Friday, September 28, 2018

El DIablo by G. Zotov

El Diablo
A supernatural thriller
by G. Zotov

Release - December 26, 2018


Lima, capital of the Republic of Peru
October 14 1931

THE OLD TELEPHONE rattled, jumping up and down on the bedside table. Miguel groped for it, then swatted it like a fly with a blow of his hand.
Contrary to his expectations, the phone didn’t shut up. It continued to annoy him with its repeated buzzing which sounded like a snoring man having rust poured down his throat.
Miguel struggled to rub his eyes. What was going on, dammit? He reached out in the dark, feeling for the receiver, and brought it blindly to his ear. “Speaking.”

“Excuse me, Señor Capitan,” the phone wheezed.
“You have any idea what time it is?” Miguel said, swelling with spite.
“Yes, Señor Capitan. It’s four a.m. May the Virgin Mary and Jesus himself be the witnesses of my apologies, but I was told to wake you up on the orders from Deputy Minister Juarez. He demands you arrive at Plaza Mayor ASAP. This is an emergency.”
“And what’s up there?” Miguel asked, suppressing a yawn.
“I’ve no idea, Señor. We’ve had a driver sent to get you. The car should already be waiting by your front door.”
Miguel hung up without saying goodbye.
He sprang from his bed. A dull light bulb under the ceiling lit up a closet which the hotel keeper had had the audacity to call a furnished room. A well-worn bed, a wash stand, a faded bedside table, a stone floor (especially welcome in this constant heat), a writing desk (which, judging by its age, must have been left behind during the conquistadors’ retreat) and a portrait of El Presidente on the wall, generously embellished with the dried bodies of mosquitoes. Luis Sánchez Cerro stared wearily into the semidarkness of the room, lips pressed tight, his epaulettes resembling large unwashed dishes on the faded photo.
Miguel splashed his face with some icy-cold water. Yawning mercilessly, he buttoned up his tunic.
He walked down the loose steps which groaned their death throes underfoot. That bastard landlady of his had had the cheek to ask fifteen sols a month for this dilapidated box of a “hotel room” on the third floor of a 17-th century colonial shack.
The car’s motor was already chugging away below. Predictably, a Ford and a rather ancient model at that. Could anything new come out of this country?
A familiar young driver courteously opened the car door. Miguel slumped onto the worn back seat, immediately transported to another planet: one that smelled of cheap two-centavo cigars, with a magazine picture pinned to the dashboard, a cracked windscreen and a missing rearview mirror. It was a good job the driver was sober - something that didn’t happen very often in Peru.
The car sped off, racing through the empty city.
“Do you know what happened, Señor?” the driver tried to strike up a conversation.
“It’s none of your fucking business,” Miguel snapped.
The driver subserviently shut up.
The Ford turned off toward the Barrio Miraflores, bypassing a coconut grove and a row of dark yellow morisco houses with their columns, tiled roofs and little carved balconies. The sound of the ocean surf lulled him to sleep; the car’s rocking motion felt like a cradle. Unwittingly Miguel closed his eyes and didn’t even notice himself dozing off.
He had the same dream he’d always had in Lima ever since his first arrival here. It had already become some sort of tradition. American and Japanese warships, packed into Vladivostok harbor like sardines. The clouds of explosions hanging in the autumnal sky. The screams and the sounds of weeping and cussing voices that hung in the air.
It felt like true pandemonium. The whole world seemed to be there: respectable merchants, their beards quaking with fear; petrified young girls in school uniforms; ladies in threadbare furs.
That was the early-morning scene of October 25 1922 during the evacuation of General Dieterichs’ troops from Vladivostok. Rumors spread, one more terrible than the next, about the Japs’ treachery and their alleged retreat from their positions. The Bolsheviks were expected to enter the defenseless city within an hour.
With shouts of “Get back, motherfuckers!” the Americans fended the panic-stricken people off with their bayonets as the crowds stampeded for the last ships, even though the night before, the most beautiful girls in Vladivostok had parted with their virginity in the sailors’ cabins, paying for their right to be the first to step on the life-saving gangplanks. The whole surface of the water was littered with the contents of smashed suitcases, clothes and children’s toys floating side by side.
Miguel had been one of them that day, a puny blond lad of about twenty years of age with a pallid freckled face. ‘Allow me to introduce myself, ladies and gentlemen: Second Lieutenant Mikhail Martynov’. He'd been wearing a tattered army greatcoat, with a Nagant revolver in his hand and a crazy look in his eyes.
Good God, how long had it been... he could still clearly remember the moment when the ship had finally set sail, packed to the brim with fugitives. And as the gray strip of the shore began to widen, he’d realized he’d never return to his home city.
As he’d stood on the deck that day, he'd vacantly put the revolver’s barrel into his mouth and licked it. The taste of gun oil assaulted his tongue. He’d said a prayer, then silently sworn as he pulled the trigger with all the determination of youth.
The click echoed in his ears like the tolling of a funeral bell. Of course. There hadn’t been any rounds left in the cylinder for a long time. The White army had been completely depleted of ammunition during the prolonged campaign.
What a young idiot he’d been then. He'd then spent years in Tokyo gutters - without money, in lice-ridden tatters, subsisting on one cup of rice in three days and sleeping rough under the bridge next to drunken prostitutes. He quickly realized that his Spanish was of no use here whatsoever and began dreaming of getting to Spain which was prohibitively far away.
Three months later, he found a job as a deckhand on a rickety old tub which was taking some Japanese migrants to Peru.
That’s when Mikhail Martynov had become Miguel Martinez.
He got himself a Peruvian passport, then made a quick career from ordinary policeman to criminal investigator. He finally had a roof over his head, never mind it that was only an old shack but, excuse my French, only generals could afford the good life on their salaries in this country. How many of his fellow officers had either gone on the bottle or shot themselves; some of them were now shoeshine boys in Tokyo and Shanghai while countless others had become horse-cab drivers in Harbin. He'd been one of the lucky ones...

