That dude, by the way, he never took his coat off,” the girl told me. “For the first time in my life I did it with a guy in a coat. You know, an old coat, pretty gross.”
A coat in the middle of a hot, stifling Moscow summer? I began to understand my client, the mother of this underage creature. When a girl gives way to her fantasies to such a degree, her friends can deal with it. But not her mother. To the mother, a child will always be a child, even if that child has developed a habit of talking about sex with a definite world-weariness. That’s when I get a phone call that goes,
But, whereas you can lie to your mother and enjoy scaring her, you can’t deceive a shrink. A professional will easily be able to detect whether an overripe teenager is merely fantasizing, or fantasizing while fervently believing in the fantasies, or simply…
Simply telling the truth.
“Did you tell your mother about that? About the coat?” I asked in a gloomy tone. “Do you realize that a normal person would never believe that? Look out the window—the concrete is so hot it’s melting—and you’re talking about a guy having sex in a coat. It wasn’t a fur coat, by any chance, was it? Think before you tell your mother things like that. Or do you want her to pack you off to a mental institution after this?”
She waved her palm over her head in a circular motion imitating the flashing light of an ambulance.
Most of my income (not reported to the IRS) comes from single mothers who refuse to believe that their children have grown up. Not just grown up, but grown up to become coarse and ugly, so that if they’re boys they contemplate throwing their mothers facedown on the kitchen table. And if they’re girls, their mothers suddenly become spiteful, idiotic obstacles to achieving very concrete physical desires.
It’s one thing when these are classic teenage fantasies, even if they border on pathology. (And they always border on pathology.) What I had just heard, however, was something completely different. Her eye movements, the tone of her voice, and the internal logic of the story attested to the complete absence of any fantasy. Yes, she said she’d do it with that guy for five hundred rubles in Birch Grove Park, which stretches from the Polezhaevskaya subway station to Peschanaya Square. Yes, she went with him to the end of the grove and waved a condom she’d pulled out of her pocket in front of his face. And then she was smelling the earthy, moldy smell of the gray overcoat, or even more likely a raincoat, that the man never took off in spite of the heat.
“He could’ve killed you, you know,” I reproached her.
“He was all right,” she said very convincingly. “Just wanted to get laid. Then again,
“Remind me how old you are?”
“What? So what if I’m fifteen? Does that mean I’m too young to want it, huh?” She opened her eyes, thick with makeup, very wide. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know. My mom forgot to tell me.”
“Okay, let me give it to you straight,” I said woodenly. “If you’re not careful what you tell your mother,
“Good riddance,” replied the young creature in a sweet voice, and stared with disgust at my untrimmed beard and my baggy turtleneck sweater.
“Hold on a second. That means that I end up without a client, which isn’t good for my business. Your mother needs professional help, not you; she’s the one who called me, crying frantically and saying, ‘Can you take a look at my girl? She tells me horrible stories. Is she crazy?’ We need to calm your mother down or she’ll be off her rocker in no time. Not you—her. Get the picture? So here’s the deal: you made the whole thing up. I’ll think of something to say to your mother. I’ll say that you’re fine for now, though you need to be under observation. And you keep your mouth shut about sex in coats. And at the same time you’ll tell me about this guy—
“Mister, you’re a maniac yourself,” said my client’s daughter, clearly enjoying herself. “He was a big, tall, funny guy, nice, with kinda faded hair. Still pretty young. Tan, like a construction worker or something. Maybe he’d just gotten out of the hospital and that’s why he was wearing a coat. A weird coat.”
“Oh, so now it’s a
“The material… I’ve never felt anything like it before. It wasn’t synthetic. Gabardine, or twill, or something else great-grandmotherish. A long coat down to his ankles. Big buttons. You know, like from a museum. Yellowish edges. And it smelled like it’d been buried underground for a hundred years. But the dude wasn’t a bum. He was clean. I wouldn’t do it with a bum, no way! You kidding? The dude himself smelled really nice, actually.”
