A pad was open before him. His pencil was in his right hand, his alien leg stretched out under the table at a slight angle so it would not touch Yaklovev’s foot.
“Tsimion Vladovka,” the Yak repeated, leaning over, head cocked at a slight angle, hands folded on the table as he looked at Porfiry Petrovich for a reaction. “Do you know him? Does the name mean anything to you?”
“It is vaguely familiar.”
“He was a cosmonaut,” said the Yak evenly.
Rostnikov nodded, his eyes on the director, waiting for the point to come as it inevitably must. “There have been many cosmonauts,” he said.
“Many,” agreed the Yak.
Rostnikov reached for the mug of coffee before him and drank slowly, waiting.
“You remember the
Rostnikov did not particularly remember.
“There was a problem during that particular flight.”
Rostnikov said nothing.
“Yes,” the Yak went on. “There were always problems. But this one prompted an early change of crews and the rather unceremonious return to earth of the three cosmonauts on board. Vladovka was one of the cosmonauts. He is missing. National Security has been unable to find him. The Space security force has been unable to find him. Military Intelligence has been unable to find him. We have been given the task of finding him.”
Rostnikov nodded, let his eyes take in the thick file that lay behind the protective wall of the director’s arms, and then began to draw without thinking of what he might be drawing.
“You personally are to find him,” said the Yak.
“Question. Why does he have to be found?”
“He has information about our space program which might embarrass us, which should not be allowed to fall into the hands of other nations. He may have been kidnapped. He may have defected. He may have committed suicide somewhere, or he may simply have gone mad and run away.”
“And when I find him?”
“If he is alive, you are to inform me of where he is, be sure he remains there, and leave the rest to me, but if you believe he is trying to leave the country, take him into custody and bring him to me. It is better for you, better for me, if you do not ask him about the information he has. And it is essential that if he tries to tell you, you do not allow him to do so. There are secrets it is not safe to keep.”
The Yak unclenched his fingers, opened his arms, and slid the folder over to Rostnikov. Rostnikov drew it in past his coffee cup, opened it, and found the photograph of a very serious dark man with the face of a peasant, a face not unlike his own.
“I would like to work with Iosef on this,” Rostnikov said, putting down his pencil.
“The choice, as always, is yours, Chief Inspector,” said the Yak. “You wish to work with your son. Do so. As I say, the choice is yours. You have any questions?”
“One,” said Rostnikov, pocketing his pencil. “Why did you ask me if I knew Tsimion Vladovka rather than if I had heard of him?”
The Yak smiled. It wasn’t a very good smile. It was touched with the suggestion of a cunning secret knowledge, to make those who witnessed it slightly uncomfortable.
“In the last transmission before the rescue, Vladovka mentioned your name.”
“In what context?” asked Rostnikov, pausing as his hand reached over to close the notebook.
“There was no context. He simply said ‘Porfiry Petrovich Rostov.’”
“And was he not asked of this when he returned to earth?”
“I do not know. The fact that he mentioned your name is in the file before you. The reason he did so is not in the file you have before you.”
“Then I will begin by finding someone to whom I can ask the question,” said Rostnikov, rising far less awkwardly than he had when he first acquired his unresponsive leg. “He has a wife, children?”
“Wife died several months ago, cancer. No children. He has a father, brother, somewhere on a farm near St. Petersburg. He hasn’t seen them in years.”
“I have arranged for you to meet with the director of security at Star City. His name is Mikhail Stoltz. He spoke to the cosmonauts when they were brought back to earth.”
Rostnikov was up now. The Yak joined him.
“He had friends?”
“Vladovka is known to be a rather solitary man.”
“The other two cosmonauts on that flight?”
“One, Rodya Baklunov, died during an experiment on earth. He was a biologist. The other, Vladimir Kinotskin, works at Star City. It’s all in the file before you.”
“Final question,” said Rostnikov, tucking his notebook into his pocket and picking up the mug. “Why has it taken a year before anyone contacted me about this mention of my name in outer space?”
“That,” said the Yak, “you will have to ask Stoltz. And remember, do not question Vladovka when you find him. Simply find him and report his whereabouts to me.”
