Work in Progress

I have recently started working on a new novel titled “Siberian Spring.” I’m posting the opening and some other sections of the piece here, and would welcome comments.

 

 

It was in the 11th year of the reign of Vladimir Vladimovich that a package containing a human head arrived at the main office of United Russia in Moscow. The package was carefully wrapped in kraft paper, the address written in black gel pen, and, according to its postmark, the package had been sent from Irkutsk. So I wasn’t surprised when, the day after I read about this gruesome occurrence in the newspaper, I got a call from Bulik.

Everybody in Peter thought Bulik was crazy to even consider taking that job out in Irkutsk. What sane Russian would exchange the Venice of the North, as the tourist brochures call it, for the god-forsaken capital of Eastern Siberia? True, the Dekabristi had managed to establish some semblance of culture in the Cossack outpost during their exile, but from what I had heard things hadn’t improved a lot in the 180 years since then. I was one of the few of Bulik’s friends who encouraged him to at least give it a shot, go out there for the interview.

Bulik had been in the doldrums for months, ever since before his wife died from lung cancer, and his son and daughter were old enough to be leading their own lives. The police ranks above him were full, and without a university degree it was unlikely he would be in line for a top job anyway. So I thought he might profit from a change of scenery, and being a big guy he never seemed to notice the cold.  The job sounded enticing, deputy head of the force under Rurik Alexandrovich Petrov, renowned for his incorruptibility in a section of the country that many people still refer to as the Wild East.

When he came back from the interview in Irkutsk Bulik was sold. I hadn’t seen him so enthusiastic in years, since before Ludmilla got sick. He couldn’t stop talking about the clean air, the friendly people, mysterious Lake Baikal just an hour’s drive away, and the money. Money dripped out of the walls and ran down the gutters, it seemed. There were several gated communities on the outskirts where the truly rich lived, and cottages at the lake with 30 rooms where they summered.

I didn’t hear much from Bulik for several months, other than the fact that he had arrived safely and was settling in well.

“Nice to hear from you, Bulik,” I said. “I’ve been expecting your call.”

“I heard you were retired now, and might be looking for something to do,” Bulik replied.

“What can you offer to drag me away from the attractions of my beautiful native city?” I said. It was true that I had been regretting taking retirement. I still lecture at the police academy, but that’s about as exciting as writing up traffic tickets, and anyway classes there were out for the summer.

“I’m sure you’ve read about the string of murders we’ve had out here, and about the head that was delivered to United Russia. Because of your experience with that serial killer in the Moscow region, Petrov and I thought you might be able to help us out. And of course we’ll pay a consulting fee.  You can stay with me, or we’ll put you up in a separate apartment if you prefer.”

“Hmm, that could be interesting. When would you need me to come out?”

“As soon as possible. Oh, and one other thing—we’re trying to get Arkady Renko to come out from Moscow, so you might have a chance to work with him again.”

Bulik and I had worked with the famous Moscow investigator Renko, son of one of Stalin’s most notorious generals, several years earlier and we all profited from the experience, or at least so I flatter myself.

“You drive a hard bargain, Bulik. How long would you want me to stay?”

“Just until we solve this case. You can imagine the kind of pressure we’re getting from our bosses in Moscow.”

“Yes, of course.”

“Well there’s a lot more about this case that we’ve been able to keep from the public. I think we may be closing in on him, but we need to pick your brains. It reminds me a little of that case in Canada, remember, where a torso was found in a garbage bag?”

“That one was pretty easy to solve, since the killer was all over the internet. Is that the same here?”

“No, there doesn’t seem to be a sign of him online. Anyway, I’ll fill you in when you arrive. Do you think you could take the plane tomorrow morning, then catch the red eye from Moscow? That would get you in here by early Wednesday morning.”

I calculated quickly. If my neighbor Nina were willing to handle my scant mail and look after the dog, I should be able to leave tomorrow. “Yes, I think so. If I can’t make it, I’ll call and let you know.”

