‘Siv Delfin’, Damien Krsteski

Illustrations © 2016 Miguel Santos

 [ Magda, © 2016 Miguel Santos ] I clutch a bouquet of white roses. The earth beneath my feet is soft, I can feel my body pressing down into it with each step as I approach a row of stones with names etched into them.

Siv Delfin.

The nightclub in Bobinki Rid nestled in a baroque building once part of a tobacco tycoon’s estate, now owned by a branch of the Bug-eyed, where the first sample was found. The police chemists called the drug a depressant, a memory-suppressant, fear inhibitor, mighty curious molecule, a self-replicating wondrous African import, foaming at their mouths at the thought of studying it further—but to Claire it was yet another criminal thread managing to weave itself in Vasilegrad’s warp-weft, remaking her city, one strand at a time, from within.

Siv Delfin. The crime scene gave the drug its name.

She went to Magda, an old informant, to find out more.

“It’s not like any other,” Magda said, her welding goggles resting on her forehead. “You don’t space out. Don’t lose focus or shit. On my first try I thought I’d been ripped off.” She picked her nose. “Almost went to beat up the seller.”

Claire listened, taking shallow breaths; the smog made Zheleza’s air viscous. She knew she’d be coughing up fluorescent phlegm the following morning. “What makes it different?”

Magda bared her teeth. “Everything.” She shivered, soot falling off her skin. “It makes you euphoric. It makes you feel”—her eyes widened, and for a moment Claire wished she’d put her goggles back on—“eternal.

The noon sun baked the earth in the foundry yard to a dull amber but Claire felt cold all over. “And?”

“And it’s popular. People talk. Use it. Pay good money for a sniff.”

“Where does it come from?”

“Hell if I know.”

“Who’s pushing the drug on this city?”

She pursed her lips, shook her head. “Shit, Agent.” Calling Claire by her former title, from when she’d worked privately, when they’d been cooperating. Magda glanced left and right, “You really think I know names?”

“What do you know?”

“One thing.” The klaxon sounded, ending break-time. Magda placed the goggles back over her eyes; the Chief Police Inspector saw her reflection duplicated, a face twinned in confusion.

“What’s that?”

“They’re dangerous.”

Claire let the car drive her out of the city’s industrial quarter, her eyes sliding away from the rear-view mirrors.

When a user consumes Siv Delfin they forget about death.

Not forgetting in a joie-de-vivre, bad-things-pushed-to-the-back-of-your-mind kind of way, but totally, radically, as if the very notion had been uprooted from their head. Becoming completely oblivious to the concept of fatality, a user believes all life goes on forever, nobody ever perishes, nothing disappears, they forget about the manner in which close ones, or famous people, have passed away, the user’s confused by the simple question, Where is your great-great-grandfather?

Not here at the moment, the user would say, want to leave a message?

Those pushing the product were also consuming the product. Bad news for the city, trouble for the police.

“They’re going after the Bug-eyed,” Police Inspector Radan said, staring at the white board. “Hard.” A map of the city flickered on it, several spots crossed out in red. The latest crime-scene, a bar in a northern quarter, owned by a locally-known Bug-eyed member, had been decimated, several patrons maimed. Civilians. One adolescent.

But how could the attackers care about innocents if they couldn’t even fathom the harm they were causing?

Claire nodded. “From the periphery. Not in BE quarters. No attacks in Delchev, Kamentsi, Mayadin.” Jabbing her finger at those parts of the city. Chewing on a modafinil gum, a leftover habit from the old days in that private agency. “Fighting for contested territory, maybe?”

Radan tapped the board and the map zoomed out. “The drug producers are new-comers, but they’re amassing a crowd, gaining power fast.” He looked at Claire. “They don’t have any borders to protect. For them, everything is contested territory. They’re taking over the city, Chief. Starting with the most powerful gang.”

“Let’s say that’s true,” Claire said. “Where does that put us?”

“Normally, I’d say let them duke it out. Druggies versus Bugs. Let them claw at each other’s throats. But this isn’t a normal force we’re dealing with. They won’t stop with the defeat of the Bug-eyed.”

“Why wouldn’t they? Who’d they go after?”

Radan’s lip twitched. “It’s in the way they do things. Their modus operandi. They frighten me with their ruthlessness. After the Bug-eyed, they’ll be bigger, stronger, capable of going against the other force controlling the city. Us.”

Claire smiled humorlessly. “Vasilegrad’s PD might be a target. Then again, it might not. In any case they are starting to dominate the scene.” She rubbed her forehead, letting her exhaustion show. “Question is, what are we to do about it?”

Radan looked at the board, at the map of their city, with sad eyes. “We strike first,” he said. “Preemptively.”

This is my ritual. I’ve been coming here for months, years, always these flowers, always to these exact two stones. One next to the other.

The police paid informants, people to keep their eyes peeled for any Siv Delfin related activities, from all parts of Vasilegrad. The usual shtick.

Claire approached Magda first but Magda didn’t want anything to do with it, and the next time Claire tried to reach her she was gone. Moved out of town, her foundry co-workers said.

No information trickled down to the VGPD; one by one, the informants were disappearing without a trace, as if swallowed by the earth.

