Alexei Salnikov’s The Department

The Department

By Alexei Salnikov

Excerpt translated from the Russian by Lisa C. Hayden

Contact for enquiries:

From Chapter 2:

Dressed in their dark blue jackets and coveralls, Igor thought their team looked like employees of some Internet provider or other tech support service, though the lack of logos on their jackets was troublingly obvious.

Igor Vasilyevich confidently led them to one of the building’s many entrances and opened the door with a lurch that made the magnet in the intercom system emit a mournful, unprintable gasp.

“We’ll go first,” Phil said, politely moving Igor out of the way before following Igor Vasilyevich, who was running up the stairs.

On the second-floor landing, an old woman’s anxious face looked out at them from behind a door just barely cracked open. They could hear music next door: Vysotsky was singing his song about his fastidious horses, though the voice wasn’t really his because the tape player reproducing it had seen better days, wearing out the cassette to boot.

“I was just thinking about calling the police,” the woman complained to Igor Vasilyevich.

“Well, we are the police, ma’am, the message came through,” he told her.

“Is that a new uniform you’re wearing?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am, they issued them after recredentialing. Now if you could please close up that door, it’ll be quiet here in a minute.”

The old woman obediently closed the door but Igor felt like she was watching through the peephole so he tried to stand so he wouldn’t be seen.

“He’s flooded the neighbors so many times, you can’t count,” they heard the old lady’s high-pitched voice say.

Phil resolutely stuck his hand inside an electric panel and flipped a switch that immediately silenced the music; at least two people wailed indignantly behind the door.

“So how is it people get so loaded? Supposedly there’s no sales after eleven,” Phil said in a loud, outraged whisper.

“They were slamming down beer the whole way,” Igor Vasilyevich explained at the doorway, also in a loud whisper.

Meanwhile, they heard decisive footsteps inside the rowdy apartment and then a metal latch clanged, though the door didn’t open on its own because Igor Vasilyevich helped it by boldly inserting his arm and striding into the darkness. The darkness was short-lived, though: Phil flipped the switch back and Vysotsky started up singing again, his bass voice mewling.

“Close the door behind you,” Phil told Igor, before quickly scurrying into the apartment.

Igor followed. As he closed the main door, he looked askance at the door to the bathroom, where there was a brief crash of what sounded like small items, perhaps piles of shaving cream cans, falling from a shelf. Then everything went quiet.

The tape player in the smoky little kitchen went silent right after the crash. “Ehhh,” an unfamiliar and indignant voice uttered before stopping short. Igor was still cooling his heels in the entryway, contemplating grotty orange wallpaper with a pale pattern and a shelf above his head that overflowed with assorted junk like various colored skis and dusty three-liter jars. Igor Vasilyevich then popped out of the bathroom and quickly swept through one room then another before joining Phil in the kitchen and waving to summon Igor, who followed, doubting there was enough space for everyone.

There turned out to be even less space because a man in a blue-and-white striped sailor jersey was lying face-down in the middle of the kitchen and it was somehow immediately evident that he was dead. Phil was holding another man by the scruff of the neck: he was sitting on a stool by the window and observing as Igor Vasilyevich dropped a pill from a glass vial into a mug of beer and stirred with a spoon handle. The guy was puny, skinny, and of an indeterminate age, wearing only boxer shorts, but sporting quite an alcoholic stubble. It always surprised Igor that not once in his whole life had he ever seen binging alcoholics with beards: they were either as cleanly shaven as his father or wearing a patchy stubble, like Igor’s dacha neighbor or former apartment neighbor.

This shrimpy guy had a brooding face and was looking at the floor as if he were pondering something. He wheezed as he breathed, making it look like he was about to barf.

“Did Vera send you or something?” he finally asked the linoleum underneath his feet. Igor saw toenails dark blue with dirt and the veiny, cracked soles of the guy’s feet. The sight of them made Igor feel sicker than did the sight of the corpse.

Igor Vasilyevich stopped stirring the beer for a second:

“You could say that. Broads are the source of all trouble. Yours is probably giving you trouble, too.”

The guy started talking to the linoleum again:

“Yeah, she yaps about everything.”

“Well, now we’re going to check and see if she’s yapping or not,” said Igor Vasilyevich, laying the spoon on the kitchen table between a dirty blue ashtray and a breadbox blackened by time. “Here, drink up.”

He moved toward the man, who’d started reaching for the mug, but Igor Vasilyevich shoved his hand aside and said:

“Open your mouth, bonehead.”

The guy obeyed and opened his mouth, tilting his head back. Igor saw his clear eyes, as blue as a baby’s, set among dry wrinkles and eyelid creases that were almost black. His throat twitched like a kitten’s or chick’s when he started swallowing what Igor Vasilyevich was pouring in. Igor Vasilyevich didn’t look at Igor as he extended a foot to pull a plastic stool out from under the table.

