“Where’s your keycard?” Ruel asked, standing on my left side. I could hardly hear him through the overwhelming ringing.
I pulled the key from my back pocket and quickly unlocked and opened the door. He followed me into the room and was murmuring something I couldn’t quite understand, so I ignored him assuming he was merely thinking out loud. Ruel spun me around forcefully, his eyes searching mine. I watched him mouth something quickly, but it was too low to hear over the high-pitched tone in my ear. I looked at him blankly then cupped my left ear raising my eyebrows inquisitively. He cursed on the exhale of a full-chested breath. I then remembered I could still talk.
“I can hear out of my left ear kind of,” I told him, probably rather loudly. Relief washed over his face. He leaned closer to my left ear.
“You have ringing, right? It’s the tinnitus,” he said.
“Emma, I need you to listen to me,” he said, and pulled away from my ear to look me in the eyes in order to emphasize the urgency of the matter. His brown eyes were fiercer than usual with flecks of orange surrounding the pupils. My heart jumped and I swallowed hard. He continued, “We have to leave Russia. Now. Pack as quickly as you can, but only what you need. Make sure it’s warm. Make sure you have your passport, do not let it leave your body. I’m going to pack. You have six minutes. Do you understand?”
“Okay, pack. Do it now. I’ll be right back.”
As he ran out, I started moving quickly about the room throwing under layers into my bag. My discussion about what to wear with Maria that morning now seemed so frivolous. I went into the bathroom to get my toiletries and looked up into the mirror. I shrieked. My skin was so pale it was almost translucent. Focus, I told myself, shaking my head once, violently. I hurried out of the bathroom and dumped the contents of my hands into the suitcase, finishing off what I decided I needed for the journey. Our escape.
I looked around the room, my evening gown was lying across the other bed, and the heels were below it neatly on the floor. I inhaled sharply, remembering the night before. Images of his formed abdomens and soft smile flashed through my head. I could feel his fingers tracing my spine and taste the salt of his sweat. I hugged myself tightly and realized my clothes were still drenched. I quickly threw them off and found dry ones. I shrugged into my coat, which was still wet, but would have to do, because it was all I had.
The vibration of Ruel knocking on the door made me jump. I hastily threw a hotel pillow into my suitcase and zipped it shut. I pressed my lips into a hard line and opened the door. “Let’s go,” I said. Without a word or hesitation we were at the elevator doors. Ruel looked down at me while we waited for the elevator to arrive. His expression mirrored how he had looked in the bar before the explosion. It was filled with that same selfless concern. He pulled my body towards him in a sideways hug and bent his head down to kiss the top of my head. The doors opened and we stepped into the elevator. I turned to him once the doors shut.
“How did you know?” I asked him.
“That it was going to blow up.”
“Oh.” I scrutinized his face for any signs of lying, but I couldn’t read him.
“I was in the army for eight years, remember? I fought in the Gulf War. I just had this, I don’t know, instinct. I guess it develops over time.”
As the brakes pulled the elevator to a stop, I rose slightly at the change in gravitational forces. With my sense of hearing altered, the other four were hypersensitive. Ruel grabbed my hand and gave it a quick squeeze. The doors opened to the lobby and we walked to the front desk. The receptionist’s face was pulled into a worried frown. Ruel said something to her in Russian. She nodded and picked up the phone. Once she hung up, she said something back to him, and they both nodded curtly at one another.
Her fingers moved fast over the keyboard behind the desk. She again said something to Ruel and then added words I could understand, despite her thick accent. “Ruel Alexander? Leavitt?” Ruel nodded. She looked at me and said, “Emma Biehl?” I nodded as well. Ruel had already pulled out his wallet and was handing her his company credit card. She forced a smile as she took it from him, proceeding to then run it through a machine.
