chuckled and shrugged his shoulders. Vakhtang continued, forcefully pushing words out of his mouth, "There are people of God, and there are people of devil. They are everywhere, Volodya. They destroyed, slandered, and trampled so many wonderful people. They converted even the most beautiful idea into a horrible weapon. A weapon turned against other people. Listen, Volodya, how can the closest relatives mistrust each other? How can a father be afraid of his son, a brother of his own sister? They've managed to do that. The father is the enemy of the people, and his eldest son goes to war and is captured. Is it good or what?"
"Yeah, as good as it gets", Vladimir frowned.
"I'm not afraid for myself, Volodya, I don't want to bring new suffering to my family, you see? I want to go home like you won't believe. My heart is burning. What should I do? It's much better to remain missing in action."
"I don't think it will make much difference to them though", Vladimir frowned again.
"What are the options? To commit suicide? How will I prove that I hadn't surrendered? That they captured me half-dead? And how will you prove it?"
"Not all of them are like that!" Vladimir almost shouted. "There should be other people, different".
"I don't know…"
"Bastards… Punish your own to instill fright into others. That was what the secret service officer told me in our regiment. Gerard doesn't understand nor cares, all Europe for him is like home. Daniel will manage too, he'll survive. But what about us? We'll die here without our land. Like fish out of water. No, we should go back, and what will be, will be…"
"Go back -- how?" Vakhtang looked at Vladimir with hot desperate eyes.
"I don't know… But maybe to hell with it all, and let's go wandering around Europe, four of us, what do you say? We'll manage." The desperate excitement flashed in Vladimir's eyes. "And if we're supposed to die anyway, we'll perish with music and lights on".
"Aren't you sick of this shitty city?" Gerard was asking the girl in the mission. "Don't you want to go some place else?"
"Where?" the girl shrugged.
"Mademoiselle, the world is an oyster! It's so great that one life would not be enough to crack it open!"
"One needs a lot of money to do that", the girl smiled, but her smile was bitter and defenseless. "And not all people have it".
"I have money!" Gerard said hotly. "Yes, Mademoiselle, I have lots of money! If I suggest that we travel together, would you accept it?"
"And your friends, too?" The girl's smile brightened.
"And the dog as well. We have a wonderful dog. Don't get me wrong, Mademoiselle, we're not crooks…"
"I trust you".
"Is it true, Mademoiselle?" Gerard was ecstatic. "I'm happy, Mademoiselle! I'm genuinely… Oh what could I do?" Gerard suddenly overturned, and walked across the room on his hands, dangling his legs in the air.
"Stop it!" the girl laughed. "Immediately!" A client peeked in a crack of the door, and seeing a man walking on his hands, backed into the corridor, clearly frightened, saying, "Sorry, Mademoiselle, I'll come and see you later".
Vladimir and Vakhtang were silently sitting on a bench in the park. Vladimir smoked a cigarette. Daniel appeared in an alley, he was flustered and couldn't catch his breath. He shouted to them from the distance, "Is the dog with you?"
"It was with you", Vladimir answered.
"Damn! I let it run free, and it disappeared. I thought it went to you".
The three of them quickly went through the park, looking for the dog. They went out to the street.
"My dad was an ancient nobleman from Normandy", Gerard told the girl passionately. "You won't believe how hot-tempered he was. But I should be thankful to him anyway. He left me a heap of money".
The girl was laughing, waving her finger at him, "I have a strong suspicion that you're inventing all this."
Gerard was silent for awhile, then he confessed. "Of course, I lied to you. My friends and I -- we don't have any money at all. But you won't refuse to dine with us, will you? We have money for the dinner…"
In the side alley where Vakhtang, Vladimir and Daniel turned, there was a truck with a huge cage, filled with stray dogs, mangy and dirty. Shepherd dogs, Airedale terriers, poodles and mongrels barked, clawed at the cage bars trying to get out, ran back and forth, or accepted their destiny and lay quietly.
"There it is!" Vakhtang elbowed Vladimir. Two dogcatchers had Gerard's shepherd in their loop and now they were dragging it to the truck. The wire hurt the dog's neck, and the shepherd struggled and wheezed.
"Oh damn!" Daniel dashed to the catchers. "Hey, friend, leave our dog alone!"
"Do you have a registration license for it?" the catcher replied.
"What kind of registration do you need?" Daniel asked angrily. "We don't have any registrations ourselves". He snatched the loop from the catcher's hands and started to free the dog.
"I beg your pardon!" the second catcher cried indignantly. "A dog should have a registration document!"
Vladimir approached them, pulling out his pistol. "I will register you now with this!"
The frightened dogcatchers backed to their truck. One of them whispered, "Hans, they're the bandits…"
Vladimir climbed into the truck and unlatched the cage. The captive dogs rushed out of it, howling and barking. Daniel held Gerard's shepherd, and the dog gratefully licked his face.