Police had been deployed to several locations across town, near places operated by Bug-eyed—a gang of boy-scouts compared to the new folks in town—waiting patiently for any possible attacks. Software Workers had assigned probability values to each potential target location, based on previous activities of the new gang and the current goings-on of their enemy, and Claire and Radan, along with a group of well-armed colleagues, were sitting in a masked armored vehicle a block to the east of the locale deemed most likely to be targeted that night. Rabotna Sabota pub, Vervoolitsa St. 185.

She chewed gum in silence.

At exactly an hour past midnight—

A dull thud, a stretched-out boom, like a crowd stomping the ground all at once, and the van shook. Coming from the direction of the pub, announcing the arrival of the drugged-out terrorists.

The van’s engine started up and they were on their way. Claire looked into the faces of the policemen and women. Curt nods while they all checked their equipment, the magazines in the machine guns, the maces, the batons, the canisters and the straps of their gas masks. She didn’t have to be here, in the thick of it, but she always was, she could never play the part of the office bureaucrat, and her colleagues liked her for it.

Like a flicker, an unexpected flash of light in one’s eyes, she felt a massive sense of deja-vu, like he was with her right then and there, beside her in the van, thigh touching thigh, his automatic in hand. Just like back in the day. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and banished him with an exhalation.

They poured out of the van onto a street overrun by chaos. The pub’s front, smashed and broken, glass shards glinting in the cobbles, black smoke wafting from the inside, and people, civilians, emerging confused and crazed out, escaping the flames, shirts and skin torn, bloodied arms and legs, some still holding on to their beer glasses.

The pub was two-storied, and people jumped out of broken windows, breaking legs or arms in the process, getting up, screaming for help while limping toward safety.

The bomb had gone off deep within the pub, the area around the explosion marked by blackened, melting furniture, and charred corpses. As the police were about the step inside to look for attackers, and as the paramedics rushed toward the victims, a crowd of fifteen or so came in from the adjacent sidestreet.

They looked like ordinary people, a representative sample of the city’s populace scooped up while waiting for the tram and cajoled into joining a gang. Running toward the pub’s patrons with axes, knives, even scissors, as if they’d picked up the first sharp object at hand and had come, en masse, to finish the job.

Claire aimed her Whisperer at their legs, shouting warnings. She shot an incoming woman, middle-aged, polka-dot dress and white-lace boots, in the knee.

The woman screamed, looked at Claire with eyes empty but reflective. Diamond eyes. “Why would you do that?” Frowning, not understanding why someone would want to hurt her, she fell down.

“Drop the weapon.”

But before the woman could get a chance to obey, a man from the drugged-out throng stabbed her in the neck in passing; for the purpose of the gang, their wounded were as good as dead. Nobody gets caught alive.

Claire shot the man and he slumped to the ground.

These used to be normal people once, she thought in disbelief, and with a flick of her thumb set her Whisperer to fire non-lethal neuroparalytic pellets.

“Ready,” Radan said and they fell into formation. They took several steps away from the pub’s entrance, their eyes scanning the throng, trying to differentiate between civilians and armed gang-members.

“It’s their eyes,” Claire subvocalized, and her colleagues heard her in their heads. “Glassy eyes. Shine back at you.” She shot one—a healthy-looking teenager, beanie and punk band sweater. He spasmed and fell down, rigid, the ice-pick still in his grip. Having identified the differential, her neural prostheses could now pick out the assailants from the throng, outlining them in silver for easier targeting. “Don’t kill,” she added as the battalion stepped toward the crowd. “And don’t let them off themselves. We need them alive.”

The initial confusion had passed and help had come as all police units pooled toward Vervoolitsa St. They’d subdued the attackers within ten minutes, had the place secured and fire put out within thirty.

Claire’s eyes scanned the scene—white sheets covered the bodies the paramedics couldn’t save or revive. Her chest hurt. Beneath every sheet she pictured him, pale and bloodless and with a projectile wound in the abdomen, the way he’d looked when she’d been taken to identify him, and she almost wanted to pull back the covers off the bodies’ heads, for just a peek, to make sure he wasn’t really there. What would she think of it all right now, what would she feel, if she’d been like them, like the junkies, out of sync with reality?

She walked over to Radan, lying on a stretcher, about to be put into an ambulance.

“You holdin’ up?”

“I’ll live,” he managed, then gave her the thumbs-up. He’d been stabbed with a buttering knife in the side—his armor had stopped the blade, but the assailant had managed to break a rib or two by blunt force alone. Enough to make him lose balance, and get stabbed again by another attacker, this time below the armor, in the kidney. “See you in the office tomorrow.”

She smiled, squeezed his cold hand as the paramedics were lifting him into the vehicle.

The quarter strobed in red and blue, the vehicles splashing police-light on surrounding buildings and faces peeking from behind windows at the bloodbath below.

What would they think? What would they feel?

Claire came home exhausted. She walked past the hallway where the pictures on the shelves were flipped down or turned backwards to face the drab and flaking walls, and strode toward the cold bedroom.

She slumped in bed and plunged into nightmares.

Mayor Lagetti declared a police-enforced curfew. Nobody allowed on the streets of Vasilegrad past 19:00, and police had orders to stop, frisk, and, if need be, arrest disobeying citizens.

The police car drove Claire to the hospital. On the way, she didn’t see a single civilian. When things got scary people stayed home, huddled together, turned to their leaders for guidance, and, most important for her, became obsequious, respecting the law and those who enforce it.

