The start of another tale from the Exclusion Zone
ONE: THE GOPNIK BLUES
Savak Tul lit a cigarette and headed toward the noise coming from the rear of the garage.
He dragged deep, filled his mouth and lungs with smoke, then exhaled through his nose the way he’d seen in an American gangster movie. Halfway through, he muffled a cough and scowled. The things were foul, not like his usual Sobranies. These tasted like bark mulch and burnt mushrooms. Nasty.
But they were English, long and black with two thin gold rings at the filter, and they came in a classy flat box instead of a paper pack. They looked different, expensive, which was important to a man in his position. So Savak resisted the urge to flick the disgusting thing away and kept walking.
The sounds grew louder as he got closer; grunts and meaty thuds. Wheezing like a broken squeezebox.
That made him smile.
A short, dark hall with a slimy floor. A doorway with no door in a moldy cinderblock wall. Savak paused and took another long pull from the mulch stick, then exhaled as he stepped into the repair bay. He’d meant to enter through a cloud of smoke but the three guys in the room weren’t looking his way.
Two of them were standing, rubbing their knuckles. One was slumped in a plastic chair, his limbs, chest and mouth bound with gray tape. He was the one wheezing. The windows on the back wall of the old garage were dirty and dark with night. Overhead was a single bright light bulb on a wire. Another scene from a gangster movie, American or otherwise.
Savak cleared his throat. The two standing men turned and nodded at him. Oleg and Bort. They worked the door at Savak’s bar, Bad Habits, and did jobs like this on the side. Oleg had been with him for two years now, full-time. Bort was new. Both were big, no-neck byki; sharp as bowling balls, built for lifting and breaking.
Savak didn’t know the name of the man in the chair. Nor did he care. The gopnik was just another broken thing; a dumb punk who’d tried to steal from him. A sagging bloody mess of bruises and bad life choices held together by duct tape.
There seemed to be more of them these days, these misfits and thugs drawn to the Zone. A few kilometers outside the Cordon, the Bad Habits was the first place they came, edging in like jackals on rumors of a fat pay day.
Savak knew he shouldn’t be surprised. Anton, his old boss, used to say ‘The price of success is everyone wants a piece of your pie.’
How right the old bastard had been.
Savak stepped between Oleg and Bort, bent down and peered into the chair man’s face. “Hey. Hey. You there, chuvak?”
One eye was swollen shut. The other was big and wet, a bad egg with blood in the white. It swerved with fear before settling on Savak.
“There he is,” Savak crowed. He brought up the cigarette. The man flinched but Savak took another long drag. “I need to know you are listening. You are? Aren’t you?”
The man nodded vigorously. Savak did the nose exhale and was pleased to see chair man’s good eye follow his every move. “You are in a real pickle, my friend,” he tutted. “A young man with a serious problem.”
He stood and turned back to Oleg and Bort. “Do you know what that problem is?” Savak asked over his shoulder. “Respect.”
Oleg and Bort chuckled.
Savak sighed as if this was just another scene in a long, tiresome movie he’d seen a million times already. “Your generation doesn’t have any. Not for others, for yourself. It’s all ‘me, me, me’, ‘now, now, now’ these days. No one wants to put in the time anymore, do the work to build something themselves. Something worth hanging on to.”
He put on a serious face. “I blame cell phones. Too much screen time makes your brain go mushy.”
The byki folded their arms. They’d heard this speech before, but Savak wanted to play to his captive audience.
Anton used to talk like this; the weary, wise old man bullshit. Not that he’d ever worked an honest day in his life. Greedy pig had lied, swindled, and stole anything in reach, starting with the deed to the Bad Habits back in the day. That first Incident screwed with everybody’s heads. Most people thought it was the end of the world. Ninety-nine percent of the locals had grabbed what they could carry and ran away. But not Anton. He had spotted opportunity beckoning in the middle of that shit show and worked it like a ten-dollar whore.
