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The Lowlifes [Crime fiction; mature content] (1 Viewer)

CyberWar

Senior Member
A departure from my usual science fiction, The Lowlifes is a short crime novella featuring a day in the life of two destitute young men in the bleak reality of post-Soviet Latvia in the early 90's. The story features plenty of sex, violence, profanity and substance abuse - the good 18+ stuff in other words. Don't say you haven't been warned!

I wake up on the floor with a dull, pounding ache in my head. Something is scraping against my hand, and I look down to discover the culprit - a big, fat cockroach easily the size of a one-lat coin sitting on the top of my palm. With its antennas trembling, the roach senses it's been discovered and tries to scurry away before my hand catches up with it and splatters the vile pest against the floorboards. Wiping roach guts from my hand in the rug, I sit up with a heavy grunt.

Retching loudly, I stumble outside the room and down the hallway to the toilet, stamping on a few more cockroaches along the way as they scurry to hide beneath the tattered linoleum and wallpapers. This place has a serious pest problem - but then again, show me one communal flat in this city that doesn't. As I open the door, the stench of stale piss and shit nearly makes me puke. Apparently the toilet's clogged up again.

Trying my best to ignore the smell, I turn the faucet. The water that pours out is red with rust and reeks heavily of chlorine. Just the other week the news on the radio said the authorities had discovered cholera microbes in the same lake the city takes water from, so no wonder the utility service has put in some extra. Still, it's good enough for washing face and sobering up a little.

"Janek, is that you?"

It's my neighbor Xenia. A forty-something-year-old tram conductor who lives in the room next to ours with her alcoholic husband Igor, she's probably the nicest denizen of this dump. Her husband used to be an electrical technician in VEF, once the largest electro-mechanical factory in the USSR and the biggest enterprise in the city before it closed down a few years back. Since then, Igor has been mostly unemployed, spending his days boozing and occasionally taking his frustrations out on his wife. Pretty decent guy when he's sober, problem being that's hardly ever the case.

"Yeah! The frigging toilet's clogged up again!" I grumble as I pull the collar of my sweater over the nose while struggling to unzip my pants and take a leak.

"Oh great, not again...," Xenia groans outside in the hallway, "Should I call the plumber?"

"Don't bother," I growl, "That useless drunk will probably take all week to show up, only to come around shit-faced when he does. I'll see what I can do."

After a lengthy and disgusting struggle involving a plunger and a broken broomhandle, I finally manage to un-clog the toilet. Xenia is much relieved about the news, taking my place to use the amenities while I go straight for the kitchen window and discard the shit-stained broomhandle in the yard. It lands close enough to the overflowing garbage bins for the garbagemen to maybe pick up along with the rest of the trash on the odd chance they grace this house with their presence anytime soon.

"Up already?" I hear a voice and the sound of a striking match lighting up a cigarette. It's my roommate Āris. The three-day-old stubble on his chin and the dark circles under his eyes signify he's feeling no better today than I am. And why would he - we've been drinking together for the past three days anyway.

"Aye," I nod, sitting down at the table and pulling out my own cigs, "The toilet was all full of shit to the brim again."

"These useless old utilities," Āris grumbles, letting the smoke flow from his mouth slowly, "And nobody's doing anything about it. Not until that sewage pipe bursts and floods the entire staircase with shit, I'm tellin' you."

"Maybe if someone spoke to Gnat..." I suggest.

"Who's gonna speak to Gnat about it? You?" Āris interrupts me, "Gnat doesn't give a flying fuck about this place as long as everyone pays their rents on time! And if anyone doesn't, he'll just bust his knees and find another loser to live here in his stead. Ain't like there's a shortage of those lately."

Mr. Kalva, AKA Gnat, is the local "authority" - a gangster of some repute - and our nominal landlord. In the wave of denationalization in these new times, quite a few people have found themselves in possession of valuable real estate; some by right of inheritance as descendants of the lawful owners of property nationalized by the Soviets back in '40, some by spending their state-provided privatization certificates, and some simply by claiming a property from the former two at gunpoint. A 1930's-era apartment building close to the center of the city is a lucrative possession to men like Gnat, even if the 12-room apartments of old Latvia's elite have since been reduced to run-down communal flats inhabited by menial workers, drunks and never-do-wells. Rents might not pay much compared to guns, drugs or whores, but they are still a steady and reliable source of completely legal income.

"Yeah, ain't like he's around much anyway," I agree with my roommate. Gnat has his very own room in our communal flat, which he visits once in a month or so, usually in the company of other shady characters. It has a sturdy metal door with a sturdy lock, quite unlike the decayed and flimsy doors of the rest of the residents. Nobody knows what's behind it, and folks know enough not to be nosy about it.

"We should go look for work today," Āris suggests, "I've eaten barely anything in three days."

"No point in both of us going to the same place," I point out, "I'll go ask around in the station and the market again, while you could hit the harbor and the warehouses nearby. If there's anything, I'll ask if they're hiring two and let you know."

"Deal," my roommate agrees to do the same. Frankly neither of us put up much hope. Trains and ships don't come like they used to back in the Soviet days, and asides from unloading or loading the odd train or truck in the station or the harbor, there isn't much work to be had for two 20-year-old tekhnikum graduates these days. Well, not unless you want to go the way that men like Gnat have gone - but I and Āris aren't quite that desperate yet.

---

After finishing our morning smoke, we set out on our most likely futile search for work. The railway cargo terminals are about 40 minutes walk away. Still a bit drowsy from three days of drinking, I take my time to sober up.

The buildings around all look grey and dilapidated despite sporting elaborate Art Noveau facades. Evidently they've seen much better days. Decades of neglect under the Soviets haven't done their looks any favours, and the new government has neither the funding nor interest to restore them. It's now the responsibility of their new owners, most of whom are interested only in milking their new estates for all they're worth rather than any artistic value in them. As I walk past a tunnel leading to the inner yard of one, I see a homeless drunkard lying unconscious inside in a pool of his own making. I can't help but wonder how long until me and Āris reach the same condition; at the present rate, I'd give us another month of missed rent.

Further down the street, a boy with a large backpack is headed to school. Just as he's about to round the corner where the tram stop is, he spots a group of boys headed the opposite way. Their swaggering gait and cigarettes in their mouths on unashamed display clearly indicate these lads look up to men like Gnat as their idols, men symbolizing the new world of free enterprise. Judging by the abundance of colourful Russian expletives in their speech, these boys are the descendants of our "liberators" - the men and women who liberated our grandparents first from the Nazis, and then from their property, freedom, dignity and life.

"You there, Hans! Come here!" the oldest of the boys, a mean-looking urchin of maybe 13 years shouts in Russian. This evidently isn't the first run-in with this crew for the lone boy, as he hurries to the other side of the street, but in vain. The Russian boys set after him, and although the boy tries to run, the chase is short.

"Gimme that, you pussy-ass bitch!" their ringleader demands, pulling away the boy's backpack as the rest surround him and start to rifle his pockets for any valuables. Terrified, the boy trembles and whimpers. After finding nothing of worth in his bag, the leading boy is evidently disappointed, angrily scattering the victim's books and notepads in the nearby puddle. The victimized boy protests loudly, only to be silenced by a barrage of kicks and blows that leave him sobbing on the ground.

"Next time you better have something for us, Hans, or you'll be going home with black eyes every day, got it!?" the oldest Russian boy warns him as the gang departs, making scornful remarks. Indeed, in another few years they'll be finding their dream work with guys like Gnat.

