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Excerpt: Babayaga

Toby Barlow

Babayaga_Barlow

Will is a young American ad executive in Paris. Except his agency is a front for the CIA. It’s 1959 and the cold war is going strong. But Will doesn’t think he’s a warrior—he’s just a good-hearted Detroit ad guy who can’t seem to figure out Parisian girls. Zoya is a beautiful young woman wandering les boulevards, sad-eyed, coming off a bad breakup. In fact, she impaled her ex on a spike. Zoya, it turns out, has been a beautiful young woman for hundreds of years; she and her far more traditionally witchy-looking companion, Elga, have been thriving unnoticed in the bloody froth of Europe’s wars. Inspector Vidot is a hardworking Paris police detective who cherishes quiet nights at home. But when he follows a lead from a grisly murder to the abode of an ugly old woman, he finds himself turned into a flea. Oliver is a patrician, fun-loving American who has come to Paris to start a literary journal with the help of friends in D.C. who ask a few favors in return. He’s in well over his head, but it’s nothing that a cocktail can’t fix. Right? Add a few chance encounters, a chorus of some more angry witches, a strung-out jazzman or two, a weaponized LSD program, and a cache of rifles buried in the Bois de Bologne—and that’s a novel! But while Toby Barlow’s Babayaga may start as just a joyful romp though the City of Light, it quickly grows into a daring, moving exploration of love, mortality, and responsibility.

***

Book One

When I was living in Paris, we had an expression, a very American one, which in a way explains it better than anything else. We used to say, “Let’s take the lead.” That meant going off the deep end, diving into the unconscious, just obeying your instincts, following your impulses, of the heart, or the guts, or whatever you want to call it.
HENRY MILLER, The Paris Review

I

Time was bothering Zoya. She lay on the broad bed amid the crumpled silk sheets, listening to Leon scrub and gargle in the bath. There was almost a cartoon melody being composed in the various noises of his evening toilette. He always fastidiously washed and perfumed himself after they made love, immersing himself in soaps, talc, and a cloud of eau de Lisbonne before he returned home to face his wife. Even on nights such as this, when his Claudette was out of town, he performed the ritual out of habit. Usually Zoya did not mind, but tonight the music made her sad.

Coming out of the bathroom with the steam billowing out around him, he looked like some gray ball of boiling fat spit out from a cauldron. “What is wrong, ma chérie?” he asked.

She remembered the day he had first found her while strolling through the Jardin des Plantes. When had they met? Was it the spring in ’45? Not long after the war had ended, when the Paris streets and nightclubs thronged thick with a mix of wide-eyed American and British soldiers fresh off the train from Calais and sniffing about for fun. She had her pick of any one of the swarm, but she found Leon instead, a stocky middle-aged Parisian of square chin and broad shoulders, far from the slouching fat man he had grown into. So much time had passed as she had watched his profile slip and slide steadily down from stout to rotund to fat, eyes growing cloudy, his bright blue irises dimming to a mottled gray, folding bloodshot beneath the heavy lids and puffy circles of wine-swollen flesh. When he was drunk on brandy, he loved to recount how he had once been a formidable athlete, back in his Catholic school days, but she had a hard time convincing herself of that, looking at him now, for he was simply a doughy old man, while she still looked as fresh as she had the day they first met.

“I have a small headache, I need fresh air,” she said. “Why don’t you get dressed and we can have a stroll before you go home?”

“At this hour? Ha! Have I not exhausted you yet?” As he toweled off his back, his vast white belly shook. It was almost too silly to watch.

“I slept all day,” she said. “It is a pleasant night and it will do you good to move those bones of yours.” She looked around the room—the tall dresser, the modest crystal chandelier, a framed dark oil of the dead red fox surrounded with ripe autumn apples that hung above her small desk. Though the artwork seemed merely decorative now, she could remember when still-life paintings of heaping bowls of blushed fruit kept verdant hopes budding during the bleak seasons of cold cabbage and cellar potatoes. Look here, the pictures said, and do not lose faith. Pear, peach, apple, and plum, all will blossom again.

