Three Improvisations on Murakami (2)

Second Improvisation: Guiltless Crime

Hanalei Bay was sunk in a deep sleep while Valentin Vazov was lying cold in his bed in Sofia, in the early afternoon on Tuesday, June 15, 2010. Julia Stevens, having left him several voice messages Sunday night and having unsuccessfully tried to reach Valentin all day Monday on both his home and cell phones, had opened the door to the penthouse with her key and, disconcerted by the silence and the mess in the living room, had headed directly up the stairs to the bedroom. The young man had fallen asleep on his left side, wrapped in a sheet. There was a used syringe on the nightstand. There was no sign of violence: the corpse looked like a person deep in the throes of a good night’s sleep. But Julia was neither sentimental nor fainthearted. She unwrapped the sheet and saw that she was dealing with a corpse, which had already almost completely stiffened into the fetal position, its knees curled up. That’s exactly how Valyo used to sleep, she recalled.

About an hour after she called the police, a detective, who introduced himself as Lieutenant Vrazhev, arrived accompanied by a photographer and two technicians. Before beginning their inspection, Vrazhev asked her a single question, which she took to be completely formal: what was her relation to the deceased? But, she thought to herself, wouldn’t this be precisely the same question every reader who had begun reading a story about the death of a thirty-year-old man in his penthouse would ask? And she instantly realized that her answer might influence the direction the investigation would take. And that she would be first on the list of suspects for the simple reason that she was the very first one found at the scene of the crime. But was this a crime or simply an unfortunate event? She wanted to know the truth no less than the detective – actually, far more. For him, it was simply a case, a test of his professional abilities. For her, however, it would be a complete reversal of fortune. For that reason, she decided to give what was at once a precise but vague answer:

“I’m sort of like his step-mother. I live with his father, who has long since left Bulgaria,” Julia said, realizing that her foreign accent was surely not lost on the detective.

“Where is his father?” He asked.

“His father is a writer and lives in Hawaii.” A short pause followed. The detective leaned over the dead man’s face. “Detective, have you seen how hunting dogs run when they’ve picked up a scent?”

“Yes, I’ve seen it. I have an English setter,” he said without turning towards her.

“We had a German shorthaired pointer, back when I lived in New Jersey. He was a liver-ticked purebred, and when I would take him to the park, the other dogs could sense his superiority and would start pestering him. Every single one of them, without exception, would set off after him, as if trying to show him that he wasn’t wanted. And he would take off running, launching his whole body into motion as gracefully as could be. His movements were absolutely professional. Perfect. He could turn on a dime and fool the pursuer closest on his heels. No dog ever managed to catch him unless he wanted them to. But even when we were going back home across a long bridge at a trot, my pointer – his coat shining in the sun like a polished copper bowl – would move with his four legs in absolute symmetry. I’ve taken pictures of him at the moment when he takes up his stance, showing where the hidden bird is: perfect beauty.  Beauty which is alive, yet doesn’t flinch, even if a shot rings out above him. I’ve never seen that kind of single-mindedness in any person. There is something about those elite purebreds that people should use as a standard for professionalism, but we experience it only as beauty. Have you ever noticed that in most people, both beauty and professionalism incite jealousy?

“Ma’am, could my work possibly strike you as beautiful?” The detective said slowly, bringing his face closer to hers. The flash from the camera lit up Valentin’s face as in a dark nightclub, but without the thundering dance music.

“It’s too early to say. When you prove to me with some results that you are a professional, I will surely admire you as I admire beautiful dogs.”

“That depends on whether or not you like the results.” He took up the challenge. The technicians carried the corpse, which was dressed only in black briefs, out on a stretcher, its knees jutting off the side, its head bobbing slightly on the left rail.  “Take this laptop here, too,” Vrazhev said, pointing at the desk near the window of the spacious living room. And he suddenly peered at Julia: “Did you have sexual relations with the deceased?”