This is what it's come to, apparently - the new generation of "liberators" calling us "Hanses" and "fascists" in our own country. I do nothing to help the beaten boy who cries as he gathers up his ruined schoolbooks from the mud. It's a harsh lesson of the street that he's just been taught, but learn it he must - always fight back, no matter the odds, or nobody will respect you and you will be just another sheep to be shorn, milked or slaughtered as fancy takes your betters. If you can't muster the courage to stand up against invader scum in your own country, you deserve nothing better - my gramps used to say. A guy who fought in the 19th Waffen-SS all the way from Leningrad to Courland Pocket and survived 12 years in the Gulag afterwards would know a thing or two about guts and courage, I would think.

---

The trip to the cargo terminals at the station is fruitless. On first look, there's plenty of trains standing there, but most of them are empty and haven't been moved in years as the layer of rust on their wheels and the rails attests. The only ones moving any significant cargoes these days are the Russian military, who are packing up to leave Latvia and their other former domains. Word is that they are selling off just about everything they can to anyone willing to pay, be it soldiers and National Guardsmen of the new government, civilians or gangsters. You can buy a Kalashnikov with full kit for two crates of Riga Black, or a box of grenades for less than 100 lats. The regularity with which one can hear gunshots rattle the streets of Riga at night attests that this merchandise is being put to good use.

The foreman at the station explains there's no work to be had at the time, and tells me to drop by next week - same way I've been doing for the past month. I head out to the city market, trying not to think of my rumbling stomach. Maybe they need some workers there today.

So this is what freedom's like. Couple years back, I stood on the barricades alongside other idealists swept up by the wave of patriotism, ready to give my young life for the freedom of our country if need be. If I had known that my bright future consisted of no job, no money and no hope, and of constant drinking to ease the pangs of hunger and forget the wretched poverty around, I might not have been so eager to support the cause of liberty. But it is what it is. We got what we wanted, now it's time to live with the consequences.

There's an upscale Armenian restaurant on the street I'm walking down. The mouthwatering scent of freshly-roasted shashlik wafts from its kitchen, making the hunger spasms in my stomach even more painful. If there's no work whatsoever in the market, I'll wait until nightfall and come see if there's any decent leftovers in the dumpster here. Wouldn't be the first time. But for now I must contend with imagining all the delicious foods they must be serving in there. Life in a free capitalist country isn't bad, provided you have the money and/or the skills to make it. As products of Soviet education and upbringing, most folks like myself regrettably have neither, which leaves people like Gnat to profit from the new economic system and enjoy all the new luxuries that money can buy. Still, it's not forbidden to dream about having enough money one day to eat in a restaurant like that.

My daydreams are rudely busted by the thunder of gunshots. First two or three, and then a whole racket of automatic gunfire. As I duck down, looking for a place to hide, I see several panicked patrons burst out of the restaurant along with two shady guys in leather jackets and Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders, dragging along a third with blood spraying from a wound in his neck. They run up to a black BMW with tinted windows, one of the men firing off the remainder of his magazine into the restaurant while the other helps their wounded buddy inside. The trio then make a hasty retreat towards downtown with tires screeching, not a moment too soon as two burly blokes in suits run outside, firing their pistols off in the direction of the fugitives. A woman inside begins to scream and wail hysterically.

I get up and move on as soon as it's clear that no more shooting will take place. "Business disputes" like this happen all the time in Riga these days, and people barely pay them any attention anymore. As I walk past the shot-up front door of the restaurant, I take note of the trail of blood left by the injured shooter. It's bright-red, meaning that the wounded gangster has been hit in an artery and has most likely bled to death by now. In a day or two, he'll probably join his friends in one of the city cemetaries' "bandit sections", where Riga's feuding gangs bury their fallen with full criminal honours and ostentatious displays of wealth and status. The woman inside continues to wail pitifully, probably mourning a husband or lover.

---

A while later I find myself walking past the marshrutka station next to the city mail house and the Central Station. Another homeless drunk is sleeping on a half-broken bench, wrapped in newspaper and snoring loudly, citizens waiting for the marshrutkas giving him a wide berth in disgust. A patrol of four National Guardsmen with Kalashnikovs in hand can be seen approaching. Their sargeant, recognizable as the only one to wear a black beret rather than a field cap, points at the bum and says something to his men, evidently ordering them to take care of this nuisance. The guardsmen promptly step to action, slinging their rifles over their backs and drawing the nightsticks that are hanging from their belts instead. The bum soon finds himself rudely awakened with a kick and is told to get the fuck out of sight. Visibly inebriated, he blurts something in protest only to get shoved down from the bench, receive a couple kicks and blows of nightstick, and a repeated instruction in an even firmer tone to fall from sight. Groaning and begging for no more kicking, he retreats like a whipped dog, the guardsmen spurring him on with a final kick to the backside. With a semblance of order restored, the trio return to their sergeant and continue their patrol, the onlooking citizens grinning maliciously at the bum's misfortune.

"Janek!" I hear my name shouted from the streetside. I turn to see a black Mercedes, its rear window rolled down. It's Gnat.

"Good day, Mr. Kalva," I greet him, "If it's about the rent, I'm out looking for work right as we speak. I'll pay on time, no worries!"

"Good, good..." Gnat nods approvingly, "About work, I just happen to have a little something that might interest you."

"I don't know, I'm not sure I'm the kind of guy you would..." I object, but Gnat interrupts me with a raise of hand.

"Why don't you hop in and hear me out first, in the very least I'll give you a lift to wherever you're headed!"

He opens the rear door for me, and reluctantly I step in. It would not be wise to flat-out refuse a man of Gnat's reputation.

Gnat doesn't look very threatening for a criminal authority. He's a balding man in his 40's, of short and rotund stature, excessively perfumed and wearing an expensive business suit and gaudy jewelry consisting of a finger-thick golden chain, Rolex wristwatch and a massive signet ring. Only the elaborate ring tattoos on his knuckles betray his true affiliation. Same cannot be said about his driver and two bodyguards, hulking brutes with expressionless faces untouched by intellect, all three of them clad in leather jackets, track pants and patent leather shoes that seem to have become almost a uniform of the underworld goon these days.

"Where to?" Gnat asks, trying his best to pass off as neighborly, even friendly. Knowing his sort, I sense there's a "but" coming soon.

"Central market," I say, "It's really just two blocks away, Mr. Kalva, I can walk..."

"Hear me out first, Janek," Gnat speaks, "I know you've been having a rough time keeping up with the rents. Which is why I want to offer you this little one-off job. It's real easy and pays well, and there are no risks involved. Well, not if you act with reasonable discretion."

"I'm listening," I say, though the better part of me wants to steer clear of whatever the likes of Gnat are up to.

"I need a package delivered, plain and simple," Gnat explains, "Do it for me, bring me back the money you get for it, and I'll consider your and your buddy's next month rent paid. I'll even cut you in for some."

"Why can't one of your men do it?" I ask.

"None of us can be seen making that delivery, you see," Gnat explains, "We're not exactly on the best terms with the coppers right now, as well as some other folks, if you know what I mean. They know our faces and are looking out for us. You, on the other hand, they don't know."

"What's the catch?"

"Don't get caught with it, that's all. I would be very disappointed if that package ended up with the cops or... certain other people."

"Can I refuse?"

"Of course you can! If unloading trucks that might or might not be there for 2.50 a day is your dream job, that's fine by me. But if you want something better... It's not like I'm asking you to kill a man or anything, just run a little errand."

"Fine, I'll do it," I agree, "What do I do?"

Gnat gestures to his bodyguard, who pulls a book-sized package from under the driver's seat.

"Deliver it to this address," he instructs me and names the address, "Don't write it down anywhere, memorize it. There will be a security guard at the door, tell him I sent you. The guys inside will give you an open envelope with an address on it, there should be 450 lats inside. Double-check just in case. Your cut is 50 lats, feel free to take them from the envelope. After that, seal the envelope and deposit it in the nearest mailbox. If by odd chance you get accosted by anyone with the package or the envelope still on you, you found it hidden under a bench in the park and have no idea who it belongs to or what's inside. Easy enough - just don't mess this up, or I will be very disappointed."

