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The Skin on the Bear

Matthew McGuinness

An excerpt from ‘The Skin on the Bear’

‘By the shrine. Here. Here,’ said Grabowski, jabbing his finger at a little stone grotto coming up fast by the side of the road.

Urbaniak braked at the last moment and turned the patrol car onto the forest track. An eighteen-wheeler from Ukraine that had been riding up their arses all the way from Jarocin went barrelling past and blasted them with its horn. Grabowski twisted in his seat and muttered into his moustache.

‘Fucking chadziajs.’

Urbaniak crossed himself airily on account of the statue sheltering in the grotto.

The car juddered violently as they motored over the frozen mud surface of the track, passing down a straight tunnel of leafless ash trees and silver birch.

‘Krawiec! Hoy, Krawiec,’ shouted Urbaniak over the wheel noise, glancing into his rear-view mirror. A skinny man-boy lounged on the back seat wearing an Aquascutum baseball cap – Jarocin town council’s contractor for seizures and car removals. He leaned forward, tapping a diamond-studded ear. Urbaniak raised his voice a notch. ‘You met this guy before? This Olenski?’

Krawiec shrugged. ‘Me and Stef went there for small stuff – TVs and computers. Didn’t find any.’

‘Did you see any firearms in the house? Or knives?’

Jezus Maria, don’t wet yourself,’ said Grabowski. ‘There’s no gun licence at the address.’

‘You can never be sure with country boys,’ said Urbaniak, but his partner just shook his head and turned to stare out of the window.

Grabowski wasn’t himself – hadn’t been for a couple of days. His usual stream of bile had more or less dried up. The change had come about on Tuesday during a visit to his regular night-duty fuck. Urbaniak had been surprised to see his partner emerge from the apartment block after only about ten minutes with a face on him like a Tatar’s arse. Best not to probe, he had concluded – beware of unexploded bombs.

Urbaniak let the question of firearms slide too. He shouted over his shoulder at Krawiec instead: ‘So how did Olenski take it? A couple of bailiffs turning up I mean. Did he threaten you?’

‘Threaten? Me? That’s funny. Very funny,’ said Krawiec.

Urbaniak continued to watch the young man in the rear-view mirror.

‘Threatened?’ Krawiec continued. ‘I don’t know how you can even say that. You’d need a diamond drill to get through this toughened exterior, officer my man.’

Grabowski snorted. ‘You’d be pissing your baggy-arsed jeans if you had to police a cup tie.’

‘OK, big man,’ said Krawiec. ‘You just give it your best shot with Olenski,’ and he leaned back in his seat.

‘What do you mean?’ asked Urbaniak. But the conversation was apparently over. Krawiec was working the whole gangster thing – his legs and arms spread wide, nodding along to a beat in his head.

They crossed a boggy frozen stream, rattling over a plank bridge, and a little further on emerged into a clearing – the end of the road. On the far side of the open space there was a row of four cottages – brick-built, with upper floors made of dark grainy timber. Spread out over the greater part of the clearing was a jumbled assembly of fridges, bed frames, tyres, bathroom suites, prams, radiators and all the other bits of junk that Franek Olenski had scrounged over the years. He was a familiar figure in the villages, towing a loaded trailer behind his rusty Polonez – peering over fences.

Urbaniak drove slowly round the edge of the dump and parked by the cottages. Climbing out, he gave a complicated whistle of amazement.

‘I know man. Must be worth thousands in scrap value,’ said Krawiec. He slammed the car door and the noise clattered around the forest, causing a woodpecker to leave off hammering momentarily. ‘I told them at the court. I said they should just take this.’

‘Health risk?’ speculated Urbaniak.

Krawiec shook his head: ‘I’d turn this into liquid assets in twenty-four hours. No problem.’

‘Did you remember your kit?’ sighed Grabowski, zipping up his winter coat on the other side of the car. Krawiec produced a leather tool roll from the pocket of his over-size parka and waved it aloft. Grabowski continued wearily: ‘Right. It doesn’t look like our man is here. At least his car isn’t. So, Urbaniak, you can knock up the first set of neighbours and I’ll do the second. Ask if they know when he’s going to be back. And you,’ he said, addressing Krawiec, ‘just stay put.’

A tabby cat – a long-legged huntress – had sidled out from among the junk and Krawiec was already busy making friends with it.

Urbaniak rattled the gate of the first cottage. No dog came. He went round to the back of the house and saw an Alsatian with a patchy coat chained to a stake. It was shivering on the ground among its own turds. It stood up without barking.

Someone was obviously at home in the cottage. Heavy yellow smoke was spilling out of the chimney. The back door was open so Urbaniak walked in. Standing in an unlit hallway he called out several times and eventually footsteps were heard, slow and heavy, rising up some basement stairs. A man emerged from a door on the left and flicked a light switch. A bare overhead bulb came on. The man was about thirty – unshaven with red-rimmed, evasive eyes.

‘Sorry. I was seeing to the boiler,’ he said in vague, far-away voice. He stripped off a pair of dirty latex gloves but didn’t offer his hand.

‘Officer Urbaniak from Jarocin. Sorry to intrude.’

The man ignored the presented ID.

‘Bednarek. You’re looking for Franek I suppose.’

