Wednesday, August 11, 2010

“Tarzan of Brighton Beach” by Terry White

He looked at his watch again. No Boris. He was never this late. No answer at his cell number. Three customers made a fluid isosceles triangle as they moved about the store. Vassily’s uncanny spatial imagination was a predator’s gift. Once while waiting for his father to sleep off a drunk in Odessa, he had wandered into a waterfront bar and watched some sailors playing pool. He picked up a cue stick and cleaned the place out. Some convicts watching the action jumped him, then beat, kicked him and took his money when he tried to leave. Although he was big for his age, he had not yet reached his full size and those were rough men.

The only time in his life he could say he ever experienced a feeling of melancholy was when he was sitting on a bench in Gorky Park. An old man with a white beard took the other end. Vassily figured him for a pervert, debated whether he ought to let the old man touch him and decided he would demand Deutschemarks or dollars—rubles had fallen so far in the last days of Gorbachev it wasn’t worth more than the paper to wipe your ass. The man ignored him and studied his book. When he noticed he was being watched, he smiled and handed the boy his book on chess moves. Vassily followed the arrows depicting moves by a man named Spassky and marveled at the beauty of their attack.

The old man laughed. “You cannot understand this,” he said. “Those are grandmaster level. You would have to see eight, ten moves in advance and keep them all in your head.”

Vassily burned with wrath. He knew he could understand what he saw in those diagrams. He thought they were clear to anyone, even this old fool. He did not study in the commune. No one had to tell Vassily Shostokovich that education was not for his kind, all that Marxist rubbish about the sons of labor be damned. In those days he had guile but not much patience. He thought of sticking the old man in the throat with the potato knife he carried in his boot. Instead, he thanked him and returned his book. His father would kill him if he attracted attention.

It was Boris, so glib of tongue, who had convinced him to flee the commune, join him in Moscow. Despite the enmity between Russians and Ukrainians, he and Boris ran with the Ljubertsy gang, preying on drunks and extorting from vendors and prostitutes from the workers’ tenements. They spent every night prowling the half-deserted subway stations for any kind of action—once hijacking a truck between the Vnoekovo airport and the Keninsky Prospekt. He punched Boris on the jaw for spending both their shares and fractured a metacarpal. Later, watching the doctor wrap his hand, Boris was impressed: “You don’t feel pain, cousin.” Vassily knew he was different in that way too.

He flipped the open-closed sign and hustled the customers out the door. He drove Boris’ Jeep fast and expertly, slewing over the median so close to traffic he could see the oncoming drivers opening and closing their mouths like goldfish to curse him. After his first conviction in the old country, he was sent to a logging camp in Siberia where he drove trucks on frozen rivers in temperatures so cold he didn’t dare shut off the engine. During his second conviction, he had taken on five zeks in the gulag at the same time and beat them all. Boris knew he did not like to wait. Cousin or not, you took your life into your hands when you defied him.

A blur in the rearview mirror caught his attention just before he cut across three lanes to the L.I.E. The car ran a red light to keep up with him and he frowned. The Cadillac was six lengths behind but closing; the driver was using the thinning rush-hour traffic as camouflage.

Instead of taking the entrance ramp, he doubled back across three lanes of expressway and used the traffic flow to watch his pursuer. He kept taking turns that brought him closer to Boris’ bungalow in one of the island’s new Übersuburbs, where lucky Manhattanites built themselves expensive Tudor cottages with wraparound decks. The shore was fringed with fir trees, sugar maples, white ash, and stands of birch. The back window of Boris’ house overlooked his neighbor’s sauna. Every weekend the attractive young wife who stayed over while her husband worked for Goldman Sachs downtown paraded about the deck nude while steam from the sauna billowed from her pink skin.

He doubled back across the Triborough Bridge, burned rubber beyond the toll gate, but the car stayed in place and kept its distance. He took the Jeep out of part-time, floored it, rounded the corner and clipped the wing mirror off a parked car. He saw nothing behind him on the way back to Boris’ place. Boris said the cops liked to ticket him and knew his Jeep by sight, so he wouldn’t let Vassily carry his guns in any of his vehicles. Even if New York had a CCW law, it wouldn’t extend to Ukrainians with criminal records and false papers. Vassily hoped, whatever it was, it didn’t involve those fucking Chechens. You killed one of those animals, you better kill everybody in his clan or spend your life looking over your shoulder. He would call his uncle as soon as he had his guns strapped on. If Boris objected, he’d remind him with his fists who was giving orders.

