The midnight wind was coming in cold and hard from Zoloty Rog Bay when Yuri stepped out of the Bakunin and made his way down Poslednaya ulitsa, the Last Street. The Street was long and straight, a backbone to the strip of land that jutted out of the heart of the city into the cold waters of the North Pacific. The night did the streetscape few favours. The dim yellow-tinted glare from the few un-vandalised streetlights cast the uniform whitewash as luminous bone. Rows of squarish buildings had become a mouth of ugly, uneven teeth. No other pedestrians walked the streets here. It was not a destination, just a gap between other places. It was Yuri’s home.
Like the buildings surrounding it, the Kolchak was squat, squarish and whitewashed. Yuri never knew how the Armenian found business. There were no travellers here, only empty warehouses and half-constructed shells of buildings. The only clientele the Hotel served were the truly lost, wandering in from the docks. Except now there was a bundle of rags at the entrance. A street child, knees clutched to chest but otherwise ignorant of the chill.
Yuri stopped a few yards away, squatting to bring his eye line to theirs. It was a girl, he thought, from the length of the dirty blond hair that fell across its dirt-encrusted face. The child’s hands were buried deep in a too-large coat. He thought he spied bare, broken toes underneath the hem.
“Have you seen my father?,” the child asked. She – if it was a she – was young, younger than he had initially thought.
Yuri shook my head. “No one around here, little one. Is he a card player?”
The child stared at him, not understanding. He waved my hand, dealing out an invisible deck. Sunken eyes watched his fingers move. “Durak? He gambles?”
“I don’t know. I… think so.” The child’s voice was full of empty spaces.
“He disappears like this a lot? You’ve come too far, then. The dens are on the other side of the loading yards. You should try there.”
He pointed, up the ulitsa, toward the muted dragon-lights in the distance. The child hesitated, nodded, but did not move from the step. She could look forever for her father, whoever he was. There were countless speakeasy cafes, low-rent casinos and basement safehouses there. The area was a maze, where a gambler could remain forever lost until he came up for air or ran out of money.
Yuri stepped past her and into the Kolchak. The foyer was lit with the flickering light of candles; as he opened the front door, the light bowed and twisted, almost strobing from the gust of North Pacific wind. Varoujan wasn’t at his desk. He couldn’t be far off. The sound of some drunken Caucasian hymn came drifting down the hallway, likely from the Armenian’s office. Yuri removed a candle from the foyer’s desk and took the stairs slowly, the weight of two day’s driving pressing down upon him.
Three flights of cement-block steps and featureless hallways later and the flame’s greasy light found little to illuminate. The room was sparsely decorated; a bed, a suitcase of clothes, a pile of books in various languages stacked haphazardly in the corner. Yuri had lived there for some time, certainly for the majority of years that he’d spent in the Last City. Even then, what ornamentation or personality the room possessed was not wholly through any act of his own.
A well-dusted wedding photo in a simple tin frame sat upon the windowsill. It portrayed a young man, no more than twenty, with a woman of similar age or perhaps a little younger. Yuri knew little of pre-Revolutionary military regalia, but the uniform and medals proudly emblazoned on the young man’s chest mark him as a low-ranking Imperial officer – perhaps an Unteroffizier or Praporshchik. There appeared to be little love lost between the groom and his admittedly rather plain bride. His lips were parted slightly, nostrils flared and eyes shining – Yuri thought – from drink. Her mouth was drawn tight as if reacting to some hidden slight, her hooded eyes staring distastefully through the camera lens. Having looked at the photograph regularly – during the obliviating winter months, even obsessively studied it like some apparatchik poring over a bureaucratic tome – Yuri could describe every mote of expression on those twinned faces. In more imaginative moods, he would ascribe names and personalities to their faces. On some nights, the groom became an honour-bound son of minor noble, she a simple farmer’s daughter. On other nights, He assumed the role of a murdering jackdaw or Menshevik infiltrator, while She transmogrified into a tempestuous Jewess-cum-Mata Hari.
The photograph, along with a damaged revolver under the bed and a pre-Mechanical icon grimly nailed to the wall, had belonged to the room’s previous tenant. The icon in particular was not to Yuri’s tastes, but the nailed Messiah was a rare sight nowadays, and reminded him of earlier times, before the Crimea and all that came after. All three items had been there the first night Yuri had arrived at the Hotel. Varoujan once said it must have been a rare moment of self-reflection at Yuri’s newfound situation – brought on by a series of particularly brutal rounds of Durak which saw the loss of, in order, his drink, money, and boots to a canny longshoreman named Mykola Pavlovich – that caused Yuri to leave the room near-to-exactly as it had been. The memories of someone else’s bad marriage, Varoujan had said, must have been better than no memory at all. Yuri had agreed; he had no past of his own that he wished to embrace.
