The Avet

7 Jan

By the end of the nineteenth century, the capital of Serbia had the beginnings of a bohemian district on Skadar Street in what came to be called Old Beograd.

Coffee houses were becoming the hangout dens of writers and artists, but marks of what had been the earlier Gypsy community based there remained in the shadows of Skadarlija, visible only if one consciously looked for them.

Milan Todic, an old man whose entire life had been lived in this particular area, was considered a harmless eccentric, a friendless hermit, by the few who were able to recognize out on the streets. It was possible to catch sight of him late at night. His days were spent on a secret project that would have shocked the entire city of Beograd.

Old Milan was an experimenter with a variety of forms of animal life in the basement of his dilapidated little urban cottage off of Skadar Street. He was engaged in an illegal project that was leading him into dangerous activities.

In 1900, Beograd had 69,100 inhabitants, but very little street lighting in the hours of night. All sorts of visions occurred to those out late in the Old City, especially for individuals who had been spending their time drinking.

“I saw what I thought was a ghost, a phantom of the night!”

“There was a large, dark beast of some kind in the back alley that I happened to take by chance. I’ll never go that way after midnight ever again.”

“I was frightened by a strange shape coming toward me on my way home in Stari Grad. It scared me half to death, I swear. What was it? I didn’t stay around to find out. The thing was coming straight toward me and I had no idea what it was thinking or what it might do.”

In time, even the police of the capital became aware of these tales and rumors that floated about through the coffee houses and taverns of the Skadarlija.

Plain-clothes Detective Stojan Basic often dealt with cases of crime in the Old City and had his hand on the pulse of the changing district. Tall and physically strong, he enjoyed good health and a very active curiosity about those around him.

Was there a single factor behind these numerous stories of an unknown being stalking about the district late at night? the investigator wondered.

His vague suspicions became definite when the violent death of a pedestrian occurred in the early spring of 1900.

Stojan managed to reach the location of the savage killing at the moment of dawn, as the mangled body of a young man in peasant’s clothing was being placed in a horse-drawn police wagon. A uniformed patrolman gave the detective a fast description of what was known.

“This unlucky fellow just arrived in the city days ago, and he was looking for his first job. That’s the reason he was up and about so early. His neighbors believe he wanted to be down at the Danube docks early in order to get himself a good position for hiring. He won’t be hunting for work from now on.” The officer made a bitter grimace.

Stojan made a brief visual examination of the young corpse, noting how the flesh had been ripped and clawed. Blood had spattered all over the rough clothing and the desecrated torso. He had never up to then seen such bestial attack on a human being.

This had to have been the act of an insane animal of some sort, the inspector concluded as he walked away from the scene of gruesome death.

Stojan lived in a lower middle-class neighborhood in the Palilula district just to the east if the downtown square called the Terazije. He had bought a house there for himself and his wife, but had never found a mate for himself.

The middle-aged bachelor had built a reputation as a cool, competent police inspector who possessed an intensively focused mind. He never tired or despaired in his hunt for explanation or a guilt culprit.

The Chief of homicide and serious crimes knew what he was doing in assigning this case of post-midnight mauling and murder to a veteran like Stojan Basic.

A neighbor of the latter stopped the detective to talk about what the Beograd newspapers were printing about the crime.

“They suspect that it was done by some kind of wild animal that came from far away somewhere. But a lot of people disagree.”

“What do they say about this murder?” asked Stojan with sudden curiosity.

The man laughed. “They say that it had to be a phantom avet of some kind.”

“That is a word that our ancestors borrowed from the Turks when they ruled over Serbia,” mused the police investigator. “Perhaps there was something that they left behind them here in Beograd.”

It was an aged cleaning woman employed at night by an important bank in the downtown Terazije who was found dead on a side street. She had been on her way to work when viciously attacked and cut up. This case was the exact duplicate of the earlier one, decided Stojan when summoned to the site to examine the body and the circumstances.

There were no clews or evidence that would indicate the character of the attacker. The solution was as much an unsolved riddle as before.

I can only speculate wildly at this beginning stage, Stojan warned himself.

It is best to keep my thinking completely open, he advised his own mind.

