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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Trip of a Lifetime

In the Same Boat

By Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest

A Note to the Reader

Ed and Brenna are back. As regular readers will know, their "trip of a lifetime" down the Albany River has taken an unexpected turn, leaving our heroes well and truly "Up the Creek."

A REMINDER This is a work of fiction. All the characters are figments of the authors' imaginations. It's NOT a paddling guide. If you're planning a trip on the Albany River, consult the most recent edition of a good guide-book and be sure you're thoroughly familiar with all applicable regulations. While maps of Ontario show some of the waterways mentioned here, the places depicted in our story exist only in the authors' minds—and in yours.

A new chapter in Trip of a Lifetime, our paddlesport novel-in-progress, will appear on the first Tuesday of each month. If you've missed a chapter, or if you're joining us for the first time and you want to catch up, just use the hot-linked title to go to the In the Same Boat Archives. It's all there.

Our story continues….

September 3, 2002

Chapter Twenty-Six

Brenna ran. She drove through the dense wall of wet, clinging spruce branches without breaking stride, and emerged into a tiny clearing. She stumbled, recovered, and then stumbled again, falling hard on a mound of freshly-turned earth.

Pain radiated from her left wrist. A sprain, she thought—at least she hoped it was only a sprain. She grimaced involuntarily, grinding her teeth, as her fingers scrabbled for a purchase in the loose, sweet-smelling soil. Her right hand closed around something solid. Not a branch. Not a stone. Something unnatural. Something out of place. She squinted, nerving herself to see what her hands had found. A boot. It was the toe of a boot, sticking out of the dirt. She tugged at it, and the boot came away in her hand, revealing a foot clad in a filthy, threadbare sock.

Stifling the urge to shout, Brenna dropped the boot, struggled to her knees and then stood up, wincing as her naked, lacerated feet took her weight. Her head brushed against a low, overhanging branch, unleashing a shower of water droplets. She looked around her in the half-light. A barely-visible path straggled away to her right.

"What next?" Brenna asked herself. She listened for any sound. Nothing. Nothing at all. That was good. But she was sure her pursuer wouldn't give up so easily. She had to get back. Get to Ed. And keep away from Nikolai.

Her eyes swept the tiny clearing. Nothing moved. Her ears strained to hear the first footfall or breaking branch. There! A squirrel chattered and churred, disturbed by some intruder. Was it Nikolai? Or something else?

"What next?" she asked herself again. What should she do now? She guessed that she was south of the camp. If she circled back…. She ran her tongue over her lips. Her breath came in shudders. Surely Nikolai must hear her! Was he behind her? How close was he? For the first time in her life, Brenna knew the terror of the hunted animal at first hand.

Her gaze returned to the foot protruding from the earth. Then she saw a hand next to the foot. It seemed to be frozen in the act of clawing its way out of the soil. A hand and a foot, next to each other. How could that be possible? She couldn't work it out, but she didn't care—there were more pressing matters to attend to.

A firecracker-like report sounded in the distance. At first Brenna thought it was a slamming car door, but there were no car doors for miles. "A shot! It must be a gunshot," she thought, and she threw herself down on the newly-dug grave at her feet. Then she waited, her pulse thudding in her ears, willing her heart to stop its pounding, willing herself to be invisible. She waited, while her nostrils filled with the pungent smell of fresh soil—soil, and something else, too, something cloying and unpleasant.

Nothing. Not a sound. Even the squirrel was silent now. Then Brenna heard a human voice. No, voices. Shouts. But where? Who?

"BRENNNAAA!" Brenna's head jerked up. Was that Ed, or was she imagining it? No, it was Ed's voice. Ed! She wanted to yell "Over here!" but the sound died in her throat. Where was Nikolai?

*   *   *

Sergei and Pavel took in the scene before them. Nikolai dead. Ed standing over him, clutching the waistband of his beltless pants in one hand, a knife—Nikolai's knife—in the other. He spoke. "You'll want this back, I suppose." His voice was a hollow, expressionless monotone. "I've no more use for it, at any rate." And then he hurled the knife at the ground. It landed just inches from Sergei's feet.

