I GOT BACK TO MY PLACE AT FOUR IN THE MORNING. SLIGHTLY DRUNK,
but remarkably relaxed. After all, you don't often come across people who are so different. Working in the Watch encourages you to be too categorical. This guy doesn't smoke or drink¡ªhe's a good boy. This one swears like a trooper¡ªhe's a bad boy. And there's nothing to be done about it. Those are precisely the ones we're most interested in¡ªthe good ones as our support, the bad ones as a potential source of Dark Ones.
But somehow we tend to forget that there are all different sorts of people...
The bard with the bass guitar didn't know anything about the Others. I was sure of that. If only I could have sat up half the night with every one of Assol's inhabitants, I could have formed an accurate opinion of all of them.
But I wasn't entertaining any such illusions. Not everybody will ask you to come in, not everybody will start talking to you about obscure, abstract subjects. And apart from the ten or so residents, there were hundreds of service personnel¡ªsecurity guards, plumbers, laborers, bookkeepers. There was no way I could possibly check all of them in a reasonable amount of time.
I took a wash in the shower¡ªI discovered a strange sort of hose in it that I could get a jet of water out of¡ªand then walked out into my one and only room. I needed to get some sleep... and the next morning I'd try to come up with a new plan.
"Hi, Anton," a voice said from the window.
I recognized the voice. And I immediately felt sick at heart.
"Good morning, Kostya," I said. The words of greeting sounded inappropriate somehow, but to wish the vampire a bad morning would have been even more stupid.
"Can I come in?" Kostya asked.
I walked over to the window. Kostya was sitting on the outside sill with his back to me, dangling his legs. He was completely naked, as if to make obvious that he hadn't climbed up the wall, but flown to the window in the form of a gigantic bat.
A Higher Vampire. At not much more than twenty years old. A talented boy...
"I think not," I said.
Kostya nodded and didn't try to argue. "As I understand it, we're working on the same job?"
"That's good." Kostya turned around and flashed a gleaming white smile. "I like the idea of working with you. But are you really afraid of me?"
"I've learned a lot," Kostya boasted. Just like when he was a kid and he used to declare, "I'm a terrible vampire! I'm going to learn how to turn into a bat! I'm going to learn how to fly!"
"You haven't learned anything," I corrected him. "You've stolen a lot."
Kostya frowned. "Words. The usual Light word game. Your people allowed me to take it, so I did. So what's the problem?"
"Are we going to carry on sparring like this?" I asked. I raised my hand, folding the fingers into the sign of Aton, the negation of non-life. I'd been wanting for ages to find out if the ancient North African spells worked on modern Russian creatures of the Darkness.
Kostya glanced warily at the incomplete sign. Either he knew what it was, or he'd caught a whiff of Power. "Are you allowed to breach your disguise?"
I lowered my hand in annoyance. "No. But I might just risk it."
"No need. If you say so, I'll leave. But right now we're doing the same job... we have to talk."
"So talk," I said, dragging a stool over to the window.
"You won't let me in then?"
"I don't want to be all alone in the middle of the night with a naked man," I chuckled. "Who knows what people will think? Let's hear it."
"What do you make of the T-shirt collector?"
I looked at Kostya quizzically.
"The guy on the tenth floor. He collects funny T-shirts."
"He doesn't know anything," I said.
Kostya nodded. "That's what I think too. Eight of the apartments here are occupied. The owners of another six show up from time to time, but all the rest are very rarely here. I've already checked out all the permanent residents."
"Nothing. They don't know anything about us."
I didn't ask how Kostya could be so sure. After all, he was a Higher Vampire. They can enter another person's mind as easily as an experienced magician.
"I'll deal with the other six in the morning," said Kostya. "But I'm not very hopeful."
"And do you have any suggestions?" I asked.
Kostya shrugged. "Anyone living here has enough money and influence to interest a vampire or a werewolf. A weak, hungry one... newly initiated. So the list of suspects is pretty long."
