“What are you looking for?” the little girl asked.
It was well past her bedtime, but after dinner Sarah had told him the Karenskovs on the fourth floor had a badly leaking pipe under their bathroom sink.
Laura and her eight-year-old sister were both frail, with short dark brown hair. They looked nothing like their grandmother, who was in prison for shooting the manager of a government food shop. The grandmother had been raising the children since her daughter disappeared, leaving the brief message that she would return sometime, maybe. The girls’ father was already long gone, and there were no aunts or uncles. The Rostnikovs had taken the girls in, and slowly, cautiously, the children had been coming out of their near-catatonic state. Now the eleven-year-old was expressing a definite interest in Rostnikov’s activities.
He was lying on his back under the Karenskovs’ sink, his copper-colored tool kit on the floor beside him. The girl, in her nightshirt, was kneeling.
“Searching for the leak,” Rostnikov said.
“You are getting dirty,” Laura said.
“The plumbing is old,” he said. “It rusts, it leaks, it makes noises like the wind and machine guns. Hand me the pipe wrench, that big metal thing with jaws.”
She found the wrench and offered it into the darkness below the sink. Rostnikov clamped, tugged, grunted, and pulled. Rust flaked over his face and he closed his eyes.
“No use,” he said, sliding out awkwardly.
The girl smiled when he sat up. His face was covered with red rust. In his hand was a dirty length of piping.
“I amuse you?” he asked. “Good. Now hand me that piece of pipe. No, the smaller one.”
She handed him a short section of plastic piping he had brought with him.
“The pipes are all forty years old, and made from inferior galvanized steel,” he said. “They are beginning to rust from inside. Small holes are developing in the pipes. They can be patched with tape for a while, but eventually they will all have to be replaced, just like I am replacing this section.”
The Karenskovs waited in the other room watching television. Rostnikov and the girl could hear the cheerful voices of a man and woman on the television. Then the audience laughed.
“The plumbing in this building, like most of the buildings in Moscow, is similar to our government,” Rostnikov said, putting down the rusted section of pipe and examining the tube of black plastic the girl had handed him. “It is rusty and rotten. Soon … leaks everywhere. The system is falling apart. It has to be replaced, but the cost is great. Do the new plumbers simply make repairs with plastic tubing?” He held up the plastic pipe section in his hand. “Or do they completely replace the entire system as they have promised but which they cannot afford to do?”
The girl listened, a look of intensity on her face.
“You don’t understand, do you?” he asked, reaching out to touch her cheek.
“A little,” she said.
When he removed his hand from her cheek, he saw that he had left a handprint of rust and dust. He put the two pieces of pipe side by side on the floor. The black plastic one was longer.
“Saw and clamp,” he said, pointing at the tools.
The girl handed them to him and said, “It’s like being a nurse, a little.”
“A little,” Rostnikov agreed with a smile. “You would like to be a doctor or a nurse?”
The girl considered this while Rostnikov turned his body, biting his lower lip to control the pain in his leg, and fixed the clamp and black piping together on the edge of the sink.
“No,” she said. “I want to be a traffic director. I’ll have a uniform and stand in the street telling cars when to go and stop. Or I’ll be up in one of those little traffic towers.”
“A noble ambition,” Rostnikov said as he stood up and started to cut the pipe to the same length as the rusty one he had removed. “Well within your grasp.”
“You are a policeman,” she said.
“I am,” he answered, continuing to saw.
“You put my grandmother in jail.”
It was the first time the girl had spoken of her grandmother, though both Sarah and Porfiry Petrovich had given the girls messages from her.
“I took her to the judges, who put her in jail,” said Rostnikov without looking away from his sawing. “I am trying to get her out. You know what she did?”
“Yes,” said the girl, also standing now and watching with interest as Rostnikov sawed. “She shot a mean man who wouldn’t give her bread for me and my sister to eat.”
“Basically correct,” said Rostnikov as he sawed through the piece of plastic and the loose end fell to the floor.