“Great. I’ll arrange for a ticket for you to be picked up at the airport. It will be fun, working together again.”

“Yes, I look forward to it, and to seeing Irkutsk again. I imagine the old town has changed a lot since I was there in the 80s.”

“See you Wednesday, then. The flight gets in around 5:30 in the morning, and I’ll meet you at the airport.”

I ended the call and I went across the hall to knock on Nina’s door. She was retired too, in her 70s and could usually be found at home. An old Communist, she lived with nostalgia for the Soviet Union but that did not prevent her from making the most of our new capitalist system. She made succulent jams and jellies from the fruit trees at her dacha, and sold them most weekends at a farmer’s market nearby.

Fortunately, she was in and agreed to look after the mail and my husky-collie mix Laika, in return of course for a monetary consideration. So the next morning, having packed up some essentials that included by vintage Armani jacket and one or two tailor-made shirts, I headed to the airport. I went my Metro and bus, because I didn’t know how long I would be gone and long-term parking charges at Pulkovo are extortionate.

Much as I love Peter, the prospect of seeing Irkutsk again and working on a high profile case was welcome. I also looked forward to seeing Bulik once more. He had been my closest friend on the force, and I missed him a lot. He had matured well, no longer the brash former street kid, but he still had a soft place in his heart for people who were down on their luck. In our line of work he needed it. People said we were an odd couple of friends, me the tall, slender nerd with too much education and a suspect religious background, him the former boxer, taller than me and much heavier, with just a high school certificate. But we had been close ever since the terrorist kidnapping in 1997 when Bulik saved the life of an American girl I was secretly in love with, and probably saved my life too.

 The flight to Moscow was uneventful, and I had only about an hour and a half to wait for my plane to Irkutsk. We landed at Sheremetyevo 1, the refurbished domestic terminal, and to my surprise it was sparkling clean. Even the bathrooms were marble and spotless, a far cry from the situation of most Russian public toilets even a few years ago. Were we finally becoming civilized, I wondered? Why had it taken more than 1,000 years for these tribes originally dominated by descendants of the Vikings to attain a reasonable standard of public cleanliness? In their own homes Russians were always cleaning, or at least the women were, but the public sphere has been another story from time immemorial. Solzhenitsyn writes in his history of World War I that Russian soldiers were amazed at the tidiness of the Prussian cities they invaded. Here garbage litters our most picturesque parks and most upscale city streets. Is it because we are a rural people, because our land is so vast and our population relatively small? I wonder whether anyone has ever made an academic study of this subject—perhaps I’ll have a go when this case is over.

I pulled myself out of useless speculation—a common addiction of us former academics– and concentrated on buying a sandwich to sustain me through the six hour flight. I had chosen a window seat because I wanted to be able to see the vast darkness of Siberia from the air again. I hadn’t been here since 1982, when I worked during the summer at a lumber camp to earn money to finance my graduate studies. That was a great experience in retrospect, although I can clearly remember how much my skinny, unfit body ached after a long day at work, and how much hazing I got from the locals because of my soft, Jewish, big city background.

Boarding the Aeroflot flight was just as big a revelation as the air terminal had been. Announcements were now in both Russian and English, the plane looked brand new, and the flight attendants were young, lithe and friendly, a great change from the Soviet era when they were mostly stocky women who looked like they had been high school wrestling champions, with the disposition to match.

The flight was smooth, and after the last highrises and onion domes of Moscow disappeared it began to get dark. By the time we were over the Urals, I estimated, darkness was complete. The black velvet  below my window was pierced occasionally by lights of towns or outlying farms, sparkling like diamonds. I ate my sandwich and drank some version of coffee offered by the pretty young flight attendant.

