My house, barely more than a hovel, sat on the south side of a green pillow of a hill, between a pair of very old oaks. My neighbors were terribly suspicious at first, and rightly so. Under communism, Romania had been forced to import a number of skilled workers from Russia and East Germany, 90% of whom later left, taking much of the country’s wealth with them, so outsiders were viewed with a mix of curiosity and skepticism. I believe the rumor was that I was a former KGB assassin who had fled the collapse of the Soviet Union—and reprisal—to hide among those remote hills. After overhearing the story at a neighbor’s house, which doubled as a small market, I fostered it by leaving Soviet paraphernalia half-hidden under books, as if they were fragments of a former life. That lie, however inconvenient at the end, was for a time far better than the truth. It explained, for example, why I never revealed details of my past and why, despite my apparent youth and good looks, I chose to live alone. But mostly, its value was that it encouraged people not to ask.
That cloud of uncertainty, however, meant that to the villagers I was an inchoate mix of assassin and witch. Hence, every anomaly, from missing livestock to unusual accident or death, saw me the first to be questioned, which is how I came to know the lanky and impressive Inspector Dragoș, who I noticed one morning walking with his contingent up the path from the road at the base of the hill. His eyes were covered in dark glasses, as they nearly always were, and his stout nose jutted over his bushy black mustache. The inspector had detained me seven times, always accompanied by at least four other officers, as if he actually believed the rumors that I was a cold-blooded international assassin. I never knew whether to be flattered or insulted.
He stopped at the knee-high picket fence that surrounded my lot, despite that he was a tall man and could’ve stepped over it easily.
“Miss Dubrovna,” he said with a polite nod.
Irena Dubrovna was then my alias. I made no secret of my Russian heritage. There was no point. It was hard enough living day after day under an assumed identity. Adding an assumed nationality on top of that just seemed exhausting. I chose the name Dubrovna because it had been the family name of one of my nursemaids and so was familiar to me. I chose “Rena” because it sounded similar enough to Mila that I wouldn’t have trouble learning to respond.
“Inspector.” I stood up from my garden. My hands were filthy, and I wiped the sweat from my forehead with the back of my wrist. “How nice to see you again. What is it this time? Has someone’s horse turned up lame? Perhaps Old Man Ruchik has had another fall.”
“Please.” He motioned to the cars idling on the road below, one of which had a back door open in anticipation of my arrival. It looked like a giant beetle readying for flight.
I pulled the red bandanna from my head and wiped my hands on it. There were four men behind him. I was sure there were at least two more behind the house, blocking any escape, a fact confirmed to me a moment later when my chickens made a ruckus in their coop by the back door.
I held up my dirty hands. “Give a lady a moment to clean up?” I asked in Hungarian.
My Romanian was weak, which the inspector well knew. Most of our interviews had been conducted in Hungarian, which was reasonably common. In fact, I believe the good inspector was one-quarter Hungarian on his mother’s side.
“I’m afraid not,” he said. “You will need to come now.”
I heard heavy footsteps trampling the flowers on the sides of my house, the ones I had just planted. I sighed.
“Must be serious,” I said.
But he didn’t respond. He simply turned and raised his hand to the car as one of his lieutenants opened the squeaky gate in the fence and held it for me.
“A gentleman,” I said in simple Romanian.
A barrel of a woman with shoulders like a cage and a face like a bat stepped out of the car as I approached. I raised my arms and waited for her to frisk me. It was her only duty, and she carried it out rigorously and with military efficiency. Once everyone was sure I was unarmed, I got into the back, where Inspector Dragoș sat on one side of me and his lieutenant on the other. After a brief wait in the hot car, where I’m sure everyone could smell my sweat and the dark earth on my fingers and boots, we were joined by two more cars carrying the rear guard—seven more men, making a very unlucky total of thirteen. From my house, we drove in silence for nearly an hour until we reached the closest city. We stopped in front of a dour single-story structure with an asphalt roundabout in front. Above the door, I saw the golden eagle of the Poliția Română.
Dragoș’s lieutenant took me to an interview room while the inspector carried out official business. I was allowed a restroom break, and when I returned—fingers and nails finally clean—Dragoș was waiting for me, mustache and all. He had replaced his sunglasses with tinted eyeglasses through which he studied me with years of experience. The inspector had grown up under a dictator and survived a change of regime, which had left him as hardened as any big city beat cop. From what I gathered across our numerous encounters—mostly in brief snippets of conversation with his lieutenants, too young to know better than to talk to the suspects, especially the pretty ones—Dragoș was the son of farmers and approached law enforcement with a similar philosophy. To him, justice wasn’t something that was dealt, case by case, so much as it was sown. I was certain that if he felt I had committed a crime, even if he couldn’t prove it, he would have no difficulty charging me with a different one entirely, perhaps even a false one, as long as there was parity.
However, he was not corrupt, and the reverse was also true. If he was sure I had not committed a crime, Inspector Dragoș would not be the one to see me punished for it.
“Your papers are forged,” he told me through a haze of cigarette smoke. “We have enough to arrest you right now.”
Feels good to be writing again. Another rough cut from the fifth and final course of my forthcoming full-course occult mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS.
cover image by Qistina Khalidah