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.
These stories are copyrighted by Cosmo, all rights reserved. Distribution, including but not limited to: posting on internet sites, newsgroups, or message boards, or in book form (either as a whole or part of a compilation), or on CD, DVD or any other electronic media, is expressly prohibited without the author's written consent.
Chapter 5: Caring For Yura - II
When I dropped Yura at Nikolayev's house for his play date with Misha, it was the first time I had been separated from him since the day we met. It was difficult to believe that we had been together almost every hour of every day since the moment I picked him up from the airport. Last night, he had tired himself out from swimming in the pool. He had expended so much energy that by the time early evening came around, he was exhausted. He actually fell asleep on the sofa in front of the TV. I almost felt like his father when I scooped him up in my arms and lifted him from the sofa to put him to bed. His arms hung down floppily and his little mouth was ever so slightly open as I carried him, unconscious, up the stairs. There is something beautiful and mysterious in watching a little boy sleeping. At times like that, when I observed him sleeping soundly, his eyes innocently closed, his face peaceful and expressionless, it was as though he could have been any ten year old boy. Not the ten year old boy that had been through so much and had all those problems bearing down on him, but a ten year old boy sleeping contentedly, without a care in the world. I put him into bed and tucked him in, leaving the lights on low, and slipped out onto the terrace for a smoke before I too retired.
I looked in on Yura once more before I went to bed, and he was sleeping soundly. He was turned on his side, with his face nuzzled against the pillow. There was no bedwetting, no nightmares and he certainly had no trouble sleeping. It was as though his fears and insecurities had been banished overnight. But he was in a very deep sleep, and I think he must have slept better than he had in months. It was as though, even while unconscious, he knew he was protected and with someone who genuinely loved and cared for him. He knew he was safe now.
So it was with a strange feeling of trepidation that I drove Yura over to Nikolayev's house. He was excited about going over to play with Misha. The company of other children was something he had missed out on a great deal - at any rate the company of other children who were not overtly sexualized like the other boys he had been incarcerated with. Misha would be a good counterpoint to the kind of explicit play that Yura was used to. He needed that normality. I only hoped he would be able to relax and feel comfortable with Misha.
Nikolayev's house was a big pseudo-Italian type villa, one of a number in a secure compound way over the other side of town, in one of the more affluent neighborhoods. Many of the houses round about were occupied by families with credentials more or less equal to his. They were obviously accomplished, moneyed and successful. It was an exclusive community, and it was apparent from the moment we pulled up at the big iron gates and had to be buzzed inside. The grounds were lush and green and well manicured, with automatic sprinklers and beds of carefully tended shrubs and neatly trimmed hedgerows. The houses were all two or three storeys high, with wide driveways and arched doorways and three-car garages. Some of them had windows so high, it was easy to peer inside and snatch a glimpse of the opulence within.
It was a Hispanic woman that answered the door, followed shortly by Nikolayev and Misha. I exchanged a few polite words with Nikolayev at the door, but declined his invitation to step inside. The Hispanic woman withdrew and left Misha languishing in the doorway. He was dressed only in a pair of loose swimming shorts, already prepared for a day of playing in the pool. He beamed at Yura getting out of the car and appeared so excitable that he was literally hopping from one foot to the other. His swimming shorts looked a bit baggy on him and seemed to make him look smaller than he actually was. But he was still bone dry, evidently not having been into the pool yet. I noticed how he had such clear bronzed skin on his arms and legs and chest. He had quite a lean, taut little body. His bare little boy feet were as brown as the rest of him and when he was standing still they had a tendency to point inwards ever so slightly, giving him an air of cute vulnerability. He was a very attractive little boy. I handed Nikolayev a backpack with Yura's things in it: There was some sun cream along with his Speedos and a change of clothing. I bade goodbye to Yura with an almost subconscious pat on his rump as he scampered inside, and he hopped up the steps and into the house without looking back.
As I turned and got back into the car, I wondered if this was what it felt like to deliver your child for their first day at school. I was happy for Yura, but sad for myself. Yura had so utterly filled my thoughts and deeds over the past few days, an eerie loneliness suddenly pervaded my emotions, and as I drove away from Nikolayev's house, the big iron gates shut emphatically behind me with an unsympathetic clang.