Radan was snoring when she got into his room. She set the chocolate she’d brought on the night-stand, next to the get well soon card from the colleagues (big-bosomed girl in black lacquered boots), and the flowers from she did not know whom. The older man who shared a room with Radan wasn’t there tonight, his bed empty and stinking of disinfectant. Claire assumed he’d died.

She sat on the side of Radan’s bed, careful not to touch any of the transparent plastic tubes connecting her colleague’s body to the machines. She stroked his pale arm, and like always, felt a smudge of guilt, as if any affection felt after them was a betrayal.

He stirred. “Hey, Chief.”

“How are you feeling?” She stood up.

“Not too shabby.”

“Didn’t mean to wake you up.” But she was glad to catch him conscious; they hadn’t spoken since the night of the accident.

“That’s all right.” Wincing. “Can’t sleep much with this tube up my penis anyhow.”

“I brought you something.” She smiled.

He glanced at the bedside table, then blinked stupidly at Claire. “Flowers?”

“No,” she said. “Footage.”

Color crept back into his face. He grinned, though the smile never reached his eyes. “You got them talking?”

“They talked all right.” She crossed her arms. “But we did jack shit.”

“How so?”

“Being on Siv Delfin for long stretches of time messes you up. Bilateral lesions in the amygdala, Swiss-cheese like, the doctors say it’s like watching a neurodegenerative disease on fast-forward.”

“Who would’ve thought, huh?” His laugh turned into a coughing fit.

“Quitting, cold turkey, messes you up even worse. For seventy-two hours we kept them without the drug. They looked shittier than you do. Crying and pissing blood, projectile vomiting, the works. But after the partying came the crash. They passed out. And that’s when they started babbling.”

He gave her an incredulous look. “In their sleep? Let me see.”

Claire nodded, pointed a finger at him. He raised an eyebrow at her when nothing happened. “Shit,” she said under her breath, and smiled. She’d forgotten his neural prostheses were offline, and would stay that way while he convalesces.

“There’s a display stuck to my bed,” he said, lifting his chin.

She yanked out the paper-thin display off the foot-board—medical information scrolling on it—and, pointing her finger at its receiver, transferred the data. Again she sat beside him, holding the display before his eyes.

Two, four, then eight gray screens appeared on it, a grid of surveillance cam footage from St. Kliment’s hospital. Tossing and turning in their beds were the citizens turned junkies turned terrorists. A stream of sound came, all jumbled at first, but the more Claire let the video play, the easier it was to pick up a pattern, words, repeated like a mantra, spoken by all the addicts in their sleep. To break to wave and break a wave to stab and litter and junk, junkies, piling junkies flowing junkies flowing piles of junkies piled up flowing drowning junkies trunks and junks and flowing the river carries the junkies and waves of metal and waves of water…

She folded the display in half.

“You think—” Radan’s face was ashen again.

“They’re dreaming of the drug,” Claire said, replacing the display on the foot-board. It stuck to the wood like adhesive paper. “And of the place where they can obtain more of it. They’re telling us where to go, Radan.”

A swarm of centipedes crawled toward Mala Prespa. They crawled with little hair-like feet on the river bed through mud and fish bones, then, as they neared the sandbanks and the river’s bottom became an incline, through rust, and chaff, and iron filings, all pulsating like a submerged amber halo around the island in the stream’s flow. Past these, springs and coils and broken gears and robot parts further up the incline, until the centipedes no longer crawled over sand or earth but over man-made debris.

Out of the water, and onto the shore of the island, covered entirely in trash, the centipedes exposed their carbon-nanotube bodies to the foul air and transmitted, back to the police, everything they saw.

There was no other place, Claire knew. This had to be it.

A formerly pristine sandbank on the western outskirt of town, dividing river Plovna in two along its length, Mala Prespa had gradually turned into a horrid junkyard, as the people and industries of the city chucked out their broken belongings into the river, hoping they’d be swept off to the sea. Little by little they had amassed on the sandy shores, machine carcasses and mechanical parts like beached whales, carried shamelessly out of sight of the citizens of Vasilegrad by makeshift rafts. A disgust, an ecological disaster, a hotly-debated political topic, Mala Prespa remained and only grew, rusting in the fetid winds.

In police vans positioned a kilometer and a half away from the river island, Claire and her colleagues watched the many streams of the centipedes, stitched together into one video, on overlays before their eyes. Claire knew Radan was watching the stream on his hand-held display back in the hospital, too.

From Mala Prespa’s vantage point, the city was a mist of pollution, a mirage shimmering on the horizon.

A blood-colored carpet of rust as screws, nails, bolts and nuts made the centipedes go up, down, up, down, converging from all sides toward the center of the island.

“Look at it,” said Nenad Kanić. “Like pillars. Like an arch.”

Half-rusted and flaking girders stuck out of the ground like iron gates. Through them, and past a graveyard of android body parts, ersatz skin peeled and flecked, deeper into garbage island. Switching on the audio, the police could hear morning river winds blowing and whistling on metal as the whole place sang and chimed. But there was nobody.

“They have to be here,” whispered Claire. “Have to be here somewhere.”

The centipedes made a sweep of the island, finding only dead metal. The day passed, the police growing impatient in their vans, slurping sugary and caffeinated drinks.

When the sky darkened, something started to happen.

Among the oaks near the river banks dark figures appeared, the few centipedes that stayed on the island shores turning their eyestalks their way to provide more detail.

