The first, bone-penetrating fog descended in the suburbs of Kiev, so dense and so cold that it was difficult to breathe. „I am getting older, and I hate winter more and more. My old sports injuries are making my joints ache, and while I may be a tough soldier, it still hurts.” Alexej was not happy; for the previous two years, since he had become the direct subordinate and assistant of the most influential person of Ukraine, he had been unable to spend a whole weekend with his family. He angrily slammed shut the armoured door of the limousine, pushing his head back into in the pillow of the leather seat. In his mind, he could hear the gentle, kind voice of his wife as she spoke lovingly to his sleeping children, kissing their foreheads. Suddenly he felt a sense of deep bitterness, like a burning sensation running from the back of his mouth down to the pit of his stomach.
„Two hundred and fifty thousand stray dogs in Ukraine! This is a country of misery, with skeletons of destitute humans and animals scattered through the streets.” He couldn’t let go of this thought, so to distract himself, he shifted his focus to think about the first day of the upcoming Football World Championship, due to take place the following summer.
The expectation of UEFA was clear. They had allowed Ukraine to be a joint host of the event with Poland. To achieve this successfully, it was not enough just to build stadiums and hotels. Everything had to be in order, across the board, for the event to proceed smoothly.
Suddenly, the lead car of the convoy started to honk loudly. As the cars slowed down, dozens of stray dogs could be seen, stumbling around on the street. They hobbled and hopped around, disturbing the fog with their breath as they panted.
„These scavengers! These will destroy everything one day! We’ll will be late.” The Chief was shouting. „Do something about this! We don’t have time.”
Alexej had been a soldier for most of his life, and he had learned to notice and interpret even the smallest hint from his superior officers. He had the ability to sweep every other thought from his mind in an instant if a command was given.
„Escort cars move to the front, switch on lights and sirens, and drive close together.” He barked instructions into the intercom radio, turning on the rear camera of the car and instinctively checking his gun. The escort cars, now in an arrow-like wedge shape, occupied the entire width of the road, pushing everyone and everything out of the way.
„You know, Alexej, this football championship is very, very important to me. If I succeed, I will have served the good of the nation with honour, and I’ll achieve lifelong security for myself. Everyone will justifiably feel satisfied.” The Chief rubbed his eyes with his fingers as he reflected on this dream. „And then”, he said, turning towards Alexej, “I’ll stand by you, Alexej. How long have we known each other?” Alexej felt cold as he looked into the lifeless, gray eyes of the Chief.
„I first helped you out fifteen years ago, sir! At the time of the rioting of the Ukrainian extremists.”
The Chief was surprised. „There you go. It’s been a long time. It’s no wonder that after so many years we are like a small family? How many children do you have, Alexej?”
„Two, sir. I have two daughters”, he said softly, feeling bad as he spoke. He tapped his thigh restlessly with his index finger as he spoke. „Alina and Irina“, he said loudly, hoping that the Chief did not notice this involuntary sign of momentary weakness.
„Well, Alexej! You don’t have to worry about them. We’ll take care of them: your children are like my children. We may have dangerous enemies who are hoping that the European Championships will fail, but we’ve got it covered. Get it sorted, Alexej. Make sure that we clear the dogs, beggars and poverty from the streets by the time the championships start. Let’s start with the dogs. Get rid of them all. You have a free hand to do whatever it takes, but in return I want results. Our survival is at stake, so we can’t take any chances!”
„Yes, sir!” As he spoke, he felt the hairs on the back of his neck tingling, horrified by the thought that his Chief was treating his children as his own family. He knew what that meant. As long as he had not completed his job, his “employer” would take care of his daughters. This meant that he would not be able to see them for months. There was no doubt about it.
Outwardly, Alexej was keenly watching his surroundings, listening to the conversations on the intercoms of the convoy of rescue cars. But inwardly, he was cursing himself for not taking the opportunity to move his family to Western Europe when he’d had the chance. He’d been the Chief’s security officer during the gas negotiations, and he’d had unlimited powers at that stage. They could even be in Brazil now, if only he’d seized the initiative earlier.
He was under pressure now, with serious obstacles in his way. Two hundred and fifty thousand dogs! Then after that, the beggars … How was he going to deal with these challenges?
If he asked the army to help, it could lead to an official scandal. And almost certainly, he’s the one who’d be held responsible. If that happened, his family would need to escape, even without his direct help. He decided that he’d need to let his wife know that in that eventuality, she’d have to take the children to Carpathia, to the Hungarians. His friend Grigori would look after them; he owed Alexej a favour. Alexej had saved Gregori from capture by Russian torturers at the time of the Soviet intervention. Since then, Grigori had been in his debt, and he was sure that Gregori’s name was not mentioned in his home affairs’ file: it was a secret. So Alexej was sure that he had a good escape route set up for his family.
Alexej just had to make sure that he did his job well, so that he, himself, could get through this next stage as well, so that he could join his family. His head was pounding as he issued routine instructions to the leader cars of the convoy; he had a lot on his mind.
Alexej had been reflecting on the challenge. He had come to the conclusion that it would be too risky to attempt to collect the stray animals and transport them to private, well-suited facilities for euthanasia before the summer of 2012. He had spoken some days ago to animal protein processing plants, and to the leaders of the largest bone-yards. They’d told him that it would be disastrous to attempt to process thousands of animal carcasses in such a short time scale. There was a serious risk of infectious diseases spreading, and an unavoidable likelihood that a foul smelling stench would hang over the city. The capacity of the incinerators used to handle animal carcasses just wasn’t sufficient to cope with this huge work load.
The cars slowed down as they reached the first big stadium. In the hubbub, trucks and concrete mixers tried to move out of their path, giving way to the horn-blasting fleet of cars. He saw a gypsy child, only around ten years of age, wearing a buttoned military-style quilted coat, with plus-sized soldier’s boots on his feet. He was surrounded by dozens of stray dogs on a mound of earth near the building site. Alexej could see him frowning as watched the car flash by. Even though he was looking at the boy through darkened windows, Alexej couldn’t help feeling that the boy was watching him back. Alexej recalled that over his career, on several occasions he had heard orders directed specifically against the gypsy people. He turned his head away, but then through the rear camera of the car, he could see the child shaking his fist after them. Then the boy and his dogs disappeared in a cloud of dust.
Alexej had a sudden thought: the gypsies could be the answer! If he paid them to do his dirty work, the anger and disdain of the population would be directed towards them rather than at officialdom. Or at the very least, public opinion would be divided.
He pondered on the thought all day, until he returned to his newly-furnished office 70 kilometers from Kiev. This was the place where he and his team’s technical and security staff were based. The building was like a humming beehive. Alexej felt as if he was in a golden cage when he was here: safe and secure, but being watched. He couldn’t wait for the busy phones to stop ringing, as the day drew to an end and the darkness of night began.
His office may have been full of cameras and microphones, but monitoring happened elsewhere, remotely, in a building in the centre of Kiev. Alexej suspected that every word and every action would be analyzed there.
To ensure that he wasn’t overheard, Alexej headed out to a service station to call his wife, Tatjana. She answered at the second ring, and he immediately sensed from her voice that she was worried.
„How are you doing, Alex? When are you coming home? Unfortunately, I can’t go anywhere just now, because we have guests.”
Alexej was devastated when Tatjana said this. She didn’t need to say any more: his wife had been his companion and collaborator for many years and they spoke a language that outsiders could never have understood. The “guests” that she referred to were the Chief’s men, who would now be waiting in front of their house. So now there was no way that she could leave with the children to go to Grigorij, and a more spectacular escape strategy would just be too dangerous. Alexej had left it too late. He bid his wife a restrained goodbye, and set back to his work, still hoping to find some sort of answer.
He made careful calculations based on information he’d gathered earlier, along with maps of the area. He made a decision. He phoned for a car and walked to the safe. He had a blank, empty expression as he stuffed numerous bundles of dollars into a bag, and then, at the last minute, after hesitating for a moment, he put four bundles back. He didn’t want to take it all.
Soon he was being driven in the moonlight past a row of tumbledown cottages, arriving at a large stone house with illuminated windows. As he entered the room, the smell of strong smoke and alcohol hit him.
Bodyguards searched him, but when they tried to check his bag, Alexej shook his head „No”. After this, understandably, they accompanied him with a closer knit escort, walking through dark corridors in the basement until he found himself in front of the district’s Gipsy King – or as they say in Ukraine, in front of the Gypsy Baron. Alexej didn’t like beating about the bush: he made his proposition straight away. For killing fifty thousand stray dogs in the county, he offered a large amount of money to the Baron, who twisted the money bundles suspiciously.
„This is only half of it, brother”, he said, before taking a deep puff of smoke from his long pipe.
„Yes. This amount is for the killing. The second half will be for spiriting them away. We will help you do this with logistical support: cars and with earthmoving equipment. Your waste grounds are ideal as a location to bury them. The plan is simple: you need to lay the poison, then 24 hours later, you’ll have to collect the carcasses, cover them with lime then bury them.”
A prolonged bargaining process followed, but Alexej had expected this. By the time he left the gypsy camp, he was satisfied that the lion’s share of the work had been sorted out for this district.
„Well, well. We got the dirty job again, didn’t we, my sweet son?” – the Baron turned to his family, after Alexej had left. – „All right. We’ll scatter that damned poison, but we’ll only collect living animals. We’ll fill the last empty hovel with the dogs that we collect, and if that rascal Ukrainian won’t pay up, we’ll send the lot of them after him. Anyway, the Chief is weaker than he used to be. Now he sends his assassins with money to bribe the gypsies. He’s past it.. I’ve heard that even his younger brother hates him so much that he’d drown him in a spoonful of water if he got the chance. Go, my son, to the brother now. Ask him, how much is it worth to him to have the dogs staying exactly as they are right now. With that, he spat on the dusty floor, to the vocal satisfaction of those around him.