"The escape from the prison camp", Vakhtang smiled.
"Can you imagine what Gerard would have done to us, if his damn dog disappeared?" Vladimir said, jumping off the truck.
Gerard ran out of the French mission and headed to the park across the street. His eyes were wild, the jacket unbuttoned, his tie askew.
"Something important has happened," Vakhtang said looking at him coming.
"God forbid, he fell in love with some girl in there", Vladimir replied.
"Guys!" Gerard flopped at the bench, but immediately sprang to his feet and dashed back and forth in front of his friends. "She is such a wonderful woman! she looks like a… like an aircraft fuselage! She… no, I can't say it with words! She is a… quiet angel!"
"What did I tell you?" Vladimir smiled at Daniel.
"That's one quiet angel to many for us", Vakhtang said merrily.
"My heart told me that he would fall in love", Daniel said.
"No, no, it's all set. Guys, we're going to France with her!"
"Did you ask us first?" Daniel asked.
"Why should I?" Gerard was genuinely amazed. "I know that you're all for it!"
"Just look at this self-assured turkey!" Daniel was indignant. "He orders us around, like his mangy dog".
The dog was sitting in front of them and devotedly looked into Gerard's eyes.
"This dog isn't mangy!" Gerard twisted his fingers in the air. "This dog is beautiful!"
"And that old hag that you unearthed?" Vladimir asked spitefully. "Is she as beautiful as that dog of yours?"
"She probably looks like a Japanese lap-dog!" Daniel laughed. "Just as mean-tempered, with bulging eyes, and slobbering".
"How could he sleep with her, Daniel?" Vladimir continued. "He'll crush her under him, this bear of a man".
They didn't notice how pale and stony Gerard's face became, but Vakhtang did and said softly, warning them, "Hey, guys…"
But there was no stopping them.
"No, he'll sit her on top of him and toss her up to the ceiling", Daniel choked with laughter.
"A fuselage… hee hee. Maybe like a Chinese teapot?"
Gerard slowly waddled to them and suddenly grabbed both of them by their throats and squeezed them in his iron grip. The friends couldn't breathe, their eyes popped out. They jerked trying to break free, but Gerard had terrible strength in his fingers.
"Dirty bastards!" he roared. He was furious but tried to contain himself, and his face was terrifying. "Smutty morons!"
"Gerard…" Vakhtang tried to interfere, but the dog snarled at him.
"Lousy abortions, I'll strangle you! I'll crush you like toads, if I hear another bad word about this woman! Now get out of here, away from me!" He shook them mightily, and shoved them away from him. Then he looked at Vakhtang. "You can get out too. I don't need anyone".
Vladimir and Daniel were thrown several steps from the Frenchman and tried to catch their breath spasmodically. Daniel coughed fitfully, doubling up. Vladimir stood propping himself on a tree trunk, trying to breathe, and massaged his throat.
Gerard sat on a bench with Vakhtang, stroked the dog, and tears were rolling down his cheeks. He was staring into space in front of him, his lips twitched but he tried to smile at his dog, whispering, "What, doggy? Why are you looking at me like that? Don't be afraid, I'll never leave you".
Vladimir approached slowly, sat on a bench, lit a cigarette without saying anything. Daniel stopped coughing, sighed with relief, and sat on the other side, close to Vakhtang. They were silent for a long time. Then Daniel said, "Vakhtang, ask him please if he had enough brains to invite the girl to dinner".
"Have you invited her to dinner?" Daniel asked softly.
Gerard didn't answer. Vladimir said, "I think he did have enough brains for that. Then we'll need to get a good car".
"No worse than the one Himmler drove", Vakhtang pointed his finger skyward with significance.
"Right", Vladimir nodded. "And we need to borrow some more money. We have spent almost everything we had in the second bag".
"Gerard, they are wondering if you would like to borrow some money to invite your girl to dinner", Vakhtang said quietly. "We're ready to help you with that".
Gerard raised his head and looked at them. He had tears in his eyes, but he whispered with a smile, "You sons-of-bitches… of course, we'll borrow some money".
The Viennese commandant's central office was changing guards. The British patrol stood still, expecting the Americans to replace them. The Americans marched to them, froze for a moment in front of the British, and saluted them. The British then marched off, and the Americans stood still. Gerard, Vakhtang, Vladimir, and Daniel were in the small crowd of spectators.
"Hold the dog". Gerard handed the leash to Daniel and quickly headed for a row of cars at the curbside. He threw one door open, climbed in and took out a piece of wire to short-circuit the ignition. The commandant's office windows were lit brightly, the street lamps threw their light on the street. The patrol was walking slowly back and forth. The dog tugged at the leash and three friends stood there waiting. The crowd was slowly dispersing.
The car finally started, moved, rolled along the street, and disappeared around the corner.
"Let's go", Daniel said, and the dog rushed forward.
