It was moments before midnight. The street was empty. Somewhere above him in one of the rooms of a building, someone coughed. Sasha couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman. The cough sounded decidedly unhealthy.
A new wind had come with the night. Sasha’s hands were plunged into the pockets of his jacket. He hoped the police widow had coffee. It would be difficult to stay awake through the entire night. He had failed to get any sleep at home. After Lydia’s shower, he and Maya had talked softly together, listening until Lydia began to snore. Then they waited to see if Pulcharia would come out to complain about her grandmother’s snoring. They waited twenty minutes. The girl did not come out of the bedroom.
And then, in the near darkness, a lone candle lit for the occasion, they had made love a second time, something they had not done since well before the baby was born. Sasha had been filled with passion, which surprised him. His day had been long and he had to get up in a little while. Yet he had felt powerful, and she had met him with lust.
They took a long time, and then Maya wanted to talk some more. He couldn’t simply turn his back on her and sleep.
“I think we should hire someone,” she had said.
“We can’t afford it,” Sasha reminded her, his head turned to her. Candlelight flickered on his wife’s dark face, and her breasts peeked over the blanket.
“I don’t know how much longer I can live with her,” Maya said softly. “I don’t know how much longer the children can live with her.”
“I understand,” he said. “We can’t afford someone to watch the children. And she would never speak to us again if we made her leave and hired a woman to stay with the children.”
“You could convince her,” said Maya. “Tell her how she could get back to work, have some privacy and freedom. Make it sound like we were doing it for her.”
“She wouldn’t believe it,” he said.
“I know,” said Maya, chewing on her thumb and trying to think of some new approach to keep her sanity and get rid of Lydia.
The discussion had continued for almost an hour and concluded with Sasha agreeing to go over their budget during the day and see what he could do. By the time they had finished the discussion, Sasha had to get up, get dressed, and relieve Zelach. Before he had reached the front door, Maya was breathing the sound of sleep. She was amazing. She could fall asleep in an instant and be up at the slightest sound from one of the children. Sasha had trouble getting to sleep but heard nothing once he got there.
And now he slouched wearily down the dark street, his steps a bit uneven, lost in thought of how he could get more money. The only way he could do so with little effort was to accept the bribes he was sometimes offered. These were usually bribes from petty criminals. On occasion he had been tempted, and twice he had accepted “gifts” from grateful shopkeepers whose stolen goods he had recovered. He could probably make a great deal of money by selling his services as an informant to one of the Moscow mafias. He could imagine seriously considering an illegal act if the lives of Maya or the children were at stake. After all, what had the state become? Where, as Gorky’s
Sasha had a sense that he was only a few doors from the house where Zelach was sitting at the window. He glanced across the street, not expecting to see the three boys, not expecting to see anything.
He was certainly not expecting the sudden, solid pain in his head, a pain that dropped Sasha to his knees. Had he suffered a stroke? He was a young man. But his father had died of a stroke. Another blow came, and this time with it came the taste of blood and the sound of soft voices.
“Again, Boris, again.”
Sasha raised his arm and felt the next blow crack against his elbow. A figure appeared before him, the vague shape of a boy looking directly at him, judging how much more it would take to kill this stubborn victim.
“Again, Boris,” the boy before him said.
Now, as he rolled back on the sidewalk, he tried to curl into a ball and find his gun under all of his clothes. He could see three children, all boys, one with a plank of wood in his hands, the one who had been in front of him with his hands plunged into his pockets, and the third, the youngest, advancing with a brick in his hands.
Sasha struggled to shout, and perhaps he did. He tried to get back onto his knees, certain that the boys meant to kill him. He blinked his eyes to clear away the blood and got up on one elbow, still groping for his gun. Above him the young one raised the brick over his head and looked down at Sasha with no sign of emotion. Sasha was certain that he could not get the gun out in time. His other thought was of Maya, who would be doomed now to live with Lydia forever.
Sasha closed his eyes. There was a scuffle of feet. The blow did not come, or perhaps Sasha was too numb to feel it. There was a greater scuffling and the grunt of a man, followed by the pained, high, angry groan of a child.
