Jason Bourne and Neski's Daughter
Jason Bourne – The Apology
Alina was tired, and cold, and sad.
She had moved from her old apartment to the Orannyi Projects – a bleak pair of concrete and glass egg-crates on the other side of Moscow – four years ago, no longer able to afford the rent that her father had always paid for the old, comfortable, larger suite of rooms that had been her home for more than nine years. The apartment complex in which she now lived consisted of two towers, facing each other across a large, desolate, and almost empty parking lot. Her friends, embarrassed and unable to offer her anything other than sincere but meaningless condolences, had visited her a few times after the deaths of her parents and after she had moved, and had then quietly faded back into their lives, calling her from time to time, offering her help that they knew she would never accept and for which she had no use. They had not been cold or unsympathetic, but they had not known what to say, or how to broach the subject of her loss. Several of them, trying hard to show their concern, had bought small gifts for the new apartment, and for these, Alina was genuinely grateful; but communication was difficult, and most of her friends had quietly faded back into the grey, slushy landscape of her broken dreams…
Although her parents had died more than six years ago, she had not been able to cry. She was suspended in an amber matrix of anger and disbelief. The police officer who had broken the news to her had not been able to look her in the eye as he had described to her the manner in which her mother had first shot and killed her father, and then turned the gun on herself, shooting herself once in the head.
She had stared at the police officer as though he had been mad; then, uttering a keen, thin, wailing scream that echoed in her dreams, she had thrown herself at him and had tried to scratch his face off, as other officers had pulled her away and shoved her into the back of the ambulance, where the faint sting of a needle had given way to a black, empty, timeless void…
None of it had made any sense to her. Her mother had always doted on her father, and she had known, in a part of her that she couldn't identify or talk about, that she had been lied to; that everybody had been lied to; that life itself had turned into a grotesque lie.
Her father, Vladimir, had been a reformer. She had known little about his politics, shielded from such harsh realities by a blanket of silence that had descended over him whenever she had broached the subject of his work. She had been aware of distant danger; her father had made many enemies, particularly in the United States, where he had been perceived by the American intelligence community to be a dangerous radical, intent on reforms that would, in ways she neither understood nor cared to understand, damage American interests in Russia.
She remembered countless nights during which, unable to sleep, she had gone to the kitchen of the large, comfortable apartment that was now just a memory, to warm up glasses of milk; on three such occasions, she had encountered her mother standing on the landing, tears streaming down her face. She had not known what to say, or what to ask; instead, she had quietly hugged her mother and had tried to dry her tears, succeeding only briefly on each occasion. She had known that this was not how life should have unfolded in a properly ordered world; daughters did not usually comfort mothers, and fathers did not usually lead distant, dangerous lives.
Exactly six years and two weeks ago, her father had arranged to meet with another Russian politician in Germany; he had received a telephone call asking him to meet this associate at the Brecker Hotel in Berlin, where he had met with several prominent politicians on past occasions. The caller had been particularly insistent on meeting with her father immediately, and he had taken an afternoon flight out of Moscow. She remembered that he had seem surprised; she had gone to his study and had looked into his diary as soon as his taxi had left, but all that she had found in his diary was a brief notation including the name and address of the hotel and a cryptic reference to twenty million US dollars and the initials “W.A.”. The diary had disappeared almost immediately; the local police had ransacked the old apartment within hours of her parents’ death, as she lay in the hospital, heavily sedated and under the care of her father’s physician.
It was in Berlin, at the Brecker hotel, that her mother had killed her father. It had not been her mother’s original intention to travel to Germany, but (according to the BND) she had changed her mind after he had left, intending to take Vladimir out for a romantic dinner at the restaurant in Berlin where he had proposed to her some 25 years previously. According to the BND detectives who had investigated the case, something had gone terribly wrong; Andrea Neski had apparently walked into the hotel room where her husband was staying for the night, and had started arguing with him. Alina had been told only that her mother had become angry and hysterical, and had shot Vladimir once, fatally, before turning the gun on herself.