It was dark already when the car drove to a jeweler's store in a narrow cobblestone street that ran between old houses under peaked tiled roofs. There were not too many lamps in that street and the darkness seemed denser than in other parts of the city. The ground floor windows in all houses were shuttered.
"Looks like it's here", Gerard said under his breath, peeking at the sign over the door. "I saw it when we first drove here yesterday. Let's do it this way. Volodya waits in the car, Vakhtang stands guard on the street, Daniel goes with me." Gerard was the first to get out of the car, went to the door and stooped to pick the lock. Daniel stood close to him.
Vakhtang was going back and forth looking around. Gerard was heard to rattle a bunch of lock-picks and swear in whisper. The door finally gave in, and Gerard entered the store. Daniel slipped in after him.
Lighting his way with a torch, Gerard was slowly moving around the store. He passed the main room with glass displays, opened the office door, and saw a massive iron safe in the beam of his light.
"The tools", he whispered, and Daniel gave him several instruments: crowbar, drill, and tongs.
Gerard inserted the crowbar between the safe and the wall and started to rock the iron box gently back and forth. That was hard work, and Gerard's forehead was covered with perspiration. He panted, rocking it harder and harder. The crack got wider, the plaster crumbled, and the screw-bolts the safe was fastened to the wall with slowly gave way. Daniel waited patiently. The time dragged.
Vladimir was sitting in the car smoking. Vakhtang was walking back and forth, listening to any sounds from the house. But everything was quiet…
The bolts finally sprang from their sockets, and Gerard forcefully moved the safe away from the wall. He started drilling its back wall, the metal screeched, and the metal chips rained to the floor.
"Light it here… here", Gerard whispered, and Daniel moved the torchlight.
Then Gerard put the drill aside and ripped at the metal with his tongs, whispering hoarsely, "I'm the best aircraft fucking mechanic in the world…"
His hands shook with effort. He bit his lip and wiped his brow. "Let me do it, you're tired", Daniel suggested.
"It's nothing", Gerard replied. Finally, he cut out a square of metal and pried it open with the tongs. Daniel pointed the beam of light inside the safe. There were rolls of money on its shelves, boxes of jewelry and something else.
"I'm the best mechanic in the whole wide world indeed", Gerard smiled triumphantly, and shoved his hand in the safe. He took money and jewelry boxes out, throwing them into the bag that Daniel opened for him. Then his hand felt something strange.
"What the hell is that?" Gerard took out a tight and heavy canvas bag and untied it. Daniel pointed his light, and they saw golden crowns, teeth, and wedding bands glimmering dimly in the beam of electric light.
"Human teeth", Gerard whispered in amazement. "What are they doing here?"
"What?" Daniel shuddered. "Let me see". He poured some of the bag contents on the floor and sorted through them. His lips quivered suddenly.
"Yeah, they're h-human all r-right", he stuttered. "They're from the camp". Suddenly he turned and went into the darkness, lighting his way.
Gerard went on groping in the safe, taking out new rolls of money and boxes. Unexpectedly, he heard some voices from an upper story. Gerard took his pistol out and went out of the office.
He ascended the stairs to the owners quarters, and heard the voices from the bedroom. When he came in, he saw an elderly fat man in striped pajamas. He was sitting on a bed, and Daniel was holding him by the hair shoving the bag of gold teeth into his face.
"You bloody dog!" he shouted in whisper, mixing Polish and German words. "You broke the prisoners' teeth out! Fat bastard! Eat them, eat!" Daniel pushed the gold into the fat man's mouth, and his eyes were dim with hot madness, like it happened on the mountain road from the camp.
"It wasn't me!" the fat man screamed. "By Jesus, it wasn't me! I took them in the commandant's office when all of them were gone! I'm not guilty, I swear to God!" The fat man squirmed on the bed, and his cheeks were flapping.
"Leave him alone", Gerard said loudly. "We should go".
"Leave him?" Daniel yelled turning his whitened eyes to the Frenchman. "To let this viper see his old age? To let him sell human teeth and go to church to pray after it?" Daniel eyes darted around the room, and he noticed the shining razor blade on the nightstand, beside a small lamp.
"Daniel!" Gerard tried to intercept him, but the time was not enough. Daniel grabbed the razor and slashed the fat man's throat in one swipe. Black blood gushed to the striped pajamas and satin quilt. The fat man jerked in convulsions and lay still.
Daniel backed from the bed with the razor in his hand, threw it aside and screamed terribly, "Let God punish me! Let Him punish me!"
Gerard managed to catch him in his arms. Daniel was thrashing, his mouth foamed, and he moaned, "Zbyszek, there are his teeth there! I remember! He had two golden teeth! Zbyszek, whatever had they done to us? Now I'm scum too!"
"Calm down, Daniel, calm down… We've got to go, do you hear me? Pull yourself together, my dear… to hell with those teeth…"
Vakhtang noiselessly appeared from the darkness and froze in the doorway with torchlight in his hands.
