Restart (Level Up - 1) by Dan Sugralinov



Chapter Nineteen. Red, the Color of Danger


“Of course I’m dangerous. I’m police. I could do terrible things to people... with impunity.”

Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), True Detective

THIS WAS SURREAL. I’d just helped to bring a daughter back home to her inconsolable parents. I might have even saved her life for all I knew. Still, as I waited for the police car to arrive, I felt so anxious as if I’d single-handedly planned and executed her abduction.

This irrational fear did have some grounds, though. It’s true that we Russians have an arguably bigger fear of our police — or of uniforms in general, if the truth were known — than of actual criminals.

We have an affinity with criminals. We grow up together and go to the same schools. All of us know someone connected to criminal circles in some way or other. We too commit occasional offenses by trying to avoid taxes or breaking traffic laws. The semi-legal allure of tough-guy crime TV series has added to the criminal’s somewhat romantic image. Just try and enter the Russian word for a “cop” in the Google image search. All you’ll get is dozens of cartoons of bribe-taking traffic cops, corrupt police inspectors and overworked, drunken investigating officers.

This explains why I didn’t expect anything good from meeting Major Igorevsky. As I made myself a cup of coffee, I scrolled through a number of Internet articles with advice on how to behave in this situation. They all boiled down to two things: if you’re officially a suspect you should keep your mouth shut and deny everything. If they apply pressure, just suffer (hopefully not literally) in silence. And if you’ve been summoned as a witness, just answer their questions as honestly as you can (if you can), otherwise you might be charged with false testimony. And in any circumstance, demand to see your lawyer.

I didn’t have a lawyer. And as for telling the truth... where should I even begin? Should I tell them about that last breakfast with Yanna? Or a piece of wetware in my head courtesy of the First Martian Company?

Please. They weren’t born yesterday.

Dawn was already breaking. Even though I hadn’t had enough sleep, the Lack of Sleep debuff had already worn off. I had no idea whether they were going to question me here or take me to the station, so I decided to get dressed and have breakfast just in case. I poured a generous helping of pet food into my beasts’ respective bowls and fried myself a couple of eggs.

I’d almost finished them when Rich began barking his head off.

The doorbell rang.

I answered the door. Two young guys in plain clothes stood outside on the landing. Both had crewcuts. One was taller with a sharp face, the other squat and stocky.

Neither of them attempted to step inside. Somehow I didn’t think they were afraid of the dog.

“Philip Panfilov?” the taller one asked.

He had a piercing, watchful stare. Very unpleasant. I didn’t like it at all.

“That’s me,” I said. “Did you just call?”

“Police investigator Golovko,” he showed me his card, then handed me a summons. “The person who called you was Major Igorevsky, the chief investigator. He has a few questions to ask you regarding your involvement in the Vorontsova abduction. We’ve come to take you to the station.”

I studied the summons. ...Hereby summoned to give evidence as a witness...

“Have you found the girl?” I asked.

“We have no authority to answer your questions.”

“Should I pack a bag?”

“No. Just bring your ID papers.”

They took me to the station in a shabby unmarked Korean car, its insides reeking of tobacco smoke.

The squat detective took the driver’s seat. He never identified himself. I sat in the back next to Golovko who appeared perfectly relaxed but was watching me out of the corner of his eye. The squat guy mouthed a cigarette without actually lighting it.

My heart was racing. I just couldn’t pull myself together. Trying to calm down, I began studying the two detectives’ stats. Both were under thirty, married with children. Their social status levels were quite high. Ditto for their Intellect and Charisma. Their Perception, Communication Skills and Deception were even higher. Those were the kinds of skills you needed to successfully worm yourself into a person’s confidence.

I also noticed a very high Composure on their respective skill lists. I didn’t even have that.

These weren’t fat cartoon cops, the butt of Internet memes. Despite their age, these guys were old guns who commanded respect.

By the time we’d arrived, the sun had already risen. I got out of the car.