"I know better than that, Mr. Kalva," I grin sheepishly. Any sane person should know better than to make a guy with ring tattoos on his knuckles very disappointed. The last guy said to have "disappointed" Gnat was reportedly only identified by dental records after the coppers found what was left of him in the woods out of town. Though I dare not ask, it's my guess that this incident has something to do with Gnat's current non-grata status with the authorities.

"Good then!" Gnat smiles and taps me on the shoulder, "Get this right, and there might be more work for you in the future if you're interested."

---

Gnat's driver drops me off in Pārdaugava, the other side of the river from downtown. The address is some 10 minutes walk away.

I have to walk through the large Victory Park, another creation of the Soviet regime, to get there. To my left towers the Victory Monument, a monstrous concrete obelisk adorned with golden stars, sickles and hammers, next to it a gaudy statue of a mother and child rushing forwards to embrace the gun-toting "liberators". Had this scene transpired in the real life, the woman and her kid would most likely be running the exact opposite direction, until either the brave soldiers of the Red Army or one of their bullets caught up with her, the latter probably being the preferable outcome. The base of the monument has been defaced with an assortment of graffiti ranging from crudely-drawn pictures of genitals and the ubiquitous three- and four-letter words for them in Russian to swastikas and slogans like "Down with Communism" and "Death to the Red invaders". Amidst these politically-charged statements are more generic inscriptions, such as "X was here" or "X + Y = Love". Other than this place, the Victory Park is a pretty generic city park, featuring plenty of poorly-lit paths, a favourite with junkies, muggers, rapists and other unsavoury characters during the dark hours.

With the latter in mind, I keep my head on the swivel. Even during daytime, this place is far from safe, as many have learned the hard way after being jumped and relieved of their valuables. The park is large and by the time anyone hears you scream, the scoundrels stealing your stuff will be long gone. Even though nobody seems to be around, I don't let my guard down, being ready to fight or run on a moment's notice. I'd much rather face down an entire gang of street punks than have to explain Gnat why his package was never delivered.

Just out of curiosity I give it a little squeeze, the package being tucked safely inside my jacket. It doesn't yield easily, but suggests its contents are soft and tightly packed. Probably dope. If that's indeed the case, there's enough of it to put me away for a minimum of 8 years if the coppers were to catch me with it.

Thankfully, no cops or other suspicious individuals appear in sight, the only bywalkers I encounter being a handful of older women going about their business. I reach the provided address without incident.

It's a large building, another one of those Art Noveau places from the turn of the century that look like crap after 50 years of neglect. Contrary to many others, this one shows some signs of revival. I look around to make sure nobody is keeping a lookout for me and step inside with my heart racing.

The small lobby is rather dark. A bored security guard is sitting behind a reception desk, preoccupied with watching a sitcom on a small black-and-white TV. It's one of those old 1970's American sitcoms that the TV's been full of lately - the fall of the Iron Curtain must have been a gold mine for the Hollywood studios, able to sell all their old stuff again for the price of brand-new. The air is thick with cigarette smoke, from the same cheap unfiltered brand that I and Āris smoke when we can't afford anything better (which is most of the time). The guard gives me a quick look from underneath his brow, upset about me disturbing his peaceful watch with my presence.

"A package from Mr. Kalva," I say, unsure if this is even the right guy to speak to.

"Second floor, right side," the guard grumbles, not dignifying me with as much a bob of the head in the direction of stairs.

I go upstairs to the indicated place and ring the doorbell. There's some commotion inside and a gruff voice unkindly demands in Russian:

"The fuck do you want!?"

"Uh... a package from Mr. Kalva?" I speak, waving the package in front of the peephole. Moments later, I can hear multiple locks and doorchains clatter open, before a muscular arm reaches out and roughly pulls me inside.

"Hey, easy...!" I protest as I'm shoved against the wall and given a rough patdown, only to fall silent upon staring down the twin barrels of a sawed-off shotgun. As my eyes readjust to the twilight inside, I see two brutes in the ubiquitous leather jackets. One of them is busy searching me while the other holds me at gunpoint. There's a faint smell of cannabis in the air, so my guess about the package containing drugs is probably right.

"He's clean!" the one doing the searching reports, pulling the package from my jacket.

"Mr. Kalva... Gnat gave me this address and told me to deliver this package," I explain again as the goon with the shotgun examines the package. He looks at me closely for what seems to be ages and finally nods.

"Wait here!" he says and disappears into one of the rooms. The other thug stays with me, keeping a close eye on me and pushing back his jacket just enough to reveal a Makarov pistol tucked behind his belt, a rather unsubtle hint to not try any funny business or else.

After a brief while during which I quietly contemplate every possible outcome of this encounter, many versions of which involve me being abducted, beaten, ass-raped and murdered, and not necessarily in that exact order, the shotgun-wielding gangster returns with an envelope.

"Send Gnat my regards," he says while I quickly count the banknotes to the promised sum of 450 lats, "Now get lost!"

And just as swiftly, I find myself evicted from the apartment.

Taking out my cut of 50 lats, all in 10-lat notes, I quickly count the notes in the envelope again just to make sure I haven't taken above my share, and seal it shut. The address on the envelope doesn't mean much to me, being somewhere on the other side of Riga. Overjoyed, I leave the building, the security guard not acknowledging me even with a glance. Fifty lats is roughly a menial worker's monthly pay, and our rent doesn't even come out of it this time!

After crossing the street and dropping the envelope in the mailbox, I set out back home. Me and Āris are so going to celebrate today!


---


When Āris comes home, it's evident he's had no luck finding work. Behind the wall, Xenia is having a quarrel with her drunkard husband again, muffled shouts and liberally-dispensed Russian profanities turning into blows and screams, followed by Xenia's hysterical sobbing. We could step in and fuck Igor up so bad he wouldn't know Monday from Friday - but we won't. One thing I've learned about Russians is to never get in the way of a man beating his wife. "He beats - means he loves", so their own saying goes. I contend myself with banging on the wall and shouting for the two to shut the fuck up, for which Igor calls me a wanker who should mind my own fucking business. What's a little banter in otherwise good neighborly relations...

"You look pretty fucking happy," my roommate states, lighting up a smoke, "Any luck finding work?"

"In a manner of speaking..." I grin, "You'll never guess how much I made today!"

"Five?" he asks a bit incredulous. Normally we would consider five lats a very good haul for a day's work.

"Fifty!" I exclaim.

"Fucking how much!?" Āris exclaims, "What did you do, rob somebody?!"

"Just pulled an errand for Gnat," I grin smugly, "He was kind enough to even let go our monthly rent for it."

My roommate's face grows dark.

"You're a fucking idiot, Janek!" he frowns, "You don't just pull errands for the likes of Gnat! Those who play with the Devil's toys..."

"Yeah, yeah, will one day wield his sword! For fuck's sake, you sound like my mother, may she rest in peace!" I dismiss his concerns, "It's just a one-off thing, ain't like I'm now part of his outfit or anything! He wanted me to deliver a package, that's all."

"And did you ever wonder what was in that package?" Āris doesn't relent much to my annoyance, "You don't just get paid fifty fucking "salmons" for delivering a package!"

"Don't know, don't care," I retort, "My guess would be dope. But that's beside the point - we're gonna get shit-faced today, and I'm buying!"

"Fuck..." Āris frowns for the last time, "I sure hope you don't get caught in above your head with this shit. I mean, lifting a car radio or some juice from a gas station is fine, you won't get much time even if the coppers catch you, but doing jobs for guys like Gnat is something else entirely. Those guys are serious people with some serious enemies, they don't fucking mess around."