The girl picked up the four-inch piece of black plastic and asked, “Can I keep this?”
“Yes,” said Rostnikov, loosening the clamp and painfully beginning to make his way back under the sink.
“There may be things I can make with it,” she said, turning it around in her hands.
“Now,” he said, the top of his body hidden under the sink, “hand me that small can of oil. The blue can.”
She did so, and after a minute he handed it back out to her.
“Now the bigger can, the one that looks like a small drum.”
She handed it to him. Moments later he handed it back out.
“Finally,” he said, “the bottle. It is solvent. Handle it carefully, and if you feel brave enough, unscrew the top.”
Slowly she unscrewed the top. The solvent smelled terrible. She handed it to him and listened to him grunt and turn. The girl looked at Rostnikov’s withered leg and said, “Does your leg hurt all the time?”
“Almost all the time,” he answered with another grunt from the darkness. “There.”
Rostnikov, covered now with even more dirt and rust, eased out from beneath the sink and reached back under it to retrieve some rags, a spatula, and another small tool. He had to grip the sink with both hands in order to rise, and once he had risen he stood silently for two minutes coping with pain.
“The metal snake,” he said, pointing to a drain auger, perhaps his most valued tool.
Laura handed it to him, and he began to drive the coiled metal serpent into the sink and through the new piece of plastic piping. She leaned over the sink to watch the metal coils disappear as Rostnikov pushed the device deeper and deeper into the piping. Finally it was as far as it would go. Rostnikov tugged, twisted, and pulled the metal snake carefully out of the pipe.
“Well, it is done,” he said with satisfaction, holding out his right hand. The girl took the large hand and they shook on their success.
“Why do you like doing this?” the girl asked as they put the tools away and cleaned up the mess they had made.
“This is very simple. The work I do as a policeman is very complicated,” he said.
“Because I must deal with people, and people are seldom simply good or bad. It is rare for a policeman to be able to fix a problem. One problem creates another one. It doesn’t end, and when it does, the end is not simple and the system is not working any better. Does this make sense?”
“A little,” she said. “It’s like what happened to my grandmother.”
“Yes,” said Rostnikov. “When I fix plumbing, I search for the problem, find it, repair it, and receive the gratitude of those who live with the system. Like this leak.”
He gathered his tools, took the girl’s hand, and went out to report his success to the Karenskovs. They were young, in their early thirties perhaps, and she was pregnant. He worked in the Moscow office of Pizza Hut.
“Fixed,” Rostnikov said. “But don’t use it till morning.”
“Thank you,” said the husband, taking Rostnikov’s dirty hand.
“Yes,” said the pregnant wife. “Thank you.”
“Please take this,” the man said. “I know you won’t take money.”
Actually, Rostnikov was getting close to the point where he thought he might accept a few kopecks to replace equipment. Money was tight and his salary small. Combining his salary and that of Sarah, who had gone back to clerking at the music store, they could make it through each month, but there was nothing left over. Money was there to be had for a policeman, but Rostnikov had never considered selling himself. Once he took even a few kopecks from a suspect or a criminal, he would have sacrificed the very meaning of his commitment to the law. There was a line. He would never cross it.
However, he could accept the four pieces of paper young Karenskov handed to him.
On the way up to the apartment the girl asked, “What did he give you?”
Rostnikov reached into his pocket and handed the four pieces of paper to the child.
“What do they say?” she said. “They are in …”
“English,” he said. “They say we can have four large pizzas free.”
“Pizzas. Like on the television.”
“Better,” said Rostnikov. “Better.”
When they opened the door to the Rostnikov apartment, Sarah was sitting at the table near the window drinking tea with Major Gregorovich, who was dressed in what appeared to be a new, dark gray business suit. Gregorovich stood, looked at Rostnikov and his toolbox with disapproval, and said, “Colonel Snitkonoy wishes to see you immediately.” There was clear satisfaction in Gregorovich’s tone.