“Girl, just listen to yourself. You walk down an alley, see a man sitting on a bench wearing an overcoat… Okay, you think he’s been in the hospital, but still… And so what do you do next, tell me again?”
I paid great attention to the pupils of her eyes, her body language, the movements of her head and shoulders.
“Nothing. I saw the coat, saw the dude. I wanted to get some action, so I batted my eyes at him and blushed like a schoolgirl.”
“Well, I’m overdeveloped. So the rest is history.”
I sighed and made a mental diagnosis. Teenage hypersexuality and an underdeveloped personality, with no pathology in my area—psychiatric, that is. I also realized that the girl’s desire to torture her mother was spent for the day.
“Okay, to sum it up: you made the whole thing up and you’re not talking about it anymore. Mom gets some peace of mind, and you, young lady—if you start seeing weird things, or if life starts to suck real bad all of a sudden, give me a call. I’ll fix it all up for you. I mean it. We’ll deal with the money thing later, a little bit at a time. And weird things need to be sorted out quickly.”
“Dr. Weird,” she said, and cast a sad glance at my sink filled with dirty dishes.
I walked to Birch Grove Park to get some fresh air and hide from the heat. And just to think a little.
After sunset, the squirrels went quiet in the branches of elm trees. Disappointed spaniels and dobermans hauled their owners back home; but pensioners remained seated in their usual spots, finishing their games of dominoes.
I peered across the park that was slowly succumbing to darkness. The girl hooked up with that dude somewhere not too far from here, and they went to most remote spot in the grove, which still hadn’t been cleared of fallen trees after the disastrous storms of 1998. A person with an underdeveloped personality simply has no clue what a stranger wearing a long overcoat in hot weather can do to her.
Uh, wait a second—according to her, he hung the coat over his arm while they were walking, but put it on again before he laid her down on a concrete slab, took the condom out of her fingers, and rolled up her miniskirt.
She didn’t make that up—that much was certain. So if this was the case, it was the guy who worried me. It seemed like more than just ordinary fetishism.
The local police station was located on 3rd Peschanaya Street, on the other side of Birch Grove Park. The precinct was a hole in a wall, splotched with shiny brown paint. The hole opened onto a short corridor that led down to a semibasement room, decorated in the best traditions of Brezhnev office style: cheap wall panels of faux wood, wrinkled linoleum imitating mahogany flooring, and painted white bars on the windows.
“Sexual predators? No, haven’t had any of them in here in a long time,” said the inspector with the fitting last name of Bullet. “It’s good you stopped in, but I don’t see a crime here. Okay, she’s underage.
And only three days later…
The flashing lights of the police car cast an unnatural blue pall on the gray stump of a body covered with a blanket. The figure lay on a stretcher that floated slowly into the yawning mouth of the ambulance. But I caught a glimpse of tangled hair and a wet forehead amidst the absurdly blue uniforms of the orderlies. Her face was uncovered, so she was alive. Inspector Bullet gave me a dark look and said, “The reason I asked you to come right away was that if she dies, I’m gonna have to interrogate your underage client. There’s an overcoat here too. Looks like it’s all true.”
“I’d rather tell you her story myself,” I said, thinking hard. “It would make more sense.”
“Nice guy, funny, youngish, sun-bleached hair, tan, tall?” I asked.
“Far from it. Not very tall. The overcoat he wore dragged along on the ground behind him. The victim says the coat was strange, like something from the Stalin era. Other than that—well, maybe he was tan, maybe funny. Why shouldn’t he be funny? So much fun to bash in a girl’s head. They’re probably gonna have to drill a hole in her skull. They say it’s that serious. She went with him on her own at first, and then later she suspected something wasn’t quite right… Yep. That’s about it.”
