He began the day, as always, by counting the gravediggers out
his front window. There were nine this morning, moving through
the snow a hundred yards away in the middle of what used to be a
children’s soccer field. They stopped to light cigarettes, heads
bowed like mourners, the shadows of stubble faintly visible on hollowed
cheeks. Then they shed their thin coats and moved apart in a
ragged line. Backs bent, they began stabbing at the ground with
picks and shovels.
They moved slowly at first, working the cold and sleepiness out of
creaky joints. But Vlado Petric was in no hurry. He’d watched often
enough to know what came next.
Soon brown gashes of mud would take shape at their feet. Then,
as the men warmed to their task, the gashes would expand into neat
rectangles, and as the rectangles deepened the gravediggers would
disappear into the earth. Within an hour only their heads would be
visible. Then Vlado would leave his apartment to walk to work
through the streets of Sarajevo.
Vlado had come to depend on the gravediggers’ punctuality. He
knew they liked to finish early, while the snipers and artillery crews
of the surrounding hills were still asleep in the mist, groggy from
another night in the mud with their plum brandy. By midmorning the
gunners would also be stretching muscles and lighting cigarettes.
Then they, too, would bend to their work, and from then until nightfall
the soccer field would be safe only for the dead.
Vlado wondered sometimes why he still bothered to watch this
morning ritual, yet he found its arithmetic irresistible. It was his daily
census of the war. As the holes took shape they totted up the day’s
account like the black beads of an abacus. Large crowds inevitably
followed a day of heavy shelling, or one of the sad little hillside
offensives that rattled distantly like a broken toy. On one busy morning
he’d counted thirty-four men at work, checking twice to make
sure as they weaved and crossed, dirt flying as if from a series of
small explosions. The vapors rising from their sweat and cigarettes
had poured into the sky like the smoke of a small factory.
Lately, however, there had been layoffs and shorter hours. Today’s
crew of nine rendered a judgment of poor aim and low ammunition
on the previous day. In winter the war always lost steam.
One might also call Vlado’s interest professional. Sometimes his
own workday took shape out on the field, in graves for those claimed
not by snipers, explosions, illness, or old age. Vlado was a homicide
investigator for the local police, and still gainfully if ponderously
It was an occupation good for a few bitter laughs with friends,
amused to find small-time killing still worthy of attention after twentyone
months of war. To them, Vlado’s task was that of a plumber fixing
leaky toilets in the middle of a flood, an auto mechanic patching
tires while the engine burned to a cinder. Why bother, they would
ask. Why not just leave it all until the end of the war. By then all your
suspects will be dead anyway.
Invariably he would reply with a muttering chuckle, eyes lowered,
in the time-honored humility of all who must answer for making
their living from the dead. Then he would allow as how, yes, they
were probably right. What a fool he was. Laughs all around. Have
another one on me, gentlemen.
So they would drink to his folly, someone’s bottle of rancid homebrew
passed from hand to hand, and then they would move on to
other subjects—soccer, or women, or the war. Always, eventually,
the war. But he would linger a moment with his thoughts. No, they
were not right at all, he would reassure himself. The same two motivations
which had kept him going before the war could still sustain
him. Or at least he hoped they could.
One was the small, slender promise that beckons to all homicide
detectives—that someday, something worthy and noble would
come of his work. For the clever and the persistent, perhaps something
larger lurked behind the daily body count. In the way that an
epidemiologist knows that a single autopsy can provide the key to
a pandemic, Vlado clung to a belief that, now and then, one murder
offered a portal to machinations far greater than the pulling of a
trigger or the plunging of a blade.
But could this still be true in wartime? And here the doubts threatened
to stop him cold, so he hastily moved on to reason number
two—the puzzle of motive, diagramming the inner levers and flywheels
driving the machinery of rage. Here again, the war had muddled
the calculations. Now the mechanisms all seemed increasingly
predictable, guided by remote control from the big guns in the hills.
Each act shook to their reverberations. Every moment of passion
sprang from two years of misery.
Yet Vlado couldn’t help but marvel at the enduring popularity of
murder. He knew from his history texts what war was supposed to
do to people. In Stalingrad they ate rats and burned furniture to stay
warm, but they stuck together. Even in London, fat and soft London,
suicides dropped and mental health soared. But now he wondered if
it hadn’t all been some great warm lie of wartime propaganda.
Because, if anything, people succumbed more easily now to the passions
that had always done them in. And as the siege grumbled on,
spurned lovers still shot each other naked and dead, drunks stabbed
other drunks for a bottle, and gamblers died as ever for their debts.
