This is the first novel of a futuristic urban duology. It’s the story about freedom of creativity, about freedom of expression and freedom to be yourself. It’s the story about the search of the right way to follow, the way of your heart.
St. Petersburg, Russia, 20XX.
Four best friends, young, talented and ambitious try to find their own way in a reality where people can’t speak and even think freely.
Laura Danco is a young talented designer who returns to the city after studying and working in the UK. Friends tell Laura about new controlling institution, the Department of Censorship. All media sources are under control, government opposition is destroyed completely, minorities are under threat. Everyone who resists is obliterated.
She tries to live an ordinary life of every young person in a big city—friends, relationships, travels, parties…Everything is changing when a reputable design company employs her as an assistant to a dangerously attractive, scandalous architect and designer, Daniel Polanskiy, whose ambitious and outstanding projects don’t comply with the government views and its dictated taste. Daniel’s colleagues believe he is insane, the media calls him Russian Gaudi, the Department of Censorship watches his every movement.
The situation becomes even more complicated, when Laura meets her Uni-mate from the UK, Mark Evans. Completely lost between two absolutely different characters, friendly, amiable Mark and sophisticated, bad-tempered, but ingenious Daniel, she straggles to whom to give her heart.
The future looks bleak for Laura, as the company gets into trouble when the Tax Office conducts a detailed financial audit, the Department gives Daniel the final warning, and one of four friends is killed by his boyfriend and Laura’s colleague.
The plot leads characters thought many challenges—from love to betrayal, from revenge to a murder. Will they find their way to follow?
St. Petersburg, Russia, 20XX
‘I can’t believe it!’ Axel Lisarovich exclaimed coming to the table where one of his best friends, Laura Danco, had already been waiting for him and his sister. ‘Haven’t seen you for how long?’
‘More than three years,’ Laura smiled and kissed his smooth, pale cheek.
‘You look fantastic,’ Christina, Axel’s sister and Laura’s Uni mate, gave her a kiss as well.
‘We’re happy that you’re back,’ brother interrupted her. ‘Here we are, all together in our city. What can be better?’
Laura only smiled in reply. The siblings took a seat and started to look through the menu.
She couldn’t resist staring at them both. Thank, God! Her best friends didn’t change much in three years she had been studying and working abroad.
Alexei (such a common name), or Axel (sounded posh enough), was not very tall, but slim and perfectly built. The exquisite face’s features, big green eyes, long thick black lashes, dark, ideally trimmed and finished hairdo, pale skin…Laura must admit, he was the most attractive guy she had ever seen. She wasn’t surprised when about three years ago, as Laura had already been packing her suitcases to go to England, Axel announced that he met a nice guy from Germany and was going to move in with him. His sister was against it, but Laura supported him. She remembered their last conversation before both of them left the city:
‘You know better than me that there is no place for such a nice, handsome gay guy like you here. You’d better go…’ she said to him.
He had never talked much about why he came back though. Christina, or just Chris as all her friends called her, knew the truth, but never shared it with anybody.
‘…And the weather is just shocking,’ Chris comment pulled Laura out of her reverie. ‘Can somebody explain to me where our air taxes are going?’
‘Our air taxes?’ Laura couldn’t believe her ears.
‘Oh, you probably haven’t got the utility bills yet,’ Axel chuckled. ‘The government introduced a new tax for St.Petersburg citizens. They said the air is too humid and too polluted by car’s exhausts so they built special stations round the city. They’re supposed to clean the air and make it a bit drier. So, we’re paying for the air now.’
‘That’s ridiculous!’ Laura jumped up from her chair. ‘This city was built on swamps and lowlands. The humidity is always close to 99 percent. What do they want?’
Chris shrugged: ‘It’s so obvious, and it doesn’t bother them that their great project doesn’t work. This summer is hot and surprisingly dry, so why do we need to pay to make it even drier?’
Laura didn’t respond as she heard a very familiar voice behind her back, ‘Welcome back, baby.’
Everyone turned around.
Miriam Shtelman, or just Miri, had lived next door to Laura since they were very young, so the girls didn’t even remember when exactly they became friends.
‘Shabbat shalom to latecomers!’ Axel greeted her loudly.