The investigation reached a dead end very quickly. Two construction workers, migrants, one tall and one short, who had been painting the building on the corner of 2nd and 3rd Peshchanaya Streets, vanished into a thin air. This greatly surprised their foreman, who couldn’t locate his countrymen after returning from Moldavia. To find their whereabouts or prove anything was virtually impossible, since the photographs of the suspects that were soon faxed from their hometown, a place called Yassy, were only suitable for a trash can. So the building with the unfinished paint job returned to its peaceful slumber among the sticky lime trees and sounds of car alarms.
“We can’t issue ‘wanted’ posters or arrest an overcoat without its owner,” said the inspector. “But you know what I think? I think this is your department. After you stopped in the other day, I called all the old geezers from our precinct. They’re better than any archive. Thought maybe there had been something like what you described two years ago, before I began working here. Turned out there was a case in 1973. Right here in Birch Grove Park. Then again, where else would someone work the walls with a girl? So there was this sex maniac who wore a wide-brim hat and an old-fashioned overcoat, who was always on the lookout for schoolgirls. Funny thing was that the girls didn’t even hesitate. He took them to some broken-down barracks near Khodynka and made them wear white socks and a school uniform with a white apron. When he got busted, he threatened that the entire police force would have hell to pay when they found out who he really was. He hinted that he was some big shot in the Communist Party, or even one of the higher-ups in the government. To make a long story short, instead of going to jail, he ended up in a funny farm—your department, in other words. Never came back from there. He’d be in his nineties by now, I’d say. And he was a local, not a construction worker from Moldavia. Period. Case closed… What do you say to that?”
Quite frankly, I couldn’t say anything at all, except a few standard comments about fetishism.
But fetishism isn’t contagious. Especially when there’s no direct contact. And fetishists rarely choose the same location twice.
Lighting up a cigarette, I sat down on a chair on the balcony and put my bare feet up on the railing. I had thought that I lived in one of the best neighborhoods in Moscow. Right next to the Sokol subway station and the large triangle of Bratsky Park, with its stately old lime trees. The park ends right at a lane of chestnuts, straight as an arrow, bordering an elegant square. That lane runs up to the famous Birch Grove Park, as big as a small forest. To live in a place surrounded by trees and green parks—what more could you wish for? Well, for one thing, that there weren’t sexual predators roaming around in them.
But what could I do? I had (along with Inspector Bullet) very odd facts at my disposal. There was not one, but three maniacs, all strangely attractive to underage girls. The girls followed them willingly; my young patient even seduced him herself. Only one of them put up any resistance; but even she followed him voluntarily at first—a man she’d never seen before wearing an overcoat. She went with him to a remote, deserted corner of the park. And it was only when they got there that something happened she didn’t like.
So, three maniacs. The second was short, since the coat dragged on the ground. The first one was taller; the coat only came down to his knees. And the third maniac was already history—also featuring an overcoat, however.
If there’s only one overcoat, then two different people would have had to wear it. As for the two builders from Moldavia, one of them could have just borrowed it from the other, and… and interesting things began happening to them.
But what about the 1973 maniac, who also wore an “old-fashioned overcoat,” for god’s sake? Old-fashioned even in 1973? When was it in style, then? The ’50s? ’40s?
The cigarette smoke drifted over the tops of the poplar trees, behind which stood gray brick buildings that looked like gingerbread houses. The clicking of a woman’s high heels, fast and nervous, resounded on the concrete somewhere below.
The next day I went to visit the inspector with a silly question: had they found any link between the 1973 case and today’s pedophiles from Moldavia? But, of course, there was no link. And, of course, no one wondered back in 1973 what had happened to the gray overcoat that the sex maniac wore to go skirt-chasing. Inspector Bullet had read in the 1973 file that the maniac had had a whole underground bunker, like an abandoned bomb shelter, right on the edge of Birch Grove Park. The police might have kept the white socks or the coat; but only the socks would probably have made good material evidence.
“What about the bunker?” I asked. “What happened to it? Where is it?”
