The Hotel Yalta
Agent: Josh Getzler, Hannigan Salky & Getzler
Pasha Tarkhan had loved trains since he took his first one from Tbilisi to Moscow when he was sixteen years old. It was a three-day trip that took him through Stalingrad, Tambov, and Tula in the coveted window seat of a crowded compartment smelling of days-old perspiration and live roosters. As a boy who’d never been out of Josefov (population 222), he found every hour of his journey a delight – even sleeping with his cheek sucked against the window like a piece of calf’s liver. His sore neck and back was a small price to pay for the opportunity to go to school in Moscow and fulfill his socialist destiny.
He took airplanes and luxury automobiles to most places now, but whenever he had the chance, he booked a seat on the rail. His car and driver couldn’t provide him with the shuffling and hard-stepping of the locomotive wheels, the smells of spilled cognac and fine cigarettes that always permeated the first class cabins, and best of all, unspoiled views of the countryside that even the back roads couldn’t offer. Traveling through Czechoslovakia was a particular treat.
The southern part of the country reminded him of his native Georgia, which he hadn’t seen in the almost twenty years since he’d left for Moscow. Not the people or the style of housing as much as the rolling hills speckled with wildflowers, and curling rows of trees meandering in and out of the valleys like rivers. The climate was similar, too. The sun felt hotter in the southern Bohemian countryside than it did in Austria, only a few kilometers behind him. Hotter and brighter, like a Georgian summer. He remembered how dark his mother would get when she worked outside in the fields, tending to the sprouting grains.
Poor Mama, he thought. She’d begged him to come home once more before she died, but he was living in Rome at the time and couldn’t get permission to return. To be honest, he hadn’t tried. His life had taken him so far away from his farm-boy roots that he had no idea how to come home and explain to his parents and siblings what he’d become. He could’ve pretended, the way he did every day at work and at embassy functions with his comrades, but his family would’ve seen through him. His mother, especially, would have known that he was changed and that realization would’ve put his life in danger. She would’ve rather seen her son in a gulag in Siberia than have hidden a Judas from Stalin’s ever-watchful eyes. Josef Stalin had been her hero, and socialism her religion. In the end, it had been better to let her die with the knowledge that her boy, Pasha, was a high-ranking and trusted member of her government, and that she and her family in Josefov would always get their flour, sugar, and butter for free.
He often wondered if he’d be a happier man if he’d taken a job on the farm where his father repaired tractors. If he’d gone to trade school and chosen the life of a mechanic – a problem solver – his dreams would’ve remained as simple as his youthful perceptions of Soviet life. He would’ve married a local girl, had local children, and loved nothing better than the smell of manure baking in the summer sun. The farthest he would travel would be to the Black Sea, where he could rent a cottage for a few rubles and put his feet up. That, instead of going from city to city, meeting to meeting, party to party; drinking vodka and wine and eating rich food to excess while everyone talked of politics.
On one long trip, he’d gotten chest pains and had to be rushed from the Russian Consulate to a large hospital in Rome named after a Saint – Saint James, perhaps, but he couldn’t recall. The chest pains turned out to be indigestion, but the whole episode hadn’t been for nothing. His nurse, Aprilia, had made a marvelous mistress until she married. He made a mental note to himself to send her a cashmere blanket when he returned to Vienna. Her son was almost a month old and all he’d sent so far were flowers.
She’d been the best mistress he’d ever had from her glorious olive skin to her passionate anti-capitalism, which she loved to extol in front of his colleagues. For a man in Pasha’s position, it was important to have a mistress who was either a Soviet sympathizer or simply too stupid to have any of her own opinions.
“Oh, Pasha, are those poppies? I love fields of poppies.”
Brandy France sat next to him in a yellow Chanel suit and matching hat with veil. She looked like a canary bird, but a very pretty one. Thousands of the tiny, red flowers she was admiring were reflected in her eyes, swarming over the grassland, looking all the more vivid against the backdrop of her blue irises. They were a deeper red than even Brandy’s painted lips.
“You’ve seen poppies before – they grow anywhere.”
