Authors: Leif Davidsen
The Serbian Dane:
‘Brilliant! More, more! I believed every word of it – the danger, the action, the politics of power and fear. Davidsen writes like an assassin’ – Fay Weldon
‘An absolutely gripping thriller, with insights into the horrors of the Bosnian war and the problems of being a writer in a world where words are dangerous’ – Joan Smith
‘Resonates because one can’t dismiss its frightening truth’ – Paul Binding,
‘This pacy political thriller takes us into a world of endangered writers and global intrigues … the cast of characters and the plot have an uncanny sense of the all-too-real. I couldn’t put it down’ – Lisa Appignanesi
‘A fast-paced action thriller, worth reading for its unusual setting and vivid characterisation’ – Peter Millar,
‘An unusually intelligent and thoughtful thriller – and beautifully translated by Barbara J. Haveland with scarcely a false note’ – Bob Cornwall,
Translated from the Danish by
Barbara J. Haveland
ranji Draskuvic, writer and philosopher, was a happy man. He was
with himself and his carefully tended beard, with the late summer sunshine, in which his fine city of Zagreb looked as lovely as a young maiden, and with the fact that the powerful new Croatian army had finally driven the fucking Serbs out of Krajina. But above all, Draskuvic was pleased with the broadcast he had just made on Croatian national radio, from a studio watched over by a picture of the president. As was his wont, he had made his address in a voice that was soft, not much more than a whisper really, yet firm. Introduced just the right note of huskiness into his voice, a rasp that sent a cold but delicious shiver running down the spines of his devoted listeners. The grand, flowery, patriotic sentences had flowed from the little mouth buried within the bushy grey beard and been swallowed up by the microphone, to be recorded on tape for broadcasting in the afternoon to all the good citizens of a strong free Croatia.
Draskuvic was a Balkan intellectual and proud of it. In pointed yet lofty terms his broadcast had once again made it quite clear who had the right to Krajina. It had exposed the lies of the Serbs and the international mafia who claimed that this was old Serbian territory. But Draskuvic was here to tell them that the Serbs had been put there three hundred years earlier by those lily-livered Austro-Hungarians to form an outpost against the heathen Turks. In exchange for land, these Serbian barons were to defend the outermost frontier of the empire. The Serbs were nothing but colonists. Now Krajina had been liberated. At long last. In the face of international boycotts and
conspiracies, and with the help of the Germans and the Americans, Croatia had rebuilt its glorious army. Its troops had fought like true patriots and proved that a new balance of power now prevailed in the Balkans. After four
years of mortification, Croatia was ready to defend its sacred soil. For the first time the Serbians were on the run. Now they were being given a taste of their own medicine. When it came to the crunch they had turned and fled like mangy dogs, while the UN troops, those scurrilous lackeys of the traitorous international community, cowered in their pathetic little foxholes.
‘Spit on them, true patriots! They deserve nothing but your contempt!’ he had urged. Television footage of Serbian refugees with their ridiculous belongings packed into ancient farm carts gave him great satisfaction. The only thing that annoyed him was that they were allowed to drive off on tractors that were doubtless stolen. They should be made to walk. To crawl on their bleeding knees. They had much to feel sorry for. He had briefly considered going to Krajina to see the fleeing curs with his own eyes and perhaps speed them on their way with a few well-chosen words. It would be reported in the press, of course. For a moment he saw the picture in his mind: a distinguished European intellectual who was not afraid to join the brave sons of the people. But no, he must restrain himself. His life was too important. He was a great poet and an old man, and so he stayed in Zagreb. He fought on his own front. The intellectual front. It was every bit as vital as the other fronts. The soldiers could not fight without spiritual nourishment. Did they not want to know why they were fighting? Would they not need moral and spiritual strength? He had closed his broadcast by saying:
‘Fellow countrymen! Go with God to Krajina and make that liberated soil fertile once more!’
Draskuvic was a happy man. Despite the heat, he was wearing a suit. Under his arm he carried a Croatian magazine to which he had contributed an article on the need to purge liberated areas of impure elements. Draskuvic regarded himself as a thinker and a patriot. He wrote of valour and patriotic justice in exactly the same way as Serbian intellectuals wrote about bravery and honour. Intellectuals who never saw the blood and the suffering. He penned his venomous commentaries as a counterweight to the malicious spoutings of the Serbs. From other safe offices and comfortable apartments the intellectuals disseminated the words that generated and nurtured hate.
