Word Count: 8,717 (God, Schuldig’s long-winded)
Summary: Schuldig’s misplaced Crawford, in February, in Moscow. Pre-series fun including iconography, acquisitions, frozen rivers, exposure therapy and German composers. Memento meets Eastern Promises without the Turkish bath scene (might add that later). And I thought this would be a drabble. Silly me.
Disclaimer: Not mine, made no money, but I did have to pay a substantial bribe to Schwarz.
Comments: Beta duty by Vedith. Poor dear, what a deadline. I’d hug you, if you didn’t mind the touching. Can I give you a sarcastic kiss instead?
"Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made."– Immanuel Kant
The vor-v-zakonye’s tattoos were twisting icons creeping past the starched, southern boundary of his cuff. The tattoos fascinated Schuldig more than the old man’s mind. The vor, a symbolic mouthpiece for his outfit, emphasized his speech with huge, sweeping swathes of his hand. His name was Goltsblat. On his pinky, a rare alexandrite ring changed colors as it passed near the bright candle in the center of the table: green to red, light to shadow.
“You’re waiting for your associate?” Goltsbalt asked, coming, at last, to the reason why Schuldig inexplicably kept talking in the middle of the night, in February, in Moscow.
“Russia is very large,” Schuldig said and smiled. He pictured the country as a vast maze of apartments and rooms and blood splattered tables, alleys banked with grey snow.
Two weeks in Russia and he’d misplaced Crawford. Suddenly, like entering a room and forgetting, from hallway to doorway, what he went there to retrieve. Schuldig lost him. He’d never been to Russia before and the experience was just so fascinating – one moment he was scrounging a bookseller’s memories on the street near the Yauza River and the next he was following a street kid with an accordion and a McDonald’s apple pie that the kid had just stolen from the purse of an American tourist. Schuldig came to his wits, having made a full circle, while staring at a black streak of oil sluicing through the ice down the river.
He turned to ask, “How are the natural gas investments in Texas?” He admired a country that knew how to exploit their natural resources as much as he admired Crawford’s economic foresight.
And no one was there.
He looked both left and right. Bundled in heavy coats and foreign thoughts, people on the busy street slouched home from work. Schuldig retraced his steps, peered into shop fronts and walked very deliberately, with an attentive bearing, as if he could mimic Crawford into reappearing. No such luck. Schuldig thought of making another circuit when it occurred him with an insightful thrill, that Crawford would find him if he just stayed put. He tightened his thick scarf around his neck and waited on the nearest bench until the sun sank fully behind the heavy buildings.
Schuldig missed the familiar background noise of Crawford’s mind, not that he could decipher any of it, but like the hum of a fluorescent light, the sound didn’t carry far and the absence was louder than the presence.
He waited another hour, his toes frozen past numbness into a biting pain that made him frown at half-heard memories of blackened appendages. He rummaged the minds of everyone in the vicinity, looking for the shape of Crawford’s shoulders beneath his black overcoat, the toe of Crawford’s John Lobb shoe against the scarred ice, the certain arc of Crawford’s eyebrow as he maneuvered the wide sidewalks. Schuldig discovered nothing of use. Frightened of frostbite, he cautiously hailed a taxi.
Crawford would meet him at the hotel. Schuldig startled the taxi driver with his sudden laugh. How foolish he’d been to sit in the cold, expecting Crawford to show up. The driver thought about his daughter in Turkey, lured across the Black Sea by the offer of a retail job. Schuldig, in his frustration, gave him an image of what kind of things he’d seen for sale on the edges of Taksim Square in the late hours of the night in Istanbul. The driver’s despair filled the car for the rest of the journey to the hotel.
Even so, Schuldig was reluctant to leave the warm, rumbling car when he arrived at the hotel, Le Royal Meridian National , the illuminated domes of the Kremlin glowing across Mokhovaya Street. He searched the doorman for any memory of Crawford arriving and found nothing more than the image of both he and Crawford leaving after lunch. Schuldig knew that much already, remembered how pleased he’d been to get away from the financial summit for the afternoon, the conference rooms and the smell of coffee.
