The digital clock on my car’s dash read 8:59 am. I took my .380 semiautomatic out of the glove box and slid it in the holster inside my jacket. Not that I thought I’d need it here; I’m simply in the habit of having a gun on me. I walked across the pea gravel to the flagstones leading to the green front door, pressing the doorbell at precisely 9:00 am.
The door swung open, answered by a tall, loose-limbed man with straight dark hair, dark eyes and a pleasant smile. I also noticed the grey patches under his eyes, and wondered how well he had been sleeping of late.
“Miss McNeil. A pleasure. I am Peter Orlov.” His English was ever so slightly accented by his native tongue. “Please, come in.”
Orlov ushered me into a house tastefully decorated in a more or less classical style, with polished wood floors, plenty of light from wide windows, bookcases, and flowers on end tables.
I learned early on that I don’t play well with others. I’m not anti-social—well, maybe a little—or truculent, I like having my way and I’m usually right. Over the years I’ve found that most people don’t appreciate these tendencies.
College wasn’t for me, either, so I joined the Army. Having a natural facility for languages I trained as a cryptologic linguist. The armed services and I turned out not to be such a great fit, either, even though I enjoyed the opportunities provided me. My twin brother, Terry, became a career military man. Fine by me. We have no other family, and as long as he’s happy, I’m happy. After I was discharged I knocked around the West Coast for awhile, grew bored, and came back east.
Terry helped me get into my current line of work. I’m an investigator. I find things, learn things; take risks for those who can’t. Or won’t. Terry is well connected with the CIA and DMS and other alphabet agencies that occasionally need someone like me to follow up on off-the-books stuff. My clientele tends to be high-end. Very high-end.
Which often makes opening e-mails from strangers interesting.
A particularly interesting one hit my in-box two days earlier. It was from Peter Orlov, whom I did not know, and read, simply, Dear Miss McNeil: I want to know where I was. And I want to return there.
He’d attached a scan of a Pravda article from 1987 detailing the disappearance of nine-year-old Pytor Abramovich Orlov while vacationing with his parents and younger brother, and his mysterious reappearance two days later in the center of Arzamas, the nearest city. When asked where he’d been, Pytor lapsed into glossolalia, which ceased only when questioning ended. Otherwise his speech was unimpaired.
Also attached to Peter—Pytor—Orlov’s email were several colored pencil sketches he’d made of strangely dressed people who looked somehow Slavic but wore bright voluminous garments and turban-like headgear. The men donned forked beards, and the women hid their breasts under dozens of strands of wampum-like necklaces. Perhaps in emulation of the male turban, their hair was worn in an up swept all-but-spherical coif, like an expanded Sixties “beehive.” All, men and women, were light of complexion, with dark eyes and dark hair.
I’m well-traveled, and have spent time on all the continents—including Antarctica—doing research for my clients. I didn’t recognize the particular ethnic group depicted in Orlov’s meticulous drawings. They certainly were not Russian, or even Slavic. If anything, they looked somewhat Persian.
Intrigued, I replied, agreeing to see him. Two days later I was in Nyack, New York.
According to my research, both Orlov brothers came to the States from Russia as children in 1989. Peter was now thirty-eight years old, the wealthy if somewhat eccentric and reclusive CEO of a rising pharmaceutical conglomerate. Jurij changed his name to George and took over the day-to-day running of the corporation as its COO. Peter had no wife, no ex-wives, no children.
Orlov led the way through the foyer into a sitting room. “Miss O’Neil, will you take coffee or tea?”
“Decaf green tea would be wonderful if you have it. And do call me Alice.”
“Then you must call me Peter.” He excused himself.
I examined my surroundings. Low bookcases lined three walls, with paintings above them. French doors opened onto a slate patio, brushed this October day by leaves from a black walnut tree. Its spherical seedpods sat scattered on the flags like green golf balls.
I turned as he entered with two steaming cups—Noritake china on a silver tray along with a sugar bowl, tongs, spoons and creamer. Real silver, too, not plate. And he did his own serving. Odd, for such a wealthy person.
I dropped a lump of raw sugar into my cup as he settled into a wing chair opposite the window. “I couldn’t place the costumes in the drawings you sent.”
A half smile. “I would have been astounded if you could.”