Claire saw people, dressed in business suits and baggy pants and short skirts and high heels, crowding both sides of the river.

“A new batch of junkies,” somebody said.

It took a couple of minutes for them all to gather, around twenty or so, then, in one sudden motion, everybody jumped into the water. Claire gasped, thinking they’d all just dived to their deaths, but heads emerged quickly above the muddy waves.

“What the…”

The junkies swam, undeterred by Plovna’s strong currents. Claire counted heads, and when they reached the shores of the island she could see that most of them had made it.

They scattered across the island. Their wet clothes glommed onto their bodies, the fabric which sagged flapped in the wind.

Claire felt a vicarious chill in her bones.

Everybody seemed to be doing something different, each had a task to finish and they knew exactly where to go and what to do.

A plump young man dug out two pots and a cauldron from underneath a heap of broken plastic pipes. He carried them, the pots inside the larger cauldron and the cauldron by the handles, to a spot shielded from wind by a thin rusted metallic sheet propped on a girder. A group of junkies on guard duty patrolled the shores of the island, squinting in the wind. A woman with lanky blonde hair was stacking up bottles, vials, flasks, which the others dutifully pulled out of their pockets and handed to her. The man beside her poured the contents of each container into one of the pots, stirred it, watched it with eager eyes, and nodded in satisfaction.

They all had a role, yet nobody was issuing orders.

It took Claire a moment to realize what was going on, and when she did, she bristled all over.

The junkies were cooking their drug.

They made the drug—pouring liquids into pots, a dash of white powder here, a dollop of a black goop there, stirring until thickened to a paste, then leaving it to dry out in polluted winds—and consumed it. One after another, dabbing their pocket knives, spoons, fingers into the pots and taking a sniff.

Soon they left the island and headed toward town to cause trouble but were picked up by the police instead.

There, I can see the row of marble, rising out of green turf, where their names are written.

Claire talked to Robin. She had been talking to him for the better part of an hour.

She did it rarely, under extreme circumstances, when she couldn’t hold it in any longer, when the stress she was subjected to made her feel as if bursting at the seams.

She staggered around her apartment, padding on the parquet (disturbing her downstairs neighbors, in all probability), a bottle of white wine, her second that night, carried by the neck.

She took a swig.

“Fuckers are always slipping away. We catch ten, another hundred pop up.” To the patient walls, the hallway, the attentive furniture in the living room, she said, “How the fuck do I deal with this, now? And keep every-friggin-thing together so I can think my way out of this clusterfuck? To be the goddamn Chief”—she counted on her fingers—”to lead the investigation, to take care of my people, to make sure I don’t show any weakness.” She looked at her hand stupidly, then put it down, took another sip of wine. “I’m always out there, on the field, next to my people. I’m not some fucking bureaucrat cooped up in her office. I care. I go on missions with them, I ride in the same van, I use my gun, and still it isn’t enough… So what would you do in my place? Pray tell how you would approach this case.”

The apartment responded with silence.

“That’s right! You won’t fucking say! Because it’s you who has to be the hero”—she was pointing a finger at nothing in particular, eyes squinting—”you, you, you, who had to go and be brave, and heroic, and the good Agent and good man and everything good, good for the city and everybody except for—”

As she was about to say it she suddenly felt very self-conscious, and sober. Lights from a car from the street below burst in through the slatted blinds, striping the room in yellow and red, then vanished, and Claire’s vitriol and bravado drained with the color. She set the bottle down on the living room table.

“I’m fucking pathetic.”

She slumped on the sofa. Looked around the room as if seeing it for the first time, buried her face in her hands. “No, I’m beyond pathetic.” Her tongue felt numb. “I’m parenthetic. Paralytic, paraplegic, parapluie pour la plooee.” She laughed.

Within moments, she was snoring.

She woke early the next day to a splitting headache, and an anonymous message. It wasn’t until she was in the shower that her mind registered the red envelope floating in a corner before her, and on first impulse she swatted it away as if at a pestering fly.

Once toweled off and dressed, she opened the letter.

Encrypted source, textual, marked urgent.

We seem to be stepping on each other’s toes. So why don’t we set aside our differences, and cooperate. We have an enemy in common. V. K.

“Vladimir Koronski.”

The policemen and women in the room blinked at the file overlaid before their eyes, then turned to look, somewhat skeptically, at Claire.

“Reaching out,” she continued. “They’ve been aware of the junkies’ presence on Mala Prespa, having observed them for some time now. We drove the junkies away from their hiding spot, and now they’ve lost track of them. He’s proposing we share information”—she made an effort not to look at the ground—”in order to avoid similar, erm, blunders.”

The deafening silence was broken by a young policeman. “Are you seriously suggesting we work together with the leader of a gang? Has the Mayor okayed this?”

“The Mayor leaves those decisions to her Chief Inspector.” A smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. “And while they haven’t exactly been model citizens, the Bug-eyed do obey a strict code of conduct. They haven’t been real trouble to us. Not to the extent certain tabloids are making them out to be.” She drank from her bottle of water. Paced left and right. The pill had flushed out her hangover but she still felt the vinegary aftertaste of wine in the back of her throat. “So, yes, we cooperate, carefully and for this case alone. I believe that old saying applies to our situation.”

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend?”

“Was going to say beggars can’t be choosers, but that too, Aleksov.”