“But they’re better here, aren’t they? Poppies of the workers’ paradise,” she chirped, putting her head against Pasha’s massive shoulder.
“Yes, the workers’ paradise,” he repeated.
Pasha had met Brandy in Rome, where her husband was producing a romantic comedy starring a well-known American actor and an unknown Italian hopeful. For months she offered her crude espionage services to him – talking up politicians at political fundraisers – coming to Pasha with mostly useless bits of jargon that at first he let her blabber to any of his colleagues who would listen. It made him look good that he was able to enlist the enemy, regardless of the caliber of information.
Only weeks after he was transferred to Vienna, Brandy and her husband, Buster, moved there for yet another film. At the time, he thought it was a coincidence.
He was already growing tired of her and planning a graceful exit when she mentioned quite accidentally that her husband had taken to carrying a funny little metal card with the letter “t” engraved on it – “a good luck” symbol he called it – a prop left over from one of his films. Brandy had followed him to a tiny church near Schweden-platz, where he’d visited a number of times – speaking in hushed tones with a Jesuit there and even donating money. A lot of it. She feared he wanted to convert, but Pasha knew better. In the lining of his suitcase, he carried a similar card only his was engraved with the Russian word for soul. Its meaning, however, was the same: subversive, spiritualist, and in Pasha’s case: traitor, of course.
From that moment on, Pasha couldn’t let Brandy go as he’d planned. Furthermore, he had to figure out a way to keep her mouth shut and her visibility low until he could extract himself from the relationship without injuring her pride. For that, he appealed to her overly developed sense of drama.
“The Austrian Premier’s wife may have been using the word ‘stockings,’ but my dear, ‘stockings’ is the word Western spies commonly use to mean weapons.”
“Pasha!” Brandy gasped. “I’ve heard so many of the minister’s wives use the word ‘stockings’ in the ladies room.”
Before long, she forgot all about her husband’s “conversion” and spent more and more time going to parties at the homes of government officials. It was to Pasha’s great relief when Buster France went back to Los Angeles, taking his wife with him. Brandy visited as often as she could, but for the most part she was out of his hair. He even missed her now and then and her company on the Czechoslovakian leg of his trip would be just enough time spent with her.
“Is it anything like Russia here?” Brandy leaned her head back against the cushion and sighed, humming one, long note. “Russia. Even the word is beautiful. When will you take me there?”
Pasha smiled and moved a platinum blonde curl away from Brandy’s eye with his finger.
“I think Prague will be better attuned to your interests.”
“Oh, my interests are political!” she insisted. “World events. Buster thinks it’s an obsession, really, but I’m worried that the whole planet’s coming apart. It’s all gotten quite out of hand, don’t you agree?”
“I’ve been a lucky woman all of my life. I know I have, and I intend to pass on some of that luck to the less fortunate. We can all make a difference, Pasha. Here I am. Here you are. We’re making a difference just by talking about it. Not that I’m all talk. I’m action, too. But action begins with talk and talk begins with thought, thought begins with…well, I’m not sure what thought begins with, but it’s important.”
Brandy lifted her hand to her lips and laughed at herself. She had a throaty, sophisticated laugh – practiced and summoned effortlessly.
“In that case, I’ll have to take you to Moscow as soon as possible. Perhaps when my ex-wife takes our daughters to Leningrad.”
Brandy hooked her arm through his elbow and held his hand, intertwining her fingers with his. Her husband, Buster, never listened to her the way Pasha did.
“How much longer until we get to Praha?” Brandy stretched her arms above her head and pointed her toes, yawning. She hated trains.
“Darling, I told you – at least four more hours – and that’s without delays. We can be grateful we have no more borders to cross.”
“It took so long at the border. Why did it take so long?”
Brandy stood up and cracked the window, looking out onto a row of tiny steeples in the distance. The country air didn’t cool the compartment enough or ease her claustrophobia. Unbuttoning her jacket, she fanned her breasts with her lapels, finally getting some relief.
“The Soviet Union takes security very seriously.”
