Cross

1 “Russia's best PR manager 2009” was the first thing Maxim Krasnov read in the morning after waking up in his 2*2 bed made of italian hazel wood. The big certificate in a massive golden frame reminded him to put on a portentous look for his young second wife Julia, who usually brought coffee and sandwiches to the bedroom, not forgetting to put on the tray a list of 'important' things she needed to buy that day or another: perfume, clothes for 3-4 social events she was going to visit without Max and same amount they had to go to together, new car even (because 'this piece of shit is not fucking trendy anymore'), etc, etc, etc. They agreed to 2000$ a day and 6000$ for the weekend. Other way she would have made Max bankrupt in the first year of their marriage. Smiling, smelling wonderfully, having her make-up and hair done before Max woke up, with one and the same phrase Julia flew into the room: − Has my baby woken up? Her baby of 45 years old was awake as usual with his branded look and reserved smile. − Good morning, Julie. Bring me my newspapers and ask Misha to come 30 minutes earlier. Julia's smile didn't even change its angle when she said:

− Of course, my baby. But at the doorstep she turned around and added opening her 50000$ white teeth even more: − Don't forget to give some household money, baby. 'Household money'. That's how she calls it. Max grinned: − Don't worry, Julie. She went out. Friends were telling Maxim that it was time to find another wife. This one was 'old' (24) and 'blonde'. And an 18-year old brunette or a red-head would have been much better. And cost much more – this was already Max's assumption. What is more, he was too tired: one ex-wife, one wife, one lover – pretty enough. Two ex-wives would be too much. Max knew Julia didn't love him. But she was good in bed, beautiful, clever enough to close her eyes on the women he had. She knew how to behave in the society and she would do anything for him while he was giving her money. It was convenient. As Max's wife entered the room again with a pack of daily press in her manicured little hands he gave her the usual sum and received a kiss in return. Next time they should see each other late in the evening for a 'good night sex'. Breakfast was finished, newspapers looked through. Reading them was more a part of Max's image rather than his interest. However, he always read carefully the 'Celebrity' page. Working with Russian film and music stars and their producers was his main job. He had to be sure that the journalists were worth their money. Max didn't like wearing suits. He preferred to dress more democratically. But today he had an important meeting with a big production company. Better look highest class. Thirty minutes later Mr Krasnov was already in his Armani and Bentley. − First to the office, Misha. I will take the documents. − Certainly. The day was meant to be tough as usual. The meeting; then setting the PR campaign for a new starlet (no voice, no looks, no talent, lots of money); Gazprom party (Julie was free today, he'd take one of his escort girls) – important people, important connections. And later in the evening there was a club concert of his main product “The Cosmo Band”. He was too old for this marathon. The office of Max's company “Krasnov Ltd” (so simple) situated in the new business centre. He liked the centre of Moscow with its old buildings more, but the trend dictated. The first skyscrapers in the capital were occupied by the best of the best. He had to be there too. Max's secretary – a 20-year old brunette – met him always right at the elevator on the ground floor. − Good morning, Maxim Anatolyevitch. − Good morning. She was also a trend. When he had a brunette wife he employed a blonde secretary and slept with her. Later when he got divorced and married the secretary, he had to get himself a brunette lover. But no marriage here. He's too tired. − I prepared all the documents for Lepatov but please take a look first. Rosa was rattling while they were reaching the top floor. − Your partners from the USA called in the morning. They agree with the contract changes but would like to set a final meeting before signing. − In New York, I suppose? − Yeah. Those Americans never want to come. Still afraid of Russian mafia or are simply too cool. Max needed this contract more than they did, so he played their game. − Ok. Book the ticket for next Thursday and call them. Rosa was saying something else but Maxim was thinking about how he could steal a moment to have sex with her today. She was different from his wife – wilder. He loved it, especially during a hectic working day. Rosa knew how to make her boss energetic and aggressive – just what he needed today. When the elevator door opened Max whispered:

− Be ready. I will be back at three and I want to have my berries dessert. Rosa smiled and silently walked forward. She reminded him of a cat – miniature, plastic and really wild. The necessary documents were waiting on the table. Max loved the marble table, the big chair made specially for his expensive ass. He loved his 200 m2 office and the early Van Gogh on the peachcoloured wall. He loved his life. Looking through the papers quickly Max spent not more than 15 minutes in the office. Time for a big hunt. Everything was perfectly ready, new clients had to choose him. They actually didn't have a choice. − When again are you planning to be back? Rosa's question had its deeper meaning: “When must I be ready?”, “When are you going to use me again as your Red-bull+vodka?” − At three. But not more than for an hour. − Ok. She'd do everything just as he wanted. Max was sure to have a great day. The meeting was set in the Vogue Cafe near Jesus the Savior Cathedral. The head of the producing company Alexandre Lepatov was a black horse. He never appeared on TV or social 'hang-overs', as Max called the celebrity parties. He was a real businessman. Max came 15 minutes earlier, ordered still water and paid the bill for both of them in advance to prevent Lepatov from paying. The producer was punctual. − Maxim. − Alexandre. Max stood up to welcome his guest and the waiter flew up to take his jacket. − As usual. Mumbling that Lepatov sat down. − I am glad we finally met in person and that you showed interest in our company. I can assure you... The conversation went as smooth as Max had expected. Lepatov proved his reputation of a tough business-shark. But it wasn't Maxim Krasnov's first day in this world too. The main details of the contract were discussed in less than an hour. And the next meeting was set for tomorrow. Seemed that Lepatov was very impressed. He even smiled when shaking hands with Max, which was a rare thing according to tabloids. In a great mood Maxim left the Vogue Cafe and suddenly bumped into the security guy who was poking lightly a dirty bum girl - she probably asked for change near the restaurant. Max screwed up his face and wanted to pass over to his car, but the little girl grabbed his sleeve with her dirty hands and whimpered: − Governor, tell him not to beat me! Tell him to give me money back. He stole my money. One good lady gave it to me and he stole it. Max looked at the security man. The huge bold guy only shrugged his shoulders. Meanwhile the girl of maybe 12 or 13 years old grabbed Max even harder and wouldn't stop whimpering: − Please, tell him, governor! I need money for my sick mother, she's going to die without the pills. I must buy pills. Max jerked the girl's hand: − Back off, you dirty rat! I know well your lies: sick mother, family needing money, no passport. Fuck off! And he pushed the girl so hard that she fell on her back and hurt her head. Max shook off the dirt on his sleeve. − You'd better call the police. It's disgusting that such people sniggle to the restaurant. Saying that Krasnov turned to his car and headed forward. The driver Misha went out of the car and was swaying with his head watching the scene next to the restaurant. Max was irritated or more like angry.