Beside the painting, three silver clocks sat on the mantel. Leon had told her they were from the collection of Princess Mathilde. Zoya did not know if she believed him, her pompous and proud Leon was certainly prone to exaggeration. But she did enjoy the comfort each of these intricately designed timepieces provided. One clock counted the months along with the hours, another tracked the phases of the moon, the third was astrological, showing the zodiac arcing above the hours as the year progressed. Through the day and night the clocks’ light, gentle chimes provided a charming accent to the quiet apartment, grounding her in her well-appointed surroundings and bestowing a small delight with their delicate tones. Over the years, Leon had periodically presented these precious gifts to her, along with perfumes, pendants, pearls, fox stoles, and soft leather gloves, repaying her undemanding patience, her indulgent good humor, and her generous physical attentions with luxuries that had, over time, soothed and almost succeeded in letting her forget what was coming. But it was never too far from her mind. She knew she would miss all these delicate and beautiful treasures; she would not be able to take much with her. Like the summer birds now instinctively leaving the branches of the Paris trees for their warm Mediterranean refuges, it was time for her to go. The river of time was loud in her ears now, foaming and surging, washing the whole room away.

That first day, so long past, she had been sitting with Elga, the squat old woman napping with her eyes half closed, sinking down into the bench like a fat, cooling scone on a baker’s shelf, while Zoya relaxed with a novel. She tried to remember who it was, a Russian no doubt, Gogol or Turgenev. At that point they had not been in Paris long. She did recall very clearly how the shadow crossed her page, and how she looked up to find a grinning Leon standing there in the evening light. Zoya had offered a polite smile.

She shook the memory off and rose from the bed. “It is our last night together before your Claudette returns from the country. I want to walk with you. Don’t worry, nobody will see us.” Leon was always easy to read, simple to lead. “Come,” she said, tossing him his shirt from the bed. “We can go down by the river. You can tell me about your week while we walk, and then I will tell you an old country tale as we return.”

He smiled. Her Leon, like every man she had ever known, liked her stories, the old Russian sagas she would often spin to make the men grin or laugh or lull them to sleep. Many of her yarns were made up, while others were true, some were bawdy, others bloody, but she couched them all in the velvet warmth of folk fables. Each one held a kernel of a lesson, there to be found by the attentive and curious, but although Leon savored the adventures of lost children and dancing, bell-chiming bears, of damp, hungry soldiers finding false comfort in lone cottages, and of brides with serpents curled up in their hair, Leon never bothered to grasp any of the morals. Few of her men ever had. She had come to believe that fables and tales and even epics from history taught very little, they held not enough sting for their lessons to stick.

Leon squeezed his pants up around his wide waist, pulled his suspenders over his shoulders, and straightened his stiff collar as she gathered up her own chemise, stockings, and dress. It was a nice, unseasonably warm, autumn night; the season was coming on slow, but still she would have preferred to remain inside. If only he had not asked such a seemingly innocent question moments before, lying beside her and still breathing hard: “How do you stay so young?”

A small inner voice nagged at her, asking her to put it aside and wait. He was so dense, perhaps he did not know what he had noticed. They could lie together a few more nights, or maybe even two or three months, and she could listen to his fat snores gurgle, sputter, and snort—which she found endearing—if only for a few more dawns. What was the rush? After all, it had only been a muttered phrase, a pillowed kindness. She could make him forget if she wanted to, but what was the point? Over time, she knew, he would only notice more. Even a dull, blustering bull such as Leon was not that stupid. What once were clumsy compliments would echo and twist over the years into a wiser, sharpened suspicion. He would observe that his aches were not hers, his hazy, milky gaze would look resentfully down at her clear, pure features, her soft skin and ever-focused eyes, and then a low, seismic anger would slowly take hold in his thick mind. From that point, certain predictable difficulties would emerge. No, there was no need to rush, but better to attend to it now. As Elga often said, pluck out the troubling eye before it blinks again.

“Good day, mademoiselle” were the first words Leon had spoken to her on that long-ago day, bowing slightly and tipping his straw hat as a gentleman of the Old World might have done. The green abundance of the summer garden framed his body, so that in the twilight he appeared like a great topiary creature coming to life before her. Sizing the stranger up, the first thing she sensed was money—she had a well-honed talent for spotting that. Better yet, his flat, dull smile revealed a man with no great capacity for wonder, or even curiosity. He took things to be as he saw them, and he did not see very much. This was ideal. Added to that, there also was a grinning kindness and, it seemed from his eager gaze, a hearty appetite, too. She did like hungry men.

“My dear,” Leon said tonight, “you are truly beautiful.”

She hugged him, wrapping her arms around his wide waist and resting her head on his soft shoulder. If he were truly a sensitive man, he might have felt her deepening sadness. But he was not. Raised by servants and conditioned amid the rude, patriarchal abuse of religious schools, the only other intimacy he had ever known was the cold affection of a smartly arranged marriage, leaving him with all the emotional range of an old, seasoned workhorse.

