In our December 2020 newsletter, the Free Private Cities Foundation announced a story writing competition. We asked writers in our network to imagine what it would be like to live in a Free Private City, and what dramas might ensue. An excellent batch of submissions was received and Volodymyr Halyshyn was a runner up in that competition. Here is his story.
Alea Lacta Est
by Volodymyr Halyshyn
“Personal delivery, madam!”
The divine smell of coffee was a good reason to wake up. Sniffing around, she caught the scent of freshly baked goods and something sweet. Apricot marmalade! She opened her eyes and saw that the food was accompanied by his charming smile, barely noticeable, but precious. Until recently, no one had even suspected its existence.
After thanking him, she sipped her coffee, feeling happy and energized. “When are you going to teach me how to bake this beauty?”
“It’s a family recipe…”
She didn’t say a thing, just took a bigger bite.
“You’ll get more when you come back,” said the man. “I have triple help today.”
The stern lips outlined a wonderful smile, which Victor enjoyed aesthetically.
Still chewing, “I’ll get fat with you, and I won’t fit through the door!” she replied.
“You got me!”
He shook his head with feigned disappointment. “You don’t have to come out. I don’t mind.”
Another charming smile. She quickly finished her meal, washed and dressed, then began to get ready while giving out instructions on the phone and checking her mail. Victor was preparing breakfast in the kitchen (coffee and a bun was just a prelude) for five. The children were still asleep; today, they had an entire program of theoretical and practical training. He was both a teacher and a cook, and there was no problem with homeschooling in Pretorium, unlike the country he had come from and where there was a prison sentence for it. He shuddered to shake off unpleasant memories and continued cooking.
Anastasia watched him, carefully and discreetly, while she was making her morning orders. She had been married to work for so many years that she did not know how nice it was to have breakfast, not with instant noodles, but with something homemade, warm, and delicious. She even let him, unthinkably, be in her kitchen! She was allowing another person to be so close to her.
The new life did indeed turn out to be unique. If anyone had told her three-plus weeks ago where, with whom, and under what circumstances she would now be right now, she would have laughed! Although, if the whole world had gone mad, where else would she look for happiness but here? Although it was a question of who was looking for whom. At breakfast, Victor finished writing the lesson plan for the week while Anastasia was talking on the phone.
After she sat at the table, he asked, “Is everything all right? You didn’t sound very confident.”
“No, I had other things on my mind. Setting up a business from scratch, and in such a time frame, is quite a non-trivial task.”
“The magistrate won’t give you an extension?”
“No need, I’ll make it. I mean, a contract is a contract, sure, but they are entrepreneurs like me, and they see the potential. Everything will be fine, just the little things to solve.”
“What’s the problem?”
He took a big bite of his sandwich and set himself up for a thorough explanation. Anastasia explained all sorts of business models in a very entertaining and sexy way.
“Suppliers are always reluctant to contact someone new, especially in a post-Soviet host country like ours, and some free city without taxes, constitution, bureaucracy, and electronic document flow. A strange woman from Interpol’s site calls and demands something and then offers such money that it is impossible to refuse. It means they are compassing my brains and questioning me. But that’s okay; I’ve been through this more than once, only here it takes longer to explain.”
“I don’t understand their love of bureaucrats.”
“Learned helplessness, pure psychology. How is it that there’s so much wealth and no tsar to distribute the wealth?”
“I thought they were used to it. The Pretorium has not existed for the first day.”
“As if the ancient Sumerians tried to explain the atomic reactor. It’ll get there, but not right away.”
“About three weeks ago, I would have disagreed, but now I find the comparison very accurate,” he smiled, “are you sure you’re an industrialist and not a historian?”
“Right, I’ll leave that to you. When all that’s left of the socialist camp are old Empire houses, you can tell the students about us pioneers.”
She drank half a mug of coffee in a gulp. After eating, Victor walked her to the exit.
“I’ll clean up and leave the keys with the guard. Thanks for letting the kids stay; it will be fine.”
“You’re welcome…” she pursed her lips in a way that wasn’t typical of her. “What are you doing today?”
“I’ll feed the girls, clean up, do some work, and then go home.”
“Just stay, all of you.”
It wasn’t a complete surprise, but Victor didn’t expect to hear that right now. This guardian angel was once again throwing him a lifeline. He looked first at the floor and then into her eyes.