‘Shalom, shalom to all the losers,’ Miri was straightforward as usual.
‘Still the same sarcasm,’ Laura said as she hugged her.
Miri took a seat and made an order to the waitress who finally came.
‘It seems like I’m the only person among us who goes to work. It’s six o’clock and you all are already sitting in the café,’ she muttered irritably.
‘By the way, how is your job search?’ she asked Laura when the guys calmed down.
‘It isn’t’, Laura shrugged. ‘I’m afraid the designer is not that popular of a profession on job market nowadays. If I would study law, for example, I could work for the Department. I’ve heard they pay a silly amount of money.’
‘No!’ the friends booed her all together.
‘Don’t tell us you regret.’
‘I’m joking,’ she laughed. ‘I don’t want to bore you with my problems, anyway. I see your working career is growing, but how about…all other things?’
She made a meaningful pause.
‘Yeah. What is this guy’s name…Isaac? Do you still talk to him?’ Chris added.
‘No. It’s all over. We broke up and got back together lots of times. But for what? He’s there and I’m here. He found a good, interesting job last time we talked. He doesn’t want to move here, and I don’t want to move back,’ seemed like this question hit her where it hurts.
‘Well, I do believe in long distance relationships,’ Axel nodded. ‘If you’d really loved him, it wouldn’t have been an issue.’
‘I don’t know,’ Miri shrugged. ‘He just turned to the dark side. He wasn’t like that when we were in the army. Now I see only a selfish, arrogant, stubborn guy who doesn’t want to accept any compromises, and wants everything to be about him…not for both of us.’
‘What do you think changed him so much?’ Laura asked. ‘Your decision to come back?’
‘I don’t know,’ Miri looked tired and confused. ‘I think…I know it sounds weird, but I think the dangers of the war brought us together. It was sort of an adventure where the price was so high, but that made our relationships even more romantic and passionate. We were young, stupid, adventurous. The war finished, we found that nothing else connected us. This “military romanticism” had just disappeared and we needed to grow up and start a new life in peace; trying not to be solders, but just a man and a woman. We failed. Maybe that was my fault as well.’
Everybody went quiet. Miri bowed her head and kept silent as well. The pictures of her comrades-in-arms, the desert, the sounds of guns and explosions somewhere in another place raced through her mind.
‘Guys, cheer up,’ Axel broke the silence. ‘We all came back to our city and should start a new page of our life. So, try to make this process as pleasant as possible.’
‘Any ideas how to start it?’
‘As for you, darling…First of all, you should find a job.’
‘And a new boyfriend,’ Chris agreed with her brother. ‘Forget about your Vlad. You don’t have future with him. You must’ve understood that long before your trip to England.’
‘Maybe you need only a new boyfriend…If you’re lucky enough,’ Axel nodded.
‘Typical Axel. Nothing changes in this world.’
‘Well, at least in case of a well-off boyfriend you won’t need to claim benefits, and can look for a job as long as you wish. Look at me. I’ve never ever claimed anything from the government, and proud of it. I’ve never been on the dole.’
‘Because he claims benefits from his boyfriends,’ Chris grinned.
‘I don’t,’ Axel protested. ‘They give me everything I want. You’re just jealous, that they’re so generous.’
‘Where are they all now, your generous boyfriends?’ Miri teased him. ‘You’re working so hard now in this…is it the events company you work for?’
‘Where am I supposed to meet a boyfriend? Clubs, bars, galleries, web-sites, media-everything that can put up a rainbow flag on. Even hinting to gay relationships, somehow, has been officially forbidden. You can’t talk about such things nowadays. And please, don’t speak so loudly about it. We could get a warning from the Department. We’re in a public place after all. The last time Chris was so careless and loud about discussing my private life in the café, we nearly got into trouble. Two of the Department’s officers were sitting right next to our table and heard the whole story.’
‘Wait a minute,’ this news confused Laura even more than the air tax. ‘Officially forbidden? Can’t talk? This is something new…I know the Department is getting more and more involved in censorship and cultural issues, but… ’
‘Don’t you read or watch the news? Don’t tell me you know nothing about the new Department rules. They are as fertile as cats. Every month they come up with new laws, new restrictions, and new rules.’
