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       Welcome to the Hotel Yalta: Six Stories of Cold War Noir, p.1

           Victoria Dougherty
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Welcome to the Hotel Yalta: Six Stories of Cold War Noir

  Welcome to the Hotel Yalta

  Text copyright ©2016 by Victoria Dougherty

  Cover design by Coverkitchen,

  Typesetting by Chris Bell, Atthis Arts LLC,

  All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the US Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission of the author.

  Published by Wilderness Press

  ISBN (paperback) 978-0-9974657-2-3

  (ebook) 978-0-9974657-3-0

  Visit the author at

  For those who love the cold.

  “Death is the solution to all problems.

  No man—no problem.”

  —Joesph Stalin








  Prague, Czechoslovakia

  The ticketing agent’s heels squeaked across the linoleum, adding a tinny accompaniment to the man’s poor whistling. His shaggy walrus mustache didn’t help matters.

  “Lístky, tickets, Fahrkarte!” the man droned—a welcome interruption to his little symphony.

  Pasha Tarkhan slipped out of his first class compartment, intercepting the weary-eyed fellow.

  “Lístky,” Pasha said, producing two stiff cards from his breast pocket.

  The agent appeared a bit ruffled at first, as Pasha loomed over him—more than a head taller, dark and imposing, not the kind of man you’d want to meet alone. But the agent took the tickets, stamping and returning them to the Russian’s hand. Avoiding eye contact, he whistled a scarcely recognizable refrain to “Virgin and Whore,” an old Czech folk tune, then continued his stroll down the aisle. Pasha took up the song as well, concluding the last, weeping note as the ticketing agent disappeared into the next car.

  Pasha looked down at the tickets.

  They were neatly stamped with a round ČSSR insignia and a delicate grey cigarette paper was implanted between them. Pasha ran his thumb along its seam. Peering out the aisle window, he caught a glimpse of an old, mustard-yellow farmhouse before it all went dark. The train had entered a tunnel, and the Russian closed his eyes, relishing the grinding rhythms beneath his feet.

  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, the 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.

  Pasha opened his eyes as the train exited the tunnel and the countryside he’d been delighting in came into view once more. He turned his attention back to his tickets. Reaching into his trouser pocket, he retrieved a packet of fine tobacco—floral and earthen in its scent. He unfolded the little paper between his fingertips and sprinkled the tobacco onto it. As he began the delicate process of rolling his cigarette, he read the neat, black script printed on the grey paper’s edge: BICK 3:00 PM TOMORROW.

  Pasha ran his tongue over the black ink and finished rolling his smoke. He lit it, taking a deep drag and smiling at his memory of the comely Miss Bick and the safe house she would be offering him the next afternoon. She had tendered her bed in the past as well, but he wouldn’t be taking her up on that particular pleasure this visit. The information he would be passing was far too critical for him to don the casual air of an affair, and Pasha didn’t want to risk making her feel too at ease with the service she was providing. He would never want a helper to be jumpy and chance attracting attention, but then again, a woman in love could get sloppy and Miss Bick had murmured that endearment into Pasha’s ear during their previous liaison. It was a fine line to walk and one he didn’t particularly revel in, despite Miss Bick’s generosity in tending to his more immediate needs.

  Miss Bick. He didn’t even know her first name, but she was the kind of woman who would’ve made a fine wife to a more conventional man. A doctor perhaps. Or a shopkeeper. If only she hadn’t decided to involve herself in matters of espionage.

  Pasha 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 u
ntil 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.


  Brandy France peeked her head into the aisle, summoning Pasha back to their compartment. Once there, she guided him down onto the bench and sat next to him, smoothing a crease in her yellow Chanel suit. She wore a matching hat with veil.

  “Oh, Pasha, are those poppies? I love fields of poppies.”

  To Pasha, Brandy 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, rounded 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 her Jewish husband 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 ministers’ 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?”

  Pasha nodded.

  “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 the crook of 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. “Positive.”

  She sat up and undid the back of her skirt, then shimmied out of it and kicked 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, then lifted her effortlessly, as if she were merely a glass of champagne, and set her shapely derriere on the window ledge. Brandy loved the strength of his arms, his thrilling combination of brute force and gentility. Pasha slid down until his face was between her thighs, then knelt and let her wrap her legs around his neck.

  “Tell me more about what life is going to be like after you conquer the world.”

  “Oh, darling,” he said, trailing kisses up her inner thigh. “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.”
r />   Pasha led her inside and was greeted by Veliky, the head of hotel security, who took him in a big bear hug. 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 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 reservation? Think nothing of it if you don’t—I’ll get you 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, who filled out their reservation card while 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.

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