Excerpt from novel-in-progress
Here’s an excerpt from a novel I’ve been working on for a few years on-again-off-again. I’m going to finish it over the next month or so. Let me know what you think – thanks!
“There is beauty in everything.”
Vinatoru Kocescu scanned the street, his black eyes hooded by the mop of hair falling across his brow, the flesh around them puffy and dark. Gray concrete tenements with shattered windows abutted gutters teeming with used condoms and cigarette butts. A vacant construction site overflowed with rusted I-beams and posters promising a better tomorrow by politicians growing fat off of bribes and corruption.
What did they call these places in America? The ghetto?
Kocescu called it paradise – his paradise.
Just after eleven o’clock this morning drizzle dribbled like God had a prostate problem. Kocescu’s best whores formed a ragged garland across the apartment entrances, awaiting the lunchtime crowd of bureaucrats, office workers, and construction Joes to blow their pitiful paychecks on fifteen minutes of sticky friction.
God bless them all, thought Kocescu. Them and their money.
A spit of rain dotted his face, rivulets stumbling through the ravine of scar tissue that spanned Kocescu’s right jaw from his ear lobe to his chin. The souvenir came from a knife fight in Bucharest years back. A millimeter lower and it would have been Kocescu’s body that littered the dank alley. Enraged – giddy almost – from the cut, Kocescu had dipped his shoulder and pumped his own blade up and under the punk’s sternum, shredding the pulmonary artery.
Kocescu took a deep breath, passing the air up his nostrils and then opening his mouth to let it escape again. He repeated the cycle once more. Despite the yoke of carbon monoxide from too many cars, he smelled something.
Now he used his tongue to taste the air. Flicking and waggling, allowing the entire range of his olfactory system to break the air molecules apart, catalog them, and confirm or refute the presence of prey.
Kocescu could smell a woman before he even saw her. He’d acquired the skill establishing himself as the kingpin of lust and depravity in Moldova. Dealing with the thousands of women he’d pimped, beaten, or sold into slavery, he got to know all the weird and wonderful scents that leaked from their pores and dripped from their dark places.
His nostrils flared again. He knew the perfume. And he knew the scent that lay beneath the manufactured smell.
And something more.
Kocescu turned his head, knowing she’d be coming around the corner. An old woman didn’t interest him. Most of Kocescu’s clients preferred much younger delicacy. But for those searching for more mature interaction, he had two lively grandmothers on speed dial.
Just in case.
She ambled around the corner with a slight limp, leaning forward. Kocescu figured both arthritis and an injury were to blame.
Opportunity walked with the old woman.
Kocescu eased back into the recessed doorway of the building behind him. What, he wondered, would make an old woman walk through a dangerous section of town?
Arrogance. He could see it in the way she moved. Even with her afflictions, he could sense anger and determination in the old gal. The way her jaw was set firm. The way she struggled to keep her chin up. The way she eyed the scene before her with a mixture of contempt and pity.
Kocescu smiled. In another life, he might have respected her. But now, she was making a terrible mistake.
The girl who walked with the old woman couldn’t have been any older than twelve. But she, too, had determination. Kocescu saw it in the way she tugged on her…grandmother? Yes. On her grandmother’s hand. Insistent. Steady resolve.
Kocescu lit a cigarette and sucked at the filterless tip until the cinder glowed bright red. He blew out a thin stream of smoke and watched a sudden gust of wind jerk it out of the doorway.
The old woman had stopped. Was she rethinking her decision to come this way? Perhaps she remembered when this part of town had been a family neighborhood. Long before the Communists had razed the old houses to put up the apartment complexes that had then fallen into disrepair with the end of the Cold War.
Kocescu could see it – the battle of emotions playing out across the pale slabs of baggy skin on her face. For several long moments, she stood there, immune to the drizzle and the brash desires of her younger companion.
Kocescu heard the girl now. Pleading. Something about how they had to go this way in order to reach their destination in time.
Still the battle raged.
The old woman took a step forward. Then another. And more until they had resumed their walk with the same speed as before.
