"And He, bearing His cross, went out to a place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha, Where they crucified Him and two others with Him, one on either side, And Jesus in the center. Now Pilate wrote a title and put it on the cross. And the writing was: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF JEWS John 19:17-19."
Ivan had just zipped his pants standing in front of the urinal, when he was suddenly attacked from behind and a strong hand inserted a dusty rag into his mouth. Then his gagged body, torn off the floor and wriggling furiously in the hard grip of two strangers, was quickly carried out of the comfort station and thrown into a Toyota minibus, where some other guy with a fast, sure movement sent Ivan into a deep chloroformed sleep. In a moment the car started with a jerk, left the spot and hurried off down the street.
On coming back to his senses, Ivan found himself lying on the floor of the auto, his hands bound tight on his back, his head aching terribly. He didn't know who were those three men, the driver and two guys on the seats near him, neither he knew where he was being driven to and why the hell he had been captured. But he knew for sure that he had missed his flight St Petersburg - Moscow, and that his wife, who was supposed to meet him at the airport, would be very alarmed at his not coming.
He managed to take a glimpse at the watch on the hand of one of his captors. It was about two hours since he had decided to visit that cursed bathroom. Maybe, if he had not had the need to go there, he would have been flying home now. "Damn it," he whispered and closed his eyes.
Before long he felt with all his body that the even highway had turned into a bumpy dirt road. After twenty min-utes of bouncing over pits and bumps, which gave Ivan none too pleasurable sensations, the auto stopped and the driver shut the engine off. "Here we are, buddy, get up," said one of the strangers, "I see you ain't sleeping any more. Come on, get up and out."
Ivan had nothing to do but submit and leave the car. A heady, resinous fragrance, mingled with a bracing odor of spraying water, burst through his nostrils and filled his chest replacing the stale air his lungs were full of after his unexpected ride. He looked around to see that he was standing on the dusty track lying between a spruce wood and a river, whose sparkling, frothing waters pushed their way with a buzzing hubbub through the rapids of smooth, gray boulders that stretched across the fifty-meter's width of the frisking stream up to the opposite bank fringed with slender fir-trees.
"No scare, you're safe here. Let's go to the house," the same voice interrupted his observation of the river and made him notice that he stood by the wooden fence that surrounded a small glade, from the far end of which there was seen a log cabin. A dozen goats peacefully strolled over the land whose soil had not yet forgotten the numbing coldness of snow and which April had not yet dyed smartly verdurous. A few noisy geese enjoyed the first hot sunbeams paddling in a dirty pool that obviously used to be a snow-drift not long ago.
After the creaking gate was open, the company crossed the fenced area and entered the cabin. Having passed through the low anterchamber, they came into the room faintly lit with sunrays penetrating Inside through the small square of the only window. At the long table set in the middle sat five more men. On seeing Ivan, the tallest and most handsome of them arose and with a benevolent smile on his face headed for the captive.
"Glad to see you, Ivan. Oh, you haven't yet untied his hands. Please do it immediately and then join us at the table," there was no trace of aggressiveness in his soft, suave voice.
"I have an apology to make for the way you've been brought here," said the man as he enclosed Ivan's hands, released from the rope. In his big, warm palms. "But there was no other way to convey you over here."
"Where am I?" were the first words that Ivan uttered.
The man lost his hold of Ivan's hands and took a step back. "We're at the woods of Novgorod region. The river you've seen is the Msta. Well, take any seat at the table you like."
Ivan cast a look at the table set with demijohns of homemade wine and crusty loaves of rye bread. "Thanks, but first of all I'd like to know who you are all and to what I owe my being here. How dare you hold me in this ramshacle hut now when my plane's landing in Moscow, and what the hell all this mean?"
"My dear friend, I do understand your resentment," replied the same man, whose behavior claimed him as the host, "and, of course, you're absolutely right, we must introduce ourselves to you. My name's Pontius Pilate."
"What? Pontius Pilate?"
"Yeah, and the people you see at the table are Peter the apostle, then Andrew, John, James. The guys that came with you are Phillip, Mathew and Thomas. The rest of the saint apostles are going to come over here tonight."
"Are you a kind of sect?"
Pontius Pilate filled a glass with wine and emptied it in a gulp. "It's not the best name for our company, but you may call it so, if you like."
"It's getting amusing, but I'd like to inform you that I've nothing to do with any sect." Ivan drew a chair off the table, sat down on it and crossed his legs. "So, you're the apostles," he said maliciously, "nice to meet you, saint martyrs. But I see there's one person missing. Where is your Good Shepherd?"
