LIE IN THE DARK-Cby Dan Fesperman
Investigator Petric makes his living from the dead, what with the siege around Sarajevo. Lately business has been slow. Condoned killing has displaced the crime of passion. His services with the civil police as a homicide investigator have been less in demand. One premeditated death does call for/i>
Intrigue reminiscent of The Third Man set in Sarajevo.
Investigator Petric makes his living from the dead, what with the siege around Sarajevo. Lately business has been slow. Condoned killing has displaced the crime of passion. His services with the civil police as a homicide investigator have been less in demand. One premeditated death does call for inquiry. It is no abused lover or distant sniper's victim but a government official shot dead at close range-the chief of the Interior Ministry's special police.
In a thriller that recalls the dark excitement of Vienna in Graham Greene's The Third Man, author Dan Fesperman brilliantly renders the fragmented society and underworld of Sarajevo at war-the freelancing gangsters, guilty bystanders, drop-in correspondents, the bureaucrats frightened for their jobs and for their very lives -and weaves through this torn cityscape one man's desperate, deadly pursuit of the wrong people in the wrongest place.
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He began the day, as always, by counting the gravediggers out his front window. There were nine this morning, moving through the snow a hundred yards away in the middle of what used to be a children's soccer field. They stopped to light cigarettes, heads bowed like mourners, the shadows of stubble faintly visible on hollowed cheeks. Then they shed their thin coats and moved apart in a ragged line. Backs bent, they began stabbing at the ground with picks and shovels.
They moved slowly at first, working the cold and sleepiness out of creaky joints. But Vlado Petric was in no hurry. He'd watched often enough to know what came next.
Soon brown gashes of mud would take shape at their feet. Then, as the men warmed to their task, the gashes would expand into neat rectangles, and as the rectangles deepened the gravediggers would disappear into the earth. Within an hour only their heads would be visible. Then Vlado would leave his apartment to walk to work through the streets of Sarajevo.
Vlado had come to depend on the gravediggers' punctuality. He knew they liked to finish early, while the snipers and artillery crews of the surrounding hills were still asleep in the mist, groggy from another night in the mud with their plum brandy. By midmorning the gunners would also be stretching muscles and lighting cigarettes. Then they, too, would bend to their work, and from then until nightfall the soccer field would be safe only for the dead.
Vlado wondered sometimes why he still bothered to watch this morning ritual, yet he found its arithmeticirresistible. It was his daily census of the war. As the holes took shape they totted up the day's account like the black beads of an abacus. Large crowds inevitably followed a day of heavy shelling, or one of the sad little hillside offensives that rattled distantly like a broken toy. On one busy morning he'd counted thirty-four men at work, checking twice to make sure as they weaved and crossed, dirt flying as if from a series of small explosions. The vapors rising from their sweat and cigarettes had poured into the sky like the smoke of a small factory.
Lately, however, there had been layoffs and shorter hours. Today's crew of nine rendered a judgment of poor aim and low ammunition on the previous day. In winter the war always lost steam.
One might also call Vlado's interest professional. Sometimes his own workday took shape out on the field, in graves for those claimed not by snipers, explosions, illness, or old age. Vlado was a homicide investigator for the local police, and still gainfully if ponderously employed.
It was an occupation good for a few bitter laughs with friends, amused to find small-time killing still worthy of attention after twenty-one months of war. To them, Vlado's task was that of a plumber fixing leaky toilets in the middle of a flood, an auto mechanic patching tires while the engine burned to a cinder. Why bother, they would ask. Why not just leave it all until the end of the war. By then all your suspects will be dead anyway.
Invariably he would reply with a muttering chuckle, eyes lowered, in the time-honored humility of all who must answer for making their living from the dead. Then he would allow as how, yes, they were probably right. What a fool he was. Laughs all around. Have another one on me, gentlemen.
So they would drink to his folly, someone's bottle of rancid homebrew passed from hand to hand, and then they would move on to other subjectssoccer, or women, or the war. Always, eventually, the war. But he would linger a moment with his thoughts. No, they were not right at all, he would reassure himself. The same two motivations which had kept him going before the war could still sustain him. Or at least he hoped they could.