− What are you starring at? Sit down and drive me to the office. − Yes, sir. Misha turned the engine on and Max glanced for the last time at the girl through the window. There were already five or six people around her: the security guy, the manager of the restaurant, two police officers and some other guy. As the car was slowly moving off the parking place Max saw the policemen taking the girl by both hands and caring her to their car. She was almost falling and her head was hanging down. − Such a good actress. They're all like that. I won't be surprised if she's richer than me. How do you think? Misha looked at Krasnov in the mirror but didn't dare to say anything. − Do you hear me? I ask what do you think about the dirty brats like her? Misha sighed and finally answered: − I can't judge. Everyone has their own cross. Don't think she was lying. Max frowned. − And I am sure she was. This is a bigger business than mine. And these beggars are better actors than Brad Pitt. He paused. − A cross. Bull shit. People make their lives themselves. And most of them exaggerate their problems or simply lie. There's no such a thing as a 'cross'. It's a fairy tale for stupid Christians who cannot make an effort to change their lives. Even if the girl was telling the truth, it's her own fault that she got in such a state. And I... A sudden pain in the forehead. Darkness. 2 The next moment Max felt hanging upside-down. His head was aching like hell and it seemed that a 1-kilo load was put on his eyelids. He tried to move his fingers but it brought such a pain in the forehead that he gave up this idea. Something was buzzing in the ears and the buzz became louder and louder turning into a well-known voice: − He's moving. He's regaining consciousness! Baby! Baby, do you hear me? Oh, my baby! Do you hear me? Maxim opened his eyes by force just a little bit. The worried look of his beautiful wife was right in front of him. Max understood now that he was lying somewhere, not hanging. But he couldn't make an effort to speak. Julie was there, so he could ask later. Closing his eyes again, Max noticed a strange jewelery on his wife's chest. It was so big that almost covered her whole front. Something was written on it. “I” and “V” and something else. Max was too tired to view closer. The last thought he had before falling asleep was how much this ridiculous Louis Vuitton thing cost him this time. Max had a weird dream. He was standing on a roof of a high skyscraper. But it was not in a city. Only yellow sand miles and miles away to the horizon, all around the building. Max was surprised as there was almost no wind on such a height. He closed his eyes. He felt light as if his body was made of sunshine. A quiet voice surrounded him. It was singing – the voice of a child. Max tried to decipher the words. The voice became louder as Max put effort in hearing the song. In a moment it became so incredibly loud and clear: “Corpus Christi, salva me..” Max opened his eyes. It was dark in the room. He rubbed his lids and looked around. He was definitely not home. “Hospital?” - he thought to himself. The head hurt, but Max stood up from the bed. It was not too dark. The moonlight illuminated white walls, a dropping bottle and a small TVset next to the window. Max tried to figure out where he could find a toilet. His legs were weak, so he had to hold on the furniture. Suddenly he touched something soft on a chair. The something moved and then grabbed his hand. − Baby, are you ok? When did you wake up? Julie. She was sleeping in the chair next to the bed.

− Where's the toilet here? − Come, I will show you. She put Max's arm around her neck and held him by the waste and moved to the corner of the ward. − We are in the hospital, baby. − Figured as much. − Misha crashed into some other car. So Max's guesses were right. They reached a white door. Julie switched on the light and it hurt Max's eyes. − Wait here. − Ok, baby. Going out of the toilet Max noticed again the ridiculous jewelery. It was a cross, big as one of a hiphop star, but made of wood. What is more, it was hanging on a simple rope. Weird fashion. Who'd understand those youngsters? − What is with the car? This piece of steel cost him too much. − It's repairable, baby. But Misha, you know... − Thanks God! As for this lame driver, I am going to fire him as soon as we are home. Julie helped to put Maxim's legs on the bed and covered him with a blanket. − It's late. − I know. I will sleep some more. − No, baby. I mean, it's late for firing Misha. He couldn't make it. He passed away. Some break in the neck bone. Max paused. It turned out to be a bad day. − Ok. I will think about it tomorrow morning. Find me a new driver. Or better call Rosa. She'll do it faster. And tell her to have my car repaired. − Ok, baby. Julie looked sad and tired. − And don't make such a face. You know I don't like it. − Ok, baby. The 'babies' really pissed Max off. − And take this idiotic cross off. You look like a nun. − Hm? Julie starred at him with empty eyes. − What cross? − The one on your neck, chicken. − But, baby, there's only the Tiffany pendant you gave me for our wedding anniversary. I don't wear crosses, you know. I am not that faithful. − Do you mean I am crazy or what? There's a fucking huge wooden cross on your fucking neck! − Baby... Julia was taken aback. She really looked at Max as if he was mad. − Get away from here. And don't come back until you take it off. − Bat baby... − Go!!! She turned around and went out not saying anything anymore. − Fucking chicken! Max stared in the darkness. “A very good chance for her to act as if I am crazy and hallucinations”, - Max thought to himself - “She can easily take care of all my money then. No way, dear! No way. I will divorce you faster than you spend cash in your boutiques.” Having taken a firm decision to split with Julia Max fell asleep.

In the morning he was waken up by the nurse who came for measuring the temperature and taking some analysis. Krasnov was still weak, so it took him as much as 10 minutes to be fully awaken. He didn't bother to look at the nurse or even to say 'hello' until a needle pierced his vein and the nurse bent forward to see how well blood goes into the tube. Max's eyes got round but not from pain – the nurse had the same ugly wooden cross on her neck. It was an absolute copy of Julia's but a bit smaller. − Who makes those things actually? − Excuse me, what things? The syringe or the splint? The nurse didn't even look at Max. − The cross you're wearing. − I don't know. It's from my grandmother and she got it from her mother. I cannot tell you who made it. − Well, my wife has the same one. But she bought it these days, I believe. I don't think it's that old. And it wouldn't look so a hundred years. Wood don't last that long. The nurse glanced at him from under the eyebrows taking the bondage off. − Wood doesn't. Gold does. And she touched a small golden cross hanging above the wooden one. − But I meant the other one. You have also some numbers and names there. The nurse followed Max's finger pointing on the cross which was laying just in the middle of her breast. The she frowned and said: − I will call the doctor. You can discuss crosses with him. − Why? I mean, call him, because I need to be out by the evening. I have an important meeting. But why should I discuss crosses with him? The nurse didn't give an answer and just went out. A doctor entered the ward soon after. He was in his late 50s and had so many wrinkles on his face that it was hard to imagine how he had looked when he had been younger. − Well, well, Mr Krasnov. Welcome to Sklifasofsky-Insitite. You are a lucky guy, you know. He sat on the edge of Max's bed. − How are you feeling? Max was speechless. He was staring at the wooden cross on doctor's neck. It was huge. The were numbers and names burnt on it. Max could read some of them: “19061977 Ivan Rybkin” “21011980 Sarah Kempinsky” “27091981 Oleg Ivanov” The list was very long. The doctor snapped his fingers in front of Max's face. Krasnov had to blink several times. − Mr Krasnov, I asked you how you are feeling. Do you hear me well? − Yes-yes. I do. I am sorry. I am just still in a bit of shock. − It's understandable, Maxim Anatolyevitch. Other than shock, do you have any complaints? Blurry vision, headache...hallucinations? Last word he pronounced more slowly and exchanged some strange looks with the nurse. Now it was clear to Max. They really wanted to pretend he's crazy, he's loosing his mind and having hallucinations. This bitch Julia is not as stupid as he thought. But he's cleverer. − No, nothing. A bit of pain in the forehead. The rest is fine. − Do you remember anything about the accident? Maxim strained every nerve. But the only thing he remembered was the bum girl incident. Then blackout. − Not really. A total blackout. − Well, maybe it's even better. Don't try to remember. − Can you tell me your name, doctor? − Oh, sure. Forgive please an old man. It's Vladimir Andreyevitch Smirnov.

