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.

Or maybe she was simply relieved he was busy now. Moving back to Tverkassa had been Krupov’s idea. When his father died, Krupov had come home to dissolve his father’s firm, but he’d found the business viable, and the books clean. Several small projects lingered in the administration phase that Krupov could wrap up easily while using his father’s contacts to line up future work. He’d convinced Katarina that Nadia would love town life, a smaller school, his parents’ pre-war house with airy rooms and mahogany banisters. He’d arranged a teaching position for Katarina and knuckled down to the business of finding work, only to learn that the avenues to contracts in Tverkassa were just as corrupt as in Moscow. His dad had in fact kept two sets of books, one scrubbed and one dirty. A disgusted Krupov put them both away. He’d worked handyman jobs while Katarina taught and soothed Nadia’s adjustment to a new place. Both daughter and wife were disappointed with the move, yet they were settling in more comfortably than he’d managed to do.

Then came the school renovation request for proposals, with funding from Moscow attached to bring the far reaches of Russia into the new millennium with laptops for every child and wireless connections in the schools. Tverkassa wasn’t rural—the town was one of those Soviet holdover oddities, a thriving almost-city in the middle of nowhere, the economy built on secretive military research, the true nature of which even old townies like his dad had never uncovered—but the gym renovation proposal had included these tech funds.

And Katarina had, finally, pushed.

One time, she’d insisted.

I won’t conduct business that way.

Her mouth had collapsed to a frown. Her eyes had narrowed with that incubating disappointment she couldn’t hide whenever he headed out in the morning with a toolbox and belt instead of a briefcase. He’d wondered what exactly it was that disappointed her. Katarina was traditional in her own way, but she wasn’t materialistic. Secretly, he found his odd jobs relieving, dealing as he was with concrete malfunctions or imperfections easily fixed. The toughest jobs—ants’ nests in attics, exhausted water heaters—took at most a long day to make right. Not months of documentation to create a beautiful building, with every detail perfectly aligned, only to have the design rationale hacked to bits by shoddy construction compromises in the field. He’d actually managed to be happy for a time, until the RFP was announced and Katarina wouldn’t let it go. If it wasn’t the money she wanted, he didn’t know what it was. Perhaps she needed him to grapple with big game, tackle challenges on his old grand Moscow scale.

Still he’d refused, until the day she’d finally hooked up their computer to the high-speed cable all their neighbors had been surfing for months. Krupov hadn’t wanted an Internet connection. He’d claimed Nadia, his usual reason, as his excuse—too much time online would corrupt her—but really he’d enjoyed being out of touch with the world. Relying on the local newspaper to smear print stains on his fingertips and fill him with the astringent odor of ink. The paper he could unveil and refold as tidy markers of a task undertaken and accomplished. But Katarina overruled his objections. We need it for work. Both of us, and she’d narrowed her eyes with that chill of disappointment.

When the cable connection was working, she’d opened up a site on vacation resorts. “So crisp, don’t you think?” Katarina had said, examining a photo of a Jamaican coastline.”I’d forgotten how clean digital images can be.”

“Confetti,” Krupov had replied dourly. Pouting, like an entrenched old man.

“What do you mean?”

“Data streams. It’s all confetti. Candy for the eye. I’ll stick to print photos.”

Katarina had rolled her eyes and called Nadia to the screen to see the ocean’s deep blue ripples, but his bright shining Nadia wanted to see news. Foreign news. She’d clicked through a montage of photos on Time magazine’s website, and there it had been: Putin, on horseback, against a panorama of mountains. Workman’s boots in the stirrups. Pea-green canvas trail pants. Wrap-around sunglasses and a silver pendant nestled on his bare chest. Putin was shirtless against a lacy dusting of snow on the peaks behind him. A misplaced show of masculinity. What a spectacle at his age and rank.

“Obscene,” he’d muttered, meaning the impulse toward machismo, not the man’s sagging pectorals.

“I don’t know.” Katarina had been drinking wine, her nose and the dimpled slope above her upper lip flushed with sulfites; stains on her complexion he used to find cute but now dreaded as the first signs of nightly tipsiness that would sour her mood by bedtime. “I think it’s appealing. Shows his human side.”