Slowly he made his way through the crowd to his favourite café. He nodded distantly to people who recognized him and eyed with disgust a
couple of tipsy UN soldiers who were attempting to chat up two young girls. The soldiers were from the Ukraine, so the girls were unlikely to be interested in them, unless the men had made enough deutschmarks from their smuggling activities to win them over. He made a mental note for his next radio broadcast. About the necessity of keeping oneself pure in the dark hour of conflict. It would provide yet another moral boost to those fighting at the front, he thought with satisfaction.
Vuk watched him from a distance.
Vuk was sitting astride a battered motorbike, the number plate of which was caked with mud. He was wearing a helmet with the visor down. In his blue jeans and worn, brown leather jacket he looked like any other young guy in the capital of independent Croatia.
Vuk observed Draskuvic closely. The rolling gait that lent an almost feminine sway to his fat arse, and the belly that ploughed the air ahead of him like a heavy-laden, flat-bottomed barge on the Danube. This was the fifth day Vuk had waited for him at the café. On the first Vuk had worn a suit and sat at one of the tables set out on the pavement. On the second day he had walked past dressed in the uniform of the Danish UN contingent. On the third day he was back in his suit. On the fourth he wore a short-sleeved shirt with a pair of beige chinos and the kind of padded gilet that the foreign correspondents loved to swan around in.
Draskuvic’s routine never varied. He arrived at the radio station at 9.00 am; at 10.30 am he strolled down to the café to have coffee and read the newspapers. To Vuk it seemed quite crazy that he was not more
The country was at war, and Draskuvic was one of the bastards who, with his propaganda, had whipped up hatred against the Serbs. Didn’t he realize he was a possible target? Was he really that stupid? Or that arrogant?
Vuk was perspiring heavily. He could feel the beads of sweat running down the back of his neck and over his cheeks. His T-shirt clung to his back and stomach. It was hot inside the close-fitting helmet and the leather jacket, but it wasn’t just that. He had a tendency to break out into a sweat before a hit. People talked about the sweat of fear, but that they described as cold. So maybe it wasn’t fear or nervousness that caused it, but simply an excess of adrenalin. His hands were steady enough. His senses became ultra-sharp,
registering details so accurately and so clearly that they seemed almost to be etched on his mind: a woman’s shapely cupid’s bow, the almost black eyes of a child, the Ukrainian soldier’s pimply cheek, the yellow paint flaking off a wall, the grating cough of a broken exhaust silencer, the reek of low-grade petrol and an unwashed body passing close by his motorbike. Draskuvic, his vulnerable belly and unsuspecting, almost child-like, smooth-skinned face.
Draskuvic sat down at an empty table in the second row from the front but still in the shade of the canopy. He was well known to the waiters, they brought him his coffee and a newspaper. Draskuvic lit his cigar, and Vuk started his motorbike. It purred into life. The engine revved, revealing to anyone who cared to notice that beneath the dirty battered exterior lay a relatively new engine. He pulled the zip of the leather jacket halfway down, stuck his right hand inside and curled his fingers around the butt of the Russian-made Markarov. It held eight 9 mm bullets. It was a pretty clumsy pistol, but Vuk found it reliable: like most old Soviet equipment, it was simply made and worked well in tricky situations. The Markarov had quite a hefty butt, but that was no big problem. In any case, he was wearing a pair of fine leather gloves. At this distance it wasn’t accuracy he needed, but penetration. Two tables away from Draskuvic a young couple were talking quietly. They sat with their faces close together, the way lovers do. Farther back in the café some elderly men were playing cards. To Draskuvic’s right was a group that might pose a threat: three Croatian soldiers, but they weren’t wearing any visible weapons and were obviously drunk. They had probably been drinking all night and would carry on drinking all day. They were having an incoherent argument about whose turn it was to buy the next bottle of slivovitz. They had spent the past fifteen minutes bragging about their exploits during the Krajina campaign. The Serbian dogs had dropped like flies under their fire.
Traffic was light on the narrow side street. An old, grey-streaked Mercedes drove slowly past, leaving a trail of uncombusted diesel in its wake. An elderly couple carrying an empty string shopping bag hirpled past in the gutter. A mother scolded her child and hauled it away howling in protest.
Vuk took three deep breaths and thought of the Commandant’s words: no dramatics, not ever. Leave that to actors in the movies. Quick in. Quick out. Don’t think about anything except survival.
