The old lady from Ukraine
a chapter from thriller Feeding The Demons by Alex Alvarova
Nadezhda Tereshchenko got up that morning as she always did, put the water on to boil and headed down to the cellar to fetch some potatoes. That year’s pile was almost gone, and those that were left were sprouting so many roots, she’d probably end up throwing them out. While digging them out, her shovel hit something metallic hidden among the potatoes. Then she remembered. Neither that ginger girl nor her father would ever be coming back to retrieve it.
She placed the grenade into the pan with the potatoes and went back upstairs.
Washington, D.C., the White House, February 2017
Scott looked around his new study in the West Wing of the White House. He pushed back the curtains to let more sunlight in. He paced around its polished desk, gazing at the portraits of prominent figures from US history, the aroma of those heavy carpets and the freshly cut flowers by the door meeting his nostrils.
If my father could see me now, he thought. Then he realised he simply had to bring Maud here. At home she would tell Helen all about what an amazing study dad now had. And take a look at that sign on the door! Scott Brennan, Chief of Staff. If someone had told me three years ago I’d have sent them packing. This was his greatest triumph so far.
It abruptly occurred to him, that it had really all just been about that little sign. The entire War project had always had a single aim, but he was incapable of admitting it. He’d never had the guts to look into his own soul. Somewhere at the bottom he would find this one small piece of engraved brass.
* * *
The meeting was over quickly, for the most part as everyone already knew the rules. Thirty minutes maximum, simply-formulated sentences, facts in drawings or graphs. Nothing in writing. During the campaign, Scott had learnt the fine art of imitating the way Kemp spoke, that inimitable mafia-speak with limited vocabulary. Good guys, bad guys. Good for us, bad for us. Good for business, bad for business. Our guy, not really our guy. Awesome. The greatest. Fantastic.
It had been simple for Scott to come up with a complicated plan but communicate it to Kemp in this childish lingo. The others involved knew that if they didn’t learn to speak Kempish, too, they could probably kiss any political influence at the White House goodbye.
Scott and his advisors had put together a list of laws the new president should annul or enact with immediate effect. It was an incredibly long list, but one almost exclusively concerning immigration, taxes and changes to the justice system. But to start with, only three were put before Kemp. That was just about the limit he could take in. Scott had a clear vision:
„We’ll stir up a real scandal around this. Break more taboos. The media will rant in disgust. Breaking taboos is a hit with our voters, it builds loyalty. Let’s stir things up again. Perhaps shoot a few people on the border.“
Hana raised her well-groomed eyebrows: „Scott, with all due respect, do you really insist on continuing to take this confrontational approach? I for one think we should show a softer side. I wouldn’t want to disparage you in any way. You and your Praetorian Guard deserve a lot of the credit for what we’ve achieved so far, but I just think the time might have come to bring in people nearer the centre ground, respected figures in business for instance, as advisors. What do you think? From Goldman Sachs, perhaps? Didn’t you once work for them? I know the former chief executive; I could introduce you two.“
Scott was leering at her intensively, drumming his fingers on the desk all the while. A new battle in the war had begun, and he knew what was at stake — who ruled America. She had just thrown down the gauntlet.
„Hana, my dear Hana,“ exclaimed Scott patronisingly, trying keep the hatred he instinctively felt for her out of his voice. „This is not a place for women, my dear… This is the White House, and we are at war. Politics is war, and those who don’t redouble their efforts to destroy the enemy, will themselves be destroyed. You’ll soon see what I mean.“
„Hey, man! Cut it out. That’s my daughter you’re talking to. No one talks to her like that, OK?“ an irritated Kemp piped up.
„Or course, Mr president, I apologise,“ uttered Scott, looking down at the desk. He flashed a glance at Hana. Her stony expression had not altered one iota. He couldn’t tell if this was a well-honed poker face or the result of too much Botox. But her eyes were telling him the game had begun — survival of the fittest. Eat or be eaten. Her grave expression was like a death sentence.
* * *
That evening, the freshly inaugurated president of the United States was sitting in his bedroom watching TV in his pyjamas. A pile of hamburger boxes had built up on his bedside table, refreshments he had delivered just in time for his favourite TV shows. The White House tailor was at the end of his tether, but Kemp just waved him away. Make me a bigger suit. End of.