One was the small, slender promise that beckons to all homicide detectivesthat someday, something worthy and noble would come of his work. For the clever and the persistent, perhaps something larger lurked behind the daily body count. In the way that an epidemiologist knows that a single autopsy can provide the key to a pandemic, Vlado clung to a belief that, now and then, one murder offered a portal to machinations far greater than the pulling of a trigger or the plunging of a blade.
But could this still be true in wartime? And here the doubts threatened to stop him cold, so he hastily moved on to reason number twothe puzzle of motive, diagramming the inner levers and flywheels driving the machinery of rage. Here again, the war had muddled the calculations. Now the mechanisms all seemed increasingly predictable, guided by remote control from the big guns in the hills. Each act shook to their reverberations. Every moment of passion sprang from two years of misery.
Yet Vlado couldn't help but marvel at the enduring popularity of murder. He knew from his history texts what war was supposed to do to people. In Stalingrad they ate rats and burned furniture to stay warm, but they stuck together. Even in London, fat and soft London, suicides dropped and mental health soared. But now he wondered if it hadn't all been some great warm lie of wartime propaganda. Because, if anything, people succumbed more easily now to the passions that had always done them in. And as the siege grumbled on, spurned lovers still shot each other naked and dead, drunks stabbed other drunks for a bottle, and gamblers died as ever for their debts.
The opportunities for such killings had never been richer.
There were weapons everywherebattered models from Iran and Afghanistan with ammunition clips curling like bananas, sleek Belgian automatics from the tidy gunshops of Switzerland, ancient and hulking old Tommies from God-knows-where, and every cheap Kalashnikov ripoff ever made in the Eastern Bloc. The hills of old Yugoslavia had been overrun at last by the arms of the Warsaw Pact in a way the late, great Tito had never envisioned.
In moments when the war lagged, full employment for these weapons was guaranteed by the smugglers and black marketeers, too numerous to count. They darted about in their own war of attrition, the cheated in vengeful pursuit of the cheating. And with nowhere to run but the deadly noose of the hills, the chase was usually short and decisive.
Even when both of Vlado's reasons for justifying continued employment faltered, he had a worthy fallback: The job kept him out of the army. It was no small accomplishment these days, when even young boys in muddy jeans and flannel shirts trooped uphill nightly to the front.
That was the thought that always dragged him from his window on his blackest mornings, out onto the walkway of the dreary block of flats perched above the soccer field.
Had the gravediggers ever paused to gaze back on these mornings, they would have made out the thin shape of a man in his early thirties, draped in dark clothes. Slender to begin with, Vlado had been further narrowed by the diet of wartime until his deep brown eyes were almost spectral in their sockets. A face once quick to smile was now guarded, uncertain. A small crease above the bridge of his nose had deepened and dug in, setting itself up as the new, solemn master of the laugh lines crinkling around his eyes. His black hair was stiff, clipped short and uneven by his own hand with a blunt pair of children's scissors, receding ever more rapidly at the crown and temples. The only holdover from before the war was his voice, flowing out deep and soft, still the comfortable sort of baritone that beckons one into a warm, smoky room of old friends.
Behind him, in the small living room and kitchen, was all that remained of Vlado's prewar world. For more than a year and a half his wife and daughter had been gone, evacuated to Germany. The door to his daughter's room hadn't been opened for weeks, nor had the door to his and his wife's old bedroom. He had gradually drawn his possessions and his existence together, partly because it kept him away from the windows more exposed to sniper and artillery fire, and partly to conserve the precious light and heat from his illegal gas hookups, which burned fitfully and low under dwindling pressure. But it was also his way of burrowing in for the duration, of tending his own weak flame against the forces that could blow it out.
In approaching each day he had developed a keen sense of pace, of constant adjustment. Those who burned too brightly, he knew from watching, never lasted. They were the ones whose passions eventually led them running into free-fire zones, screaming either in madness or in a final outpouring of impotent rage.
