A Dish Served Cold ( Zoran Krušvar )

Posted by Barabal on Wednesday, June 3. 2020 in Supplies

A Dish Served Cold

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When the phone call ended, Mario's face looked a bit cloudy, even puzzled to some extent. Yet, as he unwrapped the layers of his thoughts and cast those that worried him aside, a reassuring smile formed on his lips and it quickly grew into a big, juicy, satisfied grin. His fingers tapped the screen of the smartphone and soon a new voice came from the speaker:

"Yes?" the voice on the other side was deep, dark and tired of life. Well, Mario thought, that is about to change.

"Hi, Ivan. Guess what just happened" Mario was trying to keep his cool, but he was actually quite excited and he knew it was probably obvious. He didn't care, he wasn't going to hide it for long.

"What?" Ivan's voice grunted from the speaker, and then sighed as if Mario already gave him the answer and the answer was as dull as a kindergarten butter knife.

"Tony just called me" Mario said and his smile grew even more. But Ivan was still unimpressed:

"Tony? Tony who?"

"Little Tony, you know… old Luca's grandson."

A pause and a sudden change of tone. Mario could imagine the arches of Ivan's eyebrows rising like a fucking McDonald's sign as he became curious:

"Oh. What the hell did he call you for? Did somebody die or something? Somebody caught Corona virus?"

"Oh no, no, no, no… He just called to tell me he got the job."

"What? Why would he do that? What job?"

Mario laughed and nearly shouted:

"THE job, Ivan! He got THE job and he called to inform me that we can count on him."

There was a silence. Mario tried to imagine the shock on Ivan's wrinkled face, the changing color of his cheeks and the widening gap of his eyes. The information was quite big and quite unexpected. If it came from anybody else, if anybody else in the village got the job, it would have been big. But Tony? That was huge.

"The motherfu… and he called you on his own? Did Luca somehow made him call you?"

"I don't think old Luca can do much these days, apart from shitting in his diaper and waiting to die."

"That's so fucked up… he was such a great guy. But, you know, ever since his son Mauro, Tony's father, died in that accident…"

"Yes, old man was never quite the same. What a tragedy. And you know, we had no more actions after that day. Maybe it's a coincidence… but maybe Luca was the one who always pushed us, you know, the old bandit could never stay still… and then suddenly everything changed."

"Of course it changed. We all loved Mauro, he was someone you could trust, he was a solid rock! You could tell he was his father's son… and he respected his roots, his family and his village. And Tony… God forbid… do you remember Tony at the funeral? He didn't talk to anyone. And he escaped practically as soon as Mauro's body was in the ground. And now he got the job!"

"Oh, he was so drugged at the funeral he was heavily sedated…" sad images came rushing to Mario's mind. A line of silent people with their heads bowed, marching through the marble forest of angels and crosses, pebbles clattering beneath the heavy feet. It was a hot day, the priest was sweating and his service was short. Sure, Tony was there, at his father's funeral. Big, dark glasses covered the better part of his face, freshly shaved and damp, assumingly from tears… or was it just sweat? He was standing alone, apart from anyone else, silent. Nobody heard him talk; people approach him to give condolences and he would just nod, never showing any expression. He was drugged for sure.

"You think so? You think he only behaved that way because of the pills?" Ivan didn't seem very convinced.

"I think he was stoned like Arabian adulteress. I'm not sure if he knew where he was, and I wouldn't be surprised if he has zero memories from that day."

"So… you think we should trust him on this one?"

"Why shouldn't we? He is one of us."

"He was never one of us Mario, in his heart he wasn't. He was always acting strange, wearing only black clothes like an old woman and always reading some weird books… What was that shit? Magic? Satanism? Voodoo? Mumbo-jumbo? Did you know Luca once told me that at some point he got sick and tired of people talking about witchcraft going on in his own house, so he grabbed all Tony's books and burned them in the backyard?"

