You can always judge a man by his shoes, Nikolai Vorakin’s mother used to say. This Oleg – this man sitting next to Nikolai at the bar of the Bim Bam Club – his shoes are far too expensive. They are deep tan and strangely burnished and clean. He must be somebody important. By now, though, he and Nikolai are very good friends. They down the third large shot of vodka.
‘Inspector Nikolai Ivanovich Vorakin. A toast to your arrival in Astrakhan!’ A cigarette-chewed voice. Oleg’s gesture is expansive, nearly tipping over the bottle of vodka on the counter. ‘What do you think about our humble home?’
Nikolai knows that Oleg doesn’t mean this dark, loud and cavernous night-club with its sweating concrete walls. He means Astrakhan – this city, or should he call it a town?
This is not how Astrakhan is meant to be, Nikolai wants to explain to this kind man with the military haircut and a dark suit. Not this in-between sort-of port at the mouth of an estuary. As a port it should at least be closer to the Caspian Sea. But Oleg is smiling expectantly.
‘It’s got a lot of bridges,’ Nikolai says.
It’s not Nikolai’s fault he’s in this night-club. All he’d had to do when he’d stumbled off the bus from Volgograd had been to find the official lodgings so he could wipe this whole day from his memory. Damn it, the address had been scribbled in pencil on the back of his last packet of cigarettes.
He had struggled to read his own writing in the flickering street light: “by the bridge”. Which bridge? There were thirty of them according to the peeling bleached blue tourist poster that had been on the breeze block wall in front of him. “Astrakhan – Capital of Caviar! Gateway to the Caspian! Venice of the Volga!” the slogans had announced in trendy English in excitable red lettering.
‘Bridges? Yes. I’m so glad you like it,’ Oleg says, smiling broadly. ‘It’s like Venice here! Let’s have another one!’ Oleg bangs his glass on the counter and the Asiatic barmaid pours as instructed.
‘Yes, Venice,’ Nikolai says.
Any town with more than three bridges must become a Venice. Never having seen the real Venice, Nikolai feels, for once, a compelling urge to get abroad, to get away from the Volga River’s very own, not very serene city. At least then he wouldn’t be investigating a missing cat.
By the fourth drink and only a morsel of black bread as a chaser, Nikolai has allowed the blonde Asiatic waitress to shout in his ear above the pounding music, to explain the culinary opportunities open to him.
‘Pickled cucumbers…in sour cream.’
The waitress retreats, arms’ length, for him to consider. The black roots of her slicked-back bleached hair are distorted in the wall of mirrors behind the bar. Nikolai isn't certain whether the mirror shows her nodding to Oleg. ‘Perhaps if you want something more – how do you say? – typical of Astrakhan, it can be arranged.’
What does she mean? Surely not. Nikolai feels his heart rate increase. That would be fantastic. But he shouldn’t. He’s a Militsiya detective, and he shouldn’t encourage anything irregular. Still, he had come into this night-club for food. Well, mostly. Although that last packet of cigarettes might have had the address of his digs on it, it had been empty. Discovering that had triggered a panicky chest-tightening need greater than hunger. A smoke. He had pushed past the doorman into this purple neon night-club bar, the only place in sight that had still appeared to be open. Its name had been familiar, peculiarly so. The Bim Bam Club. He remembers that this was the name on that purple card inside the file. He smiles. That must be why he is here. The card. It’s detective work: it’s what he does. It’s what he should do.
But his rumbling stomach reminds him that he’s had nothing since that fried dumpling when they’d stopped the bus for a piss. Soon after that, the bus had left him at the checkpoint. That’s where the cat had disappeared. More interestingly, that’s where the checkpoint guard had been murdered. The dead checkpoint guard had been called Vasily someone or other.
