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Walking Dead – Chapter Two

Friday, again (“Saigon…I’m still in Saigon….”), and not the best week I’ve ever had, to be frank. This one seemed to both crawl and fly past. The current script is giving me hell, for reasons that are almost entirely beyond my control, and, in brutal honesty, I’d cheerfully wring the neck of the man responsible for my current nightmare. It’s like sausages; you don’t want to know.

This time next week I’ll be in Charm City for Bouchercon, and thus, as promised, I offer up the second chapter of Walking Dead. If you’re looking for Chapter One, you can find it here. Again, please forgive typos I have missed and potential formatting errors; this is from my draft of the manuscript, and not from the copy-edit (which, incidentally, I am told will be arriving today).

As before, comments welcome.



Chapter Two

The first thing Bakhar Lagidze had said to me was, “You run like someone is chasing you.”

Then he laughed.

This wasn’t the first time I’d seen him, but it was the first time we’d exchanged words. He, his wife, daughter, and young son had moved into the neighboring house the previous spring, and in the interest of exercising due diligence, Alena and I had taken discreet notice. It wasn’t that neighbors were a danger, per se, but any change in the status quo, by necessity, had to be viewed as a potential threat. Theoretically, we were as safe now as we were ever likely to be, living under carefully established cover that we had each come to embrace. But theory and practice continue to be two different things, and there were people who knew what we had done, and what we could do, and who, despite their promises to the contrary, might one day decide not to leave well enough alone.

So we had made it our business to know who these new neighbors were, if only to be certain that they posed no threat to us.

It would have been easy for me to have ignored him, then, to have pretended to be too absorbed in my run to have heard him. But we’d passed one another on this road before, me running back up from Kobuleti’s one main street, heading home, him walking with his fishing pole and tackle box down to the beach. It wasn’t simply that it would’ve been rude; better to be known and accepted in the community, to belong, and thus turn the community to another layer of security itself.

So I slowed, then stopped, then turned back to face him, maybe twenty feet between us. He was watching me, head cocked to the side, the edges of a smile visible beneath his thick mustache.

“You’re always going so fast,” he said. “Every time I see you. Sprinting.”

“Tail end of the run,” I explained. “Last push.”

He nodded, then used the fishing pole to gesture up the road, at the woods. “You and your wife, you’re in the little house, right?”

I crossed the road closer to where he stood, nodding. It was easier than using words, and I was somewhat breathless, and it gave me a few more seconds to think things through. Alena took her run in the afternoon, preferring to leave it before dinner, and it was as likely as not that he’d seen her taking the same route I did.

He used the pole again, this time to gesture in the direction of his home. “We’re in the Party house, the old Russian’s place. Fucking Russians, we had to tear out half of everything just to make it into a home.”

“Yeah, we’re always working on our place,” I said.

He nodded, commiserating with a lifetime commitment to home-improvement, then set down his pole so it leaned against his side and offered me his hand. “Bakhar, Bakhar Lagidze.”

“David,” I lied. “David Mercer.”

We shook hands.

“American?”

“Canadian,” I lied, again. “You’re local?”

“Born in Tbilisi. You speak our language very well.”

“My wife taught me.”

“She’s Georgian, too?”

I nodded. The lies were so practiced they didn’t require any thought or effort on my part. “But she grew up in Moscow. She used to dance.”

Bakhar Lagidze’s eyes lit up. They were blue, deep set in his lined face. His mustache, mostly black, had strays of gray emerging. I put him in his early forties, maybe five years older than I was.

“She should meet Tiasa! She’s my daughter, she wants to dance, like the Bolshoi. Your wife teaches, right?”

“A little,” I admitted. Alena had begun taking on students, only a handful of them, since we’d last returned from the U.S.. She’d posted fliers in the cafes in town, initially as a means of reinforcing our cover, establishing a meager supplemental income that we didn’t really need. It was my suspicion that she enjoyed teaching, though she had yet to admit as much to me. “You should bring her by.”

“Maybe Ia will bring her by.”

“Ia?”

“My wife.” Bakhar smiled, showing stained teeth and genuine pleasure. “Wonderful to meet you, David. Nice to meet the neighbors.”

“Good to meet you, too,” I told him.

It wasn’t until I was home, under the needle-spray of the shower, that it occurred to me that Bakhar Lagidze had most likely done to us what we had done to him. He’d checked us out, just enough to be sure his neighbors hadn’t posed him a threat.

He’d been right.

The threat had come from another source entirely.

