CHAPTER II – „Collateral Victims”

CHAPTER I – „Le Secret”

Saturday, March 6th, 8:28 PM, Bucharest, somewhere on Heroes’ Boulevard

A massive, arctic white Audi A8 turns right, speeding towards Queen Elisabeth Boulevard. Wearing the same black suit and Bailey’s hat, A. nervously controls the wheel, unconsciously measuring the distance left until the club. He wouldn’t have come if it wasn’t for an emergency. It was 7 PM when his cellphone rang. On the other end of the line, R’s rugged voice informed him about what was going on.

A: “Why don’t YOU go?”

R: “You know very well why…”

A (sighing): “How am I supposed to get there? People will stare at me if I get on the bus all dressed in black”

R: “Take my car”

Without arguing, A. whispered “OK” and hung up. He could have taken his godmother’s Skoda Fabia instead, but driving a stick shift wasn’t his thing lately. R’s car had dark windows and automatic transmission. Besides, he loved that car. So he slipped into his shiny black costume, put on his hat and took the keys hidden in a small wooden box, under his Tarot cards. Half an hour later, there he was, approaching the place he was beginning to hate. He waited round the corner for the street to clear, then turned left and parked the car on a deserted alley. Just as R. taught him, he pressed the small button behind the steering wheel and the plates switched immediately. It was a safety measure he had to take every time he needed to be sure the car wouldn’t be recognized. After all, a luxury car like that could be easily spotted in a city like Bucharest.

It was the first time he entered the club through the back door. He didn’t notice that until he read the amazement in the bartender’s eyes.

“Good evening, Mr. A!”

“It’s anything but good”, said A, while taking his coat off.

“Would you like me to help you with that, sir?” the bartender politely offered, while approaching the place where A. stood.

A, amused: “You know… You ask me that every time I come here. If I didn’t know you better, I’d say you’re trying to find a reason to undress me”

Bartender, slightly blushing: “Oh… Sir… I wouldn’t… I mean, I didn’t mean to…”

A, winking: “Don’t worry! I’m flattered, but I’m already promised to somebody else”

A. walked towards the door at the other side of the room, leaving the bartender hanging. As soon as he opened the door, the lights turned on, illuminating the whole corridor. When he reached the other door, he took one last look behind, as if contemplating the light. He knew what came next: a small, dark room, another door which he was going to open using the same rusty key and then, the stairs which will lead him to the subterranean side of the city. Bucharest’s guts, the pit of the damned, a side of the city only few people knew about…

He stopped only a few inches away from the final door. This time, it was not the memory of last time’s quarrel that kept him from opening it, but a loud punch, followed by an even louder scream. It seemed there was a real fight going on in there. So he decided to grab a hold of himself and see what was going on.

The room was chocking in darkness and smoke. The only source of light was a lamp hanging from the ceiling, balancing quickly, as if someone hit it by accident. A. could distinguish G’s figure in the shadow. He was sitting on a chair, resting his leg upon the other, with a Cuban cigar between his fingers. Beneath the trembling lamp stood G’s bodyguard, a massive guy with an annoying Russian accent. Right next to him, there was a young boy, kneeling and gasping. His wrists were bruised from the rope he had been tied with, and his face was all covered in blood. His blood, shed by the cold-hearted brute. The table which was once in the middle stood in the opposite corner, sustaining the silver plate, a bottle of brandy and three empty glasses.

A, taking a look around: “Love what you’ve done to the place!”

G: “What the hell are you doing here?”

A, being ironic: “I’ve heard you’re in for a feast. So I decided to join”

G, pissed: “Well, you’re not on the guest list”

A: “Oh, is that so? My bad!”

G: “Now, really… Why are you here?”

A. didn’t even bother to answer his question. He rushed towards the table, pulled a white handkerchief from his pocket and dipped it into the bottle of brandy. He then kneeled in front of the young boy and cleaned his wounds. He had a broken nose and a few other lacerations on his face. It seemed the brute had been beating him for at least an hour.

A, whispering to the young boy: “What did you do?”

The young boy, chocking with blood: “I… I bor… I borrowed some money… My… My sister, sir… She… She’s ill… She needs it…”

A, sighing: “It’s OK, calm down. Don’t strain yourself. How old are you?”

The young boy: “I’m… I’m 17”

A, covering his face with his palms: “Oh my freakin’ God!”

A. felt a hot stream of blood invading his brain. Somehow, he empathized with the kid’s suffering. Underneath that cold shell of his, a fragment of goodness still remained. So, for the very first time in his life, he confronted G.

A, losing all sense of control: “Are you out of your fucking mind?!”