But let your flame turn too low, fail to coax it along, and you ended up at the other extreme, spent and empty. You saw them in doorways, or hunched at the back of cafés, greasy-haired, staring vacantly, clothes in tatters. They never stopped retreating, ending up at the bottom of either a bottle or a grave.
Vlado was a Catholic, which meant he was classified as a Croat, something he'd never much thought about nor wanted to until the past two years. The precision of the label was questionable, given his mixed parentage. His father had been Muslim, his mother Catholic. She'd made sure he was baptized, though she'd never been much for church herself. Then she'd spent years dragging him off to religious instruction and holiday mass only to see her efforts go to waste.
Now, one's ethnic background seemed to be the first thing everyone in an official position wanted to know. Your answer could get you killed in some places, promoted in others.
It was easy enough information to find out, listed right there on your identification papers. The ethnic labels were remnants of the various competing empires that had clashed in these hills for centuries. The Ottoman Turks had run the show for a while, bringing Islam and the sultan's bureaucracy, only to run up against the Austrians, who brought Catholicism, impeccable record keeping, and streets laden with their layer-cake architecture.
From the east there had always been the Russians to worry about, sharing their Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Cyrillic alphabet with the Serbs. Then the Nazis had come along and overwhelmed everyone, linking up just long enough with nationalist Croats, the Ustasha, to lay waste to a few hundred thousand Serbs. Sometimes the Muslims had joined in the killing. Sometimes they'd been among the victims. But all sides were supposedly forgiven under the new mantle of the eventual victor, the postwar communist regime of Marshal Tito. Tito proceeded to hold the fractious sides together for nearly half a century, chiefly by acting as if no one had ever hated each other to begin with. He banished all talk of ethnic nationalism and mistrust, blithely announcing that henceforth brotherhood would prevail.
It almost worked.
But when Tito died, the ethnic zealots rediscovered their voices, and the Serbs crowed the loudest. Tales of past massacres, kept alive through the decades around family tables, emerged shiny and refurbished. The old fears were coaxed out of cellars and attics, renourished by a new diet of ethnic propaganda. Out came the old labels of mistrust. If you were a Croat, that must mean you were Ustasha. Any Serb was a Chetnik. A Muslim? No better than a Turk. When things began to fall apart, they collapsed in a hurry.
The Serbs, holding the bulk of the army, immediately and mercilessly seized the upper hand, and Tito's ultimate failure was now evident in the lines of fire dividing the city. Standing on every surrounding hill were the Serb guns and trenches, and an army determined to squeeze Sarajevo until it became their own. They also held much of the ground within the city on the far bank of the Miljacka River, which curled through the town from east to west like a crooked spine.
Trapped along with Vlado on the north bank, in the old city center, were two hundred thousand people, mostly Muslim, occasionally Croat and very occasionally Serb. But, as with Vlado, the labels were often ambiguous. Mixed marriages accounted for a quarter of the population, which only further enraged the Serbs. Bohemian little Sarajevo, too clever for her own good, was paying the price for years of incestuous pleasure. Now the Serbs seemed bent on leveling the city if they couldn't capture it, taking it apart brick by brick, person by person.
Vlado had gone his entire life without really considering what it meant to be a Catholic, and he saw no reason to start now. He'd stepped into a church only three times in the past twelve years, twice for funerals, and certainly not at all for his marriage, a civil ceremony in which he'd wed the Muslim daughter of a Serb mother.
His only other trip to church had been his most recent, to investigate the murder of a priest found dead in a confessional. A jealous husband had shot the priest after finding a boxful of passionate letters on parish stationery in his wife's closet. The husband had walked into the booth, sat down, fired twice through the latticed partition, then turned the gun on himself. Vlado had felt cheated by the suicide. He'd always wanted to know if there had been any final conversation. He wondered if either side had offered absolution before the gun had passed judgement on both. Both had made adequate penance in the end, by Vlado's way of thinking, never mind what the Church thought.
Had the gravediggers looked Vlado's way on this morning they might also have seen a cup of coffee in his hand. At $20 a pound on a salary of one dollar a month, often paid in cigarettes, it was no small luxury. Such was the state of the local currency and the black market that ruled the city.
