Book of the Festival
"A Vilnius Shadow Has no Alibi" by Raidas Dubrė
Translated from the Lithuanian by Irena Jomantiene
It took me a while to absorb what she had said. I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t told the young and charming lady in front of me to buzz off. Probably it was just because she was young and beautiful. She was snub-nosed, and had fox-like eyes pinched at the corners. Perhaps only the lips could have been fuller. But I was not the one to kiss them, as the song goes. Though you never know. Hope springs eternal.
Still stunned, I tried to ask myself: was it a bad joke or did I have a screw loose? There was no answer. Her narrow lips kept moving, piling on the facts that had provoked such a reaction. Mysticism? Stalker phobia? All kinds of ideas crossed my mind, so I asked the probing question whether she belonged to some of the recently mushrooming new religious denominations. She smiled, and shook her head. Encouraged, I made another risky move, and asked if she was not a patient at the psycho-neurological hospital.
‘So you think I’m an idiot, and you don’t believe a single word?’ she snorted.
In the hope of redressing my rudeness, I put on my diplomat’s hat. It must have been a disgusting sight.
Of course, she couldn’t stand it. ‘Stop it, I know what you mean …’
As I continued my idiotic manoeuvres, she got up and strode to the door. In a flash, I jumped after her and planted myself in the doorway, blocking it like a machine gun’s muzzle. I asked her politely to take a seat and continue her story.
‘Hopeless,’ she waved her hand. ‘What can you find out if you don’t believe me? It’s all idle talk. You’re not taking this case.’
Honest to God, before I had realised it, some unknown force took hold of my tongue, and against my will the words just rolled off it that I would take up her case. After asking me to repeat my promise several times, the young lady seemed appeased.
At first glance, the task, or the client’s wish, seemed fairly simple: to protect her from a stalker. The problem was that Algimanta (such was the charming visitor’s name) had no inkling of who was pursuing her, and why.
Although it is not exactly madness, if a person claims that while walking along a street she feels somebody is following her, but cannot see who, it sounds suspicious. Stalker-phobia mixed with mysticism is a popular contemporary illness. Yet I wasn’t prepared to deal with shadows or obsessive conditions. With some psychologist’s skills, I could have helped the patient. But it would have taken a lot of time and patience. I didn’t have much of either. Two sheets of paper lay on the table directly under my nose, letters written and sent by the mystical shadow. One read: ‘An overcast afternoon; you stride across Lukiškių Square with a smile.’ The other said: ‘The world is like a dark abyss. You are sick and Vilnius looks deserted.’ The texts, or rather, short sentences, were typed on a computer and printed on good-quality paper, and unsigned.
‘That’s true,’ she said. ‘I often cross Lukiškių Square. Sometimes I really smile, just because of the feeling of freedom in the open space. When the second message arrived, I was down with flu.’
What would a psychologist have read in these tea leaves? He’d have claimed that the shadow was a maniac, or a desperate soul who had fallen for her and followed every step of the object of his obsession. Maybe both? A maniac needs a pretext and won’t lift a finger otherwise. Likewise, someone in unrequited love …
It sounded vague, but it was not worth rushing. Marry in haste … and so on. Folklore.
‘The phone often rings in the evening,’ added Algimanta. ‘I pick up the receiver. An ominous silence at the other end. First I used to wait; later, to curse; finally I started begging the caller to say something. It was useless. On the street I feel his eyes on the back of my head. It’s spine chilling. I turn around, but which pair of eyes out of this hundred-eyed mob is following me?’
‘You said “his eyes”? Why should the shadow be male?’
‘I don’t think a woman would be cunning enough to contrive such an elaborate way of torture.’
Mrs Modesty said, I wanted to add, but didn’t. The visitor left her business card, some money for minor expenses, and hastily made an exit. For a while I sat bewitched, unable to grasp what was going on.
That was all I had. Something made me pinch myself to check if I was not going round the bend. Never before had I fought shadows. Usually my business was with human beings, they had a body and a more or less dirty soul. Now I had a bodiless and sexless creature; the question of a soul remained open.