“And,” Rostnikov added, “I am to see to it that he remains where I locate him, or bring him to you if I believe he will run.”
Rostnikov nodded. The Yak had not said, “if you find him.” He had said, “when you find him.” This could be a sign of confidence in his chief inspector, but, Rostnikov knew, it also could be a warning. Find him, Porfiry Petrovich. Do not fail.
In the outer office, Rostnikov handed the cup to Pankov.
“You didn’t finish.”
“I had enough. It more than served its purpose. I thank you, Pankov.”
“You are welcome, Comra … Inspector Rostnikov.”
“It is hard to get rid of old habits, Pankov.”
“Very hard,” the little man said, sitting back in the chair behind his desk and placing the mug before him.
Rostnikov clasped his hands together and very gently tapped his knuckles against his chin as he looked toward the window, lost in thought.
“Can I help you with anything?” Pankov asked.
“No,” said Rostnikov. “I was thinking of flying benches and flying spheres and how thoughts come to us and sometimes make contact with flying mysteries which cannot be explained by our science. Where were you when the sky went berserk, Pankov?”
Not for the first time Pankov wondered if the chief inspector were more than slightly mad, not the everyday madness of almost all Russians but a special puzzling madness.
“You mean the storm? I was here, at my desk.”
“You heard? You felt?”
“Were you frightened?”
“No, yes, maybe a little.”
Pankov did not like these odd conversations with Rostnikov, but at the same time Rostnikov was the only one who talked to Pankov as if he actually existed, had feelings, ideas.
“Good, sometimes it is good to be a little frightened.”
Pankov knew his office was wired by the director. He had learned this accidentally only a few months earlier, but he should have known, should have guessed. Now he was careful and spent much of his time trying to remember if he had said anything disloyal about the director since he had replaced Colonel Snitkonoy. Pankov longed for the old days when he served as loyal lap dog and admirer of the Gray Wolfhound. But they were gone and he had yet to figure out what his role should be with his new superior.
Inside his office, Director Yaklovev was not listening to the conversation between Pankov and Rostnikov. He was taping it but he had no intention of listening to it later. In fact, it had been weeks since he last eavesdropped on his secretary. The conversations he heard yielded nothing of interest. Pankov was nearly a perfect assistant. He did what he was told to do out of fear, and he was loyal to the director for the same reason.
The Yak had come to a conclusion soon after the Soviet Union had collapsed. Some of that conclusion was the result of observing the obvious, and some had come from drawing cautious conclusions about the future.
The obvious part of his conclusion was that there was no Russian governmental, political, or economic system. Communism had gone and been replaced by a loose confederacy of flexible and inflexible powers with Yeltsin as the spokesperson, a spokesperson posing as a strong man, with little or no idea of what he was representing. There was no system. There were no checks and balances. There was a duma that complained about, supported, and waited with fear for the fall of what now served as the government.
To the Americans and the West in general, Yeltsin and his ever-changing cabinet had asserted that Russia was now a capitalist democracy in which the people voted and the government acted on their behalf. Yes, thought the Yak, they voted, but in a system in which they had no idea of what the candidates really believed or what power they actually had. Perhaps there had been no time in history when a nation was run by leaders who had no idea of what the law was or what their own philosophy might be. The new president, Putin, was no better than Yeltsin, only more sober.
Yaklovev was reasonably sure the economy would collapse again, and perhaps again, and the government would fall, each time to be replaced by a leadership that walked the line between limited reforms and capitalism and a tempered socialism that would go by the nostalgic name of Communism, socialism, or something else it really was not.
The Yak was prepared. He had weighed the names of those who were likely to take over not only the next government but the one beyond that, and he had, through his office, systematically continued the agenda he had begun when still with the KGB. He would build a collection of evidence that could be used to obtain the gratitude of any faction or factions that succeeded. It was, perhaps, a unique agenda, one that would take him quite far if he was careful, and he intended to continue to be careful.
