The Black Box

*

Chapter 20

NED

*

“So, you insist on going back to the factory?”

“I don’t insist. I just have to.”

“I’m told that he was giving speeches to the workers again. One of the engineers translates for him.” Mrs. Prashkova curls her lips con­tempt­uously. “How can they buy his bullshit? That Kurtz is completely crazy.”

“Maybe. But there is method in his madness.”

“You want to find out? Your business…” She shrugs. “I’ll give you a company Peugeot. Dynamo will drive you there–”

“I have my license,” I interrupt.

Is this the woman I came inside? She looks like she would grab a whip and start flogging me. I run my eyes over the vast conference table in her office. She catches my gaze, and possibly the direction of my thoughts. There is a daring sparkle in her grey eyes. You want to lay me flat on the table, right? Bring it on!

Her phone rings. She picks it up, and just five seconds later cuts in with, “No payment! Let them shove that scrap metal up their asses!”

I head for the door.

“Watch out, Ned.”

I turn. Her voice has unexpectedly softened. Or is it just my imagination?

“Something’s going on there…”

“Madness is not contagious.”

“It obviously is!”

The Peugeot is rather old and stinks of cigarettes but otherwise drives well. After about an hour and a half I stop at the deserted parking area in front of BORGRU. I exchange a few words with the policemen and head to the iron gate. The picket has changed. The workers are suspicious. Who the hell are you? Kurtz does not receive anyone, one of them informs me. He will receive me, I insist. They send a boy to ask him. He wouldn’t receive me! Who exactly do they think he is? I stand frazzling in the sparse shadow of a plum tree until the royal permission finally arrives. The doors open.

Kurtz awaits me in some dismal office hidden in the maze of halls, passageways, and corridors in the central hall. It is furnished with gutted sofas from the age of socialism. In the corner an old fan is spinning. On the walls there are pictures of naked women from magazines and calen­dars. The air current makes the edges of the posters flutter as if they are alive. Kurtz has positioned himself in a flattened armchair mantled with a pink blanket. His feet are resting on a crate. He is wearing rough military boots with no laces and tongues pulled out and some green baggy trousers, probably dug out of storage somewhere.

“Sit.” He beckons me. “Would you like a drink?”

He reaches for the big plastic bottle on the table, pours a suspect clear liquid into two battered cannikins and hands me one. Cheers! I sip cautiously. The liquid must be at least 50 per cent alcohol, sour, with a suspicious hint of raspberries.

“What is it?”

“It’s called rakia.” He takes a big gulp. “Local production. Distilled in the galvanizing workshop. They have adapted some of the equip­ment. They make it from old fruit pulp. There’s tons of it in the mess hall warehouse. Bizarre, isn’t it? This is the latest batch.”

He dips his finger in the cannikin then flicks his lighter. From the tip of his finger a bluish flame flares. He shakes it in the air to snuff it out.

“You should not drink that.” I push my can aside.

“Everyone drinks it.” He shrugs and raises his. “So, why are you here?”

“For the same thing as before.”

“I said what I had to say.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand you very well.”

“Your problem.”

“You’re getting into union politics! Why?”

“I only helped them build their strategy. I couldn’t watch them being played for fools any longer. I know how I would feel. Elementary solidarity between people paid an hourly wage. Several hours pro bono, big deal…”

“And now they see you as the Messiah.”

“No, another will be the Messiah. I am just restoring…the Temple.”

I look at him anxiously. This does not bode well.

“I traveled around Eastern Europe,” he starts, sounding strangely distant, as if floating on a river. “I saw the birth of a new world from the rubble of a planned economy. It was exciting. Emerging markets…I felt like Prometheus carrying the torch of the free market. Lectured, participated in countless seminars from Odessa to Gdansk. With each new transaction I claimed new territory for reason and free enterprise. Or so I thought. But after me ruins were left…”

“I think you’re contradicting yourself. These economies were devastated long before you. You said yourself that you’d found ruins. Or have you found something different here?”

“Not here, not anywhere! Only business as usual.”

“Then what ruins are you on about?”

“Human ruins.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I have an old debt to settle that I was never able to pay…”

Kurtz takes his feet off the crate and leans towards me, as if he is about to tell me a great secret.

“I was born in Cleveland. Have you been there?”

“Once, last fall.”