"How many newly initiated lower Dark Ones are there in Moscow now?" I asked. I was amazed at how easily the phrase "lower Dark Ones" slipped off my tongue.
I never used to call them that.
I used to feel sorry for them.
Kostya reacted calmly to the phrase. He really was a Higher Vampire. In control, confident of himself.
"Not many," he said evasively. "They're being checked, don't worry. Everybody's being checked. All the lower Others, and even magicians."
"Is Zabulon really concerned?" I asked.
"Gesar isn't exactly a model of composure," Kostya chuckled. "Everyone's concerned. You're the only one taking the situation so lightly."
"I don't see it as a great disaster," I said. "There are human beings who know we exist. Not many, but there are some. One more person doesn't change the situation. If he makes a sensation out of this, we'll soon locate him and make him look like some kind of psycho. That sort of thing has already..."
"And what if he becomes an Other?" Kostya asked curtly.
"Then there'll be one more Other," I said and shrugged.
"What if he doesn't become a vampire or a werewolf, but a genuine Other?" Kostya bared his teeth in a smile. "A genuine Other? Light or Dark... that doesn't matter."
"Then there'll be one more magician," I said.
Kostya shook his head. "Listen, Anton, I'm quite fond of you. Even now. But sometimes I'm amazed at just how naive you are..." Kostya stretched¡ªhis arms rapidly sprouted a covering of short fur, his skin turned dark and coarse. "You deal with the staff," he said in a shrill, piercing voice. "If you get wind of anything, call me."
He turned his face, distorted by the transformation, toward me and smiled again. "You know, Anton, a naive Light One like you is the only kind a Dark One could ever be friends with..."
He jumped down, flapping his leathery wings ponderously. The huge bat flew off into the night, a little awkwardly, but quickly enough.
There was a small rectangle of cardboard lying on the outside sill¡ªa business card. I picked it up and read it. "Konstantin. Research assistant, the Scientific Research Institute for Hematological Problems."
And then the phone numbers¡ªwork, home, cell. I actually remembered the home number¡ªKostya was still living with his parents. Most vampires tend to have pretty strong family ties.
What had he been trying to tell me?
Why all the panic?
I switched on the light, lay down on the mattress and looked at the pale-gray rectangles of the windows.
"If he becomes a genuine Other..."
How did Others appear in the World? No one knew. "A random mutation" Las had called it¡ªa perfectly adequate term. You were born a human being, you lived an ordinary life... until one of the Others sensed your ability to enter the Twilight and pump Power out of it. After that you were "guided." Lovingly and carefully coaxed into the required spiritual condition so that in a moment of powerful emotional agitation you would look at your shadow and see it in a different way. See it lying there like a black rag, like a curtain you could pull up over yourself and then draw aside to enter another world.
The world of the Others.
And the state you were in when you first found yourself in the Twilight¡ªjoyful and benign or miserable and angry¡ªdetermined who you would be. What kind of Power you would go on to draw from the Twilight... the Twilight that drinks Power from ordinary people.
"If he becomes a genuine Other..."
There was always the possibility of coercive initiation, but only through the loss of life and transformation into a walking corpse. A human being could become a vampire or a werewolf and he would be forced to maintain his existence by taking the lives of human beings. So there was a route for the Dark Ones... but one that even they weren't particularly fond of.
Only what if it really was possible to become a magician?
What if there was a way for any human being to be transformed into an Other? To acquire long¡ªvery long¡ªlife and exceptional abilities. There was no doubt many people would want to do it.
And we wouldn't be against it, either. There were so many fine people living in the world who were worthy to become Light Others.
Only the Dark Ones would start building up their ranks too...
Suddenly it struck me. It was no disaster that someone had revealed our secrets to a human being. It was no disaster that information could leak out. It was no disaster that the traitor knew the address of the Inquisition.
But this was a new twist in the spiral of endless war!