This glorious Saturday morning was the best publicity for the upcoming summer. The chirping of birds filled the early-hour silence. The streets were devoid of rush-hour traffic. No crowds of grumpy pedestrians hurrying to their respective workplaces. The air was cool and fresh, the trees’ foliage still wet from last-night shower.

I took a deep breath. I really didn’t feel like going to the station. I’d rather have picked up Richie and taken him for a run in the park. Followed by a nice breakfast made from scratch and a good book to accompany it. Afterward, I could have spent a couple hours doing some work provided I’d received new orders, gone to the gym for an hour, then continued sorting out my interface, optimizing my skills and improving characteristics. In the evening, I could have invited Vicky to a restaurant before taking her to the movies.

It would have been a perfect Saturday, had I not ruined it for myself by answering some TV announcement.

“Follow me,” Golovko said.

I walked after him, with the squat guy bringing up the rear. They took me past the front office to the second floor. We walked along a drab corridor painted with flaking blue paint until we came to the chief investigator’s office.

I stayed outside watched over by the squat guy while Golovko walked in and reported, “Comrade Major, the witness is here.”

“You mean Panfilov?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Bring him in.”

My Composure definitely left a lot to be desired. I shoved my shaking hands in the pockets of the light jacket I’d put on before leaving.

Major Igorevsky was forty years old. A bald patch was forming on his head. He was in his shirt sleeves. A tie hung on the back of his chair. He appeared exhausted, his eyes bloodshot. Doubtful he’d gotten any sleep last night.

“Good morning,” I said.

“Morning, Mr. Panfilov. Please take a seat,” the Major rose from his chair and proffered me his hand. He was courtesy incarnate. “I’m Chief Investigator Major Igorevsky. It was me who called you.”

I couldn’t in all honesty have said “nice to meet you” so I didn’t. I just nodded and shook his hand.

“I’ve asked you to come here to give evidence as a witness. Thanks to your phone call, we were able to find the missing girl, Oksana Vorontsova,” he paused, studying my reaction.

“Is she all right?” I asked.

“She’s fine. That’s all I can tell you at the moment. On behalf of all those that were on the case I would like to thank you for your cooperation.”

I watched his status bars. His Mood was high, and so was his Interest in me.

I didn’t reply. What did he want me to say? That I’d only done my duty?

The Major paused, then continued, “Now I’d like you to answer a few questions...”

For the next hour, he continued to ask me every possible kind of question about myself. My place of birth, my school, my work history, the names of my employers. He kept unraveling the chronology of my life thread by long-forgotten thread until finally he arrived at the point.

“Last night you called the missing girl’s parents and gave them the exact address where we later found her. Where did you make that call from?”

“From my parents’ house.”

“Can anyone confirm this?”

“My parents and my elder sister.”

“What’s your parents’ address?”

“Verbitsky St. 76, apartment 15.”

“Have you ever been to Leafy Hollow before?”

“No, never.”

“Where were you on Saturday night May the twelfth of this year?”

“I was at home playing a computer game.”

“Can anyone confirm this?”

“My wife,” I faltered. “We’re going through a divorce. She doesn’t live with me at the moment.”

“Her contact information?”

I gave him Yanna’s parents address and their phone number. It looked like I was deep in it.

“How do you know Sergei Losev?”

“First time I hear about him. Who is he?”

“Think again.”

“I don’t know him.”

“Very well,” the Major murmured, writing down my statement. “The witness denies all knowledge of Losev... How did you meet Oksana Vorontsova?”

“I’ve never met her.”

“In that case, how did you know her exact location?”

“That’s difficult. You might find it hard to believe.”

“Believing isn’t part of our job. Our job is to check the facts. How did you know where she was?”

“I saw it.”

“How exactly did you see it?”

“I saw the announcement on TV. And then... then I just sensed I knew where she was.”

The Major yawned. “You sensed it.”

“I did. I was at a family dinner with my parents. After dinner, my nephew started channel-surfing. I saw the picture of the missing girl. And then I just knew where she was.”

“Did you really?” the Major asked in dead seriousness.

