This Story is works of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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Pushing open the door of Yura's room the next morning, I was confronted by an empty bed. The pale blue bedclothes had been peeled right back to the foot of Yura's bed, but he was not in it. Yura himself was slumped in the corner of the room, on the floor, wearing only a pair of SpongeBob pajama bottoms. His semi-naked little body was awkwardly huddled up against the wall clutching a single pillow. He was awake, but he had been crying. Then I spotted the problem and everything made sense. There in the center of the bed was the tell-tale dark stain of wetness. Yura hung his head against the wall, ashamedly hugging that pillow as though trying to protect himself from the awful truth to which the evidence clearly testified.
So Yura had wet the bed. I sighed with relief, thankful that it was nothing more serious than that. Putting on an encouraging and reassuring grin, I went over to Yura in the corner. He watched me approach, his blue eyes looking out to the side while his head was turned against the wall, as though fearful of what I might to do. I wondered just how long he had been like that.
"C'mere little buddy," I said, holding out a hand, "It's okay."
He turned his head towards me, still wary. I nodded positively, pursing my lips encouragingly.
"It's okay really," I said again, extending a conciliatory hand, offering to pull him to his feet, "It's not a problem, I promise."
Still unsure, he uncurled himself and got up, leaving the pillow crumpled in the corner and wiped his eyes childishly with his fists. I realized he was still wearing the same pajama bottoms that he had wet himself in, and they were still damp and clinging to his legs.
"C'mon," I said softly, "Let's get you out of those wet things," and I took his little hand, leading him into the bathroom.
In the bathroom I stood him in the shower and knelt down to peel the wet pajamas free of his legs. He let me, steadying himself on my shoulders as he lifted first one foot and then the other, and I tossed the heavy, wet pajamas aside. Now naked, he stood there hesitantly, with his fists firmly dug under his chin, and he was looking down at me between his elbows, shivering slightly. But at least he had stopped crying. He seemed surprisingly relaxed about his body, but I knew that it was entirely consistent with what this boy had suffered. Lack of shyness was a sign of abuse, just as bedwetting was a sign of trauma.
Gently and reassuringly, I took the shower attachment and ran the water until it was warm. Still on my knees, I took a washcloth and washed him down. He was remarkably compliant and allowed me to rinse away with the shower head. As I did so, I looked up at him. He was still looking down with his arms pressed into his chest, watching me studiously. Our eyes met briefly and he had a look of slight incredulity in his face, with a little furrow in the space between his eyebrows. It was as though he was wondering why this guy was bothering with him, perhaps not quite able to believe that this six foot two police officer was at this moment on his knees washing this tiny boy down in the bath. It did strike me as a rather odd juxtaposition.
But it wasn't exactly unfamiliar to me. Finding Yura like that, slumped on the floor dejectedly, and then taking him into the bathroom to wash him was reminiscent of the day that I met John. It must have been exactly like that for John when he found me. I was collapsed on the floor of the public restroom. I was curled up on the cold concrete floor, huddled into the corner of one of the dank and dingy cubicles with my underwear tangled around my ankles. I remember I was crying. Worse than that I was bleeding. I was shaking with fear and shock. What had been done to me rocked my sensitivity so profoundly that I knew the world had changed for me that day. That man had hurt me. He had used my little body. He had selfishly and violently forced himself on me and then promptly discarded me on the floor, like so much soiled meat, traumatized and alone. I still remember the way he threw those two crumpled banknotes down onto me as he hastily did up his belt and left. I don't know how long I lay there, distressed and disorientated, and in a lot of pain. When John found me, and squatted down to help me to my feet, I was still clutching the two crinkled banknotes in my trembling little fists. He scooped me up in his arms, leaving a little smear of the thick slimy blood that had trickled from my skinny naked little ass onto the filthy concrete floor.
John set me down on the row of basins and removed my little sneakers. Then he carefully disentangled my pants and underwear. Leaning me back against the grimy mirror, he lifted one of my legs, holding it up just under my knee, and gently dabbed away the blood from between my legs with a wad of wet toilet paper. I still remember the way my leg hung there, swinging uselessly in his big paw. Then he splashed my face with cool water. Still dazed, I could do nothing but collapse forward onto him as though I had lost the use of my arms. He gently pushed me back up, propping me upright, and looked into my face, smiling sympathetically. I remember thinking he had such a friendly face with very kindly eyes. He took my little hands and looked at them, turning my palms over in his big hands. My hands were so small compared to his.
