I had to go again into Gorky. In Russia, the leadership likes to rename the cities: for the past ten years, this metropolis was called Nizhny Novgorod,* but the automobile plant was still called Gorky, therefore in the language it was Gorky, Gorky, Gorky…
I need to get the documents for the batch of cars that we were supposed to take directly from the factory. In financial terms, such a deal was much more profitable than the services of local intermediary firms, but business-wise it was more dangerous, because it needed to bypass the slingshots of the local bureaucrats, gangsters and the Nizhny Novgorod traffic police. All these structures were vigilantly guarding the factory gates and any batch of cars passing by “their” intermediary firms were immediately harassed from all sides: local officials assaulted them with documents, traffic police issued fines, robbers burned and vandalized the cars. Sometimes visitors just disappeared without a trace and without a word…
My friend offered me, the army major of the reserve, the chance to work in Nizhny a few years ago, immediately after my demobilization. He also promised an apartment in this Mecca of automobiles. There, by chance, I met the director of an automobile shop. After we made each others’ acquaintance, one of my employees, having learned that I was going to purchase the car named “Volga,” decided to acquaint me with his former classmate, now the director of a large autohouse, the main founder of which was the Gorky Automobile Plant.
Some time passed. I did not see in the Nizhny Novgorod region the capitalist paradise that the official press was talking about. I didn’t get a flat. The promises of my leadership remained promises, and after a while, I had to get out of there empty handed. The only memory I have of this ancient Russian city is a pair of telephone numbers in a notebook and the beautiful black car Volga GAZ 31029: shiny, like a raven’s wing. So it all may have gone to hell, but one of my friends asked to help buy the alike car, and after a while, I began to ride again into Gorky, helping needy people to buy the desired car. Business was weak, but I didn’t have to choose: I brought, at best, a couple of cars each month, when I got a sudden call from Voronezh. Local dealers paid attention to new cars periodically emerging out of Gorky and offered to expand their supply to the entire Voronezh region. An old acquaintance—the director of a car shop in Nizhny Novgorod—turned out appositely to this purpose. Officially, I continued to work in one of the local organizations, periodically disappearing for two or three days. The management wrote off my absenteeism to binge drinking, a sin I occasionally indulged in, and the administration has forgiven the old major many times: only a few dedicated people knew the true cause of my disappearances.
The system seemed perfect: the first set of documents was for the Nizhny Novgorod region—the director has wrote them out for the cars in his shop. But the cars did not go to the autohouse. The second set of documents replaced the first set as soon as they drove out of Nizhny Novgorod province, and our drivers drove the cars to Voronezh. The first set was destroyed due to being poorly designed. Business improved, but the Voronezh merchants suffered the same fate as Nizhny Novgorod: local officials encroached on them, traffic police issued them fines, and the gangsters flexed their muscles. It was necessary to share the profits with them. However, the irrepressible appetites of some and the stinginess of others brought the matter to a head, and the streamlined system collapsed, landing me with three years of chemistry,** which I safely hid from others under the guise of trying to change my place of residence.
My return was painful. Without a penny in my pocket, with lost connections and zero prospects, I arrived at a provincial town to look around again and lick my wounds. For more than a month, I wandered around its dusty streets, looking for at least some work, until I finally received an invitation to work as a vehicle insurance agent. I disposed of my free time, which was unmeasured, on my own, but it did not make me happy, because beggarly idleness did not bring me any satisfaction.
The peculiar trill of the telephone interrupted the dreary twilight of the passing day, but the voice that sounded in the phone made me shudder and splashed into my blood a strong dose of adrenaline:
“Serge! You come back and do not call…”
It was Andre, one of those who financed the initial purchase of cars in Nizhny in order to resell them in Voronezh. The next day, we met in a cozy cafe on the beach of the reservoir, the conversation was short, and after a couple of days, I was ready again to go to Gorky. The only thing that worried me in the upcoming voyage was a meeting with the auto shop director. I called him; he was silent for a long time, and then he said to me:
“You calmly kneaded clay in a brick factory, but for three years, my soul was torn out by verifications, the robbers on the ‘cannon’ continue to hold.” The roof*** suspects that the cars were bypassing them. They were pressing me, they were demanding that I tell them about you. But everything went well. Well, okay, come…”
I didn’t particularly like this telephone conversation, but Andre had already prepared the money. I collected my things and bought a ticket to Gorky.