“It’s changed. It’s been polished. In my time it was a typical industrial ghetto. Perhaps one of the most polluted places on earth. My father worked for Republican, in old MacKorgan’s foundry, along with my older brothers. They got good money…. At the time, after the war, heavy industry was booming. My mother stayed home. I’d made up my mind to go to the factory after I finished school. I’d worked there one summer and something drew me to her burning core. I was surrounded by family and friends. A huge, warm, living body of which I was part. But my father almost forcibly kicked me out to go to college. You have no business here, he said. One of us has to get out, and it will be you. So they had chosen. I came back in the seventies. The fuses of industry had blown. Ironically, I was by then a consultant for Republican, and they were struggling for air. The mantra was restructuring. But the accounts were never settled, and we finally killed it. Chimneys, smoke, fire, noise, machines–all that went to hell. Only the people remained. No worries, people, we told them. New, more profitable businesses will come and create new jobs. And so it happened. The sky over the city cleared. The landscape began to change. In place of the old mills featureless neat rectangles appeared. But they employed other people. My brothers drowned in debt. One of them became a drunk. The old man barely eked out an existence with his pension. I tried to help with whatever I could, but that didn’t change the fact that they had become redundant. Nerds like you took our bread, cursed dad. You ruined the temple in which we worked honestly, in which our sweat watered the garden of the Lord. Damn you, get out of my sight! I saw him again at his funeral. My brothers weren’t talking to me. When I bent to kiss him his face radiated such cold that I didn’t dare touch it. He hadn’t forgiven me…”

Kurtz keeps staring at a single point, as if he has seen a ghost.

I want to tell him not to torture himself over something that is nobody’s fault. Everyone is responsible for his own fate. Life is risky. The circumstances around us are constantly changing; if you can’t adapt, you die. But something is stopping me. Maybe the thought of my brother, who is currently walking dogs. Well, let him walk, the fool that he is…I had delivered mail. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. And I had delivered pizza while I was a student. There was no one I could count on after our father died. The important thing is that now I don’t have to deliver anything. I will not go back to that. Never. Nothing connects me with these people. None of them cares about me. I do not know how to help them. And I do not think anyone can ever help them. Even Kurtz the Great.

“Yet you continue on your way,” I press.

“What?” He shivers.

“You didn’t give up the business, I mean. You kept doing what you do. You have not become a shepherd, right?”

“Oh yes, I continued, from project to project. Like the Flying Dutchman. I told myself that this time it will be different, we will do it properly. I had enough experience. I knew there was another way, but it always turned out the same. When I arrived here it was as if I had gone back thirty years. I thought for a moment that I saw the old man going into the cold-rolling mill. He turned, waved with his heavy gloves and smiled. It was a sign. It will be here.”

“What will?” I asked timidly.

“The temple. The temple that I destroyed will be rebuilt, and I will not waver until I see his heart again ablaze. There is a base to which you will always go back, a base that defies restructuring. You can only unite with it.”

“But this is just an old factory. It’s not a temple.”

“But it will be. I have calculated everything. It can work, and it will work.”

“If it could work, it would work. I understand that this game gives you back a missing part of your life, but you can’t have everything. You’ll never become one with these people, Mr. Kurtz, no matter how much brandy you drink together. To them you are an alien who has accidentally landed in the dump. Now they consider you a god. But if you can’t save them, which is most probably what will happen, they’ll throw stones at you. They’ll accuse you of robbing them of their hope. And there is nothing worse than that. If I were you I’d take to my heels as soon as possible.”

“To catch a flying saucer, you’re saying. Are you playing the alien, too?”

“Let the invisible hand of the market do its job.”

“This is not the hand of the market, it’s the hand of the Mafia.” Kurtz raises the cannikin. I expect a bluish flame to erupt. “Steel Works no longer engages in actual production. They’re not even a US company any more. In the mid-nineties they were bought by a fund backed by dubious capital from Eastern Europe and Russia. They keep old Bob Milestone only as a frontman. They earn most of their money trading dirty air. For that very purpose they buy tombs like this one. Currently they are negotiating three more plants in Poland, Slovakia, and Lithuania. They are only interested in quotas for greenhouse gas emissions. They use their access to the capital market to issue bonds to repay old debts and to cover running costs. They’ll simulate activity while selling and reselling unused allowances on the exchange. They don’t invest a dime in production. They’ll pay the workers almost nothing. It’s a classic financial pyramid. At its heart dozens of dead plants like this one are buried. When the scheme cracks they will be scrapped, everyone will be kicked out and it will be blamed on the bad Americans. It wasn’t an accident that they hired Brabury’s to do the job.”