They’d traveled that afternoon to a small restaurant near the Yauza River to meet a contact named Goltsblat who came by his vor status honestly, in prison, before moving to America to earn a degree in economics from Brown University. Now the head of an extensive underground network of car thieves and cigarette smugglers, though Schuldig thought the term underground was used rather loosely in Russia, Goltsblat cultivated a passing interest in mining and the collection of sixteenth century icons of the Novgorod school.
Goltsblat was not accustomed to contacts arriving in pairs, he expected a force quite larger than one quiet American and the brightly dyed crow that stood at his shoulder – and that’s how Goltsblat thought of Schuldig, a crow, before he’d even opened his mouth. At first the image troubled Schuldig, made him want to reach in and pull the Russian’s memories of prison forward, like re-arranging the structure of a story so the disturbing imagery came first and overshadowed any future redemption, until Schuldig realized that Goltsblat liked crows.
Golstblat’s thugs arranged themselves casually in the empty restaurant, twelve men to be exact, most filling twice the space as Schuldig. He appreciated their smug complacency, their quick appraisal and easy assurance that there was nothing to fear from the two visitors.
Except for a small one sitting alone at a corner table in the rear, half hidden by a hanging fern – that one’s relative spatial insignificance was offset by his vigilance, bright as his one yellow eye.
They took a seat at Goltsblat’s table and Crawford got right to the point, “Thank you for your time, we’re here to secure the mining rights in the Arkhangelsk region.“
“I received your email with the details, would you like tea?” Golstblat spoke the broken English of commerce.
“No thank you. Is it too late to add one hundred kilos of beluga from Atyrau?”
“Not at all. We’ll attach that as a bonus,” Goltsblat smiled and slid a worn leather folio across the table. “My representative worked out the details.”
Schuldig took the folio and flipped through the contracts. The joy of doing business with men like Golstblat was that nothing was, technically, illegal, if sorted through the proper channels. Eszett desired mining rights in Arkhangelsk on the off chance of discovering a fresh thread of diamonds, much like the beluga bonus, but the organization’s actual intent had more to do with the location than the hard currency waiting to be clawed out from the razed mines.
Schuldig had a better view of the corner table from where he sat. The small one was bleached looking, like the albino fish living in constant night that he’d once seen on a documentary. The working eye watched the transaction with a misplaced air of amusement while the other was covered by a patch; Schuldig searched for the story behind that one. All of Golstblat’s thugs seemed to be missing something: fingers, hand, memories, mannerisms.
One Eye wasn’t Russian. One Eye thought in English. The incident in question occurred as a result of an unfortunate stumble while running from a rivaling gang in Belfast. He seemed to throw the story at Schuldig, as if he knew Schuldig looked for it. One eye smiled. Schuldig returned to the contracts.
The contracts were in triplicate: English, Russian, German. Schuldig flipped to the latter, reminding himself to translate the documents that evening in order to secure their accuracy before the signatures were acquired. A server appeared from the back and placed cups of tea in front of him and Crawford.
“It’s cold outside, drink,” Goltsblat said, and his approach was filled with a mirthful concern that somehow endeared him to Schuldig. The man seemed at odds with his tattoos and memories.
“I have a personal request,” Crawford said.
Schuldig hadn’t expected that, so he busied himself with the tea in an effort to make to not make it apparent.
“What is it?” Goltsblat, unconcerned, motioned for the server.
“Real estate purchased in full anonymity, guaranteed protection. I envision the ideal situation to be holdings connected to no aliases, preferably in the names of some recently deceased with no significant blight on their records.” Crawford seemed to occupy more space when he spoke with the assurance of a vision. Schuldig watched Crawford’s hands spread out on the table.
It was an ideal proposition. Schuldig wondered why he hadn’t thought of it himself. Bound by the unique code of the Russian un-law, Goltsblat’s compliance almost guaranteed anonymity, unless, of course, someone thought to ransack his mind. Schuldig wondered if Crawford considered that. He glanced toward the carefully constructed and familiar angles of Crawford’s profile. Of course Crawford considered that, he just hadn’t said of word of it to Schuldig, as usual.
“Have you given any thought to the area where you would like this real estate to be located?” Golstblat asked and turned to the server to say in Russian, “Bring food for our guests.”
Crawford pulled a small map of the city from his pocket, unfolded it, and smoothed it out on the table between them, “Here,” he pointed to an area marked by a precisely executed X, as if he’d formed the marks with a straight edge, “And here.”
