The Deathless Hand
by Danielle L. Parker
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
10: Levkin’s Country Dacha, outside St. Petersburg
Grigory Arshavin spooned another mouthful of caviar. After swishing the delicious briny eggs on his tongue, he swallowed with the regret of a true trencherman. Starved after his stint in the dank jail cell, he had frankly gobbled the supper laid out as a grand buffet on the long table.
But no one had dragged him away from the feast. Nor had he been required to share the delicacies. In Arshavin’s opinion, his host, lounging in a strange throne-like armchair at the far end of the table, had eaten scarcely enough to fill a cavity.
Even the gray wolf-bitch at Levkin’s feet, which at first Arshavin eyed warily, proved well-behaved. And after he lost his fear of the wolf, Arshavin had eyes only for the fabulous spread. If he had looked up once from his well-filled platter, he might have caught the slight curl of lip with which his host observed his appetite. And perhaps remembered that quaint Russian saying: Eat breakfast by yourself, share dinner with a friend, but serve your enemy supper.
“Grigory Ivanovich... may I call you that?” Levkin’s soft voice distracted Arshavin from a palate-cleansing vodka chaser.
Momentarily out of breath, the scientist managed to nod. He grinned. Why, Levkin’s a down-to-earth fellow after all. No airs.
“Thank you. First allow me to tell me how much I regret your situation. Of course you did not kill Professor Filakov. Only a fool would believe you capable of murder.”
“I can’t believe someone understands at last.” Arshavin’s eyes gleamed damply. “I’m so grateful to you, Mr. Levkin. For rescuing me. For believing me. And of course, for financing our research in the first place.”
“In retrospect, I underestimated the Tatar.” The wolf-bitch rested her muzzle on Levkin’s elegantly shod toes. He extended a hand to fondle her ears. “I forgot how the old beliefs, and sometimes the old powers, linger in the primitive races. No matter. Juha Kosterkin is no use to me now.” Arshavin nodded uncertainly. “But that brings us to my difficulty. The persons involved in this matter have suspicious minds. They must have proof.”
“I’m sure we can find other test subjects with no trouble, Mr. Levkin. Why, when we advertised, we had dozens of applicants who—”
“Time is short. Why should I advertise? I have a test subject.”
A long-buried instinct made Arshavin swallow. Rapidly: “Mr. Levkin, several problems remain to be resolved with the treatment. We still do not understand the physical side-effects. The hardening of the epidermis; the loss of skin pigmentation; the nerve changes; the... the... and the... psychological aspects of the process are even more puzzling. We followed your ritual, of course, but I never understood why such psychological underpinnings were required. Why was it necessary to convince the subject that—”
“That his soul was leaving his body to attach to a material object?” Levkin rose. Crossing the antique Turkish carpet, he bent over a side table to consider the various valuable objets d’art on its checkerboard surface. “Yes, this will do.”
Levkin selected a lacquered music box. He raised the lid and listened to its wild strains for a moment. He shut the lid. “The original A Night on the Bare Mountain. Not the later Rimsky-Korsakov variation. How deliciously apt. Well, to answer your question, Professor Arshavin. Juha Kosterkin believed his soul was leaving his body, because it was.”
Arshavin filled the vodka glass. His hand shook slightly. “That’s ridiculous. I am a scientist. I don’t even believe in souls. Many possible logical explanations exist for—”
“Quite,” Levkin said. “You will have sufficient leisure to explore them. As long as this music box remains intact. You must understand this music box will become very important in your future. I am glad you enjoyed your meal, Grigory Ivanovich. I honor old traditions. And this is an older one than you probably realize. The last supper of the sacrificed.”
11: Banks of the Moskva River
The river twisted like a snake, wide and deep and powerful, thickened with the slow-melting ice of a late Russian spring. Here the lights of the city’s distant towers were but closer stars in a vast realm of night. In the cold moonless heaven, pinprick points of constellations spun in cosmic dance.
Koschay stood with the toes of his tall boots lapped by the water. He sang. “Spirits of the river, vodianoi...”
A head crested the dark surface. An old man, long slimed hair spangled with the detritus of modern civilization: soaked wrappers and soggy paper cups and discarded plastic forks. Dead fish and motor oil. Sewage and filth. A black leech and soggy tissue clung to his hollow cheeks. His eyes were dark holes that held no sanity. The head sank out of sight. But where it had been, the surface of the water bulged. The bulge drifted closer.
“Spirits of the river, rusalka...”
Three more heads broke the surface. One was an eerie drowned child. The second was a woman with eyes of evil green fire. The third had the head of a huge sturgeon.
“Hear me...” Koschay’s voice was harsh but not unpleasant. “I sing of drowning. I sing of floods. I sing of a falling tower.”
The three heads rose out of the water to the necks to listen.
“Let the floods break into that place, let the waters rise high. Drown its pillars. Let ice crush and crash. Drag men down to the depth. Feed on their eyes.”
The head of the old man broke the surface again. He grinned. His teeth were nothing human. “Feed us first.”
Koschay extended his arm. The hook in his other hand flashed, glittering in starlight. Blood gushed from his bared arm as he bowed over the waters. The Moskva swallowed the scarlet torrent. Beneath the surface, strange lips fed greedily.