Pasha Tarkhan’s last word dropped off as he watched Brandy’s champagne silk camisole ripple like water against her skin as she fanned. It was when she moved like this – unconscious and graceful – that he remembered why she’d attracted him.
Pasha tiptoed his fingers over her collarbone, running them down the middle of her torso and onto her leg until reaching her knee. He slid his hand under the fabric of her skirt and up her slender thigh, kissing down the curve of her ear.
“Pasha, what if one of those men come in? They just barge in whenever they want to – I’ve seen them.”
He suckled her entire ear, slipping his fingers into her panties.
“They know who I am and have no reason to bother us.”
Brandy arched her back and ‘mmm’d’ like she did after taking her first spoonful of a chocolate mousse – her favorite dessert.
“Are you sure?”
Pasha helped her pull off her camisole and bent his enormous head down towards her breasts, kissing each one like he would the tops of his young daughters’ heads.
She sat up and undid the back of her skirt, shimmying out of it and kicking it onto the seat opposite them, doing the same with her panties. That left her in only her garter belt, stockings, and yellow, patent leather pumps – just how Pasha liked it. He kissed her breasts and belly, sliding down until his face was between her legs and he was sitting on the compartment floor, leaning against the bench.
“Tell me more about what life is going to be like after you conquer the world.”
“Oh, darling,” he said, in between mouthfuls. “It’ll be beautiful.”
“Couldn’t we get a better hotel?”
Brandy stood outside the Hotel Yalta and squinted up at the glimmering, concrete monolith. It looked like a vertical ice cube tray and was positioned in stark contrast to the centuries-old buildings that also lined Wenceslas Square.
“My dear, this is the best hotel in Prague.”
Pasha led her inside and was greeted by Veliky, the head of hotel security, who took him in a big bear hug with his long, apish arms. The two of them went back a long way, having both been stationed in Jerusalem for a brief time at the beginnings of their international careers. They’d kept up with one another throughout the years, and Pasha had a sneaking suspicion that Veliky was no more a fan of Soviet life than he was. It would account for his less than enthusiastic approach to his work and his move from Foreign Intelligence to petty hotel spying, which seldom yielded more than an affair between a visiting dignitary and a local shop girl. To his credit, Veliky seemed unembarrassed by his demotion and was in fact thrilled to be back home with a good salary.
“Pasha Tarkhan, it’s been over two years. The last time I heard from you, I was in Oslo.”
“Bad place for a warm-blooded Moravian.”
“A nightmare. As cold as this Goddamn hotel.” Veliky whispered. “And who might this beautiful creature be?”
“This is my dear friend Brandy France, who’s visiting from America.”
“With most loveliest yellow hair I have up today seen,” Veliky gushed, proud of his English. He took her lacquered nails and put them to his lips, kissing each of her fingertips. “Do you have a reservation? Think nothing of it if you don’t – I’ll get you the best suite in the house.”
Brandy smiled and took a deep, long breath, putting her cheek to her shoulder like a flirt. Pasha was pleased to see her happy at last. From the kitchen, Veliky rounded up the front desk manager. He filled out their reservation card, boasting about the hotel through mouthfuls of smoked mackerel.
“Bulo will take you up to your suite,” the manager said, spraying a tiny, half-chewed morsel onto Brandy’s sleeve.
Bulo, a young bellboy of about sixteen, neither greeted them nor offered to take their bags until Pasha made him get a luggage cart. Miffed at having to exert himself, he sucked in his pimply cheeks and pouted all the way to their room.
“I’m glad you didn’t tip him,” Brandy sniffed as the boy stomped away, but Pasha wasn’t listening. He opened the large, metal door of their suite and held it for Brandy as she peeked inside.
The room was as big as a regular suite – in fact bigger, like everything else in the Hotel Yalta – but with hardly any furniture and none of the usual amenities. No bar, no welcome basket or pretty chocolates, and no robes or slippers to get cozy in. Ironically, what little furniture the place had was downright miniature compared to the antique bedroom set in Brandy’s Vienna suite. If it weren’t for the uniformed bellboys in the lobby – dressed like performing monkeys – the place could have doubled for a sanitarium.
