His heart pounds as if he had just received the sentence of death. He runs aimlessly and stumbles, bumping into random things on his way through the dark alleys of downtown Moscow; while trying to escape his pursuer. The cold adds pain and struggles to his attempt at survival. He is out of breath.
Dragging himself through the dense snow, trying to outrun his pursuer, stars to feel pointless and futile. He takes a wrong turn. A puff of breath leaves his mouth as he sighs in despair. It is a dead-end backstreet. He can hear someone approaching. He tries to turn around, but it is too late. The hunter corners his prey with no way to go. The gunshot echoes down the lane, murdering the night’s quiet. The slayer walks towards its victim. “It’s written: ‘No weapon formed against you will have any success,'” the body on the floor mumbles. “You are not going to succeed. The brothers will find out all about you, just as I did.”
“Let us hope not,” says the assassin. “I would hate to kill them too.” The shooting iron cries again, silencing the man on the ground. The shooter’s secrets are safe – for now.
A heatwave has hit New York badly this summer, making our waiting at the JFK airport even more unpleasant and tiresome. It has been especially hard on my friend Jacob. The poor guy is pushing eighty. He appears to be tough and strong, but the fact is, he is not a lad anymore. He is visibly exhausted but still eager to welcome his new friend.
Jacob was very excited to know that a Russian brother would be moving to our congregation. He had been corresponding with the brother for a while, and he asked my assistance sorting out some practical things. The brother is moving to New York on a work visa. We found him an excellent and relatively cheap apartment; just a few minutes’ walk from the Kingdom Hall in a neighborhood where many of our brothers and sisters also live.
As I understood it, the brother didn’t ask for any of this help. It was all Jacob’s initiative. This is typical of Jacob. His kindness and self-sacrificing attitude toward people in general, but especially towards our brothers and sisters, is captivating and inspiring. He goes out of his way to make sure you feel among family, even if you have just met him. He had even contacted the elders from the Russian Congregation in Queens to ask how we could make this Russian brother feel at home in our congregation. I still wonder why the brother didn’t decide to be part of one of the many Russian congregations in Brooklyn.
To be honest, I am also quite excited to have this brother joining us. I have great admiration for all our brothers and sisters that serve in Russia despite abuse, mistreatment, persecution, and opposition. Every time I read the news updates on our website about the legal developments and Russian authorities’ attacks on our rights to worship and practice our religion, it makes me angry. Their courage strengthens my faith and conviction, but it also makes me fearful of the day my family and I will have to face similar trials.
My wife, on the other hand, is as fearless as a warrior. June is a zealous strong woman. She is serving as a regular pioneer in the congregation, preaching the good news of God’s Kingdom full-time for more than ten years. June didn’t even stop when she got pregnant with our twin daughters. She used to say: ‘The brothers and sisters in Russia do their best even under persecution. We have no persecution. So, I have no excuse not to do my best’. The Russian brothers being thrown in prison are like heroes for her. I am sure she would not put it that way, though.
As for myself, I am kind of new to the family. I was baptized about four years ago, and I feel like I have grown and matured a lot since my baptism. But going door-to-door is still against my nature, and I have a hard time making the necessary changes that would allow me to join my wife in pioneer service. I have a deep respect for our faithful brothers and sisters in Russia, but unlike my wife, I don’t think I will ever be as strong and courageous as they are. Maybe working with this brother can help me develop that kind of faith.
We are waiting for a couple of hours at the arrival gate. Jacob got tired, so I asked him to sit down while I kept holding the sign with the brother’s name: ‘Abramov’. Almost no one came out of the gate when finally, a young man, dark hair, broad nose, square chin, dressed in a three-piece cheap but neat suit, left the gate and walked towards me.
“Hi, there. You might be Marr-cel,” he says with a strong rolling ‘r’.
“Yes. That’s me. Welcome to New York, brother Abramov,” I say, extending my arm, going for a handshake. Instead, I get a kiss and a hug.
“Pleased to meet you, brother,” he says with a big smile. ” And please, call me, Sergey.”
“The pleasure is all mine,” I reply awkwardly. I just chuckle at the picture in my mind. A 6- foot tall black dude like me, hugging and kissing a big white Russian guy like Sergey, is not something you see every day.
“Jacob is with you?” Sergey asks.
“Yes. Of course. He is waiting for you. Let me help you with those,” I say, grabbing his suitcases and putting them in the luggage cart.”
“You wait long? Going through customs was very hard. I am so sorry make you wait,” Sergey has a big smile, but with his size, heavy accent, and broken English, he sounds a little bit intimidating.
“You don’t have to be sorry. It was not your fault,” I reply. “Don’t worry. We are glad that you have arrived safely. How was your flight?”
“Very long. But fine. Thanks.”
We walk toward the coffee shop where Jacob is trying to decide what to order from the menu.
“Hi, Jacob. Look who decided to show up,” Jacob quickly turns around and forgets about his previous endeavor. He walks towards Sergey with open arms like he meets an old friend again after many years.
“Sergey. I am so glad to see you,” he says, giving Sergey a big hug.
“How nice to finally meet you, Jacob. How are you doing, my brother,” Sergey says, returning Jacob’s hug.