The opportunities for such killings had never been richer.
There were weapons everywhere—battered models from Iran and
Afghanistan with ammunition clips curling like bananas, sleek Belgian
automatics from the tidy gunshops of Switzerland, ancient and
hulking old Tommies from God-knows-where, and every cheap
Kalashnikov ripoff ever made in the Eastern Bloc. The hills of old
Yugoslavia had been overrun at last by the arms of the Warsaw Pact
in a way the late, great Tito had never envisioned.
In moments when the war lagged, full employment for these
weapons was guaranteed by the smugglers and black marketeers,
too numerous to count. They darted about in their own war of attrition,
the cheated in vengeful pursuit of the cheating. And with
nowhere to run but the deadly noose of the hills, the chase was usually
short and decisive.
Even when both of Vlado’s reasons for justifying continued
employment faltered, he had a worthy fallback: The job kept him out
of the army. It was no small accomplishment these days, when even
young boys in muddy jeans and flannel shirts trooped uphill nightly
to the front.
That was the thought that always dragged him from his window
on his blackest mornings, out onto the walkway of the dreary block
of flats perched above the soccer field.
Had the gravediggers ever paused to gaze back on these mornings,
they would have made out the thin shape of a man in his early
thirties, draped in dark clothes. Slender to begin with, Vlado had
been further narrowed by the diet of wartime until his deep brown
eyes were almost spectral in their sockets. A face once quick to smile
was now guarded, uncertain. A small crease above the bridge of his
nose had deepened and dug in, setting itself up as the new, solemn
master of the laugh lines crinkling around his eyes. His black hair
was stiff, clipped short and uneven by his own hand with a blunt
pair of children’s scissors, receding ever more rapidly at the crown
and temples. The only holdover from before the war was his voice,
flowing out deep and soft, still the comfortable sort of baritone that
beckons one into a warm, smoky room of old friends.
Behind him, in the small living room and kitchen, was all that
remained of Vlado’s prewar world. For more than a year and a half
his wife and daughter had been gone, evacuated to Germany. The
door to his daughter’s room hadn’t been opened for weeks, nor had
the door to his and his wife’s old bedroom. He had gradually drawn
his possessions and his existence together, partly because it kept him
away from the windows more exposed to sniper and artillery fire,
and partly to conserve the precious light and heat from his illegal gas
hookups, which burned fitfully and low under dwindling pressure.
But it was also his way of burrowing in for the duration, of tending
his own weak flame against the forces that could blow it out.
In approaching each day he had developed a keen sense of pace,
of constant adjustment. Those who burned too brightly, he knew
from watching, never lasted. They were the ones whose passions
eventually led them running into free-fire zones, screaming either in
madness or in a final outpouring of impotent rage.
But let your flame turn too low, fail to coax it along, and you
ended up at the other extreme, spent and empty. You saw them in
doorways, or hunched at the back of cafés, greasy-haired, staring
vacantly, clothes in tatters. They never stopped retreating, ending up
at the bottom of either a bottle or a grave.
Vlado was a Catholic, which meant he was classified as a Croat,
something he’d never much thought about nor wanted to until the
past two years. The precision of the label was questionable, given
his mixed parentage. His father had been Muslim, his mother Catholic.
She’d made sure he was baptized, though she’d never been
much for church herself. Then she’d spent years dragging him off
to religious instruction and holiday mass only to see her efforts go
Now, one’s ethnic background seemed to be the first thing everyone
in an official position wanted to know. Your answer could get
you killed in some places, promoted in others.
It was easy enough information to find out, listed right there on
your identification papers. The ethnic labels were remnants of the
various competing empires that had clashed in these hills for centuries.
The Ottoman Turks had run the show for a while, bringing Islam
and the sultan’s bureaucracy, only to run up against the Austrians,
who brought Catholicism, impeccable record keeping, and streets
laden with their layer-cake architecture.
From the east there had always been the Russians to worry about,
sharing their Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Cyrillic alphabet with
the Serbs. Then the Nazis had come along and overwhelmed everyone,
linking up just long enough with nationalist Croats, the Ustasha,
to lay waste to a few hundred thousand Serbs. Sometimes the Muslims
had joined in the killing. Sometimes they’d been among the victims.
But all sides were supposedly forgiven under the new mantle of
the eventual victor, the postwar communist regime of Marshal Tito.
Tito proceeded to hold the fractious sides together for nearly half a
century, chiefly by acting as if no one had ever hated each other to
begin with. He banished all talk of ethnic nationalism and mistrust,
blithely announcing that henceforth brotherhood would prevail.
