Actions & Adventure
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Mystery & Detective
Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
Time News Roman
Monday Starts on Saturday
Monday Starts on Saturday 2
“It’s just his sense of humor,” said the hook-nosed one. “You won’t find any place more interesting than here with us, though.”
“What makes you think so?”
“I’m certain of it.”
“But I’m not.”
The hook-nosed one laughed. “We’ll come back to that later,” he said. “Are you going to be in Solovets for long?”
“Two days at the most.”
“Then we’ll talk about it the day after tomorrow.”
The bearded passenger declared, “Personally I see the finger of fate in this—there we are strolling through the forest and we run into a programmer. I think it’s your destiny.”
“Do you really need a programmer that badly?” I asked.
“We need a programmer desperately.”
“I’ll have a word with the guys,” I promised. “I know a few who aren’t too happy.”
“We don’t need just any old programmer,” said the young man with the hooked nose. “Programmers are in short supply; they’ve gotten spoiled, but we need an unspoiled one.”
“Yes, that’s a bit more difficult,” I said.
The hook-nosed passenger started bending down his fingers as he counted: “We need a programmer who is (a) not spoiled; (b) keen and willing; (c) who’ll agree to live in a hostel . . .”
“And (d),” put in the bearded one, “for 120 rubles a month.”
“Perhaps you’d like one with wings?” I asked. “Or maybe with a halo around his head? That’s one in a thousand!”
“We only need one,” said Hook-Nose.
“And what if there are only nine hundred?”
“We’ll make do with nine-tenths.”
The forest opened up in front of us. We drove across a bridge and trundled on between fields of potatoes.
“It’s nine o’clock,” said the hook-nosed one. “Where are you planning to spend the night?”
“I’ll sleep in the car. How late do your shops open here?”
“Our shops are already closed,” said the hook-nosed one.
“You can stay in the hostel,” said the bearded one. “I’ve got a spare bed in my room.”
“You can’t drive up to the hostel,” the hook-nosed one said pensively.
“I suppose not,” said the bearded one, and for some reason he laughed.
“You could park the car by the police station,” said the hook-nosed one.
“This is just plain stupid,” said the bearded one. “I’m talking drivel and you’re no better. How will he get into the hostel?”
“Yeah, damn it,” said the hook-nosed one. “You’re right, take one day off work and you clean forget all these little wrinkles.”
“Maybe we could transgress him?”
“Oh, sure,” said the hook-nosed one. “He’s no sofa. And you’re no Cristóbal Junta, and neither am I . . .”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “I’ll sleep in the car. I’ve done it before.” But I suddenly felt a terrible longing to sleep between sheets. I’d already spent four nights in a sleeping bag.
“I know,” said the hook-nosed one. “Oho! The Lohuchil!”
“Right!” exclaimed the bearded one. “We’ll take him to the curving seashore!”
“Honestly, I can sleep in the car,” I said.
“You’re going to sleep in a house,” said the hook-nosed one, “in more or less clean sheets. We have to thank you somehow.”
“We can’t just slip you fifty kopecks,” said the bearded one.
We drove into the town, with its lines of sturdy old fences and massive timber houses built out of gigantic blackened logs, with carved lintels around the narrow windows and wooden cockerels on their roofs. We passed a few dirty brick buildings with metal doors, and at the sight of them my memory threw up the half-forgotten word “emporium.” The street was straight and wide and it was called Peace Prospect. Ahead of us, closer to the center of town, we could see two-story cinder block buildings with small open yards.
“The next side street on the right,” said the hook-nosed one.
I signaled, braked, and turned right. The roadway here was overgrown with grass, but there was a brand-new Zaporozhets car nestling against one gate. The numbers of the houses hung above the gateways, the figures barely discernible on the rusty tin-plate signs. The alley bore the elegant name of Curving Seashore Street, but its narrow passage was squeezed in between massive old fences that had probably been erected in the days when Swedish and Norwegian pirates roamed these parts.