Koronski insisted on a face-to-face meeting, at night, in a Kamentsi gymnasium, the following Thursday. Said he’d always done business that way. More intimate, he’d said, than playing a virtual hide-and-seek across scattered servers. Claire agreed.

Radan came to work the next day, lifting everybody’s mood. He was gaunt, yellow-faced, his walk stilted— leg-braces instead of crutches, keeping him up and taking part of his weight off—but when he walked through that door to Claire he looked firm as a rock, a pillar of strength.

“You look like shit,” she told him.

“Likewise, Chief.”

“Glad you’re back.”

She left him to his colleagues. He had a lot of catching up to do; she had avoided bothering him with the minutiae of the case, not wanting to unload her worries onto him while he was supposed to rest and recover.

At the end of the day he swung by her office.

“I may not agree with everything but I trust your instinct,” he said. “I’m coming with.”

She took a long look at him. That was exactly what she wanted to hear. “Do you feel capable—”

“You expect action?”

She shrugged. “No. I think he’s being honest.”

“Then, of course. I wanna be there. I wanna talk to this guy.”

“You understand how I’m operating here, don’t you?”

He made a zipping motion over his mouth. “No time to bother the higher-ups.” He grinned. “By the time they give us green light half our department will be snorting SD.”

 [ Junkies, © 2016 Miguel Santos ] The car—non-police, non-camouflaged, as requested by Koronski—drove them to the wrought-iron gate of the gymnasium’s yard. Stepping onto the gravel pathway, Claire motioned to the accompanying policemen to wait in the car. No need for protection. If Koronski wanted them dead, they would be dead whether four, ten, twenty, or just two. They were in his lair, after all.

Claire and Radan slowly crossed the yard—an overgrown, patchy lawn, metallic benches scattered around with dented or missing backrests. Several Bug-eyed strolled casually, eyes glinting with their distinct green hue in the dark. The facade of the gymnasium was half-white, the other half a daub of gray with graffiti all over—it seemed a renovation effort had recently begun.

As they approached the large building entrance, the door swung open. A Bug-eyed, not older than sixteen by Claire’s appraisal, bowed, gesturing with his right arm toward the marble hallway of the gymnasium.

They nodded at the boy and walked in. Cold, gleaming marble, spotted in a cowhide pattern, their shoes clacking, announcing their approach to Koronski or to whomever listened at its end. Portraits of people Claire didn’t recognize hung on the walls on both sides; names written on scraps of paper were scotch-taped beneath the portraits, and she realized these were scientists, writers, poets—Marie Curie, Wilhelm Roentgen, Ivan Pavlov, Petre M. Andreevski, Maxim Gorky, Ivo Andrić.

The boy stopped before a wooden door, green paint scratched off and flaking. Koronski’s office. He knocked three times. The portrait next to the door was that of a young-looking, mustachioed man. Grigor Stavrev Parlichev, the inscription read.

Claire cast a brief look at Radan, and he nodded, mouth twitching in what probably meant to be a reassuring smile.

Footsteps from behind the door, and a tense moment later Vladimir Koronski was beaming warmly at his two guests. Avuncular, long-faced, looking more like the educator he’d once been and less like the gang leader described in the police files. Salt-and-pepper hair, tied up in a ponytail. Round glasses; crooked, thin iron frame.

“Welcome,” he said, and they entered the office. It smelled of old paper and dust, even though at first glance it seemed clean. A desk and a cupboard in a corner, both containing stacks of paper. Koronski gestured at two wooden chairs that looked like they’d been borrowed from one of the gymnasium’s classrooms.

Claire sat, then Radan did, too.

“Good to see you here.” Koronski sat down and leaned on his desk. His voice was gentle, his manner professorial. “We have a lot to discuss.”

“We do,” Claire said.

“But not the past,” he said. “Better let bygones be bygones,” he added in English. “I am inexplicably fond of that cliché phrase.” Claire couldn’t help noticing the way he looked at her, a brief flicker of his eyes, as if scanning her face, in a flash, a wink, for some clue. If he was expecting a reaction from the Chief, he got none. She pursed her lips, and nodded.

“Of course,” she said, and saw his face relax ever so slightly. “In this case, we are allies.”

Vladimir Koronski exhaled, and smiled feebly. “Allies in this case.”

“So tell us what you know.”

He looked at her and Radan in turn, then started speaking in a soft voice, barely above a whisper, and Claire could picture this gang leader teaching mathematics to the poor kids of the quarter. “The new drug has been injected into our beloved city months, perhaps a year, before it announced its presence in the pompous manner of the junkie hordes. I am afraid that even though we were aware of its existence for much longer than you”—he inclined his head at the two guests, meaning no disrespect—”we know very little of its origin. Hearsay. Rumors from dark corners of the city. Corners which we, the Bug-eyed, inhabit. Said to be Kenyan in origin, synthesized in a Nairobi lab, then shipped across the Mediterranean to Europe, via Greece’s porous borders into the Balkan Federation and its capital. Out of the lab and onto the street, where it adapted, where, thanks to its chemical makeup, it was easy to make more-of: just add, stir and leave to dry out, as you well know.”

Claire remembered the police chemists’ reports on the drug—how it had been self-replicating: add a few necessary ingredients and a pinch of the original drug and you’d have a pot-full in no time. She said, “On the island.”

“Mala Prespa. But they’ve been cooking well before then. We were observing them before the island, when the junkies weren’t as organized, when they were making the drug in homes, parks, football playgrounds. Scattered.”