“Who cares about the bunker, doc? When we come across a place like that, you know, a basement or an attic, we just seal it up and check the locks from time to time. So that winos or bums can’t live there. I’m sure that was what happened to the bunker. Sealed up and forgotten. Come on, let’s go. I’ll show you why we have Comrade Stalin and his minister of internal affairs, Lavrentiy Beria, to thank for a good cop shop.”
“Why Beria?” I asked absently, lost in my own thoughts.
Inspector Bullet didn’t answer. Instead, he proudly motioned me to follow him down the corridor, where it ended at a plywood door. He opened it, revealing another door behind it. This one was made of heavy, rough cast iron, painted blood-brown. It had something like a ship’s steering wheel, two feet in diameter, attached to it. No, it wasn’t a ship’s wheel—it looked more like the lock on a bank safe. I was standing in front of the door to a huge safe, the height of a grown man, covered in a slapdash way with multiple layers of paint. Numerous iron levers and knobs stuck out of the door—all parts of the locking mechanism.
“Does it work?” I asked in a grim voice, staring at the magnificent contraption.
“You bet,” said Inspector Bullet. “We have the key, it weighs almost a pound. But frankly, none of us has ever felt like going behind the door.”
He paused significantly, enjoying my confusion.
“No mutant rats or skeletons in rotten trench coats there, though,” he added shortly, and wiped his large face with his hand. “But I suggest you don’t go in there, either. Because… well, doc, I guess you’ve figured out this is an entrance to a bomb shelter. And our station is like the front lobby of the shelter. We’re on the corner of Peshchanaya Square and 3rd Peshchanaya Street, right? We go into the bomb shelter from here, and using underground passages we can walk all the way over to the lane of chestnuts on your 2nd Peshchanaya. Think there’s not a bomb shelter in your basement? It’s just locked. But if you go down into the basement, sooner or later you’ll end up in front of a metal door just like this one here. And behind it you’ll find a passageway all the way to the Sokol subway station, or even the airport station, where the old airport use to be, on the former Khodynka Field. There was a secret subway line that went all the way there from the Kremlin. So, you go for a stroll underground, and when you figure you’re lost, you start banging on this two-foot-thick door from the inside. But no one’s going to open it, because even if someone’s there, they won’t hear you. It could get lonely, don’t you think? Especially when it’s pitch-black in there.”
“You think Comrade Stalin and Comrade Beria wandered around in these bomb shelters?”
“Well, maybe they didn’t. But all the gray brick houses on all the Peshchanaya streets have these bomb shelters. They were built by German prisoners of war. You know, ‘You bombed ’em, you rebuild ’em.’ They say that in the ’50s, when Khrushchev set them free, they thanked everyone here for giving them the chance to return home with a clean conscience. And Comrade Beria, in addition to being the minister of national security, and then the minister of internal affairs, was also head of the prisoner camps. So it was all under his jurisdiction. The best buildings in Moscow are called Stalin buildings, but they should be called Beria buildings.”
“That’s all well and good,” I said. “Beria and company—very interesting. But are you going to catch the maniac?”
Inspector Bullet sighed and looked at me unsympathetically. “At least the girl is alive. She says when he laid her down on some mossy hill, she changed her mind. And then he asked her to put on white socks, like a schoolgirl. Just like the other maniac. She didn’t like the socks—too dirty. She began to fight him off. That’s it. The case is basically closed. Not gonna dig up anything more on him.”
“A hill… on the edge of Birch Grove Park, right by the concrete fence at Khodynka Field,” I said with sudden clarity. “And who took her there? It was probably him. That’s his place. Or
“Hey, come work in the police force, why don’t you? We really need a shrink in the department,” replied Inspector Bullet.
The girl, Julia, gave me a much warmer welcome than her mother. The mother probably wasn’t too keen on paying me for another session. She just sadly gestured with her hand toward the girl’s room, saying, “Don’t be shocked. Her majesty’s wearing new clothes.”