"You mean Jesus Christ?" Pilate put the empty glass on the table.
"Yeah, the King of the Hebrews. You see I happened to read a bit of the Gospels."
"There's no better thing in the world than reading the Bible," Pilate broke a piece of bread off a loaf and put it into his mouth. Having chewed and swallowed it, he went on, "Yes, Jesus Christ was missing for so long time, but now at last He's with us."
"Could you kindly introduce me to Him," asked Ivan, "'cause I've never seen the Savior standing by ay side."
"And you'll never see Him beside you," responded Pilate, "because our Jesus Christ is now sitting before me in a vulgar pose and speaking in a tone that doesn't befit His divine dignity."
"What?!" Ivan nearly tumbled off his seat. "You mean me? I'm Christ? Who could believe that? How utterly absurd!"
"You'd better try some of our wine to calm yourself down" Andrew the apostle joined in the conversation.
"Yes, my friend's right, you shouldn't refuse our frugal dinner." Pilate tasted some more bread. "Now, my dear friend, relax and attend to my words. We've been looking for you everywhere, and now , after so many years of search all over the world, we've got you here, and we at last can help you to fulfil your sacred mission."
"What the hell mission?"
"To save mankind through martyrdom and death."
"But I'm not gonna die at all," rebelled Ivan.
"Maybe you are not, but it's me who's called Pontius Pilate, and it's up to me to have you crucified."
"Nonsense," Ivan shook his head in confusion, "you must be kidding."
"It's no nonsense," replied Pilate, "it's inevitable reality."
"Then you're nothing but a mob of maniacs." Ivan got up and went on in a tremulous tone: "Who gave you the right to capture a man in broad daylight, carry him scores of kilometers away and after all that talk that rubbish of saving the whole world by means of the death of this absolutely innocent person. You'd better look at yourselves, at your mugs of thorough boozers."
"You're getting abusive, Ivan," the sweetness of Pilate's voice got replaced by evident irritation.
"Abusive? You ought to be not only abused, but accused of an attempt to murder me in a sadistic way."
"Do stop blaspheming for Heaven's sake," yelled Peter and hurled an empty glass at the ribald. Ivan dodged and made a dash toward the door, but Pilate's hefty grasp overtook him by the collar and flung him on to the floor.
"I tell you once again," Pilate roared over the pros-trated figure, "I'm Pontius Pilate and you're Jesus Christ. Your sacred predestination is to be crucified by me in order to save all the people of the earth and deliver them from their sufferings. And in case you don't wish to do that, I'm not going to be very kind to you at all."
"Yeah, buddy, Pontius says the truth," said Phillip the apostle. "He's a nice fellow, but it's his ungrateful fate to kill you."
Ivan shook the dust off his clothes and reoccupied his seat.
"Well, Ivan, please don't try driving me crazy any more," Pilate had obviously regained his temper. "I understand very well that this kind of situation is pretty peculiar to you, but no need to get so afraid. It's not going to be that dreadful as you might first imagine. Everything will be made according the letter of the Hole Scripture. Today's Thursday. Tomorrow's going to be Good Friday. In the morning we'll take you to the hill we call Golgotha, it's not far from here. Over there we'll nail you to a wooden cross and when you're dead, we'll put your body in a tomb at the foot of Golgotha. And then, on Sunday, when everybody celebrates Easter, you'll resurrect successfully and it'll to be the beginning of the new era, putting an end to Man's previous sinful way of life. You see there's nothing so fearful about all that."
"Okay," Ivan sighed deeply, "maybe all you talk is true, but please explain why you've chosen me to be Christ. I've never seen anyone of you before, I know none of you all."
"But we know you very well," pronounced Pilate, "The first reason is that you're thirty-three years old - the age of Christ."
"Oh, millions of men are thirty-three."
"But you're most sinless of them all."
"Me?" Ivan cast a look of distrust at Pilate.
"Yes, you've happened to make the least number of infringements of the Ten Commandments."
"Incredible! I wasn't aware of that until now. In that case I've got to be in Paradise, not here."
"No doubt you'll be there, but your way to Paradise lies through the act of crucifixion."
"Well," Ivan stretched his hands out, "do you mind proving my crystal-clear sinlessness?''
"You haven't murdered anybody."
"Most of people have never committed that kind of crime."
"You've stolen nothing."
