In recent months he had stopped liking the night. He was afraid of it. At night, he was more acutely aware of his helplessness and vulnerability. In the ensuing silence every sound, even the most innocent, was a harbinger of an invisible but inexorable danger. He chased the thoughts away, but they kept returning and there was no avoiding them.
But really, what was there to fear? He had nothing of value in the house, just some cash for expenses. He put his fees in the bank the day he received them, withdrawing the dividends every ten days. And that’s what he lived on. How much did he need, a legless invalid? And what did anyone need with him? What was there to fear?
He did not know the answer. But he was still afraid. Every night. And he cursed the day that Nature endowed him with good hearing. Not supernatural hearing, just good. Normal. There were so many people in the world who started losing their hearing through illness or trauma! Why wasn’t he one of them? If his hearing were slightly impaired, he would sleep soundly at night. No sounds would disturb him. But no, his legs couldn’t walk, his kidneys were failing, even his vision was worse, but his hearing was like a newborn’s. Fate was laughing at him.
He turned onto his other side, settling comfortably in the soft, cozy bed. His birthday was next week. Forty-three. Was that a lot? A little? Who knew… What would he be bringing to the annual passage?
He was well-to-do. Without a doubt. A two-story brick seemed to be a nice guy, maybe they should become closer friends and neighbors.
Tomorrow, he would tell Andrei, his new assistant, to be prepared for guests in case any should show up. He should get good drinks and drive over to the Praga Restaurant to pick up hors-d’oeuvres. He should buy a lot of things that would not spoil if no one ate them right away. If guests didn’t show up, who cared? The time in the wheelchair had strongly changed Solovyov’s perception of life. He couldn’t blame people for avoiding a cripple. You can’t expect them to come visit – there was no metro stop nearby, no bus lines, so only people with cars could visit him. And the trip took time.
Lord, why was he so scared at night?
The young men were still disappearing. Since September of last year – nine boys aged fourteen to seventeen. Naturally, they weren’t the only ones disappearing. There were many more reports from parents that their sons “had left and not returned”. But these nine were special. What set them apart from all the rest was that they had been found. Dead. And one more thing: all nine boys were amazingly similar – olive-skinned, dark-haired, Semitic-looking, with big dark eyes. Like brothers. And the cause of death was always the same – drug overdose. According to the autopsies, the rectums showed that the boys were active homosexuals. There was nothing unusual about a teenager abusing drugs and dying of an overdose. That happened all the time. And the fact that drugs and homosexual contacts were both present was also common. But the way they resembled one another was not.
Then a thin thread appeared, a tiny, tenuous one, and it wasn’t at all clear that it came from the same ball of wool. On one of the avenues connecting midtown Moscow with the southern suburbs, a highway patrolman tried to stop a light blue Volga for speeding. The driver did not pull over and the sergeant radioed the next highway patrol post. However, the car did not go past.
The sergeant, who read all the wanted bulletins closely and dreamed of a career as a great detective, had noticed that a dark-haired teenager was in the passenger seat. He thought about it a bit and then reported the fact to Petrovka, Moscow’s central police headquarters. When they learned that the light blue Volga never went past the second patrol point, they began searching the area. They found the car rather quickly – it was parked, sad and alone, while its owner was knocking on doors at the precinct of the North-West District asking them to find his car, which had been stolen that afternoon. The closest residential area to the abandoned car was a cottage complex with the romantic name “Daydream Estates”. That was the only clue in the case of the vanishing dark-eyed boys. When yet another report of a missing son came in a few days later, the photo of the boy was shown to the highway patrol sergeant. It was shown according to procedure, mixed in among several other photos, some of which were also of dark-haired, dusky teenagers.
“No,” the sergeant admitted honestly after a fifteen-minute perusal of the pictures. “The type is right, but I can’t say for sure. The car was going fast. It’s a good thing I have good vision. At least I saw the kid, but I didn’t get a good look at his features.”
But the ephemeral connection between the missing boys and the cottages to the south of Moscow was better than nothing. So they took a look at the residents of Daydream Estates. Twenty two-story brick houses. Twenty families.