Nikolai drops the stub of the fourth cigarette from this life-saving new packet of Yava Zolotaya onto the floor. This is only his fifth large shot of vodka. The barmaid half-smiles through sparkly plush lips – she’s pretty, but she’s not Tatyana, too thin for that. She wipes a cloth around the rim of Oleg’s thick glass. Nikolai’s own shot glass has the yellowing of others’ rime around it. Or is that only from his lips? He doesn’t mind either way. Oleg is great. He’s the only one apart from the barmaid to have spoken to Nikolai. He’d even offered Nikolai change for the cigarette machine. Oleg shouts at him apologetically above the pounding dance music, explaining that normally they play jazz here.
‘Oh yeah. Who?’ Nikolai doesn’t like jazz any more than he likes cats; all that rasping, tooting and wheezing.
‘Claudio Tonato,’ the barmaid interrupts. ‘He’s famous. He’s got a private function tonight, but he’s here tomorrow for sure. Everybody’s heard of him. Everybody around here.’
By the seventh vodka in this empty, gaping, sweaty-purple-walled loud place:
‘Caviar from the Caspian. Capital of Caviar! It’s the food of the divine,’ says Oleg. ‘I can get you some.’
Nikolai really should allow himself to try the local delicacy: seize the offer of what could be a true taste of Astrakhan. Surely he should eat. He was hungry before.
This, Oleg – who is all seriousness and shiny dark suit and deep voice – explains, in a loud whisper with a pointing finger jutting into the small of Nikolai’s shoulder – this, the home town of caviar, has none for sale to the locals except chornaya ikra, illegal black market, black caviar. It is a tragedy, they both agree.
‘I bet it tastes too salty, I bet it stinks of fish, and is of indeterminate quality…’ Nikolai says. Funny how the words sound so formal as he stumbles over them. Caviar should never taste salty.
‘What are you saying? You don’t trust the caviar I can give you?’ Oleg says.
No. That is not it at all. Nikolai tries to speak:
‘I love…I love.’
He cannot express how much he loves, how much he used to love, the moist explosion of flavour of fish eggs on his tongue. The way they used to squish and roll on the top of his palate, releasing oozing, gentle flavours that he cannot smell or feel any more than he can his dead mother’s soft face or her perfume. That’s because his sense of smell and of taste have been lost, or, more accurately, stolen.
‘My friend, my most excellent friend. It is illegal. Illegal. Are you really hungry?’
Nikolai is hungry. Caviar: the sense of it, the memory of it, is one of the things he misses most. Surely its flavour will be the one thing that can bring back his senses before it is too late.
For the briefest of moments, as Nikolai counts out the roubles from his back pocket, he wonders why they are being so nice to a Militsiya officer. He wonders under whose krysha, whose roof, this night-club comes. Nikolai puts the notes down and they turn into a squat glass jar of fish eggs on the bar in front of him. The roubles are gone. Perhaps the local Militsiya protects the night-club. He won't ask. It’s nice when people are nice to you. How kind this man is. So nice that Oleg is pouring him the last shot of vodka. Maybe Oleg will sympathise with his predicament. Nikolai tells him.
‘So they’ve sent me all the way from Volgograd, you know? And I'm here to investigate something that’s not here. And there’s a dead checkpoint cop, who has a name. His name is Vasily, you know. But they won't let me investigate that. Oh no. A cat. It’s gone missing. And I’ve got to find it. Can you believe it? Me! Well, I won't, I won't do it. I'm going to sit here and I'm going to call them and tell them that it’s not here.’
‘What’s not here?’ Oleg asks, smiling, spinning the caviar jar’s label around to face him.
‘How will they know if I do nothing, how can they tell? What can they do? I’ll just have a nice holiday in your beautiful seaside town. You tell me Astrakhan has beaches and bridges and everything a man could dream of.’
‘What isn't here?’
‘The cat I was telling you about, silly.’ Nikolai has told Oleg that he’s here to investigate a missing cat, hasn’t he?
‘A toast!’ Nikolai announces. He turns to Oleg, stares him in the eyes as is the proper order of things, and says: ‘To deserting your duty. A toast to indolence!’