Yaklovev was not far from making his next career move. In little more than a year he had compiled documents and tapes that would embarrass some members of the government and the business community to the point where they would be happy to cooperate with him, providing he did not ask too much. The Yak did them all favors. He asked for little or nothing beyond their support, and he did not intend to ask for more than they would be willing to give. He was not after money. He wanted to be deputy minister of the Interior, to stay there and amass more for his files and to move up to the head of the ministry if and when the times were right.
Rostnikov had helped him. Rostnikov could help him even more. With this very case, Rostnikov could provide enough for Yaklovev to consider making that move. If the times were right.
He moved to his desk and thought for an instant of the sketch Rostnikov had made in his pad while they were talking. Yaklovev had caught only a glimpse of it, but the memory was clear.
Rostnikov had drawn a very reasonable likeness of a bird in flight. The bird’s right wing was bent at an odd angle, possibly broken, and there was a distinct tear in the bird’s eye as he looked downward, toward the earth, possibly for a place to land.
Rostnikov was eccentric. Igor Yaklovev had been told that before he became director. But Rostnikov was good, very good at his job, and those who worked with him were also good and loyal. That loyalty did not, Yaklovev knew, extend to the director, but he had an agreement with Rostnikov. Rostnikov would be given the assignments and have a free hand. When trouble arose, Yaklovev would do his best to protect Rostnikov and his group. He had proven many times that he would do so. Yaklovev knew that he was only as good as his word. Those he dealt with, friends and enemies, knew that if he declared or promised, the Yak would keep that declaration or promise. There were two conditions to his agreement with Rostnikov. First, Yaklovev would receive all the credit for the difficult cases resolved by the Office of Special Investigation. He would also accept all the responsibility for those not resolved. And so it was important that those cases which no one else wanted, those cases which were dumped on his office because they were politically sensitive or unlikely to be resolved, be dealt with successfully. The second condition was that Rostnikov and the other inspectors ask no questions about the disposal of cases. They were to bring in the information, and the director was to decide on its resolution with no questions asked.
So far, it had worked well. Yaklovev was determined that the system continue to work.
When Akardy Zelach slouched in precisely on time, precisely on the hour, Emil Karpo put down his pen, closed his notebook, and walked past him with only the slightest motion of his head to indicate that Zelach should follow.
Zelach had just enough time to place the bag of lunch his mother had prepared on the desk in his small cubicle. The bag was brown paper. The bag was wet. He didn’t have time to take off his coat as he hurried to keep up with the man in black with whom he had been teamed.
Zelach was forty-one but looked older. His eyesight had been deteriorating and he had been forced to wear glasses. The glasses were round with thin rims of brown. Unfortunately, they did not make him look any more intelligent. At first he had been reluctant to wear the glasses, afraid Chief Inspector Rostnikov or even the Yak would see his poor eyesight as a reason why he should not be a policeman.
Zelach’s mother had gotten him to wear the spectacles by pointing out that if the Office of Special Investigation had a one-legged chief, it would certainly not mind having a nearsighted inspector.
“Where are we going?” asked Zelach as he nearly ran to keep pace with the Vampire.
“Down,” said Karpo.
“Down,” Zelach repeated as they started down the stairs. “Did you see the rain?”
“I heard the storm,” said Karpo.
“They say the roof of the Bolshoi was ripped off, cars were overturned, children picked up and tossed about like … tossed about.”
“Probably gross exaggeration.”
“Probably,” said Zelach as they passed the main floor and headed down. He knew where they were going now. Perhaps he should have brought his wet lunch bag. It was not going to be a pleasant morning.
Two flights below ground level, Karpo walked to a steel door and opened it. Zelach reluctantly followed. The room was large and had the smell of the dead. Zelach knew the smell. He had been a policeman for half of his life. But the laboratory of Paulinin was something different. It was low-ceilinged, large, and cluttered with tables and shelves filled with objects and jars. Inside the jars of liquid floated specimens taken from the recently and sometimes long-dead that Paulinin had examined. Knives, saws, lamps, boxes, machine parts, clothing, table legs, and books-hundreds, maybe thousands of books-were piled on the floor. The room was a death trap if fire should break out, and the only way to the rear of the room where Paulinin now stood over a corpse was through this labyrinth of books, shelves, and objects.