− Ok. So, Vladimir Andreyevitch, I need to be out of here by 6 o'clock in the evening. There are some important meetings and paper work I must do. − Well, I would recommend you to spend one more night in the hospital and... − No-no. That's not an option. I will sign all the necessary documents that I take the responsibility for my own health, etc. − I can understand your desperation. But it's only 10 o'clock. We have plenty of time till six. Can I ask you to stay at least till that time, so that I make sure you're not killing yourself, my friend. − Mmm... Max wasn't sure, what he should do. He needed to be out of here as soon as possible to act normal and assure everyone he's absolutely fine. But he was weak and friendly speaking had an enormous headache. If he didn't pay attention to all these fucking crosses, it could go smooth. − I will stay till four. − Deal. Smirnov smiled. − We'll do some more tests by the time. Check all your bones and your eyes too, just in case. Another exchange of looks. − I could just give some money to your clinics without you torturing me. Smirnov laughed at the joke and was going to leave. − Have a nice day, Maxim Anatolyevitch. I'll be back soon to check your analysis' results. − Yes, thank you. At the doorstep the doctor turned around. − Oh, one more thing. The driver, who was driving you, Mikhail Semennikov... − I know, my wife has already told me. − Ok. I thought it should be important. Smirnov left. And Max was alone again to think about everything that had happened. It was vital not to lose temper and follow their game. In the evening he'd be out of here and take care of Julie and her little coup-d'etat. 3 “But what a weird way to make a person look crazy!” - Max thought to himself. - “And it takes anther crazy mind to imagine it all. What else can people do to get money?” It was not the first time of course when a young beautiful lady wanted to put her small hand on Krasnov's fortune. But they used to do it in a bit more trivial way: stealing, trying to get his account details, trying to kill him even. But this! This was something that would only be thought up by an evil mind. “Was Julia really like that?” They met each other in a club during one of those parties dedicated to some company's or VIP's birthday – Max couldn't remember anymore. Julie looked awesomely beautiful: perfect skin, great smile, amazingly sexy outfit. They slept over the same night and in the morning Max asked her if she'd like to be his secretary, because the previous one – Nastya – got pregnant and he fired her. Of course Julie said yes. Max again had nice times at work in between business meetings. In half a year he divorced his first wife. It wasn't actually a tough time for Max, but Julie showed herself from a good side. She was cooking soups for Max (as if he hadn't any servants at home), prepared special trips abroad to relax somewhere on Tenerife (not forgetting to book a ticket for herself as well) and other small things. She never asked questions or bothered Max with stories of her life. Julie gave him just what he wanted. So, one drunk night on Bali he proposed to her. And she said yes (what a surprise!). No need to say the wedding was marvelous and Max could use it for signing a couple of contracts, establishing contacts and showing that he was still in wide range. Only once just before the wedding Max asked Julia if her relatives were coming over. She looked away and said quietly: − I don't have anyone. My parents died. Others wouldn't like to come. We're not close.

Max didn't bother to check this information. Now he regretted it. The door opened and Rosa sneaked inside. − They said if I am not a family member I cannot come in, but I managed. They have a very...mmm...young staff here. And so many young male-nurses. The first thing Max did was checking the cross. “Damn! Fucking whore!” The cross was of a middle size and of the same style. “Don't show you noticed it! Don't show it to her!” - Max repeated to himself. − So, how are you doing here? Rosa looked at Max with her usual seducing smile. − Found already a nice nurse with big tits? Max gave a tensed grin. − Not yet − I have brought you some vitamins She started to take out oranges, apples and strawberries from the depth of her huge bag. Meanwhile Krasnov was studying the cross. There was a single inscription on it: “8 November 2003 Stepan Davidov” − These are just some fruits, but the main dessert is waiting for you here And she started to take off her long jacket and black trousers she was wearing. Underneath were Max's favourite latex stockings and a bra with slits. But this time they weren't the centre of his attention. While Rose was getting undressed the cross seemed to become bigger and the inscription was shining. Maybe he really had hallucinations? The cross was growing, Rosa bent over to Max and said: − Come to me, my dirty master! The cross became so big that the sexy bra was actually not seen anymore. Max laid his hand on Rosa's neck and pushed her slightly aside. She should give it a try: − Who is Stepan Davidov? Max expected any other reaction like: asking “What?” or “Who?”; laughing; saying he was crazy and she didn't know anyone with such a name; that it was her school-friend or her husband, etc, etc, etc. But what followed his question put Max into a real shock. Rosa dashed to the wall and started screaming as if someone was cutting her fingers. She closed her face with both hands. Her screams were short but very loud. She was crazed, absolutely crazed! Max, punched-drunk by such a reaction, didn't notice immediately that someone was knocking at the door. “Was it closed?” - he asked himself. Rosa probably did that. With some effort he managed to stand up. When he went by Rosa, she began to twitch and shake. Krasnov opened the door. Two nurses looked in scared. No need to mention they both had crosses on. The older one asked: − What's going on here? Max stepped aside so that they could see Rosa from behind the door. She looked like a beaten animal. The nurses rushed to her. She showed a strange reaction again: − Mommy, take me out of here. Please, mommy! The younger nurse looked at Max: − What have you done to her? − Nothing. I just asked her about one person and she started screaming. I think she's out her mind. The nurses lifted Rosa up. Max's secretary was almost fainting. The good thing was that she stopped crying. − And why is she looking like a porno star? Max wanted to answer but the older nurse kicked her colleague: − Stop asking questions. Can't you see, she's unconscious. We must take her to the doctor. Then she looked at Max. Yes, she understood.