Boris’ Yukon Denali was parked around the side of the house beneath a dusting of snow. He was probably entertaining his new girl from the Brooklyn strip club and had forgot the time.

Vassily walked around to the side of the attached garage and looked in the window. Boris’ Harley Davidson Shovelhead rested on its kickstand under the tarp. Returning to the front of the house, he climbed the steps and immediately halted. His breathing slowed while his senses rarefied. A set of footprints. Someone bleeding had stopped every few steps, dripped straight down and then staggered on. He saw other craters where the spatter wore tails like elaborate commas. They led to Boris’ SUV.

The tinted windows forced him to inch along its side at a crouch. Boris was slumped over the wheel, a Charter Arms dangling from a crooked finger. Tiny puffs of condensed breath meant he was alive. Vassily opened the door and the coppery smell of blood wafted toward him. The front of Boris’ pants was stained dark from crotch to knees. He touched a finger to his cousin’s neck and felt the carotid—it was barely ticking. He cursed in their village dialect.

“Yop tavaya mat!” “Fuck your mother, Boris, what have you done now?”

He loosened the gun from Boris’s sticky grip and pushed it into his own belt.

Boris moaned as he eased him outside and laid him on the ground. Too much American junk food since their Moscow days made him too heavy to carry. He got an arm under him and dragged him the way he used to carry sacks of beets, one arm holding the gun and his eyes fixed on the house. Vassily hoisted him up the steps and propped him against the house. He rushed the door and kicked it with such force that it blew off its hinges. Gun first, he went from room to room pausing only once to look at the woman on the bed. He returned for his cousin and dragged him to the couch. Boris wheezed, made a gurgling sound and passed out.

He went into the downstairs bedroom to check on the girl. She lay on her stomach spread-eagled across the bed where they had left her. The air in the room was fetid, rank. Her hands were flex-cuffed behind her back by a thin nylon rope that extended to her neck. Vassily knew death from the stillness it left behind but he also knew she had suffered much pain before she died. The rope bit into her neck hard enough to cause her tongue to protrude between swollen, bruised lips. One end of the duct tape dangled from her chin where it had been loosened by her killers to stifle her screams, so they must have wanted to interrogate her as well. She was lying over a congealed pool of blood. The outer edges showed where the sere had separated.

Her puckered anus leaked. They must have removed the broom and taken it with them—a stick job by sensitive killers, definitely not Chechens.
He came back and undid Boris’ pants to expose the red wound. There was nothing between his legs. He had lost too much blood, but the cold was keeping him alive. Boris’ face was chalk. His eyelids fluttered like a butterfly in the wind and then closed. He hissed something between his teeth, but Vassily could not understand what he was saying. White flecks of spit were dried in the corners of his mouth. Vassily left him, went into the kitchen for water and helped him drink.

The wound was fatal, so he wrapped his arms around his cousin to keep him warm and waited. Just before Boris’ pupils disappeared into the surrounding black, Vassily whispered, “You’ll have your revenge, Boris Anatolivevich.”

He kissed his cousin over both eyes.

He stood and placed the barrel to the thin cap of bone near Boris’ temple and squeezed. The slug passed through his cousin’s brain and exited into the couch carrying a comet’s tail of brain matter. He sat down on the couch to think.

The ground was too frozen to dig a grave. He thought of burning the house with the bodies but dismissed the idea. He had once burned a man to death and recalled how his blackened tongue poked out of his face as the muscles contracted from the heat. When it was dark enough, he could drag them down to the water and weight them down. By the time they came up in spring, too bloated and decomposed to remain at the bottom, it would be a hundred miles from here.

Vassily’s iron will was forged in a brutal youth. He had no religion, no God, believed in nothing but his might and the power of money; he had no attachments he could not sever with a phone call. Boris was already sinking like a stone into the abyss of other discarded memories. Vassily walked over to the front door and shut it and returned to his place near the corpse of his cousin.

He slowed his breathing to a measured susurration as the hours passed, one after the other, in utter stillness. He could almost hear the dust motes drifting lazily in bars of smudged sunlight. No other sound besides a v of Canada geese honking overhead disturbed the silence. He sat thinking until all the light faded from the windows. His plans had changed. It was not Chechens; of that he was certain. These were men he knew well.

After all, he was one of them.

Borough of Queens, one week later . . .

The moon glowed silvery white above the tenements in the southeast and shimmered with incandescence. Vassily noted the massive halo. Rain coming. Years of farm work had taught him how to read the sky.

