Authors: Harry Steinman
“What do you think of the paintings?” he asked, without answering her question.
Eva looked at the framed art and asked, “Worms?”
He laughed. Once again, the sound was unforced. “I take it you’re not familiar with the work of Jackson Pollock.”
“You’ve got bugs for brooches and worms for paintings.” She paused, considering, “I’ve never seen worms like that. The colors are wrong. It’s not realistic.”
“No, not realistic at all for worms. But Pollock didn’t so much try to paint worms as he tried to make art without a brush coming between him and his creations. So he dripped paint on his canvases rather than brushing it on.”
“You like these?”
“I do. Eva, look at them. If you wanted to make a painting of the energy in a chemical reaction, how would you do that?”
“I don’t know. Not like that, I don’t think.”
“What about, say, Brownian motion?”
“These paintings are supposed to be the random movement of molecules?”
“Good. Now think bigger. Pollock was trying to show the energy and movement of life. That’s my opinion, anyway.”
“It looks like a baby’s scribbling.”
“Maybe yes, maybe no. Look deeper, Eva. What he did was to use things he could control—the thickness of the paint, the movement of his body, how absorbent his canvas was—to portray things he couldn’t control. It looks chaotic, but isn’t life chaotic? Don’t we all try to control the chaos around us? That’s what I see in his work. Think of chaos theory and then imagine it as art. You just might end up with Jackson Pollock.”
“So what? Why would anybody want to paint science?”
“Art can inspire science.”
Eva gave a snort.
Coombs continued, “A sculpture that looked like a tower of needles inspired a major breakthrough in understanding cell structure. Four hundred years ago, the divisions on a horsetail plant inspired John Napier to discover logarithms.”
“I don’t need art to do science.”
“Okay.” Then, “How’s your tea?”
They sat without speaking for several minutes. Eva stood and explored Coombs’s work area and looked at his book titles. “May I offer a suggestion, young lady?”
“Yes, indeed. Well, Eva, I have a suggestion. Your work cleaning the sidewalk was better than I expected. I should be taking advantage of you by offering only the brooch as full payment for this good a job. I’d like to give you a book, real paper, an old edition with some value.”
To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“How hard can that be?”
“Eva, it’s not a textbook.”
“Then what is it?”
“It’s the story of a young woman like you. A good girl named Scout must face terrible things and terrible people. She has to struggle to be herself despite awful events that happen around her. I rather think you might enjoy reading about how she managed.”
“How old is Scout?”
“When the book starts, she’s five.”
“You were five once, yes? And now you’re older?” Eva nodded. “Well Scout grows older, too.” Coombs went to his book collection and muttered, “I know it’s here.”
Eva continued to wander about the work area. She stopped at the Pollock triptych for several minutes. She said, “It’s funny. I don’t like stories because they try to tell you something is true when it’s not. This—” she nodded to the grouping, “—doesn’t try to lie. It doesn’t try to pretend to be a picture of something. It might be nonsense, but at least it’s honest nonsense.”
“How does it make you feel?” Coombs asked.
There was a long pause and Eva turned away. She turned back to Coombs and said, “I have to go. Thanks for the tea.”
“What about the book?” He reached back to the shelf for the slim volume.
But when he turned back, Eva was gone.
She did not miss her duty once, not even Sundays. Thirty-one days after first meeting Coombs, she skipped home, bobbing under her mantle, the brooch in her pocket. What a splendid gift she would present to Gergana. Eva imagined all of the things that they would do together, once again, and she smiled.
Eva’s smile died the moment she crossed the worn threshold into the Rozen apartment. She heard hoarse cries of pain from Gergana’s room, exhausted pleas in place of Gergana’s insubstantial chatter.
Eva edged to the door, paused, listened and heard the crack of a palm striking flesh. There was a muffled thud followed by an explosive whoosh of air forced from unprotected lungs. Why today, of all days? When she had the brooch that would bring them back together and restore the magic they once shared?