Yet I had given my word, and a handful of banknotes were scattered on the table, the smaller ones, though, with two smart men in caps, being my advance on the future work. The business card read: ‘Algimanta Juodytė, section head, phone numbers, e-mail and office address.’ My escape routes cut off, I had to take on the mysterious case. Instead, I could have taken on two simple warehouse break-ins and make the same money, with no sweat or headache.
I had a nightmare. A headless creature shaking its long limbs was after me. Luckily, each time it breathed on my back, I would wake up. It meant that the task had seeped into my soul. If this sounds weird, then read it as the task-setter. I already knew that the dream would torture me until I had found the answer. If I didn’t succeed, I would go nuts, together with the client.
In the morning I started a routine procedure, going through the crime reports of the last few days, soaked through with blood and filth, full of betrayal, stinking with unlaundered money and other mutations of human degradation. Not even a hint of the shadow. All the crimes were committed by two-legged creatures with a body and a personal number. The shadow must have been the only case of its kind, with a unique number in the criminal files.
Later in the day, I paid my client a visit in her office. Five females were sitting in one room. Algimanta, the head, didn’t have a room of her own, so she had to share the office with her staff. I asked a few unimportant questions, but, in fact, paid little attention to her disconnected answers, trying instead to keep an eye on the female company, expecting to catch their ironic glances.
I noticed no irony. On the contrary, the women, misses or Mmes, were deeply engrossed in their documents and cards. Only occasionally did one cast a glance at me. An anxious rather than an ironic glance.
In a bar across the street, to a romantic tune by Patty Kass, I posed the key question.
‘Have you ever had an unhappy affair?’ I tried to clarify my idea. ‘Somebody was courting you, but you turned him down?’
Algimanta’s brow knitted, and after a moment she shook her head. I did not believe her for a single moment. A young and pretty lady with a decent job who has had no love affair in all her thirty-three years? So I told her. She fidgeted for a while, as if mustering up courage, and finally gave in.
‘There have been several relationships, but none has ended in the way you described. I have not turned down anybody, nor run away, yet all romances ended naturally, or due to outside circumstances.’
‘One boyfriend died in a car accident. Another left for America. Not that he ran away from me; he was chasing his rosy dream. Yet another one got married, and so on. So I am marked out for …
‘For what?’ I had no mercy.
‘I don’t know. For bad luck.’
I had no way of checking if she was telling the truth. Therefore, I asked several times: ‘Is there anything you want to add?’
She shook her head.
‘Also …’ I stammered, trying to catch a thought that had just crossed my mind, ‘have you ever been short of money?’
‘Oh,’ she echoed, as if teasing. ‘Who hasn’t?’
‘I mean something a little different.’ I gave half a smile. ‘I would like to know if you have any financial commitments?’
She shrugged her shoulders.
‘Maybe somebody else has towards you?’
‘In a dream, maybe. Though even in my sleep I seldom see wads of cash.’
In a case involving a shadow, my only lead was a shadow. I couldn’t do anything to hold on to it.
On Gedimino Avenue I followed Algimanta on her way home, like a shadow. My eyes busily scanned the many faces of the crowd, but I couldn’t spot anybody suspicious. Who could tell that the person I was after didn’t know that the figure creeping along the side of the street (me, that is) was pursuing him? Nobody. In other words, one minute you are the pursuer, the next minute, the pursued. Especially when dealing with mystical phenomena.
Algimanta also did not walk like a docile sheep. She kept swivelling around, pretended to be window-shopping, and read posters several times. I wondered where she had learned these tricks, rather primitive ones, though. I did see a shadow follow her, but it was her shadow in the literal sense. A similar one was dragging itself after me, as the evening sun shone from in front.
Suddenly I realised that my tactics were wrong. Although from across the street I attracted no suspicion and had a wider field of vision, it is not always right that you can see better from a distance. To identify the stalker with your sixth sense, when the eyes fail, you need to be at the epicentre of events. I looked to both sides and stepped off the pavement. It happened exactly at that moment.
Algimanta was at a distance of some fifty metres, and while watching out for cars, I missed the action. I turned in her direction only when I heard her shrieking, and managed to catch a glimpse of a youngster sprinting away with her handbag. The most popular type of theft, I concluded calmly, noting the handbag snatcher duck into Totorių Street. In a split second, I scrambled after him like an Audi at a hundred kilometres per hour … Yet on Labdarių Street I lost track of him. I walked all the way to the end, but it was hopeless. In front of me rumbled processions of people on Vilnius Street. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Before turning to go back, I spotted a sling dangling from a rubbish container next to the wall. I felt I should check it out, although I would not normally dig around in the rubbish even if I was very much in need. What do you think? There sat Algimanta’s handbag. Well, open, of course!
