Читать книгу Harvest - Tess Gerritsen


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Страница 1

Tess Gerritsen

HARVEST

CHAPTER ONE

He was small for his age, smaller than the other boys who panhandled in the underpass at Arbats-Kaya, but at eleven years old he had already done it all. He had been smoking cigarettes for four years, stealing for three and a half, and turning tricks for two.

This last vocation Yakov did not much care for, but it was something Uncle Misha insisted upon. How else were they to buy bread and cigarettes? Yakov, being the smallest and blondes of Uncle Misha's boys, bore the brunt of the trade. The customers always favoured the young ones, the fair ones. They did not seem to care about Yakov's missing left hand; indeed, most did not even notice his withered stump. They were too enchanted by his smallness, his blondness, his unflinching blue eyes.

Yakov longed to grow out of the trade, to earn his keep by picking pockets like the bigger boys. Every morning when he woke up in Misha's flat, and every evening before he fell asleep, he would reach up with his one good hand and grasp the head bar of his cot. He'd stretch and stretch, hoping to add another fraction of a centimetre to his height. A useless exercise, Uncle Misha advised him. Yakov was small because he came from stunted stock. The woman who'd abandoned him in Moscow seven years ago had been stunted too. Yakov could scarcely remember the woman, nor could he remember much of anything else from his life before the city. He knew only what Uncle Misha told him, and he believed only half of it. At the tender age of eleven, Yakov was both diminutive and wise.

So it was with his natural skepticism that he now regarded the man and woman talking business with Uncle Misha over the dining table.

The couple had come to the flat in a large black car with dark windows. The man, named Gregor, wore a suit and tie and shoes of real leather. The woman Nadiya was a blonde dressed in a skirt and jacket of fine wool and she carried a hard-shelled valise. She was not Russian — that much was immediately evident to all four boys in the flat. She was American, perhaps, or English. She spoke in fluent but accented Russian.

While the two men conducted business over vodka, the woman's gaze wandered about the tiny flat, taking in the old army cots shoved up against the wall, the piles of dirty bedclothes, and the four boys huddled together in anxious silence. She had light grey eyes, pretty eyes, and she studied the boys each in turn. First she looked at Pyotr, the oldest at fifteen. Then she looked at Stepan, thirteen, and Aleksei, ten.

And finally, she looked atYakov.

Yakov was accustomed to such scrutiny by adults, and he gazed back calmly. What he was not accustomed to was being so quickly passed over. Usually the adults ignored the other boys. This time it was gangly, pimply-faced Pyotr who garnered the woman's attention.

Nadiya said to Misha: "You are doing the right thing, Mikhail Isayevich. These children have no future here. We offer them such a chance!" She smiled at the boys.

Stepan, the dullard, grinned back like an idiot in love.

"You understand, they speak no English," said Uncle Misha. "Only a word, here and there."

"Children pick it up quickly. For them, it is effortless."

"They will need time to learn. The language, the food-'

"Our agency is quite familiar with transitional needs. We work with so many Russian children. Orphans, like these. They will stay, for a while, in a special school to give them time to adjust."

"And if they cannot?"

Nadiya paused. "Every so often, there are exceptions. The ones with emotional difficulties." Her gaze swept the four boys. "Is there one in particular who concerns you?"

Yakov knew that he was the one with the difficulties of which they spoke. The one who seldom laughed and never cried, the one Uncle Misha called his 'little stone boy'.Yakov did not know why he never cried. The other boys, when hurt, would shed fat and sloppy tears. Yakov would simply turn his mind blank, the way the television screen turned blank late at night after the stations shut off. No transmission, no images, just that comforting white fuzz. Uncle Misha said, "They are all good boys. Excellent boys." Yakov looked at the other three boys. Pyotr had a jutting brow and shoulders perpetually hunched forward like a gorilla's. Stepan had odd ears, small and wrinkled, between which floated a walnut for a brain. Aleksei was sucking his thumb.

And I, thought Yakov, looking down at his stump of a forearm, I have only one hand. Why do they say we are excellent?Yet that was precisely what Uncle Misha kept insisting. And the woman kept nodding. These were good boys, healthy boys.