“What in the world does that have to do with his death?” Julia replied instantly. “Isn’t it clear that he didn’t die during sex?”

“Let’s get one thing straight right now.” Vrazhev kept looking at her. From the outside, they looked like a father and daughter at the start of yet another confrontation. “From now on, I’m the one who’ll be asking the questions. I’m waiting for your answer.”

Julia felt pressured, and in such circumstances she always avoided speaking. She was used to only saying things she herself considered necessary, and never under duress. Inwardly, she had already decided that Valentin hadn’t killed himself, even though there was no proof of this yet. But the detective, too, had no evidence to the contrary, either. He and she were on equal footing so far. Now, she had to decide whether to reveal to this representative of the justice system – and she knew very well that she had far more rights than he did and was under no obligation to answer – intimate details about the lives of people, who, without being the direct perpetrators or instigators of this strange death, had undoubtedly influenced the young man’s destiny. Psychological dependencies between people are, after all, unfathomable and untraceable. Julia had been taught to feel responsible only when faced with the truth and facts, thus she resisted every attempt to violate her personal autonomy.

“My dear detective, I will answer your questions only in the presence of a lawyer and under oath,” she said after a significant pause. “You don’t yet have any official permission to interrogate me.”

“Rest assured that you will be summoned in accordance with the law,” the detective replied, unfazed. “You have surely read murder mysteries and know that in my line of work, we always move from the consequence to the cause in one and the same way: what weapon was used to commit the crime and who had a motive for using it? I’m not interested in gossip. At the moment, the weapon is unknown to me, but I’ll find it. You can help us arrive at the motives. That’s all for now.”

Julia took her laptop out of her bag and got on the Internet: she knew the password for Valentin’s wireless network. She wrote an email to Velizar without giving him any details. She also sent a short email to Svetla, who had gone to Germany for two weeks. Julia knew the girl was a friend of Valyo’s and supplied him with weed – he wanted organic stuff – and sometimes heroin as well. Julia had obtained Valyo’s reluctant permission to come and clean up the penthouse from time to time and on one of these unannounced visits, she had caught the two of them there pretty strung out. A year later, she found Svetla naked in the double bed one morning. Valyo had admitted to her then that sometimes they had sex when they got high. But they weren’t a couple – no strings attached.

Vrazhev got the results of the blood test and the autopsy back on Friday, the day before the burial, but he decided to put off Julia’s interrogation. For now, she was his only witness. It turned out that the deceased had taken a dose – or had been taking doses, that couldn’t be said with certainty – of morphine. There were traces of morphine in the syringe found by the bed, while under the bed they had found two broken glass vials. Morphine derivatives were discovered in his blood and urine. The low concentration hinted at the gradual onset of death during the day on Sunday, but since it was a question of minimal, hardly detectible quantities, the coroner refused to provide a definite cause of death. Valentin Vazov’s medical history showed no indications of morphine addiction, however; it held no mention of abuse of opiates whatsoever. He had been deemed completely healthy at his most recent physical.

Vrazhev ordered members of his team to attend the funeral. He needed time to receive information about Julia Stevens; he had sent an inquiry to the Bulgarian Embassy in Washington. The Interior Ministry archives had promised to provide him with the writer Vazov’s dossier on Saturday morning. For now, the hypothesis of a morphine overdose – whether it was deliberate or not could hardly be said with certainty – struck the detective as most likely. But he couldn’t shake the suspicion that Julia could have somehow caused the young man to take his own life. It was as if a love triangle had existed, and the remoteness of the father, a person from another generation, who could easily have been Julia’s father, too, had given the two young people in Sofia the opportunity to… when he reached this point, Vrazhev could not come up with the right word for what he suspected, which only strengthened his resolve to interrogate the American woman. How could he believe her claim that it was completely normal for her to be living alone in the Bulgarian capital, far from her lover, her father and her family, with no sexual partner?

