“The Second Phial” is a complete short story set in the Moscow of 1993. It is probably a horror story.
In the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia experienced chaotic change. For many Russians, the transition from communism to capitalism meant hardship and uncertainty. For a few, it brought untold riches.
Everyone had to adapt to changed circumstances and work out new uses for old skills.
Like all my stories, The Second Phial is a work of fiction which springs entirely from my imagination.
You can listen to a podcast of The Second Phial here, on Spotify, or wherever you usually listen to podcasts.
A doorway in Moscow, 2005. Photo: Leigh Turner
The Second Phial: Moscow 1993
Friday and Saturday nights she always went out, my beautiful Lyuba, trip-trapping down the evil-smelling stairs to the bright lights of Moscow City. Sometimes, in the heaving crush of the new hard-currency clubs, she fell in love with American or British boys. She never knew why it happened so fast.
Lyuba never knew either why I always stayed up until she came home. She never could know why I loved to sit, dressing gown clasped round my knobbly knees, to see her lips grow bright as she told me how she had fallen in love again.
What she did know was that, once she slept with them, they never came back. Sometimes this made Lyuba melancholy and she sat out in the yard, tears frosting her cheeks as she wept for her lost lovers. She never knew the difference between the first phial and the second.
But she kept right on falling in love, right up to the end. So did the boys.
It all began one evening two weeks ago, a night like any other. I was sitting with Lyuba in our apartment off Leningradski Prospekt. The little two-room place seems pathetic now, with its rain-stained windows that won’t close and walls so thin you can hear the neighbours putting salt on their breakfast kasha. But when the Moscow apartment was first allocated to me with my new job at the Institute in 1972, my friends and neighbours back in Tomsk thought I’d made it big. They were right. I was someone, then.
The Institute is gone now, of course, like Svetlana – Lyuba’s “mother” – and everything else worth having. But they let me keep the apartment. The new people in charge, the reformers, even told me the place belonged to me now, it was privatised, whatever that meant. Not much, obviously: I simply went on living here with Lyuba. The cockroaches still wandered in and out, and the hot water went off in the summer like it always did.
We were sitting side by side on the plastic-covered couch in the front room, in the glow of the 40-watt bulb which still said “Made in the USSR” on its perlescent surface. The first phial sat on the floor at my feet.
I held the syringe up to the light and gently squeezed the plunger. The fluid fountained up out of the old-fashioned steel needle. Everyone’s afraid of AIDS these days, it’s all disposables down at the polyclinic, like we always had at the Institute. But only Lyuba uses this needle, so a bit of boiling does the trick. She pressed down on her forearm with her thumb so that the vein rose up, blue and bold, the injections leave no mark. I’ve always told her she’s a diabetic. As I slid the needle home, she sighed.
‘You’re good to me, Vadim Ivanovich,’ she said. Behind the waxy mask of imported make-up, her eyes shone with the energy of the young. ‘I hope you have a nice night out.’
‘I might visit Galia,’ I lied. Galia was the widow of a colleague from the Institute; Lyuba was hoping to pair us off. ‘Her son in law has sent her a bottle of German whisky and some sausage from Denmark.’
When I pulled the needle out, a spot of blood welled up on Lyuba’s pale skin.
She held a grey square of toilet paper against her forearm to soak up the blood and rolled down her black Lycra sleeve to hold it in place. We’d run out of sticking plasters long ago. That was the new Russia of 1993: slick on top, ersatz underneath. Her girlish breasts were rising and falling underneath the thin material, anyone could see she was excited, anyone could see everything, if they looked.
Not quite everything.
Next door I heard the neighbours switch on their television and the theme tune starting for one of the new shows from Brazil or California. Santa Barbara it was called, or The Rich also Cry, I don’t know. Lyuba stood up.
‘I should be at the Bunker,’ she said, ‘I’m meeting Steve at ten.’ She pronounced it Stiv in the Russian way, she never was much good at English, or anything else she learned at school. Not even science, however much Svetlana coached her. But Lyuba can communicate in other ways. She shook out her hair and rolled it into a bun to fit under her white fox shapka, before rummaging in the clutter by the front door for her boots. The two hundred US dollars’ worth of suede and Finnish waterproofing technology clung to her long legs like old moss over the jeans I had bought in the new Levis shop in Dimitrovski. Who could resist my Lyuba in her jeans and boots and Lycra top and lovely smile? Not Stiv. I kissed her goodnight – it was still safe – and she was gone.
