The Sacred Book of the Werewolf
'You could say that.'
'And the bike's yours too?'
'Yes,' I said. 'It's a good bike. Disc brakes, and the fork's made of carbon fibre.'
'Is the computer made of carbon fibre too?'
'Don't joke, you already guessed. It's a rare model, they only make them for Japan. One of the lightest laptops in the world.'
'I get it. So that's why it's standing on a cardboard box, is it? Instead of a table? Aren't you ashamed when you have visitors?'
His tone had begun to get under my skin.
'You know, Vladimir Mikhailovich,' I answered, 'to be quite honest, I couldn't really say what I care less about, the appearance of the things around me or the opinions of the people I meet. Both of them are over and done with far too quickly for me to be bothered.'
'A dump, that's what it is,' he summed up. 'Does the local militia know about this tramp's hideaway?'
'Are you going to tip them off?'
'I'll see how you behave. Right, let's go.'
We walked to the car in silence, apart from two occasions when Mikhalich swore - the first time when he had to squeeze through the narrow gap between two sheets of plywood, and the second time when he had to duck under a low partition.
'Please don't swear,' I said.
'I tore my sleeve. How do you drag your bicycle through here?'
'Easy. In summer I leave it outside. Who's going to bother climbing in here?'
'Yes,' he said, 'that's true enough.'
The car was standing outside the gates of the equestrian complex. That meant there was a chance that Mikhalich's visit would go unnoticed. But what difference did it make now? The local militia could carry on without noticing anything for another hundred years, but Mikhalich and his crowd knew everything. They'd never get off my back. I'll have to look for a new place to live, I thought, yet again . . .
After we'd driven away from the race track, Mikhalich suddenly handed me a scarlet rose with a long stem. I didn't even notice where he got it from, it was so unexpected. The rose had only just opened and there was still dew glistening on it.
'Thank you,' I said, taking the flower. 'I'm touched. But I ought to say straight away that the chances of anything between us aren't . . .'
'It's not from me,' he interrupted. 'The boss asked me to give it to you. He said you should think about what it means on the way.'
'All right,' I said, 'I'll think about it. What was that device you could see me on?'
He stuck one hand into his jacket pocket and took out a small object like a cigarette case with a little screen. There were a few buttons on the cigarette case, but overall it looked pretty unimpressive.
'It's a locator.'
'And what does it locate?'
'Signals,' said Mikhalich. 'Give me your handbag.'
I held out my bag. At the next traffic light he took hold of the strap, turned it over and showed me a little circle of dark foil smaller than a kopeck coin. It was very thin and held in place by a layer of glue. I would never have noticed it - or I'd have thought it was some kind of label.
'And when did you stick that on?'
'When we were on the way to the room to drink champagne,' he said with a chuckle.
'What for? Are you taking such a serious interest in me?'
'In general, yes,' he said. 'But it's not me any more. Never mind, the boss will soon find out what you're up to. He's sorted out trickier specimens than you. By the way, I told him what kind of work you do.'
At this stage I didn't like what was going on at all, but it was too late to get worked up about it: we were already approaching the familiar building. The car drove into the courtyard and straight in through the metal gates of the garage, which immediately closed, cutting us off from the world.
'Get out, we're here.'
As soon as Mikhalich got out, I put the rose on his seat - its long thorny stem was almost the same colour, and there was a good chance that Mikhalich would just plonk his sturdy backside down on it.
'Take your shoes off,' he said when I got out after him.
'What's this, are you taking me to be shot?'
'That depends,' he chuckled. 'There are slippers over there by the lift.'
I looked around. A round hole in the ceiling, a steel pole, a spiral staircase - we were in a familiar place. But this time there was a light on in the garage and I spotted the door of a lift that I hadn't noticed the last time. Lying on the floor in front of it there were several pairs of various different slippers. I chose a pair of blue ones with round pompoms - they looked so touchingly defenceless that only a monster could possibly harm any girl who was wearing them.
The lift door opened and Mikhalich gestured for me to go in. There were two large triangular buttons on the panel, combined to form a rhombus. Mikhalich pressed the upper button, and the lift took off with a mighty jerk, carrying us upwards.
When the door opened a few seconds later, I was blinded by light coming from all directions. Alexander was standing there, engulfed in the bright swirling vortex. He was wearing a military uniform and his face was covered with a gauze mask.