“Have a seat,” he told Igor over his shoulder.

Igor obediently pulled the stool closer and sat.

“Will it take long?” he asked.

“Depends,” said Igor Vasilyevich. “Seems like there’s alcohol and low mass here. A couple minutes.”

They all went still in anticipation, even the puny guy, who lowered his head again and put his hands on his knees rather than breaking away and jumping out the window. On his left forearm was a blurred tattoo where only the letters DMB could be discerned; his demobilization year was impossible to make out. His left shoulder was tattooed with a seagull like the one in the Moscow Art Theater logo.

Igor busied himself by stubbing out a cigarette butt that still smoldered in the ashtray, apparently abandoned by the guest who’d rushed to open the door. In the silence that had fallen, they could hear something rustling in the breadbox. Across the table from Igor, a hefty cockroach waggled its antennae as it savored a small puddle of beer. Only now, after the commotion had calmed, did Igor notice that Igor Vasilyevich and Phil had put on beige gloves, though he himself was gloveless – he hadn’t even been issued gloves.

“You got faulty wiring or something?” Phil said, rousing the man.

“Huh?” the guy asked.

“Something’s burning,” said Phil.

Igor had been staring at the sink (where a heavy drop hung from the tap and just couldn’t fall) because there was nothing better to stare at, but right then he sensed the smell of burning plastic. For some reason, he looked at the gas cooktop to confirm that all the burners were off.

“Maybe I didn’t unplug everything properly,” Phil said, gesturing with his chin at the outlet next to Igor’s shoulder. Igor sniffed the outlet but the burning smell was coming from under the table. Igor handed Igor Vasilyevich his bucket-shaped load and crawled under the table, involuntarily wincing at the guy’s repulsive feet. His hands got pretty dirty in the ash, dust, and kitchen grease but he finally discovered a lazily smoldering cigarette butt that had rolled over the edge of the linoleum by the baseboard. Igor extinguished it on the radiator, sputtering as he swatted the embers with his hands, then crawled back out.

“So, what was it you guys poured me?” the guy listlessly asked. His clear eyes looked at Igor Vasilyevich, “I am so buzzed, so buzzed.”

“Just look at your hands,” Igor Vasilyevich said to Igor, apparently paying no attention to what the guy said.

Igor stepped over the corpse and poked around at the kitchen sink but it was filled almost to the brim with dishes and there wasn’t any detergent or soap.

“I wouldn’t advise going into the bathroom,” Igor Vasilyevich said, reading Igor’s mind. “You’re not used to it so you’ll spew, there’s an open traumatic brain injury lying in there.”

Igor went still, helplessly sniffing his hands, which now smelled like socks.

“Just rinse and wipe them on your pants or this curtain,” Phil suggested. He’d already seen Igor skeptically eying a gray towel hanging on a nail in the wall that it shared with a sparkling-clean grater. Igor cautiously opened the tap, splashed his hands a few times and wiped them at thigh level on the back of his pantlegs. He didn’t calm down until his hands smelled like dusty fabric.

“Cleanliness is the key to health,” the guy commented.

“Order above all,” Igor Vasilyevich said, continuing the thought. “The main thing is that you wash them with bleach later, before you put your hands on food. Anyway, I’d be afraid to go for a number one with hands like that, let alone touch food.”

“No need to get smart,” Phil said. “This is a regular Versailles compared to our bathroom.”

“By the way,” Igor Vasilyevich agreed, “I’ve been thinking for a few months now about somehow livening up the ambience in there but never get around to it.”

“You could kill time for a week that way,” said Phil.

“Well who but you should handle the amenities since you’re living there?” Igor Vasilyevich said.

“Nice,” Phil said, sarcastically. “I, by the way, am the one who installed the shower with my own money, that shower enclosure, the tiling, too, the floor you walked on when the glue hadn’t even dried, and now you want a toilet, too, you guys have no shame.”

“Dimon, by the way, is a great plumber, does tiling, too,” the puny guy butted into the conversation, pointing at the corpse by their feet. “He does everything affordably, at normal rates.”

Igor Vasilyevich jolted as if he were shaking off a hallucination then held out the bucket-like device for Igor.

“Do it yourself, it turns on right here.”

Igor took the bucket and flipped the switch as shown: the device started humming as perilously as a transformer booth but nothing else showed it was working. As Igor stepped diagonally over the corpse, his shoulder brushed Igor Vasilyevich, then he put the device on the puny man’s head.

“It’s dark,” he said, his voice resonating hollowly inside.

“Now we’ll ask you questions and you’ll answer them,” Igor Vasilyevich said, knocking on the bucket. “You got all that?”

The bucket nodded in the affirmative.

“Got it,” the guy answered. He apparently liked the resonance of his own voice so much that he tried to intensify it by speaking a low tone, drawling out, “Little Red Flower,” just like the voice in the cartoon version of the folktale.