“I am great. How was your flight?” Jacob says, holding Sergey by his shoulders.
“It was fine,” Sergey replies. “You shouldn’t have come. There was no need.”
“Don’t worry, Sergey,” Jacob replies. “I might be an old man, but I am not dead yet. Of course, I had to come.”
“You are too kind,” Sergey says, rolling his ‘r’.
“So, I see you have met Marcel.”
“Yes, I did.”
“He is like a son to me.”
“Yes. I know,” Sergey confirms. “Jacob talks a lot about you, Marcel,” he says.
“Don’t believe everything he says. You can’t trust these old people, am I right?” I say and wink. Sergey looks at me and frowns.
Jacobs chortles and says: “Sorry, Sergey. Marcel here thinks he is funny,” They both burst out laughing.
“Anyhow,” I say, “the car is this way.” And I keep moving ahead of them towards the parking lot.
“We are happy to have you with us, Sergey,” Jacob says.
“Happy to be here, my friend,” Sergey replies.
I stop the car in front of the place where we helped Sergey rent his apartment. It is an old but well-maintained building in a nice and quiet neighborhood in Brooklyn. It has four levels, and Sergey is moving to apartment number four hundred and ten. Jacob lives close by, just a few blocks down, and I do not live very far from here either. Maybe about a ten-minute drive.
I am taking the luggage out of the trunk while Jacob opens the front door. Sergey gazes around, looking very much impressed. He takes one of the two suitcases, and we walk into the building.
“What do you think?” Jacob asks while we wait for the elevator.
“Very nice,” Sergey replies.
“The Kingdom Hall is a nine-minute walk from here; there are plenty of train and bus options, and the area is relatively safe. All this on a budget at a twelve-minute walk to your work. Pretty good, right?”
“It’s perfect, Jacob. I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything. This is what family is for.”
“Walking to work? Sweet, man! Can I ask what you do for a living?” I say.
“A friend of my uncle owns communication company on Third Avenue. I am specialized in print work. Operating offset machines and things like that.”
“Really?” I say honestly, surprised. “Have you ever thought of working in Bethel? Helping in our printery?”
“Marcel,” Jacob calls me out, disapproving of me prying.
“That is okay, Jacob,” Sergey responds. “It would be dream for me, Marcel,” he continues. “It is the only reason why I agreed to move to New York.”
“You agreed? Moving here wasn’t your idea?”
“No. Not my idea.”
The elevator car arrives and opens its doors.
“Aha, here we go,” Jacob says.
We get inside, and Jacob pushes the fourth-floor button. It is quite a nice and vintage-looking elevator. The lift closes its doors, and we start moving up.
“So, why did you move, then?” I ask.
“It was my family idea. To get rid of me in a way, you can say,” Sergey
The elevator stops and opens its doors.
“Here we are, boys,” Jacob says. “Fourth floor, number four hundred and ten. All yours, my friend,” Jacob says, handing Sergey the keys. “Would you like to do the honors?”
“Oh, thank you,” Sergey replies.
He figures out which key of the many in the keychain is the one, puts it in the door lock, and gives it a turn. The door opens, and his jaw drops. The apartment is furnished, and the furniture looks new from the shop. The clean and modern decoration, with straight lines, neutral and grey color scheme, wooden furniture, metallic and glassy objects makes you forget you are in such an old building.
“Wow!” Sergey exclaims. “Who lives here?”
“Do you like it?” Jacob asks.
“I am glad you like it,” Jacob says. “I had a little help from our brothers and sisters to make this place feel like home,” he continues. “Everything here is second hand. I hope you don’t mind. It’s just to get you started. In time you can change it and make it your own, of course.”
“‘Change it’? This is perfect. This is too much, Jacob. I can’t accept this.”
“Of course you can. Don’t be silly. It is our pleasure to help. We want you to know you have a family here. You might be far from home, but you are not alone.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything.”
“Sergey, you must be starving,” I say. “I would like to have you over for dinner this evening.”
“That is kind of you, Marcel. I would love to. But maybe another time. I am very tired from trip. I would not be good guest.”
“I thought so. No problem. We will have plenty of opportunities now that you are in our congregation,” I say. “Here, I put together a folder with all the best delivery services in the area. You can just call and order something to eat later. And you also have here all the emergency numbers, and this one is mine. You can call me anytime if you need anything.”
“Huh,” Sergey gasped in amazement, looking at the folder in awe. “You are very kind, brother. Thank you so much.”
“No worries. It is my pleasure,” I say. “Well, I have to go now. Once
again, it was very nice meeting you, and I hope you feel at home with us here.”
“The pleasure is all mine, Marcel. Thank you again.”
“Anytime,” I reply. “Jacob. Let’s go?”
“Oh, thank you, my son. Don’t worry about me. I will take a cab home later. I would like to have a moment with you, Sergey, if that is okay.”
“Yes, of course,” Sergey replies.
“Good,” Jacob nods. “Thank you for everything, son,” he continues, now talking to me.
“Sure. No problem,” I say. “So, I see you guys on Thursday, then.”
“Yes. Greetings to June and the girls.”
