We rode in silence. Anton and I had never been particularly close, though we had worked together on numerous occasions. Sometimes, I had found myself teamed up with him and a few of his countrymen; more often, I contracted his services specifically for a controlled detonation, with a minimum of collateral damage. His skill with explosives was something extraordinary. I’d personally witnessed him cobble together a high-yield shaped charge in less than a half hour, and then use that same charge to blow an entire vault wall out without blinking. When he was in the zone, Anton was professional to the point of curtness, nearly oblivious to any outside commentary or conversation. I’d been able to respect that and the two of us had pulled off a few high profile heists through the eastern Bloc with a fair degree of success. Sarah had technically worked with him as well, although she’d gone through her usual hoops to ensure a degree of insulation.
Small talk was difficult for him, though. I’d guessed at his sexuality a few minutes after meeting him and the Ukranians he worked with had been only too happy to confirm my suspicions, in the worst possible terms and with a wide variety of slurs I hadn’t understood. What I gathered was that most of the local thieves only worked with Anton when there was simply no other option. Their repulsion extended beyond the professional and into the realm of personal discrimination. So, despite his obvious talents and willingness to work, Anton had found himself frozen out of any social groups in his home country. He’d turned inward to deal with that isolation. His reaction to confrontation – namely to retreat even further into himself – was a direct result of that. Remembering that, I felt almost bad for my earlier aggression.
“Hey,” I said. “Mind if I ask you a question?”
Anton turned slightly so that he could see me in the corner of one eye. He nodded after a moment.
“Why do you stay here? In Kiev, I mean.”
“Where else would I go?”
“Anywhere else, maybe? Somewhere the underworld doesn’t treat you like…” I considered several possible phrases. “Where they don’t treat you like you’re…I don’t know, less of a person?”
Anton drummed his fingers into the steering wheel. Instead of pressing further, I looked out of the window. The hours after midnight had always been my favorite time to visit a city. The skyline lit up with tiny flecks of light that stretched from one end of the horizon to the other. Many of the buildings had domed roofs and, judging only by silhouette, I couldn’t tell where the slopes began or ended. On my one previous visit, I’d noticed the menagerie of colors that adorned the surfaces of every building in sight, but I couldn’t make those out in the dim starlight. I gazed at the architecture as we passed it by. When Anton finally spoke, it startled me.
“This is my home,” he said, in a sad voice. “I am proud to be from Ukraine, even if my country is not proud of me.”
“You’re good, though. Better than you get credit for, and a hell of a lot better than you get treated. I’ve seen what you can do when the pressure’s on, and there’s not a lot of people I’ve worked with who could pull off half of what you can, even with perfect conditions.”
He shrugged. “Do you know what it is like to love something, even if you know it does not love you back?”
I thought about Sarah, about that final catastrophic fight. “Yeah.”
“It is like that, then.” He was silent for another long stretch. I looked back at the buildings and waited until he felt ready to continue. “I figured out that I was…different when I was very young.”
My ears perked up. On the rare occasions when Anton had started a conversation in the past, the topic had always been about business. Details from his personal life, outside of the unavoidable reason of his ostracization, had always been scarce.
“My parents did not approve, of course,” he continued. “There are camps here. You have similar ones in America, I think.”
It took me a second. “Conversion camps?”
He frowned slightly and then shrugged. “In these ‘conversion camps,’ what do they do?”
“I haven’t read much about them,” I admitted. “But from what I’ve heard, they try to make you not…the way you are. Does that make sense?”
Anton nodded. “Yes. Then, yes. In Ukraine, they also have ‘conversion camps’ and for the same reason. My mother and father sent me to one when I was twelve years old.”
I recalled the single article I’d seen on the topic. What I’d read had been so horrifying that I’d put down the magazine and refused to read any further. I felt Anton’s tension and I realized, almost subconsciously, that he longed to tell me the story. “What happened?”
“Many things,” he said. “The people in charge of these camps showed us movies with men. Sometimes shirtless men. At the same time, we were given drinks that would make us ill. They hoped that the sickness would make us less attracted to the men in the movies.”
Morbid curiosity took over where common decency left off. “And if that didn’t work?”
“There were other methods. Electricity, for one. In some camps – not the one I was sent to – the ‘counselors’ would beat you, to ensure that you understood your thoughts were wrong.” Anton spoke in a flat, matter-of-fact tone. “But those were more expensive. My parents did not have much money, and so I only had to drink the poisons and watch the movie.”