'Hello, Ada,' he said. 'Please come in. No, Mikhalich, I'm sorry - I'm not inviting you. Today three would be a crowd . . .'
I'd noticed the penthouse on my first visit. Only I hadn't guessed that it was a penthouse - from below it looked like a dark knob on the end of the huge concrete pencil. It could have been taken for the housing of the lift motors, some kind of technical premises or a boiler room. But those turquoise walls turned out to be transparent from the inside.
Before I'd even taken it all in, they started turning dark before my very eyes, until they looked like bottle glass. I'd just been squinting at the bright sunlight, and all of a sudden in just a few seconds an entire house had condensed around me. It hadn't been visible before in the sunshine bouncing off all the mirror surfaces.
I learned later that it was an expensive technical gismo - the transparency of the walls was adjusted using special liquid-crystal membranes that were controlled by a computer system. At the time, though, what happened seemed like a miracle. Only since long, long ago the response that miracles provoke in me has been ironic, not to say contemptuous.
'Hi, Shurik,' I said. 'What's with the sideshow effects? No money for normal blinds?'
He was taken aback. But it only took him a second to recover and he laughed.
'Shurik,' he said. 'I like that. Well yes. Since you're Ada now, I suppose I'm Shurik.'
His light-grey double-breasted uniform jacket with a lieutenant general's shoulder straps and dark-blue trousers with wide red stripes looked a little theatrical. He came up to me, removed the gauze mask from his face, squeezed his eyes shut and drew in the air through his nose. I felt like asking why he was always doing that, but I thought better of it. He opened his eyes and his glance fell on my earrings.
'What an amusing idea,' he said.
'Great, isn't it? And especially beautiful because the stones are different. Do you like it?'
'It's all right. Did Mikhalich give you the flower?'
'Yes,' I answered. 'And he told me I should think about the meaning of the message. But I haven't come up with anything. Maybe you can tell me yourself?'
He scratched his head. He seemed disconcerted by my question.
'Do you know the folktale about the little scarlet flower?'
'Which one exactly?' I asked.
'I think there is only one.'
He nodded towards a desk with a computer and a silver figurine standing on it. There was a book lying beside the figurine, with bookmarks in several pages. The half-effaced red letters of the title on its cover read: Russian Fairy Tales.
'The story was written down by Sergei Aksakov,' he said. 'His housekeeper Pelagia told him it.'
'And what's it about?'
'About a beautiful girl and a beast.'
'And what's the little flower got to do with it?'
'It was the reason everything began. Do you really not know this fairy tale?'
'It's long, but the gist is this: a beautiful girl asked her father to bring her a scarlet flower. The father found one in a magical garden a long way away and picked it. But the garden was guarded by a terrible monster. He caught the beautiful girl's father, and she had to become the monster's prisoner so that he would release her father. The monster was ugly, but kind. She fell in love with him, first for his kindness, and then simply in love. And when they kissed, the spell was broken and the monster turned into a prince.'
'Aha,' I said. 'Do you have any idea what it's about?'
'Yes? What is it about?'
'About love conquering all.'
I laughed. He really was quite amusing. He'd probably bumped off a few heavy hoods and ordered a hit on some banker, so now, with typical human presumption, he thought he was a monster. And he also thought that love would save him.
He took me by the arm and led me across to a futuristic divan standing between two groves of dwarf bonsais with miniature arbours, bridges and even waterfalls.
'Why are you laughing?' he asked.
'I can explain,' I said, sitting down on the divan and pulling my legs up under me.
He sat at the other end of the divan and crossed his legs. I noticed the edge of a holster peeping out from under his uniform jacket.
'It's one of those folktales that express the horror and pain of a woman's first sexual experience,' I said. 'There are lots of stories like that, and the one you just told me is a classic example. It's a metaphor of how a woman discovers the essentially bestial nature of man and becomes aware of her own power over that beast. And the little scarlet flower that her father picks is such a literal symbol of defloration, amplified by the theme of incest, that I find it hard to believe the story was told by a housekeeper. It was probably composed by some twentieth-century Viennese postgraduate to illustrate his thesis. He invented the story, and the housekeeper Pelagia, and the writer Aksakov.'
While I was talking, his expression turned noticeably gloomier.
'Where did you pick up all that stuff?'
