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Archive for February, 2012

My mother always loved to eat. Even as a baby she had a disgust of mothers milk and was always reaching for food. One day when she was four months old, Granny returned home from the bank where she worked and saw a guilty look on Great-grandmother’s face.

‘What’s happened?’ she asked suspiciously. Then she saw my mother with a ring of red surrounding her mouth. Somehow this baby had gotten into a jar of hot peppers and devoured all of them.

‘What happened then?’ my sister and I ask Granny.

‘Nothing,’ Granny says,’she was perfectly fine and insisted on eating solids from that moment on.’

As much as my mother loves to eat, she has always been a professional woman without much time to devote to the culinary arts. She is a pretty good party cook, since she gets her recipes from her girlfriends who are gourmets and she can do wonders with vegetables, especially kale and string beans which she makes into great stews. ‘You always ask for those wartime foods,’ she tells me whenever I place a request.

But my aunt was the baker in the family and makes amazing cakes and petites-fours. Mother never quite got the hang of the finer points of pastry making and anyway doesn’t have the patience required for it.

Her first misadventure in the kitchen occurred when she was a teenager and decided to make vanilitse. Vanilitse are round or cresent shaped Balkan cookies, small, two layered, with a wonderful preserve in the middle, usually apricot or raspberry. The dough is comprised of flour, walnuts, butter, eggs, vanilla and sugar. One day my mother got it into her head that she was going to surprise Granny and my aunt and make a batch while they were out. As she went through the recipe, she read: kneed the dough and roll it out until it lifts from the counter. She thought about this and remarked aloud, ‘Hmm, my crazy sister forgot to write down –add water.’

Of course when she added a cup of water, she ended up with a sticky mess. So she added more ingredients. I don’t have to tell you how expensive those were at the time. However there was no result, the dough was still sticky and so she kept adding more and more to it until she ended up with something the size of a beach ball. ‘Oh my God,’ she said aloud, ‘when my mother sees this, and how much I’ve wasted, she’s going to kill me.’ What to do, she wondered? Alighting on a novel solution, she cut the dough in half and threw it out the window. She baked the vanilitse, which turned out hard as rocks. ‘But we ate them anyway,’ she says.

She must have remembered the window solution later when she was married to my father. He came home from work one day to find his downstairs neighbor waiting to accost him in the hall.

‘Mr. Simic,’ she said, ‘I saw your wife lowering these dishes out the window to the dumpster. She had tied them in a tablecloth. When I untied the cloth, I saw that they were perfectly fine, so I washed them. Would you like them back?’

‘No, no,’ my father said, ‘ you keep them.’

‘What the heck, Mom?’ I ask her, ‘you were always such a good housekeeper.’

‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘I let them pile up for so long, that it seemed overwhelming to tackle all that encrusted gunk.’ Personally I suspect that she disliked the pattern and wanted to get new dishes.

Maybe my father got a taste of what was to come later, since she always had crazy schemes and a lot of jobs for him to tackle around the house, which he would procrastinate on until she went berserk. One day,when I was already long married, I came to their house and looking down on the parquet floor, saw a black blob.

‘What happened here?’ I asked.

‘Your mother wanted me to re-stain the floor,’ my father explained.

‘Why is it black?’

‘I bought the wrong color at the hardware store.’

‘Didn’t you notice it was black?’

‘Well,’ he explained [this was a man with a PHD] ‘ it was in the same place on the store shelf where the brown stain usually is, and I thought it would get lighter when I started smearing it around.’

But she too, had a similar mishap, he was pleased to report. She was making cheese strudel and chocolate cake simultaneously and in a moment of distraction poured chocolate all over the feta and cream cheese combination. ‘I caught her trying to rinse the phyllo dough,’ he says, ‘she was going to salvage it.’

Another time, her friend Mara, who is Hungarian and a world class pastry chef, gave her the recipe for chocolate covered strawberries. When she got to the party that my mother was giving, Mara took one look at the tray with the strawberries, and exclaimed, ‘Did you make them with your feet?’ Apparently my mother did not realize that a dose of shortening and a little water, unlike the case of vanilice, would have been the ticket to unclumping her too thick chocolate. ‘So they looked like they were covered in mud,’ my mother said, ‘but they tasted really good!’

