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Hotel Moscow

Thursday, September 30, 1993


Chapter One

The plane had emptied by the time Brooke Fielding strode down the ramp tube of the Moscow airport, her burgundy-colored raincoat and overnight case strapped with an elastic cord to a wheeled carrier. In the narrow, windowless Jetway, the two last passengers followed right behind her, men lugging clear plastic bags that sported the Duty Free Shop logo and were stuffed with cigarettes, whiskey, perfumes, and a variety of cheeses and sausages.

The significance of the moment billowed in Brooke’s chest: She, an American, was arriving in Russia a mere twenty-one months after the collapse of communism. Like a pioneer, she’d get a taste of the sights, sounds, and flavors of a country few Americans had visited since the days of the czars. Even though she’d had a sense of “there” through her parents’ Eastern European upbringing, she expected the experience awaiting her in Moscow would be unlike anything she’d ever had before. On Monday, when her company’s  new management had ordered her to take her unused vacation days, she’d called her friend Amanda Cheng to let her know that she had become available to join Amanda’s women’s mission. She would use her business skills to help Russian women vault over decades of stagnation.

At the sound of swooshing behind her, Brooke glanced back to see that the far end of the Jetway had detached from the airplane and was closing with a soft whine. Brooke hurried along, pushed to a faster pace by the two men at her heels, when a small, triumphant voice inside her burst out. Russia, I’m returning on behalf of all my millions of nameless fellow Jews lost on your soil. You didn’t destroy us, after all. She lifted her head. I’m here.

This was a new Russia, Brooke reminded herself, different from the Russia that had experimented with its people’s lives and minds. This new Russia was fighting for liberty, placing the individual’s right to happiness over the collective’s good, and as it struggled to free itself from bigotry, so should she. The negative, judgmental attitudes merely reflected her mother’s prejudices.

Brooke was nearing the door separating the Jetway from the main terminal when a guard approached it from inside. His eyes hooded with boredom, a machine gun dangling from the strap across his chest, he unfastened a door stopper and swung the door shut, locking it, then turned to leave.

“Hey!” Brooke waved, rushing forward. “Wait!”

But the guard just tossed her a blank look through the glass, and walked away.

“I’m still here!” she called to his retreating back. She banged on the door.

“They have orders.” The younger of the two men behind her spoke in heavily accented English. He wore a rumpled blue suit with a wrinkled open-collar shirt. The older man shook his head of dandelion-fuzz hair and rested his shopping bags on the floor.

From outside rose the hum of a forklift and the thuds of luggage falling onto a conveyor belt. “Welcome to Russia,” Brooke muttered. She adjusted her watch for the time zone. Seven o’clock in the morning was midnight yesterday in New York. She banged again on the glass door, but could see the empty corridor beyond. Amanda and the ten other women executives recruited for this Citizen Diplomat mission must have reached passport control. They would be worried.

The hair falling on Brooke’s cheeks smelled of microwaved airplane food and recirculated air. She tucked a strand behind her ear and took a deep breath. Eventually, someone would let her out; no one got stuck at an airport terminal forever. She glanced at her companions. The two Russian men stood motionless, as if forbidden to even lean against the wall for support.

Brooke hated losing control, which had been happening all week. Last Friday afternoon she was called to an unscheduled staff meeting at which her investment firm’s CEO cheerfully reported that they had been taken over. His faux optimism only made Brooke wonder how big a golden parachute the new owners must have opened for him. He was no doubt making a soft landing into a pile of several million dollars.  She left the meeting in a daze and ran off to the synagogue for the start of Yom Kippur. In observance of the day her parents had never honored, she absented herself from her colleagues’ frantic phone calls until Sunday.

The uncertainties she and her colleagues pondered on Sunday were sealed Monday when the Wall Street Journal speculated that the takeover would probably result in a bloodbath for the current employees. That afternoon, Brooke and the other executives were told to take off two full weeks, a gambit to flush out fraud by keeping the staff away from their accounts so they could be examined unhampered.

Not even allowed to visit the office, Brooke would be absent when she most needed to impress the new management, when her clients would be introduced to new teams she had never met, leaving her out of the loop. Never before had she experienced the insecurity of a job suddenly in jeopardy. Her CEO, her mentor, had betrayed her.

But adding expertise on Russia’s new economy would help her keep her hard-won executive position. Not only did Brooke have the opportunity to help Russian women on this trip but she could poke her nose into business ventures of this nation untangling itself from a seventy-year time warp. She would return to New York brimming with new ideas and investment opportunities. She might even refresh the Russian language that must be lying dormant in her grey cells; she had heard it often enough in her childhood when her mother and her mother’s friends still spoke it among themselves.

This trip would be a win–win situation, Brooke had decided that Monday night.