"Don't worry, I'm not getting involved with drugs or any of that shit," I reassure him, "If Gnat needs an errand boy again, I might think about it, but nothing more. Just what it takes to put some grub on the table until a more honest work comes around." I feel my friend is being unduly agitated, especially in light how it's usually me who's being the voice of reason in our arguments.

"Speaking of grub, is it just me, or something's cooking?" Āris sniffs the air eagerly. Indeed, I can smell it too, the delicious scent of buckwheat kasha.

We go to the communal kitchen to find it empty, a kettle of kasha laced with butter steaming on it. The faint smell of burning indicates we've arrived not a moment too soon to save it.

"Let's eat it!" my roommate who can be very unprincipled where it comes to food declares, "I'm starving!"

"What about whoever left it here?" I object.

"Fuck him! An asshole dumb enough to leave a perfectly good kasha to burn doesn't deserve it!" Āris proclaims, claiming the kettle for himself. I'm too hungry myself to object, so we retreat to our room to eat it.

"So what are we buying for our feast today?" I ask, gobbling down the chow voraciously, "Fifty "salmon" should feed us well into the next month."

"I'm thinking... hard sausage... and some pickles... and white bread..." Āris mumbles, his mouth stuffed with kasha, "And some booze... proper booze, not the usual swill..."

"We should bring along some broads too!" I suggest, "I haven't fucked since, like, forever!"

"Hell yeah!" Āris agrees, "A pair of soft titties and a moist twat is just what I could use right now. Where it comes to broads, I have a few ideas..."

Our conversation is interrupted by an angry shout from the kitchen, followed by furious banging on our door.

"Motherfuckers! You ate all my buckwheat!" it's our other neighbor Zinoviy, a self-proclaimed "hero of the Great Patriotic War", one of the "liberators". He's fond of dressing up in his old Soviet Army uniform, festooned with medals and badges from chest to waist like an armor. While it might impress someone with zero knowledge of Soviet military awards, his decorations don't hold up to closer scrutiny, there being several Tsar-era awards from WWI and a Mother-Heroine Medal among his alleged achievements. Not to mention he would have had to win all his heroic victories at the age of 10 - I once managed to sneak a peek in his passport.

"Fuck off!" Āris shouts back to him, "If it weren't for us you would've burnt that shit anyway!"

"I'll teach you whoresons how to steal my food!" old Zinovy shouts, smashing open our door. Given its flimsy condition, it doesn't take much effort. The self-proclaimed war veteran has armed himself with a flagpole and charges at Āris vigorously. He pushes aside the pole and tries to yank it out of the old man's grip, but Zinoviy is a surprisingly resilient opponent for a drunken old fart, starting to throw punches at him and even landing one on his cheek.

"Oh, that's how you wanna play it, you old fuck!?" Āris growls, discarding the remains of the kasha on the floor as he grabs the kettle and proceeds to beat Zinoviy down with it. I join in, kicking him in the gut several times before disarming him from his flagpole and shoving him out in the hallway. With a bleeding face, he collapses on the floor.

"Fucking Nazis! Wolves of a people! I fought and bled in Stalingrad for your sort!" he tearfully bawls.

"The bottle is the only thing a drunk old fuck like you has ever fought!" Āris shouts back, throwing the flagpole in his face, "Now piss off! Frigging stolen-valor piece of shit..."

Defeated, Zinoviy retreats to his room, wailing about youth having no respect for honest veterans these days.

"Some fucking veteran he is!" Āris still fumes, "If we believed his every word, he'd have won the whole damn war single-handedly!"

---

Shortly afterwards, we set out to find the necessary ingredients for our feast. Buying food is pretty straightforward. I buy enough for the two of us to last for a whole week. Getting good booze is a more complicated matter, however. The stuff they sell in stores under fancy labels is often just overpriced swill, manufactured in a garage just out of town and labelled as something expensive. With moonshine, on the other hand, it is pretty easy to tell apart the good stuff from piss.

We go to the far end of our street, where there's a "joint" inside the yard in one of the first-floor flats. The place is easy to find by following a steady trickle of drunks shuffling and stumbling to or from the place in various states of inebriation. In anticipation of police raids or attacks by competitors, the keeper has barred all the windows with sturdy bars and installed a metal door with a small merchandise window.

"What'dya want!?" an unkind voice grumbles inside when I knock on the door twice and twice again despite there being a doorbell. This way the keeper knows it's trustworthy customers rather than the coppers or business rivals. His customer service could use an improvement though.

"Four liters of the best you've got," I request, "None of that swill you sell to the hobos!"

"You got money?" the window slides open, being just wide enough to push through a two-liter plastic bottle. I put a five-lat banknote in a hairy hand that reaches out, catching a glimpse of a shotgun resting against the wall inside. The window slams shut, and moments later reopens again, the same hairy hand pushing out two bottles of unclear milky liquid. Āris opens one up to smell it and immediately grunts in content.

"Good... that's the stuff! Mellow as a lemonade, you can barely even feel the hooch in it, but oh boy, what a buzz it gives! The chicks will love it too!"

"Speaking of which, what chicks are we bringing over?" I ask as he stuffs the two bottles in my backpack.

"Well, I got a couple in mind... There's Linda, works as a part-time administrator in Reval Hotel and part-time hooker for the rest of the week. Then there's Laura, for five lats that chick will suck your cock dry and do anything you ask of her for 10. Not that either of them will mind doing a freebie if we treat them to booze and snacks first. There's Tanya, lives not far from here and won't even ask for money because she just likes to fuck," Āris lists his known candidates, "There's also Baiba, has tits like cabbages and ass wide enough to play cards on, and Ilze who shaves her twat like the chicks in those Western porno-flicks we've got on our VHC... That's about all I can think off the top of my head."

"Well, as long as they're pretty and don't mind screwing," I grin.

After returning to our flat, Āris hits the telephone and puts his finest smooth-talking skills to use, while I make the snacks and already start to warm up with a strong drink. My friend's description of this moonshine is pretty accurate, it really being very mellow for a homebrewed liquor and tasting faintly like strawberries. After half an hour, Āris has managed to convince Baiba and Ilze to come, with the condition that they be allowed to bring along another girl who's being stalked by a jealous ex-boyfriend.

"The more pussy, the better!" my buddy grins, putting down the phone after hearing no objections from me, "Get ready, Janek! Today we're going to drink and fuck like it's the end of the world!"

"Funny to hear that from you, considering what you said at first," I remark.

"Don't mind me," he slaps on my shoulder, "I'm just wary of this whole gang business, is all. I wouldn't want you to end up like that asshole from Gnat's gang that the cops found burnt alive. Some say Gnat's rivals did it, others say Gnat did it himself for the guy stealing from him. Either way, he ain't a good person to be around whether as an enemy or a friend."

---

An hour or so later, when the two of us are already well-drunk, the girls finally arrive. I'm slightly embarassed about our place, which is a mess, but the ladies don't seem to mind, themselves living barely better. Unless you were lucky enough to get a state apartment assigned during the Soviet days, a communal flat is about as good as it gets for you these days, especially if you're from outside Riga. Baiba, a redhead with curves just like Āris described earlier, is clearly such an outsider with her rustic manner and distinct Letgallian drawl; a country girl having come to a destitute and hopeless big city from an even more destitute and hopeless countryside in search of a job. The third girl, a slender brunette introduced to us as Marija, also strikes me as a country-dweller come to seek her fortunes in the city. Of the three, only Ilze looks and acts clearly and unmistakeably like a native Rigan, being more cocky and confident than the other two, but also more feminine and refined - if you can call dyed platinum-blond hair, a skimpy leopard-coloured skirt the length of a broad belt and exaggerated make-up a sign of refinement.

"Hi, boys!" the girls greet us with hugs as if we've been best friends forever. Baiba and Ilze know Āris from earlier visits, while I have met neither before.

"Come inside, ladies!" we welcome them, "The booze is waiting!"