“Don’t just stand there, my dear,” Pasha said, as he pulled their luggage cart in from the entryway. “Come in.”
The suite was a patchwork of beige and white, except for the institutional yellow linoleum in the bathroom. Their two, low, single beds had been pushed together and were even harder than the ones in Austria. Brandy sat down and bounced a little on the corner of one of the mattresses. They were as stiff as dry sea sponges. The covers had been pulled tight, like they were in a military barracks, and the pillows were no bigger or softer than the decorative ones adorning the sofas of countless American living rooms. Those might read King and Queen, respectively, and be stuffed with wool. These were plain white and looked to be stuffed with crumpled tissue paper.
“I don’t even think I’ll be able to fit all of my things into these little drawers,” Brandy lamented of the bureau. “That man at the desk bragged that this hotel is state of the art. Better than anything in America. He said it’s only been open for a month and pointed to that big banner that read, ‘WELCOME TO THE HOTEL YALTA’ as if it was some sort of proof. Clearly,” Brandy huffed. “The man is a liar.”
“And what is it exactly you want me to do? Shall I ask for another suite?”
Pasha opened his suitcase and began placing his folded clothes into the top drawer of their bureau, leaving the three drawers beneath it for her. Years of travel had taught him to make himself at home immediately and not live out of his baggage.
“I don’t know. Some of the older hotels we passed looked nice.” Brandy squinted out of their white nylon curtains onto Wenceslas Square several stories below. “I rather like the look of the Hotel Europa. It seems comfy and pretty.”
“The Hotel Europa is falling apart. At least we’ll get working faucets here.” Pasha eased up behind Brandy and massaged her delicate shoulders.
He wanted to say ‘welcome to the workers’ paradise,’ but he knew the irony would be lost on her.
“Hotel Yalta, my dear, is where men of my position stay. It’s a monument to socialist productivity and skill.” Pasha opened his palms in a grand, presentational style. “How would it look if I stayed in one of the older, bourgeois-built hotels?”
Brandy hung her dresses – a robin’s egg Oleg Cassini, jade Givenchy, and watermelon Dior – in a wardrobe not much wider than their bureau.
“I just don’t see why anyone would care who built a hotel and when they built it. And it’s not as if this place is cheap. It’s just…big.”
Pasha had forgotten how much Brandy liked to complain. Normally their liaisons supported only a few minutes of talk – thirty at most – as they were short on time and wanted to get down to business.
“Will you excuse me, darling? I’ll need to shave before the party tonight. Zablov should be here any minute. You remember Kosmo Zablov, don’t you? He was in Paris before getting assigned here, and used to come to Rome.”
Pasha took his razor and shaving soap out of his toilette case and entered the bath, closing the door behind him. Brandy heard the faucet turn on and the unmistakable click of the door lock.
“Pasha…” she started, and then thought better of it. A practiced wife and mistress, she knew a man needed his privacy sometimes. Brandy didn’t really feel like company right then anyway. She had a splitting headache and was upset that her clothes were all squashed together in an ugly wardrobe.
Brandy marched over to her luggage and searched her Louis Vuitton chest until she found the matching make-up case at the bottom, under her brassieres. She opened it, rummaging through her hair combs, toothpaste, mascara, eye shadow, Rouge Classique nail polish, Chanel #5, Crème la Perle hand cream, night oil, eye balm, sedatives, her toothbrush, breath mints, countless tubes of lipstick, and a small vial of ‘pick me up’s’. She laid every item on the bed like they were evidence, but among all of her beauty supplies, powders, and pills there was not one single aspirin to help relieve the rhythmic pounding at her temples.
“Pasha!” she called out, but he couldn’t hear her with the water running. “Pasha, do you have any aspirin?”
Brandy sat down and put his toilette case into her lap. She unzipped it and pulled out several medicine bottles, leaving his hair balm, a comb, and pillbox inside. Amidst the antacids, laxatives, and boric acid lay a small, brown bottle of Myer aspirin.
“Pasha, I’m going to have one of your aspirin, OK? My head’s about to split.”