On Tuesday, the mission’s Russian host had arranged for Brooke’s visa while Brooke splurged for gifts the group could provide the women they would be counseling. On Wednesday she had boarded the flight, and now, Thursday morning, here she was, stuck in the Moscow airport.

She faced the two Russian men and smiled. “Do you live in New York, or were you visiting?”

The older man’s gaze fixed on her throat, then turned away. Brooke touched the spot he’d looked at and felt her Star of David hanging on a chain. “What exactly are we waiting for?” she asked.

No response.

On the tarmac outside, the conveyor beeped the mutiny of a thousand crickets. Her suitcase was probably circling the carousel, all alone, the name tag flapping. She hoped it wouldn’t be stolen while she was imprisoned here.

Brooke banged on the door again. “Hello? Anybody?”

When no one answered, she sat down on the floor and crossed her legs, glad that she’d worn her comfortable gabardine pants. So much for discovering Russia. As a little girl, she had loved exploring new places. Her mother became anxious whenever young Bertha Feldman—as Brooke was called until she unshackled herself from both her Diaspora name and her parents’ tragic pasts—had ventured beyond their home. “The anti-Semites might get you,” her mother would whisper, the limp from Nazi beatings preventing her from keeping up with her child’s energy. “You never know where they are.”

Well, now she had been caught off-guard by some Soviet-era treatment. Brooke regretted taking a row of three open seats at the back of the plane to try to sleep. In doing so, she’d been separated from the group and upon landing had to wait for the rush of passengers to subside.

A truck passed below the enclosed tube. The linoleum beneath Brooke got colder, and perspiration broke on her brow.

From her overnight bag she retrieved the folder with the articles her assistant had copied at the public library and had messengered to Brooke’s building concierge since Brooke was banned from entering the office. At Brooke’s request, the articles weren’t about the standoff between President Yeltsin and his parliament heating up but about the new economy.

She wished she had chatted with her Frankfurt-based colleague Karl Hoffenbach about more than their corporate takeover and the minutiae of traveling to Moscow. She’d already heard in the United States plenty of news about Russia’s present political strife: Nine days earlier, in his frustration at the opposition to new reforms he introduced, President Boris Yeltsin had dismissed the Communist-ridden parliament, even though it had been democratically elected. The representatives had barricaded themselves inside the building. Yeltsin responded by installing his army outside but hadn’t yet given the final order to remove the parliamentarians by force. The notion that a president believed he could fire the people’s representatives was so Soviet styled that it became the butt of late-night TV comedy shows in the United States. The State Department was less blasé about it—the danger of the return of a totalitarian regime was real—but hadn’t issued a travel alert. Amanda had assured the group that visiting Americans weren’t in any direct physical danger.

But what was the country’s economic picture? Leafing through the stack of photocopied papers, Brooke stopped at a sealed brown envelope her concierge must have included in her mail. She turned it over and stared at the red “Personal and Confidential” stamp. The left-hand corner posted a Seattle return address, one Brooke didn’t recognize.

The breakfast she had eaten on the plane lurched in Brooke’s stomach like a rubber bullet. She dropped the envelope onto her knees and felt a cardboard inside, the kind used to protect a photograph.

No. Don’t think about it. Not now, if ever. She tucked the envelope in a side pocket of her case, zipped it, and placed the folder of articles in the main compartment. She glanced at her two companions, who continued to stand quietly, heads bowed, unmoving, as though they had been taxidermied. No one was going to help her out of this pickle. With a creeping headache, Brooke rose and walked back forty feet to the gaping side service door.

Looking down, she registered the absence of a staircase to bridge the fifteen feet to the ground. The raised luggage conveyor belt was gone.

Over the racket of an airplane revving up, Brooke heard mechanics hammering in the yawning belly of the nearest plane. “Hey, there! Can you hear me? I’m stuck!” Only when she braced her arms, leaned far out and pretended to prepare to jump did one of them yell and gesture for her to step back, then put down his tools and walk into the terminal building below her.

A few minutes later, another armed guard appeared at the locked door, the lit tip of his cigarette cupped backward in the palm of his hand. Relieved, Brooke scrambled over. He examined her through the glass with piercing, coal-dark eyes, and then sucked, exhaled, and sucked again on his cigarette. He studied her a minute longer from top to bottom, then lazily unlocked the door.

“Come.” His pronunciation rhymed with poem.

The two Russian men rushed past Brooke, heading in the direction marked with a suitcase. Brooke made to follow, but the guard stopped her.

“I’m going to the luggage area.” She pointed at the sign. The guard waved toward the opposite direction.

“What now?” she asked.

He jerked his head to the left and began to march.

This was all wrong. Should she follow or defy him? Either option was equally alarming. She turned her gold chain backward so its Star of David rested above her shoulder blades.

But this wasn’t her mother’s life. Representatives from the women’s cooperatives she was to counsel were to meet her group. They’d come looking for her and would straighten out any misunderstanding. Reluctantly, Brooke followed the guard.