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"There was no screwing around with old Luca… not even for his grandson", Mario said, recalling Tony in his teens, the little misfit. Not very strong, never a fighter, always different than everybody else. Such a bad, bad combination for a village boy. Once they dragged him to a Sunday mass and he started screaming and shaking like he was possessed. So the priest, wearing his robe and everything, grabbed Tony, shoved his head in holy water and kept it submerged while reciting Lord's Prayer. Entire village was there, everybody laughed at the boy… well, everybody except his embarrassed family. Who knows what they did to him afterwards, behind the closed doors? The other time, he went to Prague for a school excursion. He came back with some Jewish gibberish written on his forehead, in the form of henna temporary tattoo. His father Mauro went berserk and scratched the thing off with sandpaper, together with a layer of skin. But that wasn't the end of it, the local kids, boys and girls, roughed him up and signed their names with pens and permanent markers all over his face. It sucked to be Tony; it really did.

"You bet your ass there was no screwing with Luca! And…"

"…but the kid was just into goth music or something…"

"…and don't you remember Tony's tantrums about that musical audition?"

"Yes Ivan, but those were all just some crazy teenage acting outs. Come on, we all did weird things in our puberty. I wanted to start a punk band to impress the girls at some point", he had to chuckle. He had no talent, couldn't sing, couldn't play, didn't own an instrument and his punk rock career lasted one afternoon when he cut his own hair and painted his face. His father promptly put an end to it; he pushed him out of the house, knocked him flat on the ground, washed his face with icy water from the garden hose and shaved his head with a razor.

"Oh, come on Mario, that was 1980 for fuck sake, everybody wanted to be a punk rocker! But dreams are dreams, and life is life. And you know what? Even if you became a punk rocker, it would have been a hobby and you wouldn't have lost your way because of it. We, all of us, we knew our place and we looked after each other, and after the village. We were wild, but we knew how to behave when it mattered."

Mario said nothing, but he knew Ivan was right about that. The villagers always stood together, no matter what. Even with Tony. The local kids kicked his ass thousand times, but once he was attacked in town by some townsfolk, by some bullies who thought it might be fun to beat little Tony up, it was whole different story. The village never took such things lightly. The bullies were located in matter of hours; there was a proper manhunt, with dogs, through pedestrian zone in the town center. They were captured, beaten to a pulp and forced down the storm drains, each down his own hole, which were then carefully blocked by dumpsters.

And Ivan went on:

"Tony was just plain self-centered. Christ almighty, he nearly ruined our action that night because he wanted to go to that stupid music school and become a musician… like that is a job and like you need to go to college for that. For heaven's sake, if you wanna play an instrument, you get an instrument and play it in your own free time. You don't whine about going to audition for… how do you call it… conservatorium in another city and expect your father to pay for it! And especially, you don't throw a tantrum during the action, endangering entire village! Oh, I can't be here, I need to go… it's my future… Can you imagine that prick? What if he ruined it? What if we were caught? Most of the men from village were there, if we all ended in prison, what would happen to the village? Who would look after the elders, the women, the children for fuck's sake!? The children!? Good thing his father slapped that nonsense right out of his ears that night. Mauro had a mighty hand; I think you could hear those slaps miles away!"

Mario remembered that sound. Tony's father really lost it that rainy night, it was the final straw and the inner camel of his patience was finally broken. Yes, he was hitting Tony with open palms, he never used his fists, but his hands fell heavy as clubs. There was blood coming out of Tony's ears, there were pieces of broken teeth in the mud. Other men stood silently, nobody interfered in family matters, but they all thought the same: Mauro should have done it long time ago.

"Yup, yup… you are right Ivan but still, he was barely eighteen, what did he know about life? It's different now. He's a grown man, and he knows where he came from. I guess that beating did him some good, after all."

"I don't know… do you really trust him?"