“And that’s the clothing worn by the inhabitants of the place to which you were taken.” I took a chair across from his. “Kitezh, or whatever you call it.”
“I was not taken there. I walked there.”
“Walked?” I set my teacup down on the table beside my chair. “Peter.” I switched to Russian. “I know my Russian geography. It’s more than fifty kilometers from where you vanished, near Lake Svetloyar, to where you turned up.”
“Fifty-three.” He smiled with a crooked humor.
“And you… walked there.”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“In a manner of… at the age of nine?”
“In two days?”
“Ah. No.” He leaned forward. “I was somewhere else, in between. In Kitezh.” His gaze became distant. “At that time it was near the lake. They didn’t want me to get lost, you see, so they took me, teleportedme, whatever, to Arzamas. I didn’t walk fifty-three kilometers.”
“’They?” I gaped. “Teleported?” And what did he mean by at that time?
“The inhabitants of Kitezh.” He sighed, smiling. “It’s such a beautiful place, Alice.”
He wasn’t speaking in the past tense. The place was real, alive, to him.
“There was a fountain, with two and three-story homes all around, peaked roofs, very quaint but overgrown with electric ivy, a blue sky such as I have never seen any—”
“Wait, what? Electric ivy?”
He waved a hand. “I call it that. All the houses were festooned with green wires. At first I thought they were vines because they had leaves, with curling offshoots like Morning Glory tendrils seeking purchase, but the leaves were transparent, with flat electronic components inside them. These vines covered the houses.”
“Solar collectors.” This man was not lying. At least, he didn’t think he was.
“I saw no other source of power while I was there.”
“I see. Go on. And on your return?”
He shook his head as if to settle his thoughts. “I walked from the square at the behest of my… hosts, headed for a street entry, and no sooner did I set foot off the cobbles then I stepped into Arzamas. I was in front of the town hall.”
“The transition was instantaneous?”
“Yes.” His hands grew animated. “And so that was the fifty-three kilometers. In a single step.”
I sipped my tea as he filled in details. Lake Svetloyar was a popular tourist destination among a certain class of Russians. Peter’s parents, petrochemical engineers, had often vacationed there when their boys were young.
“We got off the bus in Balakhna. You say you are good with geography, Alice. Do you know the town?”
“I know of it.”
“Nestled in the arms of the Volga. An historic region, but there’s not much for young boys to do there. My father loved to fish, though, and my mother to sketch. They took us to the lake on the second day. I drew for a while with Mother, but got bored and wandered off, exploring, as boys will do. George adored fishing, and stayed with our father. I skipped stones on the lake, caught a frog or two, let them go and then I got hungry so I turned back.” He frowned and sighed. “And saw a city on the shore of the lake, placed between me and my parents. I had to have walked through it, you see; but I never saw it until I turned back.” He paused, but I said nothing, simply nodded for him to continue.
“I call it a city, but it was more a village. The lakeside path I walked became a cobblestone street. Wood frame buildings lined it. This was Kitezh.” At my blank look, he went on.” He leaned forward. “A mythical city, like… I don’t know, the Emerald City? Or the place where Batman lives. But I believe Kitezh took me, and after I was there for a short time, deposited me in Arzamas.”
In a single step. “You could not discuss this when you were young. Yet now you can speak of it.”
“I could not write about my experience, either, although again I thought I was being perfectly clear.” He shrugged. “Scrawls. Nor could I type coherently into a computer. My parents feared I had a brain tumor. MRIs and PET scans ruled that out. At last I stopped talking about what happened to me and thereafter had no further speech or writing problems.
“My parents were both killed in a train wreck in 1988. George and I were raised by relatives here in America. When we came of age we devoted ourselves to our parents’ business. They had a small pharmaceutical company, which George and I have grown into a multinational corporation. When our corporate headquarters moved to New York City, I came here. George stays in Manhattan.
“Two years ago I was in an automobile accident that left me in a coma for four days. When I came to I found George sitting at my bedside, looking oddly at me. He said I had been raving about Kitezh. Do you understand? I could talk about it at last, even if I was delirious! The accident somehow negated the conditioning, hypnosis, whatever, I’d received in Kitezh. Or maybe the compulsion had worn off with time, I don’t know. I told him I’d simply been dreaming.” He sighed. “I did not want to worry him. About my sanity, you see. He never says anything, but I believe he has his doubts.”