“Stop,” said the hook-nosed passenger. I braked sharply and he banged his nose against the barrel of his gun again. “All right,” he said, rubbing his nose. “You wait for me while I go and arrange everything.”
“Really, there’s no need,” I said one last time.
“No arguments. Volodya, you keep a close eye on him.”
The young man with the hooked nose got out of the car, hunched over, and wedged himself through a low wicket gate. I couldn’t see the house behind the towering gray fence. The main gates were absolutely immense, like the gates of a railway depot, with rusty iron hinges that must have weighed sixteen kilograms apiece. I was astonished when I read the signs, of which there were three. On the left-hand gate there was a respectable-looking blue sign with silver letters glinting behind thick glass:
N I T W i T
The Log Hut on Chicken Legs
A historical monument of old Solovets
Hanging on the right-hand gate was a rusty tin plate with the legend 13 CURVING SEASHORE STREET, N. K. GORYNYCH, and below it was a quaint piece of plywood with a crooked, sprawling inscription in ink:
CAT NOT WORKING
“What CAT’s that?” I asked. “The Committee for Advanced Technology?”
The young man with the beard chuckled. “Don’t you worry about a thing,” he said. “This is a funny old place, but everything will be just fine.”
I got out of the car and started wiping the windshield. Suddenly I heard a commotion above my head. I glanced up. Settling down on the gate, trying to make himself comfortable, was a gigantic cat—I’d never seen one like it—a black and gray tabby. When he finally settled down, he peered at me with his well-fed, indifferent yellow eyes. “Puss-puss-puss,” I said automatically. The cat opened its sharp-toothed jaws with polite indifference, emitted a hoarse, throaty sound, then turned and began looking back into the yard, beyond the fence, from where I heard my hook-nosed passenger’s voice say, “Vasily, my friend, I’m sorry to trouble you.”
The bolt squeaked. The cat stood up and vanished into the yard without a sound. The gates swayed ponderously, creaking and groaning in a quite terrifying manner, and the left-hand gate slowly swung open to reveal the young man with the hooked nose, red faced from the effort.
“Guardian angel!” he called to me. “Please drive in!”
I got back into the car and drove slowly into the spacious yard. Standing at the back of it was a house built of thick logs, and standing in front of that was a low, handsome oak tree with an immensely thick trunk and a broad, dense crown that hid the roof of the house from view. Running from the gates to the house, skirting the oak tree, was a path of flagstones. To the right of the path was a vegetable garden, and to the left, rising up in the middle of a plot of grass, stood a wooden well with a windlass, its logs all black with age and covered with moss.
I parked the car off to the side, turned off the engine, and climbed out. Bearded Volodya also climbed out, set his gun against the side of the car, and began settling his rucksack on his shoulders. “So now you’re home,” he said.
The young man with the hooked nose closed the gates with a creak and a groan. I looked around, feeling rather awkward and not knowing what to do.
“And here’s the lady of the house!” Volodya exclaimed. “Good health to you, Naina Kievna!”
My hostess must have been over a hundred years old. She walked slowly toward us, leaning on a knotty st
ick, shuffling along on feet clad in felt boots with rubber galoshes. Her face was dark brown; from the center of a solid mass of wrinkles her nose protruded out and down, as crooked and sharp as a Turkish dagger, and her eyes were pale and dull, as if they were covered by cataracts.
“Welcome, welcome, little grandson,” she said in a surprisingly resonant bass. “So he’s going to be the new programmer? Welcome, dear guest, welcome indeed!” I bowed, realizing that I should keep quiet. Over the fluffy black shawl knotted under her chin, the old granny’s head was covered by a cheerful nylon scarf with brightly colored pictures of the Atomium and an inscription in several languages: BRUSSELS INTERNATIONAL EXHIBITION. Her chin and upper lip had a sparse covering of coarse, gray stubble. She was wearing a sleeveless padded vest and a black woollen dress.
“It’s like this, Naina Kievna!” said the young man with the hooked nose, brushing the rust off his hands as he walked toward her. “We have to put our new colleague up for two nights. Allow me to introduce . . . mmm . . .”
