1964-11-16 - Buck and Cover
Summary: Twenty-four hour breakfast in a diner in Queens is awesome!
Related: Project Virgo
Theme Song: None
bucky wanda 

Note: Written by Wanda. Bucky is related to those involved.

“You boys need any more coffee?” The question fell from the woman’s lips in weary recording, the same thing said to a changing array of people for hours.

The younger one, can’t be more than twenty, looked up from the laminated dessert menu posting the same six flavours of pie, two ice cream dishes, and pudding the diner served since ‘37. Soon as she met his blue eyes, he shied away in retreat behind a row of apple pie a la mode.

Orel didn’t want to meet the waitress’ eyes. Keep your chin down and gaze averted, protocol went. It served him well, too. No one questioned someone avoiding their attention, distracted by other matters.

The mute silence from Evgeniy spoke volumes.

What boy his age sits in a dinner at quarter to eleven? Just proof how wrong the world runs, Agnes decided. Her rotation to the counter to fetch a pot halted when the other male, the older one, speaks up.

“Ya.” Evgeniy hadn’t said more than three words to her in an hour, every time that flat monotone.

Hard to warm up to someone without manners like that, but so many of the guests showing up after suppertime spoke the same way.

Newcomers. No manners and no sense. Agnes kept her opinions to herself while she fetched the orange-rimmed pot. Two cups and some left she divvied between their speckled mugs.

The younger one set on his coffee eagerly, pulling over the shallow dish of emptied creamers. Orel poked around for a full one and came up empty.

“Here you go.” She already presented him with the neighbouring booth’s dish, swapping out the empties for new creamers. No one else sat nearby and her usual late night regulars all clustered nearer to the door.

Evgeniy stared at the tabletop, cracked and water-spotted, until she left. The route through the kitchen was a no go. Doors out to the street provided the best course, but those long windows gave too many chances of being spotted even with the blinds half-drawn.
He got up and lumbered off to the men’s room for a better idea of the street access through a window. Orel started to rise, but he waved him off, a flick of his fingers sufficient.

The cook, Bill, never much cared about the businessmen loitering into the wee hours but he made a snide remark when the aging waitress stepped back into the kitchen.

“You send those boys on their way now. They’re trouble.”

“You’re sticking your nose where it don’t belong,” Agnes snapped.

“It’s been three hours.” He tapped his watch face importantly. “And what, they spent two bucks?”

An old argument between them, Agnes felt more like the high school hall monitor than the only waitress employed for night shift at the Silver Dollar Diner. Her chin went up and her shoulders straightened under her much washed apron.

She relished upbraiding the old coot, for all he seemed to look on the world through the grimiest grey-colored glasses imaginable. “Now you listen here. They paid good and plenty with a five, and they’re not harming no one.”

He grunted and she pressed on. “For all you know, they haven’t got a place to go. You know those bus drivers just shove their passengers off and shut the doors.”

“We ain’t the YMCA.“ He scraped down some stubborn grease cooked onto the grill, sharp strokes of his metal flipper throwing sooty specks into the air. “They can take their buck fifty somewhere else.”

Further proof the codger had no soul, not since his wife died. Agnes checked the fridge door shut on her ample hip, and approached the rotating case on the corner. The plastic door creaked as she opened it, pulling out a saran wrapped plate.

“Don’t you be encouraging them.” Bill’s warning followed her out into the skinny diner.

Evgeniy reached the booth and slid in. He gave the coffee a pass, switching cups with Orel. The young man greedily snatched it up and down the scalded, bitter brew with relish.

Another five minutes according to the round clock, and they would be up five hours free. Sitting around and killing time in Queens itched something fierce under his skin. He wanted to run, needed to move away from the buzzing lights and endless noise.

“We’re good,” Orel muttered into the sloshing coffee, tilting it back. “You look off. Remember the cold. Breathe it in. Nothing wrong here.”

Evgeniy sucked in a deeper breath. Hard to remember in this too hot restaurant what the chill of a starry taiga night felt like, how the cold seeped in around the frayed cuffs of his coat. He longed for the metallic richness of bracing air the way lonely men coveted their lover’s warmth and spiced skin.