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Today I spoke to my mother, like I do most every day. She had another Granny ordeal this weekend and had to place Granny in a nursing home. Granny is almost ninety-six years old and has been residing in a lovely assisted living facility this year. However because of the fact that she refuses to take any medication, her cognitive faculties have been on the decline. My mother has tried everything she knows to persuade her to take her pills, but this is usually met with acute resistance and Granny’s favorite phrase these days, ‘You are trying to make me crazy.’ Naturally, it never occurs to her that the problem might lie with her, and so when she loses something, she immediately accuses the staff of robbing her, or my sister of selling her jewelry and so on.

A year ago she was still living on her own, although my mother would stop by every day and take her to lunch and do her marketing and cooking for her. One day last winter, Granny who was a beauty queen back in the day, had dolled herself up, as she usually does and sat waiting in her lavender suit, kitten heels and appropriate accessories until my mother turned up. I should explain that my mother is no stranger to high fashion and never wears trousers. However she compensates for this with black fuzzy angora leggings on cold winter days. Seeing Granny dressed for spring, my mother exhorted her to borrow the leggings. Granny took one look at the leggings, and said, ‘Now you want to make a monkey of me.’

Each time I talk to my mother, she has a new Granny story and my friends love to hear them, especially the Big P, who I think is the finest painter in Chicago. A while ago, he asked me if I wasn’t afraid that the cats would fall off the balcony of our eighth floor condo and onto the fourth floor garden. I replied, no, their vet said if they ever decided to leap, it was the perfect distance for them to right themselves and fall on their feet. For some reason, Mickey and Big P, found that inexplicably funny, and as they were joking about my inane ideas, the story of the cats and Granny became intertwined. So whenever my mother complains of Granny, Big P says,

‘I think we should throw Granny off the balcony.’

So before we do, here are a few gems from the world of Granny.

When she first moved into the assisted living facility, she told my sister worriedly, ‘ I see people in old fashioned clothes floating on the ceiling in my bedroom.’ My sister who has a spiritual inclination replied, ‘Those are your departed loved ones. When you are close to the end of your life, they come to help you transition to the other side.’ Granny apparently had a sleepless night over this but the next morning called my sister to triumphantly announce, ‘I want you to know something, I don’t see those people any more.’

Another time, my mother received a hysterical call from Granny when the beauticians came to trim her toenails. ‘Shame on you,’ Granny yelled, ‘I raised you alone after your father died and now you’ve sent these people to cut off my legs!’ My mother takes this all very seriously and tried to convince Granny that they were there to give her a pedicure. Granny imperiously rejoindered, ‘Now you are trying to make me into an imbecile.’

Lately Granny has got it into her head that there is another war on and that she is manning a machine gun. She looks at her arthritic hands and says to my mother, ‘How could you have taken me out of here and sent me to the front at my age, look what’s happened to my hands from manning the machine gun.’ Mother, for some reason, feels the need to explain to her, ‘Mama, you were a courier during the war, you never saw action and anyway that was almost seventy years ago.’

‘No,’ Granny says, ‘the war is on-going.’ Personally, I used to think she was paranoid when she said that ‘they’ were bugging  phones and monitoring conversations, but now it seems that she was right.

Another time when she was temporarily in a rehab center for a medical problem, she determined that experiments were being conducted on the patients. ‘Don’t be surprised if you get a baby brother or sister,’ she tells my mother. Curious my mother asks, ‘Who did this to you?’ as Granny points out an handsome young doctor. ‘Okay, but don’t tell anyone else,’ my poor mother says.

My friends say that I am fortunate that my family is long-lived and in good health. I always tell my niece that when I get old she has my permission and blessing to put a pillow over my head at any time she feels ready to do so. She always laughs and says that I’ll never be like that. My only hope is that I’ll remember to jump off the balcony before that time comes.

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When I was sixteen years old I developed a crush on Stan, the Man. At that time if you were a girl, you picked out a guy who was usually a couple of years older, gorgeous, highly popular and already going steady. In other words, he had to be totally unattainable. The point was, of course, that you would wait every day in total anticipation for him to look in your direction, to the table of ugly ducklings, who knew that one day they would live in Manhattan and become swans of great renown for something, presumably artistic.

Then the other ducklings would chirp that, of course, he really liked you, and why wouldn’t he since you were so beautiful and so talented and so intelligent and so on, only no one but they and he really realized it yet.