“I’ll wash up,” Rostnikov said, moving toward the bedroom where the other child was sleeping.
“The colonel specifically said ‘immediately,’” Gregorovich said.
Sarah shrugged and Rostnikov sighed. He let go of the girl’s hand. “Then by all means let us go.”
“Thank you for the tea,” said Gregorovich.
“You are most welcome, Major,” Sarah said.
“And the biscuit,” he added.
“For that too,” she said. She took Laura’s hand.
“Don’t wait up for me,” Rostnikov said.
“I won’t,” Sarah said. “I have to be up early to get the girls ready for school.”
Both Porfiry Petrovich and Sarah knew she would be awake when he returned.
“You have a car?” Rostnikov said as Gregorovich hurried down the hall.
“Of course,” said the major.
“I’m afraid I will make the car a bit dirty,” said Rostnikov.
“That can’t be helped.”
“Major, no matter what the urgency of this summons, I can walk no faster than I am now doing. So you will either go ahead and meet me or make an effort to match my pace.”
Gregorovich slowed down, and Rostnikov patted him on the back in thanks, leaving a large, dark handprint on the major’s new suit.
Bakunin leaped at Elena before the door was fully open. Once the cat had been lean and the leap had been high and often. Now that Baku had grown old and heavy, his leaps came less frequently, and they fell far short of Elena’s arms.
Anna Timofeyeva sat in her chair at the window, a book in her lap. She was fully dressed in a particularly hideous brown pair of slacks and an almost-matching long-sleeved blouse. She was a heavy woman with short gray hair and a look of suspicion that had come to dominate her face sometime before her career-ending heart attacks. She had begun as an assistant to one of the commissars of Leningrad in charge of shipping and manufacturing quotas. She had no background in law, no training for a position as procurator, but she had been rewarded with the position after almost twenty years of service in Leningrad, and she had taken to it with the same zeal with which she had hounded shippers and manufacturers. In her second ten-year term as procurator in Moscow her heart had reenacted the history of the Revolution. At first it complained and she ignored it. Then it protested and she pretended that she did not hear. Next it rebelled and she sought professional advice and was told to make peace with her heart. That, too, she ignored and continued to work fourteen-hour days and indulge in her only vice, cold tea. And then revolution-heart attack-and she had no choice but to capitulate. Now, at age fifty-seven, Anna had been retired for more than three years.
Elena walked over to her aunt’s chair and gave the woman a kiss on her warm cheek. “Did you walk today?” Elena asked. She was carrying a small bag in one hand and her aunt’s old briefcase in the other. She put them both down.
“Walk,” Anna repeated. “I went out in the brisk, cool air and ran, ran like the wind. Neighbors gawked. Strangers marveled at the sight of a sack of potatoes in a blue sweat suit running through the streets.”
“Did you walk?” Elena repeated, starting to unload the small bag of groceries.
It had taken Elena two hours and four visits to black marketeers to get the three cans of soup, two onions, four potatoes, one large yogurt, and a piece of meat that was purported by an earnest Latvian to be from the finest cattle raised on the great pampas of Argentina.
“I walked,” Anna Timofeyeva said, starting to get up.
“Have you eaten?”
“We, Baku and I, had some bread, cheese, and tea. I think I have lost weight.”
Elena nodded. Bakunin rubbed against her leg.
“I’ll make something,” said Elena.
“Yes,” said Anna.
Having learned what little she knew of cooking from her busy mother, Elena was a poor cook. Her aunt was far worse, as they both knew-indifferent to ingredients and seasonings, inclined to let things almost burn or else to serve them long before they were ready.
“You had a good day?” asked Elena, kicking off her shoes in the general direction of the front door.
“Mine was fine,” said Anna. “For over three weeks now I’ve watched the skinny woman with the fat little boy steal small items from the other mothers in the courtyard. She is so good that she was probably a professional thief before she became a responsible mother.”