"Christ, you're just a little kid," he said, vehemently.
He seemed angry. He looked at my grimy little hands, the fingernails ingrained with black dirt - the dirt of the street - and saw how small and delicate they were. John squeezed my little hands, massaging them between his soft, warm palms.
"Just a little kid," he said again.
John was not like the other men, I soon discovered. John finding me like that was a strange counterpoint to what normally happened. He didn't want to do what the other men did. He didn't hurt me. He was gentle and reassuring. He spoke to me, and didn't just utter monosyllabic grunts or bark obscenities at me like my tricks. He was kind and generous and considerate. He actually made eye contact and treated me as though he was genuinely interested in me and listened to everything I had to say. Of course, I had never met anybody like that. I was lucky. I was barely twelve years old when John found me, only a little older than Yura was now. I had quickly learned how to satisfy clients in exchange for cash, but in a couple of years I would have been turning tricks just for the cost of my next fix, like a lot of the other street kids I knew. But John found me. John found me and saved me from all that.
You could never have known a nicer man than John. Big John, everybody called him. A big man with a big heart. He was well known to the street kids. I was privileged. John took me home and he became my best friend. He was not only my savior, he became my teacher, my companion, my mentor and my father - the father I never had. He admitted to me later that I was not the first street kid he had brought home. There had been others, but they were so far advanced along the path of their self-destruction that all they ever did was cheat and lie and steal from him. I was different. I at least had a semblance of recognition in me: the recognition that I was being given an opportunity to change my destiny and avoid going down that path, and thankfully I had the good sense to take it.
But that was a long time ago now. Many years had passed since the day John found me in that restroom. I was no longer the skinny little kid that he picked up off the floor. I was a strapping six foot two police officer now. It was a shame that John never knew how my life turned out. Good old John. I owed my life to that man. Sometimes I still missed him terribly.
I had received a call that there was a big case conference and strategy meeting later that day, and I was required to get Yura ready and over to my HQ. Hopefully I would receive further instructions on what to do next, and maybe some indication of just how long I was going to be on this assignment. When we were ready to leave, Yura had got showered and dressed, and came into the garage looking fresh and vibrant. He had put on some of the new clothes, a bright loose t-shirt and a pair of stone-colored slacks. He smelled of a mildly scented soap. He had even had a go at spiking his hair. He looked good, I thought, more like a regular kid. He could have passed for a typical all-American boy who was loved and well cared for. He was much more composed, a stark contrast to his earlier distress. The bedwetting episode seemed to be forgotten. I had quietly changed his bedding and said no more about it. As we got into the car, I told him he could ride up front with me if he wanted, and he naturally agreed. This was the first time we had left the house since his arrival, so it was a good opportunity for him to observe the mysteries and curiosities of this strange and unfamiliar country first hand.
I opened the garage door with the controller and pressed the ignition. The big engine of the Constellation roared into life. Yura snuggled into the passenger seat next to me, almost dwarfed by the sheer size of the big leather seat. I leaned across him to grab the seatbelt from the door pillar, and as I did so I could see him studying me close up, his big blue eyes focusing on my features. I loved the way he watched me as I did things for him. It was as though he enjoyed the closeness and the attention. I connected the belt clip for him and pushed it home with a satisfying click. Looking up, I adjusted the webbing of the belt across his chest and our eyes met. He smiled. I had a fleeting vision of when I was washing him down in the shower that morning, recalling the way he had been so compliant and comfortable in his nakedness. It was a brief, heartwarming little boymoment. I flashed him an affectionate smile and then turned to take the controls.
We travelled along the freeway towards downtown. Yura was turning his head this way and that, taking in all the sights of this big city. He looked at the buildings and the hoardings and the cars. He was a lot more alert than on the ride back from the airport yesterday. It must have seemed a million miles away from what he was used to. I hoped that this was perhaps starting to feel like more of a vacation for him.