"Sorry about the mess," I apologize, "We didn't really expect visitors today until late afternoon."

"Oh, it's quite alright," Baiba states, politely ignoring the cockroach that scurries away behind the couch.

Āris in the meantime puts on music. The cassette player we bought on the market a month ago is almost new, so the sound quality should be premium. Not so much for the cassettes themselves, which are pirated copies of pirated copies. Still, despite the somewhat raspy sound, they feature a decent selection of the latest hits from the West.

"What is love? Baby, don't hurt me, don't hurt me, no more!" he starts to sing along, perfectly immitating Haddaway's voice and making the girls laugh. They stand up and join us to dance. So far I find myself attracted to Baiba the most. I make a mental note to ask Āris about her at an opportune moment - being good friends, we make a point of not competing over each other's broads, and it's not like there's not enough to go around.

"So... Janek, is it?" Baiba asks, taking a swig of moonshine while swaying her hips to the tune of the music, "What is it that you do for a living?"

"Uh... A little bit of everything," I respond discreetly, "Whatever comes across. Can't really be picky these days."

"Me too," she nods understandingly, "Since the kolkhoz closed down and got "prikhvatized" by some oligarch, there hasn't been much work of any kind on my side of the country, so here I am, also doing a little bit of everything!"

"Prikhvatized?" I chuckle, "The story of every other business these days..." Truly enough, in a market economy with no regulation whatsoever, any form of business acquisition including fraud and signing over at gunpoint is deemed fair game, hence prikhvatization. In the best case, it's the now legally-ownerless state industries that get claimed by crafty businessmen to be dismantled and sold off to foreigners for a fraction of their original worth. In the worst case, it's new businesses started by people trying to make an honest living in the new capitalist way getting hijacked by gangsters like Gnat, more often than not signed over after a few applications of a hot flatiron to one's belly - or that of one's wife or children.

"Your friend seems pretty shy," I point to Marija who keeps slightly away from the rest.

"Oh, she'll come around," Baiba waves it off, "It's just her creep ex-boyfriend giving her a hard time."

"Is he gonna be a problem?" I ask. It's not like the two of us couldn't deal with one stalking creep, but it pays to be prepared.

"No, I don't think so..." she shrugs.

After dancing some more, we sit down to drink.

"Ladies," my friend calls a toast, "Let's drink to our meeting!"

"To our meeting!"

"So, what's your story?" it is now Marija who takes interest in me.

"Nothing exciting, really," I shrug, "Used to study agro-mechanics in an agricultural tekhnikum with this dumbfuck here, then this whole independence thing happened and it suddenly turned out nobody needed any tractors fixed on the countryside anymore. Should've figured they don't need no tractors fixed in the city as well."

"You two could fix cars..." Marija suggests.

"I dunno... It's pretty difficult to start up a new car service these days. Money issues aside, the existing ones don't appreciate competition, if you get my drift. And if we succeed in starting anything, that means we have to pay "roof" to the Mob. One bad month where you can't make the payment, and they'll come and break your knees."

"Tell me about it. I work in a bar, our previous manager couldn't or didn't want to pay. The goons who came to collect stuck a lightbulb in his mouth and punched his jaw, told us that the same will happen to whoever takes his place if they ever need to have this discussion again," Marija recounds and shivers, "Good thing I'm just a lowly barmaid."

"So what's this thing about an ex-boyfriend I keep hearing about?" I can't help but ask.

"Oh, it's nothing..." she answers elusively, "Ever since I broke up with Pavel, he's been following me around, threatening every guy I meet, even if it's just for work. He's been threatening me and my parents as well."

"Don't you have anyone who could teach him some manners?"

"I don't know... He thinks he's tough, but I think he's just a douchebag, not worth the effort."

"If you say so..."

We talk and drink some more before I hint Āris that I might need a word with him in private. We pretend to go off to the toilet and meet up in the kitchen.

"So, what do you think?" my buddy grins, lighting up a smoke.

"They're cute. Which one do you want to fuck?" I ask what's been on my mind.

"All of them," Āris chuckles, "Don't gimme that face, these ain't no innocent girls you might not want to share! Half the neighborhood has fucked them, and I'm going to fuck all of them too, just like you are."

"What if they don't want to...?" I ask, but Āris laughs it off.

"Trust me, I know those two - another few glasses of that moonshine and they'll be dropping their panties on you before you even realize what's happening!"

"And Marija?"

"Oh, don't you worry about her, she won't want to miss out the fun!"

Just as I'm about to respond, someone starts banging on the flat's outer door.

"Marija! Open up! I know you're in there!" a man's voice angrily roars.

"Oh my god, it's him!" I can hear the girls cry out, "How did he find you? He must've followed us! Quick, hide somewhere!"

"Don't worry, girls," Āris is already on the way, rolling up his sleeves, "I'll handle this creep!"

I follow him close behind, having reached that certain point of drunkenness where hormone-laden young men start itching for a brawl.

Pavel turns out to be a guy slightly older than ourselves. Judging by his nervous, jittery movements and constricted pupils, he's apparently on something.

"The fuck do you want?" Āris challenges him.

"You Baiba's new little boyfriend?" Pavel demands threateningly.

"No, I'm her big man-friend! Now piss off!"

"Baiba, I know you're there! You get out here this instant, or else..." Pavel roars into the room before turning back to Āris, leaning into his face, "You tell her to come out right now or this will end badly for you!"

"No, you go piss off before this ends badly for you!" Āris isn't intimidated. Whoever this Pavel guy is, he has evidently never lived in the dorm of an agro-tekhnikum, where hazing and abuse by senior students could be even more brutal than in the Soviet army. It takes no small of degree of personal toughness just to survive in such a place, but to actually thrive there requires plenty of gall and balls of cast iron, both of which my friend has in spades.

"Do you know who I am?! I know people, one call from me, and they'll fuck up everybody inside that shithole of an apartment of yours so bad your whore mothers won't recognize you!"

Referring to "people", are we now... Clear sign of Pavel not being such a tough guy after all.

"Good for you! Now fuck off before I fuck you off!" Āris doesn't yield in the slightest.

An instant later, Pavel's fist impacts Āris's cheek with a loud thwack as he charges at him with an angry roar. An instant later, I'm onto the foe as he and Āris start to wrestle in the hallway corner, breaking coat hangers and toppling stools.

"The fuck is going on here! I'm calling the cops..." old Zinoviy peeks out of his room at the commotion only to fall back inside as I shove him out of the way. It's an idle threat. Whatever happens in this flat, even he knows better than to call cops on a flat owned by Gnat himself, and that's generously assuming they'll even come to such a place.

To his credit, Pavel turns out to be a much better fighter than his sleek and unimposing looks would betray, fighting on after enduring several punches to the head that should have decked him. The fact that he's doped up on something is working in his favour as well. Still, he's only one man against us two. After planting a knee in his side hard enough to hear his ribs crack, I manage to knock him off balance with a kick to the knee. He falls into the kitchen, hitting the corner of the fridge with his head. Girls scream in fear and agitation as the two of us proceed to beat and kick Pavel into unconsciousness.

"Take that! And that! And that!" Āris snarls, repeatedly stomping on Pavel's face that becomes more and more unrecognizable with each kick, "You fucking-mother-fucker!"

"Alright, he's had enough..." I push him aside, my friend reluctantly backing down. The two of us lean against the wall, panting heavily and looking at Pavel who lies in a small, slowly spreading pool of blood.

"Punk-ass cocksucker!" Āris spits blood, wiping his bloodied nose in his sleeve and examining his tender jaw, "I think he knocked me a couple teeth loose!"

"He's definitely gonna have a bad day when he wakes up," I state.

"Is he... dead?" Marija asks, cautiously peeking into the hallway where only the feet of her ex-boyfriend stick out of the kitchen. Truth be told, that question has been bothering me as well.