To think Savak had put up with the old man’s gaseous pontificating for three whole years…
But that was over and the cheap bastard had been right about another thing: appearances were important. Certain things were expected of the boss – like turds of wisdom and shitty English cigarettes.
Savak returned to the moment. “So what can one man do?” he mused aloud. “This tide is coming in, no? It’s too big to stop. Impossible.”
He turned around abruptly, his face bright as if a fantastic idea just occurred to him. “Maybe I can put up signs for those who come after. Set an example. That way others will see and be warned.”
He leaned in and patted the gopnik’s cheek. “Well, not see,” he whispered. “But hear – hear about an idiot who came at Savak Tul and just – poof – disappeared.”
Savak glanced at Oleg and Bort and jerked his head to say ‘take this trash away’. In turn, Oleg nudged Bort and Bort pulled a new Makarov from his waistband. He racked the slide, stepped up, and fired a single shot into the gopnik’s head. The report was sharp in the tiny cement room. Savak’s ears rang.
“Mudak!” he snapped. “You trying to make me deaf?”
Bort hung his head. “Sorry, boss.”
Savak opened his mouth again to shout but Oleg took him by the arm and led him out into the damp hall. “I’ll take care of him, boss. Promise. Right now, we’ve got other problems.”
A chill hit Savak’s spine and his anger evaporated. “What other problems?”
“Major Yushinko. He wants more cabbage for the next shipment.”
“Again? Fat svolach. He’s already bleeding me for twenty percent.”
Oleg shrugged. “He says he needs extra for his men at the checkpoint.”
Savak dragged on the cigarette and immediately started coughing. He threw it down and pictured Yushinko’s mottled, piggy face as he ground the stinking thing under his heel.
Still, that was all he could really do; holes in the Cordon were hard to find and Savak couldn’t rub out an army officer without attracting lots of unwanted attention. And probably a worse replacement.
“How much more do his men need?” Savak fumed.
“Another five percent.”
Savak shut his eyes and breathed deep. He’d pay. He knew it, Oleg knew it, the Major knew it… Hell, Savak should throw in an extra fifty rubles to show the Major there were no hard feelings. ‘Everybody needs to make a living, no?’ Grin and bear it.
So Savak would pay and smile and file the incident away for later. Backstabbers always get stabbed back. Eventually.
He opened his eyes and nodded. “Okay. Tell him there’s no problem. We’re still turning a profit. Not as much, but some. After all, ‘pennies make dollars’, right?” Another crumb from Anton’s crap fortune-cookies.
Oleg smiled, relieved. “Right you are, boss. Pennies make dollars. I’ll tell him.”
That landmine avoided, Savak reached for another mulch stick then remembered Oleg smoked. He snapped his fingers. “Give me a cigarette.”
“Sure thing, boss.” Oleg fished a pack from his jacket pocket and offered it to Savak. A light, a drag, a thick, scratchy taste familiar as an old sweater.
Savak sighed and close his eyes. “I’m going back to town. Stay with the delivery all the way to the Stalls and remember to count the payment twice. Traders are a tightfisted bunch.”
Oleg threw up a sloppy salute. “I’ll take care it, Mr. Tul.”
Savak bit back a grin. “Okay, okay,” he said and waved the byki off. “Make sure you put the gopnik in tonight’s Dead Truck,” he called after a moment. “I don’t want him left here a whole week, stinking the place up. Got me?”
“Yes, boss. I’ll get on it right now,” Oleg said. “After all, ‘time is money,’ right?”
“See that you do.” Savak grunted. Time is money… He needed to stop with the clichés or they’d spread quicker than crabs in a whorehouse.
Climbing in his Lada, he remembered he used to salute Anton too, back in the day. Not that either of them had been military, but the old goat seemed to like it and had never told him to stop. Deep down, Savak had to admit he got a kick out it too.
He shook his head as he started the car. The eggheads at the Institute said the creation of the Zone had irrevocably altered the fabric of reality. They think they’re so smart, he thought.
But some things never change.
END OF CHAPTER 1. TO BE CONTINUED…