The red-haired Julia had dyed her hair jet-black and put on black and red lipstick. Metal trinkets of all shapes and sizes dangled from her wrists. A metal cross hung between her large breasts, which were virtually spilling out of her T-shirt, and were spotted with pimples.
“Come to lock me up in the funny farm?” she asked.
“They don’t put goths and heavy metal fans away in mental institutions,” I said. “Now listen carefully, sweetie. Two days ago, a man in an overcoat stinking of dirt cracked open the head of a young woman. The police are looking for him. Do you catch my drift? You have the ass of a grown-up woman and the head of a teenager. And when someone lowers a rock onto a head like that, and the brains begin to—Did you say something?”
In one quick, nervous motion, the gothic Julia lit a cigarette and stuck it to her mouth. Then she took it out, smeared with lipstick, and stared at me silently.
“So I need you to fill me in on some details, here,” I said hastily, before she had quite recovered from the shock. “First, who was leading who? He you, or you him?”
“Him,” she replied immediately. “He took me to the cement fence.”
“You said there was a concrete slab. Was it hard?”
“Don’t worry, it was soft enough for my butt.” She was herself again, the first wave of shock already past. “It was covered with moss or something. It wasn’t concrete, I mean… it was really old, more like a tuft of something in the ground. To the left of the path leading to a hole in the cement fence by Khodynka, the field. So it was real soft. Try it yourself. If you need company, I’ll come with you. Doctors get a discount.”
“One last thing. When you were going there with him, what were you thinking about? What did you feel?”
“What do you think I was thinking about? I was thinking about
“Did you think those thoughts before?”
“I used to do a lot of things before. And now—hello, grown-up world.”
I headed to the concrete fence, behind which the white towers of a whole new residential district, constructed on Khodynka Field in just under a year, soar up to the skies. The tops of the buildings bask in the sunset, and the fresh new walls glow pink, like the Cadillac Hotel. To the left stands the spire of Triumph Palace, the tallest residential building in Europe.
But all that is on the other side of the concrete fence. There, in a forgotten area of the old park, which is essentially a forest, twilight was thickening. An empty bench stood askew (what was it doing there—did someone drag it all the way over from the lane?), and weeds and burdocks grew on the tufty ground. Like gray mushroom caps covered with green mold, and slightly protruding from the ground at about knee height, there were two concrete slabs disappearing into the ground at a slant. A little farther on was another slab, level with the earth around it.
I thought I could make out something resembling small orifices, half covered in earth, by each slab. Passageways that once led down?
The slabs were covered with shards of broken bottles, sausage wrappers, and… a torn piece of foil—a condom wrapper.
So this was the place.
I had nothing more to do there.
Gray haze and a soft path silenced my footsteps. A shaggy dog emerged quietly from the bushes and stared at me with an unblinking, almost human stare, keeping a safe distance. Then it took two steps toward me. My heart fluttered in fear, but the the dog didn’t come any closer.
For two hours I listened to a plump editor from
Parks built on human bones. Graveyards that no longer exist. An ominous name—Khodynka. More parks, couples with baby carriages, cyclists, poplars, lime trees. Graveyard shadows sleep peacefully among bushes and alleys. Sleep, O souls of long forgotten soldiers. Sleep in the best neighborhood in Moscow. You are welcome here, because all cities stand on the bones of the past. Carts, then hearses, rolled down these streets. These days, from the open balcony doors, you could hear women’s laughter and music, and from the sidewalk you could see the tops of bookshelves and white ceilings with circles of honey-colored lights cast by chandeliers. A cat sat in the window and stared gloomily at the gray concrete below. The cat’s name was Grymzik. He belonged to my neighbor, and I was almost home. And I needed to make an urgent phone call.
“Sergey? Hi, how’s your precious health today?”
“Ah, good doctor! Nice to hear your voice. I’m great, actually. Physically exhausted, but glowing with mental health. I’m afraid I no longer make a very interesting patient. You’re a regular magician, I’ll have you know.”
