Stuart M. Kaminsky

Hard Currency

Two Cubans lost in the jungle were kidnapped and tied to stakes while their native captors circled them shouting, “Ocha, Una, Ocha, Una.”

Suddenly the native leader approached the first Cuban and shouted, “Ocha, Una?”

“Ocha,” the Cuban guessed, and the entire tribe raped him.

Then the native leader turned to the second Cuban and shouted, “Ocha, Una?”

“Una,” said the second Cuban.

“Good,” said one of the natives. “First, Ocha. Then, Una.”

— A joke currently popular in Havana


Iliana Ivanova adjusted her backpack, looked down Rusakovskaya Street, and went over her plan for robbing the bald-headed businessman who waited next to her for the bus.

It was a warm May afternoon, and there was no one else at the bus stop on Rusakovskaya Street but Iliana and the man, who wore glasses and carried an ancient briefcase. The man did his best to avoid eye contact with the girl. He shifted his briefcase from hand to hand, looked at his watch, examined the clear late-morning sky, and looked down the broad street trying to conjure up a bus.

Most Muscovites who were working were already at their jobs. Those who had no jobs were hustling the streets, standing in lines for food, brooding in their apartments, or going mad in the parks. Sokolniki Park was directly behind the bus stop. That was where Iliana Ivanova, who was known to herself and her friends as the Yellow Angel, planned to take the man. The park was vast-a fifteen-hundred-acre forest of ancient trees and clearings with restaurants and cafés, which were hardly ever open now.

The Yellow Angel was only a bit nervous. She had pulled off the same plan almost two dozen times since leaving Tbilisi six months ago, and not once-well, not counting the fat Armenian in Grozny-had any victim shown the slightest suspicion. The reasons were obvious. The Yellow Angel was almost nineteen but she looked no more than sixteen. She was thin with large breasts, a clear-skinned face with pink cheeks, and shoulder-length naturally blond hair. Her brown eyes were large and sincere. Dressed in jeans and a clean shirt, she looked like a schoolgirl, an impression she emphasized by the large book she always carried under her arm. The book was something about economics. She had tried to read it once when she was sick and recuperating in the shack of a widower outside of Petrov, before she came to Moscow and found Anatoli. The widower who had taken her in was probably fifty, Iliana had played the virgin for him, hating his farm smell, the coarseness of his palms, the little brown mole next to his nose.

She had managed to keep the man out of her bed for all but two nights by feigning sickness. When she left, Iliana had sorely wanted to smash his stupid potato face, but she contented herself with simply stealing what she could carry.

Tbilisi had been fine for most of her life. When she was fourteen, Iliana had moved out of the apartment on Chavchavadze Avenue she shared with her parents and younger brother. She had moved in with a dull-witted nineteen-year-old boy who worked in the Vlodima glove factory in Miskheta and gave her whatever she wanted that he could afford, which was very little. In return, she gave him a baby. Three weeks after the baby had come the Yellow Angel took the baby to her mother, who welcomed it and slammed the door on her daughter.

Iliana worked in Tbilisi with a gang called the Golden Lepers. Then the Soviet Union came apart, Georgia declared independence, people were shooting and killing each other on the streets. Less than a day’s drive away in Azerbaijan and Armenia, there was even more fighting and killing. Some of the Golden Lepers joined the battle without knowing what it was about, and two of them died shouting support for Gorbachev’s old buddy Shevardnadze. Most of the Lepers, including Iliana, took advantage of the chaos to loot and rob.

She had done well. As bait for Golden Leper robberies, she simply joined in when she had lured a victim into an alleyway or behind the Iveria Hotel or into the bushes near the fountain in Victory Park.

Then Illya had been caught-fleeing with a stolen wallet, he had run into the arms of a soldier. Then Illya talked, quickly, about all the Golden Lepers, including Iliana, to whom he had proclaimed eternal love unto death.

And so Iliana had gone to her mother’s house, insisted on kissing her son good-bye, and then headed out of Tbilisi, into the countryside and toward the north. Since then, she had been required to take on the sole responsibility for luring and robbing her victims, which sometimes made her a bit nervous, but she also had no one to share with, which pleased her. All her victims had been eager to believe she was a beautiful, semi-innocent child they had been fortunate enough to encounter at a moment of her greatest financial need. The man at the bus stop would be no different.

What she didn’t like about Moscow was that it could be cold, very cold. Warm winds blew across the south slopes of the Caucasus Mountains from the Black Sea to the west or from the Caspian Sea to the east. It seldom snowed in Tbilisi, and when it did, the snow barely clung to the streets. Here, in Moscow, winter had been brutal. Six months ago, Iliana would have been determined to head someplace warmer when the winter came again, but now she had a family, people who respected and appreciated her.

Cars sped by them toward the heart of Moscow. The Yellow Angel was only vaguely aware of them, though a police car would have registered immediately. She watched the bald businessman, who finally had no choice but to make eye contact, if only for an instant. Iliana smiled sweetly and did not flinch. In spite of the chill air, she let her coat open innocently as she shifted the book to her other hand. Beneath the cloth coat she wore a white skirt and a knit sweater. The man adjusted his glasses and looked away in the direction from which the bus should have appeared.

“Late,” said Iliana with a smile of resignation.

The businessman made a grunting sound and checked his watch.

The man was a bit larger than Anatoli, and definitely heavier, but he did not look like a man who knew or welcomed violence. Iliana’s fingers played with the smooth handle of the knife in her pocket. It was a folding fishing knife, which she always made a point of opening slowly in front of her victims. It was encouraging to watch them suck in air or freeze like frightened weasels when the blade clicked. This one would be no different. It wasn’t that she would ever use the knife. Threatening to cry rape was more effective, since that was the direction the victims’ thoughts had probably been running.

“I’m going to be late for the Polytechnic,” she said with a deep sigh. “I’m already late.”

“So am I,” said the man, looking at his watch again.

“Late for school?” asked Iliana.

“No,” the man said. With a slight laugh he turned to the girl and adjusted his glasses. “Late for work. The hospital. I’m a doctor. Not far from the Polytechnic.”

“I don’t think the bus is coming,” she said, shaking her head. “Strikes. No fuel. No parts. The Czechs, Bulgarians, even the other Commonwealth countries treat Russia like …”

She shook her head in disgust.

The bald man grunted again and shook his head in agreement.

“My name is Katerina,” Iliana said, tossing her hair back and holding out her hand.

The man glanced around to see if anyone was watching and stepped forward to shake the girl’s warm hand.

“You have strong hands,” he said, stepping back again.

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