The Iazma of Bucharest

1 Feb

The night was one of solid darkness in the Romanian capital.

By 1930, Bucharest had come to be called “the Paris of the East”. The growing city was known for its avant-garde architecture with modernistic structures and art-deco stylistics. All through the 1920s, the central district had been a hotbed of building. Offices, stores, and hotels had gown up on all sides, in all directions. The Athenee Palace Hotel and the Central Market House were gems of post-war architecture in the Balkans.

Unini Square was empty and quiet that late night when the first attack occurred there. A hotel employee, a poor, humble old woman was the victim, probably by mere chance. She happened to appear at a time unfortunate for her future.

An unseen shadow she was unable to sense emerged out of the dark, remaining in the form of an umbra. It grabbed hold of her by the neck and instantly made its fatal squeeze. With all-powerful fingers on both hands the uncanny force killed off any chance of defense. Resistance never arose. The victim fell into instantaneous nullity and lay undiscovered until minutes before dawn.

The Bucharest police had a random murder on their hands, with nothing to indicate who had done it or why.

Inspector Toma Stoica of the Homicide Division had thirty years of experience dealing with killings in the expanding, burgeoning Romanian capital.

His enormous body had never before visited such a crime scene, an important downtown square that had been deserted of pedestrians after midnight.

Dark brown eyes examined the red bricks from which the lifeless old woman had been moved away for final disposal. No blood stains or clues to the culprit were visible to Toma’s trained gaze. The case appeared to be a hopeless puzzle at first sight. A crime without cause or reason, done in the anonymity of empty umbra. The detective realized that such a case would probably always remain without answers of any kind.

The tall, heavy veteran headed for headquarters to write up the required futile report.

The oldest part of Bucharest was the crowded Lipscani District with cobblestone streets lined with many architectural styles, from neoclassical to art noveau. Many streets were named for the handcrafts that once flourished there, from blacksmiths and shoemakers to furriers and knife-makers. There were many small coffeehouses that stayed open into the late hours of the evening.

One of the latter had an owner who had been born in the city and inherited the shop and business from his father. This older man, named Vasile, operated the last establishment on Strada Blanari, the street of the furriers, to see its patrons leave for home.

Vasile cleaned and locked up his coffee shop and walked off into the dark, shadowy night. The rough pavement heard only his shoes as he ambled along with little light to see by.

There was no way for him to know that he was being stalked by a soundless, unseen menace. The latter reached out and forward, taking hold of Vasile by the throat and putting a stop to his breathing. The attack was too swift and deadly for its target to have any conscious thought or realization.

The old man was alive, then dead in the next moment. There was no one around anywhere to witness the evil.

A passerby discovered the corpse of Vasile several hours later and telephoned a report to the police from his nearby home.

Deep intuition told Toma that the two street strangulations were the work of the same perpetrator. There was no other explanation. These were crimes of one stranger upon two other strangers. The victims offered themselves at random, the chokings had no sane, rational motive. A third instance and perhaps more would probably occur before very long.

This is an almost impossible situation for a police investigator, the inspector told himself. Did he have any means by which to prevent further repetitions? The public had to receive warning about the grave, serious danger prowling the streets at night.

I have a close friend who works on a Bucharest daily newspaper, Toma realized. Perhaps he can be convinced to bring the matter to public attention.

Florian Goian was a city reporter for the daily Adevarul, a reformist, pro-democratic newspaper very critical of the new King of Romania, Carol I.

Toma found him at his desk in the editorial office and invited him to have a drink with him at a tavern around the corner.

The policeman went directly to the subject that happened to be concerning him.

“I am worried about two recent street murders with no logic to them,” he began in a lowered tone. “An old cleaning woman and the owner of a coffeehouse were the victims.”

“I am aware of the small items that we carried about them,” interjected Florian. “Do you suspect that some madman is loose in Bucharest and could continue on with more murder victims?”

“Yes, that is precisely what my instincts are telling me, and I am desperate to take some action to prevent more of this, but I can’t decide what to do.”

“I sympathize with your difficult situation,” sighed the reporter. “Would it be possible to hire an automobile and roam about the center of the city between dusk and dawn? That sounds more futile and impossible the more I think about it, though.

“Could you try to locate potential culprits by asking questions about past patients at the several mental institutions? I doubt they could make valid predictions or would even agree to cooperate. No, it would be a waste of your time, Toma.”

The detective thought for several seconds before making a decision. “There is still a way for me to do something, though the chance of any success with it may be little or nothing.”

“What is that?” asked Florian with interest.

“There is no reason why I myself couldn’t patrol the streets of the Lipscani on my own, on the lookout for anything that looks suspicious. That district of Bucharest appears to be the one where the danger is greatest for a repetition of the crime of suffocation. I could begin that sort of vigil tonight, in fact.

“What do you think of my idea?”

The reporter frowned. “You would be on a risky course. Toma. It is not one for anyone to be taking by himself. Will you let me join you? We could take different streets and double our area of watching.”

“Yes,” agreed the inspector. “You would be enlarging the amount of watching and coverage, my good friend.”