For centuries the Light Ones and Dark Ones had been shackled by the Treaty. We had the right to search for Others among human beings, even the right to nudge them in the right direction. But we were obliged to sift through tons of sand in our search for grains of gold. The balance was maintained.
Then suddenly here was a chance to transform thousands, millions of people into Others.
A soccer team wins the cup final¡ªand a wave of magic surges across tens of thousands of exultant people, transforming them into Light Others.
Then and there the Day Watch issues a command to the fans of the team that has lost¡ªand they're transformed into Dark Others.
That was what Kostya had had in mind. The immense temptation to shift the balance of power in your own favor at a single stroke. Of course, the consequences would be clear, both to the Dark Ones and us Light Ones. The two sides would adopt new amendments to the Treaty and restrict the initiation of human beings within acceptable limits. After all, the USA and the USSR had managed to keep the nuclear arms race within bounds...
I closed my eyes and shook my head. Semyon had once told me that the arms race was halted by the creation of the ultimate weapon. Two thermonuclear devices¡ªthat was all that was required¡ªeach of which could trigger a self-sustaining reaction of nuclear fusion. The American one was installed somewhere in Texas, the Russian one in Siberia. It was enough to explode either one of them¡ªand the entire planet would be transformed into a ball of flame.
Only that state of affairs didn't suit us, so the weapon that was never meant to be used could never be activated. But the presidents didn't need to know that¡ªthey were only human beings...
Maybe the top commands of the Watches had "magical bombs" like that? And that was why the Inquisition, which was in on the secret, policed the observation of the Treaty so fervently?
But even so it would be better if it were impossible to initiate ordinary people...
Even in my drowsy state I winced at my own thought. What did this mean, that I'd begun to think like a fully-fledged Other? There are Others, and there are human beings¡ªand they're second class. They can never enter the Twilight, they're not going to live more than a hundred years. And there's nothing you can do about it...
Yes, that was exactly the way I'd started to think. Finding a good human being with the natural aptitudes of an Other and bringing him or her over to your own side¡ªthat was a joy. But turning absolutely everyone into Others was puerile nonsense, a dangerous and irresponsible delusion.
Now I had something to feel proud about. It had taken me less than ten years to finally stop being human.
My morning began with contemplation of the mysteries of the shower stall. Reason finally overcame soulless metal and I got a shower¡ªwith music playing, no less¡ªand then concocted a breakfast out of biscotti, salami, and yogurt. Feeling uplifted by the sunshine, I settled down on the windowsill and breakfasted with a view of the Moscow River. For some reason I recalled Kostya admitting that vampires can't look at the sun. Sunlight doesn't actually burn them at all, it just gives them a disagreeable sensation.
But I had no time for indulging in sad thoughts about my old acquaintances. I had to search for... for whom? The renegade Other? I was hardly in the best position to do that. His human client? A long, dreary business.
All right, I decided. We'll proceed according to the strict laws of the classic detective novel. What do we have? What we have is a clue. The letter sent from Assol. What does it give us? It doesn't give us anything. Unless perhaps someone saw the letter being posted three days ago. There's not much chance that they'd remember, of course...
What a fool I was. I even slapped myself on the forehead. Sure, it's no disgrace for an Other to forget about modern technology. Others aren't very fond of complicated technical devices. But I was a computer hardware specialist.
All the grounds of Assol were monitored by video cameras.
I put on my suit and knotted my tie, splashed on the eau de cologne that Ignat had chosen for me the day before, dropped my phone into my inside pocket... "Only dumb kids and sales assistants carry their cells on their belts!"¡ªthat was one of Gesar's helpful little homilies.
The cell was new and still unfamiliar. It had different kinds of games in it, a built-in music-player, a dictaphone, and all sorts of other nonsense entirely unnecessary in a phone.
I rode down to the vestibule in the cool silence of the new Otis elevator and immediately caught sight of my new acquaintance from the night before¡ªonly this time he was looking really strange...
