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Chapter 8: Reunion
Anton was sitting on the sofa dripping wet. His shabby clothes were soaked through from the rain, and beneath that eternal woolly cap, his shaggy hair was now wet and plastered to the sides of his neck in straggly little rats tails. He hung his head down looking defeated and demoralized. His lip was still bleeding and he had one arm drawn protectively across his chest as though it was too sore to move. In his other hand he was clutching his broken spectacles. The wire frames were slightly twisted and one lens sported an elaborate spiders-web type crack.
"Sorry to call you so late," he said, apologetically, his voice hoarse and barely audible, as though he had been shouting.
"Don't apologize," I said, "I'm glad you called me."
He looked up, raising his head, his face still greasy from the rain.
"There wasn't really anybody else I could call," he confessed.
"You did the right thing," I said, "And I don't mind at all."
I stepped towards him with a clean towel that I had brought in from the bathroom. He looked at it and hesitated a moment, perhaps reluctant to get blood all over it.
"Here," I said, and proceeded to wipe his face for him as he sat there.
He let me dab his bloody lip gently and he winced slightly. He went to move his arm, but that set off a stab of pain. He really was in a bad way.
"Are you going to tell me what happened?"
He took the towel and went on wiping his face. Then he took off his cap with his one good arm and dried his hair, ruffling it up into a damp and frizzy halo. It was the first time I'd seen him without his cap. He had quite a cute head, and although slightly unkempt, a lovely thick head of hair.
"I was jumped," he said, "They took my money and my cell-phone."
Then he looked down at the buckled spectacles in his hand. He seemed to be on the verge of tears.
"Shit! They broke my glasses!"
"Don't worry about that," I said, calming him, "They can be replaced."
He shook his head.
"I'm sorry," he said again, "Thanks for picking me up."
"I could hardly leave you out there bleeding in the rain," I said.
Anton was already looking a lot better than when I had picked him up off the street less than half an hour ago, trembling and traumatized and huddled against the park fence, thoroughly saturated by the rain. He was a sorry sight, and the blood dripping off his chin from his split lip added to the chilling sight that greeted me as I pulled up in the SUV. I scooped him up in my arms from the rain-lashed ground. There was almost no substance to him at all when I picked him up. His lean body seemed very slight and lightweight in my strong arms. He clung to me like a child as I carried him over to the car and placed him on the passenger seat. He sat there forlornly, his head hanging down, dripping rainwater all over the leather upholstery. He was too traumatized to say much, and he simply shrank back into the seat, sobbing half from the trauma and half from the pain, and let me drive him out of there.
Now, seeing him on the big sofa in the drawing room, I was filled with pity at the way he sat there looking so dejected and sorry for himself. He may have been eighteen years old, and may have thought of himself as a pretty independent and self-assured young man, but at this moment what I saw before me was just a frightened, injured little boy.
I knelt down in front of him and checked his arm. I knew how to check for fractures. Luckily, the bones seemed intact. Best of all, he could move his fingers. It seemed to be very sore, but thankfully no more than that. Apart from his split lip and the fact that he was soaking wet, and a small rip on the knee of his jeans, he seemed relatively unharmed. At any rate there were no serious injuries and he seemed to be suffering mostly from shock.
"Take off those wet things," I said, "I'll make you some coffee."
He nodded bravely, and went to unbutton his shirt, but realized he couldn't do it with one hand. Still kneeling down in front of him, I reached up and unbuttoned his shirt for him. He looked quite humbled as I did that, averting his gaze and acknowledging that at this moment he really was totally in my care. As I peeled his wet shirt away from his lean body, I saw that he was wet through where the rainwater had penetrated his clothes right down to his skin. I leaned across and tugged his shirt off his arms, one by one. He used his good arm to wipe his chest and neck with the towel. As he did that I untied his sneakers and pulled them off him.
When I came back with his coffee, Anton was sitting there wearing only a pair of pale blue checked boxers. He had dried himself thoroughly and discarded the wet towel on the floor by his feet. His wet things were heaped into a little puddle next to it. He was shivering slightly, still holding his sore arm across his lap, with the palm facing upwards and the fingers clenched in a loose claw. I have already said that he was a good looking young man. He had a beautiful physique, with good definition and such perfect musculature that he could easily have passed for a catwalk model. He was slim and lithe, with broad shoulders and a shallow groove at the center of his chest that ran all the way down to his trim stomach. Below his navel, there was a thin line of lightly-colored hair that disappeared under the Calvin Klein waistband of his boxers.