Sasha opened his eyes. A man, Zelach, was kicking at the boy with the wooden plank. The young one who had hovered over Sasha with a brick was huddled against the wall, brick gone. He was holding his head. Zelach’s kick was true. He caught the boy in the stomach. The boy dropped the plank and fell to his knees. The last boy, the one who had ordered Boris to hit Sasha, had begun to run across the small street, toward the apartment building the two policemen had been watching. Zelach looked down at Sasha, who had finally managed to pull out his weapon. Sasha nodded, and Zelach took off after the fleeing boy, who had a good start.
The next few seconds were miraculous. The usually slouching, recently ill Zelach caught the boy before he got through the door to the apartment building. He grabbed him by the neck and turned him back across the street, where the two other boys nursed their wounds and showed no inclination to run.
Methodically Zelach handcuffed the boy he had caught to the one who had hit Sasha with the plank. Then Zelach held out his hand to Sasha, who in confusion started to hand him his gun.
“No, Sasha,” Zelach said softly. “Your handcuffs. I’ll get them.”
Zelach reached under Sasha’s jacket and removed the fallen policeman’s handcuffs. A moment later the three boys were handcuffed in a circle around a lamppost.
“Are you all right?” asked Zelach, kneeling in front of Sasha.
“I don’t know,” said Sasha, but he was reasonably certain that the words came out so softly that Zelach couldn’t hear them.
Zelach touched his partner’s arm and said, “I’ll be back in an instant.”
Sasha tried to nod and looked at the boys, small, angry-faced children around a dark maypole. The two older ones glared at Sasha with hatred, and the oldest one said, “Why didn’t you say you were a cop?”
Sasha didn’t answer. He fumbled to put his weapon back in its holster and thought he succeeded. He felt himself passing out.
“The widow is calling for an ambulance,” Zelach called, coming back to Sasha, who nodded, eyes closed.
“He’s dying,” said the oldest boy.
By now faces were appearing at windows. People looked out of their dark little caves at the sight below them.
Zelach rose, stepped to the three boys, and hit the oldest one with the back of his hand directly in the face. The boy’s nose began to bleed, and blood appeared in his mouth, covering his teeth. He looked like a pale-faced vampire, and worst of all he did not cry. He did not even look angry. He simply glared into the face of the policeman, who considered hitting him again but changed his mind. The first blows he had struck against the children had been to protect Sasha. This blow had been in anger. Zelach had no blows left in him, and at this point he was sure they would do no good.
“Stay awake, Sasha Tkach,” Zelach said, moving quickly toward his fallen friend. “I think I already hear the sound of a police van. Stay awake.”
Karpo made what proved to be the mistake of stopping at his office. It should have been safe. It was well after midnight. The lights were out in the Office of Special Investigation, but before his finger finished flipping the switch, Karpo knew that he was not alone, that someone had been sitting in the darkness.
The man was seated in Karpo’s cubicle, at Karpo’s desk. It was Hamilton, the FBI agent. He looked dressed for the day, suit pressed, clean-shaven, the faint smell of aftershave lotion on his face.
Karpo stood in front of the man, who handed him a sealed envelope. Karpo opened the envelope and read the message, which was signed by both Chief Inspector Rostnikov and Colonel Snitkonoy. The message was brief. Karpo was ordered to surrender to the FBI agent all the information he had gathered on the gang called the Beasts and possible nuclear-weapons dealers. He was then to follow all of Hamilton’s orders in pursuit of the investigation. In short, he was working for the American on the search for Mathilde’s killers.
Hamilton pointed to the seat next to the desk.
“Are you ordering me to sit?”
“No,” said Hamilton. “Inviting you.”
“I decline the invitation.”
Hamilton nodded his head in acceptance, took a small tape recorder from his pocket, and said, “I understand you had a relationship with the woman who was murdered.”
Karpo did not respond. He had not been asked a question and felt no willingness to cooperate, though he would do what Rostnikov ordered.