“SEÑOR? Excuse me, Señor, but we’ve just arrived,” the driver had already opened the car door and was shaking him awake.
Reluctantly Miguel climbed out of the Ford. His head felt leaden; he was falling asleep as he walked. He reached into his tunic pocket for a small wad of pressed coke leaves and blindly sent it into his mouth. Great stuff. It may have numbed the tongue and tasted like a cross between bay leaves and peppermint, but it gave you a real boost.
In just a couple of seconds, he felt fresh as a daisy. His mind had cleared, his eyes could focus, his body sensed the chill in the air. Where had they brought him to? He was in some rundown back alleys behind the pretentious Plaza Mayor. He'd been here many times before. Murders were common in nighttime Lima. The city thrived on them. Knife fights, shootouts, rapes and drunken brawls... very nice.
The sunrise was long in coming. Miguel headed for a group of men with flashlights who froze in the gloom between the skeletal remains of houses. A beam of light flashed straight in his face.
“We’re very happy you’re here, Señor Capitan.”
Hearing the voice had finally awoken Miguel to the fact that something bad must have happened. Up until then, he’d thought it just a bad joke... but if the deputy police minister had arrived at the scene in person, there must have been a reason for it.
He brought two fingers up to his kepi in salute, “Good morning, Sir.”
The Deputy Minister Juarez, a squat overweight balding half-breed (like half the local population, he was an explosive mix of the Quechua Indian and Spanish colonials) and looked rather funny in a civilian suit and a Fedora. He would have looked more at home hunting jaguars in the jungle with a spear in his hand, Miguel thought lightheartedly in Russian.
The deputy minister brought a handkerchief up to his head and wiped his brow. His lips were shaking. Miguel’s reckless cheerfulness vanished, replaced by an uneasy anxiety. The two of them stood in a small clearing between an ancient colonial casa and an abandoned church. The old priest had died almost a year ago and a new one hadn’t yet been assigned.
Miguel cussed as his shoe got stuck in the viscous mud. Juarez lowered his flashlight.
All the remaining drowsiness had now cleared from Miguel’s head. His shoe was colored a deep cherry red.
“It looks like the murderer bled her to death,”  the deputy minister said. “It’s like a lake here. All the grass and tree roots are soaked in blood. The rest you’ll see in a minute, Señor Capitan,” he stepped aside, giving way.
The police photographer’s camera flashed, imprinting the scene on Miguel’s retinas. A girl, dressed in a lacy cream-colored dress puffed up  with petticoats almost medieval in their style, the sort women still wore in the areas bordering Bolivia. Her thick black hair was meticulously coiffed, her eyes wide open - as was her mouth with just the tip of her tongue showing. Her face resembled a crimson mask: someone had covered it with blood, painting it like a fence around a peasant’s hut. Her arms had been tied behind the trunk of a thick tree, her body positioned on top of its roots. A wash tub stood by her feet; judging by the dirty-brown streaks covering its bottom, it must have been used to collect the blood.
He shouldn’t have been so cross with Juarez. This was indeed an emergency.
Miguel walked over to the body. The cops parted, letting him through. Blood squelched underfoot.
“How long ago was she found?” Martinez asked, peering at the dead face.
“Two hours ago, Señor Capitan,” a young corporal said in a stifled voice, trying not to look at the victim. “You know how old people can’t sleep at night sometimes, don’t you? They just take their dogs for a walk or something. It was one of them who found the Señorita. You can’t imagine how quickly he ran to the police station. At first we wanted to untie her but... as soon as we touched her we decided to call an officer. He told us to contact his superiors. And his superiors called you, Señor.”
