Valery Grachev had not arrived at work today. And, Sasha and Elena quickly discovered, he was not at home. No one was at home. They had gotten the landlady to open the door to the apartment where Valery lived with his uncle. They found no film negative, but they did find books on chess, eight of them.
“You are sure this is the man?” Elena asked as they stood outside the door of the apartment.
“I don’t have to be sure,” said Sasha. “We find him, bring him in, and let the beggar woman identify him. The man in the drawing is one of the assistant editors who works for Yuri Kriskov. I saw him when I posed as the French producer.”
The only question for Sasha now was whether they would find Grachev before he decided to destroy the negative.
At this point, they did not know that they were already too late to stop him from destroying Yuri Kriskov. When they left the apartment, Grachev was already setting himself up to fire his first shot.
They had arrived in a motor-pool Lada with bad brakes. Elena, who was by far the better driver of the two, had picked up the vehicle and now was driving it to the house of Yuri Kriskov. They were no more than half a mile from their destination when the first shot was fired.
Elena stepped on the gas as more shots were fired. Sasha opened his window and saw a glint in the window of a house two streets away from the Kriskov’s. It could have been a … another shot. The object in the window caught the early-morning sun again and jerked upward.
“Let me out here, now,” said Sasha. “You go to the house.”
Elena hit the faulty brakes and the car skidded to the side of the street, almost turning back in the direction from which they had come. Sasha was out of the car before it had quite stopped. He kicked the door closed behind him and took his gun from the holster inside his unzipped jacket as he moved.
He crouched low as Elena stepped on the gas behind him and headed for the Kriskov house. There were more shots now, and he was sure they were coming from that window.
Sasha got behind the house and made his way through a waist-high growth of wild bushes. His left hand was scratched by something sharp and he thought he might be bleeding but he didn’t look. His eyes were fixed on the back of the house and the motor scooter parked next to the rear door.
As he stepped into the clearing, gun in two hands, knees slightly bent, the back door of the house suddenly opened. They saw each other at the same moment and hesitated. Sasha fired first. Valery Grachev fired next. Grachev’s weapon was far more powerful and had great range and accuracy, but Sasha was a policeman who had been shot at before and who had shot at others.
Sasha’s bullet went into Valery Grachev’s left shoulder. Grachev’s entered the ground in front of Sasha, who dropped to his stomach and rolled to his left. When he had rolled back to his right and leveled his weapon, he saw Grachev on the motor scooter, rifle in his hand. Sasha fired again. The bullet hit the front fender of the scooter just in front of Valery. The bullet made a strange
Sasha got to his feet and ran toward the now-moving scooter. He stopped, aimed, and fired again as Grachev started to speed away. This shot hit nothing and Grachev was gone. Sasha was certain he had hit Grachev with his first shot. He ran to the door and examined the ground quickly. Blood, yes, blood.
Sasha put his weapon back in the holster, moved quickly around the house, and headed for Kriskov’s. As he crossed the small street and ran around another house, he saw two men in front of him, two men in uniforms, both with weapons, both aiming at the panting Sasha.
“Police,” Sasha tried to shout, holding his hands in the air.
“What do we do?” one of the men asked the other.
“Shoot him,” said the second.
“But if he is the police?”
“Shit,” said the second. “He shot at us first. He’s our man. He was rushing to finish the job. Shoot.”
The first security guard was leveling his Kalishnikov rifle at Sasha, who knew what he would have to do. He would leap to one side, try to pull out his gun, and attempt to fire at the two men as he hit the ground. He knew he would fail. They were only thirty feet ahead of him. They didn’t even have to be good shots.
“Stop. Now. Or you both die,” came a calm voice.
Sasha looked beyond the two men at Elena, who held her weapon level, pointed at the backs of the two security guards.
The two guards stood, still aiming at Sasha.
“Drop your weapons or die,” said Elena. “I am the police. He is the police. Drop them.”
The two men didn’t move. They exchanged glances that told Sasha they didn’t intend to drop their weapons. The question was which one would kill Sasha and which would turn and fire blindly in the direction of Elena’s voice.
Before they could make their move, Elena fired. Her bullet struck the wooden wall of the nearby house no more than a foot from one of the two guards.
Both men dropped their weapons.