− I am coming with you. − No, Mr Krasnov. You stay in bed, please. We'll let you know. They left. But as soon as maxim got to his bed the door opened again and doctor Smirnov came in. − Maxim Anatolyevitch, could you please explain to me... − Doctor! She's my secretary with extra work hours. Any other details are none of your business. Smirnov was calm and didn't show any sign of disgust. A professional. − I agree with you, Maxim Anatolyevitch. And this matter interests me from one and only side: why does your secretary have an attack now? Max paused. − I asked about one man, Stepan Davidov. This was the reaction. − Hm. And who's that? − Don't know myself. The name was written...mmm...in papers I got from my security office. You know, I'm a rich man and I must check people who work for me. The guy has some connection with her, but my boys haven't found out yet which one. So if you do it for me, I'll be very thankful to you. Max tried to smile, but he was too nervous and it was vivid that the doctor noticed it. But the only thing he said was: − Get ready. The nurse will come after you to take you to tomography. 4 Indeed the nurse came soon after. She helped Max to sit on the wheel chair with the natural herewe-go-Mr-Krasnov phrase. Her cross was rather small and Max noticed the date was about the future “22 September 2015”. No names. While lying in the tomographer Maxim was thinking about the whole shit happening to him. It was still clear someone (89% it was Julia) tried to depict him as a psycho. But what a refined method! Could it be that Rosa was such a good actress? Well, yes. At least judging by the things she did in their role-play games. And who was this fucking Stepan Davidov? If he had ever existed. Still, was it also possible he really went crazy after this accident? No, why would he? Then it should have influenced other parts of his brain: memory loss, hysteria, headaches. Well, he had a bit of a headache, but not something special. No, there was definitely no reason to think he'd gone mad. − Ok, Maxim Anatolyevitch, you may stand up. Krasnov didn't notice that he was already out of the machine. − Thank you. − You're very welcome. At first glance your brain is absolutely fine. But we shall go through the tomography results once more – to be sure. The young doctor was smiling as a Cheshire cat. − No problem. We still have time till 4 o'clock. Back again to his wheelchair Max was rolling by the white doors of the long hospital corridor. The nurse following him tried to chat about the possibility of a young lady like her to become a superstar. She was annoying, but, well, all those dreamer were. − Stop! The nurse even screamed after such a sudden interruption. − I am..I'm sorry. I'm..! Max heard Rosa's voice. It came from behind one of the doors. She was crying. − It happened almost everyday. He'd call me to his study and then do all those things with lashes and candles. “What the fuck!”, - Max got it. She was going to depict him as a sadist. Was it a part of Julie's plan? Could his wife send this crazy girl to him herself? Thoughts were flashing in Max's head.

− My mom didn't know at first. “Mom? What is this all about?” − But when I told her, she said I am a little liar and she slapped me. The voice became muffled. Max couldn't hear Rosa anymore. He was angry. When Max first met Rosa, she didn't impress him much. She wore a casual outfit all in black, almost no make-up, hair pulled tight in a pony-tale. Max decided not to take Rosa. He couldn't even imagine this grey mouse fulfilling all secretary's 'duties'. And he did exactly what he planned. Krasnov prefered the usual blonde variant who pleased him even during the first interview. But this silicone babe got some sickness on the second week and Max had to take Rosa for the time the blonde was out. And she surprised him. She really did. Max had to stay at work late at night to prepare urgently a new version of the video clip for one of the Russian starlet's PR campaign. The work didn't go well. Rosa stayed with him. Somewhere near midnight she suddenly opened the door of his study. She was naked. Not even a thong. And he learnt about Rosa. At least the wild part of her. After just one night with her Max fired the blonde doll. Because Rosa gave him much more than good looks and a pair of tits. She gave him adrenalin. Sometimes though Rosa crossed the line. She invented over and over again new methods to keep their sexual relationships on top. She prefered it rough, even sado style. Max wondered when this little girl of 19 learn all those things. − Maxim Anatolyevitch...? Hmm... Krasnov grabbed the nurse's hand and sat up: − Listen. You do whatever it takes you to get me all the details of the conversation inside that room. And I will guarantee you a portfolio in my model company. Deal? The girl was shining. − I will do everything. You can rely on me. − Good. Hurry up, please. I will be waiting for you in my ward. Max made sure the nurse was inside and headed forward. The situation was getting more and more weird. Like a theatre performance or a stupid American movie. − Where can I make a call? Max ran into a male-nurse. − In your room, Mr Krasnov. − Oh, right. − Shall I follow you? − No-no. I am ok. The inscription on his cross was strange: “gay” No dates or any other information. − Fine, Sir. Get better! Why was everyone here so happy? Smiling like idiots. Max turned around to look at the guy again. He hugged a pretty nurse with long hair and then kissed her on the lips not like a 'gay' at all. “Pffff....Ridiculous”. But then the guy did something that made Max choke. The male nurse stopped near the Cheshire doctor from the tomography who had just come out the box and put a sheet of paper in his breast pocket, passing over his chest with his long female-like fingers. This smile said something between “I am all yours” and “Take me right now”. Max rolled his wheelchair thinking that such a detailed performance would cost too much money. Who'd do that? He started to doubt his version that it was Julia. The small incident with the “gay”guy was too strange. It was too realistic. Once in his ward Max picked up the phone and made an important call to his bank manager. The guy was surprised by the rush to transfer half of the money to Switzerland but asked no questions.

“Better be on the safe side”, - Max mumbled. The blonde nurse didn't make him wait too long. In less than half an hour she entered the room gasping for breath. She had been definitely running. − It's...It's like a Santa Barbara story. Poor girl. She's totally mad, but who wouldn't be! Max cut her of immediately: − Can you talk normally? − Yes. Sorry. I was just so very shocked. But first do you promise I will have the photosession? − Agh.. Max took the phone again. − Alex? It's Krasnov. I need you to be in the Sklifasovsky Institute right now... Why would I care? I pay you enough. Throw all your duties away and run where I tell you to.....You will make a photoshooting here for our new model....Yes, right here in the hospital. I am waiting. − He hung up the receiver. The nurse was looking at Max as if he was a talking elephant. − Well..? − I love you, Mr Krasnov! − Are you going to start or not? He was angry again. − Yeah. Sure. As the nurse was going further with her story, Max was feeling more and more sick. 5 Rosa's hysteria had nothing to do with Max. Well, at least not directly. But it was disgusting. When Rosa was 11 her father died and soon after her mother found a new man. He started to live with them almost immediately and seemed a perfect dad for Rosa. At 13 Rosa had her first menstruation and as her mom wasn't home she came up to her step-father scared and glad at the same time. He asked to show him so that he could make sure she didn't hurt herself. But the way he 'checked' her Rosa didn't like from the start. However she didn't dare to say anything. Her step-father was insisting and his actions became more and more aggressive. Every month from that day he'd 'check' Rosa's period 'in details to make sure she's fine'. Finally he made her sleep with him. No need to say his name was Stepan Davidov. Of course Rosa was afraid to tell her mom, especially when their games with Stepan started to cross the line of a normal sex – if it was normal at all to have sex with a teenager. Once he slapped Rosa when she refused to please him because of the project homework she should have done for school. The whole situation made Stepan so excited that the bad-girl-punished-by-her-dad game became his favourite. In time he added other role-plays: master and slave, schoolgirl and teacher, etc, etc. Thus they lived until Rosa turned 17. She had discussions with her mom about her future, as she had finished school already but had nothing on her mind about what to do next. Rosa thought it was a good moment to escape and suggested her going to study to another city, for example Murmansk. Mom wasn't against the idea but she wanted to talk to Stepan first if they could finance it or not. Rosa panicked. − No, please! I mean, I wil find the way to get money myself. I will work. Just please don't talk to Stepan about this! − But why? No, darling, I can't. We're family. We must decide such things together. − But mom... − I said no! And then for the first time in 4 years Rosa broke down. She told everything. She did that without even a tear in her eyes, because she couldn't cry anymore. Her mom was listening with a look of fear on her face. When Rosa finished she slapped her daughter.