“Will do. Bye.”
I am back home and I tell June everything about the arrival of our new friend.
“It sounds like Jacob and Sergey are quite close,” June remarks, handing me a plate after she has washed it.
“Yes. I think they are,” I take the plate from her and start to dry it. “I don’t remember the last time I saw Jacob so excited about someone like this. It makes me remember when I was just a Bible student and he was my instructor,” I say, placing the dishes in the cupboard above the sink.
“Those were difficult times. You gave him a lot of work, as I recall,” June says.
“Indeed. He saved my life in so many ways I am not even sure he realizes it,” I say and pause, staring at the dishes for a moment before I continue. “I am happy that he can help Sergey now. The poor guy coming from Russia during these times, he probably didn’t have it very easy there.”
“Yes,” June says. “And what a strange story about his family trying to get rid of him. For sure they are not witnesses. Maybe he is the only one in the truth in his family.”
“Probably,” I say.
“Ring, ring,” my phone rings.
“Hi, Rachel,” I answer. “No, Jacob is not here…Really?…This is not like him. Maybe his battery died…Yeah. You are right. It is almost ten o’clock now. He should have called you from a payphone or something…Okay, Rachel. Don’t worry. I am leaving now. Call you back in a few minutes, okay? Okay, then. Bye.”
“What happened?” June asks.
“Jacob didn’t make it home yet, and his phone is off. Rachel is worried
“Well. That is strange for Jacob not to let Rachel know his whereabouts, right?”
“It is, indeed. I am going to check if Jacob is still at Sergey’s place. I will call you as soon as I have news, okay?”
“Okay, babe. Be careful.”
I get in the car and drive towards Sergey’s apartment. I am worried about Jacob. He is a very responsible, methodic, and by-the-book kind of guy. He would never leave Rachel wondering about him like this. Maybe he had an accident, or he got mugged? The thought of something happening to Jacob makes me anxious. I am driving too fast and reckless even though it is raining cats and dogs right now. The driving, rain, and worry about Jacob bring back images of me having to identify my best friend’s body after his accident eight years ago. The flashback of that night is now on my mind, and I nod violently, trying to shake it off. Please, God. Allow me to find Jacob fine and well. I can’t bear to lose another friend. It will throw me right back to the most profound depression.
I stop the car in front of Sergey’s building. It is still raining heavily, and there is not a soul around. I walk to the front door, and I buzz his apartment. I hear no return sound from the intercom, but this thing is probably not working. I keep buzzing it a couple of times with no response. I will try the neighbors. The building doesn’t have a marquee; I don’t have an umbrella; I am now soaking wet from the rain when a taxi cab stops by the door. An old lady comes out, umbrella in hand, and walks toward the entrance.
“Hello, good evening, ma’am,” I say.
“Hello, young man,” she replies.
“Sorry to bother you, ma’am. But I need your help.”
“How can I help you?” she asks.
“I need to talk to my friend. He has just moved in this afternoon. Apartment four hundred and ten. But his intercom is not working.”
“Four hundred and ten? Oh, yes. I heard a Russian man is moving there, is that right?”
“Yes, that is correct. My friend is from Russia. Would you mind if I could
check-in on him?”
“Do you mean, if I can let you in the building? You know I can’t do that. Sorry, young man. I can’t help you.”
“Can’t or won’t?” I say upset.
“Huh,” the lady gasps in disbelief. “Good night.”
“Sorry, sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.” I try in vain. She goes in and shuts the front door behind her. I can’t blame her. I might have as well called her a racist. What was I thinking? What am I going to do now? ‘The Fire escape!’ I say to myself. I look for the staircase, and I find it on the side street to the building. I move a trash can, jump on top of it, and get access to the ladder at the lowest level of the fire escape. I climb up to the fourth floor. The pouring rain makes the exercise even more challenging for a forty-something sedentary professor of astrophysics.
I get to Sergey’s apartment window. Everything is dark inside the room, and the rain streaming down the window doesn’t help either. But wait. I think I see someone. The water running down the window makes everything a little distorted, but I can see someone inside. It is probably Sergey, and it seems like he is on the phone. I try to make out what he is saying, but he is perhaps speaking in Russian. I am about to knock at the window when my phone rings. It’s Rachel. The dark silhouette inside the apartment turns in my direction and sees me fighting with the phone, trying to silence it. He looks at me, shouts something that I can only guess is Russian.
The shadow starts to move towards the window, and… ‘Ah!’ It’s a gun. He has a gun! I freeze. He points his gun at me; then, I snap out of it and panic. I head down the stairs as fast as I can. The man with the gun is right behind me. I feel like he will get to me at any second now. So, I look down, and I jump from the second floor to the trash container. ‘Ah!’ I think I have hurt myself. I get out of the container and run like a lunatic.
I am limping to my car, parked on the main street across the building. I get inside and turn the key in the ignition when someone bangs on the passenger seat window. Without thinking, I just slam the gas, squealing tires, and drive off with my head down, expecting bullets to come through the back window, but there is nothing.
I glimpse at the rearview mirror and see someone getting into a car, driving off fast its parking space, and it’s now right behind me.