“A man we were guarding has been shot,” said one of the men. “We thought you were the shooter.”
Sasha advanced on the two men, weapon now in his hand. Elena moved forward from behind.
“He got away,” said Sasha. “That is all you need to know.”
“Kriskov’s dead,” Elena said as Sasha picked up the automatic weapons and awkwardly cradled them in his arms while still holding his own pistol.
One of the security guards shook his head.
When they were in front of the Kriskov house, Sasha dropped the guns. The two security guards turned around to pick them up. Another security guard came running out of the house, weapon ready. He recognized Elena, who had been there only minutes before, and lowered his gun.
“I hit him, Elena,” Sasha said. “He is hurt, bleeding. He’s on a motor scooter, carrying a rifle. I’ll call it in. He should be very easy to spot.”
“Are you all right, Sasha Tkach?” Elena asked as they moved through the front door.
Sasha had to think about it for a moment. He had almost been killed, twice or more in the last few minutes, and yet he felt calm. He looked at his hands. They were shaking.
“No, I am not all right.”
Sasha went to the phone, and Elena spoke briefly to one of the security guards. Then she moved to Vera Kriskov, who was seated on the white sofa, hugging herself and rocking forward and back. She was covered with blood, her face, hands, dress, hair. The white sofa was dabbed with red. Her head was down and she was sobbing.
“He’s dead,” she said, looking up at Elena.
Elena could not tell if the woman was acting or was sincere. She seemed sincere. The tears and terror seemed real.
“Where is he?” Elena asked gently.
“Where? Upstairs. In the bedroom,” Vera said.
“No, not your husband. The man who shot him, Valery Grachev.”
Vera Kriskov stopped rocking and looked up at Elena. “Where is he?”
Vera Kriskov’s eyes showed panic. She was thinking, thinking quickly. No matter what she said, Elena was now certain of the woman’s guilt.
“I don’t know any Valery Grostov,” she said. “What are you talking about?”
She was good, but Elena was now certain that she was watching a combination of shock, grief, and performance.
“Grachev. My partner shot him,” Elena said. “He will be caught soon. But he might hurt more people. He might destroy the negatives.”
“I don’t care about negatives,” shouted Vera. “My husband is dead. Find the man who killed him. Shoot him down like a rabid rat in the street.”
The two security guards in the room and Sasha at the phone looked over at the shouting woman.
Vera looked at the head security guard, the one who had rushed into the bedroom. “You hear me,” Vera shouted, standing, her hair tumbling across her face. “I’ll pay ten thousand new rubles to the person who kills the man who murdered my husband. Twenty thousand.”
Elena folded her arms and waited as Vera looked at Sasha and the two security officers. Then the two women faced each other.
“If we find the negatives,” Elena said softly. “If Grachev kills no one else, I will ask my superior to do what he can for you. But first you must tell me where Grachev is.”
“I don’t know any Grachev,” Vera said.
Sasha was standing next to Elena now. He heard the widow’s words and paused till he was sure there was an impasse.
“The roads are being watched,” he said. “A helicopter is circling the Outer Ring and another is following the road from here back to the center of the city. A wounded man on a motor scooter carrying a rifle will be easy to spot.”
“My husband is dead,” Vera moaned, her eyes now meeting Sasha’s, searching for sympathy. “How do I tell the children? My two precious children.”
“My wife has left me,” he answered. “With my two children.”
Elena looked at him. It was definitely not the thing to say in the situation. Sasha’s eyes were moist. His hair had fallen over his forehead.
“I’m sorry,” said Vera, reaching out to touch Sasha’s arm. “There is so much I’m sorry for.”
“And,” said Elena, “if we don’t find Grachev soon, there may be much more for you to be sorry for.”
As soon as he had been sure that there was no one directly behind, following him, Valery had pulled off the Outer Ring onto Tverska, down Tverska a mile, and into a stand of trees to his right. He had hidden the motor scooter, buried the rifle with leaves and dirt, and headed toward the complex of tall gray apartment buildings a few hundred yards on the other side of the trees.
