Branko left the autoshop, going home. He was not able to figure out what was wrong with him, but he did not feel well and suspected his recent lack of sleep to be the reason. He knew that even now, when he returned home, he would not fall asleep. He was not hungry, although it was past 2 p.m. already. He was aggravated by his inability to feel better. He looked straight ahead, as if in a single spot, through the windshield as he drove the car almost intuitively. Once again he sank into his dark thoughts, which were lately ruining him. And the most unpleasant thing: he was failing to unmask the Problem. At first glance everything looked like... The imaginary spot he was looking at suddenly doubled and transformed itself into a pair of eyes. The big and telling eyes of a small child. Branko returned to reality for less than a second - to the road where he had obviously managed to stop the car about two centimeters from a crossing child. And only now he heard and realized the screeching of the brakes. Instinctively he looked at the traffic lights: green. The girl continued to look at him with her telling eyes, for another two, three seconds, then she dropped on the pavement. He jumped out from the car, crouched next to the child and took her head in his hands. The little one was unconscious. Carefully he lifted her up and placed her on the front seat. Immediately he started towards Pirogov1. He concentrated on the situation and the dark thought disappeared. He was driving fast, with precision. Subconsciously he felt better, livelier. He was under the spell of that forgotten force in his past, driven by his will. When the hospital appeared, memories of his dead wife came back - he had lost her in a car crash. But he managed to chase away the memories, and soon, caring the child in his hands, he entered the hospital. He explained what had happened to an old doctor, and was asked to wait in the corridor. The doctor took the child inside his office and shut the door. Branko went to the washroom and on his way back, he looked in the mirror. He had not looked at himself for a long time and did not like what he saw. His graying hair was thinning. He was getting fatter; he spotted a visible stain, most likely from coffee, on his jacket. He had not shaved for the last few days. He felt disgusted, thinking that everybody would take him for a homeless weirdo. He almost swore at himself. He returned to the doctor’s door and heard the child’s voice behind it. After a minute a nurse came out and told him that the child was fine, but needed some rest, her father had already been called and he was on his way to the hospital. The nurse said that he could go now, but Branko preferred to stay. He went outside and lit a cigarette.
As a Police detective he had to visit Pirogov many, many times, yet, he was never able to overcome his intolerance to the smell in the corridors. Now he remembered some of the old cases. There had been unforgettable ones in his almost twenty-year long career. Most of them he managed to close successfully. His ability to think, his gift to read out situations, facts, people, made him successful - he was quick, precise, and imaginative. He was able to isolate himself from distractions, to concentrate deeply on the case at hand. He was frequently awarded back then and was on the road to brilliant career. Yet, he declined from climbing - what was stopping him was the desire to create and do something belonging only to him. The opportunity came seven years ago. He left the Police and invested his savings in a little autoshop. He bought what was needed, hired four mechanics and managed to create a friendly atmosphere in the collective. And the business went well. He did not make lots of money, but he was happy. There was nothing much to do at the shop, no pressure - at last he was able to spend enough time with Yana. His life turned for the worse five years ago, on the day of her death. Branko accepted the gruesome fact, but slowly lost his desire for living. He decided that to turn to alcohol would be too much of a cliché, he was able to avoid the easy solution. What helped him was stubbornness, not any rational thinking. But, with the passing years, his feeling of meaningless existence grew.
Ten minutes later he was talking with the father - a skinny man about 35 years old, with dirty clothes and troubled eyes. He listened to Branko’s account without interest, mumbling ‘Uh-huh, OK’ and nothing else. It turned out, he had lost sight of the girl for a second. He had been drinking, but did not look drunk. Branko was getting ready to leave, yet something in the girl captivated him and he decided to at least ask her name. And because he was charismatic and knew how to put people at ease and how to open conversations, he started with ‘How old is she?’ and after a few minutes her father was telling him a story which made Branko’s jaw to drop open, and his eyes - disturbed.
“How much is collected so far?’
‘Four thousand’ - answered the father, grimacing.
He brought her a velvet rabbit and bonbons. ‘Thanks’ - chirped the kid and looked at him just for a second with her dark eyes, then she gazed again at the ceiling of the hospital room. This time her charming eyes pierced Branko deeper. He suspected the kid would relate him to the accident and would be hostile, but it was just the opposite - they had a friendly conversation. The kid was very bright for her five years and talkative. She smiled at him often, somewhat shyly, and when she smiled she put a hand in front of her lisps to muffle her ringing laughter. Some of her milk teeth were missing and the gaps were making her more charming. She had chestnut hair and shiny dark eyes. Silence fell, and not knowing what to say Branko uncertainly got up to leave. He felt strange desire to kiss the girl, but restrained himself, remembering how ugly he was and taking in mind that the doctor and the girls’ father, both in the room, were watching him with suspicion.