“Sure does. Look at that belly.”

“What belly? Looks pretty flat to me.” Katarina swallowed and flashed him a glance, settled briefly on his gut, the only part of him that was no longer so petite. “He looks great. For a man his age.”

Which happened to be Krupov’s age.

Katarina and he were years apart, but it had never seemed like a chasm until she slid her gaze over his belly and then turned to study Putin again. A man still in good shape. A man who stripped his shirt in snowy altitudes. A man who maintained an iron grip on power even after giving up his position.

Nadia had said “Yuck,” clicked on the next photo—Putin, still shirtless, feeding the horse a treat—before running off to watch TV.

The next day Krupov offered his bribes to the names written in his dad’s dirty book, those old cronies on the council who never would retire.

A month later, he’d secured the job and hired a full staff.

Now Nadia ran up to him, bedraggled and breathless, her white dress completely soiled, and flung her arms around the flabby gut that had landed him this wretched job. Some ab crunches and a daily run would have saved his soul. “Daddy, you’ll watch me parade in?”

“That’s why I’m here.” He smoothed her hair, plucked a petal mashed behind her ear.

“I’m gonna hide out in the pipe chase if Lydia is mean to me.”

“I’ll know where to find you, then.”

He felt a nudge at his back and turned, expecting a kid to bash into him and run away, but it was Ilya Zhukov, one of the tech team subcontractors, clapping him on the shoulder.

“It’s not your problem to solve, but I thought you should know the wireless isn’t working.”

No toilets. Now no Internet. Krupov sighed. “I thought you tested it yesterday. No problems at all.”

“Today there are problems.” Zhukov shrugged.

“Think it’s the broadcast element?”

“Going to check it now.”

A sharp whistle cut the air, hushing the kids. The principal, Anna Ivanovna, cleared her throat to start her welcome speech. Katarina grinned at him, eyes bright with the excitement of his latest fiasco. Krupov removed his daughter’s arms from his waist.

“You are gonna watch me,” Nadia demanded.

“I am.” Krupov smiled. “I won’t be far away.”

Krupov followed Zhukov through the crowds of kids and parents gathered in the yard. They passed through the gate of the chain link fence Krupov had slated for removal; it still caged the school grounds like a Gulag’s exercise pen. Once they were on the sidewalk flanking the fence, Zhukov told him, “That brand of unit is a piece of shit. Can work for weeks and then just crap out for no reason.”

“I replaced the piece of shit unit myself,” Krupov said mildly. “Put in the non-shit model.”

“In the world of high tech, there’s no such thing as the non-shit model.”

They’d reached the access point, a streetlamp a few feet from the school’s parking lot. Krupov studied the broadcast element. Already a big man was up the pole, fiddling with the unit. “Can’t you reboot it with the remote?”

“The remote’s a piece of shit,” Zhukov said.

The big man shifted clumsily on the pole. “OK. Should fire up now.”

A pop sounded, a muffled pressure against Krupov’s ears. “Did it boot?”

He was already aware of the screams as he spoke, but it took several more rounds puncturing the humid air to realize he was hearing gunfire.

In the first terrible moments of confusion, as he’d run back to the schoolyard, Krupov was convinced Katarina had carried Nadia to safety. Katarina was a fearless mother, dispatching childhood illnesses and routine dangers with dispassionate efficiency. But one glimpse of the surreal chaos unfolding behind the chain-link fence was enough to seal a feeling of doom. In shock, he watched five thugs in camouflage, all brandishing rifles like bayonets, herd mothers and kids through the double doors leading to the gym. Egress doors that, according to code, were supposed to have been locked from the outside. He’d flung himself against the fence, screaming, until Zhukov grasped his shoulder and yanked him down to the concrete walk. Above, bullets pinged against the fence links. They were being shot at, he thought hazily. Maybe he was already shot. Maybe the schoolyard, now stripped brutally of its children, seemed unreal because the siege was happening to him and Zhukov, on their side of the fence; not to the kids; not to Nadia.