Pavel raised his short-barrelled gun, but Ed took no notice. He had already turned away, his eyes probing the far side of the clearing around the latrine trench. A mad trail of broken branches led directly into the dark heart of the forest. Even without his glasses, Ed could see that a discarded pair of pants marked its beginning. Brenna's pants.

"BRENNNAAA!" Ed screamed. The churr of an alarmed red squirrel was the only reply. Ed sucked in air, preparing to call once more, but just then Sergei stepped forward and grabbed Ed's shoulder. He cradled Ed's glasses in his free hand. His Kalashnikov hung from its sling. "You say you have no more use for Nikolai's knife? Good. But perhaps you will a find a use for these." Sergei held the glasses where Ed couldn't help but see them. The metal frame had broken near the nosepiece.

Ed shrugged off the heavy hand resting on his shoulder. His voice rang out once more: "BRENNNNAAAA!" Once again, he waited. But he heard nothing.

Suddenly, without warning or explanation, Sergei added his own entreaty to Ed's. "BRENNA!" he bellowed, "EVERYTHING IS OK. NIKOLAI CANNOT HURT YOU NOW!" Then he turned to Ed, leaning close, as if to share a secret: "You have already seen to that, eh?" His voice was now no more than a hoarse whisper, and he jerked his head toward Nikolai's lifeless body. He continued: "This was no escape attempt. That much, at least, is obvious. And Nikolai's character was, I am sorry to say, well known to us. He will not, I think, be greatly missed. But please do nothing foolish. Do not attempt to 'improve the occasion,' as the saying goes. Pavel and I would not wish to be put in the unpleasant position of avenging Nikolai's death."

Ed made no reply. The two men stood together in the clearing, listening.

*   *   *

Sergei's shouted words of reassurance helped Brenna's make up her mind. Picking her way carefully back along her earlier track, she struggled though the spruce thicket toward the latrine. It seemed to take her forever, but at last she saw light ahead. She dropped down on her hands and knees and crawled forward like a wary animal. Looking into the clearing through a gap in the branches, she glimpsed bare feet under green pants to her left—Ed! And next to him, dark blue pants and black boots. Sergei, surely. But where was Pavel? And Nikolai—where was Nikolai?

The agitated squirrel resumed his scolding. Sergei glanced up at the squirrel, then dropped his gaze. His eyes met Brenna's. He said nothing, but he nodded slowly.

Brenna climbed to her feet and shoved her way through the remaining screen of branches. Her face and legs were caked with mud, and her hair was a tangle of spruce twigs and needles. Her neck was smeared with blood. Her brown sweater was filthy.

Ed was sure he'd never seen a lovelier sight. He and Brenna rushed to each other, hugging wordlessly. Then they separated, each holding the other at arm's length. Ed reached forward to trace the shallow cut on Brenna's neck, but she shrank back involuntarily. Startled, Ed looked down at his right hand. It was sticky with Nikolai's blood. He hauled at his beltless pants, already sagging toward his knees, and wiped his bloody hand along the seam. Just then Brenna saw Nikolai's body. She stared hard at Ed. "Your blood or…?" she began.

"Not mine," Ed replied.

Pavel stepped forward to stand beside Sergei. The two of them watched Ed and Brenna silently.

Brenna looked at Nikolai's motionless form again. She felt no fear now—and yet she felt no anger, either. Only a sort of distant pity. "That's strange," she thought. "If he were still alive…."

Even in the chill air of a north Ontario morning, the flies were beginning to gather. Brenna looked away. She'd seen enough.

Ed's blue eyes met hers. For several seconds, a stranger stared at her out of some far-distant place. And then the stranger was gone. Brenna leaned forward and kissed Ed gently on the lips, after which she drew back and said softly, "Let's find your glasses."

Once again, Sergei stepped forward, Ed's glasses in his hand. "They are broken," he said, "but Pavel will fix them. He is very good at such things"—here he caught sight of Brenna's pants, paused, bent down, and snatched them up off the ground—"but these, I think, will require no fixing at all." And he handed Brenna her pants.

