It was so cold that her breath whispered in the clear, night air and the snow crunched sharply under her feet. A big fat moon, skewered upon the spike of St. Basil’s Cathedral’s central core, vied for attention with the bright, modern lights the square lately had acquired.
She walked briskly from St. Basil’s towards the red brick building of the State Historical Museum, less garishly lit and exhaling its blood-red warmth into the biting cold of Russian winter. GUM was still open of course, it was barely past seven. Leonid had managed to drive her on time for once.
Tourists and Russians alike were streaming into the huge shopping center, or, on leaving it, proudly carrying their spoils. She wondered whether she would walk past here again before or after closure at ten. If he abided by their appointment, that was. She did not feel certain about that, she might have antagonised him beyond repair this time.
One Red Square.
Certainly one of the best restaurants in town. At least she could tempt him with some of the choicest Russian food to be had in Moscow. He ought to welcome the respite from hastily grabbed sandwiches or take-out food or worse. Well, lately there had been a lot of worse.
She had reserved a corner table for two in the exposition room, away from the musicians, secluded and where one might have some privacy. She was expecting to need that privacy, especially as his voice tended to carry when angry. The bright red bricks of the building looming now only yards ahead created a vivid splash of colour within the composition of greys, dull whites and cobalt blues of the icy night.
A man clad in the vermilion tsarist guardian uniform opened the door and beckoned for her to step inside the brightly lit restaurant. A servant took her coat and the Maitre d’ showed her to her table as soon as she identified herself. As she had feared, no one was waiting for her there.
Oh well. She would give him an academic quarter.
Taking her sketchbook and 0.5 rotring lead out of her black leather portfolio, she placed both beside her plates, then turned to have a close look at the menu, unfolding the large card in front of her. Already the last time she had been here she had wanted to try the sterlet, steamed with champagne, served in a collar of young potatoes, black caviar and sauce, an old tsarist recipe. The thought alone was mouthwatering. Now what for appetizer, and which wine? Should she have a dessert?
“For someone so into gourmet food, you show precious little sympathy for your characters’ needs.”
The sonorous baritone was at its sarcastic, abrupt best, she was barely able to keep from yelping out loud. No mistaking that timbre. She lowered the card, cast one look at him and groaned.
Where had he come from, all of that sudden? She had not noticed anyone approach. He was as impeccably dressed as usual, though she was pleased to see that he wore a modern, black jacket made from coarse woollen cloth, obviously tailored in Savile Row, over an equally black cashmere turtleneck sweater and closefitting black denims. Just what she loved. Perfect.
Not so perfect was his furious expression and the way his pale blue eyes glared at her. It was hard concentrating when he did that. It was actually hard thinking anything worthwhile at all. She fidgeted, and tried to unknot her stomach. She knew that reaction, there was not much but suffer through it. These pale blue eyes and she had a history of fencing with each other, it was not as if this was a first time. Still, alive and so close up, very disconcerting.
“You really need a licence for those. I never understood how any of your people were able to function when you stared them down.” she said at last. “How are you?”
“How do you expect me to be?” He asked, still annoyed, but his gaze had lost its angry intensity. “What the blazes made you think of such a challenge? You must have known how it would turn out!”
She laughed softly, beginning to understand his problem. The Maitre d’ approached and she turned to him with an appreciative smile.
“I’ll have the mushrooms in sour cream for hors d’oeuvre, the steamed sterlet, cheese and vareniki with cherries for dessert,” she ordered with a deep sigh of satisfaction. “And the 2004 Chapoutier Ermitage, please.”
The Maitre d’ nodded, turning to her companion.
“Knowing what little I do know about you, I’ll second all of that,” he said with a wry smile. “Though I would like some soup instead of the mushrooms. A solyanka maybe?”
The waiter inclined his head in agreement, and taking the cards with him, left to send them the sommelier.
“Truce? You’ve a chance at a wonderful dinner.” She offered, lifting an inquisitive eyebrow at him.
“Before I am whisked off again to be tortured, you mean?” His tone was as dry as could be, but now she could see the minute crinkling of amusement around his eyes. “Alright, truce.”
