THREE

Gentlemen, there is a cancer in our midst.”

Colonel Snitkonoy, the Gray Wolfhound, made his pronouncement and paused to watch its effect upon his senior staff. The Wolfhound, slender, resplendent in his perfectly pressed brown uniform, medals glittering, had paused, hands behind his back, white mane finely brushed back, head erect.

The Wolfhound headed the MVD’s Bureau of Special Events. The MVD consisted of the uniformed and non-uniformed police who directed traffic, faced the public, and were the first line of defense against crime. Everyone, with the possible exception of Colonel Snitkonoy, knew that the Gray Wolfhound headed the Special Events Bureau because he looked as if he had been cast for the role. His real job was to appear at public events, present medals, make patriotic speeches at factories, and handle criminal investigations that no other bureau wanted.

Before his transfer to the Wolfhound’s staff, Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov had been a senior inspector in the procurator general’s office in Moscow. The procurator general is appointed for a seven-year term, the longest of any Soviet official. The procurator general is responsible for sanctioning arrests, supervising investigations, executing sentences, and supervising trials. Now, following any inquiry, or doznaniye, Rostikov would have to turn over his information to the procurator general’s office if the case were of sufficient importance to go to trial.

And now Rostnikov, having arrived late at the morning administrative meeting, sat doodling as the Gray Wolfhound stood waiting for the appropriate response from the three men seated around the wooden table in his large office. Rostnikov looked down pensively at the credible drawing of a bear he was working on. On Rostnikov’s right sat Pankov, the ever-frightened Pankov, a near-dwarf of a man with thinning hair who served as the colonel’s assistant and who always appeared in public at the colonel’s side to present a startling contrast and further bring out the impressive figure of the Wolfhound. Pankov, rumpled, unkempt, confused, was treated with great respect by his superior. The third man at the table was Major Grigorovich, who sat three seats down, a solid, uniformed block of a man in his middle forties who was ever alert and ever prepared to support the Wolfhound’s philosophy of life in the clear hope of taking over when the colonel made the inevitable mistake that would bring him down.

“Pankov,” the Wolfhound said, turning his eyes to the frightened little man.

“Yes, Colonel, a cancer,” said Pankov.

“Go on, Pankov,” the Wolfhound said attentively.

Pankov’s professional life was totally dependent on the continued success of the Wolfhound. And yet Pankov always harbored the hope that he might survive if and when the great man stepped down or was stepped upon. To do that he had to keep from offending Grigorovich, who might find him useful enough to retain, and not annoy Rostnikov, who might turn in a report on his incompetence.

“Crime,” Pankov began. “The criminals. There is too much, a cancer.”

“Too much?” said the Wolfhound.

Pankov’s eyes turned to Rostnikov, who continued to write in his little book, and Grigorovich, whose eyes met Pankov’s with no sign of sympathy.

“I mean,” said Pankov, “any crime is too much. The figures show that crime is being reduced significantly and-”

“Crime has increased in the past year,” said Snitkonoy. “Grigorovich, the Interior Ministry report.”

Grigorovich slowly reached forward and opened the notebook in front of him. He cleared his throat and said in his deepest and most serious voice, “Assaults, robberies, and theft increased by twenty-five to forty-four percent in the past year. Murders were up fourteen percent and rapes five percent throughout the Soviet Union. The overall crime rate increased in the past year by seventeen point eight percent. Violent crimes, street crimes, thefts are up even more.”

“I did not have access to this information,” Pankov pleaded.

“It was published in Izvestiya,” said Grigorovich.

Rostnikov thought of the old joke that there is no pravda (truth) in Izvestiya and no izvestiya (news) in Pravda. That had changed quite a bit in the past four years, but not completely.

Pankov sat back defeated, wondering if his cousin in Leningrad would let him work in his furniture store.

“It is better to know the reality of things,” the Wolfhound said, resuming his pacing. “Because then our level of security will be clearer, as well as the tasks and the problems that we face.