I didn’t speak for several seconds, as the mental images sank deep into my mind. “Why are you telling me this?” I asked, finally.
“I spent two summers at camps like these,” Anton said, instead of answering my question. “When I was fourteen, my father became sick and they could not afford to send me anymore, and so I spent those months at my home. My father did not die until I was one week away from eighteen. He did not speak to me until the night he died.”
“Not at all?”
“Perhaps if he needed me to bring something to him, or if there was work that needed to be done.” Anton shrugged. “I do not remember. But he did not speak to me until that last night. Do you understand what I mean?”
“When I came to his bedside, he looked old and weak. Nothing like the man I had grown up admiring. I held his hand and, when the time came, he leaned over to me and whispered something into my ear.” Anton fell silent.
I waited. I realized at some point that I was holding my breath. I released the air in an explosive burst. “What did he say?”
“I…do not know,” Anton said. “He had been sick for a very long time and his voice was all but gone. I would like to think that he told me that he loved me, that he was sorry for what he had put me through as a boy, and that he understood that I did not choose to be the way I am.”
There was an obvious lead there, and I took it. “But?”
“But that is not very likely. If I had to guess?” Anton shrugged. “I think my father’s last words were to tell me that he was disappointed in me. That he wished he had a son, instead of a mat like me.”
I didn’t know the word. The implication was undeniably clear. “Anton, I…”
He kept speaking, as though I hadn’t interrupted him at all. “My mother…I think she blamed me for his death. She thought that I broke his heart by being as I am, and that a broken heart had killed him. She did not speak to me after that night. She still hasn’t. I had no brothers and no sisters. A month after we buried my father, I left my home and I have never returned.”
He stopped and I knew he had reached the end of his story. “Why,” I repeated, “are you telling me this?”
“Because, Devlin, I still love my mother. I loved my father, even as he hated me. I loved them both when they sent me away to camp, when they told me that I was defective and wrong. If I could still love them, even with all that they did to me, how could I not still love my country for all that it does?” Anton turned onto a side street. I had completely lost track of landmarks and didn’t know where he had taken us. “My love for Ukraine has nothing to do with its love for me.”
I turned and searched Anton’s eyes. Unshed tears glistened from his eyes, but his chin was still held high. “Ah,” I said.
“Ah,” he said back. Then, he switched the car off. “We are here.”
We were parked in front of a squat, one story building that looked as though it was scheduled for condemnation in the near future. I counted three other cars in the parking lot. The nearest two were brand new and gleamed under the single naked lightbulb set above the bar’s front door. The third was dilapidated and rusted. The front of the building had only two windows, both of which were boarded shut. There was no way to see through the obstacles into the bar’s interior. Anton exited the car and waited by the entrance until I mustered the courage to join him.
“Anything I should know?” I asked.
“The police will not come to this bar, unless they have a very good reason to,” he said.
“The guy who runs this – whoever he is – has that much pull?”
Anton shook his head. “No. But the people that he works for do.”
Which meant more layers to navigate. “Just once,” I muttered. “Just once, can’t it be simple?”
“Nothing.” I rolled my shoulders until the joints popped and the muscles loosened. “Let’s get this over with, I guess.”
He opened the door and motioned for me to enter before him. I couldn’t help but notice the beads of sweat on his forehead and the nervous way he licked his lips. The hand that wasn’t holding the door was nearly invisible behind his back. In the lamplight, I caught a glimpse of him nervously cracking the knuckles, one at a time. Anton’s anxiety at simply being here was a far cry from encouraging.
The inside of the bar looked exactly like the outside, with the notable exception of its occupancy. The vehicles had led me to imagine the interior as abandoned, perhaps staffed by a single aging bartender who stared listlessly at a floor full of empty chairs. The exact opposite was true. Each table that I saw was occupied and each chair or stool supported the weight of a native. Women moved between the tables, deftly avoiding the groping hands of customers with professional ease for the most part. A handful of the girls actively encouraged the attentions of their male patrons, either with strategic winks; or pouted lips; or the ever-effective flash of cleavage, as they leaned over to retrieve empty glasses and beers. An old coin-operated jukebox played a song I’d never heard and couldn’t translate. Some of the men raised their beers in time with the music.
