Excerpt - From the square to the embassy

THE church is near, but the way is icy.

The church is near, but the way is icy.

Olesya's grandmother was fond of that proverb, and it suited her mood as she began the ascent of Mykhailivska Street. She set off on the road but scuttled across the gutter and onto the pavement when a car approached. Some of the snow had melted, then frozen into an insidious black sheen, and, halfway up, she slipped. She had been leaning into the climb and fell forward as she lost her footing, bracing herself with her hands. She lay on the ground, stationary but with the momentary sensation of sliding backwards and away, back towards the square, the imminent interior ministry troops, possibly more than imminent, perhaps already in their positions. It began to rain – a sleety, lazy drizzle. It was as if she had made a misstep in a nightmarish game, tumbled down a ladder and into the snakes' lair. She picked herself up and returned to the road where the surface was truer. The lights of the Irish pub glinted ahead of her.

The church is near, but the way is icy.

She hesitated when she reached the perimeter of St. Michael's monastery, across the plaza from the foreign ministry. They looked like ordinary men, the riot police gathered beneath the ministry's Stalinist columns. One was laughing at a joke, another talking on his phone. She peered around the plaza, beyond the marble princess and towards the Cossack on horseback. These few men seemed to be the entire deployment. Probably they were not involved in the assault – were instead a mundane, blameless unit. Or maybe they would join in when the skull-cracking began, barrelling into the square from above, these ordinary blameless men, currently cooing goodnights to their children beneath the street lights. They were a bad omen. She fixed her eyes on the treacherous pavement and hurried into Desyatynna Street.

She had removed a mitten and was reaching with a naked finger for the buzzer beside the embassy's door when the security guard intercepted her.

'Young woman,' he said in Russian. 'What do you want?'

Instead of answering, she reached again for the button. The security man placed a glove on top of it. Olesya withdrew her finger and put her hand in her pocket.

'I said, what do you want?'

One bloodshot and one clear eye appraised her from beneath a beanie hat pulled low on his brow.

'Simon Davey, Mr Davey, he is the deputy . . . deputy head of mission. I must . . . I would like to see him. Please.'

'And who are you?' Her knees and thighs were grubby from her fall.

'Zarchenko, Olesya Zarchenko. Please.'

'Wait, please.'

She watched him retreat to the security hut at regulation pace, not slowly and not fast, a young man in a woollen hat, mildly overweight, somewhat pockmarked skin, torch and nightstick at his waist; another ordinary man, doing his job with the normal, desultory degree of exertion, mindlessly facilitating the end of the world. Through the rectangular window of the hut, as if framed by the aperture of a puppet theatre, he could be seen retrieving a sheaf of papers. He scanned the top sheet, flipped to the second, repeated the procedure.

She glanced at the buzzer. He was distracted by his papers. Two hours, three at the most. Two now, maybe less. She could push it. She should scream.

He regarded her through the window, then put down the papers and ambled back to the embassy's door.

'No. You're not on the list.'

'I know, I didn't say. . . I don't have an appointment, I . . .' She reached for the buzzer.

'No.'

'Please, it's an emergency. Just tell Simon, Mr Davey.'

'I said, you're not on my list.' He sniffled, the mucus burbling in his nostrils. 'That's it.'

Two hours. One hour. They had left the barracks. They were in their buses. Curtains drawn, body armour on, visors down.

Truncheons ready. Guns loaded.

Guns.

'Please,' she said. 'Just call him.'

Water cannon. Armoured personnel carriers.

Guns.

She laid a hand on his hip. He looked down at the hand, and up again to interpret her face. His own face was blank.

Like a radio signal weakly reaching a stranded craft, she seemed to have contacted the human within him. Silently he returned to the hut and spoke into a walkie-talkie, monitoring her through the window. It was conceivable that a posse of his colleagues would materialise to drag her away. The guard finished speaking but remained inside the hut, watching. He nodded indecipherably.

A red light throbbed across the sky. Somebody fleeing, someone flying in from Moscow. Escape or attack. The rain had stopped.

The intercom crackled and a woman's voice addressed her. 'Zarchenko? Push the door, please.'