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Monday morning found them still in Mavrovo, too languid to move. Rišto finally rose and, for ten denars, borrowed the innkeeper’s cell phone. He called in to work, and when the woman who answered asked if he was sick, Rišto said, “No, I am busy disposing of a horse.”
“My brave husband,” murmured Nikola, when he told her, and she waved him back to the bed. “Brave and naughty. I am sending you to bed without any supper.” She would have gone on, but Rišto silenced her by placing his mouth over hers.
They packed before noon and had a final café lunch, their eyes traveling over the distant snow-tipped peaks. At a nearby table, a waiter spilled a bottle of Perrier, and Nikola looked over, curious. “An accident,” she mused. “Accidents happen.”
Rišto, guessing her train of thought, shook his head. “I’ve only been trying for two weeks. Not even that long.”
“All right. How many more do we give it?”
“Six, maybe. Six total. If the horse is still there after that … ”
“Milco could get us a gun.”
She did not say no.
Those weeks passed quickly. Nikola went to work as before at The Sultan’s Jewel, but when Sašo reached out to touch her shoulder or brush her hair, she swatted him away. Rišto appeared each morning in the office, but spent half his time out and about in the city, chasing down leads, rumors, and tips. The horse, when he tallied up the various reports, had some thirty different supposed owners, mostly deceased. Certain names did crop up with convincing regularity, including Ivo Redžepova and the Kuševkas, but he could find nothing concrete. Nikola, who had begun enquiries of her own, ran down the same blind alleys, the same looping trails. It was she who finally followed the boy who fed the horse, tracked him to his home, and asked, with great politeness and ten thousand denars in her palm, who paid him for his efforts. The boy, far more impressed with Nikola’s bills than by the coins Rišto had offered, explained that he did not know. Money was delivered each month, without fail, in an unmarked envelope. The envelope arrived in the post, and he had no idea who sent it. Rišto met with much the same story when he inquired about the land itself. The taxation authorities shrugged off his queries, telling him that since September of 1991, the very day of Macedonian independence, anonymous payments had arrived like clockwork. They had neither the time nor the personnel to investigate further. As for the courts, a friend of Milco’s who sat on the State Judicial Council wagged his head at Rišto and told him to forget it. “That horse,” he said, “is the only glacier still immune to melting.”
Each evening, except when it rained, Rišto and Nikola walked the one and a half kilometers to visit the horse, to stroke its nose and feed it carrots, turnips, or whatever vegetables they had left over from their meals. Then, as the sun dipped behind the ridge to the west and the huge cross implanted there shone as if gifted with a ghostly backlit halo, they’d stroll home, eat a late supper, and tumble, together, into bed.
The Director called for Rišto on the Monday of the fourth week. “The fruit bread,” he said, “was delicious. I didn’t realize you knew Punka. Next time you see him, tell him thank you, from me.”
Rišto nodded to show that he understood, but said nothing. The Director folded his hands over his considerable stomach, and his gaze drifted out the window, east-facing. In the distance, Rišto knew the Director could see the long greenish roof of the railway station, where a train of newcomers might at any moment arrive.
“How is our horse?” the Director asked, and Rišto responded that it was still there, healthy as ever.
“You realize you are not required to succeed in this. I’m told your other work here is exemplary.”
“Blagodaram. But I trust you are not asking me to give up.”
The Director spread his hands, as if to say, “What could I possibly do to stop you?” and Rišto returned to his office, noting along the way that his co-worker’s skulking laughter had long since died away and been replaced with stares, quizzical and furtive. He walked taller in the hallways now, basking in their gaze; it was no great trick to sense the respect that fueled their curiosity.
Once in his office, he picked up the telephone and called Nikola. “Talk to Milco,” he said. “It’s time.”
They went by night, by car, on a Sunday. They left the car running in the alley just by the gate, and they entered the darkened paddock as quietly as the old hinges would allow. As a disguise, both wore bulky winter clothes and hats, but neither had bothered with a full mask; the whole idea, preposterously American, had sent them into paroxysms of nervous giggles. Nikola carried the gun, but she handed it, as agreed, to Rišto once they’d entered the corral. The gun was old and heavy, a service revolver from World War II and taken by force, said Milco, from a retreating German captain.
The horse was a dark shadow lying atop the darker spread of shadow that was the ground. It whickered softly at their approach and tossed its head. For a moment, it made as if to rise, but then it settled again, too muzzy to bother. Rišto and Nikola stood five yards away, close together, their noses full of the smell of horse, their pulses thunking away like angry little motors. Rišto raised the revolver. His finger briefly caressed the trigger, then lifted away.
“I don’t know,” he said.
Nikola looked around, ostensibly for police — for anyone paying the least attention to their waiting vehicle — but there was no one in sight. The rail station had fallen silent, and even on the Boulevard Jane Sandanski, so busy by day, traffic had vanished. The hum of distant cars was hardly louder than the chirrup of a lone cricket singing someplace under the matted hay.
Rišto drew a constitutional breath and took careful aim, staring down the revolver’s cylindrical barrel at a point directly between the horse’s enormous blinking eyes. Or were they blinking? No. The horse, entirely trusting, had gone back to sleep.
“It’s asleep,” he whispered. “I can’t shoot it if it’s asleep.”
“Adje! What do you want me to do? Should I wake it up?”