“So – why did you come at all?”
“I don’t have that much of a choice.” He pressed his lips together, the way he always did when he deemed it wise not to let his exasperation show. He folded his arms and leaned backwards into the comfortable chair. “How long ago did you make this reservation?” He waved at the room with one slender, elegant hand.
A quartet playing cool, northern jazz on medieval instruments had opened the evening, their music creating the necessary sphere of privacy around all the closely arranged tables. The place was full, not a single table untaken. A group of Georgians had chosen the VIP-recess, already heartily tucking into what looked like a huge plate of various grilled meats.
“The 21st of August, the day I thought of the challenge,” she ceded. “I can’t compete myself, you know? So I thought this here would offer you some well-earned respite. With Lightcudder so gung-ho about the challenge… Do you want me to turn this into a dingy bar, with FSB agents and a couple of cheap prostitutes for company? I can do it, you know?” She picked up her sketchbook and lead pencil, and looked at him expectantly.
“No!” He exclaimed, sat up and moved forward again. “And you would, too. I can see it in your eyes.”
She watched him make the connection and her smile suddenly deepened with pleasure. She could see his pulse quicken in the side of his throat, a flush spreading across his pale features and his hands trembling ever so lightly in reaction to the adrenaline she knew now to be coursing through his system.
“Yes, I would,” she answered in what was nearly a purr.
“So you are not just another of those slash writers,” he stated at last. “We’ve met before, right? In fact it is you who nailed me to a wall, all… all… and…” He was thoroughly flustered now.
She could not help but laugh, yet she nodded in delight while watching him regain his composure. That was with some difficulty though.
“You know, that’s worse than being in such a… story!” He blurted out at last.
“Yes, I would think it is. It is forever,” she agreed, observing him closely.
The sommelier arrived with the decanted Chapoutier, at a loss as to whom to give the glass for testing. Another elegant wave of the hand saw to it that she did. The wine was as exquisite as its provenance, and its price. She nodded her agreement. The waiter arranged the wine on the table, then turned around to place two narrow flutes of Crimean champagne before each of them, to leave with a small bow.
She picked hers up, chuckling at his wary expression, and saluted him.
“It won’t kill you,” she said and pushed his glass towards his hands.
“Wine, champagne, no doubt there also will be vodka, I’ll be drunk afterwards,” he grumbled, then went on in a more diplomatic tone. “Will you sell it? Wasn’t there some discussion… ?”
“No, we all like it far too much,” she shook her head. “There were quite a few visitors who’d have bought it then and there. But really, it should stay where it is.”
He gave a delicate shudder. “Yes, that at least. A small mercy. I hope you don’t entertain every weekend.”
The Crimean was delicious and helped her resist the laughter he no doubt would have considered entirely inappropriate.
“You won’t start singing, will you?” She wondered, scrutinizing him closely, sipping at his champagne as he was.
“Not likely, I’m not twenty-eight anymore,” he answered. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Certainly,” she smiled. “Else I’d have written you a holiday in Brighton, or something. We’re here so we can talk, and for you to have a breather. But tell me something first – why don’t you drink, normally? Everyone thinks you are a reformed alcoholic. Are you?”
“No, of course not!” He said with some indignation in his voice. “I just hate losing control. And hangovers. It’s much easier simply to say no every time, and as a pilot you get used to that no anyway.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “I can see that. That means I must be making life really hard for you.” She sighed. “But then I like taking control. Now – what was it you wanted to know, Edward? I may call you Edward? Or would you prefer Ed? Or Commander? Or Mr. Straker?”
He had both hands on the table now, she watched him toy with the champagne glass.
“Ed would be perfectly alright,” he said. “Why do you call me Edward so often? No one else does.”
“Ah! Continental European culture has different ways of expressing politeness,” she explained. “Saying Edward instead of the nickname is a way of showing respect. Especially given the absence of full formal address. I don’t feel comfortable calling someone by a nickname just like that.”
She could see he was startled, then he slowly nodded.
“So you do understand reserve,” he said. “That’s interesting.”