***

I stepped in blood when I stepped into the house. There was a lot of it, and I could smell it, along with the lingering of gunpowder. The moonlight outside wasn’t enough. I was going to have to turn on a light.

When it came on, I could see the puddle, spent brass glittering in and around it. The blood broke into a smear, leading down the hall. Like our home, Bakhar’s was only one-story. Unlike ours, it was much larger, as befitted a family of four. On entry, the hall opened to a common room that doubled for dining, and then, off that, was the kitchen. Following the hall led to the master bedroom, and then the corridor went ninety degrees to the left, to the bathroom and the two other bedrooms.
Miata snuffed at the air behind me, hesitating.

“Home,” I told him, and pointed the way. He looked at me sorrowfully, then dropped his head and went.

The smear ran straight to the master bedroom, its door wide open. I tried to be careful where I stepped as I followed the trail down the hall. My blood-covered soles dried on the carpet, and for a second I thought they might be a problem later, but then I thought about the general state of law enforcement in Georgia in general, and Kobuleti in particular, and admitted that I was most likely worrying about nothing. Forensic science hadn’t ever been high on the national agenda, and since the war in South Ossetia and the subsequent Russian stranglehold on the country, it had fallen even further.

A table lamp had fallen in the bedroom, its light still on, and it illuminated from below. It made the scene inside the more horrible for it.

The blood had been Bakhar’s, but I’d already guessed that, and maybe that was why I thought I’d find less of it in here. I was wrong. There was more.

There was a lot more.

He’d been shot in the hall, through the front door, perhaps as he’d come to answer it. I hadn’t seen a gun anywhere on the floor and I wasn’t seeing one in the bedroom, so if he’d been expecting trouble and had come to answer it with some of his own, the men who’d killed him had taken the weapon. They’d hit Bakhar in the chest, perhaps as many as four times from what I could see. Then they’d entered and taken hold of him, likely by his hair, and dragged him to the master bedroom, where they’d propped him on the bed.

At that point they’d gone to work on him with a knife.

He was still recognizable to me, but barely. Stabs and slashes covered his face, chest, and groin, though I couldn’t see any on his arms or hands, nothing that resembled a defensive wound. It would have been nice to believe that meant he’d already died before they brought out the blade, that he hadn’t tried to defend himself because there’d been nothing left of him to defend. But it was just as likely that he’d been dying instead of dead, and from the two Land Cruisers I knew there had been at least four of them who had come for the killing, and certainly two could’ve held his arms while a third set to carving.

The knife had been entirely unnecessary, and the savagery of it spoke clearly of cruelty and rage. His neck had been cut so badly it seemed now barely able to keep his head with his body. Blood, brain, and flecks of bone glistened in the macabre light. I could see the pearl gray of his cervical vertebrae in the mass of red meat that had been his throat.

It wasn’t simply murder.

It was like looking at hatred, pure and plain.

***

“Dancers,” Ia Lagidze said mildly. “Very flexible.”

This was perhaps a year ago, sitting in the small kitchen of our house, the tail end of winter outside, rain pelting the windows. We’d built a free-standing gym about fifty feet from the house to suit our own needs, but it doubled as a dance studio, and that was where Alena gave lessons. She was in there now with Tiasa and maybe two or three other girls from town.

I tried to keep from spit-taking on my tea, instead forced it down without choking, and stared at Ia, sitting across the kitchen table from me. She gauged my reaction with a smirk that blossomed into a self-congratulatory grin.

“Don’t tell me she isn’t, David,” Ia said, giggling. “You and Yeva must be at it all the time, just the two of you here.” She glanced over at her son, Koba, who was sitting by the cast iron stove, playing pinball on my laptop as a reward for finishing his homework while they waited for Tiasa to finish. The boy didn’t acknowledge that he’d heard his mother, and even if he had, being seven, he was hopefully oblivious to such innuendo.

Ia leaned closer, putting a friendly hand on my arm, adding conspiratorially, “Baki and I used to be like that all the time, before the children came.”

“Flexible?” I asked.

Ia laughed, sitting back, taking her tea up again. “That and other things.” She sipped through a smile, memory, perhaps, and then her face lit again. “Oh! Bakhar has tickets for the Dinamo game this weekend in Batumi, he’s taking Koba and he has an extra, he wanted me to ask if you cared to join them.”

“Who’re they playing?” I asked, more out of reflex than interest.

Koba answered without pausing from his game. “Spartaki!”

“We’re all going down,” Ia said. “Tiasa and I are going shopping, then we’ll meet my boys after the game for dinner. You should come! Yeva should come! She could go shopping with us!”

