Vassily was not accustomed to leaving Moscow for his assignments. This was because his boss Misha had the circumspection of the true paranoid, and liked to have his best assassin-cum-bodyguard on hand at all times: but this was a special mission. The heroin from Afghanistan hadn’t been getting through. It had been entering Boris Lukovich’s Ukrainian territory and simply vanishing, despite what Boris and Misha had agreed at the summit six years ago. And the heroin must get through. Misha had made that very clear.
The bottleneck appeared to be Kiev, which was, not entirely by coincidence, the centre of Boris’s empire. You could do with a vacation, Vassily, Misha had said. I hear Kiev is beautiful in October. So it was over the snow-draped Carpathians to Kiev that Vassily was driving, smoking American cigarettes, nodding along to American rock, and drinking American bourbon to ward off the Ukrainian cold. Not forgetting the American arms and ammo nestled catlike at his side.
Vassily was just wondering whether he should reach into his weapons case for his second pack of Winstons when the beast careened out of the dense forest fringing the mountain road and straight in front of the Mercedes. Perhaps Vassily’s concentration had slipped momentarily as he stubbed out his cigarette; perhaps not. Vassily wasn’t easily distracted. The fact remained that the animal ran out, Vassily swerved a second too late, and the resulting crunching impact shivered the snow off the branches of the pine into which the SLR eventually slewed.
Vassily blinked at the blood-spattered windscreen. His shoulder ached from the slam of the safety-belt against it. He tried to tug himself loose, but the crash had wrecked the mechanism. He reached into his sleeve, removed the stiletto knife cached there, and sliced through the nylon seatbelt in a single savage motion. Then he kicked the car-door open and staggered out to inspect the damage.
The animal was heaped up against the fender of the Merc like a rug in a showroom. Its fur was thick and dark, with long white-tipped guard-hairs along the ears and haunches. It was clearly dead, but curiously unmarked, except for the berry-bright blood smearing its teeth and dripping from its curled lips. Vassily took off his leather driving-gloves and pulled his Magnum out of its holster. He kept the gun trained on the wolf’s head as he reached out to touch its furry ribs. Still warm, but not breathing. No heartbeat he could detect. No threat.
Vassily sighed, braced himself, and pushed the beast off the hood of the car into the snow. It was surprisingly heavy and hard to shift. It must have been the leader of the pack, thought Vassily, as he ran his eyes over the Merc, checking for damage. A dent in the smooth black metal of the hood and fender could be hammered out when he got to Kiev. He ducked back inside the car and turned the key once, twice, three times. The engine gargled, spat, and fired.
Vassily backed carefully along the road. The dark shape of the wolf rebuked him from the snowbank as he manoeuvred the car around. Vassily couldn’t remember when he’d last seen a wolf, let alone a magnificent specimen like this. The ones in the Moscow zoo were tame as dogs, rangy and mangy. This thing was big, powerful and brutal in the headlights, sleek as the Mercedes itself. Vassily remembered his grandfather’s dacha, and the pointed, vicious head snarling from the wolfskin rug on the hearth. His grandfather had trapped, killed and skinned the beast himself, and had never tired of telling young Vassily about it. To kill a creature like that, Grandfather Andrey declared, is the mark of a man.
Admittedly, Vassily had not exactly hunted this one down, but who was he to argue with Fate? He pictured the creature’s glossy sable pelt spread over his bed, the head mounted, perhaps, over the gas-fire. Katerina would be impressed. Perhaps she’d even forgive him, for a night at least. Vassily crawled the car through the swirling snow until the passenger door was almost touching the animal. It was a hell of a slippery, sweaty job getting the beast onto the backseat. It was long as a grown man and twice as heavy, but Vassily managed to manhandle it in eventually. It was a good job he’d hit it, he thought, admiring the thick black fur. A bullet-hole would have spoiled the pelt. When he’d finished, he was breathless, shaking and thirsty. He took a belt of bourbon, lit another cigarette, and slid back into the driver’s seat.
The Carpathian Mountains are lonely, dark, and very wide, and consequently it was six hours, fourteen cigarettes and a fifth of bourbon later before Vassily saw the coppery gleam of light in the distance. He didn’t care where he was as long as he could get a bed for the night and some meat in his belly. He slowed as the road descended and widened into the main street of the village, and idled along in search of an inn or guesthouse. Lights burned over every porch, but every window was shuttered and dark. All the doors were firmly bolted, and although smoke wheezed thinly from a few chimneys, the whole place was eerily empty.
At the end of the street, Vassily wrenched the car to a halt in front of what was clearly a tavern or hotel of some kind. The sign welcomed guests, but the door was barred. Vassily wasn’t discouraged. He had more than enough money in his wallet to persuade even St. Peter to open up.
Vassily thumped his gloved fists against the front door once, twice, three times. He heard the blows echoing through the hallway, but nothing stirred within. He cleared his whisky-thick throat and yelled.
“Hey! Anybody there? I’m a rich and hungry traveller. Open up!”
Nothing. He tried again in his pidgin Ukrainian. Still no response. Snow grazed his eyelashes, dazzling in the full moonlight. Exasperated, exhausted, and reckless with drink, he loosed a bullet into a nearby tree.