The wound was bleeding and his shoulder throbbing. He took off his thin jacket and pressed it against his left shoulder. Was the bullet still in there? Was he bleeding to death? Valery did not know. He moved on, searching for something, someone. The game should have been over. He had killed the king but he had then been shot by a pawn. The queen was back in that house. She was waiting for him to claim her. Valery was sweating, feverish. From the wound? From whatever illness had entered him the day before? From both? He had been feverish before he had broken into that house when the people who lived there had driven away just after dawn. He had been feverish looking out the window, waiting for Kriskov to step out or appear at the window.
The security guards didn’t bother him. He would be gone before they had time to react. He had planned this well. Move by move. But somehow that young one, probably about Valery’s age, had been there almost immediately, outside the rear door, shooting at him. It made no sense. The policeman’s appearance had been a move he had not anticipated by whatever fate was playing against him, a fate that told him the game was not over even though the king was dead.
There were children playing outside the nearest tall building. These were not the homes of the wealthy but of those who worked and those who did not or could not. Laundry hung on lines from many of the windows, hung from one window to the next. He moved toward the children and saw a group of women, one with a baby carriage in front of her, sitting on a bench and talking. On another bench an old man sat, eyes closed, a workman’s cap on his head, an unlit pipe in his mouth. He appeared to be dozing.
The woman didn’t pay much attention to Valery, who had slung his jacket over his shoulder to hide the wound and forced his legs to move normally. He approached the old man on the bench and sat next to him, biting back the pain and fever.
For the women across the concrete square where small boys had moved to kick a sickly-looking soccer ball, Valery smiled as he spoke to the old man, trying to give the impression that they knew each other.
The old man, startled, opened his eyes and looked at Valery.
“I need something from you,” Valery said, still smiling, putting his arm around the old man. “I’ll pay.”
“I have nothing,” the old man said, looking at Valery as if he were mad, which, Valery admitted to himself, he might at this point be. “I have only a corner in my son’s apartment and this bench when the weather permits and no one comes to sit next to me.”
“One hundred and fifty new rubles,” Valery said. “You bring me a shirt, two shirts, and tell me how I get back to the city, and I give you one hundred and fifty new rubles.”
“You killed someone,” the old man said.
“If you didn’t kill someone, why are you offering me all that money for two shirts?”
“I killed no one,” Valery said with a laugh. “I’m playing a game. Like a game of chess with some friends of mine. They are trying to find me.”
“I worked on the railroad,” said the old man, spitting on a crack in the concrete in front of him and looking up to watch the soccer game before him. “You are lying. But I need two hundred rubles.”
“I said … yes, two hundred rubles, when you get back with the shirts and tell me where I can catch a bus or find a metro station or a train.”
The old man nodded and said, “Wait.”
The old man rose and walked toward the nearest apartment building.
Valery did his best to look like a man who had nothing to do but smile, spread his arms along the back of the bench, and watch the children play. He wiped his brow. It was drenched and hot. He would use one shirt to cover the wound as best he could and the other to wear over … The man who had shot him.
He knew the man who had shot him. It was the one Yuri Kriskov had brought to the editing room, the French producer. It made no sense. Why had a French producer been behind that building with a gun? Because he was not a French producer. He was the police. If he was the police, he knew that Valery had shot Yuri Kriskov and he would then know that Valery had the negative.
Valery could not go home.
Valery could not go anywhere.
But there had to be a move. Bargain with the negative? Vera, could she help? No, she would be surrounded by the police. He would have to protect her. He was her protector, Kon. They were attacking. He was, yes, now he was the king.
A helicopter spun overhead against the sun. Valery and the women and some of the children looked up, shading their eyes, and watched it follow the road beyond the trees.
Were they looking for him? Probably.
Valery closed his eyes. When he opened them, the old man had returned with two shirts. The women beyond the soccer game looked at the two men and wondered about the shirts. Was this a relative? It really didn’t matter.
The old man handed him the shirts and sat exactly where he had before.
The shirts were old, frayed, both a faded blue. They looked as if they might fit, but Valery wouldn’t know until he tried them on. No matter. They would have to do. Hiding the pain as best he could, Valery took out his wallet and found two hundred rubles. That left him with very little.
The old man reached for the bills. Valery held them tight and pulled them back. The women looked at the odd exchange taking place and wondered again.
“Transport,” said Valery as the soccer ball sailed over their heads and small boys ran to retrieve it.