Oleg looks away, spreads his hands across the bar, the palms pressing down so hard that whiteness spreads upwards. The man’s thick and callused fingers don’t match his suit or his shoes. Has Nikolai said something wrong?
‘I think you’ve had enough,’ the barmaid says with a look of piercing hostility.
‘Don’t you know who I am?’ Nikolai asks.
Oleg puts his hand on the barmaid’s arm, shaking his head fractionally.
Don’t get Nikolai started. No, really, don’t. The Gulyegin case? I solved that, Nikolai wants to blurt. Don’t you know who I am? Of course Oleg doesn’t. It’d mean asking “don’t you know who I was?” and that question has one of two answers. One, the easiest one, is to answer “no”. The second, “yes”, always gets back to one thing. “Weren't you involved in that Gulyegin Incident?” That case.
He always worries when the case starts being called that “Gulyegin Incident”. Yes, he’d solved it, but what fucking rocks did he move? Political – it gave him that badge and that’s one he can't ever take off. You don’t want to have a political label in this job, in any job. So they give him the bizarre cases and that bullshit inter-agency liaison stuff. And now this. A joke.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Nikolai says. He stares over into the blackness of the jar of caviar. He paws and scoops the jar along the bar towards him. He tries to open the metal lid and fails. No, the attempt at tasting can wait. That sort of disappointment is best experienced alone.
‘Well? Tell me. What do you a mean by saying a cat’s not here?’ There is a catch in Oleg’s voice. Nikolai is relieved; Oleg’s only bothered about the stupid cat.
‘You wouldn’t believe it, Oleg, but this missing cat I’m investigating was a working cat. You’ll laugh at this…its job, if you can call it that, was to…wait for it…to sniff out caviar.’
Oleg stands up so fast that the barstool tips behind him and falls to the floor with a crash. Nobody around the bar flinches. Oleg leaves it lying.
‘Rusik! You’re here about Rusik?’ he says abruptly.
‘Who do you mean, Rusik?’ Nikolai asks, looking around him as if this Rusik were standing behind him. As if Rusik should pick up the barstool. ‘Who’s Rusik?’
Nikolai turns back as quickly as his spinning head will allow in order to face Oleg, but Oleg has disappeared. The waitress leans over the bar and prods Nikolai’s forearm. She stares at him, her eyes almost disappearing in ferocity behind her white eyelids. Nikolai tries to examine the concrete ceiling with its dark steel girders and the rotating glitter ball above him. Funny how nobody ever decorates the ceilings in these sorts of places. He scratches at the scab on his knuckle.
‘What’s Rusik, you mean. Rusik, he died yesterday. You shouldn’t talk about Rusik. It upset Oleg that Rusik died. It upset Vasily’s brother that Rusik died. It upset us all that he died. They never found a body, no? You shouldn’t talk about desertion, not to Oleg. Go. Nya! Nya! You’re only another Werewolf in Uniform, another corrupt cop!’
The bar is nice and cool against Nikolai’s cheek. The shot glass represents the police checkpoint: it’s obvious. Oleg is nodding. He says he’s come back especially to help Nikolai in his investigations, and Nikolai appreciates it. He has righted the barstool and is sitting close. Nikolai closes one eye and, cheek still pressed to the bar, lines up one of his pencils in a little silvery pool of condensed water, making sure that it is parallel to the edge of the bar.
That’s the checkpoint barrier for the E119 heading north towards Volgograd from Astrakhan. Oleg nods. Nikolai swirls the pencil around in the liquid to show Oleg the barrier lifting. The second of Nikolai’s chewed pencils he flicks away from him and it rolls against the empty bottle that is the bridge. Oleg can see that the vodka bottle is the bridge over the shallow valley, yes? Nikolai doesn’t need the second pencil at all, he explains, because that barrier for the road heading south is up. The damp bar mat makes a passable van of tomatoes. It’s decorated with a fruity pattern, after all. See? Nikolai sends the bar mat north up the road and towards the police checkpoint. He walks two fingers down the steps and out of the police station.
