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 6: Developments
The voice came from somewhere behind me.
I turned around and saw a face that was unthreatening, curious, even friendly. He was wearing a pair of round, wire-rimmed spectacles which, close up, you could see had tiny grains of dust on them.
"Yes," I said.
"Anton," he said, holding out a hand by way of introduction.
It was a friendly gesture, so I shook his hand. He was a slim, lean young man, perhaps nineteen or twenty years old, and he looked a bit scruffy and disheveled. But despite his outwardly shabby appearance, his hand was warm and pliant and his handshake was firm and sincere.
"How do you know my name?" I asked him.
"I know all about you," he said cryptically, "But that's not important. What's important is what I have to tell you."
Although his English was perfect, I detected a hint of Russian accent. Not strong, barely distinguishable, but it was definitely there.
"Okay," I said, "I'm listening."
So he sat down in the deep armchair opposite me, and we started talking. And that was how Anton introduced himself at the Saxon Club. In truth, it was a fairly low-key introduction which did not expound the mystique and intrigue that was suggested by the cryptic note he had left scrawled on that napkin the day before.
In the event, it had been something of a struggle to get to the Saxon Club on time, but I managed it. By sheer coincidence Yura had his first appointment with the child psychotherapist that afternoon, and for security reasons it was decided that this session would take place at HQ. I opted to drop him off at two thirty, which would give me enough time to drive across town to the Saxon Club for my furtive rendezvous at three o'clock. I was quiet and not very talkative in the car on the way to HQ. So was Yura, though for an entirely different reason. I was keyed up about my rendezvous. He was not looking forward to his session with the therapist. I already knew he reserved a subtle kind of contempt for psychotherapists, judging by the lack of confidence in them which he had alluded to in our previous conversations. His time with the psychotherapist merely served to open up memories he would rather forget. He was obliged to talk about things which usually came more spontaneously and unexpectedly from him. Every now and then, as I had often seen, he would relate some thought or memory about what happened to him, but it was never forced when he was with me. Yesterday, when I told him about the imminent appointment, he was quiet for the rest of the day. If Yura was quiet, it meant he was either upset or contemplating something, so I knew he really didn't want to go. But it was not negotiable. He was obliged to go. So, I dropped him off at HQ and climbed straight back into the car to head directly over to the Saxon Club.
The Saxon Club was one of those places that was busy at all hours of the day or night. There was a pub-type bar in the basement which was tasteful, but had a slightly subterranean feel to it, I guess because there were no windows. I decided to wait in the slightly more salubrious cocktail bar on the first floor, not only because it was more conducive, with its polished chrome and smoked glass decor, but because I guessed it would be easier to meet whomever it was that I was supposed to be meeting. It was funny, I thought, that despite taking a seat at the bar that was directly opposite the door, and studiously watching everyone who came into the club, Anton still approached me from behind and I never saw him come in.
As Anton sat down across the low table, and we started talking, I reverted to my old police officer's instinct and studied his demeanor. He looked genuine enough. He was relaxed and open, and I decided I could trust him. Underneath those round spectacles, he had an oval face, with a neat, narrow nose and big, bright, hazel eyes. His shaggy, mousy-colored hair was long and brushing his shoulders. There was a sparse coating of lightly-colored soft young stubble on his jaw. On his head was crammed a woolly cap, which he had pulled down over the tops of his ears. His corduroy jacket was worn and crumpled, and looked like it had never been pressed. Looking at his body language, he seemed very approachable, certainly not shifty or defensive. There was something very appealing about the way he draped his lean body over that armchair as he sat down. I studied the open neck of his shirt, and I could see the young skin where the tendons met in a little V-shape at the base of his neck. His hands and wrists were smooth and hairless, and his fingers had a graceful dexterity to them. One thing was for sure: beneath that long hair and woolly cap, under those shabby clothes, spectacles and stubble, was an extremely good looking young man. His appearance was quite captivating and his very presence, as he languished there in the armchair, had a strangely magnetic allure.
"First of all, sorry about the scribbled note yesterday," he began.