Las, wearing brand new blue overalls with "Assol" written on the back, was explaining something to a confused elderly man dressed in the same way. I heard what he said: "This isn't a broom you've got here, okay! There's a computer in it, it tells you how dirty the asphalt is and the pressure of the cleaning solution... Come on, I'll show you..."
My feet automatically carried me after them.
Out in the yard, in front of the entrance to the vestibule, there were two bright-orange road-sweeping machines¡ªwith a tank of water, round brushes, and a little glass cabin for the driver. There was something toylike about the small vehicles, as if they'd come straight from Sunshine Town, where the happy baby girls and boys cheerfully clean their own miniature avenues.
Las clambered nimbly into one of the machines and the elderly man thrust himself halfway in after him. He listened to something Las said, nodded, and set off toward the second orange cleaning unit.
"And if you're lazy, you'll spend the rest of your life as a junior yard keeper!" I heard Las say. His machine set off, twirling its brushes merrily, and began spinning circles on the asphalt surface. Before my eyes a yard that was already clean acquired an entirely sterile appearance.
Well, would you believe it.
So he worked as a yard keeper in the Assol complex, did he?
I tried to withdraw unobtrusively, so as not to embarrass the man, but Las had already spotted me and he drove closer, waving his hand gleefully. The brushes started turning less vigorously.
"So you work here then?" I asked. I suddenly started having the most fantastic ideas, such as Las didn't live in Assol at all, he'd simply moved into an empty apartment for a while. There was no way anyone with a huge residence like that would go cleaning the yard.
"I earn a bit on the side," Las explained calmly. "It's a real gas, I tell you. Ride around the yard for an hour in the morning, instead of your morning exercises, and they pay you wages for it. And not bad wages, either!"
I didn't say anything.
"Do you like going on the rides in the park?" Las asked me. "All those buggies, where you have to pay ten dollars for three minutes? Well, here they pay you the money. For enjoying yourself. Or take those computer games, for instance... sitting there, twitching that joystick about..."
"It all depends on whether they make you paint the fence..." I muttered.
"That's right," Las agreed happily. "But they don't make me do that. I get the same buzz cleaning up the yard as Leo Tolstoy did from scything hay. Only no one has to wash it all again after me¡ªunlike the count, whose peasants used to finish the job after him... I'm in their good graces here, I regularly get a bonus. So, do you fancy riding around too? I could get you a job, if you like. The professional yard keepers just can't get the hang of this technical equipment."
"I'll think about it," I said, examining the briskly spinning brushes, the water spurting out of the nickel-plated nozzles, the gleaming cabin. Back when we were kids, which of us didn't want to drive a street-washing truck? Now, of course, after early childhood kids start dreaming about working as a banker or a hit man...
"Okay, think it over, but I've got work to do," Las said amiably. The machine set off around the yard, sweeping, washing, and sucking up dirt. I heard singing from the cabin:
The generation of yard keepers and watchmen
Have lost each other in the vast expanse of winter...
They've all gone back home now.
In our time, when every third man is a hero,
They don't write articles,
They don't send telegrams...
Dumbfounded, I went back to the vestibule. I found out from the security guard where Assol's own post office was located and set off. The post office was open; there were three young female employees sitting behind the counter in the cozy little shop, and the mailbox the letter had been posted in was standing right there.
The glass eyes of video cameras glittered just below the ceiling.
We could certainly use some professional investigators. They would have come up with this idea right away.
I bought a postcard of a young chick jumping up and down in the tray of an incubator with the printed message "I miss my family!" Not very amusing, but in any case I couldn't remember the mailing address of the village where my family was vacationing, so, with a mischievous smile, I sent the postcard to Gesar at home¡ªI did know his address.
I chatted to the girls for a while¡ªworking in such an elite residential complex they had to be polite anyway, but on top of that they were bored¡ªthen left the post office and went to the security department on the first floor.