"Even their teeth are good!" pointed out Misha. "Not rotten at all. And look how tall my Pyotr is."

"That one there looks undernourished." Gregor pointed toYakov.

"And what happened to his hand?"

"He was born without it."

"The radiation?"

"It does not affect him otherwise. It's just the missing hand."

"It should pose no problem," said Nadiya. She rose from the chair. "We must leave. It's time."

"So soon?"

"We have a schedule to keep."

"But — their clothes-'

"The agency will provide-clothes. Better than what they're wearing now."

"Is it to happen so quickly? We have no time to say goodbye?"

A ripple of irritation passed through the woman's eyes. "A moment. We don't want to miss our connections."

Uncle Misha looked at his boys, his four boys, related to him not by blood, nor even by love, but by mutual dependence. Mutual need. He hugged each of the boys in turn.when he came toYakov, he held on a little longer, a little tighter. Uncle Misha smelled of onions and cigarettes, familiar smells. Good smells. But Yakov's instinct was to recoil from the closeness. He disliked being held or touched, by anyone.

"Remember your uncle," Misha whispered. "When you are rich in America. Remember how I watched over you."

"I don't want to go to America," saidYakov. "It's for the best. For all of you."

"I want to stay with you, Uncle! I want to stay here."

"You have to go."

"Why?"

"Because I have decided." Uncle Misha grasped his shoulders and gave him a hard shake. "I have decided."

Yakov looked at the other boys, who were grinning at each other. And he thought: They are happy about this. Why am I the only one with doubts?

The woman tookYakov by the hand. "I'll bring them to the car. Gregor can finish up here with the papers."

"Uncle?" called Yakov.

But Misha had already turned away and was staring out the window.

Nadiya shepherded the four boys into the hallway and down the stairs. It was three flights to the street. All those clomping shoes, all that noisy boy energy, seemed to ricochet loudly through the empty stairwell.

They were already on the ground floor when Aleksei suddenly halted. "Wait! I forgot Shu-Shu!" he cried and went tearing back up the stairs.

"Come back here!" called Nadiya. "You can't go up there!"

"I can't leave him!" yelled Aleksei. "Come back here now!"

Aleksei just kept thudding away up the steps. The woman was about to chase after him when Pyotr said, "He won't leave without Shu-Shu."

"Who the devil is Shu-Shu?" she snapped.

"His stuffed dog. He's had it forever."

She glanced up the stairwell toward the fourth floor, and in that instant Yakov saw, in her eyes, something he did not understand. Apprehension.

She stood as though poised between pursuit and abandonment of Aleksei. When the boy came running back down the stairs with the tattered Shu-Shu clutched in his arms, the woman seemed to melt in relief against the banister.

"Got him!" crowed Aleksei, embracing the stuffed animal. "Now we go," the woman said, ushering them outside.

The four boys piled into the back seat of the car. It was cramped, andYakov had to sit halfway on Pyotr's lap.

"Can't you put your bony ass somewhere else?" grumbled Pyotr. "Where shall I put it? In your face?" Pyotr shoved him. He shoved back.

"Stop it!" ordered the woman from the front seat. "Behave yourselves."

"But there's not enough room back here," complained Pyotr.

"Then make room. And hush!" The woman glanced up at the building, towards the fourth floor. Towards Misha's flat. "Why are we waiting?" asked Aleksei. "Gregor. He's signing the papers."

"How long will it take?"

The woman sat back and stared straight ahead. "Not long."

A close call, thought Gregor as the boy Aleksei left the flat for the second time and slammed the door behind him. Had the little bastard popped in a moment later, there would be hell to pay. What was that stupid Nadiya doing, letting the brat back upstairs? He had been against using Nadiya from the start. But Reuben had insisted on a woman. People would trust a woman.

The boy's footsteps receded down the stairwell, a loud clompclomp followed by the thud of the building door.

Gregor turned to the pimp.

Misha was standing at the window, staring down at the street, at the car where his four boys sat. He pressed his hand to the glass, his fat fingers splayed in farewell. When he turned to face Gregor, his eyes were actually misted with tears.

But his first words were about the money. "Is it in the valise?"

"Yes," said Gregor. "All of it?"

"Twenty thousand American dollars. Five thousand per child. You did agree to the

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