He smiled to himself with a slight flush of embarrassment recalling how he'd acquired the coffee the day before. He had begged for it, really. Not overtly, but in an obvious enough way, having learned how to go about such things.
A British journalist had telephoned for an interview and Vlado had gladly set a time. The subject was to be homicide in the city of death, as well as the ever present topic of the local corruption that was eating away at the city from within. It was a topic Vlado was forbidden to discuss, but that was beside the point. He knew as well as anyone that journalists, U.N. people, and other outsiders were always eager to ingratiate themselves with their bags full of bootycoffee, whiskey, cartons of Marlboros, sometimes even sugar. Who knows how generous they might be if you had information they wanted, whether you could supply it or not.
The items a journalist might offer could fetch Deutschemarks, dollars, friends and influence, or even a prostitute for an hour or so. The whores skulking by the gates of the French U.N. garrison could be had for a couple of packs of Marlboros, a price which the U.N. troops found quite reasonable. Some had given up smoking altogether.
The journalist had arrived right on time, a fleshy bundle of bustle and British good cheer, pinkening at the edges from his climb up the stairs, like a soft piece of fruit about to turn bad. He thrust his hand outward in greeting as he fairly shouted, "Toby Perkins, Evening Standard. Pleased to meet you."
Vlado replied with a grave stare, spooning instant coffee into a steaming cup of water, then stirring the brown crystals with the reverence of an alchemist handling gold dust.
"My last cup," he announced, holding it toward the reporter. "Please, take it." It set just the right tone, Vlado thought. He inwardly congratulated himself, knowing from Toby's thin smile and reddening cheeks that the rest would be easy.
And it was.
Toby immediately set down the mug and ducked toward his satchel, grunting and bending awkwardly from the bulk of an armored flak vest girdling his chest. Just about every outsider wore them, although locals tended to wonder what all the fuss was about. Why go to the trouble when you could still get your head blown off?
When Toby rose, his smile was wide and generous, and he held a one-pound jar of Nescafé. Now he was the millionaire with the shiny coin for the miserable waif. All that was left was to pat the boy on the head. But Vlado had no qualms of pride. He only wondered what else might be clinking around in the big bag.
Vlado first offered the obligatory refusal, downgrading his polished English to singsong cadence to better suit the moment. Play the dumb, stiff local bureaucrat for a while and Toby might give up a little quicker.
"Oh no, it would not be a possibility."
Toby insisted, as they always did. "Really. Please. Go ahead. I've got so many, and, well, I'm leaving Monday anyway."
Leaving Monday. That always stopped him with these people, whether it was journalists, aid workers, or some Western celebrity seeking a little wartime atmosphere and some publicity. They came and went like tourists, flashing a blue-and-white U.N. card to pass through checkpoints where just about any local would be stopped cold. Or shot. Even if he was a police detective. Only foreigners left town so easily. They boarded U.N. cargo planes, deep-bellied green tubs that lumbered up over the hills and away. Then they no doubt toasted their survival that very night in some warm place where the windows had glass, not flapping sheets of plastic, and where there was electric lighting and plenty of cold beer.
So Vlado felt only the slightest twinge of guilt when he locked the jar of coffee in a desk drawer and announced, "I am sorry, but my superiors have told me that I really shouldn't talk to you. At least not on this subject. Maybe we can speak a few minutes `off the record,' as people in your profession say, but anything more would not be possible."
Then had come the unpleasant part. Toby had decided to deliver a lecture. "Yes, that's the spirit, isn't it. Remain silent and preserve the myth."
"The myth?" Vlado had asked, curious to hear the outside world's latest take on Balkan madness.
"The myth of ethnic peace and harmony among the poor beleagured people of Sarajevo. Of clean government with nothing but noble intent. Yes, you're victims, we all know that. Bloody well can't turn on our televisions without seeing another weeping Sarajevan saying `All you need is love.' But whenever the subject of ill-gotten gains and bad players behind the scenes comes up, you go all quiet on us and resort to your ultimate fallback: Blame the Serbs. The Chetniks did it. And they did, didn't they. Threw you out of half the city and three-quarters of your country.