"Find some aftershave", Gerard asked, still stroking Daniel's face and gently rocking him like a child. Vakhtang looked at the nightstand and found a bottle. "Looks like it".
Gerard took a swallow and sprinkled it on Daniel's face, then pried his eyelids open and spit some into his eyes. The Pole jerked, woke up and started rubbing his burnt eyes.
"Pull yourself together", Gerard said, " we've got to go".
Daniel awkwardly raised to his feet. Gerard was supporting him by the arm. "Take the money bag downstairs", he told Vakhtang.
"OK", the Georgian answered and pointed his torchlight on the bed. "Look who's there!" exclaimed he.
Gerard turned to the dead man on the bed. In the beam of light, he saw the face of Daddy Stoltz, the non-com officer from their camp.
"Poor Daddy", Vakhtang said curtly.
"He deserved it", Gerard said sternly.
The black "Mercedes" was making its way through the city streets. Vladimir drove, Gerard sat on the back seat holding Daniel in his lap. Vakhtang was sitting in the front.
"It's time to leave this damn city", Gerard muttered. "Or we all will soon be covered in blood".
They slept in the car that night, in the middle of an enormous empty lot. They woke up early, when the May sun barely touched the roofs of the ancient city.
"Another day lived", Vladimir smiled weakly.
"Please don't forget we have the official dinner tonight", Gerard grumbled. "You, sons-of-bitches, should look no worse than English lords".
"We'll look better then", Vakhtang said opening his eyes.
Daniel got out of the car, walked several steps toward the rising sun and stood there immobile, his face turned toward it. A weak smile appeared on his lips.
"How do you feel?" Gerard asked, coming up to him and putting his hand on the Pole's shoulder.
"I want to go home", Daniel answered.
Later, they tried on the best evening suits they could find in the store, and the proprietor was fussing about them, helping their arms into sleeves, adjusting their ties and giving various advise. In the end, he bowed to them and received a fat roll of money.
When Gerard's girl went out of the French mission building, the black "Mercedes" that was parked nearby moved and for a while went by her side. The door opened, and smiling Gerard looked out.
"Bon soir, Mademoiselle! My friends and I have been waiting for you!"
The girl stopped and thought for a second, then climbed inside. The "Mercedes" sped up.
They came to a top-notch restaurant, with magnificent heavy doors and sparkling bronze handles. The room was big, the stage was in the center, and the public was different from the first restaurant, respectable, with neither soldiers nor prostitutes.
The friends and the girl sat at the table, and a waiter promptly put a vase of violets in front of her. "Oh", the girl smiled," what a nice surprise!"
"Damn, I completely forgot about the flowers in this chaos", Gerard muttered angrily.
At the next table, there was a youngish American in the U.S. Air Force major's uniform. A stiff thin lady in gloves to her elbows and a veiled wide-brimmed hat was with him. The American poured himself glass after glass of champagne and drank greedily.
"Here's your drinking buddy", Daniel joked pointing at the American with his chin. Vladimir was surprised, "Look, he's also a pilot…"
The band played tango. Gerard stood up and ceremoniously invited the girl to dance. The friends followed them with their eyes.
"He seems to be really happy now", Daniel said.
Gerard was dancing with the girl without taking his eyes off her. She felt his longing gaze and managed to smile, confused.
"Well, say something. You look at me in such a way that makes me afraid of you".
"Oh, of course", Gerard said, without really knowing what to say. "What's your name, Mademoiselle?"
"And what's yours?" she laughed softly.
"I'm Gerard".
"I'm Nicole".
"Nicole…" Gerard whispered. "Nicole".
"Why do you have so much money? Yesterday you mentioned that you don't have a centime".
"Various rich people just lend their money to us", Gerard frowned slightly.
"That's reckless of them", she smiled.
"Why? They owe us so much that will be unable to pay the debt for a long time".
"And I thought you had robbed a bank or a department store".
"Can you think of that just looking at us?" Gerard asked.
"Of course. If I remember you walking on your hands in my office", she laughed softly again.
Gerard was looking at her, enchanted, then he shook his head.
"It seems like I'm going insane indeed".
The tango was slow, and other couples danced near them. The big crystal chandelier threw its bright light down on them, on the entire room, and all men in their black suits and tuxedoes looked solemn and important. Even the waiters in tailcoats who ran back and forth with trays of food and drink seemed to know some very important secret.
"I like it very much here", Nicole confessed looking at Gerard. "I've never been to a chic restaurant before".
"Nicole…" Gerard couldn't utter another word. "Oh Nicole…"
The tango was over, and they returned to their table. The vase of violets was replaced with a big basket of bright red roses.
"Oh!" Nicole clasped her hands in amazement. "Is it really for me?"