As they headed to the door, she glanced at a framed picture on the mantel. It was the only photograph of the two of them that existed; they had had it taken on a night when they had been out for another evening walk and had stumbled upon a neighborhood carnival. Wandering past mimes and magicians, monkey grinders, flea circuses, and nimble jugglers, they had come upon a photographer’s studio. Caught up in the spirit of revelry, Leon had dropped his usual guard and paid for a portrait. In the picture, taken with a gray velvet backdrop, she demurely held his hand, her black hair tucked under a hat, her eyes looking up at him with clear affection. He stood beside her, erect, grinning into the camera the way a safari hunter smiles while holding up the antlers of some magnificent, dead prey.

Leon was such a funny man, she thought, not brave at all (he had bribed his way out of the war), but kind enough. An adulterer, a liar, a larcenous man who clumsily cheated his clients and then paid to make the problems go away, he was all of that, but these were the burdens of most of the rich men she had known. She had stolen much from him, he had stolen much from others, and who knows where the first theft occurred? So few who touched a coin were pure or innocent. But as far as men went, his heart was decent. She knew she was being sentimental here in these final moments, painting him to be better than he was. She was like the farmer’s daughter who lovingly watches the sweet, obese pigs lolling and snorting in the mud the morning of the winter slaughter. “Do not forget to turn off the light,” she said.

Earlier, through the open apartment window, they had heard what sounded like distant firecrackers going off, but now the streets were quiet. They wandered up rue d’Ulm. The markets were closed, the bistros empty, a few automobiles rattled by. She held his hand, gently stroking the fat side of his palm with her thumb. She wondered if she had, in fact, ever loved him. They turned up rue Erasme. Leon complained, as he often did, about his frustrations with his ancient mother. Zoya had never met the woman, but Leon painted a picture of a stern, frigid creature who never appreciated her youngest boy, always favoring his older brother instead. “For me, she has only the most spiteful milk.”

Zoya was barely listening. Her mind was busy trying to remember a foggy collection of words while her eyes glanced about, searching in the sidewalk’s shadows for a sharp-tipped rail she recalled. It would be a handy place to stick his skull.

II

Will Van Wyck sat only half listening to Mr. Guizot; his mind kept wandering. He was trying to piece together what his life was going to be like now. He realized this was no time to be distracted, he needed to focus on whatever Guizot was going on about at that moment, because the little ball of a man bouncing around in front of him had just become Will’s very last client.
Earlier that morning, Will had still been running two clients for the agency, while eighteen months before that Will had been personally responsible for every single client in the office. But over time the French directors of the company had slowly, deftly, ever so politely, reduced his involvement in their business. They always smiled as they took away his accounts, and it was always over a generous four-course lunch at Fouquet with a few good bottles of white burgundy. But try as they might, and they did try, they could not completely dislodge him. The home office back in the States wanted him to stay in the Paris office managing one very special client, and that is what he had done, with never a word of complaint and nary a missed deadline. He had quietly given in to his French colleagues’ awkward and obvious Machiavellian politics, happily handing off responsibility whenever pressure was applied because, up until today, he knew his most important client kept him securely in place. The one unexpected surprise had been the loyalty of his other client, Guizot. This self-made mogul had started his beauty-care company only a few years before the war with a bathtub full of homemade hair tonic that he had tirelessly flogged until his empire stretched across western Europe. Even at that scale, his account was of no critical importance to the agency, not like their automobile, cigarette, or liquor accounts, and the senior managers grinned and nodded when he insisted that Will continue to run his account.

“Americans know how to sell!” Guizot had proclaimed, and they happily agreed, but mostly because they could not stand Guizot.

“Watch! Boom! Yes! Bang! Our campaign explodes across the countryside! Perfectly timed, catching all our idiot opposition with their piss-stained underpants down around their ankles.”

Guizot could not contain his excitement, he was practically jumping around Will’s office. He always acted this way as they prepared an advertising campaign. Will negotiated for him, deciding which newspapers and radio shows they would buy, while Guizot enthusiastically provided the product, the capital, and even the advertising copy, which he did not trust anyone in the agency to write. “What do your copywriters know about art or business that I do not know? If they are such great writers, where is their poetry, where are their literary prizes? And if they are so smart, why are they slaving away at their typewriters, working for me!” Will usually found Guizot’s antics entertaining, but not today.

