I don’t know any more if this smell is still human, if this stench belongs to me or to the room. I haven’t left this place since my first day of work and visits are a rare treat. I know my name, who I am, what my task is and how much longer this will go on. These are the facts I repeat out loud every day, as something to hold on to. I can feel my aged girlish body continuing to resist the situation, with cramps and headaches. But my mind is defeated. Every day I am overwhelmed by images of what is to come and every day this new information wipes out what memories I have left.
Until just fragments remain.
But only the best ones.
It starts without me.
It starts like this.
Volume one: Penny
And precisely at a point in history when everyone has become accustomed to constant fear and rampant devastation, reality goes and shovels another load on top – just to prove things can always get worse.
It was his idea to meet here, in this hotel, in this room. To get here, you first have to take the motorway from the south towards the city centre, a road that pierces the heart of the city like an enormous concrete arrow before branching off into hundreds of capillary streets. The hotel’s in a neighbourhood that appears on maps as an amorphous patch of white, too chaotic to draw. This is where he wants to meet me, far away from the war that we started, far away from the battlefield of the streets where my people and his wage war against each other, far away and unprotected.
But if you listen really carefully, you can hear the echoes of sirens and explosions, amplified by the empty spaces between the apartment blocks. No one, not even the press, knows exactly how many victims have already fallen in our battle against each other. All we know with absolute certainty is that we are far from finished. This is our war and it will stop only when we say so or when one of us wins.
I hope it’s me, or I’m going to get very difficult indeed and that’s not something you want to experience. I’ve had exes who started the day with an apology, hoping to quell my bitchiness before it had a chance to kick in. But it’s not that easy.
This is a war without agreements or clear rules of engagement, just us against them, and it can continue like this for years. Unless Alex comes up with something radical right here and now. But today doesn’t feel like a day that will decide everything.
At the front desk, the hotel owner gave us a room with a double bed, assuming we were two frustrated individuals looking for a place to cheat in peace. The room itself is decorated in a desperately romantic style by some interior designer with no sense of moderation, all burgundy sheets, hard heart-shaped cushions and pictures on every wall displaying naked women in uncomfortable positions. But I don’t care. I’m not planning to stay long, just long enough to question him, extract some information, maybe eat something, tease him a bit and then head home.
Generations after us, writers will probably put great words in our mouths and inflate this confrontation into an important historical moment, but right now we are just two uncomfortable people staring at each other very uncomfortably. I don’t know what to say to my favourite enemy and he is also lost for words. I’m by the door; he’s by the window. Look at him, the hero of Neo-Sparta. All that’s missing is the cape and you could call him a superhero, but at the moment he looks about as relaxed as a guy visiting a hooker for the first time. Look at us, a man and a woman in a room, but touching each other is forbidden this time. It’s as though we don’t really know what men and women normally do without the promise of sex. And to think I hesitated so long this morning about what to wear. After a great deal of deliberation, I went for a demure little red dress, to make sure I wouldn’t put any ideas in his head. Maybe not one hundred per cent demure, but respectable enough for me to pass for a proper lady with proper manners and a proper education. With my leather boots as an extra touch, just to complete the picture. That’s the only pleasure I’ll grant him. After all, their effect on men shouldn’t be underestimated. But I’m not wearing them as a silent plea for a good, hard fucking, but for purely strategic reasons. I’m wearing them to weaken him.
The silence is acute. Anything resembling a human sound would be enough to break through the tension, but I can’t think of a single word to say. In this room, he is the first one to speak.
‘You look good, Penny.’
I don’t react. I just look. Sometimes at him, sometimes at the television. Someone decided to switch on a porn channel with the sound turned down before we entered the room. To make up for my silence, he starts talking, telling me just anything, something about a dream he had last night. A dream that started with a shower of snow that got worse and worse. Snowflakes like crumpled balls of blank paper wiped out his view of reality and the storm raged with such force that it blurred the boundaries between the different worlds. And when things finally calmed down he found himself in a place where he did not belong, in a version of reality that was not his own. A city with the same buildings and street names, but inhabited by different human creatures with different standards and values, where the most productive prostitute was declared queen, where men had breasts and women had only a cunt, so they had to stay together for the sake of their children, a world where people did their best to live together, a world where he could be perfectly happy. He lived there for a week, that one week condensed in his head to three hours of sleep. He tells me that he woke up this morning in a world that feels just as strange, but which is the real one.
‘And then I sent you that message. You look really good.’
‘And you look really tired.’
Alex pouts, an expression that’s far from flattering on a man of his age. He looks tired, and older, but not ugly. No, he’s definitely not become ugly. Even though he’s over forty now, he hasn’t lost that wild bush of unruly curls and he still has the same bright eyes and that lean, pumped-up body. The years and the filthy air of Neo-Sparta have carved a few more lines in his face, but not harmed it. If he weren’t such a bastard, I’d recommend him to any woman. Look at him, my sweet nemesis, dressed in a perfect copy of the jeans and the white shirt that he wore five years ago, during our first encounter, the day the spark almost became a flame. He wasn’t a chief inspector back then and I wasn’t a subversive rebel leader. In those days we were just an ordinary cop and an annoying bitch without a single entry on her criminal record.
Like millions before me, I drove into this mother of metropolises with a car full of things and an unresolved past kicking around my system. And like thousands of women before me, I was lured here by a fake job ad, a vacancy that called for surprisingly few skills – ideal for a girl with my absence of qualifications and abundance of naivety. The car, a remnant from the days when cars lacked basic comforts, spluttered to a halt two metres before a parking space. I pushed it the rest of the way, stuffed my essentials into a backpack and continued my journey on foot, led only by a crumpled note with a street name and a house number.