If I'd had the right to use my abilities as an Other, I would have simply implanted in the security men's minds the idea that they liked me and then been given access to all the video recordings. But I couldn't reveal who I was, and so I decided to employ the most universal motive for liking anyone¡ªmoney.
Out of the money I'd been given I put together a hundred dollars in rubles¡ªwell, no one could expect more than that, could they? I entered the duty office, and there was a young guy in a formal suit, looking bored.
"Good day!" I greeted him, smiling radiantly.
The security man's expression indicated complete solidarity with my opinion concerning the day. I cast a quick sideways glance at the monitors in front of him¡ªthey showed the images from at least ten television cameras. He had to be able to call up a repeat run of any particular moment. If the images were saved to a hard disk (where else could they be saved?), then a recording from three days earlier might not have been transferred to the archive yet.
"I have a problem," I said. "Yesterday I received a rather amusing letter..."¡ªI winked at him¡ª"from some girl. She lives here too, as far as I can tell."
"A threatening letter?" the security man asked, pricking up his ears.
"No, no!" I protested. "On the contrary... But my mysterious stranger is trying to remain incognito. Could I take a look to see who posted letters at the post office three days ago?"
The security man started thinking about it.
And then I spoiled everything. I put the money on the desk and said with a smile, "I'd be very grateful to you..."
The young guy instantly turned to stone. I think he pressed something with his foot.
And ten seconds later two of his colleagues appeared, both extremely polite¡ªwhich looked pretty funny, given their impressive dimensions¡ªand insistently invited me to come in and see their boss.
There is a difference, and a serious one, between dealing with state officials and a private security firm, after all.. .
It would have been interesting to see if they would have taken me to their boss by force. After all, they weren't the militia. But I preferred not to aggravate the situation any further and did as my escort in suits asked.
The head of security, a man already advanced in years who had clearly come from the organs of state security, looked at me reproachfully.
"What were you thinking of, Mr. Gorodetsky..." he said, twirling my pass to the Assol grounds in his fingers. "Behaving as if you were in a state institution¡ªif you'll pardon the expression..."
I got the impression that what he really wanted to do was snap my pass in two, call the guards, and order them to throw me out of the elite grounds.
I felt like saying I was sorry and I wouldn't do it again. Especially since I really was feeling ashamed.
Only that was the desire of the Light Magician Anton Gorodetsky, not of Mr. A. Gorodetsky, the owner of a small firm trading in milk products.
"What, exactly, is the problem?" I asked. "If it's not possible to do as I asked, they should have said so."
"And what was the money for?" the head of security asked.
"What money?" I asked in surprise. "Ah... your colleague thought I was offering him money?"
The head of security smiled.
"Absolutely not!" I said firmly. "I wanted to get my handkerchief out of my pocket. My allergies are really killing me today. And there was a load of small change in there, so I put it on the desk... but I didn't even get time to blow my nose."
I think I overdid it a bit.
The stony-faced boss held out my pass card and said very politely, "The incident is closed. I'm sure you understand, Mr. Gorodetsky, that private individuals are not permitted to view our security recordings."
I sensed that what had stung the boss most was the phrase about "small change." Of course, he wasn't exactly poor, working in a place like that. But he wasn't so flush that he could call a hundred dollars small change.
I sighed and lowered my head. "Forgive me for being so stupid. I really did try to offer some... remuneration. I've been running from one bureaucrat to another all this week, registering the firm... it was an automatic reflex."
The security boss gave me a searching look. He seemed to have softened just a bit.
"It's my fault," I admitted. "I was just overwhelmed by curiosity. Would you believe I couldn't sleep half the night, I kept trying to guess..."
"I can see you didn't sleep," the boss said, looking at me. And he couldn't resist asking¡ªafter all, human curiosity is ineradicable. "What is it you're so interested in?"