I thought back to my first time in Irkutsk, which was, as Dickens said, the best of times and the worst of times. It was the best of times because of Alexandra, my first real girl friend. She was Buryat, and her family ran a small restaurant on Leninska ulitsa that served pozhes, the meat pies filled with hot liquid that are a staple of Buryat cuisine and a trap for the unwary. There was a famous newspaper picture of Mikhail Gorbachev being splattered by boiling liquid while trying to eat one. Buryats. a Mongol tribe, have been in the Baikal region since time immemorial. They are still shamanistic in religion, and to them Russian Jews are just another kind of Russian. They lack the anti-Semitism that is engrained in most ethnic Russians from birth. After all, it was less than 100 years ago that a common greeting between Russians was “God save the Czar and damn the Jews.”

I intended to return to Irkutsk the next summer, and told Alexandra so. But as it happened I was offered a summer research fellowship at the university and never went back. I sent her a letter of explanation and apology, but heard nothing in return. It has been on my conscience all these years—I wonder whether she is still alive, and still in Irkutsk.  She would be old like me now, in her late 50s and no doubt a babushka.

My time in Irkutsk, or really in the lumber camp 60 kilometers from town, was a nightmare because of the attitude of my fellow workers, and my own relative softness. I don’t think there had ever been a Jew working there before, and my co-workers were not welcoming.  One night in the dorm four of them ganged up on me and attacked me while I slept, removing my pajama bottoms and turning on the light so they and my other dormmates could inspect my circumcised penis. I knew better than to report them to management, just kept on working as well as I could and before the end of the summer the teasing took on a milder tone, especially when I filled out a little from all the physical work and began to exceed my quota of logs.

Soon my reverie turned to sleep, and I woke only as we were starting to descend to the airport. I spotted a string of lights below, probably houses along the Angara River or perhaps even on the shore of Lake Baikal.

Bulik was there as I exited the arrivals area of the small airport. He engulfed me in a bear hug, then took my bag. Even though it was spring, he wore a parka.

“I’m parked right in front. Did you get any sleep on the plane?”

“Just a little, I think,” I replied groggily. The cold, crisp air outside woke me up quickly.

“Well, you’ll sleep well at the place we got for you. It’s a beautiful apartment, owned by an artist, and it’s on the top floor of a building overlooking a marina and with a view towards Lake Baikal. On clear days you can see the Altai mountains across the lake,” Bulik said, opening the trunk of a grey Mercedes SUV that looked brand new.

“This is your car? You’ve really come up in the world,” I said, finding it hard to keep a note of suspicion out of my voice.

“No, actually it belongs to the same artist who owns the place where you will stay. He’s a friend of mine and offered it to me while he’s over in America teaching for the summer.”

We pulled out of the small parking lot and although it was barely six o’clock, traffic was already heavy.

“When I was here the only traffic was trucks, buses, the occasional Volga and a few Ladas,” I said.

“Well, now traffic is a real problem. Not like Peter or Moscow, of course, but bad enough for a small city.

“ You want to go to your apartment and get some sleep first, right?”

“No, I want to hear about the case first,” I said. It wouldn’t do to let Bulik and his colleagues think that I was past it, too old to be able to work after a red eye flight. After all, they were paying me serious money as a consultant.

“Great, I hoped you’d say that. We’ll go down to headquarters. The great Rurik usually gets in early,” he replied.

We drove through the city with Bulik pointing out some of the attraction. A lot was as I remembered it–the railway station, which looked as if it could use a coat of paint, the intersection of Karl Marx and Lenin ulitsas, graced by a statue of Lenin, a couple of the wooden house museums that belonged to Decembrists, early aristocratic revolutionaries. Then we drove past the corner with three churches, one of them in Siberian Baroque style, one in Western style, the third relatively nondescript.

“You know, boss, today Irkutsk is proud of the fact that it was the last major city in Russia to fall to the Red forces. There’s even a big statue in one of our parks of General Kalchuk.  I bet it was different when you were here, right?”

“You’re right, Bulik. I never heard anything about that before.”

At last we pulled up at police headquarters, a utilitarian grey modern building. Bulik led me in, pausing to introduce me to the receptionist, a round-faced young woman with black hair and eyes and flat Buryat features.

