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Near Zero

by Natan Dubovitsky

translated by Bill Bowler

Near Zero: synopsis

Yegor Samokhodov was happy as a youth in the Russian heartland but now, in Moscow, in middle age, he is estranged from his wife and daughter, and his low-paying job as an assistant editor is going nowhere. Looking for a way out, he joins a criminal gang, the Brotherhood of the Black Book. The Brotherhood is involved in forgery, theft of intellectual property, black-marketeering, intimidation, extortion, bribery, murder, etc.

Yegor’s girlfriend, Crybaby, invites him to a private screening of her new film, although she cannot attend. Yegor goes, hoping she may show up, and is horrified to discover he is watching a snuff movie where Crybaby is slowly murdered. After the screening, Yegor finds that Crybaby has disappeared. He sets out to Kazakhstan, to find and kill her murderer, the film director Albert Mamaev.

The story is set against a panoramic backdrop of Russia during and after the collapse of the USSR. Yegor’s quest brings him into contact with a cast of characters from a broad spectrum of Russian life, culture, history, politics and government.

Near Zero header links
Translator’s Foreword Cast of Characters Table of Contents

Chapter 20: Dvadtsat'

“Hey, Naum, you have powder? You have fuses?”

The door opened and a shapely, young, dark-eyed, dark-skinned girl strode into the room in a dark green sweater and dark green jeans with a fancy belt decorated with gold-encrusted Arabic squiggles.

“Zalekha, greetings. We have powder and fuses.” Naum rejoiced at the possibility of not having to endure the consequences of Yegor’s pacifism. “Why do you ask?”

“On Monday I’m blowing up the Russian theater in Riga.”


“Because it’s Russian.” Zalekha smiled angelically, just like Petrov. Pointing at the hellish contraption in Naum’s hands, she asked, “Who are you preparing the flammable for?”

“For your people. We’re going to soak your people tomorrow, the dark-skinned ones.”

“Well, why not, if there’s a good reason? You blow up my people, I’ll blow up yours, and together we’ll be doing the common good.” Zalekha burst into wild laughter.

“What possible common good could you do with this fascist anti-semitic Jew, you harem bitch?” Musa Mertz foamed angrily at the mouth.

“We’re keeping the cowardly flock of working stiffs in line, the ones who are a bit slow from overeating and capable of thought only when frightened. Don’t argue, girls.” Naum hurried to answer for Zalekha, hoping to head off the confrontation, but he didn’t completely succeed.

Zalekha leveled a sawed off pistol at Musa that seemed to materialize out of thin air.

Musa took aim at the little terrorist from her trough with something hidden on the bottom for just such an eventuality. It turned out to be an equally horrifying weapon for underwater hunting.

Yegor, restraining Petrov with one hand, pulled his Makarov from his belt with the other and ordered the women to put away their weapons.

“Do what Yegor says. He’s a real gangster,” Foma shouted out from under the pile of junk.

“Well, we won’t mess with him after this!” Ratsov sneered. “Cease fire, ladies. Zalekha, put your cannon down or you won’t get any fuses. Let’s hear it for peace, friendship, and good fucking for all. Tolerance and multi-culturalism.”

Zalekha made a slight gesture and her shortened Colt dissolved into space as if it had never been. The underwater weapon peacefully returned to the bottom.

In complete silence, broken only by Petrov’s melodic murmuring, Ratsov threw some sinister-looking spare parts into an Armani bag and shoved it towards Zalekha, barking, “Fuses, and instead of powder, some pure plastic explosive as a bonus. Greetings to Ahmad. Good luck in Riga.” Ratsov accompanied the hot-headed guest to the doorway.

“I don’t want to see her here again. You understand me, Ratsov?” Musa was growing angry again.

“Or what? You’ll denounce her to the secret police, you toothless hippie!” Naum bristled. “You spent your whole youth screwing around with bikers while talking like Chekhov. Got down and dirty. Flower power. We’re all brothers and sisters. Make love, not war. And what?

“Your softheartedness, love and laziness led nowhere, except you got fat. And we got universal swinishness and power to the scoundrels. Forever war between monsters and freaks. And people like Zalekha believe in it, in justice and liberty. In the idea that to live, you need not only the use of your tissues, cells and muscles but also nice cars, summer homes, and chicks. And they believe in fixing the broken world in honor and in truth.

“By the way, Federal agents in black sedans immolated her husband and young son while they were on their way to a toy store. Well, we’ll allow that the husband spent his time murdering Federal agents at night and only pretended to be a chemistry teacher during the day. We’ll allow, we’ll believe it, though there’s not a shred of proof. But the son? Little Hassan? He was not even two years old, the same age as Petrov here. Why kill him?” Ratsov finished his tirade.

Ivan, the newly converted Muslim now yearning for Orthodox grace, interceded on Musa’s side. “Zalekha told you this? And you were touched, but tomorrow at the Dorogomilosky Market, when you blow up the foreigners, you’re not afraid of touching a few little Hassans? Or will you hang a sign at the entrance that children under the age of sixteen are admitted only with their parents’ permission?”