“Probably not the ideal investors, but they are our customers. If you wreck the deal you’ll be accused of violating corporate ethics. No one cares about your noble motives. You’ll be ruined by lawsuits. Is that what you want?”

“Maybe…” He smiles enigmatically. “Let them try. I also keep a few aces up my sleeve. Greed drives business, and greed destroys it. I’ve worked for this company for over thirty years, and I know things that would make the Americans’ hair stand on end. There are traces: correspondence, records, bank transfers, files that should have been destroyed but mysteriously survived, ha ha! Who will ruin who?” He strikes his fist into his palm. His smile turns into a grimace. “There is a lot of anger in this world, son, thanks to those of us who think we’re aliens. But the laws of gravity apply to everyone. And the laws of ethics, too, by the way. There are no corporate ethics, as there is no corporate gravity. Those laws come from God! Landing will be hard, mark my words. Oh, very hard indeed.” Kurtz continues to pound his fist into his palm. “Pray that you are not there when the wrath of God strikes.”

He’s lost it again, damn it. Maybe because of the poison in the bottle. Does he want to finish himself off? Hollow metal banging can be heard from the workshop. Two ghostly figures emerge through the doorway. A scrawny young man whose eyes are very close together steps towards me with a jealous stare. He must be that engineer that Prashkova mentioned. He is wearing knitted shoes and a terrible nylon polo shirt.

“The newlyweds are waiting for you, Mr. Kurtz,” he announces stiffly.

“What?” My mouth falls open.

“I do weddings only on Fridays,” Kurtz explains. “Mondays I baptize. Tuesdays are for giving communion. Wednesdays I fast. Thursdays are for lathe work. Saturday I talk to the dead and eat pigeons. On Sunday we praise the Lord.”

He rises unsteadily, staggers and knocks over the bottle. The blanket falls from his shoulders. He is wearing a vest underneath; a grey metal medallion hangs from his neck. The liquid pours on to the floor–glug, glug, glug. I let it flow. The two men lift Kurtz up and take him to the hall. His voice reverberates, “Where I strike my foot and stick my staff, there will be my temple!”

Several hundred people have gathered in the central hall, and they are banging the metal columns and structures around them with what­ever is available. The sound is rhythmic and deep, as if it comes from the bottom of a huge iron cauldron. The formless piece of metal that hangs from the hook in the ceiling has become a shining cross out­lined by flashing yellow lights. Kurtz stands underneath and raises his hands. Two more workers hurry to help him put on a heavy casting apron. They place a black fireproof wide-brimmed hat on his head. They hand him his goggles. The banging stops.

“Adam and Eve were two monkeys hanging by their tails.”

The engineer translates awkwardly.

“Jesus gave us work so we could become human! He is the lathe-turner of our souls, the blacksmith of our destiny. Now Jesus will weld these two souls and temper them into a sacred hoop.”

From the crowd an ungainly pair dressed in work clothes emerges. The woman has a definite moustache, and the husband-to-be’s nose is clearly smudged with oil. Crowns of wire, interwoven with leaves of roughly cut sheet metal, are placed on their heads. Someone hands Kurtz a metal mug, and he hands it to the so-called newlyweds. They sip; he sips as well. Then he exchanges the crowns on their heads and pulls out a thick, grubby record book from the side pocket of his trousers. He opens the book, scratches something on a page then tears the page out and hands it to them solemnly.

“Bolt and nut for ever! Next…”

“What is this?” I turn to the engineer with the too-close eyes.

“A check,” he whispers. “For a wedding he gives a thousand dollars; for a baptism two hundred. For a communion he gives a hundred–but he is very particular about the fingernails. Must be clean and neatly cut, or you’re out. For a common prayer he distributes twenty dollars per person. Stamat, who teaches him the lathe-work, takes three hundred, the sleazy son of a bitch! For pigeons he pays ten dollars apiece. Wednesdays he gives nothing, unfortunately…”

Suddenly it dawns on me. “Is that why you all take part in this circus?”