Brenna snatched them from him and lost no time in pulling them over her scratched and stinging legs, glowering all the while.

Sergei only smiled a thin smile, but that, too, faded from his face. He looked at Ed. "And now," he began, "what are we to do with you? You have killed—I will not say murdered—our colleague. Pavel is clever, but Pavel cannot fix him, can he? So just what are we to do?"

Ed made no reply. Sergei's thin smile returned. "We have a radio, of course. We could contact the Canadian authorities. Would you like us to do that?"

Now it was Ed's turn to smile. "Good idea!" he said, and he began counting off points on the fingers of his left hand. "Let's see now. Kidnapping. Illegal weapons possession. Attempted rape. And something to do with sturgeon…." He stopped. His grin widened. "Yes. That's it, isn't it? It's not just illegal fishing. You and your…colleagues…are harvesting sturgeon roe, aren't you? Caviar. Black gold. And just how long is it before Ontario fish eggs find their way into tins labelled 'Finest Beluga Caviar'?"

Brenna stared at Ed, her mouth open in astonishment. "Of course!" she crowed, forgetting for one moment all that had happened to her that morning. "That is it!" She turned to look directly at Sergei. "You've been catching sturgeon. Killing them for their eggs! What do they fetch? Fifty bucks an ounce? One hundred? More? And all those boney plates we've been finding—the sturgeon scutes! You're responsible for them, aren't you?" And she jabbed her finger toward Sergei like a knife.

If anything, Sergei's smile got broader. "Just so," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "It would appear that we are all criminals here, except"—he bowed slightly in Brenna's direction—"for you, my dear lady. But I fear that even you are now an enemy alien. With relations between America and Canada being what they are at present, and with Canada already interning Americans, it would seem that none of us has reason to welcome the attentions of the authorities."

Suddenly, Brenna's face lost its animation. The memory of all that had happened to her that morning came back to her in a flood-tide of recollection. The wild flight into the forest. The tiny clearing. The newly-turned earth. The foot in the filthy sock. The hand beside it. A body in a fresh grave. No, not one body. The hand was right beside the foot. Two bodies. Brenna glared at Sergei. "A grave. I found a fresh grave back in there." She jerked her head to indicate the direction of her track. "A grave with at least two bodies in it. What's going on? You seem to be losing a lot of colleagues. Corporate downsizing, maybe? Or is it something else?"

Now it was Ed who stared at Brenna. "The shots!" he thought. The shots they'd heard when they were on the river. The shots that sent them running downstream—and right into Nikolai's clutches. What exactly had happened? A fight that got out of hand? An execution? Whatever the answer might turn out to be, Ed didn't think he'd like it.

The mystery didn't last long. For the first time since Brenna had returned to the clearing, Pavel spoke. "We are criminals, yes. But we are not murderers. Nikolai, however, was a murderer. He was the son of a rich man in Moscow, the man who bankrolled our present…enterprise. We Russians are good capitalists today, you see, and the sons of our rich men can afford to ignore our Russian laws. With us it is now just as it is with you. The rich get richer, and the poor get whatever they can steal. Everyone agrees that this is progress. In any case, we were forced to bring Nikolai with us. And we had to bring two of his father's other associates, as well. To protect his interests, the banker said. But I am sorry to say that they did not do a very good job for their employer. They shot each other in an argument over a bottle of vodka. They were drunks. Uncivilized thugs. They were not professional. But Sergei and I are professionals, and we are not murderers."

Marvelling at Pavel's sudden eloquence, Sergei could only shake his head in astonishment. Ed wasn't satisfied, however. "Professionals!" he exclaimed. "And just what do you professionals want from us?"

Sergei winked at Pavel. "Take a well-earned rest, old friend," he said. "I will deal with our guest's inquiries." Then he turned to Ed. "First, we will bury Nikolai. If we four share the burden, it will be easier. Next, you two will clean yourselves up and dress your wounds. Then we will all eat the breakfast which Pavel will prepare, and after that breakfast, we will discuss what to do next. It seems that we may now be unwilling accomplices. I hope that this does not trouble you."