"My wife and daughter are at the dacha right now," I said. "I'm knocking myself out, trying to get the work on the apartment finished... and suddenly I get this letter. Anonymous. In a woman's handwriting. And the letter... well, how can I put it... it's half flirting and half promises. A beautiful stranger is dreaming of getting to know you, it says, but she doesn't dare take the first step. If I'm observant enough to realize who the letter's from, then all I have to do is approach her..."
A glint of merriment appeared in the security boss's eyes. "And your wife's at the dacha?" he asked.
"Yes, she is," I said with a nod. "Don't get the wrong idea... I've no ambitious plans. I'd just like to find out who this stranger is."
"Do you have the letter with you?" the boss asked.
"I threw it away immediately," I said. "If my wife ever set eyes on it, I'd never be able to prove that nothing happened..."
"When was it sent?"
"Three days ago. From our post office."
The boss thought for a moment.
"The letters there are collected once a day, in the evening," I said. "I don't think too many people go in there... only about five or six a day. If I could just have a look..."
The boss shook his head and smiled.
"Yes, I understand in principle it's not allowed..." I said sadly. "Can't you at least take a look, eh? Maybe there wasn't a single woman there that day, and it's my neighbor's idea of a joke. He's like that... the jolly type."
"From the tenth floor, you mean?" the boss asked, frowning.
I nodded. "You take a look... just tell me if there was a woman there or not..."
"This letter is compromising for you, isn't it?" the boss said.
"To some extent," I admitted. "As far as my wife is concerned."
"Well, then you have grounds for viewing the recording," the boss decided.
"Thank you very much!" I exclaimed. "Really, thank you!"
"You see how simple everything is?" said the boss, slowly pressing a key on his computer keyboard. "And you go getting the money out... what Soviet sort of way is that to behave... just a moment..."
I couldn't restrain myself. I got up and stood behind his shoulder. The boss didn't object. He was pretty excited¡ª evidently there wasn't much work for him to do in the grounds of Assol.
The image of the post office appeared on the screen, first from one corner¡ªwe had an excellent view of what the counter girls were doing. Then from another corner¡ªa view of the entrance and the mail box.
"Monday. Eight in the morning," the boss said triumphantly. "And now what? Are we going to sit and watch the screen for twelve hours?"
"Oh, that's right," I exclaimed, pretending to be disappointed. "I never thought of that."
"We press a key... no, this one here... And now what do we have?"
The image started flickering rapidly.
"What?" I asked, as if I'd never designed the same kind of system for our office.
"Movement search!" the boss declared solemnly.
We had our first taker at nine-thirty in the morning. Some Eastern-looking worker came into the post office and posted a whole bundle of letters.
"Not your female stranger?" the boss quipped sarcastically. And then he explained. "That's the men building the second block. They're always sending letters to Tashkent..."
The second visitor was at a quarter past one. I didn't know him, a very respectable-looking gent. With a bodyguard walking behind him.
The gentleman didn't post any letters. I didn't understand why he went in at all¡ªmaybe he was eyeing up the girls, or maybe he was studying the layout of the grounds at Assol.
And the third one was... Las!
"Oh!" the boss exclaimed. "Now that's your neighbour, the jester, isn't it? The one who sings songs at night."
I was obviously a very poor detective...
"That's him..." I whispered. "But would he really..."
"Okay, let's watch a bit more," the security boss said, taking pity on me.
Later on, after a two-hour break, people came piling in.
Another three residents sent off envelopes of some kind. All men, all very serious-looking types.
And one woman. About seventy years old. Just before closing time. Fat, wearing a magnificent dress and huge beads in bad taste. Her sparse gray hair was set in curls.
"Surely it couldn't be her?" the boss said, delighted. He got up and slapped me on the shoulder. "Well, is there any point in looking for your mysterious flirt?"
"It's clear enough," I said. "It's a put-on."
"Never mind, it's nothing more than a harmless joke," the security boss consoled me. "And a request from me to you for the future... never make such ambiguous gestures. Never take money out, if you don't intend to pay someone."