Gerard's friends tried their best to pretend that nothing had happened. Gerard sweated all over in annoyance and muttered, "You sons-of-bitches, you decided to snatch her away from me or what? No go".
Gerard took a small box out of his pockets and offered it to the girl. "This is for you, Nicole. To mark the end of the war".
She opened it. A diamond necklace sparkled there on the black velvet. Nicole looked at it in fright, the returned the box to Gerard. "No, no, thank you but I can't accept it".
"Why?" Gerard was genuinely distressed.
"This is a very expensive present. Much too expensive. It is not proper to accept it from people you barely know".
Gerard hid his hands behind his back as a sign that he wouldn't take it back, and cast a pleading glance at his friends, as if saying, help me, goddammit!
"Why are you just sitting there like statues?" he managed to croak.
"Mademoiselle", Daniel cleared his throat. "You can't refuse a gift made from the depth of one's soul".
"You overwhelmed Gerard", Vladimir continued, "and now he is ready to give you the whole wide world".
"Our friend never lies to women", Vakhtang added.
"Nicole…" Gerard looked at his friends with gratitude. "Her name is Nicole…"
Another tango began, and a singer sang from the stage. Gerard invited Nicole again. Daniel signaled to the waiter, who replaced the flowers in front of Nicole's chair again. Now there were white and red carnations. The American pilot at the next table clapped his hands and shouted "Bravo!" Then he stood up and approached our friends' table.
"Gentlemen, I'd like to drink with you. I like you, gentlemen".
The friends toasted him, the American took his glass of champagne in one swallow, flopped to a vacant chair and said angrily, "There's not a single mug in this lousy city that one could decently drink with".
"Are you new to Vienna?" Daniel asked.
"Oh, you speak English!" The American was ecstatic. "That's great!" He grabbed the bottle of vodka and poured it around, including his champagne flute glass. "I was invited to teach those morons how to fly our jets. Are you British?"
"I'm Polish", Daniel replied.
"I hate the British!" the American said. "Arrogant camels! And I'm supposed to teach camels how to fly our jets, damn them!"
Vladimir and Vakhtang were clueless.
"What jets, if it's not a secret?" Daniel inquired.
"It's a terrible secret!" The American's eyes popped out. "But I could tell you this secret if you promise to keep it". He giggled. "Those are the new jets, brand new. Not far from Vienna, if you go along the Vederstrasse, there is an airfield where they keep them. Just a few of them, actually, were specifically shipped here to teach those moronic camels how to fly. But I don't want to teach them!" The American banged his fist on the table. "I was in Pearl Harbor! Do you know what Pearl Harbor is?"
"More or less", Daniel shrugged.
"Oh hell". The American waved his hand hopelessly and sank deeper in his chair. His stiff companion was making terrible faces at him, ordering him back to his table.
"Tell me, major", Daniel said, "are they hard to fly, those new jets of yours?"
"What jets? Oh, those… No, the system is basically the same, it's the speed that matters. The speed is fantastic! One and a half times greater than the speed of sound. That does the trick. It is very hard to maneuver at this speed. The Russians don't have those machines yet, and won't have them for a long, long time. Those damned Russians. You've got to be careful around them. They dream about conquering the whole Europe…"
Daniel cast a side-glance at Vladimir, but the Russian didn't understand a word. Then he smiled and said, "Well, I can imagine how Russians will panic when they learn about them".
"Oh they know something. The Germans worked on something like that by the end of the war. The whole idea of jet propulsion is as simple as ABC. Look!" The major took a paper napkin and started drawing a diagram of a jet engine with a pen he took out of his breast pocket. "Here we have the injector that atomizes the fuel, here's the turbine, here's the air gets in… that's it! And the controls are basically the same. The main thing is the speed!"
"Let's have a drink, major". Daniel filled their glasses and poured more vodka into the major's flute glass. "Maybe you want some cognac?" he asked.
"Vodka's fine!" the American waved his hand. "After it there are no morning headaches. Cheers, gentlemen, to your health! I can feel that you're my boys. One could drink with you every day and not get sick."
Gerard was dancing with Nicole. He put his face very close to hers and his hot whisper burnt her.
"Nicole, do you remember I invited you to travel with us?"
"Of course".
"You laughed at my suggestion then. But I'm going to say the thing now that would amuse you even more. Nicole, be my wife".
"What are you saying?" She was instantly terrified, and backed from him a little. Then she saw his sad darkened eyes.
"I know it sounds ridiculous, but believe me… this is serious for me. I'm not a boy any more, I've seen a lot in this damned life, and I don't like to waste my words. Nicole!"
"Yes, Gerard?"
"We'll go to France. Aren't you sick of this Vienna? To hear this German speech every day? The language your camp guards used to abuse you? Nicole, I'm a reliable man, I won't let you down. You may ask my friends about me, they know people. Nicole!" He hid his face in her hair, kissing it, whispering, "Nicole… Nicole…"
He didn't see the girl's lips trembling, and he didn't see tears welling up in her eyes. She stepped aside from him and said, almost crying, "We'll never be happy, Gerard. Never".