'It's all truisms. Everybody knows it.'
'And you believe it?'
'That this fairy tale is not about how love conquers everything on earth, but how defecation realizes its power over incest?'
'Defloration,' I corrected him.
'It doesn't matter. Is that what you really think?'
I thought about it.
'I . . . I don't think anything. That's simply the contemporary discourse of folktales.'
'So you're saying that because of this discourse, when someone gives you a scarlet flower you think it's a symbol of defecation and incest?'
'No, don't be like that,' I replied, a little embarrassed. 'When someone gives me a scarlet flower I . . . I'm simply pleased.'
'Thank God,' he said. 'And as for contemporary discourse, it's high time to take an aspen stake and stuff it back up the cocaine-and-amphetamine polluted backside that produced it.'
I hadn't expected such a sweeping generalization.
'So it won't defile our little scarlet flower.'
'All right,' I said, 'I understand about the cocaine. You mean Dr Freud. He did have that little peccadillo. But what have amphetamines got to do with it?'
'I can explain,' he said, and tucked his legs up underneath himself in a parody of my pose.
'All those French parrots who invented discourse were high on amphetamines all the time. In the evening they take barbiturates to get to sleep, and they start off the morning with amphetamines so they can generate as much discourse as possible before they start taking barbiturates to get back to sleep again. That's all there is to discourse. Didn't you know that?'
'Where did you get information like that?'
'There was a course at the FSB Academy about modern psychedelic culture. Counter-brainwashing. Oh yes, I forgot to say - they're all queers too. In case you were going to ask what the backside had to do with anything.'
The conversation was headed in the wrong direction, and it was time to change the subject. I prefer to do that abruptly.
'Alexander,' I said, 'explain to me, so I can understand, just what I'm doing here. Do you want to screw me or re-educate me?'
He shuddered, as if I'd said something terrible, leapt up off the divan and began striding backwards and forwards past the window - or rather, not the window, but a rectangle in the wall that was still transparent.
'Are you trying to shock me?' he asked. 'You're wasting your time. I know there's a pure, vulnerable soul hiding behind your affected cynicism.'
'Affected cynicism? You mean me?'
'Not even cynicism,' he said, stopping. 'Flippancy. A failure to understand the serious things you're playing with, like a little child with a hand grenade. Let's talk frankly, to the point.'
'You say - the bestial essence of man, the horror of the first coitus . . . These are such terrible, dark things. If you want to know, even I am sometimes afraid to glance into those abysses . . .'
He really was funny after all - 'even I'. He went on:
'But you talk about it all like it was just peanuts. Don't you have any fear of the beast in a man? Of the man in the beast?'
'Not a bit,' I said. 'Mikhalich told you who I am, didn't he?' He nodded.
'Well, then. If I had problems like that I wouldn't be able to do my job.'
'You're not afraid of the intimate contact with someone else's body - immense and ugly, living according to its own laws?'
'I simply adore it,' I said and smiled.
He looked at me and shook his head dubiously.
'I mean physical intimacy? In the very lowest sense?'
'For spiritual intimacy I charge an extra hundred and fifty per cent. How long can you go on chewing over the same thing? Do you always yatter on like this before you have a screw?'
'There's no need to talk to me as if I were a bandit. That's because of the FSB uniform, is it?'
'Maybe. Try taking it off. Including the trousers.'
'Why do you talk that way?'
'Don't you find me at all attractive?'
I lowered my head and gave him an offended look from under my eyebrows, screwing my eyes up slightly and pouting my lips. I worked on that look for over a thousand years, and there's no point in trying to describe it. It's my own patented brand of provocation - brazenness and innocence in the same armour-piercing package: it zaps straight through the client and then ricochets back to get him again. The only effective protection I know against that gaze is to look in the other direction. Alexander was looking at me.
'Yes, I do,' he said with a nervous twitch of his head. 'And how!'
I realized the critical moment had arrived. When the client jerks his head like that, the control centres of his brain are failing, and he can throw himself at you at any moment.
'I need to go to the bathroom,' I said. 'Where is your bathroom here?'
He pointed to a round wall of blue semi-transparent glass. There was no door - the way in was through a passage that curled like a snail's shell.
'I'll just be a moment.'
Once I was inside I took a deep breath.
