Chapter Six

“It flew through the air?” asked Laura with the skepticism of both a twelve year old and a Russian.

“Yes,” said Rostnikov, examining the weights he had laid out for the nightly ritual.

“A green bench?” said Nina with the desire of an eight year old to fix on a fact.

“Green,” said Rostnikov. “It flew down Petrovka Street about three feet higher than a car, flew like a spaceship, zing-zing-zip.” He reached over to turn on the Dinah Washington tape he had set up.

“Why didn’t you fly?” asked Nina.

“I clung to a tree,” he said as Dinah Washington began to sing “Nothing Ever Changes My Love for You.”

“Did you stick straight out like in cartoons?” asked Nina.

“Straight out,” said Rostnikov, sitting on the bench which he kept stored in the cabinet in the corner of the living room along with his bars and weights.

“And you didn’t fly away?” said Nina.

“Porfiry Petrovich is very strong,” said Laura.

Sarah was in the bedroom, reading and listening to her own music. She preferred Mozart, chamber music. Porfiry Petrovich was not fond of chamber music, though he now took them all regularly to the concerts put on by Sarah’s cousin Leon and three of his friends. Leon was a doctor who catered to the well-to-do and well connected and was probably quite wealthy, but his passion was the piano.

Rostnikov began to do curls with his fifty-pound dumbbells. He did twelve with each hand and then twelve more with each hand and then a final dozen with each hand while the girls stood watching and, perhaps, listening to the sadness of Dinah Washington.

“Porfiry Petrovich,” Laura said, and then puffed out her cheeks like a balloon. “Nina and I took one of those out yesterday. It took both of us to lift it just a little.”

Rostnikov adjusted the weights on the bar, tightening the lock, being sure that all three hundred pounds were secure. “I know,” he said.

“How?” asked Laura. “We put it back exactly.”

“I’m a detective,” he said, lying down awkwardly, his gray sweat suit already showing patches of perspiration under the arms and at the stomach. “I’m obsessive about details.”

“What is obsessive?” Nina asked.

“It means,” said Laura to her sister, “that he weighs too much and it makes him watch his stomach and other things carefully.”

Rostnikov dried his hands on the towel beside him on the floor and reached up to grip the weight. Since he had no spotters, he could not push himself to the maximum, but he came close, very close, painfully close. The senior competitions were coming up in less than two months. Rostnikov was looking forward to them. He imagined Mikhail Stoltz in some gym at this very moment with five pounds more on each end of the bar or maybe even working on five hundred pounds.

“That’s not right,” said Nina. “About obsessive.

Rostnikov had learned to count on his new leg in a way he had been unable to count on the sickly old one. If he managed to place the leg just so, it could actually help him lift, but he still had much to learn about adjusting the leg. He was concerned that there would be some protest this year, claims that the leg was helping him. Rostnikov was prepared for that. He would simply volunteer to participate in all the events for which he had registered on one leg. Since he was only doing what he could with his arms and lying on his back, it might cost him a few pounds, but he would still be very competitive.

“Sarah says that lifting weights is your only vice,” said Laura.

Porfiry Petrovich could not talk. His face was red, and he was doing his breathing as he went to five presses with the enormous weight.

“What’s a vice?” asked Nina.

“A bad thing. Like sucking your thumb or taking drugs,” Laura explained.

“What’s wrong with lifting weights?” asked Nina, who had only recently stopped sucking her thumb.

“I don’t know everything,” said Laura.

For the first two months the girls had lived with them, they had said almost nothing, trusted no one, and never asked to watch anything on television or go anywhere. Only gradually had they taken to watching Rostnikov lift his weights and listen to American music. And little by little they had come closer and begun to talk.

The girls’ grandmother was still at work at the bakery but would be home soon. She spent all her free time with her grandchildren, listening to their day’s adventures, telling what she had done. Every night she came home with something for each of them, an ?clair they could share, their own cookies in the shape of stars, different things.

The girls’ parents had long since left the scene. And it was very likely, though they did not know it, that each girl had a different father. They did look somewhat alike, thin of face and body with clear skin, a small nose, short brown hair, and pink cheeks. They might well turn out to be pretty.

The time when their grandmother had been in prison had been the worst, but they had taken it as just another blow that was their lot in life.

But things were getting better now.

One more, Rostnikov thought, just one more.

The phone was ringing. Laura hurried across the room to where it sat on a table near the sofa.