And afterwards, why was Velizar in such a rush to get back to Hawaii? A man without an office job, fully in control of his own life, and of an age when people should avoid solitude, contrary to all logic, he left his beautiful mistress two days after his son’s funeral, which he had flown halfway around the world to attend. At 61, the opportunity for regular sex with a young woman, and in your own home, no less, is surely a luxury. How powerful could that island’s draw be, to make him turn his back on luxury? Especially since he didn’t know when, even under the most ideal conditions, he would no longer be able to enjoy that luxury. Vrazhev remembered shaking hands with the tall, gray-haired man, when the writer had come to the morgue to see the body and to sign the death certificate: it was a healthy, virile handshake, without being anything more than formal. The detective could hardly refrain from offering his condolences: the man simultaneously radiated grief and a dignity that commanded respect.

On Saturday morning, Vrazhev read the five dossier folders on the writer Velizar Vazov, but found nothing that might suggest that the father had some reason for wanting his son dead. A note attached to the inside of the first folder with a paperclip noted that the individual Velizar Vazov had no documented collaboration with the Sixth Department – the notorious communist-era handlers of the people turned informers. He was a widower and had been estranged from his son. But that didn’t mean anything, Vrazhev scratched his head and tossed the folders into his “Out” box. More and more, he wanted sex to turn out to be at the bottom of the case. The young man had felt rejected by the lady and had taken an enormous dose of morphine, hoping to die. Or else someone had foisted those vials on him, containing a dose was much larger than what was written on the label – today everything could be counterfeited. But who?

Everything pointed to a nondescript life, without friends, without intrigue, without connections to the underworld. On Valentin’s computer, they didn’t find any files, manifestoes, porn sites, not even his own profiles on Facebook or MySpace. His Skype chat sessions with his father were limited solely to questions about his health, whether he was eating well, where he would go on vacation, and whether he would try to find a better job. Valentin didn’t ask his father any questions, rather he waited to be asked and reluctantly gave short answers. Julia herself had an immaculate record, no ties to shady organizations, she was left-leaning, but politically inactive, she hadn’t had any marriages or serious relationships with men in the US, but she had had one love affair in Sofia, which had ended in 2005; the man’s name wasn’t mentioned. There! That’s what I’ve been looking for, the detective thought gleefully. Yet how strange, since then nothing of the sort had been recorded. Julia’s online life was relatively modest, not at all showy, she almost never posted photos on her profiles. But she had lots of friends from America and Bulgaria, as well as a few from Europe. She had her own professional website, clearly designed to find translation clients. It is far easier to observe people today than it used to be, Vrazhev mused, letting himself sink into a philosophical frame of mind. At the same time, they are less predictable, because they are constantly traveling or moving, living in strange places, and the whole world seems like home to them. Our profession will never become obsolete. But it will hardly grow more efficient. During the time of Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie, logic was everything. Nowadays, people live illogically. But still, we need to rely on the facts, on science, he concluded, reaching out for the folder with the autopsy results.

The cause of death, underlined in red ink, was oxygen insufficiency, caused by cardiac arrest. Respiratory failure was indicated as an additional cause. All the major organs showed signs of reduced blood flow. There were only two inexplicable pathological finds: connective tissue had begun infiltrating his lungs, and along the injection site on the left inner elbow, subcutaneous blisters covered the hardened skin tissue. If only he’d been eaten by a shark, Vrazhev thought in passing, then I wouldn’t have to deal with all these headaches. If only he had a Bulgarian girlfriend, then I wouldn’t have to hold a conversation with that foreigner, he thought self-pityingly. Americans always know their rights, and this woman looked intelligent and uppity, she wouldn’t make it easy at all. The story with the father didn’t interest Vrazhev at all. It was clear that the writer was living his life, cut off from Bulgaria, without caring much about his son: he looked like a person offended by earthly things and focused on his own invented world. The detective didn’t have time to read Vazov’s latest novel, which they had brought him from the library: two thick tomes lay on his desk, one in Bulgarian, the other in English.