“We will completely blitz the opposition! Bam! Bam! Bam! It is a true campaign, not an advertising campaign but a military campaign, with military precision!” Guizot was almost shouting now, his fists flew wildly in the air like a punch-drunk boxer. “They won’t be able to escape us, we have them in our sights! Because they are—how do you put it, Will? Oh yes, ha, our ‘target audience.’ See what I mean! See our target there, innocently opening the pages of Le Monde? Bam! There we are! Kaboom! The target opens Bonne Soirée or Vogue, ah ha! Rat-tat-tat! And when they turn on the radio, oh, Will, that is where our most secret weapon will be unleashed! Yes, ha ha, our sweet little girl’s innocent voice will be sapping their strength, sucking them in with her song, “Chase your pimples away. Chase your pimples away. Ah ha ha, Ah ha ha…” He was dancing now, hopping and slapping the bottoms of his shoes for rhythm as he performed his self-composed jingle. Will stared blankly at him, barely listening, his mind still mulling over the very different meeting he had been forced to endure a little over an hour before.
The room had been much quieter during the earlier meeting, almost too calm, and his American client, Brandon, had spoken in much more sensible tones. Brandon had tried to seem nonchalant, making all the facts sound perfectly reasonable and logical. It was, Brandon explained, the kind of change that happens, priorities simply shift. “Listen, Van Wyck. I’m not happy about it either, but it’s not the end of the world. They have accounts for you in Chicago, right? That’s where you’re originally from, isn’t it?”

“I’m from Detroit.”

“Perfect, see. Go get a job there. Those car accounts are strong.” Brandon had leaned back in his chair; it was as if they were talking about a baseball game or a boxing match. His attitude did little to comfort Will. Will’s previous Parisian clients had always been somewhat deferential. Not all of them worshiped him like Guizot did, but they all generally believed they could learn something from American marketing, and so they listened respectfully to what Will had to say. But being from the States himself, with an East Coast style and a crooked nose from playing football at Brown, Brandon had always dealt with Will as if he were little more than a foolish underclassman, there to be bullied or charmed, depending on the whim of the moment. “Detroit’s got, what, AMC, Chrysler, GM, and Ford? It’ll be a different game, sure, but you’ll be fine. Marry a Michigan girl and buy a nice house outside of town. They have great suburbs there. You’ll want to be in the suburbs. The niggers have taken over the city. But I guess you knew that.”

Will was having trouble digesting the news. He reached for a cigarette. “Exactly how long before the billings stop?”

Brandon had shrugged. “After the election. Nothing will happen until Ike’s out. No sense in pulling the plug till then. But no matter who wins, even if it’s Nixon’s fucking dog, this move is going to happen. The action simply isn’t here anymore. The government’s moving its spending to Asia. All our budgets are migrating there.”

“They’re moving you, too?”

“Me?” Brandon smiled a funny smile, surprised at Will’s question. “They’d like me to go south with them, but I’d rather not. I’m cooking up a project that might keep me here at least a bit longer, but it’s not going to involve any kind of advertising. So I’d say you’ve got a year, tops. But I’d start making plans now. Never hurts to be prepared.”

Will had looked around the room. He was thirty-one years old with a corner office in Paris. He had worked hard to get here. If he went back home he would be stuck working for the old guard. He’d be trapped at a desk, listening to the old guard drone on about how things were done. The old guard would pile him up with dull research assignments before heading out to swoon their clients at the country club or screw their secretaries at the motor lodge. And in twenty years, if he was lucky, he would be the old guard. “Fuck.”

His assistant, Madame Belec, poked her head in the door. “Monsieur Guizot est arrivé.”

“Thanks, we’ll only be a minute more.”

“Il semble très impatient.”

“He always is,” said Will. She left and Will looked at Brandon. “I’m going to have to wrap this up. It appears I have a real client waiting.”

“Aw, whaddaya mean.” Brandon laughed. “I’m a real client. We pay you guys good money. If I could figure out how to keep you on the gravy train I would, believe me. But they’re shutting down this side of the operation and the stuff I’m into now is way out of your league. You wouldn’t want it anyway, it’s grueling stuff, day and night.” Brandon snapped his fingers. “Oh damn, that reminds me, here”—he reached into his vest pocket and pulled out two tickets—“I was gonna swing by this reception over at the Hotel Rothschild tonight, but I can’t. The ticket’s yours if you want it. It’s up on rue Balzac, only a few blocks away. Full bar, and I bet the booze’ll be the good stuff. Go get yourself drunk, take a girl with you or meet a girl there, or better yet, meet two girls there.” Brandon laughed at his own joke as he rose to leave. “Seriously, you didn’t think it would last forever, did you? Now give me that report so I can show my guys you still care.”

Will had handed over the Rhône-Poulenc file. Meticulously compiled, the file was a summary of the chemical company’s growth plans, its supply base, and its accounting, along with a separate analysis specifically focused on the company’s current relationships with various branches of the French armed services. Brandon gave it a cursory glance. “Looks like you covered all the bases.”

“We always do.”

“You got anything else coming for me?” Brandon had said.