Rostnikov and Dinah Washington finished at the same time. The weight went back on the rack over “head. He lay there exhausted, breathing deeply.

“When you breathe like that, it looks like there is a melon in your belly,” said Nina, pointing to “abdomen. “And your face turns red like a crayon.”

“I’m pleased that the display provokes your imagination,” said Rostnikov, sitting up and reaching for his towel. His hands were wet now. His palms were red. He still had more to do, and Dinah Washington was well ahead of him.

“It’s Iosef,” said the older girl, holding the phone out. “He says lots of things were flying today, like horses and pots of flowers and balloons.”

“Balloons fly every day,” said Nina.

“Iosef Rostnikov was making a joke,” Laura said with an exaggerated sigh.

Rostnikov reached out his hand for the phone. He had a fifteen-foot extension that could reach anywhere in the room and just far enough into the bedroom so that one could close the door for some privacy.

“Iosef,” he said, taking the phone. “You called me to say that you are packed, ready, and will meet me at Sherametyevo Airport at seven in the morning. Correct?”

“Yes, but …” Iosef began.

“Then there is nothing more to say,” Rostnikov said pleasantly. “I am busy getting ready. We can talk tomorrow.”

He hung up, knowing that his son had understood, that whatever he was going to say, and Rostnikov thought he knew what it was, would be best not spoken on the phone.

Rostnikov had been followed home from Petrovka. He had been followed, in fact, by the same man he had seen in the crowd at Lermontov’s house. The man had been carrying an umbrella. When he had come home, Rostnikov had looked out the window in the kitchen alcove. Another man, also with an umbrella, was standing across the street in the shadow of a doorway.

Sarah appeared at the door of the bedroom, a book in her hand. She was still dressed, but in one of her loose-fitting, comfortable dresses, the orange one with white flowers.

“Who called?” she asked.

“Iosef,” said Nina. “He says horses can fly.”

“But I would advise them not to do so,” said Rostnikov.

Sarah was still well built, red haired and beautiful, with pale unblemished skin. Since her brain surgery five years earlier, she had lost some of the weight it had taken her years to nurture, weight Rostnikov had loved. She had gained back her hair and taken on a knowing smile. Rostnikov once told her that she looked as if she had had a long talk with death and that he had told her that she had too much life in her for him, and so he sent her back to Moscow and her husband.

“I wanted to talk to him,” Sarah said.

“Nina, you know the number?” asked Rostnikov.

“Yes,” she said.

“It is my turn,” said Laura.

“No,” said Rostnikov, wiping his neck with his now sweat-drenched towel. “I remember precisely. On Tuesday, just after dinner, I asked you to call Sasha Tkach for me. You were sitting on the chair at the table doing homework. You were wearing your jeans and a blue T-shirt. Nina was sitting on the sofa, looking at the dinosaur book. She was wearing …”

“It is difficult living with a detective,” said Laura.

“Very,” Sarah confirmed with a smile. “But it has its rewards.”

Rostnikov smiled and moved back to his bench. Dinah Washington had not waited for him. She was selling more love.

Nina dialed.

Rostnikov reset the weights on the bar and wondered briefly if the first man with the umbrella had been the one who murdered Vladimir Kinotskin. He probably had.

The two men, both bachelors, both in their mid-thirties, stood in front of the bar in the town of Brevard, North Carolina, hoping for quite different encounters.

Both men were Russians. Both spoke passable but not fluent English. The move had come abruptly. They had been summoned to the office of their commander at Star City, where they had been assigned since returning to earth from their mission on Mir.

They were not celebrities, though their names were known within the space community. Their jobs were simply to keep up with their technology studies and training in preparation for their next mission.

When they had been summoned, the two men, Misha Sorokin and Ivan Pkhalaze, who had been kept apart since their return to earth, both wondered if this was the moment when the secret they held would end their careers if not their lives.

But the meeting had gone quickly and much to their satisfaction. They were being sent to the United States, immediately, to serve as liaisons with a space-study program at the University of North Carolina, a satellite program near a town called Brevard.

Misha and Ivan had been given a crash course in English and told that the assignment was open-ended. Its conclusion would be determined by consultation with the Americans. Both men were told to be cooperative. American support and money were needed for the construction of the new space station. No mention was made of the secret the men shared. Perhaps, both thought, it has been forgotten, put away, no longer meaningful.

They were, of course, quite wrong.

