The Deathless Hand
by Danielle L. Parker
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
4: Banks of the Ob River, Novosibirsk
An ancient wrapped in the remnants of a dirty blanket crouched before a small twig fire. The smoke rose in a thin blue thread and disappeared into the dark pines above. The eyes were slits in a lined, reddened slab of a face. The cheekbones were broad, the nose flat. A monotonous low mumble rose from almost motionless lips. His dried right hand fingered a tiny bone bear amulet. Now and then the old man took a swig from a small plastic bottle of Popav vodka. The knotty fingers of his left hand gleamed porcelain pale on its neck.
A tall sinewy figure emerged from the deep shadows beneath the pines. Across the river, the distant lights of the city illuminated a man’s stern, cold face; gleamed on the obsidian black of his long coarse hair. Narrow eyes shifted in the old man’s expressionless, weatherbeaten face. But he gave no other sign that he had noticed the visitor.
At last the old man ceased his mumbling song. Twigs cracked in the little fire. The old man reached out, fed a few sticks to the flames. Still he did not look up.
Presently, in a language still spoken in the forests of the great taiga, his visitor said, “It has been many years since I heard a Khanty shaman sing the calling of the white bear spirit.”
The old man did not look up from his fire. “I did not call you.”
“Your shadow self descended to the Underworld. That too is my place.”
The old man took another swig from his bottle. “I see you there, spirit. I see your white bones through your skin of ice. Your second mouth is in your forehead, and its teeth are crystal knives. I see your hook in your hand. What do you wish of me?”
“Your soul divides, old one. It leaves your body, inch by inch, for that amulet you hold in your hand. Soon you, too, will be a spirit of ice. You will no longer have a heart. Your soul will grow cold as the snows. Is this your wish?”
The old man’s fingers moved convulsively on his bone bear amulet. His black gaze shifted to his deathly white hand. He stared at it for a long time.
“No,” he answered at last.
“Then I will help you. But first do something for me. Return to the Underworld. Find there a powerful black shaman. He holds a blue rose in one hand and a bell in the other. On his shoulders is a cloak of black and white swan feathers. On his head he wears a princely crown with crosses upside down and, hung on his belt, the skin of a rabid wolf. When you find Vaslev the Sorcerer, give him this message from Koschay the Deathless: This is forbidden. This power is not for him, nor for others.”
The old man closed his eyes. The cold spring wind rustled the dark branches over his head. The lights of the distant city gleamed on the broad rolling surface of the Ob. The old man mumbled and rocked on his heels. At last he opened his eyes.
“I have told him. And he said to me, ‘Tell Koschay the Deathless that when Vaslev finds Koschay’s heart and Koschay’s soul, then Koschay will be Deathless no longer’.” The old man peered upward. His narrow eyes held guileless curiosity. “Where is your heart and where is your soul, Koschay?”
“I have given my heart to Mother Russia,” the tall man said. “Her, too, do I protect. Now I will help you, Juha Kosterkin, as I said I would. Your soul will enter the celestial realms without a hand, but you have your heart to take with you.”
And Koschay took his hook, which was the cunning shape-shifting sword Kladenets, and reaped. The old man fell forward dead. The bear amulet rolled out of his hand, and Koschay crushed the figurine with his boot. The little fire guttered out. For it could be seen, in the pale light reflected from the sparse snow, that the lifeless white hand was now only ice.
5: Café Grand, Nevsky Hotel Grand, St. Petersburg
The newspaper screamed its headline in large black print:
Colleague Detained In Filakov Murder Investigation
Filakov Body Torn To Shreds
Koschay laid the paper on the table. Behind him a woman laughed with her companion as they filled plates from the breakfast buffet. Gagarin picked up the discarded paper as he sipped his strong Caravan tea.
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Gagarin said. “Well, I have the information you asked for. The man who financed the Human Anti-Senescence Project is Dmitri Mikhailovich Levkin. He is, of course, an oligarch. Among other businesses, he owns Levkin Munitions.”
Gagarin’s square teeth showed in a humorless grin. “Colonel-General Shebalin describes you as his nuclear option, Colonel Koschay. I hope so, if you plan to go up against Levkin. The oligarch is rich and powerful. And he owns a lot of guns.”
Koschay did not appear perturbed. Did not, in fact, appear to hear him. Gagarin followed the direction of the strange blue gaze. What interested the man in that ancient Russian babushka, wizened but muscular, with a triangular scarf covering stringy iron gray hair, chewing her gums and ill-fitting metal dentures as she mopped? Gagarin had no idea. Say what I have to say and leave the freak to do his thing.