"Not only me have been properly brought up by parents."
"You've never borne false witness against your neighbor."
"I've just never been called to witness in the court. If I had, nobody knows what I'd have said then."
"But the fact is fact, and what's more you've never coveted your neighbor's property."
"Stop, stop, stop, please. Maybe the statement about the property is correct, but I remember now. I stole once."
"What did you steal?" enquired astonished Pilate.
"When I was eight I swiped a handful of candies in the supermarket."
"Ivan, don't be so droll. It was just a child's prank, not a crime. And the last thing - you've never committed adultery."
"Well, d'you wanna know why I haven't? Because I'm very bashful. I would have been unfaithful to my wife, millions of times I wanted to do it, but it's all my natural shyness and timidity toward the opposite sex that prevented me from doing it. It wasn't easy for me even to kiss my future wife for the first time. You see I'm not a sinless person at all," Ivan's voice grew more and more trembling. "If I've got no serious sins, it's only because of the dull way of life I'm leading, the way that's never given me a chance to enjoy life through numerous sorts of sin as most people of the world do. You must realize I'm just a poor kind of creature, nonentity, not God's son at all. A mere accountant can't be Jesus Christ."
"Don't get so agitated, my dear pal. Now we can only see your being rather selfcritical. It's not a bad quality at all, I say. Of course, you've got some minor sins, but they can't be compared to those a common man commits during his life, so your case's a very rare one." Pilate splashed some wine into a big beaker and brought the vessel up to Ivan's lips. "I guess it's the very right thing for you at the moment."
"Hope it ain't poisoned," said Ivan.
Pilate grinned. "Nope, the one doomed to crucifixion can't be poisoned."
Ivan took the beaker and with a few thirsty gulps emptied it.
"Great, Ivan. Take some more. Help yourself to bread!" the apostles got animated and boisterous.
"Thanks," Ivan took breath and put the vessel down on the table. "Okay, let's suppose you've convinced me that I'm perfectly suited for the role of Jesus. But the thing you'll never be able to persuade me of is that I can resurrect in three days after crucifixion."
"Nobody's going to persuade you of anything, dunce," Pilate flared up. "Don't you believe me yet?"
"Or don't you trust the Holy Writ?" echoed Peter.
"Yes, Ivan, look here," Pilate came up to the corner, took a well-thumbed bible from the small shelf hanging under an icon, leafed through the book for a while and started citing: "For He will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and insulted and spit upon. They will scourge and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again. Well, Ivan, do you have any objection to that?"
"Anyway you can't make me believe that my death is able to change anyone's life for better. It's just gonna be an absolutely useless thing."
"Okay, Ivan, Jesus Christ, as well as you, doubted the necessity of His execution. Listen, please," Pilate turned over a few pages and quoted another piece of the writing: "He went a little farther, and fell on the ground, and prayed that if it possible, the hour might pass from Him. And He said, "Abba, Father, all "things are possible for You. Take this cup away from Me; nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will.""
"That's the limit!" cried out Ivan. "You may talk anything you like of Jesus Christ, but I don't have the least wish to save mankind in the way you've been offering."
"Why?" Pilate put the book aside. "Now when mankind's been wallowing in dirty sins, endless wars, bloody terrorism and daily increasing crime; now when the world is overfilled with envy, deception and spite, when millions are suffering from underfeeding, uncurable deseases and every possible sort of natural calamities, at this very moment you're the only remedy for all the people who long to get rid of all those imprecations that's been tirelessly swooping upon our planet. Two thousand years ago God gave His Son not to let anyone perish, and now He's Just waiting for people to give one of their sons. Only after the hero's sacrificed, the Lord can grant everybody everlasting life. I wonder why Man is always so willing to accept someone's bounty, even if it costs the donor a great deal, and why is a human being so reluctant to return someone's generosity?"
Pilate walked closer to Ivan and glared straight into his eyes: "Thousand of years many people were fighting with evil, but all in vain. Why? They didn't know the secret. They used to think that by exterminating evil they were doing good mankind, but in fact they became as sinful as their enemies in that cruel fight. Yes, they often sacrificed themselves for the welfare of other people, but they lost their lives in bat-tles while they were slaying their foes, who as well as they were human beings. There's no need of destroying anyone to defeat evil. To achieve that aim Man must kill only Himself without intending to take anyone else's life. Christ killed no one save Himself. That's the secret! You see it's so simple!"