“I could never pay your rent.”
“I know, but I’m the one offering.”
“Still, it’s not right. You’re barely on your feet, and you’re not even on a permanent contract with Pretorium.”
“Then stay and work the way you’ve been working; manage the house, do the repairs, cook. Don’t worry about me! I’ve already explained that they’ll bring me the contract themselves, and then you’ll be free to leave if you want.”
Victor looked at her while she was getting dressed and then, gently taking her by the shoulder, turned her around and put her head on his chest.
“I don’t want to go anywhere, and you know that. I’ll be glad to stay with you.”
Anastasia looked at him and smiled that same aristocratic smile. He kissed the top of her head and hugged her tighter. Both enjoyed a simple human warmth they hadn’t felt in years. What a seeming paradox to meet love in the most selfish place on earth, but when you think about it, what’s wrong with wanting to be happy?
They stood like that for a few moments until they heard the stirring in the nursery. The girls were awake and making the traditional morning mess.
“It’s time for you to go, darling.”
It was the first time he’d ever called her that, unintentionally, but the word and the concept appealed to both of them.
“Go and kick their asses, but don’t come back too late. I think it would be good if we broke the news to the kids at dinner, and then we’ll have something to do.” He smiled conspiratorially and winked.
She squinted her eyes skeptically. “Victor, that’s a little fast, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know what you’re thinking, Ms. CEO, but baking scones in a family recipe is never too fast.”
Another knock on the door; the knocker was either insistent or rude but had no intention of leaving. “The job’s not going anyway,” Victor thought and went to open the door. It turned out to be a woman.
“Hello. Victor Danilov?”
“Who’s asking?” He immediately adopted a mental fighting stance, but he didn’t show it. Either the police or the official starts the conversation with the name.
“Clara Drager, from Social Services. May I come in?”
“What’s the harm? Maybe they’ll give you some benefits!” he thought about it for a second and let the worker inside.
“Go into the kitchen. I’ll ask the children to be quiet.”
Victor went to the nursery, where the three daughters were doing their children’s things; the youngest was playing with a doll, the middle one was watching something on a tablet, the oldest was reading a book.
“You guys be quiet for fifteen minutes, okay? Olya for the eldest.”
“Why is Olya always the oldest?” the middle one wrinkled her forehead and folded her arms across her chest.
“That’s why you’re my sweetie pie!”
Victor squeezed his daughter’s cheeks and kissed her forehead. All the anger evaporated at once, and a smile blossomed on his face.
“What about me?” the younger one squeaked.
“And you, of course.” He tossed her in his arms and was rewarded with infectious childish laughter, which always delighted her. Winking at the older woman, who was smiling and continued to read the book, Victor went to his guest. She sat with her back straight, like a soldier in a formation.
“What happened there?” she asked. Victor did not respond.
“The kettle wasn’t boiling?”
“You didn’t. What happened there?” she repeated more insistently.
The man looked at her with an incomprehensible look.
“I was playing with the kids. Is there something you wanted to talk about?” he asked, turning on the kettle. “What service are you from?”
The woman looked at him with the typical look of an official, a mixture of arrogance and a sense of authority.
“Social. I want to talk about the situation with your wife.”
“What exactly do you want to know? Who is she with now? Or how is she spending her time? I can’t help you; we haven’t spoken since she left us.”
“There is no need to be dramatic; it can hurt the girls.” She was making notes in her notebook.
“You’ve got to be kidding me. Should I say that she just went out shopping and hasn’t been back for almost a year?” Victor felt anxious and angry at the same time. What kind of absurdity had he just heard?
“I repeat: this could seriously harm your daughters, as well as you. I want to see the conditions in which the children are living.”
“Why would you do that?”
“The state wants to make sure that children have all the conditions.”
“The children have all the conditions.”
“I have to examine them and talk to them.”
“That’s not going to happen.”
She looked intently into Victor’s eyes. “Are you sure?”
“Absolutely! As sure as I am that you have to go.”
The woman slowly stirred the tea with her spoon, gently pushed back her chair, and stood up.
“Then I notify you that I have every reason to suspect child maltreatment, possibly abuse. The juvenile board will be with the police tomorrow. If you want to see your daughters at least twice a week, behave with more restraint. Have a good day!”
