Too Late

excerpt THE MURDERER COMES OUT INTO THE LIGHT The prosecutor's office. Costa, Enache, Munteanu, Oană, the gendarmes lieutenant. Costa has pinned to the wall the general layout of the mine working. He looks like a teacher at the blackboard. "Gentlemen, I have decided to have it done with. By tomorrow, the UNDERMAN will be in our hands… or he won't be at all." Munteanu tries to say something. Costa cuts him short from the first syllable. "I've got no time! Mister head engineer, get the people out. All of them. Call the roll: let no sleeper remain underground. The third shift is not going in. Then you turn off the ventilation. Tonight there'll be no air from blowers in the mine!" "What if-" says Munteanu. "Questions only when I'm done. Your job, Mr. Munteanu, is to block all the shafts. Lieutenant, assign some of your people to help him." "At your orders," says Ulea. "I've got some tarpaulins." Costa ticks off the shafts on the layout with a red felt-tip pen. "Oană, you block the main gallery. You place the sergeant on guard, have him stay all night by the door." "The door's shabby, prosecutor, sir," Oană objects, as he seems to have understood. "The air is passing through." "Plug it with fiberglass." He marks the gallery on the layout too, as if plugging it. "That's it. No air must come in! We'll leaving only the SOUTH access open. It's up to him: either he comes out or chokes inside. I for one think he'll come out. On all fours! We're going to be there, lieutenant. I want to look him in the eye." The main gallery. The miners are hurrying out. A foreman counts: 848, 849, 850… someone is asking what's going on. Costa flies at him: "Enough talking!" The foreman resumes, almost losing the thread: 856, 857, 859. This was the last. He reports: "Evacuation has been completed, sir" "Shut the doors," orders Costa. "Don't forget to leave a guard," he reminds to Oană. The big doors are sliding noisily: the gallery is closed off. The foreman locks it. A sergeant takes up position nearby, truncheon in hand. Let it be clear, he seems to say, nobody's getting in. Munteanu turns up, wiping off his sweat. He looks content. "We're ready," he says. "We closed the shafts." Costa hesitates for a moment. He casts a sweeping glance: the yard filled with silent miners, the soldiers deployed before the entrance, Munteanu waiting. He whispers: "now or never." He draws a deep breath. "Cut the power!" he orders. Munteanu darts to the electric panel. It's pitch dark now. The blare of the giant fans that secure the fresh air current in the mine has ceased. An eerie silence has set in. Miners look at one another, puzzled: for the first time in a hundred years, CULDESAC has stopped working. The manager's office. Elephant Paw is sitting at the desk, head in hands. A candle is burning on the desk. The trophy-lamp has become useless. The kitsch is obvious. The manager has taken his wristwatch off. He follows the passing seconds on the dial: tick, tick, tick. The telephone rings. "Yes, it's me," says Elephant Paw. His voice betrays his weariness; he can hardly speak. "Sir! They're taking him out of the south side, that's what they're doing. I warned you that's what it was gonna come down to. That's none of my business, public opinion. I'm sorry. My powers are gone…" He hangs up, although the voice at the other end of the line continues to shout at him. He mumbles: it's over. Moving like an old man who has seen the end of the game, he reaches under the desk for a bottle of whisky and a glass. He pours. When he lifts his eyes, he is stunned: two dark silhouettes have emerged from the dark, looking as if clad from the same store. Their faces are indistinct. "We are here," says one of them. HeavenValley becomes brighter. The cold, shy sun rises above the hills. One may see now the siding yard from which the trips have been removed. The brakesman's shed is still in the mist; only its roof juts out. At the entrance to the south-sector gallery, a group of men is waiting. Most are gendarme-children; they are deployed in an arc of a circle around the entrance. They are eating jam from jars; they spread it on bread with their bayonets. Straddling a boulder, Costa has riveted his eyes on the entrance. Engineer Munteanu looks at his watch; he is losing patience. The brakesman is sitting on the threshold of the shed, his knees to his mouth: his role is over with the last tramcar removed from the siding area. "He ought to have been out by now," says Munteanu, concerned. Costa remains silent. Munteanu understands that he'd better leave him alone; he walks away. Aniela is drawing near with a thermos. She fills its cap. Costa holds it in his palms, inhales the coffee steam. "I'm scared," she says. "Me too." To her, he can confess it. He sips from the coffee. Maybe he'll take her to the seaside after all. Maybe it will all come off well. The lieutenant, on the side, lies benumbed in his greatcoat covered with dew. "Is there any left, miss?" he says. "Oh, I'm sorry. I thought you were asleep." "Who would be able to sleep now?" says Ulea, revealing his inner tension. Aniela pours him coffee in a jar she has found in the brakesman's