“37 Hours” by JF Kirwan
Nadia heard the familiar rattles and clanks down the corridor. Steel bar gates unlocked, opened, locked again. Distant footsteps. Coming her way. She stopped her third round of push-ups and sat back on the wooden bench in the cell she’d barely left in almost two years. No visitors, no phone calls, no internet, no television, no papers. Books occasionally, classics. Minimal human contact.
They kept her in the dark, because they still weren’t convinced she’d given up all her secrets, and had classified her ‘need to know’ status as zero. They kept her hidden, afraid she’d talk about the Rose, and shame the British government over what it had created and almost let loose on its own kingdom. Afraid she’d let the public know they’d narrowly dodged a nuclear war with Russia. The government could invoke plausible deniability. Just another foiled conspiracy. But it wasn’t over. Cheng Yi was dead, but the unknown client was still out there. The threat was still real.
He would try again.
Maybe they’d keep her there for good. She’d killed two people. The world was better off without them, but British justice took a dim view of unlawful killing. British justice… She’d not seen a lawyer, nor been charged as far as she was aware. No visitors. She tried not to reopen that particular can of tarantulas; it never helped.
In the first six months, the thought of someone visiting her, Jake, maybe, or Katya, kept her going. But after a year the pain became unbearable. Nobody came. Nobody cared. And so she worked out, she read, and the rest were just bodily functions. She often sang the Cossack lullaby before lights out, just to practise using her voice, and to reach out to her older sister who used to sing it to her when they were young, soothing her while their parents screamed at each other downstairs. Nadia prayed Katya was all right, and comforted herself that above all, Katya was a survivor.
The sounds drew nearer, the telltale rattle of iron keys on a large ring. She knew the routine. She wiped sweat from her forehead with a mouldy towel, and stood to attention at the end of her cot, next to the washbasin. No mirror, no glass anywhere, a metal sink and lavatory in the corner. Light filtered through the misted glass and steel bars. She faced the solid metal door. Maybe she’d get coffee today. It would be cold, but that didn’t matter.
Footsteps grew closer. Two sets, not one. Another routine medical inspection? There hadn’t been an interrogation for months. Jake’s ice-bitch ex-lover and current boss, Lorne, had come regularly in the first nine months, until she could extract nothing new. Initially Nadia had played tough, until Lorne showed her photos of Ben’s funeral – the man who had helped her so much in the Scillies, yet asked for nothing in return – whereupon she’d cracked and told Jake’s MI6 handler everything she knew.
Lorne informed Nadia she would receive no visitors, because no one knew where she was: some British military high-security facility. Probably not even on the books. Nadia doubted anyone would visit even if they did know, after what had happened back in the Isles of Scilly. Unless it was to spit in her face, something she’d welcome after two years of solitary. But Jake must have known, and yet he never came. That was a kick in the stomach. And inevitably, she’d become angry. Now, after two years, it had cemented into a deep resentment. She might just lash out at the first unfortunate soul who came to see her.
The footsteps stopped right outside the door. A double-clank as the deadbolts retracted. A small scratchy noise as someone slid the latch and peered through the glass eyehole. The door didn’t open. Nadia stayed absolutely still. Come on, you bastards, give me my bloody breakfast! The routines of each day were sacrosanct, propping up her sanity. Still the door didn’t open. Voices, muffled, she couldn’t make anything out. A high-pitched cry, female, stifled.
Nadia was suddenly gripped by panic. What if they were going to kill her? Take her outside, shoot her and bury her? Nobody would know; no one would care. She clenched her teeth and fists, suppressed the fear. This was England, not Russia. But her arms and legs tensed like coiled springs, just in case.
The heavy door swung open slowly. She smelled her sister Katya before she saw her, the perfume she knew so well. Katya walked around the door, into full view, tears sliding down her cheeks as she held out her arms.
‘God, Nadia, I’m sorry it took so long.’
But Nadia was already in her arms, squeezing her, gripping her, two years of pent-up emotions erupting. The anger fled, chased away by a deluge of relief. She shook so much she couldn’t speak. Katya whispered soothing noises while the guard waited patiently. Nadia’s face was wet, like the rain she hadn’t felt in two years. She gathered herself, knowing this visit would be kept short. She wiped her eyes and cheeks, and spoke to her sister urgently, taking in every line of her face, details she might have to remember and savour for another two years.
‘How long can you stay?’ Nadia asked. ‘How long have we got?’
Katya bit her lip then pulled Nadia’s face tight to her chest, struggling to get the words out. ‘Time to come home, my Cossack,’ she said.
Nadia’s legs gave way.
Nadia gazed through the scratched plane window the whole flight. Not surprising after almost two years with only a barred window with frosted glass. She couldn’t help herself when they rose above the clouds, so her sister Katya held her while the tears came.