I must accept any and all plausible possibilities, decided the detective, even the existence of an avet on the night streets of Beograd.

That afternoon, Stojan took a tramcar to police headquarters. He quickly wrote a report on the two incidents of street murder with an ink pen. Before leaving, the idea occurred to him to find out whether there had been anything reported by a patrolman the last several nights from the area around Skadar Street.

One could never predict what of possible value these might contain.

He leafed through the file holding these pages of notes, surprised to find something that drew his attention. It was not so much what the report said as what it might possibly imply.

A coffee-house proprietor, closing up his shop before leaving for home, told a patrolman whom he knew well that he had seen an ugly face of a “rugoba” looking into his establishment from the street for a moment or two, then disappearing into the darkness of Skadarlija at the midnight hour.

The short, brief lines that he read made an imprint on the mind of the experienced detective. An internal sense said to him that this was worth looking into. He could not have given any rational explanation of what motivated him into picking up the opening offered by the incident.

Late that afternoon, Stojan entered the “Three Hats” kafana on Skadar Street and found the owner-operator, a fat little man know to his customers as Bora.

After exchanging greetings with the aproned proprietor and asking how he was doing, the investigator got to what was fascinating him.

“I understand, Bora, that you told a patrolman that you saw something as ugly and distorted as a freak-like rugoba looking in at you from the street one night. Is that correct? What did the face look like?”

The large head of the owner seemed to tremble for a moment.

“It was the most horrible thing my eyes ever witnessed,” he muttered. “A monstrous mask of evil, that was what I thought as soon as it looked at me. All out of shape, twisted and distorted. I doubted that it was even human.

“Perhaps it was some unnatural demon trying to make itself look like a human being. It terrified and scandalized me. I still can’t forget how ugly the thing was. That was why I told the policeman, I feared it could be a danger to people who were outdoors in the night.”

Stojan thanked Bora for his helpful information and left the coffee-shop, puzzled even more than before.

It is useful for a police detective to have friends in other municipal departments. Stojan knew persons in several Beograd services who had information that could be of use to him in cases he became involved with.

An old sanitation inspector who worked in the Stari Grad district and was familiar with the Skadarlija neighborhood was a person whom Stojan decided to look up and consult with at the central office of the Beograd Health Department.

“Has there been anything unusual anywhere near Skadar Street,” the detective inquired as soon as he located the man he had come to quiz.

The sanitation inspector grinned. “I have to look at some strange, even weird complaints that people make about their neighbors. There was one from some housewives over on Dushan Street, right there in Stari Grad. They told me that fowl, sickening smells came from a small cottage on a side lane. It was making everybody feel ill, it was said.”

“Did you find where the odor was coming from?”

“It was an old fellow who lives like nearly a hermit on the short lane. He said he was sorry, but he was making wine and other things and did not wish to bother his neighbors with the smells.

“The hermit promised to be careful and put a halt to any offensive smells coming out of his house’s basement.

“I had never seen anyone so strange in Stari Grad. He was odd and somewhat scary. But I came back next day and the odor was gone.”

“You recall the fellow’s name?”

“He is called Milan… Milan Todic.”

Stojan thanked him and rapidly departed.

Old, broken-down hovels like this one are going to be torn down and replaced with new construction, realized the investigator as he approached the front door of the Old Beograd cottage from which a nauseating stink had been reported.

Only a small strip of weeds separated the one-story building from the lane it faced. The pair of front windows were cracked and dirty.

Stojan knocked at the door several times before it was opened.

The figure who appeared was a short, slightly bent-over little man with snow-white hair and a wrinkled, pale face.

He peered at the visitor with suspicious green eyes that were terribly cockeyed and google-eyed, producing a sense of horror in the detective.

This man is motivated to live a hermit’s life by his ugly, hideous face, understood Stojan instantly. Most people would dread associating with him.

“I have come here to inspect your cottage to see if there are dangers to public health and sanitation here,” lied the police officer. “It is important that I inspect your residence from one end to the other.

“Will you allow me to enter and begin my examination at once, sir?”

He looked into the rugoba face of the short man, waiting for a reply from Milan Todic.