At some point during the journey I became aware of a silver grey Dodge Trader on our tail. It followed us for some time, having made its way from several cars back, and gradually edged up so that it was directly behind us. I moved over into the slow lane, allowing plenty of opportunity for it to pass, but it didn't. It just slowed down and sat behind us, patiently biding its time. Various scenarios quickly played through my mind. At this point I had no reason to panic. I glanced at the GPS locator on the ceiling console. It was on. We could easily be tracked, so I wasn't unduly concerned. I was trained in defensive driving and I knew that the Constellation was a fast, powerful, robust car. We were well protected. I decided to try one more maneuver to test the water. I quickly moved out into the faster traffic and accelerated away. The Trader moved out as well, falling back but still shadowing us from a distance. I was relieved when it did not attempt to catch us up. I noted the incident, but decided to remain silent for the moment. It wasn't significant enough to cause me concern.
The freeway brought us quickly to our destination, and as we rounded the crest of the downtown exit ramp, I pointed out to Yura the fantastic concrete and glass skyscraper which housed my HQ. I could see him wide-eyed and overawed by the sight of the downtown skyline, bristling with skyscrapers of all descriptions.
In the lobby, I took care of the formalities, issuing a visitors pass and so on, and then took Yura up in the elevator, a stomach-churningly fast vertical ride which took all of thirty seconds. On the way up, Yura was turning around curiously, admiring the plush interior of the elevator car, and I noticed his new slacks still had the little manufacturers tag dangling from the back pocket. I smiled to myself. I reached around and snapped it off, holding up the evidence. He grinned guiltily and we both giggled, realizing in unison that he had just walked through the lobby like that. It was a seminal moment. I remember it very well because it was the first time I had seen this lovely little boy actually laugh.
When we got out of the elevator we were greeted by Nikolayev. He stepped forward and welcomed me with his usual vigorous handshake, then greeted Yura enthusiastically in Russian and shook his hand. I liked Nikolayev very much. He was an amiable, easy going type, young and good looking, with sharp features and a good head of hair. He was always neat and well-dressed in expensive bespoke suits and he always looked immaculate. Nikolayev was the Russian Liaison Officer for Operation Ganymede and was responsible for all communications and the relaying of information between the Moscow Police and my unit. All my orders usually came through Nikolayev.
With his usual air of efficiency, Nikolayev led us to the conference room where already a raft of unfamiliar faces were assembling around a big long conference table. The big room was light and airy, and the air conditioning was just slightly on the chilly side. There was a lot of murmuring and shuffling, as spontaneous exchanges broke out amongst the assembling individuals, some standing, some leaning on the table, and all huddled in various little groups throughout the room. There was an air of hushed expectation hanging in the atmosphere. There were briefcases, cell-phones, PDA's and documents all over the broad table, mingling with the usual paraphernalia of coffee cups, notepads and water jugs. Walking into that room was slightly unnerving for me, so I felt apprehensive for Yura. It must have seemed all the more perturbing for him. It would have been overwhelming for any boy of his age. For my part, I thought he was terribly brave.
Elena was there, which must have been the only face familiar to Yura. She seemed genuinely pleased to see him, so he went and took a seat next to her at the far end of the table. I sat opposite him, feeling I wanted to be close to him. I sensed his slight disorientation at just how many people were in this room. I counted. Including me, there were fifteen people gathered around that table. On the other side of Yura was an interpreter, who kindly introduced herself and was talking quietly into his ear as the conference assembled.
Nikolayev shut the door and greeted everybody. The murmurs quieted to a hush as everybody assembled around the table and took their seats. Nikolayev started talking, addressing everybody from the far end of the table. He thanked everyone for coming and introduced himself and, I suppose to save time, also briefly introduced everybody one by one. Apart from Nikolayev, there were others from my unit and from the Moscow Police, distinctive in their formal, almost military-style uniforms, their peaked caps neatly placed on the table in front of them. There was an official from the Russian Embassy in Washington DC, who were handling all the immigration issues for Yura and were taking a great interest in the publicity that his case had caused. There was a child psychotherapist, people from Children's Services, and there was also a representative from the Exploited Children Division of the NCMEC, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. They were also taking a great interest in the case and had been instrumental in assisting the Moscow Police with Operation Ganymede. All these people, all these experts and officials, and at the center of it all just a little ten year old boy. As Nikolayev completed the introductions, I watched Yura and he happened to gaze over at me. I smiled encouragingly. I was delighted when he smiled back.