At that moment, the results from the chemistry lab arrived. Nothing particularly interesting. The only strange thing that contradicted all logic was that on one of the vials that had been legibly labeled “morphine” with the corresponding dose, a certain quantity of molecules resulting from the decay of pyridine dichloride had been found. Pyridine? To hell with these complicated names, Vrazhev thought while blowing his nose in a napkin. Pyridine! The chemist had noted that he had discovered the substance accidentally, while testing the surfaces for traces of nucleic acids, which could help identify the person who had delivered the vials.

They’re trying too hard, Vrazhev fumed inwardly. Pyridine, pyridine, he repeated to himself, but the word was like a stone in front of the exit from a cave that he was struggling to slip out of. After the word pyridine, nothing appeared in his brain, nothing light, new, or logical, simply a dark void. There was nothing sexy in that chemical name. At least he could look forward to a meeting with a sexy woman.

Julia arrived at the detective’s office with her Bulgarian lawyer on Tuesday, June 22, at 9 a.m. Velizar was still in the air, she thought with the feeling typical of 21st-century people, who imagined they could observe the whole world simultaneously. But by the time the interrogation had ended, he would have landed already in Lihue and she would call him on Skype to welcome him home. But she didn’t want to worry him if something terrible were to come out now…

“When did you come to Bulgaria for the first time?” Lieutenant Vrazhev snapped her out of her thoughts.

“Seven years ago, at the end of May, 2003.”

“The reason?”

“One of my college classmates had decided to travel around Eastern Europe after graduation and invited me to go with him. He knew that my mother was from Bulgaria.”

“How long did you stay here?”

“Do I really need to answer that? I’m still here now.”

“I’m asking you whether you returned to New York before settling in Sofia.”

“Yes. We had planned on spending two weeks in Bulgaria. But I liked it so much that I stayed more than a month. My classmate had left before that, as he had planned. Then I went to New York to see my father and to apply for a long-term visa. I was there for about a month, got my visa and came back here.”

“Is that when you met Valentin Vazov?”

“What makes you ask that question?”

“Let me remind you Mrs.… or rather, Miss… Stevens, that I’m the one who asks the questions here. You’ve known the deceased since 2003, right?” Vrazhev decided to bluff.

“I know Valentin Vazov as the son of the man I live with as a common-law wife.” Julia didn’t take the bait.

“Whom did you meet first? The son or the father?”

Julia held the detective’s probing gaze, and, so that the pause didn’t seem too long, hurried to reply: “The father, of course.”

“How long have you known the writer Velizar Vazov?”

“Since 2006. I read one of his novels and decided that I had to translate it, and with my father’s help, I found a publisher in America. I found his address on Google and wrote him a letter, a regular letter in an envelope. He replied to me and eventually we signed a contract. The rest is none of your concern, detective. I will only say that we met for the first time in New York, in June of 2007, because Mr. Vazov wanted to discuss certain things he didn’t like about the translation with me.”

“You have gone to Kauai four times since then. And you have a plane ticket to visit him again in July. Do you plan on going?”


“Do you own or co-own property on Kauai?”

“Mr. Vazov and I own a house there together.”

“Isn’t it strange, even downright inexplicable, that you don’t live with him in Hawaii? In your own house.”

“There’s a reason for that, but it’s not your job to nose around in my personal life.”

“I’m asking you so as to ascertain to what extent you fulfilled your role as stepmother to the late Valentin. Why did you come to live in Bulgaria?”

“If you are hinting that I came here to find myself a lover, rest assured that you are barking up the wrong tree.”

“Answer my question.”

Julia glanced at her lawyer, who nodded at her to proceed.