The two of them smiled at each other.

“I will head northward while you stay to the south,” said Toma to his new partner in their independent, unofficial enterprise in the streets of the Lipscani. The night seemed especially lightless because of the thick covering of cloud over Bucharest.

The inspector headed along a sidewalk of a narrow, deserted street. From houses and apartments glowed the lamps illuminating interior private life. Outside, in the lonely shadows, Toma found himself traversing an opposite move.

His mind focused on the riddle of who the murderer might be. What kind of person was involved? How could the culprit be considered a human?

Perhaps there is something with an unhuman character involved, speculated the roaming detective. His mind considered the impossibilities that might lie in a contradictory unreality unlike the Bucharest of 1930.

Could the killer be a fantoma unknown to our kind? Toma wondered.

It is time to find Florian and learn what his experience has been, the walker told himself. In all probability, both of us have seen nothing of interest connected to what we are seeking.

Emerging onto the Calea Victoriei, Toma caught sight of a deadly pile lying on the narrow sidewalk. He recognized at once what he was looking at. There had been two identical instances only days before.

But this murder proved to be of a completely different nature.

The face that was visible looked like that of his partner, Florian Goian.

And there was a large metal knife sticking up out of his stomach where he had been stabbed to death.

Toma knocked at the front door of a small, modernistic house that had recently been constructed, identified himself and asked to use their telephone on official police business. He then reported the death of the Adevarul reporter to the night shift at central headquarters. Returning to the scene of the killing, the inspector attempted to organize his spiraling thoughts.

Had he himself led his friend into mortal danger and this horrid end?

It seemed natural to feel personal guilt for what had happened in the night.

But such a particular result was certainly unforeseeable, he assured himself.

How could responsibility now be placed upon him? What might he have done in time? Yet Toma decided he had an enormous duty on his own shoulders. The identification and capture of the perpetrator was to be the supreme mission of the rest of his own mortal life.

It was early afternoon when Toma reported at Central Headquarters for further assignment. He was certain that his investigating would now be extended into the strange manner in which the newspaper man had been knifed to death.

It was a surprise when a sergeant told him that the Chief of Bucharest Police, Octav Balan wished to see him as soon as possible.

Why would that high official summon him thus? wondered the veteran investigator. His surmise was that it had to concern the stabbing the previous night.

The Chief’s assistant told him to enter the private office at once, his boss was eager to see him as soon as possible.

Toma found Octav Balan, in a bright blue uniform, standing up behind a gigantic mahogany desk, sparkling medals and citations on his wide, expanded chest. The white-haired man was taller than most of the officers under him.

“I have something to tell you, Stoica. This is not going to take long.

“You were acquainted with last night’s murder victim, this Florian Goian who wrote for the Adevarul?”

“We were very close friends for a long time, sir.”

“I shall not ask you to take part in the investigation of the crime. That would be too painful a burden to impose on anyone.

“In fact, the matter is already out of our hands. The Minister of Justice has ordered that the case be transferred to the highest level of state. It will now be taken up by the Prosecutor General and the Department of Internal Security. In other words, this murder is considered a subject for examination by the supreme organs of government. It will be beyond our jurisdiction as civilian police.”

Toma felt sudden confusion. “I do not understand, sir,” he muttered.

Chief Balan was silent for a short time as he considered how much to tell his subordinate. He decided that he could trust in the discretion of Toma Stoica.

“What I am about to say must not be repeated to anyone at any time. It is a matter that involves the highest rank of our state, the monarch himself.

“In March this year, a secret force was organized that involves potential threats to Romanian security. A grouping that calls itself the Iron Guard has formed. They are referred to as the Green Shirts because of the semi-military uniform that they wear even in public. There have been street incidents with them and their so-called Death Squads.

“These right-wing nationalists are a radical threat to our monarchical form of government. They have made the Adevarul newspaper their special enemy in their fanatic hatred. Having recognized Mr. Florian Goian as a reporter, it is feared that one or more members of this wild band of street adventurers decided to make him their victim on the spur of the moment.

“That is how the security wing of the Ministry of Justice sees this case, and why it is no longer to remain in our hands.

“You must stay totally mum about what I have just said, Inspector Stoica.”

The Chief gave Toma a stern, penetrating look.

The detective realized it was a signal to leave.

Inspector Toma Stoica, in the weeks that followed, fell into the habit of spending half the night on the streets of central Bucharest, primarily in the district called the Lipscani.

With only a few hours of sleep, he found it difficult to function effectively at his profession of criminal investigation.

The murder of Florian, a case now officially out of his hands, did not appear to be headed to any solution that he could foresee. Neither did the two random strangulations that preceded it.

Was it possible that an unnatural umbra, some shadow of a iazma out of the Bucharest past haunted the streets in 1930?

Although he thought of seeking early retirement and surrendering any claim to a pension, an unforeseen, unexpected catastrophe intervened.

The suffocated, strangled body of the large detective was discovered one morning on one of the side streets of the old artisan area.

There was never any answer to the question of who or what brought about his tragic end.

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