Inside the squad room there weren’t many people around yet. Bulik took me to his office, which had a window overlooking the street and some birch trees that were starting to sprout pale green leaves.  He invited me to sit in a chair beside his desk, and grabbed a fat file folder from his desktop.

“It’s all in here, everything we know so far. It started about a year ago, when someone discovered a severed foot along the bank of the Angara River. It was in one of those new gated communities just south of the city, and one of the maids was out taking a walk one evening by herself. This place is full of New Russians, and while there is only one road in with 24-hour security, anyone can travel along the river that runs behind some of the houses. She reported it and we investigated, but were never able to come up with anything. The foot was neatly severed, and was of a white adult.

“You know what it’s like out here, a lot of people go missing and are never found or reported. With millions of hectares of taiga and steppe, who can keep track of them? So unless someone is looking for a particular family member or friend, the odds of a body being found by authorities are pretty low. There were stories in the papers, but no one ever came forward to claim the foot.”

Bulik led me into the non-descript entrance of the building where I was staying. It could have been anywhere in Russia, except that the elevator worked. But inside the apartment, the walls were covered with large, brightly colored paintings of Siberian scenes, and the wall of windows straight ahead looked over the marina. I even recognized the artist, Sergei Kolitsyn. I had seen his work in a gallery in Petersburg.

“Wow, this is quite a place, Bulik. I see what you mean about the money out here. Just the paintings in this place are worth millions.”

“Yes, Sergei does very well. Anyway, I’ve left some groceries and beer for you in the fridge, and I’ll let you get some rest now. I’ll pick you up tomorrow morning at 8, if that’s all right.”

Agreeing with the time for pick up, I said good bye to Bulik and walked out onto the terrace to enjoy the view of the river and the snow-capped Altai mountains beyond Lake Baikal. I couldn’t complain about the accommodations, which were far nicer than I had at home. I just hoped the building security was good, since I would hate to be responsible if anything happened to one of Sergei’s pictures.

The next morning I awoke at first light. This part of Russia doesn’t enjoy the White Nights we have in Peter, but at this time of year it is usually light by six a.m. Today, though, rain was pouring down so the sky was dreary and I almost overslept, dragging myself up just before 7:30. I hurried to get dressed and just had time for instant coffee and a roll. Outside, the view of the mountains had disappeared and water pelted down on the terrace, drenching the geraniums in their orange terracotta containers. A discouraging start to an investigation, I thought. I was glad I had arrived on a bright day, when the city looked its best.

Bulik was right on time, but his mood seemed to match the weather. “Hurry up,” he said. “There’s been another foot discovered, and this time it was sent to my boss, who is getting furious about our slow progress on these cases.”

I jumped into the car, closing the door quickly against the downpour. In this weather the streets quickly turn to mud, and I was reminded of the old saying that Russia has only two problems, bad roads and idiots. It looked as if I might encounter both on this case—certainly the concierge guarding the apartment building looked none too bright, with his red nose running and his cap perched at a rakish angle. He tried to salute us as we drove out, but missed his cap and hit himself in the eye, probably as a result of a rough night.

We drove past a church just as the bells started to peal. Black cars were lined up outside for a funeral, and I did not view that as a good omen.  Detectives are supposed to be logical and rational, but I guess I was influenced too much by my babushka, the woman who raised me while my parents were building their scientific careers. Baba had learned to read cards from the gypsies, and saw omens in everything. I wondered what she would think of my adventure into the Siberian wilderness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 2

The detectives inside were all gathered around their chief. I had met several the day before, but some faces were new.

Petrov glared toward us, but did not otherwise acknowledge us or stop his tirade. He was standing behind his desk, and a bloody foot was on top of it, with some strands of skin hanging off.

“How long have we had to work on these cases?” he roared. “The first foot was discovered more than a year ago, and we’re nowhere on that case. The foot that was sent to United Russia headquarters arrived there, posted from Irkutsk, exactly 10 days ago. There has been no progress on that case either. And now, just to mock us, another foot shows addressed to me. It was sent from Ulan Ude, three days ago, according to the postmark.”