The Maitre d’ arrived with her mushrooms and his soup, set the dishes down with effortless grace and spirited the empty flutes away. Before he could turn away completely, she called out.
“The Commander would like a carafe of still water. Do you have any Iverskaya?”
“Thank you,” he said as soon as the waiter had left. “At least I won’t drink myself under the table now. So back to questions – I may ask whatever I want?”
“Yes, of course,” she answered. “Just don’t think I’ll have you eat the sterlet without some wine along, tho’.”
“Why that interest in me,” he regarded her over a spoonful of Solyanka. “I can’t seem to bring that all together, how did that start, and why?”
“Not different from what you heard already so many times,” she answered. “You were capable of making a real impression on those of us growing up in the seventies.”
“That’s an excellent soup, and warming,” he gave a content sigh and relaxed for the first time this evening. “But, and that’s if I attribute you correctly, you lost contact, until – well – until you dragged me into that studio of yours a few years ago. Why… that was painful, you know? And now all that writing.”
She concentrated on her plate, trying to come up with an explanation he would understand. That was not so easy.
“Sometimes one doesn’t hold onto childhood friends,” she said at last. “Later you remember, and – revisit. And then, not for everyone, but for some, you discover that you shouldn’t have let them out of your eye. That’s how it was with you. First seeing your creator in London, then those DVDs came out…”
He nodded. He had heard the latter before.
“Yeah,” he agreed drily. “They do have to account for a lot.”
“Don’t go grouchy on me, Edward,” she smiled to take the sting out of it. “Where would you be without us? The writing? That is pure fun!”
“For you! It doesn’t feel very nice to me at the moment,” he said. “You could have chosen a topic less guaranteed to have everyone immediately think ‘interrogation’ and ‘torture’, you know? I could hear Lightcudder’s squeal all the way to Moonbase!”
That caught her swallowing, and she spluttered around bits of mushroom, then laughed out loud.
“I’m so sorry,” she managed at last. “I wasn’t even thinking about this, it was the de Burgh song I was listening to. And I like Russia.”
“I don’t believe you!” He was glaring at her again, and she could not help squirming under the intensity of his angry blue eyes. “You call for adult writing! And – I know you know what she is just doing to me! You even suggested some… and you showed her… that doctor was your idea!”
“It’s called beta-reading,” she said reasonably. “That doctor wasn’t new, be happy I suggested latex gloves and lube.” She grinned seeing his jaw drop for a moment.
“Colonel Ulanskaya?” He was not about to give quarter so easily. “Mary – again?”
From nowhere the head waiter appeared at their table, smoothly taking the used plates away and setting everything up for the main course. They waited until he had poured them both a glass of wine. She watched him take some bread and eat it, just to occupy his hands, with quiet fascination.
“Okay, I am sorry,” she sighed. “I never thought that that would happen. I really didn’t see it coming. Will you forgive me? Please?”
“As if I had any say in this,” he pointed out. “With Anderson and his writers I at least knew what would happen. Most times anyway. But you fanfiction writers are so fascinated with angst and hurt/comfort and whatever other watchacallums you write there…”
He was more than just disgruntled, she suddenly realized, watching his long fingers play with the stem of the wineglass.
“What bothers you?” She asked. “Is there anything I can do?”
“Slash!” It came out bitter and furious.
She looked at him in surprise. He was sitting ramrod straight in a chair made for comfortable lounging, every movement precise and contained, his expression cool and guarded.
“Oh!” She made in a small voice and was rescued by their main course arriving.
Having both ordered the same, they were brought a large silver platter luxuriously heaped with steaming fish, various salads and vegetables, potatoes and caviar. She was relieved to see that the delicious fumes wafting over the table were enough to mellow his rigid displeasure somewhat. The Maitre d’ served each of them a generous portion, poured Straker an additional glass of water, then melted into the background again.
“Yes – oh!” He said. “You did that on purpose, huh? This restaurant, the good eating, so I wouldn’t tear you to shreds over that, right? Now listen… ”
“Edward,” she interrupted. “It’s not as if I was the first! There’s quite some slash around in which you figure prominently! Yuchtar for example…” He winced. “…or Kitty. That was a nice and well-written story.”