− How dare you! How dare you say such things about the man who has been taking care of us for so many years! − Mom... − He was right. I didn't believe Stepan, but he was right. It turned out that the bastard actually got prepared for the moment Rosa would decide to tell everything to her mom. Starting from the day he deflowered her, Stepan began to pour little by little the poison into the ears of his wife. One day he'd say “Rosa has some strange habit, she always goes out from the shower naked”. The other day he'd mention “Rosa asked me if I have sex with you and if I like it” or “Rosa said she'd like her first man to be like me”, etc, etc, etc. So when Rosa confessed her mom was already prepared by Stepan. The poor girl understood that now she had no other choice but to run away. The same night she took a small bag with some clothes, documents and money which she had stolen from Stepan and took the first train St Petersburg-Moscow. There Rosa managed to enter a University, language department and even found a boyfriend. But very soon she understood that many years of sex-enslavement made her as sick as Stepan. The passion for humiliation, role games and menstruation-fetish wouldn't let her go. One boyfriend after another Rosa was trying to find someone suitable for her, but in vain. She was scared of being misjudged and at the same time her phantasies were driving her crazy. She even started to visualize Stepan while having sex with other men. And all this led to drugs, first crack then cocaine. It also turned out that Max was not Rosa's only way to get what she wanted. She visited once a week special parties for people who liked bondage sex. There she could get loose and do all the dirty things she loved so much. When the nurse began to retell the details Max stopped her: − Enough! Get ready for the photo shooting. My employees will be here soon. The nurse smiled with all her 32 teeth again and flew out the ward. The whole story didn't touch Max, though he was irritated, even angry with himself for not checking up Rosa's previous connections. He could easily catch some disease from her. But what was interesting about this all is that it didn't seem a game anymore. The name on the cross was a real one. Or was it still a part of a plan. But then the hysteria, the doctors, the story... Max was rich and many people would like to get his money or break him down. But the whole thing seemed to cost a lot of money too. Another thing that came to his mind was a 'show', kind of a secret camera one. But it was too much, on the other hand. Max pushed the emergency button fixed on his bed. In one minute two male-nurses appeared in the doorway. No need to say the both had crosses on. − Ask doctor Smirnov to come please. I need to talk to him. − Are you ok? − Yes, it's about some medical tests he wanted to make. Just call him. Max just had to do something. He couldn't stay here even till 16.00. It was time to leave. But before that he wanted to check one theory. − How can I help you, Maxim Anatolyevich? Don't tell me you have changed your mind and decided to leave earlier. − Haha. You're a very keen man, doctor. That's true. I want to go home now, but first I want to ask you some questions. − Concerning your secretary,...I believe..Well, she is... − No. Smirnov stopped and looked a bit surprised at Maxim. − No, I am not interested in this issue. She's gone mad and its her problem. Though I'll have to get busy with finding a new secretary, which is not that easy, if you know what I mean. − I can imagine. Smirnov looked away.

− So what did you want to ask then? − Oh, it's nothing special, just curiosity. Who are: Sarah Kempinsky, Ivan Rybkin, Aleksandra Orlova, Stepan Ivanov, Victor... − Are you joking around with me, Maxim Anatolyevich? − Not at all. Smirnov frowned and looked away again. − I don't know why you would need it, Mr Krasnov. But I guess if you know the names then you should know the answer to your question too. − I am not sure, doctor. Correct me if I am wrong. These are people who died because you couldn't save them. The doctor stood up from a small stool he was sitting on. − Exactly, Mr Krasnov. Anything else you'd like to know? − No, thank you. Krasnov smiled. − Then you can get ready. The documents for your release will be ready in 20 minutes. The tomography results will be sent by e-mail. − Great. Thank you, doctor. Smirnov left. Max's heart was beating fast. So, he was right. He thought first that his driver's name and the date of the car-crash on Smirnov's cross were a trick to drive him crazy. But all the other names, and there were so many of them, were just useless there. So, Max was thinking what the could mean. A name and a day. Mikhail died the day they crashed. So... Max could figure it out. But again, wasn't it too much of an effort to make it all up? Or maybe... Then for the first time Krasnov stopped on one thought: the crosses, could they be real? Real...What is reality in this case? Real crosses marking people's tragedies? Or a real proof of Max's madness? His mobile rang. Max looked at the screen. Julia. − Yes. − Baby, I am here in the hospital. Do you want me to come in or..? Silence. Max decided not to help her. − Or what? − Or...shall I go home? Max chuckled. − Am I supposed to drive myself home or what? Wait in the hall – I am coming in 30 minutes. − Ok, baby. 6 When his wife hang up Max dressed more quickly than it was actually allowed in his state. He went downstairs without the help of the wheelchair. On his way he saw the blonde nurse posing in front of the camera. The photographer Alex Mudrats was the best in Moscow despite her age. Max stopped for a minute. The nurse didn't even notice him. She was too busy showing off her tits and ass. Max was thinking she could really become a star with such an attitude. All people needed in Russia's, no! in Moscow's, modern society was sex, bodies and more sex. Max remembered Rosa again. − Hey. Alex came up to Krasnov. − We've just started. Can you tell me the conception maybe? The work would go easier. Alex rolled her eyes. Max bent to her ear and whispered: − Make 500 photos and send them to her by mail. And..., well, send them to Gogolev too. Gogolev was one of the few producers Max had good relations with. “He'll like this piece of cake. And maybe the girl will find her happiness”.

− Ok. Understood. Alex turned around and only then Max realized that there was no cross on her neck. Could that be...? − Alex! − Yes? The photographer was now half-turn fixing the camera. With a warm hopeful feeling Max looked at her chest. It was there, but such a small one that Krasnov had to screw up his eyes to make sure it was the 'right' cross. − No, nothing. Just do what I said. − Ok. Max was going downstairs hoping to be home before lunch, so that he could prepare for the next meeting with Lepatov and well, another hour of sleeping in his own bed could do better. − Baby... Julia looked like a beaten puppy. Max thought to himself that she was crying the whole night judging by the dark ovals under her eyes. But there was one strange thing. The cross had become bigger, a little bigger since their last conversation. Or did it seem like that to Max? It had been dark in the ward that time. But now he could clearly see the inscription on Julie's cross: “Ivan Lyubimov” − Shall we go, baby? I took the documents from the hospital registration desk while you were still upstairs. Without saying a word Max went forward to the exit. The same silence he kept in the car. Julie didn't dare to say anything else. Krasnov was trying to figure out who this person Ivan could be. Another filthy step-father or some unhappy first love from school or...agh! Max got a headache again. This time he was not going to ask directly. He needed unbiased facts. As soon as they came home Max went to his study and locked the door. He could hear Julia standing by the door for a little while and leaving to the other part of their house. Max took a cell phone out of his table: − It's me. I need information. It's urgent, I need it today by the evening. The name is Ivan Lyubimov, connection – Julia Krasnova....Yes, my wife...Ok. This time he needed the truth. Max didn't want to see Julia until he got the information. He needed to be ready and armed to confront her silly smile and I-don't-know-what-is-going-on look. He laid on the sofa, switched the alarm on and fell asleep. Dreaming was not relaxing at all though. Max found himself in the same desert as before. But the skyscraper was gone. He was sitting on a piece of wood surrounded by sand only. He closed his eyes and when he opened them again he saw a man standing in front of him just a few meters away. He was dressed in an old toga all in holes, but relatively clean. His hair was long and straight but Max couldn't see his face clearly from the distance. Only a beard and mustache. Neither could Max stand up to come and see closer. Somehow Krasnov felt paralyzed. The man stared at Max. His lips moved. He was saying something. What was it? Max strained his ears. What? What did he want to say? All of Max's being aimed at hearing. It suddenly became noisy when he almost got the words. The noise was irritating – it was right in Max's ears. He held on his head trying to get it out, to concentrate on the man. And then he fell right onto the sofa in his modern, expensive study. The alarm was peeping like crazy − Fuck! Maxim crashed the alarm clock on the wall. He regretted it then, thinking that Julia might come to see what the noise was, but she didn't. So, he stood up from the sofa and felt again the heaviness and pain in his head. But it was time for any sickness. One of the biggest contracts in his career was waiting for him. Lepatov was a big fish and Max wasn't going to let it swim into someone else's net. He dialed Julia's number. − Come to the study.