I decided to go to my favorite bar. I had nothing else to do, and finding myself suddenly feeling pretty out of sorts, I naturally gravitated towards my old haunts. The truth is I rarely drank these days. In fact, since John's death I had studiously avoided alcohol. I wondered if it was more than a coincidence that I found myself heading for one of the very places that I used to frequent with John. John was very much uppermost in my thoughts since I related the story to Yura yesterday. Of course, what I hadn't told him was how John's death had affected me. Naturally, it hit me very hard. I damn near went off the rails after John died. Not only had I lost a father, I had lost my mentor and my friend. When there was no longer anybody there to guide me, I was lost in hopelessness and despair. Yes I drank. I drank a lot after John died. I sank into an endless downward spiral of black, blinding grief that threatened to totally consume me. I drank to ease the pain. I sat there night after night obliterating my mind with alcohol. It was all too easy to just let go and allow myself to sink into the mire of a type of morose self-pity that was so profound that it threatened to irrevocably dislodge my fingertips from the cliff of hope and send me tumbling headlong into the abyss of despair. Thankfully, I never looked into that abyss, for if I had, I doubt I would have survived intact. Thankfully, I still had Boyscape. I suppose Boyscape was my salvation. Boyscape gave me something to focus on, and put my circumstances into context. Okay, John was gone. But I had had a good life with him. I was lucky to have known him. I was lucky to have known real love and to have had the benefit of his nurturing and guidance. I wasn't going to throw that away. I knew I had to set aside my grief because it was nothing compared to the problems of the poor boys who turned up at the refuge every day looking dazed and bedraggled. Their lives were chaotic and disjointed and characterized by violence and abuse. I knew that I could make a difference. Perhaps I drew strength from that, and I was bolstered by the certain knowledge that there were boys there who needed me, boys whose very lives depended on me.
The bar was pretty deserted when I walked in. A place that was usually buzzing with activity in the evening, had that sad, washed out, depressing look to it at this time of day. The sunlight was streaming in through the windows, accentuating the dusty, almost fetid atmosphere of the cavernous room. The bare wooden floor, and the unpolished wooden tables dotted about the place looked lonely and uninviting. There were various arcade games flashing away unappealingly in the corner, and there was a juke box playing in the background, seemingly for nobody in particular. I stepped up to the bar.
"What can I get you?" the bartender asked, in a husky voice, busily polishing a glass as he questioned me.
I ordered a bottle of beer and settled on one of the fixed stools by the L-shaped bar. The bartender put a coaster down and served my beer in a frosted glass. I looked around, incredulous at how little the place had changed. There were two leather guys with beards playing pool over the other side of the room, and one wizened old man sitting in a booth by the window eating chicken wings. Towards the back of the room, two big thick-set guys with pony tails and tattoos were sharing a pitcher of beer. The place had hardly changed at all. Perhaps the clientele was older since I had last been in here, but then so was I. Suddenly the bar depressed me. There was no real attraction to hanging out in such seedy places, so I decided to quickly finish up my beer and go.
I visited the restroom. When I came back to finish my beer I found a paper napkin lying next to my glass. It was a small square of white and had something written on it in blue ink.
"Saxon Club. 3pm tomorrow. Come alone."
The letters were scrawled quite hard into the soft paper, and had been etched into the surface with several passes of the ballpoint. Where had this come from? I looked up and scanned the room quickly. Everything was just as it had been before: the two leather guys playing pool, the old man in the booth, the two big guys with tattoos - no one had moved. I gestured to the bartender.
"Did you see who left this?" I asked him, holding up the little napkin.
He shook his head.
"I was out back," he said.
I dashed over to the door. Whoever had left it could not have gone very far. I flung the door open and raced out into the parking lot, just in time to see a car exit the lot, its brake lights flashing briefly before turning into the flow of traffic and disappearing. It was the silver grey Dodge Trader. Damn! I had just missed it. I stood there squinting into the distant traffic, but the Trader was gone.
I looked again at the napkin, now half crumpled in my fist.
I went back inside and sat down to finish my beer, looking again at the mysterious napkin.
"Saxon Club. 3pm tomorrow. Come alone."