I guessed he was referring to the paper napkin.
"Oh that," I said, "I know you've been following me."
"Yeah, sorry about that," he said, sheepishly.
"You know you could have approached me any time," I said, "There's really no need for all this cloak and dagger stuff."
"I didn't want to approach you just like that," he explained, "I knew that if you were willing, you'd meet me. But I wanted it to be your choice. I didn't know if you'd come, but I'm glad you did."
It was plausible, I decided.
"You must be wondering what this is all about," he went on.
He had obviously given some thought to how he was going to handle this meeting.
"Just a bit," I said.
He took a deep breath, and put his hands together, forming a little bridge with his fingertips.
"It's about Yura."
"How do you know his name?" I asked, shocked.
"It's okay," he assured me, "I'm a friend of his. I knew Yura back in Moscow."
He leaned forward, looking about him nervously, then he fixed me with an intense stare. He rested his elbows on his knees.
"I can trust you right Mark?"
"Is it in Yura's interest?"
"Yes, I think it is."
"Then you can trust me," I replied.
He took another deep breath and readdressed his stare.
"I was at the children's home with Yura, so I've known him a long time."
"How old are you?" I asked.
God, he was younger than I thought.
"What did you have to tell me?" I asked him, anxious to get to the root of this meeting.
"I want to show you something," he said.
"Come with me. I'll explain everything."
So, after finally meeting the mysterious Anton, and acceding to his suggestion that we should go somewhere to talk, I left the Constellation in the parking lot and rode with him in the now familiar Dodge Trader, over to his apartment. It was only a short drive away. It was odd, I thought, that this was the same car that had followed us on the freeway, and in a quite obscure twist of fate suddenly I found myself in it. On the way, I looked about the interior of the car and saw how messy it was. There were old takeout cartons and empty drinks containers rolling around in the footwell, with the straw still inserted into the lid, as well as little scraps of paper, old store receipts, candy wrappers and what looked like bits of used chewing gum. As well as checking out his car, I studied this enigmatic young man. I was apprehensive, but not scared. I guess I was slightly more perturbed wondering about the possible nature of what it was he had to show me. But I sat patiently in the passenger seat, and let him drive us over to his apartment, curious to see what he had in store for me.
Anton's apartment was more of a studio room, with living, dining and sleeping areas all combined. It was squalid and messy. As soon as we entered I could see that the bed in the far corner was rumpled and unmade. There were dirty clothes on the floor, next to a battered looking acoustic guitar that was propped up against the wall. The carpet looked oily and covered in fluff and was adorned in places with some sickly looking stains. Just about every surface was covered with some kind of abandoned or forgotten object. There was a dining table by the window with dirty mugs and plates with remnants of food on them. The sofa was worn out and torn in places, where the stuffing was hanging out. There was an open pizza box sitting on it, with the crusts of a left-over pizza. It was impossible to tell how long that had been there. Next to it were discarded candy wrappers, empty soda cans, and some unwanted take-out cartons from a long-forgotten Chinese meal. On the coffee table was a pile of old newspapers that had started to turn yellow, and there was even an ashtray that was piled so high with ash and cigarette butts it looked like it had never been emptied. Everything, except perhaps the guitar, was coated in a thin film of dust. On top of that, the whole room was dark, mainly because the drapes were still drawn, and the sunlight barely penetrated, giving the whole place a musty, stagnant air.
"Come in," said Anton, leading the way, leaving me to shut the door.
He made no apologies for the state of the place. In fact he seemed oblivious to it. I wondered how long he had lived like this.
In amongst all this squalor and filth there was one single feature in the room that looked shiny and new - a gleaming silver computer with a large LCD screen that dominated a big trestle work table in the corner. It was quietly humming away in the background, still switched on, with little blue and amber LEDs lit up on the fascia.
"I would offer you a coffee," he said, "but I don't think I have any."
Just as well, I thought.
He went over to the computer, taking off his matted jacket and slinging it over the back of the sofa as he went.