Nikolayev outlined the current status of Operation Ganymede, and in particular the success of Codename Ivan. Codename Ivan had been the decision to bring Yura here, to fly him out of Moscow and bring him under our protection, hence my small role in the overall operation. Nikolayev confirmed for all assembled that Ivan was not his real name, and yet continued to call him that. That was difficult to get used to. He also confirmed that it was true that he was the same boy that appeared in a series of very explicit videos we had encountered in an investigation some six months earlier. That too had been in collaboration with the Moscow Police. They had approached us because we were in possession of the technology which helped them to locate and infiltrate a particularly pernicious internet porn operation, which had led them to the source of some of the material. They were struggling to stem the tide of the overwhelming child porn on the internet in Russia at that time. Nikolayev also confirmed that Yura had indeed been abducted and held captive by those involved in this child porn ring, and had participated in the making of those videos. Someone asked Nikolayev what was in those videos. Of course, not everyone present would have been party to them - they were considered too graphic. Nikolayev looked around the room gravely and I could see his Adam's apple bob up and down a few times as he swallowed hard, and his voice wavered slightly. He said he was well aware of the extremely explicit and depraved nature of their content, and that they were generally accepted as being possibly the most extreme child porn material we had ever encountered. Their reputation was legendary and they were highly sought after on the black market. I could see Yura squirming in his seat uncomfortably. Poor kid.
Someone else asked Nikolayev if it was true whether the other boys who appeared in those videos were now dead. He said there were five boys involved, including Yura, and they had been abducted and held over a period of about eighteen months, around the time it was thought those videos were made. All five boys appeared in the videos in various permutations, with odd appearances by unknown older boys and sometimes adult men. Two of the boys, Sasha and Andrei, were brothers. They were found dead. Of the other two, Kolya was also found dead, but the fourth boy, Vladik, was not present at the time that the premises were raided. Thus he was still unaccounted for. Yura was the only one found alive. The raid was well documented. But there were still many questions to be answered. The men involved had never been apprehended. Surprisingly, very little evidence had been found at the scene. Yura's captivity had come to an end, but it had made very little impact on the overall investigation.
While all this was going on, I watched Yura from across the table. The interpreter was still talking quietly into his ear, but Yura was slumped over with his elbow on the table, his little fist propping up his head, wearing a distinctly bored expression. He was a little detached from the proceedings and seemed to vacillate between distraction and sleepiness. He seemed to sit up and pay attention when Nikolayev mentioned Vladik, and he looked like he wanted to ask a question. I interrupted Nikolayev and said that Yura - sorry Ivan - wanted to say something.
Nikolayev stopped and looked at Yura expectantly. All heads turned to him. I was quite proud of the way that Yura clearly and confidently put his question to Nikolayev, addressing him quite intelligently in Russian. He asked what had happened to Vladik.
Alas, no one knew what happened to Vladik, Nikolayev explained. His body was never found and officially he was still missing. There was a remote chance that Vladik was still alive, but he could not confirm that at this time. Yura looked as though he expected more. That evidently was not the answer he hoped for. He watched Nikolayev for a moment, and when he realized there was no more, nodded his head and went back to slumping on his elbow.
Nikolayev continued. He said that the Moscow Police had gone from investigating a child porn ring to investigating a multiple child homicide, and there was a great deal of publicity about it in Russia. The unprecedented media interest had hampered their progress, particularly as Yura's face was all over the TV and the press. He added that it did not help that Yura's good looks had endeared many people to his story and, although a face like that made for a good media story, the publicity also resulted in them being unable to protect him. It was clear that Yura was at the center of their investigation. It was even conceivable that he was still in possession of information that could be pivotal to the investigation. It was little wonder that his life was in danger. The Russian crime lords who had controlled the vice ring from which Yura was rescued, were very powerful, desperate and unscrupulous people, and had already proved that they considered these boys expendable. It would not be outside of their means to threaten Yura's life and the lives of everyone connected with the investigation. Yura had been virtually confined indoors for the last few months. It was not considered safe for him to go out in public and he had to be guarded around the clock. For this reason, the Moscow Police had once again approached us for assistance. That was the main reason for Yura coming here, to keep him out of danger, hence Codename Ivan. I then understood why all the secrecy was necessary, why his name had been changed and why I had been assigned to protect him. Nikolayev said they had acted on a tip-off that Yura was about to be assassinated, and that was why the arrangements to fly him to safety had been sudden and hasty. They had to leave Moscow in a great hurry, without much notice, and as a result had not had the opportunity to properly prepare. That was apparent, I mused, from the pitiful state of the stuff that was in his suitcase yesterday.
