Prose Header

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 27: Dvadtsat' Sem’

As the crowd dispersed, Yegor moved through the empty rows toward the exit. In his peripheral vision, he noticed Sara or some non-Sara passerby who looked like her from behind, but he did not stop to check. He ran straight home where, for three days in a row, he washed his hands, ate nothing, couldn’t sleep, lay in the bathtub, dreamed of forgetting the screening, and risked searching on the internet for Crybaby.

He found something, but not much. There were posts related to “Ghostly Things” but not about the film and not what he needed. Four years ago, a few uninfluential bloggers took shots at Mamaev in Albanian. Some kind of virtual proto-deacon anathematized him in February of the previous year, after which the poster disappeared from the web without a trace. There were no posts about “Our Own” and none about Crybaby.

In vain, Yegor went on line at the time they were usually scheduled to chat. In vain he went on line again later, several more times, moved the cursor around the screen, stamped his foot, and pined for her. She wasn’t there.

He set out to search for her, first at respectable, impressive websites of film companies and entertainment journals.

Then he turned to the Internet back alleys of gossip and uncensored criticism; then to pirate sites where they sold stolen videos; and finally ended up in the dark, rarely frequented fringes of traffic, the dwelling place of hardcore gangs of pedophiles, Nazis, hired killers, swindlers, con men, sexual monsters, drug dealers, psychos and other such members of the public. But here, as well, no one had heard about her.

Yegor went outside the fringe of the Web into the open, pure cosmos, untethered and immune to spam. There was only coal-black, impenetrable darkness, like the last frame of the film after “The End.” Crybaby was not there.

Yegor was not confused by the movie, though he felt a sickening confusion. Most important, he was tormented by a malign suspicion. At first, he took it for a bad taste left in his mouth by Mamaev’s debilitating work, but it burst in his head with blinding pain.

Yegor was quite experienced. For many years he had loved his work and only recently become dissatisfied. In his line of work, he had often observed how harsh commanders of commercial wars, their wives and children, their enforcers and infantry, were dispatched to the other world along with the unplanned victims, guiltless morons awkwardly eliminated for having shown up at the wrong place at the wrong time, ground on the millstone of gang warfare.

Yegor knew what they felt and how they looked when they were alive, and afterwards, when they were no longer. He knew how their faces, mouths and eyes, skin, hearts, kidneys, arms and legs behaved. He knew what adrenaline and sugar did to their blood. He knew where their thoughts hid. He knew what it took to bring them to that blessed submission, that sweet comatose room-temperature enervation that suddenly cuts short agony and tenderly wipes away life from the insignificant hills and streets.

He knew that it was impossible to act what had happened to Crybaby. In the most depraved or realistic staging, you could not get it so precisely. Not in gangster movies, not in horror films did the expressive means exist to achieve such a terrifying level, even with the most colossal budgets under the control of maniacal directors and psychopathic technicians.

But outside of cinema, that’s how it was. That’s how they cried, that’s how they screamed, that’s how they bent double, transformed into animals, turned pale and froze. Everything led to one conclusion: Crybaby had been actually, in reality, raped and strangled. Her shame and her death were filmed, and then her murderer was burned. This suspicion was corroborated by the fact that Crybaby had not come on line, as she had promised, could not be found, and did not reply.

Thunderstruck, Yegor got dressed in something gathered up from the dirty floor that turned out to be a suit with three-day old stains, the same suit he had worn to “Our Own,” where he was going again now in order to find out, he knew not what.

2-A Ordynsky Prospect had managed, in this time, to grow a floor and a half, as was expected of office construction during the epoch of furious economic boom. Yegor was met at the door by the same guard as on the evening of the film. The guard had gotten a little fatter, as was expected of building guards in the epoch of consumer boom.

But now the guard harassed the unshaven, uncombed, disheveled visitor; had no reaction to the name Eurobeater; and he knew nothing of any “One’s Own.” He responded to questions about the fourth floor in fragments and pieces. They had moved in only yesterday. They made a market in some kind of American Depository Receipts but were planning to reorganize as a public corporation. Before them, some private company had been there, and what was it to him, anyway? Why don’t you get lost?

Proceed to Chapter 28...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

Proceed to Challenge 864...

Home Page