It did not come as a surprise to me (I had seen the style before). I grabbed it happily and rushed back. I found her clinging to a column of the Vilnius Bank building, pale and shaking like a leaf.
‘It’s him,’ she whispered.
‘I doubt it,’ I said, and gave her back her handbag.
As if anticipating what was missing, she repeated again, that it was ‘him’. Probably she was right, as she took out of the handbag a luxurious leather purse that even empty would have cost about a hundred and fifty litas. Gone were the key to her flat and her address book, with the telephone numbers of her friends and acquaintances.
This little damage I would have ignored in other cases, but not this time. It did not look like a normal theft at all. What was the good of a worn-out address book with the telephone numbers of strange people? The key … well, somebody who knew the victim’s address could put the key to use. It struck me that it was dangerous, and I sent her home to Pašilaičiai. I promised to come as soon as I had bought a new lock.
I replaced the lock but lingered on. Algimanta was on tenterhooks. Every sound from the staircase sent a chill down her spine; every now and then she kept peering out of the window. With the twilight, she relaxed; maybe my talk therapy was working. I went out of my way to cheer her up, babbling both nonsense and serious stuff.
I strolled home on foot, taking my time, to digest the new aspects of this weird story. Who wanted the keys to her flat and her address book? How was ‘he’ going to use them? As for the keys, he could throw them away. But what about the phone numbers of her friends, family and acquaintances? I had no idea.
Engrossed in thought, I didn’t keep an eye on my surroundings, and that was a mistake. It was after nine, the time the streets got rough, so it was no surprise that somebody dealt me a blow on the back of my head. I didn’t feel how hard or how heavy it was, as it sent sparks from my eyes like New Year’s fireworks, and I tumbled down to embrace the street dirt, in the literal sense. Darkness, silence and a tingling void engulfed my senseless body …
I must have spent a while sprawled out on the dirty pavement before I came round. Strangely enough, nobody took any interest in me resting in a place not really designed for that purpose. Cars passed by, and lonely figures. It seemed as if they had all plotted to wait till I bit the dust. Probably they thought I was tanked-up and resting, the chilly autumn earth would cool off my head, and I’d get home on my own.
Now with the unprofitable town drying-out cell closed, the occasional passers-by had no reason to bother calling the police, as a form of a favour to the drunkard bedded down on the pavement. A favour! Damn you and your favours, the poor souls poured curses on good Samaritans when they had to dig into their pockets to pay for sobering services. But let’s get back to my poor body, which would not follow my inner voice commanding me to get up, Lazarus, enough lazing around. It was far from easy. First, on all fours, shaking, I finally lifted myself up. I had a splitting headache, and though I knew the idiom, I’d never have wished my worst enemy to learn what it felt like. I went home almost in the Lenin way: two steps forward, one step sideways. I had no idea how long it took me, but fumbling at the door with the key, I knew I had made a terrible mistake!
At home I felt my throbbing head with my fingers: there was no open wound, and it was not bleeding, so I had not stained my clothes. An old joke about two ladies came to mind. One scolds the other: ‘Your dog bit my husband.’ ‘But isn’t it lucky it didn’t rip his trousers.’ I was about to smile, but the cadaverous face I saw in the mirror made me shut up. I should be thanking God I didn’t get concussion, because then I would probably be looking for my brains.
I put some ice on my sore head: it relieved the pain so much that I felt like a sinner who thought he was to be sent to Hell, but finds himself in Heaven. Then the phone rang. I put on an abused child’s face, and answered the call.
‘Hello,’ I said, but I could not hear my voice.
I could hear Algimanta’s really well. She was not speaking, but yelling,
‘Do you know what he’s done now?’
How could I have known? So I kept silent like a rock by the road on which every dog … folklore doesn’t help here. It turned out that Algimanta’s friends, relatives, and everybody whose number was in her book were calling her to say how sorry they were that she … had broken her leg.
