The crowd in the international terminal of Moscow Sheremetyevo thickened. Status updates in bright red—canceled, delayed, canceled, delayed—covered the arrivals and departures boards. Dark clouds hung low in the sky above the airport as flights were diverted to Saint Petersburg, Helsinki, and Kiev.
At a bar, with only a sparkling water in front of him, sat a short, slender dark-complexioned man. The lines in his forehead implied the concerns of a man of forty-five, though he was only twenty-seven. He held a battered leather briefcase to his lap with one hand and flipped a mobile phone open and closed with the other.
The phone rang, and he answered it in accented but fluent Russian. When he hung up, he abandoned his glass of water and snaked around bodies and bags over to the arrivals board. His eyes scanned it for a moment and paused when they found New York. Delayed.
Blyat. The woman on the phone was right. Since the flight wasn’t canceled yet, he’d have to keep waiting. Normally, he wouldn’t mind. When he’d taken this job in the spring, the notion of waiting in the airport for hours, day after day, had struck him as idyllic. With three young children and a wife at home, he relished the thought of being able to sit and read mystery novels with no interruptions. And up until now, that’s exactly how his workdays had gone. Delayed flights extended his literary enjoyment, letting him be shocked by the crime, work alongside the investigator, and discover the murderer all in one sitting. Tonight, though, he had a concert ticket, a ticket he had saved a long time to afford.
He knew this flight wasn’t going to land. Everyone expecting it knew. But if the board didn’t say canceled, he had to wait until more information was available. Missing a pick-up would mean instantly losing his job.
Blyat, he muttered again. Some curse words were the same in Russian and Armenian.
“Privet,” a voice to his right said.
Artyom turned and saw a standard-issue Russian thug. Buzz cut, black leather jacket, and track pants. The man looked moderately fit, yet still had a paunch. He didn’t carry any luggage. Artyom nodded once and walked back to the bar. He sat down at a table without ordering anything and pulled some papers out of his briefcase.
Dana Mulrooney, 24, Nashua, New Hampshire.
Arriving Tuesday, September 17, 2002 at 3:40 PM on DL217 from New York City.
Instructions: Drive to m. Smolenskaya, st. Novy Arbat, 26 for the night. Pick up at 8:30 AM and drive to Paveletskiy station for the 9:30 AM train to Volgograd.
The papers included her train ticket and a photo, which showed a broad smiling face with white, straight teeth and brown, straight hair that came down to her shoulders. She was indistinguishable from the other young American and British women he had collected who came to teach English. Barely a decade since the collapse of communism and it seemed like everyone had money to spend on luxuries like private language tutors. While Artyom couldn’t afford to pay a foreigner to teach his own kids, chauffeuring these teachers provided enough money for a used car and a much nicer apartment than his family could have ever hoped for in Armenia. He could even treat himself from time to time, like buying this ticket to see the rock band Splean.
The concert. It started at seven and would take almost an hour to reach from the apartment where he needed to drop off Dana Mulrooney. With the time it would take for her to collect her bag and get through customs, and the time to drive to the apartment, he would barely make the opening act. If she was an hour late, he would miss at least part of the main act too. He was certain her plane was seven hundred kilometers away, circling Saint Petersburg at that very moment, waiting to land, the airline already having decided no flights would be heading to Moscow for the rest of the night. If only they would update the arrivals board.
“Beautiful girl,” a voice said over his shoulder.
Artyom looked up. The thug from earlier stood behind him. Artyom snapped the file shut and stuffed it into his briefcase. “She’s my cousin.”
The man smiled, then pulled out an empty chair at the table and sat down.
“Vadim,” he said, offering a hand to shake.
“Artyom.” He shook the man’s hand, then locked the clasp on his case.
“Your cousin, eh? Abandoned the Soviet Union, now coming back to spend her American money buying up all our property?” Vadim tipped his back chair onto two legs and hoisted an elbow across the backrest.