Every day, a lot of people come to Nizhny Novgorod. Of course, the gangsters do not graze each of them, but an experienced eye unmistakably determines who has arrived in Gorky for what purpose and from whom they can profit. Law enforcement do not leave visitors without attention either. The exchange of information between organized crime and the police is excellent. If the cops do not want to mess with people with little cash, they let the criminal lads take care of them. If the visitors defy the local thieves and do not fall under the police’s control, then they risk getting handcuffed and thrown in prison. I did not want to become prey in any situation.
I did not ride to the last stop, but got off on the previous one, small. It was close to Nizhny Novgorod, but riding the public transport went badly, and I did not take a taxi so as to not attract the attention of the taxi driver. I looked at the commuter train schedule on the station wall, chose the nearest train, and waited for it. Finally, the train came and I squeezed into the carriage. It was crowded.
The train started moving. After some time, controllers appeared. I saw that many passengers did not have tickets, but they simply give the controllers a small amount of money. I did the same, and the inspectors went on further without paying any attention to me.
The train arrived at the last stop. The people rushed to the station square in order to have time to squeeze into the public transport headed for the market. Most of the passengers were peasants trying to sell their crops to city residents. I needed to get lost in the crowd. I saw a grandma carrying two baskets of carrots and beets. The old woman weakly dragged her luggage, looking at people overtaking her with anguish. I picked up her baskets and shouted in her ear: “What market? Which bus? Hold on to me tighter to not get lost!” The stunned grandma grabbed my hand, but relieved from the load, she walked quickly to the small steps in front of me, pointing to the route. For sure, from that side we looked like peasants: mother and son.
The bus arrived to the market. I helped the old woman bring the baskets to the counter and left for the city. Here I had nothing to fear, and I went on the tram. The carriage, rattling and shuddering, dragged across the bridge over the Oka and plunged into the wilds of the city. For an incomplete year, which I once spent in this metropolis, I managed to figure out its intricacies, and after a while the curved street led me to a homely building, in its best times, a former PTU hostel or perhaps even a technical school. Now she had a proud sign bearing the words “hotel,” but the contents of the building had changed little from that. It took me some time to find the administrator. I peeked into the rooms and had already lost my patience when the screech of the openable lock was heard and a sleepy matron of uncertain age fell out of the last room.
There were no single-bed rooms in her flophouse, and I had to be content with a double room, where, besides me, some other driver from Vologda was accommodated. From my childhood, I got the impression that Vologda people are scrawny and gloomy. The well-fed Slavik clearly did not fit this stereotype; he was unusually talkative and offered to seal our acquaintanceship with a bottle of vodka. I did not refuse, and after a while I knew all of his secrets, starting with the fact that he arrived for a new truck and ending with the biographies of his wife and mother-in-law. To his question about the purpose of my arrival, I modestly replied that I had come for the official Volga for my boss. We ended our conversation lay down to sleep.
Outwardly, my task was extremely easy. It was necessary to give the director of the store a power of attorney to receive the cars and the documentation accompanying them, and in return get him the relevant papers. But in fact, it was not so simple. Having intercepted this package, the bandits could simply resell the cars through their firms, and law enforcement agencies, finding two sets of documents for the same car, would blame the shop management for fraud with all the ensuing consequences. Therefore, we had to fear not only being robbed, but also searched by the police. For cover, I had a power of attorney to receive the car Volga GAZ-31029. This paper I carelessly put in my passport. But even if it had been stolen, the criminals could not get anything: no one was going to pay for said car. The real power of attorney was hidden in the sole of some old homemade slippers, which, when moving with me from city to city, I wrapped in a dirty t-shirt and underwear, and now put into a travel bag thrown under the bed. I had to take this document at the very last moment.
The morning was ordinary. I deliberately stalled for time, lying in bed. Slavik had already washed and shaved when I finally deigned to lift my body up and put my feet in slippers. The toilet in the room was original: it had two doors, one of which went out to us, and the second to the corridor. Three crap toilet bowls hissed in unison with thin, endless streams of water, the only washbasin lonelily echoing this hiss with drum drops from the holey tap. I locked both doors on the hooks, but their design did not guarantee a reliable locking.