“Why didn’t you stop them?” Radan said. “You could’ve saved yourself heaps of trouble. Us, too. Nipped it in the bud.”

“You mean stop a group of five, ten junkies?” Koronski shook his head. “No, that would have been a pointless exercise. These people were a mere symptom.”

“Of what?” Claire said.

“Of our new reality. Chaos. Actions without reason.” He squinted, and crow’s feet appeared around his eyes, making him look older, worn out. “So we remained on the sidelines, content to observe. My people kept me informed on the drug flowing into our city, into our quarters, luring normal people to wade in, then carrying them in its current, somewhere… and I worried, but failed to act. What could I have done? I watched as the junkies started coalescing into communities; being easy to recognize an addict, they’d orbit one another, help each other out, always ready to provide a bit of the drug in exchange for raw materials and to make more, and more, and more of it.”

“Their leaders—”

“None. Nobody to teach them. Nobody to show them how. Just the substance. They learn, they adapt to the drug and we adapt to them. That is the whole story.”

Vladimir Koronski’s words hung in the air of his office for a moment before Radan said, “But they attacked you. Club Siv Delfin. We assumed they saw you as rivals, that they wanted to take over.”

“They attacked us because we attacked first.” He sighed. “When I wised up to the fact that this new drug might turn into a big problem—you see, you and I might be on opposite sides, but we love the same city, neither of us wishes to see it brought down, into the grips of an addictive plague—I decided to take action. We tried to stop the supply of chemicals, dry out their sources, I thought only then this growing population of users would see daylight and resume their normal, boring, drugless lives. But no. They grew meaner. They figured out who was trying to keep the drug away from them. They barged into Siv Delfin, and killed. And that’s how it began.”

“And how we were brought in.”

“Indeed.” He looked into Claire’s eyes, a sharpness creeping into him. “You know, I found it truly amusing that they would commit murder just to forget death.”

The Bug-eyed had kept a close eye on the junkies ever since. They’d seemed to grow more and more organized, paradoxically, the more they’d detached themselves from reality.

“We wanted to see what their end-game was, figure out a way to get there first, to defeat them. We thought their gatherings on Mala Prespa—a different batch of junkies converging there each day to cook the drug, and consume it—were the apex. A miniature society, on the outskirts of town. Now,” he said, “we may never know.” He cast a brief admonishing look at Claire and Radan. “But they are self-organizing into something. They are working toward a goal.”

“The abolition of fear?” Claire offered.

“Perhaps.” He touched the tips of his fingers. “Or the abolition of the rival society.”

The ride back was silent, the two policemen upfront, hands folded on their laps while the car drove itself, Radan and Claire in the back seats, turned away from each other, watching the grimy city roll by.

From the glistening ring road Vasilegrad was a seething core, burning around a tarry river which drained it of light, a vein pumping out bad blood. An oval of gold, beneath an indigo sky.

Claire thought of Robin, running conversations in her head, from when they’d been Agents together in PalPoliz, the long-dismantled private police agency. He’d died, mere days before she’d found out she was pregnant, on a similar case, when a turbulent political climate and private interests run amok had led to a crime wave sweeping over the city, drowning many.

And now, the drug and the junkies, and her collusion with the Bug-eyed. It was too much, her head ached and she touched it against the cold window. The road trilled on her forehead.

Was it her turn now? Was it time for the city to swallow her, as it had him, and their daughter, and all those others caught in this swirl of modernity and… new reality, clash of societies, action without reason? She mulled over the thought, felt herself plunging into that strangely comforting daydream where she took herself to them, mouthing, I’ll be over in a moment, tell her Mommy’s coming will you?

The car swerved right, out of the ring road, into the fiery belly of the city.

My heartbeat pounds in my ears; echoed by the two headstones before me it grows stronger, louder with each pulse, gripping my neck and reverberating between my body and the stones until the pressure turns into a wave of memory washing over me, and the grip and the tension release me and I’m sobbing.

They used to breathe, used to talk, to move and dance and cook omelet with olive oil and jog in the park by the yellow river and wail and love and speak first words and hug.

I bite my lip. Tears stream down my face.

It took them three weeks to realize they’d hit a wall—painstaking days of collecting information, whispers from around the city relayed to the keen ears of the Bug-eyed, fed into VGPD computers, seeking patterns in the chaos, juxtaposing hearsay with hard fact, extrapolating, prioritizing.

Claire spoke to Koronski, privately and out of the office, on an encrypted line.

“They adapted,” he said. “After your Mala Prespa stint they learned not to congregate. Their best defense is randomness. That’s why we see no apparent self-organization.”

“You don’t know that yet, our Workers are crunching numbers—”

“Oh, to hell with your software.”

She blushed; luckily, the call was audio-only.

“My people on the ground say the junkies are lost,” he continued, “which means they’re lost. They’ve blended into the city’s populace and are hiding behind crowds. One step ahead of us, always. Too flexible. A brittle structure.”

He sighed. Claire paced around her apartment, eyes sweeping the parquet.

“What we can be sure of,” she said after a while, “is that they’re cooking the drug someplace, they can’t go without.”


“I’ve talked to my chemists, you know. To see if there’s a chance to pick up on the compound’s chemical signature, and look for it in the river, in the ponds, in the sewage pipes of entire neighborhoods if need be, and trace them. They say it might be possible. So I got them working on it. Even in this godforsaken hour somebody’s in a lab coat peering down a microscope trying to make this happen.”

