To a casual observer, it was the stereotypical Parisian scene. Museums, bookstores, and sidewalk cafes lined the wide Napoleonic streets. Enchanted visitors encircled vendors selling maps to the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. Their hawkish cries rung out over the murmur of the crowd, annoying the natives and enticing adventurous and wealthy tourists. A nearby group of laughing children managed to disturb a flock of doves, sending a beautiful crescendo of feather and freedom into the burnt orange of a dying sky.
Occupying a prominent corner lot on the street was one of the more upscale eateries in the vicinity. Due to the wonderful weather, the section outside was filled to capacity. The air constantly exploded with babbling conversations about topics ranging from politics to designer fashion. Waiters buzzed around the umbrella-shaded tables, armed with a veritable arsenal of mercis and s’il vous plaits.
The customers ranged from the well-to-do American traveler to the young couple sharing words meant only for them. Mothers navigating the menu with their children made little effort to hide their glances, envious of the openly emotional display. Two men sat at a corner table. They spoke in soft whispers, and the noisy crowd gladly drowned out the sound of their voices.
“I want you to kill me.” He spoke the words slowly and deliberately as he nurtured the dark-brown ripples of his cafe mocha.
The large bearded man across from him did not immediately stir. His life had long ago forced him to grow accustomed to outrageous things. After a moment, he leaned back in his seat and lit an imported cigarette. The words that finally climbed from his mouth were aimed as much to the crowd as to the man sitting across from him.
“Why do we pay for these drinks? I order alcohol and I receive nothing but colored water. They are never worth the money.”
He pushed the drink away slowly, measuring the man’s response across from him. Then he leaned forward and placed his elbows on the table.
“Why is it, Alex, that young men speak of death and old men speak of life? My father used to tell me war stories that left me lying in bed awake all night. And I myself have seen enough of death to know that it is not something men should desire.” He returned the cigarette to his lips in one smooth motion.
“You are more right than you know, Ivan. For I wish for you to kill me when I am old.” Alex lingered for a second, his pale knuckles rubbing across the tabletop nervously. He looked at Ivan, hoping to read something in his friend’s face. He found nothing etched in the deep lines, so he continued cautiously.
“I know that my morality is one of necessity and convenience, nothing more. I suppose my life would be much simpler if I could walk around blindly committing horrendous acts and never reflecting on the eventual consequences. But that is not the life I was allowed to live.” His gaze turned to the tourists in the street before quickly changing the subject. “You spoke of your father- did he influence you to a great extent?”
Ivan pulled the cigarette out again just enough to speak. The smoke rose and curled about his face, creating a slightly demonic effect that only lent credence to his words.
“My father was the meanest bastard I ever met. When my brothers and I were young, he would make us chop wood for the fire until our arms ached. If we complained that we were tired, he simply added more wood. He never said a word. Just added more wood.” The end of the cigarette grew bright red as he inhaled deeply.
“So you didn’t like him?” Alex ventured.
“On the contrary, we all loved him. Perhaps it is hard for an American to understand. In Russia, food is often scarce. If you are not somewhat mean, you don’t eat. It is not pretty, but it is a necessary part of life. He taught me discipline, and for that I am forever thankful.” Ivan slammed his fist down forcefully as he pronounced the word “discipline”, the the extent that the nearby couple stopped whispering long enough to notice the intrusion. Ivan cast them a grumbling glance and they quickly returned to their own affairs.
“Well then, my friend, we share a connection. My father taught me discipline of a spiritual nature. Practically every Sunday found me in a church pew. If there’s a hymn I don’t know, I’d be surprised. I’ve heard more sermons than I would care to remember. And here’s the thing- I never truly grew to believe it.”
At this Ivan seemed genuinely surprised. “If what you say is true, why do you wish to die? You have plenty of time to find your faith in God.” Ivan crossed his arms defiantly. “Me, I do not care either way. I will die being true to myself.”
“It’s not that simple, I’m afraid. I wish to die a Christian, but I am not yet ready to make the necessary commitment. I believe that once my indiscriminate youth has left me, I might be willing to seek God. But for now I am happy drinking and talking about sin with people like you.”
This drew a smile from Ivan’s face.
“So you wish to harvest the crop without tending the field?”
“Not exactly. I want you to kill me in thirty years. By that time, I hope to be a Christian. Then, when I am murdered, I will…”
“Go to heaven.” Ivan finished the thought for him while shaking his head in disbelief. “Unbelievable. Only an American could find a way to cheat God.”