While she dressed and closed the door, Victor stood still in the same spot. The sound of her footsteps in the entryway receded, and he stood there, trying to absorb what he had just heard. When the first shock had passed, Victor went to the nursery: his daughters were obediently playing with their toys or gadgets.
“Lights out, kids! You can make some noise. I owe you a trip to the water park.”
“Yeeeees!” the little one squealed.
“Dad is everything okay?” the eldest said very quietly, so the younger one wouldn’t hear.
“Yeah. Sure. It’s just business.” Victor wasn’t in the habit of lying to children, but he had no choice now.
His eldest looked at him with the unprecedented stare he thought she’d inherited from her mother but said nothing.
He went back into the kitchen and called his lawyer. They talked for only a few minutes while Victor relayed the gist of the conversation. The lawyer said he would look into it and call back. This was a little reassuring: Max was an excellent specialist and a good man. For now, we had to wait. Everything would be fine. Would it? And if not, what then?
They called back in two hours.
“There is nothing I can do globally. I’m afraid the situation is quite serious.”
If they poured a bucket of ice water over Victor’s head, the shock would be less.
“What do you mean you can’t?”
“I can take the case, but the most we’ll get is a few dates a month.”
“But I’m a professor! I have a place to live, and my kids are healthy; everything’s fine!”
“That’s what you think, but not the state. There have been no successful precedents for such cases. I repeat: I’ll take it if you want, but the result will not change.”
“But that’s violence!”
“What do you want me to say? You know I’m willing to help. But I’m a lawyer, not a miracle worker.”
Victor tried to calm down. “I understand. Thank you. I’ll call you back.” He hung up without waiting for an answer.
What to do? At first, Victor just sat and stared into the void. He drank two cups of coffee in a row. They would take his children and give them to someone else, and will only see him twice a week, under the supervision of some social worker, probably. A cold rage flared up inside from such injustice. After all, he was the one who had raised and provided for the children, working two jobs. They were happy, weren’t they? They were everything to him.
The children, meanwhile, scattered around the apartment, minding their own business. He found his eldest daughter still there, immersed in a book.
“Sofia, let’s go.”
“Let’s go outside for a while.”
The apartment was on the first floor, with windows overlooking the courtyard and accessible directly from the kitchen or living room.
“Nothing yet, nothing I can’t handle.”
“We couldn’t handle it, you mean?” That piercing look again. “No condemnation, just a desire to help.”
“Of course, it is. You’re an adult. Tell me, are you happy here? I mean with me, under these conditions. Wouldn’t you be happier with your mother or with someone else?”
She looked at him for a very long time, and Victor could not read that look.
“What are you saying? Of course, I’m happy. I’m happy, very happy!”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I am! What’s the matter with you? Or is it because of that woman?”
“I would rather be with you and the little ones than anyone else, even if I have to live in Antarctica!”
“In Antarctica, you say?” Victor smiled, and his eyes lit up. “Thank you, my joy. Everything is fine now. Are Olya and Vera in too?”
“Of course, they are. Who else would let them eat sweets before going to bed?”
Both laughed sincerely and childishly until their cheekbones hurt. Then they sat down on the couch, and Victor told his daughter the meaning of the conversation with the social worker. The whole time Sofia did not interrupt once, just listened and looked at the floor with the gaze of a man ready to conquer Mount Everest in bad weather.
They sat in silence for a while, and then the girl came out of her trance and asked seriously, “When?”
“Tomorrow, together with the police.”
“No, you don’t understand.”
“So, you agree? And the younger ones?”
“Of course, but it’s better not to say everything.”
I had enough money: my past life in a post-Soviet country had taught me to keep my money and valuables with me, with a clean phone and a SIM card; the children had to leave theirs. We didn’t take many things; a backpack for each of us, thankfully we often went hiking and were used to it. Even when, late at night, we put a ladder to the fence of the neighbor’s house and climbed over to his plot, the younger daughters were satisfied with the explanation.
If someone had said yesterday that he, a history professor and teacher, a serious and respected man, would perform such numbers, Victor would have laughed and advised no one to say such nonsense. But now, there was no time for jokes: they had only a few hours until the lack of traffic on their phones would arouse the suspicion of the police. Like a trapped animal that must either chew its paw off or die, he was taking himself beyond the limits set for him by the state because what distinguished a man from a wild animal was the presence of a will. Victor was not an adventurer, but to infringe on his daughters was literally to threaten his life.