‘Can you imagine it?’ She was furious.
I could hardly imagine anything, the blow must have switched off my cerebral imagination centre.
‘The man who calls them introduces himself as my co-worker, and speaks in a funny, muffled voice,’ she explained with less agitation.
I listened to her calmly, but the ice had started melting, and cold water trickled down my neck. That was the last straw, so I gave her the news and hung up. After an occupational injury, one was entitled to rest. But, wait a minute, what did I say? Occupational injury? Who whacked me on the head? I could think of several possibilities. Hooligans? But they didn’t even look in my pockets, so why would they attack me? Is that how they come? But what if …? The answer was on the tip of my tongue, but I was reluctant to acknowledge it. I had to, though. It had been a terrible mistake to break my cover. I should have stayed in the shadows, watching and recording. Instead of directing a torch into dark corners, I had brought my face into the spotlight. I did not have to wait long for the reaction.
I knew I was in debt to her, at least for the advance payment I had received; but, on the other hand, wasn’t my poor sore head not worth these few tatty banknotes?
My head was filled with pain, and no great ideas, so there was no hope of any serious work. It was natural that events should evolve faster than I could comprehend them. Around noon, Algimanta raced in, as if she was being chased. Without asking why I was sitting with a bag of ice on my head and a martyr’s face, she blurted out:
‘The director’s deputy called me in this morning asking if I had suffered much.’
I showed no surprise at the sympathetic deputy, and Algimanta, shaking with impatience, kept repeating:
‘But how would he know?’
I too showed some curiosity: ‘Yes, really, how would he know?’
‘He said he had received an anonymous call.’
My head was splitting, and the melting ice kept trickling down my neck. I had never felt so lousy, and my client kept talking rubbish. I wanted to turn her out, but then the phone rang. I grabbed the receiver, like clutching at straws; yet there was nothing but an ominous silence at the other end; not even a word, or belching! I felt sorry I had not bought number indicator equipment; a pal of mine was offering one for two hundred litas. A self-made device. The friend, though, was not very reliable, so I thought his product might be the same and saved my money.
As if reading my thoughts, she rattled on, ‘A number indicator would not help. He’s calling from a telephone box.’
That was interesting. I found out that she had asked her cousin about a device like that and tried to read the number of these anonymous calls, but in vain.
So what was the shadow seeking? Was it a game of lunatics, or something more serious? Judging by my head throbbing with pain, it was not a funny game.
‘So what about the deputy? Maybe he really received a call?’
‘I doubt it. He has always looked strange to me,’ Algimanta cut me short.
I had lost my immunity to the ideas of other people, and she had almost made me believe her. She told me more about the deputy. A bachelor, at one time she had suspected that he belonged to the gay community; but eventually it appeared that he cared little for sex. None of the co-workers had ever been to his home. Rumour had it that the place was a terrible mess. His dress was tolerable, not too casual, not too dashing. He liked planning, and planned thoroughly. He was obsessed with planning. He seemed to fit the role of the shadow ideally, and I was very surprised I was able to guess what she was driving at.
‘Okay.’ I cut her short. ‘If everybody claims they have received a call from a man, I want to know about all of your male co-workers.’
‘They’re a bit thin on the ground,’ Algimanta smiled.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ I demanded. ‘Tell me about everybody; though the video from some staff functions and parties would do even better, if you have any.’
‘Sure, I’ve got plenty. I even have one of my thirtieth birthday party.’
‘Fine.’ I was happy. It was not good to listen to the ideas of other people with a sore brain.
All night long, I played and replayed the tapes that Algimanta brought. She was eager to give a commentary, but I sent her home. I didn’t care for the position, age or shoe size, let alone the marital status, of these people. I wanted to see what impression they made appearing on the screen. Indeed, the deputy left an unpleasant impression. He looked plain, with small, sharp eyes, darting around the room. A typical maniac. Though, honestly, I expected more from the tapes. I thought people overcame the fear of the camera, and relax. I expected their true faces, or at least a hint of them. The suspect was not even looking at her. His quick eyes were looking at everybody and nobody. I didn’t like it. A maniac had to give himself away. This one was not doing so at all, despite his suspicious appearance.