The answer sounded surprised. − Now? − Yes. − Baby, I am out....mmmm......with friends. I thought you wanted to be alone. “What a chicken!” He even didn't bother to answer and hang up. That was even better. Max went out of the study and called loudly: − Lena! Silence. − Lena!!! Shuffling steps were heard from the side of the kitchen. Then an old fat lady appeared in the corridor. − Did you call me? Max quickly looked at her cross – nothing special. It was rather big, but the inscription was boring: “Oleg stupov 21.10.200” - the day when Lena's husband died. Lena worked as a maid in Max's house for nearly 15 years. Actually she was his first maid, first servant, first symbol of his wealth. The reason why he still kept her was not sentiments or a fear that she can reveal his secrets or any other soap-opera reason. It was a mere convenience. Lena knew all Max's habits, likes and dislikes. She knew when she was needed, she knew when it's better to vanish for a while. She never asked questions or dared to look at Max with any kind of judgment. Max wasn't sure if Lena could be part of the plan. She had very good salary and would hardly want to betray him. But people are greedy. Sometimes money can change their whole lives, characters, connections, relationships. Krasnov knew it like noone else. And what was he to her? - Just a spoiled millionaire she worked for. − Lena, bring me my suit. I don't want to go upstairs. And call to my office, they should send me a new driver. − He's already here. Max heard the tremble in her voice when she said that. − And order some flowers from my name to Misha's funerals. They're tomorrow, right? − Yes. I will do so. − And a card for his wife. − Ok. − And bring me also something small to eat. Lena nodded, but didn't move. − What? Do you have anything to tell me? − Maxim Anatolyevich... Max saw tears coming to Lena's eyes. − What's wrong. If it's about Misha, it was his own... And then this silent, shy old woman did something he couldn't predict. She hugged him. So tight and warm that it made Max speechless for a while. Lena's big hot tears were running down his neck. − I am so glad you're alive. I prayed for you. I am so glad. Max was taken aback. It took him at least 5 minutes to come into his senses and move the crying woman away. − Stop it, ok! I am fine and.. − I know, I know. I am sorry, Maxim Anatolyevich. Forgive your old stupid maid. When Lena was wiping her tears Max noticed a very strange thing. There were other inscriptions on her cross and they were slowly disappearing. “Maxim Krasnov”. Max stopped breathing for a moment. He could really see it – the letters slowly fading away.

7 − I will bring you a sandwich and a cup of tea to your study. − Y-yeah... When Lena was leaving through the corridor Max was still standing without moving. How could it all happen to him? And why? Was it the effect of those two marihuana cigarettes he smoked a week ago? Was it some curse? Or the best special effects ever? Even Spielberg would be jealous of such a plot. He was tired. He was so tired because of all this fairy tale, nightmare! A total nightmare! Max rubbed his temples and entered his study again. In 10 minutes Lena brought the food. And in 20 more minutes Max was in his Bentley #2. Going to the office could have been a deja-vu but Max's head felt much different from yesterday morning. He tried to focus on Lepatov and the project but his thoughts were drifting somewhere to the man in toga. Max was sure that the man had something important to say. − Debita! The word stroke as a flash right into Max's ears. No! No. He misheard. It's just the pain in the head. − Debita! Krasnov pushed into the seat. He heard it again. Debita. What could that mean? − Debita!!! His head was aching like hell. − Stop the car! The driver whose name Max didn't bother to ask pushed the brakes to the limits and the luxurious car stopped in the middle of Sadovoye ring – the busiest road of the city of Moscow. Max didn't hear any of the curse words poured at him. He didn't hear his driver calling him, he even didn't hear the alarm signals of a police car coming to him. − Debita! Debita! Debita! Hundreds of voices were screaming this single word. − Debita! Max was running now among all those cars. But the awful scream was far in front. Finally he ran into an open door of a golden car. Max managed not to fall but injured his knee badly. − Maxim? Looking up from the knee Krasnov saw the face of the only person he'd like to avoid this moment – Lepatov's. − A-Aleksandre... The producer stood with his hands in the pockets. The posture was the most seen in tabloids and red-carpet parades. The difference was a huge black cross hanging on his neck. It was not the same as those Max had seen before. He stared at the wooden cross and suddenly understood that the black colour was nothing but ashes. The cross was burning lightly. Lepatov wasn't saying a word. He was studying Max's face and then chuckled. − Aleksandre..I... Krasnov started his explanation but Lepatov pushed him slightly on his shoulder. Only then Max looked in his would-be partner's eyes. The white of his eyes was all red like the one of a bull. Words stuck in Max's throat. The producer smiled and sat back into his car. The word “Debita” sparkled on his burning cross. Someone caught Max by the hand. A policeman. − Are you nuts? What are you doing, mother fucker? Krasnov took a two-hundred-euro banknote and slipped it into the officer's breast pocket without even looking at him. The policeman took the salute and followed Max to his car. − Next time be careful, Sir. − I will. Freezing from fear Max sat back into his Bentley. − Shall I take you home, Maxim Anatolyevich?