He led her into a windowless room where two uniformed men perched on desks were chatting, their heads shrouded in swirls of cigarette smoke. The guard uttered a quick sentence in Russian.

“This is. A huge. Miss-take. I must. Join. My. Group.” Brooke enunciated each word. “Where. Is. The. Luggage. Area? Valise?” One of the men puffed up his chest. The front of his jacket sported two rows of ribbons, and green insignias with gold lettering shone on his epaulettes. Slowly, deliberately, he stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray.

He raised his head. He was handsome in a fierce, dark macho way, the kind of man some women found attractive and therefore made him believe he was irresistible. “You make trouble in airport.” His thick, walrus-like mustache reminded Brooke of villains in Cold War spy movies.

The only way to beat his power game was not to seem intimidated. Brooke’s height allowed her to meet his gaze, yet her voice quivered as she asked, “Why am I here?”

“What there?” His chin cocked toward her purse. She squared her shoulders. “That’s my handbag.”

He reached for it. She recoiled. “Who are you? What’s your title?”

“Customs. Open.”

She smelled the cheap cologne of his assistant, who sported only a half-circle insignia with a single word in Cyrillic on his upper sleeve. He hitched up his pants toward his huge belly. The rolls of chin dangling over his starched collar trembled as he grabbed Brooke’s baggage carrier, unleashed the bungee cord, slammed her case on his desk, and began to rummage through it. Her vitamin box, Swiss knife by Tiffany, sleeping mask, packet of Wet-Naps,  and the flash cards Amanda had given her tumbled down to the floor. The first officer turned over her purse and emptied it on his desk.

The men’s thick fingers searched the seams of her bags, tapped and squeezed their sides and unzipped each pocket. Body odor hung in the room like a cloud. Brooke breathed through her mouth. What if these men went so far as to demand a body search? The fat assistant clicked open her camera chamber and yanked at the film, exposing it. Luckily, she hadn’t taken any photos yet. Her pulse drummed. Trying to sound cooperative, she asked, “What are you looking for?”

Holding her passport, the officer checked her date of birth, counted on his fingers, then raked her body with his eyes. “Thirty-eight?” He went on flipping through page after page of green, blue, and red stamps, viewing entry and exit marks. He inspected the two extra photos she had clipped to the back page on Hoffenbach’s advice. She might need a visa from another country, he had said, if she needed to flee. Right now, she wished she had taken his first advice: to stay in New York.

“You travel much,” the customs officer said. “Business.”

The officer chuckled, and his eyes again roamed the length of

Brooke’s body, this time more slowly.

Heat rose up her neck. “You haven’t told me why I’m here.” She should offer a bribe, she thought while he returned to reading each page in her passport. She was familiar with the voracious appetite for American dollars in countries under a totalitarian regime.

At last, the customs officer looked up. “Joor-nal?” “No. Nyet journalist,” Brooke said. “Business.”

The corpulent assistant handed the officer her Sharp Wizard electronic organizer. The man put down the passport and examined the gadget. He jabbed at the switch with a finger sprouting dark hairs. The day’s New York Stock Exchange quotes flashed on the screen along with a rotating world globe.

He gazed at it. “Spy?”

Brooke’s mouth went dry. “Oh, no. Not spy. Not media, not politics.” She forced herself to smile as she reached out and tapped some keys without dislodging the Wizard from the officer’s grip. Pac-Man came charging across the screen. “Look!”

The officer burst out laughing. His front teeth were little blackened pins, like a charred picket fence. Pac-Man began swallowing his enemies. The officer slapped his knees and guffawed. “Rossiya.” He pointed at a little fish. “America. Rossiya eat America.”

Anger rose in Brooke. They had nothing on her. She hadn’t come to this country to be hassled. “No more. Now I go.” She grabbed the organizer from his hand, punched the escape key, and Pac-Man disappeared. Without waiting for permission, she made a move toward her strewn belongings.

“No.” The officer’s attention was arrested by a folded packet of paper she was about to shove back into her purse. He put out his hand. “What this?”

“My itinerary.” She tried to stabilize her breathing. “I’m here to teach business to Russian women—”

“Teach Rossiya women?” He smirked and said something in Russian. His colleague laughed. The guard by the door snickered.

Perspiration trickled down Brooke’s spine. Just let me go. “I’m a guest of the Economic Authority—” She stopped. The name of the local powerful man Amanda had asked to arrange Brooke’s visa on the shortest notice suddenly evaporated from her mind. “And this?” To her horror, the customs officer held out the envelope from Seattle.

Don’t open the letter, Brooke silently begged the officer, or God. It would be like introducing a deadly virus back into her life.

His pinky nail, grown to an inch long curve, snaked under the Scotch tape that double-secured the sealed edge.