To avoid embarrassment, I urinated extremely quickly, and then, without hurrying, I began to shower. When I returned to the room, there, in a glass jar, water was boiling with might, and sliced cheese and sausage stood as the hill on the table. For a second chauffeur, this was somewhat wasteful. I modestly took out a piece of bacon and a jar of home canning food left over from yesterday’s binge. We sat down to breakfast.
The hotel was already awake. Doors thudded open in the corridor, voices were heard, and after a while, somebody knocked on our door. A not-quite elderly woman entered the room and brought a mop with a rag and a bucket. Slavik’s eyebrows rose up in surprise: “Yesterday there was another cleaner,” to which the woman also answered in surprise: “Now I will make clean.” Both of them immediately tried to hide their surprise, but this did not escape my attention. The Vologda driver began to gather his things, and I did not want to stay in the room. Slavik pulled out of his vast bag a brown leather folder of an intelligent figure with a zip-lock keychain. This surprised me a third time, and I immediately decided to pick up my things and leave the hotel. But Slavik persistently continued to wait for me in the corridor, and I did not dare to leave a hotel forever in his presence. Coming out of the homely building, my acquaintance behaved even more strangely: he grabbed me by the sleeve and pushed me into the approaching car. My heart sank and went into heels. I prepared for the worst…
There was no one in the car except for the driver. I got ready for a fight, but the Vologdaman unzipped the folder, took out the bundle from it, and unpacked it. These were documents for factory cars.
“Power of attorney!” The complacent expression on his face was replaced by a grimace of adamant determination.
“Director only,” I replied.
“Call him.” Slavik handed me a mobile phone.
I dialed a familiar number and the director’s vote confirmed the validity of the claims of my new acquaintance.
The power of attorney, hidden in slippers, was in the doss-house, and I had to return there. Slavik cursed and ordered the driver to go back. We stopped at a nearby building. I slowly entered the lobby and walked along the corridor. The toilet was not locked; I carefully got inside and tiptoed to the door leading to our room. The crack, made in it by previous guests, apparently intended to pry over visitors in the toilet. She also came in handy for me: I saw my room and the cleaning lady in it. She frantically searched my bed and fumbled through my things. I also quietly went out into the corridor and, deliberately stepping loudly, went into the room through the usual entrance. The woman was amazed at my return. I said that the money was finally transferred and I was getting a car, and started stuffing my belongings into my bag. The cleaning lady went out into the corridor. I looked out after her: she called someone on the mobile phone. I threw my ill-fated slippers into my bag and rushed headlong into the street.
Our car was in the archway of a nearby building and was almost invisible. But as soon as I sat in it, from the side of the avenue, the other Volga rushed into our street. She moved past us and, creaked by brakes, stopped abruptly at the entrance to the hotel. We started moving, and, increasing the speed, drove to the avenue, but could not break away from our pursuers: the cleaning lady ran out on the porch along with those who arrived, and showed them her hand on our car.
The chase began. Volga, a car, is good of course, but it was not made for racing in the city. We could not tear ourselves away from our pursuers, but they could not catch up with us. The documents were already in my bag; I absolutely didn’t want to participate in these races, so I told the driver to choose a winding road, and after that rolled into bushes on one of the turns. The pursuers, not noticing my disappearance, rushed past.
I decided to intercept the convoy in Gorokhovets, the district center of the Vladimir region, through which both the highway and the railway pass from NiNo, and I rushed to the station. I had a special sign: the height. A man with a height of more than two meters will be noticed unless people were blind. There was still enough time before my train would come and leave. I didn’t want to attract the attention of the station public, and I didn’t want to hang around the station square and adjacent streets. I decided to stop in an inconspicuous place. Not knowing who was pursuing us—the police or bandits—and in any case, I didn’t want to deal with any of them. I went out onto the platform and, taking advantage of the confusion around the station, disappeared amidst wagons and lorries in a web of access roads and dead ends.
On the other side of the station, there was relative silence. I found a gazebo, apparently used by railway workers for rest and smoke breaks, and decided to wait in it to board my train. Time passed slowly, so I looked through all the newspapers and magazines lying in my bag. The excitement gradually subsided, but starvation and yesterday’s feast made themselves known. Not far from the gazebo, I noticed a small shop and went there to buy food and fizzy water: I decided to postpone alcohol consumption until the transfer of documents.