"Why, Goddammit?"
"Because I… in the camp… I was… sterilized".
"What?!" Gerard stopped dead in his tracks as if he was bludgeoned, and looked at the girl. She lowered her eyes and went on indifferently and desperately. "They were experimenting and I… they…" She bit her lip not to burst out crying, and hid her face at his shoulder.
Gerard put his arm around her shaking shoulders, and his cheek started twitching spasmodically. He clenched his teeth as he said, "Those bitches… robbed me again, bastards. No way, morons, you got it wrong this time. We'll go to France, Nicole, we'll go travelling. We shall live. And all of them will die of envy. Do you hear me, Nicole?"
Vakhtang elbowed Vladimir and pointed at Gerard and Nicole with his eyes. They were standing still among dancing couples close to the stage, and the girl was crying into the Frenchman's shoulder. The singer went on singing languorously, reaching for the microphone, and the couples around them tried to avoid them as best as they could.
"William!" The stiff lady was finally tired of sitting alone at the table and she called for her companion. "William!"
"What do want, lizard?" There was hatred in the American's eyes as he looked at her. "Is it true that all German women are lizards? Their boredom kills me. Let's have another drink, gentlemen!" He tried to pour vodka into his flute glass but missed repeatedly, and vodka splashed on the starched tablecloth.
"How are you planning to get home, my friend?" Daniel asked, taking the bottle from the American and pouring. "Where do you live?"
"In the airfield barracks, so far". The American could hardly speak and was incoherent. "I've been for eight days in Vienna, and there wasn't a single day when I was sober enough to fly. I'll be damned!"
"That's all right, my friend, we'll take you to your barracks. We have a car". Daniel smiled but couldn't take his worried eyes off Gerard and Nicole. They were dancing again with tense and unmoving faces.
"Did you get what we were speaking about?" Daniel asked Vladimir and Vakhtang in a low voice.
"Not a thing. Something about the planes", Vladimir replied.
"There's an airfield not far from Vienna where they keep new American jets. Like the ones we made in that underground plant. This guy was brought here to teach the British how to fly them. Do you see it now?"
"See what?" Vladimir didn't understand, and Vakhtang was looking at the Pole uncomprehendingly.
"If we hijack a jet like that, and fly it to Warsaw or Berlin… The Russians must be dying to get aircraft like that…"
"Now I see…" Vakhtang said after a thoughtful pause.
"They will forgive both you and me for a present like this". Vladimir clenched his fist. "You've got here a deal, Daniel, a very good deal".
"This is our last chance", Daniel said. "This is the only way back home".
"What about him?" Vakhtang nodded at Gerard and Nicole.
Three of them were looking at the couple for a long time. Gerard smiled again, telling the girl something, and she was looking at him with the eyes still full of tears. Now a weak smile touched her lips, and there were sparkles of trust and hope in her eyes.
"We won't interfere with his happiness", Daniel said. "He nursed us for a long time as it was".
The stiff lady in her wide-brimmed hat came up to the table and looked at the friends indignantly. She shook the major by his shoulder, but the American was sleeping soundly, his head on the table.
"We're sorry, Freulein, we'll give you a hand now". Vladimir raised the major by the armpits, dragged him to his table, and perched him carefully on a chair. "If you could wait for a little while longer, we'll finish our business here and take your companion home".
"As if I care what happens to this drunken swine". The lady's chin trembled indignantly, and her hands nervously twisted her black lacquered bag.
"What?" The major was awake suddenly and instantly. "You Austrian hag! Get out of here! Or I'll shoot you!" He grabbed his holster. "Out!"
The terrified lady sprang to her feet and crossed the room to the exit. Vladimir couldn't contain his laughter as he calmed the major down in German. "That's nothing, major. Don't be so upset about it. There is a million available women in Vienna".
"Who are you?" the American demanded.
"I'm Polish too, only I don't speak English".
"Oh damn, I don't understand. Nevermind. Let's have another drink. Waiter?"
Gerard and Nicole returned to the table, and the girl saw carnations instead of roses and blushed.
"Are they for me again?" she smiled.
"For you, mademoiselle", Daniel bowed.
"We should tell you something of utmost importance", Gerard said tonelessly and without any expression on his face. "Could you please call Volodya, too?"
Daniel waved to Vladimir who left the major at his table and joined them. The major fell asleep again.
"Nicole and I -- we decided to get married", Gerard said solemnly.
"Congratulations, Nicole. Believe us, we're as happy as Gerard is", Daniel said.
"Now I don't have to worry about you, Gerard", Vladimir added.
"Old friend, will you allow me to invite your bride to a dance", Vakhtang said. "One dance only".