They walked through the courtyards and onto the road two blocks away. They found a cab quickly; it was just about the time when the working people were either returning from their late shifts or going to a bar or a club for a rest. So far, everything had worked out.
“Dad, is that water park big?”
“It’s huge. There are even animals there.”
“Elephants in the water park? Olga, are you serious?” My eldest daughter Sophia could hardly contain her laughter.
“I saw on YouTube how elephants swim across the river!” she answered very seriously.
“Elephants are unlikely to be there, but whales and dolphins can.”
“Dad, dolphins are whales.”
“Yes?” Victor pretended to be genuinely surprised. “Thank you, Vera. When did children become so smart?”
“Watch more YouTube and read fewer books.” The younger one triumphantly declared.
“Victor only smiled and lightly pinched his daughter’s cheek.”
The airport was crowded. It was risky to fly, but one advantage outweighed the disadvantages: it covered the most distance per unit of time. By the time their absence is noticed, they would be far away and out of reach; that was the plan. It wasn’t a long journey, only a six-hour flight.
There wasn’t much time left before the flight, so Victor left it to Sophia to buy some food, and he went to the bathroom. His face, pale from birth, was always very red with excitement, but now it was not so bad. He washed his face with cold water, drank a sedative, cleaned himself up, and went to get the tickets.
He found the right airport, small, inconspicuous, quite far away from the city he needed. Fortunately, he managed to buy tickets, because the city was a resort city and the season had just ended. The customs inspection turned out to be quick and painless: not much stuff, the kids were happy, the sedative pill had just had time to work enough to remove the red cheeks, but not much of a drag on their reactions. Sophia was smiling and joking with the border guards, but only her father understood that concentrated look, the same one George Washington must have used to cross Delaware.
As the plane lifted into the air, the effects of the medication had peaked, and her body, a little freed from danger and stress, simply shut down. A flight attendant woke him up as they prepared to land. A little refreshed, he prepared for the final throw.
All four of them walked quickly to the exit. His passport gave him a head start. There were no police in sight, only a half-asleep customs officer. Victor asked them not to detain them too much because the children were tired and wanted to sleep, and it was true. Even Sofia either successfully played off her sleepiness, or she was exhausted. Even with her strong-willed nature, she was only a child.
They were almost at the entrance when Victor heard some kind of commotion behind them. His hair instantly stood on end. Without turning around, he quickened his pace, holding his two daughters in his arms. The volume of voices behind him was growing; someone was talking, something was obviously going on. A few more meters, and they were outside.
Victor walked even faster. He couldn’t get his phone out as he was walking down memory lane. It was very dark because the small airport was saving light. For a few seconds, he stared desperately into the darkness until he saw a small glowing car rental sign ahead.
There was no one in the booth itself – outside hung a box with keys, the combination of the lock the client received at payment, which was kindly made by an acquaintance of an acquaintance, who, in turn, was asked by Max, the lawyer. The blood pulsed in my head; it was hard to tell if someone was following them or not. Time stretched, the last meters wanted to run at full speed, but Victor restrained himself so as not to disturb the children, two of whom he was carrying in his arms.
The lock was very old, with very tightly rotating buttons. There was a distinct noise of some kind of commotion in the back. People were talking in the local language, and Victor did not understand a word. The lock opened, he put the children in as quickly as he could, and, getting into the driver’s seat, he heard a shout in his direction. Without looking back, he closed the door, and the central lock started the engine and drove off, driving smoothly to not provoke the person who had shouted at him. Let him think he didn’t hear it. Maybe it wasn’t him at all, and pushing the gas pedal to the floor would draw even more attention.
Sophia was entrusted with a paper map. The temptation to rush straight to the destination was great, but I had to force myself to drive a little to the side. The kids were asleep, and Victor ate a few caffeine pills, pouring energy drinks on top of everything so he wouldn’t fall asleep. Constantly looked in the rearview mirrors, fearing a chase.
There were few road lights and few oncoming cars. It was a little reassuring because the cameras were supposed to be minimal. Smoothly the terrain became humpy, then moved into the relatively close foothills. The mountain serpentine began, and Victor stopped to breathe in the cold air and push the sleep away a little. The sky was cloudless, and the night was moonless; only the innumerable number of stars provided some light.