“I talked to the man whose thumbs you broke,” said Hamilton. “I assume it was he who broke your finger.”
Karpo said nothing.
“If he ever gets out of prison, he’ll be coming after you.”
Karpo didn’t think the man would come out of prison alive, but still he said nothing.
“Assuming you do find some individual or individuals you think are responsible, what do you plan to do? Break their thumbs?”
“No,” said Karpo, at near attention. “I plan to execute them.”
Hamilton shook his head and said, “No. You will not execute them.”
Karpo said nothing.
“You will not execute them,” Hamilton repeated. “That is an order.”
Karpo did not respond. He had little imagination, but he was suddenly aware of the fact that a Russian police officer was under the direct command of an American FBI agent, who was no longer the enemy but rather was now his superior.
Hamilton pushed a button on the tape recorder and said, “Tell me everything you know about this case.”
It had been a bad day and was about to be a far worse night for Artiom Solovyov. A few weeks ago he had been an automobile mechanic with a small but successful business. He had, with Boris, his one assistant, catered to the newly rich, mostly the Chechen mafia and their associates, who referred him to others. Business was growing, and one of his customers, who looked something like an American Indian, told him that if Artiom ever needed particular auto parts, he could help him.
Artiom worked every day. He liked cars. Cars seemed to like him. At night he would go home, get out of his greasy overalls, shower, and change. Artiom liked to go out. He had a few favorite bars, knew a few women. Sometimes he just liked to stay home in his robe, feet bare, watching television. He had been a happy, slightly heavy, dark man with a weary, handsome face and a perpetual and not entirely assumed look of stupidity, the result of heredity principally but not exclusively. It was that very appearance of open, dark good looks and stupidity that made his customers trust him.
From time to time a female customer would catch his eye, give him a smile. Nothing had ever come of it. Nothing was meant to. And then
He was taking a shower after work, singing an American song about purple skies, when he heard a loud knock at the door. He turned off the shower, threw on his robe, and stamped the water off his large feet onto the carpeted floor as he walked. He had checked his peephole first and could tell only that it was a woman. He opened the door and stepped back, trying to comb back his hair with his fingers.
“Mrs. Porvinovich,” he said as she moved past him into the room.
She had been dressed, he remembered, in a red and white, very tight dress, and her mouth matched the red in the dress. She smelled like vanilla and something he did not recognize. She pushed the door closed behind her, surveyed the mess of a room, and turned to him. Standing only a few feet in front of him, she seemed a bit older than she had appeared earlier, when she’d stood a car-length away. In fact, Artiom was sure, she was almost certainly older than he, which instead of calming him, gave him an immediate erection.
She looked at the bump in his robe, smiled, and reached down to touch it. He stepped back and she followed.
“I see the way you look at me,” she said.
Artiom said nothing.
“And you,” she continued, “see the way I look at you.”
“How did you find me?” he asked.
She shook her head as if he were a foolish little boy. Then she unzipped her dress and kicked off her shoes. She was magnificent. She removed her bra and panties and stepped forward to unwrap his robe.
She tasted of heat, vanilla, and smoke. They made love on the floor by the front door, and when they were through, she coaxed him back to life with her mouth and they did it again. She smiled and made soft cooing sounds during what turned out to be less than half an hour. And then she rose and began to dress. He got to his feet, vertiginous as a result of what had happened. She put on her shoes and kissed him, tickling his tongue with hers. Then she was gone.
Artiom picked up his robe, then looked at the door and around the room, wondering if he had imagined the miracle. Artiom was not a man of great imagination, and he took no drugs that could account for such a vivid vision. He still smelled her in the room and on his body. He did not even consider getting back into the shower.
A few days later she had appeared with her car at the garage. She had a noise, a loose muffler. She was dressed in stylish black, complete with a small hat. She smoked a long cigarette while he worked on the car and gave no hint of her visit to his apartment. When he finished, she thanked him, shook his hand, and paid in cash. That day she did not smell of vanilla but of something distant and bittersweet.