His expression then became serious, and he turned to Brenna. "I am very sorry about what Nikolai did to you…what he tried to do to you, I mean. I would not have had that happen for anything. But it did happen. And Nikolai has paid the ultimate price for his folly. For this and many other reasons, we are now all in trouble. Please help us. Help Pavel and me. We, in our turn, will do whatever we can to help you."

Brenna, startled by this frank appeal, found that her voice had deserted her. Instead, she nodded her assent. Sergei stripped off Nikolai's boot-laces and handed them to Ed and Brenna. "To keep your pants from falling down," he said. Then he collected Nikolai's knife and pistol, while Pavel picked up the short shovel used for filling the latrine. After that, he and Sergei took hold of Nikolai's arms, leaving the legs to Ed and Brenna. With each bearer taking his share of the load—not for the first time, Ed marvelled at the mordant accuracy of the phrase "dead weight"—the quartet staggered through the spruce thicket toward the grave site.

The burial that followed was sweaty work among tangled spruce roots and cobbles, equal parts excavation and exhumation. Despite this, Nikolai was soon keeping his father's two associates company. At the last minute, Ed stripped off his gory shirt and tossed it into the grave, donning Brenna's sweater in its place. Then the grave was covered, and the tiny clearing was left in the care of its permanent residents.

With Pavel in the lead and Sergei bringing up the rear, the party made its way back to camp. Before long, two large pots of water were heating over a fire, and Ed and Brenna each stripped down for a good scrub. Sergei and Pavel moved away, but as Ed was toweling himself dry, a pair of helicopters appeared just above tree line to the west. "Griffons," said Sergei, looking over his shoulder at Ed. "You would think they were Hueys, would you not? And they are looking for you, I think."

"Nonsense!" Brenna exclaimed. Ed, however, simply watched the choppers disappear in the distance, squinting through his spare glasses and saying nothing.

"Is it indeed nonsense?" replied Sergei, with another eloquent shrug. "Perhaps. But I think it is not. Did you drive into Canada from the States? And did you tell the people at the border where you were going?" Brenna nodded involuntarily. "I thought so," Sergei continued, chuckling. "Then it is not absurd to think that they are looking for you. You are Americans. Enemy aliens, or the next best thing. And it is known that you are in northern Ontario. On the Albany River. So sooner or later…." He left the sentence unfinished and turned away abruptly, striding briskly over to the icehouse.

Clean, with all their wounds dressed, and wearing belts and moccasins for the first time since they'd arrived in Sergei's camp, Ed and Brenna sat down on opposite benches, facing each other across the crude table. Pavel poured boiling water over tea leaves in a big pot.

"I can't wash the stink out of my beard," Ed complained. "And these glasses—they've already rubbed my ears raw."

"Can't do anything about the glasses, I'm afraid," Brenna said matter-of-factly as she groped in the recesses of Sergei's medical kit, which sat open on the table. "But we can do something about the beard!" And she stood up, brandishing a shining pair of scissors.

"Good idea," Ed replied, tilting his chin up. "Think I'll skip the shave, though," he added, as his eyes fell on the neatly-bandaged gash on his wife's neck.

"Don't worry," said Brenna, starting to cut swathes from the still-matted beard. "You're in good hands. Hey! Don't wriggle about!"

No sooner had she finished, than Pavel appeared at her elbow. "You are done, yes? Good." He regarded Ed's face critically. "He is much improved. And he smells better, too. Now I will bring our food to the table." He looked at a pile of matted hair with feigned disgust. "But maybe you would like to clean off the table first?"

Then, seeing Sergei approaching, he spoke again. His words spilled out quickly and softly, his eyes fixed on the matted hair. "You should understand this. Sergei saved my life once, at great danger to himself. He was my commander. I was his sergeant. He could have been killed. He should have been killed. But he risked his life, risked making his wife a widow and his daughter an orphan. To save me. Others were not so lucky…. The mujahideen—the mujahideen your country armed and trained—they peeled the skins from living men and left them to die. As we did, in our turn. Did you know that?" He paused, and his eyes flicked up at Ed. "But of course you did, did you not? You have, I think, seen many things just as bad. But Sergei…Sergei is a good man. He and I…we…we are killers, but we are not murderers. As you are a killer, too. It was our trade. Our occupation. Not now. Not for some time now. But it was once. Sergei, however, is a good man, as well as a good killer. I trust him. You can trust him, too." And then Pavel left to get their breakfast.