“On the other side of the buildings,” the old man said, pointing at the buildings. “A bus stop. One will be there in …”
The old man took out a pocket watch.
“… in sixteen minutes, if it is on time. You know I used to work on the railroad.”
He reached for the money again and Valery let him take it.
“Do you play chess?” asked Valery.
“Everyone plays chess,” the old man replied, pocketing the money and digging his pipe out of his pocket.
“What do you do if you are trapped? You have no place to go. All you can do is buy a little time but you are bound to lose.” Valery rose and looked down at the old man, who cupped a hand over the brim of his cap to block the sun as he looked up at Valery.
“What do I do? I attack. Suicidal, my son and grandson call it. Grandfather is suicidal again. Grandfather doesn’t know when to quit. I attack, do something bold, take out an attacker even if it means ending the game five moves earlier than is essential. I do not concede. I do not tip over my king. You know why? Because I used to work on the railroad.”
“Tell no one of me,” said Valery. “They might take the money from you.”
“I’ll tell no one. My son could have worked on the railroad. Instead, he sells fish at the market. At least he has work.”
Valery made a show of shaking the old man’s hand and patting him on the shoulder.
The old man was a bit mad perhaps, but, Valery decided as he walked, so am I. And his advice had been good. There would be no concession. If he were to lose the game, it would be with panache. It would be with a flurry of ribbons and a shout over Moscow.
Tsimion Vladovka did not protest, did not grow angry, did not laugh and say that the block of a policeman who stood before him was insane or mistaken. Instead he wiped his hands on his pants and said, “What now?”
“Here?” asked Tsimion, looking around.
“Yes, I like it here,” said Rostnikov.
“So do I, and we can see anyone approaching for more than two hundred yards in any direction. We are alone.”
“What happened to your brother?”
“Konstantin had been sick for more than a year,” the man said, looking toward the farmhouse. “Liver cancer. I sent money so he could go to St. Petersburg for treatment. He went a few times. My father called, told me Konstantin was dying. I knew sooner or later they would decide to kill me, so I came here, I came home. I didn’t plan to stay, take my brothers life. It was my father’s idea.”
“A good one,” said Rostnikov, “but it had problems. You and your brother look similar. The beard helps, but the photograph of you that was given to me shows a white mark on the back of your hand. A scar?”
Tsimion looked at his hand. “Yes.”
“I must tell you that the man who calls himself Primazon may have noticed, as I did,” said Rostnikov.
“Then I will have to run,” said Tsimion, with a small sigh and a grunt.
“Not necessarily,” said Rostnikov. “Tell me the secret of that space flight. I will tell my director. He will talk to the proper people, protect you, let you stay here.”
“Why would he do that?” asked Tsimion.
“Because if he knows what happened, my director will be able to use it. Of course he will want you alive to confirm it. He will confront those who mean to kill you and keep them away. He will do it because my director is ambitious.”
“And ambition is a grievous fault,” said Vladovka in English.
“And grievously will he pay for it,” Rostnikov replied in English. And then in Russian said, “but not for a long time, I hope. What happened? Who wants to kill you? Why?”
“It is really very simple,” said Vladovka. “We had a biologist on the flight. Baklunov. He did not react well to life on the space station. He began to talk to himself, behave strangely. We, Kinotskin and I, reported his behavior on the computer safe line. We had no response. Then, one day, Kinotskin came to me while I was in the control pod. Baklunov had gone mad. He was breaking things. He had attacked Kinotskin with a metal bar. Do you know what it is like to have a nightmare come true?”
“I mean almost literally true.”
“Yes,” said Rostnikov.
“I followed Kinotskin through the tunnel into the living area. The chamber was alive with floating debris and hundreds of white worms, fat white worms from Baklunov’s experiments. My nightmare, my precise nightmare, had come true. If I hadn’t had the nightmares, I would have been able to better handle what happened next. We heard the noise in the pod where the air is supplied. The noise of metal against metal and the shouting of Baklunov. We made our way through food, metal, debris, fecal matter, the worms. I have nightmares of that more than what happened next.”
“And that was?” Rostnikov prompted, looking toward the road beyond the farmhouse where a vehicle was moving quickly, sending up dust.