“Apartments, offices?” Goltsblat took the map.
Crawford leaned back in his chair, “Whatever is available.”
“It can be arranged.”
The timeframe surprised Schuldig, he snapped the folio shut. The tea made a small clatter against the saucer as he picked it up. Something was going to happen and that something involved Schuldig, directly or indirectly, and once again, he had no idea what that something was. The past year of working daily with Crawford made Schuldig feel like a detonations expert suffering from amnesia. The bombs were set and waiting but he had no idea where the explosions would occur until the building shook.
Crawford collected real estate in dead zones, away from the prying mechanics of Eszett, the way that most people, the ones that had time for things like hobbies, took up boating or rock climbing. Everyone in the organization had quirks, Gerhardt in Istanbul collected pens, for example, particularly the ones with hidden chambers. Schuldig collected people’s moments of pivotal trauma, the second where everything changed, because thoughts were portable and he moved around too much to cultivate a hobby that required actual storage.
He glanced at One Eye and found him smiling again, while damaging the table with a knife.
“Are you enjoying Moscow?” Goltsblat placed the map in his pocket and addressed Schuldig.
Schuldig searched Goltsblat’s mind for the correct answer, and was confused to find genuine interest, “I’m afraid I haven’t left the hotel much.”
“Then you and Mr. Crawford will join me tonight in the small hall at the Moscow Conservatory. I’ve reserved seats for the Bach cello suites.”
“What’s our schedule, Crawford?” Schuldig asked with a loudly thrown aside, in case Crawford happened to be listening, since the itinerary is entirely in your hands.
Schuldig couldn’t tell if Crawford expected the offer or if he were thinking. For all appearances he seemed to be mentally perusing the agenda.
“I have an appointment, but Schuldig will join you. Schuldig loves Bach,” Crawford grinned and placed his hands in his lap, a sure sign that he was about to rise.
Schuldig hated Bach; it wasn’t as if nationality dictated taste, and chamber music reminded him of a particular brand of punishment uniquely arranged for telepaths at school.
“I need to translate the contracts,” Schuldig said.
“That will only take you an hour at most,” Crawford stood, though the server arrived with plates stacked up his arms.
“What about the meeting with – you know,” three continents of names in his head and Schuldig couldn’t think of one of them to throw out.
“Postpone it,” Crawford gestured to the door with his head.
Schuldig sighed and looked to Golstblat, “I’ll be seeing you tonight, I suppose.”
“Your ticket will be at the box office; the concert starts at eight. Would you like me to send a driver?”
“I’ll take the . . .”
“Yes, he would,” Crawford interrupted and looked at Schuldig with a pointed, though pleasant, signal for him to shut up. “It’s too cold to be waiting around for a taxi.”
“I’ll have someone come for you at seven fifteen, at the Royal Meridian, correct?” Goltsblat didn’t look up from his dressed herring.
“Thank you,” Schuldig said and One Eye laughed.
Crawford handed him his coat.
They said their farewells and Schuldig waited until they were near the river before he spoke, “And what was that about? The Russian crime boss just offered to send a driver to pick me up at our fucking hotel.”
“Our location is no secret.”
They stopped walking and stared at each other.
“And Bach? In case you’ve forgotten, diplomacy is your job,” Schuldig emphasized this point with his finger jabbed hard at Crawford’s chest, “I’m no good at it, and I never have been. If you’ve seen something, you need to tell me so I can go along with the plan. ”
“The plan changes, you know that.” Crawford started walking and Schuldig took a moment to admire the most gorgeous fur coat he’d ever seen walk by on the drooped shoulders of a woman well past the age to be wearing that much lipstick, before hurrying to catch up. The woman thought of warming her feet against a bright red enameled stove in her kitchen. The stove matched her lips.
“You promised me that you would keep me informed,” Schuldig said when he caught up.
“And I do, as much as I’m able. You forget most of the things I tell you.”
“You always make me look like an idiot. The one eyed freak in the corner knew more about that plan than I did.” Schuldig shoved his hands in his pockets, “That one’s not Russian, by the way.”
“I know,” Schuldig adopted his most Crawford accent and watched his breath drift out before him in the cold. The cold felt past cold, tangible and breakable. He pressed closer to Crawford’s shoulder for warmth.