After several hours of revelry with Algimantas’ staff, I felt exhausted and light-headed from toasting, or from the amount of alcohol consumed. It was not in short supply on the tables. The festivities were old-fashioned, with abundant booze and filling food. I kept watching with the sound off, as the music, Lithuanian hits of the Sixties, was not exactly my favourite; while finally, at one point, a scene on the screen triggered an alarming thought. I replayed the tape three times; three times an alarm bell rang in my head throbbing with pain. I had never let myself down before. However, I tried to restrain my joy. Who knows, the blow on the head might have caused a malfunctioning of the ‘machine’.
Don’t stick to one hypothesis, however reliable it looks. Don’t let illusions throw you off track. I survived the night, and woke up feeling much better. Without even mentioning any of my doubts, suspicions and hypotheses to Algimanta, I set out on a hunt. Enough of being chaperoned, I told myself. It was time to act independently, and not to repeat old mistakes. To reassure myself even more, I touched the back of my head, which was now hurting less.
Yet my hypothesis soon burst, like a bubble. The character from the tape who set the alarm had not been working in the office for a year, but nobody could give a decent explanation as to where he had disappeared to. Vanished in an instant. A miracle, nothing less. But, I told myself with the voice of the prophet of Mount Sinai, why shouldn’t he have his fingers in this shit? No longer a part of the organisation, he would feel less restricted, assuming that nobody any longer noticed him.
I am not a dictator surrounded by a crowd of sycophants, self-criticism is second nature to me, so I kept discussing with myself. The investigation was already slackening off before I was attacked; afterwards, it stalled. There was no need to hide that. If I were her, I’d get back my advance, and send the loser packing. By the Lord’s Mercy, she didn’t listen to good advice.
My mind numb, my body languid, I drifted along with no particular direction until I landed up at the home of Algimanta’s deputy, Mieželis. Why I did this, I cannot explain; though, on the other hand, the deputy was one of the suspects. That he barely noticed the victim on the tape was not important. Good deception technique. It could even have been an argument against him.
Instead of loitering around the five-storey building in Viršuliškės, I settled into a seat at the coffee bar opposite the building. Sipping from a bottle of Sprite, I started waiting. What for? Who knows?
Honestly, I was trying to hide my torpor and laziness by a useless task. When I saw Mieželis emerging from the front door, I knew my luck was in. Such things do happen. But soon the appearance of my target discouraged me again: dressed in a tracksuit and a sweatshirt, he was taking his dog for a walk. I couldn’t see what breed it was, but even if I could, I knew nothing about dogs. A dog is a dog, and nobody can prove to me that it is not dogs’ blood that runs in animals’ veins.
The object of my surveillance was so sweet and so tender with his pet that I started thinking it might not be a man’s and a dog’s friendship in the traditional sense, but a much more complex and deeper connection in terms of traditional morality. I waved aside the hairy thought. Zoophilia would be the last straw in this story.
Darkness set in rapidly. Autumn. Mieželis had slipped indoors long ago. I too wanted to go home. I felt like farting after two bottles of Sprite. But then I saw the light go out in Mieželis’ windows. Was the deputy getting his beauty sleep? No, he was off for another walk. He was without his pet this time, and had changed into an overcoat and a beret. He was also carrying something square-looking in his hand. It was getting interesting.
I followed him, as if tied by an invisible yarn; but he seemed unaware of me sneaking behind him. I tried to stay unnoticed, and was doing quite well. We had already passed several blocks, but Mr Deputy showed no signs that he had noticed or felt anything. He did not turn round, did not stop to fasten his shoelace, did not stop to look in a shop window or read posters. In other words, he behaved like a righteous man who owed nothing to nobody. Was he not like that? I had no answer; though, indeed, I had nothing against him, besides Algimanta’s suspicion, probably totally ungrounded. Yet, there was no need to rush ahead of events. I still expected that time, like Sherlock Holmes, would show who was right.
We had almost got to Algimanta’s house on Žemynos Street in Pašilaičiai when it first occurred to me where we were heading. Strange that we had made quite a trip, and I never thought of it; but when we had nearly reached the objective, I became curious. Fancy that! Like a true professional, Mieželis circled the house three times, then planted himself underneath, cocked his head, and stood staring at the woman’s windows. I was expecting serenades. But after gaping a while at the light in the flat of his subordinate, he stepped inside.