“We are poor people, sir. For months we have not received our due pay. Last year an American film production company came to shoot in the factory. They gave us only thirty bucks a day. Mr. Kurtz is much more generous. Moreover, he promises that we will keep our jobs. I do not know exactly how this will happen, but even if it doesn’t, we’ll be happy…”

“Do you not see that he is insane?”

“He’s not crazy, sir. He is rich, and the rich can do whatever they want. Poor people can’t, so they play the fool. Mr. Kurtz is a great guy. He has big plans and a big heart. It doesn’t matter that we do not always understand what he’s talking about.”

“Next!” cries Kurtz. “Where are you?”

“Here we are, sir,” a couple replies.

“I don’t see you. Where?”

“Here, in front of you!”

“I only see sparks and lightning…. God, is that you?”

At this point I sense a subtle movement under my feet. I’m not drunk; I cannot ascribe it to alcohol. This movement is combined with an ominous creaking. The glowing cross above my head is swinging like a pendulum.

“Earthquake! Earthquake!” Frightened cries fill the air.

“Do not panic!” Kurtz extends his hands, looking to grab hold of someone, but everyone has retreated, including the newlyweds. “God’s work has begun, but this temple will be spared, I tell you. Strengthen us, O Lord! Strengthen us in the truth!”

Do not tease Him, you moron, I want to scream, while the earth’s slick twist continues. A broken cable snaps like a whip. A pile of drums collapses with a crash. Two huge rolls of steel sheets detach them­selves from a rail and tumble down, sweeping all before them. People bounce away in panic like pins in a bowling alley.

“Kurtz, watch out!” someone cries.

But he seems to notice nothing. He collapses to his knees and turns to face the ceiling. The cross is swaying gently above him. The electrics have clearly short-circuited, and the bulbs go off one after the other with dull cracks.

“I’m ready, my God! Punish the founder; pity the foundry!”

I throw myself at him, try to pull him away, but he has already been hit by a roll of steel. Crackle of crushed bones. The roll passes; only red pulp remains. I am holding Kurtz’s head in my hands. Blood streams from every orifice.

The swaying has ceased.

Kurtz’s eyelids are fluttering convulsively. His eyes bore into me like the tip of a white-hot sword. A sharp wheezing rips through his chest.

“Lightning…Lightning…”

“Mr. Kurtz, do you hear me? I’ll drive you to the hospital.”

A circle gradually forms around us.

His hand grabs my arm with surprising strength. The other clutches the medallion that still hangs around his neck and tears it off with a sharp tug.

“Here, take it! Here’s everything…. You know what to do with it. You’re cool. Fuck those bastards. Get as much as you can… Just remember the the tithe. One-tenth. Always for the temple. The rest…. Buy a diamond butt plug if you want, but the tithe…. A tenth for the poor…. If you forget I’ll smash your head in. You don’t fuck with Kurtz. I’ll find you, wherever I am, and I will….”

Something inside starts to boil. His mouth spews dense blackness. His eyelids freeze. The hand clutching my arm falls away as if it’s been cut off. The circle around us has already closed. Dozens of shaggy heads peep through. I get up slowly. My clothes are sticky with blood. Workers move aside to make way for me. I pass two rows of scruffy jerseys and jackets. The horror of the quake can still be seen in their eyes. The earth’s movement has distorted their faces. Here and there a silver or gold tooth glints.

“Dead, perished…” A whisper reverberates. “Kurtz is dead!”

Someone starts banging a spanner against a rail. Another joins, then a third, then a fourth…. Everyone bangs on something with whatever they can, wherever they can. The entire hall echoes with the sound of metal on metal. Clang-clang-clang-clang-clang. Can you hear, Mr. Kurtz? You probably would have liked it. I walk to the exit without looking back. The medallion hangs in my hand, a brain implant plucked from the memory circuit. In small print on the side: 8 GB.


Chapter 21

ANGEL

*

Two bees were dancing on the windscreen. The sun was shining behind the trees. The bottle was standing up in my lap like an erect penis. It was empty. I massaged my stiff neck and got out. The road was still empty. I pissed in the bushes. I had no other choice but to find a popu­lated place. I locked the door and started walking down the road.