A multitude of questions all battled for recognition in my mind all at once. Of course I knew the Saxon Club. It was a well known downtown venue. One of the plushest bars in town. But there were just too many questions. Obviously whoever had left this message had followed me into the bar. It was eerily discomfiting to think that they had been watching me and I had been completely unaware. It left me feeling cheated and vulnerable. I wondered if it was significant that they had waited until I was alone. This was the first time I had been out without Yura. Perhaps they had been waiting for this opportunity. Staring at the napkin, I snorted, almost laughing to myself at the ridiculousness of the situation. Whoever they were, they obviously had a distorted sense of reality, and were clearly fond of playing games. Who they were or what they wanted was a mystery to me. But if there was any way of knowing, I was going to make sure I was going to be at the Saxon Club tomorrow. I got up and headed for the door, stuffing the napkin into my pocket as I left.
* * * * * *
"We don't have restaurants like this in Moscow," Elena was saying, "At least not the restaurants we used to go to."
It had been Zhukov's idea to bring us to this restaurant. Zhukov was the Senior Investigating Officer from the Moscow City Police, and Chief of the Moscow side of Operation Ganymede. He was also Nikolayev's boss. He had been a prime mover in getting Yura out of Moscow safely, so in a way Yura probably owed his life to Zhukov. Since Zhukov was in town, on one of his frequent visits, he had made it his priority to take Elena and Yura out for dinner. It was purely a formality for him, and considered it a courtesy since they were here to assist us in our investigations. Of course, I had to go wherever Yura went. So here we were, all four of us, sitting in a booth, in this bustling classic American restaurant with an extensive menu and oversized portions, and with overfriendly and attentive waiters taking our orders. Yura was sitting opposite me with Zhukov next to him, and Elena was next to me.
It wasn't that exclusive a restaurant, actually, just overpriced, I thought. But the food was good and I could see that everyone was enjoying themselves. It was one of those restaurants where the servers introduce themselves ingratiatingly and embark on some convoluted spiel about the 'specials'. It made no difference to me. I couldn't have eaten half the stuff on that menu anyway. I played safe and went for the Caesar salad. Zhukov went for steak, but he was a big man anyway, thick set and very imposing. It seemed appropriate somehow. Elena opted for fish and, perhaps not surprisingly, Yura ordered a burger. No ordinary burger of course - this one had all the extras and was built like a little skyscraper. It was real boys food, I thought.
Zhukov had stopped by earlier in the evening, after Yura had returned from Nikolayev's house. So Yura and I had found very little opportunity to spend any time together all day. Hence, we had not spoken much today. Though we had been in each other's company, Zhukov had really been the center of attention most of the time. He was loud and showy, the type who takes over and talks a lot, and has something to say about everything. Even if Yura had not been over-enamored by him, Zhukov kept talking to him in a very chummy way, kidding him along with lots of winks and smiles, and calling him Ivan all the time. Sometimes it felt like I was the only one who knew it wasn't his real name. Zhukov had a very patronizing way about him, talking down to Yura as though he was six years old. Or perhaps it was just me that perceived Yura as being more mature than he really was. After all, no one else knew Yura in quite the same way as I did. But Yura indulged him, pretending to be interested in Zhukov's over-familiar banter and playing up to his avuncular manner. I could tell he wasn't really interested in Zhukov, but Yura was aware of Zhukov's importance, and was probably just keeping him sweet. I knew that Yura was very switched-on, and was much wiser than he let on.
Zhukov drank an incredible amount. He had started off with an aperitif and had also ordered wine. I already knew that Elena was fond of a drink, so it did not surprise me that they were getting through the first bottle rather quickly, even before our entrees arrived. During the entrees, Zhukov ordered another bottle of wine, and it was clear to me that he and Elena were settling down for the long haul, talking animatedly, their conversation lubricated by the wine. They were talking away in Russian about how things were back home. As far as I could tell there was very little talk about the investigation itself and they kept the conversation quite light and inconsequential.
After the entrees, Zhukov decided he wanted to go out for a cigarette. There was a terrace at the back of the restaurant where we could sneak out for a quick smoke and I offered to join him. It was a good opportunity to talk to him about the investigation in an informal way, without introducing too serious a tone into the conversation across the table.