None of this had made any sense to Alina. She had refused to accept this version of the events, and had pressured detectives from the BND in Germany, as well as the Moscow police, to reopen the investigation into her parents’ deaths. She had written to the BND, hoping that the police apparatus in a less secretive nation would be receptive to her overtures, but had received nothing but polite evasions, typed on official stationery and signed by senior bureaucrats. Her requests had been met with skepticism and repeated, stubborn denials. They were dead, she had been told whenever she called the chief detective; they were dead, and no investigation would change that fact. She was Russian, and had lived most of her life standing in lines, waiting for government officials to make petty decisions – whether or not to grant her various permits; whether or not to convert her few hundred dollars into roubles; whether or not to accept her into the physics course at the University of Moscow; whether or not to grant her a driver’s license. All of her life had been one endless, timeless wait, queuing up for food, for clothing, for buses to take her across town, and for countless trivia that made up the stuff of daily interaction. The detectives had at first treated her with a modicum of kindness; one of them, she realized, had acted out of self-interest, leering at her without regard for her grief and pain. Finally, she had surrendered to the knowledge that she would never know what had happened that day in Berlin…
Poverty had eventually followed death, when the money ran out. Alina had been a student at the University of Moscow, but had been forced to drop one of her courses and to take a job waiting tables at a French-styled bistro, miles away from her new, impersonal home. Another winter had come, and with it had come cold and discomfort; her only pair of serviceable boots had holes in their soles, through which the slushy Moscow rain and snow seeped every time the streets were blanketed with the sludge that passed for snow during the late winter months. She missed her father in ways she could not express; he had always been the constant in her life, lavishing money on her, calling her almost every day to tell her how much he loved her, and reminding her of distant childhood memories. She missed her mother too, and could not accept what she had been told; her mother had never even held a gun, much less used one; how she could possibly have shot her father and then herself, and why, was completely beyond Alina’s comprehension.
The doctor had given her Valium, and she took this drug daily, not caring about issues such as addiction. She needed this medication; she could not sleep without taking it, and could not get through the day without taking a large dose in the mornings, and sometimes a smaller dose in the afternoons. She was an intelligent and sensitive young woman, and she knew that this medication would not banish the demons that haunted her. It was late afternoon, and she felt a familiar stab of panic, made bearable only by the knowledge that her prescription had recently been refilled and that the tablets were waiting for her, in her bathroom cabinet.
She crossed the square in front of the apartment building she now called home, huddling deeper into her parka, the hood drawn over her face in an attempt to keep the cold at bay. She entered the foyer of the building, where it was warmer; the sour reek of cabbage hung in the air as she walked up the five flights to her apartment. The elevator was always broken, and she had long since given up trying to get building maintenance to take her complaints seriously, as had other residents, most of whom she neither knew nor wished to know. The walls of the stairwell were littered with crude graffiti; she had long become used to these privations, and took no notice of the vulgar drawings of female genitalia as she walked down the hallway and fumbled, fingers stiff with cold, for her keys.
She entered the apartment and closed the door, glad that the day was over and that she could relax in front of the radiator. She was hungry; she had not had time to eat at the restaurant where she worked, and she anticipated a meal that she had taken back from the bistro the previous evening, once all customers had been served, and an extra portion of veal – almost impossible to obtain in Moscow – had remained, untouched.
She hung her coat upon the hook in the entrance to the small, dingy apartment, and opened the door to the kitchen. It was then that she saw him, sitting facing the kitchen door, a gun in his right hand, held facing away from her, but nevertheless enormous, menacing, and threatening in the gloom of the small, cold room.
It took her long moments to realize that he had been shot. His hands were covered with his own blood, and she saw that he was bleeding from his left shoulder. He was wearing a ragged black overcoat, but she could make out blood on his hands and face. Yet he appeared composed, despite his injuries.