Beyond the Armenian, Yuri had not shown the photograph to anyone else. Yuri had no one else to show it to, but Varoujan’s verdict had been that he preferred his own numerous fictions, self-defeatingly circuitous as they may be, to any imposed reality. This was evident, Varoujan suspected, in that Yuri had never asked him what had happened to that previous occupant. Yuri’s own belief was that, regardless of any tale he could create within that contained frame, the story had come to an end in Hotel Kolchak’s rear hallway. Somewhere amongst the frantic stippling of bullet holes, the drag-marks and dark, aged stains.
“Shut up,” says Varoujan, “and listen to this.”
The Armenian was drunk, rotating a half-empty bottle of Rkatsiteli and hand-rolled cigarette between his right hand and mouth. The fingers of his left hand constantly roved, whether prodding Yuri in the chest with a sharp index finger, slapping the table to emphasise a key argument or, as now, removing a large leather-bound book from the sparsely populated bookshelf behind Hotel Kolchak’s cracked but clean counter.
“You need to understand, friend, our place in life,” said Varoujan as he opened the tome to a well-thumbed page. In faded green and white, the Russian Empire stretched out. Rivers and mountains alike were etched there in crisp Cyrillic script, although even they were difficult to read in the flickering light of Varoujan’s blackout-proof candles. It was an old map, the borders pre-Mechanical.
“That’s the nicest atlas I have ever seen in Vladivostok,” Yuri said. Varoujan grinned at the genuine admiration in his voice, his teeth gleaming through his thick black beard.
“It is the only atlas you will see in Vladivostok. Everyone else is a geographical philistine. Here, I show you.”
With the melodramatic flourish of a drunkard, the Armenian ripped the page from the book and waved it aloft like a multi-coloured flag.
“If you were to pick up the Russian Empire,” he said, placing one hand by Petrograd and the other near Kiev, “and tilt it, you would watch all the wastrels and vagabonds slip and slide along the mighty length of the continent.”
The taste of cheap wine was still full in Yuri’s mouth as he watched ash fall from the Armenian’s cigarette onto the page and do just that. Their eyes – Yuri’s dulled, Varoujan’s triumphal – traced the dark embers as they skipped across their homelands, then down through Central Asia, Transbaikal and Siberia.
“See, Vladivostok!,” Varoujan exclaimed as the ash finished its journey at the edge of the light blue Pacific. “The final place to go before you run out of world. The Last City.”
“No way out,” Yuri agreed.
The city did have a strange magnetism to it, Yuri had to admit. It was not really Russian. It not really anything. The city had been founded as far East as European Russians could travel without building an ocean-going ship. It sat on a dogleg strip of land owned by the Soviets, surrounded by the follies of rival empires. Korea crumbled to the south, the eternal badlands of Manchuria to the west. And always, where the sun rose across the ocean and stained the waters red, Nippon. Held by anti-Imperial revolutionaries when the Empire dominated all else, Vladivostok had been taken over by the dying remnants of the Empire’s forces when all else had fallen to the revolutionaries, and had even attempted independence for a brief, foolish moment. The waves of war had taken their toll onto the jerry-built city. The strata of multiple defeats were plainly obvious in the bullet-dappled architecture. Yuri had ended up on the wrong side of history myself, and felt a degree of sympathy to the city. Varoujan, he assumed, was like Yuri inasmuch that he was undoubtedly a vagabond escaping from the West hoping that, months’ travel from the wars that consumed homelands, he would find some degree of solace. As they both knew well, now, the city provided no such succour, only some delayed discontentment. Some said that a pearl was crafted from pressure, grit and irritation. Vladivostok had all that, in quantity, but nothing priceless had emerged. It was more like a scab, a wound on the roof of the mouth that would heal if it were just left alone, if you could ever do it.
“Varoujan. Your map.”
“Yes, Yuri Nikolaevich?”
Yuri motioned. The cigarette ash had sat upon the page too long, and burned a hole through the paper. The cinders scattered, dark little scribbles on the floor.
“Ah, me,” said Varoujan, and shook his head forlornly. “If anything, that proves my argument. There’s only one wait out of here, and that’s straight down to Hell.”