Mario took a moment to reconsider. No, he had no particular reason to have some great confidence in Tony, but he was willing to take a risk. Mainly because he felt sorry for the boy Tony once was, he felt that the village should have done more to help the little freak. Maybe they could have tried something different instead of punishing him all his life. And then, he also felt sorry for the old Luca, Tony's grandfather, who was such a role model to entire village. He felt sorry for Tony's father too, mangled in an accident. And Tony's mother, chewed to death by a bone cancer. Everything about that boy was such a sad, sad story. And now, when he is left alone, with nobody to lean on, now he called back to the village. Mario understood this, everybody needed to belong somewhere, with someone… and this guy was so desperate that he reached back to the village he once ran away from. Tony just wanted another chance to connect, and Mario felt he personally owed it, if not to Tony, then to his father and grandfather. So he said:

"Listen Ivan… we are up for some hard times again. People are losing their jobs. Vladimir got sacked, Davor too. Karlo is working, but he didn't get paid last two months. Others got their wages cut. It's bad, man. We could really use some supplies."

"I know Mario, I'm just being… listen, if something goes wrong…"

"Yes Ivan, if something goes wrong, I will be to blame."

"Ok, but we need to be extra careful. That little brat could easily be a police informer and this could be, you know, a trap for us!"

Mario tried to imagine the weird, loner, antisocial kid in black clothes, wearing steel chains and dog collars as jewelry, painting his fingernails black, becoming a police informer. He shook his head and responded calmly: "We'll make sure we have a man to watch the road, don't worry. I will take my son with us."

"Oh, Daniel? Sure, he is a fine young man. How old is he now, 20?"

"Will be 22 this summer."

"Uh, how the time flies, eh? Ok, so what's the next step?"

"We are waiting for Tony to let us know when the supplies are coming."

"Ok. So we wait. By the way, do you have any potatoes left? I can trade you some wine for them."

"Your own wine?"

"Yes, sure it's mine."

"Dear Ivan… your wine sucks, man. I'll give you potatoes for free."

Daniel's hands were shaking like his bones were turned to jelly. He had a long talk with his father, he always knew this talk might come and he thought he was prepared for it. But he wasn't. He always had this romantic idea about the village actions, as an act of defiance, an act of rebellion, when all of them come together to break the law and take fate in their own hands. When they unite in a secret adventure that will bind the villagers forever. But now he was scared shitless and he wanted it all to go away.

The reason for all this commotion was Tony, the weird village boy who moved away. Suddenly he called to let Daniel's father know that he got the job at the customs. Now, for the village it was always vital to have a man at the customs, but it wasn't always possible. Having someone at that position meant having information about the trucks; when were they coming, when were they leaving, where were they going and what were they transporting.

This was an old habit. Maybe it can be regarded as tradition, since the village has been doing it for ages, even before they invented trucks. Historians could probably track it down to the time of sturdy hillforts and their proud chieftains, when some traders marched through these hills to sell amber and other goods on the shores of Mediterranean Sea.

The supplies were always passing down that road, and the village was somehow always in need.

They had to wait for three weeks after Tony's first call. In the meantime, the word spread through the village like a virus and seems like everyone got infected. People got serious. All conversations suddenly included prolonged periods of silence, neighbors simply looked at each other as if they were assuming that the other one knows perfectly well what that particular piece of non-information meant. The atmosphere reminded Daniel of some very formal event, where everyone tries to look very serious and not to fuck some unwritten rule or social convention up. This was going to be Daniel's first action, the final rite of passage, the definite entrance in the world of grownup villagers. He was to become a real, by all standards, man.

So why, he asked himself, why don't I want it? Is it because I'm scared? Because I most definitely am! Or is it maybe because of Diana?

Three weeks, it took him three weeks to call again and Daniel was sure the call will never come and everything will be put aside and forgotten. But after three weeks, Tony made another call.

There is a truck. Supplies for a supermarket. Big truck, well packed, all sorts of goods. It's being held because of Covid 19 safety procedure. It will be released day after tomorrow at 21:00. The weather forecast is heavy rain.

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Supermarket goods are not very valuable, compared to, for example, electronics. But most people can find use for only one TV, unless they want to sell. And putting goods on the market brings attention. So, it's safer to go for goods you can actually use, such as various groceries. Also, supermarket stuff can endure much more rain, tumbling and banging than electronics. That's why village likes big trucks full of supermarket goods.