Within two weeks Misha and Ivan were sharing a house near a waterfall near the small town in North Carolina. Their input, services, and expertise were seldom drawn on by the quartet of three men and a woman who came occasionally to meet with them and even more infrequently to drive them to Asheville or even as far as Chapel Hill for discussions with professors and students.

Eventually, they had been assigned a 1995 Chevrolet Celebrity, white, with a blue cloth top.

It was in Brevard that night that they first discussed what they had not discussed before.

Misha, tall, with light-brown hair and looks that often resulted in his being compared to Liam Neeson, was acknowledged to be the leader of the duo, a degreed aeronautical engineer, a voracious reader, and a man who perhaps thought too much but kept most of what he thought to himself, his primary goal in life being to survive in safety and to continue to hide his homosexuality, a homosexuality he had not engaged in for the past six years since becoming a cosmonaut. Ivan knew nothing of his fellow cosmonaut’s sexual orientation. Misha was certain, however, that Mikhail Stoltz was very well aware of it. Soon after their return from space, Stoltz had a meeting with Misha in which he made it clear without really saying so that he knew. He also made it clear that secrets could be kept for those who could keep secrets. Misha had understood and agreed.

Ivan’s solid body and dark face suggested an intellectualism which was not there but which he had learned to feign. In contrast to his fellow cosmonaut, who was now his friend, Ivan’s sexual urges were decidedly heterosexual and open. Women, however, were in short supply where the two of them had been sent, and their lack of ease with the English language did not help his pursuits.

Coltan’s Bar just outside of Brevard had a reputation that had eventually made its way to the two Russians. The reputation was that people could be met there for friendly encounters, possibly free, possibly for money. Ivan and Misha had money, a more-than-adequate amount for their needs.

Both men hoped to make contact. Both men hoped that they could do so separately and move on with discretion.

The bar was crowded and since they were wearing American casual clothes no one seemed to pay attention to the men who made their way through the noise, past a few tables, and into a booth. Both men knew they were here for sex. Ivan did not know that Misha’s idea of what that might be was quite different from his own.

“I suggest we separate,” said Misha, scanning the room as a waitress made her way to their table and a woman’s voice, over, two badly balanced speakers, sang plaintively, “if you loved me half as much as I love you …”

“Name it,” said the heavyset woman with clear skin and a body that very much suited Ivan.

She wore no uniform, just a pair of jeans and a flannel shirt with an order pad and pencil in one pocket in case she needed it.

“Name? …” asked Ivan.

“What are you drinking, eating, buying?” she said, shifting her weight to her left foot.

“Beers,” Misha said.

“Germans?” she asked.

“Germans,” Misha said.

“My name’s Hoffer,” she said. “Helga Hoffer, German.”

“A pleasant coincidence,” said Ivan. “You are married?”

“I am not,” she said, turning her eyes from the handsome one to the intense dark one, who was cute in his own way.

“You accept invitations to drink from German customers?” Ivan said.

She smiled now. Her smile was good. Her body was better.

“We don’t get Germans in here,” she said, leaning over and showing her ample breasts as she lowered her voice. “No young, good-looking ones.”

“Then it might be possible to? …” Ivan asked.

“You’re in luck,” she said. “I get off in half an hour. You have a car?”

“I do,” said Ivan.

“Then maybe we can go somewhere and talk,” she said. “Two beers.”

She turned and walked back toward the bar.

“I can’t believe it,” said Ivan.

“It is probably that touch of French blood in you left over from Napoleon’s short-lived vacation in Rostov,” said Misha.

“I don’t care,” said Ivan with a grin.

“She is not young,” said Misha. “Perhaps forty-five.”

“Age means nothing,” said Ivan. “She is my kind of woman and I am very, very much in need.”

“I understand,” said Misha, looking toward the bar where two men in their twenties were looking at the two cosmonauts. One of the men caught Misha’s eye and the two men exchanged a look that Misha well understood.

“Shall I ask her if she has a friend?” asked Ivan.

“No, thank you,” said Misha with a smile. “I will see what I can do on my own. You go off with Miss Hoffer. I’ll make my way back to the house. If worse comes to worse, I’ll get a cab.”

They listened to music and drank two beers each.

Misha and the young man at the bar glanced at each other from time to time, and eventually Helga Hoffer, minus pencil and pad, made her way to the booth and wedged in next to Ivan, who enjoyed the touch of her hip against his.

