A Mercedes made its way slowly down the dirt road from the village, followed closely by a chase vehicle, a metallic gray Land Cruiser filled with bodyguards. Neither car had license plates, and the workers watching the scene play out understood this to mean that the people in them were too important to be stopped by the police. The Mercedes half turned so that it was astride the road and stopped a dozen meters from the kneeling prisoner. The rear window wound down the width of a fist. The Oligarkh could be seen peering out through dark glasses. He removed the cigar from his mouth and studied the naked prisoner for a long while, as if he were committing him and the moment to memory. Then, with a look of unadulterated malevolence on his face, he reached out with one of his crutches and tapped the man sitting next to the driver on the shoulder. The front door opened and the man emerged. He was of medium height and thin, with a long pinched face. He wore suspenders that kept his trousers hiked high on his waist, and a midnight blue Italian suit jacket draped cape-like over a starched white shirt, which was tieless and buttoned up to a very prominent Adam's apple. The initials "S" and "U-Z" were embroidered on the pocket of the shirt. He strode to the chase car and plucked a lighted cigarette from the mouth of one of the bodyguards. Holding it away from his body between his thumb and third finger, he walked over to the prisoner. Kafkor raised his eyes and saw the cigarette and recoiled, thinking he was about to be branded with the burning tip. But S U-Z, smiling faintly, only reached down and wedged it between the lips of the prisoner. "It is a matter of tradition," he said. "A man condemned to death is entitled to a last cigarette."
"They . . . damaged me, Samat?" Kafkor whispered huskily. He could make out the shock of silver hair on the figure watching from the back seat of the Mercedes. "They locked me in a basement awash in sewage, I could not distinguish night from day, I lost track of time, they woke me . . . with loud music when I fell asleep. Where, explain it to me if there exists an explanation, is the why?" The condemned man spoke Russian with a distinct Polish accent, emphasizing the open O's and stressing the next to last syllable. Terror tortured his sentences into baroque grammatical configurations. "The endmost thing I would tell to nobody is what I am not supposed to know."
Samat shrugged as if to say, The matter is out of my hands. "You arrive too close to the flame, you must suffer burning, if only to warn others away from the flame."
Trembling, Kafkor puffed on the cigarette. The act of smoking, and the smoke cauterizing his throat, appeared to distract him. Samat stared at the ash, waiting for it to buckle under its own weight and fall so they could get on with the execution. Kafkor, sucking on the cigarette, became aware of the ash, too. Life itself seemed to ride on it.
Defying gravity, defying sense, it grew longer than the unsmoked part of the cigarette.
And then a whisper of wind coming off the river dislodged the ash. Kafkor spit out the butt. "'Poshol ty na khuy," he whispered, carefully articulating each of the O's in "'Poshol." "'Go impale yourself on a prick." He rocked back on his heels and squinted in the direction of the copse of stunted apple trees on the slope above him. "Look!" he blurted out, vanquishing terror only to confront a new enemy, madness. "Up there!" He sucked in his breath. "I see the elephant. It can be said that the beast is revolting."
Excerpted from Legends by Robert Littell. Copyright 2005 by Robert Littell. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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