The Ford pick-up was of a poisonous green color: I noticed this car when I was in the store. The car drove to the outlet of shop after me, but for some reason, no one exited it. I packed my bag and groceries and, while slowly drinking water, looked at the station through the window of the store. There, thundering the wagons, workers fussed. The driver left the Ford and, going to the store, bought a pack of cigarettes. His eyes slid idly over my figure, but something in this seemed unusual to me. In addition, his partner seemed familiar, but I could not make him out well due to the strongly-tinted car windows. Cursing my suspicions, I walked out of the store, and at the same moment the car door swung open and Slavik jumped out.
He grabbed a pistol from the inside pocket of his jacket and, twisting the shutter, began to aim at me. It’s not hard to hit a man at a distance of five meters: I found this out in the army. I didn’t want to get a few bullets in the torso and one in the forehead, and, dodging and making jumps like a hare, leaped over the rails in the direction of the station. The sound of gunshots sounded behind me, the bullets rushing around my body. I frantically pulled my head into my shoulders and jerked for the saving gazebo.
One of the bullets hit the column supporting the roof of the gazebo, the slivers flying in different directions. One of them grazed my cheek, but I did not feel any pain: I had to save my life. I do not like to kill people, and therefore I never take a weapon with me, although my brother brought a whole arsenal from Afghanistan. We had fun with him, shooting small bottles and cans within a nearby ravine, until random passersby reported us into the police. The deputy head of the ROVD was my classmate and did not press charges, but warned us to stop…especially because I sometimes lose control of myself in rages. There was no doubt here: I would put down these puppies alongside their blasphemous Ford, but what would I have to do next?
Behind the station, a police siren rang out. The shooting stopped, the engine roared and, looking back, I saw that the Ford had sped away. Energy suddenly left my body; I had descended on the rails. Blood was dripping from the ripped cheek onto the railway…
When I returned home and called the director of the store in NiNo, the staff could not find him for a long time. Andrew tried unsuccessfully to call him. The vice director replied that the chief was on a business trip in Moscow and would be gone for a few weeks. I had already stopped tormenting the phone, as the director called to me himself.
“Alive? I know what you want to ask. The name of Slavik actually was other. But his whole trouble was that he worked not only for me. In front of me, he did his job: he has handed over the documents to you, he brought me the power of attorney. But then he proceeded to his other duties: he needed to kill you, and to do this in such a way that the police would find your corpse along with the my documents. Then they would begin to investigate me and, at least, I would be removed from the post. Who would come instead of me, I think you do not need to explain. Slavik is now on the run, my guys are looking for him. For whom he worked, I understand. But with a woman the boffo came out. This woman is his close relative, but she worked for another crime team, so this unexpected meeting of relatives turned out…”
Several years have passed. Foreign automobiles have flooded the Russian car market. Even secondhand cars exceed the quality of Russian automobiles. Demand for the Volga has fallen. But the brother who came to visit me wanted this same model. I started calling the director again, but he did not answer. I called his secretary. When I asked her about the director, a pleasant female voice answered: “Now the director is different. And the previous one was killed last year near the entrance of her own house.”
* Nizhny Novgorod: formerly known as Gorky, one of the largest cities in Russia. The city has changed its name several times. It is known for numerous enterprises relating to the Department of Defense and its automobile plant, founded in 1932 and built with the help of the U.S. In 2008, the plant ceased production of passenger cars but continues to produce trucks and minibuses.
** Chemistry: a type of criminal punishment where a prisoner must work for a certain period at a state-owned enterprise, associated with hard physical labor, such as a brick factory, a granite quarry, or a concrete factory.
*** Roof: a criminal structure that receives money from business organizations for protecting them from other criminal groups. As a rule, the roof is taking its right of “roof” through threats and violence.
Serge Clause was born on March 24, 1955 in Donetsk, Ukraine and is a citizen of the Russian Federation. He graduated from the Military Academy of Strategic Missile Forces named the “Great” Peter (Moscow), specializing in electronic computing machinery. Serge has written for numerous arts and sports publications in Ukraine and Russia.