“Levkin may be found most nights after ten at his private club, the Werewolf. It is beyond even Colonel-General Shebalin’s powers to obtain an invitation for you. Good luck crashing the party. It’s in a high-security former bomb shelter. You will find the club on Voronezhskaya Ulitsa, off the Ligovsky Prospekt Metro station. If he’s not there, he’ll most likely be found at his country dacha, thirty miles outside the city. Directions to the dacha here.”
Koschay inclined his head and pocketed the note. He rose to his feet without further word. Gagarin, returning to breakfast, paused with his fork halfway to his mouth. Koschay threaded through the diners toward the door. But the man stopped beside the old mother. His lean figure bowed respectfully, and he spoke to her in a low voice. In his hand was a fistful of rubles. The babushka accepted the gift with tears trickling down her work-reddened cheeks.
Why? But Gagarin had no satisfactory answer. Surely not kindness.
6: The Werewolf Club, Voronezhskaya Ulitsa, St. Petersburg
After midnight, the club was almost quiet. Those in the know kept their heads down, their voices low, and their eyes averted from the rear of the long, low-ceilinged room. Because after midnight the man in the throne chair conducted business. And those who exhibited unseemly interest in Levkin’s business could find that glinting gaze suddenly on them, and the languid white hand of the occupant of the throne lifting to beckon them near. And no one in the know wanted that to happen.
Andrei, the whispers said. And Ivan. We never saw them again. Raisa was found in the Neva with her throat torn out. The hushed voices hinted the gray wolf-bitch that lay most nights at the feet of the man in the throne had done the evil deed. The few who knew what had really happened never spoke of it at all.
Still, before the tolling of the midnight hour, a guest might look without such risk on that strange throne chair and on the man who lolled at his ease there. The throne itself was a tall, canopied, ornately carved oaken chair. A few guests noticed how that chair on its square platform resembled the ancient kafedra occupied by bishops of the church.
But if they looked more closely, the crosses in those ornate carvings were upside down, and ancient Aesir and Vanir gods peeped slyly through carved vines and leaves. The painted icon on the backrest, visible now and then behind the occupant’s head, depicted a blonde woman with apple boughs in her hand. A gray cat sported at her feet.
And the carpet at the foot of the throne, though it resembled a bishop’s traditional eagle rug to a disturbing degree, bore the image of a flying three-headed serpent instead.
Perhaps tonight’s supplicant was not aware of such stylistic distinctions. For the most part, Hassan Gharib fixed his gaze on the man on the throne. Now and then his eyes dropped to the gray wolf-bitch resting at her master’s feet. His uneasy grin remained the same. “The money will be in the Geneva account tonight, Mr. Levkin.”
“Good.” The man fondled the head of the wolf-bitch. His voice was soft. “Your allies are not in a position to alienate me now. I expected the funds last night. Should the payment not be there tonight, as you say, expect repercussions. For the parties you represent... and for you.”
The wolf-bitch growled. The Syrian licked his dry lips. “I will see to it myself, Mr. Levkin.”
“Excellent,” the man on the throne said in his gentle voice. “I have other business to conduct tonight. See yourself out please, Mr. Gharib.”
For long moments after the Syrian departed, silence. The man’s strong elegant fingers played gently with the ears of the wolf-bitch. His pale angel’s face was calm and dreaming. His silvery blonde hair, worn loose to his shoulders, gleamed in the shadows. “I do not anticipate such issues between us,” he said at last.
“No.” The figure hidden behind the throne moved forward. His face was round and bland; his enigmatic eyes slits behind wire-rimmed glasses; his figure short and rotund in its ill-fitting business suit. “Not if you provide the information you promise.”
“I always keep my promises.” On his wide white brow, the man wore a thin circlet of engraved silver. The engravings were worn with age and the silver tarnished.
“But an old problem has resurfaced.” His moonstone eyes veiled. “Strange how one becomes fond of even an enemy, when one has known that enemy so many years. The world has changed beyond recognition for both of us. Yet we go on. So many years, Comrade Wen... many more than you possibly imagine.”
The Chinese man made no response. Perhaps he did not know what to reply. His host had momentarily forgotten him.
But after a moment of seeming distraction, Levkin looked up. His sweet smile transformed his face. “I digress. Forgive me. Allow my driver to return you to your consulate. I will contact you again. Perhaps in four to five days.”
Wen bowed. At the slight gesture of the man on the throne, one of the massive bodyguards came forward to escort the guest. When he was alone, the man looked down at the wolf at his feet.
“I always keep my promises,” he whispered to her. “I, Vaslev Bryachislavich, Prince of Polotsk and of Kiev, grandson of Rurik, promise I will find your heart, Koschay, no matter how many centuries it takes me. And when I find that heart, you may share with me, my lovely bitch. We will eat it together under the light of the moon.”
Copyright © 2014 by Danielle L. Parker