“I think I’ll leave you two,” said Misha, standing and placing a ten-dollar bill on the table.

“We’re gonna leave too, aren’t we?” Helga asked, looking at Ivan. Their faces were no more than six inches apart.

“We are certainly leaving,” Ivan said, letting his nose touch hers, feeling her breath against his mouth.

Misha waited till Ivan and the woman had left and then he sat back down and waited. It was probably no different here than it had been in Moscow, but it had been a long time. Misha was definitely nervous, but he did his best not to show it. He had purposely nursed his second beer and now reached for it. Both of the young men approached the table and the one whose eyes had met Misha’s asked, “May we join you?”

Misha showed his best smile to the young men and said yes.

It was more than twenty minutes later and Ivan was still no more than fifty yards from the bar. He was now parked at the dark, far end of the gravel-covered parking lot. The nearest car was about twenty-five feet away. He would have preferred to be someplace more private, possibly even their house, but Helga had reached down the front of his pants and between his legs before he could ask her where she suggested they go.

The experience had been wonderful. She had proved to be experienced and he had been quite durable and willing. Now he was spent from her hands, her mouth, and, finally, from her surprisingly firm body in the back seat.

She sat up and began to dress. She turned her head toward the entrance to the club as he sat up.

“You wish to continue elsewhere?” he said, quite naked except for his shoes.

“Not tonight, honey,” Helga said, leaning over to give him a moist, open-mouth kiss that tasted of her, of him, and of something quite sweet.

“Then I can see you? …” he began.

The door on his side suddenly opened. Helga, not yet fully dressed, opened her door and hurried out, saying, “Sorry, honey. I had fun.”

The two men pulled the naked Ivan from the car. One of them kicked the door closed.

Bi’str iy, ‘quick,’” said one man to the other in Russian as they pulled Ivan toward the nearby trees, shredding his bottom on the gravel.

Ivan struggled, but the men were strong and his leverage poor.

A few seconds later Ivan lay in pain, naked, on his back, and the two men over him, behind a wall of bushes and trees.

“What is this?” Ivan demanded.

“You’ve talked,” one dark figure over him said.

“Talked? About what? To who?” Ivan demanded, wishing he had something to cover himself.

“You know,” said the second man.

“I … you mean? No, I have not.”

“But what is there to stop you?” asked the first man.

“I wouldn’t,” said Ivan.

“Why are we talking?” asked the second man. “Let’s do it and get out.”

“You are going to kill me?” asked Ivan.

The first man reached under his jacket for something. Ivan knew what it was.

“No … I …” he said, trying to back away, holding his hand up.

What happened next was a blur of imagination and confusion.

The man with the gun grunted and staggered forward. The other man turned toward the first and Ivan could see something heavy, a rock, crash into his face. The second man fell next to Ivan, soundlessly bleeding, his nose broken. Ivan tried to sit up.

The first man tried to level his gun but someone stepped forward and seemed to punch him in the stomach. The first man let out an “Ohh” that faded like the air from a flat tire.

“Are you badly injured?” Misha asked, helping Ivan to his feet.

“Badly? … No, I don’t think so. They tried to kill me. They are Russians,” said Ivan, bewildered.

“We heard,” said Misha.

Ivan looked at the two men who were with Misha. They seemed familiar. Yes, they had been in the bar.

“How did you know? How did you find me?” asked Ivan, now on his feet.

One of the two young men took off his jacket and handed it to Ivan, who tied it around his waist.

“My friends told me that this was a place where people come to get together. We saw them dragging you from the car.”

“You make friends quickly,” said Ivan.

One of the two young men said, “Maybe another time.”

The evening had already been a nightmare by the time Sasha and his mother had arrived at the movie theater.

They had gone out for dinner. Lydia had insisted. This was a special occasion. She would pay. They had eaten at the Yerevan, with Lydia, who had picked out the restaurant, grumbling rather loudly that she was not terribly fond of Armenian food.

“Then,” Sasha had said, loud enough for his mother and the people at the tables on both sides of them to hear, “why are we here?”

“Because you love Armenian food,” she said.

Sasha did not love Armenian food. He liked it reasonably well, but it was certainly not a culinary love. The bozbash-‘lamb and potato soup’-which seemed just fine to Sasha, was “too full of spices” for Lydia, who drank it all anyway. The chebureki-‘deep-fried meat pies’-which Sasha found delicious, were, according to Lydia, “filled with things that would block your heart and kill you.” She ate her entire plateful and drank a large glass of Armenian brandy.