"Come over here," he said, beckoning me closer, and proceeded to pull up a moth-eaten chair, sweeping off the papers and other debris from it for me to sit down.
He leaned over towards the screen and touched the mouse, cancelling the screen saver, and he opened up his internet browser.
"Look at this," he said, pulling up his swivel chair next to me, and we both stared into the screen.
I watched Anton type in some unfamiliar URL and up onto the screen flashed what appeared to be some kind of discussion forum. It was called 'The Yura Fan Club' and seemed to be a networking site, a forum devoted entirely to Yura. With a few clicks of the mouse Anton had opened up a whole series of pictures which he scrolled through with the arrow keys on the keyboard, pausing for a few seconds on each one to let me take it in.
I gasped in horror and shock. All the pictures were of Yura. Clearly they had been taken at the same time as the videos - the locations were easily recognizable, and so were the other boys who appeared in the pictures with him. Although the pictures had been extensively cropped and censored, they were still overtly explicit, not outrightly illegal, but nevertheless pushing the boundaries of distaste. They showed Yura in all kinds of compromising and suggestive poses, and he was variously pictured with other boys and men, and although partially clothed, it was still fairly easy to ascertain what was in the offing. In some of those pictures he looked positively out of it, with his eyes half closed and an expression of dazed disorientation. In fact, he looked drugged. In other pictures he was bound, blindfolded and gagged. In yet others, he had visible signs of injuries. For example, in one particular picture he looked like he had a split lip, a scratch on his cheekbone and a black eye.
I turned away, unable to view any more.
"That's enough," I said, disgusted.
Anton was staring at me intensely, perhaps anticipating my reaction, perhaps perversely pleased by it, I couldn't tell.
"There's more," Anton said, and he pulled himself closer to the keyboard.
He went to the discussion pages and clicked on one of the threads posted by the members. He waited while I read what they were saying. There were all manner of lewd and unsavory comments being posted there.
"What is all this?" I gasped, incredulous.
Anton looked at me with a serious, almost manic grin.
"You mean you're not aware that Yura has a big following on the internet?"
"I knew his pictures were out there," I conceded, "But I never expected anything like this."
"Why not? He's a good looking boy isn't he?"
"But.. this is almost bordering on obsessive," I said, "It's creepy."
"I've been following Yura's story for a long time," he explained, "I've been tracking what's being said on the internet, and I know all about Operation Ganymede. What I've learned is that there is a whole bunch of people out there who are interested in Yura."
"For all the wrong reasons," I added.
"Some of them, sure," he said, "But most of them are pretty harmless."
"Well, you certainly know your stuff," I remarked.
"I've done my research," he replied, smugly, "and I know all about YOU too."
"What do you know?" I retorted, guardedly, with a tone that was part challenge and part skepticism.
"You're John Bergman's boy aren't you?"
"You know about John?"
Again he nodded.
"I've read all his work. I know all about Boyscape too."
"That was all a very long time ago," I said.
"Still," he said, "I had to be careful. You're a cop. I wanted to contact you, but I had to be sure that I could trust you first."
"And?" I asked him, sitting back, "Can you?"
He cocked his head, considering my question, and taking in my presence as I sat before him.
"Yes, but I think you're taking a risk too by agreeing to meet me."
This guy was good. He looked like a na´ve, inexperienced amateur, like a kid who was out of his depth, but he had sure done his homework. I stared at this strange young man who I had only just met and wondered why he was telling me all this. I sensed there was something more to his agenda.
"Okay," I said, "But you didn't bring me here just to reminisce and show me pictures, did you?"
He shifted slightly in his seat and swiveled a little from side to side, a sure sign of apprehension. He looked down at the floor and took a few moments, as though preparing for something that was going to require some effort. Then he readdressed his stare and took a deep breath.
"I think I've found Yura's father," he said, looking up.
"He doesn't have a father," I replied.
"Yes, he does," said Anton, clearly and distinctly, "he just doesn't know it yet."
I stared at Anton, stunned.
"Are you sure?"