“Mmm.” I knew a little something about that. “So you came to me, to find Kitezh.” I took a last sip of my tea and carefully put the cup down on the table. Outside, a black walnut seedpod hit the patio flagstones with a clunk.
“Russia? I’ve never been there. I speak the language, but—”
He waved this aside. “I have friends there who will help you.”
“You’ve tried to find it yourself?”
He frowned, his gaze again growing distant. “I have returned to Russia several times to search for it, to no avail. I would swear Kitezh recedes from me.” He pursed his mouth. “Avoids me.” He went to his computer and called up a sound file. It was forty seconds of a strange melody, simple but with odd intervals, hesitantly played on a piano.
“This is a song I heard while I was there,” he said. “Someone played it on a flute one night. I’ve never forgotten it. I picked it out on a piano and recorded it.” He handed me a flash drive. “Here’s a copy.”
Peter Orlov was no crackpot. Somethinghad happened to him. Something he couldn’t explain.
“It is said, you know,” Peter told me, “that only those who are pure in their heart and soul will find their way to Kitezh.”
I allowed myself a tight smile. “Even so, I am hardly pure in my heart and soul.”
“I have nowhere else to turn. Will you help me?”
“I’ll try.” We shook on it, and the discussion turned to my fee.
He didn’t blink.
On the flight to Russia I went over Peter’s notes and drawings as well as the official accounts detailing his “disappearance.” I also obtained his medical records. None of the documentation gave me the least hint how to find Kitezh.
Others had heard of it, however, as I learned after spending a few hours on the Internet. According to legend, as the Mongols swept through the region some eight centuries ago they learned of Kitezh and detoured to sack it. They reached the lake shore town, saw it had no fortifications, and drew their weapons for slaughter. Kitezh’s citizens ringed the village wall, praying for salvation as the horsemen advanced. Like a miracle, water burst forth from dozens of places in the ground. As the Mongols stared in amazement the city sank beneath the lake and was never seen again.
Except occasionally, here and there, at different locations around the lake where young Pytor Abramovich Orlov stumbled on it.
My first move would be to check out the area.
Two days’ travel later I was in a Volga 3102 with crappy suspension, jouncing along a semi-improved roadway toward Lake Svetloyar. My driver, Mikhail, a laconic chain-smoking dumpling of a man with close-set eyes, had met me at Moscow Airport. He was one of the friends Peter mentioned. He seemed surprised that I spoke fluent Russian.
“Poor Pyotr. He’s been obsessing about Kitezh since he was a child.”
He nodded, never taking his eyes from the road, for which I was grateful. My insides cramped in an uproar from the car bouncing along all the ruts. “He visited me the last time he was here, a few months ago. He thinks the city flees him, you know.” He blew smoke out of his nose in a gentle snort.
“He did say something about that.”
“Why he thinks you could be of help. I do not know.”
“I’m a professional researcher.”
His glance, eyebrows raised, asked a further question.
“Of the paranormal, you might say.”
He scoffed. “Supernatural?” After that he said nothing more, which was fine with me. I was in no mood to explain how an army cryptologic linguist had become a professional cryptologist. He concentrated on his cigarettes and his driving and I concentrated on not puking all over his bouncing, smoky little car.
At last we arrived at our destination, a small hotel near the lake—more of a bed and breakfast, really, with a dining room. I signed in while Mikhail brought my luggage to my room. As it was not tourist season, I turned out to be the only guest.
Mikhail took his leave in a cloud of cigarette smoke. Jet-lagged and ill, I went straight to bed, wakened the next morning by my cell phone to a misty dawn.
While dressing the next morning, my cell phone rang. I dug it out of my pocket. The LED panel read G. ORLOV.
Aw, crap. I flipped it open. “McNeil.”
“What progress, Ms. McNeil?”
“Hello, Mr. Orlov.” No George and Alice with this brother. “Nothing definite yet.”
Silence. Then, “I expect results, Ms. McNeil. I told you when I hired you: I can’t allow the company to be run by an unbalanced CEO, even if he is my brother.”
Fighting between the Orlov brothers wasn’t my concern. Peter Orlov thought he’d found me on his own, but it was George who’d heard of me and nudged my name and rep into his brother’s ken. Peter took the bait. He believed in me because he wanted to.