He was looking down dejectedly as I set the mug of coffee down on the table next to the sofa. I sat across from him in one of the armchairs, fingering my own mug of coffee. I had a feeling this was going to be a long night.
He looked at the coffee steaming away on the table, but made no attempt to pick it up.
"Christ, I need a cigarette," he murmured.
I got up and fetched my cigarettes and lighter from the kitchen. I took one and offered it to him, holding it up before his eyes as he was looking down. He accepted it and stuck it in his lips impetuously. I offered him a light with a soft click of my lighter, but even as he held the cigarette to his lips, he was shivering so much he could barely connect the tip to the flame. I held his hand in mine to steady him, and he managed a deep drag which finally made the tip of the cigarette glow bright orange. He wolfed down the smoke greedily.
I sat back down opposite him.
"So are you going to tell me what you were doing in the park at this time of night?"
He glanced up guiltily, his eyes betraying that he knew I was onto him. I was under no illusions what the park was famous for. It was a well known gay cruising area, reputed for the quality of its rent boys, and he was certainly not one of the johns. It was an established pattern that boys who had been sexualized at a young age were likely to get involved in prostitution, or at any rate some form of dabbling in sexual favors. I had seen it so often at Boyscape. Hell, I had very nearly gone down that road myself - I HAD learned SOMETHING during the last twenty years - so there was only one logical conclusion. Anton didn't immediately volunteer a reply.
"You were hustling, weren't you?"
With his head dropped forward and his eyes closed, he covered his face with the palm of his one good hand and nodded slowly. The cigarette smoldered away, slotted between his knuckles.
"I thought you were trying to make a better life for yourself," I said, remembering what he had told me at our first meeting. "Is that how you're going to do it?"
He looked up with a flash of irritation.
"How do you think I'm paying for my education?"
"You're paying for it by hustling?"
"So I turn a few tricks!" he retorted, as though it was no big deal, "Better than working in some crummy bar!"
I huffed skeptically. I knew better. But I wasn't going to patronize him with well-intentioned lectures. I had no doubt that he was acutely aware of the implications of what he was doing.
"Are you going to college here?"
"What are you studying?" I asked, curious.
"Criminology," he said.
I couldn't help emitting a little involuntary laugh. My laughter seemed to prompt a slight giggle from him. I was delighted that he could see the irony of it.
"Don't make me laugh," he said, trying to suppress his amusement, "my ribs hurt."
I took a sip of my coffee and I watched him finish the cigarette as though it was a source of energy and nourishment to him. It certainly seemed to revive him considerably. When he had finally crushed out the stub in the ashtray, he started drinking his coffee, cradling the warm mug in his lap between sips.
"This wasn't what I had in mind for our next meeting," he said.
"Nor me," I replied, as I considered the circumstances.
We were then interrupted by a third voice interjecting into our conversation in Russian.
"What are you doing here?"
We both turned to see where the disembodied refrain had come from. It was Yura. He was standing on the threshold in his pajama bottoms looking in on us from the lobby, obviously listening to our conversation, observing us both sitting there. I wondered how long he had been standing there.
"Hey little buddy," I said, "What are you doing up?"
Yura ignored my question and stepped into the room looking at each of us in turn.
"You two know each other?" Yura asked, a little perplexed.
"Do you recognize me?" Anton asked him, reverting to Russian.
"Of course," Yura said, "You're Anton. You were one of the older brothers."
I guessed 'older brothers' was the term they had used for the slightly older boys that played with the younger ones in the videos.
There was a slightly tense moment where perhaps both Anton and I could not have anticipated how Yura would react to this unscheduled and somewhat unforeseen reunion.
"I wasn't your brother," said Anton, ashamedly, "I betrayed you. I helped them to abduct you. Don't you remember?"
"I remember you from the children's home," said Yura, "You looked after me. You were kind to me."
Anton looked over at me, surprised by Yura's apparently forgiving countenance. Yura's recollection of events was completely at odds with his own. Certainly it was not at all the negative and adverse reaction he had feared and expected. Anton looked back at Yura.