"But you're not exactly saints down here are you, pardon the botched religious metaphor. What about revealing some of your own bad apples for a change? How long do you think this war would go on if some key people in key places suddenly stopped making money off it?"
"You find our hatreds unconvincing, I take it? Perhaps poor old Marx was right, after all, even if he's no longer in fashion. In the West, it's always about money."
"Because it is always about money, or power, or whatever form of wealth you want to name," Toby said. `And that's true in the East as well. Why do you think the Serbs grabbed half your country right out of the gate? Not so they could lord it over you lovely people, I can tell you that. It was an economic land grab, plain and simple, dressed up as an ethnic holy crusade. `Save our Serbian brothers. Oh, but while you're at it, take that factory over there, won't you?' I'm not saying there's any shortage of genuine hatred up in those hills. There are enough zealots to keep these armies burning for years. But look at the support systems and the lines of supply. All the bit players that prop it up. Who needs morale when you've got a nice flow of hard currency to keep the officers happy? Take that away and who knows, maybe the whole thing begins to rot from the inside out. Maybe the hatred isn't enough anymore. Maybe you even end up with a ceasefire that lasts long enough for something more than allowing the next shipment of tobacco and liquor to come across the lines. With fifty percent of the proceeds going to the local constabulary, of course."
"I think you are oversimplifying a complex situation."
"Yes, well that's what I'm paid for, isn't it. Take all the nice blurry grays and turn them into black and white for the public to digest before moving on to the horoscopes and the latest from the Royals. But before you dismiss me as just another hack, which is exactly what I am, by the way, let me tell you a little story I picked up down the road in your city of Mostarthen we'll see what you think."
The last thing Vlado wanted from this blustering little man was an object lesson, but he'd paid for at least that much with the pound of coffee, so Vlado let him ramble on.
"You know the situation in Mostar, right?" Toby said, his face more flushed by the minute. "Even worse than here, in a way. Croats and Muslims fighting each other tooth and nail down in the streets, shooting at each other from across the river, while the Serbs sit on the mountains to the east and lob shells on the both of them. Like a bored old housewife pouring boiling water onto a couple of fighting alley cats.
"Well, a few weeks ago the local Muslim commander's doing his usual bit for the home side when he starts running low on artillery shells. So he gets on the radio and calls his mate on the next hill to ask for more. `Sorry, lads, we're running low ourselves. Can't spare you a single shot. Arms embargo and all that, you know.'
"So who should pipe up on the same frequency, because everybody's using the same old Yugoslav army radios anyway, but our Serb friend up on the mountain. We'll call him Slobo.
"`If it's shells you need, we've got all you'd ever want,' General Slobo says." `And at popular prices.'
"`Great,' General Mohamad says. `But what about delivery? The Croats are between you and us.'
"`No problem,' Slobo says. `My Croat friend, Commander Tomislav, can bring them right to your doorstep for a small commission, say, twenty-five percent of the ordnance.' So they haggle for a while over price, set a time and place for delivery. Then they chat up the U.N. to arrange a temporary `ceasefire' to allow for shipments of `humanitarian aid,' and the whole thing goes off without a hitch. The U.N. people spend a whole day patting themselves on the back, then can't understand why things go sour as soon as the last truck leaves. So there you go: enemy number-one arms enemy number-two with the help of enemy number-three, while greasing the palms of God knows how many generals, staff officers, subordinates and checkpoint trolls along the way. And all you people down here want to talk about is hatred, intolerance, and `woe is me.' When the topic's corruption, everyone clams up."
Vlado had no answer for him. Nor did he doubt that Toby's little story had been true. He'd heard much of the same sort of thing around here. So he decided to just sit. Toby would be bored soon enough.
Indeed he was. Sighing, he pulled a business card from his bag.
