Vasili Osipovich Zyuganov scratched gently at his chin. He hadn’t shaved for two days, to fit his role as a slightly absent-minded elderly pensioner, and his stubble itched. But Vasili Osipovich’s mind was on the circus ring far below.
“Ochen’ veselo!” he mumbled aloud appreciatively, through the popcorn in his mouth. “Mne nravit’sya!”
It had been a long time since Vasili Osipovich had attended a circus, and he realised only now how much he’d missed it. How long had it been since he’d sat on a hard bench back in Rostov next to his dyadya and giggled at the antics of the clowns? Forty years? Fifty? Even though he was here in the line of duty, there was no harm in enjoying himself while he could, was there?
Through the old-fashioned opera glasses, the clown’s face looked unreal, like that of a rubber doll, with that thick white and yellow makeup. The huge red rubber nose bobbled so much as he capered that Vasili Osipovich was afraid it might come off.
“Ostorozhno,” he warned, as though the clown could hear him, or even understand the words. “Ne nado tak sil’no...”
He bit back on the rest of the advice when he saw, from the corner of his eye, someone sit down next to him. It was a large man in a dark suit, with a shaven head and a scarred cheek, who glared at him suspiciously. At least Vasili Osipovich thought the man glared at him suspiciously, but in his world just about everything was tinged with suspicion. He turned away, chewed on the last of the popcorn, and stared through the opera glasses down at the ring.
The clown pirouetted, threw confetti from a bucket into the crowd and did a split. Vasili Osipovich applauded along with the rest, and when the applause had died down a bit, he became aware that the shaven-headed man was speaking to him.
“Hey, you,” the man said. “You look like a spy to me.”
“Chevo?” Vasili Osipovich began to reply, and checked himself. “What you say? I no understand.”
“I said,” the skinhead responded none too patiently, “you look like a spy. A Russian spy.”
“You mad,” Vasili Osipovich replied. “No Russian spy. I, Bulgarian tourist. You want see bumagi” – he paused, searching his memory. What was the damned word in this accursed language? Ah, he had it. “Papers?”
“They’ll be fake,” the skinhead sneered. “I’m an FBI man, and I’ve got you down to rights. You’re after the design of the rocket motor for the new hypersonic plane, aren’t you? The one our Air Force’s been testing. Damned Russki, stealing our secrets.”
“What you talking?” Vasili Osipovich’s chin began itching worse than ever. “I no know rocket motor. I just tourist, I said you. Bulgarian.”
“Yeah, right. And I was born yesterday. We were tipped off that a Russian spy would be at the circus picking up the secret of the rocket motor, and here you are. Those are the plans, aren’t they?” He prodded the lump in Vasili Osipovich’s jacket pocket with a long finger. “Let’s have ‘em.”
“Ti choknutii,” Vasili Osipovich said under his breath, and took out the bar of soap from his pocket. “You crazy. Is only soap.”
“What the hell are you doing with soap in your jacket, hey?” The skinhead snatched the bar and turned it over and over. “I’ll bet there’s a microchip in here somewhere with the design blueprints all on it. Huh?”
“I buy it,” Vasili Osipovich explained patiently. “I want wash clothes. Not enough babki...money...for pay laundry. So I buy chtobi take back hotel and wash.”
“Of course,” the skinhead sneered again. Vasili Osipovich was rapidly growing tired of his sneer. “I’ll just take it back to the lab and dissolve it in water. That’s all it will take to get the chip out.”
Vasili Osipovich suddenly felt old and tired. He no longer felt like watching the circus. “Take it,” he said, putting the opera glasses into his pocket. “I buy new.”
“Oh, you aren’t buying anything anymore.” The skinhead grabbed Vasili Osipovich’s wrist. “You’re coming with me, direct to FBI Headquarters. We’ll see how well your papers stand up to investigation...Russki.”
“Excuse me, sir,” someone said, behind them. “Has he been bothering you?”
They both turned. Two large men stood behind them, and grabbed the skinhead by the shoulders. “Stop bothering the nice gentleman, Robinson,” one of them said. “Just come along quietly now. It’s time for your medication, you know, and you need a rest afterwards.”
“You don’t understand,” the skinhead said, tugging at Vasili Osipovich’s arm. “This guy here’s a Russian spy, after the hypersonic rocket engine, and I’ve caught him.” He flourished the soap in his other hand. “I’ve got the design plans right here in this soap.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” the other big man said. He effortlessly pried away the skinhead’s hand from Vasili Osipovich’s wrist. “I don’t doubt it at all, Robinson. We’ll just go back to Headquarters and check it out, won’t we?”
“I’m sorry, sir,” the first big man said to Vasili Osipovich. “He was on a supervised outing from the mental hospital and got away somehow. He keeps imagining he’s an FBI man.”
“Is OK.” Vasili Osipovich watched the big men lead the skinhead away. The circus show had just ended, and the audience was streaming out. He waited until the big tent was empty and then slipped out.
The clown met him as arranged. “You got the money?” he demanded. “I’ve been going crazy lugging this microchip around.”
“Is here.” Vasili Osipovich handed over the envelope from his inside pocket. “You should be more...careful. I thought you drop them.”
The clown snorted. “I know what I’m doing.” He held out his red rubber nose with the precious chip. “Here you are.”
Vasili Osipovich walked out of the circus gate, squeezing the nose in his fist, smiling.
On the way back to his hotel, he bought a bar of soap.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2011