Crawford didn’t hail a taxi straight away which was enough to distract Schuldig from his rant, as were the people they passed on the street.
“We’ll leave by the end of the week,” Crawford said.
“Thank you for that much at least.”
“I like Russia. It’s so easy doing business here; Eszett should move their operations.”
Schuldig glanced at him, “You don’t want that at all.”
“Maybe not,” Crawford’s smile was a rare one, a secret one. Schuldig thought he would be able to appreciate that surreptitious gesture more if he weren’t so accustomed to knowing other people’s secrets. Everyone other than Crawford. Though he liked to believe he knew more about Crawford’s secrets than anyone.
“Because I would sell my mother to stay here, despite the fact I cannot feel my fingers right now, anything to not feel their eyes on my back. This is the only place we’ve been able to talk freely. Is the entire city a dead zone?”
“So far it seems to be. The last regime didn’t appreciate their meddling and we’re the first representatives to be sent in. And you’ve already sold your mother, so you’re going to have to come up with a better trade.”
“She sold me,” Schuldig pressed closer to Crawford’s side.
“If that’s the way you see it.”
“I’m worth a great deal in a free market.”
“The key word there is free.”
“I hate Bach.”
“No you don’t.”
They walked in silence for a while, which was pleasant and rare – possibly a first. Unfortunately the silence provided an ideal opportunity for Schuldig to engage in his own form of sightseeing. He drifted in and out of passing fears, anxieties, jealousies, hopes, desires, and admonitions, to name a few. A woman in a short coat that bared her knees above tall black boots, stopped to listen to the sound of a violin drifting up from a subway tunnel. She closed her eyes and thought of a birch tree forest sharply lit by moonlight – and there, Schuldig had another piece for his collection of moments that changed everything.
At some point Schuldig moved away from Crawford’s shoulder; he noted the missing warmth as he read a book seller’s story of finding an original Pushkin at a poker game, but did not notice if Crawford stood behind him or waited at the corner. And then the street kid, no taller than a meter with a tiny accordion in his hand, flew past him with a stolen apple pie and Schuldig followed before he knew where he was going, half way down the block and then back to the river with the sluice of oil streaking through the broken ice.
And the oil made him think of economies, which made him think of the summit, which made him think about investments, which made him think about Crawford, so he turned to ask, “How are the natural gas investments in Texas?”
And Crawford was not there.
Back at the hotel, Schuldig lingered in the lobby and watched the elevator doors open and close. He pressed the ridges of the suite key into his index finger, and leaned absolutely still against a massive column of faux classical statuary. His eyes moved, scanning the faces and thoughts of people as they stepped from the elevator. He pushed himself as far out into the city as possible, straining for the merest hint of Crawford’s background noise, the sound that masked his thoughts. If Crawford were in trouble, certainly he’d call out, send a mental warning flare, something. No one had ever given him the protocol for retrieving a misplaced associate, especially if the associate did not want to be found. The not wanting to be found part troubled Schuldig the most.
If Crawford wasn’t in the suite, Schuldig didn’t know what to do next, so he checked his cell phone for the fifteenth time to be certain he hadn’t missed a call, Crawford was not answering his, and noted the time. Seven twenty-five. Reception in the city was sketchy at best. Seven twenty-five, there was something Schuldig was supposed to do at seven fifteen.
He leaned his head back against the wall and sighed. The concert, he was supposed to go to the stupid concert. And Crawford, even if he were dead, would expect Schuldig to continue as planned. He noted that the carved molding on the ceiling was very well done, and with a sense of hopelessness, made his way to the elevator.
The suite was empty, he felt it from the hallway and a quick walk through the four rooms confirmed it. Schuldig sat on the edge of the bed in Crawford’s room and braced his chin on his hands.
“Fuck,” he whispered.
He sat there longer than necessary, staring at Crawford’s shoes against the wall. Schuldig hadn’t bothered to take off his coat or scarf, nor did he feel like changing. He left the suite at seven forty-eight wearing the same jacket and tie from the afternoon, though he did trade his winter boots for Crawford’s New & Lingwood’s, which served him right, the bastard, even if the shoes cramped Schuldig’s toes.
A driver really should have two eyes.
The black SUV looked like any other B6 armored vehicle in Moscow, but Schuldig recognized the driver right away.
“You’re late,” the fishy albino said.