I had walked for no more than five minutes when, at the next turn, a large meadow opened up in front of me. To my right I saw a small service station with three or four bright red pumps. It sprang up so quickly, almost like an apparition, that I froze to the spot. The flattened, sunburned grass was rippling gently, bright flowers inter­twined in it. Just behind the station stood a small wooden house encircled by a veranda wrapped in mosquito netting. Next to it an old pickup was parked, its paint peeling off. As I headed towards the pumps I felt a strange anxiety. The whole canvas of the land­scape was somehow invisibly vibrating and letting me enter into it.

Nobody came to greet me, except for a curly-haired black dog that crawled out of its kennel and looked at me with a frown. I stopped for a second, but I saw it was on a leash and kept going. J. MORENO’S GAS STATION was painted in fading letters above the wooden house. Inside there was an enormous till, some shelves with car accessories, the inevitable candies and a vending machine with beers and fizzy drinks.

“Looking for something?” I heard a voice behind me.

The man was staring at me intently through his thick-lensed glasses. He was past middle age, grey, but still tough. His braces had pulled his trousers above his navel. He was wearing a clean cotton collarless shirt and high boots. His clean-shaven face smelled of aftershave. I recognized the sweet smell of Old Spice. My father wore it, too.

“My car broke down.”

“Aha.” He nodded. “You want me to tow you.”

“No. I think I ran out of gas.”

“Ah, it happens. There are no other gas stations around. Do you have a jerry can?”

“A jerry can?” I repeated stupidly. “I don’t have a jerry can.”

He dug out an aluminium watering can with a long spout.

“I think this will do.” He took the hose and filled it. “Do you want me to drive you back?”

“Thanks. The car’s nearby. If I’d known that you were just around the corner I wouldn’t have slept in the woods. I’ll be back in a minute–”

“You slept in the woods?” He appeared slightly concerned. “That wasn’t wise.”

I wanted to know why but didn’t ask.

I walked quickly, and the watering can banged against my legs, spilling the fuel.

It occurred to me that this unknown man was the same age as my father would have been. I often imagined him living somewhere in the back end of nowhere, maybe on a small road like this one, and doing something completely different under a different name, some­thing as ordinary as being a fuel-pump attendant. I never imagined how the meeting would be, though. What would I say? What would he reply?

Dad. This man could be my dad. The thought was turning over and over in my mind…

I turned the fuel cap with trembling fingers and poured the contents of the can inside. Around half a gallon. I suddenly had a strong desire to jump into the car and disappear wherever my fancy took me. But I wouldn’t get far…

I found him near one of the fuel pumps with his hands in his pockets. He was not short of free time. Seeing the car a smile ran across his lips. He caressed the bumper.

“How is the beauty? Still holding up?”

“I don’t know.” I shrugged. “I’ve only had it since yesterday.”

He made a sign for me to open the hood. We both bent over the engine bay. What we saw wasn’t promising.

“Hmm, looks like nobody’s touched this in a long time…”

I nodded, glancing at the rusty, smoke-blackened engine bay. I took the opportunity to study the man’s face more closely, but I couldn’t find any resemblance to my father. He pulled out the oil dipstick, stared at it critically and shoved it under my nose. At the very tip a small greasy black drop was hanging.

“It was a good thing that you ran out of gas, you know! Otherwise the engine would probably have seized. Aha, you have no water left, either…”

“They gave it to me like that. Will it get me to New York?”

“Depends…” He paused. “Which road are you taking? This one here will lead you to Lexington.”

“Where am I?” I looked at him with dismay.

“Kentucky, son.”

The man cleaned his hands with a rag he’d taken out of his pocket and looked at his watch.

“My assistant, Ezra Pound, will turn up shortly. He’s the technician here. I do the books.” The man evidently detected my surprise and nodded energetically. “Yeah, Ezra, like the poet. You must be hungry and in need of a wash. Come with me.”

“Okay.” I nodded automatically.

On the veranda there were two wicker chairs and a little table. He went into the house. I heard him saying something then he reap­peared and asked what I would like to eat. Well, whatever you have, I shrugged. Okay, let’s make a sandwich. Coffee? Yes, yes, I needed a coffee. After a short while he reappeared with a tall, relatively young woman wearing a flowery summer dress, her ginger hair falling in waves. Barefoot.

“Dena.” He introduced her to me without unnecessary expla­nations.

“Hi, hi,” her voice rang.