“Not at all. Only coming to visit family.” Artyom knew about guys like this. He would find information on wealthy arrivals, get the driver or family member drunk and passed out, explain to the visitor that there was an emergency and he was the new escort, and then, after they got out onto the highway, rob the person. Or worse. It was a common scam Artyom’s employer had educated him about and reminded him of every time there was a news story about another occurrence, which was frequently. In four months on the job, Artyom hadn’t fallen victim to one of these guys. That felt like an accomplishment.
“In Moscow? You don’t sound Russian to me.”
“I’m not. We’re flying back to Yerevan together as soon as she lands.” Artyom had practiced this story many times. If this Vadim didn’t think they were even traveling into the city, surely he would find someone else to victimize.
“That’s a lot of travel straight from New York.”
Artyom clenched his jaw. The man must have stood over his shoulder long enough to read at least some of the data sheet. He offered a close-lipped smile and then said, “Well, she doesn’t have long to visit. Can’t waste time in Moscow. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” He rose from his chair.
Vadim sat up straight and held out both arms. “Hey, where are you going? None of the flights are coming in for a long time. Let me buy you a drink.”
“I don’t drink.”
“Every good Russian drinks!” Vadim threw back his head and laughed loudly.
“As you pointed out, I’m not Russian. And I have to go now.”
Artyom strode over to the Delta Airlines customer service desk. The line was several people deep, but he didn’t need to wait. He heard someone at the front of the line ask about the New York flight, and the agent responded that she had no information about the plane’s whereabouts. Artyom stepped out of line and scanned the frustrated faces of people waiting for flights that were never going to arrive or depart. Vadim had disappeared. Still, Artyom didn’t want to chance another encounter. He headed for the airport exit.
Beyond the sliding glass doors, dense clouds the color of steel rolled and collided, their shapes constantly changing from one gargoyle to another. Signage and small trees bounced back and forth stiffly. Plastic bags and scraps of paper swirled twenty and thirty feet above the ground. The people running toward him were nearly doubled over in their efforts to not get blown over. Artyom stashed his briefcase beneath his coat, clutched it to his chest, and ran toward the economy parking lot.
Seconds after he reached his car, the rain reached Moscow. Droplets the size of gumdrops plopped onto his windshield, randomly at first, but within minutes, in a deafening, impenetrable cascade that obscured the cars around him. Artyom kept the ignition off and let his breath fog the windows. He could have been completely alone in the world for the next ten minutes, and he wouldn’t have known the difference. But when the worst of the storm passed and the chaos of the airport came back into view, his phone rang.
“Oh, thank god you are alright,” his wife said.
“Of course, darling, why wouldn’t I be?”
“I thought you were driving in the middle of this apocalypse.”
“The flight hasn’t landed yet.”
“Even if it lands, promise me you won’t drive in this. You don’t know how.”
Artyom had only received his driving license a month before he applied with the language school, a fact he had successfully hidden from his employer. Driving in the rain did make him nervous, and the impending winter worried him greatly. Regardless, he sighed gently into the phone. “Anush, all will be fine. Safe driving is my job.”
“And you do it well, my love.” She sighed. “I guess you will have to miss the show.”
“Yes, I think so.” He glanced at his glovebox, which held the coveted ticket. Then he glanced at his watch, which read five o’clock. “I don’t know when the flight is coming. There’s no information.”
“Well, if there’s still no information by seven, you should go. If the weather has cleared, that is. You could watch them and then head back to the airport after.”
Artyom hadn’t considered this. He could. He could drive down there and check the flight status right before Splean took the stage. The venue was only forty minutes away.