“Understood, sir,” I said, as coldly as I could. George’s money was better than good, but he was an arrogant, entitled jerk. I prepared for Peter to be an even bigger one, but found myself surprised: I liked Peter. Which made this subterfuge all the more distasteful to me.
It was all business, yeah, and I had two big paydays coming, one from each brother, but that didn’t endear me to myself.
“Good,” he said. “I’ll call later.” The line went dead.
Breakfast consisted of strong coffee and pastries of a type I’d never seen before: dark braided bread coated with a fruit compote glaze and filled with mildly spiced meat. Scrumptious, but I could no more than nibble at it. My stomach wouldn’t cooperate.
As the waiter, a pasty-faced man in his fifties, cleared the table I flipped my cellphone open to access my media files. “Have you ever heard this tune, my friend?” I played Peter’s little melody.
The waiter’s eyes went wide then became hooded. He spoke but not in Russian. I couldn’t place the tongue. He caught himself and said, curtly, “No. Never.” He hurried away with the dishes.
I left the inn with a backpack containing one of the pastries, some cheese, and water—and a couple of very sophisticated little devices to detect and measure ambient electromagnetic fields. The air blew cool and slightly damp, but with an apple snap to it that I never encountered in the States. Tourist season was past, and I stood alone on the lakeside trail. The water lapped conversationally and birds sang.
Despite the day’s beauty, as I walked the path something seemed off to me. Kitezh, I felt sure, was not likely to be sitting around waiting for me to find it. It would more likely be wandering amid the dark fir forest crowding the lake.
I began thinking of the city as an animal-like entity, something with intelligence and purpose.
The trees around me grew somehow more menacing and I couldn’t shake the conviction that I was being watched. My instruments, however, revealed nothing out of the ordinary. Three times I resolved to turn back; instead, after an hour and a half or so I made it all the way around the lake. I had gotten some good exercise, but learned nothing.
Back at the hotel I ate a good dinner, and went to bed.
The next morning I took the lakeside trail once more, in the opposite direction. This time I got about three-quarters of the way around the lake before I saw a sketchy trail twisting away from the main path, threading into a narrow, steep sided ravine. I was a dozen or so steps into the cleft before an unexpected aroma of fresh bread filled my nostrils. I walked a few meters further, the delicious odor drawing me on despite my unsettled stomach.
Ahead, the way became quite rocky before curling around a dark stand of juniper that obscured my view. As I came round the thick bushes, the walls of the ravine closed in overhead, tunnel-like. The path became a cobbled passageway, the stones rising from the ground like bubbles from oatmeal.
Another twist of the trail hid the further end of the tunnel. The scent of bread grew even stronger. I rounded the corner, and stepped into a garden.
I stood on the edge of acres of trimmed grass framing beds of pale flowers unfamiliar to me. Stands of equally unfamiliar trees dotted the expanse. The way I’d been following continued through this park-like setting.
To my knowledge, there was no tourist attraction like this anywhere near the hotel.
I approached the nearest of several flowerbeds. The blossoms sat cream-colored, as large as saucers, with delicate mauve throats and long tapering leaves. Within each bloom sparkled what I took to be dewdrops. I leaned closer, and saw that each “drop” contained a strange little dark nucleus. As I moved back, these nuclei shifted position, as though aware of me, watching me.
A chill fluttered across my stomach. Then, partially hidden beside another plot of the weird flowers, I saw someone kneeling. A man, obviously, though his back was tome and his face unseen. He wore a sort of tunic and a turban was wrapped around his head. Beside the plants a small box had been affixed to a short post, like a low-sitting wren house.
I sucked in my breath. He could have walked out of one of Peter’s sketches. I drew closer, and saw that he was placing electrodes from a small device to the shrub. Knowledgeable as I was of common (and uncommon) electronics, I had never seen anything like the smart-phone-sized thing he held.
I approached him. He looked up at me. Blue eyes twinkled in a seamed, tanned face decorated by a dark goatee—the face of a fortyish man who spent much if not most of his time outdoors. He climbed easily to his feet and bowed to me.
“Greetings and welcome,” he said in Russian. “I am Benedikt.”