Information about the people living in the cottages collected every day on the desk of Senior CID Detective Anastasia Kamenskaya. Her colleague Kolya Seluyanov, a big fan of visual aids and maps, made her a huge, wall-size diagram of the estates and beneath each cottage attached an envelope into which the information on the owners could go. This seemed sensible to Nastya, and she accepted the fruit of Kolya’s labors gratefully, immediately hanging the diagram on the office wall right opposite her desk. But she didn’t have much faith in the results this approach would bring.
The main thrust of their work was on the environment of the missing boys. There had to be something they had in common. Friends? Interests? Where were they going the day they went missing? Were they involved in sports? There were a great many questions, getting the answers took time and effort, and the results were zero. There wasn’t a single thing that united all the missing teenagers when they were alive. Not one. Besides their looks. But what kind of theory can you build with that?
“Maybe it’s an underground gay brothel?” Yura Korotkov suggested.
“Then it’s made for just one gay client,” Nastya replied. “All the missing boys have the same face. Various men would have various tastes. Blonds, brunets, redheads, fair-skinned, dark. But why are they pumped full of drugs? To keep them docile? To keep them on the needle and from running away? I could understand if the boys had been all different and were intended for many clients. But if it was all for just one man, I don’t see the logic. Why does he need so many partners? All looking the same. He could find one and love him all he wanted.”
“Nastya, he’s a madman. That’s clear. And you’re looking for logic.”
“I am.” She shook her head stubbornly. “Because madmen have logic, too. It’s not like ours, but it exists.”
“And you think that this psycho lives in one of the Daydream cottages?”
“Not necessarily. It could be his accomplice, who finds the boys for him. Although you’re right, Yura, madmen don’t have accomplices. An accomplice works on the same project with the boss and he has to share his interests and in the profit somehow.”
She was silent, making herself instant coffee in a glass, stirred the sugar, and got herself a cigarette. She inhaled deeply and then exhaled.
“Or else, it’s a very wealthy madmen. Who can hire an accomplice for a lot of money. If it all has to do with their looks, then he’s really cracked. Look.”
She handed Korotkov a chart showing the dates of the teenagers’ disappearance and the dates they were found dead in various parts of the city.
“This psycho, as you like to call him, finds his next victim while the first is still alive and well. And not alone. The first victim vanished in September and died in December, and by then three others had disappeared. Why does he gather this harem for himself, can you tell me that? I could understand if each new one disappeared after his predecessor died. So he likes dark boys, and they don’t want to have sex with him when they’re sober, so he gets them hooked on drugs. He keeps them stoned and in his bed. A boy OD’s, he needs a new one. Now there’s a logic in that. But this?”
She threw up her hand expressively sketching a confused shape in the air.
“Why do they all die of an overdose?”
“Maybe he kills them that way,” Korotkov proposed. “Say, he gets tired of them. ”
“Ah, tired of them,” Nastya repeated. “And he looks for a substitute just like the other. What’s the point of trading them in for the same thing? All right, say, he’s tired of a boy who losing his attractiveness because he’s strung out on drugs. But if he gets the next one on the needle, too, he knows that he’ll get sick of him soon, too. What is he planning to do, keep up this assembly line of wretched boys going all his life? Find one, bring him home, then a month later, a second one, even though the first is still alive and well, and in another month, a third boy. What does he do with the first two? They’re still there. They’re not going to die for a while… No, Yura, that doesn’t work. That’s not how it’s happening.”
“Right,” Nastya scowled. “If I knew how it was really happening, we wouldn’t be sitting here, a picture in brown study. Anyway, let’s drop the philosophizing and get down to work. Have you brought me anything?”
“But of course,” Yura said with a big smile. “The next installment of biographical gossip about the residents of the comfortable cottages.”
Nastya could never understand how Korotkov managed to work with abbreviated and disorganized notes and not get things mixed up. She was very careful with information, as if it were a fragile and expensive object that could change its significance with the change of a single letter, number, or comma and thereby lose its true value. Yura left a pile of papers on her desk – copies of applications and reports, sheets torn out of a notebook with hastily scrawled abbreviations. Nastya was terribly lazy in everything that did not concern work, and she could go without cleaning house a long time, but order reigned in her information. Therefore, sighing bitterly over the pile of papers, she took out clean sheets of paper and began copying down neatly and systematically all the new data on the Daydreamers.