“I’m sure she’d like that,” I said, thinking that it was the last thing Alena would want to do.

***

The bed Bakhar and Ia slept in would’ve been called a super king if it’d been in the UK, just a king if it’d been in the U.S. It sat with its foot to the door, headboard against the wall opposite, with enough space on each side for a dresser. On the left side, as you faced it, was a nightstand, and the lamp had fallen from there. On the right there was nothing, and when I finally could bring myself to look up from Bakhar, I saw his wife, or rather the top of her head, the streaked blond hair that she paid twice a month to be carefully dyed and styled in one of the salons near the beach. She was slumped in the corner, between what had been her side of the bed and her dresser.

Ia had fallen on her knees, or perhaps been forced to them. She was wearing pajamas, a billowy satin top and companion pants, turquoise and violet beneath a pattern or red roses, as gregarious as she had been. The three buttons on her top were missing, though the shirt had fallen closed when she’d collapsed, a comic nod to modesty in the obscenity of the room.

The entry wound was behind her right ear, the fair skin blackened and puckered from the point-blank shot. Pieces of her stuck to the wall from the exit wound.

They’d made her watch, I realized. They’d made her watch as they mutilated her husband.

Then they’d forced Ia Lagidze to her knees, and taken her fear, and everything else, away from her.

***

Koba asked me to teach him English.

“You’re not learning it in school?” I asked.

He bobbed his head from side to side, not quite shaking it to say no. His shoulders raised and lowered in time, making him look like a gangly marionette. He was tall for his age, or at least I supposed he was, and thin, and at the age of seven he already needed glasses, which we both took as a symbol of unity.

“Not much.”

He kicked a pass to me, sending the soccer ball bounding over the uneven ground of what passed for our backyard. It was summer, and I’d been surprised when he’d shown up, accompanying his sister for her bi-weekly lesson. This time of year, this time of day, most of the kids his age would be down at the beach, playing in the water or trying to scam treats from the tourists. But the request served as the explanation.

The ball took a bounce at the last second, nearly hitting me square in the crotch, but I got my thigh up and managed to trap and land it.

“I want to play in England,” Koba said, by way of confession. “I’ll have to know how to speak it.”

I tried to remember what it had been like to be seven and fearless and a dreamer.

“Sure,” I told him. “If it’s okay with your parents.”

***

I left Ia and Bakhar in their bedroom as I’d found them, turned the corner, passing the bathroom. Koba’s room was on my left, but I didn’t need to look inside it to find him.

He was lying in the hallway, facedown, just outside his sister’s room, one hand extended, as if reaching out to her. His glasses, broken at their bridge, rested a few inches from his head.

He’d been shot in the back.

Eight years old, and they’d shot him in the back.

They’d shot him in the back six times.

***

“Yeva says you dance, too,” Tiasa said to me, some six months after she’d begun her lessons.

Unlike most of the other kids who took dance from Alena, Tiasa had demonstrated that rarest of all commodities, commitment. Twice a week, rain or shine, she came for her lessons, while the other students often seemed to find the obligation of showing up just once a week to be a superior challenge. Some days after school she would simply appear with her ballet slippers in hand, asking if she could use the studio to practice. We always said yes, and if Alena was around, she’d stand by and observe, granting the equivalent of a free lesson.

Today, Tiasa had come while Alena was in town, seeking fish for our dinner. I’d let Tiasa into the studio-slash-gym, turned to leave, when she’d spoken.

“She said that?” It surprised me. It wasn’t like Alena to offer anything personal, or at least, nothing that was both personal and accurate.

“She says she taught you.”

“I wouldn’t call what I do dancing.” It wasn’t false modesty. I’d been practicing ballet for almost six years, now, and while the physical conditioning and control it had granted me was certainly worthwhile, I’d yet to achieve anything that I would, even at my most charitable, describe as art.

Tiasa began stretching at the barre. Like her brother, she was tall, but unlike him, she was growing into it, beginning to form the body of the woman she would be. Her hair was black, and she’d neglected to tie it back today, and it flopped about as she bent and twisted, loosening up. I realized that she was styling it the same way Alena did, and wondered when that had happened.

“We don’t have any boys who dance,” Tiasa said to me, as she started practicing her positions. “Only girls take lessons.”

“There’s Jarji,” I said.

“He stopped coming.” She fixed me with a stare, then looked away. Like her father, her eyes were blue.

“You want me to dance with you?” I asked.