“Thank you. My name’s Alice. Uhm… what are you doing, there?” With my chin I pointed at the wire-festooned plant.
He chuckled. “I’m stimulating this plant to produce a version that will bear pure white flowers. It’s rather resistant, but I think I’ve got the correct settings at last.” He opened the box’s hinged top, placed the hand-held gadget within and clicked shut the lid.
“I’m an electrobotanist,” he said, as if that was sufficient explanation.
What the devil is an electrobotanist? I licked my lips. “Is this… Kitezh?”
He smiled. “Come with me, Alice, if you would.” Benedikt set off through the park. Ahead, above a screen of vegetation, I saw the peaked, vine-grown roofs of what seemed to be a quaint Middle European town. The odor of baking bread had grown so strong now that I felt I could chew the air. “Kitezh… you are familiar with some of our local tall tales, I see.”
Tall tales. “I was taking a walk around the lake. I saw a little side-path, and…”
“It’s easy to get lost around here. You’re American, I think?”
“Hardly a sought-out tourist destination, the lake, for Americans.”
I simply shrugged.
Within a few minutes we passed the screen of vegetation and entered a beautiful village. The lake lapped against a small wharf to which were tied a number of coracles, all appearing quite new, with polished oarlocks and painted a shiny green. It was the most charming little place I have ever seen, complete with a glittering fountain in the town square.
“Benedikt, I walked around the whole lake yesterday. There was no way I wouldn’t have noticed the trail to this place.”
“Yet somehow you did not.” He smiled. “It’s surprising what one can overlook if one is preoccupied.”
“I notice things for a living.” Never mind that I missed the path. “I came here specifically to find Kitezh.” I withdrew my cell phone from my pocket and began taking pictures.
Benedikt said, in a gentle tone, “That won’t work here.”
“Oh, no service, huh?” He was right. There were no bars on the display. While less than a tenth of a mile away I had been talking with George Orlov. Well, cell phones. “That’s all right, I’m only taking pictures.” And a few discreet movies. As well as whatever data the gizmos in my backpack can gather.
He shook his head, smiling. “I’m sorry. It won’t take pictures, either.”
I checked the phone—another point for Benedikt. Nothing in memory or on the card. The damn thing must be malfunctioning. But I knew it wasn’t. Whatever mental blip that caused people to speak in tongues after they left Kitezh apparently had an electronic analog, some sort of jamming field.
“Once you return through the ravine,” Benedikt said, “your phone will work.”
Without waiting to hear more I spun round and ran back the way we’d come. But somehow in my excitement I managed to lose my way. Again.On the path. At last, though I no longer knew where I was, I stopped. I pulled out my cell phone, saw two bars and punched Peter’s number.
His voice: “Hello?”
“Morel muspi. Rolod tisi tema, reutetcesnoc gincsipida tilé. Man h’bin. C’nun suirav sisilicaf soré. Des téra.” Listen to me. I found the place. It’s real. Kitezh is real. It’s all true. I’ve proved it.
“Who the hell is this? Alice, is that?”
“Des téra!” It’s real!
“Alice, you’re talking gibberish. Wait. You… can’t tell me what happened, can you?” He muttered something to himself. “You found it.”
“Mm-hm! Nio ni tilev—” Shaking with frustration I gave up, and walked on with the phone clutched in my hand. I was back on the trail around the lake, out of Kitezh and presumably free of its influence. I turned around, and saw nothing of the path’s offshoot that had led me there. It was maddening.
“Alice, are you there?” from my phone.
I lifted the phone to my ear. “I’m here.” I walked back a few steps and saw the way unfold out of the shrubbery like a live thing approaching me. “Wait, Peter.” I stepped onto the path. “Wait a moment.” I ran as fast as I could toward the ravine. At its mouth stood Benedikt the electrobotanist. He smiled, and tapped his forehead.
Yeah yeah, Yellow Submarine; it’s all in the mind.“You’re not going to let me tell him.”
His smile broadened but remained kindly. And a little pitying?
Into the phone, I said, “Goodbye, Peter. I’ll talk to you later.” I was panting. I faced the electrobotanist. “How much longer do you think you can keep this up, Benedikt? You Kitezhians or, or whatever you call yourselves.”