Who were the basic inhabitants of those expensive little houses? “New Russians”, of course. The “old” ones couldn’t afford it. But the “new”, when they moved to the spacious brick cottages, usually left their parents behind in the city apartments. Of the twenty families, there were only three who had grandparents living in Daydream Estates, to baby-sit while the parents were at work in their offices. Nastya thought they could exclude those three families for now, it was unlikely that they would bring boys or teenagers to a house with elderly relatives. That left seventeen. Too many, especially if you bore in mind that it wasn’t clear at all that there was a connection between the abducted boys and the cottages. Time and effort would go into a thorough investigation of all the residents, and then they would find out that it was all in vain.
There was one circumstance that seriously hampered the work. No one else knew about the nine missing teenagers who stood out from the rest of missing kids, only the people working at CID Moscow in the serious violence squad. No other living soul knew, with the exception of course, of the criminals. Last year fifty-eight thousand people vanished without a trace in Russia, and forty-eight thousand the year before that. The figures were high for the capital, too. No one noticed those nine dark-haired, dark-eyed, olive-skinned boys in the general mass of the missing. No one but Anastasia Kamenskaya, who liked working with data and knew how to do it. She shared her suspicions with her chief, Colonel Gordeev, who heard her out and agreed that there was a case there. But there was not enough to give this case official standing. There were a lot of young people who died of an overdose. Rarely did they die in their own warm and clean beds. However, it did happen often enough in a place where a body should not be found, and such corpses were moved far from the site of death. They were driven and dumped on streets, in parks, cellars, and courtyards. Tossed into the river. Left in the country. Many of them were habitual users and their lifestyle involved staying away from home for several days or even weeks, so that the formula “did not live at home and died from drugs” included a significant number of people. It would have never occurred to anyone to group several people by their appearance. If Nastya had even hinted any of this to the prosecutor’s investigator, he would have laughed at her. And if he didn’t, if he had seen the point and started a case on dark-haired, dusky boys, the case would have gone to Gordeev and his people. And then there would be demands for results and explanations of time and personnel. That’s why they were doing this on the quiet – to keep everyone out of their hair. In the framework of an investigation of a single fact: checking the light blue Volga’s involvement in the disappearance of sixteen-year-old Dima Vinogradov. The rest was partisan sneaking around.
Making a fair copy of the new information, Nastya thoughtfully regarded the piece of paper that said in large red letters:
Name Solovyov Vladimir
Date of Birth: 1953, 5 April
Place of Birth: Moscow
Family members there: none
Family living separately: son, Solovyov Igor, b. 1976.
April 5, Friday, was his birthday. I guess I’ll have to visit him, thought Nastya. To wish him a happy birthday and to take a look at this Dreamland.
The discussion on marketing the new titles was called for eleven in the morning, but it began, as usual, almost a half hour late. It is amazing that people who work in the same company and have offices on the same floor can never get together to start a meeting on time. You’d think they were coming from different cities. All it took was to walk ten yards from their rooms to the general director’s office.
The general director of Sherkhan Books, Kirill Esipov, a bearded young man of medium height, loved his child and nurtured the company zealously. He had started his career as an editor in a large publishing house and quite by accident came across a gold vein on which he staked his future, starting his own company. That vein was literature of the East. He named his company Sherkhan, after the famous tiger of the Indian jungle in Rudyard Kipling’s stories. Esipov began with a series called Eastern Best Seller, and he borrowed a lot of money. The first few books did not do very well, there weren’t many lovers of sophisticated Oriental prose in Russia, but Kirill believed in his star. He had no desire to inculcate love in the Russian reader for a complex literature that had unfamiliar images and turns of phrase. He published mysteries and thrillers and waited for them to find their readers. He was right. Mystery lovers at last “discovered” the series and enthusiastically began buying up books with the clever EBS logo. His investment paid off, and Esipov started a second series – Eastern Romances. Things started slowly here, too, but Kirill knew how to wait. He found the secret that would make these books popular. It was “Europeanization”. The only truly Oriental things in the books were the author’s names and a multitude of exotic details that ornamented the work. But the action usually took place in Europe and America and a significant proportion of the characters were not of Oriental descent. However, this prose was not very popular in its land of origin, for traditional literature was revered in China and Japan, which was not very interesting to the modern reader brought up in the West. And really, there were not too many modern Russians who could appreciate an image like this: “I could not hold back the tear that fell on my cheek or forget the man who showed me that everything was but a handful of sand.”