Not enough. His hands shook.

“Inbound.” Orel plastered that stupid vapid smile, all plastic lines, devoid of emotion and wooden.

But really, what was the harm? She approached slow, and the man with his back to her stiffened up again. Evgeniy kept his hands under the table and went totally still. Not like the two said much of anything to one another, the weirdest dining companions she ever saw.

But the younger one peered up over the rim of his coffee. Had he already drained it? Kid had a hollow leg and no sense of good taste, if he thought four creams would improve the taste of burnt black sludge. He peered at her unblinking with the most arresting pale blue-grey eyes.

Like the water off the Rockaways, that one time she and her sister took the fishing trip. They were lucky enough to catch their fill of porpoises and ospreys in the wild waters just a few miles from Manhattan.

“Pie,” she said. The conspiratorial whisper pricked both their ears, as she thought it might. From her apron she brought out two forks, making a show of displaying the handles to them. “Thought you might be a little hungry. Now there’s vanilla ice cream if you want.”

Evgeniy shook his head. She waited on the Orel, who stared at her with wide, fixed eyes empty of guile and comprehension.

“Oh, bother, you don’t speak a lick of English, do you?” Pieces fell into place for Agnes: their silence, the standoffishness, the living shield of a menu. Her retreat gave them breathing room again.

The two forks she put down on the table remained there for ten minutes. She counted on the clock. Then the younger one reached for the fork and poked the sweating crust over a sea of sticky golden chunks that barely deserved to be called apples, bruised within an inch of their life.

Poor kid. The pieces were falling together for the waitress. Immigrants, obviously, probably come on hard times by the look of their shabby clothes and rough hands. Maybe straight out from a mining community up on the Great Lakes or the famously closed towns somewhere in coal country.

Agnes was wiping down the counter and watching over the coffeemaker when one of her regulars hustled up to the register. Portly, his translucent dress shirt spread over his full belly, and his florid jowls quivered. “Annie, you ready for me?”

She waited, skinny arm crooked. “Early for you, Bob. Train won’t be in for another thirty minutes.”

He shook his head. “Good time as any. Way things are going, they’ll call me back as soon as I get home anyways.” He handed over a sweaty fiver, and she punched a key to open the till.

“Annie,” he whispered again. “Ever think about going to see your sister up in Portsmouth? You never take care of yourself.”

Bob never in his life looked after Annie’s welfare except at Christmas. He might as soon said he was going to the Moon. “You comin’ down with something?”

She realized how few people remained in the diner and how very long the night might be. Hard to find fault with three men reading the paper and two boys poking at a pie like it might be radioactive. They’re eating, though. That pleased her.

Bob stared and raised his hand as she tried to hand the change back. “You need to get outta here now, Annie.”

“What are you goin’ on about?”

“You know I can’t talk about my work. Just a hunch, it’s a real good time of year to take the train up north.” He cleared his throat again. “Think about it.”

“You’re not a sentimental man. Lay off the drink,” the waitress replied, watching the man collect his suit jacket and briefcase.

Lightning rumbled through the veins and arteries the moment an operation took action. The analysts in the Cold Room — Orel could not think of the sterile chamber for questioning by any other name — dissected his memories and physical reactions with their irritating questions.

How he knew when to strike or the time was right could not be described as a sequence of logical actions and reactions. They attributed the bone-deep insights to training, a conscious decision. Would they treat an owl detecting a mouse in the taiga the same way, rather than a reflex perfected by nature?

Not for them to know the coagulation of frost in the blood or the sudden clarity in thoughts that tied up all the sense to a heightened state. He could smell clearer, breathe easier. The operation was on.

Lazar's instructions rang clear from hours prior. Target the grossly obese businessman and keep him fully within sight. Trail him when he departed and remove the briefcase he carried. The contents were important, very important. Obtain the case and stow it in the locked coal chute at the brick apartment called Waverly on Halsey.

Orel licked the interior rim of the mug, sliding back and forth, in hopes of catching one last lukewarm drop of bitter-black coffee.

He kicked Evgeniy lightly, bringing the other Russian out of a stupor. The toll of the long night bruised his eyes, deepened their shadows to a grim spectre. Not that it blunted Evgeniy’s reaction times, though, because the fork in his fist drove into the remainder of the pie down to the plate.