She reappeared at his apartment that very night. This time they made love on his bed, which, he reminded himself, badly needed clean sheets. She did not seem to mind the sheets. This time when they finished, she smoked her long cigarettes and they talked. Or rather she talked-about her life, her husband, his wealth, and her attraction to Artiom, who was strong and uncomplicated.
She could not tell him when she would next appear, so he had taken to staying home with his television and his bare feet. He had hired a woman to come in and straighten his room and clean his linens. He sat waiting. Four days passed before Anna Porvinovich reappeared, looking sad and running into his arms, pressing into him passionately.
Less than two weeks after she had first come to him, Artiom agreed to kidnap and murder her husband. She made suggestions about time and place, where they might take him, how to handle it, and though he had been more than a bit reluctant when she brought up the idea of kidnap and murder, she had been very convincing.
He easily obtained the weapons from one of his mafia customers, recruited his assistant, Boris, with promises of money, and imagined a life of wealth and leisure with Anna.
The kidnapping went reasonably well, and the plan seemed to be fine. But it had all quickly become very complicated when Porvinovich comprehended what had happened and who was responsible. Accepting Porvinovich’s offer was out of the question. He had done this for Anna. But that was of small concern now that the police seemed to know what he had done. His simple visions were now of dark cells and sodomy and of weeping in the night. He hoped that he was not tried and executed for what he had done. Worse yet, Artiom had heard stories about how the police simply executed criminals in the street and put a cheap gun in the victim’s hand to make it look as if he had resisted arrest.
All of this was on Artiom’s mind as he put his key in the door of the apartment and wondered if there was anything he could take for his headache.
Something seemed wrong. Artiom closed the door. The light was on. Porvinovich sat in a chair across the room, half turned from the door. He did not acknowledge Artiom’s arrival. Artiom looked at Boris, who was seated in his chair across the room. His mask had been removed, and he looked up at Artiom with a plea in his eyes.
For an instant Artiom stood before the door looking from man to man. Then he realized that his assistant did not have the weapon in his hands, on his lap, or on the floor beside him. He also realized that Boris’s hands were behind his back.
Artiom froze. Boris let out a tiny sob. Porvinovich rose from his chair, the automatic weapon in his hands. He was smiling.
“You’re late,” Porvinovich said, his words slurred by his shattered, swollen face.
“Things … the police know … I came to release you.”
Porvinovich smiled again.
“I’ll ask you a question. You answer truthfully and briefly.”
Artiom wet himself. He nodded.
“It was my wife’s idea, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Artiom. “All her idea.”
“She made love to you a few times and you agreed to murder her husband,” said Porvinovich.
The man bound on the chair sobbed a little louder.
“To kidnap you,” said Artiom. “Not to murd-”
He was cut short by a sharp sound from the weapon in Porvinovich’s hands. Artiom closed his eyes and then opened them, fairly certain that he had not been shot. He looked at Porvinovich, who nodded toward Boris, who was slumped forward, held up only by the cord that tied his hands behind him to the back of the chair. There was blood dripping from a wound in the man’s chest and even more blood coming from the bent-over head of the man, who was surely dead.
“You killed him,” said Artiom.
“You were going to kill me. She told you to.”
“Yes,” said Artiom, unable to take his eyes from the bleeding dead man. “I’ve never killed anyone. She-”
“I believe you,” said Porvinovich.
Artiom did not feel relieved.
“The neighbors,” Artiom said desperately. “Some of them must have heard the shots.”
“Two shots. A car backfiring. Light bulbs falling,” said Porvinovich. “They will mind their own business. I assume she picked this place.”
“Yes,” said Artiom.
“Then it is unlikely that any neighbors here would report what may have been two gunshots. You agree?”
“I agree,” said Artiom. “May I sit? I don’t feel …”
Porvinovich pointed the barrel of his weapon at the chair he had stood up from. Artiom, wet and sick to his stomach, made his way to the chair and sat. Porvinovich stepped back half a dozen feet.
“Have you ever met my brother?” asked Porvinovich.