"Only one", Gerard agreed and sat at the table to watch Vakhtang leading Nicole to the center of the room. The music started.
"What were you whispering about?" Gerard asked lighting a cigarette.
"We decided to go home, Gerard", Vladimir answered firmly.
"How?" Gerard inhaled impassively.
"Do you see that American, the pilot?"
"That drunk? Sure I do".
"He came here to teach the British how to fly".
"Do you like your friend?" Nicole asked Vakhtang.
"You're not supposed to ask friends this question", Vakhtang replied.
"Sorry… I didn't mean that". Nicole was embarrassed.
"But I can tell you all the same. Out friend is the best man in the world. I'm happy that we're together".
"But how are you going to hijack the jet?" Gerard was asking, looking unbelievingly at Daniel. "To kill again?"
"We don't know this yet. But we'll think of something. We'll make it happen".
The three of them were silent for a long time. Then Gerard said, "I have two conditions only. I will let you go only if you promise to stick to them".
"What are they?" Vladimir asked.
"I'm in business too. That's one. And two: my bride shouldn't know anything about this. I'll see you take off, and then the two us will go to France. Is it a deal?"
"Deal", said Daniel after a pause.
"Agreed", Vladimir added.
"I always knew we could talk", Gerard smiled sadly.
"Who knows, we might see each other again some time", said Daniel.
"We might", Gerard agreed pensively and smiled. "Asfter all, that was a good thing that we came to this lousy little place".
They brought the drunk major to the airfield's checkpoint and passed him on to some American soldiers.
"OK, guys", Daniel said, "your major drank a little too much. It happens to anyone".
"Thank you, sir", a tall sergeant in white helmet saluted Daniel.
In the meantime, Vladimir and Vakhtang were sitting in the car inspecting the airfield through the wire fence.
"Do you see those jets over there?" Vladimir asked.
"Yeah… the ones with pointed wings. We did the ones like that at the plant", Vakhtang said.
"Over there, there are the fuel tanks." Vladimir was thinking aloud. "And in the end there's the row of "Douglases" and some other ones. See?"
"Yep", Vakhtang nodded. "So how shall be break through to the field?"
"I've got it!" Vladimir slapped the Pole's shoulder. "We'll see Gerard and discuss everything. We've got to find some safety fuse and some explosives. Like triton blocks. Gerard will get them. Gerard can get anything".
Daniel came up to the car.
The next day they met near the empty lot where they had spent a night. Gerard came in the coffee-colored "Opel Admiral" and parked near the black "Mercedes".
"Hi there, sons-of-bitches!" he said through the window.
"Hello, bridegroom!" Vladimir, Daniel and Vakhtang answered in unison. Nicole waved at them from the car.
"Where did you get this baby?" Vladimir asked.
"I borrowed it", Gerard smiled.
"Shall we go?" Daniel said.
Two cars roared to the highway and sped along it away from the city. The night was still quick to arrive that time of the year, and soon the highway was almost entirely dark. The beams of headlights were dancing in the dark, and the red taillights blinked. They stopped a short distance from the airfield. Vladimir looked in the window and showed the direction, "The circular route is over there".
"Gotcha!" Gerard said.
Vladimir, Vakhtang and Daniel got out of the car. They stood motionlessly for some time, then they hugged each other, one by one.
"Goodbye, sons-of-bitches". Gerard tried to smile. "Vakhtang take care of your shoulder and try not to stick it under bullets anymore".
"Bye, Gerard".
"Think well of us, old man". Vladimir slapped the Frenchman's shoulder.
"We had a nice holiday after that bloody war". Daniel said.
Gerard got in the car. Vladimir, Vakhtang and Daniel waved to him. They watched his red taillights for awhile, then his car disappeared in the dark.
Vladimir, Daniel and Vakhtang got into their "Mercedes" and waited, smoking. The salon was soon filled with smoke.
"Open the window, for Gods sake", Daniel said nervously. "I can't breathe anymore. Now, he's coming on to the other side".
Gerard stopped the car and looked at the airfield. He saw scarce lights along the strip and some dim searchlights on watchtowers. Then he put the wire-cutter into his pocket and told Nicole, "Wait for me here. Stay put".
"What do you want to do, Gerard?" she asked anxiously.
"I just want to see them off", Gerard replied and unhurriedly headed for the fence.
About twenty meters from it he dropped to the ground and crawled in the wet grass. He reached the fence and snipped the wires with slow and precise movement of his wire-cutter. Then he crawled through the opening to the airfield and moved to the huge silver fuel tanks. In one instance he froze, listening, and crawled on.
Gerard stopped by the first tank, took two triton blocks and some fuse from the inner pocket of his suit, tied them together, and spread the end of the fuse. He clicked his lighter several times, cursing the misfires. A weak tongue of flame finally appeared, Gerard lit the fuse and ran back to the fence. The fire hissed and crawled to the explosives.