Sherkhan Books was growing stronger and now they had the funds to advertise. This was a permanent stumbling block between Esipov and Avtayev, the commercial director, who hoarded every kopeck and feverishly counted every ruble. Today they were to discuss the advertising campaign for the new volume in the Eastern Best Seller series, and Esipov was prepared to spend a lot of time convincing the commercial director to invest the funds.
“The series is doing well as it is,” Grisha Avtayev said loudly in outraged tones. “Sales are fine and I don’t think we need any additional advertising.”
Average sales meant that books from the publisher’s warehouse were sold to wholesalers in under four months. Good sales meant the print run left the warehouse within two months, which made a quick return on the investment and a profit that was minimally affected by inflation.
“We have to try to raise the rate of sales,” Esipov said gently.
“That will happen anyway,” Avtayev insisted stubbornly. “The series is launched and the process will continue on its own. You know this happens in every house. The first few don’t go very well, then things improve completely independently of the quality of the books. That is an objective process. Why waste money on something that will happen anyway? I don’t get it.”
“Because I want to increase the printings. If we wait for the series to get popular on its own, we have to limit ourselves to a hundred or a hundred twenty thousand copies. I want to be able to print a hundred fifty thousand or two hundred thousand right away. And to be guaranteed that they will sell.”
“Sure,” Avtayev said, waving his arms in fear. “You’re going to put in that much money. What if it doesn’t sell? Nobody’s going to give you any guarantees.”
“There will be guarantees if we do the marketing right. Semyon,” Esipov said, turning to the managing editor, “have you selected excerpts for prepub serials?”
He had to argue with the managing editor, too, but over different issues. Semyon inevitably suggested the best parts for magazine publication, and Esipov had to disagree with him each time. He was the only one of the three who looked ahead. Both Avtayev and Semyon Voronets thought only of the shortterm gain and all their efforts were channeled on the production and sale of the book at hand. Naturally, for the best sales of a single book you had to give the best scene from it for serial rights. But what would happen next? Next, the reader who read that best scene in a newspaper or magazine would think that the whole book was on that level. Of course he would look for the book, run around town for it. But once he opened it and started reading, he would see that the rest was weaker and that the whole book was not about only that one excerpt. He would sigh, berate himself for being too trusting, and would no longer seek out the next volume in the series, no matter how extravagantly advertised. Who would trust a liar? Kirill Esipov felt that prepublication excerpts should use not the best scene but the most intriguing one, so that the reader will want to find out what else happens and how it all ends. Unfortunately, Semyon Voronets was unable to find excerpts like that. He was persistent and pushy, he knew how to negotiate with authors and translators, but he had no taste or understanding of literature. With enviable constancy he always selected the sexiest or most violent bits from upcoming manuscripts, which were rarely typical of the actual books. Lovers of that sort of thing would be disappointed if they believed the advertising. And more discerning readers who believed the advertising would not buy the book at all. But he never could beat that into Voronets’s pathologically thick skull. He still thought that a mountain of corpses and a sea of blood were the best bait; the general director thought the bait should be intrigue, conflict, mystery. A puzzle.
Besides printed excerpts in the papers, the marketing campaign used announcements of coming books in current volumes, as annotations that Voronets was supposed to write. His first few efforts showed that he could not do it well. Capturing the essence of the plot, retelling it briefly, in just a few words, and adding mystery and intrigue was beyond his modest abilities. Semyon tried to get the translators to do it, but their annotations were not much better. Finally Esipov told him to find a copywriter who could skim a manuscript and write attractive copy. But then the cheapskate Avtayev got agitated. What, pay for something that could be done in-house! Never!