Once outside, we found a secluded corner of the terrace, which was more like a little porch overlooking the parking lot, and stood facing each other. Zhukov produced a rather expensive looking cigarette case from an inside pocket, and flipped it open in his palm. I accepted one gratefully, and reciprocated by producing my lighter, offering him a light. When both of us had savored the initial puff, and were settled into our cigarettes, I asked him how Operation Ganymede was going.
"Good," said Zhukov, tersely, exhaling smoke with the words, "Very good."
It was exactly the opposite of what I had expected. Up till now all I had been hearing was how Operation Ganymede had ground to a standstill from lack of progress.
"I think we might just be onto something," said Zhukov, with a very upbeat tone.
I watched him closely, observing his grey hair and his thick jowls and considered what an imposing man he was. His hair matched the color of his eyes.
"We've just had some new evidence come into our possession," he went on, waving his cigarette around.
"New ones. We think they could have been made quite recently."
"What sort of content?"
"Category five," he replied, gravely.
Category five was the severest grade of child porn - the worst possible - the most graphic and violent, often depicting scenes of bondage, rape and torture.
"These are a whole new level. The worst I've seen in thirty years," he added.
"I didn't think they could get any worse," I put in.
"These are," said Zhukov, emphatically.
"Who's in them?"
"Vladik," he said.
"Vladik? The boy that's still missing?"
He continued nodding enthusiastically.
"It's definitely the same boy," he said, gleefully, "We think it's the same group, maybe trying to reestablish themselves."
"That could be useful," I observed.
"Oh, they've done a good job, I'll give them that," he went on, "We shut them down for a while, but now they've started up distribution via the Internet again. They have good encryption. The most sophisticated we've ever come across. But it's only a matter of time before we find them. We always do. We have good evidence, and a trail that might lead us straight to them."
Then he fixed me with a serious stare, his steely grey eyes looking directly at me and spoke very slowly and very carefully.
"We can't be sure," he said, "But I think Vladik is still alive."
"Do you think you'll find him?"
"We're getting close," said Zhukov, knowingly narrowing his eyes, "This could be the breakthrough we need."
"Vladik?" I said again, almost in disbelief, "You really think it could be him?"
Zhukov took another puff of his cigarette and carried on nodding.
"Our guys are working night and day. It won't be long now," he said, exhaling smoke with a satisfied grin.
"Let's pray you find him before they kill him too."
Zhukov gave one final nod in concurrence and then touched me on the arm by way of warning.
"Don't repeat what I've just told you. At the moment it's only a hunch... but my hunches are usually correct."
I nodded assuredly, resolved to do as he instructed. What Zhukov had told me was strictly off the record and I had no intention of endangering the investigation by blabbing about it. Zhukov was a good cop. He had an impeccable record and an unrivalled success rate that was the pride of the Moscow City Police.
So Vladik was alive! If Zhukov was to be believed, a breakthrough was imminent. Yura would be overjoyed, though of course I couldn't say anything. Nothing was definite just yet, but I was confident it would only be a matter of time. Vladik was alive, and for the moment that was all I needed to know. And it was with this knowledge that, after we finished our cigarettes, Zhukov and I returned to the table and sat down. He resumed his conversation with Elena and Vladik was not mentioned again.
Back at the table, Yura was sitting quietly with the remains of his meal on the big plate in front of him. He had eaten a lot and was clearly full. In fact he looked a little pale and withdrawn and he was uncharacteristically quiet.
"What's up little buddy?" I asked him.
Yura looked up with a strangely alien expression.
"I don't feel well," he announced.
He didn't look well either.
Yura indicated that he wished to go to the restroom and asked if I would take him. I could see him glance strategically at Elena as he did so, and she nodded her approval. I think it was a given that I would accompany him, especially here in a public place. Elena and Zhukov carried on talking, apparently thinking nothing of it. I said I didn't mind accompanying him and guided Yura to the restrooms. We walked together and I kept him quite close to me with a reassuring arm across his shoulders.