Gerard hurled himself to the ground near the fence and waited.
Three friends also waited in the car. Suddenly, a deafening and blinding explosion lit up the entire airfield. The earth itself seemed to sag under its might.
"Go!" Daniel yelled, and Vladimir pushed the pedal to the floor. The "Mercedes" sped up toward the field.
The siren wailed hysterically. The guards were running to the fire when the second tank exploded. The new storm of flame shot up to the skies. The searchlights turned to the emergency area, shooting the darkness around it with their beans of light. Suddenly, there was Gerard in the circle of blinding light. He stood and watched the jets at the other side of the airfield. There was a long burst of machine gun fire, and bullets ploughed the earth around the Frenchman.
"Gerard!" Nicole screamed and dashed from the car to the airfield.
The "Mercedes" was approaching the gates.
"Go! Go!" Daniel cried, looking forward. Vakhtang was in the back seat with his pistol pointed through the open window.
There were no guards at the gate, all of them ran to the fire. The "Mercedes" rammed the gates, and they burst open. The car raced across the field to the jets with unusual wings and turbine nozzles under their tail units.
Vladimir hit the brakes several meters from the first jet. Daniel was the first to jump out of the car, and he rolled the ladder to the cockpit. Vladimir ascended first, and Daniel followed. They took their places in the cabin and the terrible realization finally struck both of them.
"Where will Vakhtang sit?" Daniel asked, and they looked at each other in horror. There was no space in the cockpit, designed only for two pilots.
In the meantime, Vakhtang was coming up the ladder. On top of it he turned around and looked at the terrible fire, mad dancing of searchlights, and listened to the rattle of machine guns. Vakhtang smiled, "Good work, Gerard. This is a wonderful farewell fireworks".
He grabbed the edges of the cockpit from the last step and met the terrified eyes of Vladimir and Daniel. Vakhtang looked in the cabin and understood everything.
"We'll try to fit you in our lap", Vladimir said.
"No way", Vakhtang shook his head. "I'm too big".
Gerard was running to the car, firing back. He was chased by two dozen American soldiers. Near the fence he collided with Nicole and screamed at her madly, "To the car! Quick!"
"What is it, Gerard?" she gasped.
"Get to the car!"
He grabbed her by the hand and dragged to the "Opel". The soldiers were closing in. the searchlights got Gerard and Nicole again, and they could no longer break from that blinding circle of light.
"Try to squeeze in our lap!" Vladimir cried. "Try it, I tell you!"
"No way", Vakhtang shook his head again. "My legs are too long, and the cockpit won't close. Take off, guys, the sooner the better".
"Sit here!" Daniel tried to raise from his seat, but Vakhtang pushed him back. "I told you to take off! The soldiers are coming. Quick. God bless you." He turned and saw the Americans heading for the jets.
The aircraft shuddered and roared. The hot blast of exhaust flew from the nozzle. The jet was trembling as if preparing for a giant leap.
"Good-bye, guys", Vakhtang smiled, went down the ladder and rolled it away.
Vladimir cried, swore and shook his fist at someone, but not a word could be heard over the roar of turbines. Then he shook his head and banged his forehead against the control column. He cried and couldn't stop.
"Gas!" Daniel ordered.
The jet moved slowly, then sped up, taxiing to the strip.
Gerard and Nicole reached the car in the circle of light. The Frenchman pulled at the door but it got blocked.
"Damn!" he roared and threw his fist through the glass. The door opened from the inside.
An American soldier appeared in front of them from the dark. He raised his machine gun and fired a long burst. Gerard managed to cover Nicole with his body, hugged her, and only jerked when bullets bit into his big body. Then he slipped down to the ground and sprawled, his arms thrown wide apart. He was still alive. He was looking into the black starry sky and suddenly heard the deafening whine of turbines and the roar of the jet taking off. Nicole was screaming terribly, clinging to his chest. The American soldiers looked at them, not knowing what to do.
"Gerard! Gerard!" she cried and bet her fist against his breast.
Gerard was still alive to see the red lights of the jet among the stars, and a weak smiled played on the lips of the dying Frenchman.
Vakhtang saw the jet taking off, too. Then he turned and walked toward the soldiers running to him. The bullets raised the fountains of dirt at his feet. The searchlights danced in the night and shifted to the lone figure of the Georgian in the middle of the field. He raised his hand and waved, saying with reproach, "Listen, why shoot? They're done anyway."
The bullets struck him as he went forward, still smiling. He waved again. "Listen, stop it. I'm coming… to you…"
But the Americans still fired at him, and more bullets broke into his chest and legs. Vakhtang sank to his knees slowly, then he fell down on his back. His eyes were looking into the black starry night.
He saw his land in his last second: the city in the valley, all lit up and merry, the morning in the mountains, the Kura River enveloped in the morning mist, the ancient monastery on the distant cliff. The ancient, powerful monastery…