It was beautiful on the other side of the wall. The gold stars on a blue background and the bath lined with mother-of-pearl reminded me of the baths at Pompeii - perhaps the designer had deliberately evoked that image. But the owner was unlikely to know about that.
It's risky to push a client up so far so fast, I thought, some day it will end badly. And maybe Alexander was injecting something, like Mikhalich? Or taking something by mouth? There must be some reason for the strange way he kept sniffing the air like that . . .
I took off my jeans and put them on the floor, then took a look at myself in the mirror. My pride and joy was like a Japanese fan painted to look like a red brush. It was beautiful. And against the starry blue background it looked simple fabulous. I was more sure of my powers than I had ever been - I was simply brimming over with energy, just a little bit more and the hairs of my tail would have started shooting out little balls of lightning. I remembered the funny Russian saying 'to hold your tail like a pistol', meaning to keep your spirits up. I don't know where it came from, but a fox must have been involved one way or another. Well then, I thought, all guns blazing . . .
When I reached the way out, I prepared for take-off by taking a few deep breaths, seized that one and only right moment when every cell in your body says 'Now!' and hurtled out of the bathroom like a tornado.
After that there was no time to think. I braked, turned my backside to the target, thrust my hands and feet hard against the floor and curved my tail above my head. I caught a glimpse of my reflection in one of the mirror surfaces - I looked like a menacing red scorpion prepared for battle . . . Alexander raised his eyes to look at me, but before he could even blink, my tail had delivered its precise, perfectly aligned, impeccably accurate blow to the very centre of his brain.
He put his hand over his eyes, as if to protect them against a blinding light. Then he lowered his hand and our eyes met. Something was happening that wasn't right. My tail simply was-n't able to sense him - and he was standing just a few steps away and looking at me as if he couldn't believe that anything so beautiful could possibly exist in all the world.
'Adele,' he whispered, 'my darling . . .'
And then the nightmare began.
He staggered, made a terrible howling sound and literally fell out of his own body - as if it were a bud that opened up into a sinister, shaggy flower in just a few seconds. It turned out that the man who was called Alexander was no more than a drawing on a door into the beyond. Now that door had opened, and the creature who had been watching me through the keyhole for a long time had come tumbling out.
Standing there in front of me was a monster, something halfway between a man and a wolf, with gaping jaws and piercing yellow eyes. At first I thought Alexander's clothes had disappeared. Then I realized that his tunic and trousers had been transformed together with him: his torso was covered with ash-grey fur, but his hind legs were darker, and I could see the irregular traces of the stripes on them. There was an elongated mark on the beast's chest, like the imprint of a tie that has slipped to one side. When my gaze moved lower I was horror-struck. I'd never seen how that place looked on a wolf that was aroused. And to my mind it looked more terrible than any gaping jaws.
At that point I realized I was still standing on all fours with my tail up in the air and my defenceless behind stuck out in his direction. Defenceless, because my antenna wasn't working and I had nothing to stop him with. I could guess how my pose might be interpreted, but I was paralysed - instead of jumping back, I kept looking at him over my shoulder. That happens in some dreams - you need to run away fast, but instead you go on standing there and there's just no way you can lift your leaden feet off the ground. I couldn't even wipe the idiot grin off my face - like a burglar caught on the job.
''Grr-rra-rra,' he said. 'Gr-rrrrra...'
'Hey, bro,' I babbled, 'wait. I'll explain everything . . .'
He growled and took a step towards me.
'Don't you even think about it, all right? I'm serious, you big grey wolf, slow down . . .'
He fell gently on to his front paws or hands and took another step towards me. Entirely different words were required. But where could I find them?
'Listen . . . Let's discuss everything calmly, eh?'
He grinned, opening his jaws wide and raising his huge grey tail, almost copying my working pose.
'Wait, grey beast,' I whispered, 'don't . . .'
He jumped, and for a second I thought the world had been covered by a terrible, low storm cloud. The next moment the cloud collapsed on top of me.
Lying on the divan, covered with something like the skin of an albino mammoth, I sobbed into the pillow, unable to understand how there could have been so many tears inside me - the pillow was already soaked on both sides.
'Ada,' Alexander said and put his hand on my shoulder.
'Go away, you monster,' I sobbed and shook his hand off.
'I'm sorry,' he said timidly, 'I didn't mean . . .'