“Criminals are preying on newly formed cooperative businesses. Street fighting among rival gangs of youths has reached murderous levels right in our city. Some people have claimed that General Secretary Gorbachev’s political and social reforms, which have relaxed state controls, are to blame for this grave new crime wave.”

The Wolfhound turned suddenly on his staff. Pankov looked away, defeated. Grigorovich sat ready to respond, and Rostnikov paused in his drawing to look up. Snitkonoy’s eyes fell on Rostnikov.

“According to the Ministry report,” said Rostnikov, “there were fifty-seven crimes for every hundred thousand people in the Soviet Union, while the United States in a comparable period had five thousand, five hundred fifty crimes for every hundred thousand people.”

“Yes, yes, yes,” agreed Snitkonoy, “but what difference does it make to us? We know the Americans distort their crime figures. It must be even worse there than they are willing to admit.”

“Fortunately,” said Rostnikov, “we can place our complete trust in the figures supplied to us by the Interior Ministry.”

“And we will redouble our efforts,” said Snitkonoy. “We will not rest. What do we have in progress and what is new? Pankov?”

Pankov pulled himself together and flattened the morning report in front of him.

“Visit from the trade delegation from the American United State of Illinois,” said Pankov. “The Trade Ministry would like you to join the minister for lunch with the American today. I’ve taken the liberty of scheduling it. Um, traffic accident report is up again. Investigators Karpo and Tkach have a possible crank report of a boy who says he wants to kidnap a Politburo member, but I doubt that it is worth serious consideration. A distraught mother simply overheard a conversation she almost certainly misunderstood. Next, the Central Bus Authority reports a missing vehicle, the assault squad-”

“Enough,” said Snitkonoy. “Pass it around. Porfiry Petrovich, have your people check on the kidnap report and the missing vehicle. Grigorovich, coordinate the accident investigation report. Any questions?”

The colonel, all around the table knew, had been aware of the lunch with Americans for months and had been looking forward to it and practicing his English with Rostnikov. The duties the colonel had just assigned were the routine responsibilities of the men to whom they had been assigned. In each case, the investigation or report would be taken over by a higher agency if anything came to the surface to indicate something beyond the routine. Rostnikov knew that if he wanted to complete an investigation he had to move quickly and report slowly or risk losing the assignment.

“Gentlemen, to work,” said the Wolfhound, moving to the window to look out at the streets of Moscow.

The three men rose, Rostnikov more slowly than the others.

“Porfiry Petrovich, you will remain for a moment.”

Grigorovich garnered his papers and hurried militarily to the doorway through which Pankov had already scurried. When the door was closed, the colonel moved to his desk and said, in English, “The weather in your state, I understand, is conducive to the growing of corn.”

“It is,” said Rostnikov in English.

“Fine.” The Wolfhound signed some documents and went on in English, “Perhaps a reciprocity of agricultural and machine tools will be an eventuality between your state and our proper representatives.”

“It is a possibility, Colonel,” said Rostnikov.

The Wolfhound turned with a smile and continued in English, “How is the progression of your wife, Inspector?”

“She is progressing, Colonel. Thank you.”

“A good wife is a stone to hold one down,” said the Wolfhound.

“A rock to rely on,” Rostnikov corrected gently.

“Da,” the Wolfhound said seriously, returning to Russian. “A rock to rely on. The American idiom contradicts itself and is often difficult to fathom.”

“Yes,” agreed Rostnikov.

“The Russian language, in contrast, has a singular clarity of meaning.” And then in English, “I then bid you good morning.”

The Wolfhound returned his pen to the desk and looked up at Rostnikov. Once when they were preparing a list of names of MVD officers to escort a visiting policeman from Kiev, Rostnikov had offered the colonel a pencil so they could make adjustments in the list if they wished to do so. The colonel had smiled and continued to use his pen, saying, “I never use a pencil. I haven’t the time to change my mind.”

“Good morning,” Rostnikov replied and went through the door of the Wolfhound’s den and out to meet the day.