Vladovka’s eyes followed Rostnikov’s. He paused, and then continued his story. “When we entered the chamber, Baklunov attacked with the metal bar. He hit my hand. Blood splattered. Droplets floated. That is the reason for the scar.”
Tsimion Vladovka paused again and continued, “We killed him. Kinotskin took the bar. I grabbed Baklunov from behind. He was ranting, spitting. I was angry. I had him around the neck. I choked him. He struggled. Kinotskin had the bar now. He began hitting Baklunov in the ribs, in the face. I kept choking, thinking that I would have to go back through those fat floating worms because of this madman. The blood didn’t bother me. I know blood. It is life. It is not something to fear. It is something to regret losing. You understand?”
“I understand,” said Rostnikov.
The vehicle, whatever and whoever it was, was now driving up to the Vladovka farmhouse.
“I’m not sure which of us killed him,” Tsimion continued. “It doesn’t matter. We both murdered him. The first murder in outer space, followed by the first burial in space. We sent him into eternity to cover our crime. For you see, we did not have to kill him. But we did. I have considered it many times. We could have subdued him, but we were in a chamber of madness, in a state of instant delirium. We didn’t check with ground control. We simply put the body in a chamber and released it into space. We didn’t watch. We spent hours cleaning up after we disposed of the body. Horrible hours. Nightmare hours. No one has experienced what we have. May no one have to again.”
A man was now running through the field toward them.
“We were told to say nothing,” Tsimion continued. “We were told that we would be brought back to earth immediately, that those who were coming for us would know what had happened. We were told that we were to act as if there had been a minor problem on the station and that all three of us were coming down. We had solved the problem. We were space heroes. The three of us were coming down. We were told that our space program did not have enough money. Our national pride was at stake during difficult political times, but when are there not difficult political times? We came down. We were silent. Kinotskin took it harder than I did. His career, his ambition, were gone. He grew gaunt and became a hollow man. And they thought about it, thought, as I knew they someday would, that we might decide to tell what happened, tell of the cover-up. They decided to kill us all. Those who came to bring us back to earth, and both of us.”
“Why did you want me to be told of what happened on that flight? Why did you call my name?”
Tsimion Vladovka shook his head. “I made a mistake.”
“A mistake?” asked Porfiry Petrovich.
“I was in a panic. I had heard your name in relation to some political situation a few years ago, but I really wanted to call out the name of my friend Peotor Rosnishkov. In my panic …”
“… you called out my name.”
Tsimion Vladovka shrugged. Rostnikov smiled.
“You have a weapon?” Tsimion was looking at the man running toward them.
“No,” said Rostnikov. “You?”
A moment later it was clear to Vladovka as it had been minutes ago to Rostnikov that a weapon would not be necessary, at least not at that moment. The man running toward them was Iosef. When he was a dozen paces in front of them, he stopped, breathing hard.
“The man who called himself Primazon,” Iosef said. “He came into the house. He asked where Konstantin was. Boris spoke to him. I couldn’t hear, then Boris killed him. Before I could act, he had reached up and snapped his neck.”
Tsimion Vladovka started toward the house. Rostnikov stopped him, gripping the bearded man with a solid grasp of his arm. Vladovka tried to pull away, grabbed “wrist and tried to free himself. He could not.
“We must think,” said Rostnikov. “Pause and think. You understand?”
Tsimion stopped struggling and Rostnikov released his grip before saying, “The driver, Laminski, did he see? Where was he?”
“He was outside, at the car. When I came out of the house and started running to tell you, he asked me what was happening. I told him to get inside the car and wait. I ordered him to get inside the car. He did.”
“Who else was there, in the house, when this happened?”
“We three were the only ones in the room,” said Iosef.
The three men stood for a few seconds and then Rostnikov said, “We will walk back to the house very calmly. The three of us. And on the way, we will make a plan, a very good one. I don’t know what it will be at the moment, but it will have to be a very good one.”
“Wait,” said Andrei Vanga, trying his best to think quickly. “My fingerprints are on that disk.”
Both Karpo and the old man, Tikon Tayumvat, looked at the director of the Center for the Study of Technical Parapsychology. The director looked very, very nervous.
“I can explain,” said Vanga.
“Then do so,” said Karpo, holding the disk carefully by the edges.
