A sleepy dawn of dark clouds was just coming when the phone in Yuri Kriskov’s living room rattled. It was sitting on a table before the three of them-Kriskov, his wife, Vera, and Elena Timofeyeva-who had been drinking coffee and waiting with little to say.
The house was large, not a mansion but complete with large living room, three bedrooms, two baths, full kitchen, separate dining room, and a garage. The view from the front windows was of other recently built houses that looked much the same.
“Wait,” said Elena, touching Yuri’s hand as he reached for it.
The line had been tapped, and in the small blue van parked outside two men were going to record the conversation and find the location where the call was coming from. Elena knew that the new technology was such that they needed less than a minute to locate the caller. A few extra rings would give the men in the van more time to trace the call.
After three rings, Elena said, “Now.”
Yuri Kriskov was fully if casually dressed, dark slacks, light-blue silk shirt open at the collar. Vera Kriskov wore only a robe and slippers, though she had taken time to brush her hair and put on makeup. Elena and Yuri Kriskov sat next to each other on a white sofa. Vera Kriskov sat across from them, legs crossed, on a matching chair.
Just before the call came, Yuri had lit his fourth cigarette of the brief morning.
“Yes,” he said, after Elena nodded to him to pick up the phone.
Elena had told him not to drag out the call, not to cause suspicion. In fact, if he could, he was to ask reasonable questions of clarification, ask them quickly, and not provoke the caller.
“You have the money?” Valery Grachev said in the high-pitched voice he had been practicing with Vera’s coaching.
“I have it. It wasn’t easy to …”
Elena shook her head
“I have it,” he said. “In a large gymnasium bag, blue.”
“American dollars? No rubles. Rubles are worth shit.”
“When we hang up,” Valery said, “you get in your car and drive as quickly as you can to Timiryazevsky Park.”
“I can’t,” said Yuri, looking at Elena, who was now nodding
“What?” asked Valery, sounding suspicious, though Vera had told him exactly what to expect.
“I broke my leg,” said Yuri. “Actually, you broke it.”
Yuri was improvising now and Elena shook her head
“You broke it because you made me so nervous with your threats and the horror you are committing that I fell and broke my leg. I have a wife, children. If you do this …”
“Stop, now,” shouted Valery, checking his watch. “Who is coming with the money? Your wife?”
“No,” said Yuri. “She is too frightened. My niece, Elena, will bring it.”
“No, hobble to your car,” Valery said. “Or I destroy the negative and kill you as I promised.”
“I can’t,” said Yuri mournfully. “I …”
“Stop,” shouted Valery. “All right, have your niece bring the bag to Timiryazevsky Park. You know where the chess tables are?”
“The chess tables in Timiryazevsky Park,” Yuri repeated for Elena’s benefit.
Now Elena was nodding
“I know where they are,” Yuri went on.
“Have her go now,” said Valery. “Have her go quickly. She should stand by the chess tables with the bag. If she hurries, she will get there before any players arrive.”
“And what? …” Yuri began, but Valery Grachev had already hung up the phone.
Yuri did the same.
The unlocked front door suddenly opened. A large man in blue jeans and a denim shirt stepped in.
“Stop,” shouted Vera Kriskov, rising.
The man stopped suddenly.
“If you are coming in here,” Vera said, “take off your shoes. You have mud on your shoes.”
The large man looked at Vera and then at Elena. He did not move.
Yuri was up now. Vera had moved to his side and taken his hand reassuringly.
“A public phone near the entrance of the Kuznetski Most metro station,” the big man said. “Two teams will be there within a minute.”
Elena nodded and reached for the gym bag filled with rectangles of cut-up newspaper.
Within the coming minute, she was sure, the caller, along with thousands of people going to work, would be on a crowded metro train, going in any of eight directions. The man had chosen wisely. The metro station was at the center of the train system.
“Be careful with my negatives,” said Yuri as Elena went to join the big man with the muddy shoes, who seemed nailed to the floor.