I put the first phial back in the little padlocked Zil refrigerator I had rescued from the lab, next to its twin. Then I sat alone awhile, listening to the TV through the wall, waiting to make sure Lyuba was not coming back for something. At last I pulled on my Russian army officer’s coat – they had issued it to me when I joined the Institute – and set out for a walk. Perhaps I’d look at some street kiosks. It was a cold night, twenty-five degrees of frost, and I’d seen the kiosks a hundred times before. But the apartment seemed lifeless and grey without Lyuba. I needed some bright lights.
You must understand that I’m not opposed ideologically to foreigners or imported goods. I admire the principles of Adam Smith and the German engineers who gave the world Mercedes cars. I read articles by Western bacteriologists and toxicologists in the scientific press with the same attention as those by our own experts. I even smoke Camel cigarettes when I can get them.
But whose heart does not weep when he sees the beggar state our proud motherland has become? Who does not dream of fighting back against the tide of do-good, meddlesome foreigners which has engulfed us all since the traitor Gorbachev sold our entire country to the mafia? Stalin was a wily old rogue, I should know, he sent my father to the Gulag. But at least you woke up in the morning knowing the price of a loaf of bread. Now there’s no order: a Metro token has gone up from five kopeks to a thousand roubles. Before the Institute closed, none of the scientists had been paid for five months. Most of my colleagues have gone to work for labs in the USA or wound up flogging Snickers Bars on the street corner like the match-sellers in those old documentaries about life in the West.
Not me. I have Lyuba.
I can fight back.
I walked the streets for hours that night: up and down Leningradski, chatting to the vendors in the all-night kiosks behind their windows bright with advertising for Pepsi-Cola and Smirnoff, their hatches barred against the cold and the gangs. The reket they call it now, they’ve had to invent a Russian word.
They say the kiosks have to pay three times: the authorities for a licence; the police for protection; and the gangs, to stay alive.
How could they let this happen to our country?
I never can sleep when Lyuba is out on the town with a shot from the first phial. I have to wait until she comes home and tells me what happened, who she met, what he did. Never too much, the first evening. It was cold, that night: the broken ice on the pavements was piled up like old tombstones, smooth blocks lying in heaps where the city council could no longer bother to clear them away. On the Prospekt the cars screamed by, mostly Volgas and Zhigulis but here and there, like a miracle, new local-registered BMWs and Volvos, driven by my fellow-citizens who somehow had discovered the new alchemy of Russia: how to make money out of roubles. On my pension, I couldn’t even afford a taxi ride.
I knew something was wrong when I came back to the apartment at 5 a.m. and Lyuba was not there. There is something heart-breaking about unlocking your front door and knowing before it is open more than a crack that you are on your own. Lyuba never disobeys her father, she knows she can’t sleep with a new boy-friend until I have told her she is ready. But she was usually home by four, longing to tell me her latest adventure. I sat down on the couch in front of the TV and switched on one of the new all-night channels: an American was telling me to touch the screen and I’d be healed.
Some ailments you can cure with placebos. With others, death is certain.
I watched, and waited for Lyuba.
She came in around six. It was dark outside, and quiet: the dawn chorus of drivers trying to start their cars after a night of frost had not yet begun. Lyuba moved with the languid grace she had when she was exhausted from dancing and drinking, living on her nerves.
Trying to handle the admirers the first phial always brought her.
The make-up had softened and mixed with sweat, as if her face had become blurred. As she stretched up to hang her fur coat in the hall, a pale white moon of skin showed between her Lycra top and her jeans. She came in to greet me as she always did.
‘I’m sorry I’m late, Vadim Ivanovich,’ she said, coming close and throwing her arms around my shoulders, kissing my cheek and neck. ‘I must talk to you.’
‘Tell me all about it,’ I said, as if everything was normal. But I was prepared for the worst. That I must talk to you was the news I had known must come one day.