Will winced slightly; Brandon always wanted more these days. Not so long ago, he’d been content getting a monthly report on whatever Will found of interest. The Americans used the reports to keep an eye on Europe. Will’s other clients had had no idea that the secrets they shared with their advertising agency were being passed on to a foreign government, and they would certainly not have been happy to find out. The home office did a good job of keeping it a secret, even from the local executives. That’s why they had kept Will there for the last few years. He was the only one who knew exactly what the reports were for, and who was receiving them. He knew he was, in essence, spying on these companies for Brandon. It did not bother him since it felt so far from sinister. There was nothing more than raw data in the files, reports on commodity pricing, production cycle estimates, supply levels, and shipping analyses. Lately, though, the requests from Brandon had grown more constant and generally focused on pharmaceutical, chemical, and medical supply firms. Will had given Brandon five write-ups on five different companies in the past six weeks, and he had two more reports in the works. Normally it wouldn’t have bothered him, but it didn’t seem right for Brandon to come in and basically fire Will and at the same time be demanding so much more. Still, the client was the client. “I’ll have the one on Bayer ready next week,” Will said.

“Great. Keep ’em coming”—Brandon smiled—“at least till we shut out the lights. You don’t want to piss off the Central Intelligence Agency, right?”

Will nodded. “Right.” Depressed at the thought of going back to America, he didn’t even look up as Brandon walked out.

Mulling it over now, Will realized this was the final card in the deck; he no longer had enough business to keep him in Paris. It was only a matter of months before he booked one of the new transatlantic TWA flights back to the States. There was so much that he relished about Paris, from the bright lights of the brasseries to the wild parrots of the bird market to the garden view from Montparnasse. Of course, there were also the yellow-and-pink-pastel-skirted girls who looked as tasty as macaroons as they carried their books to their Sorbonne classes, and then there was this thick, little puffball of a man who was singing about pimples and dancing around Will’s office. Watching Guizot bounce about, Will realized that he had thoroughly enjoyed, savored, and celebrated every single day he had spent in this city, and now it appeared it was over. “Fuck,” he said.

Guizot stopped and held up his hands. “Come on, it’s a good song!”

III

Standing in the finely furnished apartment, Detective Vidot felt guilty. Crimes were always bad, and all too often they were tragic, terrible, and truly awful things, and yet whenever they involved peculiar or unusual circumstances, Vidot inevitably felt a wondrously delicious feeling rise up inside his heart, a delightful sensation that bordered on giddiness, and one that almost always inspired him to break out in an enormous smile. It was a shameful habit that he had long struggled to suppress. He thought it stemmed from the fact that ever since he was a young boy, he had derived enormous pleasure from puzzles, crosswords, jigsaws, anagrams, word games, and riddles. The great mystery stories featuring Dupin, Holmes, and Lecoq had sparked the initial ambition that led to his career. But once he actually became a police detective the smile itself caused unfortunate results, especially when his duties included querying a victim’s grieving relatives, neighbors, or traumatized colleagues. Too many times, that impish grin had slipped across his face, sending the sad souls he was questioning into even more wildly distraught states. Calls had been made, complaints lodged, and over the years, he had strained to erase it from his features, attempting to appear more consoling and sympathetic, yet the little smile always found a way to creep back, dancing at the corners of his mouth, mischievous, almost like a nervous tic.
It was a good thing no friends or family of the unfortunate victim were around now, because this case had him grinning from ear to ear from the moment he had first encountered it.

Atop the hill that rose in the 5th arrondissement, not far from rue Mouffetard, there had once, long ago, been a tall, spiked gate on rue Rataud that protected the chaste, devout nuns living within the monastery. Late in the nineteenth century, city life had grown too chaotic, so the sisters were moved away and the gate had been almost completely disassembled. But due to a series of arguments between the hired laborers, devotees of the protosocialist Saint-Simon, and the more conservative Catholic accountants, the final work was never completed. The gate’s top was left intact, arcing above the lane, its sharp and heavy pointed hooks, primitive precursors of modern concertina wire, curling menacingly down toward the cobblestones below. It was here that they found the body of Leon Vallet hanging early on Monday morning, the iron spikes impaling his thick neck and skull. Blood was splashed down the wall and across the cobblestones like spilled paint.

“How did he even get up there?” had been the first, and remained the most, obvious question. There was no clear answer. One policeman suggested he had somehow fallen from the neighboring building, but Vidot could see that was impossible. The hooks faced downward: Leon Vallet must have been thrust up into them. The small team investigating the scene offered up various theories. Perhaps he was riding atop a tall truck that had driven beneath the gate. But a truck would not be found on these narrow streets, and besides, what would a successful man of finance be doing atop such a truck? Was he taking a hayride? No, no. Perhaps an explosion had thrust him upward? This was easily dismissed, as there were no signs of combustion, either on his body or on the ground below.