The man was smaller than the others in size, older by a decade, and he wore ordinary clothes when he stepped out of a cranberry Escalade with New York plates. He drove past the house three times and parked near the Ford pickup but kept his engine running. For a half-hour he didn’t move behind the windshield. Vassily watched his head bob as he talked on his cell phone. He waited with the same kind of patience. Then the driver drove straight to the house and pulled into the driveway. Vassily had picked the place for its isolation and laid the bait carefully. It was a few miles from the Queens Midtown Tunnel. He placed a call to a local bar owner with contacts to the Organizatsiya—a man who still owed him for five girls from Moldova and Romania. He told him that, if he fucked this up, Vassily would personally kill his wife and twin daughters. He told him how he would do it while the man’s face leached of color and his lips twitched. The man didn’t need very much convincing and begged him to stop before Vassily finished his lurid description of what would happen to the man’s daughters. Vassily was a known quantity in Brighton Beach circles even before his Moscow trouble.

He put his binocs on the man again and was sure this was the one. When he stepped out of his Caddie, he looked around the yard and peered at the house before the front door opened and one of his men inside called out to him. The driver was middle-aged, wore dark slacks and white shirt beneath a blue sweater vest. He wore a pager on his belt and carried a small black valise. “It’s OK, Nikolai,” the man in the doorway shouted out. Vassily had been watching the two inside as they followed him around the city whenever he left Boris’ the porn shop.

The man stood there for a while longer and sniffed the air like a dog. Vassily heard Nikolai say something in rapid Moscow slang that sounded like “fucking dirty gypsy,” and then he walked up the front porch steps and opened the door. Vassily knew he was the boss, but he wanted to know if he had military training and from the way he moved, it was possible.

Vassily savored moments like these; he had everything he needed in place. He stretched out and patted each place on his body where he carried a weapon or had strapped a knife. He closed his eyes and imagined how he was going to do it. He had trained himself after those first wild days in Moscow with Boris. Some men needed the brutality of the paras and their sadistic hazing rituals of barracks training; for him, however, it was something inside him that he had learned to listen to. He was only alive now because he obeyed it and had ceased acting like the wild young fool. He waited for the calm to ease the knots in his shoulders and knees. He looked at his watch. He would give it another ten minutes.

By now they had all seen the bag on the table stuffed with newspapers and the wrappers stenciled with USG and the denomination figures across the bands. Nikolai’s two men could no more tell him what he needed to know than he could decode the Vedantas. Somebody else was waiting for a call, some man in a warm hotel room, maybe, just across the East River or inside a cavernous night club on Coney Island Avenue where the foyer was all imported Italian marble and the women were dressed in gold lamé gowns. The tables in the back of the room would be manned by male and female waiters in bone-white shirts and black bow ties. He imagined the huge slabs of beef and heaps of pickled herring as well as dozens of bottles of chilled Stoly sitting in buckets of ice. Lasers crisscrossing the room. . .

Vassily yearned for his old haunts. He wanted this thing done. But he had to be sure this Nikolai would know the truth of his situation and then he could decide whether things were so bad he’d have to leave the country for a while or stick around to fix things.
Three hours later . . .

Afghani veterans used the mujahadeen’s tricks about extracting information. Boris once said the Chechens in Grozny used it for fun on nineteen-year-old recruits. Vassily watched fat red drops of blood drip, drip, drip from the nose of the handsome one called Sergei onto the floor.

Both his eyes were pounded shut. Vassily had wrapped his hands with tape and then with shreds from a bathroom towel for the headshots. This Sergei was the enforcer; he had the tell-tale diamond points of a professional fighter on his knuckles across both hands. Each blow came unexpectedly—no rush—just a temporary lacuna between borders of pain so they’d understand this was going to last for a long time. Whenever one passed out, he threw ice-cold water on his face. The slaps were almost as bad as the blows. He grabbed the one called Grisha by the hair and repeated his pair of questions for the hundredth time: “Why did you kill my cousin, fuckface? Why are you following me, eh?”

The leader, Nikolai Semion Mikhailov, lay on his stomach with his fingers laced over his head. He was grunt talking to Vassily nonstop throughout the action, although he could not see him well from his trussed position. His eyes were bright as a ferret’s and he coughed out the harsher-sounding Russian and repeated one phrase over and over: Don’t kill me, don’t kill me, don’t kill me . . .