"If you should ever happen to change your mind, here's my card. You can reach me at room four thirty-four of the Holiday Inn. You know the place, the big yellow dump on the front line with all the shell holes. But it's the only room in town. Who knows, if you decide a week from now to talk, I might even be able to scrounge you a sack of sugar. A little palm greasing for the good guys for a change."
And it was that parting message, Vlado supposed, that had left him with the bitter aftertaste, a hint of shame that had played at the edge of his thoughts for the rest of the day, like the vivid last image from a waking dream.
But coffee was coffee, and he savored another sip, cradling the cup in both hands for warmth as he gazed toward the soccer field. What was so embarrassing about a little ingenuity, he told himself. He sipped the gritty remains and glanced back outside. The gravediggers were waistdeep. He had perhaps another half hour before the snipers would be stirring, although he had a feeling it would be another slow day.
Some mornings he killed the extra time time by working on his growing army of model soldiers. They lay before him on a small workbench he'd set up in the kitchen, row upon row of dash and color. It was a hobby he'd taken up years ago, partly out of his bookish fascination with military history, only to immediately find it tedious, a headache of minor details. And when impatience turned his work sloppy he'd given it up, packing away dozens of unpainted lead men that he'd bought in an industrious burst of optimism.
Then the war came. His wife and daughter evacuated the city after the first two months of fighting, leaving in a dusty convoy of school buses on a warm May morning. Women, children and old men waved from every window to a forlorn audience of young and middle-aged men, forced by the army to stay behind. Other families spilled from the sides of stuffed panel trucks, their colorful scarves flapping in the breeze that dried their tears.
That evening Vlado climbed to the roof of their four-story apartment block, hauling himself up the fire ladder along with a small folding chair and a bottle of plum brandy. He sat down to watch the nightly bombardment as if it were a summer storm rolling in from the mountains. Distant artillery flashes played against the clouds with the red streams of tracer bullets, and he found himself gauging the range of each impact by counting the seconds before the blast, just as he'd done with his daughter to calm her fear of thunder. For a moment he recalled the fatherly comfort of having the weight of a child in one's lap, resting your chin on the top of the small head, the hair smelling of sunlight, playground sand, and baby shampoo.
He held the brandy bottle, sipping every few minutes, feeling the fire of each swallow ramble down his throat, the level dropping past the halfway mark as the bombardment groped its way around the city.
He was an attentive spectator. Over there was a blast, just by the hospital, yellow and deep, the sound reaching into his stomach. To the southwest, a few spiraling streamers whistled through the sky like crazed birds, headed toward the presidential building. Most everything else was happening off toward the highrise suburbs to the west, or in the hills to the north. Tomorrow there would be more to watch. And the day after that. He could spend the entire war up here.
Then a shell screamed nearby with a sudden moan, and landed with a heaving blast. The compression knocked him from the chair, and as he lay sprawled on his back he listened to glass showering from the windows of the building next door. He lay still for a moment, accounting for himself, attentive for pain, for the ooze and gush of blood. Feeling none, he stood. His face was covered with dust. He still clutched the neck of the brandy bottle in his right hand, but the rest had been shattered by a chunk of shrapnel. He looked shakily across the city, seeing not a soul and hearing nothing but a slight ringing in his ears. Then he turned and descended the ladder as fast as his trembling legs would allow.
The next morning he'd moved into the living room, closing the doors of the two bedrooms and folding open the sofa bed. Then he opened his old footlocker to retrieve his lost battalions of lead men along with the tiny bottles of paint and the thin, delicate brushes. He'd set up a workbench at the end of the small kitchen and welcomed tedium back into his home. That action, he now realized, had begun the slow and careful tending of his own weak flame, a means of nurturing it through the dead hours of winter darkness. By brushing on the gold edge of a tiny belt buckle, or the silver of a saber blade, the yellow of a helmet's plume, he moved through the hours and left them in his wake.
Six days after the rooftop explosion, he'd received word from the Red Cross that his wife and daughter had arrived in Berlin. They were living in an east-side highrise apartment with two other sets of mothers and children from Bosnia. From then on he was linked to them only by the mail that arrived fitfully, when at all, and by a once-a-month phone call that he made with the help of ham radio operators at Sarajevo's Jewish Community Center, one of the few lines of communication to the outside world not controlled by either the government or the international news media.