Max was silent. − Maxim Anatolyevich...? − Profsoyuznaya, 17. − Certainly, Sir. Voices in Max's head became silent but he still saw Lepatov and his cross. He couldn't get rid of this vision. He needed help. Max knew only one person in the world who could help him right now. But would she accept him? When they were almost on Profsoyuznaya street the mobile from the drawer rang. “So fast?” Krasnov thought to himself. − Yes...Ok. Send it to Profsoyuznaya, 17... And I give double for burning any copies...Deal...The usual way. Another secret would be opened soon. − Stop somewhere at the flower shop. − Certainly, Sir. White orchids were her favourite. Coming out of the car next to the house 17, Max remembered how ugly it had always seemed to him. A five-story building was a reminder of Khruschev's times – greyish, small with tiny apartments and stinky porches. Ground floor, apartment 26. There was no bell, so Max knocked three times. He had to wait five minutes, not less, before the door was finally opened. An old woman in even older clothes was standing in the doorway. The flowers Max had in his hands were now lying on the dirty floor. The cross this woman had was as big as her and she was kind of holding it with her hands put together on her belly – her usual posture since long ago. There were many inscriptions on the cross but the biggest and the darkest one was “Maxim” with no surname or date. When she saw Max her face cringed from pain and the letters on her cross started to shine. − I came...I need to talk. I am sorry. I just need... The woman put out her right hand: − Is it you? Is it really you? Max inclined his head. − It's me, mom... Max touched his mother's fingers and burst into tears like a child. The old woman spread now her both hands to Krasnov and held him tight. Max was crying and his tears were coming down the cross. It became bigger then smaller then bigger again. And Max could feel it, the wood, the inscribed names and dates, the size. He fell on his knees and let his pain out. Thus they were standing for nearly half an hour: him crying and her repeating “There, there, my heart! Don't cry!” Finally when the tears were gone Max stood up and whispered: − Can I come in? I need to talk to you. It's very serious. − Of course you can. I have just prepared a soup. Are you hungry? This simple question brought so many memories that Max wanted to cry again. Nothing changed in his mothers habits, words, manners. She was the same as 12 years ago when he last saw her. The apartment didn't change a lot either and the smell, this smell was exactly the one Max put deep into his memories for not to feel or think of it again. − Yes, mom. I am hungry. Max sat on an old wooden stool in the 6 m2 kitchen and was trying to put in words everything he wanted to tell. − Mom, I haven't visited you all this time, because ….well, I thought maybe... − Maxim, I know. You were busy. I told this to our neighbour Masha. Remember this old gossiper? She said you're never going to come back. That you forgot about me because you have a beautiful life now and there is no place for your old mother there, that I don't suit in. But I told her to shut up, because I knew one day you'll come to see me. I can only imagine her stupid face when I tell her you are here.

Something broke in Max's chest when he was listening to her. “Debita”...How could he forget? − Mom, I am a sinner. I forgot about you...I wasn't going to come. I came now because I think I am dying and because I need your help. I even didn't send you money and I was thinking you're dead and... − Maxim... Krasnov's mom stopped hustling about the dinner, put her hands back on the belly and held her cross once again. − Mom, will you listen to me? Please... I need to let it all out... − Of course, my heart. She sat down on the other stool and peered Max with her deep, tired eyes. He told her everything. And even more than that. He started with the cross-visions and ended up with all the crimes he committed these years. His mom didn't interrupt him, but the cross became bigger and bigger. When Max finished, she wiped off the only teardrop on her cheek. − This reminds me of your father, son. − I don't remember him. − Yes, it started long before you were born. − But you said he was a good person. − He was. That's why he died, helping others to bear their crosses. Max wasn't sure he understood her. − Mom, did you hear what I said? I am either going crazy or my brain was injured after that stupid accident. − No, dear. You're not going crazy. You're going normal, if you ask me. She stood up and went out of the kitchen. − Mom? − Come here! Max crossed the narrow corridor and entered the living-room. His mom stood now on her knees in front of an icon of Archangel Michael. − Stand on you knees and thank our Lord for helping you. − Helping me? Mom, you know I am not religious. I mean, please...What shall I do? − I already told you what to do. Come. Max got down on his knees. − Close your eyes, dear. His mother started with “Our Father”, then “Hail, Mary” and then “The Soul of Christ”. Max tried to repeat after her, but his head went dizzy again and he wanted to stop. But his mom's hand was grabbing him strongly and he seemed not to have enough strength to move. A nausea came to his chest, but he couldn't even open his eyes. The eyelids were so heavy. When he was about to faint Max felt some breeze. Suddenly his body became very light and all the unpleasant feelings were gone in one second. Max opened his eyes and found himself in the same desert as in his dream, sitting on the same piece of wood. 8 Max inhaled deeply and looked around him trying to catch the sight of the man he had seen before. − I am here. The voice came from above. Max looked up and saw the man in toga sitting as if on the ground. His eyes were closed and it seemed as if he was enjoying the sun and the breeze. Max swallowed once and cleaned his throat. He needed to ask the question he wanted to ask all this time. − Yes. − Wh-what? − The answer is yes. The man slowly came down and when he stepped on the sand Max felt himself even better than a minute before when the nausea and dizziness went away.

− I am glad you could make it here, son. But that's the beginning. You will have to go through a bigger challenge. − I don't quite understand... The man was with his eyes closed but his face was turned to Max – an average face of an average man in his thirties. − You do. Just open yourself to the truth. I need you. − Need me? What for? Listen...you said yes, you said my answer is yes. Then, you should know what the question was. I wanted to know, if I went crazy...and you say yes. − Of course you did. Look, what have you done with your life, with your gift, with your love? You went crazy. You sold it all out for something which cannot even be named ashes. You went crazy long time ago, when you left me. − Oh, please, stop! I don't get it. I don't understand what it all should mean. The man turned his back to Krasnov. − My heart is in pain, for many years. I need you to come back to me, I need your help and your love. But it's your choice. You are getting better, yet you need more time. I will wait for you. The wind started to blow stronger and stronger, the sand suddenly went up in the air. Max could barely keep sitting. The piece of wood under him was going to fly up any minute. The last thing Max saw before the wind took him away were deep blue eyes of the man and his warm smile. − Forgive me! Max shouted as loud as he could through the thick sand storm. − Forgive me, please! The nausea was back and he couldn't keep his eyes open anymore. − I forgive you, son. The voice was different. The wind was gone again. − Mom...I saw... Max was again in his mother's living room. − I forgive you dear, don't worry. I am your mom. I love you. − I love you too, mom. Max's mother was holding his head, while he was lying on the floor. Her hands in his hair felt so good, that he was almost falling to another dimension again. − Mom...I saw.. Max repeated again. − No-no, dear. I will never understand that. Your father tried to explain it to me once, but I couldn't understand. The only thing I knew is that he helped people. The rest is not for my simple mind. Max stood up from the floor. − Mom, I have to go now. I promise I will be back tomorrow. And you pack all your things. You are moving to my place now. − Oh, dear. It's not necessary. I feel good here. We spent 20 years with your father in this flat. I wouldn't like to change it for something else. − We'll talk about it tomorrow, ma. But I really have to go now. − Yes dear, sure. I will wait for you tomorrow. Coming up to his car, Max saw a man with a package next to it. Right, he forgot about the courier. − Enigma? − Dual. It was a usual password. Without any other words the courier handed the package to Max and quickly left. The driver opened the door. − Home. − Certainly, Sir.