‘Yes Sir, we are. Do you know when …’

‘He’s not around.’

‘When will Mister Olenski be back?’

‘How should I know? He’s a free man.’

‘When does he usually come back?’

‘He does as he pleases. I’m not his mother.’

Urbaniak took a deep breath and regrouped.

The name Bednarek was familiar. The original complainant maybe? Yes. The neighbour who petitioned the court to get Olenski’s junk taken away.

‘How have things been between you and Olenski?’ he asked. ‘Since the court decision?’

Bednarek didn’t answer. He stared down at his hands, which were twisting and stretching the latex gloves.

‘Has he threatened you in any way?’

No answer.

‘I expect he was a bit annoyed to be fined wasn’t he?’

Bednarek threw the gloves aside. ‘Listen to me,’ he said, spitting out the words, but in an undertone as if someone were sleeping in the next room. ‘I don’t know why you think you have to chase Franek and plague him and make his life a misery. It’s nothing to do with me. Fining him! What good is that going to do anyone?’ His red-rimmed eyes were no longer evasive; they were narrow and scornful.

Urbaniak glanced over his shoulder towards the door. ‘Well, isn’t that a bit ungrateful?’ he said. ‘I mean, I don’t know all the details, but the court did tell Olenski to clear away his rubbish, and that’s what you wanted, right? He obviously hasn’t complied, so they had to fine him really. It’s just their procedure.’

Bednarek now had his arms crossed tightly as if to restrain himself, and stood staring at the floor, breathing heavily.

Urbaniak continued: ‘He didn’t even pay the fine. That’s why we’ve come – to take his car away. We’re on your side, you see?’

‘Oh Jesus,’ said Bednarek. ‘You’re taking his car now? God, forgive me. I just wanted the rubbish removed, that’s all. How’s the man going to live without a car?’

‘What do you care?’ said Urbaniak with a shrug. ‘Look at the state of that area out front. There’s probably battery acid and all sorts running off it into your well. That animal deserves everything he gets.’

Bednarek screwed his fists up, and Urbaniak popped the stud on his baton holder. There was silence for a few seconds.

‘Come in,’ said Bednarek coldly. ‘Let me show you something.’

They went through into the main part of the house – Urbaniak hanging back just a little. There was one room for living and sleeping, with a large pull-out sofa bed and a cot next to it. A glass coffee table was covered with dirty cups and plates, and an old cathode tube TV was showing a computer game paused in mid-shootout. The place smelled of farts.

Bednarek snatched his phone from the windowsill and positioned himself next to Urbaniak. He began thumbing through pictures on the screen and showing them one by one. In the first there was a chubby-legged girl of about three, naked, sitting in a paddling pool. The Alsatian was in the background drinking from the water. Next one: the same child pedalling a tricycle, open-mouthed, probably squealing. Old car tyres had been laid out to make a race track for her. Next: a close-up of the girl, aged about five now, cuddling a more clean-cut version of Bednarek and wearing a pink crocheted skull-cap.

Something was happening out in front of the house. Urbaniak could hear raised voices, but it would be disrespectful to look away from the photos. He shut out the sound instead.

In the next picture the girl was lying in a bare white cot, hugging a teddy bear and making the same open-mouthed squealy face, but now she only had wisps of hair, and smooth ridges where her eyebrows should have been.

‘Leukemia,’ said Bednarek in a matter-of-fact tone, as if he were saying the girl’s name. ‘She’s in the special unit over at Poznań, due to have her second lot of chemo.’

‘I’m sorry. I hope everything works out for you. What are the doctors saying?’

‘My wife’s there. She deals with all that.’

‘She sends the pictures does she? Keeps you updated?’

‘It was her who blamed the cancer on Franek’s rubbish. Just what you said – claimed he’d poisoned the water. So because of that she convinced the doctors or social workers or whatever to let them stay full time, sleeping together in a room at the hospital. I didn’t think she was right about the rubbish, but I wrote to the court anyway – asked them to get it taken away. I’d have done anything just to get my kid home, at least between chemo sessions. I just wanted to be a family again. But then she told me – my wife. She said it didn’t really matter what the court said or what happened with the rubbish. She wasn’t ever coming home. Whether our daughter lived or died, that was the end for us. She got a court order – banned me from the hospital.’

Bednarek paused on a picture of the girl with a distinctly yellow complexion, wired up to canulas and computers in hospital. She was glancing over the top of her Gameboy, looking distinctly annoyed at the intrusion.

Urbaniak hardly knew what to say. It was obvious now why Bednarek had come on so hostile earlier. He’d summoned up devils – the courts and the police – and now there was no way of exorcising them. Reporting your neighbour really was the one unforgiveable sin in a village, let alone a tiny hamlet like this. Bednarek would live to regret it for sure.

The clamour of voices started up outside again. Urbaniak went over to the window and pulled aside the dirty lace curtain. A Polonez saloon from the eighties – brush painted in dark green – had been parked behind the patrol car. Krawiec was kneeling next to the driver’s side working at the lock, and Grabowski was standing guard over him, baton in hand. A third man was squaring up to them. He was short, with bowed legs – dressed in blue dungarees over at least two sweaters. Between fits of arm-waving and shouting he rocked from foot to foot. It was Olenski.

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