Yura had already been interviewed at length about his ordeal, but the Moscow Police had to protect him because his evidence was going to be pivotal if ever they were able to bring a case to trial. That was why his life was in danger and why the Russian crime lords wanted to silence him. So far, the Moscow Police had been unable to make any progress and their investigation had stalled. But public interest in the case had not diminished, and they were under increasing pressure to produce results. Meanwhile, the pornographers were still at large and, although production of those videos had ceased, three young boys still lay dead, with one still missing, and no one had been arrested or charged.
As the meeting concluded, Nikolayev agreed that for the moment we would give Yura time to settle in and within the next few days would decide what to do next. I asked how long Yura was likely to stay. He said that the original intention had been to fly him here until the danger had passed, and return him to Moscow when it was considered safe to do so. The problem was that the threat was not likely to go away any time soon. At the moment his stay in the country was open-ended. He intimated that there were moves to possibly grant him permanent residency, and the Russian embassy were coordinating the immigration side of things. Permanent residency had not been ruled out, in case it proved impossible or unwise for him ever to go home. Perhaps when some arrests had been made, the danger would diminish, but Nikolayev was careful to point out that even if they were successful in convicting anybody in this case, it still might not eliminate the threat altogether. It was conceivable that Yura's life would still be in danger.
When the meeting finished, the assembled individuals got up and gathered their things, breaking into spontaneous exchanges. I noticed many of the attendees gravitating towards Yura, wanting to chat informally with him, surrounding him like circling vultures, eager to meet the little boy who was at the center of this operation, the little boy they had so far only heard about. Elena and the interpreter sort of hemmed him in by the table, and there was a huddle of people clamoring to speak with him, including the Moscow police officers. He was introduced to a confusing succession of people within a very short time, almost as though he was something of a celebrity. But I could see that he did not enjoy the attention. He stood and chatted politely for a bit, but was really trying to move away. He was growing increasingly uncomfortable, shuffling his feet, with one arm across his chest grabbing the other arm defensively. He looked around as though seeking my presence to get him out of there, with some alarm in his eyes. Couldn't these people see that the kid was overwhelmed? He didn't appreciate everyone focusing on him like that. I went around and pushed my way through the gaggle of people that confined him. It was the kind of situation where being six foot two was a distinct advantage. He was dwarfed at the centre of this knot of attention, and I just reached in and pulled him out of the scrum. I held him closely against me, protectively putting an arm around his shoulders, and escorted him away. There were a few gasps of incredulity and some people remarked that I was being rude. I didn't care. I thought they were being rude by their lack of consideration for this unassuming little boy. I just wanted to get him out of there. Nikolayev watched as I escorted Yura to the door and steered him by his shoulders back towards the elevator. Nikolayev's expression betrayed more than a note of concern about my abruptness, but he didn't say anything. What could he say? I was just doing my job.
After the meeting Yura and I took the car through the downtown traffic, heading back towards the freeway, and he settled once again into the passenger seat next to me. He seemed fairly quiet and subdued, and a little downbeat. In fact, he was quite distant, somewhat thoughtful and introspective. I glanced at him quickly, trying to keep my eyes on the road, and he sat there staring straight ahead. He was silent for a very long time.
"What's on your mind little buddy?" I asked him, breaking the silence.
"Just thinking," he said, and wouldn't say any more.
"You can talk to me, you know," I reassured him, inviting him to elaborate.
He turned to look at me and hesitated for a moment, as though thinking it over.
"I know," he said, as though he really believed it, "but I don't feel like it right now."
It was an extraordinarily candid reply. I was almost taken aback by the maturity of it. I was starting to realize that this little boy had quite an acute awareness, more than people gave him credit for. At least it wasn't an outright refusal and I took it as a positive sign.
We drove on for a while longer without saying much, and I could sense Yura deep in thought next to me.
"Why didn't they find Vladik?" he asked, at last.
"I don't know," I replied.
"He was my best friend," Yura went on, "I miss him."
That was the second time he had mentioned Vladik this afternoon. I recalled him asking Nikolayev about him at the meeting. Clearly, Vladik held great importance to him.
"Officially he's still missing," I said, as though that was some kind of consolation.
"I hope they find him," Yura said, wistfully, "I would love to see Vladik again."