Ivan jumped up to his feet: "That's enough! I'm full up with your demagogy and hypocrisy! You're impudent impostors and nothing more. Don't you understand that after my death the world will go on with all its sins as it's been during all the human history? People will never stop killing each other, deceiving, stealing, bribing and whatever you want. This situation will endure forever. Nothing will change, all will remain the same, while my body's gradually decaying in that damn tomb of yours. Under the pretence of a noble aim you simply wanna quench your perverted thirst for blood but you shall answer for everything."
"Shut up!" roared Pilate. "No more discussion! For so long time we've been striving to find the right man and now nothing can stop us. I don't care whether you like it or not, but I'll crucify your and help every sufferer to put an end to their hardship. I will do what I must do. By all means I'll carry out my predestination."
Pontius Pilate guzzled some wine from a bottle to soothe himself and then slapped Ivan on the shoulder: "Cheer up, guy. Now I want you to visit Golgotha and see the spot where the sacred mystery of crucifixion will take place. I guess the excursion will be very interesting for you. Brothern," he addressed the apostles, "please tie up his hands again, he once tried to escape and we should prevent him from doing it one more time."
In twenty minutes Ivan, escorted by Pilate and the seven apostles, was strolling through the wood along a path strewn all over with faded pine needles. The company had walked about two kilometers, when the track took them to the open, sunlit space of a meadow, bordered with the sparkling ribbon of the Msta on one side and the high sheer wall of a granite outcrop on the other. "Here we are," Pilate stretched out his hand to point at the cliff, "welcome to Holy Mount Golgotha."
"Let's show him the tomb first," proposed Peter.
"Sure. Come on Ivan," Pilate led the group over to the feet of the rocky wall where could be seen a narrow opening. "This cave will be your tomb for the three days next after the crucifixion," pronounced Pilate as the men stood before the crack in the granite monolith. "I guess, Ivan, you don't mind seeing the inside. Friends, light the lamp please."
When a steady flame blazed up in the kerosene lantern James had been carrying, Pilate's strong hand shoved Ivan into the cool darkness, which met him with anxious flapping of bat wings over his head. Before long the dark was dispelled by the light of Jame's lamp. The rest of the apostles and Pilate joined them, pushing themselves successively through the narrow cave mouth.
It was a small grotto two meters wide and five in length, its walls painted all over with obscenities. A few empty food cans were scattered round a heap of ashes, the trace of a recent bonfire.
"Not too wet and pretty comfy," declared Pilate.
"We've got to clear it up a little before we put the body over here," added Andrew.
"No problem, we'll certainly do it tomorrow." Pilate turned to Ivan. "Well, my dear friend, how do you find this abode of your flesh. Yeah, it's a bit gloomy place, never mind. Now we'd better see the cross on the summit of the mount. I say, everybody, let's go outside." After they scrambled out of the grotto, the apostles conducted Ivan round the corner of the cliff, where the vertical granite wall turned into a less steep slope covered with thick brushwood.
"Now we're going to climb up the hill," announced Pontius Pilate. "You know, Ivan, according to Saint John, Christ was carrying His cross up to Golgotha, but this slope is very steep, so we've made your task much easier. We've already erected the cross. Come on to have a look!"
"I got my hands tied up," protested Ivan, "it's gonna be very difficult..."
"Don't worry," Pilate grinned and nudged Ivan, "we won't let you roll down head over heels." Being pushed from behind, Ivan made his way upwards struggling through springy shrub stems. Panting and sweating, with often respites to take breath, he gradually, step by step, neared the top of the hill. Once upon the flat, grassy ground that was the destination of their journey, Ivan was impressed by the view of a huge, tall wooden cross erected in the center of the spot. On a large chest beside the cross there was sitting a man. On noticing the company, he got up and hurried towards them.
"Ivan, let me introduce our friend Judas the betrayer," said Pilate, after the man halted before the nine exhausted climbers. "For his sin of betrayal he's been ordered to keep watch over the cross day and night till the very moment of crucifixion so that no one could do any harm to this sacred construction."
Peter drew a jack-knife out of his pocket: "Pontius, I guess we can release this guy's hands? He was a real brick climbing up here."
"Sure; let him shake hands with Judas," Pilate winked at Ivan.
"I never shake hands with betrayers," Ivan said peevishly as he rubbed his reddened wrists.
"Me too," Pilate patted Judas' cheek, "but Christ teaches us to forgive. Well it's your right to dislike such a swine as Judas."
"We'd better let the guy take a good look around," said Phillip.