I walked for two hours, mainly because of other lost souls giving me conflicting directions, before reaching my destination, which was in fact not far from this hotel. The interview itself is too much of a cliché to relate: I became a hooker and not even a good one.
I didn’t do much, but made just enough to be left in peace. Back then I definitely wasn’t the ambitious type, not yet. I first saw Alex at Troy’s, a grubby all-nighter with a regular clientele of noisy drunks and a cook with no taste buds. The only edible thing he could produce was cumin balls with rice. Seven times out of ten, this combination of flavours didn’t send you rushing to the toilet to puke your guts up, an average that the other dishes on the menu were unable to achieve. But we kept on going there because the coffee was okay and there was nowhere else open nearby. I was there with Flo, who, with her two years on the streets, was an old hand at the whoring game. She pointed at Alex.
‘See him there?’
I looked and nodded.
‘He’s a cop, but he’s one you can trust. Keeps his paws off too, even if you offer him a discount.’
‘No, just nauseatingly faithful to his wife.’
‘So he’s in the denial phase.’
‘Probably, but I’d rather have a guy in the denial phase than one in the anal phase.’
‘Don’t talk to me about that. Get about three of them trying it on every day, like it’s the latest trend or something.’
‘They use the same excuse with you? That it was an accident?’
‘Oh yeah, usually followed by the legendary words: “But now that I’m in there...” And then I turf him right out.’
My answer made Flo laugh so loud that all the attention in the room focused on her – everyone looked in her direction, everyone except Alex, and I know that because I was keeping an eye on him. He ordered two coffees, downed one on the spot and took the other one out to his patrol car. He never noticed me.
Or so I thought. But then he recognised me right away when he showed up after my first dead client.
‘You’re that friend of Flo’s.’
I nodded shyly and pointed at the corpse on the ground. It was total self-defence, I stammered, and he didn’t doubt me for a second. Notebook in hand, he waited patiently for calmness to regain possession of my body, before venturing to ask a single question. It took him three cigarettes to get me calm enough to talk to him. I gave him as detailed as possible an account of the events that had tragically led the man to fall upon my knife.
The victim wasn’t a local guy, but a tourist from the barbarous northern provinces, a man with unsophisticated manners and clear opinions about the position of women in these tough times. He wanted it rough, hard, mean, cheap and often. A combination that was pretty much wasted on me – which I made clear to him in the few words of asshole that I speak. But listening and understanding weren’t really his thing – he was the kind of guy who was more into ignoring and raping. I gave him my price and my conditions and he grabbed my hair, smacked my head against the wall and pulled my underpants out from beneath my skirt. He did it with such skill that it was obvious he’d done it before. Without losing his grip, he pulled down his jeans and, in a single movement, he shoved his cock, which was stiff with filth more than horniness, deep inside me. My wailing did nothing to alter his intentions. He didn’t even see the blood on my forehead and the tears in my eyes and the knife in my hand. The blade sank easily into his bulging belly and the stricken colossus reeled around for a while, his arms waving wildly in search of me, determined to pull me down with him in his death throes. Like a grotesque version of a scene from a silent movie, he chased me around the table, kicking away the chairs that I knocked over behind me, his face in a fixed grimace and me just out of reach. I threw everything I could grab in his direction, but not much hit the target, just the occasional glass, exploding into thousands of pieces against his cheek and slicing into his skin. But nothing seemed to slow him down. It was only when every drop of blood had left his body through his stomach that he fell into the position that Alex found him in.
He wrote down every word I said, offered me another cigarette and asked how long I’d been in the business.
He nodded and looked at me, tucking away his notebook.
‘So, after eight months you’ll know that rape’s difficult to prove with hookers.’
I didn’t know, but I told him I did, ashamed of my own idiocy.
‘The forensics guy will be here soon, so perhaps it’s better if we just go somewhere else for a while. I know a quiet place.’
But I didn’t want to go to his supposedly quiet place. I wanted to go to Troy’s. I wanted to be with my people. He didn’t mind. He got it.
The bar was still pretty dead – that time of night was our nine-to-five, when the other pubs closed their doors and chased out their drunk and horny customers, and we waited for them, offering a detour on the journey home. We were not their wives, girlfriends or mothers. We gave them just enough and asked for little in return. Alex bought me a coffee and a piece of cake, which he ate himself.
‘I’m not your father and I’m not pretending to be. You’re far too attractive for that. But I can tell you something he should have told you, which is that you do not belong here, that this will end badly, that this is no life for a girl like you. But, of course, nothing’s forcing you to follow my advice.’
I took yet another cigarette from his pack and let the smoke roll out of my mouth.
‘That’s true. There’s nothing forcing me.’
He didn’t insist. I let him come inside me that night and he promised not to include my name in the police report. I didn’t ask about his wife then. And in our own, strange, twisted way, you could call that friendship.
Our paths crossed now and then in the years that followed. I’d moved onwards and upwards and belonged to what was truly the last minority of our time – I was a white hooker with a meaningful opinion. He’d been promoted in the meantime too, to inspector or something, but he still kept on doing the streets, scared of being caught out by something new, something he hadn’t seen coming. He became more famous and more important. His name turned up in articles about major arrests, his first moments of glory as the last hero of Neo-Sparta.
We met on street corners and in pubs just before closing time. Occasionally we got drunk together, occasionally we got drunk and horny together and very occasionally we did something about it. I never understood why he chose me, why he went to more trouble for me, where that need to protect me came from. Maybe I was just his type or maybe he could already see the potential in me, who I was going to become, an opponent on his level.