‘Ah,’ Laura tried to remember the last news she had read, ‘I did read something about that.’
‘The Department of Censorship gave an order to close all gay-clubs at the beginning of this year,’ Chris shook her head. ‘They said it’s immoral and dangerous for our society. They even started to monitor art exhibitions and theatres.’
‘The Department shut down all media which belonged to opposition first…’ Laura was reminded of the old story about Miri’s farther, the journalist. He was banned from writing, the newspaper he worked for had been shut down, and even more, the Department forced him to leave the country.
‘They got rid of opposition, and then it was the foreign businesses. They’re moving further now,’ Axel moved his chair closer to Laura’s and whispered. ‘Now they are going after gay people…Who will be next, Laura? What will be next?’
Laura nodded to Miri: ‘Cleanings…’
The guys looked at Miri as well.
‘Well, with a name and appearance like yours, darling…’ Axel shook his head in agreement.
‘What do you have against my appearance?’
‘Nothing, but the Department does.’
‘You needed to lie about your parents to get this job,’ Chris reminded her of an unpleasant incident.
‘They needed a person who speaks Hebrew. They would’ve employed me anyway,’ Miri only shrugged. ‘I just didn’t want people to ask too many questions about my family.’
Her friends kept silent.
‘Guys, let’s talk about something more positive than the Department of Censorship,’ Miri finally broke the heavy pause. You probably have nothing to do this weekend, right?’
‘Do you have something in mind?’
‘Mmm…Just wanted to suggest you to go to the lake. Like go back in the good old days. The lake, the tents, silence…No people, no smog, no dust and noise of the city. It’s a crime to sit at home during such weather. The forecast promised even higher temperature this weekend. So, do you want to suffocate in the city, or spend time near the cool and clean lake?’
‘Good old days,’ Axel repeated her. ‘The last time we were there you and Laura tried to make a fire on my belly. You were drunk as fish.’
‘Because you were drunk as well, and fell asleep right in the middle of the camp where we usually make a fire to cook.’
‘Listen, guys,’ Laura interrupted them. ‘Last time was quite a bit ago. We were young and stupid. Now, I have no intention to drink a lot… we may go without the alcohol.’
‘How can we go camping without it!? ‘Axel asked.
‘Hm… I was hoping you’d drive, Axel. You’re the only one who has a car.’
‘What? You want me to go, and then you want me to drive? That means I won’t drink!’
‘At least it will protect you against us setting a fire on your belly,’ Miri shrugged.
‘I’m too old for such things. I want a posh hotel with a cozy room and a cup of coffee in bed,’ Axel objected.
‘So… who wants to go and who doesn’t?’ Miri asked, tired of persuasions.
‘By bus or by car?’
‘Well…if your brother doesn’t want to drive…’
Everybody looked at Axel.
‘Right,’ he muttered reluctantly. ‘I can’t leave you alone in a hot, overcrowded bus.’
‘We’re going then?’ Laura got excited as she really hadn’t planned anything for the weekend, and the prospects of spending it in the melting city didn’t attract her at all.
Everybody agreed on that.
They spent a little bit more time just chatting and then decided to go back home.
Axel and Chris suggested giving Laura and Miri a lift. Miri went with the guys. Laura decided to have a short walk to the metro station, as it was evening and the air became cooler. As her friends left, Laura crossed the small bridge across Griboyedova canal and walked to Nevskiy Avenue.
The white nights were in full swing, and the sun didn’t leave the sky. It became grey like before rain, and the shadows just disappeared. Neva River joined the horizon, and watching the ships there, you never know if they are moving in the water or flying in the air. The buildings, the monuments, the canals, the quays-everything starts to live its own secret life.
The next morning, the guys came about 10 o’clock, as promised, to pick Laura up. Chris and Miri were already in the car.
‘We’ve gone shopping without you, so we’re going directly to the lake,’ Miri told Laura when she packed her stuff into the boot and settled in the back seat. ‘Axel is afraid of traffic.’
‘Axel bought five bottles of vodka and his bicycle with us,’ Chris tried to cheer up her friend.
