tip off

Red Ink Run: from Riga with love

“Do you even know what’s it’s like up there anymore, Mr Bond?” I asked him, sneaking a quick glance at the weapon in his hand. I could see the barrel dead on, it yawned like a dilated pupil.

“You have to realise that the world has moved on from the clandestine superpower struggles of your heyday. We enjoy ourselves now. Here, in Riga, Latvia, we go to the pub for a pint on weekends, we don’t guard top secret nuclear missile silos, waiting for someone to steal a strip of microfilm. If, say instead of pointing that gun at me, you went right now and stood on the cobblestones, you could see the finest collection Art Nouveau spill from the eaves of apartments, not grim Soviet worker blocks.”

His features remained fixed in his trademark smug smirk. I could see that the appeal to his love of architecture, suave and cosmopolitan though he looked in a black tuxedo was a futile pursuit. I changed tact.

“The cold war is over. If you don’t believe me — believe the shops, they’re full. We are a few hundred metres away from one of the largest produce markets in Europe, housed through five giant ex-zeppelin hangers. The whole place smells of dill. If you breathe in deeply three times you can almost become dizzy with it.”

“I don’t understand it, Bond. Everyone it seems has grasped this except for you. But don’t take my word for it — visit the Occupation Museum in the old town to see what it is like to live out the twentieth century sandwiched between two totalitarian juggernauts. Make it to the end and you cannot help but notice that the Soviets have left. There are pictures of it everywhere.”

I laughed but the sound rang out hollow as it echoed off the bare concrete walls.

“My point is that this,” I gestured around the room, including him in the sweep of my arm.

“All this, your good self included, is outdated and outmoded. You, Mr Bond, are an anachronism.”

I raised my .357 Special and lined up the sights to his head and fired. The shock of the explosion, the sound, the muzzle flash all cut through my simmering hangover like a switchblade through Kevlar. I fired again and again until I had lost count, stopping at what I guessed to be six.

I lowered the gun to my side and the man returned into focus. At least one shot had to have hit him, I thought but he remained standing, in the exact same position he had been in. As I looked closer I could see that I had in fact hit him, a hole about the size of a fingernail had opened on the base of his neck. There was no blood. The smell of cordite began to work into my nostrils. I was hyper-alert now, adrenaline surging through me, as time began to move both faster and slower.

This was underground Riga, in the literal sense of the word underground. We had come down, out of the rain, into this ex-Soviet bunker, through the massive blast door and into a foyer. There was a constant, all pervasive smell of gun powder in this facility. Posters of bikini clad, gun toting young ladies covered the walls. My personal favourite advertised a gun called the Bodyguard, in which a lady held a pistol in one hand and a wild eyed little dog in the other, her blouse opened to present abundant cleavage to the prospective buyer. It was not difficult to work out the sex of the target demographic here.

I had approached the counter and in Russian, greeted a moustachioed old man. He looked up as if had just noticed us and presented me with a menu — a gun menu. In my travels I have browsed some pretty interesting menus. One in a café in Amsterdam sticks in my memory, but I have never been handed a gun menu before. In it were a variety of Soviet era firearms — Russian handguns, American revolvers, a pump action shotgun, an Uzi, a semi-automatic shotgun, an AK-47 and a sniper rifle. I chose the aforementioned .357 Special and the AK-47, Marty did the same and Samuel, a Swiss guy we had invited, ordered the shotgun on top of the other two weapons. Then the man walked through another blast door, behind the counter and ever so nonchalantly returned with two hands full of cold steel swinging by his sides. He handed us all earmuffs and pointed us to a table on which rested large sheets of paper — our targets.

Marty and Samuel both chose a general bad dude number one, a guy in a beanie and ugly, hate twisted features, aiming a revolver with one hand and clutching a crying girl in a red dress with the other. I went with something a little more classic, because who hasn’t dreamed of wiping that smirk off James Bond’s face, especially with an AK-47, especially in a Russian bunker? Me neither, but being presented with the opportunity to do so was an offer I could not resist.

We followed the man through another door and into the range. The air was foggy with the smoke of discharged firearms. The man just wordlessly stapled our targets at the far end of the twenty five meter range and then returned to a table a few meters from us and began loading the revolver. There was no safety talk, no “never point a gun at another person”, our host just said “like this” aiming the gun at the target and handed it to me. This was the moment when, dear reader, we began our story. My target’s complete inability to respond made little difference to his eventual fate, of course, as I didn’t really want Mr Bond to talk. I wanted him to die.

After the .357 Special, Samuel shot his shotgun and then we took turns firing the Kalashnikov. I can remember when Marty fired the AK the shell casings bouncing off the walls. And then, all of a sudden, it was just over and we were back in the foyer left with our targets and the high pitched tremolo of surging adrenalin in our ears. The man then returned behind the bench, sorting through a stack of paper he had been working on before, with the same casualness that he had employed while handling high-calibre ammunition.

The overwhelming impression was how easy firing a gun was. Enough bullets out of the twelve had hit their mark to take Mr Bond down five or six times. Back out of the bunker in the cold light of day it felt as if some crucial bit of experience had been added to my repertoire. It was as if I now had a greater understanding and an actual tactile connection to these historically significant objects. It was bit like the first time I felt when I drove a car. Still, I don’t reckon my parents with get me one for Christmas.

K Johnson is blogging regularly for Crikey while on his six-month trip to the countries most tourists never visit — think Azerbaijan, Transnistria, Iran, Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Kurdistan etc. Check out all the past stories and adventures he’s written about for Crikey here. You can read more about him at his blog Red Ink Run.

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