“Detective,” Julia declared, and to Vrazhev’s surprise, assumed an official tone that brooked no objections, “I am a translator from Bulgarian, that is how I make a living. My Bulgarian is only semi-native and, for the purposes of perfecting my professional skills, it is best for me to live in a Bulgarian-language environment. What’s more, I am the only American who translates from your rare language, and I need to maintain my market niche. Besides, I also translate from English into Bulgarian, and in the current state of the market, there are numerous young, Bulgarian translators with excellent English who have flooded the market with American and English novels. In this country, you need connections to guarantee that you’ll succeed. You can’t do business from a distance.”

“Your mother is from Stara Zagora. Are you in contact with her sisters?”

“My mother was disowned by her family when she emigrated to America, and I have no intention of reviving contacts that were cut off even before I was born. I’m not interested in those people.”

“What did you do in Sofia until 2006?”

“I was translating. I translated from Japanese and was looking for opportunities to begin translating from Bulgarian as well. Nowadays, detective, it doesn’t matter where you live, you can communicate with people all over the world and have a job like mine.”

“Have you been living at your current address since you first arrived here?”

“Almost. Right then the widow of a famous writer had put the apartment up for sale. I rented another place for around six months before furnishing my place and moving in. Of course, it was no problem for me to pay the price she was asking. There were no other offers.”

“And you didn’t know Valentin Vazov then?”

“You already asked me that question.”

“But I didn’t get an answer that corresponds to the truth.”

“Back then, I didn’t know the individual in question,” Julia said, deliberately speaking slowly and quietly. “For me, my career depended on getting a residency permit here. Before then, even while I was still in college, I was translating from Japanese and I had come to the attention of a contemporary Japanese writer who is well-known in America, Haruki Murakami. I presume you’ve never heard of him. But something caused me to become interested in Bulgarian literature. Human motivations are complex, detective, and often remain unfathomable, even for the person investigating them. Luckily, the Bulgarian authorities were favorably disposed towards me and gave me a work visa two weeks after I submitted my documents. Obviously Bulgaria needs to import brain power and doesn’t seriously vet the candidates, especially if they are Americans. You are always ready to kiss Americans’ asses.”

Vrazhev stared probingly at Julia, who even through her fury did not cease to radiate cleanliness and kind-heartedness, and was torn as to whether to take up the gauntlet that had been thrown down and to get into an argument with her about Bulgarian values or whether to continue tightening the noose around the sexual topic. His professional feelings won out: “How and when did you meet Valentin?”

“It’s not hard to guess, detective, that I got the son’s address from the father. I found Vladayska Street on my own, in case that information might help your investigation. I took a cab there. Perhaps you’ll ask me about the number of the taxi?”

“When did you see him for the first time?”

“I can’t remember.”

“Why do you have a key to his apartment?”

“He lived alone. Someone had to keep the place neat and clean. Besides, anything could happen: a fire, a robbery. Sofia isn’t a safe place… just look how overworked your department is – especially when you go poking around in love stories instead of searching for the real causes of a murder.”

“Why do think it could have been murder?”

“I don’t think anything, I simply mentioned one of the possibilities.”

“Did Valentin take morphine?” Vrazhev suddenly changed the subject.

“I have no information about that. He smoked marijuana, that much I can tell you.”

“And did he take any harder drugs?” Vrazhev said, without much hope.

“The only time I saw a syringe on his nightstand was the day I found him dead. He never told me that he had taken hard drugs.”

Vrazhev was clearly grasping at straws. But the years coincided. Her American dossier said that she had had an affair until 2005, but she claimed to have started her relationship with the writer in 2006. But why should I care about her sex life? the detective wondered at himself. The only possible motive for a violent death – that the father had hired someone to kill his son – depended on a highly uncertain emotion: jealousy. But it would have been much easier for him to force Julia to leave Bulgaria and to come live with him in Hawaii, instead of eliminating his son. Unless Julia really had some deeply hidden reason to stay in Bulgaria? What nonsense! Vrazhev decided to start over again, with a suggestive lead-in: “Miss Stevens, you came to a country that was foreign to you at the age of twenty-three and decided to live here. It’s impossible that you didn’t have a relationship with some man – today no young woman lives like a nun. Then three years later, you fall in love with a man who could easily be your father. On top of everything, you and he live far apart, while you are almost the exact same age as his son who perished. You must admit that every neutral observer would wonder whether you expressed sexual interest in the young man. Even if we suppose that such interest arose after 2006.”