She opened the bottle and tipped it over into her hand, but nothing came out. She shook it, hearing a ping inside, and stuck her pinky into the bottle.
“Pasha, I think I’m taking your last one? Is that all right?”
Her pinky dug further until her nail hooked onto something that was sliding against the wall of the bottle. Slowly, she pulled her finger out, dragging with it a long, curly stretch of what looked like camera film, only smaller. She held the film up to the light and looked closely at some tiny, Cyrillic letters printed on what looked to be an architect’s drawing. She’d seen one of those when she and her husband, Buster, built their beach house.
“S-P-U-T-N-I-K,” she sounded out. Pasha had taught her his alphabet.
“What are you doing?”
Brandy hadn’t heard Pasha open the bathroom door and jumped up, dropping the film and the bottle onto the bed with all of her other beauty products. He was standing before her in his royal blue bathrobe with only his trousers on underneath. He didn’t look angry exactly, but all of his usual warmth was gone, replaced by nothing but a stare.
“I just wanted an aspirin, that’s all. Didn’t you hear me asking you?”
“I’m sorry.” Brandy swallowed and looked down at the coiled roll of film. “Do you have any?”
Pasha took a deep breath, relaxing his shoulders and letting his features soften. He knew that unless he was smiling, he could look terribly mean.
“Of course,” he said. “They’re in my suit jacket.”
Pasha went back into the bathroom and came out a moment later with his suit jacket draped over his forearm. He handed her a plain, clear bottle of pills and a cup of water, and watched as she took two pills out and swallowed them.
“Thank you,” she said.
When she finished drinking her water, he took the cup out of her hands and placed it on the bed table. He walked to the other side of the room and hung his suit jacket on his valet, turned back to her, and grabbed her wrist, abruptly twisting it behind her. He slit her throat with his shaving blade, splattering their white curtains and a bad painting of a grain-processing factory with an arched spray of her blood.
She would die in less than a minute and he was glad. Pasha hadn’t wanted her to suffer and made sure that the cut was deep and completely severed her artery. Though she would be unconscious, at least, if not dead, by the time she fell to the beige carpet, he guided her body down slowly and into a position that would be comfortable for her. When she seemed at rest, he went back into the bathroom and washed her blood off of his hands and wrists. The arms of his bathrobe were finished, so he peeled it off, rolled it into a ball, and threw it into the bathtub. He rinsed his arms one more time before putting his white undershirt back on.
Pasha cursed himself for having put the microfilm in an aspirin bottle. He should’ve put it into his stomach medication, but the Myer aspirin bottle was the same brown color of the film and a safer bet. It had been since before his mistress, Aprilia, that he’d traveled with a woman and he’d forgotten the way they get into everything.
It didn’t appear as if she’d gotten a look at the film and she wouldn’t understand how to read a blueprint if she had – especially one of a space ship. But the fact that Brandy had seen it at all sealed her fate. He could’ve made up a story that she would’ve believed the way she believed everything else he told her, but that would’ve been one more lie on top of the many he’d already woven, and he had to draw a line somewhere.
And she was eminently capable of making a slip in front of one of his colleagues or pestering him for a deeper involvement in his so-called patriotic missions for Mother Russia. When the time came to break things off with her completely, she might’ve even put some of the puzzle pieces together and blackmailed him. It never ceased to amaze him how a woman of limited intellect could become uncharacteristically sharp when her ego had been bruised and her heart broken by a lover. His mistresses had always been fair-minded, but he’d seen it happen before. A more rational man might have killed Brandy after she’d mentioned knowledge of the metal card, but Pasha was an emotional creature, whose heart was made up of poetry. He had a soft spot for his mistresses.
Pasha rolled up the microfilm and put it back in the aspirin bottle, tucking it into his pant pocket. He would be delivering it to the safe house late that evening. Plucking Brandy’s beauty products off the bed, he placed them in her make-up case according to size, returning it and her clothes to her luggage. Pasha then removed some bogus classified documents – Russian – from the lining of his suitcase and laid them out on the bed in order, throwing a mini-camera – the type used in American espionage – on top of them as if it had been dropped there. He dug a small pistol out of the same lining where he’d stored the bogus documents, and opened Brandy’s hand, placing the pistol in her palm and squeezing her fingers around the handle. He always carried props with him in case of an emergency. Remembering the bathroom, he went to the tub and removed his bloody robe from its cradle, and filled it a quarter of the way with hot water. He was finishing hanging his suit jacket and dress shirt on a rack in the bath when Kosmo Zablov came knocking – late as usual.