Inside, the restrooms were deserted. It was cool and quiet in there, spotlessly clean and ultra-modern, with granite counter tops and chrome fittings. Yura went straight over to the row of basins and stood there hesitantly for a moment, staring at himself in the mirror. Then, he seemed to look uncertain, with a slightly pained expression, and I knew instantly that something was wrong. Suddenly, without warning, he doubled over and copiously threw up into the basin. His body heaved a couple of times, violently spitting out whatever was left in his tummy. The retching was awful. He coughed and spluttered a few more times. Then he saw the liquefied mess that he had made in the basin and looked frightened. He turned to me, and the look on his face told me that he didn't really understand what was happening.
"I'm sorry," he said, "I didn't mean to do that."
"It's okay little buddy," I reassured him, "It doesn't matter."
I rubbed his back comfortingly as he was crouched over the basin and turned on the water to flush away the mess. Then I liberally splashed his little face with cold water to cleanse and revive him. I noticed how his skin had turned quite clammy.
"C'mon, let's get you cleaned up," I said.
I fetched a wad of paper towels. Then, cradling Yura's head, I gently started wiping his face. It felt almost like I might have been his dad, protectively cleaning the gunk from my little boy's face. Obediently, he stood there and let me clean him off, eyes closed but for the moment over the worst.
Just at that moment another man came into the restroom and headed for one of the urinals. We ignored him and carried on and I finished benevolently dabbing the paper towel all over Yura's face. Yura watched me as I did that, focusing on me with that now familiar look of wonder and gratitude in his eyes. When I had finished, he smiled tenderly. I gave him a comforting little hug. I realized that this had been my only opportunity to be alone with Yura all day. It was a lovely, if fleeting, little boymoment.
"Are you feeling better now?" I asked him.
He nodded feebly, just as the man at the urinal shot us a cursory glance, his tinted spectacles glinting in our direction, but apparently not in the least bit curious. When he had finished, the man washed and dried his hands, tossed his paper towel into the bin, and promptly left. As the door closed, Yura turned to me and giggled.
"He thinks you're my dad," he said, somewhat amused by the notion, and he chuckled to himself, apparently already fully recovered.
It was observations like that which often demonstrated to me how astute Yura really was, and how his understanding of things around him was so very advanced for his tender years. He was such a perceptive little boy.
When we returned to the table, Elena and Zhukov were so engrossed in their conversation that they barely noticed how long we'd been gone. Yura squeezed back into his seat, just as Zhukov was ordering more drinks. Then Elena asked Yura if he wanted dessert. He shook his head with a look of revulsion. I explained to Elena and Zhukov that Yura had just thrown up.
"You're not ill are you?" asked Elena, concerned.
Yura shook his head.
"Probably just ate too much," I said, playing it down.
"You okay now?" Elena asked.
"Yeh," said Yura, "Don't worry, Mark looked after me."
As he said that, he smiled mischievously at me, with a broad grin of gratitude and adoration on his face, and my heart swelled with pride.
* * * * * *
So it was that the next day we had a busy schedule of quite mundane errands to perform, in addition to my surreptitious meeting at the Saxon Club later that afternoon. It was almost a relief to be engaged in fairly routine pursuits, and it was good to have the opportunity to provide Yura with a good counterpoint to recent events, and get him to do some ordinary everyday things. Shopping was an incredibly boring and unappealing chore for any kid, but it was an exercise intended to expose them to normal everyday interactions. So my strategy was to always get them involved in finding things, to try and preoccupy them in some way. Of course it wasn't always successful. My previous experiences taking young boys shopping were fraught with behaviour ranging from extreme disinterest to full-blown tantrums. So, it was almost unnatural to me to discover that it required no effort at all with Yura. Luckily, he was always very cooperative and helpful and never once complained or demanded anything.