If I steal a billion but have not love, then I am nothing,” Rafshan suddenly sang out like a muezzin in a minaret. “And if I become a revolutionary and conquer and slaughter an entire people but have no love in me, then the revolution is nothing, and the conquest and slaughter are in vain. And if I tell lies with the tongues of men and angels and believe in nothing and am capable of every outrage, so that I can move mountains, and have not love, then there is nothing of use in me.”

“That’s right, Rafshan. Well said.” Musa laughed.

“Shall we continue?” Ratsov bent over. “Now we do everything as if through our asses, but then, face to face...”

“And now, and in the future, throughout the ages, the best that we are capable of is a poor retelling of a letter to the Corinthians,” declared Yegor, momentarily growing gloomy.

“You were always spare with humor, and today more spare than usual,” commented Musa, also gloomy. “OK, that’s enough. Rat, my bathrobe!”

Ratsov ran and brought Musa’s favorite bathrobe from out of some gloomy suitcase in the far corner. It had been sewn by her grandfather, Franz Friedrichovich Mertz, a kidney specialist of the Stalinist school who came from Prussia to partake of the workers’ and peasants’ paradise, and who took his own life a few years later, having discovered in himself the obvious symptoms of incurable Russification.

Musa emerged from her prehistoric trough, dripping foam, and changed into a historic bathrobe. She opened the aristocratic cupboard and dragged out a heap of written papers and bent diskettes.

“Here take these.” She handed them to Yegor. “These are poems, short stories and plays. All kinds. By Korfagendel, Mitska, Korneyev, Glushin, Glukhin, Grushkov, Molotko, and a few others I don’t remember them all. Sort through them, as always. If you find something you like, we’ll settle up. The prices are about the same. You can just toss the rest.”

Hiding his Makarov in his pants, Yegor whispered, “You don’t have to maintain an archive and fuss over manuscripts,” and took the goods with his free hand. He stashed them under his shirt, dropping half of them, walked to the entrance, and took his jacket from the nail.

“Listen, comrade, leave Petrov here. His mother will show up soon. What would we tell her?”

Yegor had completely forgotten he had Petrov over his shoulder. Yegor slowly handed Petrov to Naum and left the hospitable gang.

Outside, the old style Moscow courtyard smelled like some kind of Mumbai slum. Was it cinammon wafting from the neighbors? Clove? Blended with unwashed cockroach and leftover onion soup, to boot?

Yegor made a neat pile of the floppy discs and papers, smoothing them out and stacking them carefully. He understood there were surely priceless lines among them, more valuable than the money that could be paid for them by even such generous eccentrics as the governor, Sergeich, and Ktitor.

Yegor dropped a few more sheets, stopped in the courtyard, and put everything in his pockets as best he could. He wanted to go back into the apartment for just one more packet or one more little box of papers, but thought better of it and departed into the nighttime alley.

In front of the entrance, next to Yegor’s car, another Mercedes hummed quietly, clinging to the sidewalk with the open doors. It was just like his except it was a 500 not a 600, and white, not grey.

Zalekha stood next to the car in the company of two goons with colorless hair and eyes, and mugs made of cauliflower and rusted red skin. They were examining the Colt pulled from Zalekha’s Shahid belt. Another goon, politely cursing, was persuading her to sit in the car. She glanced at Yegor, didn’t flinch and didn’t utter a sound. He felt her unnoticed, unvoiced cry for help, thrown to his heart, scrape against his soul, which had just recently been warmed by little Petrov. Ratsov’s crumpled Armani bag had been tossed on the hood.

“Something wrong?” Yegor stuck his nose in.

“The belt’s not real. It’s a fashion accessory. Jean-Paul Gautier label, right there, see? Expensive, no doubt,” said the goon to no one in particular. He returned the belt to Zalekha.

Goon-2, who had been persuading her, turned to Yegor and dangled in front of his nose a two-volume government ID decorated with double-headed eagles, with a heading in large, embossed letters, as if for the blind, that read: “Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. Special Division No. 602194. All organs of power and local authority and equally all citizens are required to render to the bearer complete cooperation in the discovery, apprehension, and destruction of loose animals and other socially dangerous organisms.”

Goon-2 held the ID in front of Yegor with one hand and turned the pages with the other until Yegor had read the whole text, right down to the illegible signature of an unknown General, squiggled at the end underneath the expiration date.

“And you are?” asked the Special Agent, putting away the document and dangling a pistol in the same place.

Frowning into the barrel, Yegor pulled his tiny journalist ID from his back pocket

“Fake,” croaked goon-2 with barely a glance. “Get going, before I bust you for forgery. And for refusal to cooperate. And don’t look back.”

Yegor sat in his car. Didn’t look back. While he searched for his keys among the poems, he heard Zalekha cry out, “Allah ak—”

An almost silent shot, then another

A goonish, “I got the legs, you get the hair, grab by the ears. A nice babe, but a bloodsucker. When are you going to learn how to shoot? Grab her. One-two-three.”

The sound of the trunk shutting, then the doors.

The car backing up in reverse.

Yegor started his car and also left. He didn’t look back.

To be continued...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

Proceed to Challenge 857...

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