But the gunman who had fired upon them ducked through the egress doors. Slammed them shut, stifling the screams that filled the high-ceilinged gym and echoed from the glossy oak floor, and it was the worst moment of Krupov’s life to struggle to his feet and realize he was unhurt.

All morning, worse moments tumbled end over end.

As fast as the yard had emptied it filled again. It could not have happened as quickly as Krupov would remember, but it seemed to him that the militia had materialized at once out of the humid air like apparitions of hope: hefting rifles, establishing positions, cordoning off the hysterical crowds of gathering parents who had not attended the first-day festival. Order was restored, maintaining an illusion of security, promising a peaceful resolution to the horror. Numb like the rest, Krupov drank water, wiped away sweat dribbling in his eyes to watch the school. As the hours wore on with no visible signs of brutality inside, he came to believe that the authorities had the situation in hand.

Until surveillance conducted through Krupov’s double-height shatter-proof windows revealed that the terrorists—they’d been identified quickly as border-raiding radical separatists, shadowy desperados Krupov associated with nauseating news reports from a neighboring war-torn failed state—had rigged the gym with explosives. The muffled screams inside had quieted by then, replaced with the wailing of the desperate parents outside as the news circulated that the gym was now a bomb.

When Krupov heard from one of the electrical subs who had fled the building in the first moments of chaos that the explosives were rigged using exposed wiring from the unfinished electrical panel, he excused himself, staggered to the sidewalk, and threw up on the sun-scorched grass of someone’s lawn.

“You the architect?”

Krupov wiped his mouth and straightened to see a big man in wrap-around sunglasses and a black flak vest. He was flanked by other big men in flak vests, arms crossed menacingly, utility belts bulging with grisly combat gear. “Yes.”

“We need you to identify the ingress points.”

“What?”

“Walk us through where we might gain entry. Preferably at the front of the building, away from the gym windows.”

“Well … besides the front doors?”

“Unfortunate, those windows,” one of the men commented. “Maximum visibility from all angles.”

“Let’s you see in, doesn’t it? And they can … see out.” Krupov stumbled over the words. Tears flooded his eyes. On their summer site visit, Nadia had swung from the sills, hoisted herself up to peer outside.

“Do you have a child inside, sir?”

“The entire town has a child inside.” Krupov drew a breath. “My wife is in there, too.”

“Can you walk us through the plans? Do you have the drawings with you?”

“They’re digitized. I’ll have to call in to the office.”

“We’ll download them.”

The soldier who had criticized his windows was punching at the buttons of a PDA and cursing under his breath. “Piece of shit. Can’t get online.”

“Where’s the access point?” the chief asked Krupov.

Krupov pointed to the streetlamp. “The network went down. Right before the … right before.”

A young man with a sleek black CoolPix camera ironed to one eye walked up and snapped Krupov’s photo. One of the soldiers twisted the young man’s hands behind his back. The camera clattered to the concrete.

“I’m with the press, gentlemen,” the young man snapped.

“Fuck off.”

“Are you going in?” The photographer shot the chief a sharp look.

The soldier released him. “Fuck. Off.”

The photographer stooped down to collect his camera. “OK. Did the terrorists take out the wireless network? Been trying to upload photos to my newspaper’s site for an hour.”

The chief’s radio crackled; a static-choked voice messaged an indecipherable command. Through the interference, Krupov thought he heard “children,” and “courtyard egress.” The chief cut the voice off with a brusque pressure on the call button and whisked his men away. The photographer and Krupov stared at one another. A tide of mothers’ wails rolled languidly through the heat. The cries of desperation. The scream of sirens. The steamy slowdown of high humidity. The sun had reached its highest point. Krupov brought a hand to his brow, wiped away a pond of sweat. The photographer scrutinized him.

“Are you the architect?”

Krupov nodded sickly.

“What’s ‘egress’?”

Krupov broke into a run.

As he approached the fence, he saw black flak jackets pinwheel around the west side of the school toward the courtyard he’d designed around the hallway joining the gym and the cafeteria. Krupov ran after them, took the corner, and came up short when he saw the men crouched in a line, rifles drawn, scopes pressed to their eyes. Stock still. Ready to fire.

