They stopped to rest on the ridge, Abrinkovich, the Russian; Kalpinski, the Pole; and the brooding Finn Salomaki. They could hear the dogs behind them, scrambling up the ravine. The sound of cracking whips echoing off the canyon walls sounded like gunshots. Bonuses would be paid to whoever brought them in.
“Dead or alive, it doesn’t matter to me,” Chernakov, the camp director, told everyone who’d signed up for the hunt, and he meant it. “There’s less paperwork if they’re returned horizontal.”
The trio studied the terrain stretching out before them, a course of jagged outcrops and frozen tundra. After this ridge there was another, and then another. Bear, wild boar, wolves. The numbing cold. Knees wobbly from the climb.
“This way,” barked Abrinkovich, who’d authored the escape, noticing the glint of water trickling from a rock face. “We can refill our jugs.”
“That way,” said Kalpinski, a bent index finger aimed at a ghostly stand of spruce. “If we’re lucky, there’ll be some moon. We can walk all night.”
Salomaki said little, as always. Just as long as they were moving in the right direction. One step closer to the border.
“Discuss your knitting patterns later, girls,” he said. Every utterance was like a burst of smoke spat into the brittle northern air.
Abrinkovich had been serving a life sentence for strangling a prostitute in Donetsk. Kalpinski had bashed in his landlord’s brains with a fire poker for pestering him about an overdue payment. From his belt swung the hatchet he’d used to finish off a double-crossing guard.
“He had a big mouth,” he said. “I was going to kill him anyways.”
Salomaki had blacked out in an alley, too much grog, waking the next morning on a train outside Stavropol shackled between a whiny Hungarian swindler and a political from Latvia.
“The camps needed more welders, and I’m one of the best,” he’d said, but then everyone had a story, and there was no way of testing its truth. In the camps, no one cared about such things. “The judge said the Fatherland needed me. How’s that for justice?”
“If it’s justice you were looking for, Finn,” said Kalpinski, “you should have gone to a brothel. If you wanted to get screwed, you should have gone to court.”
At first thaw the road crew began widening and then extending what centuries earlier had been a game trail and then a footpath, their work songs ringing like Orthodox chants through the dense boreal forest. Prisoners resided in tents salvaged from the battlefields, blood splatter still visible on some of the moldy canvas walls. With the nearest village hundreds of miles from the worksite, an apron of barbwire was unnecessary, as were extra guards. Director Chernakov was delighted, as prisoners could wander at will, reducing costs and easing tensions. The animals took care of any runners.
“There’s no need to send out a search party,” Chernakov boasted to visitors, mostly report-writing bureaucrats from the capital. “The beasts waste nothing.”
The right man to oversee the camp, it was said of Chernakov. “He’d do well on either side of the fence.”
Names pulled from a tobacco tin placed the three of them in the same tent. Given the circumstances, considering the proximity, most prisoners kept their distance until the measure of a man was taken. Communication was sparse: asides, complaints, profanities—all acceptable, but it was not thought prudent to reveal too much. You might be talking with a man who’d slide a shiv between your ribs for distributing the bread ration unequally.
Abrinkovich couldn’t abide the silence of his new quarters. His tongue was incapable of rest.
“Konstantine Zoran Abrinkovich,” he introduced himself. “Prisoner number 983506.” A palsy rendered his right eye moist and festering. Several times per day an intestinal worm caused him to duck behind a bush. A putrid smell clung to the man.
Miroslaw Kalpinski, prisoner number 703587, had a tattoo encircling his neck, a noose, hanging being the usual fate awaiting runners. A boil red as a whore’s lipstick gripped one frostbitten cheek.
“I’ve harmed no one,” maintained Jarkko Salomaki, prisoner number 324154, “I’ve taken nothing.” Resentful. A volcanic temper. If there was a list of the most feared in that ungodly place, his name would be near the top.