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Duty Free

by Andrey Kuzmichev

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3



Gray-faced, hollow-eyed, he plodded along the arrivals hall. A motley crowd whirled around him — college students flying back for the semester, vacationers with ski bags, retirees in fancy attires. Mongol-eyed Gastarbeiter took down Christmas decorations — garlands, silver pine trees, cardboard Snegurochkas. A commingled smell hung above the bustle, indistinguishable, he could swear, from the London girl’s perfume.

At times he halted and looked about, clashing with passers-by. His mind, frozen numb, began to tingle with reproach.

“You’d have done better not to give me anything.” He raised his eyes to the ceiling. A tour company poster with a photo of St. Basil’s swung there on warm drafts. “Of all your deceits, is there a lower one?”

He understood what people meant when they said they’d do anything to get back what they had lost. He truly would have died or killed for his poem.

He paused at a shop window. The same bomb-shaped bottles of Xanadu he saw at Heathrow rotated slowly in backlit chessboard cubes.

“Please, God,” he turned from accusations to pleas, “if you did it once, can’t you do it again?”

He remembered the girl, his poem’s muse, the whisperer. When she lingered at the lavatory door, her lips moved like Eupraxia’s, possibly dictating his poem. Or did the girl’s proximity trigger the vision? He saw his dream right after she had walked past him. If only he could get close to her again.

He glanced at his watch. He had not yet changed it to Moscow time. The arrivals board read 16:29. He pressed the “set” button three times. Almost half an hour had passed since the girl cleared passport control. By now, she would be long gone, speeding towards the city in a connector train or a taxi.

Then, dim hope lit his dark world: “Alekper!” The girl said he would pick her up unless... “Unless!” he exclaimed, “he is held up in traffic.” The chance that he was still driving to the airport was slim, but real.

To get a better view of the exit area, he ran up the escalator to the second floor. Before him loomed the airport’s façade — an immense glass wave, blue with Moscow’s early dusk. On its crest hovered St. Basil’s reflection. Underneath gleamed the tiles of the international arrivals corridor. Revolving doors milled some fifty meters away. People in colorless leather and down jackets shuffled about, no pink furs among them.

Two figures caught his eye — a man in a driver’s cap and a girl almost twice his height in a white sweater and jeans. A fur sleeve bobbed under her arm, lighter in color than he remembered, but he couldn’t be sure in the changed light. She had a long braid, but he convinced himself that her hair was as curly and bouncy as on the London bus. A silvery bag swung from her elbow.

The couple zipped towards the exit. From where he stood, he would never reach them in time, even if he ran. In a minute, they would disappear behind the door and his last hope would perish. How to stop them? In a dire inspiration, not dissimilar to a poetic one, he leaned over the railing and, disbelieving his boldness, called, “Alekper!”

His cry rang unexpectedly loud, garbled: if it were his own name, he would not have recognized it. The sound reverberated among the beams and glass panes — a prayer sung from a minaret, truly God’s voice.

The couple halted mere meters from the door. The girl looked around. Did she recognize the name? Many others turned their heads, bewildered, alarmed. He waved his hand, noticing the watch on his wrist change the minute — 16:32.

She never looked up. The man squeezed her elbow and they resumed their flight. He heard the revolving door creak, ready to engulf the fugitives. He clawed into the railing. “Gospodi,” he prayed in Russian, “is there nothing, nothing you can do?”


What happened next, he recalled only later in fragments played in a slow motion. The lights went out. Reserve generators engaged, but failed and kept restarting and shutting down. As he raised his hand, he saw beneath what he could only describe as God’s hand mirroring his gesture.

Illuminated by stroboscopic flashes accompanied by the clatter of circuit breakers, a ball of light hatched in the international arrival opening and snaked towards the airport exit — a giant rubber glove spiked with finger-like protrusions. Paper shreds whirled around it; matchstick figures twitched on the floor in its wake.

The light extension arrested centimeters from the girl’s face, porcelain white, not yet distorted by comprehension, fear. Darkness ensued. As his eyes adjusted, a sight transpired that he did not believe and would never forget. The glass wall came to life: silver-scaled eels crept along its surface. The window panels crumbled down in a glass blizzard as the outside chill poured in. The floor glimmered with diamond snow.

Preoccupied with finding the girl, he felt clear-headed and calm. He scrambled down the escalator into the rancid fog. Around him black marionette dolls convulsed in silence. Some lay motionless, submerged in the chalky mist; a clawed hand, an oddly bent knee stuck out here and there.

He lost his bearings. He saw neither the elevator behind, nor the exit ahead. His hands sprawled forth, he shambled blindly alongside the tattered zombies rising around him. He veered towards a group that had gathered around an object on the floor, strikingly red among the greys.

He recognized the girl or convinced himself that he did. She lay on the floor strewn with bloodied bolts and nails. Next to her hand rolled a grotesque artefact: a severed male head, dark-skinned, stubbled, its hawk’s nose and forehead ashed heavily as if on a Hindu rishi.

“Alekper?” he wondered with a detached lucidity. The girl’s body bore no signs of injury, but he somehow he knew she was dying. Somebody threw a fur coat over her and now it soaked with blood, turning pink, then red.

“Watch out.” A cowled female face emerged from the fog, a large mole or a wound blossoming on her cheek, her eyes round with shock. “They are bombers.” The face swayed like a bobblehead toy.

“The man is a Chechen — you can tell by the nose. He’s got blown to pieces because he was standing where the bomb exploded.”

Other faces, round-eyed, transpired nearby, nodding.

“The girl had another bomb, but it did not explode.”

“Why do you say?”

The crowd parted. A silver bag lay next to the girl’s body. The bomb-shaped bottle of Xanadu rocked among shredded customs forms. It was not broken, only cracked, and exuded a savory fragrance, alien among the carnage.

Not bothering to argue, he stepped into the circle. The girl moaned. Her common, charmless face was not injured. Her long braid, strewn across the floor, reminded him of Eupraxia’s. The fur coat thrown over her body (Why comfort a terrorist?) swelled with blood.

He tilted his head skyward. A lone star peered through the carcass of the façade. A glass rectangle hung on a sliver reflecting St. Basil’s cupola. His dream was invading reality like a Mongol horde. He stood over the girl with a clay face — a foreigner, an intruder, savage Batu Khan whose wish superseded Nature’s causality and God’s omnipotence.

“They had a third one,” the woman pulled on his sleeve, “the mastermind.”

He lowered his head.

“Somebody shouted ‘Allah Akbar’ moments before the explosion.”

Did the acoustics distort “Alekper” into “Allah Akbar? he wondered, his gaze fastened on his poem’s muse, whether or not the girl before him was her.

Her head swung side to side, eyes half-closed, as she slipped out of consciousness. He caught their glance, but she did not recognize him. Her lips moved, pleading or praying. He stared at them hypnotized, unable to look away.

His mind lit: the girl’s lips were dictating his poem! As he followed their weak contractions, all verses came back to him. The cloud-set temple regrew the flesh of quatrains and stanzas. He gasped in awe. So many lines! Not two or three hundred from before, but thousands, and he owned them all.

He joined the palms of his hands, rolled his eyes, and whispered a quiet but discernible, “Thank you.”

“Blasphemer,” he heard behind his back.

He felt for the pencil in his pocket, knelt, and swept a few blank sheets from the floor. In a wide stride, he stepped over the girl’s body and elbowed his way through the human fence amid disapproving gasps.

Copyright © 2015 by Andrey Kuzmichev

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