“Those were vignettes, crude sex, short-lived, improbable stuff,” he pointed out in a tone so acerbic it could have served as cutlery. The sideways motion of his hand indicated how he viewed those.
She looked at him closely, astonished to see him flinch away from her scrutiny. He bent his blond head over the plate instead, still in a posture impossibly straight and collected, actively evading her regard.
“I see,” she said at last. “I’m sorry. Is it such a bad experience?”
He moved his head a fraction, and then, almost a whisper, “negative.”
“So you already know how it will end?” She asked and his eyes met hers at last, confirming her suspicions.
“Of course I know,” he sighed. “You’ve got it all laid out already. So I know, yes.” He sipped some wine, twirling the glass, obviously trying to make up his mind. His gaze quiet and resolved now.
“Will I meet him again?” That came out as if against his will, but his expression told her quite clearly that he had to know. And when she did not answer at once, he pulled a deep breath, ready to have another go at her. “You promised I can ask anything.”
“Yes, I did,” she said softly. “And yes.”
There was no overt reaction, nor a change of his expression, just a slight, almost unnoticeable adjustment of his posture, he relaxed.
“So you won’t…?” And when she quickly shook her head to that, his rare enchanting smile broke out at last. He pointed his fork at the platter. “That sturgeon is better than I thought.”
“Well, you can trust me – with food,” she grinned. “So is that all you wanted to know?”
He shook his head, holding up a hand and indicating he was unable to speak. In fact, she liked the way he now was eating with palpable enjoyment, as if the worst was over and the nicer part of the evening had finally arrived.
That certainly was true for the Georgians in the recessed niche across the room. They must have had the fourth bottle of vodka now. All smiles and back-thumping, maybe businessmen she thought. Or mafia. Who knew?
When he offered to put some more on her plate, she accepted a second helping of sterlet, and added potatoes, caviar and champagne sauce herself. He looked quite content now, methodically munching away on what the meal provided, very obviously savouring the various unknown tastes and combinations. She could not help grinning, at which he lifted one of his mobile eyebrows.
“What’s so funny?” he asked around another bite.
“Observing you eat,” she said. “It’s nice to see you enjoy something… simple and wholesome, once in a while.”
He chuckled, laughter lines appearing around his eyes.
“Simple is different,” he countered. “That is one of the best dinners I’ve had in a very long time. And these are no simple dishes.”
“Do you really like to cook?”
“Yeah,” he nodded. “It’s stand or fall, when you live alone. So can I ask some more questions?”
“They might be personal,” he said, this time with a mischievous grin.
She shrugged with equanimity. “You’re into my head quite some already anyway, I’ve no problem with that, so go ahead, ask.”
“What’s with those names?” He shoved his empty plate away at last. “What does this An Delen Dir mean? Or is this something like Ann?”
“No,” she answered. “It’s no personal name. That is an ancient French dialect and it means ‘steel harp’. It relates to my non-fanfiction nom de plume.”
She looked at him for a moment, thoughtfully, opened her sketchbook and wrote something down, then held it so he could read. He blushed very prettily, she thought.
The Maitre d’ saved the moment, relieving them of surplus plates and cutlery, while a young apprentice waiter nervously switched from one foot to the other at his side, a sizable choice of cheese and fruit on a silver tray in his hands. It was deftly deposited on their table, along with dessert plates, fruit and cheese knives.
He watched her across the bustle on the table, taking his silver cigarette case from his breast pocket. Before the waiter could say anything she spoke up.
“No, Edward,” she placed a hand on the one with which he was handling the case, startling him. “These days there is no smoking in restaurants. You’ll have to wait until we’re outside. I’m really sorry.”
“At all?” He was puzzled.
“Sorry.” With a shrug and a sheepish smile he put the case back where it belonged and helped himself to some cheese and white grapes instead.
“You’ve no idea how everyone gets worked up over people smoking at SHADO these days,” she said. “It’s truly startling to watch, really. Very subversive. May I ask a few things now as well?”