I suppose it was a primitive form of self-definition or psychotherapy but whatever it was, it never got the guy, and truth be known, we would have been terrified if it did.

Somewhere along the way, while mooning over Doug and Dave and Jim, I happened to notice Stan sitting across the isle from me in Spanish class. I had known him before but that summer he must have had a spectacular growth spurt, because he had morphed into a splendid Viking, with white blond hair and tawny skin, browned from mowing lawns. The most intriguing thing about him was that was that he had mastered the art of sleeping with his eyes open but not many people were alert enough to take note of that fact.

He didn’t have a girlfriend that I knew of and his passion was for his pet snakes but not in any corny guy way intended to gross people out. Stan wanted to be a herpetologist when he graduated from college. What I realized very early on was that he was really smart, smart beyond placing in advanced classes but without being showy about it. And that was something that I could respect. I also liked that he wasn’t shy about his political convictions and in a sea of liberals he had a real American can do attitude about things. I, myself, was a nihilist at the time.

We initially started sitting next to each other in English class. We both enjoyed word games and we became the champion Jeopardy team in our school. The ducklings said I liked him so much that I would save the pencil he had lent me for eternity, even though it was sharpened down to a stub.

And I could tell that he liked me too. But there was something holding him back, perhaps inexperience or the attitude of his friends. On the other hand, it could have been that I was not to his taste; I was too dark, too earthy, too voluptuous, too weird and nothing at all like Cheryl Teigs, who was the icon of the moment.

I never said anything but I would make his favorite treat, guacamole, not a well known dish at the time, with a massive amount of garlic the way he liked it even though it caused my hands to reek for days afterward and people to recoil in my presence. Once I began to knit a sweater for him, but being left handed was having little success and having made almost no progress for months, finished it off and presented it to his boa constrictor as a Christmas present. However, nothing ever happened between us.

One weekend, my best friend, Babe, came to visit. But I should backtrack a bit. When my family immigrated to the States we settled in Oak Park, a lovely town outside of Chicago. I don’t know if I recognized Babe, who was small and blond as a kindred spirit or if her family’s apartment seemed very familiar and comforting to me. Her mother was German and her father, Jewish, and their rooms were stuffed to the brim with antiques and bronzes, paintings and Persian carpets. There was a grand piano and the lady who lived above gave lessons when she wasn’t practicing seven hours a day. Above all I recognized the food, so unlike the bologna on white bread and Spaghetti-o’s that everyone else served.

Every Sunday, I would stop by and ask Babe to accompany me to the library, and her delighted parents would insist on feeding me at every opportunity to show their appreciation for my ‘good influence’. Eventually Babe’s family moved next door to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Heurtley House on Forest Street. I was enthralled with both street and house, so very unlike the ugly two flat where my family lived. In essence, Babe and her family replaced the middle European world I had lost. Their hospitality became even more important when we moved to a new subdivision built on a treeless farmer’s field many miles away. I depended on them and I was grateful to them.

So many of my passions were formed there, my taste for modern furniture and paintings, old clocks, golden rooms trimmed in white, the Sunday Times Literary Review, martinis and caviar.

Babe, on the other hand rebelled against all that. She went to the free school and had had a serious boyfriend. She dropped acid, went to rock concerts, ate ‘shrooms and read a lot of books about the Buddha.

So occasionally when she came to visit our cornfield there was very little to entertain her with. When she suggested that we call Stan to come out and play, I consented. I had a little yellow Gremlin, the worst car in the entire world, which would perform a three hundred and sixty spin each time I slammed on the brakes, which was often since I could never time the red lights. Stan probably didn’t have anything to do either so after stopping over at his house and visiting with his parents for a while, we decided to take a drive.

In our town, the sidewalks rolled up at about nine o’clock, the air would begin to smell like a swamp and the cicada chorus would crescendo right about then. That’s when Babe decided someone should buy us a bottle of wine. We found a guy in front of the 7-11 who, for a few bucks, handed over two bottles of Mad Dog, an incredibly foul tasting liquor.