It almost worked.
But when Tito died, the ethnic zealots rediscovered their voices,
and the Serbs crowed the loudest. Tales of past massacres, kept alive
through the decades around family tables, emerged shiny and refurbished.
The old fears were coaxed out of cellars and attics, renourished
by a new diet of ethnic propaganda. Out came the old labels of
mistrust. If you were a Croat, that must mean you were Ustasha. Any
Serb was a Chetnik. A Muslim? No better than a Turk. When things
began to fall apart, they collapsed in a hurry.
The Serbs, holding the bulk of the army, immediately and mercilessly
seized the upper hand, and Tito’s ultimate failure was now evident
in the lines of fire dividing the city. Standing on every surrounding
hill were the Serb guns and trenches, and an army determined to
squeeze Sarajevo until it became their own. They also held much of
the ground within the city on the far bank of the Miljacka River, which
curled through the town from east to west like a crooked spine.
Trapped along with Vlado on the north bank, in the old city center,
were two hundred thousand people, mostly Muslim, occasionally
Croat and very occasionally Serb. But, as with Vlado, the labels
were often ambiguous. Mixed marriages accounted for a quarter of
the population, which only further enraged the Serbs. Bohemian
little Sarajevo, too clever for her own good, was paying the price
for years of incestuous pleasure. Now the Serbs seemed bent on
leveling the city if they couldn’t capture it, taking it apart brick by
brick, person by person.
Vlado had gone his entire life without really considering what it
meant to be a Catholic, and he saw no reason to start now. He’d
stepped into a church only three times in the past twelve years, twice
for funerals, and certainly not at all for his marriage, a civil ceremony
in which he’d wed the Muslim daughter of a Serb mother.
His only other trip to church had been his most recent, to investigate
the murder of a priest found dead in a confessional. A jealous
husband had shot the priest after finding a boxful of passionate letters
on parish stationery in his wife’s closet. The husband had
walked into the booth, sat down, fired twice through the latticed
partition, then turned the gun on himself. Vlado had felt cheated by
the suicide. He’d always wanted to know if there had been any
final conversation. He wondered if either side had offered absolution
before the gun had passed judgement on both. Both had made
adequate penance in the end, by Vlado’s way of thinking, never
mind what the Church thought.
Had the gravediggers looked Vlado’s way on this morning they
might also have seen a cup of coffee in his hand. At $20 a pound on
a salary of one dollar a month, often paid in cigarettes, it was no
small luxury. Such was the state of the local currency and the black
market that ruled the city.
He smiled to himself with a slight flush of embarrassment recalling
how he’d acquired the coffee the day before. He had begged for it,
really. Not overtly, but in an obvious enough way, having learned
how to go about such things.
A British journalist had telephoned for an interview and Vlado had
gladly set a time. The subject was to be homicide in the city of death,
as well as the ever present topic of the local corruption that was eating
away at the city from within. It was a topic Vlado was forbidden
to discuss, but that was beside the point. He knew as well as anyone
that journalists, U.N. people, and other outsiders were always eager
to ingratiate themselves with their bags full of booty—coffee, whiskey,
cartons of Marlboros, sometimes even sugar. Who knows how
generous they might be if you had information they wanted, whether
you could supply it or not.
The items a journalist might offer could fetch Deutschemarks, dollars,
friends and influence, or even a prostitute for an hour or so. The
whores skulking by the gates of the French U.N. garrison could be
had for a couple of packs of Marlboros, a price which the U.N. troops
found quite reasonable. Some had given up smoking altogether.
The journalist had arrived right on time, a fleshy bundle of bustle
and British good cheer, pinkening at the edges from his climb up the
stairs, like a soft piece of fruit about to turn bad. He thrust his hand
outward in greeting as he fairly shouted, “Toby Perkins, Evening
. Pleased to meet you.”
Vlado replied with a grave stare, spooning instant coffee into a
steaming cup of water, then stirring the brown crystals with the reverence
of an alchemist handling gold dust.
“My last cup,” he announced, holding it toward the reporter.
“Please, take it.” It set just the right tone, Vlado thought. He inwardly
congratulated himself, knowing from Toby’s thin smile and reddening
cheeks that the rest would be easy.
And it was.