Zelach followed Karpo to the rear of the room, the most lighted area of the dark space. Lights shone down on the white corpse.
Paulinin was concentrating on the hole he had opened in the skull of the bearded, slightly overweight corpse on the table before him. Paulinin’s hair was, as always, wild and his white coat stained with things that Zelach did not wish to think about.
Paulinin looked up and saw Karpo wending his way toward him. “Emil Karpo,” he said with clear pleasure. “And who is … ah, Zelach. Coffee?”
“I think not,” said Karpo. “Not at the moment. We must get to the center by ten.”
“But we are still scheduled for lunch Friday?”
“Yes,” said Karpo.
“Zelach, you are lucky to be working with this man,” Paulinin said, pointing a scalpel at Zelach but not looking up from the corpse. “Very lucky.”
Praise coming from Paulinin was always suspect. It was acknowledged that Paulinin, as good as he might be-and he was very good-was rather mad, and if he did not like you, you were certain to be subjected to undisguised scorn, abuse, or ridicule. Normally, Paulinin reserved his anger for the pathologists “upstairs.”
As good as Paulinin was, there were few in either the procurator’s office or uniformed police divisions who came to him. They preferred second-rate scientists to one who attacked them about amateur work and befouling crime scenes.
“I have been talking to your friend here,” Paulinin said, putting his hand gently on the shoulder of the corpse of Sergei Bolskanov. “He has told me a great deal. The hammer you found was, indeed, the murder weapon. Even one of the idiots called in by the fools upstairs should know that; even Doldinov, the new young one, destined for increasing incompetence and promotion, would know the rest. No, he probably would not.”
“What would he not know?” asked Karpo, standing with Zelach across the table on which the corpse lay, eyes open.
“Ah,” said Paulinin. “Our killer was not particularly powerful. The blows were not deep. Our killer was angry, in a rage, frantic. The blows were many. Our killer was in a state of panic, searching for the brain. There was probably premeditation, an incompetent premeditation. The hammer is not large. It is not the best weapon for someone planning a murder. And Sergei here almost certainly knew his killer.”
“How do you know?” Zelach said before he could stop himself.
Paulinin smiled. He welcomed the question.
“There are no defensive wounds on Sergei’s arms. Someone approached him, raised a hammer, probably one hidden behind his back, hit him twice in the face. Baklunov did not raise his arms, made no move to protect himself. After that he was in no condition to protect himself. He was killed by someone he knew, someone he did not expect to attack him. Someone he didn’t even turn to more than glance at. Someone he didn’t consider a physical threat.”
“What else did he tell you?” asked Karpo, standing with his hands clasped before him at waist level.
In the shadows of the bright light pointed downward, Karpo looked particularly ghostly to Zelach.
“A few whispers, a few whispers,” Paulinin whispered. “Our Sergei’s skull has an old scar beneath the hair, and his brain has a healed lesion where something, probably a tumor, has been removed, perhaps a decade ago or longer. Sergei is suggesting his killer was going after that very spot with the hammer, that very spot. I can’t be sure yet, but it appears to be the case.”
“Did he tell you why?” asked Karpo.
“Not yet, not yet. But if it is so, and I think it is, our murderer knew Bolskanov well, knew his skull hid a vulnerable secret. Would you like to know what he had for his final meal and approximately when he had it?”
“If you believe it is relevant information,” said Karpo.
“Interesting information but probably not relevant. I would tentatively conclude that Sergei was a vegetarian. You might ask some of his colleagues or his family. I am curious. It might or might not mean anything.”
“We will ask,” said Karpo.
