To celebrate the release of To Love a Falcon by Nancy C. Williams, a group of authors and I have joined together to bring you a mystery, once again written tag-team style. To see part one of our mystery, go HERE.
Without further ado, here is Part Two of the story of Anastasia:
Tanya’s arms flailed as she desperately tried to free her trapped hair and simultaneously push herself away from the machine. There was no time to think, but a myriad of images raced through Anastasia’s mind in those moments before she sprang forward. The foremost being her dear Andrei’s mother, hunched over the table soon after the news of his passing came. Her wails echoing through the sparsely furnished apartment, crying for the son she would never see again.
That image had seared itself into her memory—the burning pain, the agony of a mother’s loss—still so fresh and haunting even after these four long years.
Anastasia’s own pain was just as real, just as agonizing. She’d seen that same hopeless sense of loss in the eyes that stared back at her in the mirror during those long, lonely nights after her husband’s death as she’d seen emanating from his mother the day the news reached his parents. But for reasons unknown, it was the image of his mother that she saw whenever she thought of loss.
It was that same image that propelled her forward, heedless of the consequences. There had been too much loss already, thanks to the war. Too many parents left grieving children they would never see again. She couldn’t let that happen to another person. Another mother. Another father.
Her own father would never hesitate, and having thought of him only that morning, his was the face she pictured next. She could almost feel the disappointment radiating from him over her past choices, and wanted more than anything to prove that she’d changed. Not just to him, but to herself too. And the Heavenly Father she was reacquainting herself with.
She’d prayed for change, but did not the greatest philosophers and leaders say that change came from within? Maybe she had to change before her circumstances would improve. Maybe this was that vague thing she’d prayed for. Maybe her lot in life was to give her life for her friend.
So many thoughts swirled through her mind, foremost of which was to save Tanya. To prevent another needless loss of life.
As she dropped down beside the fallen woman, her hands scrabbled for something—anything—that she could use to free her friend. Her fingers landed on a broken piece of wood, the relic of a repair on another part of the building that had somehow made its way here, and she quickly jammed it into the small gap between the gears.
For one single heartbeat that felt like a million years, she held her breath, hoping against hope that it would hold. However, without so much as a flicker of pause, the machine continued to turn, pulverizing the wood between its strong jaws. She needed something stronger, something able to withstand the pressure of the gear.
Her other hand landed on something cold and hard. A wrench, the jaw broken and rusted. The shaft, however, was still in one piece.
Hardly daring to hope it would be an improvement on the wood, she shoved the wrench into the narrow slot. But one moment the gears were moving together, inexorably pulling her friend toward certain death, and the next, they ground against each other, and, almost unbelievably, shuddered.
For one agonizing second, it seemed the machine might win after all, but after another, deeper groan in an effort to turn—the angry sound of metal grinding against metal as the stronger attempted to break the weak—something snapped and the gear stopped.
Anastasia quickly stooped down. One hand hovered close to her face to shield against the possibility of anything flying from the machine toward her, the other reached for her friend.
More hands joined, and together the women tugged and pulled. Somewhere, a high-pitched, panicked voice rose above the din made by the gathering women, demanding to know what was happening, but Anastasia kept her focus on the woman lying amongst the machine, her hair still trapped between the gears.
Tanya whimpered, her face twisted with pain and fear, as she pleaded for someone to do something. And to Anastasia’s relief, that something they did as a pair of scissors appeared in her peripheral vision.
There was no way to know how soon the machine would start moving again. No way to know how long the wrench—or the pieces of it that were left—would halt Tanya’s progress toward a greater horror than any person there would ever wish to see. So once again, without hesitation, Anastasia sprang into action, this time with the scissors in hand.
The first snip only severed a small handful of strands. The scissors evidently hadn’t seen a sharpener for many, many years, but by holding one side in each hand and twisting them slightly, they slowly began sawing through.
Time felt as though it had stopped. Strands began to pool beside Tanya’s head. Sweat beaded on Anastasia’s forehead, dripping into her eyes and trickling down the side of her face. Another hand—she couldn’t tell to whom it belonged—reached out and brushed the loose hair aside so she could see what was left to cut. And then she was done. The last of Tanya’s hair fell to the floor by her head and as it did, the machine beside them made a metallic, grinding noise. Pieces of the crushed wrench fell to the floor somewhere close by and then seemingly in slow motion, the giant gear started to move, stopped as though it found something blocking its path, and then began to turn again.