Toby immediately set down the mug and ducked toward his
satchel, grunting and bending awkwardly from the bulk of an
armored flak vest girdling his chest. Just about every outsider wore
them, although locals tended to wonder what all the fuss was
about. Why go to the trouble when you could still get your head
When Toby rose, his smile was wide and generous, and he held a
one-pound jar of Nescafé. Now he was the millionaire with the shiny
coin for the miserable waif. All that was left was to pat the boy on the
head. But Vlado had no qualms of pride. He only wondered what
else might be clinking around in the big bag.
Vlado first offered the obligatory refusal, downgrading his polished
English to singsong cadence to better suit the moment. Play the dumb,
stiff local bureaucrat for a while and Toby might give up a little quicker.
“Oh no, it would not be a possibility.”
Toby insisted, as they always did. “Really. Please. Go ahead. I’ve
got so many, and, well, I’m leaving Monday anyway.”
Leaving Monday. That always stopped him with these people,
whether it was journalists, aid workers, or some Western celebrity
seeking a little wartime atmosphere and some publicity. They
came and went like tourists, flashing a blue-and-white U.N. card to
pass through checkpoints where just about any local would be
stopped cold. Or shot. Even if he was a police detective. Only foreigners
left town so easily. They boarded U.N. cargo planes, deepbellied
green tubs that lumbered up over the hills and away. Then
they no doubt toasted their survival that very night in some warm
place where the windows had glass, not flapping sheets of plastic,
and where there was electric lighting and plenty of cold beer.
So Vlado felt only the slightest twinge of guilt when he locked the
jar of coffee in a desk drawer and announced, “I am sorry, but my
superiors have told me that I really shouldn’t talk to you. At least not
on this subject. Maybe we can speak a few minutes ‘off the record,’
as people in your profession say, but anything more would not be
Then had come the unpleasant part. Toby had decided to deliver a
lecture. “Yes, that’s the spirit, isn’t it. Remain silent and preserve the
“The myth?” Vlado had asked, curious to hear the outside world’s
latest take on Balkan madness.
“The myth of ethnic peace and harmony among the poor beleagured
people of Sarajevo. Of clean government with nothing but noble
intent. Yes, you’re victims, we all know that. Bloody well can’t turn
on our televisions without seeing another weeping Sarajevan saying
‘All you need is love.’ But whenever the subject of ill-gotten gains
and bad players behind the scenes comes up, you go all quiet on us
and resort to your ultimate fallback: Blame the Serbs. The Chetniks
did it. And they did, didn’t they. Threw you out of half the city and
three-quarters of your country.
“But you’re not exactly saints down here are you, pardon the
botched religious metaphor. What about revealing some of your own
bad apples for a change? How long do you think this war would go
on if some key people in key places suddenly stopped making
money off it?”
“You find our hatreds unconvincing, I take it? Perhaps poor old
Marx was right, after all, even if he’s no longer in fashion. In the
West, it’s always about money.”
“Because it is always about money, or power, or whatever form of
wealth you want to name,” Toby said. “And that’s true in the East as
well. Why do you think the Serbs grabbed half your country right out
of the gate? Not so they could lord it over you lovely people, I can
tell you that. It was an economic land grab, plain and simple, dressed
up as an ethnic holy crusade. ‘Save our Serbian brothers. Oh, but
while you’re at it, take that factory over there, won’t you?’ I’m not
saying there’s any shortage of genuine hatred up in those hills. There
are enough zealots to keep these armies burning for years. But look
at the support systems and the lines of supply. All the bit players that
prop it up. Who needs morale when you’ve got a nice flow of hard
currency to keep the officers happy? Take that away and who knows,
maybe the whole thing begins to rot from the inside out. Maybe the
hatred isn’t enough anymore. Maybe you even end up with a ceasefire
that lasts long enough for something more than allowing the next
shipment of tobacco and liquor to come across the lines. With fifty
percent of the proceeds going to the local constabulary, of course.”
“I think you are oversimplifying a complex situation.”
“Yes, well that’s what I’m paid for, isn’t it. Take all the nice blurry
grays and turn them into black and white for the public to digest
before moving on to the horoscopes and the latest from the Royals.
But before you dismiss me as just another hack, which is exactly
what I am, by the way, let me tell you a little story I picked up down
the road in your city of Mostar—then we’ll see what you think.”
The last thing Vlado wanted from this blustering little man was an
object lesson, but he’d paid for at least that much with the pound of
coffee, so Vlado let him ramble on.