Then he fell silent again, and another long pause followed. He was musing over Vladik. Silently I was quite jubilant, because I could already sense that Yura was opening up to me. He was comfortable with me. He trusted me and I felt we had established a nice little rapport. I was really starting to like this wonderful little boy, and I think he liked me too.
To cheer him up, and provide a welcome distraction from the trials of the last two days, I wanted to give Yura a little treat. So, on the way home I suggested we stop and take a walk through the mall, maybe get some ice cream and just relax for a bit. Yura loved the idea. We parked the car and entered the mall through one of the side doors. It was unusually busy, with endless streams of shoppers and hangers-on creating a buzz of activity. The crowds actually made me a little nervous. It probably wasn't a good idea for Yura to be out in public. There was always an outside chance of him being recognized. In my mind, I imagined scenarios similar to my reaction at the airport, when I first set eyes on him. Doubtless there were others who might recognize him in the same way as I did. Like I said, his pictures were all over the internet. But, he had been so isolated recently that as soon as we got into the mall, it was heartening to see him start skipping with joy. He was waving his arms around and jumping about excitedly as we walked. People were looking, but he was oblivious. This poor boy had been confined for so long, it was clear to see that this new sense of freedom, and the sheer delight of being able to just mix with ordinary people, was making him feel hyper and elated. He ran from shop window to shop window, like some demented butterfly, settling on anything that grabbed his attention, pointing out things in the most childishly exuberant way as though he was seeing all this for the first time. I could only marvel at his energy and his enthusiasm. I realized that, although to me this was quite a normal and unremarkable pursuit, it was easy to forget that Yura had not had the same experiences as most boys his age. He probably had never enjoyed these simple activities, so in many ways, it was a pleasure to see him just behaving like the ten year old boy he really was. It was certainly a stark contrast from the frightened, tearful, half-naked little boy I had found cowering in the corner of his room that morning.
We stopped for ice cream at the food court, and I sat opposite Yura at one of the little round polished metal tables, just out of the passing stream of shoppers. When it came, his sundae was a work of art. It was enormous, with hot fudge sauce, whipped cream, chopped nuts, chocolate sprinkles, vanilla wafers and a maraschino cherry. When it was set down in front of him his eyes widened in such a way that it thrilled me to see how such a simple thing could induce so much pleasure. Yura sat there admiring it for a good few moments, his face obscured by the towering object before him. I seriously doubted he would finish it. I should never have doubted him. He polished off the lot in next to no time. I wondered how long it had been since this little boy had been able to indulge in such things, and how much this kid had missed out on the type of things that other kids just took for granted. I was only too happy that I was able to do this simple thing for him. I don't think I had ever derived so much pleasure from watching someone else eat.
When we moved off again, I took Yura towards the big glass atrium at the centre of the mall where all the aisles converged, just so he could appreciate the sheer scale of the place. There were escalators crisscrossing in all directions, leading up to all the above ground levels. When we reached them, Yura stopped right in the centre of the atrium and looked straight up. You could see the sky through the cavernous glass roof, which was as high as a cathedral, and if you looked straight up at the glass dome, all you could see was sky surrounded by moving escalators. It was an impressive sight. I stood with Yura for a few minutes and looked up with him, my head tilted right back, taking in the sheer size and wonder of the structure so high above us. He commented at what an awesome sight it was and stared up for ages, putting a hand up to shield his eyes from the sunlight. You got dizzy if you looked up for too long. We perhaps stood there a few minutes longer than we should, and when I looked down again Yura was gone!
I looked around and Yura was not where I expected him to be. Nor was he behind me, or anywhere in my line of sight. All my internal organs suddenly turned to jelly. A stab of shock zapped right through me. I looked around again, this time with more care, but Yura was nowhere. He had just disappeared! I panicked - me, six foot two, twenty years service, trained in defensive driving, hand to hand combat and close protection, eternally the coolest person to have around in an emergency, and suddenly all my faculties were useless. I realized that no amount of training or experience could prepare me for something like this. For a moment I was frozen in fear. Not the fear of losing my job, which could be a real consequence if anything happened to Yura, but more the thought that he should come to any harm. What I feared most was almost too awful to contemplate. A surge of adrenalin sent my heart thumping heavily in my chest. I dashed to the start of the nearest aisle, where the crowds were marching to and fro and I shouted out to him. People were looking at me, not responding to the urgency in my voice, impervious to my desperation as I zigzagged awkwardly between the passing streams of shoppers. There was no sign of him. I ran back the opposite way and called out again, desperately trying to search him out amongst the endless array of strangers. No sign. I started stopping random passers by, asking of they had seen a small blue-eyed boy, focusing on perhaps the one thing they would notice about him, the first thing anybody noticed when they saw him. But I succeeded in attracting nothing but stares of confusion and hostility.
