Home > Twilight Watch (Watch #3)(5)

Twilight Watch (Watch #3)(5)
Author: Sergei Lukyanenko

I explored my living space once again. I found a rolled-up mattress and a pack of bed linen with a cheerful design. I laid out the mattress and unpacked the things from my bag. I changed into my jeans and the T-shirt with the optimistic message about clinical death - I couldn't wear a tie in my own apartment, could I? I took out my laptop... Oh yes, was I supposed to get into the Internet via my cell phone then?

I had to make yet another search of the apartment. I found a connection in the wall of the large bathroom, but at least it was on the side of the "studio" room. I decided that couldn't be accidental and glanced into the bathroom. I was right - there was another socket beside the non-existent toilet bowl.

I'd had some odd ideas when I was working on the place...

The power was on. That was good at least, but it wasn't the reason I'd come here.

Simply in order to dispel the oppressive silence, I opened the windows. The warm evening came rushing into the room. On the far side of the river, lights were twinkling in the windows of the buildings - the ordinary, human buildings. But the silence was just as intense. No wonder, it was after midnight.

I took out my disk player, rummaged through my collection and chose 'The White Guard' - a group that was never going to top the charts on MTV or fill sports stadiums. I stuck the earphones in my ears and stretched out on the mattress.

When this battle is over,

If you survive until the dawn,

You'll realize the scent of victory

Is as bitter as the smoke of defeat.

And you're alone on the cold battlefield,

With no enemies from now on,

But the sky presses down on your shoulders,

What can you do in this empty desert?

But you will wait

For what time

Will bring,

You will wait...

And honey will taste more bitter than salt,

Your tears more bitter than the wormwood in the steppes,

And I know of no pain worse than this,

To be alive among so many who are sleeping.

But you will wait

For what time

Will bring,

You will wait...

Catching myself trying to sing along out of tune with the quiet female voice, I tugged off the earphones and switched the player off. No. I hadn't come here to lounge around doing nothing.

What would James Bond have done in my place? Found the mysterious renegade Other, his human client, and the author of the provocative letters.

And what was I going to do?

I was going to look for what I needed desperately. If it came to it, there had to be toilet facilities downstairs, at the security point.. .

Somewhere outside the window - it seemed very close by -  a bass guitar began growling ponderously. I jumped to my feet, but failed to discover anyone in the apartment.

"Hi there, you mob," said a voice outside the windows. I leaned out over the windowsill and surveyed the wall of the As-sol building. I spotted some windows open two floors up - that was where those aggressive chords in that unusual arrangement for the bass guitar were coming from.

I haven't squeezed my guts out for a long time, It's a long time since I've squeezed out my guts, And just recently I happened to notice How long it is since I squeezed out my guts. But I used to squeeze them out so fine! No one else could squeeze them out so far! I squeezed them right out there for everyone, I was the only one squeezing them out!

It was impossible to imagine a greater contrast with the quiet voice of Zoya Yashchenko, the lead singer of White Guard, than this incredible chanson to a bass guitar. But there was something about the song I liked. The singer ran through a three-chord bridge and continued with his lament:

Sometimes now I still squeeze them out,

But now it's not the way it used to be.

They just don't squeeze out the same way at all

I'll never squeeze them out again the way I used to...

I started to laugh. It had all the distinctive features of Russian "gangster" songs - a lyric hero recalling his former splendor, describing his present fallen state and lamenting that he can never recover the glory of former days.

And I had a strong suspicion that if this song were played on Radio Chanson, ninety percent of the listeners wouldn't even suspect it was a send-up.

The guitar gave a few sighs, and then the voice launched into a new song:

I've never been in the loony bin, So stop asking me about that...

The music broke off. I rummaged in the cardboard box, found a bottle of vodka and a stick of smoked salami. I skipped out onto the landing, pulled the door shut, and set off up the stairs.

Finding the midnight bard's apartment was about as hard as finding a jackhammer hidden in a clump of bushes.

A working jackhammer.

The birds have stopped their singing, The lovely sun no longer shines There are no vicious kids frolicking Around the garbage dump outside...

I rang the bell, with absolutely no confidence that anyone would hear me. But the music stopped, and about thirty seconds later the door opened.

Standing there in the doorway with an amiable smile on his face was a short, stocky man about thirty years old. He was holding the instrument of his crime - a bass guitar. With a certain morose satisfaction, I observed that he had a "bandit" haircut too. The bard was wearing threadbare jeans and a very amusing T-shirt - a paratrooper in a Russian uniform slitting the throat of a soldier in a U.S. uniform with a huge knife. Below the picture was the defiant slogan "We can remind you who won the Second World War!"

"That's not bad, either," the guitarist said, looking at my T-shirt. "Come on in."

He took the vodka and the salami and moved back inside his apartment.

I took a look at him through the Twilight.

A human being.

And such a confused jumble of an aura that I decided then and there not to try to understand his character. Gray, pink, red, and blue tones... a really impressive cocktail.

I followed the guitarist inside.

His apartment turned out to be twice as big as mine. Oh, he didn't earn the money for that by playing the guitar... But then, that was none of my business. What was really funny was that, apart from its size, the apartment looked like an exact copy of mine. The initial traces of a magnificent finishing job hastily wound up and left incomplete.

Standing in the middle of this monstrously huge living space - at least forty-five feet by forty-five - there was a chair, and in front of the chair a microphone on a stand, a good quality professional amplifier, and two monstrously huge speakers.

Over by the wall there were three immense 'Bosch' refrigerators. The guitarist opened the biggest one - it was absolutely empty - and put the bottle of vodka in the freezer.

"It's warm," he explained.

"I haven't got a refrigerator yet," I said.

"It happens," the bard sympathized. "Las."

"What do you mean, 'las'?" I asked, puzzled.