She told me right out. ‘Stiv wants to take me with him to the USA,’ she said. ‘He wants to marry me. I love him. His father has a big house in Chicago.’
‘You want to go away,’ I said.
‘Vadim Ivanovich, he is crazy about me. We are crazy about each other. He has already bought me a ticket, and his daddy has written promising me a job. That means I can get a visa no problem, I am going to the American Embassy on Thursday. I will fly via Helsinki in two weeks.’
It was hardly surprising that Stiv worshipped the ground she walked on, with first phial massaging his nerve-ends. Once the active ingredients kicked in, no man alive could have got close to Lyuba without wanting to make love to her on the spot.
I am being polite when I say this.
‘He promised to take you to America,’ I said. ‘And why do you think he should want to do that?’
Lyuba looked at me. Her beautiful eyes looked huge in the melted mask of her face. ‘Because he loves me,’ she said. ‘And he is prepared to show it.’ From her pocket she pulled a ticket, Finnair, blue and white, the real thing.
She must have seen my face folding. I heard her breathe in, hyperventilating like a boxer preparing for a fight.
‘Daddy, I know how this must feel after you lost mummy. But…’ in a curious adult motion I had never seen before, she shrugged and turned her palms towards the grey walls of the flat. ‘Just look at this place. Can you call this living?’ She crouched down next to the couch where I was sitting. ‘I can send you money from Chicago. Lots of money.’
Mummy. I remembered Svetlana with me, looking down for the first time at the baby in the orphanage with the wristband saying simply ‘Lyuba’. Our eyes had met and Svetlana had wept, her brave, barren body sagging in my arms, right there in front of the children’s nurse.
Now Svetlana was gone, and Lyuba was defending her motherland. I tried to hold her arm, but my old fingers could not find a grip on the smooth black material.
‘It is not money I want. It is you.’ Who was this old man, bleating? ‘You cannot leave me.’ I bit my lip. ‘I forbid it.’
Lyuba pulled away. ‘Hey, stop. Papa. Vadim Ivanovich. I feel sorry about Svetlana Konstantinovna. I really do. I’ll always remember her as my mum. The way the radiation in the lab started with her ovaries and ate its way out was horrible: the price she paid for helping make us a superpower back then, even if it was a waste of time. But we have to move on.’
A waste of time?
She shrugged again and looked away from me, her attention caught by an advertisement on the television. She spoke without looking at me. ‘Just because some Soviet committee decides their two prize scientists should get first refusal on the next cute orphan doesn’t make me your real daughter, any more than it makes you my real father.’
Lyuba had never said that before, even if it had always been true. We brought up the little girl they gave us like our own. When Svetlana was gone, I did my best. I tied up Lyuba’s little Pioneer neck-tie with all the pride of a real Dad. I did everything I could to make sure she was worthy of our great country.
Until the capitalists took over. Within five years, the traitor Gorbachev had turned the most powerful nation on earth into a cess-pool, penetrated and permeated with every filth and depravity. I, a Hero of the Soviet Union, was made redundant from a job secure for life, reduced to the status of a man without work. A category which did not even exist in the Soviet Union.
I fought back the only way I could. Through Lyuba. No-one is surprised when a foreign student or tourist falls ill and dies in Moscow. Autopsies do not include a toxicological analysis. Why should they? Tour operators hush it up in case their customers get scared. All Lyuba knew was that her boy-friends only ever wanted one-night stands.
Like most men.
Chicago. We would see about that, I thought. We could deal with Stiv.
I nodded to Lyuba. ‘OK,’ I said, ‘you can have him. Tomorrow night.’
It was wonderful to see her smile. I relaxed. Then she spoke.
‘I told you he was different from the others. Stiv has already gone back to the United States. I will fly there and join him. In Chicago.’
Chicago. She kept repeating it like a mantra. I groaned out loud. The other side of the world.
My weapons had been made for Chicago – and New York, and Philadelphia, and all the other teeming cities of the enemy. My engineered biotoxins would have been delivered by our glorious air force, or strategic rocket forces. They were designed not only to kill, but to terrify and demoralise the enemy. To make them fear their loved ones; to sunder them from pleasure.