“Why aren’t you dressed, you ox?” Kosmo feigned outrage when he saw Pasha in his undershirt. He, on the other hand, was dressed in his usual close-fitting, second-rate clothes trying to affect the look of a Venetian gangster.
“What the…?” It was hard to miss Brandy’s body and the copious amounts of blood she’d spilled. Kosmo glimpsed her nearly severed head from the doorway and entered the suite to get a better look at her.
“You could’ve at least saved the artwork, my friend. What did it do to you?”
“She’s an American spy.”
Kosmo looked down at the surprised look on Brandy’s face, and at the gun in her hand.
“This little idiot?”
“No idiot, I’m afraid.” Pasha picked the documents up off the bed and held up the camera. “I’ve been trying to trap her for months.”
Kosmo whistled his approval of his comrade’s casual air. He assumed the same kind of cool as he eyeballed the contents of the documents in Pasha’s hand.
“You just leave those around for anyone to find?”
“These?” Pasha held up the documents. He’d enjoyed taunting the agent with them, but it was time to wrap up this whole ugly scene.
“These are useless. Go ahead – look at them. I made them up.”
Kosmo grabbed them, devouring the first page.
“This is great stuff,” he chuckled. “How did you come up with it?”
“I wanted to arrest her, not kill her, but she tried to shoot me.”
Pasha went into the bathroom and returned with his suit jacket and shirt. He dressed slowly as Kosmo sat on the edge of the bed and continued to amuse himself with the false documents. He had one foot on the bloodied carpet and one resting on Brandy’s shoulder. When Pasha finished tying his tie, he tore the top blanket off the bed and covered Brandy’s body with it, making Kosmo put his feet up elsewhere.
“What on earth is this?” Kosmo bent down next to the bed and swept a small, metal rectangle up off the floor. “Soul,” he said, reading the tiny script.
Pasha bit down on his lip. He could still detect a faint residue of Brandy’s sex in the corners of his mouth. “It’s mine,” Pasha told him. It must have fallen out of his suitcase lining when he removed the fake documents. “She gave it to me as a symbol of – oh, I don’t know – love, I guess. You can have it if you want.”
Kosmo chuckled, tossing it on the bed. “Love,” he repeated.
Pasha went to the vanity and applied a light dab of Chanel Pour Monsieur to his neck – a gift from Brandy. He stepped back, appraising himself as casually as he could.
“Have this cleaned up, will you?” he said. “I need to go downstairs and request another suite – one with a clean carpet.”
“You are a cold bastard, aren’t you?” Kosmo stood up, slapping Pasha’s back before going over to the telephone. “I’ll get right on it. You know this is going to get some attention. She’s a Hollywood type – the denials will be fervent and angry.”
“We have the evidence right here – they can deny it all they want.”
Kosmo smiled, revealing his crossed front teeth.
“What the hell?” he said, picking up the receiver, “I’ve always loved to annoy the Americans.”
He dialed the three-digit number, but the front desk was busy.
“Of course, you’ll be sent back to Moscow for this,” Zablov continued. He dialed again and this time the line rang. “And you’ll miss your dinner with the French President next week. Bastard – you always get the greatest of the great boondoggles. President Coty has the most exquisite chef – or so I’ve been told.”
Pasha Tarkhan nodded and tried his best at a smile. “We can fly back together.”
“I’m afraid you’ll be flying back alone, my friend.” Kosmo Zablov lamented, placing his fingers over the mouthpiece. “You know General Pushkin and how he likes to keep our satellite countries in line. I have to go to Romania now.”
The phone stopped ringing and a bored voice came on the line. “Yes, hello, front desk?” Zablov inquired. “We have a dead mouse up here.”