Her pert nipples showed through the thin material.

She placed the sandwich, which consisted of two slices of toast with cheese and ham, in front of me together with a glass of orange juice. Then she brought the pot of coffee.

Suddenly a light breeze wrinkled the man’s face and moved his features slightly. It could have been just a trick of the light caused by a small cloud passing across the sun, but in that instant he looked like Dad. I wondered what would happen if I started gibbering in Bulgarian. But I was terribly afraid he wouldn’t under­stand me or, worse still, pretend he didn’t understand. I didn’t want to do anything that would dispel the magic of the moment. I was enjoying sitting on the veranda with him so much, the two of us drinking coffee, me watching him, relaxed and rested, cured of his past–of me as well. Should I be angry with him?

“How long…have you been living here?” I asked cautiously.

“Ten years. I was wandering around before that. It is not easy to find a place where you can settle forever.”

“No, it isn’t easy,” I agreed.

“There are a few Quakers living around here. They are good people…. You can always rely on them if you need anything.”

“I’ve also heard good things about them.”

“The Quakers don’t drink much, but from time to time….” He winked conspiratorially. “They’re not such fanatics, if you know what I mean. Ah, my assistant’s arrived. Ezra!”

He stood up and quickly walked towards the forecourt where a young chap was wandering around, his hat pushed back on his head.

They opened the hood and started to poke around inside. Dena appeared on the veranda with light steps and asked whether I wanted anything. She must have been over forty, but she looked much younger. She had a golden tan. It occurred to me that she probably had some Native American ancestry. Where had he found her? I wondered.

When he came back all my dad’s features had disappeared.

“You want me to show you the lake?” he asked.

I followed him. We passed near the house and walked down a small path through the woods. After several minutes the lake glistened through the trees. The shore was covered with tiny pebbles. The path led to a small pier, where a white motor boat with a high cockpit was tied up.

Grace was written on its side.

“Is that yours?”

“Uh-huh,” he affirmed with a hint of pride.

“Seems you’re doing well with the gas station.”

“It came with the house. Wasn’t expensive.”

The water glistened in front of me. I crouched, took a pebble and threw it low, near the surface. It bounced a few times through the waves and disappeared beneath the water.

“You’d be surprised how many things seemingly beyond reach a man can afford. What’s your name?”

“Angel.”

I expected him to ask where I was from, but he just repeated, “Angel…”

We went back along the trail.

A police car was parked near the station. A tall morose fellow with a badge on his shirt was standing on the porch, leaning on the railing and sucking from a lemonade bottle. Dena was chatting with him but seemed anxious.

“Good day, Ben. How are you?” The visitor touched the brim of his hat.

“Hello, Sheriff. Praise the Lord, we are fine.”

“Someone has dumped their garbage by the side of the road. I’m wondering who that might be.”

His narrow, wrinkly face turned towards me.

“He’s my guest.” Ben stepped forward as if to protect me.

The sheriff’s gaze jumped to the large white car, then to me.

“Is it his?”

“It’s mine,” I replied quickly.

“Nice car,” he noted in a more accommodating manner. “Where are you from, son?”

“New York.”

“But it’s a Tennessee license plate…”

“Let the man be, Harry,” my host intervened. “He’s done nothing wrong.”

“As you wish,” the other grumbled. “But someone’s thrown their trash near the road, Ben. It’s on your land…”

“Don’t worry. We’ll clean it up. What’s going on with the corpses?”

I started. Had I heard correctly? Corpses?

“Keep popping up,” the sheriff sighed. “No idea how they are going to be identified. Too many. Some totally decomposed.”

“Sounds bad.”

The sheriff touched his hat and nodded to Dena. “Thanks for the lemonade.”

He headed to the gas station reluctantly like a man who had not done his job properly. His legs were a little bowed, bent outwards like parentheses. He stopped in front of my car, took out a notebook and wrote down the plate number. Maybe just in case. He exchanged a few words with Ezra, got in his car, switched on the siren for a second as if to try it out and slowly cruised by.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Absolutely awful,” Dena said.

“She found them,” Ben clarified. “She had taken the dog for a walk. The mutt started digging beneath some bushes. A hand popped out. The police searched the entire plot. Found over three hundred skeletons–”

“Ben,” she interrupted. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

He put his hand on her shoulder. “Don’t be upset, dear.”