“No,” said Artiom, gripping the sides of the chair to keep his hands from shaking.
“I’ve had all day to think about this, Solovyov,” said Porvinovich. “All day. I am a smart man cursed with a scheming wife who cares as little for me as she does for you. I’m sure she cares even less about Yevgeniy.”
“My brother, whom, I am now certain, she has helped nurse back from impotence. Without Yevgeniy, who is not smart-don’t ask me why some genes pass to one child and not to another-she cannot handle the business. It is my belief that without me he cannot handle it either. If you had a reasonable amount of intellect, you would understand that you are not part of her future plans. My guess is that she has already arranged for your death within a very short time. And that she realizes she will have to do it herself. Yevgeniy is incapable of either complex thought or direct action.”
Porvinovich paused. Artiom nodded.
“Do you want to know what happens next, Artiom Solovyov?”
Artiom wasn’t sure that he did. He resisted the sudden, compelling urge to turn his head and look at his dead assistant.
“I’ll tell you,” said Porvinovich, leaning back against the wall. “I’m afraid the events of the day have made me temporarily insane, especially when I discovered that you had murdered my wife and brother.”
“Your wife and …?”
“You just came in and told me that you had murdered my wife and brother,” Porvinovich said. “I was enraged. I rushed at you, took you by surprise. You fired, killing your assistant. I wrenched the gun from you and you started toward me. I shot you.”
“But your wife is not dead,” said Artiom, looking into the purple face of madness.
“No,” said Porvinovich, “but she soon will be.”
This time there was a burst of fire from the weapon, not just two shots. Artiom’s initial reaction was surprise and then relief that he had not been shot. Suddenly the pain came. In his stomach. He looked down. Three, maybe four holes bleeding as one.
“I’m dying?” Artiom asked.
“I certainly hope so,” said Porvinovich, who fired once again.
This time Artiom felt nothing.
Elvira Chazova arrived just before the police ambulance. A neighbor, with what appeared to be sympathy, but was certainly satisfaction, had knocked at her door and told her that her boys were being arrested in the street right outside.
Elvira had grabbed the baby and run past the neighbor. From across the street she saw a man lying on the ground and another man kneeling next to him. The nosy widow from the first floor across the street stood in her doorway watching. Other eyes looked down from darkened rooms.
Her sons were in a circle, handcuffed around a lamppost.
“My babies,” she screamed.
The slouching man on his knees rose and stepped toward her. Two men leaped from the ambulance and hurried to the fallen man.
Just before she reached her sons, Zelach stepped in front of her.
“They are bleeding,” she moaned. “Look at them. Babies. You have beaten my babies.”
The three boys looked at their mother, ashamed to have been caught. It was the baby in the woman’s arms who began to cry.
“I must take care of my babies,” she insisted.
“They are under arrest,” Zelach said.
“My little ones?”
“Attempting to rob and murder a police officer,” Zelach said.
“They wouldn’t attack a police officer. They wouldn’t hurt anyone,” she said. “Won’t someone help us?”
The baby cried. Sasha Tkach was put on a stretcher and carried to the ambulance. As the stretcher moved past the three handcuffed boys, they looked at the barely conscious policeman with vague curiosity.
At that moment a police car, one of the “new” BMWs, which already had over two hundred thousand kilometers on it, pulled up to the curb, lights flashing. Two young policemen got out of the car.
“Help me,” Elvira Chazova cried, showing her screaming baby to the two officers, who registered no particular emotion.
“Those three,” said Zelach as he handed the handcuff keys to the first officer to reach him. “Beating and attempted murder of a police officer. Don’t let them run.”
The officer nodded. The mother reached out an arm to stop him.
“My babies would never do such a thing. It was someone else. Wasn’t it?”
“Someone else,” said Alexei Chazov. “We were just coming home. We saw the man on the ground. We went to help him. Then this guy came out and started to beat us.”
“That’s right,” said Boris and Mark.
The young policeman had unhandcuffed the Chazov boys and was leading them to the waiting car.