None of the detectives looked as if they wanted to interrupt the tirade, but finally a dark-haired man who appeared to be in his 30s spoke up. “But boss, we’re still not sure they are all connected, are we?”

“Obviously these feet are no longer connected to their leg, you idiot.” Someone suppressed a giggle, but Petrov ignored it. “Whether all the crimes are connected is uncertain, but odds are they are.”

“Or one or both of the later packages could just be copycat crimes,” a woman with  honey-colored hair said.

“That is possible,” Petrov admitted, “but what are the odds? I think it’s more likely that at least two of the packages were sent by the same person.”

“When will we know whether the foot sent to United Russia matches the one in our lab?” she asked.

“Moscow tells us it may take another week or so, but from the pictures I’ve seen it certainly looks similar, and it is a right foot whereas ours was a left,” Petrov replied.

**********

At the risk of looking foolish, I decided to tell Bulik about Alexandra and ask his advice about finding her after all these years. We had just finished dinner at the futuristic restaurant downtown, the one where the very tall maitre d’ is undoubtedly one of the four per cent of the human race that is supposed to be descended directly from Ghengis Khan, when I broached the subject.

“When I was out here in the 80s, I met my first girlfriend. She was a Buryat, and didn’t care that I was Jewish. She worked in her family’s restaurant that was then on Karl Marx Prospect. I told her I would come back the next summer, but then I got a fellowship and things changed. I wrote to her but never got a response.

“And now you’d like to find her again, I suppose?” Bulik said, wiping his mouth with the starched linen napkin.

“At least I’d like to know whether she is still alive, and if so what might have happened to her.”

“It would be tough after all these years. She undoubtedly married and is probably using a different name now. And she could have moved away, even abroad.”

“I know, it’s probably hopeless. But I want to try, at least. I may never be out this way again,” I said.

 

I walked up to the simple unpainted brown-grey wooden house where a few hardy plants were starting to push through the rocky soil. The lacy trim was painted bright blue, and the place looked well cared-for, even if it was in a generally slovenly Buryat settlement a few kilometers east of town. I saw a curtain move in the lower right side window before I knocked.

The door opened and a flat-faced woman stood there, wearing a red kerchief over her hair and a grey housedress. Her face was only slightly lined.

“I am sorry to disturb you, madam, but I am looking for someone who used to be called Alexandra Tsydypova and I heard you might know something about her.”

“Who told you that? And who are you?” She asked, squinting against the bright sun.

“I am a retired police detective from St. Petersburg, but I am here on personal business. Ms. Tsydypova is not in any trouble. Here is my card.”

The woman strained to read it in the sunlight, then looked up at me. “Please come in,” she said.

I walked through the doorway and bent down to remove my shoes. Inside the place was sparsely furnished but sparkling clean. Family pictures graced a table in what appeared to be the living room. In the corner where most Russian homes would have an icon, multicolored prayer flags were streaming down.

“Please sit down, and I will tell you about Alexandra.”

“She is my younger sister, and she is still living in Irkutsk under a different name. She is divorced from her husband, Yuri Andreyevich Rostov, who drank too much and nearly killed her, so she is not listed in the telephone book and, except for her granddaughter, has become something of a recluse.”

“She has children then? We were both very young when I knew her. I was out here at a summer work camp, a lumber camp, about 60 km. from Irkutsk. I met her at your family’s restaurant on Karl Marx Prospect, but I don’t remember meeting you.”

“No, probably not. I was away often in the summers, looking after my grandmother in Ulan Ude.”

“So  Alexandra has children?” I inquired.

“ Alexandra has just one son, and she doesn’t see much of him. But he dumped his daughter with her before he went away, and my sister loves her. This is a picture of her,” she said, pointing to a blurry shot of a little girl in a pink ballet costume among the pictures on a crowded tabletop.

“You said she’s a recluse. Does she not work?”