Sure, Daniel felt the rush. The air was filled with it, he could hear the crackling of sparks and feel the tingling of his nerves. But at the same time, he tried to imagine himself as a thief. As an outlaw. A bandit. Now that it was all here, waiting to happen, it didn't seem romantic anymore. Am I going to gaol? Daniel thought. This was not how he imagined his life. And also, there was this thing with Diana, the girl he was seeing. She was by far the prettiest girl he ever dated and also very creative and open minded when it comes to sex. Unfortunately, every now and then she would start acting weird, as if she wasn't so sure in their relationship. So Daniel decided that they need some sort of private team-building, a weekend of romantic isolation somewhere where they can focus on one another for a couple of days. He made arrangements with a friend who had a most beautiful apartment – usually it was for rent, but since there was no tourists during the pandemic, Daniel got it for free. So the day after tomorrow, in the time of the action, Daniel was supposed to be in the apartment, hopefully in bed, with Diana. But now, now there is the action. He couldn't just say no to his father, it wouldn't end well. Father made it perfectly clear – it was about the entire village, and the village, the community, is more important than the whims of individuals. It was always like that, and it always will be.

On the other hand, Diana was hot.

Plus, I don't want to end locked up! I'm a college student for fuck's sake! Give me two more years and I will graduate, become a construction engineer, and one day I will volunteer to come back here and tear that fucking road apart! I will make a new one, with four lanes, and I will flatten all these God forsaken hills down and make that new road completely straight, no bends and no slopes!

When the rains came down, they came down hard as beatings Tony took while growing up. Daniel didn't use to think about Tony much. Or ever, to be honest. But now, since he suddenly made his way back into the life of the village, it was impossible to avoid some memories coming back. Daniel was four, maybe five years younger, which made all the difference when you are a child. He knew Tony, of course. Everybody knew Tony, how could you not? He was the only kid in the village with black painted fingernails and an obsession with classical music… and a collection of animal bones. It was as weird as a weird shit could be. He would find a roadkill, or some other dead thing, put it in a bag and take it to the woods. There he would make a fire, put an old pot filled with water from an old abandoned waterhole on that fire, and drop the carcass inside. He would let it boil until the flesh fell clean off the bones. He would then glue the bones together and make crazy little pendants or sculptures. He would also sniff the rest of the glue, return home in the middle of the night all fucked up, open his window, placed his keyboard piano next to it and play Bach or God knows what like he was possessed, like some cursed spook haunting the village, until his mother would come up, yank the cord from the wall and send him off to bed.

The other kids attacked him all the time. Daniel never did, he was too young. But he knew very well why other kids did. It wasn't just because Tony was different, or because he was weak and they were cruel. It was because beating Tony showed to everyone, to the village and to the world, that you were not afraid of him. You were not afraid of a guy who might, you never know, be into witchcraft, black magic, satanism or God knows what. What was he doing in those woods? With those dead animals? When he was high on glue, weed, mushrooms, pills or whatever, what did he whisper to those bones? Did he recite something from those obscure books he constantly stole from the libraries and bookstores? Did he chant some forbidden rhymes over the fire whose glow reflected from the glossy ebony of his fingernails?

Was it true that he could cast spells? Visit you in your sleep and choke you to death?

Yes, sure, the kids feared him. So, it was their priority to prove they didn't. And they proved it the only way they knew - by beating him up.

Everything was wrong back then, and everything is wrong now, Daniel concluded, climbing through the mud and bushes towards his designated spot. The veil of raindrops was thick and nearly as heavy as his heart. Diana didn't take the cancellation of their romantic weekend very well, but that was the least of his problems. Just before they left the family house, his father gave him a very carefully wrapped present. There was a very small teardrop in the corner of the proud father's eye; tonight was his good son's first action, tonight his bloodline will continue with a tradition that probably lasted from ancient times, with maybe just couple of small differences, since the bronze age traders preferred not to use trucks. Daniel carefully opened the present, even though he already guessed what it was by its weight. He was right, it was the hammer. A good, expensive hammer, with a heavy head and a short handle. A solid tool, one you can rely on. Daniel knew he will not be using it tonight; his position was fit for a rooky, on a hill, as an observer. Away from all the real action. Still, he had to carry a hammer, just like everybody else, because that was their way.