“Well,” said Paulinin, looking at the open skull on his table. “In addition to the brain injury, he has had two broken ribs in his life, but they are not recent. I would conjecture that the ribs were broken about the same time he developed the tumor or whatever it was that was surgically removed from his brain. That is about all that is pathologically interesting. His killer left no blood of his or her own at the scene, as far as I can tell at this point. The hammer, however, is a bit more interesting. The murderer wiped the handle on Sergei’s laboratory coat. How do I know? Because there is a smudge of blood from the handle at the bottom of the coat where there is no splattering of blood from Sergei’s wounds. The killer either flung the hammer, holding on to the bloody head of the hammer to which clung bits of brain, into the corner, protecting it from prints with the coat, which would be very awkward and make it difficult to throw that far, or the killer let it fall to the floor. Most people would choose not to do that. In addition, the head of the hammer did not appear to have been handled. Skull and brain fragments, not to mention blood drops, seem reasonably intact.”
“Then what?” asked Zelach.
“The murderer,” said Paulinin, standing short but erect in the pose of a lecturer, “simply dropped the hammer and kicked it into the corner. A very close examination of the floor yielded very small scratches from the hammer as it slid along, leaving tiny fragments of brain, blood, and bone too far from the body to have been there as a result of the attack. So what do we learn from this?”
Zelach had no idea.
“The murderer may have stepped on these traces of blood, brain, and bone,” said Karpo. “The solution to your murder lies in a pair of
“You are nearly perfect, Emil Karpo, very nearly perfect,” said Paulinin with delight. “Only Porfiry Petrovich himself approaches you. Our killer certainly washed or got rid of clothing, but being Russian and seeing no significant trace of anything on his shoe, he would, at most, merely have wiped it as a precaution. Maybe not even that. I prefer it if he did wipe it. The game is only good if there is a challenge.”
“As always, Paulinin, you have been
“Only from you would I find such praise meaningful,” said Paulinin, looking at Zelach, who nodded, praying that they could now get out of this dungeon. “One more observation. Our friend here was slovenly, probably very slovenly. His fingernails are uneven, bitten. There are signs of old dirt under those fingernails. The trousers he was wearing were badly in need of cleaning. His socks had holes and there was a significant hole in one pocket. In the other he had accumulated four pens, three paper clips, some keys on a ring, coins, and lint. I would guess that his home and work space are a mess.”
Zelach avoided looking around the cluttered room. The word
“Lunch Friday,” said Karpo.
“And a game of chess?”
“Certainly, a game of chess.”
“We are talking about the life of Tolstoy. We are talking about an announced major screening at the Cannes Film Festival, at festivals all over the world. We are talking about an international cast and the brightest, most creative young Russian film director. We are talking about Cinema Russia Production Company, my life.”
The man making this small speech was pacing back and forth, smoking, looking at Elena Timofeyeva and Sasha Tkach, who were seated on wooden chairs facing him.
The room was clean but smelled of smoke, stale smoke. There was a conference table, one end of which was covered with scripts, mail, and papers with an overfull ashtray nearby. The end of the table where this clutter resided served as the desk of the man who was pacing and rambling.
His name was Yuri Kriskov. Sometimes he used the
Yuri Kriskov was reasonably well known. He was not quite famous. He was a movie producer. His job, at which he had been mildly successful before the fall of the Soviet Union, was now busy and lucrative. Yuri had once been a businessman with connections in the government, some of which he still retained. He was fifty-two years old, of average height and weight, with a full head of dark hair which he carefully touched up each morning to keep the gray away. Yuri had two children by his current wife, Vera, his third, who had starred in his first film,
“Where was I?” he asked, looking at Elena.
“The Cannes Film Festival,” she said.
“Yes, the Cannes Film Festival.”
“May we summarize what you have told us so far?” Elena asked.
“If you wish,” Yuri said, sitting at his end of the table and searching for another cigarette.
Sasha looked at his watch. They had been in this room for almost an hour and he knew that Elena would and could summarize the whole situation in a few minutes.
“You were called at home at approximately three in the morning. A man said that he had the negative of your Tolstoy film and he wanted two million American dollars for it or he would destroy the negative and kill you. You told him he was crazy and hung up. He called again and told you to go check, that he would call you back in two days. That means tomorrow?”
“I think so. I think it must. He didn’t call this morning,” said Yuri, searching for the package of cigarettes now lost somewhere under the papers on the table. “He wants the money tomorrow.”