“Be careful,” Vera Kriskov said with concern, taking her husband’s left hand in both of hers.
“We will be careful,” said Elena.
Elena picked up the bag and nodded to Sasha, who rose. There was something about Vera Kriskov that Elena didn’t like. She had been watching the woman who looked with loving concern at her husband and touched him frequently. Elena sensed the woman was acting. It probably meant nothing. Perhaps she didn’t really love or even like her husband. There was nothing unusual in that. Perhaps it was what happened to people when they were married, most people. She tried to banish such thoughts and concentrate on what she now had to do.
The big policeman with the muddy shoes followed Elena and Sasha into the dark dawn, closing the door behind him. Sasha moved to the small truck. Elena got into the car.
Elena was not used to the Volga she had been given. The car had almost eighty thousand miles on it and handled sluggishly, with a willful tendency to veer to the left. There was also a stale smell on the seats, probably years of food eaten by detectives on stakeouts.
Traffic was worse than she had expected, but she was a good driver who gauged well just how much space she needed to make a move. In twenty minutes she was at the park. Even at this hour she would have had trouble finding a place to park had she been a civilian. She parked quite illegally on a concrete driveway expressly labeled for use by park personnel only.
Elena slung her pouch-purse over her shoulder. Inside the purse was her pistol, in a pocket that came close to being a holster. She grabbed the blue gymnasium bag, got out of the car, and walked to a path that would lead her through the trees to the chess tables.
There was a wind this morning. It played a leafy morning song through the leaves as she walked. It would rain again. The full gym bag was heavy. It had to look as if it contained two million dollars.
When she reached the clearing she sought, there were already two men seated at one of the chessboards. They were at one end of three boards on a table. The men sat on opposite sides of the board, examining the pieces before them. Both men were over seventy. One of the men looked up as Elena approached. He watched as she moved to the end of the table away from them and placed the blue bag on the bench.
“Play,” said the man who had not looked up.
“Look,” said the man watching Elena.
“I see her. Look at the board. You’ll see that you are already in enough trouble.”
The man reluctantly turned his eyes from Elena to the problem before him.
She stood holding the strap of her purse, knowing that somewhere Sasha Tkach was watching her through binoculars and scanning the places where someone could hide.
Elena checked her watch and waited. Almost fifteen minutes later, two burly men moved through the trees and headed directly toward her. They looked determined. Both wore lightweight jackets. Both had their hands plunged into the pockets of their jackets. When they were close enough, Elena could see that they had the tough, lined faces of Russian males who had not gone through life lightly.
Elena felt with her fingers through the unzipped top of her purse. Her hand moved toward the gun.
The men came toward her, one on each side. They looked directly at her as she put her hand on the gun. The man on her right looked at the blue gym bag and then at Elena.
“The bag,” he said.
His voice was as lined as his pink-white face.
“Yes,” she said.
He picked up the bag and faced her.
“Move it,” he said. “This is our place.”
The other man, almost a twin of the man who had spoken, moved past Elena and sat on the bench. Elena took the gym bag, and the first man sat where it had rested.
Elena moved away from the table with the bag. The first man to sit removed a bag from his pocket, opened it, and began to set up the chess pieces. Elena placed the blue bag on a more-or-less dry patch of grass before her.
About two minutes later a boy of about twelve came through the trees not far from where the two new players had come. He wore dark pants, an oversized orange T-shirt, and a school bag over his shoulders. When he was closer, Elena could see that the boy had a smooth, pink face, dark straight hair, and an angry, defensive scowl. He was thin and short and in a hurry.
He came directly at Elena but did not look at her. His eyes were on the bag. Without a word or acknowledgment of her presence, the boy unzipped the bag and looked inside. He moved the newspaper pieces around and then stood up and turned away from Elena. The boy began crossing his arms in front of him and shaking his head
Elena moved next to the boy to see where he was looking, but the boy’s eyes were looking upward, over the trees, toward the sky. Elena scanned the path, the trees on all sides, even looked back at the men playing chess. The first old man at the far end of the bench, the one who had watched Elena, now watched the boy.