“She retired last year from the railway office. Now she takes in some sewing to help pay the bills, but she’s very careful about her customers. She only deals with people she’s known for a long time.”

“Yes, I understand. These domestic violence cases can be very difficult. So if she doesn’t want to see me, it’s her privilege.”

Standing up, I admired the family picture, then said “Would you let her know I was asking about her at least? I will understand if she doesn’t want to see me after all these years, but I would like to explain why I didn’t come back the next summer as I planned. I wrote a letter, but perhaps she never received it.”

The woman frowned slightly, and her manner became chillier. “Yes, I will let her know. Where can she reach you if she wishes to?”

I gave her my coordinates in Irkutsk, and sensed it was time to leave. Apologizing again for having bothered her, I rose, gathered my shoes and opened the door, thanking the old woman for her time.

I had the feeling I probably would not be hearing from Alexandra, but now it was out of my hands. I could of course get Bulik to put a wiretap on this woman’s telephone to see if she even called Alexandra, but I didn’t want to force the issue. I wasn’t the type to force myself on anyone. Outside a scraggly black and white dog was rolling in mud, as I walked back toward my car in the roadway, and the sky had turned overcast. A chill wind was starting to blow across the steppe.

 

 

Chapter 3

The head is always the tricky part. It doesn’t take a genius to remove a foot, even a leg, or a hand or arm. The joints make it relatively easy. But the tendons on the neck are very thick, and even for an experienced butcher like me it is a tough job. You need a really sharp knife. Some people use a hatchet, but that can get really messy. I prefer a knife.

I want to stop. I really, really want to stop killing. I don’t know what comes over me, what dark instinct makes me lose control. Afterwards I try to deny my crimes by dismembering the victims, they are dead anyway and it won’t matter to them now, but I keep hoping it will help me forget what I did.

My mother and grandmother taught me the way of the Buryat, that the body is sacred even after death, and even if that body is animal, not human. The head should not be separated from the body under any circumstances. When I was little I believed them. But then it came time for school. The Buryat kids made fun of me because I didn’t look much like them. I had a long face and a hooked nose, but with slanted eyes like a Mongol, so the Russian kids didn’t like me either. At first it bothered me, but I learned after a while to enjoy my own company. I would sit by myself at lunch, and took little part in school activities.

What I did like to do was run. Every chance I got, I would run across the steppe near our settlement. I’d run past cattle and goats on the open range, once I even tried to run faster than a horse. Running like Mercury, messenger of the Roman gods we learned about in history class, I could forget about my tormentors at school. One day I was out jogging along the road when a Lada stopped beside me. The man driving rolled down the side window on the passenger side.

“Hey kid,” he said, “Where’d you learn to run like that?”

I shrugged and didn’t answer. The man was Russian, and even back then my mother had warned me about talking to strange men, particularly Russians. He seemed friendly, but then predators always did, my mother said.

“I’m a coach, I work at the high school and I think you have real potential. What grade are you in?” he asked.

“I just graduated from seventh grade.”

“Good, then you’ll be at our school this fall. Be sure to come see me—we need guys like you on the track team. And if you want to get started this summer, just give me a call.” He searched for a paper and pen, wrote down his name and phone number and handed it to me. Then, with a wave, he rolled up the window and drove off. Maybe he wasn’t a weirdo after all, I thought.

A few days later I got up the nerve to call Ivan Maximovich Kobalinen, and my running career was launched. By the time I got to high school I was still an outcast, but an outcast with a possible future. I spent every spare moment running and building up my technique, with Ivan Maximovich’s help. He bought me the expensive running shoes my parents couldn’t afford. Our team started winning competitions. By my senior year, we were first in Eastern Siberia in track and field events, and I was the star of the team. I specialized in the 400 meter dash, but also competed in hurdles and the 200 meter event.