Honest to God, I was lost. What should I do? Follow him, because if the deputy was the shadow, expect hell! Algimanta would need help, and I could be a witness and reveal the shadow. But what if he had come to offer his support, to discuss some work situation; or even come accidentally, without knowing that his subordinate lived in this very building? Maybe he had come to see a vet who was also an acquaintance to inquire why his dear doggie farted so often. Pursuing what seemed to be a noble objective, I might find myself on a fool’s errand. The road to hell is also paved with good intentions, as they say.
I had not yet solved my dilemma before Mieželis took flight through the front door, putting an end to my doubts and hesitations. He dashed like a frightened rabbit on its heels, without even looking around. I smelt a rat. A person would not normally behave like that. Despite the tingling pain in my head, I scrambled upstairs. Algimanta lived on the fourth floor.
Missing every other step, I could hear a noise upstairs, which drove me on like a stick. I was as quick as I could manage. Not faster. I stopped to get my breath only when I discovered the source of the noise: there was a group saying good-bye to some hospitable hosts. The fourth floor was dead silent. It couldn’t be otherwise, because Algimanta was stuck in the doorway, looking at a package by her door. Wasn’t she a clever girl, it occurred to me. The package was wrapped in paper patterned with small flowers in many different colours.
I motioned to her to step back. The landing was lit by a clouded forty-watt bulb, so I asked her for a torch. She gave me one. I bent down and inspected the package from all sides. It was wrapped neatly, fastened with tape at the edges.
I once went on a course given by a chap who, judging by his artificial hand and frightened look, had personal experience of the power of explosives. Yet, as an instructor, he was a real drag. Although he tried to emphasise the disposal aspect, his assorted audience, who had paid a lot of money to get on the course, responded in a way that showed that their focus was on manufacturing bombs and planting them safely. Now, inspecting the package, I was sorry that I had paid more attention to the students than to the disposal expert.
I knelt down, put my ear as close as possible to the package, and held my breath. Had this been an old-fashioned and rare clockwork device, it would have been ticking. I couldn’t hear anything other than the neighbours rowing behind one door, a dog barking behind another, and shots and strict commands in English coming from yet another neighbour’s flat. They were watching Walker, Texas Ranger. Chuck Norris could step out of the screen and take care of this package. He’s a fine chap, and rescues everybody in trouble. And he does it for free, by the way. But I did not want to risk life and limb, even for that ridiculous money.
I pushed aside the foolish, distracting thoughts. I did not expect a remote control, because the originator would have had to see the device to push the button at the right time. He couldn’t see it on the landing unless he was hanging from the roof upside down and looking through the window. To play safe, I looked at the window, but could see nothing but darkness. Therefore, I figured out that it had to contain a mechanical detonating fuse that was going to do its dirty job as soon as you tried to unwrap the package. Then there should be some wiring and bumps visible on it. I inspected it again and closely, but could only see smooth paper, not a single bump. I could only smell something. Damn it, was I going to fumble with it until morning? Should I call the disposal chaps? But how would I explain to them where and what? A long story.
I straightened up, gave a deep sigh like a man who has finished a difficult task, and looked at the client. Her reaction was quite strange. Contented, she stood in the doorway with curiosity sparkling in her eyes. A real woman. At that same moment, the neighbour’s door squeaked and a black dachshund sneaked out wagging its tail. It barked at me angrily, and then headed directly for the troublesome package. I flung myself against the wall, covering my head, yet kept watching the dog, which, just as befits its kind, sniffed the package from all sides, and started pushing it with its paws and nose. I shut my eyes, but there was no explosion, only a weaker, repetitive sound. I opened my eyes to see the package rolling down the steps and not exploding. I jumped after it, but the doggie was not going to give up its trophy.
‘Well, you have every right to it; but what are you going to do with it, doggie? I need it as evidence against Mieželis,’ I tried talking to it. My words meant nothing to the dog, but it obeyed its master’s voice and went inside. Bravely, I picked up the package and took it to Algimanta. The explosion was cancelled.
Who put it there? The question was in her eyes.
