In the strange quiet of the aftermath, bleached yellow daylight filters through the blood. Red drips fall from the broken window pane like death’s stained glass, like a slaughterhouse church. Sword-like shards cut downward and angle skyward, broken teeth in the twisted maw of a crimson monster. Only most of the gold-painted word “Dragon” remains, what is left of “Lucky Dragon Tea & Coffee,” the rest lies in pieces on the empty sidewalk outside and the bloody tile floor on the inside.
The door frame is blown apart, barely hanging on, swaying slightly. In the broken window facing Central Avenue, a body lays half in the shop while the legs protrude out, unmoving. Black boots point up to the clear blue sky, lay still with the glass shards, the burned papers, bits of the corkboard announcements, a plastic business card holder, and much of the sports and classified sections of the Times.
A billow of white-gray smoke lazily pours forth. There is no inferno inside, but papers and materials smolder in the aftermath.
The dull echo of gunfire rings off the downtown buildings. The sound that is not a sound lingers softly in the air, like a spider web floating in the wind. The world around the corner coffee shop is silenced. Time has been made heavy with the explosions, damage and fatal destruction. No birds sing in the spring air; the deafening gunfire has scared them out of the park across the street. There is no sound of cars accelerating through the intersection at the corner. Only in the distance do horns blare at the newly-jammed traffic of mid-afternoon.
Finally, as time begins to catch up with itself, the sound of a wailing siren pierces the distance. Only in that moment might anyone who saw what had happened at the Lucky Dragon Tea & Coffee shop have believed that help was on the way.
# # # #
They said Uncle D’yavol was dead even as he was born. But who could make such awful pronouncements of a child, an innocent baby? By every account, he was a beautiful, healthy baby, clear white skin and a dark head of hair. Big, strong. Immediately after his birth, the nurses quickly wrapped him in a blanket, weighed him, and whisked him away, as they did and perhaps still do for children destined for an orphanage. They said his mother cried out to see him, thrashed her exhausted body against the bed rails for him, begged to hold him once. “Pozvol’ mne derzhat’ moyego rebenka!”
Many said it was this sad beginning that was a metaphor for D’yavol, dead even as he was born.
Or maybe it was the eyes.
The doctors call it Heterochromia, a medical affliction. But the world only saw a monster. From the moment of Uncle D’yavol’s lonesome birth, his eyes were always described as evil. One was blue like the ocean in the pale moonlight. They said he could see to your very soul with that eye. The other was brown, but so deep a brown it appeared to be as black as the tar on the road to hell. And when no one in the world can hold your gaze, perhaps you grow up to be like Uncle D’yavol.
One way or the other, it was the eyes.
And when the world sees only a monster in you, eventually, that’s what you learn to give back to the world.
D’yavol spent his life growing up in orphanages, each one a little worse than the last, a little more pathetic, more painful than the last, a little more desolate. Finally, it was the streets of St. Petersburg that raised D’yavol.
Not this St. Petersburg, the one that is all sunglasses and palm fronds, beach breezes and people who smile. This is the St. Petersburg that smells like beer and coffee and sounds like children in a park. This St. Petersburg moves with the warm ocean air.
Not this St. Petersburg. The other one, the first one. The one with the streets of wind and ice. The one with the river that churns rough and black like spilled blood. The one with a dark heart barely beating in forgotten slums. The St. Petersburg that sounds like a Znamenny chant too many octaves too low. The cold one.
# # # #
I don’t doubt Uncle D’yavol knew I was in town the moment the wheels of the plane touched American soil. Still, no one just met with Uncle D’yavol. There was not to be a lunch at a downtown bistro, no dinner sidewalk-seated on a bustling street, no meeting in the back of a pulsating, rhythmic nightclub.
Meeting Uncle D’yavol would be a process.
There would be a car, and then a stop at a building — maybe a restaurant, maybe a coffee shop — and then another car. Maybe another phone call. We would drive all over town before arriving to meet D’yavol. All I could do was ride.
A man in brown shorts and a brown shirt in a brown truck delivered a small box to my hotel door. Inside was a cell phone, and before I could examine the phone closely, it rang. Instead of a number, it said “blocked.”
