Lie in the Dark288
Lie in the Dark288
Lie in the Dark brilliantly renders the fragmented society and underworld of Sarajevo at war—the freelancing gangsters, guilty bystanders, the drop-in foreign correspondents, and the bureaucrats frightened for their jobs and very lives. It weaves through this torn cityscape the alienation and terror of one man’s desperate and deadly pursuit of bad people in an even worse place.
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|Publisher:||Soho Press, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.40(h) x 0.70(d)|
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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 arithmetic irresistible. 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 twentyone 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 subjects—soccer, 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 detectives—that 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 two—the 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 everywhere—battered 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 booty—coffee, 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, deepbellied 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 Mostar—then 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 waist-deep. 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.