‘That’s Vasily…the dead checkpoint guard, okay? Not dead yet, of course.’
Nikolai’s tongue feels very large in his mouth, very dry. Oleg is nice. Who cares what time it is? It must be late – the bar is heaving and the music has become harder, more insistent. Hitting him dead in the groin. In the dead groin. Groin music. Is it two, maybe three in the morning? Or it could be a lot earlier. After all, he only got here straight after it had opened at nine. Who cares? He can feel the beat thudding through the bar. Can Oleg hear him in all this din? He pauses and uses his Vasily fingers to beckon Oleg closer to him. Oleg has been away, but he’s back beside him, smiling. He leans over. That’s good. Nikolai walks fingers Vasily down the steps from the police station to the tomato van. He tries to pick his head up, but it feels so much nicer on the bar and anyway it’s become too heavy. The scary barmaid is looking at him from behind the bar with more concentration. She is ignoring the banknotes being waved at her by his fellow punters and is focusing only on Nikolai.
‘And Vasily the checkpoint guard is talking to the tomato van man. The man who is driving the tomato van. The tomato man van. And the tomato man van’s wife. Ha. Lots of tomatoes. The check-point-guard, you know, Vasily, what’s his last name…you know? What is it?’
Nikolai never forgets a name, he knows he remembers Vasily’s last name, the young policeman at the checkpoint had told him, but his mouth doesn’t. Oleg is frowning. Never mind Vasily’s last name, never mind the tomato van man. The barmaid moves Nikolai’s unopened jar of caviar right on top of the beer mat – the tomato van. That’s annoying. That’s supposed to be the tomato van. He tells her so. The barmaid looks at Oleg quizzically and Oleg frowns and picks up the caviar jar, shaking his head. Nikolai shuts his eyes to concentrate. He opens them. The caviar jar is gone. Nikolai closes his eyes again to make sure. The music changes. He opens his eyes. The caviar jar is back. Of course it is. It must have been a trick of the light. Oleg turns the label away from Nikolai and edges the caviar jar back along the bar towards him. Was the lid blue or red last time around? Nikolai has more important things to consider: what to use to represent the ministry car going south towards Astrakhan?
He could borrow the vodka bottle, but it’s the bridge, so that wouldn’t be right. He could use the pink felt catnip mouse. It’s still in his pocket. But somehow it doesn’t seem appropriate. It has to make a noise. The electronic nostril hair trimmer, his other present from the precinct: he will use that.
‘And this is the car from some ministry or other – whoop whoop – coming the other way.’ Nikolai manages to unscrew the lid of the electronic nostril hair trimmer and sets it whirring. Sirens. He likes that.
‘What did you say?’ Oleg asks. The lights from the disco ball rotating slowly above Nikolai’s head send bright flecks across Oleg’s face, his arms, his hands.
‘No. A car from the ministry at the time of the shooting. Nobody mentioned that. I mean, it’s not in the papers.’
‘Aha,’ says Nikolai, tapping his nose, his eyelids feeling too heavy. ‘That’s detective work, that is. And another thing. It rains pitchforks and all the blood washes away? Except, and you know what, this is real detective work. It wasn’t raining anywhere else, nowhere. No rain all the way back to Astrakhan. I looked. I’m good. I was good, you see.’
‘Why don’t you try your caviar?’ Oleg says.
Oleg’s shoes again. Shoes kicking from mirrored bar to Nikolai’s chrome stool, on and on like a metronome. Thumping the rhythm of the hard music. Leaving marks on the dark mirror, black smears. Pounding Nikolai’s bar stool. It is rocking: stop rocking it. Nikolai’s bar stool rolls away along the cold concrete floor. Pain. Gritty hands. Look at Oleg’s shoes: those tan tassels right by his cheek so close they could tickle. Dirty shoes, not clean. It can't have been raining inside here too, can it? A mucky price label is stuck to the bottom of the shoe; the shoe that’s rushing towards Nikolai’s forehead. Everything circles him: there is nothing but blackness.