The waiter had refused to acknowledge Sasha’s shrug and search for sympathy in a conspiratorial glance.

“What are you smiling about?” Lydia had said over brandy.

“Nothing. I don’t know.”

“You look content,” she said suspiciously. “You’ve found some woman.”

“No,” he said, loud enough for her to hear. “But I was asked to be a movie star today.”

Lydia shook her head. She did not understand her son’s jokes.

“You should look terrible,” she said. “Your wife and children are gone. You should go get them. You could be in Kiev by train in half a day. I would pay. I want my grandchildren back.”

Now the entire restaurant, Sasha was sure, knew the history of the Tkach family. He doubted if that history interested them.

Lydia had paid the check, saying, “My son loves Armenian food. It doesn’t suit my stomach. He’s taking me to a movie.”

The waiter had said nothing. He didn’t have to be particularly polite. His tip was built into the check.

Shto ehtah zah feel’m, ‘what kind of movie is this?’” she asked.

“I told you,” Sasha said, “a kahmyehdyeeyoo, ‘a comedy.’”

“It is Japanese?” she asked. “I don’t like Japanese. Your great-grandfather died fighting the Japanese, and for what, Vladivostok.”

“It isn’t Japanese,” said Sasha, ushering his mother out of the restaurant. “It is English.”

And then they were in the movie. It was crowded. Before it began, Sasha begged his mother to turn on her hearing aid. He still had daymares of the last time he had taken his mother to a movie.

They sat.

“I can hear perfectly,” she said, loud enough for a thin young man with glasses in front of her to turn and give a look designed as warning against such outbursts during the film.

There were few empty seats in the theater. The murmur of the crowd was loud. Then Sasha Tkach’s nightmare in darkness began. The movie had started.

The subtitles seemed too long for what the English actors were saying on the screen.

“Which one is Monty?” Lydia asked aloud.

How, Sasha thought, could one explain. “The skinny one with the bad teeth,” said Sasha. “It’s his nickname.”

“Look, what? I thought those were women,” she said a little later. “One of them is standing by that urinal, peeing. It’s a man dressed like a woman.”

“It is a woman making a joke about men peeing,” said Sasha.

“Be quiet, please,” said the young man with glasses, turning to them.

“What is funny about women pretending to pee like men?”

“I don’t know,” said Sasha, sinking down in his seat, barely watching the movie, hoping for the end to come soon.

“What is … why are those men taking off their clothes?”

“They want to make money stripping,” Sasha explained. “They’re out of work.”

“I know that,” she said. “I can read, but who would want to see those men take off their clothes? Well, maybe that nice-looking one. Ah, I knew it, he’s a sissy boy.”

The young man with glasses turned around in his seat and said, “He is gay and you are loud and I think you should leave so that the rest of us in this theater can salvage some sense of satisfaction from this so-far intolerable situation.”

“I’m a police officer,” Sasha said, sitting up and reaching into his pocket to pull out his badge. “This is my mother. If you think you are having a bad time, try, if you have the imagination, to think of how I am feeling. You will go home alone. I will go home with my mother.”

“You have my sympathy,” said the young man with glasses, “but …”

“Right,” said Sasha. “Mother, let’s go.”

Sasha started to get up.

“I like this movie,” she said, refusing to budge.

“Listen to your son,” came a voice from behind.

“Why are they breaking those beautiful little gnomes?” asked Lydia.

“Sometimes, my mother, people get the uncontrollable impulse to break things. Let’s go.”

“You don’t like the movie. We will go,” said Lydia. “He invites me to a movie and then we leave before we know what’s going to happen.”

Sasha guided his mother up the aisle. Several people applauded their departure.

Once outside, Sasha took a deep breath of relief.

“I don’t understand why you didn’t like the movie,” Lydia said.

“You didn’t laugh once,” he said as they walked down the Arbat toward the metro station.

“It wasn’t a comedy,” she said. “You didn’t understand. That was the problem, why you didn’t like it. It was sad. They were out of work.”

“Mother, you are absolutely right,” he said.

“When are you going to Kiev?”

Akardy Zelach sat at the small kitchen table, turning a chicken bone over with his fork. His mother shifted her position in the next room. He could see her. She, like him, was a bit heavy and awkward, but she had a confidence and dignity, a certainty about everything, that he would never possess.