Stan took the wheel after I was no longer able to drive but soon determined that he was in no good condition either and we pulled into a forest preserve parking lot. I suppose it was then Babe decided it would be a good time to have group sex and certainly Stan exhibited the usual male enthusiasm. I, however, intended to save myself for something more profound than a bare-assed romp through the poison ivy. So Stan and Babe went off and I was far too drunk to be the least bit resentful. When they returned in about minute I asked, ‘So soon?’ To my great delight Stan had been a bit too drunk to pull it off.

In our addled condition, we decided that our parents, who were probably sound asleep, were missing us and we should check in. We drove back to my house, snuck in, noticed that my parents were peacefully snoring and should have left it at that.

Stan, stumbling upstairs, telephoned his father from the kitchen phone, announcing, in a very loud voice, This is your son, and then his name, both first and last several times so there would be no mistake and after receiving the wild oats blessing, threw himself down the porch stairs onto the grass, pulling me down with him. That’s where it finally happened, the long awaited kiss, which delighted both of us. For a moment we were to engrossed to hear Babe, who was happily lolling from side to side some distance away, saying …

‘Lillian, LILLIAN, LILLIAN!’

‘Not now,’ I replied.

‘But, I think Godzilla is coming,’ she said.

I looked up and to my horror, saw my father, a very large, ill- tempered man striding purposefully over the lawn. With an astounding burst of adrenaline born of fear, the three of us lept up and running at full speed, managed to jump the fence. We made for the Gremlin and tore out of the driveway as my father shook his fists of threatening fury at us.

In the morning, there was the inevitable return. Babe’s father had already been marshaled and was waiting in his elegant maroon Jaguar to whisk her home. And I was forced to face the dour parental units who resembled nothing more than American Gothic, or in this case, the Yugoslav equivalent, alone.

It was then that I learned I was being dispatched to Indianapolis as punishment that very afternoon, and that there would be no more contact with Stan.

Mira and Peter, my parents’ childless friends had volunteered to assist with my rehabilitation. And so we drove off, windows firmly shut against the dreaded Yugoslav scourge, promaja, or draft, while Mira and Peter chained smoked Winstons all the way.

When I came back three weeks later and school started again I found out that Stan had a new girlfriend. She, apparently knew how to make Stan feel like a man.

‘What’s the big deal,’ I asked Mark, Stan’s best friend.

‘It’s a big deal for guys,’ he said.

‘But I was in the car,’ I protested, ‘and had nothing to do with it.’

Stan was distant for months and then we were friends once again. My family moved back to civilization. My friends went off in different directions. The look changed from the all-American blond to dark European girls and suddenly I was a swan. I got the life I wanted and more than I could have ever dreamt of.

P.S. Stan and I reconnected on Facebook a couple of years ago. He has been married to the same lovely woman for thirty years, has three children, all with professional degrees and is a lawyer with a successful practice. Babe is a tour guide on an exotic island where her daughter is the youngest full-time forest ranger in the USA. Mark is a history professor who probably has the world’s happiest marriage. Incredibly, the love, friendship and humor is still there and the conversation always flows as if it had never ended.

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This is an excerpt from my new novel,End Game, the second in the Robideaux series. It takes place in the aftermath of the Destruction of Yugoslavia and centers around the arrest of an army officer and his subsequent show trial at the hands of the International Tribunal. I think it’s my best work so far, though still in progress.

Lazar ran into a dark and cobblestoned alley. Three cats, skin and bone cowered, afraid, then scurried off, slinking along the wall. In the distance he heard the persistent throbbing of a techno beat. As he turned the corner he saw the outline of a electric blue sign, advertising a nightclub. Wild Horses, it read. He was reeling with the effort of running and his lungs were filled with mucus. He coughed and spit blood. Looking behind him, he knew he had evaded his pursuer, if only for a moment.

Exhausted, he slumped before drawing himself up and headed down the cellar steps. The music grew louder and a burly man took his money and stamped his hand at the door. Inside the dance floor was packed with bodies, bobbing up and down in unison, in an amorphous organic mass, undifferentiated and indiscriminate.

He made his way to the crowded bar and waiting his turn, scanned the room in the mirrors that that ran the length of the bar.

He felt a woman’s hand on his arm. A lovely hand, he thought with long manicured fingers. The woman was young and heavily made up. Her hair was dyed white blond and her blue eyes were empty of all expression. Her Italian clothes fit too tightly over her muscular body, her jewelry and handbag proclaimed designer origins but the incongruous vision the wearer had of herself announced her oddness to the world. She skipped the line by signaling the barkeeper who immediately poured out two whiskeys, as if he had intuited what Lazar wanted.