Paying no attention to her, I ripped away the generous layers of paper from the package. Inside there was a wooden box; inside the box, a bottle. I was already past the paranoia stage, so I no longer suspected poison, anthrax or AIDS, because it was only … perfume.
‘Jean Paul Gaultier,’ whispered Algimanta. ‘Do you know what it costs?’
I looked at her and remembered again that a woman was always just a woman. With her eyes burning, she opened the bottle and sniffed. Heavenly bliss. It took so little.
But I brought her down to the sinful earth by asking:
‘Did you hear anything?’
‘One short doorbell ring. But it happens frequently, because the doorbell is next to the light switch, so, when fumbling for it in the dark, people ring the bell. I didn’t rush to answer, but when I heard the noise on the staircase, I approached the door … You’re not going to believe me,’ and she said this like a simple story, ‘but the other day I confided to my co-workers that I won’t be able to buy such perfume before I die, and it would take life-long saving. And now it’s like a good fairy fulfilling my dream …’
I cocked my ear.
‘You spoke about the same perfume?’
‘Who did you tell this to?’
‘Anybody in particular?’
‘The ladies on my section. I hope you don’t think they wanted to sweeten me …’
I didn’t. But then Algimanta astonished me again by announcing:
‘I hear you came to the office to ask about Kaziukas?’
I gasped out of surprise, but said nothing.
‘Why don’t you ask me where he is now?’
‘Where is he now?’ I echoed her.
‘What do you need him for? He’s my great love,’ and she smiled with a smile that I didn’t like at all, because it was out of place.
Kaziukas turned out to be an unhappy fellow, an epileptic, and suffering from a hundred and one other conditions. He was also very naïve. She felt sorry for him. To her knowledge, he was unemployed, surviving on disability benefit and taking some odd jobs at home, fixing radio and television sets and other things for neighbours. Algimanta wasn’t in touch with him.
‘So why the “great” love?’
‘The ladies used to say it. It was a joke.’ She waved the idea away frivolously.
I disliked her tone and her words, but didn’t say anything. Instead, I asked a direct question: ‘Was he courting you?’
‘Stop it, that’s crazy.’
‘There’s been nothing of the kind,’ she retorted, and I had to believe her.
Also, I didn’t like the perfume and its association with her death. I didn’t like the connection between the words ‘perfume’ and ‘death’. ‘Saving’ was omitted from them. She didn’t have to save the money, so the perfume signified not a deep love, but … I didn’t dare utter the words … but it signified the nearing of her death.
It was a warning! You spread the word, now face the consequences.
It sent a shiver down my spine, but I let her know nothing of my fear. She looked strangely relaxed, sniffing on the bottle and getting high like an addict. I never understood people who think they are attractive to others when they perfume their body with all kinds of stuff. Such a bouquet of smells in a bus or in other crowded places makes me want to leave the place immediately. In this respect, I am like Napoleon, who hated perfumed women.
Though sick and tired of my client’s light-mindedness, I changed the subject.
‘Tomorrow announce to your co-workers that your flat is like a bus terminal. You can lock your door from the outside, but at night you sleep with your door propped open by a chair.’
‘That’s nonsense. It’s not true,’ she resisted.
‘If you want this nightmare to end, just do everything I tell you,’ I snorted and wondered since when we were on such familiar terms. I could not remember. Maybe after I had got my head done in.
She gave in. I made her repeat the words three times, so that it sounded natural. Also, I warned her loudly, ‘be sure that a lot of people hear you.’
‘Don’t you worry,’ she reassured me. ‘In my office if you sneeze on the ground floor the people two floors up will say “bless you”.’
I asked about Mr Deputy, and whether he went in for sport.
She batted an eye at me and giggled in a vulgar way. ‘Maybe pocket billiards.’
I got her, but her attractive femininity faded in my eyes. However, I didn’t start moralising, but asked her to prepare for the next day. She promised.
Retreating, I could hear a distant fanfare of victory.
But maybe I was hearing things?
It takes deep faith to wait for manna from Heaven. But what should I do? My trust was melting away: one minute of patience ate away one gram of trust. It was simple for Algimanta. She hummed over the housework and grumbled when at nine o’clock I told her to switch off the light. She would get over it, because I wanted the fanfare of victory to be loud. In other words, I wanted to rush dragging time.