Now, deep into his second winter alone, most nights found him submerged in a haze of paint fumes and cigarette smoke, squinting in the dim glow of a thin flame of natural gas. The work was slowly blinding him, but it kept him off the roof and away from the bottle.
Vlado's interests ran to the armies of the Napoleonic Age. He could tell you the trajectory and range of each painted fieldpiece in his model arsenal, or the fighting capabilities of nearly any unit of the era, whether Prussian, Russian or French.
It had occurred to him that perhaps he should think of the hobby as inappropriate now, an exercise in poor taste. He'd never had any illusions about what model soldiers represented. Nor did he doubt that fascination with guns and uniforms had some role in sustaining the war. He'd heard too many tales about refugee boys from country villages, new to the trenches, who were eager to settle old scores the moment they felt the power of a Kalashnikov in their hands.
But just as the men in the hills were no soldiersan armed mob at best, he told himselfthese leaden figures had about as much to do with real war as the drawings in his history books, with their bright arrows colliding mutely on clean, colorful maps.
A week ago he'd lined up twenty Austrian dragoons to spray with a coat of primer, having glued on their heads a few minutes earlier. He should have waited longer for the glue to set, but he'd been in a hurry. The blast of the spray blew off every head, as if by a tiny firing squad. It was a morning's labor gone to waste, but he'd laughed in spite of himself and hustled out the door. Later he'd started to tell some friends about it, then stopped. And when he returned home that night he hadn't been able to face them, the men of his toppled platoon, decapitated on his workbench, heads scattered on the floor like shotgun pellets.
This morning he'd waited until too late to get started, but his soldiers would hold until the evening. Their chances of going somewhere were about as good as his. He shrugged on his overcoat and headed out the door.
His office was down by the Miljacka River, just across a bridge on the far bank, and only a few hundred yards from the frontline. At one time the police headquarters had been located in the Interior Ministry building in the center of downtown. But early in the war the ministry had formed a new special police force, which promptly booted Vlado's unit out of the building and proceeded to take over nearly every important investigation in town.
Vlado had watched alternately astonished and dismayed as Interior's special police force violently rooted out the gangland core of the black market while cannily backing away whenever it scented official involvement. As Toby had suggested, it was an open secret that some people in high places with profitable connections would just as soon see the war continue in its slow, plodding march, holding their markets captive a while longer. Yet this open knowledge was of the vaguest sort, names obscured.
Vlado chafed at this implicit demotion, knowing that the secret portals he sought had eased further beyond sight. But his superiors submitted quietly, and his department moved across the river to a newer building in a chockablock section of homes and businesses tucked within a few blocks of the Serb lines. Most of the far bank of the river, in fact, belonged to the Serbs, spreading uphill through the homes and churchyards of Grbavica to the forested rim of the mountaintops, up where the big guns sat.
The main buffer between the police station and the nearest Serb positions was a French U.N. garrison posted a block down river at Skenderia, next to the old speedskating rink from the '84 Olympics. A faded mural of the Olympic mascot, a grinning fox, leered down from a high brick wall, his smile was pocked and dented by mortar rounds.
The new police building was a squat ugly affair of concrete and brown glass. During Yugoslavia's heyday it had housed a Communist Party youth center. Now about a fourth of the windows were either cracked or blown out, replaced by plywood and sheets of U.N. plastic held down by U.N. tape.
Government buildings were among the few in town with reliable electricity. Three large gasoline-powered generators kept just enough juice flowing to light and refrigerate the crime lab, such as it was. After that there was enough power for a few fluorescent tubes and a scattering of overworked space heaters that glowed like toasters. Every morning lately they were draped with soggy hats and socks. The smell alone was enough to make you want to come in late.
Vlado's walk took nearly half an hour, looping gradually downhill toward the river. When he left his house it began to snow, and by the time he reached the office the snow had turned to rain. It had been a mild winter, not even freezing the ground enough to trouble the gravediggers. Gray slush pooled in shell dimples and on the collapsed roofs of abandoned cars.