She turned the doorknob, paused, and slipped into the bedroom. Her senses recoiled at the tableau before her. She registered the sour stink of sweat and hatred. An obese man was the source. He was naked, with blemish-mottled pallid skin. He lay between Gergana’s legs with his hands loosely at her throat. Skin puffed out from his neck to give the impression of a bleached bullfrog. His face was frozen in a rictus, a grotesque parody of ecstasy.
Eva tore her eyes from the fat man and took in every detail in the room. The markers of Gergana’s youth—stuffed animals and movie posters—were torn or trampled. She saw a broad-shouldered man in one corner of the room. His mouth was a compressed red slash. His bare chest was decorated with a heavy gold chain and thatched with a dense mat of black hair. Shards of pale blue ice, shaped like human eyes, looked from his face and focused on Eva. They froze her in place.
Bare Chest looked down at an old-fashioned wristwatch, and then back to Eva. When he spoke, she felt the paralyzing cold again. “You come to join, little girl?” Bare Chest asked. “I get good money for you. Better than your cow of a sister. Come here.”
Eva could not move. Bare Chest closed the distance between them with feral grace. One moment he was seated, the next he towered over her, a steel-gripped hand wrapped around her left wrist. She was too stunned even to flinch.
Gergana moaned. “Nooo...not her. You promised. Not her,” she croaked.
Bare Chest laughed. “This ugly runt is like a doll. She will fetch good money.” He looked down at Eva, “You want to feel nice like your sister, eh? I give you something to make you fly like the angels.”
Eva looked at Gergana. There were puncture marks on the arms that had held Eva. The face that had looked at Eva with adoration was livid with bruises. The eyes that had cherished Eva were swollen. Eva tugged but Bare Chest kept his easy grip on her wrist.
“Hey, Doran,” Bare Chest called to the fat man. “You want this ugly runt? I let you have her cheap.”
Eva looked up as the man called Doran continued to piston his hips and tightened his grip on Gergana’s neck. Her eyes bulged.
“Don’t mark her face,” Bare Chest snapped, “Now she’s lost value and you have to pay more.” Doran relaxed his grip.
Eva was suspended in terror. Her eyes darted about, desperate to find something she could understand. Torn posters and stuffed toys. Gergana. The fat man. None of it made sense.
Bare Chest reached in his trousers and freed himself. He forced her unresisting left hand down and wrapped the girl’s small fingers around his sex.
Eva said nothing. She merely complied. The room around her started to collapse into a pinpoint and her reason was pulled toward a black hole of fear.
Again, Gergana tried to lift her head. Again, she gasped, “No. Not her. You promised.”
Without taking his predatory gaze from Eva, Bare Chest hissed at Gergana. “Shut up.”
Still, Eva said nothing. She was nearing the event horizon of terror. In a few seconds, she would be lost.
She shut out Gergana’s cries of pain and walled off her own terror.
That’s better. Nice and quiet,
she thought. Then she heard another sound, one from within, first a murmur, then a tumult. A babble, then a coherent Voice shouted to her,
she whimpered in silence. The Voice said,
You’re a scientist. Use what is at hand. How did you stop Papa?
She looked at Gergana and then back to Bare Chest. Her eyes narrowed and her head moved in a slight double-take, as if the obvious solution to an intractable problem had presented itself. Then she nodded: a decision proposed, seconded, and approved by acclamation.
Now Eva spoke with a steady voice. “Nobody calls me a runt. I’m going to kill you.”
“Oh, you think so?” Bare Chest snarled. “For that I will split you open.” He looked back to the fat man and said, “Hey, Doran, I give you the runt when I’m done. No charge. A present from me.”
Eva heard herself shout—or was it something within?—
Eva’s right hand, her free hand, moved unseen under her cape as Bare Chest spoke to the fat man. She slipped her small squeeze bottle out from an inside pocket. One-handed, she flipped the cap open. The action was practiced and smooth, thanks to Papa’s nocturnal visits. She sprayed Bare Chest’s blood-engorged penis. It would be three seconds before his sensitive skin reacted to Eva’s homemade pepper solution. In that time, Eva reached up. In a motion perfected by her encounters with Papa, she sprayed Bare Chest’s eyes. The effect was instant. His eyes reddened, bled, and bulged. Surprise, then agony, replaced his grin. Sightless crimson puddles replaced his ice-blue eyes. Then the oily fluid penetrated the dilated blood vessels in his penis. He screamed. Eva reached up to empty the remainder of the bottle’s sap down Bare Chest’s throat.