“Did anyone report hearing any unusual sounds?” Vidot asked.

“No,” said a patrolman. “We have asked around the neighborhood. They said it was a quiet night.”

Vidot nodded. He looked at the corpse that lay on the street. It had taken the team the better part of an hour to unhook and carefully lower the victim. It was incredible that his skull and neck had been able to support such heavy weight. Vidot would have thought gravity would have pulled the torso down from the hook, splattering the lower body’s contents on the pavement while leaving the impaled head alone on top, but then, he realized, anatomy was a tenacious thing as bones clung to bones much the same way that life clings to life.

Over the following two days, the preliminary basics of the investigation had been covered. Vallet’s wife, Claudette, was informed of the murder. She had been away, at their country château, and learned of her tragedy only upon returning home. She was grief stricken and though she remained a suspect, Vidot deemed it not likely. His one meeting with the woman had revealed a small, murine creature who was most likely easily frightened by strong summer breezes and afternoon shadows, not the sort capable of an act so macabre. Cursory professional inquiries had meanwhile pointed to a wealth of potentially vengeful enemies, as it was revealed that Leon Vallet had not run the most scrupulous business.

More promising still was the discovery, uncovered while inspecting his account books, of an apartment Leon Vallet had been paying for located only blocks from the crime scene. Vidot went to visit the flat, accompanied by three policemen. Entering the spacious rooms, it was immediately clear that whoever had been living there had been well provided for during their stay. There were oil paintings on the walls, expensive linens for the large bed, and a full set of fine Wedgwood porcelain in the sideboard. It did not interest Vidot that Leon Vallet had such a nicely feathered love nest. What did interest Vidot, as he sniffed in the empty dresser and poked at the bare closet, was that Leon’s lover had flown away.

He stood in the middle of the bedroom, considering the various possibilities, as the other policemen continued their search, looking under the bed, behind couch cushions, pulling out the drawers of the small escritoire and knocking gently at the sides of the grand armoire, listening for secret panels. Smiling the way a boy being tickled grins before he finally breaks into laughter, Vidot walked over and examined a silver picture frame. He focused on the empty space inside the frame for a moment, as if observing details of the image that was not there. Then he moved down the mantel, turning his attention to two clocks perched near the center. He went up so close that his inquisitive nose practically touched their glass faces and then pointed at a wide space between them. “A gap,” he said, turning to the young policeman who stood by the door. “You, what is your name?”

“Bemm, monsieur.”

“Well, Bemm, I would like you to ask around at the local pawn shops and antique stores, anything in a five-kilometer radius, and see if you can find a clock, I am guessing it is a very rare clock, that has either been sold to the shop directly or left there on consignment. And if the proprietors have not received one recently, please ask them to keep their eyes open. Indicate, but do not promise, the possibility of a reward.”

Vidot then went into the kitchenette. Looking down past the sink, he was excited to see that the policeman had not yet looked into the small metal garbage pail tucked in beside the counter. This was one of Vidot’s favorite places to search. People tended to be thoughtless with their trash, and even the most cunning criminals had a habit of leaving a wealth of useful materials behind—notes, letters, in one case even a grocery list of various pharmaceutical poisons. Clues dumped in the bin were almost always forgotten by the guilty parties, as if all garbage vanished from reality the moment the lid closed shut. Vidot knew better. He had spent more than a few afternoons knee-deep in the dumps and landfills on the outskirts of the city, foraging for soggy and rotting evidence amid the rich layers of debris. He knew nothing really ever disappeared, it only changed form.

He dumped the bin’s waste into the sink and began picking through it. There was no mail and no personal papers, only three eggshells; a few lemon rinds; scrapings of burnt rice; the unused ends of a baguette; cucumber, onion, carrot scraps; a hunk of moldy cheese; and some soiled sections of Le Monde. There were also fragmentary pieces of bone that at first he thought might be chicken, though they were oddly enmeshed in what seemed to be a tangle of peat moss. He carefully separated this mass from the rest of the trash and placed it on the counter.

The policeman going through the kitchen drawers glanced over his shoulder. “I haven’t seen one of those in a while.”

“What is it?” asked Vidot.

“We used to hunt for them on the forest floor out at my grandparents’ country place. We called them owl balls.”

Vidot grinned at him. “Owl balls?”