“Don’t bother,” said the old woman, looking me over closely. “I can see for myself.” And she ran through the answers to the standard employment questionnaire: “Alexander Ivanovich Privalov, born 1938, male, Russian, member of the Leninist Komsomol, none, no, never joined, never has, none—but you, my treasure, shall travel a distant road and do business in a public place, and you should beware, my precious, of a wicked man with red hair, come, cross my palm with gold, my darling one . . .”
“Hm-hmm!” the hook-nosed young man said loudly, and the old woman stopped short. An awkward silence set in.
“You can call me Sasha,” I said, forcing out the phrase I’d prepared in advance.
“And where am I going to put him?” the old granny inquired.
“In the storeroom, of course,” said the hook-nosed young man, slightly annoyed.
“And who’s going to take responsibility?”
“Naina Kievna!” the hook-nosed young man bellowed in the thunderous tones of a provincial tragedian, grabbing the old woman by the arm and dragging her toward the house. I could hear them arguing: “But we agreed!” “But what if he pinches something?” “Keep your voice down! He’s a programmer, don’t you understand? A Komsomol member! A scientist!” “And what if he sucks on his teeth?”
I turned in embarrassment toward Volodya. Volodya was giggling.
“I feel kind of awkward about this,” I said.
“Don’t worry about it—everything will be just fine.”
He was about to say something else, but then the old granny roared out, “And what about the sofa, the sofa!”
I shuddered and said, “You know, I think I’d better go . . .”
“Quite out of the question!” Volodya said firmly. “We’ll sort everything out. It’s just that the old woman’s looking for a bribe, but Roman and I don’t have any cash with us.”
“I’ll pay,” I said. By this time I really wanted to leave; I can’t stand these so-called domestic altercations.
Volodya shook his head. “Certainly not. Here he comes now. Everything’s OK.”
Hook-nosed Roman came up to us, took me by the arm, and said, “Right, that’s all settled. Let’s go.”
“Listen, I feel kind of awkward,” I said. “After all, she’s not obliged—”
But we were already walking toward the house. “Yes she is, yes she is,” Roman intoned.
Rounding the oak tree, we came to the back porch. Roman pushed open the leatherette-upholstered door, and we found ourselves in a hallway that was spacious and clean but poorly lit. The old woman was waiting for us, with her hands clasped over her belly and her lips pursed. At the sight of us she boomed out vindictively, “I demand a receipt this instant! All right and proper: received, such-and-such and such-and-such from so-and-so, who has leased out the aforementioned to the undersigned . . .”
Roman let out a low howl, and we went through into the lodging assigned to me. It was a cold room with a single window covered by a short chintz curtain. Roman said in a tense voice, “Please, make yourself at home.”
The old woman immediately inquired malevolently from the hallway, “Are you sure as the gentleman doesn’t suck on his teeth?”
Without turning around, Roman snapped, “No, he doesn’t! I told you—the gentleman doesn’t have any teeth.”
“Then let’s go and write out the receipt.”
Roman raised his eyebrows, rolled his eyes upward, bared his teeth, and shook his head violently, but he went out anyway. I looked around. There wasn’t much furniture in the room. Standing by the window was a solid table covered with a threadbare gray tablecloth with a fringe, and in front of the table was a rickety stool. There was a spacious sofa set against a bare log wall, and on the opposite wall, which was covered with an assortment of wallpapers, was a set of hooks with various pieces of junk hanging on them (padded jackets, mangy fur coats, tattered cloth caps, and fur hats with earflaps). Jutting out into one corner of the room was a large Russian brick oven, gleaming with fresh whitewash, and hanging in the opposite corner was a large, cloudy mirror in a frame with peeling varnish. The floor had been scraped clean and covered with striped mats.
I could hear two voices muttering on the other side of the wall, the old woman booming away on a single bass note and Roman’s voice repeatedly rising and falling. “One tablecloth, inventory number 245 . . .”
“Why not put in all the floorboards while you’re at it!”
