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‘Let me take care of him.’ And he was surprised himself at how unhesitatingly ready he was to kill the man for pushing him over. The sweaty shaved head was clearly visible in the cross-hairs of his scope, and the temptation to pull the trigger was strong. After that, what would be, would be, but most important was to get rid of this piece of filth right now, to wash him in his own blood.
‘Alert!’ the bull bawled.
Khan pulled the pistol out of his belt with lightning speed, and slid to the side and he took aim at the ‘customs officers’ who had leapt from their places.
‘Don’t shoot!’ he managed to yell to Artyom, and the animated scene was frozen again: the bull standing there with his hands up on the little bridge and a motionless Khan, aiming at the three thugs who hadn’t managed to grab hold of their machine guns from the pile they made nearby.
‘There’s no need for blood,’ Khan said quietly and imposingly, not asking but more like giving an order. ‘There’s a rule here, Artyom,’ he continued, not taking his eyes off the three card-players, who were frozen in absurd poses.
The skinheads probably knew the price of the Kalashnikov and its lethal force at such a distance, and therefore they didn’t want to cause any unnecessary suspicion in the man who held them in his sights.
‘Their rules force us to pay duty to enter. How much do you take?’ Khan asked.
‘Three cartridges each,’ the guy on the bridge responded.
‘Shall we haggle?’ Artyom suggested mockingly, pointing the barrel of his machine gun at the guy’s belt area.
‘Two.’ The man offered some flexibility, giving Artyom the evil eye. But he didn’t seem sure of what Artyom was going to do.
‘Give it to him!’ Khan ordered Ace. ‘Pay for me too and consider it payback.’
Ace readily pushed his hand into the depths of his travelling bag and approaching the guard, he counted out six shining and sharp cartridges. The man quickly squeezed his fist around them and poured them into the protruding pockets of his jacket, and then raised his hands again and looked at Khan, waiting.
‘So the duty is paid?’ Khan raised his eyebrows questioningly.
The bull nodded sullenly, without taking his eyes off Khan’s weapon.
‘The incident is settled?’ Khan asked.
The thug kept silent. Khan reached into his auxiliary bag and took out another five cartridges and put them in the guard’s pocket. They tinkled into the pocket and disappeared together with the tense grimace on the bull’s face, which had resumed its usual lazy and suspicious expression.
‘Compensation for moral damage,’ Khan explained but the words didn’t have any effect.
It was likely that the bull hadn’t understood them, as he hadn’t understood the previous question. He was guessing at the meaning of Khan’s wise statements by Khan’s preparedness to use money and force. This was the language he understood perfectly, and probably the only one he spoke too.
‘You can put your hands down,’ Khan said and carefully lifted his gun upwards, taking his aim away from the three gamblers.
Artyom did the same but his hands were shaking - he had been ready to take out the shaved skull of the thug at any moment. He didn’t trust these people. However, his agitation was unfounded. The thug, having relaxed and lowered his hands, growled to the rest of his buddies that everything was fine and, leaning with his back to the wall, he assumed an indifferent attitude, letting the travellers go by him into the station. As he passed, Artyom gave him an obnoxious look but the bull didn’t take the bait and was looking off to the side.
However, Artyom heard a disgusted ‘P-puppydog . . .’ and heard spittle hit the floor. He had wanted to turn around but Khan, walking a pace ahead of him, grabbed him by the hand and dragged him along so that Artyom was torn between satisfying his urge to turn back and show the sorry guy a thing or two, and the other cowardly part of him that just wanted to get out of there as soon as possible.
When they had all stepped onto the dark granite floor of the station, they suddenly heard a bellow of stretched vowels behind them: ‘He-ey, gimme my piece!’
Khan stopped, took the cartridge clip labelled ‘TT’ with its rounded bullets and flung it over to the bull. The man rather deftly caught the pistol and put it in his belt, watching annoyed at how Khan had let some extra cartridges fall on the floor.
‘Sorry,’ Khan opened his palms, ‘a prophylactic. Isn’t that what it’s called?’ He winked at Ace.
