After Krupov secured his first dishonest contract, a gymnasium renovation and technology upgrades to Tverkassa’s only K–8 school, he vowed to scrub the corrupt job clean, but the project had been jinxed from the moment he’d bribed two old-guard cronies on the city council to give him the job. When a strike at the factory held up the oak flooring’s delivery, he’d had to fly to Volgograd and swallow the mark-up on a new order. He’d had to use outside labor to rip out defective ceiling joists when the carpenters who controlled every job in town refused to correct the shoddy work. Then, the shatter-proof glass for the new gym’s double-height windows smashed when the delivery truck overturned on a hairpin curve through the Caucasus. Krupov had to bribe a supplier in Rostov to rush a new special order. The job simply couldn’t get any worse.

“Krupov had hired a fresh tech team and ordered the replacement unit himself. He’d then abandoned all scruples and bribed the crooked foremen of every sub-trade to work overtime in the crushing August heat to get the gym ready for the kids. He’d never worked harder, and he’d never been more disillusioned.”

That is, until two weeks before classes were set to begin, when the electrical contractors went off spec and installed a faulty broadcast element—a refurbished unit from some shady dealer—for the school’s new wireless network. The network conked on the first test. Krupov had hired a fresh tech team and ordered the replacement unit himself. He’d then abandoned all scruples and bribed the crooked foremen of every sub-trade to work overtime in the crushing August heat to get the gym ready for the kids. He’d never worked harder, and he’d never been more disillusioned. He’d abandoned Moscow for Tverkassa to seek a quieter working life, far from the relentless corruption every architect accepted as best business practice, and here he was: forced, in the end, to ante up.

Now, with a half hour until the bell rang for the first day of school, the plumbing in the new locker rooms was leaking. Krupov was standing in an inch of sludge, peering into the pipe chase through the access door nested behind the last stall in the girl’s room. He’d only come down to the school on a nervous whim, beating Katarina and Nadia to their first day celebrations in the schoolyard, for a quick punch-list check. So much had already gone wrong that he’d wanted to make certain the last details were coming together smoothly. He hadn’t expected to be soiling his running shoes with shit, but he knew he shouldn’t be surprised that the plastic piping he’d told the plumbing contractors to swap out for copper was raining sewage through faulty joins.

“It all must come out. I directed you to do this a month ago.”

Brisam shrugged. “Didn’t see a change order.” Big man; big shoulders to shrug. Big, stubborn smirk to flash behind his cigarette. All Tverkassan men were oversized, had arms strong enough to uproot trees and large, flat noses to screen inscrutable black eyes. Krupov had grown up here; his own father had been one of Tverkassa’s big men. But Krupov was blond, and small-boned like his mother had been. He’d felt physically at home in Moscow’s urban diversity. He’d forgotten how the men were down south, how conspicuously he would stand out, how weak he would seem.

“I gave it to you myself.”

“Didn’t see a change in the contract price.”

Krupov flushed. He’d already included an upcharge in the contract. By then he’d been tired of the screaming matches he’d had on site. He’d brought Nadia with him the day he’d inspected the pipe chase, to show her the new gym, and, it was true, to use her sweetness as a buffer. He’d had to yell at Brisam anyway while Nadia stood in the corner, silent and pale, her dark curls curtaining her cheeks as if to hide from Krupov’s high-pitched voice, his embarrassingly feminine shouts. A small man’s tantrum. He’d written out the change order on the spot, added a thousand to the contract just to get the job done. After Brisam had shuffled away, Krupov hadn’t been able to find Nadia. He’d searched for fifteen minutes before discovering her in the chase, crouched among the pipes, wedged on the only patch of dry floor.

“The order reflected a new contract price.”

Brisam grinned. “The reflection was dim.”

Christ. But what did it matter now? “OK. Let’s shine it up. Double the original change?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Do you have a crew on site to clean this up?”

“I’ll make a call.”

Brisam clumped away, smearing sludge over the sparkling new tile. Through the girl’s restroom door Krupov heard shouts from the schoolyard. Kids’ play. Katarina and Nadia no doubt had arrived by now — Nadia with white daisy petals woven into her curly hair, Katarina holding a teacher’s bouquet of carnations and baby’s breath. The first day of school always commenced in the yard, where the principal gave a speech and the teachers gave a sprig from their bouquet to each child in the class . Though he still had the gym to inspect, Krupov walked to the sinks, wet some towels from the dispenser to wipe the sewage from his soles, and headed outdoors. Enough with the screw-ups. He wanted to kiss his daughter.

Nadia was playing tag, petals streaming messily from her hair, the white dress with the pouffy sleeves and rose-threaded smocking she’d picked out for her first day already streaked with dirt. Katarina stood in a cluster of students by the monkey bars; her students were almost as tall as she. Katarina was teaching eighth grade this year, not third, as she had done for the two years since they’d moved to town. The change in the children’s physiques between these grades, the way these older children dwarfed his wife, was as incongruous as Nadia’s own burst in height over that summer. While her mother disappeared amidst the eighth-graders, Nadia was nearly the tallest child in her fourth-grade gaggle.

Krupov wove through rowdy tangles of restless kids. When he was almost to her, Katarina caught his gaze and waved.

“All ready?” he asked her.

Katarina gave a blossom to a bright-cheeked girl whose brow was slick with sweat. The day was already oppressively humid. “Never ready on the first day. Problems?” She’d read his stress at once, of course. Her gray eyes took in the frown he’d hoped to soothe with Nadia’s attention.

“As you said. Never ready on the first day.”

She smiled, eyes glowing. The more severe the problems became on this job, the happier Katarina was with him. She absorbed with reverence the details of every fuck-up, as if they were exotic gems from another world. Broadcast element. Joists. Pipe chase. The whole list of failings and corruptions she saw as a grand story, an exciting tale with fabled terms.

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