The receptionist at the Pirita hotel greeted me with a large smile and something in Estonian. I smiled back and said, in Russian, I needed a room.
“How many?” she said. I thought I better not correct her Russian — she might ‘discover’ there are no rooms in Pirita — and said I’m planning to stay for two or three nights.
“You pay for two and ask me more, okay?”
“Okay,” I said. I liked how we said ‘okay’ to each other, so un-Soviet.
After I paid, she gave me the keys and said, “Gulf of Finland view, okay?”
“Thank you,” I said.
I changed after a quick shower and went back to the reception again to ask if any bars were still open anywhere close to the hotel. The ‘okay’ lady pointed her finger, decked with a crimson, polished nail to the entrance door and said, “Taxi. Go to Noku Klubi.”
“What’s Noku Klubi?” I said. It didn’t sound right.
“It’s a bar,” she said. She tore a page out of a small notebook, wrote an address on it and gave it to me. “You like it,” she said.
I headed to the door and went to Pirita Road, hailed a cab and showed the driver the piece of paper with Noku Klubi address on it. He didn’t say anything, smiled and drove me to the old part of Tallinn.
I got out in front of an ancient wooden door painted in bright blue and red with a digit 5 made from copper nailed to it. The place looked nothing like a bar. I tried the door but it was locked. Is this a joke? I looked around, unsure where to go to from here. I knew I’d find a place to have a drink somewhere, just need to walk around. I had been staring at the door, wondering if I should go up or down the street when it opened in front of my face. A tall guy with blonde, coiled hair and granny-style glasses stepped out and asked me something in Estonian.
“I don’t speak Estonian,” I said.
“Oh,” he said. “What are you doing here?”
He was cordial, no sound of grudge in his voice. “Anna said I should drop in,” I said and gave him the piece of notebook page with the Noku Klubi address as proof of Anna’s blessing for me to come here. I didn’t know any Annas in Tallinn but the dude in John Lennon’s glasses did because there are a lot of Annas in Estonia. He looked at the address, opened the door and pointed inside with his head. “Come in,” he said and shut the door behind me after I walked in. I heard the snapping of a door lock — what is this, a Tallinn’s version of Hotel California? You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave?
I climbed a flight of stairs in near darkness to the second floor and entered what looked like a large apartment with a bar. It was a hodgepodge of club chairs, couches and tables scattered around the blear room in random fashion. Most patrons sat in groups of three or four at a half dozen tables and on the couches with a couple of loners in the corners. Some tables were free but I thought a barstool, with only a single guy perched on one of them with his back facing me, will work better.
I mounted a stool and turned toward my neighbor two spots away for a head nod exchange. The moment our eyes met, I knew I’d seen him before. I stalled for a second and thought of getting up and going to a table, but then noticed he was beaming at me too. Running away would be rude. I liked this place already and wanted to enjoy an hour or two here.
I ordered the lethal Hammer & Sickle cocktail — the famous Old Tallinn liqueur mixed with Crimean rosé champagne. From my last visit to Tallinn, I knew two of these in succession will numb my legs cold and fasten me to the stool like someone nailed my pants to it. And then, if I’m in a right mood, I might ask the guy where I’d seen him.
“I think I know you,” the familiar-looking guy said in Russian and got up. “Can I?” he pointed to a barstool next to me. He didn’t give me time to answer, hopped onto a barstool and said, “I’m Arvi. You don’t remember me?” If they held Russian language championships in Estonia, Arvi would be one of the favorites — he spoke the best Russian I’d heard in Estonia.
My cocktail arrived, I made a large sip and had a second look at the guy. Bingo! The mixture of Old Tallinn spices and Crimean grapes boomed inside my head and produced a memory: three years ago, my last season with Piotr Trumheller, a stage race in Sochi. I loved that race. Ran in the first week of November when everyone in the country had already stopped riding and went on an off-season break, teams from southern Russia would come to this race to stretch the season longer, gain racing miles and enjoy warm weather on the Black Sea coast. The race started with an 11 kilometer time trial to the top of Ahun Mountain and followed a similar route of the elite stage race held in April to sort out Peace Race candidates. Estonian was one of two or three teams from out of the region who used to come and add some ‘international’ flavor to the peloton. That year, we stayed in the Primorskaya with the Estonians, the only two teams in the hotel. We kept the bikes in the basement — not allowed into the rooms of this luxurious, pompous hotel built during Stalin’s reign. On the morning of the first road stage when I came to the basement to get my bike, I heard the Estonians arguing among themselves, throwing hands around like they were out of control windmills. I noticed the hairy eyeball looks fired in my and my team-mates’ direction.
