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.
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.