"He'll live," I state after checking his pulse and finding it with some relief, though given his present condition, that can't be taken for granted.

"Let's drag him to the bathroom," I suggest, grabbing Pavel by one foot and Āris seizing the other. As we drag him along the floor, his head leaves a trail of blood. My friend stuffs Pavel under the grimy old bathtub and ties his hands and feet with the clothes line while I mop up the blood and stick the bloody rag under his head so he doesn't bleed all over the floor.

"Let's see if this asshole's got anything useful on him," Āris grins, starting to rifle through Pavel's pockets, "Car keys. Meh...! Smokes... and fancy ones! Gonna be mine now... Vallet... 60 lats and a driver's license... Someone's living the good life here! Zippo lighter... gonna be mine... Well, lookee here! Looks like our buddy's a dope dealer!"

And he raises up two blister packs of Ecstasy pills.

"Just what we needed!" Āris proclaims, "Let's get fucking high!"

The girls applaud his decision, already too drunk to much care about the potential implications of this fight. On my way back to our room, I notice Xenia peeking out of hers fearfully and hastily closing the door as soon as I look her way. It makes me feel a little guilty about being such a crappy neighbor.

---

Screams and moans of extasy fill our room, coming from the TV. Āris has put on one of the porno-cassettes on the VHS, another one of his impulsive purchases on good days with money. Still being new to the whole genre of pornography, we view it more for entertainment than arousal, it being another exotic form of Western cinema to us. Three well-hung Negroes are roughly pounding a petite white girl in every orifice simultaneously. The white chick screams and moans in between making gagging sounds as the guy manning her mouth thrusts in it.

"How can she even fit it all inside her...?" Marija sounds genuinely baffled as our small TV show's a close-up of the girl's backside being rammed mercilessly by two humongous black meatpoles, "It looks very painful."

"I dunno," Āris shrugs, preoccupied kissing with Ilze for some time already, "Maybe she just got used to it, fucking for a living..."

"I'd like a job like that - to fuck for a living," I remark, caressing Baiba's cheek as she looks at me visibly horny. Marija is sitting on the couch between us, unsure what to do, though she too seems quite aroused.

"Still sounds like she's being raped," Marija comments on the ongoing porn flick, "I've heard how a girl screams when she's being raped. I saw a rape happen once. It was very scary."

Her dreamy, indifferent tone is probably the product of Pavel's ecstasy pills. The five of us are wasted and high, wanting nothing but to cuddle, snuggle and make love, not war.

"Hush, don't ruin the mood!" Baiba protests and purrs, "Let's give the boys something nicer to think about..."

And she pulls her friend in and starts to kiss with her even as my hand slips under her sweater to knead her voluminous breasts. Marija seems confused and unwilling at first, but then gives in and makes out with Baiba. The sight gives me a rock-solid boner, while Āris and Ilze gawk at them before starting to make out intensely themselves. I see my friends hand slip under the girl's skimpy skirt.

"Come on, Janek, don't be shy..." Baiba purrs seductively, pulling off her sweater while Marija removes hers. As the two girls go on their knees to get down on me, I can't help but reflect on how fucked-up the situation theoretically is. There's five of us in a complete dump of a communal flat owned by a dangerous gangster, watching interracial pornos and about to have the mother of all gangbangs while drunk and high on dope stolen from one participant's drug-dealing ex-boyfriend, who is lying unconscious and quite possibly dead next door. Asides from the obvious danger of him being dead, there's also a good possibility that he's one of Gnat's underlings, a fact he's not doubt not going to be happy to hear about. Yet each and every one of us is too wasted, high and horny to give a damn even in the slightest right now.

Just as the girls pull down my pants, a loud crash in the hallway catches my attention.

"For fuck's sake, what now!?" I grumble, reluctantly getting up to check out the commotion.

No sooner have I stepped up to the door when it flies out of its hinges in my face, masked men in military uniforms barging in with guns raised.

"NATIONAL GUARD! ON THE FLOOR, NOW!"

---

So there I am, standing dazed in the middle of my dilapidated home, butt-naked, wasted and high as a fucking kite, sporting the father of all boners and unable to comprehend if I'm hallucinating or my flat has really just been invaded by armed National Guardsmen.

My confusion is dispersed soon enough, though, as the closest guardsman plants the stock of his Kalashnikov into my gut, followed by a kick to the groin. I hear the girls screaming and my buddy Āris groaning under a similar treatment to mine as nightsticks, rifle butts and combat boots begin to pummel my flesh. I find myself able to endure the beating with less prejudice upon the thought that an hour or so ago the two of us dispensed a similar treatment to Pavel. I've heard and seen in the movies that the cops have to read you your rights in the West whenever they arrest you. For better or worse, this isn't the West - here, the coppers or guardsmen will beat the living crap out of you first, so that you don't get even the thought of resisting or talking back, and only then start asking questions. Your rights might or might not enter the picture only after formal charges have been pressed, that too depending on whether you can afford to hire a proper lawyer or just get one of those uncaring state-appointed law school dropouts who get paid by the hour.

After what seems like ages, the guardsmen feel we've had enough for now and roughly pull us both back on our feet. In the corner of my eye I see that the girls have been given the pussy pass, merely sitting lined up along the wall on their knees with hands behind their heads.

"Eyes forward! Face the wall! Legs wide!" the guardsmen bark, shoving us to the wall for a patdown. One of them kicks my right foot aside so hard I nearly do the splits, only my pants that are still down to my knees keeping my legs together.

"What the fuck, man... OWWWW!" I protest, only to receive a kick to the groin.

"No talking! And pull up your pants!" the guardsman barks. I deem it prudent not to further irritate him. Content with my sartorial state, he proceeds with a rough patdown. I can feel him cringe in disgust when he gets to my groin, as I still have a rock-solid boner, courtesy of the ecstasy pills. With an angry growl, the guardsmen give me an Āris another kick to the nuts and drag us out, their sergeant or captain in a red beret promptly ordering his men to "remove these degenerates from sight".

As the guardsmen drag me out of the room, I can't help but wonder if the old fart Zinoviy really had the gall to call the coppers on us. But then, as I see him and our other neighbors Xenia and Igor splayed against the wall and getting an equally rough patdown, I realize the guardsmen are here for something else.

"Where's Žanis Kalva?! WHERE THE FUCK IS HE?! TELL US NOW!" the guardsmen roar at us. I don't know about Āris, but I say nothing, being too disoriented and scared to think straight.

Mustering all my mental faculties still unaffected by alcohol and ecstasy, I begin to realize I'm pretty fucked now. The guardsmen have no doubt found Pavel in the bathroom by now. That's already a guaranteed kidnapping charge, easily upgraded to premeditated murder if he turns out dead. There's enough ecstasy pills in my room to get a company's worth of men higher than heaven. Furthermore, the guy is a drug dealer, meaning he's somebody's man. Whether that somebody is Gnat or another "authority" is irrelevant, as it still means I and Āris cannot look forward to a warm welcome in prison. Things indeed start to look pretty shitty.

We are dragged downstairs and thrown in the "Black Bertha" face first on the cold steel floor, two guards sitting above us using our backs as footrests. My weak attempt to protest about uncomfortable position is met with a mildly-applied rifle butt to my face, so I deem it wiser to zip it. As they say, don't do the crime if you can't do the time - which in my case starts now.

