The Deathless Hand
by Danielle L. Parker
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
1: Kruzkha Restaurant, Old Arbat District, Moscow
The shadow of the man in the sheepskin coat fell across the table. “Colonel Koschay, may I join you?”
The seated man looked up. In spite of the cheerful chatter of the diners, the excited shouts from the sportscast blaring overhead, the ordinary clutter of dishes between them, the visitor stepped back before he stopped himself.
Gagarin was a man of some repute in the nameless corridors of that grim building in Lubyanka Square. Still, he exerted will to pull out the chair, to sit, to remove a snow-dusted fur hat and meet that bleak gaze without flinching. Maybe it’s true what they say about Koschay.
“I am no longer addressed by that rank.” Koschay’s voice was almost too soft to hear above the noisy cheers of the students watching the Spartak match.
The man from Lubyanka was forced to lean close. At such proximity, he fancied the chill of a glacial breath numbed his skin. But he knew he was not a fanciful man.
“I resigned months ago.”
Gagarin laid his gloves aside. “And I am sure your Spetsnaz commander misses you sorely. No matter. Colonel-General Shebalin sent me. He believes you are the only one who can help us. I am to tell you this matter is urgent.”
“I care nothing for his urgencies.” Koschay’s eyes were the merciless blue of compressed ice. His face, with its angular planes and thin but well-shaped lips, was not unhandsome. The long hair tied at his nape with a simple leather thong was thick and black. But when the waitress came to replace the teapot on the table, Gagarin saw she did not linger.
“Colonel-General Shebalin said you would.” Gagarin offered an unaddressed envelope. When those frigid fingers brushed his, Gagarin drew his hand away quickly. Does he have no heat in his body? No color in his skin? “After you see what is inside this envelope.”
Long silence. Strangely, Gagarin should somehow hear the silence even as the students cheered the hockey match in hoarse voices and banged beers energetically on tabletops. Strangely, he should feel that silence. And when the man across the table looked up at last, strange Gagarin imagined pale blue flames danced in the Nordic winter hell of those eyes. He laid the rest of his delivery between them. Glad to be done with this.
“Here is your ticket to Novosibirsk. Your hotel reservation. Your contact in the Institute of Cytology and Genetics. One more thing.” Gagarin picked up his fur hat. Leaned close, holding his breath against an imagined chill. Is it imagined? “I am to give you a name. Colonel-General Shebalin said you know it. Vaslev Bryachislavich. I am to say also, Vaslev the Sorcerer.”
No answer. Gagarin donned his fur hat, picked up his gloves, rose with thinly disguised relief. From the door, he looked back. Koschay regarded the discolored petals in his long white palm without expression. Gagarin turned away with a shudder.
A crushed blue rose. Vaslev the Sorcerer. What superstitious nonsense is this? As he passed into the blustery chill of early Moscow spring, Gagarin had a wilder thought. Is Koschay really a man?
2: Aeroflot Moscow to Novosibirsk, Siberian Federal District
The stewardess leaned across the seat to speak to the man staring out the window. “Have you visited Novosibirsk before, gospodin?”
He turned his head. Her flirtatious red-lipped smile became uncertain. The man had intense blue eyes. His face was stern and pale. Unnaturally pale. His skin had almost the hard vitreous gleam of porcelain. Is he a leper?
“When it was named Novonikolayevesk.”
It hasn’t been called that since Tsar Nicholas. You don’t look that old! She parted her lips. But something stopped the jeer before she voiced it. The man looked out the window again. She strained to hear his low words.
“I came for the death. Blue Cholera sported hand-in-hand with Red Typhus. The Red and the White armies shed their soldiers like leaves dying in the autumn. The bridge burned, and the Ob washed away the blood. And I, I alone, remain.”
A crazy. But again the sneer refused to form. Some instinct deeper than reason contradicted disbelief. She withdrew and busied her trembling hands with the beverage cart. “What is wrong with you, Tamara?” But she turned her white face from her colleague. I’ve looked into the abyss.
3: Akademgorodok, 20 kilometers south of Novosibirsk
Koschay drove his Japanese rental car south from Tolmachevo Airport. He found Morskoy Prospekt without difficulty. Identical four-story apartment complexes lined the long straight street. All the residences wore the same brick red paint and white-trimmed windows. Koschay parked beneath a bare birch tree and locked his car. A second-story window framed the blurred outline of a man’s face. The figure stepped back quickly as Koschay strode up the path.