He sounded so sincere that I would have believed him had I not seen his stats. His Deception skill was maxed out all the way up to “Divine”.

“You have a remarkable talent,” the Major continued.

“No, I don’t. That was the first time it had ever happened to me.”

“It’s okay. No need getting so worked up about it. Here, have a drink of water.”

“I’m all right, thanks.”

“In that case, with your permission,” he took a few swigs of water and set the cup aside. “But still, do you have any explanation of what happened to you at that moment?”

“I’ve no idea. I wasn’t even sure I should call her parents. I didn’t want to give them false hope.”

“So why did you call them, then?”

“My father insisted. I didn’t tell him how I knew. I just told him that I’d been to the village on business and seen the girl there.”

“Who else was there with you?”


“In the village.”

“I hadn’t been to the village! That’s what I told my father just to keep him happy. I didn’t want to scare him. He might have thought I was crazy... what is it you’re writing?”

“It’s nothing. So why did you go there? Was it on business?”

“I didn’t go there!”

He kept changing tactics, asking me the same questions from different angles, nitpicking and demanding to know every single detail. He even asked me whether I’d finished my mushroom soup last night.

It went on like that for another hour. I started thinking he was almost finished with me. The only thing that worried me was whether he was trying to ensnare me for complicity or whether he was just curious to find out how I’d done it.

The Major lit up a cigarette, then offered me the pack. “Help yourself.”

“Thanks. I quit.”

“Good. So you haven’t been to the village, you don’t know the missing girl and you’ve never met Losev. The only thing that connects you to the case is your phone call where you gave the missing girl’s parents detailed instructions of where to find her. Now I’m going to tell you how it really happened.”

He took a peek into his file, put out his cigarette and drank another glass of water. His Adam’s apple twitched as he gulped it down, each resolute swig driving another nail into my proverbial coffin.

Having finished, he rose from his desk and began circling his small office as he excitedly shared his version of events with me.

“So this is what really happened. On the evening of May 12 you came to the Pepperoni café where you met a certain Sergei Losev, a Leafy Hollow resident, thirty-one years old.”

“No, I didn’t! I was at home that evening. I was unemployed at the time so I didn’t leave my house at all that week.”

“Please let me finish. I’ve listened to your story, now will you please listen to mine? Okay? Very well then. Being under the influence of alcohol, you and your new acquaintance drove past the local school in a Lada Kalina, registration number such-and-such. You saw a girl standing at the roadside trying to hitch a ride. You stopped and picked her up. You said you were going to a friend’s birthday party and offered her to come with you. As you drove, you two plied her with alcohol. Having arrived at Losev’s house in Leafy Hollow, both of you had sex with her. When you found out that the girl was a minor below the age of consent, the two of you got scared and decided to kill her and get rid of the body. But you, Mr. Panfilov, you didn’t have the heart to do it there and then. So you locked the sleeping girl in the cellar and fled the house under the pretext of having urgent business to attend to. You hitched a ride back to town with the intention of never coming back...”

His voice behind my back trailed away.

Was he waiting to see my reaction? He definitely had some ulterior motive here, but what was it? They didn’t have a single piece of evidence with which to incriminate me. Why was he telling me all this, then? Did he really believe me to be Losev’s accomplice? Or did he expect me to lose all hope and admit to a crime I’d never committed?

The most important thing now was to keep my cool.

Easier said than done! My heart was pounding, ripping my chest apart. System alerts flooded into view.

In the meantime, the Major changed his tune, switching to a vulgar, derogatory tone,

“You, mister, must have hoped to just disappear. You weren’t even sure whether either of them would be able to identify you for the police. Or did you hope that Losev might do the deed himself? Did you? Did you?!

He paused, waiting for my reaction, but received none. “So as the weeks went by, you sort of relaxed and went on with your own little life. In the meantime, Losev must have felt sorry for the girl. Instead of killing her, he convinced her to have a relationship with him. According to the victim, she was afraid of telling her parents what had happened to her. She was afraid of being recognized so she spent most of the time indoors...”