Victor caught something with his peripheral gaze. The serpentine curved, and from where he was now, he could see the valley and the beginning of the ascent. There was a cavalcade of lights moving from where they had recently arrived. Several cars were driving one after the other at a relatively rapid pace. Coincidence?
Victor threw himself into the car and drove as fast as he could. He was sure it was behind them. The engine roared, climbing higher and higher into the mountains. A little more, and the road would go down into the valley, where the final stop was.
He gripped the steering wheel like a fighter pilot. On the left was a steep mountain wall, on the right a chasm. After crossing the bridge, the car began to honk its brakes. “Don’t let it burn!” – was the thought that raced through my mind every time I braked. My daughter watched the navigator, trying to warn of the turns as much as she could.
A light glinted in the rearview mirror, and a car came around the corner, quite far away for now. “Oh my God! They’re catching up,” Victor thought. The road went smoother, almost leveled out. Spitting on caution, he turned on the high beam and drove as fast as he could. Soon he was racing in a straight line as fast as the car allowed. The chase was getting closer.
The signpost! “Pretorium – Five miles,” duplicated in the local language. Just in time. The road became smooth; the wheels stopped humming, feeling the good asphalt beneath them. The chase turned on the police blinkers, shouting something into the loudspeaker. Victor couldn’t hear any of it, just held the steering wheel, not feeling his hands.
He saw the lights. The city was ahead, very close. The police tried to catch on, and he had to swerve from side to side. He woke the kids and told them to buckle up, even though they had already done so at the airport. The engine roared, and there was a grinding and clattering sound. Ahead of them appeared a barrier and people waving. Victor blinked his headlights – SOS in Morse code – and jammed the signal. If only they would not shoot.
The car tried to “twist” the police, but it was evident that it lacked either professionalism or desire. Victor held the steering, and the car began to be carried from side to side. He twisted the steering wheel and slammed on the brakes, flying sideways into the barrier, knocking the border guards to the ground. The car squealed and stopped.
“Run out of the car, don’t be afraid!” he shouted to his daughters. All four of them got out and were immediately paralyzed by the powerful flashlights. Victor raised his hands in the air and shouted, “Refugees! Refugees!” Sophia hugged her sisters and hid behind her father.
A police car came to a screeching halt at the side. Immediately the police officers got out, aiming their guns at the family. Victor immediately covered the girls with himself, pushed them into the car, and stood between them and the police officer.
The man shouted something, waving his gun down. “Get down,” he meant. His hands were shaking.
“No jurisdiction!” Victor shouted, “No jurisdiction! This is a free city! A free city! I am a refugee!”
The police officer kept his gun pointed at Victor.
“Officer, lower your weapon. Officer!” A second voice spoke in English. Victor looked, and it was a man in a dark uniform with a gun and a bulletproof vest. Local border guard.
“You are under arrest! Interpol warrant!” he answered in broken English.
“Put down your weapon Officer, calm down.” The border guard spoke very calmly but clearly stated every word, which gave away his experience as either an officer or a psychologist. “This is not your jurisdiction. This is a free and self-governing city. The man has claimed refugee status, which means I am required to conduct an initial examination, according to my contract. If an independent court decides he is guilty, I promise to turn him over to you personally. We will not tolerate criminals.”
“Write it up! Report!” the officer demanded.
“Certainly. Please put down your weapon.” The border guard’s voice was calm but commanding at the same time. “We have summoned the supervisor to write a report and issue a receipt. You did all you needed to do.”
He lowered his gun slowly. The border guard ordered Victor to stay where he was and walked the police officer to the guardhouse. He returned a few minutes later.
“According to my job description as head of the guard, I have the right to throw you out the gate right now for defacing property, endangering lives, and crossing the border illegally.” He looked at him sternly. “But the contract does not prohibit me from listening to you and assisting you if I deem it necessary. Our conversation will be video recorded. Do you agree with that?”
“Yes, I agree. Just a request: Can we talk indoors? I have three daughters, and they’re scared and cold.
“Okay. Let’s go.”
The room was warm and bright, like a study room. They brought blankets, hot food, and drinks for the children. Victor got coffee, too.
“Who are you?” the border guard started right away.