She furrowed her brow and her fingers clicked over the keyboard again. She pulled the card through again. There was another pause and I looked up at Ruel, raising my eyebrows inquisitively. He looked down at me and shrugged. She looked back at Ruel, handing him the credit card and said something. Ruel put the card back into his wallet and handed her another card. I didn’t recognize it, so I assumed it was his personal credit card. I wondered why his company card wasn’t working and thought that perhaps mine would. I moved to my purse, but Ruel put his hand briskly on my forearm to stop me. I dropped my arm back to my side and shot him a confused look. What was going on? He didn’t give any reply via words or expression; his attention was focused back on the receptionist. I looked at her. Her face had become pallid and she was darting her eyes back and forth between the computer screen and Ruel. Ruel asked her something in Russian, I assumed it was something along the lines of “What’s wrong?” She forced another smile, shook her head, replied quickly, and walked away briskly.
I looked up at Ruel expectantly. His eyes were narrow and he leaned close to me so he could speak softly.
“There’s a problem.”
I waited for him to continue.
“I’ve been tagged.”
“I guess we should get the hell out of here, then?” I said quickly in a low voice. I sighed. Running from people, though not the authorities, was nothing new to me, but my body had run out of adrenaline.
He grinned broadly at my comment and picked up both of our suitcases with his usual ease. We moved at the familiar almost-run pace to the rotating doors. Ruel cut a hard left to a waiting taxi once we were outside. The sleet was coming down harder now, and I regretted not bringing my hat. The temperature had dropped again. The driver stepped out and grabbed our suitcases to put them into the trunk. As he opened the door to the back seat, Ruel practically shoved me in. The back of the taxi was hard plastic and freezing. I slid over to the far right, wincing at the pain of my bruised tailbone. Ruel jumped in and moved close to my body. He rubbed my thigh quickly to help warm it a bit.
The driver turned around towards us and asked what I assumed to be “Where to?” Ruel replied with what I had come to know as the word for “train station”. The driver just stared. Ruel raised his eyebrows at him. The driver said something quickly and quietly. Ruel said something else hastily to him, it sounded like a command, and the driver began to go. I spun around to see if anyone was following us, but no one was. When I turned back around, Ruel was looking at me.
“No trains,” he said, quietly.
He leaned in close to my left ear and whispered, “How do you feel about grand theft auto?”
I felt my eyes widen as I pulled away from him. His mouth was pressed into a hard line. He was serious. I flared my nostrils. My adrenaline kicked in as memories from high school came flooding back. I started stealing cars when I was sixteen, just for the thrill of it. Fortunately, I was never caught. By the time I graduated, I’d become bored of it all and decided to quit. Right before that, I sold five high-end cars for well under market value with the stipulation that all dealings were in cash. I ended up making just under a half-million dollars. Initially, I intended to use the money partially for my college education, but I ended up receiving scholarships from some bogus sounding foundation. The scholarship money was real, though, and I didn’t have to pay a dime for my degrees.
I brought my mouth close to Ruel’s ear and whispered, “That depends on the car.”
He smirked and said, “I’ve told you that I love you, right?”
“Once or twice,” I replied in my Ruel-voice. He kissed me.
“I have an idea,” I said, quickly. “Tell him to go to just northeast of Red Square.”
Ruel gave me a questioning look, but he obeyed anyway. The driver swerved his head back towards Ruel, appearing horrified at the suggestion. I understood his response. Red Square would be a mad house and on total lock down with the Kremlin being there, but it was really the only option if we were going to get the car I had in mind. Ruel pulled out some crisp bills and said something to the driver. He begrudgingly took the money, shook his head with distaste, and turned back to the wheel. He took off, throwing the taxi into traffic.
Despite the imminence of the war, the Moscow traffic continued in its normal, congested nature. We probably could have walked quicker than it took the driver to navigate the roads. My mind was racing as I formulated a plan to steal the car, if they even had it. It would need to be quiet, as a distraction near the Kremlin would likely be more noticeable than if we just snuck away. I wondered if Ruel had ever stolen a car. I glanced over at him and scrutinized his face. He did not look at me, though I could feel his curiosity. He must have been wondering what triggered my sudden enthusiasm. I decided that he had never stolen a car, not because he was opposed to it, but because he had never had the need. I would suppose that spies were generally supplied with cars by their respective governments.
When we got as close as we could to Red Square, I nudged Ruel and he told the driver to stop. He unloaded our bags, happy to have us out of the car. Ruel thanked the driver again and slipped him another bill. I didn’t look at the value. My adrenaline was back in full swing, and I picked up our bags almost as breezily as Ruel had back in the hotel. A switch from my youth was starting to go off, and unlike I normally would, I didn’t fight it. This overwhelming feeling was too much fun to repress.
