In the ancient faiths they say a man without tattoos is invisible to the gods.
In the Russian prisons they say, a man without tattoos does not exist.
Nikolai’s skin is a hoarse-throated whisper that duly recites what he has done; his self etched into him with soot and sharpened splinters, with needles and little care for his health. He has several prescriptions for penicillin.
The police do not require Kolya’s skin. Their brands are superficial – name, number, handler. Things may be taken away at their discretion. Stars on shoulders, like scars on body, Kolya always wears. Brand on his mind proves hard to eradicate.
He heard other men go into Vory V Zakone, do not come out. Not dead, just absorbed, like blood on carpet. They soak in, and do not come out. Their brand is shallow. It washes away in blood.
Kolya wears police brand on his mind, as indelible as Christ on his breast. He is policeman as hard, as sure as he was gang leader. One brand does not excise other; scar of gang leader is scar of policeman. They are same. Policeman Kolya rescues: feeding girls, babies, into pipeline to safety. Gangleader Kolya ‘liberated’ car parts into pipeline to new cars. They are same.
Do not trust. In prison, men break promises. Further down order you are, more promises to you are broken. Outside prison is same. Powerful men break promises to weak men. Weak men must always keep word. Become powerful.
Do not be afraid. Fear kills. Fear is death. Fear makes men weak. Never be weak. Man who is afraid is half-dead already.
Do not beg. Ask for anything, it will be denied. Prison and police, same. Never ask. Always order, or remain silent; order those below. Remain silent to those above. Only weak men ask. Patience and silence make me strong. Man who begs receives nothing.
Further into forest, more firewood. Policeman Kolya will take everyone. Not satisfied to pick off small twigs at edge of forest: is king-killer. Gang leader Kolya wished to lead all gangs where he grew up. Killed men. Took competitors’ heads. Policeman Kolya wishes to take all Vory V Zakone. Is same.
For time, Kolya is king.
The Prince of Thieves. Sternum. Man suffered on cross at behest of father. Man died for father. Kolya takes no pride in this. It should be Kirill’s.
Kneel no more. Lies. Lies on knees. Kolya is king, but must kneel. Kirill wears crown, Kolya sits in throne. Policeman Kolya bows to handler, kneels to logging of activities, bends to law he once rejected. Kolya kneels, Kolya bows, Policeman Kolya is not law. Is its instrument.
It is important to remain a human being. Hard to observe. Gangleader Kolya was man of action and small plans. Policeman Kolya has long-seated plans. Plans of this nature require inhumanity. Anna remains human. Stepan is human, crazy brave bastard. Kolya remembers he is human, but cannot afford to be human. In land of monsters, to be king is to be biggest monster.
Little prince Kirill understands. He is not monster like old man Semyon, Kirill is own monster, new monster, monster with tiny man trapped inside. Kolya remembers he is human, but also remembers he wears monster skin. Each symbol is scale.
In spite of destiny. In that town, little to be done but steal or be stolen from. Leave, or die trying. Men grow old without seeing life. Women bury sons, daughters bury fathers. Everyone dies; all imprisoned, behind bars or before. Gang leader Kolya makes decision which is best for survival, no more. Destiny claimed him for prison. Intelligence claimed him for police. Hard work drags him here. Kolya is instrument of law, not plaything of destiny.
For time, Kolya is king. He sits in throne, passes orders to Kirill’s mouth; Kirill wears crown, speaks orders to the world. Sometimes, yes, there is fighting. Semyon would not do it this way. Semyon would not ask for that.
When Kolya was boy, very small boy, there was dog, very big dog. No one dare go near dog, vicious motherfucker. Take your hand off, right off. Dog covered in old scars; dog’s master beat him. Dog is afraid. Even after master of dog ‘falls under train’ (master of dog also beats wife; man who beats one thing he loves beats others soon too; his wife not as patient or as loyal s dog), dog is afraid. Still barks at nothing. Still bite your hand off.
Little Prince Kirill cannot be taught with beating. He knows beating. He is stranger to reason.
Kolya is king, Kirill is face of king. Policeman Kolya knows he will put Kirill one day on witness stand, and all kindness will be repaid. Gang leader Kolya knows Kirill one day will kill or be killed. Just like father; just like Kolya.
Where the hell are you going? What the hell do you care? With ankles bound is still possible to march into hell.
Let all I have lived be as if it were a dream. Stitches in Kolya’s back are many as stars in sky (sky outside London, not under thick black soup in city). Scar through Kolya’s tattoos distorts and destroys. Like motion of time, blood washes away even deep brands; not clean, but stained new colours. Time forms scars of wounds, empires of ashes, children of babies, calm of sorrow.
Anna’s face is lined with no further sorrow; Kirill asks, sometimes, what should be done.
Nothing should be done.
(Father would not do it like that).
Sometimes, Kolya wishes he can tell Kirill your father is dead, but for now: you are not Semyon. I am not Semyon. Leave them. Is long road, taking to pieces empire; Vory V Zakone cannot fall to revolution, must crumble like rotting building. Brick by brick.
Is long road, healing the sick. Policeman Kolya is Doctor Kolya; Gang leader Kolya is King Kolya; for poetic reasons, is better to save Kirill than condemn him alongside father.
Cannot fool yourself. In prison is important to trust no one. Trust only that they mean harm. In police, same; trust only that glory is stolen, charges dropped, department fucks department, government fucks everyone, handlers fuck undercover, Hague fuck up. No one believe Vory V Zakone go down, no one believe if Vory V Zakone go down other Vorys can be taken down also.
Senior Officer Miles uses word “hubris”, but is grudgingly impressed. Talks as if throne of Vory V Zakone is like tiger, impossible to ride and bound to kill him. Kolya tells him it is chair of ghost presiding over death-rattle of corpse Vory V Zakone has become. Senior Officer Miles is not convinced.
King is easier than gang leader. No more heads to be taken. Everyone think Kolya acts for them. Would be easy to fall. Forget to check in. Forget Senior Officer Miles, Russian Desk at Scotland Yard.
But he will remain human, throw Kirill to wolves.