He dismounted from the bike. The rubber soles of his Reeboks made no sound as he walked the few steps across the narrow thoroughfare towards Draskuvic while pulling the pistol out of its shoulder holster and cocking it in one long, controlled movement. Draskuvic looked up. He may have glimpsed Vuk’s face behind the smoked visor, although there’s no way of knowing. Vuk shot him twice in the face and once in the chest. Draskuvic toppled backwards. The cigar dropped from his lips onto his jacket. Before Drascuvic had hit the ground Vuk was walking calmly, but with long strides, back to the motorbike. He didn’t hold on to the pistol, instead he let it slide down onto the tarmac as he swung his leg back over the bike. There was no shortage of guns in this country. He gained a second by dropping it instead of returning it to the shoulder holster. Those few people who managed to react were looking at Draskuvic, not at Vuk. Their eyes stayed riveted on the blood that was spurting over the table and gushing onto the café floor before,
as they were, they threw themselves to the ground and started shrieking. The first screams broke out as Vuk put the motorbike into first gear and sped off around the corner.
A brown, leather-clad back and a pair of blue jeans astride a motorbike. Probably a Japanese make. It looked old, but that might have been mainly due to the dirt and mud. That was all that witnesses could remember.
The bike was in fact quite new, stolen a couple of days earlier from a notorious smuggler who hung out down by the harbour in Split and was still considering whether to report the theft, seeing that he had brought the bike over the border without the knowledge of the relevant authorities.
Vuk turned onto the main road and drove on, fast but not recklessly, for a few hundred yards. He parked outside a supermarket and took off the helmet. He hung it over the handlebar, pulled a small, snub-nosed Smith & Wesson revolver out of the motorbike pannier, stuffed it into the pocket of his leather jacket and walked off down the pavement without a backward glance, slipping the jacket off as he did so and slinging it nonchalantly over his shoulder, one finger hooked through the loop at the collar. He had tucked the gloves into the jacket’s other pocket. His hair was black. Passers-by saw a young man like so many others, with black hair and a dark bushy moustache. He was well built. A pair of bright blue eyes did, however, mark him out from other young
men and prompted a few women to look twice at him. He turned down a side street, unlocked the door of a tan-coloured Lada and drove away.
Here the Croatian police lost track of him. No one could remember the registration number of the car, and descriptions of the hit man varied so much that an Identikit picture was out of the question. The killer had vanished into thin air. Or into the chaos of war.
The young man who called himself Vuk drove south-east, towards Slovenia. He took it nice and easy. Traffic was light. The little villages were bathed in the golden glow of late summer. Red-tile roofs were pocked with black shell-holes. A breeze tugged at white curtains and sent them billowing out of broken windowpanes. Very few people were about, even though the war had moved on. After driving for a couple of hours Vuk stopped on a hilltop and looked down onto a broad highway. Dust swirled up around a convoy: hay-wagons towed by tractors, and small carts, each drawn by a single horse. Blue diesel fumes hung in the air. The carts were laden with clothes, old furniture, pots and pans and mattresses. The children were vacant-eyed, the men unshaven. The women’s colourful headscarves were coated with fine dust. He followed his countrymen with his eyes. Now they too were tasting the dust of flight. He smoked a cigarette and watched them for a while, then climbed back into the car. He drove a couple of hundred yards down a dirt road and parked the Lada on the fringe of a clump of trees. He took a
rucksack from the boot and placed it on the ground; removed an explosive device from the rucksack, set the detonator to go off in five minutes then threw the device into the front seat of the car. He pulled on the leather jacket, slung the rucksack onto his back and strode briskly, but not too hastily, away from the car, heading downhill towards the River Sava, which divided Croatia from Bosnia-Herzegovina. He did not look back when he heard the dull boom and the crackling sound of the Lada burning. Then the petrol tank exploded and a black cloud of smoke rose into the air. It was a long time since anyone had paid much heed to a bomb in the Balkans. But somewhere in that blue sky an inquisitive NATO plane might wheel lazily around and fly down to see what was burning. The pilot would see a car in flames and a tiny dot walking down a track. A shepherd, minding his own business. Yet another lone refugee in a land of refugees.
Evening was drawing on when Vuk came to a little house on the outskirts of the village. He was dog-tired and his shoulders ached. White smoke rose from the house’s one chimney. Roof and walls were intact. The war had not knocked at this door. Vuk scanned his surroundings carefully. A solitary dog came running along the side of the house, its tail between its legs. It was yellow and scrawny, but it didn’t bark. He was raising his hand to knock when the door opened.