I hung my head.
"We're the ones who corrupt people," the boss said bitterly. "Do you understand? We do it ourselves! Offer someone money once, twice... and the third time he asks you for it. And we complain¡ªwhat is all this, and where did it come from?... But you're a good man. I can see the light in you."
I gaped at the boss in amazement.
"Yes, you are a good man," said the boss. "I trust my instinct. I saw all sorts in twenty years in the criminal investigation office... Don't do that again, all right? Don't sow evil in the world."
It was a long time since I'd felt so ashamed.
A Light Magician being taught not to do evil.
"I'll try," I said, looking the boss guiltily in the eye. "Thanks very much for your help..."
The boss didn't answer. His eyes had turned glassy, as vacant and mindless as a little infant's. His mouth had opened slightly. His fingers had turned white, clenched tightly on the armrests of his chair.
The Freeze. A fairly simple spell, very widely used.
There was someone standing by the window behind me. I couldn't see him¡ªbut I could sense him with my back...
I jerked to one side as quickly as I could, but I still felt the icy breath of the Power aimed at me. No, it wasn't the Freeze. But it was something similar, something out of the vampire's arsenal of tricks.
The Power skidded across me¡ªand sank into the unfortunate security boss. The cover Gesar had put in place not only disguised me, it protected me too!
My shoulder smashed against the wall and I threw my hands out in front of me, but at the last second I pulled back and didn't strike. I blinked and raised the shadow of my eyelids up over my eyes.
Standing by the windows, grim-faced from effort, was a vampire. Tall, with the face of a well-bred European. A Higher Vampire, without the slightest doubt. And not as immature as Kostya. He was at least three hundred years old, and his power undoubtedly exceeded mine.
But not Gesar's! The vampire had not seen that I was really an Other. Now all those suppressed non-life instincts that Higher Vampires can keep under control came bursting out. I don't know whom he took me for. Maybe some special human being with reactions that could rival a vampire's, or a mythical "half-blood"¡ªthe child of a human woman and a male vampire¡ªor for a rather less mythical warlock, a hunter of lower Others. But the vampire was clearly on the point of cutting loose and smashing everything around him. His features began melting like soft putty, changing into a bestial face with a heavy forehead, fangs slid out of his upper jaw, and razor-sharp claws sprang from his fingers.
A crazed vampire is a terrible thing.
The only thing worse is a vampire poised and in control.
My reflexes saved me from a duel with a dubious outcome. I held back and didn't strike, and shouted out the traditional formula of arrest: "Night Watch! Leave the Twilight!"
Immediately I heard a voice from the doorway.
"Stop, he's one of us!"
I was amazed how quickly the vampire normalized. The claws and the fangs were withdrawn, the face quivered, like meat jelly, assuming that reserved, noble expression of a prosperous European. And I remembered this European very well¡ªfrom the glorious city of Prague, where they brew the best beer in the world and still have the best Gothic architecture.
"Witezslav?" I exclaimed. "What do you think you're doing?"
And of course, the person standing at the door was Edgar.
The Dark Magician who worked for a short while in the Moscow Day Watch and then left to join the Inquisition.
"Anton, I beg your pardon!" The imperturbable Bait was really embarrassed. "A slight error. In pursuit of our common goal..."
Witezslav was politeness itself.
"Our apologies, watchman. We did not recognize you..."
His gaze slid over me tenaciously and a note of admiration appeared in his voice.
"What a disguise... Congratulations, watchman. If that is your work, I bow my head to you."
I didn't explain who had constructed my defenses. It's not often that a Light Magician (or a Dark Magician, for that matter) gets a chance to give Inquisitors a good bawling out.
"What have you done to this man?" I barked. "He is under my protection!"
"It was necessary for our work, as my colleague has already said," Witezslav replied with a shrug. "We're interested in the information from the video cameras."