By the time Vlado arrived, Damir Begovic was ensconced at the next desk over. He was the city's only other homicide investigator. Before the war there had been a third, Dejan Vasic, a Serb. He was Vlado's friend, a companion for card games and family dinners. Their infant children had played together on weekends, clutching at each other's hair and drooling on each other's toys. They'd once lugged their families out to the Adriatic for a beach holiday, then celebrated their return by building a swing set together. Someday, they said, they'd build their children a treehouse up in a nice spot in the hills, a pretty one with a rope ladder, well hidden from hikers and older kids, but close enough to a good picnic spot to bring their whole families up.
A week or so before the war began, Dejan left town without a word, taking only his family and the service revolver from his desk. Vlado heard later they'd hoped to make it over the hills to Belgrade, but he wondered. Perhaps Dejan was still in the city, farther up the opposite hill, or only a few blocks away, writing murder reports in Grbavica, or in the northwest suburb of Ilizda. Maybe he was in the army, squibbing mortar rounds into the city center. Or he could be dead and rotting in a trench. Perhaps he'd made it to Vienna, or Berlin. Who could say?
Almost everyone still in Sarajevo knew someone like that, usually a Serb, someone who'd vanished without warning on the eve of the fighting, as if privy to a vision of what the city would become.
That left only Damir, likable enough but seven years younger and, even in wartime, still elbowing happily through a smoky world of cafés and loud music. He was a bit of a rake, really, in his never-ending pursuit of new women, yet forgivable if only for the childlike joy he took in his pleasures. When Damir had seen Vlado's soldiers he'd gushed like a schoolboy, an exuberant grin spreading across his broad, flat face. He'd hinted impishly that Vlado might even spare him a few, not realizing that Vlado would no sooner divide a unit than an antiques collector would break up a set of chairs. It had been a disastrous evening anyway, with Damir barging into the apartment with a woman in each hand and a bottle in each pocket of his overcoat, arriving to "cheer up" Vlado with a party. It had taken two hours to usher them out the door, giggling and swaying in a noxious cloud of brandy.
But he was easy enough to work with in his occasionally overbearing way. Early in the war they'd agreed that each detective would take every other homicide, an arrangement originally intended to keep either from hogging the work back when they wanted to stay as busy as possible. Now Damir seemed bored with death in all its guises, and their routine was all that kept him from slipping into permanent idleness on the job.
This day, like the last several, turned out to be another slow one, with nothing to do but read, gossip, and smoke. To make matters worse, Damir was far from his usual cheery self, sullen and grumbling through every hour. So it was something of relief when the phone finally rang in late afternoon.
Damir took the call, listened for a while, scribbled something, mumbled a phrase or two, then hung up and turned to Vlado.
"It seems that a gypsy woman with a grudge and a baby has just hammered her drunken husband to death during his afternoon nap. Her neighbor says the gypsy's ready to confess. I told her we'd have a street officer haul her in. In the meantime, here's where you'll find the dear departed." He held out a scribbled address. "All yours."
"All mine? You took the call." Vlado was eager for work, but this hardly sounded like the sort of case he'd had in mind.
"I got the last one, remember? Last Wednesday? Card players arguing politics with guns. One dead, one drunk, one arrested. Your turn."
Vlado frowned and picked up his coat. An hour later and he'd have been out the door, headed for another dinner of beans and rice and a quiet night painting his dragoons and hussars. He mumbled something about the stupidity of taking turns, then cursed the foolhardiness of answering telephones after 3 p.m. He grabbed the address and stalked away.
"Have the gypsy waiting at my desk when I get back," he called over his shoulder to Damir. "I want her calmed down and ready to talk. And try not to ask her out before I'm back, although she sounds like your type."
"Yes, good with hand tools," Damir answered, offering his first smile of the day.
"And thanks again."
"My pleasure," Damir shouted, already easing back in his chair.
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(Dennis Lehane, Author of Prayers for Rain)
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Dan Fesperman lives in Baltimore, Maryland.
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