Beside him, the photographer gasped, “Jesus, they are going in,” and raised his camera.

Krupov squinted at the gym windows. Sunlight glanced off the glass. He couldn’t see in. But they could see out. Katarina was fearless, he told himself again. She’d have made certain Nadia was sitting by a window. She’d have established the best position to thrust Nadia up and out should the bombs go off, or the authorities storm in. Should the glass shatter, Katarina would get their girl out.

And another of those architect’s observations cut wonderingly through his shock, one more specimen of the many catastrophes this job had birthed. A louver panel close to the ground had detached and was splayed on the clumps of dried clay the landscape guys hadn’t yet re-seeded. The vent was open to the outdoors. But the exposed duct hadn’t been on the punch list. He watched a trickle of brown seep from the duct.

Sludge.

They were facing the girl’s locker room. That exposed duct vented the pipe chase.

“Don’t shoot,” he whispered as a body tumbled from the open vent, rolled on the hard clay, and streaked toward the row of guns trained on her.

It wasn’t Nadia but a younger girl, stripped down to her underwear.

The men stood down as another child rolled from the vent and ran, weeping, for her life.

Like petals torn from a flower’s eye, bare-bellied children tumbled from the duct. As they streamed across the courtyard, the soldiers swept them up and ferried them around the building. Krupov cried out and started toward the vent. The chief grabbed his arm.

“My daughter,” Krupov stammered. “She knows that place. She’s helping those kids.”

“Stay back.”

“I can get her out before they see,” Krupov pleaded.

The chief frowned. “They have already seen.”

Beside Krupov, the photographer was kneeling on the clay, shooting photos of the fleeing kids. A boy sped past, bleeding from the nose. A little girl stumbled, fell; scraped her knees badly on the gravel. A sound at Krupov’s elbow made him jump. He looked down to see a wide-eyed girl staring at him, hiccupping. He raised her up in his arms. Light as air. Silent except for the tiny gasps of her hiccups. He handed her to a soldier. All of the escaped kids were tiny, he realized. Only the smallest could fit through the duct.

Nadia was too big to get out.

As soon as he’d thought it, a dark head of curls squeezed from the vent’s opening. Broad shoulders busted through, and the rest of her, arms and legs and everything glorious and blessed wiggled forth and fell to the clay. Her dress, too, had been stripped. She sprang to her feet. She wasn’t crying. Tough, like her mother. Big, like her Tverkassan granddad. Thank God she’d inherited none of Krupov’s smallness.

He called her name and waved as the first explosion shattered the tall window at Nadia’s back.

Krupov screamed. A wave of glass swept over Nadia’s shoulders and she fell flat. The photographer jumped up with a cry, dropped his camera, scrambled to retrieve it in the crush of militia reforming into a defensive line. Another explosion ripped through the gym. The remaining windows burst into winged shards of sunlit glass. Krupov saw Nadia rise up on her elbows and look around dazedly. He called to her, and through the din and smoke she seemed to hear. She looked straight at him, still loopy. She’s hit her head, he thought, she doesn’t know to get moving. As he started toward her, she turned away unsteadily, rocking on the balls of her feet, her underwear ragged and soiled. With an off-kilter hop she crested the sill of the shattered window and evaporated into the smoke billowing from the gym.

“Did you see it?” The photographer was holding his cell phone aloft. “That kid just went back in. Jesus Christ. Unbelievable. Why would she do that?”

“To get her mother,” Krupov said dully.

As the line of soldiers streamed across the courtyard to take the school, Krupov saw the shimmering outline of bared arms emerge from the smoke and stretch high above the lick of flames to hoist a big girl back through the window. Nadia again touched the earth. A soldier scooped her up; another grabbed the ethereal arms, pulled them roughly over the shards of glass.

Katarina had found her way to a window.

As his wife and daughter were being restored to Krupov, the photographer let out a whoop. “The connection’s up. I got the perfect shot with this piece of shit phone. Everyone’s going to see that little girl crawling back into hell to save her mother.”

Krupov watched him heft the phone high to catch the signal, Nadia’s flesh and bones confetti for all the world.

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