Ruel caught up to me and asked what we were doing.
“We have a block and a half to go,” I told him in a matter-of-fact voice. He walked behind me in silence. I felt him take hold of the bags during one of their backwards swings. Always the gentleman, I thought, and smirked before letting go of the handles. Ruel strode beside me as I picked up the pace, unburdened. We arrived at the corner near the Maserati/Ferrari dealership in no time, but there were police everywhere. I frowned. I had not anticipated such force on this end of the square.
The building I wanted was a cube of glass, except for the back wall that held the offices. I turned to Ruel, who was staring at me, mouth hanging half-open.
“This is what you had in mind?”
“Well, I assumed that we would need something fast. Am I wrong?”
Ruel shook his head then laughed. “How did you even know this was here?”
“I sort of have a thing for fast cars,” I said. I stopped my mind from calling up the details of the memory of wandering around the area with Maria. “So, come on, let’s go get one.”
Ruel didn’t follow me. I turned back towards him and crossed my arms. “You chicken?”
He rolled his eyes and walked after me. When we got to the front doors, he leaned down to me and whispered hastily in my left ear, “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
I gave him my best impression of his impish grin then went to open the door. It was locked. I noticed the vinyl lettering by the door with the words “Понедельник – Пятница”, “Суббота”, and “Воскресенье” followed by numbers that were clearly hours written in military time. “It should be open,” I said, and looked at the dark, empty interior. It was clearly closed. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise given the current situation.
“Wait, so now you read Russian? Did I miss a major element in the past twenty minutes, Emma?”
My heart jumped when he used my name. “I think a schedule is pretty obvious when they use Arabic numbers,” I said, with a hint of condescension. There was a certain thrill in being more skilled than Ruel on something—even if it was stealing cars.
“So, what now? We smash through the glass and hope the ten policemen across the street don’t see us?”
“I mean, if you want to be sloppy about it, be my guest. I thought the plan was to actually get the car, though.”
He scowled at me. I looked away, back to the schedule, and noticed another line of text underneath it that read, “Сервисный центр Maserati, Волоколамское шоссе д.116 стр.4.”
I pointed it out to Ruel. “What’s it say?”
“It’s the address for their service center.”
“Do you know how to get there?”
“Not really. Volokolamskoe is a major highway, it runs through most of the city.”
“Let’s ask the cop.”
“Emma, seriously?” he said, and was already moving back towards the road where the taxi had dropped us. “We’re trying to avoid the authorities as much as possible. Everyone will have a picture of me by now.”
“Right. I forgot.” I hurried after him. My toes ached from the cold. My adrenaline was starting to wear off again.
Ruel hailed another cab and we went through the same dance of suitcase loading and giving directions. It went smoother this time, and the inside of the cab was much warmer. Ruel told the driver the address and he took off.
It turned out to be a long drive. We went under the main ring road we had passed on the way in from the airport and kept going past that. I snuck a glance at Ruel. He gave me a reassuring smile, so I mustered a grin back, then looked back out the window in time to see a stadium. I turned back at Ruel and gestured to ask what stadium it was.
He leaned into my ear and whispered, “Dynamo sports complex. It’s home to the Dynamo soccer and hockey teams, and some other sports. The name is supposed to mean ‘power in motion.’”
“Hmm,” I said to acknowledge him. I didn’t know much about soccer or hockey, especially Russian soccer and hockey.
The driver sped along. He took the left fork when the highway divided. The eerie cleanliness of inner Moscow began to dissolve as we drove to the northwest outer quadrant of the city. The buildings grew farther and farther apart. The space in between began being filled in by trees. We went under a canal of the Moscow river, under the railroad tracks, and over another, smaller canal that was lined with trees and much less industrial-looking than the first. After a few commercial buildings, the driver turned right onto a small road and then into a parking lot on the left. He turned to Ruel and told him the total. Ruel nudged me and said, “Rubles?” I nodded and pulled out my wallet, producing a couple 500 ruble bills. I didn’t know how much Ruel wanted, and the cabs didn’t keep a meter. He took the bills and combined them with another 500 bill of his and three 100 bills. Ruel didn’t ask for change.
