When the doctors at the San Ignatio Private Hospital told Nicolas Tsarkin he was going to die, the old man nodded sullenly, waited until the men had left, then dressed without speaking another word and drove his Mercedes to the corner of the Calle Palma three blocks away.
He parked the car and walked back the last block to the small commercial bank on the corner, pushed through the revolving doors, and told the manager he wanted to see his safe-deposit box.
The manager promptly ordered a senior clerk to go down to the vault with the old man: Señor Tsarkin, after all, was a valued customer.
“Then tell him to go. I want to be left alone,” Tsarkin said in his usual abrupt manner.
“Certainly, Señor Tsarkin. Thank you, Señor Tsarkin.” A final, polite bow from the manager, and then, “Buenos días, Señor Tsarkin.”
The blue-suited manager irritated Tsarkin, as usual, but especially so this morning, with his bowing and scraping and ingratiating, gold-toothed smile.
Buenos días. Good morning. What was good about it?
He had just been told he had less than forty-eight hours to live, and right now the pain in his stomach was eating into him like a fire, almost unendurable. He felt weak, terribly weak, despite the drugs to quell the pain. What had he to smile about? What was good about this morning?
The last morning of his life, because he knew now what he had to do.
And yet the truth was, Tsarkin felt a strange kind of relief: the lie would soon be over.
He caught a reflection of himself in the cold, stainless-steel walls as the clerk led him down into the cool of the vault. Tsarkin was ninety-one and, until six months ago, had looked ten years younger. He had been fit then, ate the proper foods, never smoked, and rarely drank. Everyone said he would make the century.
They were wrong.
His reflection in the stainless-steel wall showed him as he was: emaciated, looking like a corpse already, the bleeding in his stomach so bad that he could almost feel the life draining from him. But he had important things to do, no matter what the pain, no matter what the doctors had told him. And once those things were done he could sleep peacefully, forever.
Unless there really was a God and a hereafter, in which case he would pay for his sins. But Tsarkin doubted it. No just God would have let him live so long and so full and so rich a life after all he had done. No, you just died. It was that simple. The flesh became dust, and you were gone forever: no pain, no heaven, no hell. Just nothingness.
The clerk unlocked the metal gates and led him through into the basement chamber. It was a small room, six yards by six, silent, a cold marble floor. The clerk examined the key number he held in his hand, ran a finger along the shining steel boxes along one of the walls, found Tsarkin’s deposit box, removed and unlocked the box, and placed it on the polished wooden table in the center of the room. He handed over the key, withdrew, and then Tsarkin was alone.
The vault had the coldness and the silence of a morgue and Tsarkin shivered involuntarily. Soon I’ll be there, he told himself. Soon there will be no pain. As he went to sit at the table he dragged the small metal box toward him, inserted the key, and opened the lid, before removing the contents and spreading the papers out onto the polished table.
All there. The deeds to his lands, the keys to his past. He reconsidered a moment, putting off what had to be done, thought about enjoying one last orgy of indulgence, but truly there was nothing more he wanted to do. The pain made everything unbearable, and, besides, he had enjoyed everything life had to offer.
He gathered up the contents of the deposit box in his hands, sorted them neatly into an orderly pile, and placed them in one of the old, large envelopes that contained some of the papers. It made a neat, hefty bundle. Then he pressed the buzzer for the clerk to return.
• • •
The house stood on the Calle Iguazu, on the outskirts of the city. White and large and surrounded by high walls, barely visible from the road. The classiest part of Asunción, and Tsarkin had been able to afford it. He opened the wrought-iron gates with the remote control, drove up the curved sweep of the asphalt road, and parked the Mercedes on the gravel driveway in front of the house.
He grunted when the mestizo butler opened the front door to greet him. He went straight through to his wood-paneled study and locked the door. It was warm in the study. Tsarkin loosened the two top buttons of his shirt as he looked out onto the lush, manicured gardens, the pepper and palm trees beyond the window. He owned a lot of property in Asunción, and three farms in the Chaco hinterland, but this place had always been his favorite.
He sat down at the polished apple-wood desk and emptied the contents of the envelope onto the gleaming surface and began to sift through the pile.
He looked at the passport first. Nicolas Tsarkin. Fine. Except he wasn’t Nicolas Tsarkin. His real name—he’d almost forgotten it—and then when it came to his lips, so unreal, he had to smile to himself, weakly. So long to live a lie. He put the passport aside.
Once he was wanted in half a dozen countries. Once he did terrible things in that old, forgotten name. Inflicted terrible deaths and terrible pain. And yet the truth was, when you boiled it down, he
couldn’t stand pain himself. He chided himself: it was no time for thought. Do it.
He sorted through the papers. Old, tired papers, tattered records of his past. He read through them once again. As in his nightmares, it all came back to him: the cold terror on the faces of his victims, the blood, the butchery. Yet he felt no remorse.
He would have done it all again. No question.
He put the papers aside, removed several blank sheets of paper and an envelope from the desk drawer, and began writing.
When he finished fifteen minutes later, he sealed the envelope and tucked it into his pocket before crossing to the fireplace, clutching the papers from the safe-deposit box in his hands, and making a neat pile of them in the grate.
He took a match from the box he kept on the mantelpiece, struck it, and set the flame to the papers. Then he crossed to the wall safe hidden behind the framed oil painting, swung back the painting on its hinges, and thumbed through the combination.
He selected the papers he wanted, making sure there was nothing left that might incriminate anyone, and crossed back to the fireplace. Watching as the flames licked the papers, he added more to the blaze, until there was nothing, only black ashes. He checked through the ashes with the poker.
The flames had done their work. Nothing remained.
When he had done all he had had to do, he left the house. He drove to the post office four blocks away, bought the stamp he needed, and posted the letter, express. He drove straight back to the house, parked the car in the garage this time, and went into his study again.
Do it quickly, the voice in his head told him.
No time for thought. No time for thinking about the pain to come. From the top drawer of the polished apple-wood desk he took out the long-barreled Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum revolver, checked that the chambers were loaded, then placed the barrel of the weapon in the roof of his mouth, letting his lips form a perfect O around the cold metal.
He squeezed the trigger.
It was all over in less than a second, and Tsarkin never heard the explosion that flung him up and backward, shattering half his brain, as the bullet ripped out through the back of his skull, sending shards of bone and bloodied brain matter flying into the air behind him, spattering the white walls gray and red as the blunted lead of the bullet embedded itself in the wood below the ceiling.
Less than a second of primary pain.
All in all, Nicolas Tsarkin could not have wished for a more quick and painless death.