Ed and Brenna watched Pavel go in silence. An unspoken question hung in the air between them: "What now?"

Sergei sat down beside Brenna. He was the first to speak. "They are the same everywhere, are they not, Ed? In every country. The generals and the politicians. They command and we obey. But it is always our hands that are dirty, while theirs stay clean. What is that song the British sing? 'It's the rich man gets the gravy and the poor man gets the blame'? Yes, I think that is the song. In any case, it is not easy for a poor man to be a patriot, not even in a socialist paradise."

"Let us go," muttered Brenna suddenly. "Just let us go."

Sergei folded his hands and rested his chin on his knuckles. He made no reply to Brenna. In the silence, the distant buzz of a small plane could just be heard. When Sergei did speak again, he spoke to Ed. "They are looking for you. They are looking for us, too, of course, but they do not know it. They do not yet know that we are here. We did not stop to chat with the border guards when we entered Canada, you see." He smiled wryly. "A regrettable oversight." Then he shifted on the bench so that he faced Brenna. "If we let you go, where will you go? To an internment camp? Is that what you want?"

Brenna said nothing.

Sergei repeated the question: "Where will you go? Not to the States. Not back home. To a comfortable internment camp, perhaps. Or perhaps to one that is not so comfortable. Ed can tell you something about those not-so-comfortable camps, I'm sure. In either case, though, I think your holiday is over." He stopped, cleared his throat, and continued. "And I also think that we could help each other. To get out of here. To avoid the searchers. To go home. To avoid spending any time in one of those not-so-comfortable camps." Sergei's deep voice seemed to drop even lower. It seemed to come from the very depths of the earth. "This war—if it is a war, that is; though whatever it is, it is very much like a war—this war may last for some considerable time. It will be more…ah…entertaining to experience it from the comfort of your home, yes? To give younger patriots a chance for glory, unchecked by the cynical reflections of aging killers. And anyway, war is always more entertaining when seen at a distance, is it not? And then, of course, there is the small matter of Nikolai…. Canada is not America, after all. Nor is it Russia. The Canadians set great store by legal niceties, I understand. They do not like having their beautiful country littered with unexplained bodies."

Ed and Brenna sat silently. Over by the fire, Pavel lifted strips of bacon and chunks of bannock from two skillets and placed them carefully on four steel plates. He carried the plates to the table and set them down with the aplomb of a trained waiter. Mugs of sweet, steaming tea followed. Despite himself, Ed found his mouth watering. Sergei got up and returned with a can stamped in Cyrillic characters. He reached down into the can with fork and lifted out two peach slices. He placed the fruit on Brenna's plate, and then served Ed and Pavel in turn. Lastly, he carried two slices over to the base of a old spruce, a tree whose base was piled high with discarded cones.

He set the peach slices carefully down on a slab of bark, and returned to the table. Before he seated himself again, a red squirrel ratcheted down the trunk of the spruce. When the squirrel reached the treat that Sergei had left for him, he arched his tail high, settled back against the tree, and picked up a peach slice in his fore-paws.

Sergei smiled at the squirrel and spoke to it in Russian. He watched the squirrel eat, while the squirrel watched him. After taking a few bites, the squirrel ran up the tree with what remained of the slice of peach, jamming it into a crotch formed by a small branch. He then returned to his meal, ate a little from the second slice, and repeated his performance. Brenna looked on in wonderment, only to discover that Sergei was now watching her. She found his pale eyes singularly unsettling.

"Do you feed the squirrel every day?" Brenna asked.

Sergei nodded. "Yes, I leave an offering for him on most days. Are you surprised?"

Brenna shook her head. To her astonishment, she felt ashamed of herself.