As the door swung shut behind us, the eyes of the patrons slowly swiveled to face us. First, the people looked at Anton. Recognizing him, they dismissed him from their thoughts almost immediately. Then, they turned their attention to me. I could feel as they evaluated me, decided whether I was a threat of a potential asset, and then found things to do that allowed them to continue their examination in a more covert manner. This wasn’t something I was unaccustomed to. Most of the bars in the criminal underground that served a particular type of client – either by specialty or nationality – had given me similar welcomes, the first time I’d visited. I wasn’t planning on staying inside this dive any longer than absolutely necessary, either, so the locals’ opinions of me ranked exactly at the bottom of my “things to be concerned about” list.
“Busier than it looks,” I said to Anton.
“What?” He blinked, then understood. “Most of the customers walk here from wherever they live. The cars are for…more important people.”
As far as I could remember, there hadn’t been a residential area within at least two miles of the bar, but I said nothing on the matter. Anton led me deeper into the bar, past the jeers of a particularly drunk pair of men, until we were at the bar itself. It took another two minutes before the bartender, an aged man with a full head of jet black hair, detached himself from customers and greeted us.
“What’ve you got for beer?” I asked. It wouldn’t hurt matters to insinuate my way into the bartender’s good graces, early on; besides, I’d been thirsty for beer for nearly three years.
The bartender looked first at me, then at Anton who shrugged, and then back at me. “Money, first,” he said. The accent was thick enough to stand on. I took one of the rainbow colored bills from my wallet and passed it over. The bartender glanced down at it and then, after the initial shock passed, stared at the single bill I’d given him. His eyes became the size of flat fishbowls in his head.
Anton leaned over and whispered into my ear. “That is too much. That is far too much.”
“Hmm,” I mused. “What can I do to win over this crowd?”
“Be Ukranian,” Anton answered, as our bartender returned with two foreign beers. He made no move to offer me change.
I sipped at the beer and hid my grimace as soon as the liquid touched my lips. Whatever swill this bartender had provided, it formed a good basis for a legitimately fatal concoction. “You work here long?” I asked, between mouthfuls of the beer.
“Long enough,” the bartender answered. “Why? Who wants to know?”
I tilted my head over to Anton. The bartender followed my eyes, and his expression darkened as he took in my current translator and local guide. Anton, for his part, appeared not to notice the dirty look.
“My friend,” he began, “is looking for someone. Someone that you might know about? Or perhaps that someone you know might know something.”
“What’s it worth to you?” The bartender asked.
Anton handed the conversation back over to me. “I’ve got money, but those accounts are…inaccessible,” I said. “Soon as I get that sorted out, I’m thinking…I dunno. Fifteen thousand? Maybe twenty?” The bartender’s eyebrows rose, and I knew I had him. “Depends on how good of a job you do, yeah?”
“Who are you looking for?”
I took the photo from my back pocket and passed it to the bartender. “Name’s Asher. If he’s got a last name, I don’t know it. Got a tip that he might be hiding out somewhere in Ukraine after the last job he and I worked together.”
The bartender picked up the picture and looked closely at it. When he noticed something at the bottom of the page, he sucked air through his teeth. He handed me back the picture. “No one knows where Asher is,” he said. His voice was louder than a whisper, much more quiet than a normal chat. He spoke like he was afraid of something. “Since that picture was taken, he has become ghost, the mist, just…” The bartender mimed an explosion and its parts drifting away into the night sky.
“Yeah,” I said, “that’s not going to work for me. Asher and I’ve got unfinished business and I didn’t come all the way here, just to get stonewalled at the first bar I walk into.”
The bartender tilted his head. “Fifteen thousand?” He asked.
“Fifteen for giving me information that helps me figure out where the hell Asher went,” I said. “Bonus if you can help me bring him up to face the metaphorical music. You interested? Payment as soon as I get my accounts back, and Anton here can vouch for me.”
“He is telling the truth,” Anton said. “Devlin has been working for a very long time; his team, people he just knows, even strangers know that much. If he says that he will pay you…”
The bartender considered the question for a lot longer than such a simple request required. “No,” he said finally. “Cannot spend anything if I die before you get into your accounts.”
“Die?” I repeated back, incredulous. “You don’t tell me anything, that’s fine. I’ll be disappointed, sure, but I won’t come after you just for answering a question. I don’t kill people.”
“No,” a voice said from behind me. My heart jumped over at least three beats in response to the new arrival. “But I do.”