“You got dressed,” Elena continued, “called your editor, came to your office, where your editor met you to tell you that the negative was indeed missing, that the cabinet in which it was being kept had been broken into. You then made a call and discovered that the backup negative …”
“Of inferior quality because it is a copy,” Yuri said impatiently.
“Of inferior quality,” Elena continued, “was also missing. The film cost approximately thirty-six million American dollars to make, that’s a million dollars more than
“But that’s not the point,” Yuri said, standing and pointing his cigarette at the two detectives. “It took us two years to make that movie. The world expects it, awaits it. Our film industry is trying to earn worldwide respect. If we don’t have the film, and quickly, our country, our government, I will be humiliated, ridiculed, laughed at. Our government doesn’t want this. I don’t want this and our backers do not want it.”
“Your backers?” said Sasha.
Yuri sat again.
“They are not important in this discussion other than the fact that they want the movie finished and shown. They want awards. I don’t think they would simply be satisfied to get their money back.”
“You can go to them for the two million,” Sasha said. “If you have to give it to the thief, we can track him or them down and get the money back.”
“Hah,” said Yuri. “And hah again. I could pay these criminals and they could destroy my negatives and murder me.”
“Why?” asked Elena. “What could they gain?”
“They could do it out of spite,” Yuri said slowly, as if explaining the situation to a backward child. “They could do it for fun. They could do it to destroy me. There are people on the streets of Moscow who would kill you if they asked you for a match and you didn’t have one.”
“Your backers are Mafia,” Sasha said.
“I did not say that,” Yuri said, backing off. “I said nothing like that, implied nothing like that. If you choose to draw such a conclusion, I cannot stop you, but think, if my backers were Mafia, I could not go to them for money to pay a … a … a negative-kidnapper. Even if they gave me the money, even if I got the negative back, they might suspect that I was doing this just to get two million dollars. They might simply think I was incompetent. They might do anything. You never know what such people will do. No, no, I cannot go to my backers for money.”
“The government might …” Sasha tried.
“No,” said Yuri, pacing again. “I called people this morning, early, before you came. The government cannot be a part of this, will not. The embarrassment-no, it is clear. The government has enough problems. It will not get involved in a possible cultural disaster. I am alone.”
He ran his right hand through his hair as he paced in anguish.
“When do they want the money?” asked Elena.
“Tomorrow. I told you. They want the money tomorrow or they will destroy the negatives and kill me, or so they say. They will call tomorrow in the morning, early, at home, and tell me what to do.”
“How are you to deliver it?” asked Sasha.
“Cash, American dollars, nothing less than hundred-dollar bills and nothing more than thousand-dollar bills. They said they will meet with me alone and will give me phone directions about where to bring the money. I’m to have it ready at my home and be prepared to move quickly. They warned me that they would know if there was anything traceable on the bills, any markings or any dyes in the bag, they would come back and kill me and my family.”
“Unfortunately, you will be unable to go to this meeting,” said Sasha.
“Of course I can’t. I don’t have the money.”
“You will tell them you have the money but you can’t go,” said Sasha. “You have a bad heart. You had a sudden attack today, angina because of all this. You will send your nephew in your place.”
“You will send your niece,” Elena said.
“Nephew would be more convincing,” said Sasha.
“Do I get a vote?” asked Yuri.
“No,” said Sasha.
The two detectives were looking at each other now and not at the confused producer.
“We will discuss it and tell you in a few hours,” said Elena. “If the thieves call before the morning, tell them you are getting the money together. Say nothing about your bad heart, tell them you’ll be home and waiting for their call. We will be with you. They said they will call early. We’ll be at your home at five in the morning. If the phone rings before we arrive, don’t answer it.”
“Don’t answer it,” Sasha said.
“All right,” said Yuri, going back to his space at the end of the table. “This is a great movie, a truly great movie. They’ve stolen the life of Tolstoy. Could anything be worse for a Russian to do? What has happened to national pride?”
“We will get your negative back,” said Elena, rising.
“We’ll get it back,” echoed Sasha, rising.