“Stop,” said Elena to the boy.
He didn’t stop.
“I am a police officer,” she said. “Stop now.”
She reached into her purse and removed the stiff leather square that held her identification. She held it in front of the boy with one hand and stayed one of his arms with the other. The boy stopped and looked at her.
“Who are you signaling?”
“The man,” he said.
“Quickly, tell me what man and what he told you to do. I am the police,” she said, knowing that Sasha had seen the boy, watched him signal, and was now scurrying to find someone else who might be watching and waiting. But Sasha would have no idea of the direction in which he should look. There were two uniformed police with Sasha. They would spread out as best they could, but Elena knew the task was close to hopeless.
“He gave me this,” the boy said, reaching into his pocket. “One hundred new rubles. You’re not going to take it away, are you?”
“No,” said Elena, looking at the bills, which, in exchange, would have brought about five American dollars, probably less in a day or two. “You can keep the money.”
The boy relaxed.
“I was on the way to school,” he said. “The man came up to me. I looked around. There were other people. Not many, but a few. I thought he might be one of those dirty men. There are some who come here. My friend Gregor kicked one of them in the balls only two weeks ago.”
“The man,” Elena said. “What did he look like?”
“Not big. Wide like …” The boy opened his arms to indicate the width of the man’s body. “His face … he wore a cap pulled down to his ears. A cap like the men on the riverboats wear. And he had a short beard, black. And a Band-Aid on his nose.”
“What was he wearing?”
“Wearing? I don’t remember. Pants. A shirt. I think they were dark or something.”
Elena knew the beard, the Band-Aid, and hat were probably gone by now. Even if he had the description from the boy, Sasha could walk right past the man.
“And he told you to do what?” Elena said.
The boy pursed his lips and paused. “Will you give me thirty rubles if I tell you?”
“If you don’t tell me, and quickly, I will give you the day to think about the consequences of not telling a police officer what you know. The day will be spent in a cell. If you are lucky, you will be alone.”
“He told me to come here, to the lady with the blue bag. That I should open the bag, and if there was anything but money in it I was to make that signal with my hands and shake my head.”
“Be quiet,” grumbled one of the two big men playing chess behind them.
“Did he tell you what this was supposed to be about?” Elena asked, ignoring the men.
“He said you and he were playing a game.”
“You believed him?”
The boy turned away. “He gave me one hundred rubles.”
“Would you recognize him again if you saw him without the cap, without the Band-Aid, without the beard?”
The boy shrugged and said, “Maybe, no. No, I don’t think so.”
“Even if I gave you another hundred rubles?”
“No,” said the boy. “I know what police do. You would have a lineup, and if I identified some policeman as the man, you would put me in children’s detention.”
“Go to school,” said Elena. “Now, fast.”
The boy ran, back in the direction from which he had come.
Elena suddenly felt a presence behind her. A hand touched her shoulder. She drew her pistol from her purse and turned, backing away a step.
One of the two big men who had been playing chess behind her stood looking at her and the gun. There was a look of surprise on his face, which quickly turned to resignation. He shook his head.
“Am I to die at the hand of a pretty young lady in the park just because I want to have a quiet chess game?” he said. “Yevgeny Savidov, this was a day to make deliveries, not to die.”
Elena put the gun away and said, “I’m sorry. Finish your game. I’m going.”
The man with the tough face nodded and moved back to the table.
Elena picked up the blue bag and began to walk back to the car. Sasha appeared before her, out of breath.
“Nothing,” he said.
Elena nodded and kept walking. “Something is wrong,” she said.
Sasha walked at her side. He had not exercised in weeks and he had a slight pain in his side.
“What do you mean?”
“Why didn’t he do this at night?” she asked.
“Who knows? Maybe he works at night or has a wife who knows nothing about his extortion.”