He nodded slowly, steeling his jaw affirmatively.
"I haven't met him, but I've been in contact with him. I have a picture. Of course it may be a fluke, but when you see his eyes..."
"Of course, those eyes," I concurred, knowing exactly what he meant.
"I think he's genuine. I've checked him out and everything fits. I just wanted you to know. And of course I want Yura to know."
"Of course," I said again.
I stared down at the floor, realizing that this revelation, if it was true, changed everything. If Yura's father really was out there, it would be a profound development in Yura's life. A strange mixture of emotions suddenly welled up deep within me. I was happy for Yura, especially when I recalled the way he had said, "I never had a father," in that doleful, regretful way of his. Perhaps his father appearing might redress some of the deprivation he felt. But at the same time, this joy was mingled with a feeling of sadness and despair. I guess there was a selfish element to my thinking. This was a seminal moment. I remember it because it may have been the very first moment I was confronted by the possibility that this might signify the beginning of the end of my time with Yura. It only made more tangible the realization that the day would soon come that Yura would no longer be in my life. The way I felt about Yura at this moment, I wasn't sure how I could ever face that day.
"Why didn't you just go straight to the police?" I asked him.
He raised his eyebrows and stabbed a finger at the bridge of his nose, pushing his spectacles back up.
"I was going to, but there's something I haven't told you."
I paused, waiting for him to continue.
"I was one of the boys in those videos," he said.
"The porn videos?"
"Yes. I was one of the older boys that sometimes played with the younger ones."
I looked at him for a prolonged moment, studying his features closely, and trying to remember if I recognized him from the videos. I couldn't. But I knew one thing: his good looks certainly bore testimony to his claim. As I have already said, all the boys in those videos were exceptionally pretty.
"I don't recognize you," I said.
"It was a few years ago now. I was only thirteen at the time," he went on, and he paused, looking up, "Thankfully, I was able to get out before those videos got too extreme. I heard what happened to Yura. I'm glad he's okay."
"The other boys weren't so lucky," I added.
He nodded sadly.
"So is that why you didn't go to the police? Because you didn't want to implicate yourself?"
Again he nodded.
"You won't be in trouble," I said, trying to reassure him.
I watched the way he hung his head down and his tone became solemn and regretful.
"But I was also to blame," he said, "Unlike Yura, I was a willing participant. They paid me. I was a procurer - I helped to find boys for the videos. I was like an older brother to them. I befriended them. They trusted me. Then I helped to abduct them."
"You were manipulated," I said, trying to put his sentiments into context, "You were too young to know any better. You were a victim too."
"No," he said, refuting that, "I betrayed them. I pretended to be their friend, then I abused them, and I helped others to abuse them. I'm sorry for that."
"Is that why you're doing this?" I asked, "To make amends?"
He looked up and his spectacles glinted from the glare of the computer screen. I thought I saw a trace of moisture in his eyes, almost as though his regret had touched off a twinge of sadness that conjured up a little tear. In that instant, what I saw was an insight into this young man's soul. And I could almost correspond with his sorrow - I could empathize with his suffering, in the same way that I recalled my own suffering as an unwashed, directionless street kid that nobody wanted. I was barely a year younger than he was when he first appeared in those videos, and I remembered how desolate and alone I felt.
"I'm just trying to do what's right. I want to get myself in order and make a better life for myself."
That was such a bold, optimistic and brave statement, and I admired him for saying it. I looked around at the state of the room and saw how squalid and neglected it was, and I thought that maybe the sheer effort of living day to day was too much for this young man. Perhaps he was going to need a helping hand.
"So what happens now?" I asked him.
"I'm going to contact Yura's father. I'm going to ask him if he wants to meet Yura. Then I guess we'll have to see how Yura feels about it."
That was a very measured proposal. It made good sense. He seemed to have it all planned out.
"You do realize that if his father is going to make contact with him in any way, the police will have to be involved? The Moscow Police are calling the shots here. This is not something we can handle by ourselves."
"Whatever you think," he said, relinquishing responsibility to me, "It's in your hands now. I just wanted you to be the first to know. It was better this way."