“One dining table . . .”
“Are you going to put the oven in too?”
“Rules are rules. One sofa . . .”
I went over to the window and pulled back the curtain. The window looked out at the oak tree, and I couldn’t see anything else. I started looking at the tree. It was obviously very ancient. Its bark was gray and somehow lifeless looking, and the monstrous roots that had crept up out of the ground were covered with red and white lichen.
“Why not put in the oak tree as well?” said Roman on the other side of the wall.
There was a plump, well-thumbed book lying on the windowsill. I leafed through it idly, then walked away from the window and sat down on the sofa. And immediately I felt sleepy. I thought of how I’d driven for fourteen hours that day but probably needn’t have been in such a hurry, how my back ached and everything was getting muddled up in my head and when it really came down to it I couldn’t give a damn about this tedious old woman, and how I wished it would all be over soon so I could lie down and go to sleep . . .
“Right, then,” said Roman, appearing in the doorway. “The formalities are concluded.” He brandished one hand in the air, its splayed fingers stained with ink. “Our little fingers are exhausted; we’ve been writing and writing . . . You go to bed. We’re leaving. You just relax and go to bed. What are you doing tomorrow?”
“Waiting,” I replied listlessly.
“Here. And outside the post office.”
“You probably won’t be leaving tomorrow, then?”
“Probably not. Most likely the day after.”
“Then we shall meet again. Our love is yet to come.” He smiled, waved, and went out. I thought sluggishly that I ought to have seen him off and said good-bye to Volodya, then I lay down. That very moment the old woman came in. I got up. The old woman stared at me intently for a while.
“I fear, dear guest, as you might start a-sucking on your teeth,” she said anxiously.
“I’m not going to suck on my teeth,” I said wearily. “I’m going to go to sleep.”
“Lie down, then, and sleep . . . Pay your money and go to sleep . . .”
I reached into my back pocket for my wallet. “How much?”
The old woman raised her eyes to the ceiling. “Let’s say a ruble for the room . . . Fifty kopecks for the bedsheets—they’re mine, not state property. For two nights that makes three rubles . . . And whatever you want to throw in out of the kindness of your heart—for the inconvenience, that is?
??that’s up to you . . .”
I held out a five-ruble note. “For a start it’s one ruble out of the kindness of my heart,” I said. “We’ll see how things go.”
The old woman grabbed the money avidly and left the room, muttering something about change. She was gone for quite a long time, and I was on the point of giving up hope of any change or any sheets when she came back and laid out a handful of dirty coppers on the table.
“There’s your change, dear guest,” she said. “One ruble exactly—you don’t need to count it.”
“I’m not going to count it,” I said. “What about the sheets?”
“I’ll make up the bed straightaway. You go out and have a stroll in the yard, and I’ll make up the bed.”
I went out, tugging my cigarettes out of my pocket on the way. The sun had finally set and the white night had begun. Somewhere dogs were barking. I sat on a little bench sunk into the ground under the oak, lit up, and began staring at the pale, starless sky. The cat appeared soundlessly out of nowhere, glanced at me with his fluorescent eyes, scrambled rapidly up the oak, and disappeared into the dark foliage. I immediately forgot about him, and I was startled when he began rustling about above me and debris came showering down onto my head. “Why you . . .” I said, and started brushing myself off. I felt exceedingly sleepy. The old woman came out of the house without noticing me and wandered across to the well. I took this to mean that the bed was ready and went back into the room.
The spiteful old woman had made up my bed on the floor. Oh no, I thought, closed the door on the latch, heaved the bedding up onto the sofa, and started getting undressed. A dim twilight came in at the window; the cat rustled about noisily in the oak tree. I started shaking my head around to get the detritus out of my hair. It was strange detritus, unexpected: large, dry fish scales. That’s going to feel prickly in the night, I thought, then collapsed onto the pillow and instantly fell asleep.
The deserted house has been transformed into the lair of foxes and raccoon dogs, and therefore strange werewolves and phantoms may appear here.