The weapon I had designed, once delivered, would have killed not only men – never women – but whole societies.
But I no longer had access to bombers, or rockets. My only delivery system was ultra short-range. Lyuba. In Chicago, she would be nothing. The first-phial hyper-pheromones I equipped her with before she went out as bait lasted only a few hours. By the time the aircraft landed at O’Hare, Stiv would see her as she was: an ordinary Russian girl.
Or would he? Stiv had somehow flown back to the United States without waiting to make love to Lyuba – something my chemical cocktail would have made any ordinary man desperate to do. Could it be that he had seen beyond the chemicals? That he really loved my girl?
I played my last ace. ‘Darling, I am confused. You know you will make an old man sad if you leave him all alone.’ I turned towards the grey dawn of the window. It was worse. Without her, my life had no purpose. The struggle was over.
Lyuba shook her head. ‘Please, Daddy. Do it for your little girl.’ She turned towards me and embraced me as she had not done for years. I tensed – the pheromones – but it was way past their bed-time, a long night of heat and sweat had seen to that.
I realised I was beaten. I had only one way forward.
‘Ladno,’ I said, ‘OK. You can have your Stiv. Just be nice to me for two weeks and you can go to him.’
Lyuba held her head back, arms still locked around my neck. ‘Promise?’
I did not need two weeks. I had everything I needed in the little padlocked Zil refrigerator. But bureaucracy works slowly in the West too. While we waited for her visa, it gave me a melancholy pleasure to see her so happy, knowing she would soon be with her Stiv. He rang her nearly every day. I saw Lyuba run to the ‘phone and become another person, remote from me and Moscow, imagining herself in that big house in Chicago.
She told me he couldn’t wait to see her, but I knew that. He must surely be desperate.
Lyuba no longer went out to the clubs. I did not mind; I had no need to use her again. Not for that.
At the start of the second week I began to get ready. I took a bath every day, and washed my hair. I got out my best suit, the one I had bought in New York at an epidemiology conference in the ’60s. Lyuba laughed and said it made me look like a gangster. We went for a meal at one of the new western hotels – I did not need money any more – and drank a bottle of French wine while she told me again how much she loved Stiv. I told her I would miss her. Sometimes she hugged me in her arms before she went to bed.
Being close to me seemed to have become normal for her, in these last days. That was good.
The last night before she went away, we planned a special farewell. Lyuba took some of my last, precious dollars to the hard-currency supermarket and bought the ingredients for a fine Russian meal. Even smetana, the traditional sour cream which had vanished from normal shops.
Before we sat down to eat I said I had good news.
‘I have new lab results,’ I said. ‘Your blood-sugar levels have been falling faster than I dared to hope. No more diabetes. When you get to America, ask Stiv’s father to have a doctor check whether you need to go on with the insulin. This may be your last injection.’
The second phial looked identical to the first. She had never even known there was a difference. I slipped the needle into her arm, a last, liberating puncture. When it was done, she started spooning the smetana into her borsch.
I excused myself and picked up the phial. To reach the bathroom I had to pass the suitcases she had packed and repacked all fortnight. The Zil fridge was empty. I had no wish to cause excitement later. Even after all these years I still wanted to protect the secrecy of the Institute.
The ingredients would take about an hour to become active. I took my time to crush the second phial in a pestle and mortar; to open up the drain beneath the sink; and to wash the last traces of my life’s work into oblivion.
When Lyuba asked me through the door what I was doing, I told her to eat her soup.
Over dinner I didn’t have to say much. Lyuba chattered on, telling me about Chicago, what she would do when she got there, how she would call me every day. I smiled and prayed silently that Stiv would love her even without the pheromones. We chewed our way through the chicken in peanut sauce she was so proud of. A woman from Tatarstan had shown her the recipe years ago, it was her dish for special days. We drank cold vodka, imported from Sweden. When the hour was up, I gave her a final shot of vodka laced with enough flunitrazepam to make sure she would wake up in a confused, amnesiac state.
Then I waited another ten minutes. From the safety of my side of the table, I took one last look at my Lyuba as she was: a good Russian girl, trying to do her best, who had fallen in love with the wrong man.