Each participant will carry a same hammer.

Daniel will be on the small hill above the road. He will observe. He will be the first to see the truck approaching. If there are other vehicles on the road, he will give the signal and cancel the action.

If there are no other vehicles, which is likely because the road is not very busy at this time of day, especially on such bad weather, he will give the signal that the action is on.

The truck will drive down the straight section of the road, probably accelerating, gaining speed. It will then reach the bend. The bend is sharp, and the slope is rather steep. The road was supposed to be protected by the signs and a side fence but they were all conveniently removed by an unknown perpetrator. On the critical spot, where the truck driver needs to hit the brakes, there will be a man with a big barrel of oil, waiting for Daniel's signal. The oil, the rain and the old treacherous road will do their part, and the truck will tumble down the hill, to the flat meadow where the other villagers will be waiting.

If the driver dies in the process, God save his soul.

If the driver stays alive, but loses consciousness, then the lucky bastard gets away with it!

But if the driver somehow manages to stay alive and keeps conscious, the villagers will step away, turn their faces away from the truck, close their eyes and start praying. Only one of the villagers, the one who was previously appointed by Daniel's father and whose name was never disclosed to others, will approach the driver, wrap the hammer with cloth, and smash the driver's head so that he is surely dead. He will then return to his spot and other villagers will never know who did the killing.

The truck will then be opened and looted before anyone arrives.

That was the plan, that was how it was always done… but now Daniel wanted to get the fuck out of there… and at the same time, he couldn't.

If I step away now, he thought, I'm going to ruin the action.

If I step away now, I will never be able to face my father again.

If I step away now, I can never return home.

Tony sat alone in his small office, behind the badly organized desk buried under chaotic pile of papers, documents, envelopes… His uniform was neat, his hair short and tidy, his fingernails cut and colorless. There was no ornament of any kind on him, or around him - just the official state coat of arms above the door. He's passed a long way from the eye-catching boy he once was.

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Then he reached into his pocket and added one more envelope to the scene. But this one was different, it had no address, nothing written on, Tony was sure that even police wouldn't be able to find any fingerprints on it, except for his own. It was like no one ever gave this envelope to him, this chubby package filled with a multitude of 200 Euro banknotes. Yes, the fact that Tony was a loner didn't mean that he had no contacts. True, those contacts were made online, on some very rarely visited web sites, using creatively invented names and sophisticated pieces of software that promised safety and anonymity. Apparently, the people from his old village weren't the only ones who thought his new job might bring some unexpected perks. For example, there was this truck registered in Bulgaria, which recently went on a journey towards west Europe. The official log of this truck told Tony that the driver wasn't going for the shortest route, which probably meant he went for those border crossings where he had safe connections. Now, this truck entered the Schengen area and then turned around, when Tony was offered a hefty bribe to let the truck pass without looking inside.

Daniel was standing on his spot, trying to make use of some branches and get as much cover as he could. Even with all the rain, he had decent visibility of the road and the traffic. There was not much of it going on, just as it was planned. All he had to do was wait until 21:00 and then wait some more for the first truck that will come afterwards. If it's alone and it looks like a supply truck, I will give the signal and the action will start. That's it, nothing more. Easy job. I'm not really doing anything wrong, I will just make a phone call and confirm that I see a truck. Now, this is not a crime, is it? His heart was kicking like a mad mule in his chest. He could have been in a bed with Diana right now. They could have been banging, or maybe just cuddling and watching films. Or maybe that new series that Diana likes, something with some kids and their magical keys, and every time Diana bitches about how they shouldn't have changed the name of the town.

A pair of headlights twinkled in the distance and a lonely car came driving through the rain.

A car. It's only a car. But it's nearly time, so the next vehicle might be the truck. And then what? Somebody, a person, is driving that truck. Someone's son, brother, father is behind that wheel. There are three ways this action can end, and two of them include killing the driver. Third option has him just severely hurt, though he still might die later in hospital.