The blast of cold air after being in the warm cab for so long was excruciating. My coat was almost dry, though, which helped greatly. After we got our bags and the driver left, Ruel pulled me into his chest.
“You okay?” he whispered and kissed the top of my head.
“Yeah, I’m cold.”
He squeezed me tighter and I snuggled into him. “You ready to do this?”
“Are you ready to do this?” I asked.
“I suppose. I’m deferring to your lead, though. You seem to know a thing or two about stealing cars.”
I pulled away from him and grinned, then took a look around. The parking lot was empty, and so was the small road adjacent to it. It seemed that everyone had gone home. I spun back around to the building and took in the dimensions. It looked sort of like a strip mall. The Maserati service center only seemed to be a part of the building, and the office was the only portion visible. I needed to see the back of the building. A service center would have a garage.
I turned back to Ruel. “Okay, I’ll go check out the area and come back to give you the plan. Wait here,” I commanded. I threw a hasty glance back at the front door. No one appeared to be inside, but just to be safe, I told Ruel, “On second thought, scout it out and make sure no one’s in the front.” He nodded. I wondered if he usually worked with a partner in his spy work, then laughed to myself, we were quickly becoming partners in crime.
Trying to look like I had a purpose, I walked briskly around the corner and down the side road towards the back of the building. As I rounded the corner, I realized the building was actually a large horseshoe. Luckily, there was still no one in sight, just a slew of parked semitrailers backed up to a nearby, separate building.
I turned left to head towards the back of the Maserati section. I knew we were leaving Russia, and I also knew that the police force was very preoccupied with other things, but I had never stolen anything without a disguise. If we were leaving, then it didn’t matter if the cameras caught me, but I didn’t know if I was tagged by Interpol as well. If I was, the cameras would pick up my image, alert the authorities, and get a clear view of the license info of the car I stole. I wondered why Ruel would be tagged. It was possible that the Russian government had tagged him as a liability. After all, he was yet to deliver me to them and now there was a war. I realized that, given my clearance level, it was likely the U.S. government was tracking me, which meant I was definitely tagged by Interpol . I shivered, and for the first time since we arrived, it had nothing to do with the cold.
I walked up to a potential back door of the office. It sat next to two garage doors, so I was pretty certain I had the right place. The wall above it had a security camera.
I was originally supposed to just check things out, then rendezvous back with Ruel, but I tried the handle anyway. It was unlocked. This probably meant someone was inside. I realized it didn’t really matter. If someone was there, I would just act confused and leave. It wasn’t like I spoke Russian anyway.
I swallowed hard and pushed the door open casually, as if I went through it every day. The room was dark, but from the pane of light that the doorway let in, I could see it was the repair shop. It was completely silent. I closed the door and let my eyes adjust, which went quicker than usual given my semi-loss of hearing and alert senses. No one was in the shop.
There was a single, closed door in the far corner of the room. I assumed this led outward to the front office. Shelves of tools and parts lined the far wall and the walls surrounding me. On the wall next to me, much to my delight, were multiple canisters of gasoline. Directly across the room was a folding table and four chairs in front of a small counter with a microwave and a full-size refrigerator. I walked farther in and looked across the bay to see which cars were under repair. There were only three: a 1984 Biturbo with a damaged fender, a Spyder that was too small (and we had no need for a convertible), and a Quattroporte Sport GT S with glistening silver paint that shined despite the lack of light. I couldn’t believe my luck. The Quattroporte GT S was one of my dream cars. I gave the room another detailed scan. There was still no sign of anyone. I took three steps towards the cars and stopped, nothing changed. I relaxed and moved quickly to the Quattroporte. It was exciting enough to be this close to it, but to know I could be inside of it soon, sitting on its beautiful leather seats and listening to the purr of the excessively powerful engine was almost too much. I had to be patient, though.
