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Near Zero

by Natan Dubovitsky

translated by Bill Bowler

Near Zero: synopsis

Yegor Samokhodov was happy as a youth in the Russian heartland but now, in Moscow, in middle age, he is estranged from his wife and daughter, and his low-paying job as an assistant editor is going nowhere. Looking for a way out, he joins a criminal gang, the Brotherhood of the Black Book. The Brotherhood is involved in forgery, theft of intellectual property, black-marketeering, intimidation, extortion, bribery, murder, etc.

Yegor’s girlfriend, Crybaby, invites him to a private screening of her new film, although she cannot attend. Yegor goes, hoping she may show up, and is horrified to discover he is watching a snuff movie where Crybaby is slowly murdered. After the screening, Yegor finds that Crybaby has disappeared. He sets out to Kazakhstan, to find and kill her murderer, the film director Albert Mamaev.

The story is set against a panoramic backdrop of Russia during and after the collapse of the USSR. Yegor’s quest brings him into contact with a cast of characters from a broad spectrum of Russian life, culture, history, politics and government.

Near Zero header links
Translator’s Foreword Cast of Characters Table of Contents

Chapter 37: Tridtsat’ Sem’

The ambulance from the city finally arrived.

They undressed Yegor and removed his bandages. It turned out there was no pinky and no ring finger on his right hand. His left hand had all the fingers. Though they carefully searched his head and, to keep their conscience clean, his torso and groin, they could find only one of his ears. Where the other one should have stuck out and heard things, a festering hole had been hidden beneath the grimy plaster. His back was covered with lacerations, his stomach and chest with burns. In several places, there were needle tracks on his veins.

“Well, you look like Stalingrad. No life anywhere. Well maybe more like Minutka Square,” whistled Ryzhik. “Who did this to you? Where were you? I heard you’re a big man in the Black Book gang. Is this how they operate? Who does stuff like this? For how much money?”

Ryzhik immediately hired the ambulance crew with all their gear and paid for a week in advance. Twice that night he sent the ambulance driver into town for medicine.

He sent his own driver to the regional center. Towards evening the next day, the big guest bedroom was equipped like the newest hospital ward and furnished with nurses. The brightest minds of regional medicine had met twice in consultation. Specialists from Moscow were already on the way.

When Ryzhik’s wife and children woke up in the morning, they were frightened by the bandaged ghost their father had brought in from the forest, but by evening they had gotten used to it and begun to make friends.

Yegor slept, ate, and meekly accepted the doctors’ help. He was dead but didn’t show it so as not to frighten the children and upset the professors. On the third day, some parts of his body began to come back to life. He felt awkward, like a dog that just had its fur cut.

Ryzhik came in, put chocolate and a gadget on the bedside table. “Here’s what I found in your jeans.”

Yegor ignored the Twix, but the gadget turned out to be some unknown device, like an iPod with only one button. Already used to getting by with three fingers, Yegor turned on the mysterious apparatus. The display lit up and a long text message slowly crawled up from bottom to top:

It’s possible, my friend, that you are in shock and do not remember what occurred. It happens. Memory puts up blocks in order to hide the unpleasant, to prevent shame and horror from coming out into the open. But you must know the truth, my friend.

We shot off your fingers one by one. You screamed and cried. We cut you and burned you. When you lost consciousness, we revived you and tortured you more. And you shouted and howled, and licked my boots. Where was pride, where was dignity?

You brought shame on yourself and on the Brotherhood of the Black Book. They have learned the truth. They already know.

We gave you special drugs. Some of them caused you unendurable pain, some unbearable fear. Or cold. Oh, chemistry! Chemistry and life! We gave you a truth serum. You told us the most shameful episodes and details of your life. You said such things about people you know! I wanted to shoot you on the spot, you know for what, but decided you’d be worse off if you stayed alive. So you would not forget about Crybaby, about her shame, and so you would want her more. It’s more fun that way.

My bodyguards thought about raping you, but you had already been worked over with a knife and soldering iron, so they lost their taste for it. You were lucky! Lucky! We left three fingers on your right hand. Use them and think of your good fortune. If you practice, three fingers are enough to shoot a pistol. Kill me, friend, or kill yourself.

Or live, if you can, knowing how you were injured. What a jerk you are on video. If you recover, we’ll send you a copy. Take a look, you’ll learn a great deal about yourself. The film you’re in will be rented out to private clubs. You’ll be famous for five minutes. Take care of yourself (I’m joking).

The screen went blank and would not turn on again. It was, apparently, programmed for single use. The author of the message had achieved his goal: Yegor remembered everything.

Proceed to Chapter 38...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

Proceed to Challenge 874...

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