I can't do this!

I can't!

Another set of headlights appeared in the darkness.

Daniel typed a text message to his father: "I can't do this!" then turned his phone off and ran back into the forest.

Mario read the message, screamed "SHIT!" and smashed his smartphone into a tree. Then he grabbed the nearest guy and growled: "Call Ivan, NOW!"

Ivan replied "Ok, I got it!", ended the call, grunted "Shit" to himself, waved his head and added: "I knew his kid was too soft". Then he dragged his barrel to the middle of the road and let the oil flow.

If Daniel stood his ground, maybe he would have noticed that the truck doesn't really look like the usual supply truck. This one was a bit smaller, with no recognizable logos or brands on the sides. Scared and shaken as he was, Daniel also could have missed those details, yet there was a chance.

But since Daniel ran, the action just went on according the plan.

Tony counted the money one more time. The big bunch of Euros was nice to have and the mere act of counting something calmed him down, just like counting sheep before going to sleep. He needed something to calm him down a bit, because all of this was slightly too much even for his nerves, and he had quite a tolerance. He learned a lot of things over the years, he knew details about things other people didn't even believed in, stuff that could bring nightmares and cause paranoias. But how did those simple thugs, those low-level mobsters from Bulgaria, manage to get their hands on something like this, that was a complete mystery to him. But sure, he shouldn't be surprised, these days there are lots of people traveling from east to west, and not everyone is a goatherder. People with some very serious knowledges are also on the move and somebody could have easily gotten in touch with somebody else, which ended with some people having access to something they didn't quite understand, but they knew it had value.

So, the truck was carrying something when it went west, and it was also carrying something on it's way east. And in both cases, it was something that shouldn't be seen by anyone. So naturally, Tony concluded that this truck must have something very interesting on board. He took the money, but he never intended to let the truck pass without knowing what's inside. Tony did some research, he checked some dates, some news portals, some books and scripts, and he pressed some of his contacts until they agreed to drop some information. So even before the truck came, Tony had an idea about what to expect, and that's when he made a first call to the village.

Three weeks later, the truck has arrived, and Tony finally got his chance to take a peek.

Thinking about it now, it was just perfect.

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Driver did his best, but it wasn't enough. At one point it even looked like he was going to save the day, like he was going to keep the truck on the road, but eventually the mechanical beast lost it's grip. The truck started skating down the road sideways and in a blink of an eye it was flying through the night. To the men waiting at the bottom of the hill, it kind of looked like a huge white whale breaking the waves and coming down ferociously, followed by the rumbling of tones of rough water. Just like their stone age ancestors did with mammoths, the villagers chased their prey over the edge of the cliff and when it came tumbling down the steep, muddy hill, they were ready to jump on it and get their reward.

To everyone's relief, the driver was dead before they reached him. His head appeared to be comfortably resting on an airbag, but the quick check confirmed he was gone for good. Mario whipped the rain from his eyes; the shit his son just did was killing him on the inside and he had to stay focused! There was no place for errors here, it all had to be done as quickly as possible. He will have to deal with Daniel later, and it's not going to be nice. But now, the truck! The truck! Let's get the supplies and run away!

Mario waved to his comrades and they quickly approached the back of the truck.

The back door was opened.

On a second glance, even with the night and the rain, it was clear that was not as much opened as it was broken. This wasn't strange, the truck just tumbled down the side of a hill, but it did look more like the doors were bent from inside out. Mario pointed his flashlight inside:

"What the fuck…?"

The truck was empty.

No pallets, no boxes, no supplies.

Somebody cursed: "That motherfucker Tony tricked us! There's nothing here!"

Other voices added:

"Is this a trap?!"

"Mario, we should go! Now!"

But Mario wouldn't move, except for the hand holding the light.

"It's not empty", he whispered.

"What?"

"It's not empty!" he yelled and climbed inside.

Others quickly followed, and it immediately became clear that everybody was right:

No, there were no supplies for the village.

Yes, Tony did trick them.

Yes, this was a trap.