"You're not serious?"
"You didn't betray us," Yura went on, "I know you helped those men when they took us, but you couldn't have stopped them. They were going to do it anyway. We had no choice. All you did was make it easier for us. You looked after us. You were one of us."
The look on Anton's face transformed from disbelief into wonderment and then delight, finally understanding how his role was perceived, but also stunned by Yura's insight and his ability to convey his thoughts so clearly and candidly. Yura could be strikingly articulate sometimes.
Seeing the look of surprise on Anton's face, Yura smiled and stepped towards him. Then he did something which I shall never forget: he went over to Anton on the sofa and sat down next to him, curling himself up as though about to snuggle up to him, and he leaned across and put his arms around the bigger boy in a very mature and affectionate hug.
"You were my friend," said Yura, muffled against Anton's bare chest.
Anton sat there motionless and confused, not returning the hug, but looking over at me, completely immobilized with astonishment. Yura was so loving, so forgiving, and so affectionate, at this moment he made me very proud. He was such a remarkable little boy, and once again in that unique and inimitable way he had, his gestures and actions left me feeling breathless and awestruck.
Reassured that it was all okay, Anton looked down at Yura's sweet little head pressed against his chest. He put his coffee aside and was able to tentatively raise his arm, his one good hand ready to return the hug. He realized he had worried unnecessarily. Yura bore no malice towards him. Once he accepted that, he was able to close his arm around Yura to hug him back. Anton was rubbing Yura's little back affectionately. It was a beautiful sight, Yura's diminutive little frame reciprocally embracing the older boy.
"What happened to you?" Yura asked him.
He had evidently noticed that Anton was damp from the rain, and was sitting there with a split lip and a sore arm, and quite obviously stripped to his boxers for a reason.
I explained to Yura that Anton had been attacked. Then I had to confess that Anton and I had met previously, and added that Anton was going to be helping us with our investigations. I deliberately avoided any further embellishments, starkly aware that my contact with Anton had not yet been officially sanctioned. But I hoped in time it would be.
"It's good to see you again my little friend," said Anton, his tone couched with genuine affection.
"You too," said Yura, smiling.
Then he looked over at me.
"Mark, can I have some hot chocolate?"
"Okay," I said, "But then you have to go back to bed. It's late."
"Is Anton staying with us?"
Anton and I looked at each other. We hadn't discussed it.
"Yes," I said, forcing a decision, "at least for tonight."
Anton smiled, I think more from relief than gratitude. Something told me he probably wasn't in the mood to go back to his dour and companionless little apartment this evening.
I got up to go and make Yura's hot chocolate and I saw him turn and smile at Anton with such warmth and sincerity that it gladdened my heart to see them together. It was nice having Anton here with us.
"Do you remember Vladik?" Yura asked him.
"Yes, of course I remember Vladik," said Anton, "he was your best friend."
"Vladik's here," Yura announced, in hushed tones, as though letting him in on some big secret.
Yura nodded excitedly.
"He's upstairs asleep. Wanna see?"
"In the morning," said Anton, "Let's not disturb him tonight."
Yura filled him in on the details about Vladik's arrival, and they chatted amiably for a good long while as Yura drank his hot chocolate. And as they talked, it was clear to me that there was a good rapport between these two boys. Though they had not seen each other in over two years, it was as though they had resumed exactly from where they left off, talking over their experiences and remembering odd little details, reminiscing over the things they had done together. As I watched, and listened in on their conversation, it was clear to me that it was a part of Yura's life that I would never and could never be a part of. It was a time that belonged to them.
I let them talk until it was very late, then gently guided Yura back to bed. We were all tired. A lot had happened already this evening and it was best we just got some sleep. I put Yura to bed, and he slipped in beside Vladik who was still sleeping soundly, and was thankfully completely oblivious to the evening's events. Then I took Anton to one of the vacant bedrooms - there were plenty to choose from - and helped him to get into bed. He sat down tentatively, sinking onto the edge of the bed, still shivering slightly. I couldn't work out if that was from shock or whether he was genuinely cold. Then I pulled back the bedclothes for him and he stiffly got into bed.
"Get some sleep," I said, "You'll feel better in the morning."