Pavel jumped up from his seat next to Ed. "Excuse me," he blurted out. "My oatmeal!" Then he ran to the fire, stirred the contents of a big pot, and tasted it. Frowning, he opened a plastic bottle and poured something into the pot, stirred again, tasted again, and smiled. He lifted the pot off the fire and brought it to the table, where he spooned oatmeal into four metal bowls, added a few peach slices to each bowl. As had Sergei before him, he served Brenna first, and then Ed, before serving his old commander and himself.

They finished their breakfast in silence, each person lost in his or her own thoughts. When they were done eating, Pavel recharged their mugs of tea.

Sergei spoke first. "Let us be honest with each other. We are all criminals now, and we are—what is the expression? Ah, yes. We are all in the same boat. This is unfair, I know. We kidnapped you, after all, and Nikolai…. But Nikolai was a fool, and he is dead, while you have sustained as yet no great injury at our hands, I think. And now? Now we all want to go home. But others would like to prevent us from doing this. So we are indeed in the same boat."

Sergei regarded Ed thoughtfully. Still seated, he reached to one side and tugged at his boot. When he straightened up, he had Ed's knife in his hand, the knife that Nikolai had seized on the riverbank. It was still in its sheath, and Sergei balanced it in his hands, turning it round and round. "We have many things in common, Ed. An appreciation of good tools, for one thing. And we have both been professional killers, I think—though perhaps you would prefer to be known as a "patriot"?

After some seconds, Ed spoke. "And you," he asked Sergei, "are you also a patriot?"

Sergei grinned. "Alas, no. My country—the country in whose service I became a professional killer—has now been killed in its turn, and by your country, no less. And in any case, I was a conscript. As was Pavel also. Can a man be a patriot when he was a conscript in the army of a dead country? I think not."

"You fought in Afghanistan." Ed said. It was a statement rather than a question.

"Yes," Sergei replied. "Pavel and I fought in Afghanistan. What your reporters liked to call our Vietnam. But of course that is nonsense, as you know much better than I. Each circle of hell is unique, is it not? Afghanistan was Afghanistan. That was enough."

"Enough?" Ed echoed. "More than enough, I'd think." He smiled a knowing smile. "And everything was wonderful, I'm sure—and nothing hurt."

Sergei chuckled. "That is your Kurt Vonnegut, is it not? The American POW who survived the Allied bombing of Dresden by taking shelter in a slaughterhouse? Yes. Just so. In Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, as in Dresden and Stalingrad…in all those places, and in so many more besides, everything was wonderful. And to be sure, nothing—nothing at all—ever hurt. The patriots would not have it any other way." He paused, and when he resumed speaking, his voice was barely audible. "What I would not give to have been a patriot. It would have been such a comfortable life."

Ed's smile grew broader. "A comfortable life? Yes, I suppose it must be. But then it's not a life open to everyone, is it? Many are called, but few are chosen. You and Pavel and I…well…we simply didn't make the cut. Fortunes of war. There are never enough billets for patriots to meet the demand, are there—even in socialist paradises? It's good work if you can get it, but…."

Sergei nodded vigorously, but said nothing. He continued to twirl Ed's knife between his fingers.

Brenna brought them back to the present. "So what do you want, Sergei? What's all this 'in the same boat' business?"

"Women are always so practical," Sergei joked, winking broadly at Ed. "They are not prey to the maudlin emotions that trouble us men." Then he turned toward Brenna. "What do I want? That is obvious, I think. That we work together to get away from here. Out of Canada and into the States, if we can."

"Why not just leave the way you came?" Ed asked.

"I am afraid that will not be possible," Sergei replied. The…untimely…deaths of our three associates have permanently closed that option. In fact, I'm afraid that we will soon have to add our former banker to the ranks of our enemies. Nikolai was his son, remember. And our banker has a great many powerful friends, all of them patriots. No. We will have to make our own way out—downriver. And with as little delay as we can manage. It will be difficult, but perhaps it will not prove impossible."