"Sure, come on, Ivan," Pilate grasped Ivan's hand and dragged the guy to the cross. "Behold, Ivan, how marvelous it's made, how thoroughly it's polished. We've even varnished it all over so that no splinter would hurt your flesh. And now I'll show you the nails you'll be fastened with." Pilate flung the chest lid open and extracted a dozen of big steel nails. "Aren't they nice? No rusty specle. We'll surely boil them before the crucifixion in order to prevent you from catching any infection. And here is the wonderful sledge-hammer the nails will be rammed in with."
Feeling like vomiting, Ivan darted up to the very brink of the precipice and bent over it. Heaving, unrestrained movements of his stomach started throwing out its contents down the cliff. When his abdomen left nothing to disgorge, he straightened himself up and spat, trying to get rid of the unpleasant aftertaste in his mouth.
Before his eyes lay a spectacular landscape of spring countryside. From below could be heard the muttering Msta, which after passing the rapids regained its placid temper. Merry swallows flaunted their flying skill performing aerial stunts over the turbid river waters. Bonfire smoke curled upwards above a bright orange tent pitched by tourists on the opposite bank. The green tract of dense fir forest extended far away melting into a hardly seen strip of brown field marked with a tiny cluster of wooden houses near the horizon.
Ivan felt a gentle touch on his back. He turned around to see Pontius Pilate. "Beautiful scenery, isn't it? I hope you'll enjoy it tomorrow when you're crucified," Pilate smiled baring the two rows of even, white teeth.
The nightmare was going on. Lying on a heap of straw and bound hand and foot, Ivan could hear the loud sounds of a merry revelry that reached his ears through the wooden wall. The Last Supper, or a mere carouse as Ivan had called it (what caused his confinement in the dark shed), came to the apogee. Only two hours ago, after the arrival of Bartholomew, Simon, James the son of Alphaeus and Judas the son of James, the number of the apostles had become eleven (the twelfth one, Judas Iscariot, was at his post on Golgotha). The kernel of the saints' discussion was the details of the court that should take place the following morning with the object of condemning Ivan Petrov, alias Jesus Christ, to crucifixion.
"Those drunkards will really kill me, if I don't do something about it," Ivan pronounced aloud, his head half-buried in the prickly straw. His eyes, accustomed to the gloom by that time, were searching through the messy inside of his cell. It did not take him long to make out a thing that was supposed to be in every peasant's shed. The dim contour betrayed a scythe hanging on two pegs near the ceiling, its handle parallel to the ground.
Ivan managed to get up and hopped over to the spot the tool was above. He seized the blunt edge of the blade with his teeth and pulled it aside. In a moment they both, Ivan and the scythe, flopped down onto the floor. A few movements along the blade and the ropes on the hands were cut up. The next job - to release the feet - needed still less contrivance.
Ivan threw himself to the door to find it locked. Several chops of the axe, found somewhere in the dark, made it open. Outside he came across one more impediment. An enormous dog's head watchfully looked out of its kennel.
"Take it easy, guy. I won't do anything bad to you," whispered Ivan as he sneaked along the shed wall away from the formidable animal.
"Hush, hush; please be so kind as not to bother your masters. Let them enjoy the party. I'll just leave this place and that's it." But the dog, having not given way to Ivan's exhortation, shot out of its shelter and with a loud bark rushed at the runaway. The shortage of the chain did not let the chase get successful just at the very moment Ivan flew over the fence. A few hundred meters of headlong racing through the scratching spruce branches of the nocturnal wood brought bin to a count-ry track. Two luminous dots, rattling and skipping, were slowly nearing him from the distance.
"Stop, stop!" shouting and waving his hands, Ivan ran towards the vehicle, which pretty soon turned out to be a wheeled tractor dragging a trailer loaded with dung.
"What's up?" cried the driver showing himself out of the cab, after the tractor pulled up before the restless figure . Ivan threw himself to the vehicle, tugged the right door of the cab and opened it wide.
"I need the police immediately! Please drive me to the police station!"
"Okay, I guess there's one cop on duty not far from here," the driver responded unhurriedly. Ivan leapt into the cab and slammed the door.
"It ain't New York or something like that. No need to have crowds of cops. Our residents are very quiet people. The worst crime they can commit is a scuffle among some drunkard company."
"Well, no good wasting time, lets go," pleaded Ivan.
"Look, what's actually going on?" asked the driver after the tractor started off. "And, by the way, my name's Pavel."