I turned once more, frantic to find Yura, and finally I caught sight of him. He was straight ahead of me, way over the other side of the atrium. I saw his slim, slight, diminutive little figure between gaps in the passing crowds. He was standing with his back to me staring into a shop window, his hands in his pockets, apparently oblivious to my panic. I sprinted over to him, calling out his name in a tone which must have scared him. He spun around just as I reached him, and I only caught sight of a brief flash of confusion and fright in his face, induced only by the urgency in my voice, and a second later I was upon him. I jumped on him with such desperation that I nearly knocked him over, and I gave him the tightest embrace my arms could manage.
"I thought I'd lost you little buddy!"
My relief was tangible. I was breathless with fright as I hugged him closely. He was strangely stiff and unresponsive in my arms, probably completely unaware of the panic he had caused. I hugged him tightly for perhaps a second longer than would be expected, and he squirmed a little, becoming uncomfortable in my strong arms. He loosened himself from me and looked up with a questioning, almost worried look.
"I thought I'd lost you," I was saying, over and over, "I thought I'd lost you."
He stared at me with a mixture of fear and confusion, evidently not understanding the reasons for my behavior, and I realized that what he was most fazed by was the fact that I had tears in my eyes.
"Why did you walk off like that?" I demanded angrily, "You scared me!"
He was taken aback my flash of anger. It took him a few moments to assimilate the full magnitude of what had just happened. I think he was able to appreciate it when he coupled together my reaction with his relative unworldliness, and eventually he realized exactly what he'd done. Then I could see tears welling up in his eyes and I instantly regretted shouting at him. My anger had frightened him.
"I... I..." he stammered, his voice wavering with fright, "I didn't mean to, okay!"
Now it was his turn to be angry. Angry at me for scaring him.
I hugged him again, and this time he hugged me back. I nuzzled his sweet head into my chest, thankful that he was alright and there was no harm done.
"I don't know what I'd do if anything happened to you," I whispered to him.
He held onto me for a few moments more, and relaxed. This time he allowed me to pull his little body right into me, perhaps sensing my relief, and his lithe, boyish frame softened against me, yielding completely to my protective embrace, and he was warm, malleable and compliant against me. But at least I knew then that everything was alright again.
In the car on the way home Yura was very quiet and reserved. We drove most of the way without conversation. He sat in the passenger seat, apparently lost in his own thoughts. Then, after a long silence, he spoke.
"I'm sorry I scared you," he said solicitously.
He was still staring down into his lap as he said it, but his apology was profound and heartfelt. I knew straight away that he had deliberated over it for a long time before finding the courage to enunciate it. Apparently he had been mulling over the incident in his mind. But I appreciated his courage and his honesty, and having the presence of mind to settle the matter with me.
"I'm sorry I shouted at you," I said, feeling that he too deserved an apology.
I think it was mostly my reaction that I was apologizing for. I must have really scared him. He hadn't expected my anger - or my concern. I almost felt guilty for my behavior. Recalling that awful moment when I realized Yura was gone was a very unwelcome memory and left an enduring feeling of horror and panic. I could never have anticipated that the thought of him going missing would fill me with so much dread - and emotion. That shook me because I could see no justification for my overreaction. With hindsight, analyzing the incident now in the relative calmness of the car on the way home, perhaps my response was emotionally disproportionate. But there was also something else going on here, and that frightened me a little. It frightened me because I could not understand how this little ten year old boy could evoke so much emotion in me. There was something about him which gave me a wonderful warm feeling inside and caused me to smile to myself as I was driving. I looked over at the diminutive little figure in the car next to me, and he looked up at me and smiled back. It was a look of reassurance, to let me know there were no hard feelings and that all was okay between us. It was such a pleasure to see him smile, and as he did so, it was as though he caused an invisible fist around my heart to squeeze tightly, cracking a tiny flask at its center, saturating it with love.