Sasha Tkach had one hour for lunch. His wife, Maya, had asked to meet him in front of the memorial chapel on Kuibyshev Street, directly across from the Ploschad Nogina Metro Station. Sasha crossed Kirov Street, moved past the Dzerzhinsky Metro Station, and hurried down the Serov passage past the Polytechnical Museum to Kuibyshev Street.

He pulled the collar of his jacket down now that the light rain had ended. He crossed the street and saw his wife and baby daughter at a bench. Maya saw her husband crossing the street and turned the baby, who was standing in front of her holding on to the bench. Pulcharia was just beginning to stand, though she needed something or someone to hold on to. She saw Sasha as he approached and began to wave; the tassels on the blue knit sweater she was wearing bobbed with her zealous wave, and Sasha smiled at his daughter’s open, toothless grin.

“It’s at’e’ts, your father,” Maya said, and she, too, smiled as Sasha leaned over to kiss them. They had been married for almost three years now and the baby was nearly a year old. It seemed to Sasha that they had been married much longer. He could not remember the details, the day-to-day rituals of his life before this woman and child.

“I haven’t long,” Sasha said, taking a sandwich from Maya.

There was at least the hope of sun now.

“What we can get, we take,” she said, tearing off a piece of bread and putting it into Pulcharia’s waiting mouth.

Maya’s words resonated with a Ukrainian accent that Sasha found exotic. He knew what she wanted to talk about, and he knew that it couldn’t be avoided.

“Lydia,” Maya said.

“Yes,” said Sasha with a sigh.

They would soon be moving from their apartment into a slightly larger one. The move had come about after a complex series of trades arranged by a friend of Lydia’s from childhood. Their apartment would go to an old couple and their daughter. The old couple, in turn, would give their centrally located apartment over to an accountant for the Ts UM department store, where Maya worked part time. Sasha and Maya would then get the accountant’s apartment, which was larger than their own though farther from the city. Everyone got something they wanted from the trade and lost something. The old couple got a slightly larger apartment but gave up their proximity to the central city. The accountant would be close to his work, and Sasha and Maya would have more room. The problem was Sasha’s mother, Lydia. The nearly deaf Lydia still worked at the Ministry of Information as a file clerk, but she would be retired in a little over a year. Sasha was well aware that his mother was difficult to live with under the best of circumstances, and having her around constantly was trying even for her son. They had spent their entire married life sharing the apartment with Lydia.

“You’ll have to tell her, Sasha,” Maya said gently.

The baby pulled at Sasha’s trousers and he handed her a piece of bread. Maya took the bread from the baby and tore it into smaller pieces before handing her a single piece.

“She’s my mother,” Sasha said, looking into his wife’s dark eyes. “How does one tell his mother she can’t live with him? Especially my mother. Could you do it to your mother? Besides, the apartment is really hers. We moved in with her.”

“My mother wouldn’t want to live with us,” Maya said. “But could I do it? Yes, if I had to. And we have to, Sasha.”

Sasha could hear his mother’s voice vividly, sharply in his mind. He almost turned on the bench to look for her. A passing shopper smiled at Pulcharia, who offered the woman a piece of her bread.

“She arranged for the new apartment,” Sasha reminded his wife, who reached over and brushed the hair from his eyes.

“And she gave birth to you and you love her and she drives you mad and she drives me mad,” Maya said gently. “Your aunt wants her. Your aunt is lonely.”

“They don’t get along,” sighed Sasha. “You know that.”

“Lydia doesn’t get along with anyone.”

“She gets along with you,” he said, reaching over to pick up the baby, who was reaching out to him.

“I get along with her,” Maya corrected.

“She has to be told,” he said, kissing his daughter.

“She’ll be one bus from us,” said Maya, touching his hand. “She can come twice a week. We’ll probably get along better with her.”

“I’ll tell her tonight,” Sasha said, looking around at a pair of old women walking arm in arm down the sidewalk.

Maya leaned over to kiss him on the cheek. Her kiss was warm, and he smiled.

“After all,” he said to the baby, “what can your grandmother do to me?”

Pulcharia, who was named for Lydia’s mother, decided her father had made a joke and she laughed, but her father did not laugh with her.

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