The room was engulfed by a grey dusk. Finding a corner of complete darkness in a neighbourhood like this is next to impossible. If you don’t blaze in somebody’s eyes, they’ll glow in yours from the opposite building. I lingered in Algimanta’s room like a shadow. Not the one that was harassing her, but a real one, of flesh and blood and brains. My brains, though, after the blow, still weren’t incapacitated; otherwise, how could I have thought of such an ingeniously simple scheme. We knew nothing of the shadow’s aim or motives (honesty I had some ideas but didn’t mention them) and such a game of hide-and-seek could have lasted until Hell froze over. So I decided to trap him. The theft signified that the shadow wouldn’t mind paying a visit to Algimanta’s place, but I had missed the chance by replacing the lock. I should have trapped him then. But those who do not err, don’t work, and those who work … or maybe vice versa?
I was ready for many things, but was I ready for everything? I would know my mistakes only after we had been over it. Yesterday I replayed the tape again to see better how Mieželis was built. Not a cripple, not an athlete. Somewhere in the middle. Sometimes this type is more dangerous than the mountains of muscle and fat. His well-coordinated movements meant he didn’t apply his fists too often, but if he hit, he hit the target. I was thinking about a fight bare-knuckled. Probably I could win against him, though my only advantage was my youth and my good health. Excluding my sore head. I gave up martial arts lessons in my first year at university after the instructor accidentally ‘switched me off’. Since then, even in a job like mine where I might encounter a character ready for combat at any moment, I couldn’t force myself to learn even basic self-defence that would be helpful when it came to protecting myself or a client. I could only rely on good luck.
The house was slowly letting off steam and getting ready to sleep. The jarring voices of people on commercials seeped through the wall. A dog’s barking could be heard outside, angry and irksome. Algimanta was in her place, that is, in her bed. So was I. Not in bed, but in my place, behind the bedroom door: I was desperately fighting sleep.
Shortly after ten, I heard somebody fumbling at the door. Now, it was starting. The fumbling soon turned into a clear sound, the door being pushed, and the chair, which I had put against the door, sliding on the parquet floor. Just like in Algimanta’s story. It took several minutes, because the intruder was taking every precaution not to make much noise, and at the same time widening the gap. Even a hypersensitive person asleep in the room would never have heard him.
But from my hiding place behind the door I could hear him perfectly well.
Finally, feet shuffled along the corridor. He was wearing soft trainers, it occurred to me. I tried to picture Mr Deputy in sportswear. In front of my very nose, the shadow slipped into the bedroom. I should have said, ‘Welcome, nice to see you,’ but fear paralysed my tongue and locked my jaws. Wasting no time, the shadow bent over the sleeping woman, and …
… she started screaming, the light went on, and I jumped into the battlefield, to face the shadow who finally assumed a concrete form, shape and even a name with a personal number. So far unknown. I was ready to fight, but that was not necessary, as the intruder, hiding his face under a black sports cap and in the turtle neck of his sweater, all of a sudden collapsed into my hands. Theatrically, as if by Stanislavsky.
I stood like the Pietà, holding the martyr on my lap, blinking in the bright light. Algimanta stopped screaming. Instead, she stood, also blinking, looking at the two of us. The intruder showed no sign of life, but I could feel that he was not yet freezing. Still alive. I put him on the floor and took off his cap.
‘Kaziukas,’ Algimanta said. ‘How come?’
I couldn’t believe my eyes. I needed some explanations to believe it.
‘Where’s Mr Deputy? Why hasn’t he come?’ I asked softly.
I couldn’t keep track of my thoughts any more. My eyes darted from the victim to the perpetrator, back and forth, and I no longer knew who was a victim and who was a perpetrator. And what was my role in this story?
Now when the shadow has gone back to where it belongs, I feel that this investigation is not going to bring me riches, though. I have been generously compensated for my injury. The miraculously healing hand of Algimanta strokes tenderly my sore head, relieving the nagging pain, and my thoughts become clearer, and I know for sure what I am going to do tomorrow.
© Raidas Dubrė. All Rights Reserved 2005.
Juozas Šikšnelis made his literary debut quite late in his life. His first book, a collection of short stories ”Calm” (Štilis), came out in 1991...
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