"I agree," I said, "And I guess I'm the only one that needs to know at this stage."
He nodded positively, looking reassured.
"So are you gonna keep in touch?" he asked.
"Sure," I said, "but no more scribbled notes okay? Here's my number."
He laughed at my allusion to the paper napkin. And with that, I reached into my back pocket and took out one of my calling cards and handed it to him.
"Thanks," he said, slotting it neatly into the breast pocket of his wrinkled shirt.
"Next time, I would like for you to come to the house and visit Yura. Then we can talk some more. Okay?"
"I'd like that," he said, with a more positive note, "It'll be good to see that boy again."
I gave him a reassuring smile, wanting him to know that he had made a friend and that I was on his side.
"So tell me," he started up again, shuffling the chair closer on its castors, and he leaned over towards me confidentially, "What's Yura up to these days?"
"He's a good kid," I said.
"Is he as cute as ever?" Anton asked, with a wry smile.
I stared at him, not sure exactly what he was alluding to, and I laughed.
"I think you already know the answer to that," I said.
"Sure I know," he laughed, "There is something very special about that boy."
And I knew exactly what he meant.
So that was my first meeting with Anton. He was a strange young man. A little odd, perhaps unorthodox in his approach. He was probably the most unlikely person I would have expected to meet in such strange circumstances, but I liked him. More than that, he did not strike me as someone with evil intentions. He was gentle, softly spoken, maybe even a little shy and unforthcoming. Not in the least bit overbearing. Quite innocuous actually. I approved of the way he went about things. He was clever and resourceful. He had succeeded in tracking me down and knew everything about me. He knew all about Yura and Operation Ganymede, and had even tracked down Yura's father. Everything he had done had gone as planned. I respected him for that. He may have been scruffy and not very domesticated, but under that stubble and shaggy hair, and beneath those grubby clothes, he was actually quite an intelligent young man. I was pleased to have met him. I felt a very special warmth and affinity for him that went way beyond his natural good looks and undeniable charm. I looked forward to our next meeting and hoped it would not be too long before I saw him again. In the meantime, all I had to do was carry on as normal.
In the days that followed, I marveled at how my relationship with Yura flourished. Yura became much more settled and comfortable in our cosseted little world. During the day we swam in the pool, playing lots of energetic, physical games in the water, jumping around and splashing each other. We played video games, during which Yura would always conclusively defeat me, although I like to think that I let him win most of the time. We spent hours in the basement playing pool in the games room, or working out together in the gym. He also loved to help me in the kitchen, where we cooked up all sorts of fun and experimental recipes together. We ate together and washed up together. We tidied up around the house and washed the car together, turning even that into a game of saturating each other with the hosepipe. In the evenings we watched TV together. He was my constant companion. Sometimes he would just follow me around the house, chatting animatedly about nothing in particular, yammering away in that sweet, absent way of his, and I would sometimes watch him as he was doing it. He was oblivious to my stare, and I marveled at how much I adored this little boy and how much pleasure he gave me just being in his presence. He was constantly at my side and always chatting to me, questioning and joking and generally keeping me company. He was such a jovial, amiable little boy, always smiling and laughing. His laughter was infectious, and when he smiled, his smile lit up the whole room. He was always a joy to be around.
When Elena visited the house, she remarked on the dramatic change she had seen in Yura. She observed the way he interacted with me and how his demeanor had changed. He was open, cheerful and cooperative - a stark contrast to the fearful, withdrawn and insecure boy he used to be. She said that she could see we had a great relationship and that he idolized me. I had been a very positive influence on him, she said, and she admired the way he looked up to me. She felt I had shown him more patience and guidance and encouragement in the short time that I had known him than he had had from anybody in his entire life. For myself, I found her comments very flattering. But I had grown to love that little boy. Why would I not treat him with the genuine consideration and respect I felt towards him, and give him all the unconditional positive regard he deserved? God knows, he had been so deprived of that in the past.