“It takes me a while to do my hair,” he said, closed the passenger door, and went straight into the other guy’s head. What Schuldig found was a particular fascination with small details, a crisp and photographic memory oddly coupled with a hazy sense of what things truly had occurred and what had been imagined. The thoughts were surprisingly uncomplicated.
“Are you quite finished?”
“Not yet, give me a minute,” Schuldig loosened his scarf.
“Take your time then.”
Schuldig rummaged a little longer while the one-eyed Irishman drove. He looked for a name and found it behind a recollection of lunch the day before.
Before he could brandish his prize, Farfarello spoke.
“I spoke to your partner and I accept your offer.”
“You spoke to him today?” he’d looked for any memory of Crawford while poking around and hadn’t seen anything other than the meeting that afternoon.
“No, I spoke to him yesterday. Why do you ask?”
“He didn’t tell you about the offer, did he?”
Schuldig removed his gloves and pressed his hands to the heater vent, “Our specialties require us to operate independently.”
“It still pisses you off.”
“You piss me off.”
Farfarello shrugged. “Do you at least know where we’re traveling to from here?”
Schuldig made a wildly assumptive guess, but he made it with certainty, “Japan.”
“Less ice,” Farfarello said, pleased.
“Yes, less ice.”
They kept their thoughts to themselves the rest of the drive to the Conservatory.
Schuldig paused as he stepped down from the SUV, the cold of the passenger door seeping through his gloves. He studied Farfarello’s face for a moment, decided swimming against fate was a waste of energy better spent finding the one who made it happen, and grinned, “Thank you for the ride.”
“You’re most welcome.”
Schuldig shut the door on Farfarello’s laugh and made his way past the statue of Tchaikovsky toward the Hall. The lobby was empty; the concert already started, which suited Schuldig just fine.
A middle aged man at the coat check glanced at Schuldig as he took his coat. Schuldig recognized the look and peered past the man’s bright blue eyes and sunken face to find the assurance of 325 dollars US taken in small increments from pockets throughout the night.
The woman in the box office, a streak of blue in her blonde hair, had a metallic taste for the Hall to empty so she could go see her lover. She slid the ticket across the counter to Schuldig without asking his name.
He found Goltsblat’s prison memories easily in the last row near the exit of the shadowy theater. The thoughts appeared brown hued, as if they’d been damaged with tea: his cell, card games, a rusted, old fashioned razor. Schuldig took the empty seat beside him. Goltsblat inclined his head in greeting and turned back to the cellist.
Schuldig was barely seated before he felt like he wanted to crawl out of his skin. The audience was too quiet, too focused on the single musician positioned on the stage in front of a bleak, substantial organ. Bach made Schuldig think of near misses. The punishment at Rosenkruez, more of an exercise in focus, was used for minor infractions. The exercise involved no actual bloodshed or victims and was an influential training tool if used correctly.
Professor Unger had an unholy fascination with Bach; he claimed to be distantly related, but telepaths had a way of making any story sound convincing - they had an inexhaustible source of material from which to draw. The punishment took place in Professor Unger’s office on Sunday afternoons and was an important, ongoing case study used to separate the graduates from the underachievers. Unger’s office was warm and comfortable, filled with light from massive leaded glass windows. He often served coffee laced with scopolamine.
After a brief discussion that included topics as varied as the weather or Kant’s privileging of inner experience, an advanced precognitive was brought into the office so the fun could begin in earnest. The precognitives had the most to gain from the exercise, namely the chance to sharpen their foresight into a pinprick of possibilities. Precognition, an ever changing art, was a mistress of circumstance, the variables shifting from moment to moment. Visions usually centered around the personal experience of the user, though any advanced precognitive could learn, with much patience, to tap into the experience of strangers.
Telepathy, on the other hand, did not nurture inner reflection. The world offered too many distractions. After witnessing a series of alarming telepathic melt downs, Unger developed his exercise, a primitive form of exposure therapy, as a way to strengthen a telepath’s reaction to his or her worse fears. To make them see themselves, in a manner of speaking.
Unger started with death, a universal phobia, and worked his way down the list. In the background, his stereo played an endless catalog of Bach. The precognitive used a point of contact: the touch of a hand, knee pressed to a leg, or a grip to the wrist, to gain unfettered access. All the telepath had to do was slip into the precognitive’s head, listen and wait.
