Out Of The Dark – Snippet 11

Chapter .V.

I wonder if she’ll drown him?” Captain Pieter Stefanovich Ushakov mused aloud, watching his daughter glower at the older of her two younger brothers.

“I doubt it,” his wife replied calmly.

Vladislava Nikolaevna Ushakovna was a tall, trim woman, as blond as her husband, but with a markedly more placid disposition. Unlike Pieter, who’d been born in Ternopil oblast in western Ukraine and whose family had moved to Kiev only after his eleventh birthday, Vladislava was a native Kievan. She was the one who’d first introduced fourteen-year-old Pieter to the vast lake many years before, and he was glad she had. Not just because of the fond memories of moonlight, blankets, and murmured kisses, either, although they definitely played a part in explaining just how fond those memories were. At the moment, however, those long-ago days seemed rather remote as she did her best to dissuade their youngest — three-and-a-half-year-old Grigori — from ripping his favorite picture out of his favorite book. She, Pieter, and Grigori sat under a picnic shelter overlooking the huge Kyyivs’ke reservoir north of Kiev on the Dnipro River. The spring sunlight was warm, the day was young, and the dark blue waters of the lake were dotted with plea sure craft.

They were also quite deep enough to dispose of an irritating younger brother, Pieter thought.

“I don’t know,” he said with a slow smile. “If I were her, I’d probably drown him.”

“I think that might be just a little extreme as a first response,” Vladislava
said. “Now, if he keeps it up….”

The two of them looked at each other, and Pieter chuckled. At twelve, Daria had already shot up to a meter and a half in height. She was probably going to equal her mother’s hundred and seventy centimeters, although it was unlikely she was going to accomplish six-year-old Daria’s ambition to top her father’s hundred and eighty-five. Ruslan, on the other hand, who was two years her junior, was just finishing a growth spurt which had left him a good two centimeters taller than she was, and he’d been making remarks about short people ever since he’d caught up with her. Now that he’d actually surpassed her, he was finally tall enough to literally look down his nose at her, and she didn’t appreciate it one bit. She especially didn’t appreciate it when her father was tactless enough to point out that now that Ruslan had taken the lead in altitude, she was never going to catch up with him again, growth spurts or no. For that matter, according to the pediatrician, Ruslan was going to be at least six or seven centimeters taller than Pieter by the time he was finished.

“Boy may have a future in basketball,” he remarked now.

“Oh, that would be a marvelous thing to tell him in front of Daria.” Vladislava shook her head. “Why don’t you find out? If you get up and run after them right this minute, you could probably catch them before they get to the boat. Oh, and don’t forget to take an anchor with you, so she can tie it to his ankles before she tosses him in! In fact, take two — I’m sure she could find a use for the second one, as well.”

“Military men learn not to expose themselves to hostile fire unnecessarily,” he told her. “Besides, for now at least he’s way too interested in hockey to think about basketball.”

“Like father, like son,” Vladislava agreed. “And what brought up basketball, in that case?”

“Well, if he’s going to be tall enough for it, you tend to lose less teeth on a basketball court,” Pieter said philosophically. “Besides, he’s got the hand-eye coordination for the game. And if we decide to go ahead and take Aldokim’s offer, I understand professional basketball pays better than professional hockey.”

“Are you really thinking about taking him up on that?” Vladislava raised an eyebrow, and he shrugged.

“I don’t know, Slavachka,” he said, reaching out to run one hand over her long, wheat- colored hair. “I don’t know. But I have to say, it’s been seeming more tempting lately.”

“But the Army’s been your life, Pieter.” She enveloped Grigori in her arms, resting her chin on the top of his head and gazing across into her husband’s eyes. “You’ve invested fifteen years in it.”

“And made it all the way to captain,” he replied with a crooked smile.

“The Colonel swears you’ll be on the next list for major,” Vladislava countered, and he snorted.

“Maybe I will, and maybe I won’t. Oh, I don’t think he’s lying to us. I just think it’s likely that under the current circumstances promotion’s more likely to go to someone whose politics are a little more acceptable to the powers that be. Face it, Slavachka — I stepped on too many toes.”

She said nothing for several moments, bending over the child in her arms to press her face into Grigori’s sweet-smelling golden hair. What Pieter had said was true enough, she reflected. His outspokenly pro-Western attitudes would probably have been enough to put at least a bit of a damper on his promotion prospects, after the recent elections, but that wasn’t the real problem. No, the real problem was his stint in the Inspector General’s office.

Pieter Ushakov was only thirty-six. He’d been in his very early teens when the old Soviet Union dissolved, and he’d never served in the Ukrainian military when it had been an official part of the Soviet armed forces. He was part of an entirely new generation of officers — Ukrainian patriots and nationalists determined to build a Ukrainian military to protect and serve their country.

In general, that military had done an outstanding job of rebuilding itself into exactly that sort of national force. It had a right to be proud of itself, yet the job had been so immense, so complicated, that mistakes had inevitably been made. And human beings were still human beings, with an inescapable tendency to look after their own, protect their own little empires, nurture their own personal loyalties, and pursue their own agendas. That had created the sort of problems Pieter — a young, smart, competent, obviously dedicated and strongly patriotic young officer — had been called in to help clean up, and he’d done that job as unflinchingly as he’d tackled every other task to which his country had ever called him. With, in Vladislava’s opinion, inevitable consequences for all concerned.