I knew that if I showed enough patience towards Yura and was gentle with him, that I could get him to open up a little. I suppose it was a manifestation of the trust and bond we had already built up, and I remember feeling quite privileged when he started to share the more intricate details of what happened to him. I thought it was significant that when Yura did finally disclose those things to me, it did not happen in the way I expected, and it still shocked and saddened me even when he did tell me.
It turned colder as the evening approached. I closed the blinds and Yura curled up next to me on the sofa as the night was drawing in. We huddled together watching some inane sitcom on the big plasma TV, sharing a prolonged boymoment. I cannot describe the exquisite pleasure of having this wonderful little boy so close to me. This boy who was in awe of me and whom, if I was honest, I absolutely adored. So it was all the more poignant for me, since Yura had declared that he wanted to stay with me forever, that he now wanted to be close to me all the time. In fact, I found that he was suddenly quite insistent at following me about the house, wanting to help me. This was particularly apparent in the kitchen earlier when I was preparing dinner for us both, and as I cooked, he sat on one of the high stools and talked excitedly about whatever was on his mind. He told me about some of the things he had got up to with Misha the other day. He talked about Misha's big pool and the big garden and how they played in his tree-house, and about how Misha had just about every games console imaginable. It was so refreshing to hear him talking about ordinary little boy stuff. I knew that at these times he was allowing his natural childishness to surface, for there was never any guarantee that the very next moment he would not be momentarily distracted by some unwanted memory from his past, where he might involuntarily recall some horrible instance of the things that were done to him. I just listened and paid him my full attention. I knew how this little boy had suffered, so it was all the more delightful to hear him speaking of the innocent boyish things he had got up to with Misha.
Now Yura was on the sofa next to me, his top half lying across me, his bare feet drawn up onto the sofa and his elbow propping him up across my lap. I had an arm along his flank, with my hand resting on his hip. He was freshly out of the shower, warm and smelling of a mildly scented soap. Looking down, I could see his wet hair, still ruffled from the shower, where it stuck up in a little whirl on the top of his head. He was lying there swaddled in the loose folds of my big toweled bathrobe. It was far too big for him, but he insisted on wearing it. He claimed he never had one of his own and that he liked the idea of wearing something of mine. So I gave it to him. His slight frame was almost lost in its folds, and the long sleeves flopped over his little hands so that only his fingers were poking out. He cupped an enormous mug of hot chocolate between his hands, from which he took the occasional sip.
Yura put the mug down on the coffee table to the side of the sofa and laid down across my lap, so that his head was resting on my knees. He was very mellow and relaxed, staring out at the TV looking thoughtful and content. As he did so, we chatted amiably about nothing in particular, throwing out impromptu comments about what was on the TV. I was starting to discover that Yura could be quite engaging when he was relaxed, and he was actually very witty and lighthearted. I quite enjoyed his random, almost reckless banter. The change in him had been quite dramatic. Elena was right, it was a stark contrast to the reticence he displayed when he had first arrived, when he had seemed so unsettled and ill at ease.
"Mark?" he said at last, after a long silence.
"Do you think I'll ever see Vladik again?"
It was an unexpected question, but one which instantly revealed what was uppermost in his mind.
"I don't know," I said, "I don't think anyone knows."
"I hope they find him," he went on.
He said it with such longing in his voice, it was clear to me that this boy Vladik held a very special place in his heart.
"So do I, little buddy. So do I."
Of course I couldn't disclose what Zhukov had told me, and at this stage nothing was certain. But I didn't really want Yura to ponder too much on Vladik, so I squeezed his shoulders and started massaging him, hopefully to take his mind off that and get him in a more positive frame of mind before bed. He raised himself up and took off the bathrobe, beneath which all he was wearing were his SpongeBob pajama bottoms. Then he laid face down on the sofa, his top half still naked, inviting me to continue my ministrations. His lack of shyness still took my breath away, even now. His arms were folded under his head, resting his chin on the back of his hands. I perched on the edge of the sofa and reached over to give his bare shoulders another squeeze. His cobalt blue eyes sparkled from the glare of the TV.