The way to Max's home was about two hours long. Moscow was a big traffic jam now. But the time went fast for Krasnov. The documents he received reminded a soap opera script rather than real life facts. Julia was born in a village 300 km away from Moscow, her parents both died from drinking when she was still a school girl. She was sent to an orphanage where she finished school and apparently got pregnant. But as soon as she turned 18 she was thrown out from the orphanage literary to the street, because the flat given to her by the government was sold by her to the orphanage's principle for 1000 rubles. The copy of the deed of gift was also enclosed. “1000 rubles. What a silly girl!” Max knew it was a fraud, but who'd care about a pregnant teenager who had no one to stand up for her. It wasn't mentioned what Julia did for the next year, but in the year 2000 she registered her son Ivan Lyubimov in the municipal house in Shcherbinka town of the Moscow region. − Son... − Pardon, Sir? − No, nothing. So it was her son. Well, understandable she didn't tell Max. He would never marry a woman with such a burden. But when Krasnov turned the next page the only thing he felt was pain. And this feeling was so new that first he thought it was a heart attack. Clinical documents started with Ivan's born blindness due to prematurity, then an arm sarcoma at the age of 3 and a brain tumor two years ago. That's almost when they got married. Afterwards the boy had 3 consecutive neural operations and was preparing to the forth one next month. The costs were more than high. The clinics situated in Italy and each surgery was as expensive as 100 000 euro. “Shopping in Milan, ha?” - Max thought to himself - “Household money?” How could he be such a fool? Max got angry again. When they were driving up to his house he called Julia. − Yes, Maxim. “No babies any more?” − Julie, are you at home? − Yes, I was back as soon as you called me back then. − Ok, I'll be home in 15 minutes or so. Prepare some pancakes and tea for me. − Yes, sure. I will tell Lena... − No, do it yourself. I want you to make them....Please. − Sure, I will. She sounded very sad. But it wasn't time for pitying. In half an hour when Max's car finally reached his luxurious house overcoming the last jam, it was already getting dark. He went immediately to the dining room and found Julia there sitting at the big round table they used only for receptions. − Hi. − Hi. She looked at him with fear, the one that only children may have – silent fear. Max could hear his wife's heart beating. − I cooked the pancakes. I don't know which ones you like more. I made with cheese and with cream and with french jam. − Thank you, Julie. Max took his place and observed the table. She did her best. − Which ones you like, Julie? − Me? Don't know. All of them, I guess. Julia understood that something was wrong with Max. He could see it in her eyes. She was worried. − I prefer with cheese, especially when the cheese melts inside. He took one and sliced it. − Yeah, just like that. After another pause of chewing and yammying he finally asked: − And which ones does your son like?

Julia coughed, then grabbed her own head. − How did you...? Oh, well it doesn't matter. Her usual voice changed in a second. She sat straight and confronted Max with a firm and very selfassured look, something Krasnov had never noticed. − I will go pack my stuff. I hope you'll let me take the jewelery. This were your presents...And I would like to have my clothes too...and... − Have you ever...? Max interrupted his wife. − What? − Have you ever felt anything like love next to me, Julie? She was still looking straight in his eyes. − Yes, I have always felt love next to you...love to my son. And I am thankful to you for your help. − I didn't help, Julie. And I wouldn't have, if you told me before. − I know. That's why I am leaving now. If you are going to sue me, I will understand, but if possible not earlier than October, please. − Julie... Max stood up and came close to her. She didn't move back but for the first time he felt no warmth coming from her. She was cold and distant. That was all over. Did he love her? No, not really. − You can take the jewelery, the furs and the clothes. You will also have an apartment for you and your son. And I will pay for all the surgeries and treatment needed. − Maxim, you shouldn't. It's my cross, I can bear it myself. − I am sure you can, but that's kind of aliments I am giving you. And well, your cross will be less heavy then. These were not only the words. While they were speaking Julia's cross became double big the moment he told her about what he knew and then triple small when he mentioned the aliments. − And you don't have to leave right now. Wait till tomorrow. The driver will take you to your new place. I think you'll like it. It has a nice view on Moskva-river. Julia could but whisper: − Thank you... Krasnov put his arms around her for a minute. It was clearly the last time he would be able to do it. Epilogue − Aleksey, I am not asking you about your opinion where and why to invest. I am telling you, no! I am ordering you to transfer one million to that hospital...!....Because I want so!....And this doesn't interest me either. The Japanese can wait another month. Wait I have the second line call....Yes. Oh, hi, mom. And how did it go?....Glad. Yeah, he's the best in this field...... No, mom, don't bake anything again...... Because you spoil my reputation and such.....Ok, I won't argue. Kiss Julie for me.....Ok, I will call you back. Business can't wait.....hahha...No, but I will think about it. Bye, ma......Now, listen to me carefully, you do what I tell you. If not, you're fired. Maxim Krasnov switched the bluetooth off and pushed the pedal a little more. It was night already in Moscow – the most lit time of the round-clock. Neon lights reminded a big fire, probably as big as the one of the Napoleon's times. Most of the cars were 'sleeping' next to their masters' homes, the roads were empty and allowed Max's BMW to go faster. He had a real pleasure driving now, it was something he hadn't experienced for many years now and it was fun again. Krasnov decided to make another circle in the city-center before going back home. Basmannaya Street, Sadovoye Ring and finally Christ the Savior Cathedral – the most beautiful building lit with hundreds of lights, gorgeous, huge... Max stopped for a minute to enjoy the view and then he saw something next to the cathedral. It was moving slowly, more like crawling. A big tree or kind of a

poll with two big brunches. But what made Max park his car and run to the tree/poll was the light surrounding it. It wasn't any kind of bulb or neon illumination. This kind of light Max saw only once before in his dream when talking to the man in toga. Coming closer Max slowed down. “It can't be!” There he was standing in front of the beggar-girl he met several months ago just before the car-crash. She seemed even smaller than when he saw her for the first time. Or did it seem like that because of a huge wooden cross she bore on her shoulders. It was like a giant tree, all riddled with signs and inscriptions. They were shining with yellow and orange and the whole cross had some kind of an aura all around it. The girl stopped her slow journey and looked up onto Max. She could barely raise her head. Of course she didn't recognize him. − Don't hit me. I am leaving. She didn't cry, neither did she look sad anymore. − I won't hit you. I...You don't remember me, but we met... − My mother died yesterday. They threw her away in the big garbage bin. Max felt as if his heart was pierced with a knife. − I took her out, but they didn't let me bury her. They burned her. These are the ashes. The small girl showed a plastic bag with something that used to be a human body. − I wanted to give them to the church. But they're closed already. Max gulped his tears. − We will bury her. I promise. And come, come with me. − No, you will do bad things. I don't like them. God says they're not right. − Listen, I will not do anything with you. I swear. − Swears don't mean anything to people. The girl made two steps back from Max and then he understood that there was only one way to convince her. He came up to her quickly and bolstered the cross with his weight. The cross went up and freed the beggar's shoulders. − What did you do? − Nothing. I am just helping you. Max felt the heaviness of the cross. He wondered how this small girl could bear it. As he was rising with the cross put on his neck and shoulders, the girl was rising too, her face becoming surprised, turned to Max. − How can you do it? Max smiled. − It's easy, you just have to see a bit more than others. Do you trust me? The girl stood very straight now, she did touch the cross but only because of the rope attached to it hanging on her neck. The whole weight was on Max's body now. − I do. The beggar held the plastic bag closer to her chest. − Ok. Then we shall first go home, have a nice dinner. But first you'll have a bath. And then dinner. Lena cooks so well. Oh, you'll see Lena, she's a great cook! The best one. She will cook anything you want...You know... As they were walking together, the girl, whose name Max was only preparing to know, grabbed his sleeve so tight that the coat was about to tear. And as they were walking like that the cross became lighter. Max was crying....He finally could here the voice again: − Thank you, son. I love you too.

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