“Are you finished?” I said. “Thank you. Had it all really happened the way you’re telling me... actually, you are being quite rude, aren’t you? I’m not your drinking buddy to deserve that kind of tone. So had it all happened like you just told me, what was the point of me calling her parents?”

“Because last night you saw the victim on TV. You got nervous. You might have even felt sorry for her. The fact that she was still missing probably meant that Losev had indeed killed her. So you decided to appease your guilty conscience by giving her parents a call. I can even tell you how you reasoned with yourself. You might have thought, if Losev was the murderer, he’d be the one to stand trial. You were also pretty sure that neither Losev nor the girl would be able to recognize you. Both had been drunk, after all. So that’s how I think it happened. Stop messing around and just admit it.”

“I have nothing to admit to.”

“So you deny being instrumental to this crime, do you? You have any idea what you’re looking at, sir? You realize, don’t you, that I can close this case here and now? I can send you to jail straight away. And you know what fellow inmates do to pedophiles, don’t you? You’ll soon find out!”

He didn’t have to scare me with things like that. I was already scared enough. Whether he had anything against me or not, spending the night in jail on such charges wasn’t a very healthy option. Legally, he could indeed detain me for seventy-two hours.

Oh. Like a stupid child, I put my finger in the gears of this heartless machine which was now sucking me into its works and was about to grind me into a lump of bloodied goo.

I tried to focus as my thoughts rushed around my skull in search of something I could grasp at in order to pull myself out of this situation. Finally, I had an idea.

I relaxed a little. “Excuse me, Comrade Major. What if you just show me to the girl? I’m pretty sure she’ll say she’s never seen me before.”

“What’s the point? You think she remembers what you look like? She’s fourteen years old, for crissakes! I have a daughter her age! You plied her with vodka! You think she can remember anything?”

He didn’t have a daughter. He had a son. The guy was a born actor. What did he want to achieve?

Now that I knew he was lying, I relaxed even more. If he’d lied to me on just that one thing, he could well have lied about everything else. Losev might have acted alone, in which case what was the point of this theater performance?

Now I was angry rather than scared. “Very well. Show me to Losev, then. Contact my wife. She can tell you where I was that night.”

He cracked a sarcastic smile.

I heaved a sigh. “Or would you like me to find some of your other missing cases? Would you fancy that?”

“Go ahead, then,” he agreed with surprising ease.

He pulled out a file and began leafing through it. Finally, he offered me a few sheets of paper. All children and teenagers.

I studied the first one. A seven-year-old boy. Name: Nikita[1].

I looked up at the Major. He froze like a bloodhound sensing a trail.

The document contained enough information to start a search. I closed my eyes, unwilling to betray myself, and immediately saw a mark next to an apartment block on the map.

The mark was gray. As I focused on it, a box appeared above it saying, Corpse.

I checked the next few cases. Yegor, age: nine. Corpse. Christina, age: sixteen. This one was alive in Dubai[2]. Another teenage boy’s corpse showed up in two different cities. Had he been a victim of illegal organ harvesting?

I’d have loved to have helped the Major out by sharing with him all the information I had. Still, this wasn’t the right way to do it. They’d dragged me out of bed at night and threatened me, applying liberal amounts of pressure.

I was going to help them, sure. Still, I was going to do it on my terms. I’d help them all, not just this Major, but not today. Not now. At the moment, he could very easily pin all these poor children on me if he really wanted to.

I looked up at him. “I’m sorry.”

He couldn’t conceal his disappointment. His Interest in me dropped considerably. His Mood plummeted.

“I did my best, Comrade Major. Apparently, it doesn’t work this way.”

“Shame. You might regret it,” he said, returning to his desk.

“It’s up to you.”

He began reading through the interrogation report, yawning mercilessly. Finally, he handed it over to me to review and sign.

I started reading through it, then stopped.

After I saw the TV announcement about the missing O. Vorontsova, I had a vision in which I saw the victim’s exact location, including the place’s address.

“A vision?”