"Mine's Ivan. I think it's not necessary to tell what's happened. It's very private, but believe me, I'm in real danger and I do need help from the authorities."
"All right, I see you ain't disposed to to chat in a friendly way. But I guess it ain't a bad thing to know who you're helping."
"Could we move a little bit faster, I just hate this dung smell," Ivan wrinkled his nose.
"Nope; if we try to do so, we may never reach the place. As my son says machines don't live so long as this old jude."
"In that case you'd better get another one."
"Everything costs money in this world, but you can't buy love. I'm fond of this machine, of every its crew. I fell in love with my future wife when I was giving her a drive in this tractor. And I loved her even more when I was taking her in this cab to the maternity house to let her give birth to a baby, our first son. It used to be the kolhoz's property, but three years ago I bought it, and now as I've got my own farm my old iron friend helps me a lot. Oh, it's the whole life, I just can't forsake this piece of metal."
The following half an hour was spent in silence. The tractor had entered a big village and passed about a score of sleeping houses, when Pavel braked to stop at a two-storied building with a lighted window on the ground floor.
"Here we are. This is our police station and post office in one. And remember there's nothing more important than love. You must love life, every human being, every living creature and not dislike any smell they produce. But you should hate only one odor - the stink of a rotting corpse, 'cause this smell means the end, the end of everything. Good luck, Ivan."
"Faugh.., the fellow obviously had a good drink tonight," pronounced Ivan after he jumped off the tractor footboard.
When the dung-loaded machine proceeded on its way, rumbling away along the dark village street, Ivan walked over to the building and pushed the doorbell button at the entrance. The door was opened by a stout man in the uniform with a holster on his belt.
"Sergeant Ozerov," he introduced himself, "what can I do for you?"
"I need your help."
"Please come in and let me know everything."
Ivan stepped over the threshold and closed the door. "My name's Ivan Petrov."
"Very nice, Ivan. I guess we'd better move into the room." The door with the sign "OFFICER ON DUTY" swung open and ,the small room, more similar to a chamber of a peasant's house than a police office, welcomed them with the lively hissing of an electric kettle.
"Take a seat, please," the sergeant pointed at one of the three stools standing along the wooden table, which together with a decrepit closet and a low desk set with the kettle and two telephones made up the scanty interior.
"Thanks, but I think it's not the proper time to sit over here."
"Maybe some tea," offered Ozerov as he unplugged the kettle. "It helps me to while away the tedious nights when I'm on duty."
"This night ain't so tedious and what's more we've no time for tea at all 'cause I'm in for big trouble."
"Don't be so mysterious," the cop lowered his massive body onto a stool, "just tell me what happened."
"I was In Petersburg for a couple of days on business and yesterday I was going to take a flight back home to Moscow. But unfortunately I was captured by a group of people and brought over here to a nearby wood."
"Do you know them?"
"No; they called themselves apostles and their chief was Pontius Pilate."
"Pontius Pilate? Who's that?"
"The actual person with such a name lived two thousand years ago and was the man who crucified Jesus Christ. They told me that I'm their Christ and they are going to crucify me, in other words, simply murder me."
"They said I'd resurrect in three days like Christ and as a result of that everybody would be given everlasting life and no man would be suffering any longer."
"Hmm..., apostles, Jesus Christ and that guy, what did you call him? ...Pompilus; all that sounds funny. And you, of course, refused their offer."
"Yeah, I managed to run away while they were drinking Inside their house."
"It's a pity," the sergeant sighed.
"What do you mean by "it's a pity"?"
"Just imagine, how it'd be grand, if somebody gave me everlasting life and delivered me from all those problems my life's full with."
"Even if there's necessity to kill an innocent man?"
"Why not, if he resurrects some while later?"
"If so, why don't you sacrifice yourself for the sake of universal happiness?"
"All right, let's get serious. I'm not that good at religious topics. What kind of help do you need from me?"
"I want you to arrest them all without delay for those people being maniacs and dangerous not only to me but the whole society. Who knows upon what crazy idea they'll hit next time."
"Well, how many people were there?"
"Twelve apostles and Pilate."
"So thirteen altogether; are they armed?"
"I saw no weapon but a few knives."
"Okay, so one against a long dozen; the forces are somewhat unequal."
"Can't you call reinforcement?"
"First I must go to the spot and judge the situation for myself. Only after that I'll make a decision about what's to be done next. D'you remember the way?"
"Roughly, but I guess it won't be difficult to recollect it. Do you have any transport?"