“Yes, they are the remnants of mice, voles, or baby rabbits, whatever the owl has caught and swallowed. The owl pounces on the creatures and gobbles them up whole. Later the owl coughs up the indigestible bits in small pellets. That’s what you have there, I’d swear to it.”

“Owl balls,” said Vidot, looking down at the fragments while rolling the idea around in his head with a delicious sense of wonder.

IV

Although it had been almost two months since they had last seen or spoken to one another, neither had said much when the younger one showed up at the door. Elga had let her in and then put a kettle on the stove. Zoya dropped her bags and limped over to the couch. Before the water was even boiling, the younger one was fast asleep. Over the next few days the old one said little, cooking for them both and going out every so often to get stock for the soup and ice chips for Zoya’s black eye. Elga only asked a few questions.

“He beat you?”

Zoya shook her head. “No. He would never. The words made him kick, his shoe caught me as he was going up.”

“He went up?”

“The spell went wrong. There were spikes above me I didn’t see. The words pulled him there. I was aiming for a gate on the corner. It happened fast and he kicked as he flew.”

“Who can blame him for kicking? Nobody wants to go.” Elga nodded. “Did you empty your place?”

“Mostly, there was too much to take it all. But do not worry, I was thorough enough. I tagged one trunk and shipped it to the Luxembourg Station, the taxi dropped another at the North. I’ll send for them when I have a place to stay.” Zoya felt the exhaustion of her breath crawling out of her body. Perhaps this was the end. That would be fine, her bones were so tired. Her stomach felt as if there were rotting weeds stewing at the bottom. Here she was again, counting on the patience and tolerance of this stooped and ancient creature who tended to be neither.

She realized that over the course of the years, the length of her stays with the old woman had shrunk to fit Elga’s vanishing patience. Perhaps, after so much time, they had finally outgrown one another. But she also knew that she still needed and even wanted the old woman in her life. They were, as far as she knew, the only two left.

There had been many more of them once, and not only the women they had traveled with but still others, sighted and acknowledged in glances and knowing nods caught amid early-morning markets and in the busy, bustling streets, but the ones she had known by name had vanished long ago, and no new faces had stepped out from the crowd. So it seemed there were only the two of them, now too ill fitted to one another’s company, and so after this small pause she would be off on her own again, probably before she had even wholly caught her breath.

Over the next few days, Zoya lay on the couch, listening as a tone-deaf accordionist practiced bal musettesomewhere in the floors above. She did not know how Elga paid for her small basement flat, it certainly was not with money, the old woman was too tight to ever part with a coin when a trick would do. Perhaps she was dangling a sordid secret over her landlord’s conscience. Or maybe she had convinced him that she did not even exist, though that would be an ambitious spell, even for Elga. This woman was hard to hide. The room brimmed over with stacks of dusty papers, piles of dried herbs, and long rows of packed bookshelves all lined with discolored jars stuffed with pickled organs, hoof and snout. A dank, permeating odor of mildew mixed with burnt ginger and soured cheese leaked from the walls, and there were constant rustling, scratching, and scraping sounds off in the shadowed corners.

Elga brought out another kettle and poured the tea. Zoya looked down at the old woman’s spotted, knotted hands; the veins reminded her of the gnarled tree roots that clung tenaciously to the lichened boulders up in the northern forests.

“I have a present for you,” Zoya told the old woman. Digging into her bag, she pulled out a large object wrapped up in a sheet. Placing it on the couch, she carefully peeled off the fabric and held it up for Elga to admire.

The old woman gave it a blank look. “What do I want with a clock?”

Zoya shrugged. “I thought you’d like it. Look…” She pointed to the small golden swan perched on the top. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Like the treasures from the palace.”

Elga said nothing but took the clock out of Zoya’s hands and shoved it atop a cockeyed stack on the shelf. The old woman had always been impossible to predict—Zoya had seen her cackle and hop with joy at the gift of a simple sugar cube—but these past few days her mood seemed even more erratic and dark.

The old woman sat down on the floor, shelling sunflower seeds, while Zoya lay back on the couch. A squeaking in the room kept her awake. Zoya opened her eyes and watched the scrawny black rat finally emerge from beneath the couch to chew at the corner of the rug. “Don’t let Max bother you,” grunted Elga. “I will send him out on his errands soon.”

Zoya nodded and shut her eyes again. She felt as if she had been drugged, but she knew it was the spell that had drained her. Also, she always hated being without her own bed and her own room, wherever that might be. Being a guest always left her ill at ease, especially with Elga. Their journeys always brought them together for a handful of days, a full cycle of a moon, or even at times for years, but then they eventually diverged again, Zoya to the arms of another warm patron and Elga back to her busy stews.