“My name is Victor, I am a history professor, and I am a refugee because the state wants to take my daughters away from me. After consulting with a lawyer and analyzing the precedents, I realized that I had no other choice. I have not done anything to my children that would be fair to take them away from me, and I can do so in front of witnesses. When talking to the social worker, I was made direct threats, which gave me concerns about state court bias.” He tried to speak as officially as possible, in the language of police protocols, to exclude any misinterpretation. He took a few moments to catch his breath. “I ask you for refugee status for my family and me. According to the basic contract of the Free City of Pretorium, if I request refugee status, I have five days to look for work, and there is money for this period. I agree to all checks you deem appropriate. Unless, of course, you consider my stay a threat…” The border guard looked at him long and intently. Victor could not read that look.
“I’m taking your case to court. I give my permission to stay in the city. Please read and sign the instructions of the temporarily displaced person, if you agree.”
Victor signed with hands trembling with joy.
“Welcome to the free private city of Pretorium.”
“You have two days.”
“How do you know?”
She got up from her desk and started walking around the office.
“Anastasia, I’m offended.”
The man’s voice was even and without a shadow of resentment. He was well aware of his boss and her explosive nature.
“I’m sorry, I’m just stressed. But how do you know?”
“A former classmate of some specialist in the administration. We talked, he whispered it to me. They already had an agreement, and there’s no point in fighting.”
Anastasia walked around for a while and sat down, staring into the void in silence for a few minutes.
“For twelve years, everything was all right, though. It was easier even in the nineties. We didn’t fail a single audit; the whole accounting department was in better shape than the Mona Lisa.”
“Everything’s fine now. You know that!”
“But how can they take away my business.”
“When you have the district and city administration in your hands, and also the tax office and the judge you play tennis with on weekends, you’ll even take away the fire from Vesta’s temple, and everything will be by the law.”
She stood up again and went to the window. She looked at the machinery standing in rows in front of the main building. Forty-three new tractors, ready for customer acceptance. Beautiful machines, strong, and each were bearing the initials of her father, who had founded the company and inherited her life’s work, for which she had sacrificed her leisure time, her family, and most of her friends. Workers were tightening some nuts, wiping down the windows, and doing all sorts of other cleaning and decorating, a perfect organization that would be gone in two days. It didn’t matter that it was essentially just a change of ownership. It was her, Anastasia’s, organization and a piece of her soul that would be taken from her by corrupt bureaucrats and thugs. She turned to the lawyer.
“Will you stay?”
“Very funny. There’s nothing left here in six months under their management. Already found another place.”
“That was fast!”
“That’s the job. In a big family, you don’t click your beak. Anything else I can do for you?”
She stared into the void again for a long time. The lawyer waited patiently. He did not notice how Anastasia’s gaze, running over the books, stopped on a large three-volume book, and her face cleared up a little.
She took a piece of paper for notes, wrote something on it, and handed it to me. The lawyer looked at her perplexedly”. Have them bring it back tomorrow night.”
“Can you explain?”
“No, Jura, just do it. Everything will be all right.”
She was standing on the hood of the tractor; the eyes and ears of everyone present were turned towards her.
“Friends, I’m not good at speeches, so I’ll keep it short. Thank you all for being part of this enterprise and making it a model of efficiency. For most of us, it was our second home. For some, it was the first. We all dedicated ourselves to a common cause, but the reality of a life in this country was not invented by us. You know what awaits us. Without you, this place doesn’t make any sense. Thank you for leaving with me. I have already found new jobs for all of you.”
The workers clapped at these words, but Anastasia raised her hands. “Please, let me finish. Please everyone come in to see me for a paycheck and to talk. Thank you.”
She went down to the ground to applause and cheers, then went into her office, where she received every worker, from the rank-and-file assembler to the production supervisors. She paid them each and handed them a letter of employment. After all the formalities, four people entered the office: the lawyer Yura, the head of the assembly line, the chief engineer, and the head of security. All had worked at the plant since it opened, and Anastasia had complete confidence in them.
“I need help, but the request is not easy and has consequences. I can say no more; if you agree, you go all the way. I am responsible for all the consequences, and I will give you the paperwork to prove it. Do you agree?”
A small BMW motorcade almost hit a woman crossing the road – the speed did not slow down, the chief said to hurry – he was too eager to see the long-awaited booty. Almost three years of real war: hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, threats, a whole campaign in the media, who would sing any song, as long as they paid. Tomorrow, the ill-fated factory will belong to him. Technically, already today, for it was past midnight. He was sitting on an oversized couch in the cabin of his limousine, drinking champagne with an assistant.