“Here,” said Yuri, pushing some papers across his desk and picking something up. He moved to the seated detectives and handed two yellow cardboard rectangles to Sasha. “Tickets for tonight. The Khudozhestvenny Theater. I don’t know what the movie is.”
“Thank you,” said Sasha, pocketing the tickets.
“And now,” Elena said. “We would like a list of everyone who had access to the negative and we would like to meet them.”
“Then,” said Yuri with alarm, “they’ll know I’ve brought in the police.”
“We are not the police,” said Sasha. “We are potential investors in your next film. We represent a French production company. Gaumont. No, Canal Plus.”
“I don’t know,” said Yuri, lighting a new cigarette, his hands shaking.
“Fortunately,” said Elena, “we do.”
“The list is long,” said Yuri. “Editors, assistant editors, me, cleaning ladies. The list is long. And who knows who these people might let in? We keep the negatives locked in a cabinet in a temperature-controlled room, but we don’t do anything particular to keep people out except for the sign on the door that says Keep Out.”
“Humor us,” said Sasha. “Make the list. Take us on a tour.”
“A tour and a list,” Yuri said, shaking his head. “A list and a tour. Yesterday I was happy, ecstatic. Today I am despondent. Tomorrow I may well be dead.”
And with that they left. Yuri Kriskov or Kriskoff led the two detectives out of the room, walking in front of them, smoking nervously, and pondering his fate.
Valery Grachev pondered his next move. He did not look up at the fat, bald old man across the table who sat with his arms folded, no expression, his large lower lip pouting out. Was it a trap? The path was too open. His opponent too clever. No, he would not move his queen to check the old man’s king. He would wait. Valery moved his queen’s knight’s pawn two spaces forward.
The Central Chess Club was crowded. It usually was. This was the home of Russian chess champions. The photos of those champions lined the gray walls, lit by chandeliers hanging from the center of the room. Though there were many people, there was almost total silence, with the exception of someone moving a chair to rise or sit, or the occasional cough, throat clearing, or sneeze.
The fat man wore an incongruous red blazer. It looked new. He was probably uncomfortable but he didn’t show it. Two gangly boys with strangely colored hair played at the table next to that of Valery and the fat man. Both boys wore T-shirts. On the shirt of the boy next to Valery was the word
Valery had played against the boy with the tattoo several times in Timiryazevsky Park. They were even in games.
On the other side of Valery and the fat man, two women, intense, dark, maybe in their forties, wearing dreary dresses and short hair, were glaring at each other, only a few pieces remaining on their board.
Gary Kasparov, the world champion, had played here. Vladimir Kramnik, the second-ranked player in the world, played here.
The old man still had not moved. Valery should have insisted on a clock, but, if he had, the old man would probably not have accepted his challenge and Valery would be standing and watching others play. The old man was good, probably better than Valery, but the old man could make mistakes. He had already done so trading pawns at mid-board.
Valery was twenty-four. He was five-feet four-inches tall, had the build and face of a bulldog, and a passion for chess which led to the nickname he bore proudly-
Valery was playing two games at the same time, one with the fat man, the other with Yuri Kriskov. He was not certain that he would beat the fat man, but Kriskov was a fool, a clever fool but a fool nonetheless.
The game had begun. The bulky rolls of negative were well hidden along with the gun, which he fully intended to use if Kriskov did not pay. Tomorrow he would call, make the next move. He had already anticipated that Kriskov would turn to the police, that a simple exchange would not be possible. He would change the direction of the game, make moves Kriskov could not follow. Check was close by and checkmate not far behind. Valery had an advantage his opponent did not anticipate, an advantage that would make the next move and even the entire defensive game of Yuri Kriskov known to him.
The fat man grunted. His left hand hovered over the board for an instant and then he moved his king’s knight over the pawn to the left.
Valery didn’t hesitate. Before the fat man’s hand was back across the chest of his red blazer, Valery moved his queen’s bishop across the board to a square at the left side of the board.
The fat man had made exactly the move Valery had hoped for. The game would not be quick, but the advantage definitely belonged to Valery Grachev.