‘What? Why did you bring your bicycle?’
‘Seems like five bottles of vodka didn’t surprise you…’
‘No, I just don’t want you to try to teach me how to ride a bicycle again,’ Laura still remembered last time when the guys tried to teach her.
‘That’s why I brought vodka,’ Axel explained. ‘I’m sure after several shots you’ll become a professional cyclist. Besides, it’s a new one…with electronic gear control. You haven’t driven such a bicycle yet.’
Meanwhile, continuing to chat, joke and laugh, the friends left the city outskirts. The lake was about two and a half hours drive from the city, close to the Finnish boarder. Lost deep in the pine forest, it was their secret place where they used to escape from the noise and bustle of the big city. Axel and Chris came here with their parents when they were kids. It was not only a place for camping and hanging out with friends, but also a place full of memories, childhood dreams and hopes.
The road turned to the forest. The track was narrow, but dry, as there had not been much rain this summer. The car bounced on every hole and bump.
‘Fasten your seat belts, guys. Not long now,’ Axel warned.
‘Good thing you have a high car,’ Laura nodded.
Axel’s massive car, which he had bought right after returning from Germany, powered by the hydrogen engine, moved slowly deeper into the forest. After fifteen minutes, the lake appeared behind the pines. Axel drove slowly along the shore about another ten minutes, and finally they had arrived at their destination.
The large meadow stretched between the pines. Two narrow, curving paths went to the shore. The calm surface of the lake went far beyond the horizon, clouds floating in the sky reflected in the crystal clear water. It looked more like a sea. They couldn’t see the other shore across the lake.
Axel parked the car, looked around and smiled:
‘Finally… Let’s get the party started!’
‘First of all, I want you to put up a tent,’ Chris wanted to be in charge.
Meanwhile, Laura and Miri started to unpack the boot.
‘Let me relax for five minutes. You made me drive here, now you want me to put up the tent,’ Axel protested. ‘It’s very useful to have a brother like me. You can take advantage as you like: when you need to go shopping for a new dress, or when you need a DIY job done, or to put up a tent…You use me all the time.’
‘Because you’re the only man in our company,’ his sister objected. ‘Who else should I ask?’
‘I can act as a man here,’ Miri interrupted their debates.
‘Miri volunteered to be a man today,’ Laura caught her. ‘So, you’ll put up a tent with Axel…Now we have two men and two girls. All is fair.’
‘What am I supposed to do if Axel refuses to do his job? If he’s too lazy to press two buttons on a remote-control to start an installation program,’ Miri muttered, ‘somebody should grow balls and do it instead of him.’
‘Tell me when they grow up. I’ll marry you, and then we’ll be a wonderful gay couple,’ Axel chuckled.
‘Now I understand why we need so much vodka,’ Laura said with a laugh.
Continuing to joke and laugh, the friends put up a tent for four people, set up a barbeque and other kitchen appliances, and sorted out food and drinks. When everything had been finished, everybody relaxed as they wanted. Laura found a place on the shore to sunbathe. Miri said she needed to check her e-mail, and settled under the tree with the surface. Chris and her brother took fishing rods and sandwiches, and went fishing down the lake.
The weather was amazing. The sun was shinning, and a light breeze softly touched Laura’s body. She breathed fresh, clean air, and felt happily relaxed. All her problems had dissapeared, and seemed like some unreal thing which left far, far away in the past. She didn’t want to think about anything or anybody. Her mind was clear. She wanted only to be in here and now.
Unfortunately, her wonderful mood was rudely interrupted. Miri’s shouting brought her back to this cruel world.
‘Fucking hell!’ Laura heard her friend’s annoyed voice.
Miri appeared on the shore.
‘What happened?’ Laura raised her head.
‘I got an e-mail from our partners in Israel.’
‘What’s wrong? What’s the urgency?’
‘We have a seminar a week after next, so a group of four people is coming,’ Miri sat on the sand next to Laura. ‘They sent me a list of names. I need to arrange the invitations for the visas, permissions from the Department, transfers, to book the premise for the seminar, and all this crap.’
‘Well…nothing new for you there if only they want you to do it straight away today.’