We went to Moscow the summer after graduation to take part in the All Russia Games. That was where it happened. Where I took a bad stumble and tore my Achilles tendon. The injury ended my running career and started me down the long, dark slope that led up me to today, with addictions first to pain killers then to stronger stuff, with renting out my body to get money for drugs, and with even more despicable acts.

I was in the hospital in Moscow for about a month while the doctors tried to repair my torn tendon. But they were overworked, and didn’t have much time for a non life-threatening injury. I heard there was a doctor at a special hospital for athletes who might be able to help me, but you needed to pay him under the table and neither I nor my coach nor my mother had the money required. After about a month they released me onto the mean streets of the city. I didn’t want to go back to Ulan Ude with a limp, so I decided to stay in the capital for a while, try my luck. Of course I didn’t have a residence permit, which meant I always had to be on the lookout for cops.  I also didn’t have money to bribe them into looking the other way. I met some kids, other dropouts, who hung out around the Metro stop closest to the Botanical Gardens. They lived on the street, stealing food or anything else they could find, dealing drugs when they had a chance, sometimes turning tricks. It was summer so they slept mostly in the Gardens, where the security people looked the other way. When it rained hard we would all get on the Metro and ride to Three Stations downtown, where we joined the sleeping throngs waiting to take trains to various parts of the Soviet Union.

It was an okay life for a while, I felt like I had found a place where I belonged. I was bigger than a lot of the other kids so they treated me with respect. I even had a girl friend for a time, a beautiful Jewish girl named Sarah with long black curly hair. Sarah had run away from her overly strict parents, who were Orthodox and wanted her to be the same. But after a month or so, Sarah got tired of being hungry and sleeping rough and decided maybe life at home wasn’t so bad after all. She said she would come back to visit us once she had returned home, but I never saw her again.

All that summer we did all right, but when the days began to grow short and colder I could see that this was going to be a bitch during the winter. I started hanging out around xxxx, where men went to pick up boys. I figured if I could find myself a sugar daddy for the cold season I’d be all set. I didn’t like it, don’t imagine that, but I thought sucking old men’s dicks was probably my best career prospect at the time.  I didn’t want to turn into a vory, a professional criminal, and spend most of my life in jail or running from the cops. With a pronounced limp and no high school education I didn’t seem to have a lot of career options.

That’s how I came to meet Sasha, who taught engineering at one of the technical institutes. He rented me a few times, then asked me to come back to his place for the night. I was reluctant to get into his car, a dark blue Volga sedan, because we guys had a policy of not driving off with the johns. Victor from Vyborg had done that one night, and the next we heard his body had been found along the south bank of the Moskva River. Some of our customers were seriously weird.

A knock on the door interrupted my reverie. It was a large man I had never seen before, carrying a hacksaw.

“Sorry to bother you, but I found this lying on the road leading to this dacha and wondered whether you had lost it. It’s a nice tool.”

I recognized the saw instantly. It was the one I had used to cut up my latest victim, a young man from Japan who had decided to camp along the road. I knew he was from Japan because of the passport he carried, and his Japanese books. How could I have been so careless as to have dropped it, or left it out there on the road for anyone, like this bozo, to find? Sometimes I wonder whether I am losing my mind.

“I don’t remember having a tool like this, but then as you can see I have a lot of tools around,” I said, waving an arm toward several boxes on the floor overflowing with old implements of various kinds, many of them rusty.

“Well, if it isn’t yours I guess I can keep it then. It should bring a few hundred roubles from a pawn broker, and I could sure use the money,” the man said. He didn’t look to be short of a meal, but his greying hair and beard were unkempt and he was missing two upper front teeth.