When Zoya woke again from her nap the old woman was sitting across the room, her pudgy feet propped up on the cold woodstove, leafing through the pages of Figaro. “There’s nothing in here about your Leon. I guess all they could say is, what? His wife is sad and the policemen are still snooping around.”

Elga balled the newspaper up and threw it into the stove. Trudging over to the couch, she squatted beside Zoya. The old woman lowered her head and nodded, muttering to herself. Zoya waited. The room was silent, even the rat was finally still. When Elga looked up, it was as if she had come to a firm decision.

With one fierce stroke she slapped Zoya across the face so hard that the shriek was torn from the girl’s lips. The old woman grabbed Zoya’s hair, pulled her close, and stuck her red bug eyes up into the girl’s terrified face. “There wasn’t a train he could fall in front of?” she hissed. “Is poison too slow? You have always been too showy, too stupid, such an awful and tiresome creature. Mistakes can be avoided. They must be avoided. My god, you can disgust me.” She slapped her again, harder this time.

Zoya’s words fell out through her tears. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I panicked. He had noticed, Elga. I was frightened.”

Elga let go of her hair and got up. “So what, he notices? Suck a man’s cock and he forgets so much. It’s easier than sticking his head onto a spike.” She went back to her chair, leaving the girl curled up in a weeping ball. “Bah. Fine. Pull yourself together.” She took a box of matches off the shelf and leaned over to light the stove, not even looking at Zoya anymore. “You make things too unsafe. Police sniff-sniffing around. We will have to leave town and begin again. Why do I want to waddle these bones of mine for you? I am fine here alone without you showing up and ruining it all.”

“No, Elga, it’s fine. I’ll go. I won’t bother you.”

“Fine. Go soon. You make it hard for me to think, and the neighbors will notice you. I don’t need their questions. So yes, go.”

A little less than an hour later, Zoya was packed up to leave, relieved to be going. With no kindness in her gesture, the old woman shoved a grocer’s bag filled with carrots, red potatoes, and a handful of leek sprouts into her hands and then tucked a pair of small white eggs into her pockets. Zoya thought Elga might offer a kind word too—not an apology, but perhaps some phrase laced with tenderness—but all the old woman said was, “Don’t come here again. If I move, I’ll let you know, but don’t come back. If you need help, well, keep an eye out for Max. He’ll be close. Now go.” The girl looked down at the rat, which sat watching from the corner. She nodded to herself, her mouth set firm and determined. Elga was right, it was time. She had probably rested enough, and her injured eye’s swelling had receded; there was now only a dark streak, more a smudge than a bruise, that made her look like a sooty chimney waif.

The old woman followed her out to the stoop and then stood watching as Zoya walked off down the cobblestone street. A nausea itched in Elga’s guts. The girl boiled her blood. For so many years she had needed Zoya, leaned on her, used her to find safe harbor as they were pitched about the brutal landscape. It had been a tiresome journey for them both, from the far-off country quiet of long vanished woodlands through the black billowing exhaust and shrill screech of steel railway wheels as they made their way on, station to station, ducking and stepping between the dueling engines of empire wars and burgeoning progress. Civilization was ever encroaching, barreling down upon them, crowding them and clouding their path with the gunpowder haze and steam-engine smoke, pressing and pushing them down narrow lanes toward dead-end corners, forcing tricks from their hands and curses from their lips as they found a way to leap free over and again.

But things were peaceful now, now she did not see the girl for weeks at a time, even months, and never missed her. There was no need. The continent was as quiet as a sleeping lamb, and the two of them had settled down with it. The papers called it a “cold war” but that seemed an odd phrase to Elga, she knew cold wars, they were the ones where hatchets and knives wielded by frostbitten fingers chopped solid meat sides off frozen stallion corpses. Those true cold wars had nothing in common with what she found in the newspapers now, but it was certainly an easier time, and as the din died down, she found the pretty dark-haired girl with the slender hips and the fulsome bosom to be growing tiresome. Each time she saw Zoya it bothered her more, like some silly farmer’s song you hate hearing but are forced to endure a thousand times until it claws at your ears. She could not place a reason for the irritation, but the feeling was so strong it felt almost cystic inside her. Time to cut it out, she thought, and good riddance.

The wind kicked up and she sniffed at it. Coal soot, sea salt, ham, yeast, and dog hair, nothing new, nothing to worry about. She stood there, distracted, random words tumbling round in her mind, until a neighbor noisily emerged with a crate of empty milk bottles. Broken from her daydream, Elga waddled back into her flat, shutting the door hard behind her.

TOBY BARLOW is the author of Babayaga and Sharp Teeth. He lives in Detroit.

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