Vassily looked at Grisha. He was too far gone now. Vassily put plugs in his ears and the barrel of the Sig Sauer in Grisha’s mouth and fired. One white eyeball stared at back at him from a missing half of head. He used Black Talons for the fragmentation effect. Sergei lifted his head and pled with his eyes. Vassily shot him in the cheek. The backspatter behind his head had such force it looked like one of those fake Hollywood stunts with blood bags shot from a paint gun. Vassily imagined the snowstorm of chaos in what was left of the man’s brain. He rolled Nikolai over and asked him the two questions for the first time. When he failed to speak, Vassily kicked him hard in the face. Nikolai retched and spat blood. One jagged silver tooth stuck through his torn cheek.

Vassily’s interrogation of Nikolai was rapid, harsher than for the other two. The force of his second kick spun Nikolai around. The third went into his ribs and rolled his eyes back into his head, his head bouncing against the wall with a crack. Vassily grinned down at him. “Pig-fucker, you’ll soon wish your mother had never shit you out.”

He dumped a pail of water on him to bring him round. He held some doubled-up wire in his hands and mimed what the next event was going to be. He cinched one wire around the man’s balls and twisted the end of it around a second one. He paid out the wire to the terminals of a car battery he had hidden in the kitchen cupboard. Vassily wore a big, happy grin on his face so that when Nikolai regained consciousness, he could see him.

Nikolai’s shattered fragment of head sat atop its crumpled body and looked as unreal as a discarded crash-test dummy. He was nude, trussed and hog-tied in the center of the filthy kitchen. Feces and blood everywhere—bright roseates of it—large and small comets with tails dappling the floor to the ceiling. It was pooled in tiny lagoons here and there the stream of urine the electric charges had extorted from Nikolai’s racked body. Red rivulets followed gravity’s tug along the skewed floorboards into the four corners.

Vassily emerged from the carnage bare-chested and a little sore from his exertions. Sweat streaks crisscrossed his muscled torso and highlighted the numerous knife scars and puckered bullet wounds of his violent past. He sat and drank peppered vodka taken from the Escalade (Nikolai had given that up too) and pondered his next move. All was revealed finally—his uncle in Little Odessa had decided to make an alliance with the dangerous Moscow mob rather than respect the call of their blood connection. It made sense. It was a smart decision, he conceded.

Borough of Manhattan, one week later . . .

It had been too long since he had a woman, so he lifted her under her arms—she was solid-boned, firm of flesh—and turned her onto the bed under him. He pried her legs open with his knees and scooted forward to insert himself into her. The carmine lips were already moist, but she quickly stuck her fingers in her mouth to lubricate him for easier entrance. She bucked under him and moved expertly to his thrusts. His climax came too fast and he blamed it on the tension of being on the run. Death was an aphrodisiac; it made sex an urgent need.

When he tried to mount her again, she stopped him. Her arms were so long that she had no difficulty using her long red nails to scrape the back of his dangling scrotum. She squeezed hard enough to get his attention. He looked down at her face, wondering if she wanted rough sex.

Her husband suddenly appeared beside the bed, his penis still blood-gorged but going flaccid with gossamer threads of ejaculate hanging like spider wisps from the glans orifice. Vassily noted the ropy drool of semen on his own leg where he had spent. He didn’t like voyeur husbands, as a rule, considered them weak pricks, but he often let them watch while he performed with their women in the underground swing clubs of Manhattan he frequented.

“What do you think about a million dollars for an hour’s work?” the man suddenly asked.

Vassily looked down at the smiling wife. She dropped the hand that had been cupping him to stroke his leg.

He turned to the husband and said: “How many do I have to kill?”

“No one,” the man answered smoothly, “unless you consider it absolutely necessary.”

The wife rolled out from under him and leaned over the bed to open a drawer on the bedside table. Her heavy breasts swayed and made his penis twitch. Her sexual appetite was voracious, frenzied. She found what she was looking for and began clipping a long red nail. He half-listened to the husband talk about “tons of bundled money in small denominations at the FedEx hangar at JFK,” but he was watching the woman.

Languid and easy in her movements, she slipped around behind him and parted his legs. She moved the clipped fingernail lightly up to his balls, scraping the furrowed ridges, and began gently working it into the opening. Vassily ignored her; he heard only money. Since exacting revenge, he had made himself a hostage to fortune. He got into the wind. But you didn’t live in air and good times in the clubs cost money.