Miguel crouched in order to get a better look at the dried blood on the girl’s cheeks. A faint pleasant aroma hung in the air. How strange. Normally, a murder victim stinks like a dead animal at an abattoir. And this... he couldn’t quite place it. It smelled like perfume but sweeter... more delicate.
He reached out and touched the girl’s arm, pulling it toward himself, then recoiled as the body gently leaned toward him with a soft rustling sound, like a pillow.
Martinez touched her arm again, gently pressing the skin. Something crunched inside. How interesting. The murderer had professionally removed every bone from her body, then stuffed it with aromatic herbs, painted her face with her own blood and brought it to the slums behind Plaza Mayor about midnight. He must have drained her of blood prior to that (aha, there was a lacerated wound on her throat), then used some of it as decorating material and dumped the rest of it on the ground.
This wasn’t going to stop at the Deputy Minister’s level! Very soon El Presidente would know too.
Her eyes were framed with four glittering lines pointing in different directions. Miguel nodded to a cop to bring his flashlight closer. He'd been right: it was gold dust, hence the shimmering. Oh, great. The guy had some sick imagination. Miguel didn’t for one moment doubt the fact it had been a man. He'd already solved three serial killer cases in the past in different Peruvian cities, including the Trujillo Predator - a baker who’d strangled four street whores. But those were rather narrow-minded people with no imagination whatsoever who’d collected their victims’ body parts as souvenirs following the moth-balled example of Jack the Ripper.
This was something different. A very specific approach. This girl wasn’t a well-ridden priestess of the high street, the kind he’d encountered already in Vladivostok. She appeared to be no more than fifteen, a mere schoolgirl.
So what would our murderer’s profession be, then? A surgeon? A taxidermist? A crazy artist? In any case, it made no sense for Miguel to linger here. The body (or cynically speaking, the stuffed bird) had to be sent to the station for further investigation. It was hard work trying to examine it in this weak light.
It didn’t look as if he’d get any sleep tonight. Nor the next night, most likely.
Miguel rose to his feet.
The sound of surf came from the ocean. The girl, painted with blood and stuffed with aromatic herbs, looked like an expensive doll in the first sunrays, similar to those that Miraflores-based rubber tycoons give to their spoiled little daughters. The gold streaks around her dead eyes were dazzling.
Miguel reached into his pocket for his cigarette case. The cop offered him a lighted match with a bow. Miguel’s head disappeared in clouds of bluish smoke. Tobacco was excellent here, much stronger than the Russian home-grown samosad. The only thing he couldn’t get used to was the local brew, pisco, and there was no way he could get vodka here, even from smugglers. Red parrots shuttled between palm trees, squawking. What was he doing here, at the very edge of the Earth?
Martinez stepped toward the Deputy Minister, then swung round.
The nails.
The dead girl’s fingernails had been different.
He walked over to her and took a closer look, bringing her hands to his eyes one after the other. Her left hand had the long, sensitive fingers of a piano player. Her right-hand fingers were short and knobbly.
Miguel cussed in Russian, investing all his fury into two snappy words.
This time he spent a good ten minutes examining the body before he finally returned to the Deputy Minister.
Juarez raised his blood-shot eyes to him.
Miguel waved his hand at the tree to which the girl was strapped. “I’m afraid, this is gonna be fun, Señor.”
The Deputy Minister raised a quizzical eyebrow. “What makes you think so?”
“She was put together from several bodies - at least four, by the looks of it. The murderer took his time creating this doll. It looks like he might want to open a toy shop.”
Seagulls squawked hysterically over the ocean. Dark clouds concealed the sky. A powerful gust of wind from the shore threw up grains of sand which stuck in the teeth of early-morning passersby. A storm was brewing.