Without saying a single word, the latter retreated out of the way, letting the man who said he was a sanitary inspector into the front room of the cottage.

“I shall start my short, quick inspection here in this room,” announced Stojan in a loud, authoritative tone. He moved to the left, then the right, taking in the few pieces of old, broken furniture visible to his eyes.

Then the detective posing as a sanitation officer moved through a doorway into the kitchen of the cottage. A single small table and two rickety broken chairs were all that stood in that room.

Stojan then moved into the bed room where Milan the hermit slept at night.

He made a visual inspection, seeing a nondescript object used to sleep on and scattered pieces of ragged clothing tossed about on the bed and the floor.

“I want to see your basement, as well,” said the intruder as he re-entered the kitchen again.

The owner pointed to an open doorway and the flight of steps leading downward from there.

As the detective moved in that direction, Milan stepped behind him with caution, as if meaning to follow him into the lower level of the structure.

Since his back was turned toward the hermit, Stojan was unable to see what the other was up to as he quickly picked up a large, heavy club-like piece of wood that leaned against one wall of the derelict kitchen.

That object became the weapon that Milan used in striking the visitor from behind on his round felt hat.

The blow was a hard, powerful one that hit Stojan on the top of his scull, smashing through his Western European head covering and instantly knocking him unconscious.

The body of the police officer fell down the steps, striking the solid brick wall of the underground part of the cottage and causing minor wounds and skin injuries to the stricken victim of violence.

Milan stood for a while at the head of the stairs, looking down at what he had done to the person who had invaded his personal little kingdom.

Stojan awoke the following morning, lying in what looked like a cage-like cell of some sort that the hermit had himself constructed down in his basement.

He raised himself to his feet, feeling aches and injuries to his body.

His hat was no longer present on his head or visible anywhere in the wooden cell that held him.

He looked out into the dim light entering from a single broken window. His eyes took in a large, beastly-looking object that seemed to be some kind of sleeping, unconscious animal. It was immediately clear to him that he was looking at the horrid rugoba reported to have been seen at night on the streets of Old Beograd.

Here it was, asleep in the basement of Milan Todic, the eccentric little man who lived all to himself.

But then the detective heard footsteps on the stairs that led down from the kitchen. It had to be the resident owner, keeping him prisoner.

He must provide me some sort of explanation, said Stojan to himself. I shall find the answer to what has been happening on the streets.

Milan stood next to the large chair in which sat the hairy, monstrous beast that appeared unconscious. He addressed Stojan in a slow, muffled tone.

“This is what I have come to call my very own avet. I am the one who made it what it is: a phantom ghost or apparition that haunts the streets of Beograd late at night.

“It possesses angry instincts that I have put to use. This creature of mine gains me what I crave with all my mind and soul: final vengeance for all that other people have done to me. They forced me to take a feeble-minded villager from the south and make him my personal weapon.

“I worked out the method of making that country fool into the avet he has become. And now I intend to do the very same to you, Mr. nosy inspector.”

Milan stepped close to the cage that held Stojan. The prisoner now noticed for the first time what the hermit held in one hand.

It was a farm whip, the kind used in taming stubborn, strong-willed animals.

All at once, Milan raised the arm that held the dangerous tool of torture.

Is this madman about to attack me with that whip? worried Stojan in terror.

Events occurred with astounding rapidity.

Before Milan was able to crack his whip in the direction of the detective two arms grabbed him from his rear.

It was the avet, the villager transformed into a wild hairy beast, who was attacking its master from behind.

The hermit, no longer in control of his own arm or the whip held in his hand, turned his face about to find out what it was hindering his actions.

He let out a growling sound, attempting to shout an order to what he had created from the villager he had kidnapped and remade into something else.

Stojan watched in horror and astonishment as the being called an avet took Milan by the throat and choked the breath out of it.

The detective watched as Milan fell to the basement’s brick floor.

Within seconds, he saw the avet fall unconscious beside the body of the one who had mastered and changed him into a murderous beast.

It took five minutes for Stojan to release himself from the caging that held him.

He rushed upstairs, then out of the decrepit cottage.

How am I going to report what happened to me in there? the investigator kept asking himself as he fled.


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