Esipov scanned the excerpt selected by Semyon to be printed in three segments in a popular daily. This isn’t typical of the book, he thought drearily. Three martial artists fighting in a dark, rat-filled cellar. Creepy nonsense. One of them – the hero, he assumed – put the other two to eternal rest but had to stay in the cellar because the only one who knew the way out was one of the two dead men. So the hero stays down there with the rats looking for the way out. Now, who would want to buy this book? Only the people who thought it was devoted from first page to the last to fights and rats in a cellar. And how many readers were there like that?
“What is the novel about?” he asked, pushing away the computer-printed pages.
“The Japanese mafia in Hollywood,” Voronets replied.
“And why can’t you tell that from the excerpt? Where is the Yakuza? Where is Hollywood? What are we advertising here?”
“But this is the scariest scene,” Voronets explained, truly not understanding what it was the general director wanted from him.
“God!” Esipov clutched his head. “How many times do I have to explain!”
In the end, Voronets promised to find another selection, but Kirill Esipov could see that he still had not figured out what was needed. Once again, he would probably bring him more garbage.
If only he could hire a good person to replace him, knowledgeable and with literary taste.
“Let’s look at the annotations,” Esipov said wearily.
The annotations were useless, too. Voronets hadn’t learned to write them, either.
“We can’t go on like this, Grisha,” Kirill said to Avtayev. “We have to find a specialist and hire him. No one needs advertising like this. We’re doing ourselves harm this way.”
“We don’t need any advertising at all,” Avtayev was back on his hobby horse. “I’ve told you, it does itself…”
“I’ve said what we need and we’ll have what I say,” Esipov cut him off.
He wanted to add, “And if you don’t agree, then go, find yourself another publishing house and economize there.” But he couldn’t say that.
“I am certain, Grisha,” he added more calmly, “that in a very short time you will be convinced that we are doing the right thing, putting money into advertising. I promise you. By the way, you haven’t forgotten that it’s Volodya’s birthday on Friday? Don’t plan anything else for Friday afternoon, we’ll have to go out there to congratulate him.”
Avtayev made a face. A birthday present for the company’s best translator was no joke. You couldn’t make do with flowers and a bottle. They needed a good present. And who would pay? Would they have to all chip in again? You could go broke working here.
Watching Avtayev and Voronets leave his office, Sherkhan’s general director thought with dismay that he would have to carry the whole load in this team. Because the team could not be changed. They were all mixed up in this too much. He was stuck with them.
Solovyov was having trouble getting used to his new assistant. Ever since he became trapped in his wheelchair, he had an assistant. Secretary, nanny, errand boy, chef, janitor and maid all in one. At first everyone recommended he hire a woman. After all, the functions were primarily female, there was hardly any real man’s work, but Solovyov knew that he would not be able to stand having a woman around to take care of him and pity him. His memories were too strong of the days when women adored him and loved him for his strength, decisiveness, and courage.
The first one was a nice guy, who managed his duties well but whose normal male ambition got in the way of staying in a job with no career prospects. Solovyov paid a more than generous wage and threw in use of his car, but it turned out that the man had taken the job for a place to live. As soon as he had an opportunity to buy his own apartment, he quit. The publishers found him his second assistant – they sent over a young man who worked in their warehouse. He didn’t last very long – he was sticky-fingered and dumb besides, forgetting to do half the things Solovyov told him. This was the third. The publishers had found him, too, apologizing all the while for the unsuccessful previous candidate and promising that the young one would be fine. His name was Andrei.
Solovyov was wary of him. In the last two years he had learned the full measure of his own vulnerability, involved with his inability to control the assistant and the need to rely on him completely. While the first attempt had been more or less successful, the second was a failure. Therefore, he decided to start by finding out why Andrei took the job.
“How old are you?” he asked Andrei when they met. “Twenty-five.”
“Do you have a family?”
“Parents. I’m not married yet.”
“Do you live with them?”
“No, I have my own place.”