Elena found a pot, rinsed it in the sink, opened a can of soup, and poured the soup into the pot. She filled the can with water from the tap. The water looked a bit browner than usual today. As she brought the soup almost to a boil, adding water slowly as well as the handiest of the spices and condiments on the counter, Elena sensed from her aunt’s unusually prolonged silence that the older woman had something to say.
“Well?” asked Elena, her back to her aunt. She added a bit of the quickly diminishing contents of a jar of basil.
“Porfiry Petrovich called,” Anna said.
Elena continued stirring and made no comment.
“He asked how I was doing and promised to visit soon,” Anna went on. “He’ll be here within the week. He is a man of his word.”
Her back still turned to her aunt, Elena added pepper and laughed quietly.
“He also talked about you,” Anna said.
“What did he say?”
“That you were angry and that he would discuss it with you soon. I volunteered to talk to you.”
“I displayed no anger,” Elena said, gripping her stirring spoon tightly and pushing Bakunin gently away with her foot.
“You do not hide your feelings well, Elena,” Anna said.
“I’m working on it. I’ve had less than a year on the job.”
“Work harder,” said Anna. “It’s something about an old woman and a theft of valuable antiques.”
“He gave me the case,” Elena said, now turning, spoon in her fist, voice reasonably calm and low. She had a tendency to raise her voice when excited.
“And then?” asked Anna as she turned on the second light in the room.
“Then he took it from me-called the old woman in, intimidated her, threatened security guards, and allowed me to ask a few prepared questions.”
“He found the antiques and caught the thieves, with your help,” Anna said, moving to the stove where the teapot was beginning to whistle gently. She removed the pot before it made the screeching sound that sent the cat hiding under the bed in the other room.
“Yes.” Elena turned down the heat and reached for another spice. Their collection was not great, but her need to keep her hands occupied was more important at that moment than the resulting flavor of the soup.
“Had he waited for you to investigate, what would have happened?” asked Anna. She was in the process of preparing three cups of tea.
“Happened? I would have eventually won the woman’s full confidence. She would-”
“By the time you won her confidence, where would these valuable books and antiques have been?”
Elena shrugged and continued to destroy the soup.
“They would be dispersed among collectors and dealers. The state would have nothing, and you would still be trying to earn the old woman’s confidence.”
“Perhaps,” said Elena.
“Porfiry Petrovich has a great deal of pressure on him from those above,” said Anna. “It was he who would be held responsible if the crime was not solved quickly.”
“He could have talked to me,” Elena said, looking at the dark, simmering soup and wondering for an instant what kind it was. She remembered and took it off the burner.
When she turned, she saw that her aunt had set the table, put out the tea, and sliced thick pieces of bread. Baku was in the third chair.
“He talked to me. I am talking to you. Your job is to do what Porfiry Petrovich tells you to do,” said Anna, pouring cups of tea for all three of them.
“And if I don’t like it?” asked Elena grimly. She sat down in her chair.
“Many times our Porfiry Petrovich did not agree with an order I gave him,” said Anna with a smile, setting a cup of tea on Bakunin’s chair.
“But he did what he was told,” Elena said wearily.
“No, he did what he wanted to do if he could get away with it,” said Anna. “And though I was often extremely angry with him, his way usually worked. There is no single right way to approach any case, and the pressures from above are always frantic and in conflict with one another.”
“So,” Elena said, pouring soup. “I should ignore what my superior officer tells me? Less than a year on the job, the only woman in the department, and I should ignore my superior officer?”
“No,” said Anna. She held a spoon suspended in the air as she looked down suspiciously at the dark brew in the bowl before her. “You should do what he tells you. You should learn from him. I’d say you are a year or two away from defying him. Remember, however, when you do decide to defy him, do it quietly and be sure you are right, at least most of the time.”
“I’ll lose my job,” Elena said, tasting the soup. It wasn’t too bad.