“Maybe,” said Elena. “But he sent the boy and told him to signal if there was no money in the bag.”
“So?” asked Sasha.
“Would it not have made more sense for the boy to nod or bow to indicate if the money was there?”
They were almost at the street now.
“It could go either way,” said Sasha.
The pain in his side was gone and he could breathe normally now. He would have to start exercising again. He was the youngest member of the Office of Special Investigation, and everyone, with the possible exception of Pankov and the Yak, was in better condition than he was.
“What if he expected the bag would not contain the money?” she asked him. “He gave Kriskov a little over a day to raise two million American dollars in cash. Why didn’t he give him more time? Raising that much would be difficult, if not impossible.”
“Our man didn’t know that,” said Sasha. “He just thought Kriskov was a millionaire movie producer with big backers. Why would he want Kriskov to fail to raise the money?”
“I don’t know,” she said, facing Sasha. “Maybe he just wants an excuse for killing our movie producer.”
“And the negatives?” asked Sasha.
“I don’t know,” said Elena. “I think we should talk to Porfiry Petrovich.”
When the boy was waving his arms in Timiryazevsky Park, Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov was in an aisle seat near the front of the airplane. He was reading a tattered paperback of Ed McBain’s
Rostnikov was aware of several things on the airplane as they headed for St. Petersburg, but these things did not stop him from enjoying the book, though it was the third time he had read it.
He was aware of his son, Iosef, seated next to him at the window, looking out at dark clouds below, chin resting on one hand, thinking of something important, something about which he had to make a decision. Porfiry Petrovich was aware of the vibrations of the plane and the hum of the jet engines. He was aware of conversation among the hundred or so other passengers behind them. But foremost in his awareness was the man seated fourteen rows back, on the aisle. It was the same man who had been in the crowd looking at the body of the murdered cosmonaut. The man was even carrying an umbrella, probably the same one he had when he looked up at “window the night before.
“Iosef,” he said, putting the book in his lap and using his hands to move his leg.
His son turned to him and pulled slowly out of his musing. “Yes.”
“I have a game I wish to play with you. A game I played with the same Elena Timofeyeva about whom you were thinking just now. We played it when we were on a plane to Cuba.”
Iosef nodded and shifted to face his father. The young man’s handsome face, the male version of his mother, was now focused.
“What is the single most interesting thing about the people on this flight?”
Iosef smiled. “The lady, the one with the wig, four rows behind us at the window. She keeps looking back through the window, back toward Moscow, as if something or someone is following her. I would guess that she is right. Since she is no beauty, I would guess that it is not a lover. I would guess that she is running away with something of value. It would be interesting to talk to her.”
“Very interesting to talk to her,” agreed. Porfiry Petrovich. “Anything else?”
Iosef’s smile broadened. “The man with the umbrella who is following us,” said Iosef. “The one in the crowd at Lermontov’s house. Do I pass the test?”
“Tell me more about the man.”
“Well,” said Iosef. “He is almost as tall as I am, not as heavy. His clothes are adequate but not expensive. His face is the face of hundreds we pass in the street every day. He is bland, not the least bit sinister. A quick glance would lead one to the conclusion that he worked in a bank or office, low-level, a dull man.”
“In short?” asked Porfiry Petrovich.
“In short,” Iosef continued, “a good appearance for an assassin. A young woman with a baby, a very old man who needed a cane to walk, an overweight babushka with pink cheeks carrying a string shopping bag, they would be even better for the task, but he will do.”
Rostnikov reached over and patted his son’s cheek. “And what shall we do with him?” he asked.
“For now? Nothing, but when you do decide to confront him, I would like very much to squeeze fear and a groan of agony from him.”
“That may be possible, but I don’t think it will be a good idea.”
“I know,” said Iosef. “It is a fantasy. I am learning to live with my fantasies.”
“Have you read this book?”
Iosef looked at the paperback. His English was not as good as his father’s but it was adequate.
“Here, try it,” said Rostnikov.