“They sometimes go on about Pinocchio, too,” Igor Vasilyevich said, sharing his experience with Igor.

“Shall I get started?” Igor asked. After Igor Vasilyevich nodded in the affirmative, Igor sat back down on the stool and took out an envelope that his own sweat had dampened on one side. “At least open the ventilation window,” he said, “it’s hot in here.”

Phil was standing with his arms crossed on his chest but when he turned to the window he knocked an empty tin – a partially rusted container with big red polka dots on its sides and an inscription reading “Sugar” – off the windowsill. As Phil bent to pick it up, Igor Vasilyevich said:

“No need, you’re the one that’s hot. You’re jittery. But Phil’s neck will catch a chill, then he’ll smile like a dog and rub his neck. Your conscience will torture you.”

“I’ll open it a little anyway,” Phil said. “It is a little rough in here.”

The dry side of the envelope was almost blank. In its upper left-hand corner, printed in small type, was the number “146,” and in the lower right-hand corner there was a bar code. Igor felt the envelope, attempting to determine where the sealed-up paper was inside so he wouldn’t damage it when opening. He carefully ripped a strip off the side; judging by his colleagues’ calm faces, Igor had done everything properly. He groped around for the contents with two fingers then pulled out a sheet of ordinary A4 paper. A text of some sort was printed in small type on one side; the other was blank.

“Give me the envelope and torn piece,” said Igor Vasilyevich, holding out his hand, though he’d already picked the stubby strip of paper off the table. Igor Vasilyevich took everything to the bathroom and they heard many sounds of paper being torn to tiny bits, followed by splashes of the flushing toilet.

“I figured out his favorite room while I was at it,” Igor Vasilyevich said when he returned, nodding at the guy. “And his favorite book.”

He then pulled a small object that looked like a key fob out of his pocket; Igor saw that it was a compact microcassette recorder. Igor Vasilyevich placed it on the table.

“Here,” he said, “use this. In case you don’t know, it switches on here. Ask questions, watch for reactions.”

“How can I watch for reactions if I can’t see his face?”

“Watch however you want,” said Igor Vasilyevich.

Igor switched on the recorder (with Igor Vasilyevich hanging over both Igor and the recorder, to ensure everything was done correctly) and held up the paper to read.

Each line was numbered, with the last denoted as number one hundred sixty-eight; Igor returned to the beginning and read the first line out loud:

“What kind of cats do you like more, white or ginger?”

Igor Vasilyevich reached for the recorder and shut it off:

“Take two,” he said by way of explanation. “Say the number of the question before you ask. Let’s go.”

He hovered like an oak tree canopy over Igor, who turned the recorder back on and read out the number of the question, then the question itself. The guy was apparently either dozing under the bucket or disoriented from the pill’s effects because he didn’t intend to answer. Phil knocked at the top of the bucket and the guy gave a start.

“Come on, answer when you’re asked,” Phil said. The guy liked tortoiseshell cats with a white belly and chin.

“Question number two,” said Igor. “Do you like solving crossword puzzles?”

“I used to,” the guy said, “when they were printed in that newspaper Labor and in magazines, like the one on the last page of Man and the Law.”

“Question number three,” said Igor. “Are you a ranked chess player?”

“Third, youth,” the guy replied.

Phil looked at him with a certain degree of respect and regret.

“Question number four,” Igor uttered, already somewhat automatically, while not understanding what reaction he should be seeing since he was now distracted by Phil’s facial expressions. “Have you ever visited the Kremlin in Kazan?”

“Maybe as a kid,” said the guy, “my gram lived in Kazan. But I don’t remember for sure.”

“Question number five,” said Igor. “What words would you use to describe an apple?”

“Red,” the guy answered, “round, green, sour.”

“Question number six,” said Igor. “Have you ever lit leaves on fire in the yard?”

“Who hasn’t?” the guy chuckled.

“Question number seven,” said Igor. “How many friends did you have during your army service?”

“Three,” the guy replied, “Vasyan, Goshka Eremeev, and Seryoga Dolgikh.”

“Question number eight. Do you sharpen your kitchen knife often?”

“Well, I sharpen it when it gets dull, you can have a look for yourself,” the guy said, attempting to stand, apparently to show the knife, but Phil kept him in his place.

“Question number nine. Have you ever forgotten anything on public transportation?”

“One time when I was drunk I forgot my friend on a trolleybus,” the guy said, “and in eighty-nine, somebody pickpocketed my whole salary.”

Igor kept quiet, deciding the guy’s intonation promised he’d continue listing items forgotten on public transportation. It was as if he’d finished his sentence with an ellipsis or comma – something other than a period – when he was speaking about his stolen salary, but the guy was silent.