The trip to the supermarket would have been relatively uneventful and forgettable if it hadn't been for a quite significant event. It happened soon after we had entered the store. There was a rather large woman, who was seriously overweight, pushing a shopping cart down the aisle. Her cart was full to overflowing, mostly with junk food, and she was puffing quite loudly, apparently from the sheer effort of walking. She was sweating profusely and seemed impervious to the two tiny little boys that were trailing along forlornly behind her. They were cute little things, probably about five or six years old. I guess they must have been twins. They were not identical, but looked very similar in appearance, with little mops of straight golden blond hair, button noses and big brown eyes. Their diminutive little bodies were decked out in basketball kits of thin vests and loose shorts. Their skimpy vests afforded a good view of their smooth armpits and necks. On their bare little boy feet were sandals which exposed the full length of their sinewy little legs. But there was no sign of any jackets or outdoor clothing to protect them from the cold. My first thought was that it had turned quite chilly outside, and I couldn't see how these two cute little specimens wouldn't be cold, even if it was just walking out to the parking lot. Yura and I found ourselves behind them in the aisle and they were cheekily whispering things to each other and giggling. Their corpulent mother forged on ahead, completely immersed in her shopping. The two little boys turned and smiled at us and they giggled to each other. Yura spotted them. It was delightful to see how Yura responded to them with such affection, and he gave them a warm, friendly smile. Apparently he found them just as endearing as I did. We even turned and glanced at each other, simultaneously captivated by the little boys' prettiness and cheeky smiles. Just then, their mother loomed up unexpectedly, grabbed them each by an arm, and abruptly swung them around, dealing out a harsh, resounding slap, first to one, then the other. She hit them quite hard, the sharp blow causing their heads to jolt violently. I could hear Yura gasp in shock and he recoiled at the sight of that.
"I told you little fuckers to stay close to me," she hissed, with real malice and vehemence in her tone.
The two little boys held their smarting cheeks, visibly shocked into silence by the extreme and unexpected blow meted out by their mother. What had been a delightful and tender moment had been prematurely halted and perverted by their mother's unwarranted intervention. I felt so sorry for them. She grabbed them both by their vests and violently jerked them away, and as she did so, their little vests rode up exposing a small expanse of their midriffs, so that you could see their flat little tummies and their cute little innie belly-buttons. They reluctantly went, their happy giggles now silenced and the cheeky smiles of a moment ago now cruelly wiped from their faces. We watched them go, their expressions contorted in pain and self-pity and with enormous tears welling up in their eyes.
What stuck in my mind about this incident was not the sheer lack of consideration of the little boys' mother, but Yura's reaction to it. He gasped, and as the two little boys were being spirited away, he grabbed my arm quite hard. I could feel the distress in his grip because he held onto my arm so hard he pinched the skin on my bicep. He was visibly disturbed by the incident and looked up at me with an expression of horror and confusion. I hugged him and gave his ribs a reassuring squeeze. That little display of violence shook his sensitivity so profoundly that he retreated into a quiet and reflective mood for the rest of the time we were in the store.
Yura's reaction did not surprise me. But I felt for him. He abhorred violence. And yet, this was one of the very things that made Yura so remarkable and so lovable. He was a boy who had been shown very little love, and yet was so loving. A boy who had been beaten and brutalised, but was so placid and gentle. A boy who had been neglected and exploited, yet was the kindest and most considerate person I knew. But that was Yura. He may have been only ten years old, yet he had a wisdom and maturity that went way beyond his years. He was one big paradox, the measure of whom I don't think I was ever going to really understand. He was simply a wonderful human being.
When we finally got through the checkout and back out into the parking lot, we returned to the car and Yura passed me the grocery bags one by one. I loaded them into the open tailgate and Yura even took the shopping cart back without me having to ask. He was such a thoughtful boy. When we were done, I took Yura aside before closing the tailgate and pulled something out of one of the grocery bags. It was wrapped in a paper bag, which I presented to him.
"This is for being so helpful today," I told him.
He hesitated a moment, clearly not expecting any reward, but he looked delighted. He took it and peered inside. It was a new video game - the latest release of Gran Turismo. He had been raving about it since he had played it with Misha yesterday. Luckily I was good at remembering details like that. I had slipped it into the shopping cart whilst I sent him off to look for some obscure food item. I always believed in rewarding and thanking good behaviour. Yura looked up, overjoyed, and threw his arms around me in a hug of gratitude, as was his way.
"Thank you Mark," he said, muffled against my chest.
It was such a pleasure to see the appreciation in his eyes. Then, when we were safely strapped into the car and ready to move off, Yura turned to me, the video game resting on his lap.
"No one's ever given me presents before," he said.
I remember thinking how sad that was. It was yet another reminder of the unorthodox childhood this boy must have lived, and a prime example of just how much he had been deprived of the things which most other children routinely took for granted.