I went to turn out the light.
I stopped and turned, looking at Anton, buried snugly under the bedclothes. His big hazel eyes were gleaming handsomely from the edge of the comforter.
"Thanks," he said.
I smiled. I turned out the light and stepped out into the hallway, gently closing the bedroom door behind me.
* * * * * *
It was already late into the morning, but a gloriously warm day. Yura and I were sitting side by side on the wooden bench on the downstairs terrace, overlooking the pool. We shared a valuable little boymoment along with a cigarette over breakfast. I was sipping coffee. Yura had his usual hot chocolate. Vladik was still asleep, no doubt still contending with the jet lag and the exhaustion of his first day here. There was still no sign of Anton either, which I took to be a good thing. Yura had woken up early and came into my room for a hug. We hadn't spent much time alone together the day before, so we went down to sit by the pool to chat for a while. He was still in his pajama bottoms and I was in my bathrobe. His shirtless little body was toasting nicely in the warm sunshine. As we smoked, we were talking about Vladik.
"Don't you like Vladik?" he asked me.
It was a searching question, and demonstrated that he had clearly detected Vladik's standoffishness and the distinct frostiness between us.
"Of course I do," I conceded, handing him the nearly depleted cigarette, "but I don't think he likes me very much just now."
"Vladik is going through a really tough time," I said, remembering the extent of the injuries I had observed, "He'll come around. Just give him time to settle in and be kind to him."
Yura finished the cigarette and stubbed it out elegantly in the ashtray that was sitting by the coffee pot on the little metal table.
"Of course I will," he said, "don't worry."
"Good," I went on, "We have to be gentle with him. You have to remember what he's just been through. He's probably still traumatized. Remember how you felt when the police found you? Well, that's how Vladik's feeling right now."
Yura looked away thoughtfully, his blue eyes focusing on something in the distance, way over the other side of the pool.
"I'm just happy that he's okay," said Yura, looking back at me.
I leaned over and ruffled his hair, and put an arm around him. His little body was beautifully warm from the sunshine.
We were still sitting there entwined when Vladik appeared, emerging from the cool shade of the house, through the opened French windows. He was barefoot and in his Harry Potter pajama bottoms. He had obviously come straight from his bed because his chest was sporting the reddish marks where the creases of the bedclothes had left their impressions on his skin. His pretty green eyes were a little puffy from his sleep and he squinted against the dazzling sun as he came out onto the terrace, stepping out into the burning morning heat.
"Hey," said Yura.
"Hey," Vladik responded, and held out a fist.
They bumped fists by way of greeting, and in that one gesture I could see this unwritten understanding that existed between them. It was a mark of their mutual affection and at the same time a symbol of their solidarity. In that one gesture, I could see an almost subconscious link and it was clear that despite the time they had been apart, their friendship had not diminished. It was almost a reflex action, an automatic throwback to their shared history.
Vladik completely ignored me, not even looking in my direction, as though I didn't exist.
Without saying anything, I got up and went to bring him something to eat. By the time I came back, Vladik had already helped himself to one of my cigarettes and had taken my place on the bench. He was sitting there smoking, nonchalantly pinching the cigarette between his thumb and forefinger, and chatting away congenially to Yura. I put a plate of assorted kolaches on the table, with a glass of juice, hoping he would eat something. But I suspected he wouldn't eat anything if I was watching, so I tactfully withdrew and went back inside.
When I returned to the terrace a short time later, the boys were gone. They had evidently decided to go back inside. I noticed that a few of the kolaches were missing and the glass of juice had been drained. Perhaps that was a good sign.
I went back inside and was curious to see what the boys were up to. I soon located them upstairs where I found the door to Anton's room wide open. Yura and Vladik were on Anton's bed, with him still in it, and they were bouncing around yammering away excitedly in Russian. Yura was kneeling on the bed, his legs folded under him, his butt sitting on his ankles. Vladik had flung himself face down, propped up on his elbows, and was looking quite at home. They were ardently pitching questions at Anton who was sitting up in the bed with a big mound of pillows amassed behind his head.
"What's going on?" I enquired, stepping into the room.
"We're just saying good morning to Anton," Yura explained, looking round.
"Hey, did they wake you up?" I asked Anton.