“Quiet. Silence. OK?” said this stranger, speaking softly in perfect Russian, but with an accent that she placed, immediately, as American. There were many English-speaking students at the University, and she recognized the inflection as he uttered those three words.
He was wearing that dark, bloodstained overcoat and blue jeans. His hair was cut short, and his face appeared, in the gloom, to be hard and expressionless. She froze, silent, staring at him with her hands behind her back, framed in the doorway of the kitchen. His voice was soft but insistent, and she felt a stab of fear as she contemplated the possibilities that raced through her mind. What did he want, this wounded stranger?
“I don’t have any money or drugs. Is that what you want?” she asked, her voice remarkably steady as she stared, transfixed by the sight of the gun. The stranger moved uneasily in the kitchen chair, his hand still holding the gun at his side.
“Sit down. Sit down.” Again, she heard the American inflection.
“Take the chair,” he said, gesturing with his flat, impassive eyes at the chair he had placed directly in front of himself.
He had been waiting, she realized restlessly; he had been waiting for her to return; had been expecting her; this was part of a plan that he had formulated, and she wondered for how long he had been sitting there in the gloom, waiting for her. Fear gripped her, turning her bowels to ice; but she did not panic and did not cry out for help. The chair was facing her, turned away from him. She wanted to turn the chair around so as to face him, but was afraid of making any unnecessary movements.
Calmly, understanding nothing but conscious of the need to obey, she slowly sat down in front of this strange man, straddling the chair and facing its wooden back. As she sat down, he slid the gun into his coat pocket, and she felt a sharp stab of relief, realizing that he did not intend to shoot her – at least, not then and not there, not immediately.
“I speak English,” she said, softly, enunciating each word with exaggerated care.
“I’m not going to hurt you.”
He raised his right hand, now empty, a few inches above his knee, and lowered it gently, as though trying to calm a small child, visible only to himself.
“I won’t hurt you,” he said, again.
Her eyes darted from side to side, taking in the fact that the kitchen had not been ransacked, and that nothing appeared to have been disturbed. She was still afraid, but his voice was strangely comforting, despite the bizarre circumstances and her utter lack of comprehension. The stranger’s eyes were hard, but not cruel; she had read many a countenance over the years, having been introduced by her father to numerous politicians and high-ranking bureaucrats; she knew that she was generally a good judge of character, and her instincts told her that this strange man, despite the presence of the gun, did not intend to harm her at that moment.
She was conscious of a long, pregnant pause, during which she realized that she was being carefully scrutinized by those hard eyes.
“You’re older…older then I thought you’d be…”
As he uttered this observation, she saw that he had difficulty returning her gaze. Having examined her, it was as though he could no longer look at her directly; instead, he looked from side to side, and then down to the floor, avoiding her gaze.
“That picture…” He looked at a black and white photograph to her right that rested on a small, battered side table. “That mean a lot to you?” he asked, his voice breaking slightly.
The picture was of herself, taken at least eight years ago, sitting between her mother and her father, both of whom were holding her, affectionately. All three of them were smiling into the camera; the smiles had been genuine, the picture having been taken a few days before her fifteenth birthday. Instantly, she felt a surge of bitterness, resentment, and pain. Who was this strange man, daring to stare at a photo of her dead parents and to ask her questions that she herself could neither ask nor answer? Who was this man, to appear so rudely in her apartment, to ask her such questions?
“It’s nothing. It’s just a picture,” she responded, sullenly and with a quavering note of anger in her voice. She was aware that she was still in great danger, but the anger burned through her as she contemplated past happiness, and reminded herself of how her mother had snatched that happiness away, without explanation. She stared back at the stranger, matching his gaze with a direct stare, evenly and without the fear that had inhabited her eyes a few seconds previously.
“No… It’s ‘cause you don’t know how they died.”
She was angry now, but also curious. What did he mean, this stranger? Everybody knew how her parents had died. Everybody she knew, knew how her parents had died.
“I do,” she replied, evenly.