Chapter One


October 14 2015, location unknown

HAVING ARRIVED on the scene as the promise of a new world wonder - the mixture of a childish dream and medieval magic - the film industry had quickly degraded to the state of a mediocre dumb-entertainment option. By the early 21st century, it had already grown into a fat kraken whose tentacles had already reached into any available space, forcing its way out of the tiny movie theaters and taking over the world which had willingly succumbed to its dominance. Take a look around yourself. Movies are everywhere: in our offices and lounges, in front of our airplane seats and on our smartphone screens. It reaches its fine predatory earbuds into our brains, focusing our eyes on the images it wants us to see. We’ve been reduced to a state of blind zombies, the obedient slaves of a colorful world of make-belief. Movies have been absorbed into the bloodstream of every living being on planet Earth. We can’t be a hundred percent sure anymore whether it’s us living our real lives or whether it’s someone else filming a movie of them. As any priest will tell you (maybe in not so many words), God is the film director of our Universe which makes us a bunch of underpaid extras in His latest blockbuster.
But I digress. Time to start this show.
The lights dim. The celluloid rustles in the projector.
Ladies and gentlemen, please remove your 3D glasses. You won’t need them: the movie’s rather old. Everybody got their popcorn? Make yourselves comfortable and try to disconnect from the rest of the Universe in order to hear these two people speaking.
They’re walking toward you gingerly, groping their way in the pitch darkness. You can hear the sound of their footsteps from afar: a soft and predatory feline gait interspersed with a timid clatter of stilettoes on the cemented floor. Like a tiger stalking a young deer. Or is it the other way round?

[Male voice] Please don’t. The electricity doesn’t work here. There’s a candelabra here somewhere.

[Female voice] Why doesn’t it work?

[M.v.] It’s a very old basement. I don’t think there’s electricity in it at all. It’s been empty for ages. Nothing lives here, not even rats, can you imagine? This is my underground world. The rusty pipes, the smell of a rotting mattress, the rustling of crumbling old magazines, the crunching of broken bottles underfoot... This is the music of my solitude. You understand, my girl, don’t you? The symphony of salvation.

[F.v., unhappily]. Sorry to be so rude but this place is a mess! It looks like a BDSM torture chamber.

[M.v.] That’s how I need it to be. This way I can hear it when they finally get to me.