I wasn’t sure what to say. Letting him keep the saw could lead to its being identified eventually by the police, and the police discovering where it had been found. They might be on my doorstep within days. On the other hand, wanting to keep the saw after I had denied recognizing it might also make him suspicious. Much as I liked that saw—its heavy weight and sharp edges really were the best for cutting up the bodies of moose, bear or humans—getting it back was going to be a problem. Unless………

There, I’d done it, broken my resolution again. Much as I hate killing, it often seems as if it is the only way to solve a problem. Luckily I always keep a sharp letter opener on the small wooden table by the door where I put my infrequent mail. Before I realized I had made up my mind, the letter opener was in my hand and I had raised it, taking my unwelcome visitor by surprise. He lifted his arms to try to ward off the blow, but too late. I slipped it easily between his ribs and twisted it. He screamed, then gasped as his eyes widened and he started to spit up blood. He fell forward, and within two minutes was still and silent on the floor. I knelt to feel his pulse, just to be sure. I couldn’t find a pulse.

Now the tiresome part, how to dispose of the body. I don’t want to cut this one up, that whole process is starting to get on my nerves. Call me a sissy, even a wimp or a wuss if you like, but it is a bloody, bloody business, and it doesn’t get easier with practice. It’s especially hard when the victim, like this one, had to die just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

  Burying the body here somewhere after dark is the obvious answer, but that won’t be easy this time of year. It is springtime, but the ground is still frozen under the top few centimeters, and digging a hole large enough to hold a human body, especially a relatively large one like this, is a tough job.

I bent down and went through the visitor’s pockets. He was carrying only a propiska which told me he was Mikhail Igorevich Repin, a legal resident of Irkutsk, 49 years old. He also had two keys, one of which I easily identified as belonging to a Lada, and the other apparently a house key. A thousand three hundred and twenty three rubles seemed to be the sum of his other earthly possessions. There was nothing on his propiska to show that he was married, so perhaps he was something like me, basically a loner. That would be best, since it would mean it could take a long time before anyone missed him.

I’m not sure what led me to start sending the body parts around. My memory is a little hazy on that subject, but I think it was when these damned headaches started. Now the latest, the head I sent to United Russia, that I understand very well. It’s about time those bastards in the Kremlin were made aware that people out here are suffering. While they drive around in their Mercedes and eat off of Gold plates, old people here are scrounging in garbage cans looking for dinner. They’ve already sold off anything they own that could have any possible value. And the young people are mostly looking to marry a foreigner who will take them out of this hellhole. The girls have been doing that for a long time, and everybody knows the Russian bride business is just a form of legalized prostitution. Now young men are doing it too, selling themselves to foreign women or men or even locals.

Me, I’m doing ok, I’m a survivor, but I worry a lot about the people around me. This has always been a part of the world cursed by God, if he exists, but even in the gulag days I don’t think things were as bad as now. What with drug traffic and sex traffic, that accounts for about 70 per cent of the Siberian economy. Even university students and professors aren’t above turning a trick or hustling dope. I don’t blame them, they have to survive too, and they can’t do so on their measly salaries. I’ve heard things are even worse in Akademgorodok than here. Over there in the city that used to be the pride of the Soviet Union, the place where all our best scientists lived and worked, laboratories are covered with cobwebs and the forest is starting to take back some of the professor’s houses. Those who still manage to eke out a living there are using equipment that is hopelessly outdated, that would be laughed out of any other so-called “advanced” scientific center. No wonder our country is falling behind.

The old people are the ones I really worry about. People like Alexei and Vera, my closest neighbors out here. They subsist on their laughable government pensions and what they can grow in this soil that only is a few inches deep before it turns into permafrost. They haven’t seen a dentist in years, most of their teeth are rotten, and going to a doctor is a rare event, since hardly any of them don’t require extra payment. Vera will soon be blind if she doesn’t have her cataracts removed, an operation that would be simple if she lived in the West or had money. They never had kids, so I’m all they have and I try to help out when I can.

When the Soviet system crumbled we all thought things were going to get better. Well, they did for some people, but for many of us especially in the outlying regions things are even worse now than they were then. Then nobody starved, and everybody had some kind of work unless they were declared enemies of the people. Now the shops are full, but nobody has the money to buy more than cabbage and onions and the occasional piece of rotten meat. And the things that used to be almost free like rent are now among the highest in the world, unless you have stayed in the same place for many years.

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