“You know the situation in Mostar, right?” Toby said, his face more
flushed by the minute. “Even worse than here, in a way. Croats and
Muslims fighting each other tooth and nail down in the streets, shooting
at each other from across the river, while the Serbs sit on the
mountains to the east and lob shells on the both of them. Like a
bored old housewife pouring boiling water onto a couple of fighting
“Well, a few weeks ago the local Muslim commander’s doing his
usual bit for the home side when he starts running low on artillery
shells. So he gets on the radio and calls his mate on the next hill to
ask for more. ‘Sorry, lads, we’re running low ourselves. Can’t spare
you a single shot. Arms embargo and all that, you know.’
“So who should pipe up on the same frequency, because everybody’s
using the same old Yugoslav army radios anyway, but our
Serb friend up on the mountain. We’ll call him Slobo.
“ ‘If it’s shells you need, we’ve got all you’d ever want,’ General
Slobo says. “ ‘And at popular prices.’
“ ‘Great,’ General Mohamad says. ‘But what about delivery? The
Croats are between you and us.’
“ ‘No problem,’ Slobo says. ‘My Croat friend, Commander Tomislav,
can bring them right to your doorstep for a small commission,
say, twenty-five percent of the ordnance.’ So they haggle for a while
over price, set a time and place for delivery. Then they chat up the
U.N. to arrange a temporary ‘ceasefire’ to allow for shipments of
‘humanitarian aid,’ and the whole thing goes off without a hitch. The
U.N. people spend a whole day patting themselves on the back, then
can’t understand why things go sour as soon as the last truck leaves.
So there you go: enemy number one arms enemy number two with
the help of enemy number three, while greasing the palms of God
knows how many generals, staff officers, subordinates and checkpoint
trolls along the way. And all you people down here want to
talk about is hatred, intolerance, and ‘woe is me.’ When the topic’s
corruption, everyone clams up.”
Vlado had no answer for him. Nor did he doubt that Toby’s little
story had been true. He’d heard much of the same sort of thing around
here. So he decided to just sit. Toby would be bored soon enough.
Indeed he was. Sighing, he pulled a business card from his bag.
“If you should ever happen to change your mind, here’s my card.
You can reach me at room four thirty-four of the Holiday Inn. You
know the place, the big yellow dump on the front line with all the
shell holes. But it’s the only room in town. Who knows, if you decide
a week from now to talk, I might even be able to scrounge you a
sack of sugar. A little palm greasing for the good guys for a change.”
And it was that parting message, Vlado supposed, that had left him
with the bitter aftertaste, a hint of shame that had played at the edge
of his thoughts for the rest of the day, like the vivid last image from a
But coffee was coffee, and he savored another sip, cradling the
cup in both hands for warmth as he gazed toward the soccer field.
What was so embarrassing about a little ingenuity, he told himself.
He sipped the gritty remains and glanced back outside. The gravediggers
were waist-deep. He had perhaps another half hour before
the snipers would be stirring, although he had a feeling it would be
another slow day.
Some mornings he killed the extra time time by working on his
growing army of model soldiers. They lay before him on a small
workbench he’d set up in the kitchen, row upon row of dash and
color. It was a hobby he’d taken up years ago, partly out of his bookish
fascination with military history, only to immediately find it
tedious, a headache of minor details. And when impatience turned
his work sloppy he’d given it up, packing away dozens of unpainted
lead men that he’d bought in an industrious burst of optimism.
Then the war came. His wife and daughter evacuated the city after
the first two months of fighting, leaving in a dusty convoy of school
buses on a warm May morning. Women, children and old men waved
from every window to a forlorn audience of young and middle-aged
men, forced by the army to stay behind. Other families spilled from
the sides of stuffed panel trucks, their colorful scarves flapping in the
breeze that dried their tears.
That evening Vlado climbed to the roof of their four-story apartment
block, hauling himself up the fire ladder along with a small
folding chair and a bottle of plum brandy. He sat down to watch the
nightly bombardment as if it were a summer storm rolling in from
the mountains. Distant artillery flashes played against the clouds
with the red streams of tracer bullets, and he found himself gauging
the range of each impact by counting the seconds before the blast,
just as he’d done with his daughter to calm her fear of thunder. For
a moment he recalled the fatherly comfort of having the weight of a
child in one’s lap, resting your chin on the top of the small head, the
hair smelling of sunlight, playground sand, and baby shampoo.
He held the brandy bottle, sipping every few minutes, feeling the
fire of each swallow ramble down his throat, the level dropping past
the halfway mark as the bombardment groped its way around the
Excerpted from Lie in the Dark by Dan Fesperman. Copyright © 2012 by Dan Fesperman. Excerpted by permission of Soho Crime, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.