Benedikt extended a hand, palm up—walk with me. We strolled toward the village. “You’re correct,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to maintain our secrecy forever. It’s harder these days, with modern technology all around us. We regularly take the village to regions in Chinawhere—”
“Whoa. Wait. You take the village?”
“Oh, yes. It’s, well, portable.”
“But how can you move a whole,” I trailed off. “You’re not going to tell me.”
Just like Brigadoon, I said to myself, frowning. “Okay, go on with what you were saying.”
“We go to China, where there are deposits of rare earth elements we need for our own various technologies, including what you’d call a ‘cloaking device’ shielding us from outside view.” He sighed. “But the Chinese are growing suspicious due to ‘unexplained’ depletion of these deposits, and we may soon need to investigate extraterrestrial sources.”
“Well, I can under—wait. Extraterrestrial?”
“Asteroids. Let’s just say we’re working on it.”
“But this is…” I spread my arms and shook my head, at a loss for words. “How can a little lakeside village be capable of such a thing?”
“We’re not, not yet.”
“Not yet? My God.” My head was spinning. George Orlov was going to get his money’s worth, all right.
Peter already had. My very inability to tell him the truth told him the truth.
I would not, of course, be able to tell George what I had learned, that Kitezh was real, but my glossolalia would be sufficiently revealing. I had a pang for what I was doing to his unsuspecting brother.
“I know your circumstances, Ms. McNeill,” Benedikt said. “Why you’re here.”
“What do you mean?”
“Peter Orlov. To our way of looking at things, his boyhood visit here happened only a few weeks ago.”
I thought about the waiter back at the hotel. “Yeah, I think I’m starting to get it. You’ve been spying on me.”
“More like investigating what sort of person you are.”
“If you’re that good, you must know what I am. What I do.” I took a breath. “I’ve killed people, Benedikt.”
“Oh yes, we know. But we feel that in all cases the deaths were justified.” He smiled. “Otherwise you and I would not be talking now.”
“Uh-huh.” We walked a few more steps in silence while I thought. To someone in my line of work, Kitezh was like Paradise. I could learn so much. “Benedikt, listen. Do, do people ever stay on, here? You know, having stumbled in, do you allow some visitors to stay?”
“It has happened. If Peter finds us again, he’ll be allowed to stay. He has knowledge of financial matters that we would be able to use.”
“Yeah. What about someone like me? Could I stay?”
“Alice, the only reason we are having this conversation now is because we have been discussing our need for someone like you.”
“That’s settled, then. You won’t regret—”
He held up a hand. “You do understand that if at some point you decide to leave, you won’t be able to talk about it to anyone outside.”
“Nor will you retain the knowledge. We will have to edit your memory to remove any memories of Kitezh or what you did here.”
I swallowed. “Yes. But what about Peter Orlov?” I knew it was a foolish question as soon as the words left my mouth.
“I think he will make his way back here eventually.”
“Hmm. And George?”
Benedikt shrugged without bothering to speak.
I nodded slowly. George would be stuck. No proof and no investigator. On the other hand, if Peter was convinced that Kitezh existed, nothing would keep him from getting back to it. George would get his wish. He’d end heading the corporation.
I thought about the life I would be leaving behind. I had no family left except my younger brother, a career military man. He knew about my line of work, had in fact helped me get into it, being well connected with the CIA and DMS and a bunch of other alphabet agencies that occasionally needed someone like me to follow up on off-the-books stuff. If I vanished he’d assume I had good reason, or got tangled with something bigger or weirder than I could handle.
Aside from him and a few houseplants, there was no one.
We stood in Kitezh’s town square, Benedikt and I. There was the splashing fountain, the little houses covered with electric ivy, and a blue sky such as I had never seen. Small catlike mechanisms prowled the square, their metal claws ticking on the cobbles.
The breeze shifted warm and laden with good scents. A melody drifted past me; the same one Peter had recorded. A chill tickled my spine. I might call it unearthly.
I held out my hand and he took it.
“You’re not staying,” he said.
“I can’t just…disappear. I have family.” I released his hand. “A different kind of family. And other clients. Dangling threads that need tying up, you know? Believe me, I’d rather stay.”
Benedikt stared into my eyes for a long moment. Then he nodded. “Very well. Good luck, Alice. Perhaps I will see you again one day.”
I don’t like goodbyes. I turned and walked away.