Few telepaths got much farther than their death scenes, but Schuldig was hard to read. The first few times he was sent to Unger’s office he saw nothing more than a few shadowy images of city streets and some easily digested near misses. What he gained from the boredom was unlimited access to an otherwise closed mind – great fuel for future blackmail.
Each time Schuldig visited Unger’s office he left with a lingering sense of despair. He saw nothing that truly bothered him, nor did he see anything that really made him happy. For the first time he thought of himself and the future as two acquaintances that would someday meet, but the possibilities he saw were as miserable as an arranged marriage, forced, and wholly without passion.
One session with a sadist left him quietly shaken for weeks but Schuldig assumed the images were a product of an overly active imagination rather than true foresight. Most of the scenes involved the precognitive hacking Schuldig apart with a rusty, serrated bread knife (i).
And then Unger invited Crawford. They knew each other in passing. Crawford was older yet Schuldig had saved his ass on more than one occasion and Crawford reciprocated when he saw the opportunity -once to be exact.
Schuldig sat on the floor reading Unger’s copy of Beneke's Die neue Psychologie (ii), in a warm square of sunlight near the window. He looked up as Crawford closed the door behind him. Unger offered coffee; Crawford declined and crossed the room to sit down in front of Schuldig on the floor.
Schuldig put the book aside, “I’m difficult to surprise,” he said.
“We’ll see,” as if Crawford saw the opportunity and had been waiting to use it.
Crawford stared at him, searching for a suitable place to begin. Schuldig narrowed his eyes and silently dared Crawford to find anything that could terrify him.
Crawford reached out and laced his fingers in Schuldig’s, crushed their hands together. Schuldig frowned and tried to pull away, but Crawford’s grip made it impossible. They sat like that for a few moments, and Schuldig tested the walls in Crawford’s mind to see if he could get in – not yet. The silence in the room seemed brittle without an unlocked mind for Schuldig to seep into. Unger’s pen scratched against a paper; Bach quietly rose and fell in swells of sound. Schuldig’s fingers felt numb.
And then Crawford moved, lifted their locked hands up so he could press the knuckle of Schuldig’s thumb to his mouth. Crawford closed his eyes and Schuldig fell abruptly in, as if he’d eavesdropped against a heavy door and it was suddenly opened. He gasped.
Schuldig saw so many things at once that it took him a while to form the scenes into any kind of coherence. He saw his own death in varieties both mundane and inexplicable: shot, beaten, stabbed, tortured, impaled. Worse, he also saw the things he might do to give the organization cause to wipe him clean. His teeth clenched and his hand, against Crawford’s mouth, began to shake. These were no imaginings of a sadistic mind, these possibilities were fact, as real as Crawford’s grip on his hand.
Before the blood covered the room, Schuldig grasped at logic, “That’s impossible. No one can die in so many different ways.”
Crawford’s eyes were still closed. His voice, his thoughts, swept through the images like ice in a freezing river – cold, yet something to grasp onto, “One action changes everything. These are things that could occur if you make the wrong choices.”
Schuldig’s laugh was a sharp burst of air, frightened and small.
“I removed a variable from the possibilities,” Crawford continued.
“What sort of variable?”
Crawford opened his eyes a fraction and his grip on Schuldig’s hand loosened. He drew back just enough for his breath to touch the base of Schuldig’s thumb.
Bach played in Unger’s office and Bach played in a concert hall in Moscow. The variable was missing.
i. "The Serrated Knife: Ideal for foods hard on the outside, chewy on the inside." (www.cookinglight.com)
ii. "The soul is essentially a system of primary powers of original capacities, whose very existence is an unconscious, unfulfilled desire . . . But the soul does not merely receive impressions, it stores them up in the form of traces in a manner familiar to contemporary physiological theories of memory.” (Reginald Bancroft Cooke, The Practical Philosophy of Friedrich Eduard Beneke, 2)
In addition to the appropriation of the stimuli and the storing of them in the form of traces, the soul is subject to the operation of a third law, in accordance with which certain moveable elements transfer themselves from one group of traces or conscious ideas to another, especially where the two are of the same kind as regards the objective source of the stimuli which they contain, and thru the overweighting of the traces drag them, as it were, into consciousness. (Cooke, 5)