He’d pulled off too many scabs, exposed too much nepotism, too much cronyism. And turned up too many threads pointing to too many senior officers who maintained too close ties with the Russian military even today. He’d only been a junior captain at the time, but he’d taken his responsibilities seriously, and the establishment hadn’t been able to shut him up. Instead, it had shuffled him back into a combat arms assignment with almost indecent haste . . . and an audible sigh of relief.

Despite that, she hadn’t realized his older brother’s urging that he and his family emigrate to the United States and join him in business there might have fallen on fertile soil.

“Do you seriously think you could be happy over there? Working with Aldo?” she asked finally.

“You mean working for Aldo?” Smile wrinkles crinkled around Pieter’s blue eyes, and he glanced after Daria and Ruslan. “Sibling rivalry, you mean?”

“Something like that. “Vladislava smiled back at him. “I seem to remember when we were all children that you and he had a distinct tendency to hit one another over the head. Frequently.”

“Well, neither of us would have wanted to hit the other one someplace where we might actually have hurt him,” Pieter pointed out with a chuckle. “Besides, as you say, that was when we were all children together. I’m far more mature than that now.”

“Odd how I hadn’t noticed that,” she observed.

“Because you’re too near the forest to count the trees, as they say in America,” Pieter told her, lifting his nose with an audible sniff.

“That must be it,” she agreed gravely.

“Of course it is. And as far as working ‘for’ Aldo is concerned, that wouldn’t be the case — or not for long, at any rate,” he continued more seriously. “He’s offering to pay me a damned good salary, Slavachka, a quarter of it in voting shares, with a stock option bonus incentive plan, on top of that. In four or five years, I’d be pretty close to an equal partner.”

Vladislava’s eyes widened. Aldokim Stefanovich Ushakov had done well in the fifteen years since he’d departed for the United States. He’d founded his own firm, specializing in heavy construction projects, and he’d become a major subcontractor building infrastructure for the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Vladislava wasn’t one of the greatest admirers of American foreign policy, and she’d lost two uncles during the Soviet Union’s adventures in Afghanistan, one of them courtesy of a Stinger shoulder-launched antiaircraft missile provided to the mujahedin by the Americans. As a consequence, she found it difficult to shed too many tears for either side in the current conflict there. But whatever she thought about the politics behind it, there was no question about how it had contributed to her brother-in-law’s success.

And it makes good business sense from Aldo’s perspective, too, she reflected. Pieter’s experience would be a plus for him.

Her husband was a combat engineer — and a good one. No one had ever suggested that his career’s currently stalled status had anything to do with his competence or his ability. In fact, before his detour to the Inspector General’s office had brought him into conflict with the murky world of political patronage, he’d been viewed as a rising star. In many ways, Aldokim’s offer was as shrewd as it was generous, especially if he realized just how discontented
Pieter was feeling at the moment.

“I don’t know,” she said now, slowly. “I mean, it sounds like a wonderful offer, and you know how much I love Aldo. But I’ve never been to America. I don’t even know if I’d like it there. And if we moved, what about everything we’d be leaving behind? Mama, Papa — your mother?”

“I know.” He stroked her long hair again. “But Mama would still have Vanya, Fydor, and Lyudochka — one of the advantages of big families, you know! And both her sisters, for that matter. And your parents would still have both of your sisters. For that matter, it’s not like the Cold War was still going on. What with telephones and the Internet it’s not that hard to stay in touch. Just look at how Aldo’s managed. For that matter, with the kind of money he’s talking about paying me, we could bring the entire family back to visit every year. Or fly both our parents over to visit us, for that matter. Who knows? They might decide they like America! The country’s supposed to be full of immigrants from just about everywhere, you know.”

“You have been thinking about this, haven’t you?” She looked up from Grigori’s hair, her gaze intent, and he nodded.

“I guess I have,” he admitted. “More than I’d realized, I think, or else I’d have already discussed it with you. I mean, it’s not the kind of decision I need to be making all on my own — not when it involves you and the children and our families.”

She smiled again, faintly, thinking of all the men she knew who would have expected to do exactly that: make their decision, then announce it to their wives. That attitude was beginning to wane, but it still had a long way to go in Ukraine.

Which might be another consideration in favor of making the move, she thought. Whatever else I may think about Americans, their women are certainly… assertive. She looked after Daria, and her smile grew broader. God, think what she’ll be like if she gets to grow up over there!

“Is this really what you want to do?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he said frankly. “Up until the last couple of years, I would have said no. Like you say, I was entirely focused on the Army. And there’s a part of me that still is — you’re right about that. But this offer from Aldo . . . it’s not just generous, it’s exciting. And I would like to accomplish something a bit more meaningful in my life than being the oldest man ever promoted to major.”

“How soon does Aldo need an answer?”

“Well,” Pieter said dryly, “unless you think the fighting in Afghanistan is going to end next month, I don’t think there’s an enormous rush. We can certainly think about it for a while, anyway. Besides, there’s still my commission to think about. Just processing the paperwork if I decide to resign is going to take a couple of months. But in answer to what you were asking, I think this is something we both need to consider. I’d like to make up our minds before the end of the summer, though, I think.”

Vladislava nodded slowly, her expression thoughtful, and he nodded back. Her calm, deliberate approach to life was one of the things he especially loved about her. It had always been part of her personality, even when they were schoolchildren, and he trusted her judgment. She wasn’t the sort to rush to any decision, but once she had decided, she neither looked back nor second-guessed herself. Nor would she second-guess him.

“But for now,” he reached out and scooped Grigori up in his arms, tickling the little boy until he squealed joyfully, “let’s go down to the lake and make sure we still have three offspring.”