“The equipment will be there in the morning. Because the workers have all quit, we’ll bring our own.”
“When can we ship the products? We already have orders for several million. We need to recoup our investment in all those corrupt bureaucrats.”
“By the end of the week. If everything goes smoothly, and she didn’t leave a handful of sand in the machines.”
“She didn’t, and I know the type. Sentimental fool, she’ll probably clean everything up by the time we get there and leave a bottle of cognac on the table.”
The glasses clinked and were drained. The car, humming its wheels, went into a corner.
“Uh, Chief?” the driver said uncertainly over the intercom, “Can you see it?”
“Look out the window. Is something burning?”
The deputy furrowed his brow and set the glass down. Both lowered the glasses and saw a red glow in front and a little to the side.
“Is the forest on fire?” the chief asked unsurely.
“Blue flames, that’s not how the forest burns. So, it burns…” and he stopped.
“Fuel and chemicals, what’s the matter with you?”
The chief rushed to the driver. “Pedal to the metal! Drive, damn it!”
The engine roared and, the car sped forward, overtaking the jeep with the guards. They were quickly approaching. At some point, the heat began to be felt, for the windows were open. One last turn, and they were there.
The whole complex was engulfed in flames. The flames were rising to the height of the fourth floor. They stopped as close as they could, but the heat was unbearable. Almost all the people got out of their cars and stood there, unable to look away. All the buildings were on fire, the smell of fuel hung in the air, and slices of soot fell to the ground like snow. The small woods that surrounded the plant were also on fire. Periodically something exploded, scattering debris flying into the air.
The assistant was looking at the order book. The chief stood like that, holding a glass in his hand. Suddenly he let out a howl like a trapped wolf, screaming and howling, and then he pulled out his gun and started shooting at the plant until the magazine was empty, and he kept clicking the trigger.
The plane landed softly. The passengers clapped for the pilot, got off in an orderly fashion, and went their separate ways. No one would have noticed four middle-aged people dressed in casual clothes; a woman and three men. They were walking toward the parking lot to get in the car.
In dark blue, the license plates were unusual, not like the rest of the country, with a white column and a gold lily. In small letters, it said “Pretorium” underneath the coat of arms.
“I’m waiting a week in advance. Is that correct?”
“That’s right, Anastasia. Mine is flying in tomorrow; we’ll rest a bit in the mountains and come to you.”
“Aren’t you afraid?”
“It will take them a week to clear the fire. I don’t believe they’ll figure out why you found a job suspiciously far away from the plant. The cistern of diesel fuel, of course, is serious evidence, but while they identify it, find the buyer who our dear lawyer found on the other side of the country, interview everyone, understand who and what, I would have already launched a satellite to Mars.”
“All right, then.”
The two men walked away to the other car.
Anastasia turned to lawyer Yura. “Have you changed your mind?”
“Alea iacta est, Nastya. I’ll find a place to fit in.”
“You can practice at Pretorium, too. “
“Yes, but it’s to create and learn everything from scratch, like these very free cities, and I’m an old and grumpy man. But if anything, I know where to find you.”
“All right. Take care of yourself, Yura.”
He left for his car. Before parting, everyone bought themselves new phones at the airport, so that they wouldn’t get lost. Anastasia got into the car. The navigator with the entered endpoint of the route was on; it was about a five-hour drive.
The route was mostly on rural roads; fewer cars, fewer cameras, fewer prying eyes in general. The woman was sure that all the possibilities of her country’s corrupt justice would come crashing down on her in an avalanche as soon as it became clear who had set the fire. Although she wasn’t trying very hard to cover her tracks, it was crucial now to get to a safe harbor where it would be almost impossible to get to her legally. Technically, she was guilty, but only to the state-not to herself or the employees. It was her enterprise, and the harm she was doing was only to herself and her assets. The fact that it had been transferred to state management in absentia (with further transfer to a particular oligarch) did not bother Anastasia at all. It is hard to say when she realized that her country had turned from an arbitrator into an executor of corrupt orders, but she would not play this game. After all, how can you win if the rules are constantly changing and being changed by someone other than you? Fighting the bureaucratic monster had neither the strength nor the sense to do so. There were two options left: give up, or take yourself out of the bracket of the equation.
