Pure, white snow crunched under his foot as Ilyasha stepped out of his wooden house on the edge of the village. His breath cascaded out of his mouth as his eyes adjusted to the sun’s last rays on the edge of the woods bordering his home. He had risen too late to do anything of value—the previous night of drinking in the center of the village with the rest of his friends from the Black Hundreds had seen to that. He was up now because his wife kicked him awake with a curse and told him that if he didn’t leave the house to gather firewood, she would rip out his liver before they froze to death. The threat was enough (barely, the cold really was unbearable this time of year) to make Ilyasha Dubrovin stagger to his feet, put on his black-dyed wool coat and cap and walked through the front door.
He made a semi-circle in the snow with his foot and stamped on the ground a few times. The cold, relentless, came at him in a gust. Ilyasha rubbed his hands togehter. Maybe if he went back in and said he couldn’t find an axe, Anna would forgive him and the two could relive their earlier married days. But no, drinking last night left his chances of that happening slim to none. Anna had become religious and, since talking to the old, waxy-skinned, soft-voiced priest recently arrived from St. Petersburg, had looked down on Ilyasha’s companions. Whenever he returned from associating with anyone from the organization, in any context, he slept on the floor.
Ilyasha coughed and decided that it would be better if he got the job done fast. They only needed a little wood for the fire, just enough to keep it going for a few hours. He walked further out to the chopping stump and pulled out the axe. He rested it on his shoulder and trudged through the snow to the woods, squinting his eyes against the wind and flakes falling from the sky.
The crash, not the curse, from Mr. Sanderson’s office woke Tabitha—not that she usually fell asleep on the job, it was just that Mr. Sanderson had her work late tonight. And it wasn’t as if Mr. Sanderson was known for cursing. He kept that for after office hours, when he could be sure clients wouldn’t hear him talk about how unintelligent he thought they were. No, it wouldn’t be good for the South Brook Insurance Agency for their top, most senior agent to be heard cursing like a drunken sailor.
Mr. Sanderson had asked Tabitha to stay late to file the frankly shocking amount of life insurance policies that had been filed in the wake of the escalation of tension between the Soviet Union and the U.S. (“Doesn’t matter a good God damn,” said Mr. Sanderson. “If the Ruskies drop their bombs, we’ll drop ours, and there won’t be a damn person on the Earth whose life insurance policy will be worth a whiff of shit.” That hadn’t kept him from selling them off to everyone who was concerned, though. And everyone who was concerned seemed like it was everyone in South Brook.) Tabitha didn’t mind. She was glad it gave her that much longer in his office. Something about him did something for her. Perhaps it was his rough way of speaking, or the slightly salacious grin he wore whenever the last client of the day left. Whatever it was, it contributed to Tabitha dressing in tighter-than-modesty-asked office wear and her put-on music-tinted voice.
“Damn it all,” shouted Mr. Sanderson again, precipitating another metallic clang from the interior office.
“Do you need help, Mr. Sanderson?” Tabitha asked.
“Yes,” his bass voice responded, slipping through the crack in the door separating the lobby—a small room that barely held Tabitha’s desk, phone, and notebook and crammed-in coffee table and settee. “Please do come in here, Miss Reed. I need an extra pair of eyes.”