“You are reading it.”
“I have read it. Besides, I have work to do.”
Iosef was not particularly fond of mystery stories, but he had brought nothing with him to read. He accepted the offer, and his father shifted and awkwardly removed his pad of paper from his inner jacket pocket.
Iosef began to read and Porfiry Petrovich began to draw.
There was a mischief in Rostnikov. It had come before. On occasion, it had yielded interesting results for him and others. On other occasions, it had gotten him into trouble. But it was an urge he had trouble resisting.
He got out his mechanical pencil with the eraser, clicked once to make the lead come out just a bit more, and began to draw.
“Boris Adamovskovich, you are under arrest,” said Emil Karpo.
“What?” asked the scientist, looking up, mouth open, at the two unsmiling inspectors.
“On suspicion of murder in the death of Sergei Bolskanov,” Karpo continued.
The office was not large. Adamovskovich rose from behind his desk, computer screen alive with numbers behind him. He looked from Zelach to Karpo with disbelief.
“I did not kill him,” Adamovskovich said with his right hand on his heart.
“There is blood on your shoes, the blood of the victim.”
“On my shoes? Blood? Sergei Bolskanov’s blood? No. No. That isn’t possible. Someone put it there. People here are jealous of my success.”
“We have heard that you were jealous of Bolskanov’s success,” said Karpo flatly.
“No, nonsense … well, maybe a slight bit of envy, but we all … I didn’t kill him. We weren’t even interested in the same research.”
“We shall see,” said’ Karpo. “Please come with us. If we are in error, you will be given a letter of apology.”
“I need to finish what … I am in the middle. I’ll save it and turn off my computer.”
Nothing else was said inside the office. Adamovskovich turned off the computer, looked around, patted his pockets to see if he might be forgetting something, and followed Zelach and Karpo into the bright white corridor.
Nadia Spectorski was the only one in the hall.
“I didn’t do this, Nadia,” Adamovskovich said.
She looked at him and smiled knowingly.
“Someone is making me take the blame,” he said, following Karpo and Zelach.
About halfway down the hall, Nadia called, “Wait. Please. Inspector Zelach, can you give me just half an hour?”
“No,” he said.
“The director has called your director, Yaklovev,” she said. “Director Yaklovev said that you are to cooperate with us, cooperate fully.”
Karpo had stopped and so had the bewildered Adamovskovich. Zelach adjusted his glasses and looked to Karpo for help.
“I have to help take the suspect in,” he said.
“I expect no trouble,” said Karpo. “Stay, then join me at Petrovka.”
Karpo led the scientist down the hall, and Zelach stood facing the diminutive Nadia Spectorski. He wondered if he could possibly outwit her. He very much doubted it.
Kiro-Stovitsk, eighty miles west of St. Petersburg, was little more than a village. It lay in a vast plain of bleak cold winters and summers that were either too dry or too wet. The two hundred and forty people of the town were either potato farmers or made a meager living selling to or working for farmers.
For more than a thousand years, Kiro-Stovitsk had been relatively undisturbed by the outside world. During World War II, the Germans had not bothered with the town or not known it was there. That did not mean that the people of Kiro-Stovitsk had not fought and died. Half of the men, all between the ages of sixteen and fifty-five, had gone off to fight. All but six of the eighty-seven men had died. There was a cemetery a short walk from the edge of town. It was marked by small headstones. Some of the headstones were for those who died in the war, though their bodies were not here below the ground.
Food had always been scarce. The people of Kiro-Stovitsk had lived mainly on their own potatoes and what little they could get for trading those potatoes. Cash was almost nonexistent. It had been a barter economy, even with Alexander Podgorny, who ran the store and the tractor-repair shop behind it. Podgorny, his father before him, and generations before that of the family, had owned the store, which stocked meager supplies of clothing, food, tools, a few items of furniture, and Pepsi-Cola in a large blue cooler. The Russian Orthodox church, the tallest building in the town, a solid structure of red stone built by farmers more than a century ago, had served as the town meeting hall in the years of the revolution. Five years ago, a pair of priests with a small group of servants and a single nun had come to the town to reclaim the church, but the people had no heart for the enterprise. The men, women, and children did not wish to give up their town hall, which had become not only the meeting center but the communal gathering place where people came to gossip, drink tea and coffee, play chess, make plans.