She made only one stop, at a gas station, for a bite to eat and to catch the Internet for news. Her fears were confirmed; all the media were calling for a literal lynching of the arsonist who had endangered the business empire of a regional oligarch. The standard comments of the law enforcement officials, who threatened all sorts of punishment and urged her to turn herself in red-handed. Then she learned how that same night, when Anastasia and her accomplices were already in the air, the police special forces were breaking down the doors of houses, blocking the streets, declaring an “interception” plan, and feverishly searching for the perpetrators. Some activists, trade unions, environmentalists-all screaming the same thing. Anastasia felt a poisonous pride: if the entire corrupt state machine had made her an enemy, then she had done the right thing.
Within hours, she was already standing at a checkpoint. First, a state checkpoint, where she was sort of let out of the country, having her car x-rayed and checked by dogs, and immediately a second one, where she was entering a free private town. They checked her passport and asked her to sign several documents on a clipboard, all of which she had studied on the plane and knew what she was signing. The contrast was stark; the half-privileged civil servants who shouted, “Pay and get through faster,” were nothing compared to the border guards in the town.
She had transferred all her savings yesterday to offshore accounts, and now she was not afraid of any sanctions from the Ministry of Justice of her country. The apartment was booked for a month, during which she had to reopen the business and enter the economic life of the city; otherwise, it threatened to terminate the contract of residence. Life would be harsh at first, but she was ready for it, and so, after a long shower and dinner, she went to bed.
“Come in, please. Have a seat!”
“Thank you,” Victor answered, taking a seat in the chair across from the woman.
“So, it’s about the job.”
“Yes. I was told you just opened, and you need employees.”
“What position are you applying for?”
“Wait, what? What’s your degree?” she started flipping through his resume on a clipboard.
“Historian, I have a professor degree,” he answered in a steady voice.
“But why a janitor? There’s a university and schools here.”
“I need a job as soon as possible, or else they’ll deport us.”
“Do you have family here?”
“Yes. Didn’t you hear about the recent incident at the checkpoint back there?”
“So, it was you?” she looked at Victor with a childishly surprised look. He did not look like a fighter: a tall, thin, typical intellectual who would not hurt a fly. However, he held himself freely, had a brave face, and his eyes did not flinch during the conversation, though his cheeks were red, and this talked about his will and upbringing. “There had been some attack on the border guard post… I thought our host country had decided to cover up the free life here.”
“Actually, I brought some of their representatives. The police wanted to stop me and miscalculated the braking distance a bit. It’s a long story.”
Anastasia looked intently at Victor, who now seemed a fascinating man.
“How big is your family?”
“Four, including myself.”
Anastasia pursed her lips.
“And your wife?”
“No, just the kids. Three daughters; fifteen, ten, and eight years old.”
“How? They want to deport them?”
“If I don’t have a job, I don’t fall under the terms of my residency contract.”
“And you’re willing to work as a janitor?”
“I’ll do anything for them, literally anything. If you’re worried about your hands being in the wrong place, don’t worry. I used to build tables and other furniture in my spare time.”
The woman shook her head slightly.
“Well, yes, small ones, kitchen and magazine ones, and I sold them on a needlework site. So, I know which end to hold the broom by.”
He smiled, hoping the joke would hit the right spot, but Anastasia, on the contrary, seemed to pull away and look at the floor. Victor began to worry.
“I’m also good with computers,” in the voice of a student asking his teacher for a retake, “I can drive a car. I am a fast learner; if not a janitor, then maybe…”
“What?” the woman asked as if waking up. “Sure. When can you start?”
Only by an incredible effort of will did he suppress the urge to jump up and shout for joy.
“Right now, just have to run out and change.”
For some reason, she stared at him for a long time without saying a word. Or maybe Victor only thought so because that look embarrassed him.
“Don’t do it now. Where do you live?”
“Come over for tea tonight and bring your daughters.”
“Tea…” he’s a little confused. “Tonight? I mean, of course, thank you. But I don’t know where you live.”
“I’ll send a car.”
As he left, he looked back, already standing on the threshold.
She thought for a moment.
“We were both on the verge of losing the most important thing in life; not many people here have been in that position. I think we have a lot to talk about.”