“Yes?” I said, answering it.
“Downstairs, Fifth Street exit in five minutes. Bring the phone.”
And then there was nothing.
I hadn’t even had time to change.
I put the empty phone in my pocket and headed downstairs.
# # # #
My cousins in old St. Petersburg, who had told me of the opulent lifestyle Uncle D’yavol lived, could never have dreamed how right they were. His house — well, the house where he was, but why wouldn’t it be his house? I couldn’t imagine otherwise — was a palace, stunning in its resplendence. I was walked through living room with art in gold frames, immaculate furniture that looked not to be sat in, much less touched, a fireplace as big as a car. Simply walking through the house was a humbling experience, and I felt small.
The man I knew to be D’yavol sat in a soft chair, his back to me. I could see the dark hair on his head, still thick for a man his age, trimmed short in the back. The pentagram clearly visible on his neck, even as I stood at the door with two men twice my size.
The pool seemed to disappear into the horizon of the Gulf waters. Quiet music played filling the room with a calm air, but I saw no speakers.
The voices of his men echoed off the walls of the empty pool room, mixing with the violin music. The room was largely empty, but beautiful in its own way. It was hard not to be taken in by the view alone.
“On zdes’, ser. Vash plemyannik.” He is here, sir. Your nephew.
Only then did I wonder whether he would speak to me in Russian or English. My Russian is still much better than my English, and it was the first moment I felt any anxiety at all.
“Da,” came the voice from the chair after several seconds.
With that, the big men left us alone in the room.
“Come, nephew. Let me welcome you to America.” D’yavol spoke clear English, with only a hint of Russian accent.
I walked forward through the big, empty room, passing him on his left, the pool to his right, Finally, I turned, the enormous glass window looking out at the ocean behind me.
D’yavol was smiling, but only a little. His face looked unused to smiling. He held his hands, fingertips together, at his chest.
“Do you prefer I speak in Russian,” he asked, the smile never wavering.
“It is easier for me, yes,” I said in English I knew was broken and halting.
His eyes, the blue and black, never left me. But I found myself gazing into both, feeling relaxed, calm, at peace. And I remembered the story of the anglerfish, with the bright light above his jaws, luring in prey. The light makes them feel relaxed. Calm. At peace. And then it’s too late.
“You don’t look down,” D’yavol said in Russian. “Most can’t look me in the eyes.”
“Da,” I said. “Yes.” If he wanted an explanation for my lack of fear, I couldn’t have offered one.
“My sister’s son,” he said, still unmoving.
Again, a statement for which I could offer little but Da. My mother, his older sister, had died many years before.
“Viktor tells me you dream of a simple life. Easy,” he said. His Russian had become faster, clipped. We had moved on to business.
“Yes,” I said.
“A coffee shop.”
“And tea house.”
“You’ll have an importer, then.”
“No,” I said. “But I have studied them. I know the best teas to bring from China. And I have met coffee growers from Bolivia. There is a roaster who will help me in New Port Richey.”
“Very good,” D’yavol said.
“Now you know growers in Colombia, and tea importers from Iran and Sri Lanka.”
Again, I did not know what to say.
“Boz is the man outside with the scar on his left cheek. He will have cash money for you, and the best location in the city for your new venture, Grigori. Congratulations.”
Only then did it occur to me that I had held his gaze the entire time.
“Thank you, Uncle D’yavol.” I smiled, but the room was cool, the air was still, and the moment felt empty.
D’yavol didn’t move. Neither did I.
“Ah,” he said, closing his eyes momentarily, smiling broader, now, white teeth flashing. “You are curious why.”
He wasn’t wrong.
“Grigori,” he said, “you will have a coffee shop.”
“Coffee and tea,” I said, smiling.
Uncle D’yavol paused.
“Coffee,” he said, smiling less. “And tea. I will give you the money to secure the location and open the shop. If you need more, you will let Boz know. In return, Boz and his associates will have access to the supply room in the back. They will come and go as they please, mostly from the back of the shop. You are not to interfere in their work. They will not interfere with yours. Only Boz will speak to you. When he does, assume it is my voice, not his. Should you need to speak to me, assume it is not Boz listening, but me.”