She was watching some game show on television. Akardy could see that it involved a big wheel with numbers that made no sense to him. Contestants spun the wheel and the audience shouted as it turned. His mother, fist clenched, urged the wheel on, turned sideways to will it another notch or turn.

“Then,” he said. “I should refuse.”

“If you can,” his mother said. “If you cannot …”

She shrugged and reached for the glass of tepid tea on the table in front of her.

Akardy adjusted his glasses and looked at the bone.

“Then shall I lie?” he asked.

“Will they pay you if you tell the truth?” she asked. “Look, look, if she just … she can win a car. She can … oh, no.”

“I don’t know if they’ll pay,” he repeated. “I don’t know if I’m allowed to take it even if they do pay.”

Akardy’s mother stood up, reached over, and turned off the television set.

“Your grandmother, my mother, read tea leaves, palms, bumps on the head, cards,” she said, looking at her son.

“I know,” he answered glumly.

“And you know what? It was all for show. She didn’t know how she knew what she knew. It was just there. People want the show. That’s what my sister and I did when we learned we had the gift or curse. And you don’t know either.”

“I didn’t … I just said whatever came into my head,” said Akardy. “I’m not even sure how to lie about it. Do I let something come into my head and then lie about it? And where does the new lie come from? Perhaps it is really the truth. How do I know? How am I to know? I don’t want to be studied.”

His mother walked over to join him at the table and picked at the crumbs of the flat cake she had baked earlier that day. Akardy didn’t like when she picked at crumbs and then licked her fingers and picked again. He had never told her. She loved him, had taken care of him when he had been injured and almost died. That was when the gift or curse had come, after he had been beaten, after his skull had been cracked. It didn’t come often and he had always been able to ignore it before, but that dark woman with the glasses at the psychic center, Nadia Spectorski, she had been like a … a jumping dog, all over him, demanding, excited. He did not want to see her again, but he had no choice. Perhaps he could call in and say he was ill or that his mother was ill? She really wasn’t well. No, he would have to go. He would have to face Emil Karpo’s doubting eyes.

He decided that he would try to lie. Perhaps the Nadia Spectorski woman would turn out to be the murderer. That would save him. He wished there were more cake.

“What are you doing?” asked Elena.

The night was relatively warm though there was a smell of the possibility of more rain in the clouds that covered the sky. They sat on a bench in the concrete courtyard just outside the window of the apartment Elena shared with her aunt, Anna Timofeyeva.

Had she been home, Lydia Tkach could have looked out the window and seen them from her apartment in the far corner of the one-story building, but she was staying with Sasha.

Anna Timofeyeva regretted the day she had agreed to help Lydia Tkach find an apartment in the building. As a former procurator, Anna still had friends or friends who had friends. She had misgivings when she agreed to help Sasha’s mother. To protect herself and Elena, Anna had set down clear rules by which Lydia was to abide. These rules regarded when Lydia could visit and under what conditions. Lydia had begun violating the rules the day after she moved in.

The day before, Anna Timofeyeva had sat petting her cat, Bakunin, in the window and had said to Elena, “Perhaps we will be lucky. Perhaps Sasha’s wife will never return.”

“You mean that?” Elena had asked.

“I don’t know,” said Anna. “Maybe I do.”

And now, Elena and Iosef sat in the dark and empty courtyard surrounded by dimly lit windows, possibly being watched by Aunt Anna.

“What are you doing?” Elena asked, putting her hand on the shoulder of Iosef, who leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, his head in his hands.

“Brooding,” he said.

“Are you going to stop brooding sometime tonight? I have to get up early and catch a thief.”

“I’ll stop,” he said. “It will take great effort. You can help by setting a clear date for our marriage, a date when you will be moving into my apartment.”

“Which,” she said, “will then be ‘our apartment’ and which, you have agreed, will be redecorated to our mutual satisfaction.”

He sat up and looked at her.

“I thought you liked the way my apartment looks.”

“Iosef, we’ve talked about this. I like it for you. For us, I want more of us, or me, to be there, which is why I want to pay half the rent. And please, don’t talk about how all of our money will be together. I don’t want to bicker about tables and chairs and … Iosef, tell me truthfully, am I fat?”

He leaned back a bit to examine her as if for the first time, from foot to head.

“Stop,” she said. “This is not a joke.”