Only a small handful of people had come to the services and none had volunteered to bring the church back to its former state. An attempt was made by the priests and the nun to gather donations to buy icons, but it failed. After almost two years, the priests had declared that the town was not ready for God, and they had left vowing to return when the mother church told them the time was right and God had entered the hearts of the ignorant farmers who had for too long been under the oppressive spell of Communism.
Boris Vladovka and the people of the town of Kiro-Stovitsk knew the priests were wrong. Whether it was the church or government or a political party, the people of the town wanted no part of it. The church might well return. The government would grow increasingly corrupt and, if they felt it was profitable, appointed officials would set up an office and try to take a piece of the town’s small profits. Something calling itself Communism might even return, but the people were determined to survive. History had long since proved that they could.
When the commune farms had been disbanded and the land given to the people who had been tenants of nobles, kulaks, small landlords, and corrupt Communist commissars, most of the people had been frightened. They had no experience selling potato crops. They could not afford their own machinery. They prepared themselves for starvation.
But Boris Vladovka had reluctantly stepped forward. Boris, father of Konstantin the farmer and Tsimion the cosmonaut, had suggested that the farmers of Kiro-Stovitsk enter into a partnership, pool their meager money, buy two ancient trucks, and have Boris and Konstantin drive to the markets of St. Petersburg and sell the crops to one of the new dealers who had stepped in to serve as brokers for restaurants, the new supermarkets, and the growing number of hotels and clubs throughout Russia and beyond its borders.
Boris did not make the town wealthy, but as long as the weather did not destroy an annual crop, he did bring in enough for the people to live without fear of starvation or even hunger.
Boris was the unofficial mayor of Kiro-Stovitsk, a sixty-year-old patriarch of the entire grateful town, a town that had little to be proud of outside of Boris’s cosmonaut son.
In the center of the town’s only street there was a war memorial, a simple, six-foot-high weather-pocked concrete obelisk with the names of the eighty-one who had died fighting the Germans chiseled carefully into its surface. Many of the names on the obelisk were Vladovka, Dersknikov, and Laminski. The town, like hundreds across Russia, had been inbred for as far back as anyone could remember and farther back than that.
Kiro-Stovitsk was now a town of the very young and the very old. The young left, most of them as soon as they were able. They left with dreams of becoming business successes or cosmonauts like their most famous citizen. A few of them had returned, disillusioned, carrying a wisdom of the outer world that had drained a bit of life from them.
Most of the people of the town lived in the small farms well beyond the edge of the wooden buildings on the main street. Over the centuries, the farms and village buildings had been propped up, rebuilt, and reinforced so many times that there was no real sense of what they had been originally.
The wind blew hard enough in winter to knock a man from a tractor or lift a child into the air. But this was summer. It was hot and humid and the heavy clouds brought rain. It was a good season.
Into this town drove Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov and Iosef Rostnikov in a ten-year-old tan Ford Mustang provided by the security staff by order of General Snitkonoy, head of Hermitage security and former director of the Office of Special Investigation. The general had not forgotten his debt to Inspector Rostnikov for helping to make his reputation. Not only had he provided a car but a driver too, a driver who had been born in the town to which they were going.
The driver, a very thin, talkative young man with a red face, named Ivan Laminski, wore a blue summer uniform and cap. The uniform was clean and the buttons polished. Ivan occasionally returned to Kiro-Stovitsk to show off his uniform and talk of his responsibilities in the city. Ivan was close to having saved enough money to buy his own car so he could return more often to his brothers, sisters, father and mother, and friends.