As if some darkness had fallen upon this heavenly place, the colours became heavy and intense like the shadow that signals an approach­ing storm. A flock of wild geese flew over the woods, wings beating slowly. What was the deal with those skeletons? Maybe from the Civil War? Victims of the Ku Klux Klan? Native Americans?

“Ezra, is the car ready?”

“Changed the oil and the filter, boss. Put in some water and anti­freeze, too.”

“Did you fill the tank?”

“To the top, boss.” He threw me the keys.

“Will you show him how to get to the highway?”

“No problem. I’ll take him to the bridge. It’s easy after that.”

“You hear that? Just follow him,” said Ben, slapping me on the shoulder.

Dena remained on the veranda. She smiled with relief, it seemed to me, and waved at me. I remembered I hadn’t paid.

“How much do I owe you, sir?”

“Seventy-five dollars.”

I had only thirty-two in cash and my brother’s credit card. Ben didn’t accept cards. I began to worry.

“It’s okay, son. Send the rest by mail. Here….” He wrote his address on a piece of paper and gave it to me.

“Absolutely. I will.”

“Off you go.” He seemed anxious.

Ezra Pound got in his battered pickup and started the engine. I followed him. Just before the old metal bridge he pulled to the side, stuck his hand out the window and pointed forward. I stopped beside him and got out.

“What’s up?” He eyed me, puzzled.

“Those skeletons in the woods,” I began cautiously, “how did they get there? Must be from the Civil War, or…?”

“Are you a journalist or something?” He grinned victoriously, the empty spaces between his teeth gaping. “Too many scribblers have been hanging around recently. Leave the dead alone!”

Underneath the bridge a slow, deep, greenish-black river flowed. When I got on to the bridge I felt something pull me forward as if I was being dragged along by an express train. I flew between the uprights of the metal construction and found myself on the other side. A sign appeared in the rearview mirror:

NOBELSVILLE COMMUNITY

Pop. 3,000

Use of guns allowed

Bios

Alek Popov

Alek Popov (born Sofia, Bulgaria, 1966) is one of the most popular contemporary Bulgarian writers, working not only as a novelist but also a dramatist, essayist, and short story writer. His hugely successful first novel, the comic satire Mission London, based on his experiences as a Bulgarian cultural attaché in London, has been translated into sixteen languages. The 2010 film adaptation of the book became the most popular Bulgarian film since the revolution of 1990, and was described by Variety as “a breakthrough phenomenon.”

Alek Popov has won many literary awards, including the Elias Canetti Prize (for The Black Box), the Helkon Award, the Chudomir Award for satirical prose, the Reading Man Prize, and the Ivan Radoev National Prize for Drama. In 2012, he was elected corresponding member of the Bulgarian Academy of Science in the field of Arts, the youngest member of the Academy to date. He serves on the board of Bulgarian PEN and is part of the editorial body of the literary magazine Granta Bulgaria.

The Black Box, his award-winning second novel, has so far appeared in six languages, including English, and was a bestseller in German translation as well as in its original Bulgarian edition. Palaveevi Sisters in the Storm of History, his third novel, won the Helikon Award for best prose book of 2013 and was translated into German under the title Snow-white and Partisan-red. A tragicomic tale of two well-off girls siphoned in the underground resistance during WWII, the novel was recently adapted for stage with great success.

Daniella Gill de Mayol de Lupe and Charles Gill de Mayol de Lupe

Charles Edward Gill de Mayol de Lupe was born in London, UK. He has a BA (Oxon) in French and Spanish. He met his wife Daniella, who was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, while she was studying in Oxford, where she got a BA in Modern History at Oxford Brookes University. In 2000, they moved to Bulgaria, where they started teaching English and translating from several languages into English. Together they have translated a variety of texts from Bulgarian into English, including Alec Popov’s two novels Mission London and The Black Box. Charles is also a full-time teacher of English and translates legal documentation, contracts, and reports. Most recently, they translated a number of film synopses and treatments. Currently they both live in Sofia, Bulgaria with their eleven-year-old daughter.

Copyright (c) Ciela Norma, 2014. English translation copyright (c) Daniella Gill de Mayol de Lupe and Charles Gill de Mayol de Lupe, 2015. Printed with permission from, and thanks to, Peter Owen Publishers and the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation.