Wolfhound Century - By Peter Higgins

Part One


Investigator Vissarion Lom sat in a window booth in the Café Rikhel. Pulses of rain swept up Ansky Prospect, but inside the café, in the afternoon crush, the air was thick with the smell of coffee, cinnamon bread and damp overcoats.

‘Why don’t you go home?’ said Ziller. ‘No one’s going to come. I can call you if anything happens. You can be back here in half an hour.’

‘Someone will come,’ said Lom. ‘He’s not sitting out there for no reason.’

Across the street, a thin young man waited on a bench under a dripping zinc canopy. He had been there, in front of the Timberworkers’ Library and Meeting Hall, for three hours already.

‘Maybe he spotted us,’ said Ziller. ‘Maybe the contact is aborted.’

‘He could have lost us straight off the boat,’ said Lom. ‘He didn’t even look round. He’s not bothered about us. He thinks he’s clean.’

They had picked him up off the morning river-boat from Yislovsk. Briefcase – that was the cryptonym they gave him, they didn’t know his name – had hung around the wharves for a while, bought himself an apricot juice at a kiosk, walked slowly up Durnovo-Burliuk Street, and sat down on a bench. That was all he had done. He carried no luggage, apart from the small leather case they’d named him for. After an hour he’d taken some bread out of the case and eaten it. Except for that, he just sat there.

Ziller picked up his glass of tea, looked into it critically, set it down untouched.

‘He’s an arse-wipe. That’s what he is.’

‘Maybe,’ said Lom. ‘But he’s waiting for something.’

The truth was, Lom rather liked Briefcase. There was something about him – the way he walked, the way his hair was cut. Briefcase was young. He looked… vulnerable. Something – hatred, idealism, love – had driven him, alone and obviously frightened, all the way across the continent to Podchornok, his ears sticking out pinkly in the rain, to make this crude attempt at contact. The call from Magadlovosk had said only that he was a student, a member of some amateurish breakaway faction of the Lezarye separatists. The Young Opposition. The Self-Liberation Will of All Peoples. He was coming to meet someone. To collect something. Magadlovosk had sounded excited, unusually so, but also vague: The contact, Lom, that’s what matters, that’s the target. The contact, and whatever it is he’s bringing with him.

‘You really should go home,’ said Ziller. ‘What time did you finish last night?’

‘I’m fine,’ said Lom.

‘Fine? You’re over thirty, you do twice the hours the others do, you get no promotions, you’re on crappy pay, and you need a shave. When did you last eat something decent? ‘

Lom thought of his empty apartment. The yellow furniture. The unwashed plates and empty bottles. Home.

‘Why don’t you come round?’ Ziller was saying. ‘Come tonight. Lena’s got a friend. Her husband was killed when the Volkova went down. She’s got a kid but… well, we could invite her –’

‘Look,’ said Lom. ‘I had some paperwork last night, that’s all.’

Ziller shrugged. He lit a cigarette and let the smokestream drift out of his nose.

‘I just thought…’ he said. ‘Maybe you could use a friend, Vissarion. After the Laurits business you’ve got few enough.’

‘Yeah. Well. Thanks.’

They sat in silence, awkwardly, staring out of the window. Watching Briefcase staring at nothing.

‘Shit,’ said Ziller, half-rising in his seat and craning to see down the road. ‘Shit.’

A line of giants, each leading a four-horse dray team and a double wagon loaded high with resin tanks, was lumbering up the hill from the direction of the river quay. They were almost in front of the Rikhel already – the rumbling of the wagons’ iron wheels set the café floor vibrating faintly – and when they reached it, Briefcase would be out of sight. The teams were in no hurry: they would take at least ten minutes to pass.

‘You’ll have to go outside,’ said Lom. ‘Keep an eye from the alley till they’re gone.’

Ziller sighed and heaved himself reluctantly to his feet, trying to shove the loose end of his shirt back under his belt and button his uniform tunic. He took a long, mournful, consolatory pull on the cigarette and ground the stub into the heaped ashtray, squeezed himself out of the booth and went out into the rain with a show of heavy slowness. Theatrics.

Lom watched the giants through the misted window. They walked patiently under the rain: earth-coloured shirts, leather jerkins, heavy wooden clogs. The rain was heavier