Ivan told the two detectives from Moscow about the town, its past and present.
“I don’t think Tsimion Vladovka has come back here more than once or twice,” said Ivan, looking at the two detectives in his rearview mirror. “Once, when his mother was sick with some problem, liver, gallbladder, he took her into town and used his influence to get her an operation. I think he came again but I don’t know if there was a reason. That was a few years back. I doubt if anyone in town knows where he is if he is missing.”
The road was not paved, but it was not particularly bumpy.
In his rearview mirror, Ivan watched the older policeman, the one built like a block of stone, listen and look out of the window. There was little to see but open fields of weeds and an occasional farm. The other policeman, the younger one, listened to Ivan, nodded at appropriate times, knowing he could be seen in the mirror, and occasionally asked a question.
“There it is,” said Ivan, pointing a little off to the right.
“Your great-grandfather came from a town like this one,” said the older policeman to the younger.
The younger policeman looked through the front window at the cluster of small buildings ahead of them.
“You are sure they are not expecting us?” Rostnikov asked the driver.
“They are not,” said Ivan.
“You are certain?” asked Rostnikov.
“I … well, who knows?” said Ivan. “But I don’t think so.”
Ivan was soon proved wrong.
When they drove down the street, a few dozen people stood in front of the stores and former church. There were five cars and two pickup trucks parked on the concrete street, which had no sidewalk. Ivan pulled the car to a stop next to the general store and beside the memorial obelisk.
The day was dark and damp as the Rostnikovs got out of the car. Ivan got out quickly and moved to a group of people, hugging first a narrow woman of about fifty and then some other men and women. Porfiry Petrovich and Iosef stood waiting while Ivan completed his greetings and basked briefly in the admiration of his family and friends. He was probably the second most successful of the sons who had left the town.
“Inspector Rostnikov, this is Alexander Podgorny.”
A heavy man took a step forward and extended his hand. The man had a large belly, a knowing smile, and a crop of white hair brushed straight back and whispered by the slight wind.
“And,” said Rostnikov, “this is my son, Inspector Iosef Rostnikov.”
Podgorny shook Iosef’s hand and stepped back.
The small crowd was silent, watching.
“Our meeting hall is inside,” said Podgorny. “We can go in and talk, or go to my home.”
“The meeting hall will be fine,” said Rostnikov, following Podgorny, trying to remain steady on his insensate leg.
Behind them the people who had stood on the street waiting for the arrival of the important visitors filed in after them. A table and chairs had been set up on the small platform where priests and party officials had once stood. Podgorny ushered the Moscow detectives to the table, where they sat.
An audience began filling the folding chairs facing the platform. Ivan the driver was not sure whether he should be on the platform at the table or in the audience. He opted for the audience and sat between the man and woman who Porfiry Petrovich assumed were his parents.
“You are looking for Tsimion,” said the fat man, whose eyes were very dark and moving from one to the other of the detectives.
“We are looking for information on where we might find him. We believe that he may be in great danger,” said Rostnikov, folding his hands. He had done his best to sit without looking awkward. He had done well but not perfectly.
Podgorny sat on one end of the table. Iosef and his father sat behind it, facing the audience. Iosef expected that when Podgorny was finished, the people before them would begin asking questions.
“You have made a long trip for nothing,” Podgorny said sadly. “We know nothing of Tsimion or where he might be. We wish that we did. If he is in danger, we would like to help him. But … we know nothing.”
“He has a father, a brother, and a mother,” said Rostnikov. “We would like to talk to them.”
Podgorny shook his head sadly. “Unfortunately, they are working today,” he said. “And as I said, they have heard nothing from Tsimion. We would like to offer you a meal, show you what little there is to see of our town, and then have Ivan drive you back to St. Petersburg.”
“That is very kind of you,” said Rostnikov. “We will accept the meal and the tour, but since we have come this far, I would like to talk to Tsimion Vladovka’s family. I am sure Ivan Laminski knows the way to their farm.”