Brooke couldn’t bear to watch. She looked away and caught sight of his assistant thumbing through  the money in her wallet. There were ten fifty-dollar bills there, she knew.

“Give that to me!” Reaching over, she grabbed the wallet out of his hand. “This is my money.” Her panic switched to indignation.

With clenched teeth, she pulled out three bills and handed one to each man.

Tossing the envelope back onto his desk, the officer snatched the bill from his assistant’s hand. “One hundred,” he said to her.

Her elbow pressed against her money belt under her blouse. She had followed Hoffenbach’s third piece of advice and brought an additional two thousand dollars in small denominations; travelers’ checks couldn’t be cashed in Russia.

“You keep the hundred. Fifty each for the others.”

“Nyet.” He waved the money. “You make trouble in airport.” The bastard. She handed him two more bills and fastened her wallet, aware that he could confiscate all of it. With shaking hands she gathered up her things into her handbag on the desk. This time rather than stopping her, the assistant helped as he stuffed her black cashmere shawl back into her overnight case. He stopped to squeeze the roll of toilet paper in there, and she was surprised by the reverence with which he tucked in the loose edge.

Too near, she felt the heat of the first officer. She turned to find him gawking at her neck. His mustache quivered. “Beautiful America.” A lascivious grin twisted his mouth. “Good woman, like Rossiya, but no meat.” He pointed to an open door in the back. Through the doorway, Brooke could see a small window-less room. “Wait there,” he said.

The blood pumped in her temples. If she entered that jail cell, she might never get out to tell what happened. She visualized the headline: Female American Investment Adviser Disappears in Moscow Airport.

The man put his hand on her shoulder, and his finger curled around a highlighted strand of hair. Brooke gasped and stepped back, but found herself trapped between him and the desk. “Take your hand off me,” she hissed. “Don’t you dare touch me!”

His finger traced a line on the bare skin of her neck, from her earlobe down to the thin gold chain. Adrenaline buzzed in her veins, and the points of the Star of David jabbed her shoulder blade.

The guard at the door, who’d been studying his dollar bills, tucked them into his breast pocket. With new eagerness, the assistant resumed stuffing her belongings into the travel case. As he did so, Brooke caught a glimpse of the green orientation folder Amanda had distributed.

“One moment.” There was hysteria in her voice. She snatched the folder and pulled out the Economic Authority invitation, its letterhead written in embellished Cyrillic. “Look.”

The officer did a double take. He said something to the other man and pointed at the bold and flowery signature. Typed below it was the name Nikolai Sidorov.

The two men craned their necks and peered at the document in awed silence.

The pounding in Brooke’s ears crescendoed. “Give me my money back,” she commanded, “or I’ll tell Nikolai Sidorov.”

To her surprise, they reached into their pockets and pulled out the money. “Everything okay?” The officer’s mouth twisted in embarrassment. “Okay?”

“Nyet. Not okay.” She checked that her case was fully zipped and her passport tucked in her purse. She fastened the bungee cord. “I am leaving.”

“Want toilet?” The officer asked. “Good toilet,” he added, sounding conciliatory.

She glowered at him. Her bladder was pressing, but did he think she’d lock herself in one of his little rooms? She headed to the door. “I’m going now.”

The guard accompanied her as they followed the signs to the passport control area. With hand gestures, he kept offering to roll her carrier, but Brooke held on to it. Still distrustful of the sudden turn of events, she marched on. She couldn’t believe what had just happened, what could have happened. She felt the officer’s finger tracing a line on her neck as if a jellyfish had stung her skin.

Who was her host, this Nikolai Sidorov? She caught the name again as the guard said it to the passport control officer, who stamped her visa with no further question.

Finally, Brooke was through into the vast luggage claim of the Moscow airport. Soldiers armed with automatic weapons glared at travelers as if supervising prisoners plotting escape. Brooke spotted Jenny, a walking showroom of her own fashion accessory business. The short, plump woman wore dangling earrings in primary colors and a matching oversize pin, waist-length necklace, and bangles. Twirling her necklace on her index finger, she smiled at an apple-cheeked, blue-eyed boy in military uniform.

Brooke started toward Jenny to warn her that these men were not to be messed with, when Amanda bounded toward her. “Brooke, are you all right? Where have you been?”

I could have been raped, Brooke wanted to scream. She felt eyes piercing her back as if she were still being observed by the customs officers. The curious gazes of the ten other women in the group were upon her. Jenny let go of her soldier and sauntered over, full hips swaying. “You look like hell.”

Amanda touched Brooke’s cheek. Her Eurasian eyes narrowed. “What happened?”

Brooke choked the urge to fall into her friend’s arms. There would be private time later to tell her story.

“Just a little red tape,” she said.

Hotel Moscow
by by Talia Carner

  • Genres: Fiction, Literary
  • paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0062388592
  • ISBN-13: 9780062388599