Connections, she said, talking a mile a minute. She was funny and he would have paid more attention to her, if he had not been on the alert, watching and waiting. She could sense his disinterest but with a reckless, generous gesture, invited him to join her friends.

They were a group of local doctors, he ascertained by their conversation, as was she. He could hardly believe it. He sat at the end of the table, while she stood up to dance with a colleague. A dark bony girl with blue shadows under her eyes took her place. She shyly took measure of him under the curtain of her lanky unwashed hair. He wondered for a moment if she wasn’t a drug addict. As if she could read his mind she said, ‘I’m an intern at the hospital, I’ve just finished a forty hour shift.’

He tried to think of something to say and she followed his eyes, which darted periodically toward the door. ‘ Its hot in here and too noisy and I’m tired. Far too tired to sleep.’

He followed her like a homeless dog, out the back door and through a circuitous route of back alleys until they reached her place, which was no more than a garret up four flights of stairs. She listened to his breathing with concern but said nothing.

She lit a lamp, which illuminated a wall of recordings. He pulled one out, Django Rienhardt, and looked at her curiously while she poured two drinks from a bottle in the tiny kitchen.

‘ I inherited this from my uncle, he was an aficionado. He’s dead, of course. You can play anything you like.’ And so he did, while they sat in silence, drinking.

‘More?’

He shook his head as she stood. She pulled off her shirt, not looking at him and he could have wept with pity for the small flaccid breasts lying on her prominent ribcage, her dirty hair and her spiky hip bones.

He entered her standing, without love, without real desire, lost in his enormous solitude. It was a form of oblivion for both of them, though the thing they were running from lay like a chasm  unspoken between them, and its name was death.

In the morning, she reached over to the table next to her side of the bed and tossed him a set of car keys. ‘ Leave the car at the railroad station when you get there. Take the keys with you, I have another set.’

He opened his mouth and she said, ‘Don’t say a thing. I don’t want to know.’ He reached out for her but she shrank from his touch, turning away in silence toward the wall.

He found her car, small, dirty, battered, once white, now rusty parked on the street, and looking around and seeing no one, got in. He began driving toward the station, suddenly realizing it was the obvious choice and he could be easily spotted. He drove in the opposite direction, reasoning that he would let the girl know where he had left her car. An easy phone call to the hospital– they would deliver the message.

He soon drove out of town, finding himself on road heading out of the valley, through the hills. He knew he couldn’t take her car any farther and so he found himself driving parallel to the railroad tracks, without thinking or having a logical plan.

He came to the end of he line, or rather the beginning, a railroad yard full of junked trains. During the war they had been trashed, burnt out, used to transport matériel and soldiers. Luxurious trains with plush seats now provided nests for rodents which had moved in. He parked the car some distance away and crossed the yard, moving swiftly between cars and hopped a freight train that was beginning to creak along the tracks like a slow moving prehistoric animal.

He closed the car door behind him and settled in along rows of crates, empty it seemed, carrying nothing. He was thirsty and though it was early morning, he felt tired. He dozed, the momentum of the train lulling him to sleep. When he awoke he noticed the train had stopped. He listened and then peeked through the slats. He saw nothing but an empty field. He opened the door, slightly, enough to lower himself out. He estimated from the position of the sun that he had been headed in the wrong direction, away from the sea. For an instant he gave in to hopelessness and then he regained control. He darted under the rail car and on the parallel track, saw to his great joy, a passenger train also stalled, perhaps awaiting repairs, headed south west. Some men converged and gesticulated, arguing about something but he couldn’t risk being seen and so he darted out of sight and boarded the last car.

***

Mehmet held the gun to Lazar’s head. Lazar knew that unless the bald man became over zealous he would be safe. He was going to be brought in alive. Dead, he was useless to the court.

‘ On the ground, face down. Get your arms behind you.’ Lazar obeyed. He felt Mehmet straddling him, fumbling to get the cuffs on his wrists. Lazar had been trained long ago to know the parts on a human body where you struck to inflict pan, to debilitate, to kill. With a swift smooth movement he knocked Mehmet off balance and on his back. Lazar was up instantaneously.