“Good to hear.” He didn’t sound convinced.

“I’ll deploy people across the city in a few days, and we’ll get them.”

He gave off a humorless chuckle. “You don’t understand. They’re too scattered. Too flexible for us. We’re rigid structures.” Claire winced at this lumping in of the city’s police force with the man’s gang. “We’re too rigid for them,” he said.

Chemical test results trickled in, and she kept Koronski in the loop. His theory was proven as traces of the drug were found all over Vasilegrad’s quarters, no part of the city holding a bigger concentration of the drug than any other—an equally distributed, omnipresent affair, untraceable to a single source. Adding insult to injury, the combined amount of the chemical discovered was larger by three magnitudes than what the police and the Bug-eyed had previously estimated.

The city was saturated with Siv Delfin. Siv Delfin was an indelible part, an invisible latticework superimposed over the city, a new quarter manifesting itself in the actions of drug users, existing solely in a vicious cycle of fear and forgetting.

New ideas were proposed: engineered airborne bacteria set loose in the city, gobbling up the drug and excreting harmless byproducts; a neuro-vaccine, dulling the brain receptors tickled by Siv Delfin, gradually administered to every citizen; a counter-drug, carefully deployed across the city, similar in taste and composition to Siv Delfin but deadly to its long-term users.

Claire woke up before her alarm. She wolfed down her breakfast without tasting it, then got dressed and shot out of her apartment. The smell of bitumen and meat hit her nose as she stepped out onto the busy street: the burek joint ensconced between her building and the tall Vasilegradska Banka office had just opened, a line of eager customers snaking out onto the sidewalk.

She tossed a few coins in the cardboard box of the homeless woman, “Morning, Velika.”

“Good morning, Ms. Yuleva,” the woman said. “May God preserve your health, and may you have a very productive day at work.”

She headed toward the subway station on Hnatt Ave.

Palls of gas slithered out of manholes like genies uncoiling from lamps, dirty sighs of a city waking to life. Cars and buses sped by, weaving around trams and trolleys, their motion perfectly coordinated by the Workers steering them.

Claire’s reflection followed her as she walked, sliding from one shop front to another, sepia, emerald green, or cobalt-blue, a human-shaped absence ghosting through the city’s mirror-image. She thought of her first dates with Robin, as she always did on her way to work, transporting herself to before his death, before their daughter and the disease which had carried her away. Music from those days played in her ears, a masochistic pour of fuel to her morning melancholy fire. She liked to relive those moments in her mind because she felt cozy, huddled with her loved ones inside a warm inner sanctum, carrying them, carrying her tragedies wherever she went, outside world be damned. Her whole past played out before her, the dates, the falling in love, the holding hands and long talks over lunch, the cases and the hard work and the techno clubs afterward, the death which shook her to her core, her daughter’s birth, and the short-lived respite from grief she’d provided, her first words, her disease, her departure, too. It was a test of sorts, to see how much she hurts, gauge her strength by inflicting sharp cuts on herself; and thus, inevitably, training to withstand, raising her threshold of pain by a notch day after day.

She crossed the street.

Out of a corner of her eye, a sparkle, a silver gleam from the busy crowd rushing toward the steps leading to the subway station, over a person’s face, and it took Claire a moment to realize her prostheses had spotted the differential, the diamond eyes of a junkie. She threw herself aside just as the person lunged forward with a weapon, and the person lost balance for a moment, time enough for Claire to slip away from the crowd, and for the crowd to disperse in panic.

The attacker recovered their bearing, looked around, and their hoodie slid back and Claire saw it was a woman—their eyes met and she launched herself at Claire again with animal ferocity but Claire had her gun drawn and yelled at Magda to desist but she ran on and Claire shot Magda in the head.

“No,” Claire gasped.

Life drained out of Magda’s body in spasms as she slumped to the ground.

At the passers-by, “Stay back.” Claire’s prostheses flashed her ID to them. “Police,” she said.

She’d shot her former informant in the left eye, a charred and bloodied hole, the diamond sheen gone, forever. She knelt beside the body. “You stupid junkie.” She shook her head. Softly, “Why didn’t you leave town when you had the chance?” The Workers embedded in her prostheses had already called for backup, little counters in a corner of her vision promising their arrival in approximately three minutes. She straightened up again, packed her gun away and looked around. Her own eyes flashed back at her from the ground—the weapon, the kitchen knife Magda had brandished lay just beside her, polished and unused. Claire rubbed her forehead. The adrenaline was subsiding, she was starting to feel sick. Too early in the day for murder. On the other side of the body another, different kind of glint caught her eye. She stepped over, bent down to look at the vial. It must’ve slipped out of Magda’s pockets falling down.

She stared at the grimy vial, half-full with russet powder. Crouched over, she felt giddy, stomach twisting into knots as mind raced and she just realized that soft music still played from her prostheses and she thought about him and her and how good it would feel to forget where they truly were and to be free and unburdened even for a moment—

Timers counted down to zero. Sirens wobbled, VGPD vehicles parked on the sidewalk. Pedestrians turned to gape at the body, and hurried on with their busy day.

Claire went to talk to her colleagues. She cut the music off. In the pocket of her windbreaker, she clutched the Siv Delfin.