---

If either of us thought the Guardsmen were rough, that perception is quickly dispelled when we are brought to the police station. Like probably anywhere in the old Soviet Union, Latvia's police stations are meant to break anyone unfortunate enough to end up there in cuffs. To say that you are treated worse than a dog is to say nothing at all, as dogs are at least deemed to have some intrinsic utilitarian value which you as a known criminal clearly lack. Until formal charges are pressed or called off, the coppers have up to 72 hours of completely free rein with with you. After a body cavity search that involves delving in my mouth with the same rubber glove used to search my roommate's ass beforehand, the two of us are separated. I'm handed over to the tender mercy of a very attractive female investigator. Long legs, high heels, raven hair, her uniform fitting tightly in all the right places... She seems nice enough at first, asking me of the whereabouts of Mr. Kalva. I make the mistake of ham-handedly attempting to flirt with her - must have been the booze and ecstasy. No sooner have I finished my sentence when she pounces on me with a nightstick and a litany of blasphemies that would make a boatswain blush. After bruising every part in front of my body and elaborating what she thinks of people like me along with my every relative and family member, my appearance, eating habits, religious conviction and sexual orientation, the pretty investigator repeats the question. My situation isn't helped by the fact that I still have solid hard-on because of the dope, and she takes notice of it.

"I am deeply offended by the mere idea that a petty little scumbag like you has the audacity to have an erection while talking with me!" she declares, "Therefore, if you don't lose that erection on my count of three, I will begin to beat it until such a time it becomes un-erect! One! Two!"

"I can't help it, ma'am," I weakly protest.

"Three!" she proclaims and steps on my privates with her high heel. I would've been delighted to catch a brief glimpse of her stockings under that skirt, if I wasn't seeing stars and angels right now. This crazy broad really should've worked as a dominatrix - from what I've heard, it pays much better than police work.

When I'm brought back to my senses with a bucket of cold water, the investigator repeats her line of questions about Mr. Kalva. I tell her what little I know truthfully, but become hesitant when she gets to the part about the man beaten close to death found in our communal flat. Sensing my cooperation is about to expire, the investigator decides it's time to play "gas attack". The cops pull a gas mask without a filter over my head, and she holds her hand over the hole until I pass out. After I'm revived, she asks the questions again, repeating the process to make sure I'm being consistent.

By the third time, I'm ready to confess to everything including plans to assassinate the president, knowledge of Martian plans to invade Earth, and having had sex with Virgin Mary. I repeat truthfully that the guy in our flat is just some drug dealer harassing his ex-girlfriend who attended our party that we had a fight with and roughed up a bit. The only thing I haven't mentioned is Mr. Kalva's little errand, but it hasn't come to my mind because the investigator hasn't asked anything of the sort. Seeing I've been honest with her or just having satisfied her sadistic urges, the investigator finally relents and tells the guards I've had enough today.

"We'll verify what you told me, and God help you if you've lied a single word!" she reminds me in an almost friendly tone, "I'll see to it that you're put in a cell with 17 Gypsies, whom we'll tell you're a boy-loving child molester. Constipation will never be a problem for you again, I can promise you that! Oh... and lose that boner, for Christ's sake! I'm almost starting to think you're enjoying this!"

She parts ways with me with one last kick to my still partly-erect manhood. If Āris has been given the same treatment, I get the feeling neither of us will ever have children after walking out of here.

---

The cops drag me to an empty room and handcuff me to the radiator. The floor is filthy and covered with spittle and dirt, especially in the corner where an overflowing ashtray stands. The air has that distinctive oppressive reek of grime, cigarette smoke, unwashed bodies and fear characteristic to the holding cells of police stations - I've been a guest in them on more than one occasion before, mostly over brawling.

After spending some time cuffed in an uncomfortable position, I decide I don't want to stay that way for much longer. The cops might have probed the depths of my every orifice, but they sure have done a piss-poor job searching my clothes, for I find a paperclip in my pocket. After some twisting and bending, I turn it into an improvised lockpick. Picking handcuffs is pretty easy even for an amateur, and in less than three minutes I'm free.

I could try to just walk out of the station, seeing how nobody seems to keep watch on anything. But then again, the cops would just find me again and give an even worse beating. Perhaps because of the booze and drugs still in my system, I decide to mess around with them a little.

The door to the nearby guardroom is open. I walk over to it to see some six or seven coppers sit around a table eating sandwiches and playing cards. The air is thick with cigarette smoke, and the bunch are sharing dirty jokes and passing around a bottle of vodka despite technically being on duty. Two nearest the door have folding-stock AKs slung over their shoulders, the rest have their rifles stashed in a rack deeper inside the room.

"Excuse me, chief!" I speak aloud to nobody in particular, it being the convention for detainees to address any copper as "chief" since before anyone remembers, "Got a smoke?"

"How the hell did you break free!?" the cops jump to their feet, two getting between me and the hallway to the exit. None however seem to be in a hurry to beat me down or anything of the sort.

"The cuffs just came open," I lie.

"Told you! These cuffs are garbage!" one of them remarks.

"Here!" one of them gives me a cigarette and even lights a match for me. I'm baffled by their sudden friendliness.

"We were about to let you and your buddy go anyway," one of the more ranking cops explains, "We could hold you on possession and use, but the precinct's got way bigger problems than you to deal with. Drop by the security desk on your way out, sign your release papers, and you're off the hook for now. Consider this a warning."

"I'm supremely and infinitely grateful!" I sarcastically remark, wincing in pain as I struggle to draw a smoke after all the beating.

"Get lost before I change my mind!" the senior officer waves me off and returns to his game of cards.

---

I find Āris by the security desk, receiving back his personal stuff taken from his pockets during arrest and signing his release papers that include a statement that he has no complaints against the police department regarding his treatment or his personal effects. I sign my papers without even reading them. Anyone not born yesterday knows it's pointless to complain about the police - they have no shortage of ways to make your life difficult even in freedom, and unless you're a politician, an oligarch or a gangster, there's not a whole lot you can do about it.

Once outside the station, we set out home, determined to get shitfaced again today, if only to numb the pain in every inch of our bodies.

"What did they ask you?" I question my parnter in crime.

"Whole lot about Gnat, nothing of which I know, and about that asshole we roughed up yesterday," he answers.

"What did you tell them?" I ask, hoping that my friend's confessions weren't too different in this regard.

"The truth," Āris briefly states, "Ain't much else you would tell after you've just been waterboarded, and a guy with bicepses the size of cabbages is threatening to probe every inch of your colon with his nightstick."

"Funny thing they decided to just let us off with a warning," I remark.

"Doesn't surprise me," Āris shrugs, lighting up a cigarette, "They've got what, five or more murders a day in a city of one million, not to mention armed robberies, kidnapping, extortion and whatnot beyond count to deal with every day. The prisons are overcrowded, they're regularly cutting loose anyone with a sentence of less than two years left just to make room for new convicts. The most the court can give us for mere possession and use is year and a half, and knowing how long the trials take these days, they'd have to cut us loose on time served before they could even review our case. With nothing more serious on us, we're just a waste of their time and effort!"

"I sure wish that pretty investigator had felt the same way about me earlier," I remark sarcastically and recount my interrogation to Āris when he looks up with interest at the mention of "pretty".

"You should've asked for her number," he chuckles, "Well, maybe not during the interrogation, but afterwards, as a free man."

"Fuck no!" I shudder, "With a girl like that at home, you're definitely not getting caught up in the bar or anything."

"You there!" a brash voice interrupt our conversation. I look up and see an imposing man in sunglasses and leather jacket over a tracksuit waving for us. I recognize one of Gnat's men. Though part of me is tempted to run, neither me nor my roommate are in a condition to right now, and I get the distinct vibe that this guy wouldn't take it kindly.

"Mr. Kalva wants a word!" he curtly informs us, ushering in the nearby tunnel leading to yet another courtyard. Inside there's the familiar black Mercedes, near which stand another three men, among whom I recognize Gnat.

"Look, Mr. Kalva, whatever you might think, we didn't tell a word...!" I start to explain but Gnat interrupts me with a raise of hand.