On his way home the thoughts of Branko did not take their usual gloomy direction, because of the influence of what happened. He thought on the fate of the child instead. She was born sick and now she urgently needed kidney transplantation. Every single day her condition got worse, but the money collected equaled only one tenth of what was the price of operation in Germany. Doctors’ prognoses were dark. ‘It cannot be true’, thought Marko with sadness, which turned into rage. He was so depressed, he felt dizzy. Moods of despair and wrath followed each other. He was trying to think of something else, hoping that time would cool down his emotions. He returned home, but only after a few minutes the empty apartment chased him out. He drove away without knowing where was going. He decided to go back to the autoshop and to find something to do there. He started to inspect the monthly balance sheet, but he was quickly bored and could not concentrate. He pushed the sheets away and started something simpler cleaning. He washed one or two windows, organized some tools and finally grabbed the broom to sweep the floor. He pretended not to notice the surprised glances the workers exchanged with one another.
Evening was falling, but the thought of going to the empty apartment repulsed him. Old Vesso, an experienced and kindly white-haired mechanic, always dressed in immaculately clean coveralls, stayed after working hours. Branko had only a few good friends and Old Vesso was one of them. Vesso knew about Branko’s troubles and was always trying to help. When they were finally alone, Branko told him about the girl. Old Vesso knew his friend very well. He thought for awhile, then he looked at Branko searchingly. He sighed heavily. He wanted to say something, but decided not to, and coughed instead.
‘What?’ - asked Branko.
‘Nothing.’ - answered the old man. -‘Hope something happens... so the little girl is saved...’
They did not talk any more. On his way home Branko stopped to dine in nearby bistro. Once again he was not hungry, but he forced himself. Slowly eating, he thought about Vesso and about those with whom he had been inseparable in the past, and whom he had become alienated in the last years. He felt sad.
He did not sleep that night. He dozed in front of the TV between smokes on the balcony. The unpleasant felling was with him in the morning too. He felt rotten. The influence of the last day’s events did not disappear; it only took a stronger hold of him. The more he thought about it, the worse it got. He dragged himself through another day, alone, with nobody to exchange a word with. Another sleepless night followed and another bout of depression. His bones were aching, his head was killing him, his eyes gave the impression of insanity. He dragged himself to the autoshop where the workers, scared by his looks, wanted to call an ambulance. Branko obviously was feeling worse than ever. As usual, his presence in the shop was not necessary, especially in such a condition. He decided that a walk in the park would do him some good. After walking for awhile, he sat down on a bench. Children were playing around. He was looking at them, motionless for some time. Every little joyous shout was like an explosion in his head. Despite that he stayed on the bench more than an hour. He remembered the childhood of his son. A bright and boisterous boy, who grew up to be a copy of his father. Now, when the boy was nearly 30 years old, the similarities between father and son were an obstacle in their relation - the two were rarely able to get together without getting into verbal fights. The love and the respect were mutual, but they reached the conclusion that it was much better not to see each other often. An occasional dinner, a visit for a few drinks once a month... it was not enough for the father, but enough for the son, who had his own busy life and did not need any annoying parental care.
Branko got up with determination and walked out of the park. He was repeated in his mind that there was nothing to lose.
He woke up at close to seven in the morning, realizing for the first time in years that he had slept. He stayed in bed for a few more minutes, sitting, covering his head with his hands. Then he showered and went out for breakfast. Suddenly he discovered with pleasure the appearance of a strong appetite. After a hearty breakfast, he lit a cigarette to go with his cup of coffee. He was still smoking half an hour later, sipping coffee that was cold by now, looking at the wall, nervously rubbing his hands, quickly blinking. His mind was going into motion like a giant powerful machine, turned on after a long disuse, its rusty wheels slowly finding their rhythm.