The door clicked open. „Dad? Can I see you for a moment?“
„Of course you can, my sweetie. I’m not going to sleep quite yet. What is it?“
Hana was in evening dress — she’d just returned from a benefit evening for campaign sponsors. Her long, shiny hair glistened on her backless dress. „Wow, you look fantastic,“ exclaimed the president with pride. „Just like your mum. At your age she was the East Coast’s finest. Everyone was jealous of me. She sure knew how to have a good time…! But they did a better job on your breasts.“
Hana smiled. „Yeah, They’re awesome. You eating before bed again, dad?“
„Sweetest, stop telling me what to do, OK?“
„You’re right. I’m terrible, aren’t I. Hey, dad, I’ve been thinking. D’you have a moment?“
„Always for you, my sweetie.“
„You remember that time just before the election we met those people about those sanctions? You remember you said I should go instead of you…?“
„Of course. I remember. What about it?“
„Apart from annulling those sanctions, the woman asked for another thing. She would like us to fire Rajiv Patel. I think we should show a bit of goodwill and do something at least? It might take a while with the sanctions thing, don’t you think? You know, so they don’t think we’re not sticking to our side of the deal…“
„You’re good. Always thinking ahead. You’re right. But don’t you think they’ll take it as weakness?“
„They kept their side of the deal, didn’t they?“
„OK, OK, I’ll see to it this coming week. I’m not much for these things, you know me.“
„You’re the best, daddy,“ she squealed cutely, kissing him on the forehead. Kemp sighed with pleasure. „Oh my awesome sweetie. What would I do without you?“
The following Monday Kemp’s new justice minister announced Patel had lost his confidence and would be leaving his post. Predictably, the media erupted in fury.
* * *
„Mr president, sir, you simply can’t start your term in office by throwing out the state prosecutor, who is currently investigating money laundering by the Russian mafia with links to the Kremlin. Do you realise what this looks like? Like you’re attempting to halt the investigation!“
Kirk Mulroney could hear his voice trembling with rage. He couldn’t help it. Although he’d told himself a hundred times to keep his cool, it was like something inside was making him yell. He was standing in the doorway of Kemp’s study, watching the most powerful man on earth munching fries from a cardboard cone.
„Take it easy, Kirk. You’re a great guy, OK? I’ve nothing against you, OK? Nothing personal.“ Kemp stated, trying to keep his tone of voice calm. „You’re our guy, right? Everyone tells me you’re our guy!“
„I’m nobody’s guy, Mr president. I protect the interests of the American people. I serve the US taxpayer and the US constitution. I am nobody’s guy!“
„Bad, Kirk. That’s not clever, Kirk. I’m not liking this one bit. We need people, loyal people. Are you loyal, Kirk? I hope you’ve thought this through. I don’t want to feel you’re not with us, OK?“
„Mr president, I’m only expressing my opinion. Obviously the decision lies with you.“
When the door shut behind the head of the FBI, Trevor Kemp picked up the phone and called his daughter.
„Hana, Hana,“ he said without any kind of greeting. „Perhaps we should have listened to Scott Brennan. Perhaps we should have waited before getting rid of Patel. I’ve just had the head of the FBI here. I think I’m gonna have to fire him now, too.“
Alchevsk, Occupied Territory, Ukraine, 2017
It was half past twelve in the afternoon, and on a dusty road heading towards the Ukrainian town of Debaltseve a black Mercedes stopped on the verge. It was a hot day, and all the car’s windows were open. All of the occupants were smoking.
Nadezhda Tereshchenko was on her way home after an unsuccessful attempt to collect her pension. This time the bus had failed to get across the river. She was exhausted and hardly able to put one swollen leg in front of the other.
„Hey, you there!“ bawled the man in the driver’s seat, pointing at her. „Old woman! Come here!“
Nadezhda immediately recognised the vehicles occupants as members of the Russian secret service. Their behaviour had changed little since Stalin’s days. The same arrogance, those same bulldog faces, those same squinting, piercing, alcohol-clouded eyes.
She shuffled slowly to the car window.
„Is this the road to Debaltseve? Well, is it, come on?“ barked the driver.
Nadezhda Tereshchenko smiled and, in a pleasant voice, answered in perfect Russian: „Yes it is, gentlemen. But the bridge is out, so you’ll have to take a detour through the fields, I can draw you a map if you have a scrap of paper… I have a pencil somewhere…“
The sun beat down on the dust of the road, and from the fields the sound of crickets was strangely loud. Reaching into her handbag, the old woman began to search around for the old, Soviet-era F1 grenade with the UZRGM-2 fuse. Since discovering it among the potatoes, she had carried it with her everywhere. She fingered the pin and yanked it out, just as her mother had taught her. She gave a sigh of relief, and the fear she had felt subsided. Take this one from me, guys. For Oksana. For Ukraine.
She counted to five. It was as if time stood still, her entire life flashing before her eyes in a split second. Then she, and the occupants of the Mercedes became a mosaic of flesh, blood and shards of glass and metal. Across the strip of yellow field and blue sky above, rose a column of black smoke.