“Of course, go ahead,” he agreed and speared another slice of Gruyère.
“That’s one I guess we all ask you,” she said. “Is there anything you want changed, anything I can help you out with? Anything you’d like to have or do?”
“Would you really do something I asked of you?” He cocked his head, his expression curious.
“That depends,” she answered truthfully. “Not everything. But a reasonable request, sure, why not?”
“That story, the one with the girl, which you haven’t written yet” he said. “Don’t get me into any trouble because of her.” She smiled and nodded. “I’d like you to do that breakfast. It would be nice to have a real breakfast for once, and not just some biscuits while Henderson or Alec fill my ears.” He looked at her wistfully, then waved his hand to encompass the whole room. “You clearly like good food. So you should know what I mean.”
“No problem,” she said. “All of that is absolutely no problem. Is that really all you want? Nothing more difficult? Or elaborate? You’ve earned yourself a bigger favour from me.”
Before he could answer the Maitre d’ appeared at their side again, gathering the used plates and the cheese platter, then turned towards her with a suave bow.
“Would you like coffee with your dessert, Madame? A digestif maybe?”
“Coffee will be nice. Commander?” She looked at him inquisitively. He nodded. “Make that two coffee, please. One black, one with cream and sugar.”
“You remembered that?” He looked at her, astonished.
“It’s hard not to remember how you bossed poor Harrington around,” she laughed. “If looks could kill, you’d have been very dead that day.”
The waiter arrived with their desserts, and she was pleased to see Straker’s eyes lighten up at the sight of the dainty, hot cherry-filled dumplings in their cream and berry sauce, complete with a dusting of powdered sugar. The coffee came in beautiful glass mugs, sitting in chiselled goldplated metal-framework, hers black and his crowned with two inches of whipped cream.
“Well, she’s the youngest,” he held out.
She grinned, and shook her head, signalling the head waiter to bring the bill.
“Be happy they all are quite madly in love with you!”
“Nonsense,” he growled and drank deeply from his coffee.
The Maitre d’ aproached, carrying a small plate. She cast one look at the inside of the folded paper, counted out the necessary amount of dollars, and shoved those under the chit. Straker blinked.
“What the heck… !”
She chuckled when he sat up straight, realizing he just had had his dinner paid for.
“I pay, when I invite,” she said quietly and held his gaze. At least he was quick getting up when she did, following her to where she had left her coat.
“Where to now?” he asked, while helping her into the warm, fur-lined cloak.
“I’ll show you.”
She waited until he had donned his own overcoat, then cheerfully led the way out into the icy night. He fell into step at her side easily, hands in his pockets, glancing at her now and then. They passed the long facade of GUM, all the shops closed now, then walked by the cathedral and down a side street, and another. Suddenly he knew where she was leading him. He stopped and faced her.
“There was something you wanted to ask me,” she said softly. “Say it now, that’s your last chance for a while.”
“You know what I want,” he said after a long moment with a small, crooked half-smile.
She nodded. “Yes, I know. Consider it done.” She heard him catch his breath, that was fine then.
“Any of those, Ed, any of those!”
Her gloved hand motioned towards the dingy bars along the street, some simple drink halls, others strip bars.
“Drink a vodka for me.”
He stared at her, then nodded and turned ahead.
His slim figure slowly faded into a dark silhouette against the neon lights, as he walked down the street to meet with his first date of this night.
“One Red Square” is a fictional discussion between myself and Ed Straker. The idea of these dialogues has been started among UFO writers by Lightcudder, whom I herewith salute!
I have posed the September 2010 challenge, which was to use the text of Chris de Burgh’s song “Moonlight & Vodka” and have each story conclude in the bar he describes, with the people he describes and in that precise mood.
As I could hardly compete myself in a challenge I set and would be judging, I had decided even before setting it, that I would write a conversation with Ed Straker, who was bound to suffer most under such a challenge.
Indeed, he is kidnapped twice, tortured twice (once to quite some extent) and has to remarry his ex-wife in another story. I really hope I gave him herewith some well-earned respite.
And everyone else – enjoy!