“Detective, is this the highest beauty that a professional investigator can muster? At our first meeting I told you that for me, the standard for professional focus was my hunting dog. Take a good look at me! Is there anything about me that might fuel your suspicion that I could have been mistress to both the son and the father at the same time?”

“That’s the whole point, that it wasn’t at the same time. If we assume that you are not prone to promiscuity – and you yourself want to leave me with that impression of yourself – there is no other explanation for your sexual life between 2003 and 2006 other than that you must have been having a secret affair. The question is with who?”

The question hung in the silence that had fallen between then. A tap was dripping in the room next door. Julia’s lawyer needlessly shifted the folder in front of him. Vrazhev waited. Julia looked towards the leaves of the chestnut tree in front of the window.

“I have no desire to tell you about my sex life,” she finally said and smiled at the detective with her radiant eyes.

“But we’re talking about a young man who perished here! You can’t possibly be unmoved by that?”

“I’ve noticed that you’ve used the word ‘perished’ for the second time, as if talking about a person who died on the battlefield or in a car accident. Should I assume you’ve rejected the hypothesis that it was suicide?”

“Let me remind you once again that I’m the one asking the questions here. Let me put my question a different way. Valentin was a handsome man. We have no evidence that he had a serious girlfriend. Wasn’t he attracted to you?”

Julia was slow to reply. Her lawyer leaned over and whispered something to her. She was silent for some time before somehow strangely blurting out: “And what makes you think he couldn’t have been gay?”

“We have no grounds to believe that, we have an idea of who the active homosexuals in Sofia are. Let me repeat my question. If you want us to find out the truth about the death of the younger Mr. Vazov, it is in your own best interest to help me. It is important that I know with certainty whether you were in a romantic relationship with him, and if so, for what period, and what your relations were at the time of his death.”

“Detective,” Julia interrupted him suddenly, “I will tell you part of the truth. Valentin was in love with me. But no one is in a position to prove that his unrequited feelings led him to despair. You have no right to ask me about my feelings.”

“When did you realize that Valentin was in love with you?” The detective didn’t give up the lead.

“From the very beginning. And he remained in love until the very end.”

“What I’m interested in is when the beginning was. If we assume that he took his own life, blinded by unrequited love, the length of that love matters. A person must have a strong reason for wanting to die.”

“Actually, are you sure that Valentin really died?”

“Pardon?” Lieutenant Vrazhev asked, startled.

“The evening of the funeral an acquaintance of his saw him sitting at a table at the Barn, drinking whiskey.”

“Don’t fool with me, miss. This is a serious investigation. Do you have anything more to say that is related to the case?”

“You had told me that you would easily find the weapon used in the murder… or the suicide. It turns out we’re talking about a syringe. I didn’t find Valentin tied up and I don’t think someone else forcibly gave him the injection. He shot himself up – you surely know what was in the syringe. Hence we’re talking about suicide. In that case, you’re not looking for a perpetrator who had motives for killing him, but rather you’re looking for his own motives. I’m sorry, but I can’t help you. No one is in a position to know what was going on in Valentin’s head, not even me, even though he sometimes let himself talk about his feelings with me. He might have staged the whole thing and is now watching us from somewhere and laughing.”

“Don’t be absurd, Miss Stevens,” the detective said pensively. “As far as I know, you’re not a drug addict suffering from hallucinations. By the way, tell me one more time: the Valentin in question, the Valentin who was in love with you, did he use drugs regularly?”

“I told you, he smoked marijuana, just like every young person. I don’t know about anything else.”

“And who was his dealer? The acquaintance who saw him in the bar?”