Kitai Gorod differed from other stations that Artyom had seen: it didn’t have three arches like VDNKh but was one large hall with a wide platform, with tracks on either side of it, and it gave the alarming impression of an unusual space. The accommodations were lit in the most disorganized way, weak pear-shaped lamps dangling here and there. There weren’t any fires here at all, apparently they weren’t allowed. In the centre of the hall, generously pouring light around itself, there was a white mercury-vapour lamp - a real miracle for Artyom. But there was bedlam surrounding it so one’s attention was distracted and you couldn’t keep your eyes on the marvel for more than a second.
‘What a big station!’ He exhaled in surprise.
‘You’re only really seeing half of it,’ Khan reported. ‘Kitai Gorod is about twice as big as this. Oh, this is one of the strangest places in the world. You have heard, I guess, that all the lines meet here. Look at those rails, to the right of us - that’s the Tagansko-Krasnopresnenskaya branch. It’s hard to describe the craziness and disorder that goes on there, and here at Kitai Gorod it meets your orange Kaluzhasko-Rizhskaya, and no one from the other lines believes what goes on there. Apart from that, this station doesn’t belong to any of the federations, and its inhabitants represent themselves completely. It’s a very very curious place. I call it Babylon. With affection,’ Khan added, looking around the platform at all the people who were scurrying to and fro.
Life at the station was bubbling. It was vaguely like Prospect Mir but the latter was more modest and more organized. Artyom remembered Bourbon’s words about the fact that there were better places in the metro than that wretched market which they walked through at Prospect.
There were rows of trays along the endless rails and the whole platform was filled with tents. Several of them were made into commercial stalls, others were used as shelter for people. The letters SDAYu were painted on some of them, and that’s where travellers could spend the night. They made their way through the crowds and, looking sideways, Artyom noticed on the left-hand track that there was an enormous grey-blue figure of a train. It wasn’t complete; there were altogether only three wagons.
There was an indescribable roar at the station. It seemed that the inhabitants never fell silent for a moment and they just constantly talked, screamed, sang, argued desperately, laughed or cried. In several places, overlapping the din, there was a rush of music and this created an unusual holiday mood in underground life there.
At VDNKh there were also people who sang enthusiastically, but it was different there. There were only a couple of guitars there, and sometimes people would gather at someone’s tent to relax after work. Yes and and there was music sometimes at the three-hundredth metre border where you didn’t have to listen hard to hear it coming from the northern tunnel. At the little patrol fire they sang with guitars, but mostly about things that Artyom didn’t really understand: about wars that he hadn’t taken part in, and which were conducted according to different, strange rules; about life there, above, before.
He especially remembered songs about some Afghanistan place which Andrei really loved to sing - although there wasn’t much not to understand in these songs, they were all about sadness for fallen friends and hatred for the enemy. But Andrei could sing so well that everyone who listened was touched so much that their voices quivered and they had goosebumps.
Andrei explained to the younger ones that Afghanistan was quite a country and he described its mountains, the passes, the bubbling brooks, the villages, the helicopte
rs and coffins. Artyom knew what a country was pretty well, since Sukhoi had spent worthwhile time explaining things to him. But while Artyom knew something about governments and their histories, mountains, rivers, and valleys remained as abstract notions to him, and they were mere words which were defined for him by the discoloured pictures his stepfather had shown him in a geography textbook.
Even Andrei hadn’t been to any Afghanistan, he was too young for that, but he had just heard the songs from his older army friends.
But did they really play music like this at VDNKh ? No, the songs were pensive and sad - that’s what they sang there and, remembering Andrei and his melancholic ballads, and comparing them to the merry and playful melodies which issued from different corners of the hall, Artyom was surprised again and again how varied, how different music can be and how much it can affect one’s mood.