"Transport? I've got the best means of transport. Let's go." After they left the building, Ozerov locked the door and headed for the nearby construction that was a garage by all appearances. In a minute the yard resounded with an engine roar and a throbbing motor tricycle, mounted by the cop, rolled up to Ivan. "Jump over here," the sergeant motioned him to the side car.
While Ivan was settling himself, Ozerov had time to shut the garage gates and get onto the saddle again. "Show me the way;" the cop cried out and the tricycle started off, spearing the midnight dark with the headlight beam. After forty minutes of riding along country roads Ozerov stopped his vehicle before the gates Ivan had come through for the first time only half a day ago. The engine switched off, the sergeant dismounted.
"So it's here?"
"Yeah, they must be inside that hut," Ivan waved his hand towards the house, whose open, lighted windows from time to time let the wood's hush get filled with sounds of prolonged feast. "It seems they don't know yet that I've bolted. Hope they didn't hear the bike's noise."
"Let's steal closer and try watching them." The cop's corpulence did not hinder his deft jump over the fence. Ivan followed him. They were halfway to the house, when the portable wireless, hanging on the cop's shoulder belt, emitted a harsh oracle.
"Roger,Ozerov, roger, damn you, sergeant Ozerov, where the hell do you loaf?" the radio yelled hoarsely. "D'you copy me? Colonel Stepanov's speaking."
"Colonel, I read," Ozerov replied at the microphone.
"Great, sergeant. Now listen to me carefully. Two hours ago a prisoner escaped from jail. The criminal has stolen an auto and is now driving in the direction of Novgorod. He's armed and very dangerous. Very possible that he'll try to pass through your section. I order you to go to the highway to Novgorod and take up a position in hiding there. After that just wait for further commands, but be ready to act on your own."
"Yes, sir. I'm off right away, over," Ozerov switched off the radio and turned to Ivan; "I'm very sorry but there are some more serious problems than that crucifixion of yours. I can't take you with me 'cause it might be very dangerous."
"But before going I'd like to give a little bit of advice. If those people really wanna kill you, just keep away from this place as far as possible. And goodby for now, maybe see you some time later."
Within two minutes the sound of the cop's tricycle died away somewhere in the depth of the woods.
"Shit," Ivan cursed, standing where Ozerov had left him. A sudden door squeak gave him a good quiver. He turned around to see some figure on the porch. In a few seconds he was on the other side of the fence, sprinting at top speed towards the only visible thing before his eyes - the moonlit waters of the seething river. Gripped by fear, he did not get at once aware that the steady, even earth under his feet changed into the slippery granite of the rapids. He just kept jumping from one rock to another until the distance to the next boulder was too long even for his multiplied by fright strength. The cold, swift current caught up his floundering, snorting body and carried it away from the loud cries of the apostles that could be heard somewhere behind.
The plane gradually gathered speed and took off. Ivan let his head rest on the back of his seat and closed his eyes. Everything was behind. He had managed to get out of the river. Wet and chilly, he strolled through the woods and came upon some small station. There he caught: the first passing by train, which brought him back to St Petersburg. Then he phoned his wife, set her at ease and promised to explain everything when he saw her. Now at last he was flying home. Not counting his night adventure with Ozerov, he had not reported anything to the police. Maybe he would do it later, in Moscow. Maybe. But at the moment he did not want to think of what had happened to him. The only wish was to fall asleep as soon as possible.
A light touch on his shoulder broke off his oblivion. He opened his eyes to see a smiling stewardess. "Excuse me, sir, are you Mr Petrov?"
"Yes, I am."
"Here's a note for you," she handed him a piece of paper folded in four and disappeared. He unfolded the sheet and started reading.