“A problem?” I asked a guy who was the most bummed out among them.
“Yes,” he said. “Two bikes are missing skewers. Campagnolo skewers. Someone stole them.”
I shrugged and said, “That’s too bad. Use the Soviet-made ones, they work too.”
“We only have one extra pair,” he said.
I grabbed my bike and headed outside — not my problem. “Hey,” I heard from behind my back. “Do you have spare skewers?” I learned from Trumheller to carry at least one spare rear skewer everywhere with me because they had a habit of snapping in half when you’re in a rush to align a rear wheel on a start line. The stink eye look on the guy’s face was gone. I saw a desperate fellow rider, wrecked by the prospect of missing out on the best stage race of his life.
“I do. I’ve got a pair, front and rear.”
I was now looking at the guy I lent my spare skewers to three years ago. “You never gave me my skewers back,” I said with a smile.
“I know. I forgot, I’m sorry. The drinks are on me tonight,” he added.
We drank Hammer & Sickle for the next two hours, tried other savage-looking concoctions and talked like we’d broke up a vow of silence last night. He told me he quit cycling a year ago and was now studying medicine. His Russian was getting slower the more he drank. He’d take his time to find the right word or compose a sentence and I’d sometimes lose track of what he was talking about. Then, without a warning, he mumbled, “You know, I’m going to Norway.” He stared at me for two seconds and added, “After I finish my degree.”
I looked around to see if anybody was listening — no one paid any attention. “Norway? Why Norway?” I said. He told me his grandfather lived in Norway. Before the war, his grandmother, pregnant with his mother, left her husband and went to live in Tallinn. Then the Red Army arrived and Estonia was forced to join the USSR. “I’ll finish the university, buy a tour to Norway and, puff, I’m gone,” he ended the story.
“Does the KGB know you have a relative in Norway? They won’t let you out if you have a relative in Norway, you know that, don’t you?” I said.
“I doubt it. My mother was born here. My grandma married an Estonian, she has an Estonian surname. I doubt they know anything. Outside of our family, no one knows anything about it.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I said.
“Because I’m drunk,” he said. “And because you gave me the skewers. You know what it meant to me?” he added.
“No, I don’t,” I said. I waited for an explanation but Arvi never gave it to me. Instead, I told him my own story, how I decided to stay in France, how I peed my pants at the last moment, about Bogdan, about Coors Classic and how I had to find now a KGB crook willing to get me a new passport. I saw he’d been listening, brows drawn together, thinking and sipping some green liquid with a straw from a highball glass.
“I know someone who can help you,” he said after I finished. He looked at the bottom of his now empty glass, churned the ice cubes with the straw and said, “My cousin’s wife works for the KGB. His second wife that is. He got divorced four years ago and married this young Russian woman he met in Leningrad. She was still a student back then, but now works for the KGB here in Tallinn. No one in our family talks to him, except me. I don’t care if he married a Russian. I don’t even care if she works for the KGB. I like him, he’s cool. He got me into cycling, he used to race.”
I considered for a second if this was a set up, and brushed it off. I’m too small of a fish for someone to orchestrate such an intricate trap. And I’m too drunk.
“You think she can organize a passport for me?” I said.
“Don’t know,” he said. “She loves money though — I know that much.”
We agreed to knock off the evening and Arvi said he’d visit his cousin tomorrow and try to probe Olga, the cousin’s wife, if she’d want to make a buck.
“How much can you pay?” he said after we got up, toddled outside and headed toward the House of the Brotherhood of Blackheads on Pikk street.
“Offer her two grand, but I can pay three or more if I have to.”
“No, no, no,” he raised his hands. “I won’t get involved in this. I only asked to see what kind of money we’re talking about.”
“I’m talking American dollars, you understand that, right?”
“Dollars?” We stopped and looked at each other. “That’s a lot of money,” he said.
“I’m running out of oxygen, Arvi. You gotta help me to get out of here.”
“I will,” he said. “Wait for me at the Pirita hotel. Don’t go anywhere, okay? It might take a day or two. Can you wait?”
“Of course,” I said.