“Well, what do you want me to say? Everyone is a psychic these days. You’ve no idea how many letters we receive! And we’re supposed to follow up on them all. Still, we’ve never had anything anywhere near as accurate before.”

For the first time in almost three hours, he was almost sincere. Provided it wasn’t another one of his confidence tricks. Then again, his Interest in me had indeed plummeted.

“Excuse me, Comrade Major...”

“What is it?”

“Did Losev really have an accomplice?”

He ignored my question. Instead, he dialed a number on his phone. “Mind fetching me a coffee on the way? Thanks.”

I finished reviewing his report. It didn’t seem to contain anything that could incriminate me. Just my answers to his questions.

“Are you finished? Everything okay?”

“Looks like it,” I said.

“Come on then, sign it.”

I signed the report and just sat there waiting for whatever was going to happen next.

“Thank you very much, sir. You can go now,” the Major rose from his seat. “We much appreciate your help.”

“Is that it?”

“Why?” he sounded sincerely surprised. “Would you rather I lock you up?”

“No, but... why did you have to do all this?”

“To do what exactly?”

“Well, you told me a very involved story of my supposed complicity. You threatened me. If I remember rightly, you even hinted at possible retribution on the part of other inmates...”

“Please. I just shared one of our theories with you.”

“So did he really have an accomplice?”

“Would you like me to see you outside, sir? I think we both need a breath of fresh air. This room is getting a bit stuffy.”

After the smoky confines of his office, my head went round the moment I stepped outside. The first gulp of oxygen felt like a hit from a class-A drug. According to my watch, it was barely past nine.

“Would you mind leaving your phone on that bench over there, sir? Don’t worry, no one’s gonna steal it here.”

Curious, I did as he asked me, then came back to him.

“You see, Phil... This whole case was pretty self-explanatory from the start. A teenage girl with over-controlling parents and problems at school... She met Losev when he offered her a ride home. They got talking and hit it off so he took her to his house where they had sex. When Losev found out she was a minor, he panicked and locked her in the cellar. We only found out last night, thanks to your tipoff. You physically couldn’t have known where she was simply because she hadn’t been seen in the village at all. She’d spent all that time locked up in the cellar. Question is, how did you know?”

“Search me.”

“I don’t need to. Seriously, are you a psychic? Some sort of voodoo wizard, maybe?”

I smiled for the first time that night. “I’m a sales rep. Do I look like a wizard?”

“That’s exactly my point! Still, some people seem to have spontaneous epiphanies, especially when they’re under stress. You know what I mean?”

“So that’s what it was, then? All this hoo-hah about applying pressure...”

“Listen, I’m sorry. I was only doing my job. I just thought it might work, just by chance. All those children... you should have seen their parents,” his voice tensed. “They've lost all hope of ever getting their kids back alive. All they want now is to find their bodies. To give them a proper burial...”

“And what if I did help? Then what? Wouldn’t you have me locked up in some top-secret psychic sweatshop?”

“Oh, no. Absolutely not. But we’d have taken the liberty of contacting you occasionally. Some of my colleagues do turn to psychics for assistance. Off the record, of course.”

“Okay, I see. Very well. I think I’ll go now.”

“No hard feelings?”

“No. Good luck, Major.”

“Phil? Thanks, man,” he discarded his cigarette and offered me his business card. “Just in case you have any more visions. Have a nice day.”

He walked back inside. I stood there fumbling with his card. It took me every bit of my willpower not to run after him and give him the coordinates of all the missing kids.

I was going to do it, sure. But in a different way.

I walked down the street searching for a café or a bar — anything, just to have a coffee and a think. If the truth were known, I’d been really lucky this time. Had the true version of events correlated with the “theory” the Major had shared with me, I’d have become their prime suspect.

Lesson learned. I really should stop flashing my new abilities in public without having believable explanations first. Even as it was, if someone had decided to look into my life now, they’d be bound to discover some pretty inexplicable situations. Like my “prophesizing” session in the clinic. Or knowing the biographies of our local drunks. Or my “accidental” encounter with Valiadis. Even that wretched computer sale when I’d surprised the guy by knowing his life’s details.