Suddenly shy, she mumbled her response.

“All right,” I said. “I’ll dance with you.”

***

Like all the others, the door to Tiasa’s room was ajar, and once again, I saw only darkness within. I used the barrel of the AK to push it further open, stepped inside, reaching out for the switch and finding it.

I didn’t want to see what they’d done to her.

I didn’t think I had a choice.

I threw the light, and, in its way, it was worse than everything I’d seen before.

There was no blood. There was no body.

Tiasa Lagidze was gone.

They’d taken her.

10 Responses to Walking Dead – Chapter Two

  1. chiefseamonkey

    I’m really loving this. I can’t wait to see where this is going.

  2. nealbailey

    Now I’m envious, actually. I tried this. I TRIED this, and I didn’t have any success, because my version had no major tension in the introductions. When I give Quarter my next pass, I’m going to actually implement a good bit of what I learned here.

    Structurally, this is awesome, the way you built the tension. You start with the dad, who traditionally is less of a loss in the heart of the reader (because dads are “supposed” to be strong, etc) and work it down to the child level, getting to the last person, who you expect to be tortured, then bam! And it’s used as an intro to the life Atty’s been living.

    And it’s a small, stupid thing, but I like the idea of the parallel between a woman who’s almost a drill sergeant and the propensity for being a teacher. But that’s just because I was drummed out of a teacher’s college. Remind me to tell you THAT story. THAT is a funny one.

    Still, damned fine.

  3. hawkfist

    You see, this is the level of writing I aspire to, personally. When I can write a chapter that makes me get all weepy at work, I’ll consider myself proud.

    Can’t wait – although quite obviously, I’ll have to – until the HC comes out!

  4. jjgalahad

    Chilling and perfect. I cannot wait to read the entire novel.

  5. stealthbunny

    Excellent. I was cringing all the way through it. And hurting. You made me LIKE these people already, in just a few paragraphs, and in just a few more paragraphs, you made me furious and put me in agony and left me grieving, and there was a sudden breath of relief when Tiasa’s body wasn’t there.

    And then all those emotions hit back even harder, because what DID they do with her, and is that going to be even worse than being killed?

  6. jviolette73

    You are going to post the whole thing, right? Because while I’ve accused you of absolute bastardy in the past (notably at the end of Critical Space… and about halfway through Shooting… and when Ruben died… and the little girl in Keeper… and, yeah, at least once a novel) I’m already jonesing for the rest of this and it doesn’t hit shelves for what, five months?

    I promise, if you post the whole thing, I’ll buy two hardcovers. Honestly.

  7. snoristed

    Can’t wait

    If it were me, I’d change “Eight years old, and they’d shot him in the back. They’d shot him in the back six times.” to “Eight years old, and they’d shot him in the back. Six times.” But then, if it were me I wouldn’t have been able to write any of that at all. Good thing you’re here!

    Thanks for posting it. Can’t wait to read the whole thing.

  8. fluidbeauty

    you’ve done it again. I’m completely engrossed. I’m compelled to read more. you’ve inspired a conflict where i’m disturbed by the situation, yet i’m driven to look deeper because i’ve got to know what happens next, to know who’s responsible, to know how they’re going to get what’s coming to them, to know how much it’s going to take from Atticus. But – I do miss his old life. You said we’ll learn more of Erica’s fate, does Atticus reflect at all on how different he is now? How strangely far he’s come, emotionally, morally, and geographically?

  9. jonlaw

    I’m late to the party here, but, damn!

    Part way through I was reflecting on where Atticus started, and how, if you had told me after Smoker that Atticus was going to be Drama’s husband, I would have told you that you had lost your mind. No way could that be plausibly plotted. No way could that be natural or acceptable.

    So, here we are, and Smoker is a distant dream. The here and now is The Walking Dead, and the most natural thing is for Atticus to be “married” to Alena. It fits the characters, it is natural, the flow worked. Character, plus experience, equaled unparalleled suspense, surprise and story. Damn.

    But of course, that is just a side show. The main event is that you have turned out another page turner. I can’t think how many pages the first two chapters take up, but if flows so well and so fast, it seems like just a couple.

    AND I WANT TO TURN THE PAGE!

    Arrrrrrrrrgggggggggggggg!!!!!!!!!!

    Okay, I’m okaaaay.

    Just have to be patient.

    Yeah.

    Patient.

  10. jmorse

    Thanks Greg.
    I enjoyed the sample quite a bit. I’ve got a few outlines running through my head already and I’m curious to see if I have any of it right.

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