Coming up to the nearest musicians, Artyom stopped without meaning to, and joined the small group of people not just to listen to the words about adventures through the tunnels under the influence of weed but to hear the music itself and to look curiously at the performers. There were two of them: one with long greasy hair, tied down with a leather strap around his forehead, dressed in some kind of strange multi-coloured rags, jingling on the guitar. The other was an elderly man with a significant bald spot from the looks of it, and a pair of glasses that had been repaired many times, in an old faded jacket, and he was charming them with some kind of wind instrument, which Khan called a saxophone.
Artyom hadn’t ever seen anything like it. The only wind instrument he knew was the pipe. There were people who knew how to play it well, cutting insulating tubes of different diameters, but they only made them to sell: people didn’t like pipes at VDNKh. And furthermore the horn looked a little like the saxophone, which sometimes was used to sound the alarm if something was hindering the siren that was usually used.
On the floor next to the musicians lay an open guitar case in which lay a dozen cartridges. When the long-haired one had finished singing his heart out, he said something particularly funny, accompanying it an amusing grimace, the crowd chuckled with joy and applause broke out and another cartridge flew into the case.
The song about the wanderings of the poor devil had ended and the hairy guy leaned on the wall to relax, and the saxophonist in the jacket then took to playing some kind of motif that was unfamiliar to Artyom but evidently popular here because people started applauding and a few cartridges flashed through the air and into the red velvet of the case.
Khan and Ace were discussing something, standing near a tray; they weren’t telling Artyom to hurry up, and he could have stayed there another hour probably, listening to the simple songs, if they hadn’t suddenly stopped. Two powerful figures approached the musicians with an unsteady gait, and they were very reminiscent of and dressed similarly to the thugs whom they’d met at the entrance to the station. One of the approaching figures crouched and started to unceremoniously remove the cartridges from inside the case, pouring them into the pocket of his leather jacket. The long-haired guitarist rushed at him, trying to stop him, but was quickly knocked over by a fierce blow to his shoulder and had his guitar torn away from him, lifted up in order to smack it down, to shatter the instrument on the side of the column. The second thug pushed the elderly saxophonist against the wall with little effort when the man tried to get away to help his friend.
None of the audience standing around the musicians stepped in. The crowd thinned noticeably, and the ones who were left either covered their eyes or pretended to be looking at the goods for sale lying on a tray nearby. Artyom burned with shame for them and for himself, but he decided not to get involved.
‘You’ve already been here today!’ the long-haired musician said, almost weeping, holding his hand to his shoulder.
‘Listen you! If you’re having a good day that means we’re have a good day, got it? And don’t you start with me, right? What, you want to go to the wagon do you, you hairy faggot?’ the thug screamed at him, throwing down the guitar. It was clear that he had been waving it around more as a warning than anything else.
At the word ‘wagon’ the long-haired guy immediately stopped short, shook his head quickly and didn’t say another word.
‘Got it . . . faggot?!’ the thug finished, stressing the first syllable, contemptuously spitting at the musician’s feet. The musician again said nothing. Convinced that the rebellion was quashed, the two bulls went off slowly, searching for their next victim.
Artyom looked around in dismay and saw Ace nearby who had also been attentively watching the scene.
‘Who was that?’ Artyom asked, puzzled.
‘Well, who did they look like to you?’ Ace inquired. ‘The usual bandits. There’s no governing power at Kitai Gorod so there are two groups that control it. This half is under the Brother Slavs. All the riff-raff from the Kaluzhsko-Rizhskaya line gather here, all the cutthroats. Mostly they’re called the Kaluzhskys, some of them are called the Rizhskys but you won’t see the likes of them either at Kaluga or at Riga. But there, you see, where the little bridge is,’ he pointed to the stairway that went off to the right and upwards in the middle of the platform. ‘There is another hall, and it’s identical to this one. There isn’t this racket up there, but the Caucasus Muslims are in charge there - basically the Azerbaijanis and the Chechens. It was once a slaughterhouse with each of them trying to take over as much territory as possible. In the end they split the station in half.’
Artyom didn’t bother asking what a ‘Caucasian’ was, having decided that this name, like the incomprehensible and hard to pronounce ‘Chechens’ and ‘Azerbaijanis’ were referring to stations he didn’t know, where the bandits came from.