“Let’s move on,” Igor Vasilyevich whispered, “otherwise he’ll doze off again.”

“Question number ten,” said Igor. “Do you remember any poems from the school curriculum?”

The guy started reciting Asadov, even saying, “Asadov. ‘Gypsies Sing.’” Igor was getting ready to cut him off after the second minute of recitation but Igor Vasilyevich raised his index finger, warning against it.

“I know ‘Borodino,’ too,” the guy said after he’d finished the Asadov.

“We don’t need ‘Borodino’,” Igor said, stopping him. “Question number eleven. Do you ever have fits of vertigo?”

“Spins, you mean?” the guy asked, uncomprehending. “Sometimes when I was young, now it’s not so often but I am afraid of heights so I try not to look out the window when I’m riding over a bridge.”

“Question number twelve,” said Igor, stopping short but then reading the question anyway. “Are you afraid of heights?”

“That’s what I’m saying. I am,” the guy said, raising his voice because he was being asked about the same thing, then adding, “You could say I’m scared shitless.”

“Question number thirteen. Did you eat raw nettles as a kid?”

“Nah,” the guy confidently answered. “Only one of us kids could do that, he’d fold a leaf, say it was delicious, but nobody risked trying.”

“Question number fourteen,” said Igor. “Do you know how to drive a car?”

“Of course I do,” the guy said.

The questions had been compiled in a confounding way: Igor regretted not listening to the advice to have a nap because he was already dragging by number sixteen. On the sixty-seventh, he surprised himself by suddenly yawning. Phil, Igor Vasilyevich, and the guy under the bucket followed his cue and started contagiously yawning, too. Phil didn’t just yawn, though: he remained on his feet but started drooping in one direction, then another, frequently changing his posture. He’d press both hands to the windowsill, then just one arm, almost using his elbow. Igor Vasilyevich shifted from one foot to the other then picked up the stool in the corner and sat on it, resting his cheek on his fist to hold it up. As Igor asked questions, he looked askance at Igor Vasilyevich, who was listening like a child when someone reads a story they’ve already heard more than once.

There were some genuinely strange questions on the list, like “Have you ever hung upside down until you lost consciousness?” and “What soccer team triggers the most hostility in you?” and “How many dogs have you had throughout your life?” and “Have you ever tried to quit smoking and if so, then how many times?” and “Where do you prefer to ring in the New Year?” Igor was no longer just asking questions, he was mentally answering them, too, and comparing his thoughts to the guy’s answers. Igor didn’t like it when the guy’s answers were cleverer than his own. Ultimately, he got so absorbed in the text that he completely forgot what would happen at the end.

“Question number one hundred sixty-eight,” said Igor. “What floor would you want to live on if you could choose?”

Igor turned the sheet over, confirming yet again that there was nothing left to ask. As he did, the guy answered:

“I did choose my floor, you could say I built this building with my own hands in eighty-two.”

Igor gave no signal before Igor Vasilyevich stood and took the bucket off the man’s head. The guy didn’t even have a chance to squint at the light before Phil, who was still leaning on one elbow and blinking sleepily into the void, slid his elbow off the windowsill (Igor even thought Phil was just dozing off), grabbed the guy, caught his neck in the crook of his elbow, pressed him against himself, and then let him go. The guy silently fell on his side and Igor heard air whistle out of his lax lungs. He fell toward the table, then his shoulder slid along the edge of the tabletop and he collapsed face-down, his head right at Igor’s feet. Everything happened so quickly that Igor didn’t even have a chance to jump up. Watching Phil, who was still leaning his elbows into the windowsill, Igor thought it would be dumb to jump up now, so he asked:

“What now?”

Igor Vasilyevich pulled the paper with the questions out of Igor’s fingers and went to the bathroom again.

“So that’s how it’s done,” Phil said, no bravado whatsoever, like a butcher who’d just showed a dense student, for the tenth time, how to dress a carcass.

Igor decided the Kid was walking on very thin ice by baiting Phil with his jokes.

The sounds of tearing paper and the splashing toilet carried from the bathroom once again. Igor Vasilyevich came back and said from the kitchen doorway:

“Seems like we haven’t forgotten anything.”

“Seems so,” said Phil. “You checked all the rooms?”

“As if there’s a shitload of rooms here,” Igor Vasilyevich said, not lacking for sarcasm as he tossed the stool he’d been sitting on back in the corner. “Let’s move it.”

They went out to the stair landing. The old woman might have been soothed to sleep by the quiet but Igor still tried to keep his back to her peephole.

“Looks like it’s a lock with a latch,” Igor Vasilyevich mumbled, musing before he slammed the door and pulled at the doorknob. “Definitely a latch.”

“So nobody’s going to think it was us?” Igor asked once they were outside.

“It’s just the usual household squabbles,” said Igor Vasilyevich, “the kind that happen everyday.”