"It's okay Mark, it was a nice surprise to wake up and find these two little pups on my bed."
He seemed genuinely pleased and not at all put out by the rude awakening. I particularly liked his choice of words and the way he described the boys as 'little pups'. What an affectionate turn of phrase.
"It was good to see this one here," said Anton, stroking Vladik's clipped hair, "Christ, you've grown. You were such a skinny little thing when I last saw you."
Vladik giggled, almost embarrassed by Anton's admiring comments. It was the first time I had seen Vladik let his guard down and allow himself to relax a little. Certainly it was the first time I had seen him smile. It was significant how his demeanor was so much more relaxed and carefree when he was with Yura, and now also with Anton. At that moment the thought did cross my mind that the key to getting through to Vladik could well be through Anton.
"How's the arm?" I asked Anton.
He raised his elbow stiffly.
"Very sore," he said, "but still in one piece."
It was bound to feel a lot stiffer, I reasoned, but at least he was able to move it okay. His cut lip was a little puffy and had turned slightly purple, but would heal nicely. Anton didn't seem too concerned. He went straight back to talking with the boys. And as I watched them, joking and giggling and bouncing about on Anton's bed like that, it was clear that there was a unique rapport between these three boys. Perhaps they were united by their shared experiences, bound through a relationship which was rooted in adverse and extreme circumstances. They were comrades, united in their common suffrage, like old soldiers who had fought together and ultimately survived together. It was a heartwarming sight.
The inevitable call from my unit finally came, and I was charged with the responsibility of getting the boys over to HQ. I didn't anticipate a big case conference, like when Yura had first arrived, but I was very conscious of the fact that Vladik's arrival indicated significant developments in the progress of Operation Ganymede. I was able to persuade Anton to come with us. He was reluctant, but it seemed as good an opportunity as any to bring him into the fold. I wanted to introduce him to Nikolayev. More than that, I thought he might be of assistance to the investigation. He was bright and resourceful and his own experiences could provide valuable insight. Of course, he expressed his reticence, as I knew he would, but he was swayed by the welcome he had received from Yura and Vladik. Their positive response towards him finally persuaded him that he would be treated fairly and sympathetically by the police. I also gave him a personal guarantee that there would be no adverse consequences. I think he knew that it was the only logical way to proceed. It seemed nonsensical that he should remain a non-entity in all this. If he was successful in locating Yura's father, which I knew was his objective, then he would need to make himself known to the police. So, all things considered, he finally agreed. Having secured his agreement, I was overjoyed at the prospect of having him working with us. Secretly, I think he was himself very relieved.
It was strange but delightful how Anton's whole demeanor changed after this discussion. As we were getting ready to leave for HQ, his approach became more positive and optimistic. I had washed and dried and pressed his clothes from last night and took them up to him, so he would look presentable for his visit to HQ. He was able to have a shower and freshen up, and he stunned me by borrowing a razor and scraping that scratchy stubble from his face. For the first time I saw him looking fresh-faced and clean shaven, and he had even discarded that infernal woolly cap. With his clothes clean and neatly pressed, he actually looked quite neat and well groomed. It was a stark contrast to the scruffy, disheveled and unkempt appearance he had confronted me with at our first meeting. His good looks were notable at our first meeting, even beneath his shabby clothes and stubble and long hair. But if he was attractive then, he was even more handsome now. His face was clean and smooth and without that cap he was able to brush his long, shaggy mane of mousy-colored hair back off his face, giving him a brave, smoldering, moody look that was infinitely appealing. It was such a shame that he allowed his body to be used and abused at the park every night. He was such a promising young man, he deserved better.
* * * * * *
Microphones and cameras were the last thing I wanted to see as I pulled up outside HQ. On the broad, flat steps leading up to the main entrance, the glare of TV cameras and lights was visible from some distance away, made even more prominent by the little knot of people that were hovering conspicuously on the sidewalk. Damn! It was the media! The sight of those cameras and lights was enough to strike fear into anybody. I had always harbored a deep-seated and longstanding contempt for the media. They had made John's life extremely difficult, with their intrusive digging into his lifestyle, their incessant questioning about his past, and their unkind and sometimes blatantly offensive insinuations about his work. They damn near cost him his career with some of the salacious claptrap they spouted about him. About both of us. That may have been a long time ago, but I hadn't forgotten. I had no time for them. Goddamn vultures.