A tall man wrapped in a heavy wool overcoat sat in the row in front. He’d been waiting in the car for them outside the military facility. He had a square, black beard and fierce dark brown eyes topped by bushy eyebrows. On the back of his left hand was a tattoo of a hawk, wings spread wide, as if hovering above prey. He occupied two business class seats: on the second one sat his briefcase.
When they’d passed through customs he’d shown a diplomatic passport, so the briefcase hadn’t been scanned. But when he carried it she noted from the way he leaned slightly that it must be very heavy. He didn’t turn around once during the three-hour flight from Heathrow to Moscow. No doubt he had been the one who had gotten her released, a favour in return for Katya’s sexual attentions, perhaps. Nadia sensed he had plans for her as well. Whatever they were, she didn’t want any part of them.
London’s busiest airport had been a nightmare. Luckily Katya had thought ahead and brought dark sunglasses Nadia could barely see through, and an iPod with serious noise-cancelling headphones, blaring out the latest Russian clubbing anthems. Nadia didn’t crave dancing or nightlife. No excitement, thank you. Just an open field, or mountains. To lie down somewhere – anywhere – and watch the sky. To feel the naked sun, wind and rain on her face.
But she needed to know. ‘What’s his name?’ she asked, nodding forwards.
‘Bransk,’ Katya answered, a sparkle in her eyes.
Nadia hoped her sister hadn’t sacrificed too much. ‘Is he…a good man?’
Katya’s face hardened. ‘Men are what men are.’
Nadia dropped it, and stared out the window during the descent into Moscow, wondering if she and Katya could finally have some normality. But as they passed through the cloud layer, the world below was grey and full of shadows, and Cheng Yi’s last words came back to her, when he had talked of the client.
‘He is blind, but can see. Water and air are the same to him. He will find you in the darkness. You will not hear him when he comes for you.’
She felt a shiver and reached for Katya’s hand. A thought struck her, something she’d not considered until now. That maybe she’d been kept hidden away in solitary for her own protection. Who would have – or even could have – done that? There was only one person.
They hung around the baggage carousel in Sheremetyevo airport, but their luggage never arrived. An official walked up to Bransk, flashed a badge, and invited them all into an office with mirrored windows, then left them there. A minute later a group of armed military entered, a straight-backed colonel with a peaked military cap, three gold stars and two red bars on the sleeve of his olive green uniform. He was blond-haired with glacier-blue eyes, and had a boyish face, his cheeks soft and slightly flushed. He looked too young to be a colonel. He was flanked by a striking female lieutenant, a green-eyed brunette whose beauty rivalled Katya’s, and three fully armed commandos.
Nadia didn’t wish to be incarcerated again. The idea of launching a chair at the mirrored glass, diving through it and making her escape flickered through her mind. But how far would she get? She moved behind Bransk, then noticed the sixth member of the group: a man in a grey polo-neck sweater, black leather pants and matching full-length leather coat. On one sleeve was a military insignia: three gold stars and two gold bars. Naval captain. He carried a fur Ushanka hat in his hand, goat-black like his hair, a Soviet-style red star on it.
She wasn’t sure, but didn’t think that was regulation. He had an air of casual authority, as if he was the leader of this meeting. He took a measured look at Bransk, an appreciative and lingering glance at Katya, as any man would. Then his eyes locked on to Nadia, and didn’t budge.
‘Mr Bransk,’ said the young-looking colonel. ‘We have a situation.’
It was the first time she’d heard Bransk speak. Talk about a tombstone voice. Yet she couldn’t figure him out – businessman with a diplomatic passport, and the military being almost deferential to him. Questions for Katya later.
The colonel nodded towards Nadia. ‘Is she fit for duty?’
‘What kind of duty?’ Bransk answered.
‘Wait just a minute,’ Nadia began.
But the colonel ignored her, addressing Bransk. ‘As I said, we have a situation requiring…specialised work.’
The naval captain walked around Bransk and stood close to Nadia. He looked her up and down, especially her shoulders. Then he spoke, his voice like smooth Scotch, no rocks.
‘I must touch you,’ he said to her, as if they were alone.
She laughed, incredulously. ‘We haven’t even been introduced.’
He smiled, and any indignation she felt at his directness evaporated. She felt Katya’s eyes on her, though Bransk still faced the colonel.
‘Captain Sergei Petrovich Romanov. Submarine Commander, at your service.’ He made a short bow, still not taking his eyes from hers. He pulled out a measuring tape, made a large loop, then passed it over her head to her shoulders. He measured their girth, then frowned. He released the tape.
‘Lift your arms straight up, please.’
He measured her again, then his hands moved to her shoulder blades and rounded her back. Nadia tried to keep her breathing under control. She’d had zero physical contact for two years. Well, not quite. But interrogations didn’t count. He measured her again, then looped the tape around her chest, careful not to touch her breasts.
‘Breathe in fully, please.’
‘Now tilt back your head as far as you can.’ He measured an oval space around her, encompassing her chest, her shoulders, and the back of her head. She wondered what exactly he was measuring her for.