“Believe me, Sergey, no magic involved whatsoever. What was it that bothered you? Depression and a couple of neuroses. Well, who wasn’t depressed in the ’90s? I used to have two patients who loved to discuss the benefits of suicide and its various methods with me every day. I didn’t try to contradict them, and even participated in their discussions. What do you expect from someone who’s been designing rockets all his life, and is then told:
“Oh, I never lost them. Still work there. Deputy director, if can you believe it. So the entire archive is at your disposal. What exactly are you looking for?”
“Well, you see, it’s a very serious case,” I said, improvising. “A fetishist, a rapist, most likely a murderer. Fixated on particular objects, locations, and events from the past. And particular names. I have a theory, which I thought you could help me test. Just promise me that you won’t think I’m off my rocker when I start asking my questions. You wouldn’t believe what kinds of nutcases there are out there.”
“Indulge me,” said the archivist joyfully. “What particular historical fetishes does your maniac have?”
“Coordinate number one is the area between the edge of Khodynka Field and the back of Birch Grove Park. Apparently, that part of the city is connected with some important people. And I’m talking famous historical people—from the Soviet era. Some bigwigs in the ruling party. Then there’s a fetish, which is a summer coat, or an overcoat. Light gray, no belt, made from good material, like gabardine, worn by a man of above-average height. Do you think you could help me determine the exact era and style of an overcoat? It would help me figure out who he’s fixated with. Because the bastard wouldn’t tell me. So, the overcoat is coordinate number two. Then, since we’re talking crazy people here, there’s one peculiar detail: with him it’s all about underage girls—white socks and all that nonsense. And that’s your third coordinate. So, what do we get at the point of intersection?”
“Well, doctor, you’re an intelligent man. You know your history. It’s not what; it’s
“Sergey, don’t ask questions. Who’s the psychiatrist here? Yet, indeed, you guessed it. Only the particular location is also significant here—the back of Khodynka Field and Birch Grove Park.”
“But of course, my dear doctor. Let’s begin with the overcoat. It’s probably from the postwar era. In the ’30s, the fashion was to wear military-style overcoats with a belt. Then, after that, up until the ’60s… Well, take the photographs of the Soviet party during that muddy period between Stalin and Khrushchev, and you’ll see about five overcoats like that in every picture. As for underage girls, it’s perfectly clear. I’m sure you know who was infamous for meddling with them.”
“Beria,” I said under my breath, looking down at the dark treetops from the balcony. “Lavrentiy Beria.”
“That’s right. Of course, other party leaders have been know to savor similar worldly pleasures; but schoolgirls were Beria’s particular preference. Well, not just schoolgirls; often women with specific figures and mannerisms. Am I using the correct terms?”
“Imagine a black car driving slowly along the sidewalk behind a girl with plump calves. Two men get out of the automobile and introduce themselves to her. According to some sources, they just push her into the car and drive off to the famous house on Sadovaya Street. Across from Krasnaya Presnya, in case you didn’t know. Other sources suggest that the scenario was a little more genteel. They would talk the girl into it first. If need be, they’d dress the teenager in a school uniform, or sometimes a ballet tutu. Then they sat her on a sofa and told her to wait. Dozens of books have been written about it; and just two months ago, some TV people approached me about it. They’re going to make a program. Have I told you anything you didn’t already know?”
“The particular spot,” I reminded him. “Our entire district was built by Beria. I know this already. He, of course, always took off from the airport on Khodynka; but other people boarded planes on the other side of the field. What does our maniac know about that other, forgotten part of the field? And what does that part have to do with Beria?”
The archivist took a deep, noisy breath. “He knows something that very few people know, frankly. And I find it strange that a maniac could get his hands on such information. It’s extremely difficult to come across. What’s on that side of the field now?”
“A construction site. Just like every other goddamn neighborhood in the city… New buildings crawling up to the skies all over the place.”