“I will,” said Vanga.
“Man can’t think on his feet,” Tayumvat said with derision. “No wonder it takes him so long to write a simple second-rate article.”
“I promised Bolskanov that I would not allow anyone to see his private journals,” said Vanga. “We had been working together for a long time, and from time to time he confided in me as I confided in him. You see?”
“I see nothing,” said the old man. “Is this going to take long? I’ll sit down if it’s more than five minutes. Ah, I see. You have no idea how long you are going on. I’ll sit at the desk and watch and listen.”
“Yes, yes,” Vanga went on, holding the fist of his left hand in the palm of his right. “His private diary is on the computer. It is very personal. He-he didn’t want it to be made public if he were to die. I promised that it would never happen, and in return he promised me the same.”
Karpo said nothing, simply stood at attention, disk in hand, watching and listening.
“I keep my promises,” said Vanga.
“And what was in that diary that was so terrible?” said Tayumvat.
“I cannot tell you. You can take my job, put me in prison even, but I am sworn to secrecy.”
“There may well have been something in his diary or in another file that would help us find his murderer. You have willfully destroyed potential evidence,” said Karpo.
Vanga smiled ruefully. “I didn’t think of it that way. I just thought of what I had promised my friend.”
“You are under arrest, Dr. Andrei Vanga,” said Karpo. “For possible concealment of knowledge regarding a murder, and for suspicion of murder.”
“Why? Are you joking? Why would I kill my friend, my colleague?”
Karpo handed the disk to Tayumvat, who took it carefully by the edges, and then Karpo stepped toward Vanga, who backed away.
“Wait, wait,” said Vanga. “What if I were to tell you what secrets he had in his diary, why he didn’t want it seen? What if I did that?”
Karpo paused, and Tayumvat looked up with a smile that showed he anticipated another lie.
“Bolskanov was a homosexual,” said Vanga.
“That’s it?” said Tayumvat. “You can do no better than ‘Bolskanov was a homosexual’?”
“And …” Vanga said, his voice breaking, “and he had committed crimes when he was young, terrible crimes, crimes of which he was very much ashamed. He stole other people’s work, passed it on as his own.”
“A terrible crime,” Tayumvat said with a shake of his head. “Come, Vanga, this has turned into the most interesting human contact I have had in half a century. Don’t disappoint me. Don’t disappoint Inspector Karpo. Tell us more terrible crimes.”
“What and … oh … yes, let me … he murdered someone, many years ago, in … in Lithuania, Kaunas. And in another country.”
“Much better,” said Tayumvat.
“Why?” asked Karpo.
“Why what?” said Vanga.
“Why did he kill these other people?”
“I don’t know. He didn’t tell me.”
“In any case, you are guilty of concealing a murder, possibly several murders,” said Karpo.
“But that was in another country,” said Vanga. “Lithuania is no longer part of greater Russia, which may be good or bad, depending on your politics. But that is another country now and I do not know who he murdered. I think it was a cab driver. No, a-yes, it was a cab driver.”
Vanga looked at Karpo, whose face revealed nothing, and then at Tayumvat, whose face revealed everything in its myriad lines and shadows.
“You don’t believe me,” Vanga said. “You think I am lying.”
“You are under arrest,” said Karpo.
“I stand by what I have told you,” said Vanga indignantly. “I stand by the memory of my best friend and his wishes.”
“But you told us his secrets,” said Tayumvat. “In a bizarre attempt to save yourself, you told us what you had supposedly sworn to destroy. I wash my hands of you. Consistency is essential if one is to propose a scientific theory, especially one who works with the paranormal. You can’t even create a decent lie. I will but guess why you killed Bolskanov. It was you who stole something from him, an article, speech. He caught you. You killed him.”
“I don’t need to steal someone else’s ideas and work,” Vanga said.
“Yes, you do,” said Tayumvat. “You can’t come up with an original thought of your own.”
“I will get a good attorney,” said Vanga. “I will see to it that you, Inspector Karpo, are dismissed from service. I will demand an apology from the highest levels.”
“Karpo,” said Tikon Tayumvat, “at my age I don’t wish to hear rehashed speeches from old television shows. Please, the scene is over. Take me home and take him away.”
And that is just what Emil Karpo did.