“I don’t think so,” said Anna.
“Aunt Anna,” said Elena, reaching for a piece of bread, “if you were back as a procurator and someone asked you to describe me, what would you say in your report? Be honest.”
Anna continued to eat, glancing down at the cat to be sure he had made a reasonable attack on the tea. As she spoke, she poured a bowl of soup for Baku and blew on it.
“Five feet five inches tall. Weight, around one hundred forty pounds. Figure full but well proportioned. Fairly large breasts, firm. Hair a light brown, cut short. Eyes a very dark brown. Complexion excellent, skin rosy. Nose straight. Perhaps a touch of the Oriental in her quite-pretty face.”
“Thank you,” Elena said.
“It is not flattery. It is accuracy. You want more accuracy?”
“The soup is edible but not very good.”
“It is the price we pay for living together,” said Elena. “Baku likes it.”
“Baku’s charm,” said Anna, looking approvingly at the cat, who leaned over his bowl, “is his unpredictability. One morning he leaps into my lap and naps. Another morning he lurks and turns from me.”
Elena looked up at her aunt and paused, spoon halfway to her mouth. “What do you mean?”
“Mean? Just what I said,” said Anna, not quite ready to re-attack the soup, and then she understood. Anna was well experienced in picking up the unexpected hint of reaction from a suspect.
“Who?” she asked.
“Who?” Elena repeated, drinking rather quickly and reaching for another slice of bread.
“The man who seems interested one day, indifferent the next,” said Anna. “The one who makes you ask me questions about how you look.”
“No one,” said Elena.
“No one,” said Anna.
“It does not interfere with my work,” Elena said.
“I didn’t claim that it did,” said Anna. “It may, however, have contributed to your anger at Porfiry Petrovich.”
“So,” said Elena, banging her spoon on the table, “because you think I am interested in his son, you think I can’t do my job. Because I am a love-starved woman-”
“The men are worse,” said Anna. “But they have learned to hide it better.”
“Now you are a psychiatrist,” said Elena sarcastically.
“I am a former deputy procurator, the highest rank a woman has yet achieved in the Russian procurator’s office, and likely to be the only one since the system is being torn apart. That is better than being a psychiatrist.”
“I’m tired,” said Elena.
“Go to bed. I’ll do the dishes.”
“If you like, I’ll play a game of chess first,” said Elena, standing.
“A good game of chess requires desire, mind, and heart,” said Anna, starting to rise. “I don’t think you could give me any of these tonight.”
Elena had begun sleeping in the tiny bedroom while Anna and Baku slept on the sofa. It had been Anna’s preference. She rose frequently during the night and read or listened to the radio or both. Besides, for reasons that were clear only to those who had built this one-story concrete building around a concrete courtyard, the bathroom was located not in the bedroom but in a corner of the slightly larger living room. Anna’s visits to the bathroom had increased during the year in which her brother’s daughter had lived with her.
Anna returned to her chair.
“Don’t forget the exercises,” Elena called, retrieving a long nightshirt from the closet.
“I will do sit-ups, push-ups, and knee bends,” said Anna. “When we have enough money, you can buy me weights. Within a year I’ll be stronger than Porfiry Petrovich.”
“Just the sit-ups,” called Elena. “Not the jokes.”
“Thank you for acknowledging my attempt at humor,” said Anna.
Baku jumped into her lap and purred as Anna petted him gently.
It was mad, Elena thought as she prepared for bed even though she wasn’t tired. She would try to find something to read, something to distract her. Iosef Rostnikov had not called her in two weeks-two weeks and one day. He had pursued her. She had resisted. They had made love twice, both times very good. Emotionally volatile. Perhaps he had gone back to Trina. Elena had met Trina. She was a slim, very young, dark beauty who worked with him at the theater. And Trina had been nice.