Thankfully, they were all able to scramble back, momentarily stunned into silence by Tanya’s close call. But only momentarily. Almost as one, as soon as they’d caught their breath, the entire group erupted into noise. Someone gasped over how afraid she’d been. Another begged to know how anyone could have been so clumsy. A third complained how mussed her clothing had gotten by crouching on the disgustingly dirty floor. And with increasing speed and animation, round and round the conversation went.
Anastasia tried her best to ignore the chatter, keeping her eyes fixed on Tanya who seemed to struggle to overcome the shock of having so nearly lost her life.
“Thank you,” Tanya whispered at last, taking the hand Anastasia offered and allowing herself to be pulled not just to her feet, but a little removed from the group as well. “I owe you my life.”
“Any of the others would have done the same.” Now that all was well again, Anastasia took the time to wipe the sweat from her face, realizing at the same time just how closely she felt to bursting into tears. That had been a close call. So close.
“Not all,” Tanya murmured, for once keeping her voice so low only Anastasia could hear. “There’s one who would gladly have otherwise. Did you see?”
Anastasia glanced around, but the perpetrator of the hour had vanished. “Lana?”
Tanya nodded, then blinked a couple of times and surreptitiously swiped a finger under one eye. “I caught a glimpse as I fell.” Her face twisted. “Or rather, as I was tripped.”
Anastasia took a deep breath. It was unfathomable to her to think that anyone could so willingly hurt another, and even more so that the person they tried to hurt was Tanya. Her bright, perky nature kept things lively. There seemed no reason why anyone would dislike her.
Of course, there was the gossip, but that, as far as Anastasia could remember, had always been rather harmless, and—remembering their laughter during break—amusing. For one brief moment she wondered what the mysterious Viktor would think of their heroics. A thought that came and went so quickly she wasn’t quite sure what extinguished the idea.
Unless it was the chill, as cold and oppressive as the shrieking gale that practically blew her down the narrow streets in the dead of winter, that settled over the group, silencing all.
“Who is responsible for this monstrosity?” an angry voice shouted.
The voice came from a small group of men, their heavy boots thudding on the hard floor as they practically ran toward the gathered women. One by one, the women shrank back and hurried to their stations, leaving only Tanya and Anastasia standing alone.
One of the retreating ladies turned, pointing in the direction of the machine as a voice spoke but one word. “Them.”
There was no time to take a breath, no time to formulate an explanation before three pairs of angry eyes turned to them. First taking in the shuddering, shaking form of a cowering Tanya and then seeming to dismiss her in favor of fastening the full force of their anger on Anastasia.
“Well?” Bellowed the man in the middle who Anastasia recognized as Chief Director Stepanov. “Speak woman! What have you to say for yourself?”
Clasping her hands together to hide their shaking from prying eyes, Anastasia drew a deep breath, offering up a hasty, barely legible prayer for help. For strength. For mercy.
Here in the factory, production was everything. Numbers. Quotas. Results. Those mattered more than any one person working on the factory floor. By halting the process even for a few meagre seconds, she’d set them back. She done the unforgivable by drawing the attention of the big boss upon herself. And yet…
Her chin lifted. She wanted to maintain eye contact, but she couldn’t quite meet the gaze of the furious man standing in the middle. To his right stood his next in command, Assistant Director Yakov, an unpleasant man whom Tanya had labeled as being lower than a weasel. A man who spared nothing to gain what he wanted. A man who took pride in stomping out the little man—the lowly factory worker—in his effort to reach the top.
She couldn’t bring herself to look his way either. Not entirely from fear, although that was partly the reason, but from a sense of sheer dislike and a tiny amount of distrust, too. If Yakov sensed weakness in her, he’d happily fabricate a reason to see her out the door. Permanently. And this job, as mundane and unimportant as it was, had become her sole means of survival. She needed the income it generated, couldn’t afford to lose her position.
Feeling cornered, her gaze moved toward the other man, the one she didn’t recognize. A man who seemed, at least at first glance, to have some semblance of kindness in his eyes. Without knowing him though, she couldn’t let him see through the false bravado.
“Our comrade fell and her hair caught between the gears,” she said as simply as she could, her chin still lifted, her gaze—so she hoped—unwavering, unashamed. “There’s been enough loss of life already, thanks to the war, I couldn’t stand by and do nothing.”
“So you impeded production?!” Yakov spat as he took a menacing step forward, his very presence towering over her, making her want to cower back. “You took it upon yourself to destroy the very means by which this factory operates? Just who do you think you are, comrade?”
That very last word, spat at her the way he spoke it, felt more like an insult than an attempt to make her feel welcome. Anastasia chanced a quick glance in Yakov’s direction. No, it didn’t just feel like an insult, it was an insult. He wanted her to feel as unimportant, as useless, as meaningless as he regarded her. She wanted nothing more than to hide, but knowing an answer was required, she opened her mouth, only for the other man, the one she didn’t recognize, the man with the hint of kindness in his eyes, to raise a hand.