And no, the truck wasn't empty.

There was blood everywhere. And there were three human bodies scattered around, naked, female, there hands and feet tied by duct tape, their mouths gagged with rags. Mario's first thought was that these poor women were abducted and taken somewhere to be sold, and now they got killed in a truck accident because of that little bastard Tony! But other things were here, too. The sides of the truck were decorated with symbols he didn't understand. Five-point stars, lines, curves, some things that looked like constellations, or hieroglyphs, or contemporary art as far as Mario was concerned. One thing was sure – it all looked very scary under the shaky light of their flashlights.

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The strange drawings seemed to spread like flames from one center, where there were more details, more symbols, like it was getting increasingly important to add something more right there, more content, more… magic? In that center, there was a box. It was bolted to the floor, but the lid was off. Did it open in the crash? Inside the box there were pieces of broken pottery. Some sort of a vessel must have been inside, obviously something that was supposed to be protected from harm. Mario couldn't make sense of it. It just felt wrong.

"Let's go!" he said to his men, and they were already jumping out when he heard a loud sigh.

One of the women was still alive.

Mario came back, not sure should he call for help or hammer her down. Yes, she was alive, but she looked very bad and Mario couldn't even imagine how could she possibly survive. He pulled the rag out of her mouth, so she could get more air.

"Ubiĭ me…" she whispered. Her language was not Croatian, but Mario sure could understand what she was trying to say. Was she Macedonian? Bulgarian? Ukrainian? Shit, why is she asking me to kill her? What did they do to her? Whose truck is this? Looking closely, he was now able to see that there were some other tracks on her body, not just from the crash. Old bruises and scars, many of those looked like marks from… animal teeth?

"Ubiĭ me predi da se vŭrne", she said again "Ubiĭ…" and then she fell silent and the next moment she was no more.

Mario jumped out and ran. His men were already on the move, one group was waiting for him amongst the nearest trees, they were aiming their flashlights at something in the grass. As he approached them, he realized it was another body on the ground. Only this one had clothes on, and a hammer tied to the belt.

Shit, it's one of ours!

It was indeed. Renato, the car mechanic, casual drunkard, and the best cards player in the village. His throat was ripped, his ribs torn apart, his chest opened, and the steam was rising from his still warm inside.

"It was some beast! Some animal! Like a wolf or something…" one of the guys was crying. The other was drawing crosses in the air with his fingers and mumbling prayers.

"A wolf? Here?" it was a disaster. Men were shocked; one of them sat in the mud with his face in his palms, another was pacing aimlessly within a three-meter radius, yelling "Fuck! Fuck!", the third and fourth were trying to investigate the crying guy who was shaking and mumbling:

"I don't know! I don't know! It was… it was just a big, black shadow!"

"No wolf can do this, man! Oh my God, Renato!"

I don't know! I've seen it jump in the woods… It took a second! Just a second! It grabbed and threw Renato like he was nothing… nothing…"

"Fuck! FUCK!"

"We have to move! WE HAVE TO MOVE!" Mario shouted.

"We can't just leave him! Like this?? I'm not leaving him!"

"Ok, ok…" Mario was trying to think, but his head was spinning with all the information. "Ok, take my coat, wrap it around him so we don't have to look at his wound while we are carrying his body to the village. You will take his arms, you take his legs, you and I will grab him by his belt, each from one side. Let's move!"

"Oh my God! This is insane! What kind of shit just happened??"

"SHUT UP AND MOVE!" Mario's scream finally snapped them out of it, and they were on their way. Carrying a corpse through the woods, in the night, with rain and mud was a grim task. They were all fighting for breath, sobbing, but rushing as fast as they could as if it was some sort of race. Nobody said anything about whatever killed Renato, but they were all aware of it. It was somewhere out here. They weren't safe until they reach the village.

We just need to get there… just need to get back home… then we will sort everything out. Somehow. Mario was thinking, trying to calm himself. I will have to do something about Daniel, and about Tony, he can't get away with this! And Renato… Renato is on Tony's head, too! We need to burry him and take care of his wife and his daughters… we will avenge him! And what about the police? We'll think of something, we just need to get to the village, to safety…

The rain started to calm when they reached the narrow path that leads straight to the village, and they could see porches and windows with the lights on. The village was waiting for them, and Mario already felt better.