I waited once again.
“Congratulations,” Uncle D’yavol said, and then narrowed his eyes, a thought catching him momentarily.
He asked his first question of our entire conversation.
“Grigori, what will you name it?”
At this, I smiled.
“Lucky Dragon Tea & Coffee,” I said, holding my head proud.
And like that, the dream I had cultivated like a tiny creature in a cage, had come true.
# # # #
The hospital is cold. The air feels sterile and smells like chemicals I do not know. I try to call to mind my beloved teas — the nectar-sweet peach blossom, the earthy richness of the keemum, the smoky lapsang — but I cannot. Even the scent of the oily-thick coffee grounds eludes me. Here it is chlorinated and bleached and scrubbed free of anything organic.
The coffee and the tea, I cannot smell it, and only barely remember, like a hazy dream.
I remember it and little else.
What I do remember is the stench of death. Death and killing and the horror of war. I remember the way blood flows from an open wound, the way men cry out in pain when shot and stabbed. I remember the way the last breath of life rattles out before dying.
I remember death. But I don’t remember why.
The lights above my bed drain me. Though I am fortunate in that my room is next to a big window looking out over the hospital parking lot and the east of the city, the fluorescence defeats the natural light, beats it into submission with the low-hum, rectangular patterns above my head.
The Lucky Dragon was to the north and slightly to the west of the hospital, only a few blocks. I remember the Lucky Dragon.
Sometimes there are footsteps and quiet voices to be heard outside in the always-lit hospital hallway. Voices speak in hushed but urgent tones. No one says friendly, welcoming words like the ones I often heard from customers in my store. They are doctors and nurses and specialists I do not recognize and will not remember.
I remember the faces of some of my customers. Faces, sometimes regular orders, sometimes their temperament or personality. Sometimes a conversation we once shared.
Lying in the hospital, later, there are men and women in gray and dark suits. They introduce themselves and seem frustrated by my inability to remember why I am there. Doctors stand near them, always looking down, as though they are disappointed in me, as though I have failed them somehow.
“Hi, Grigori. Remember me?”
“No,” I smile and raise my hand to shake the hand of the man before me. “Grigori Spaseniye, I am pleased to meet you.”
I think my English is coming along well.
The man in the suit gently shakes my hand, but I can see only disappointment in his face, in the face of the men and women in suits around him. The doctors shuffle their feet. I wonder what I have done wrong.
Later, at night, I lay in bed, in the dark. I feel full, but I don’t remember eating. A beautiful woman comes in. I know she is a nurse, because she is only in blue scrubs, not a doctor’s jacket.
“Hello!” I say cheerfully.
“Hi, Grigori,” she says. There is a sad smile on her face, and I know she is sad for me, but I do not know why. I am a little surprised she knows my name.
“You know me,” I say, still smiling. She is pretty, but she looks tired.
“Yes, Grigori. I know you.” She sits down in a small plastic chair next to me and looks momentarily at the floor. “You really don’t remember me, do you.”
“No,” I say, no longer smiling. “I am sorry.” I know enough to know that I am supposed to know more than I do. I know enough to know that the reason I do not remember anything is the reason I am in the hospital. I have felt the gauze on my head, wondered at the tubes in my arm, the pulse monitor on my finger, the bank of beeping machines next to me.
“Don’t be sorry, Grigori. It’s not your fault.” Now the pretty nurse smiles, and I can’t help but smile back.
“You’ve told me the story before,” I say.
“Yes,” she says, quietly, hesitantly.
“Do you want to tell me again?” I ask, hoping that she will, wanting her to stay.
“I would like that, Grigori. But it’s not a very nice story. Is that okay?”
“Is it a less nice story than being in a strange hospital hooked up to these machines?”
She looks ashamed, and I regret my awkwardness.
“I am sorry,” I say.
“Don’t be,” she says. “I know you must be frustrated.”
I just smile and look down at the white sheet covering me to my chest, and wait.