I massaged away, squeezing the hard little muscles across his shoulders, digging my fingertips into his shoulder blades and all along his upper arms and the base of his boyish neck. He was totally relaxed as he laid there, passive and yielding. I continued kneading my way from the deltoids in his shoulders, right down his smooth back to where his lats formed a hard ridge at the root of his spine, just above the elastic waistband of his pajamas, my big hands encircling his slim little waist, and then back up again. It was nice to see Yura so relaxed and mellow. He was thoughtful and introspective, almost comatose. I knew from experience that a really deep massage sometimes had that effect. The TV was babbling away in the background and Yura was very quiet. He laid there silently with his eyes closed for a very long time. But I knew he was awake, and his mind was still very active. Then, after a good long pause, Yura broke the silence once more.
"That feels real nice," he said.
He was so complimentary. His social skills and manners were impeccable. I leaned over and tousled his damp hair in a gesture of affection.
"You're really somethin' else little buddy, you know that?"
He raised his head and twisted around to look up at me, straining his neck awkwardly.
"Do you really mean that?"
"Oh yes," I said, nodding affirmatively, "you're very special to me."
He rose up and hugged me lovingly, throwing his half naked little body against me tightly, his little arms gripping me with real affection, and I could feel his warm hands stroking my back. It was another perfect boymoment.
When he let me go, Yura reached over and took another couple of sips of the hot chocolate, then settled back down on the sofa. He curled up across my lap once more, now relaxed and mellow from the massage, and warmed by the milky drink. Then he just started talking.
"Kirilenko used to say things like that to me," he suddenly announced.
It was a totally unsolicited statement. I thought he was going to make reference to a few sketchy details and then stop. But he didn't. Once he started, it all came pouring out of him like a veritable damburst.
"When he used to come to my bed in the night he told me I was all alone and no one else wanted me. He told me he was looking after me now, and I was special to him. He said he liked me more than the others. All the boys were scared of him. I still remember the first time he came to my bed. I didn't know he was going to do THAT. It hurt a lot. He made me bleed."
There was a particular note of vehemence in that last sentence.
"Hey little buddy," I interjected, "you don't have to tell me all this."
He ignored me and carried on talking, staring out at the TV with his head still resting on my knees.
"One night, we were taken from our beds. Me, and some of the other boys were woken up in the night. We didn't know where they were taking us. But we knew Kirilenko must have had something to do with it. We were locked in a truck and taken to a big house out in the woods, very far away. It must have been far away because we were in the truck for a long time. They didn't let us out until the morning. It was dark in there and we were scared. Andrei was crying. Andrei was the youngest. I remember Sasha trying to comfort him. Sasha was his older brother. Even Vladik and Kolya were scared, and they were the oldest. I tried to be brave. I tried not to cry."
Yura rubbed his eyes, and shifted slightly.
"They kept us locked in a room. A horrible room, with no windows. We didn't even have proper beds, just mattresses on the floor. And we were always hungry. They took away our clothes. They would come in, even in the middle of the night, and do stuff to us. Kirilenko was the worst. He was ugly and he stank, and I think most of the time he was drunk. I hated Kirilenko."
As I sat there with Yura's sweet head on my lap, listening to his words, I realized for the first time the sheer magnitude of what this little boy had been through. I was finally beginning to get the picture, and I wasn't sure I really wanted to hear it. My affection for him almost made me feel like putting my hand gently over his mouth and telling him to stop. It was just too painful. But if it was painful for me to hear, I mused, how much more painful was it to have experienced these things for real, yet alone recall what had happened.
"They were very cruel to us. Sometimes they tied us up with thick ropes and blindfolds. They would put a rag in our mouths so we wouldn't cry out. Sometimes they hit me with their fists, sometimes with straps. Sometimes they burned me with cigarettes."
I watched Yura as these words were tripping off his tongue, his pretty lips enunciating the words which were so ugly to hear, and yet he wouldn't stop.