Edgar casually moved aside the chair with the frozen head of security in it and came closer. He smiled. "Gorodetsky, everything's all right. We're all doing the same job, aren't we?"
"Do you have permission for... using methods like this?" I asked.
"We have permission for very many things," Witezslav replied with chilly emphasis. "You have no idea how many."
That was it¡ªhe'd recovered his equilibrium. And he was set on confrontation. But he'd very nearly given way to his instincts, lost his self-control, and for a Higher Vampire that's an unpardonable disgrace. A note of genuine, cold fury appeared in Witezslav's voice: "Would you like to test that, watchman?"
Of course, an Inquisitor can't allow anyone to yell at him. Only now there was no way I could back down either.
Edgar saved the situation. He raised his hands and exclaimed in emotional tones, "It's my fault! I ought to have recognized Mr. Gorodetsky. Witezslav, it's all the result of my poor work. I'm sorry!"
I held out my hand to the vampire first.
"Fair enough, we are all doing the same job. I hadn't expected to see you here."
I'd hit the bull's eye there. Witezslav looked away for a moment. And he smiled very amiably as he shook my hand. The vampire's palm was warm... and I realized what that meant.
"Our colleague Witezslav has come straight from the plane," said Edgar.
"And he hasn't gone through temporary registration yet?" I asked.
No matter how powerful Witezslav might be, no matter what position he might hold in the Inquisition, he was still a vampire. And he was obliged to go through the humiliating procedure of registration.
But I didn't press the point any further. On the contrary. "We can complete all the formalities here," I suggested. "I have the right to do that."
"Thank you," the vampire said with a nod. "But I'll call into your office. Proper procedure above all things."
A shaky truce had been patched together.
"I've already looked through the recordings," I said. "Letters were posted three days ago by four men and one woman. And some construction worker posted a whole pile of letters. There are builders from Uzbekistan working here."
"A good sign for your country," Witezslav said very politely. "When the citizens of neighboring states are used as labor power, it's an indication of economic growth."
I could have explained to him what I thought about that. But I didn't.
"Would you like to see the recording?" I asked.
"Yes, I think so," the vampire said.
Edgar stood modestly aside.
I brought the image of the post office up on the monitor, then switched on "movement search"¡ªand we watched all the local lovers of the epistolary genre once again.
"I know this one," I said, pointing at Las. "I'll find out today what it was he posted."
"Do you suspect him?" asked Witezslav.
"No," I said and shook my head.
The vampire ran the tape through again. But this time Witezslav had set the unfortunate frozen security boss in front of the monitor.
"Who's this?" Witezslav asked.
"A resident," the security boss replied indifferently. "Block one, sixteenth floor..."
He had a good memory and named all the suspects. The building worker with the pile of letters was the only one he couldn't identify. In addition to Las, the resident from the sixteenth floor, and the old woman from the eleventh, letters had been posted by two of the Assol's managers.
"We'll deal with the men," Witezslav decided. "For a start. You check the old woman, Gorodetsky. All right?"
I shrugged. Collaboration was all very well, but I wasn't going to let anyone order me about.
Especially not a Dark One. And a vampire.
"It's easier for you," Witezslav explained. "It's... hard for me to approach old people."
The admission was frank and unexpected. I mumbled something in reply and didn't press him for any further explanations.
"I sense in them something that I don't have," the vampire went on to explain anyway. "Mortality."
"You envy them that?" I couldn't resist asking.
"It frightens me." Witezslav leaned down over the security chief and said, "We're going to go now. You will sleep for five minutes and have beautiful dreams. When you wake up, you will forget our visit. You will only remember Anton... you will feel very friendly toward him. If Anton needs anything, you will give him any help you can."
"There's no need..." I protested weakly.
"We are all working for the same cause," the vampire reminded me. "I know how hard it is to work undercover. Good-bye."
And instantly he disappeared. Edgar gave a guilty smile and walked out the door.
I left the office too, without waiting for the security boss to wake up.