The old woman hugged the girl close to her as they passed the first of Kocescu’s whores. He heard his girls clucking at them. The little girl’s eyes went wide when she heard what they said to her.
Then the old woman’s voice cut through the air, slicing at the most aggressive whores. They backed off.
Arrogant and spunky, Kocescu decided. But they were trespassing in Kocescu’s domain, one he’d worked hard to acquire. And one he was expanding into America.
Kocescu studied the girl. He watched the way she walked. He saw her hips hadn’t yet blossomed. She still had the gait of a young boy. Her breasts were still probably absent as well.
He sucked at the cigarette.
They cleared the first block. Ahead of them, an intersection on an almost deserted street that ran across this section of Kocescu’s turf.
From his pocket, he removed the Nokia cellphone and pressed a single button. The phone purred in his ear and then someone on the other end picked up.
Kocescu said three words and then disconnected.
Further down the street, the aging blue van’s engine came to life. Black soot shot out of its tailpipe, clogging the air nearby with the smell of diesel and sulfur.
The old woman and the girl finished walking the gauntlet.
They had cleared Kocescu’s domain.
He saw relief flood the old woman’s frame as her shoulders relaxed and her gait slowed. The girl must have sensed something was wrong because she was asking her grandmother questions.
Kocescu ground his cigarette underfoot and took a long drag on the air, feeling the cold air rush in through his nostrils, cleansing him of the tobacco he’d just ingested. The old smells returned: the stench of urban decay, the pollution, and even the scent of the old woman.
The new smell interested him most: the perfume of youth. Kocescu licked his lips as if he could draw from the air the young girl’s essence.
The old woman and the girl reached the intersection, stopping to check for traffic before they crossed. The van shot away from the curb as the old woman stepped onto the street.
Screeching tires and the van’s wailing horn ripped apart the relative silence of the late morning; the van’s bumper stopped inches from the old woman, but she fell to the ground anyway.
Kocescu saw the next moments like stills in a flipbook animation sequence.
The van’s side panel jerking open on its rails. From inside, Vitya and Daro, Kocescu’s thugs, jumping out.
The girl, huddling over her grandmother, looking up.
Alarm sweeping over her face – the look of sudden realization – she starts to back away, clawing at the ground beneath her for purchase as she screams.
Vitya reaches her first, clamping his gloved hand over the girl’s mouth. The girl kicks and struggles but she’s no match for Vitya’s hulking form. He drags her into the darkness of the van.
Daro bends over the old woman’s frame. The grandmother’s hands come up trying to fight him. He brushes her feeble attacks off, grabs one of her wrists and snaps it at the joint. The old woman screams now, displaying weakness for the first time as she clutches the useless limb.
Daro squats down behind her, pats her head and then jerks it to the side. Even though he’s too far away, Kocescu can imagine the dull snap as the old woman’s neck breaks.
The lifeless body slides from Daro’s embrace and then he’s back into the van. Tires screech again; more exhaust spurts into the air and the van roars off down the street, makes one turn at the next intersection and then disappears.
Behind them, the old woman’s body lays in a crumpled heap, one hand still outstretched toward the street – still fighting, even in death.
Kocescu lit a fresh cigarette and inhaled deep. He’d seen a lot of grabs before. He’d done them himself a few times in the past. But no one had ever impressed him as much as the old woman. He admired her resolve – her willingness to sacrifice everything for her family.
Kocescu had never known such sentiment. Few of the orphans he’d grown up with on the streets did.
He watched the scene for another minute, drinking in the stark detail. Across the street, his whores paid no attention. They knew Kocescu would kill them if they said anything.
He sucked another bit of the tobacco into his lungs and felt the heat clear his mind. He had a business to run. And his bottom line was about to get even better; the girl would fetch him a lot of money.
Kocescu pulled the cellphone back out and pressed a new number. He had arrangements to make.
But as he listened to the ringing at the other end of the line, a strange thought popped into his head:
What if the grandmother hadn’t been protecting the girl?