"That's my name, Las. Not the one in my passport."

"Anton," I said, introducing myself. "That is the name in my passport."

"It happens," the bard sympathized. "Come far?"

"I live on the eighth," I explained.

Las scratched the back of his head thoughtfully. He looked at the open windows and explained, "I opened them so it wouldn't be so loud. Otherwise my ears can't take it. I was going to put in soundproofing, but I ran out of money."

"That seems to be a common problem," I said cautiously. "I don't even have a toilet."

Las smiled triumphantly. "I do. I've had it for a week. That door over there."

When I got back, Las was sadly slicing the salami. Unable to resist, I asked, "Why is it so huge and so English?"

"Did you see the company label on it?" Las asked me. " 'We invented the first toilet.' Just had to buy it, didn't I, with that written on it? I keep meaning to scan the label and change it a little bit, write: 'We were the first to guess that people need...'"

"I get the idea," I said. "But then, I do have a shower installed."

"Really?" the bard said, standing up. "I've been dreaming of getting a shower for three days..."

I held out the keys to him.

"Meanwhile you organize the hors d'oeuvres," Las said happily. "The vodka has to cool for another ten minutes anyway. And I'll be quick."

The door slammed shut, and I was left in a stranger's apartment - alone with an amplifier that was switched on, a half-sliced stick of salami, and three huge, empty refrigerators.

Well, how about that! I would never have expected the easygoing social relations of a friendly communal apartment - or a student hostel - to exist inside buildings like this.

You use my toilet, and I'll get washed in your shower... And Pyotr Petrovich has a refrigerator, and Ivan Ivanovich promised to bring some vodka - he trades in the stuff, and Semyon cuts the sausage for the snacks very neatly, with loving care...

Probably the majority of the people with apartments there had bought them "for posterity." Using every last bit of money they could earn - and beg, steal, or borrow. And it was only afterward that the happy owners had realized that an apartment that size also required major finishing work. That any construction firm wouldn't think twice about ripping off someone who had bought a home here. That they still had to pay every month for the massive grounds, the underground garages, the park, and the embankments.

So the huge building was standing there half-empty, very nearly deserted. Of course, it was no tragedy if someone was a bit short of cash. But for the first time I could see with my own eyes that it was at least a tragicomedy.

How many people really lived in the Assol complex? If I was the only one who had come in response to a bass guitar growling in the middle of the night, and before that the strange bard had made his racket entirely unchallenged?

One person on each floor? It seemed like even less than that.. .

But then who had sent the letter?

I tried to imagine Las cutting letters out of the newspaper Pravda with nail scissors. I couldn't. Someone like him would have come up with something a bit more imaginative.

I closed my eyes and pictured the gray shadow of my eyelids falling across my pupils. Then I opened my eyes and looked around the apartment through the Twilight. Not the slightest trace of any magic. Not even on the guitar, although a good instrument that has been in the hands of an Other or a potential Other remembers that touch for years.

There was no trace anywhere of blue moss, that parasite of the Twilight that feasts on negative emotions. If the owner of the apartment ever fell into a depression, then he did it away from home. Or else he had such a frank and unashamed good time that it burned away the blue moss.

I sat down and started carving the rest of the salami. To be on the safe side, I checked through the Twilight to see if it was really a good idea to eat it. The salami turned out to be all right. Gesar didn't want his agent to go down with food poisoning.

"Now that's the right temperature," said Las, removing the wine thermometer from the open bottle. "We didn't leave it in for too long. Some people cool vodka to the consistency of glycerine, so that drinking it's like swallowing liquid nitrogen... Here's to our acquaintance!"

We drank a glass and followed it with salami and biscotti. Las had brought them from my apartment - he explained that he hadn't bothered to get any food in that day.

"The entire building lives like this," he explained. "Well no, of course there are some people who had enough money to finish their places and furnish them as well. Only just imagine how wonderful it is living in an empty building. There they are, waiting for the petty riffraff like you and me to finish our places off and move in. The cafes aren't working, the casino's empty, the security men are freaking out from sheer boredom... two of them were sacked yesterday - they started shooting at the bushes in the yard. Said they'd seen something horrible. They probably did too - they were as high as kites."

After he finished speaking, Las took a pack of Belomor cigarettes out of his jacket pocket and gave me a cunning look. "Like one?"

I hadn't been expecting a man who poured vodka in such good style to fool around with marijuana...

I shook my head and asked, "Do you smoke many?"

"This is the second pack today," Las sighed. And then he suddenly realized. "Hey, come on, Anton! These are Belomor! Not dope! I used to smoke Gitanes before, until I realized they were no different from our very own Belomor!"

"Original," I said.

"Ah, what's that got to do with anything?" said Las, offended. "I'm not trying to be original. All you have to do is be some other" - I started, but Las went on calmly " - kind of guy, a bit different from the rest, and right away they say you're putting on a show. But I like smoking Belomor. If I lose interest a week from now - I'll give up!"

"There's nothing bad about being different, some other kind of guy," I said, putting out a feeler.

"But really becoming different is hard," Las replied. "Just a couple of days ago I had this idea..."

I pricked my ears up again. The letter had been sent two days earlier. Could everything really have come together so neatly?

"I was in this hospital, and while I was waiting to be seen, I read all the price lists," Las went on, not suspecting a trap. "And what they do there is serious stuff, they make artificial body parts out of titanium to replace what people have lost. Shin-bones, knee joints and hip joints, jawbones... Patches for the skull, teeth, and other small bits and pieces... I got my calculator out and figured out how much it would cost to have all your bones totally replaced. It came out at about one million seven hundred thousand bucks. But I reckon on a bulk order like that you could get a good discount. Twenty-thirty percent. And if you could convince the doctors it was good publicity, you could probably get away with half a million!"

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