He talked with his wife a while longer while the rain continued to ting heavily against the metal of his old Lada Zhiguli. When they hung up, he considered his wife’s suggestion again. He’d never left in the middle of an unfinished job. Maybe he should call his boss and tell her his plan. Maybe he should ask her if another staff member might be free. Would she understand how important this show was to him? Probably not. Tatiana Gorevskaya was a shrewd businesswoman, capable of finding her niche and profiting off the transition to this new economy. However, she did not approve of the societal changes, like the growing popularity of American style rock music. And with hundreds of immigrants pouring in daily from the former Soviet republics, he knew he was easily replaceable. If he was going to do this, he would be wise to keep it to himself.
He remained in his car, reading the latest mystery from Darya Dontsova. An hour later, he still hadn’t heard a single plane overhead. He pulled an umbrella from the backseat and dashed back to the terminal.
The line for the Delta representative was now over a dozen people deep. Artyom joined it and looked around. Every inch of wall space was being leaned against. Hundreds of angry voices echoed in the great hall. The bar no longer had even standing room, and men with pint glasses full of beer spilled out into the walkway, cursing passerby who jostled their elbows and sloshed beer over the rims and onto their shoes. These men were a homogenous bunch, except for one.
Next to an overflowing trashcan stood Vadim. They locked eyes. Vadim raised his pint glass and winked. Artyom turned back around to face the agent’s desk, his heartbeat racing. It felt implausible that, among all these bodies and despite all the hours that had passed, Vadim knew exactly where he was. Coincidence seemed unlikely. Artyom clutched the handle of this briefcase with both hands and remained facing forward.
“Flight 217 is on the ground in Peter, but the passengers have been instructed to wait at the gate. We still intend to bring that flight to Moscow this evening.” The tall blonde spoke in monotone, looking him directly in the eyes as she did, not needing to consult the computer screen in front of her.
“When we know, we’ll update the arrivals board.” She gestured vaguely to the nearest screens, and then looked past him to the next person in line.
Artyom stepped out of line. If the plane hadn’t left yet, the passengers had to get on board, fly, exit the plane in Moscow, and go through customs. He had at least three hours of free time ahead, and it was nearly seven. He hesitated, and then exited the airport again, without looking back toward the bar.
The rain continued, limiting visibility on the M-11. The downpour had waterlogged the highway, and dozens of cars, including the Lada, hydroplaned into other lanes, causing even the vehicles with decent tires to hit their brakes and further slow traffic. Artyom hadn’t gone faster than thirty kilometers an hour since leaving the airport. At this rate, he would arrive just as the band was finishing. Not to mention he’d never make it back in time to meet Dana Mulrooney if her plane landed while he was still in Moscow’s central business district. The risk of losing his job wasn’t worth seeing the band perform only one or two songs. He’d have other chances to see Splean, especially if he didn’t get fired. Maybe he could actually afford two tickets and take his wife with him next time.
He put his blinker on and slowly merged to the right to take the next exit. At the light, he turned left and then left again to get back on the highway heading toward the airport. As Artyom accelerated, the massive tires of a tractor-trailer in front of him sprayed his car with rainwater. Even at the highest setting, his wipers couldn’t fight off the deluge. Unable to see the lines in the road or the walls of the on-ramp, he tapped his brakes to let the truck pull ahead.
Something rammed into the back of his car. Artyom’s chest rushed toward the steering wheel with his head whipping forward after it a second later. He pressed the pedal harder to prevent his car from smashing into the semi, but the taillights at eye level grew larger. He jerked the wheel, but the concrete on either side gave him nowhere to go. The continued force behind him pushed the hood of the Lada under the rear of the giant truck. When the windshield hit the bumper, it spiderwebbed, and when Artyom hit the bumper, he was decapitated.
At 11:45 PM on September 17, a Russian customs agent stamped Dana Mulrooney’s passport and waved her through to the arrivals hall of Sheremetyevo. A man with a buzz cut, black leather jacket, track pants, and a small sign that read “Dana” was waiting for her.
About the Author
Jennifer Swallow writes technical manuals by day and contemporary fiction by night. She finds inspiration in everything from multivitamins to traffic jams. She and her Finnish Lapphund call Boulder home, for now.