I had always tried to do my best for her. Now I would do my best again.
I leaned across the table and pursed my lips.
‘Kiss me good-bye, Lyuba,’ I said.
She hesitated. ‘Vadim Ivanovich! So sentimental!’
‘Our last night.’
‘Of course.’ She stretched forward to kiss me on the cheek.
Nothing had prepared me for the shock. She felt it too, I saw her mouth scream open in a huge O before she grabbed my hair and pulled so hard the flimsy table folded up between us, we fell together on the floor. I was shouting too, breathless, sick with excitement, my tie too tight, my hands pulling at her clothes, my mouth trying to find hers. For a moment I felt her fingers pushing, sliding under the jacket of my New York suit. Then I was on the floor as she stood above me, pulling her black Lycra top up over her head.
In the morning I sat by Lyuba’s bed, waiting for her to wake, leafing through an old scientific journal. I could feel nothing yet, that would take another twenty-four hours. By then she would be in Chicago. She opened her eyes and saw me. And closed them, shaking her head from side to side.
‘Vadim Ivanovich, I feel shitty. Such a dream!’ She sat bolt upright and looked around the room. I had gathered up her clothes and thrown them loosely over her bed-side chair, the way she always did. The table was back where it belonged, behind the television. I had put away the dinner things, and done the washing-up. She shook her head again and reached her hand underneath the bedclothes, feeling herself. But I had thought of that and put her under the shower after she had passed out the night before. There was nothing to betray me but her memory.
‘Ready for the big day? Quite a bit of vodka you had.’ I rubbed my eyes. ‘You’ll be in Chicago tonight.’
Lyuba nodded, her forehead creased. She tugged at her night dress. ‘I don’t remember putting this on. Did you help me to bed last night?’
‘Have another drink,’ I said, and held up the empty vodka bottle. ‘Time you found yourself a husband, little Lyuba, you can’t hold your liquor any more.’
Lyuba ate no breakfast, even though I’d made her kasha with sugar, the way she used to like it. She sat staring out of the window at the bare trees, getting up twice to check her passport with its US visa and her Finnair tickets. At last it was time.
‘Vadim Ivanovich, I feel awful. This terrible dream.’ Lyuba was trembling. She looked frightened and sick.
‘Goodbye, my Lyuba,’ I felt the tears coming. ‘Say hello to Stiv for me. Enjoy Chicago.’
She looked up at me, almost furtively, and held out her hand. She did not want to kiss her Daddy goodbye. ‘I am sorry, Vadim Ivanovich. You are making it easy for me, I am feeling miserable. Thank you for everything. I will write.’
And with an awkward half-handshake, Lyuba was free.
I went back into the apartment and sat by the radiator. It was too hot – it always was – but I felt cold.
It couldn’t be the sickness. That would take effect without symptoms, after twenty-four hours, so gentle that even a fellow bacteriologist – should one happen to be observing my death – would not suspect a thing.
I had deliberately designed a two-stage process. Otherwise I might accidentally have unleashed Lyuba against a Russian boy. The modest dose of pheromones in the first phial was designed to facilitate the falling in love. To identify the target.
When the target was confirmed, I would give Lyuba permission to take the American, or British, or maybe even a French or Canadian boy back to his hotel or apartment and, once there, to kiss him. Before she left our apartment in Leningradski Prospekt I would inject her from the second phial. The hyper-pheromone worked on both parties. The biotoxin was harmless to women. Only through the sexual act could it be transmitted to men. Within 48 hours, death was certain.
The key was to ensure that the target was a legitimate one.
Maybe that was why I was cold. I knew, now, what it meant to be that target.
I waited for half an hour to make sure Lyuba was not coming back for something. Then I went out for a walk on Leningradski Prospekt to have a look at the kiosks.
* * *
I hope you enjoyed The Second Phial. If you did, you might possibly like to glance at my Hotel Stories. They are different in tone from The Second Phial – designed to be comic, although one reviewer described them as “wonderful, feminist and dark”. You can sample them at the link.
Another short story set in the chaotic Moscow of the early 1990s is “Pyongyang, ballistic missiles and Gorby“.
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