“You can’t imagine that I would tell you even if I knew, now do you, detective?” she jerked away in surprise. She was starting to respect the lieutenant’s insightfulness, although he was most likely making random guesses. “I would recommend you spend a few evenings at the Barn… if they let you in… you might find something out.” Julia escaped with a counter-attack. “Actually, what do you want to find out? Declare the case a suicide and your professional reputation will come out unscathed.”

“Don’t be insolent, my dearest Miss Stevens,” the inspector raised his voice. “The fact that we’ve accepted you into our country doesn’t mean you can stay forever. Your female logic doesn’t interest me. I’m interested in the facts. How many times did you sleep with Valentin?”

“I’m not obliged to respond to your sexist insinuations.”

“Did his father know that he was in love with you?”

Julia sank into silence. Her lawyer answered for her: “Mr. Vrazhev, you have no right to speak to my client that way. My advice to her is to cease answering your provocative questions.”

“Get out of my office. Both of you!” The detective exploded.

Tuesday evening, Lieutenant Vrazhev was let into the Barn after showing his badge. This took place approximately five hours after Julia had spoken to Velizar on Skype, just as she had planned. The writer, exhausted from the trip, was stunned to learn that his son had died of an intravenous injection – whose contents were as of yet unknown – it was unclear whether it had been deliberate or due to an accidental overdose or to the hypersensitivity of his organism. His writerly instinct told him that no one would ever find out the real reason for Valyo’s death. The young man would remain a speck of dust in the famous writer’s biography – a speck of dust his future biographers would carelessly brush off the lapel of his burial suit. And they would hardly find any evidence in the writer’s life that would cause them to conclude that he, like the characters from Dostoyevsky’s novels, had suffered from an unbearable feeling of guilt. During the 21st century, people died without heroism, that was Velizar’s last thought before he sank into a deep sleep – just as they live.

Lieutenant Vrazhev did not have such a lofty attitude towards death. He grabbed his beer from the bar and sat at a table far away from the piano, which was warbling out its jazzy trills. He only drank Zagorka Light. When his eyes adjusted to the semi-darkness, he looked around at the tables. There was no trace of the young man, whose death Vrazhev had to write a conclusion about over the next few days. He was gripped by a sense of shame that he had fallen for that half-American’s insinuations and was filled with indignation towards her. He was about to get up and leave, to regain his self-respect, but it was cozy in the bar – a person with a writer’s sensitivity might say that he felt like he was elevated in the sound-soaked semi-darkness – and the detective, who had spent many long years facing the coarse reality of the lowest human ambitions, felt tired and intoxicated, as if in a woman’s embrace. He relaxed and let his thoughts drift.

At the same moment, Julia was drifting off to sleep, her soul intoxicated with Velizar’s love. She had told him of the detective’s suspicions, she had recounted the interrogation for him almost word-for-word, admitting for the first time that Valentin had been in love with her. Without her returning his feelings. Velizar said that he wasn’t surprised and assured her that he trusted her absolutely, that at his age he simply had no right to be jealous, and since she claimed that she had never slept with his son, he considered that the absolute truth. She was calmed not so much by the writer’s words, as by his gaze, which, despite being tired, was fixed on her and probing as always. Unlike all of her other Skype conversation partners, who looked down as they spoke, i.e., at their own screen, Velizar’s gaze was directed straight at the camera above the screen. He was showing her that he was watching her with his inner eye, in the depths of his brain, despite the fact that her face took up almost the whole of his laptop screen.  She felt like she was inside her man’s soul; she occupied a large and important place there, she was the beloved of her most beloved Bulgarian writer. And, looking at her like that, he told her that he had decided to come back to Bulgaria every year and that he would like her to cancel her ticket for her upcoming trip. They could see each other in December or during his next trip to Bulgaria in June of 2011, he said, when he planned to bring her the finished manuscript of Innocent Victimizers.