Two Junior Sergeants whose names escaped her stepped out of the first car. They looked at Claire and Magda in turn, colors passing over their eyeballs as their prostheses processed the scene. The female Sergeant approached her.

“Everything all right here, Chief?”

Claire nodded. “Yes.” She spread her arms, showing them her torso. “Unharmed.”

The Sergeants from the second car were getting out now, gripping their guns, but Claire waved them off and they replaced the guns in their holsters. One of them told Claire, “We better take you to the station, Chief. Jana and Mirko will secure the scene while the coroner arrives.”

“Is Inspector Radan already there? Was he notified?”

The two Sergeants glanced at their younger colleagues, and the Junior Sergeants stepped slightly aside, busied themselves with scanning the body and the scene from every angle.

“We better take you to the station,” repeated her colleague. “Now.” His face had closed up, blank, unreadable.

“What’s happened?” Claire said, a sense of dread coming over her.

“Let’s get inside the vehi—”

“What the fuck’s happened, Sergeant?”

He looked at his shoes. Sighed. “A coordinated attack, Chief.” He looked up at her as if apologizing. “You weren’t the only target this morning.”


“I’m sorry.”


He placed a hand on her shoulder. “We better go.”

Claire’s legs buckled but she remained standing. The whole scene—the buildings, the gaping subway entrance, the body and the cars and the street and the passers-by—warped around her. She breathed out a syllable, “Who?”

The second Sergeant said in a strained voice, “Many, Chief. Too many.”

She couldn’t bear to watch the murders; the videos extracted from the victims’ prostheses were tucked in a shared folder someplace, but she didn’t want to look for them.

Almost all assassination attempts had been successful. Hers, and Nenad Kanić’s, the only exceptions. They’d killed Radan, in his building’s elevator. He’d been too slow for the attacker, his body too weak to withstand another stabbing. They’d killed Tomi Aleksov, Viktor Petreski, Vasil Vasilev, Zlata Gelevska, Yordan Tsvetkov…

All butchered with knives, cleavers, scissors, strangled with garrotes. Half the city’s senior police force eliminated, without a single shot fired at them.

“They won.”

“Nobody’s won.”

“Today I got to bury half of my closest friends. They won.”

“I’m sorry for your loss, but you can’t give up on this. Give up on the city.”

“Fuck this city.”

“You don’t mean that.”

Silence. “I don’t know. I think I do.”

“We will break them.”

“The Mayor’s bringing other people in. This won’t be a VGPD affair for much longer. I won’t be able to cooperate with you anymore.”

“Convince her.”

“That would mean telling her we’ve been working together so far.”

“So? Your career is pretty much over anyhow. With this tragedy, they’ll push you to the sideline, retire you early.”


“That is what’s going to happen and you know it.”

Again, heavy silence. “And what if we just let them? Huh?”

“Let who?”

“What if we accept their existence and get on with our lives?”

“This is the grief talking.”

“I’m serious. Why are we fighting them? What’s so wrong with what they do to themselves? Everybody wants to forget the ultimate truth that everybody dies and that nothing holds any inherent meaning. We just go about it in different ways. We dive into fantasy worlds, we drink, we obsess over unsolvable cases, we go to comedy clubs, we do math. We invent a reason to wake up every morning.”

“You’re being pathetic.”

“Am I?”


“Maybe you’re the pathetic one—pretending to care about this city when all you do is desperately try to cling to power. Without the fear of death, how would your gang of green-eyed assholes hold people tight by their balls?”


“We’re fighting to preserve our way of life, they’re fighting to preserve theirs. They never would’ve started killing if you hadn’t provoked them. You know what? Fuck you and your manipulating. I’m ending this war. Enough is enough is enough. We should let people choose—we’re all adults, aren’t we? Let them decide whether they want the drug or not. Let people choose which society they want to belong to.”

“Look, I get that you’re bereaved and heart-broken but—”

“Don’t you dare.”

Sighing, then, “Let’s talk again in a few days. When your mind clears.”

“We won’t. I’m confessing to the Mayor and we’re stopping this now. If you attack the users of the drug again you’ll be considered responsible for any civilian deaths that ensue.”

“Call me in a couple of days.”

“So long.”

Call disconnected.

I gaze into the slabs of gray stone—sleek dolphins surfacing from an ocean of green, frozen in an eternal gasp for air—into the familiar names, and lay down the flowers. I don’t know why I do this. Muscle memory, perhaps. But I do. I must.

The name of a father, next to his daughter, one he’d never gotten to meet.

I take a deep breath, and turn around.

I walk downslope, passing rows of stones, pods of dolphins, some bearing the names of my colleagues on their backs, and people shedding tears hunched over them, and I only think of them, especially my beautiful daughter, how good it would be to hear her laughter again, how long it’s been since I’ve heard her laughter, and I hurry because I have to leave, have to go, because this place destroys me and it takes me days or weeks to remake myself after each visit.

But that is all right. That is what I do. What I have left.

I thought about taking it, the powder, and the sweet release it would offer, and maybe if I had taken it I might have heard both of them laughing again.

But I didn’t. Because I don’t want to see the world through diamond eyes, kaleidoscopic, made out of things which do not exist.

I owe them that.

© 2016 Damien Krsteski

Comment on the stories in this issue on the TFF Press blog.

Home Current Back Issues Guidelines Contact About Fiction Artists Non-fiction Support Links Reviews News