As we neared the front steps I could hear a concerned murmur arise from the boys in the back of the car. Anton in the passenger seat stiffened and sat upright, looking jumpy. Something had obviously transpired for the media to be sniffing around. In truth, I was surprised they had left us alone up till now. I was a veteran of media scrums. I knew how to handle them, but I also knew just how menacing they could be. That little pack of people and equipment all scrambling chaotically, with all the resultant noise and commotion, could be very intimidating to the uninitiated. It was just a shame that these poor boys were now going to have to be subjected to it.
I considered our options. I could drive around the back to the parking lot, but the walk to the main entrance would be even further. No doubt they would accost us as we crossed the forecourt and it would just provide more opportunity for them to harry us. The best option was to pull up as close to the edge of the steps as possible and abandon the car there. At least it would be a relatively short walk to the door. I could always get the car recovered later.
"Listen to me carefully," I said, with a firm and unequivocal tone, looking around from the driving seat, "We're going to go inside without stopping. Stay close to me. You're not to look at anybody. You're not to say anything. Just keep walking okay?"
I looked at Anton, Yura and Vladik in turn, all three pairs of eyes looking frightened and concerned.
"You don't stop, you don't look and you don't say anything," I said again, "Just stay with me. Understood?"
They all nodded gravely.
I pulled up to the steps at high speed to stop them surrounding the car before we had a chance to get out. I stopped as far away from the media scrum as I could on the very edge of the steps. That gave us a few seconds advantage while they scrambled over to us, lugging their cameras and microphones with them. I stopped the car with a little squeal from the tires and jumped out, running around to let Yura and Vladik out of the back. I held the door open, then pulled them close to me as they hopped out. I pushed their heads down so they wouldn't have microphones shoved into their faces. I waited for Anton to jump out, and he huddled up next to me with the boys in front of us. We moved off together, closing ranks in a little group. Within seconds we were besieged, with camera lenses and microphones being thrust at us from all directions. In the background, flashguns were flaring repeatedly, their blinding bursts adding to the theatricality of the whole thing; a relentless array of intense flashes of light momentarily burning their ghostly reflections onto my retinas.
"It's them! It's the porn boys! The porn boys!" they were yelling to one another, excitedly.
Typical of the media, in that flippant, almost arrogant manner with which they approached such stories, to have reduced the entire matter to just two words: porn boys. Was that the only designation that these little boys merited?
"Ivan! Alex! Talk to us!" they clamored.
Assholes, I thought to myself. They're not going to talk to you. They don't even understand you.
Anton and I pushed forward up the steps as best we could, trying to shield the boys on both sides. Our progress was hampered by this desperate little huddle of reporters and cameramen that surrounded us, forming a moving wall, packed together so tightly it was almost as though they were all stuck together with some kind of invisible glue. They obscured our view so that I could barely see where we were going. I detected that we were slowing down. If we stopped, we would be completely beleaguered. Then somebody started clamoring in Russian, "Alex, talk to me, talk to me..." and of course Vladik made the mistake of looking up to see where it was coming from. Sure enough, it was the correspondent from the satellite news channel Russia Today. The tall female reporter was vying for position at the front of the pack and sticking her foam-covered microphone right into Vladik's face. It was almost as though she was trying to feed him an oversized candy-apple. She was asking him what it was like to be here and where had he been held for the past few months. I swatted the microphone away, but she persisted, asking things like "What was it like for you?" I remember thinking what a stupid question that was. What was it like? I pictured the rope marks that were still visible around Vladik's neck and the deep red welts that were even now painfully cut into his back, and thought what an insensitive bitch she was. The impertinence of her questions angered me. I tried to push her away, but she would not be deterred. Her grim perseverance annoyed me. I pushed her back again, this time a little harder. Perhaps too hard, because she stumbled backwards. I was left with the enduring image of the expression of complete incredulity on her face as she lost her balance. She tripped over the cameraman and fell backwards onto the steps. Her long overcoat fell open and that ridiculous, almost phallic-looking microphone flew out of her clutches and clattered errantly down the steps. Just at that moment, a flurry of flashguns all fired simultaneously, no doubt capturing the scene for posterity.