Koschay climbed two flights of stairs. Down the hall, an eye peered around the edge of a door.
“Here!” the half-visible mouth hissed. “Down here!”
The man smelled of vodka and stale fear-sweat. His bulbous nose was swollen and red. His jowls were unshaven. His creased shirt was buttoned in the wrong holes and his stained tie askew. His fleshy lips shook. “You’re from... them? You’re really here to help me?”
“Professor Grigory Arshavin?”
The man nodded. Hope blurred his bloodshot eyes with tears. He passed a shaking hand over his bald pate. Uncombed tufts of white hair stood up over his ears. “I am he. Come in.”
The professionally decorated living room, with its gray leather sectional sofa and white rug, was now a wreck. An empty vodka bottle lay on the carpet. Another half-empty bottle, along with a scummy shot glass, shared space on the glass coffee table with overflowing ashtrays.
On the same table rested a vintage Nagant discolored by rust. Arshavin had made a half-hearted effort to clean the ancient revolver. His makeshift barricade of desk and chair was now pushed behind the door.
Arshavin reached for the bottle. He poured another measure into the glass with a trembling hand. He knocked back the shot.
“I haven’t slept. Not since that... that thing ate Anton Palyich. Dr. Filakov, I mean. ” His red-rimmed eyes swiveled to the window. “Late last night I saw it from that window. It’s looking for me, too. You’ve got to help me!”
Koschay went to the window and opened it. He leaned over the sill. Like a beast, he sniffed the air. He sniffed to the right, and then to the left. His sinewy body stiffened. He stood rigid and utterly still. Then he closed the window and returned to the man on the sofa. “Tell me everything.”
Arshavin’s mouth fell open. For a moment he was speechless.
“You mean they didn’t tell you anything? Their own man? Trust them,” he muttered. “Damn bureaucrats! Can’t do anything right, not even in Moscow! Shoddy, pinch-penny pencil-pushers, always telling us our business!”
Koschay’s sere stare recalled Arshavin from chronic righteous indignation. Arshavin groped for the vodka again. A second shot fortified him enough to continue, after he ceased gasping.
“Well... I work at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics. Anton Palyich... Dr. Filakov and I head a research project there. We were making excellent progress, but two days ago, it all went to—”
“What is this research project?”
“The Human Anti-Senescence Project.” Arshavin fixed his blurry gaze on Koschay. He leaned closer in drunken confidence. “We were looking for immortality, really,” he whispered. “Though we couldn’t say so. We’d have been laughed out of the Institute.
“And we found it. Real, practical immortality! You don’t believe me, perhaps. But it’s true. It exists. Dr. Filakov is... was... a genius.”
Sudden tears ran down his puffy cheeks. “And we were so close. Then... disaster! First our test subject ran away. Silly superstitious peasant! And then that horrible white bear appeared out of nowhere. It killed Anton Palyich. Ate him. Disappeared the same way it came. Into thin air. Impossible! No one believed me. They think I — that’s why I’m on administrative leave now — they think I had something to do with Anton Palyich’s death. But I saw that beast with my own eyes. It’s true. You must believe me!”
Koschay’s long thin lips twitched in what might be a smile. Or perhaps a sardonic death’s-head grin. “I believe you, Professor Arshavin. Tell me about the man who ran away.”
The scientist made a dismissive gesture. “A volunteer hired from the street. An ancient Tartar. A homeless drunk glad to earn free food and vodka. I can’t imagine why he ran away. He was well-treated. And he would have been immortal! But he was frightened. Illiterate old man still stuck in the forest!”
“Juha Kosterkin.” Arshavin fumbled the rusty revolver into his ample lap. “Never mind Kosterkin. Stop the beast. It’s looking for me. Help me!” He peered upwards. His forehead creased. “You’re here to help me, aren’t you?” He blinked. “Why... your face. Your skin. It’s so pale! So hard! Why, it’s like... it’s like his! Like Kosterkin’s new hand! Who are you? What are you?”
That mirthless grin flashed over a shoulder as Koschay turned from the door. “Koschay the Deathless One.”
Professor Arshavin reached for the vodka. He did not bother with the glass. “Not possible,” he mumbled as he upended the bottle. “No... such... thin’... as... fairy tales...”
Copyright © 2014 by Danielle L. Parker