"I know, I know... You did well. Very well, in fact, so I've been told by a friend in the police," he speaks, "It is rare to find such... resilience and discretion in youths these days. Regrettably, yesterday's raid has left me short of an employee. Which is why I want to offer you two an opportunity to take his place."

"So Pavel was working for you after all?" I ask.

"Not directly, no. He worked for an associate of mine," Gnat explains, "Was reasonably good at what he did too, though in the end he became more trouble than he was worth with his unhealthy obsession for that girl."

"Is he dead?" I ask, not sure if I want to know the answer.

"Well, let's just say he won't be troubling you or anyone else no more," Gnat states elusively, "When he started to spend more time harassing that poor girl than making money, I did ask him to drop it and move on, because he started to attract too much heat. But he wouldn't listen, so what you two did to him yesterday and everything after that is on him alone."

"Did we...?"

"As I said, don't worry about Pavel, he's not gonna be a problem anymore. Now, with that said, I would like to offer you the opportunity to take his place. Not necessarily his exact same role, maybe, but one suited to your... individual talents."

"I get the feeling you won't take "no" for an answer, Mr. Kalva," I state.

"Why, of course not!" the gangster chuckles, "This is a free country with free enterprise now! Everybody can associate or not associate with others in business and private life as they please! Whatever you might have heard about me, know that I'm not the type to force anyone into working for me - I have no use for people who don't want to be part of my... company. But I urge you to consider my offer. The job is easy and pays well. You could afford to live in a much better place than this flophouse with old drunks for neighbors. You could afford nice cars and eating in fancy restaurants, you could have those girls you were seeing yesterday - hell, you could have any girl you wanted and she'd only feel privileged to keep you company. All that would be required of you in return would be loyalty, discipline and discretion. Of course, if you prefer your current lives, struggling to eke out a meager existence every day and feeding on the scraps and leftovers of society, it's not my place to tell you otherwise..."

"There is one other thing you should consider," Gnat adds as we stand there, reflecting on his offer, "The coppers might have let you off for now, but they still have everything about yesterday on file - the dope, the kidnapped drug dealer who later died in hospital under suspicious circumstances... They might not have much resources or will to go after you now, but who knows, in a year or two that may change. Should you take up my offer, however, I have friends who could make it all go away. A few folders accidentally misplaced, so to speak."

So there it is, the moment that Āris was afraid about yesterday, the moment when the Devil calls upon us to take up his sword. Though Gnat speaks with honeyed words, discussing our current predicament as a speculative "what if" future, it's pretty obvious he means to make it a certainty if we refuse. That would make him "very disappointed" in his own words, and you don't ever make men like him very disappointed.

It seems my friend has recognized the predicament we're facing as well. To my buddy's credit, Āris has never been one to shy from danger, especially when there's no way around it. Instead, he embraces it and tackles it head-on. After looking at me and receiving my silent nod of approval, he speaks for the both of us.

"When do we start, boss?"
 
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The Carcosan Herald

Senior Member
Well, this is an enlightening ballad of two Rigan working-class men struggling to get by in a new world where, as you put it once, 'the book' has yet to be written. After reading it, I can say without doubt I'll be a lot less harsh with my criticisms of my own home village as a poverty-ridden dumpster fire. It feels almost like the introduction to a Grand Theft Auto-style title where the protagonists rise from rags to riches, coming to dominate the criminal underworld in their own right. That said, I suspect that your coldly pessimistic storytelling habits will all but mandate a much less glamorous and almost certainly gruesome end for these two 'lowlives' - at best, they'll probably end up back at square one.

I have to confess that I'm not especially acquainted with the crime genre beyond Scorsesean gangster movies and GTA, though. Nonetheless, I have used what I do know to amass a panoply of notes, corrections and comments for those bits and pieces of the story that caught my eye.

"I wake up on the floor with a dull, pounding ache in my head." - rephrase, use 'headache' instead of 'ache in my head'

"Oh great, not again...," - no need for a comma here, render as either 'again...' or 'again,'

"After a lengthy and disgusting struggle involving a plunger and a broken broomhandle" - this one's more a personal preference, but for the sake of black humour, I'd refer to it as "a lengthy and constructive discourse involving a plunger, a broken broomhandle and many profanities"

"Xenia is much relieved about the news" - try 'Xenia is greatly relieved', or 'Xenia sighs with relief'.

- interesting choice of moniker for 'Gnat'; evokes an irritating bloodsucker, but also a sense that, being a literal insect amongst conceptual wolves, bears and tigers, he may be part of something much bigger

"With the latter in mind, I keep my head on the swivel." - odd phrase; better to use something like "I keep my eyes open/peeled", or "I keep my guard up"

- 'bywalker' is an interesting choice of word; being simply a bystander to an event that walks, you get the sense that the 'bywalkers' know exactly why anyone would carry a package through a dangerous part of the city, yet say nothing out of either fear or pity

"than have to explain Gnat why his package was never delivered" - explain to Gnat

"until a more honest work" - a more honest job

- stealing Zinoviy's buckwheat is certainly quite amusing, but would have been more impactful if Janek had suggested it before Aris, helping to symbolise the beginning of his descent into criminality

"I'll teach you whoresons how to steal my food!" - presumably Zinoviy intends to teach said whoresons to steal his food; teaching someone 'how to' is rather different in terms of context

"The bottle is the only thing a drunk old fuck like you has ever fought!" - fought for, presumably

"I put a five-lat banknote" - wasn't Janek's cut from the delivery job all in ten-lat notes?

"that asshole from Gnat's gang that the cops found burnt alive" - it might make Gnat more intimidating to the reader without the reveal that the last guy to disappoint him was immolated; would proceed with "that asshole from Gnat's gang they found in the woods" instead

"We didn't really expect visitors today until late afternoon" - even though he was the one who suggested bringing the girls over to begin with

"prikhvatized" - I love this word, as it speaks absolute volumes about the situation in the Wild East: an utterly foreign way of life (capitalism) applied in the most stereotypically Russian way possible (with violence, corruption, and a breathtaking disregard for subtlety, all while pretending it's for the good of the people)

"You Baiba's new little boyfriend?" - hang on, I thought Pavel was after Marija, not Baiba

"The fuck is going on here! I'm calling the cops..." - nice little Chekhov's gun here, given what happens afterward. Also, replace the exclamation mark with a question mark, since Zinoviy's clearly asking a question, rather than an exclamation (or you can use both to emphasise his tone, as in ?!)

"Let's see if this asshole's got anything useful on him" - this is so comically brutal that I just burst out laughing when I read it, though for the same reasons as with the buckwheat theft, it might have been better to have Janek rob Pavel instead

"I'm handed over to the tender mercy of a very attractive female investigator" - now this I like, and not just because of my own fondness for raven-haired ladies. The entire interrogation sequence with Janek and the investigator reads much like a sexual fantasy gone hilariously wrong - a potential microcosm/foreshadowing of the entire storyline, if you intend to write about the antics of Janek and Aris beyond this novellette

"I question my parnter in crime" - I'm willing to overlook the misspelling of partner this once because it's interesting to note how Janek refers to Aris this way. It's a nice little indicator of their comradery with one another, willing to stick with one another until the bitter end despite their flaws.

"The prisons are overcrowded, they're regularly cutting loose" - would recommend a semicolon instead of a comma here

- not sure if it's intentional, but throughout the course of this work, Janek and Aris have collectively committed all seven of the deadly sins: pride (walking into the guardroom), lust (their meet with the girls, to say nothing of the interrogation sequence), greed (robbing Pavel), gluttony (stealing and then eating Zinoviy's buckwheat), sloth (drinking for three days straight instead of looking for work), wrath (the manslaughter on Pavel), and envy (Janek's thoughts as he passes the Armenian restaurant). It's intriguing to see, and it's certainly fair game for a commentary on how poverty can force even the most virtuous into sinning for the sake of survival.
 
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