Mehmet reached for the gun he had tucked into his belt and Lazar kicked it away. Mehmet rolled over and crouched low, waiting. Lazar dropped to his level and they circled around assessing each other’s weaknesses. Mehmet rushed first, knocking Lazar off his feet. He had no skill or technique but he was powerful and determined. Lazar hooked his legs around Mehmet’s and knocking him down , rolled on top of him. He clenched his arm around Mehmet’s neck. Mehmet bucked underneath him but Lazar used the momentum to pull them both around until they were lying face up. Mehmet kicked furiously and Lazar tightened his grip. He had stopped thinking and had thrown aside all constraints in the passion of the moment. He felt the life slowly ebbing out of the body he held in his power and he stopped suddenly, slowly releasing his grip. Mehmet gasped for air.

Lazar stood and picked the gun up. Without a backward glance, he took a running start and jumped off the train. Mehmet, on his knees stared after him, in disbelief. And then rising, he jumped as well.

He fell heavily, stumbling, and crossed to the open road. Dawn was breaking through the fog. Copses of trees,dim and shadowy, bordered pasture lands and fields. Lazar was ahead of him, out there somewhere, concealed in the mist. An eerie silence prevailed as the sun rose, hazy, through the clouds.

Mehmet saw a faint specter running in the distance, uphill and then out of sight. He forced himself onward without a weapon, knowing that he could not gain.

He did not know why he followed, or what he intended to do but now after all this time, he felt a compulsion that drove him forward and he ran, running past his pain and exhaustion. He mounted the hill and then Lazar was in view again.

Lazar turned as if he sensed that Mehmet was behind him and then he ran forward blindly into a fallow field. It was an unearthly, colorless day. The sun rose, white and blinding, Lazar ran forward. Behind him, Mehmet had stopped in his tracks. As if in a daze, he retraced his steps and stood on the road, indecisive, bouncing on his feet like a prize fighter. Lazar watched, not comprehending.

He took a step and then stopped, realizing what had happened, too late. It was luck that had gotten him this far. He stood for a moment in that pastoral silence as time flattened. He had a choice, to retrace his steps or move forward. If he went back, Mehmet would be waiting and Lazar would be forced to shoot him. If he went forward he might step on the very thing that he had avoided by chance until now. He had seen men step on mines blindly and as they stepped off, the mine would detonate, the blast resounding before the body was recovered, quivering, shredded and expunged.

He had nothing with which to defuse the mines and he could only hope that the blast would be powerful enough to kill him straight away, that he would not be left to die steaming in his own offal for hours or worse, be left legless and alive.

He moved cautiously to a nearby grouping of trees that were his best chance. A strange serenity fell over him and he knew he was exhausted beyond anything he had ever felt before. ‘That I may live,’ he said out loud. Who was he addressing ,God? he wondered and almost laughed. He was half way through to the other side, where another hill awaited him and he wished that it was over with because he felt that he could not go on.

He put one foot in front of the other, driving himself forward, in slow motion. Nada, appeared in front of him, shimmering, her golden skin dissolving in points of light, showing him a path and then there was nothing but the light, out of time, no barrier between what remained of himself and that ineffable oneness. Unaware of his own movement, he stumbled onward.

At the bottom of the hill Mehmet watched the reeling form, holding his breath and then he saw that Lazar was crossing, that he would make it out alive if only he could push himself a little further. Go, he said silently, amazed that his rage had drained out of him and that no longer wanted to see Lazar dead or captured.

At the top of the hill, a figure appeared. Even in the distance Mehmet recognized its burly blond frame for what it was. He had run across it before. Dutch, a bounty hunter, a holy -roller, holier than thou, the way only certain Westerners could be, he thought, oblivious to his own shadow and his own evil. He knew Lazar was trapped. Dutch-boy waited like a hunter waiting out a wounded animal, confident in his kill. He wondered if Lazar had seen him yet.

As Lazar approached the top of the hill, Dutch-boy crouched to meet him, swinging a chain into his eyes and then Lazar was felled. Dutch-boy bound him with the chain, pulling him back to his vehicle without a struggle. Lazar turned his face towards Mehmet and Mehmet wondered if he was deceived because Lazar was laughing through the blood that streamed down from his eyes.

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