Might have gone through without Orel yanking the last of the dessert to his side of the table. //Don’t waste it! //

“Wake up,” he said under his breath. “He went outside.”

Evgeniy shook out his hands under the table. “Yellow awning. Two minutes.”

Orel stuffed the last of the crust in his mouth, hand shoved to his lips. The mission was in motion.

Any detachment evaporated quicker than mist around his brother. He slid the fork up his sleeve and wiped his mouth free of crumbs. The vinyl squeaked, the slide of cheap denim smoothing the path out from the booth.

Agnes came by to sweep the plate and cutlery from the table as Evgeniy returned to the washroom. Her faded features showed signs of youth when she smiled, warming her brown eyes, giving them a twinkling depth. Orel regretted they would give her more to clean and questions.

“Anything else, dear?” She accented her question by nodding at the coffee cup and raising her overplucked eyebrows.

Dear. No one ever called him that. He wasn’t sure about the meaning, but her friendly tone wrapped around him. He forced a smile to his mouth and shook his head. Making a show of pulling his thin army jacket tighter around his shoulders and tugging at the zipper. She stood aside to let him pass.

The other diners noted the broad-shouldered young man in a grey jacket and dingy jeans making his way back out into the night, and they breathed easier in the minutes to follow. Not that they could really explain why or how, but his absence allowed the anxiety to seep away.

They reunited in on a side street two blocks away. Orel closed on the rendezvous site, a corner store with a dingy scrap of yellow fabric over the door attesting to its dubious business.

Street training came back to him the moment he turned the corner beyond the diner. He cased out the thin traffic and vehicles, searching for the tells. Wheels turned outwards, the same car parked in another spot just up the street, foreign license plates. Sweeping the few pedestrians hurrying to get out of the cold, he sought the factors they couldn’t change: the shape of their nose, any familiar scars or facial features.

Evgeniy took longer to case his surroundings, but he always worried about shaking off tails through the longest routes. Lacking the luxury, he was jumpy, strung out on adrenaline. His eyes darted around and he practically vibrated when Orel slid into his line of sight.

“Three shots to chest, one to the head,” Evgeniy muttered under his breath in Russian.

“Shoulder and knees,” Orel said.

They both started moving, using the wall for a degree of cover, line staggered. Ahead of them a bus stop offered minimal refuge to the homeless man wrapped in a wool blanket. Trees marched down the sidewalk and the blinking traffic signal offered too much light, reflecting off the oiled coat worn by the businessman.

Two blocks, nothing to cover at all. The mission was very simple, almost laughable. Two of us snatching a briefcase? He must have something very badly needed, or a tail.

Yet the portly businessman lacked anyone following him and demonstrated little more than the natural unease that plagued a lone person after nightfall.

“Divert him,” Evgeniy said.

They needed little more strategy than that.Orel naturally looked up and Evgeniy bled away into the next slick side street. He kept straight after the quarry, staying to the opposite sidewalk.

Who he was, what he was didn’t matter. Only the mission. Lazar brought them to this sorry road for a reason, plucking him from hell for a purpose.

Just like the Champion of the Motherland, he served a purpose higher than a slice of pie or suffering.

Orel lengthened his gait only a little as the mark headed for a three-story brick apartment.

Bars covered the ground-floor windows. Twin black doors owed security to a rickety wrought-iron gate. He noted the fire escapes mounted from the third and second floor units, a hanging ladder too flimsy to support him. The adjacent buildings looked identical, a row of ugly tenements painted brown on the sides, a canvas for casual graffiti. No artist dared, save the odd pigeon.

He closed in, anticipating the quick grab.

Bob fished out the keys from the bottom of his sport coat pocket. A long dinner stretched only so far. He fumbled the three metal chits dangling from a ring, trying the first and sighing when the back and forth rattle didn’t unlock the finicky deadbolt.

He cursed Charlotte, his wife, for finding consolation in the arms of a delivery man abducting reducing him to a seedy apartment in Queens, the back end of nowhere. She kept their Midtown rent controlled flat. For now, he vowed, and shook the keys in an angry jangle.