“Hey asshole!” he screamed. “Open up!”
A window above his head banged open and Vassily found himself staring up through spiralling snowflakes into the greasy black barrel of a shotgun, and behind it, the greasy black beard of its owner.
“Hands up! Get back!” shouted the innkeeper in bad Russian. Vassily raised his hands very slowly and stood still.
“Sorry friend,” he said, smiling contritely, “but what’s a man got to do to get a glass of vodka in this town?”
The innkeeper scowled.
“I said get back!”
“I am back. Can’t I come in? I’m tired, cold and I’ve plenty of money. Here it is –”
“Keep your hands where they are!”
“I just want a bed for the night!” pleaded Vassily.
The innkeeper’s grin was more unnerving than his smile.
“Hey Olga! This stranger wants a bed!”
“Wants to murder us in our beds, more like,” answered a sleepy female voice. “Tonight of all nights! He must be even stupider than you.”
“What’s wrong with you?” yelled Vassily. “My money’s good! And you look like you need it.”
“No money’s good tonight and no man will cross my threshold,” said the innkeeper ominously.
His gun slid back inside, followed by his head, and the window slammed shut.
Vassily felt like blasting the lock off the door and entering anyway, but the thought of the landlord's shotgun stayed his trigger-finger. All the people in these little mountain-villages were crazy bastards anyway, and it would be so ignominious to die at the hands of a gun-happy peasant. He’d never live it down. Vassily decided to sleep in the Mercedes. He had plenty of gas, and if he left the engine running for an hour and wrapped up tight, he should be all right until the sun rose.
Back inside the car, he was surprised at how warm it still was. The dead wolf sprawled huge and black over the backseat, its bloodied teeth shining pink in the moonlight, like coral. He couldn’t be bothered to move it, so he huddled in the driver’s side listening to Bruce Springsteen, until sleep pressed his eyelids. He turned the key and listened to the engine snick as it cooled. Then he heard no more.
Vassily was woken by hot, moist breath on the back of his neck. He was instantly alert and terrified, his heart stumbling over itself, sweat wetting his brow. His hand flew to his gun. Gone, fallen into the footwell out of reach. He didn’t dare turn around, but as his vision adjusted to the darkness, he raised his gaze slowly to the rear-view mirror. A pair of eyes glistened in the reflected snowlight, yellow, savage, and indisputably alive. Vassily smelt the curdled blood on the wolf’s breath, meaty and metallic. He tried to calculate his chances of escaping the car before it tore his throat out, and didn’t like the odds. No wolfskin bedspread for Vassily, then. Perhaps not even a decent funeral, not up here, among the wolves and the crazy bastards.
The beast growled softly, a little warning, as Vassily shuddered. No sudden moves. No moves at all. Vassily Kurkov, prepare to meet your ancestors. Keeping his gaze on the wolf’s slitted yellow eyes in the mirror, he balled his fists inside his sleeves – and felt the hilt of the stiletto smooth and warm against his fingers. No gun, no escape. Just him and the wolf, man versus beast in a Mercedes in the middle of nowhere. Teeth and steel and no way out. Grandfather Andrey would be proud.
In a single swift motion Vassily whipped the knife from his sleeve and arced the blade backwards over his head to where he guessed the animal’s throat must be. A strangled howl, a messy slash of fur and blood, and an agonising tearing pain in his hand. He twisted round to face the beast, now writhing and snarling in furious agony in the back, trying to reach him through the gap between the front seats, gnawing on his wrist like a marrow-bone. Vassily screamed and pulled his other hand round as the beast crunched down on his tibia.
Contorting, he grabbed the knife-hilt and pulled the blade from the animal’s shoulder, cutting himself badly as he stabbed and sliced and wrestled with the wolf, finally slashing its throat wide-open, its head half-off. It would not release its iron grip on his mangled right hand, even then. The light dying out of its eyes as its blood steamed over the leather upholstery was the last thing Vassily saw before he fainted.
In the weeks to come Vassily would explain over and over again what had happened to increasingly sceptical officials, with diminishing hope that he would ever be allowed out of his tiny police cell unless it was to enter a mental asylum. How, wondered a series of policemen, did he explain the briefcase full of exotic and expensive ordnance on the passenger seat of his car? What, they inquired, had he been doing exactly, and where had he been going? And, most crucially, how did he explain the naked body of a young man found sprawled on the back seat of the car, his throat slashed and his bloodied teeth still locked into Vassily’s wrist?
It was a month later, as he stared up at the full moon through the barred window of his cell and felt the prickle of the hairs on his arms, and tasted blood in his throat, that Vassily finally understood. No wonder the innkeeper hadn’t let him in. No wonder the village had been deserted, the peasants barricaded indoors. They’d known. Tonight of all nights ... The Kiev cops would never believe it, but at last Vassily knew what had happened.
He threw his head back and howled.
© Kate Cording, 2008
Cold Snap was read by Ben Crystal at the Liars' League Jekyll & Hyde event on Tuesday October 14th, 2008.
Kate Cording is a Geordie by birth but recently moved to Manchester to study Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. She is a huge fan of ghost and horror stories very pleased to be part of the Jekyll & Hyde selection.