With this last statement Ivan signaled the waiter over and ordered another drink. “Forgive me, Alex, but I think I need some more watered down alcohol to hear this plan.”
Alex ignored his request, plowing ahead with unfettered enthusiasm. He had spoken calmly throughout the conversation, but now that he had admitted his purpose the floodgates opened and it seemed as if nothing could stop the words from fumbling quickly out of his mouth. Ivan appeared annoyed, but Alex knew from experience that he was listening. He knew that Ivan’s great and terrible mind was coldly calculating his next response.
“I want you to kill me thirty years from now. It would be best if the timing were not exact. You may wait a few years if you like, but do not do it sooner. Give me my thirty years. I must not know exactly how or when I am going to die. I only ask you because I know that you are the man for the job. Pledge to me now that you will do this thing for me. Doing so will help me sleep tonight.”
“It is a strange man who sleeps better after planning his own murder.” Ivan’s awkward attempt at a joke brought no emotion to Alex’s face. “You’re serious, aren’t you?” His gaze lifted to the tables around him and the crowd milling about on the sidewalks. “So many signs of life around us, and yet you persist in talking about death.” He set his gaze on his dining companion. His voice grew firm and unrelenting, and all expression drained from his face. “I will not take part in this.”
“My friend, I did not want to mention this, but…”
“But what? Go ahead and say what you came here to say.” Ivan’s face had started to take on a red tint fueled both by anger and alcohol. Alex knew that he would have to tread carefully.
“Do you remember how I saved your life?”
“Do you remember what you told me that day?”
Ivan leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes.
“Yes. I told you that I would repay you anyway I could.”
“That’s right. So pay me back and do this thing that I ask.”
Ivan opened his eyes and stared across the table at his friend.
“When I said those words before, I meant them. But not for this. Like I said before, I will not take part. I will not sacrifice my soul for yours. Find another lamb, my friend.”
At this Ivan rose to leave.
Alex quickly rose and placed his hand on Ivan’s arm, pleading with his eyes. At the sudden display, the customer near them fell silent, but all eyes were drawn to them. Alex lowered his voice to a feverish whisper, but he continued to talk.
“There is no one else. If you do not promise to do this, I will let your government know how you have helped mine. You may escape, but your wife…”
“A threat?” Ivan responded, bloodshot eyes wide.
“It is a course I did not want to take, my friend.”
“You are not a friend of mine,” whispered Ivan fiercely, the stench of vodka heavy on his breath. “I do not know about the customs of your country, but in mine we do not threaten the wives of our friends. If a choice must be made, I would gladly kill you to protect my wife.”
“That’s what I was counting on. Now pledge to me that you will do this thing.”
They were still standing, and the nearby patrons made only a weak effort to hide their interest. An attentive waiter took notice and began to count silently in his head. Ivan saw all of this and slowly sank to his seat. He forced himself to speak normally, but the words escaped through thin lips.
“What good is a pledge? I am half-drunk and will probably forget everything by morning.”
“I told you earlier that there was no one else. I have known you for five years, and I have never seen you break a promise. Like it or not, Ivan, you are a good person. Since I am the kind of man who breaks a promise anytime it is convenient, it is the sort of thing I notice. I know that if you promise me today that you will follow through.”
“You are right again, I’m afraid. A certain morality has always plagued my being and held me back. I see that you have given this some thought. Well, I guess I have been checkmated. But…it is not my fault. After all, I never knew we were playing a game.”
The smile that followed was a very weary one, and it held no trace of happiness.
“I assure you that this is no game.”
“Perhaps not. But rest well tonight. I promise I will kill you.”
Perhaps it was his own disbelief at the words he was speaking, but this time the smile was genuine.
“Good,” replied the overjoyed American. “I never would have endangered you or your wife’s life. Forgive me. I had to say it to get you to agree.”
“I know,” said Ivan, “But it was a chance I was unwilling to take.” Then he thought for a moment before grinning broadly. “All along your government has been warning you that the Russians are treacherous villains who will stab you in the back at a moment’s notice. I guess now I have a chance to prove them right.”
“Good night, my friend.”
“Good night. Will I see you for fishing tomorrow in Marseilles?”
“Of course. Until then.”
They paid their respective bills and parted ways. Before long they disappeared into the growing darkness and shrinking crowds.
The doves did not return until morning.