To her surprise, that simple movement had an immediate effect. Assistant Director Yakov shuffled back, not without a glare for her benefit, but with a certain degree of deference.
“Explain,” the third man said, his voice gentle despite the obvious command.
So Anastasia did, sharing everything that happened as she remembered it, with a nod from Tanya every moment or two to reinforce her explanation. There was just one thing she left out. The means by which it all happened to begin with. Lana.
She couldn’t quite understand why she hesitated when she came to that part, but just as she was about to blurt out the real reason Tanya fell, a slight hint of movement over the man’s shoulder caught her eye. Standing rather close by, considering the chance she’d be caught, Lana watched—and listened—that same sour expression on her face, but real fear in her eyes.
It was in that moment Anastasia’s voice faltered for the first time and lowering her gaze, she’d called it an accident. Tanya’s sharply drawn breath should have alerted those present to the fabrication, but thankfully none of the men seemed to notice. And while her own conscience twinged, she couldn’t bring herself to spell out the truth that it had been a deliberate act of personal sabotage and not the result of clumsiness.
The stranger nodded when she reached the end of her story, his face stern, his gaze never wavering from hers. “Very well, comrades. Return to your stations.” Raising his person almost imperceptibly, his gaze clung to hers for one moment longer before he turned his body and looked away, surely catching more than one curious onlooker observing from afar. However, again, he said nothing of what he did or did not see, simply nodding once to include everyone present. “That will be all.”
“All?!” Yakov growled as the men turned and began to walk away. “You saw this with your own eyes. The insubordination. The insolence.” He turned to glare at Anastasia over his shoulder as though he needed her to know that he’d seen—and wouldn’t soon forget. “Is this what we can expect from your leadership?”
Anastasia’s gaze instinctively moved to Tanya’s face and they stared at each other, eyes wide. Stepanov’s son. Their future manager who had arrived sooner than expected.
A thought flitted through Anastasia’s mind causing her to have to turn away to hide her smile. Sooner than Tanya expected. Apparently, the gossip channel had mixed up the date of his arrival.
“Take care,” she whispered as Tanya moved to return to her station. “We can talk later, no?”
Tanya hesitated, seemingly occupied with tucking the loose strands of hair under her cap. “Why?” She hissed at last, fury and disappointment mingling together in the look she gave Anastasia. “Why did you avoid truth? Why spare that sour, obnoxious—” Throwing her hands in the air, she huffed out a breath. “Why spare someone who hasn’t a care for any but herself?”
Lowering her gaze, Anastasia shook her head. “I don’t know. When the time came, I simply couldn’t bring myself to say it. I couldn’t” —she shrugged, having no idea why she’d stayed silent— “I suppose I just couldn’t be like her.”
Tanya rubbed at her neck. “She deserved it.”
“I know.” Heavy footsteps sounded on the walkway overhead and the two women exchanged one last, worried glance before each hurried to their station.
Anastasia chanced one quick look upward, needing to know who patrolled this section of the factory, and… gasped.
Viktor stood above her, stern and silent, his gaze wary, watchful, with a certain look in his eyes that pierced her very soul. She recognized that look. Staring up at him felt almost as though she were staring at her own reflection, seeing his hidden pain. Loss. Heartache. And in that moment she knew he hadn’t spared her because he applauded her heroics. He’d spared her because he understood her reason why.
As their gaze held, she felt lighter than she had in months. It almost seemed as though she’d found a friend, although they’d not spoken more than a handful of words and she would never, ever so much as dare to even suggest such a thing out loud.
Despite that, a tiny smile of thanks flitted across her face. Viktor nodded as though once again he understood, and then they each turned away. Anastasia to return to her work, him to go to wherever he’d been headed.
It seemed that no one had noticed their silence exchange, but there was no knowing who could have been watching. So as she worked, she thought it over and finally decided that if anyone brought it up, she could simply say the speculation was correct. Viktor was as fine-looking as they’d imagined and she’d been caught up in the moment. Nothing more.
Although, honestly, deep down she knew there’d been more. Perhaps not romantically—she’d never even considered such a thing before that moment—but definitely an understanding. Which in turn made her wonder what happened to Viktor—who he’d lost—to make him know that kind of pain.
And also, while she went about the rest of her day and trudged home in the cold, she couldn’t help but wonder what happened to make Lana turn on Tanya the way she had. That was a mystery she’d have to get to the bottom of, for sure.
To find out what happens next, go HERE tomorrow.