‘Not today. On Monday morning, but…’
She pointed to the screen. The first name on the list of guests was “Isaac Ridenberg”.
‘No way!’ Laura looked shocked. ‘Maybe it’s a different person? Namesake or something?’
‘Another person with the same ID? They sent me all the documents. I need to show them to the Department.’
Laura kept silent and didn’t know how to support her friend.
‘The world is a small place, isn’t it?’ Miri grinned.
‘Did you know that he got a job at this company?’ Laura asked after a long pause.
‘The last time we talked was a while ago. He just mentioned that he found a job that was something he really wanted to do; something related to his research…’
‘I thought he was a doctor.’
‘No, he studied cytology, or genetic engineering, or something like that. I don’t understand these things,’ Miri tried to remember. ‘He wanted to be a doctor when we were in the army, but abandoned the idea and tried to do some research. Seems like his efforts were successful. He got a job he wanted.’
‘Well…I’m really happy for him, but what are you going to do?’
Miri sighed deeply and stared somewhere far away to the blue line of the horizon, where the waters of the lake met the blue sky.
‘I’m fed up of constant drama, mutual reproaches, childish secrets created from nothing, putting himself in charge of everything, and all the crap I experienced with Isaac.’
‘What are you going to do? If he doesn’t want to talk to you, that would be good, but if he wants to get back together?’
‘I really hope he has met somebody and settled down. If he doesn’t try to communicate apart from working issues, I’ll be more than happy. If things go too far…I’ll stop him.’
‘How long will the seminar be?’
‘We count on one week, but at my company, you never know.’
‘He wouldn’t be able to stay longer than his visa and the Department will allow him to anyway.’
‘I hope it’ll be as short as possible.’
‘Can you take days off this week?’
Miri looked at Laura as if she was crazy.
‘Don’t talk nonsense! Nobody will give me days off during the seminar. I’ll have to look after the guests. Besides, I’m not going to bury my head in the sand. No. Not due to him.’
Laura got up, ‘Where did you say you put the drinks? Need something strong after such news…’
Meanwhile, Axel and Chris’s fishing didn’t go so well. The time had flown, but it seemed like the lake, which was always rich with breams and pikes, was empty. The small screens on the fishing rods showed no fish in the surrounding five hundred meters. Chris started to get bored, but having seen no other choice of activities, she decided to grab drinks from the camp. Cocktail making entertained her for a bit. She was very happy that Axel brought a mini-fridge with them, and she even had ice-cubes in her drink. Her brother was surprisingly peaceful and calm; more wrapped up in his own thoughts and fishing than in her chatting.
‘I don’t think these rods are good. It seems like the sensors don’t work. This lake is always full of fish,’ he finally broke the long silence examining his fishing road. ‘It’s a shame, really. I spent lots of money on them…’
‘What’s wrong with you today?’ Chris asked, changing the subject from fishing to more important things. ‘You seem distant.’
‘Nothing really. Just remembered when we came here for the first time with mum and dad.’
Chris embraced her brother, put her head on his shoulder, and looked the same direction he did.
‘Do you think of them often?’
‘Did you think of them in Germany?’
‘All the time. I ask myself, what they would say about me if they were still alive? Would they be ashamed of me? Would they love me knowing who I am? Would they think I’m doing everything right in my life?’
‘Oh,’ it was always difficult for Chris to go through such talks with him. ‘Don’t torture yourself. They would have loved you like nobody else in this world. First of all, you’re their son. Anything else isn’t important. As for me, first of all, you’re my brother, the closest and most important person in my life. I’ll love you no matter what. Even if the entire world turns against you, I’ll stay by your side.’
Axel leaned his head to hers.
‘Of course I promise,’ she handed him a glass. ‘For the best brother in this world… Bottoms up!’
They sat quietly for a few minutes and thought to themselves.
‘Your birthday is soon,’ Axel tried to change the subject.
‘I know. Do you want to remind me that I’m getting a year older?’ she smiled.
‘You’ll always be my little sister to me. I just have no ideas about what to prepare for you: the venue, entertainments …’
Axel didn’t want to change their old family tradition of not giving each other birthday gifts, but organized parties and paid for the meal instead.