“Tell me, Andrei, what do you need this job for? It’s not a career path.”
“I won’t have a career anywhere,” he said with an easy smile. “That’s not my character. You have to be aggressive, pushy, quick. I’m not like that.”
“You’ll have to live here with me,” Solovyov warned.
“Yes, I know. They told me.”
“What else did they say?”
“That I’ll have to drive, be able to cook decently, not drink, and be precise and careful with your work. To do what I’m told and not forget anything.”
“And do you think you can manage that?”
“I hope so. My mother says I should have been born a girl.” Andrei’s eyeglasses lent him a serious and businesslike air. Solovyov thought that he had no choice anyway. So now the new assistant had been with him two weeks. There had been no problems as yet, but Solovyov, taught by experience, did not let up his vigilance. Andrei had gone into town that morning to buy food for the birthday party. He should have been back, Solovyov thought irritably, it was getting dark. He was afraid of being alone in the dark.
The sound of a car came through the window, the car door slammed, and the front door opened. Solovyov was in his study on the first floor and could hear his assistant’s every footstep. Would he start unloading the car first or have the sense to come in and report?
Andrei had the sense to report, and Solovyov’s irritation subsided.
“Good evening. I’m sorry for the delay.”
Ah, so he realizes he’s late. That was good.
“What happened?” Solovyov asked as indifferently as he could. He didn’t want the boy to see that he had been upset.
“They didn’t have some of the hors-d’oeuvres you had ordered, and I had to wait while they made them up.”
“What, they made them specially for you?”
“No, specially for you,” Andrei replied with a smile. “I gave the department director your book and explained that it was your birthday. Her husband is a big fan of Eastern Best Seller, and she gladly took care of the order.”
“Where did you get the book? From my shelves?”
“No, I bought it along the way.”
“Just in case. And it did come in handy.”
The fellow had brains. And he wasn’t pushy, he bought the book himself, even though he could have asked Solovyov for a copy, he wouldn’t have refused.
“In any case, I managed to get everything you wanted. Food and drink. I’ll unload the car and then we’ll have dinner. Or would you rather eat first?”
“No, no. Go ahead. I’m not very hungry.”
Andrei left, and Solovyov returned to his translation. The book was due in two weeks, in mid-April, and he was right on schedule, but Solovyov did not like leaving things for the last minute and preferred to finish earlier than the publisher’s deadline, to have time to go over the manuscript one last time for the final touches.
After dinner, Solovyov settled down in the living room in front of the television set.
“Andrei!” he exclaimed. “I forgot to remind you this morning about the masseur. ”
“I called him,” the assistant replied. “You had told me about it two days ago. He’ll be here tomorrow morning at ten.” “Thanks,” Solovyov mumbled in relief.
The masseur came every other day at the same time, five p.m. But that might not be a good time tomorrow, since guests might have arrived by then. Solovyov had not invited anyone for a specific time, and anyone who wanted to come would be dropping in at any hour during the day. He did not want to miss his massage, because he felt like a new man afterward. Well, well, the boy was not forgetful, another point for him.
That night he had trouble falling asleep. For some reason he was worried about tomorrow. But why? There was nothing special, a day like any other. It wasn’t the first or last birthday he’d ever have. So why so upset? As if he were expecting disaster.
His bedroom was on the first floor, and Andrei’s room was on the second, right above him. Solovyov could see the light coming from Andrei’s window. The assistant was not asleep and that was upsetting, too. It was after one a.m., why wasn’t the lad sleepy? If he was what he tried to appear to be, not ambitious and without any other interests or occupation besides his work for Solovyov, he should sleep soundly at night. Or did he suffer from insomnia too? Why? Guilty conscience? Spiritual suffering? Lord, he was getting ridiculous!
The light went out on the second floor at last, and Solovyov calmed down. He had drifted off when he heard footsteps. Someone was carefully going down the ramp from the second floor. Someone! Why, who else could it be but Andrei? Solovyov opened his eyes, but there was no light coming from the window. Why didn’t he put on the light if he needed to go downstairs? Why was he walking around in the dark? His heart was thudding and his ears rang.
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