He parked in front of the autoshop and got out. The boys immediately noticed the change. They did not remember such confident moves from their boss for years. They noticed his clean appearance and smiled approvingly. But their satisfaction did not last long. He asked them to stop work and gather around him. He talked to them clearly and powerfully, in a way he had not spoken for years. He asked them about the week’s working schedules and directly went into the difficult subject: he explained that he had problems and had to close the shop. Perhaps, he would sell everything. With dignity and without giving them any impression of guilty conscience, he said he was sorry and that he would compensate them for their loss of employment. He said that he hoped they would understand and wished one day to get them back. In his head, he did not believe his last words. The men were shocked. Everything was known in their small collective. They had witnessed Branko’s change after the death of his wife, his weird behavior, his melancholy. But they had accustomed themselves to the change. They also knew that the shop was busy enough and profitable - there was no reason for closing it. Without saying a word, the men got back to work. Old Vesso waited until the men were far from hearing and looked at Branko thoughtfully. Their eyes met for a second. Then the old man smiled, his eyes brightened. He stepped ahead knowingly and patted Branko on the shoulders, then he moved slowly away.
‘What?’ - asked Branko, certain of the answer.
‘Nothing.’ - said the old man without turning.
He had to close the autoshop in two weeks.
Branko, changed into new man, went into pursuing his goal. The plan was taking shape in his head, only the details were left to figure out as he proceeded. He knew he could do it. He accepted the fact that he had to take risks, but the biggest possible loss was his life - something without any value recently anyway. Once determined to pursue his goal, fears were not capable of stopping him. He concentrated on his plan and with every minute he felt the assuredness coming back to him, like in the old forgotten days. He figured he needed about a month to do everything.
He began the observations the same evening. 50 meters from his balcony there was a bar with a seedy reputation: quite typical for a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. Thanks to his many sleepless nights spent smoking on the balcony as well as his remarkable ability for observation, he noticed a car with a Haskovo registration2. He also knew something else - at about 3 a.m. four men were going to the car. Something was taken out of the trunk; two men got into the car and drove away; the other two moved the stuff to their own car parked nearby. During his two weeks of observations Branko also had used the help of a friend, a locksmith, and learned how to open this particular model of cars with a specially made key. Next day the local Police office received an anonymous call about wanted criminals seen in the bar. Branko waited patiently for two nights and on the third he saw two patrol cars approaching the bar. Immediately he was on his way - his moment for action was when the cops were in the bar: there was no way somebody might go out when the officers were checking IDs inside. Ten minutes later he was locking the bags in the trunk of his own car.
He did not know what was inside the bags and he did not care to know. However, he knew to whom the bags belonged most likely. Branko knew the local ‘underground boss’. 25 years ago they had studied together in the Police Academy. After that each went his own way. They were never friends, yet they did not have any grudges against each other. Branko was familiar with the habits of Tacho, especially with his eating habits - always in a pompous restaurant in the middle of a remote park. He gathered intelligence from one of the young cooks there, who was a marijuana user - Branko took care to supply him for free, buying the stuff from the local dealer. This day he arranged to meet the kid at 1:30 p.m. at the back entrance of the restaurant, leading to the kitchen. He asked the kid to lead him to the restroom and as soon he was inside, he noticed where Tacho was sitting with his bodyguards - a corner table, where the public entrance was easy to observe. He quietly sneaked behind the group and mockingly greeted Tacho ‘Your security is the best!’, then imitated gun shots. He was nervous, yet, not as much as he expected. He tried to appear casual. Five minutes later he was talking alone to Tacho. Branko directly told him that he needed money and would like to work for the boss. As a proof of his credentials, he told him how he got the bags. Then he explained he needed some money in advance and told the story of the sick girl, presenting her as his niece. Tacho grinned at him and told him not to play with fire. They conversed about an hour.
15 days later Branko was exiting a bank. He had just deposited a sum big enough to cover the surgery. He had to sell his car, the autoshop, some of his own possessions to round the sum. He asked the bank clerk to notify the account holder immediately.
He went aimlessly down the street. He shaded his eyes with his hand and looked at the sun. He smiled. Jesus, he had not smiled for so long! He lit a cigarette and continued his walk. He felt happy - whatever was going to happen from now on, his goal was accomplished. He thought a little about his own present situation. Whatever, he would figure something out...
1. This is the emergency hospital in Sofia, Bulgaria, named after the great Russian surgeon Nikolai Ivanovich Pirogov (1810-1881) and commonly known just by the name of its patron. [обратно]
2. Haskovo is a Southern Bulgarian city far away from Sofia. Car registrations are by districts - in this case the plate tells Branko where the car was registered, suggesting that its owner come from Haskovo or the district of Haskovo. But this could be wrong - car registration does not mean that the owner actually lives there. [обратно]
© Георги Стоянов