‘Now both groups behave peacefully,’ continued Ace. ‘They grab those that decide to stop at Kitai Gorod to make some money and charge customs duty. The charge is the same in both halls - three cartridges - so it makes no difference how you enter the station. Of course, there’s no order here at all, and they of course don’t need it, the only thing is you can’t build a fire. If you want to buy some weed? Go for it. Want some spirits? Buy as much as you want. You can load yourself with the kind of weapon that could take down half the metro - no problem. Prostitution flourishes. But I don’t advise it,’ he added and muttered something about personal opinion with embarrassment.
‘And what was that about the wagon?’
‘The wagon? It’s like their headquarters. And if anyone misbehaves in front of them, you refuse to pay, you owe them money or something like that, then they drag you in there. There’s a prison there and a torture chamber - it’s like a pit of debt. Better not to land there. Are you hungry?’ Ace turned the conversation to a different topic.
Artyom nodded. The devil knew how much time passed since that moment when he and Khan were drinking tea at Sukharevskaya. Without clocks he had lost his ability to orientate himself in time. His journeys through the tunnels, full of strange experiences, could have lasted many hours, and also could have flown past in mere minutes. Apart from that, the passage of time inside tunnels was totally different than anywhere else.
In any event, he wanted to eat. He looked around.
‘Kebab! Hot kebabs!’ a swarthy trader was standing nearby with thick black eyebrows underneath his arched nose.
He had pronounced it a little strangely: he hadn’t used a hard ‘K’ and instead of an ‘a’ came the sound of ‘o.’ Artyom had met people before who had spoken with unusual accents but he hadn’t ever paid special attention to it.
The word was familiar to Artyom. They made kebabs at VDNKh and liked them too. It was pork, obviously. But whatever that trader was waving around seemed a far cry from that. Artyom looked at it tensely and for a long time, and finally recognized the charred carcasses of rats with twisted paws. It made him dizzy.
‘You don’t eat rats?’ Ace asked him sympathetically. ‘Here are some.’ He nodded at the swarthy trader. ‘They won’t give you pork. It’
s forbidden by the Koran. But rats are OK,’ he added, hungrily examining the smoking grill. ‘I also used to be disgusted and now I’m used to it. A little cruel, of course, and they’re a little bony and apart from that, they smell a little. But these abreks,’ again he shot a glance over at him, ‘know how to cook a rat and you can’t take that away from them. They pickle it in something, and afterwards it becomes as soft as a suckling pig. And with spices! . . . And much cheaper!’
Artyom pushed his palm against his mouth, inhaled deeply and tried to think about something else to distract himself, but the blackened carcasses of rats mounted on spits kept swimming before his eyes: the spits were stuck into the bodies from the back and came out at their opened mouths.
‘As you like, but I’m treating! So join us. It’s altogether three cartridges for a skewer!’ Ace issued his final argument and headed for the grill.
Having warned Khan, Artyom needed to go around the station and find something more normal to eat. Artyom looked through the whole station, he was offered home-brew in all manner of flasks, he greedily but cautiously scrutinized the tempting half-naked girls who stood at lifted tent flaps throwing inviting looks at the passers-by; vulgar though they were, they were so relaxed, so free, and not tense, beaten down by the harsh life women like them were at VDNKh. He hung around the booksellers for a bit but there was nothing of interest there. Everything was much cheaper: there were pocket-sized books, that were falling apart, about a great and pure love for women, and books about murder and money for men.
The platform was about two hundred paces long - a little longer than usual. The walls and the amusing columns that were reminiscent of accordions were coated with coloured marble, mostly a grey-yellow, but pinkish in places. The length of the station was decorated with heavy sheets of some kind of yellow metal that had darkened with time, and on them were barely recognizable symbols from a past epoch. The ceilings were darkened from fires, the walls were speckled with a multitude of inscriptions made in paint and soot, and depicting primitive and frequently obscene pictures. On some places there were chunk-sized chips in the marble and the metal sheets were dented and badly scratched.