“That will not be necessary,” said a man about “age, rising from the back of the small hall. “I am Boris Vladovka.”
The man was wearing a dark-green shirt with the sleeves rolled up. His work pants were dark with stains of white potato dust. He was average in height, lean, with tightly muscled, veined arms. He was dark from years of the sun.
Next to Vladovka sat a younger man with a beard.
“This is my son Konstantin, Tsimion’s brother.”
His son, arms folded across his chest, was dressed like his father, though his face was not as dark. Konstantin nodded, his face serious. He did not rise. An older woman, who looked frightened, took Konstantin’s hand. The conclusion was simple. This was the wife of Boris and the mother of Vladimir and Konstantin.
“Shall we talk here or somewhere? …” Rostnikov began.
“Here,” interrupted Boris emphatically. “We are a family, all of us. The entire town. We have no secrets from each other.”
“I believe that,” said Rostnikov, “but do you have secrets from the rest of the world?”
Something touched the rugged face of Boris Vladovka, but just for an instant.
“All families have secrets,” said Boris. “They are no business of those outside. They are of no interest to those outside. If you have questions, ask. We will do our best to answer. And then we will ask you to leave.”
“Perhaps we will leave after we eat and have a tour of your town,” said Rostnikov. “Perhaps we will remain till tomorrow. We’ve had a long trip.”
“Yes,” said Boris, still standing.
“Do you know where your son Tsimion is?” asked Rostnikov.
“No,” said Boris.
“Do you know where he might be?” asked Rostnikov.
“No,” said Boris.
“I wish to ask the same question of your wife and son,” said Rostnikov.
“They will tell you the same thing,” said Boris.
“I expect so,” said Rostnikov with a smile. “It is not a matter of what they say, but how they say it. So …”
The bearded man seated next to Boris Vladovka gently removed the hand of the older woman from his and stood up. He was as tall as his father, a bit fuller of body.
“My brother is dead,” the man said.
The older woman began to cry. She was comforted by a pleasant-looking woman at her side.
“You are certain?” asked Rostnikov.
“We talked on the phone last week. I spoke to my brother,” the man said. “He said he was dying. I asked for information. He gave me none. He asked me to take care of our parents, our family. I told him I would. My brother is dead.”
There was a certainty and sadness in the voice of the bearded man that convinced Rostnikov of his sincerity. But though Tsimion Vladovka may have been convincing on the telephone, he may not have been telling the truth.
Rostnikov looked at the faces of those before him. They sat in clear anticipation, waiting to be questioned, waiting for the eyes of the detectives from Moscow to fall on them. Rostnikov looked at his son and it was clear that Iosef had seen the same look.
“I must do my job,” said Rostnikov with a sigh. “Boris Vladovka, if we can have a few minutes with you and your family, and perhaps a word or two with some of your neighbors, I think we will be able to leave quickly and file our report. My mission, however, is to find your son, to find him alive or dead. You understand?”
“I understand,” said Boris, looking down.
Rostnikov turned his eyes to Boris’s surviving son.
“I understand,” said Konstantin.
Podgorny rose now, not sure of what he should say or do.
“A meal has been prepared in my house,” he said. “If the Vladovkas would join us…”
“We will,” said Konstantin, putting his hand on his fathers shoulder.
“Then …” Podgorny began as the door at the back of the room opened and a small boy came in, looking around. He spotted Boris and ran to him. Everyone in the room waited while the boy whispered to the farmer, who bent over to listen. The boy stopped and Boris stood and said, “We have another visitor.”
“A man with an umbrella,” said Rostnikov.
“Yes,” said Boris suspiciously.
“Perhaps we should all go out and give him the greeting you were all kind enough to give to me and my son,” said Rostnikov, getting up a bit awkwardly.
Iosef had not strapped on his holster. His gun lay in the suitcase in the back of the Mustang. He expected no trouble, but he would cut short the greeting and get Ivan to open the trunk as soon as possible.