I looked into the car to see if they had left the key in it. This was an incredibly common procedure, especially when you lock up overnight and have high-level security. The key was there. I was almost praising the war for causing everyone to go home so rushed, but I remembered that without the war, I wouldn’t be here—a fugitive on the run with a Russian spy—stealing this car in the first place.
I popped the hood and walked to the front of the car to unlatch it and inspect the engine. Everything looked in place with no damage. So, why exactly was it in the repair shop? I circled the car and knew instantly when I came to the passenger side. A huge scrape went from the fender to the back bumper. I grimaced at the sight, but I knew that if that was the only damage, this was my car.
I took a deep breath. It was go time. My smirk found its place back on my face as I noticed the garage door was a simple, manual lift with no lock. I began to think the place must have a silent alarm. My movements became decisively faster. I opened the driver side door and popped the trunk. I went back to the shelf by the door to grab as many of the gasoline canisters that would fit. With the trunk closed, I lifted the garage door slowly. I peered out, my face turned away from the camera, and looked as far as I could. No one. I took a deep breath and got into the car. My face was all grins; I couldn’t help myself. Not only was this the most amazing car that I’d ever stolen, it was also one of the easiest.
The engine jumped to life and my pulse noticeably accelerated. I pulled into the back lot and turned right, following the way I had walked. I hopped out of the car to quickly and quietly close the garage door before climbed back in. I focused on my breathing in order to avoid gunning it. After pulling around the building, I stopped next to Ruel.
He was exactly where I left him, back from his unnecessary scouting trip. I put down the passenger-side window. “We gotta go now!”
“Can you pop the trunk?” He asked setting the bags on the ground.
“No room. Put them in the back seat.”
“No room? Did you stash a dead body in there?” he snickered.
“Put them in the back seat,” I repeated in a less-than-humorous tone. He raised an eyebrow at me, but I ignored it. “We’re sort of in a hurry, remember?”
“Okay, okay,” he said, and flung the bags into the back seat without caring to wipe the dirty slush from the wheels. I cringed as they smeared the seats with mud, but it didn’t really matter. We didn’t own the car.
I was off as soon as he closed his passenger door. He let out a laugh.
“Why the laugh?” I said, grinning.
“Again, we wanted a fast car, right?”
“Right. Hopefully we won’t need it, but better to have it,” he said, and shot a darting glance out the window.
“So, I think they might have a silent alarm. Nothing was locked. The whole ordeal was simple, too simple.” I turned right from the side street onto Volokolamskoe.
Ruel nodded. “Maybe so, but I’m not really planning on stopping for VIN checks or border patrol. It’s not like I can pass an identity check while I’m tagged.”
“Precisely. I’m sure they’ve tagged me as well.”
“Probably so. Best not to use your credit cards.”
“I’m one step ahead of you!” I flashed him a grin thinking of the gas in the trunk. “Can you disable the GPS unit so it’s harder to track us. We’ll deal with the LoJack later; it takes about twenty minutes to kick in. And you’ve officially been designated navigator. I’m going to need your help getting us out of Moscow and to, um, where are we going?”
“Isn’t Ukraine on not such hot terms with Russia?”
“Aren’t we on not such hot terms with Russia?” Ruel said, looking at me, then turned his attention towards the GPS.
I couldn’t argue that. “What’s in Kiev?”
“I have an ex-pat friend there who married a Ukrainian woman. I guess he’s technically Ukrainian now, but I still see him as an ex-pat. His wife’s really great, I think you will really like her.”
I’d really like her? I wondered how much time I’d even have to have to get to know her. “How long will we be there?”
“As long as we need to be. Their house is sort of out of the way, so it’s a pretty decent place to hide if necessary,” Ruel said, and then leaned back in his seat. “GPS is disabled.”
“Thanks,” I said. “And they won’t mind housing international fugitives?”
Ruel laughed rather loudly, and I looked over at him while slowing to a stop at the red light. His eyes finally looked normal again, the overly concerned look had vanished. Then the sound I was dreading started. Sirens.
“Are they coming for us?” I asked Ruel, and avoided looking in the rearview mirror.
“I’m not sure. They’re too far away to tell yet.” He was squinting at the side mirror.
Luckily, the light turned green at that moment and I gunned it. “Any clue now?”
“Yes, they’re coming for us.”