The briefcase he wedged between his leg and the door, fussing as he finally selected the right key on the ring.

Excitement in another man might cause him to rush in, but Orel ignored the urge. Haste generated mistakes. The slap of a shoe on the pavement could turn even an empty-handed, sleepy mark’s head in the right direction.

Sloped brick ornamentation atop the building fully concealed the flypaper rooftop, giving an ideal landing place.

Orel timed closing with the businessman tugging on the door, breezing past the unlatched gate. He made a show of stumbling into the tiny forecourt, reaching out to break his fall. His hands seized the man’s slick coat, closing into fists that unbalanced them.

“Hey!” Bob struggled to stay on his feet, pulled back until he crumpled. “What do you think you’re doing?”

Orel feigned going down to one knee, dragging the mark to the ground. Vulnerable on his backside, not likely to rise quickly given his weight and age.

The briefcase slid across the rough concrete within easy arm’s reach. Groaning, the Russian clutched his midsection and crawled a short distance. He rolled, keeping his face hidden from the mark at all times. The cap helped with that.

The businessman swore, trying to sit up. “Damn drunks. Get out of here!”

Orel ducked to snatch the vinyl wrapped handle. Ugly tactic, if effective. Lazar hadn’t insisted on total discretion. He seized the case and bolted, his boots rasping a slurred tempo.

Cutting between the apartments brought him to another road, and comparative freedom. Just another commuter on his way, he hardly drew attention from the residents prone to minding their own business.

Evgeniy crouched on the rooftop, lip curled in disapproval. Hasty. Cheap ploy. We’re going to have a talk.

Picking himself up, the bewildered man cursed his luck. He sought the safety of the inner apartment. Complicating the take, if he got far. He might call the police. His employer. Worse.

The Russian ran for the edge of the building and leapt down the side opposite where Orel fled. His flat boots caught the painted brick, the free run slowing his descent. He leapt to the other building, stitching his way across and jumping back. When he hit the ground, Bob had scarcely entered the foyer on a string of muttered curses.

Evgeniy gave no opportunity for him to turn back, dampening his footfalls and stalking forward. A needle buried in the inner cuff of his coat, pulled free.

He slid his arm around the businessman’s neck, arresting an escape, and waited until Bob turned his head in a spluttering rage.

The needle slid home through the ear canal, driven past the eardrum. Evgeniy rhythmically jammed it in three times, timed in a double tap, followed by the last for good measure.

Pain sent a spasm through the man’s heavy body. He held on, flexing his arms to match the weight. Evgeniy slid around the door, using it to cover any kicks or jerks in death that might betray them. Easing the man to the floor would be appropriate after he collapsed, the pierced brain no longer firing out.

Every second counted. So the dark, taciturn soldier waited and maneuvered carefully, avoiding any telltale slam of the wall or scratches on the floor that might draw out other residents of the upper units.

It took Bob Macintosh, treasury clerk and courier for the CIA, close to two minutes to finally expire on his last breath. Evgeniy laid him out in a slumped heap against the wall, arranging the limbs with care. He tugged slightly on the shirt and slid the fouled needle into a reversed glove taken from his coat.

To all the world, the businessman looked the victim of an aneurysm or a bad heart. Not the best way to go, alone on a cold floor. His grieving widow unfortunately would inherit the house, their divorce proceedings terminally stalled. She might have a hope of remarrying her fling, and the matter of the apartment wrapped up nicer than she expected.

Evgeniy left the door barely ajar and exited via a back door leading to the alley, past a string of empty trash cans and the remnants of a frost-killed Boston fern. He planned to make a broad circuit around the subway station and check for anyone tailing him before proceeding to the rendezvous point. Efforts made useless when his likeness stood in the middle of the road.

It wasn’t worth trying to trace him from the masses or among the buildings. Even here with the sodium glow a brimstone beam soaking into his black jacket and trousers, Evgeniy wouldn’t have spotted the man unless Lazar wanted him to.

He waited, still. No point in pushing Lazar to speak until he was good and ready, either.

The detente stretched out a few seconds, and then split when Lazar curtly turned and walked down the center of the street. Evgeniy followed at his heels.

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