shed. "It's good it's warm," she says. "What was in it before, yogurt?" the lieutenant wants to know, although the jar has been washed. One of the gendarme-children is playing with his assault rifle: he loads, he unloads his gun… "Hope he's not doing something stupid," thinks Costa. Munteanu can't take it anymore. "He'll choke!" Costa shakes his head. Obsessed, he continues to rivet his eyes on the gallery. He is waiting. The engineer's voice soars an octave, maybe two. He cries: "There's gas down there, toxic gas! I don't want to be part of it, if anything happens!" Munteanu can no longer control himself. "I'll take the entire responsibility," says Costa, as from another world. All he is interested in right now is the gallery that remains stubbornly empty. Thank goodness that he didn't tell the press. "Better have some coffee, Mr. engineer," says Aniela. That's all Munteanu needed; he gets his yogurt jar. He spills half; his hands are trembling. "Now then!" he says, shaking the coffee off his trousers. "Never mind, it washes," Aniela tries to solace him. The soldier continues to play with the bolt of the gun: loading, unloading. "I've told them to hand over their weapons," Costa says, worried. Oană, who has witnessed the scene in silence, slowly stands up. "I can see something," he says, obligingly. Apparently he can't believe his eyes either. Costa stands up too, followed by the lieutenant. A dark spot may be seen deep in the gallery. But there is not enough light – the sun does not reach there. Tense waiting. "It's moving," Munteanu blurts. "Troop!" the lieutenant commands. His voice is shaking. The gendarmes stand up with difficulty. They froze over night. They wipe their jam-soiled bayonets on their trousers. Some fix them on the barrels of the guns in panic, as if facing a hand-to-hand fight. "Silence!" commands Costa. He lays down his coffee glass. Then, whispering: "Thank God!" The dark spot advances slowly toward the exit. In the silence that fell, a heavy, shrill breath may be heard; at first barely audible, then growing in intensity, terrible, animal-like. The gallery amplifies it with echoes. The earth itself seems to be panting. "My God," says Aniela. The brakesman crosses himself. The thing that crawls in the gallery doesn't look very much like a man any longer. Now it becomes very visible; the sun beams light up the gallery directly. An almost naked creature, its entire body covered with hair, struggles forward on all fours. A long thread of saliva is dripping out of his mouth. "Come on," says Costa, "c'mon!" The lieutenant draws his revolver, ready to shoot. The soldiers imitate him without orders, aiming at the gallery. The teenagers' hands clutch the rifles. It's amazing they haven't opened fire at random yet. A few yards in front of them, Costa thinks he's about to be shot by mistake. That would crown it all. "Nobody's firing," the prosecutor stops them. "Put your gun down, Mr. Ulea. Can't you see he's finished?" He takes a pair of handcuffs from his pocket. "I'm going alone," says Costa. "Keep an eye on your people, lest they lose control," he shouts at the lieutenant. "One loses it and I'm done for," he thinks. With the corner of his eye, he catches the barrels pointing at him. He moves ahead, handcuffs hanging. Why doesn't Ulea order them to lay down their guns? Why doesn't he send them back to the freaking barracks, after all? I got tangled with a bunch of kids. The string quartet would be all I need… He has entered the gallery. He loosens his collar for air. His forehead is covered with cold sweat. He stumbles over the gallery earthwork like a fool. The underman has stopped. He shows his teeth, just like a cornered animal. Costa stops too. Only a few meters separate them. A shiver of repulsion ripples through his body. The beast is growling. It gets down on its front legs, but hasn't got enough power to jump. "Watch out, sir," he hears the brakesman outside. The underman is gathering his forces, he can feel it; he swallows a knot. "Down, boy, down!" Costa commands, as to a dog. The underman cowers to the ground. He doesn't growl any more: there is nothing aggressive about the prosecutor. Only the handcuffs worry him a little. He is whimpering. Outside, the lieutenant lowers his gun. The soldiers do the same. Costa takes a few more steps. He extends his empty hand forward, with the open palm: look, there's nothing to… He is hiding the handcuffs behind his back. Homo sapiens and the cave man are looking into each other's eyes. Costa keeps his hand stretched out. A second, two… Then, all of a sudden, the gallery collapses in a cloud of dust, swallowing both men. Excerpted from the novel Too Late © Humanitas, 1996 Set against the background of post-communist violence in the Romanian coal miners' world, the novel emerged from the collaboration with film director Lucian Pintilie ("Evil is not an outcome of chaos, but of a human project"), whose movie Too Late, inspired by Popescu's prose The Underman, was selected for the 1996 Cannes festival. Educated as a geologist, Răsvan Popescu (born 1962) is a writer and journalist (BBC correspondent).

by Răsvan Popescu (b. 1962)