He dropped to one knee and measured her hips, then got up and put the measuring tape away. His eyes grew serious. Foreplay over, evidently.
‘Can you hold your breath for ninety seconds?’
‘I have to be sure. Lives will depend on it. Take three deep breaths.’
Bransk turned around.
Everyone stared at her. She did as instructed.
After the third in-breath, Sergei cupped his left hand behind her head, and pressed his right palm over her mouth. His finger and thumb sealed her nose. He glanced at his watch.
Bransk moved closer, made eye contact with her for the first time. Oddly, they were eyes you could trust. And in those eyes she sensed a promise, that he would let no harm come to her. She heard the commandos’ rifles shift in his direction. Nobody in this room was stupid; everyone highly trained. She wouldn’t have even made it to the window.
Sergei spoke, this time to Bransk. ‘Someone has taken command of a submarine. Mine. Ukrainian militia, so they say, though most in the Crimea are pretty happy to be part of the Motherland again. Nevertheless, the sub is in the Barents Sea, north of Murmansk. The sea state is not good, even though it’s technically the height of summer. I need a diver, a very slim one. Somebody who can enter my submarine via a torpedo tube with a 550-millimetre diameter, one which can be opened from the outside.’ He checked his watch.
Katya spoke. ‘You want her to enter without scuba gear? What if the torpedo room is flooded?’
‘It will be.’
Nadia was counting. Thirty seconds. So far, no problem. She thought about the torpedo tube. A smooth steel coffin. She’d fit easily enough. Moving around would be another matter.
‘Blow the sub up,’ Katya said. ‘Or storm it from the main hatch.’
Nadia knew about submarines from her former training with Kadinsky. But Katya? Since when did she know anything about subs? Was Bransk teaching her? In any case, the men standing here now would have already considered both options, and they were probably still on the table as last resorts. Russia rarely met terrorist demands.
Sergei continued. ‘There are twelve nuclear warheads aboard. We need to account for every one of them.’
Forty-five seconds. Her stomach muscles contracted of their own accord. The urge to inhale tugged at her. She swallowed twice, and the urge went away. A trick she’d learned from her father. But it wouldn’t last long.
Sergei continued. ‘These terrorists – they made ridiculous demands – hand back Sebastopol, withdraw from true Ukraine, bla bla bla. But we have reason to believe they – whoever they really are – are there to steal a warhead.’
One minute. Thirty seconds left. His hands were a vice. The gnawing in her lungs resumed. She’d done ninety seconds with her father numerous times, but she was out of practice. It hadn’t seemed relevant in her cell. Katya’s face appeared in front of her, worried.
‘This isn’t a game,’ Katya said to Sergei, her voice like acid.
‘On the contrary, it is a very real game, with very high stakes. But I don’t give people a task unless I know they can execute it.’
Ten seconds more. Her fists tightened, she blinked hard.
‘For instance,’ Sergei said, ‘things can go wrong. You may have less time than you need. Or you may have more time than you want.’
Ninety seconds. He didn’t release her.
Her eyes watered. Her hands shot to his wrists, but they were iron, his black eyes on hers, large, searching, but also willing her to continue. Like her father.
‘Let her go!’ Katya shouted.
Nadia’s body trembled. She tried not to squirm or claw at his hands, or even knee him in the balls. But the gnawing feeling in her gut and lungs lashed at her in furious waves.
‘I need to see how people react under pressure, how they face the unexpected.’
Nadia understood. A test. She dropped her hands, stared back at him. Her body continued to tremble. Her vision grew blotchy, and the spasms in her diaphragm decreased. Her ears started to ring. She knew what came next.
Bransk spoke, his voice a distant boom above the ringing. ‘You’ve made your point. So has she.’
Sergei released her. She dropped into a crouch on the floor, gasping, coughing, sucking in air, Katya’s arms around her.
The colonel spoke. ‘We leave now. There’s a transport plane waiting.’
Nadia wiped her mouth. ‘I need a coffee with sugar.’
A silver hip flask appeared next to her, in the same hand that had almost asphyxiated her. She took it. Coffee, sugar, and something else.
Katya shouted at the colonel. ‘And if we refuse?’
The female lieutenant produced a clutch of papers. ‘She is wanted on three counts of crimes against the state. However, if she does this for her country, she is free.’
Nadia got up, addressed the colonel. Now was the time. She didn’t want to be kept by Bransk, or even Katya. She craved independence. ‘I want recompense. Fifty thousand US dollars equivalent – I haven’t been keeping up with the exchange rates.’
‘Done,’ said the colonel.
I should have asked for more.
Sergei gave her a smile. ‘Now, we really do have to go.’
She handed back the hip flask. ‘How deep is the sub?’
A deep dive after two years in solitary. But she would manage. ‘Your divers better be good,’ she said.
He didn’t answer, and besides, she already guessed they’d be the best.