"They made movies and took photos. They did stuff to all of us, and made us do stuff with each other. That wasn't too bad, when I was with the other boys. That was how I got to know Vladik. I liked Vladik. We were together a lot. Vladik was my best friend."
I observed how Yura's voice changed whenever he talked of Vladik. His tone took on a wistful, almost dreamlike quality, as though he was remembering something that had real meaning to him.
"Sometimes at night I cried because it hurt so much. Vladik looked after me. Vladik was like my brother."
Yura didn't see me turn away and screw up my face in disgust. It was almost painful just listening to him. I could hardly conceive what it must have been like for this little boy, this innocent, unassuming little person that was lying on my lap with these awful experiences now indelibly etched on his memory.
"The very last time, I was so scared, I thought I was going to die. They chained me up and I knew they were going to do horrible things. They made me drink vodka. They said it was to knock me out so I wouldn't remember what they were going to do to me. But I do remember. I remember all of it. They burned me with cigarettes and hit me with a cane. I passed out from the pain. Then they cut me down and left me on the floor, bleeding and unconscious. That was how the police found me the next day. Thank God the police came."
Yura's words trailed off and he fell silent. He seemed to run out of steam; as though the sheer effort of this testimony had drained the energy out of him completely. I waited, still sitting there with his sweet head resting on my lap, patiently listening and not interrupting. Of course, none of this testimony was entirely new to me - I had seen those videos after all. I had witnessed the depravity that those cameras had captured and I had seen the reports about the raid that finally rescued him. The difference was that I was now sitting with a real boy - not just a figure on the screen, but a living, breathing witness to those events.
Yura turned his head slightly to look up at me, screwing up his eyelids almost as though he was in pain, then carried on in very low, whispered tones.
"I found out later, when I was in hospital, that the other boys had died. Sasha and Andrei were found together the next morning..." and he looked up at me with massive tears in his eyes and screwed up his face with a little howl, "...they died in each other's arms."
He brought his hands up to his face and pressed his fingertips into his eyelids. He shook uncontrollably as he cried, sobbing violently at the memory of what happened, and he let his grief overwhelm him.
"They were my friends!" he sobbed.
I really felt for him. It pained me to see him cry, and I realized I also had tears in my eyes. I watched his fragile little frame, lying there on my lap wracked with grief, and I wondered just how many more tears this poor little boy was going to shed. He had cried so much already. Just how much more crying was he going to have to do and how long was his suffering going to go on for?
We stayed there on the sofa for a good long time and I let him cry himself out. Eventually, when his grief abated, he laid there silently, not moving. Yura was very quiet and still, clearly affected by his testimony. I just continued sitting there on the sofa with Yura, stroking him, rubbing his back and massaging his little shoulders, reassuring him and soothing his anxiety. I sat with him until he had relaxed, until his ugly memories had receded once more, and he had eventually fallen asleep.
Later that night I was rudely wrenched out of a deep sleep by the phone ringing. It was pitch dark. The middle of the night. I stirred, not quite awake and sluggishly shifted over to the side of the bed, momentarily deafened by the phone's shrill tones. I reached out, flailing around blindly for the phone on the nightstand, and lifted the heavy handset to my ear. It was Nikolayev.
"We've found him," he said.
I noticed the clock there by the phone. It was 4.30 in the morning.
"What? Who?" I asked, my voice husky with sleep.
"Vladik," Nikolayev said, "We've found Vladik."
It didn't quite sink in. I was still half asleep.
"Can you be at the airport in two hours?" Nikolayev asked.
"Of course," I replied, just starting to come to my senses, "But what..."
"He's in transit now. He'll be alone," Nikolayev went on, "Codename Alex. I'll text you the flight details. Just be there."
"Okay," I said, and replaced the handset.
I switched on the lamp on the nightstand and took a minute to focus. Of course it wasn't the first time I had received such a call. For security reasons my unit never released the flight details until after the aircraft had taken off, so as usual I was the last to be informed. But that was the nature of my job. Anyway, it was good news. The news I had secretly been waiting for. They had found Vladik!