"Dear Ivan, I told you once that nothing can prevent me from crucifying you, but you didn't believe me and what's more - you made an attempt to evade your lot. You also tried to get the police involved in the matter. The truth is that you are not the one who needs someone's assistance but we all lack your help. Do you know what happened to sergeant Ozerov? He was shot by the fugitive outlaw. The cop was just trying to protect the society from that scum but luck wasn't on his side. He used to be a good policeman who never failed to discharge his duty and he perished like a hero. He was always ready to succor people when they in trouble and he sincerely wanted to help you when you came to him. Now when a wife has lost her loving husband and three kids will never see their caring father any longer, who can help them? Only you! Nobody but you can change this world for the better. Now one more act of violence is going to befall us. There are terrorists on board. Pretty soon they will try to seize the craft. There will be hostages, some of them are going to be killed. They are all innocent people indeed and their fate is entirely in your hands. Just help those poor things! Only you can stop all that insanity the earth can't bear any more. I and three apostles - Andrew, Peter and James - are sitting four rows behind you. We've got a collapsible cross in a trunk. I'm glad to inform you that we've decided to crucify you right here - on board the airplane. Just think of that! Crucifixion high in the heavens. It sounds even more sacred than the same thing on Golgotha. At least the result won't be any worse. We'd like everything to be done of your own free will and we permit you to have a few minutes to think it over. But if you don't come voluntarily to us in five minutes, we'll be obliged to use brute force, and no one will be able to stop us. Ivan, don't be selfish. Get the courage to think of others. They really need you. And remember, there's nowhere to run this time. Faithfully yours, Pontius Pilate."
Ivan folded the message, put it in the inside pocket of his coat and timidly turned round. Pilate saluted him with an arch expression on his face. Ivan averted his startled look and felt his heart quicken the beating. After a few seconds of confusion he started scrutinizing his hands with a stupid air.
"Perhaps, it's very painful when your wrists are being pieced with nails," he pronounced aloud.
"Excuse me, what did you say?" asked his neighbor, a girl of about twenty.
"I'm just thinking."
"About life, death,' love and so on. And you, by the way, do you love?"
"Yes," the girl smiled in a fascinating way, "I've got a husband and we've got a baby. She's only ten months old. I love them both."
"Yeah; but I think everyone must love himself first and foremost and not let anybody infringe on his own right to live."
"Maybe you're right," said the girl and got again absorbed in reading her "Cosmopolitan".
Ivan took a good look at his neighbor. She was beautiful. Her dress was short and tight enough not to conceal all the grace of her attractively built figure and the tempting loveliness of the shapely pair of long legs. She was a brunette with wonderfully azure eyes. He had always been dreaming of a blue-eyed brunette. It was so charming. He remembered his wife, her ebony eyes and colorlessly dyed hair. What else in the world could be more vulgar than that awful combination? Why the hell did he get married to that clumsy and constantly cackling hen? Why did he, a miserable worm, never dare even accost a woman, if she was a little bit prettier than a pig? Even now, at the moment of imminent peril, he could not help getting turned on by the dazzling womanhood the girl was radiating. His excited gaze slowly shifted down from her fragrant, wavy tresses flowing over her shoulders, slid along her neat neck, lingered on the two seductively formed knolls hidden beneath the dress, then proceeded downward examining the slim waist, remarked he delicate elegance of her fingers busy turning over the pages of the magazine, and rested finally on her legs whose luring view, passing out of sight beyond the dress edge, really sent him thrilled.
"Excuse me," his contemplation of the girl's charm was interrupted by her sweet voice, "let me go by you."
She stood up, left the row and walked down the aisle with a gait whose dainty ease rivaled her fetching appearance. Ivan got it at once. It was his last chance. He had no more time for meditation. He arose, took off his coat and threw it on his seat. The girl had not yet shut the door behind her, when he burst into the restroom.
"What's up?" she screamed, scared at his strange behavior.
"Nothing," he said latching the door. All that followed was a matter of a few seconds. A strong, strangling grip on the girl's throat let Ivan tear off her clothes with his other hand. The rent dress slipped down uncovering the perfection of her nudity and landed at her feet. The panties went the same way descending the slender length of her legs. His own pants were hurriedly kicked off into the corner. The magnetic nearness of the revealed and palpable woman nature and the very thought of possessing her, stirred his aroused instincts to the limit and made him unable to wait any longer.
She tried to escape. A hard blow on her face made blood gush out of her nose. The next moment he thrust in. Convulsively plying his hips and moaning in mad passion, he paid no attention to the red rills that slithered over the white, silky skin and made their way down rounding the curves of his victim's frame.
The blessing eruption was not long in coming. Having heaved the last sigh of contentment, he let her go.
Naked and sobbing, the girl sat down on the toilet burying her swollen with tears face and still bleeding nose in her trembling hands. Ivan picked up his pants, put them on, tucked in his stained with blood shirt and leaned against the wall. "Oh, God" he groaned, "I didn't mean it... but now they hiss the main point - I'm not so sinless any more. And I can't help them, no way."
He opened the door, left the restroom and staggered over to his seat, paying no attention to the armed men in black masks standing in the aisle and shouting something harsh to the passengers.
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