A match strikes. A weak uneven candlelight sends the trapped shadows darting in horror across the walls. The floor is heaped with half-rotten women’s clothes and colorful underwear, some filthy red leather corsets and stockings. The dark lair of a grim monster who doesn’t leave his den for months at a time.

[M.v., catching her gaze]. Yes, this is my bed. I sleep here too. That’s why I chose this ruin in the suburbs. No one ever pays any attention to it. I get out once a day, to get some food and see what’s going on. I don’t have to hide. I don’t paint my face with camouflage, if that’s what you think. Still, even once a day is once too many. I need to bring my outings to a minimum, otherwise it might end very badly. Very. They don’t for one moment stop hunting me down.”

[F.v., echoes] I know.

[M.v., coughs]. Finding something suitable to eat is a problem. There’s no decent food here! I’m sick to death of cucumbers, bananas and whipped cream! My stomach is in tatters. I’m getting jumpy like a wild animal. Whenever I manage to doze off, I dream of those awful streets flooded with neon lights. Me cowering behind trash cans from the floodlights searching for me... encircling me, baring their teeth as they close in...

The shadows flitter. Obeying a sudden bout of sympathy, she raises her hand, about to stroke his cheek. He recoils from her touch.

[F.v.] Sorry, sorry, sorry, I’m so sorry. I keep forgetting...

[M.v., gasps]. It’s not your fault. Nothing to do with you. Where was I? Yes, the horror of it all. The City’s divided between several groups, you know that, don’t you? There’re certain twilight zones where the likes of me disappear like melting snow. We never hear from them again. I’m sick and tired of never having any money because the City lives in a subsistence economy. I can’t afford even the barest of necessities. I have one last candle left. Once it burns down, I might need to-”

[F.v. shakes, breaking]. But from what I heard, the monastery...

[M.v.] Maybe. I have no choice, do I? Even though the monastery is the craziest place in the entire City. No one stands a chance there. Have you any idea who inhabits it? If you meet a couple of Black Habits in the street - or three even - you still have a chance of escaping. Or, if push comes to shove, you can work it off. But the monastery is jam-packed with them. There’re at least a hundred of them in there. That’s death. They can sniff you out the moment you approach its walls; you can hear them laugh, a disgusting laughter, sort of carnivorous. No male has ever come back from there. Even their skeletons have never been found. Me, I’ve been in there twice.

[F.v.] Twice?!

[M.v.] Well, what do you want? I need more candles. It’s no fun siting in the dark, it’s sorta spooky. Tomorrow I’m going there again. You know why, don’t you? It’s my only chance of survival. I’ve been here for way too long. I’ve learned to survive in your world - and no one knows what it’s cost me! Without money or food. I’ve been forced to show up in the City’s most dangerous streets, knowing they could suck the life out of me drop by dwindling drop. They’re constantly hungry, those creatures, regardless of their age. The Checkered Skirts are only merciless during their springtime hunting periods; but it’s the Black Habits who are the real monsters. You never know who you might come across: they’re masters of disguise capable of putting even the most vigilant of townsfolk off their guard.

[F.v., with regret]. I used to help them. How awful... I didn’t know what I was doing. You opened my eyes to their true nature. I wish you good luck - I won’t go to bed before I hear from you, I swear. Don’t fall for their charms. The Black Habits’ voices are sweet like those of sirens, it's all too easy to forget oneself listening to their songs. Sometimes they used me too to lure passersby to the monastery walls. I’m so ashamed of it.

A little light flickers on with a typical hissing sound as one of them lights a cigarette.

[M.v.] Stop beating yourself up. That was meant to happen. Before I came to your world, I too used to think of it as heaven, everything a red-blooded man could wish for. I used to think things like these could only happen in a teenager’s wet dream - or on Cuba although there you’d have to pay. Whatever. I couldn’t have even imagined I’d be stuck here cowering in a basement, hungry, exhausted and totally wasted! I thought... doesn’t matter, sweetheart. I used to think lots of things, none of them too decent. Instead of coming to heaven, I’d been given a one-way ticket to hell. Never again will I ever ask for a dream to come true! Because they do come true only to devour your life with demonic laughter. Had I believed in God, I’d have considered my fiasco a punishment for my sins. Do you think I’m crazy? Life amongst monsters prays on my mind which shrinks in panic, inch by desperate inch...