Did Porfiry Petrovich know? Elena couldn’t help remembering what it had been like in bed with Iosef, who looked more like his mother than his father. Iosef was light, taller than either of his parents. She wanted his bare chest next to hers, his mouth open on hers. She wanted him to call. She decided to lie in bed listing his deficiencies, but the effort failed.
Was he still attracted to her at all? She had picked up hints of Iosef’s behavior with women from the odd comments and sly smiles of the actors and other people he worked with at the theater. She had gone twice to watch him direct rehearsals at the little theater that used to be a small church.
In the other room Anna turned on the radio. Her hearing was excellent and the music was low, but Elena could hear it through the thin door. She rolled over, found her rubber earplugs in the night-table drawer, and put them in.
The Gray Wolfhound sat in his office in full uniform, back straight, hands resting before him on his perfectly polished desk. He looked to Rostnikov as if he were posing for a portrait.
“Chief Inspector,” the Wolfhound said, “you are filthy.”
“Major Gregorovich said there was no time for me to wash and change.”
Major Gregorovich stood at Rostnikov’s side thoroughly enjoying this encounter.
“Major,” said the colonel, “you are dismissed. Please wait outside.”
Gregorovich nodded and marched out. The Wolfhound looked at the handprint on the major’s back and turned to Rostnikov when Gregorovich had gone.
“Why are you so filthy?”
“I have been plumbing,” said Rostnikov. “It is a hobby of mine.”
Thoughts of the rattling sound in his pipes at home came to the colonel, who shook them off. He had both an impression to make on the chief inspector and a problem to be addressed. He spoke in his measured baritone. “Emil Karpo, with your approval, is pursuing a gang that is dealing in stolen nuclear materials, materials they plan to sell to a foreign government.”
“There may be nothing to it,” said Rostnikov.
“But there may,” Colonel Snitkonoy countered. “And I should have been informed.”
“I planned to do so as soon as we had some solid evidence that there actually was a theft of nuclear materials.”
The colonel rose from his chair and leaned forward, hands on the table, knuckles up. “It is essential that I be informed,” he said.
“You have been informed,” said Rostnikov.
“Yes, but not by you. By a foreign government, by the Americans, by the FBI.”
“Hamilton,” said Rostnikov.
“It was Hamilton’s superior who reported it to me,” said the colonel. “Agent Hamilton is now in charge of this investigation. He will work closely with you and Karpo. He is an expert in such matters. That is why he is here. Porfiry Petrovich, we cannot afford to insult the Americans at this crucial time when our government needs their financial support and investigative expertise. Is this all clear?”
“Perfectly,” said Rostnikov.
“Consider yourself reprimanded,” said the colonel sternly.
“Am I on unpaid leave?”
Snitkonoy shook his head. His mane of perfectly groomed white hair vibrated with annoyance. “You know and I know that you are too valuable for me to give you time off. I ask you to be more mindful of the delicacy of my position.”
“I will endeavor to do so,” said Rostnikov.
Snitkonoy sat again and looked at his chief investigator. “I have a pipe somewhere in my house that is making a terrible noise when I turn on a tap,” said the colonel. “Can you fix that?”
“Yes,” said Rostnikov.
“Wash up, get some sleep, and be back on the job in the morning. We’ll talk tomorrow of my noisy pipe. Go.”
Rostnikov moved to the door as quickly as his leg would permit.
“And send in Pankov as you leave.”
An instant after Rostnikov had departed, the tiny mass of quivering nerves named Pankov entered the office.
“Rostnikov has left a trail of dirt in here. See to it that it is cleaned up before morning. Supervise it yourself.”
“Yes, Colonel,” said Pankov, knowing that there was no way he could find a custodian who would clean the office. It was Pankov who would do it. “Anything else?”
“Tell Major Gregorovich that he may go and that I say he has done a good job.”
“Yes,” said Pankov.
When he was gone, the colonel moved to the window to look out at the chill night sky. He looked down at the single flowering bush in the garden. In the broad beam of a streetlight it seemed to have far fewer flowers today.