“The FBI call them the Grekov Gang,” she speaks slowly, deliberately. “Ten of them attacked your shop. Do you know why, Grigori?”
I shake my head, which is a lie. I do not remember the FBI. I do not remember the Grekov Gang, or any attack. But I remember Uncle D’yavol, his hands templed in front of him, his clear white smile, his dark and light eyes.
Perhaps she sees the lie in me.
She sighs, then continues.
“You ran a coffee shop. Remember that? The Lucky Dragon?”
“No,” I lie again, and I realize lying gets easier and easier.
Her lips purse, but she continues.
“It was also a front for a man named D’yavol Predatelstvo, a very, very…,” she seemed to struggle for the right words, this beautiful nurse being so kind to me. “Bad man.”
She hesitated, but I knew what she wanted to ask.
“I don’t know D’yavol Predatelstvo,” I lied once more. And she her face lights up. She seems relieved. I know this is the answer she wants to hear.
She waits a moment.
“Grigori, do you know you are a hero?”
At this, I stop.
“I am?” This I do not remember.
“You are. You killed the men from the Grekov Gang. You killed them with a shotgun that belonged to you.”
I remember my shotgun. Bought in case of a robbery. I don’t say anything for a moment, and the pretty nurse waits.
“You killed them all, Grigori. You killed them all. D’yavol’s men were killed, too. The witnesses say you were… enraged. They’d never seen anything like it, like… you.”
I remember none of it. I touch the bandage on my head.
It’s the question I don’t want to ask, but I must.
The pretty nurse hesitates for many moments.
“My name is Margaret, did you remember that?”
I don’t, but the name ‘Margaret’ sounds beautiful on her perfect, pink lips, and I know that I love this nurse sitting with me, late at night, trying to help me remember something I may never recall. Something perhaps I don’t want to recall.
“Grigori,” she says, looking down. “D’yavol is dead. You killed him, too. You killed them all. Grigori, I think they were not ready for you, they were not expecting you. You are a good man, Grigori. The FBI knows that. We all do. And I think your goodness was, well, a light. It was a light that lulled those bad men, D’yavol, his drug dealing henchmen, the Grekov Gang… well. It lulled them into a sort of trance. They weren’t ready for you, Grigori Spaseniye.”
I just smile and wait for her to continue.
“But,” she leans in to touch my bandages on my forehead, “D’yavol did this to you before he died.”
# # # #
Room clearing exercises, one of the basic requirements to master for the Russian Special Forces, what we call Spetsnaz. We ran the drill so often, with different weapons each time, we could feel the layout of the room. Give me and my team knives, pistols, or AKs, we could have a compound of several acres cleared in moments.
I was the best at it. It’s why I became a tactical ground leader in training. By the time our team left Syria, I was a second Lieutenant. By the time we left the Ukraine, I was a Captain.
I was successful, yes, but Spetsnaz life is a hard life.
All I wanted to do was have a simple life of tea and coffee in America, put the nightmares of death and horror behind me.
Did D’yavol want a former Russian Special Forces officer as his front man for the drug warehouse? D’yavol was evil, not stupid.
I saw the white van, and it felt like trouble rounding 4th Street to Central, headed to the alley behind the Green Dragon. It wasn’t one of Boz’s delivery vans. I figured the van would have a couple of men, ready with weapons to rip off the supply of drugs and money in the back room.
I wasn’t ready for ten of them. Neither was Boz and his men.
The shooting was machine guns, mostly theirs, then an explosion, a concussion grenade. I recognized it. I already had the shotgun out, a twelve gauge, pumped and ready to go.
I would wait for the shooting to subside. The shotgun would do a lot of wide-ranging damage in a tight room that would have nearly fifteen men in it, if they were all standing. And they wouldn’t be, but it would be better to let them kill each other off first.
As the shooting subsided, I heard shouting, Russian. Loud. They were confident.
I kicked in the back door to smoke and noise, at least seven surprised faces.
Standing over the still body of Boz, a smoking gun in his hand, was D’yavol.
© 2017 by Benjamin J. Kirby
All rights reserved.