‘I trust your taste,’ Chris smiled.
‘I’ve been thinking about one place. “The Heights Club” which is in Vasilevskiy Island. They have an additional lounge on the top of the roof with a gulf view.’
‘Never have heard of it.’
‘I’ve been there. It’s quite nice. I’m sure you and everyone else will like it.’
‘Ok. I’m ready for a change of scene anyway.’
Axel finished his first cocktail and felt a little bit better.
‘You made it very tasty, darling.’
‘Ah… I told you you’d feel better.’ Chris winked. ‘We all work hard and need to relax. One more?’
‘Come on,’ he sighed helplessly, as he knew that his sister wanted to drink it, and had never finished after one cocktail.
After her second one Chris felt very joyful and excited.
Axel decided it was the right time to ask her: ‘By the way, about work…We have a new colleague in the office,’ he started from afar.
‘Who is he?’
‘Why do you think it’s a he and not a she?’
‘Well…If it was a woman, you wouldn’t even mention it to me.’
‘Fair enough,’ he chuckled with her logic. ‘We’re changing our computer system at the moment, so our boss hired a database specialist for a temporary contract.’
‘An IT-guy? I never knew you were interested in such guys. They are too sophisticated for you.’
‘Don’t be silly! He’s not gay. And I’m not into him,’ Axel replied with annoyance. ‘I just talked to him several times at work, and then we went out with colleagues for a drink. He’s quite pleasant, you know…But it’s only been a couple of weeks since he moved to the city. No relatives. No friends. Nobody here. He seems quite lost, and I thought maybe we could invite him to your birthday party? There will be lots of people, and maybe he’ll meet friends.’
‘Wait a minute,’ the sister interrupted him. ‘Do you want to introduce him to me?’
‘You never listen to me. First of all, I thought the more the merrier. Secondly, this guy is really lonely. You can see it straight away. Who, if not me, knows what that’s like? And finally, I plan to introduce him to Miri, not to you. She still suffers from the relationship with this Israeli guy, even if she doesn’t tell you that. She even offered to come here…that does mean something. I want to match her up to somebody so she doesn’t grow balls.’
Chris exploded with laugher: ‘Good point. Ok, bring him to the party. If he’d like to come, of course. You’re right, the more the merrier. What’s his name anyway?’
‘Max. Max Zarin.’
‘Good,’ Chris nodded. ‘Hope he’s tough enough…It’s not that easy to deal with our Miri.’
She had said that right when Miri appeared. She supported Laura by one hand and held a drink in the other. Laura was drunker than Miri, so she settled her friend on the big mossy stone on the shore, and sat down next to her friends.
‘Here you are,’ Laura tried to get thoughts together, but it was difficult in her condition.
Axel gestured to his sister to not tell them about Max and their plan. Chris nodded in agreement.
‘What have you been up to? Apart from our mini-bar…’ she chuckled looking at drunken Laura.
‘Come on, Miri. Tell them. We’re in trouble…Miri is in trouble,’ Laura replied loudly and slipped down from the stone onto the grass.
‘Isaac is coming a week on Monday with a group of our Israeli colleagues,’ Miri muttered.
In the next several minutes Miri told her friends about the e-mail, Isaac, and her worries about what will happen. Axel bit his lips. His plan with Max seemed under threat.
‘What are you going to do?’ Chris asked the same question Laura did a couple of hours ago.
‘We’ve made a plan,’ Laura replied instead of Miri. ‘If Isaac would like to get back together with Miri, she’d act as all men normally act.’
‘How do they normally act?’
‘Hanging out, and then leaving.’
‘Sounds like revenge,’ Chris hesitated. ‘Why not just tell him “no”, and that’s it.’
‘Just tell him“no”. Unfortunately, it would not be so easy for Isaac,’ Miri sighed.
‘Exactly…So, why not have some fun with him and then just let him go?’ Laura supported her friend’s idea. ‘If he won’t mind, ok then…It will be just another little adventure. If he takes it seriously, he’ll suffer, she won’t.’
Everybody kept silent trying to digest this crazy idea.
‘I’m afraid, Miri, your balls have already grown,’ Axel only sighed.