As Julia was drifting off, Svetla approached Detective Vrazhev’s table. Half-asleep, he thought she was the woman embracing him and didn’t move so as not to spoil the vision. He only opened his eyes. The girl pointed at the bar: “Look who’s sitting over there, on the chair to the right,” Svetla whispered. “Isn’t that Valentin Vazov?”

Startled, Vrazhev straightened up and stared at the bar, which was bathed in yellow light. In the bright light, he could indeed make out the profile of a young man, who was leaning on the stool and chatting with the bartender with a glass in his hand. Unless his eyes were deceiving him, that face was the same as the face of the dead man whom the detective had seen in the bed in the penthouse on Vladayska Street. Vrazhev rubbed his eyes, but the man was still there. Svetla said: “Did you know that Valentin never did morphine? He only smoked weed.”

“But who are you?” The detective turned towards her voice, but Svetla was already walking away through the tables. As Vrazhev made to follow her, his gaze passed over the right side of the var. Valentin smiled at him and lifted his glass, as if wanting to say cheers.

Horrified, the detective took off after Svetla. However, standing up so quickly made him black out, and he crumpled to the floor. But I’m a hunting dog, he thought to himself, I can’t lose the scent. Which scent: the girl or the dead Valentin? He got up, staring at the bar. There was no one there. Only the bartender, his face furrowed by wrinkles, was carefully wiping the glasses with a white cloth and hanging them on the rack above his head. Before beginning to doubt his mental health, Vrazhev managed to think, somehow sadly, that all bartenders in all bars, whenever you might see them, were always wiping down glasses as if there was nothing more important for a bar than having its glasses shined to a sparkle. Like the keys of a piano.

The piano? He glanced over at it. Svetla had placed her hand on the old jazz musician’s shoulder and was clearly asking him to play her favorite song. Vrazhev didn’t know that it was “December” by Norah Jones. He sniffed the air and froze in a pose, facing the piano. He stood like that for a long time until the song flowed away in the darkness of the bar. Applause came from the tables. Startled, Vrazhev rubbed his eyes. The pianist bowed in various directions. Svetla had disappeared. This young generation is so mysterious, they don’t leave any trace behind themselves, that was the detective’s last thought before taking his hat off the hook and taking off down the street buffeted by the warm June wind.


“          “

            Detective Vrazhev’s conclusion about the case of Valentin Vazov’s death was “suicide, committed by an intravenous overdose of morphine.” Julia and Velizar received copies of it in the fall of 2010. It was October, Indian summer in Sofia and the beginning of summer on Kauai. The detective rejected the theory of premeditated murder due to lack of evidence, noting laconically that the deceased had likely been in a suicidal mood as a result of on-going, subclinical depression. Brought on by unrequited love, Julia said to herself while reading, gripped by a feeling of irreparable guilt. The poor boy, Velizar sighed, folding the report and setting it on his desk. The son of the main character in his novel, who was also a writer with familial ties to the communist regime, would not kill himself, despite his deep depression. He would be sterile, an individual insulted by fate, but not so insensitive to his father’s guilt as to deprive him of the meaning of his life. Velizar had not yet decided whether Valentin had been – or would become – the meaning of his life, but he sensed that in order to be more solid and believable, the main character in his novel had to suffer through the painful question of the meaning of his life and of the compromises he had made in it before his living son’s eyes. The question of guilt and remorse – the eternal human dilemma of crime and punishment – seems easily solvable, once the victim has disappeared from your life. The living continue on, regardless of everything. A tragedy is real only for the one who suspects (even in the absence of material evidence and of a physical killer) that he might be the instigator of the death – moral or physical, does it matter? – of his child.  Even if we don’t consider our children the meaning of our lives, they actually are, Velizar suddenly realized somewhere deep in his soul. To become conscious of this inescapable truth, his character would have to experience his guilt not through his son’s death, but in the presence of his living heir, whose life had been completely ruined.

What was left to Velizar, thousands of miles from the place where these events had taken place, was to write and to carry his cross under the warm sky above Hanalei Bay.


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