G: “He borrowed money from us and didn’t want to give it back”

A: “He’s seventeen, for Christ’s sake! How could you expect him to give it back?”

G: “It’s none of my business and it’s none of yours, as well”

A: ‘’Oh, you… You knew it all along! You knew he wouldn’t be able to pay back, didn’t you? You did all this for your entertainment!”

G. laughed uncontrollably, confirming A’s theory.

A, desperately trying to make a point: “Do you have any idea of what will happen if the Police finds out about this?”

G, smiling: “You silly boy… Have you forgotten WE control the Police?”

A: “And what about the press?”

G: “It won’t make it to the press. By tomorrow morning, this low-life skunk will be floating in the waters of Dâmbovița. And besides, why are you so nervous about the press? We’ve got you infiltrated in the system”

A: “How can you talk like that? He’s a human being, not a rat!”

G: “And who would miss him? He’s insignificant. He’s what I like to call (short break) a disposable part”

A. couldn’t take any more of that. Moments like those made him realize Bucharest was indeed a dangerous city; and not because of the amateur thieves, but of the great underground menace, waiting in silence right beneath the surface. He couldn’t stop it. He knew that very well, but he had to do something about that poor boy. If he decided to leave as if nothing happened, an innocent life might have been wasted.

A: “How much does he owe you?”

G: “Three hundred euros”

A, shocked: “Is this the price of life nowadays? God, G, you wipe your ass in the morning with a thousand euros bill and you’re willing to kill this kid because he owes you three hundred… You’re despicable!”

A. didn’t know what sickened him the most, the amount of money the kid couldn’t pay, or G’s sick games. He figured out that if G. gets his money back, everything will be back to normal. So he took out his wallet and pulled a 500 euros bill. His mother gave him the money for an upcoming trip to Istambul. He needed them, but somehow, the young boy’s life was far more important.

A: “Here! You can keep the change!”

G. was outraged by A’s gesture. He stood up, almost forgetting about his crippled leg. His bodyguard rushed to help him stand up.

G: “How dare you? You wanna end up just like him?”

A: “Oh, you wouldn’t dare touch me. Like you said, you need me to control the information that goes out. And besides, I’m like a son to you. A very stubborn and disrespectful son”

A. turned his back on G, letting him know that the conversation was over. He untied the boy and placed one of his arms around his neck. He carried him back to the bar, where the bartender helped them get to the car. With the wounded boy on his right, A. started the engine and drove off, leaving the club behind. After a couple of miles, A. found the courage to speak to the one next to him. He was awake, but still suffering from the wounds on his face.

A: “Where can I drop you off?”

The young boy, coughing: “I live in Rahova, corner of 13th September with Mihail Sebastian, near the Prosper Center”

A: “Listen… Pay attention to what I’m about to say, because I’m only gonna say it once. If we ever meet again, you don’t know me, got it? Act like you’ve never seen me in your life. And stay out of trouble! Next time, I won’t be able to save your ass. These people are dangerous!”

After dropping the young boy, A. headed home. He lived only few blocks away, so after ten minutes of driving, he parked his car in the usual place. When he got out of the car, his eyes instinctively turned towards the windows of his apartment on the third floor. The light was on. “Funny, I don’t remember leaving it on. And my roommate isn’t home”, said A. to himself. When he found the door open, he realized there was a stranger in his house. A stranger he knew very well…

R. was lying in his bed, half-asleep. How he got there was a total mystery, since R. couldn’t go anywhere without his car. He changed his clothes and lied down next to him, facing the ceiling.

A: “I’m so tired of this, you know…”

R, mumbling: “I know, but we’re both part of this game. And we have to keep playing…”

Just like every other night, A. stood up till dawn. He spent his time online, chatting about minor things. In the morning, he got up and opened the window, looking down the boulevard. The city was starting to wake up. Once again, A. found himself envying his neighbours for being able to sleep well at night. He hadn’t had a decent sleep in weeks. From sleeping pills to alcohol, he tried it all. But nothing really helped him. He still had horrible nightmares. On and on, he kept remembering everything he’d done.

After a couple of minutes of staring into the fog, he closed the window and lied down on his bed. R. was already asleep. His perfume was all over the room. It was perhaps that strong, tropical scent of R’s Aqua di Gio that made him close his eyes and dream of a better life. Deep down in his heart, he knew he’d wake up the next day, dissapointed and angry. But he also knew R. would wait for him in the kitchen with a mug of strong coffee and a pack of smokes.

A new dawn was breaking… Somewhere in the city, a young 17 years old kid will wake up appreciating life even more. The night before, an innocent life had been spared. A collateral victim was given the chance to start it all over, a chance A. will never have.