“And you want to know which building stood there before?”
“Can you tell me this over the phone?” I asked after a pause.
“Yes, after Mr. Suvorov’s novel
“Do you mean catacombs, bomb shelters, underground tunnels?” I recalled the heavy metal door with the spindle wheel.
“That’s exactly what I mean,” said the archivist. “Back then they were building bomb shelters everywhere, and Beria was in charge of it. In the summer of 1953 they took him into one such bomb shelter at the far end of the airfield, just after Comrade Stalin died. That was where he spent his last days. How long exactly is difficult to say. They say that they executed him first, and prosecuted and sentenced him later, in December. It’s possible, by they way, that he was executed in that very basement, right between Birch Grove Park and Khodynka Field. The site of his final orgasm, as it were.”
“From the point of view of psychiatry, it’s interesting that you would refer to an execution as a last orgasm,” I said pompously. “Would you be so kind as to explain what you mean in more detail?”
“Doctor, not everyone’s a maniac. Could you hold on a second? I’m going to go grab something… here. A memoir of someone who loathed Beria with all his heart. For various reasons.
A blanket, I thought. A military blanket. And clothes.
“Sergey, do you happen to know if they confiscated his clothing, too, after he was arrested?”
“Clothing? My dear doctor, not just clothing. Shepilov very clearly states in his memoirs that they they took away his shoelaces, his belt—even his famous pince-nez, so he wouldn’t cut himself with the glass.”
“And where did they take it all?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t know. Does it really matter? I doubt they would have kept that information in the archives. Although, it’s possible they might have written it all down in some official document somewhere.”
On the other hand, I thought, it doesn’t really matter. I imagined the military investigators fingering every little wrinkle of a light gray overcoat and then… then tossing it in some corner… and then…
Suddenly, I heard my mother’s voice in my head. When was it? How many years ago did she tell me about the cold day in June 1953, before I was even born? It was a story about her and my father. They were sitting alone on some stone steps by the river, cigarette butts floating past, next to a tall Stalin-era building on Kotelnicheskaya embankment. They must have felt very happy on that short June night, when the sun rose almost as soon as it had set. They felt happy until the stone steps began to tremble under their feet.
Because tanks started rolling down the boulevard next to the embankment.
And my father—who had run off to fight in the war as a boy, and who ever since had been able to tell the difference between tanks on their way to military parades and tanks going off to war (portholes shut tight, armaments at the ready)—got up from the stone steps to watch. Then he went back to where my mother was and said somberly, “I think I’d better run home.”
But it wasn’t war. It was Marshals Zhukov, Nedelin, Mos-kalenko, and others, getting ready to enter the Kremlin and arrest the omnipotent minister of national security.
And arrest him they did. The troops under Lavrentiy Beria’s command did not rise up in his defense. The door to the dungeon at Khodynka slammed shut behind him.
A cold, cold summer in 1953. A summer coat. An underground bunker that looks like a bomb shelter. Its roof, covered in moss, disappearing into the ground.
“Hello? Doctor, you still there?” said the voice on the other end. “I could tell you things that have come to light in other documents just beginning to surface nowadays. For example, Beria’s not the only one to blame for the purges and execution of prisoners. After the war, he was involved in the A-bomb and nuclear power (glory be his name), and construction, and a number of other things. There were people whose hands were just as bloody as his. They were the ones who assassinated him. Are you interested in hearing more?”
“I am,” I said honestly, “but not now. I have a crazy man walking the streets. Thank you very much, Sergey.”
What happened after 1973 in terms of maniacs in overcoats? Nothing, really. They were dormant. Why was that? And why has that suddenly changed? I remembered the construction site, all the dozens of new houses that had risen up in the past few months on Khodynka Field. The large wasteland of the former restricted airfield was no more. It was crawling with…
Construction workers clambering up and down the stairwells of the new buildings, dumping garbage by the surrounding fences, excavating… and excavating some more for the foundations of new buildings.