“You are not fat,” he said. “You are voluptuous. You are perfect. If you lose a pound, one pound, I will call off the marriage. If after we are married, you lose one pound, I will seek a divorce.”

“You mean it?”

“Yes.”

“Good. If you want to brood some more, you have my permission,” she said.

“No, you’ve taken the pain out of it.”

“What were you brooding about?”

“Dead poets. Dead cosmonauts. Did you know that Mikhail Lermontov was only twenty-seven when he died?”

“Yes,” Elena said, tugging at his ear. “He died in 1841. Did you know he was descended from a Scottish family that came to Russia in the seventeenth century? And that Lermontov was a military officer transferred to the Caucasus for writing poetry attacking the royal court?”

“No,” said Iosef. “You are fond of Lermontov’s work?”

“Not particularly,” she said. “He is too brooding.”

“Your point is taken,” said Iosef, leaning over to kiss her. She liked his kisses. His lips were ample, his mouth and tongue passionate. She had taught herself to be careful with men, but with Iosef she felt she could let herself float without flying away.

When the first kiss had ended, she said, “I will have to get some sleep and you have to be up early to get to the airport.”

“I’m packed,” he said, leaning toward her again.

“We’re being watched from many windows,” she said with a smile.

“I would hope so,” he said. “I have never completely lost my desire for an audience.”

“And I have never lost my desire for privacy,” she said.

“A perfect match,” he said, placing her hand gently between his legs.

“Perfect,” she said.

Emil Karpo continued to believe that Communism was a nearly ideal social-political system. The problem, he had come to believe, was that humanity could not abide an ideal system. People were self-serving, animalistic, and were capable of destroying anything that required total cooperation. There were many individuals of worth who cared about others, who had, he knew not why, cared about him. Porfiry Petrovich and his wife clearly cared. Mathilde had cared.

Emil Karpo sat at the table in his room, facing the floor-to-ceiling bookcase filled with files and notes of unresolved cases. Emil Karpo sat in the light of a single lamp behind him and the glow of his computer screen. He wore a white T-shirt over a pair of white shorts. In his room, alone, he wore white. Outside, he wore black.

Barefoot, Karpo looked at the screen.

When he had become a policeman, his goal had been clear, his task certain. He would find and help punish those who broke the law, those who were not fit for a Communist state. He knew that he would never stop all crime, not alone, not with the help of thousands, because people did not live for an ideal. They lived for themselves, for their families sometimes, for a few others or one other for whom they had often-fleeting feelings. But he could keep to a minimum the numbers of those who did not conform.

He quickly discovered, however, that the task was beyond monumental. The people who ruled were corrupt. The people who were supposed to contain crime and prosecute criminals were corrupt. Soviet Communism had turned into a grotesque distortion of what his father, his readings, and the speeches of many had promised, but it had been replaced by an even more corrupt system.

Emil Karpo was still a Communist, not a member of the party any longer. Those who said they were Communists now were opportunists preying on the memories of the poor who had forgotten the corruption and remembered only safe streets and having just enough to eat without worrying about making a living. Perhaps there was only one true Communist and his name was Emil Karpo.

He moved the cursor and found the file he sought on the computer screen.

Outside of the table, bookshelves, and chair, Emil Karpo’s room was, intentionally, as bare as a prison cell or a monk’s chamber. The wooden floor was dark and uncovered. There was a cot in the corner near the single window covered by a shade. Next to the cot was a small square table with a telephone, a clock, and a lamp on it. Under the single drawer of the table was space for about a dozen books. The space was filled. There was a wardrobe, a tall rectangle in a corner that could have been a large standing coffin. Next to the wardrobe was a modest, dark chest of drawers upon which stood nothing. Above the chest of drawers was a painting, a painting of a smiling red-haired woman in a field with a barn in the distance behind her. The painting was of the dead Mathilde Verson. It was the only sign of life in the room.

Emil Karpo kept his room scrubbed and clean. Each morning, before dawn, he awoke without needing to check the small electric clock. It took him exactly twenty-eight minutes to exercise by the light of his lamp. His motions were without sound and without the accompaniment of music or the news. He owned no television set.

After he exercised, Karpo would don a robe, a blue one Mathilde had given him for a birthday, and he would go down the hall with a towel to take a shower in the bathroom he shared with the other tenants on the floor. Everyone knew when the ghost got up to take a shower. No one left his apartment till he had finished.

