Snow crunched under my boots. I balanced some on the toe-end in a game of frozen keepy-upy. The snow slid off to join its friends. I looked up. My eyes followed the line of the platform. The tram receded into the near distance. An oversize cat, its black and white fur flecked with snow, hung from the back. The cat turned and waved goodbye to me. I waved back. The Old Man tapped me on the shoulder again.
We walked through bitter streets lined with faceless apartment blocks and heartless alleyways. Women half the size of their burdens forced us from the path into rivers of dark grey sludge that squelched into our boots and soaked our socks. We stopped outside a long crescent moon building, and The Old Man said: “We here.”
We entered through a door that once worked for a living and stepped into a hallway of oppressive dimness. Silence guarded the stairs with a cocked rifle, and every so often, higher up, the chamber was emptied and reloaded. The Old Man pushed the button for the never-lift, and after ten minutes we trudged forlornly up the forever-stairs.
“There,” whispered the Old Man, pointing to a door on the fifth étage. I looked at it. He opened another opposite. The scent of stale cabbage rushed out and escaped. It ran past the silent stares and into the frozen wastes of the city through a once-was-window.
Inside his apartment The Old Man invited me to take off my shoes and hang up my coat.
“Vodka?” he said.
“No…” I said.
“Yes… please,” I said.
We drank black tea from glass cups in silver holders. We sat in a morgue where the Old Man slept on cold nights, and warm nights, and on afternoons when the world demanded too much of him. On the spacious bookshelves lay a lonely tome, and a photographic keepsake of happiness to remind him it did once exist.
“There,” said the Old Man; “in apartment I show you, my friend, … He live there.”
“Who lives there?” I said.
“The man, my friend, you must kill.”
“The man… in that apartment… you must kill him.”
“But why?” I said.
“He zloi… evil”
“But why? Why me? I-I don’t know him…”
“That, my friend, not important.”
“It is to me,” I said.
“Okay. Okay, my friend. This man, he Devil. He name Oliksandr Rabchenko. He sell things; nasty things. He ask my granddaughter to buy. She say no. She fall down stairs… My good and dear comrade, Nadya Niniachkina, she daughter very pretty. Rabchenko say she must work for him. Many men buy her. She say no. Tanya no more pretty. See?”
“Yeah, yeah, I see… but why me?”
“It easy for you, my friend. We here are fear of him… he evil… He kill. Now you kill… him. For us. Besides, you have cast iron alibi. You English.”
“Yeah, whatever. But… how?” I said.
The Old Man pulled out a long carving knife that once knew the inside of an abattoir. I held it. It was sharper than a comedian’s wit, and would cut deeper. It was longer than my forearm and heavier than I imagined a knife could be.
“He grandmother lives upstairs,” said the Old Man, pointing to heaven. My eyes followed. “She think him good. She don’t ask question. She don’t ask where money come from. She have meat and bread and coffee on she table.”
“You want me to kill his grandmother, too?”
“No, my friend… You go to she apartment. Say to her Piotr sick. I Piotr, my friend. She come. I keep her in my apartment…”
“You, my friend, pretend to be grandmother of Rabchenko, and when he come to visit, you kill him with this knife.”
“Of course. What a simple plan,” I said: “What could possibly go wrong?”