I finally made it to a coffee shop and ordered a large espresso. When the waiter brought it to me, I reached for the sugar bowl, then reconsidered. I really needed to lose some weight. I was pretty sure it was hindering my Agility numbers. I was surprised I hadn’t yet received an Obesity debuff or something. Dr. Shvedova had warned me about it, hadn’t she?

I took my time over my coffee, studying my updated task list,

- visit parents;

- level up Insight;

- get accepted for the Ultrapak job;

- meet up with Yanna and file for divorce;

- take Vicky to the movies;

- send Major Igorevsky an anonymous message reporting the whereabouts of the missing children;

- choose a martial art to level up combat skills;

- choose the skills and main characteristics to level up;

- find out how to improve Agility;

- downsize;

- finish reading the marketing book;

- buy some decent work clothes;

- return Richie to his owner Ms. Svetlana “Sveta” Messerschmitt;

- contact some of my old friends and ask them out to catch up on things

That done, I checked my quest list,

Help Alik Find a Job

Help a Struggling Student

These two tasks wouldn’t take too long to complete. On Monday, Alik had to be officially hired. As for the “struggling student”, a.k.a. Marina, that wasn’t too difficult, either. Sooner or later, she was bound to close her first deal.

The task list itself was pretty self-explanatory — but not its order. Apparently, the system had its own prioritizing guidelines. My relationships with both Yanna and Vicky were at the top of the list even though I didn’t consider them all that important. Or could the system have tuned in to one of my subconscious desires?

On Tuesday Yanna and I were going to file for divorce. I just hoped last night’s phone call from her wasn’t going to affect it. I should probably call her just to ask if everything was okay and if our appointment was still on. I really hoped she was doing fine regardless of how we’d parted. Had I gotten my act together a year earlier, we’d have probably lived happily ever after till death did us part.

The missing children, too, had turned out to be a priority item on the list. My subconscious seemed to have a life of its own.

In any case, I shouldn’t drag it out for too long. Time was an issue, especially in those cases where the children were still alive. All I needed to do was think of a way to send Igorevsky the information. Should I email him, seeing as he had his email address listed on his business card? That would be too obvious. I could also write to him via the police department site. They had this option where you could address your message to a particular officer. Which meant that in theory, he might actually receive it.

But how was I supposed to send it? Should I buy an illegal SIM card in a dark alley and a cheap smartphone to use with it? Or just print out all the information on a sheet of paper and send it to him by regular mail? I’d have to think about it tomorrow.

Sveta Messerschmitt wasn’t coming back until next Thursday which logically put Richie at the end of the list.

Catching up with old friends... that could definitely wait.

As for the rest of the tasks, each of them required some quality thinking. Which I might have to do right after my gym practice.

I finished my coffee, called for an Uber ride and walked out of the café.

As I rode home, my phone rang.

“Good morning, Phil,” said a happy voice hoarse from too much crying. “This is Irina, Oksana’s mom. I’d just like to say thank you. God bless you!”

Before I could reply, she’d hung up.

She hadn’t said a lot, had she? Could she still be questioning my involvement in the crime?

As I pondered over this, a new system message appeared in my view,

Your Reputation with Irina Vorontsova has improved!

Current Reputation: Respect, 30/120

You’ve received 2000 pt. XP for performing a socially meaningful action!

XP points left until the next social status level: 2160/8000

It looked like helping the Major wasn’t such a bad idea, after all.

[1] In Russia, Nikita is an exclusively male name

[2] Dubai is known in Russia as a center of child trafficking


About the author


Bio: Alex (Aleksei) Bobl is a literary agent and a science fiction writer, author of 13 novels. An ex-paratrooper, he used his military knowledge and experience to write his debut novels for S.T.A.L.K.E.R., a bestselling science fiction action adventure series set in a post-apocalyptic Chernobyl.

This account is publishing texts written by authors of Magic Dome Books.


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