[F.v., hopeful]. Are you sure you’ve chosen the right place? Old women say, there’re some old-school settlements only a couple of hours’ drive away. They have those cute 1970s cottages, very pretty, and the air there smells of milk and fresh hay. Nothing too complicated, everything’s pretty natural. If they catch you, they finish you off quickly. They don’t torture you to death. The locals are a happy bunch. They’re not into any BDSM stuff.
[M.v., sighs]. I know. It’s called vintage mode. In vintage mode, the entire ordeal lasts from twenty seconds to a maximum of five minutes. It’s not that bad, even if they attack you in bulk. But... I can’t get there, can I? From what I hear, the journey is too perilous. I don’t even want to tell you what kinds of neighborhoods it crosses. Have you ever heard about the “tough illegals” neighborhood? I knew you haven’t. When they play, they kill for real. In my world, a video of this kind costs eighty thousand bucks. There’s so much dirt here... so many perverts, mutants and predators. How come I knew nothing about it before?

She looks him in the eye. Their lips almost meet.

[F.v.] Let’s change the subject. You seem to be nicer... and calmer when you’re telling me about your world.

[M.v., heaves a sigh.] Oh. Can you imagine I didn’t really appreciate it? Now I go to bed every night hoping that I might wake up and realize all this was only a dream. Dream my ass! Every morning it starts all over again. And the thing is, I know I’m not asleep. If I die here, I’ll die for real. It’s a real Freddy Krueger nightmare.

[F.v.} Who’s that?

[M.v.] Just a horror creature from my world. You have the likes of him too in some neighborhoods. He’s an incredible, unbelievable killer who visits his victims in their dreams. He pierces them with his steely claw and they die for real... what a lot of bullshit. I’m stuck here now and I’ve got no idea what to do. Luckily, I met you. I never thought creatures like you existed in the City. They might, theoretically, but they don’t.

[F.v., pensively]. If your theory is correct and we’re just an artificial embodiment of other people’s fantasies, why not? Didn’t you say that even in your world virgins are difficult to come by?

[M.v., agrees eagerly]. Absolutely! Not at your age, anyway. Funny, isn’t it, there’re plenty of fourteen-year-old virgins around but if you want to find a twenty-four-old one, you’ve got your work cut out for you. And even those who are are mainly fakes courtesy of cosmetic surgery.

[F.v.] Well, I’m not exactly innocent, either. Here, virgins are preserved for very special kinds of games. Did you say that our world is based on a mere dozen scenarios which keep going round in circles, repeating themselves? You might be right. I’m quite experienced at certain things. I’ve taken part in BDSM orgies and seen things that would make the most seasoned of City whores shrink in horror even though it might not involve penetration. Would you like me to tell you? Having said that... no, not a good idea. You’d better tell me how you got here. I’ll listen to you. I won’t interrupt you, I promise.

The weak candlelight expires. In the thickening darkness, the two converse in whispers - but the audience can hear them. For the umpteenth time, he describes in every detail how he came to the City while she shrieks weakly in fear and suspense. In the absence of light, all the camera shows is a black square. The man explains that very soon he’ll go hunting in the monastery; the girl sobs, sympathetic. Their relationship is just as erotic as it is innocent. She wants to touch her new friend but is reluctant to do so even in the dark... because she already knows his reaction to touch.
The two seem to be perfectly safe. No one can find their secret hiding place. They’re alone in the basement, just as the man said.
Still, he’s wrong. There’s at least one other man watching their secret meeting from a considerable distance. He doesn’t exhibit any emotions neither does he show any animosity.
He just watches them. He’s been doing it for quite a while.

Release - December 26, 2018

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