He stopped to gaze at the sky. "We will have to travel at night. To Fort Albany, at least. And from there? Who knows? The Native community may be willing to do something for us. They claim to be a sovereign nation, after all, and to many among them, we are all aliens—even the Canadian government. I think that even among their own 'patriots'"—once more, he winked at Ed—"there is little love lost for Ottawa, let alone Washington. It is all very confusing, I admit, but maybe they will help us."

Ed and Brenna exchanged glances. "We haven't got a lot of money," he said. "And our truck—our truck's in Cochrane. What are we gonna do about that?"

Now Pavel spoke. His voice was urgent, impatient: "You will lose your truck. What of it? Would you rather be in an internment camp? You would still lose your truck, but in a camp you would lose your freedom, too. We are none of us patriots, but we all know the value of freedom. And Sergei and I…we are determined to be free. Our work here is ended. This phoney war. And Nikolai's death. So we are leaving, and Sergei and I think it would be best if we all left together. Can you not understand this?"

"And what about your families?" Brenna asked. "What about Sergei's wife and daughter?"

"Pavel is a bachelor," Sergei replied firmly, "and I have no wife and daughter." He was no longer smiling.

"But Pavel said…." Brenna saw that the sergeant was looking down at the table, his face a picture of embarrassment.

Sergei rapped the table in front of Pavel with the hilt of Ed's knife. He was smiling again, but the smile was a wintry smile. "Do not look so hangdog, Pavel. You did no more than tell the truth." And he turned back to Brenna. "Yes, I once had a wife and a daughter. But now they are dead. I came home from Afghanistan. I survived the war that killed so many others, but then my family…. My family did not survive the peace that followed. They died when I was away from home, working for Nikolai's father. It is a familiar story in Moscow. Our apartment block was bombed. I was told that the bombers were Chechen terrorists, but I am sure that they—I mean the bombers who killed my wife and child, you understand—that they thought of themselves only as patriots. My wife, however, was not a patriot. She was a midwife. She brought life into the world, and she provided care for many of the women who our wonderful new capitalist economy has made desperately poor. Nor was our daughter a patriot. Of course she was only six years old. She might have become one in time. But I doubt it. Katrina loved all things that were wild, you see. Whenever I was home, we would go for walks in the parks and feed the squirrels. Now that she is dead, I feed the squirrels alone. And when I do this, I think of my daughter. I think also of the patriots who killed her, and of the patriots who gave me the job of killing other men's sons and daughters. But let us talk of other things."

Brenna silently placed her hand on Sergei's wrist. His smile became less wintry, and he continued, "To business, then. My old sergeant and I are going to build a ranch and raise horses. In Montana, I think. Pavel loves horses…."

"I am a descendent of Avar horsemen!" interjected Pavel.

"He will raise the horses," continued Sergei, "and I will feed the squirrels. But first we must leave this place." He looked across the table at Ed. "We have your canoe. It was very careless of you to abandon it, but Nikolai recovered it for you. I do not think you need thank him, however. And we also have our own freighter. So we will not really be in the same boat. But I think we should still travel together. Do you agree?"

Ed's eyes met Brenna's. They nodded to each other, and then Ed said simply, "Yes. We agree."

"Good," said Sergei. "Shall we seal the bargain?" And he handed Ed's knife back to him across the table. "It is a very good knife. And if you want Kalashnikovs, too, we now have three that are unclaimed. I'm sure our former associates would have no objection to you making your choice."

Ed and Brenna exchanged glances again. This time, Brenna replied for both: "No, thanks, Sergei. No Kalashnikovs. I think we'd like to avoid any temptation to become patriots. I would like a knife, though. If you have one you can spare…."

"Of course," Sergei replied. "Perhaps you would like Nikolai's knife. The tool cannot be held responsible for the sins of the user, I think, and it is a serviceable blade. In any case, Nikolai now has no further need of it. If you have no objection, I will get it for you"

"No objection," said Brenna.

"So," said Pavel, looking at his old commander. "There is nothing more to say? We are in the same boat, and we will travel downriver together?"

"Yes, my friend," said Sergei, standing up. "It is agreed. We are all in the same boat. And let us pray that she is seaworthy!"

To be continued…

Mist and Moonlight

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