Karpo could have afforded much better. He spent almost no money and ate little. He cut his own thin hair the infrequent times that it was necessary, and he did not use a bank. His room was a vault, rigged to shock an intruder and detect any attempt to enter without the specially machined two keys of which only he and Porfiry Petrovich had a set.

Now Emil Karpo worked not for a cause but to punish. The law was under siege, had always been. The law was ridiculous, but it was law. Those who challenged it had to be stopped if even the semblance of sanity was to be maintained.

Karpo was relentless. To be otherwise was to invite madness. Karpo, who had decades earlier accepted that he was devoid of emotion, had discovered when he was past the age of forty-with the help of Mathilde-that he did have emotions, had covered and protected them. When she had gotten him to let some of those emotions out, she had left a hole big enough for madness to slink in.

Mathilde had given him a gift and a curse.

Very early that evening, Karpo had talked to Porfiry Petrovich by phone. The conversation had been brief.

“Paulinin is examining all of the shoes tonight,” Karpo had said. “He will work through the night if necessary, and he believes it will be necessary.”

“So?” asked Porfiry Petrovich.

“We may know by morning who killed Sergei Bolskanov.”

“And your thoughts about psychic happenings?” asked Rostnikov.

“I have brought some books to my room,” said Karpo. “I will read. However, I believe some psychic phenomena may well exist. They are not mysterious in any way other than that we do not yet understand them scientifically.”

“Then,” Porfiry Petrovich had said, “they do not lead us to gods, demons, or ghosts?”

“No,” said Karpo.

“But perhaps people can move objects with their thoughts, and dreams can tell us of the past and the future, and unidentified flying objects may exist?”

“You are being provocative, Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov.”

“Yes.”

“It is likely at some point in the future there will be only identified flying objects, as there may be dreams which contain the possibility of alternative future events,” said Karpo. “The dreamer remembers only those aspects of the dream which prove to be more-or-less prophetic and forgets those which are not.”

“Emil, it might help if you tried using your imagination.”

“You have suggested this frequently in the past. I have little or no imagination. I do not wish one. I am reading books and examining theories,” said Karpo. “I continue to believe that there is but one life, that magic does not exist, and that which we have called magic is simply phenomena not yet explained by science.”

“I don’t believe you are as dispassionate as you claim,” said Rostnikov. “I have seen you when … but that is yours to do with as you will. Iosef and I will be gone a day or two or three, no more than that. Pankov will know how to reach me.”

“Very good,” said Karpo.

“And, Emil, I think that if you could allow yourself to do so, you should find someone you could trust with your secrets.”

“I have no secrets.”

“You have secrets, Emil Karpo. I have known no one without secrets. Even apes, even dogs and crows have secrets, places where they have things. We have places like that within ourselves.”

“And the person I could trust is you?”

“No, Emil, the person you can trust is you.”

“You are feeling very philosophical tonight.”

“Yes, I think it is storms that make buses and benches fly and the vastness of the universe in which tiny machines carry men beyond our sight that has put me in this mood. When we come back, you will come to dinner. I will be less pensive. The girls miss you. Laura thinks you are cute.”

“I am not cute,” said Karpo.

“You can explain that to Laura. She doesn’t believe me. Be good to yourself, Emil Karpo.”

And then the conversation had ended.

Emil Karpo had gone to see Mathilde regularly once a week for years. He had paid her the price she asked till the last year or so when she had refused to take his money. He had told himself that going to a prostitute was essential, that he was a man, that man was an animal. He was satisfying a need. But his relationship had changed and he had been about to give that change a name when Mathilde had been murdered in the crossfire of a Mafia war. Her death had given him a determination, a new meaning, to destroy the gangs, the gangs that slaughtered the innocent and destroyed hope. He had made clear to Rostnikov that he wished to be assigned to Mafia-related crimes that came to the Office of Special Investigation. Sometimes Rostnikov listened to his wishes. Sometimes he did not.

Karpo had not wished to go to a prostitute since Mathilde had died. He had briefly thought that Mathilde’s sister, who had come to Moscow from Odessa for the funeral, might … but she had left. It was better to be alone. Feeling was less likely to enter the portal Mathilde had created in him if he was alone.

Enough. He knew it was two in the morning. He required a full four hours’ sleep. He turned off the computer, rose, moved to the cot, turned off the light, and was asleep in less than thirty seconds.

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