We passed the Brotherhood’s house and reached a narrow street on our left. “This is Vaimu street,” Arvi said. “Unless you want to see Tallinn’s KGB headquarters on Pikk, we should turn left here.”
“You call this a street? It looks like a crack in a wall with a few cobbles on the ground to make it look like a street. Let’s go say hello to Bogdan’s friends.”
“No,” he said. “Let’s not be stupid. I want to sleep in my own bed tonight, not theirs.”
Arvi didn’t turn up the next day or day after. I paid for another two nights at the hotel and decided I’d leave if he doesn’t show up. I was paranoid I’d miss him — I had no number to call, no address to go to — and stayed in my room all day reading Raymond Chandler I found in a secondhand book shop on the morning I didn’t expect to see Arvi. One hour before the checkout time, the phone in my room rang. It was Arvi. He didn’t explain why he disappeared for so long and said Olga will meet me tonight at Vana Toomas café in the old town. “Don’t go in,” he said. “Just hang around Raekoja square near the entrance to Vana Toomas.”
I took a cab from Pirita and 15 minutes later was standing next to Vana Toomas’ doors, trying too hard to look casual, scanning Raekoja square for a sign of what I’d imagined Olga might look like: in a grey two-piece business suit, black high heels, and Makarov pistol in her black purse.
Olga came from Mündi street behind me on my left. “Nikolai?” I heard a pleasant, honeyed female voice. I turned around and saw a tall, slim brunette in jeans and alpine sweater with a denim backpack on her right shoulder. “I’m Olga,” she said. “I heard you want a tour of the old Tallinn.” I nodded, mumbled a ‘yes’ and started walking next to her.
We crossed Raekoja square in silence, turned into Kinga street and headed south. “Tell me your story,” Olga said. “Everything.” Just like that, tell you, a KGB officer, how I’d been planning to run from the USSR since I was a teenager? What other options do I have though? I’m here to find out if she can get me a new passport or not. What is she here for — to arrest a traitor? Should I play dumb and pretend there was a misunderstanding or trust Arvi’s ‘she loves money’ judgment of Olga’s character? I glanced at her again out of the corner of my eye: Levi’s jeans, imported shoes and sweater, a hip backpack. Three thousand dollars is about five years’ worth of her salary or 60 pairs of Levi’s jeans. I think I might have a shot here.
I skipped where I got the idea of running to the West from and started with France, the championship, the ride to the police station in Caen and the rest of the score that followed. We reached the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral after walking on the medieval streets of Tallinn for an hour, most of it spent answering Olga’s questions about my car trip with Bogdan. She wanted to know every minute detail of my conversation with him, what he knew and what I managed to hide from him.
“I can’t believe you’re still walking free, Nikolai,” she said when we stopped near the cathedral. “People with less information about suspected treason are now shoveling snow in Siberia. You’re a lucky man.”
“Maybe I am. I know some people think that. I’ll count myself lucky when I’m on a plane outside of Soviet Union’s aerospace.” I stopped myself short of asking her if she came here to get a confession out of me or find out how much I can pay for an off the books passport. I tried to catch her eyes to figure out what she was thinking but she’d been staring past my shoulder at the cathedral behind me since we stopped walking. She had her own doubts, I was sure of it. For all she knew, this could have been set up by the KGB to test how vulnerable she is. She was a young, attractive Russian woman living in Estonia, probably with no friends and the husband’s family’s refusal to accept her because of her ethnicity and the job she did.
“I can get you another passport,” she said still looking away. “Not right now. It might take two or three weeks, maybe longer. We don’t print them. And even if we did, every one of them should be accounted for. But it can be done.”
She pulled out a piece of ripped paper out of her pocket and said, “This is my friend’s phone number in Kiev. Call her to set up a meeting and bring one thousand dollars with you. I won’t move a finger until I hear from her. When you get your passport, you’ll pay another two grand. I’ll let you know when and how.”
She knew how much money I had and went for a full clean up.
“This is not Indians and Cowboys we’re playing here. You open your mouth, like you did with Arvi, and you can count yourself out. Do you understand?”
“I understand,” I said.
“I hate to repeat this, but you better hear this twice to remember it — for your own good, keep your mouth shut,” she said. “For now, it’s only between you and me. Keep it that way and you’ll be out of here by the end of the year. You don’t talk — you understand that? Not now, not ever. Ciao.”
She turned around, crossed Toompea street to its other side and faded into shadows after a few steps.