Elvira started toward the police car. Zelach stepped into her path.
“What will happen to my poor children?” she cried. “What will happen to me? There is no money.”
“What will happen to my partner?” said Zelach.
The police car’s doors closed. Zelach turned his back on the woman and motioned to the officer, who was driving the car. Zelach climbed into the backseat, muscling the boys over to give himself room. There was enough room for all of them. The brothers were small.
“Drop me at the hospital,” Zelach said. “Then take these three to your lockup. I’ll come by later to write a report.”
The car started. The officer in the front seat who was not driving made a note on the pad snapped to his clipboard. Elvira Chazova appeared at the window of the police car and screamed over the sound of her infant, “Where are you taking my babies? Tell me. I have a right to know. This is a democracy now.”
“This is a lunatic asylum now,” the young policeman in the passenger seat said.
The police car pulled into the street. Elvira looked around. The widow had gone back inside. No faces were at the windows. No one came out and no one called down to her.
She stopped screaming and patted the baby gently on the head as she moved to the sidewalk across from her apartment building. The street lamps were not bright, but she could see the blood of the policeman on the stone wall and the concrete sidewalk. There was quite a bit of blood.
Elvira shook her head. The baby was crying much more quietly now. She had picked up the almost naked child and run with her into the cold night. Elvira moved back across the street whispering to the child to be quiet. She would put the baby to bed and then sleep for a few hours. The coming days and nights would be a hell for her. She needed her rest, if only a few hours.
This was a new world, she thought. There was always hope.
Yevgeniy Porvinovich lay on his brother’s bed while his brother’s wife went through the ritual of massaging and petting him to climax even though he was not capable of erection. Yevgeniy was especially unresponsive. Anna rubbed her bare breasts against his legs, moving upward, barely tickling. Yevgeniy, who had pronounced himself unable even to consider sex, groaned.
Anna Porvinovich was especially patient. It was a small enough price to pay, and it was something she could stop doing completely when she was a grieving widow. Yevgeniy’s principal interest in the plot to kill his brother was the business. He had a reasonable grasp of that business and, propped up by Anna, he was confident that he could handle it. Maybe he wouldn’t be quite as successful as Alexei, but everything was already going, the deals were already in place with both the police and the mafia. There wouldn’t be that much to do.
“You like that?” she asked in the darkness.
“Yes,” he said.
Her breasts were hanging between his open legs now, and she felt a distinct firmness beginning in her brother-in-law.
“The police know,” he said.
“They don’t,” she whispered. “Shhh.”
“They know,” he insisted, sitting up.
She sighed, turned on the lamp that was on the table next to the bed, and reached for her cigarettes. She patted his shoulder. Yevgeniy was terrible in the dark. In the light he was much worse. Now that he was beginning to whine, she began to alter her plans slightly. Yevgeniy would have to die. Perhaps an accident. Perhaps suicide because he could not consider living without his dear only brother. It would have to be soon. She couldn’t tolerate him much longer.
She lit her cigarette with the gold lighter and looked at Yevgeniy, who looked quite frightened.
“It will be fine,” she reassured him, but her thoughts were elsewhere.
She needed a man to run the business or to appear to do so. After a decent interval following the death of her husband and Yevgeniy, she would pick out a worthy successor, a younger successor, a younger, good-looking, not particularly bright successor, such as Artiom, who would be long dead by then. It would be preferable if the successor was married, so that she would not have to spend too much time with him playing games. She was growing tired of playing games.
“Sleep, Yevgeniy,” she said, gently easing him back. “You’ll feel better. I’ll be right at your side.”
He lay back and closed his eyes. To Anna he looked dead. She assumed that her husband was already dead. Her choice of men had been most unfortunate. Artiom Solovyov had proved less determined and capable than she had expected. He had certainly killed Alexei by now. She hoped that he was not fool enough to call her again.
She rose from her bed, put the cigarette between her teeth, slipped into her art deco green silk robe, and turned off the light. There was a bed in the next room. She would sleep there, with a door between her and Yevgeniy’s inevitable snoring.