He had met these two in a bar off Times Square six hours ago. Her eyes were odd, like the color of dirty ice when light hits it. When she pressed into his back at the bar where he was drinking shots of Glenfidditch, she made a fluttery motion he had seen flirtatious American girls do. He was charmed.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Vassily Andreivich Shostokovich.” He laid it on with a Ukrainian, rather than Russian, accent. “But all my friends call me ‘Tarzan.’”

She laughed at the bizarre discrepancy.

“You don’t look like Tarzan,” she said. “Where’s your long hair?”

“No? I have been told I am a twin brother for Johnny Weissmuller,” he said. Weissmuller, in fact, was a boyhood hero. He once spent every Saturday watching the films on a small black-and-white Telefunken set in the communal kitchen. When he and Boris first ran amok in Moscow, he grew his hair out into long sun-bleached locks—until the victims of his blitzes began giving descriptions of his hair to the militia.

They had more drinks, the wife flirted more openly with him, then after their third round, she covertly flicked a hard red fingernail against the front of his pants and traced the outline of his rising hardness. She locked her tea-colored eyes onto his. The husband appeared suddenly beside them and he thought there was going to a scene, but he quickly approved the tryst she proposed to him. Vassily’s instincts sniffed him over once and he concluded the man was not a threat. He carried a Beretta in the back of his waistband and a .25 caliber Jetfire in an ankle holster. This place was close to his old stomping grounds and made things dicey. He was making overtures to some people and had a sliver of hope he could stay to work out a deal for his safety. The triple massacre back in Queens was still too fresh and he needed to lie low.

“A million dollars, you said?” Vassily turned back to the husband.

“A full share. A million, maybe more, but not less.”

“I’m in,” he said.

“Me too,” said his wife, and she inserted her finger up to the first knuckle.

“Unnh, tell me,” Vassily grunted. His eyes began watering.

The man gave him an outline of the plan to rob an airport of money sitting on pallets waiting to be loaded into the big Hercules C-31 transports for Iraq. One guard for the entire transport, the husband stressed with too much glee, and he had an inside man. It was a heist made in heaven, he said. The woman thrust her finger deeper, twisted it, and then pulled it out in one swift motion. Vassily’s cock went straight up to his belly.

“Let’s celebrate our partnership,” she said.

They stopped at dawn. She had six orgasms by then: three more from Vassily and two from her husband (five, actually, the last faked to get him off). She got out of bed while the two men lay sprawled at opposite ends; her husband’s arm draped over Vassily’s calf. Both of them snoring deeply.

The woman told Vassily at the bar she worked for a hedge fund, traded in the forex markets, and to be to work early. She showered, douched, and dressed. She made herself a cup of coffee from the hotel’s machine and pulled out the ironing board to press her pants suit. She lit a cigarette although they were in the no-smoking section of the Sheraton Towers. It was one of only three, she told Vassily, that she allowed herself every day.

She glanced at the sleeping men from time to time but there was no need to worry. Vassily had stirred once or twice to the sound of her movements and then relaxed completely, falling back into his pattern of snores.

When she came out of the toilet, the silencer was already screwed tight to the barrel and the safety was thumbed off. The long-barreled Ruger .22 dangling against her leg. The man who was paid to act as her husband was in fact an actor who had answered a different kind of cattle call. In fact, she interviewed five men for the part and he was best qualified: young, unattached, virile, and desperate for the money she offered for a couple weeks of work. She shot him above the right eye. The skull contained the slug nicely and let it ricochet around inside the man’s brain, chewing and punching its way in all directions until the meaty pulp was converted to something like the consistency of a stew simmering too long on the stove. She knew better than to risk a higher caliber inside a hotel room lest she send a bullet careering through skull, pummeling its way through the flimsy blonde wood of the headboard and penetrate through drywall as well as whoever might be sleeping in the bed on the other side of the wall.

Vassily sat bolt upright at the familiar sound. He blinked. He was fully awake. The cordite stung his nostrils. She was aiming dead center at him and looking at him strangely, prolonging the moment sadistically perhaps, almost affectionately, but not with anything that might be mistaken for regret.

Vassily, fatalistic, nodded his understanding. “My uncle sent you,” he said. His smile bore no malice, but his bitterness was for his own stupidity. If he didn’t think of the rest of America beyond New York City as the equivalent of the frozen Siberian taiga, he would have followed his instincts and run out the door of the house in Queens and kept on running.

She held the gun in the center of his face in a modified Weaver stance: a true professional. She said everything she needed with her gold-flecked eyes.

“I guess I’m fucked,” Vassily said, shrugging his big shoulders.

“You’re fucked,” she said. She drilled him twice through the bridge of his nose.

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