We will live through this. All sorts of troubles happened here through the centuries, and the village always somehow lived through it all. We'll live through this, too. As long as we all stand together, we can make it.

There was someone ahead of them, on the path. Men with flashlights, Mario assumed those were some of their own guys who ran ahead. He waved his light and they waved back.

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"Hey! We could use some help!" he shouted, and the men rushed towards them. Only when they moved, Mario realized there is another human shape lying on the ground.

"Oh God, not again!? Is that another one of our guys there?"

Nobody responded. For a moment Mario thought these might not be their people, what if these are cops or Bulgarian mobsters? But couple of moments later they came closer and he recognized their faces. They looked frightened and shocked but there was also something else. They were avoiding to look at Mario.

"What happened here?" he demanded to know.

"I… I am sorry, Mario…"

"What? What are you saying?"

And the men just looked at Mario, and towards the body on the path. Mario's face turned pale. He released his grip on Renato's belt, and three of his companions struggled to not let go. The other men jumped in to help them, while Mario was staggering like he was drunk towards the body on the floor. His neighbours walked beside him, ready to catch him, to help him in any possible way, but he was unaware of the world around him. The only thing that existed was this body of a young man, nearly a boy in front of him. Mario felt like a ghost hovering outside his own body; all the sounds were muffled and distorted, the sight was blurred and it all seemed so very slowed down. He shook his head, trying to negate, refusing to face what happened here. There was a hand on his shoulder; he shook it off and said: "No."

The mud was red with blood.

"No!"

Daniel's head was untouched, his eyes closed, his face calm in his eternal sleep.

"NO!"

The wound started below his left shoulder and it split the young man's body all the way to his right hip. His bowels were exposed, they glimmered under the flashlights.

Mario fell on his knees and hugged his son's head, with a dreadful mixture of scream and sob. He was squealing and gasping, biting his own lip and squeezing the dead face in his arms like showing his love would bring the boy back.

"It's me…" Mario cried, "It's me!!"

The muffled voices tried to comfort him:

"Mario, I'm so sorry…"

"Yes, we all are… we are going to find the motherfucker who did this, do you hear me Mario?! We'll get him!"

"Mario, we are here for you…"

But Mario just shook his head and cried:

"It was me! If something happens, I am to blame! I AM TO BLAME!"

"Hey…" one of the voices said, "this path leads only to the village, nowhere else. If Daniel was killed here, then the beast…"

They all looked towards the distant houses, where their wives, children and elders awaited their return with supplies.

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In one of the houses all lights just went off.

Tony was at his desk, now clean. He threw all the papers on the floor; he didn't want them. He never wanted to deal with this crap, he needed space! Now his fingers were on the edge of the table, moving with precision and grace, sliding over the invisible keyboard of his imaginary concert grand piano.

This was what he wanted; this was the life that was taken from him. To be a musician, an artist! This was what they murdered, his parents and the entire community, when they bullied him, molested him, blackmailed him and in the end forced him to leave his dreams aside and do something right for himself and for the village! This was what his father said, and his mother approved. Entire village endorsed it! They bring you up to do like your daddy done, don't they?!

But now, now it ends.

Tony was far from understanding the demon he sent to the village with that truck, but one thing he did understand: it's a devastating force and it will bring doom upon them, and upon everybody nearby. It will leave the entire area deserted, so no one will ever live in that damned village anymore!

And he kept on playing that tune on the edge of the desk, that haunting melody, along the choir that was ringing through his head. He heard it perfectly clear, as any real musical talent would, and he instantly wove his own arrangement for piano. It was perfect! He kept on playing, swaying his body in ecstasy.

If, by any chance, he had a real piano instead of his desk at that very moment, there would be some beautiful music echoing through the night.

The choice would be very appropriate, "Dies Irae" by Mozart.

 

 

 


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