“No you don’t,” he said, softly. He stared directly at her, pausing for what seemed forever, his hands empty, folded over his knees, fingers pointing towards the floor. “I would want to know…”
“I would want to know that my –” He broke off in mid-sentence, his voice choking on the words. “– my mother didn’t kill my father... That she didn’t kill herself…”
She stared directly at him, now, no longer afraid, but aware of a terrible burden shifting deep within her soul.
“What?” It was all that she could manage.
“It’s – not what happened to your parents…”
There was a pause that seemed to last forever. The rest of the world had disappeared. All that existed was the small room, and this strange, soft-spoken man sitting in front of her.
“I killed them.”
He stared straight into her eyes as he uttered those words, and she knew, instantly, that he was telling the truth. She knew it with silent certitude, as though she had seen him do it. Her throat closed and her breath froze. His eyes were locked onto hers, which refused to pull away. In that instant, she remembered her reaction when the Moscow police officers had told her that her parents were dead – that her mother had shot her father and then shot herself. In that instant, she remembered trying to scratch the face from the officer who had uttered the words that had changed her life forever. And in that instant, she realized that she would make no such effort with this man; that something had shifted, deep within her, and that of the many emotions she could feel, anger was strangely absent, banished by the certitude.
“I killed them,” he repeated, still staring at her.
Then pain hit her. Pain hit her. In that instant, she remembered the faces of her parents at their happiest; she remembered the love and warmth she had felt when that photograph had been taken; she remembered her mother’s gentle hugs on the landing, and her father’s kiss on her forehead every night. Pain hit her, and she inhaled sharply, oblivious to the pain she saw reflected in the eyes of the man who sat before her.
“That was my job…”
“It was my first time,” he continued, as she sat, silently, feeling tears gather behind her eyes. There was a roaring sound of water rushing past her ears; the sound she always heard when she was overwhelmed by passion and pain. She was aware that he saw her pain; his face twisted, briefly, as he recognized it and felt it too. He licked his lips, and she saw that he was holding back tears of his own.
“Your father… was supposed to be alone…” Some measure of strength had returned to his voice, but he was still struggling to maintain his composure.
He licked his dry lips again, in counterpoint to the tears that started to stream down her face, as he continued.
“But then your mother… came out of nowhere…”
“And I had to change my plan…”
She blinked, as tears flooded down her cheeks, and for the first time, she looked away from him, away from his face.
“It changes things,” he said, staring down at the floor, breaking his gaze for the first time since he had commented on the fact that she was older than he had expected.
“That knowledge… Doesn’t it? When what you love gets taken from you…”
He could no longer hold her gaze, and was blinking back tears of his own as he uttered the last phrase. Through the emotional blur into which her thoughts had collapsed, she heard his voice break, and she was aware, dimly, of his pain. Anger was still absent, and she knew, distantly, that he had experienced loss too. Why, why could she not hate this man, as he sat before her, telling her that he had robbed her of the two people she most loved in life? Where was anger?
“You finally know the truth…”
He could not look at her at all now, his gaze moving from side to side, then down to the floor, then up again to some distant point behind her. She saw his tears start to flow, and felt a stab of pain – for him and for his loss, not for hers.
He could not look at her at all now.
He got up, abruptly, and slowly shuffled past her, past her left shoulder, as she leaned forward against the back of the chair. She was sobbing softly now, as the tears flowed, freely.
He stopped beside her, without touching her or looking at her.
She heard him walk across the room, into the hallway, and she heard him open the front door. Then she heard the door close behind him, and he was gone.
At least three minutes passed.
She got up and walked across the apartment to the small living room, with its view of the other apartment tower that matched and faced the dingy edifice in which her apartment was located.
He was walking across the parking lot, away from her, into the deepening gloom. He looked small, and she noticed, for the first time, that he walked with a pronounced limp, in obvious pain.
She was crying openly now, sobs racking her body, her tears dissolving the amber matrix into which her grief had been frozen, suspended, for the past six years and two weeks.
And still, she felt no anger...
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