I had one slim chance left, and I used that chance the next day.
Because the foreman of the defunct brigade of two vanished construction workers from Moldavia was still occupying a lone structure in the next courtyard.
“So they’re not coming back, eh?” I asked the foreman, and sat down on the porch next to him.
He shook his head furiously.
“Too bad,” I continued. “Say, uh, they borrowed a book from me… about space invaders. You seen it?”
“No,” replied the foreman mournfully, and again shook his head. “Haven’t seen it.”
“I understand.” I was moving closer to my goal. “I just need the book. It’s the cops who need the rapist. But the book is still mine, you see—”
“My guys are no rapists. They’re good guys,” the foreman said, finally able to muster a coherent sentence. “The book… go ahead and look around. There’s no book in there.”
I could hardly believe my luck. I went inside the little house where the construction workers had stayed. A strong, unpleasant odor from a portable toilet assaulted my nostrils. Then, in an instant, I saw a dull gray garment hanging on a coatrack right in front of me.
The rest was easy.
“By the way, I need to do a paint job,” I said. “This thing here, is this your work coat? How much do you want for it?”
“That’s no work coat,” answered the foreman. “The guys left it here. You can have it. Instead of the book. Go ahead, they won’t be needing it. They’re not coming back. Their families keep calling and calling…”
Holding the gray overcoat at arm’s length, I asked: “Where did you work before? Wasn’t there a construction site over there? On the other side of the field, by that concrete fence? I believe that’s where I met your guys.”
“Oh, sure,” said the foreman. “The finishing team arrived when we were done over there. And we moved here. And now… we’re done here too.”
I remember at one point I felt the urge to bury my face in the coat and inhale the smell of a cellar and potatoes. It took me some effort not to do so. I threw it down on the landing in front of my door. I had no intention of bringing the thing into my apartment. I went inside and found a large shopping bag, put the overcoat in it, and left it in front of the door. Then I scrubbed my hands thoroughly. In a closet I found a bottle of flammable liquid for barbecuing and dropped it into the bag as well.
I was in a hurry. It was getting late, and I didn’t want to leave the coat outside for the night. Someone might take it.
Then I was in that deserted edge of Birch Grove Park. An empty bench, and the remnants of the bunkers protruding from the ground.
I dumped the coat onto the surface of the nearest bunker, on the concrete slab covered with moss. I poured the liquid onto the coat and set fire to it with my lighter. Thick, oily smoke billowed up and gravitated to the concrete fence and beyond, where the floors of the nearby buildings mounted into the sky.
It burned very, very slowly.
“Now why did you do that?” The thin, tremulous voice came from somewhere below.
No, I wasn’t scared. Even when I noticed that someone had been sitting on a nearby bench the whole time. It was… an old lady? That’s right, just an old lady in a light summer coat and a funny straw hat trimmed with two wooden cherries. The red paint on one of them had almost completely peeled off. But her cheekbones burned with the same color, in an almost invisible network of blood vessels. When I saw those liver spots on her powdered cheeks, I thought in panic, How old is she? Why didn’t I notice her before?
Or maybe she hadn’t been there when I set fire to the coat?
“Do you think it’s about the coat?” the old lady asked in a childish—no, not childish, but teacherish—voice, high as a violin string. “It was just fabric. Good fabric too. Very durable. That was silly. Just plain silly.”
“No, it’s not about the coat,” I replied through my teeth. I had to say something, just to break the silence—and so I wouldn’t be afraid.
“You haven’t even seen him,” the old lady continued, not paying any attention to my words, and staring vaguely in the direction of my sneakers with her light gray eyes. “You weren’t even born yet in ’53. Not to mention before that.”
“Did you see him?” I asked.
“Just like I see you now,” the voice went on. “Only closer, much closer. As close as can be.”
And slowly, very slowly, she parted her thin, bloodless lips.