Alexej’s negotiations were successful. Within a few days he had worked out deals with all the local entrepreneurs and criminal networks who controlled the various minority nationalities in the area, including the shadowy unregistered populations as well as the registered groups. He was relieved that there were no animal protection laws in Ukraine. When desperate letters from animal rights activists were sent to government offices, they were simply consigned to the rubbish bins. This meant that he could get the job done for a lower price than he had originally anticipated, despite the fact that the animal-killers – whether Gypsy, Hungarian, Crimean Tatar or other rascals – were getting a slice of the pie.
On 7 October, just before giving the command for the dog killing to start, he was speaking to his wife on the phone. She was trying to hold back tears, and she passed the phone to his daughters. His four year old daughter, Irina, loudly told her father that she’d just got a new kitten, and they were trying to think of a good name. Alexej found himself choking up when he had to say goodbye on that occasion, and he started to pray, just as his grandfather would have prayed generations before his time.
A short time later the work began, and the whole office building buzzed with activity. Earthmoving equipment and transport vehicles headed out to various meeting points. Poison was mixed into foul smelling animal fat, to minimize the risk of hungry street children eating it. This was a dangerous task, and Alexej took whatever steps he could to ensure that the correct procedures were followed. He tried to send enough protective gloves to meeting points, but just an hour after the start of the campaign, radio communication failed with one of the equipment-carrying trucks. When the driver was eventually tracked down, it became apparent that the entire cargo had been stolen, along with the truck.
Despite this setback, all of the necessary equipment and materials were handed over to the key people at every meeting point within four hours. The „food” baits were laid in place overnight, between dusk and dawn. The communication hotlines did report on several mistakes, hour by hour, and these threatened the success of the programme. Some of the poison baits which were laid before full darkness ended up being eaten by wild birds, including geese. Furthermore, some of the wrong locations were included in the campaign, including the diplomatic quarter in Kiev, several apartment complexes, and neighbourhoods that included schools and nursery schools, as well as some public parks. One of the cars – with its dangerous cargo – crashed, skidding into a water reservoir. Some of the street children who had done the scattering had to be admitted to hospital, because they had not worn protective gloves, and some died shortly afterwards. Luckily, their identity couldn’t be established, and so they remained “unknown”, and the police had no interest in finding out what had happened.
The poison also worked successfully on its intended targets, but gathering the dogs’ bodies was a slow process that turned out to be impossible in the full darkness of the night. As the first light of dawn reached the cities across Ukraine, people hurrying to the work were met by the horrific sight of death, as well as seizuring dogs, foaming at the mouth, lying stretched out in the streets. Alexej put emergency plans in place, sending mobile crematoriums – in specially adapted trucks – to the most critical locations to speed up the removal of the dogs’ bodies. At this stage, Alexej was talking on three phones at the same time as he tried to deal with the chaos.
It was in the middle of this pandemonium that he saw the phone number of his home flashing up on one of his mobile phones. Tatjana had never called him before; she understood her husband’s position. Alexej didn’t hesitate; he put the other lines on hold, and answered the call from home, even thought he was stretched almost to breaking point. He was shocked to hear his elder daughter, crying on the phone.
„The kitten is dead, daddy!”, she bawled. “She died in the garden. We didn’t look after her well enough.”
Alexej’s world was suddenly turned upside down. „Where is mom, my sweet little honey? Give the phone to mom, quickly!”
„She has gone with some men. Daddy, I don’t like those men.” She sniffled, while in the background, the familiar creaking of the front door was heard. „Irina!” Alexej shouted into the phone, then he listened carefully. He could hear the noise of heavy feet and the swishing of a dress. Then just silence. The phone was hung up.
Alexej only hesitated for a couple of seconds. Finally, he’d been pushed too far. It was over for him. He packed his bags in record time, then he threw some phones, a gun, his laptop and wads of cash into a sports bag. He called his assistant, explaining what still needed to be done in two short sentences. As he was heading off, he saw the news on a television screen; the Chief’s brother was shouting into the microphone, shaking his fist, mingling with the animal rights protestors. His shock at seeing this was interrupted by the sound of his own mobile phone ringing again. This time it was an internal number calling him. He picked up the phone, but he didn’t speak into it. The well-known, dull voice sounded quietly on the phone. „You cannot avoid it either, Alexej. I warned you!”
„I know what I have to do!” He answered, spitting out the words. He threw the phone angrily across the room, shattering it into pieces.
The car tyres screeched as he drove out towards the Kiev road. He felt cold and clammy, and he was shaking all over. As he sped up, he noticed two small bodies ambling along, close together, on the tarmac. He stepped firmly on the brakes, and pulled over to the edge of the road. He got out of the car, picking up the two small puppies with one hand. Their mother was lying dead, cold and stiff, beside the road.
„I’ll take them to my daughters. At least they’ll have something to feel good about.” Alexej said to himself, gently putting the puppies on the back seat.
He confidently pushed his foot down on the accelerator pedal, feeling a sense of power surging thorough his body. He felt confident now; he was going to succeed, and his family was going to be safe. As if to confirm his sense of satisfaction, a small but strong bark could be heard coming from the rear seat.
Julius Sebő – JULIUS-K9®