He gasped in agony. The pepper-laced oil coated absorbent tissues in his lungs, searing and choking him. His throat began to swell and his yelps of pain trailed off to a rasp. Eva, her right hand still hidden under her cape, dropped the spray bottle and drew her knife. She thrust the four-inch blade, aiming for Bare Chest’s genitals. She’d never used a knife in anger, and she missed her target. But the blade sliced neatly across his groin and severed the femoral artery. The resulting blood loss was instant and catastrophic. Bare Chest was still rubbing his eyes when he collapsed. Blood spurted as he bled out. A bitter stench filled the room as Bare Chest’s bowels relaxed. Eva stabbed again. Her blade penetrated a corpse.
In the moment of Bare Chest’s truncated scream, Doran lost all restraint. He bore down on Gergana. The weight of his body radiated through fat arms. Sausage-sized fingers dug into Gergana’s slender neck. He pressed harder and now she convulsed, her feet moving in a frantic swimmer’s kick, up and down, up and down. Then they were still. Doran grunted and relaxed in his release, Gergana relaxed in hers.
The fat man rolled off the body and towards Eva. She tried to ward him off, but she was drained. Killing Bare Chest had required that she reach deep into a core of rage and muster every bit of her strength. The simple act of lifting an arm was beyond her. Doran shot out one meaty fist and caught her in the temple.
Eva was sitting in a puddle of blood, wide-eyed and mute, when the police arrived eleven minutes after calls from several neighbors brought them up the three flights of stairs to the Rozen apartment. The responding officers found Mama asleep as they cleared the apartment. She could answer none of the questions posed by the police, nor could Papa, once he was located and escorted to the abattoir where Gergana once grew and dreamed.
“What happened?” one of the police asked Eva.
Eva was silent.
“Come on, miss. Something terrible happened here. Tell us what it was so we can find the man who killed your sister.”
Eva was silent, still.
Mama came into the bedroom and screamed. “Tell them what you know!”
Eva looked up at her mother without speaking, and held Mama’s gaze until the woman turned away.
I’ll find him,
Eva said to herself. Then she tilted her head, as if listening to sound inside. The din was building at the Table.
Eva hunted for her sister’s killer, relentless as a dingo. Her developing computer skills allowed her to glide through police files. She swallowed the coroner’s documents, straining data, clinical observations and conjecture. The lurid crime scene photographs and the stilted clinical language of police reports were a grisly counterpoint to Eva’s memories of the sister who had cared for her, who had offered tenderness when there was none from Mama and Papa.
Within the morbid affidavits, Eva found sketchy information about the fat man called Doran. For days, Eva saw his leering face and watched, again and again, as he strangled Gergana. His grunts echoed in her ears. She spent sleepless nights hunting and took on Mama’s haunted look. Unlike Mama, Eva moved with purpose. She pursued her quarry with a vigor that would shame a detective on his first case. She sought prostitutes sporting bruises. She asked about Doran at every bar, café, and store in Sofia. One of these was Coombs’s antique shop.
“Welcome back, Eva.” Coombs was bareheaded today. He wore a concerned look. “How are you holding up?”
“It was in the news. You’re a very brave young woman.”
“I’m going to get him.”
“I’m sure you will. But Eva, whatever you do, please—come back and see me.”
Three weeks later, Doran’s body was found in the Vladaya River, under the Lion’s Bridge. The skin on his face had a curious blistering, a unimportant detail to the detectives who were happy to close out three investigations—the rape and murder of Gergana Rozen, the assault of Eva Rozen, and the murder of Alexsandar Yorkuv—Bare Chest. They hung this crime on Doran as well. Who else in that apartment could have killed a grown man?