“We’ll do it,” the old man said, still grinning as he swam away. “Tomorrow night.”
12: Levkin’s dacha, outside St. Petersburg
“What’s happening to me?” Grigory Arshavin screamed. “Look at me! Look at my face! I’m tearing apart. I’m freezing to death. Help me! Help me!”
The massive bodyguard grunted derisively. “Can’t take your own medicine?”
“I didn’t know it was like this.” Arshavin pounded his chest with his fists. “Something’s pulling my heart out. Oh, it hurts! Why didn’t Kosterkin tell us?”
The bodyguard took his arm. “Those old Tatars don’t complain much. Life has always been hard for them. Come on. Get your coat, Professor. Mr. Levkin says you’re taking a drive.”
Arshavin chattered, “I c-can’t feel my fingers. I’m so cold. What’s happening to me?”
The guard held his coat for him. “It’ll be over soon. Soon you won’t feel a thing.”
“What will be over? I don’t understand this!” Arshavin looked up. For the first time, his gaze focused on the face of the man helping him. “Hey. What happened to your eye?”
The guard lifted the patch that covered his right eye. Beneath the cloth, the blasted eye was blind and milky-white. He adjusted the patch once more.
“I saw something once I shouldn’t have seen. “
“Mr. Levkin,” the guard said. “Really pissed. And I hope I never see that again. Moscow for you, Professor. Time for show and tell. You’re the exhibit.”
13: Headquarters of Levkin International, Moscow International Business Center
The red lights at the top of the sixty-storied tower blinked steadily against the night. Down at its feet, the river twisted in a dark ribbon outlined by the bow and stern lights of a passing barge. Jagged ice chunks floated in the steady current, creaking and groaning as they ground against each other. The river talked to itself tonight. Its mutters sounded malevolent.
The truck driver stood beside the construction foreman watching a gray stream of cement rush down the tube into the future parking lot. He pushed his wool cap back on his head and scratched in his matted hair. “Don’t like the look of that river tonight. If it rises higher, you’re in trouble. Looks like it’s still cresting to me. And rising fast.”
The foreman had a haggard face with shadows ringing blood-shot eyes. “I do as I’m told. I was told this parking lot had to be ready by Monday. Think I’m working the night shift for fun?”
The truck driver pointed up toward the glittering windows high in the sky. “Looks like they’re having fun up there. Quite a party, is it?”
“Mr. Levkin doesn’t tell me his business.” Under his breath, “And I have three kids to keep alive.”
In the penthouse party, no one heard the roar of the cement mixer far below. The vodka flowed without interruption. But Grigory Arshavin wasn’t drinking. He sat pale and mute in a Thonet chair.
His guard said, “Looks like you could use a drink, Professor.”
Arshavin looked up blankly. “Something’s happened to me. I feel dead.”
“Win the prize.” The guard patted his shoulder. “Don’t worry, Professor. I’ll bring you the bottle. Maybe it won’t help, but pretend.”
Across the room, Wen Hongqi clutched a crystalline goblet. But he wasn’t drinking. His host raised a glass filled with golden wine.
“Tokaji,” Levkin said. “Pity you seem to have no interest in it. I first drank the Eszencian nectar in the courts of the Komnenion emperors. Never say the Greeks do not have taste.
“I see you observe our scientist, Wen Hongqui. I have paid a high price for my long life, as that mad witch and her blue roses know. But perhaps Grigory Arshavin pays a dearer one. Do you know what he has become?”
“Jiang-shi.” Behind his large spectacles, the Chinese man’s eyes were inscrutable.
“Not quite. You Chinese have no exact analogue.” Levkin’s long fingers toyed idly with a small object. “Call him a spirit of ice. Invulnerable to death in its ordinary forms.” The object was a music box. He lifted the lid with a thumb. Tinkling notes emerged.
Across the room, Grigory Arshavin beat palms against ears and shrieked, “That music!”
Levkin shut the lid. “You see. This object represents his sole Achilles heel. Imagine an army of such deathless warriors. Warriors you hold in such perfect control. Their life will be literally in your hands... and yours alone.”
The Chinese man lifted his glass and looked long at the golden wine. At last he took a cautious sip. “And what do you wish for the secret of creating such warriors?”
“Why, nothing.” Levkin smiled. With his pale gleaming hair and moon-silver eyes, he looked like an angel of the night. “Nothing, now. Only your favor, Wen Hongqi. Your debt. The beginning of our long relationship. “
The Chinese man raised his glass once more. The gesture was almost a toast. If Iron-Crutch Li whispered caution in his ear, perhaps Wen Hongqi decided not to listen. “Tell me more,” the Chinese man said.
Far below the penthouse party, the truck driver climbed into his cab. He stuck his head out the rolled-down window before he drove off. “No more cement tonight,” he yelled over the rumble of his engine. “I’m not risking my truck. You’ve got problems, brother. Look how fast that river’s rising!”
The foreman stared at the ominous black current lapping its banks. His work-reddened face lost color. He pulled out his phone. He had to moisten his lips twice before he could speak to the man answering his call. “We have a problem down here, sir,” he croaked. “Better tell Mr. Levkin.”
Copyright © 2014 by Danielle L. Parker