Chapter Thirteen

“We will walk back rather slowly,” said Rostnikov to his son and Tsimion Vladovka. “For two reasons. First, I am incapable of moving quickly, and, second, I do not want our driver, Laminski, to think that anything is wrong. I am sure he would prefer that nothing be wrong. Iosef, engage him. Tell Ivan Laminski of your exploits in the theater or in Afghanistan or with women. Smile, listen to him, and reassure him that everything is fine and that we will soon be going to St. Petersburg.”

Iosef nodded as they moved forward through the field. Rostnikov turned his head to Tsimion and said, “And you will come with me. We will talk calmly of farming. I will ask a question. You will answer. And we will improvise if your father comes out of the house.”

“I have grown accustomed to improvising,” said Tsimion.

“I like the smell of freshly harvested potatoes,” said Rostnikov as they cleared the field and neared the farmhouse. Laminski stood waiting. He adjusted his blue uniform as they approached. He said nothing, but there was certainly a look of curiosity in his less-than-brilliant eyes. Iosef moved toward the somewhat bewildered driver.

“What? …” Laminski began.

“I’ll explain,” said Iosef. “I made a mistake. There was no reason for me to go running after Inspector Rostnikov. He had forgotten to take some medication and I wanted to be sure he got it quickly.”

“Are there parts of Russia where potatoes grow better?” asked Porfiry Petrovich, loud enough for the driver to hear them.

“Different, not better necessarily,” said Tsimion. “There are different kinds of potato. In this region …”

And they were inside the door. Tsimion closed it behind them. They found Boris in the kitchen, alone with the corpse. Boris was sitting at the table, looking down at the body of the man who had called himself Primazon. The dead man was sprawled awkwardly, one leg straight, the other bent backwards in an L. He was on his back. His head was turned toward the nearest wall and he was looking upward at a spot where there was nothing to see. His umbrella lay a foot or so away.

Boris looked up at his son and the detective.

“He said he wanted to talk to Konstantin,” Boris said, looking at Rostnikov. “I could see in his eyes that he knew, just as I saw in your eyes that you knew. It was the way he said it. I was certain.”

Rostnikov sat in a chair and motioned to Tsimion to do the same.

“Where are the women, the child?” asked Rostnikov.

“Where? I don’t know. I think they are in my bedroom.”

“Did they see? …” asked Rostnikov.

“I don’t know. I don’t think so,” said Boris.

“My son says they did not.”

“Good,” said Boris.

“I think it would be a good idea for your son to go to them, comfort them, explain that our friend on the floor was here for bad reasons, but that everything will now be fine.”

Tsimion rose, nodded in understanding, and put his hand on his fathers shoulder. Boris put his hand on top of his son’s. And then Tsimion moved toward the bedrooms.

“Money is tight for our government security services,” said Rostnikov. “That umbrella has an ejection button. By pressing it … it is on the handle … by pressing the button, a very thin needle with a very lethal dose of poison pops out. Death is swift and looks like a stroke or a heart attack to all but the best pathologists. It is an effective but rather old means of murder. The Bulgarians used it a great deal. Too much. There are far better ways, but they cost more. And I think our dead Primazon preferred this method. Are you following me, Boris Vladovka?”

“Yes,” he answered, staring at the dead man. “I’ve never killed before.”

“I, on six occasions, have killed,” said Rostnikov. “It was, I believe, necessary in all six of those instances. At least it is what I have told myself. Four of those killed were Nazis during the war.”

“You are too young to have been a soldier,” Boris said.

“I was a boy soldier. There were many of us, some barely ten, some even younger. My leg was injured during the war.”

“You said four Nazis. The other two, the ones you killed?”

“I am a policeman. It happens. I am not proud of what I did, but it was necessary, and like you, Vladovka, I killed one of them with my hands. I believed I had to kill to protect myself and a very small child.”

Boris nodded and said, “And I must kill again. Yes, I must kill you and your son and Laminski and continue to kill every time someone comes to take my son or kill him.”

“I too have but one son, Boris,” said Rostnikov with a sigh. “I am afraid I would have to stop you. Besides, I think there is a better way. Killing us would certainly bring many more policemen here.”

“I see no other way,” said Boris.

“All right, let’s begin with your killing me. If you fail, we will talk about other, more sensible, ways of handling this situation.”

Boris rose from his chair, as did Porfiry Petrovich.

“You want me to kill you?”

“You have to start with someone. Come.”

Boris looked a bit dazed as he moved toward the policeman. Yes, he thought, if I am to protect Tsimion, I must start somewhere.

Vladovka was larger across and certainly taller than Rostnikov, and he had the power of a farmer who had labored all of his life. He reached out for the thick neck of the policeman. Rostnikov grabbed the farmer’s wrists. Boris Vladovka struggled to free himself as his son had only minutes before in the potato field. Boris pushed forward. Both men tripped over the corpse and fell to the floor. Still, Rostnikov held fast. They rolled away from the dead man over the umbrella and into the wall.

Their faces were inches apart. Rostnikov could smell coffee and the bile of fear on the other man’s breath.

“Now we try my way,” Rostnikov said gently as he held the larger man by his shoulders.

“We try your way,” Boris agreed.

“When we get up, rise carefully,” said Rostnikov. “Our dead friend pressed his umbrella button before he died. I think he meant to use it on you when he realized that you were going to kill him.”

Rostnikov let the bigger man free, and Boris moved to his knees.

“Then I would have been the one to die,” the farmer said with resignation.

“If he had used his weapon,” said Rostnikov, trying to sit up, “you would have been dead almost instantly. I would appreciate it if you would help me up. It is difficult …”

“You, oh, of course, I’m sorry.”

Boris stood and held out a hand. Rostnikov took it and with the farmer’s help got to his feet.

“You are very strong,” said Boris, stepping over the dead man and returning to his chair. “Would you like coffee?”

“Coffee,” said Rostnikov, moving back to his chair.

Boris nodded and moved to the stove. He touched the coffeepot.

“It is still very warm, but not hot … Shall I? …”

“No, warm will be fine.”

“Sugar? Milk?”

“Sugar, not too much. If your coffee is strong or bitter, a little milk would be nice.”

Boris nodded, filled a brown mug, dropped in a sugar cube, and went to the refrigerator for the milk.

While he finished preparing the mug of coffee, Rostnikov leaned over, picked up the umbrella, found the button, pressed it, and watched the very thin needle slide noiselessly back into its slot.

Boris brought two mugs to the table, handed one to Rostnikov and took the other.

“What,” asked Rostnikov, after taking a drink of the very strong and not very good coffee, “if our friend here were to be found tonight on a very dark street of a very bad neighborhood in St. Petersburg, beaten to death, neck broken, arm broken, many bruises, perhaps a broken rib, his money taken, his shoes taken, his watch taken, his umbrella taken, his clothes and dignity taken? What if his car were never found? The police would assume the car had been sold to what the Americans call a ‘chop shop.’ Unless the pathologist who examines the body realizes that he was dead before he was beaten, it will be assumed to be a routine mugging and murder. It is unlikely the pathologist, if one is even called in, will have that realization. Do you think our dead man might meet that fate?”

“Yes,” said Boris. “In my sixtieth year, I have become a murderer and will now commit further crimes by concealing that murder like … like a criminal in some French movie.”

“You have seen many French movies?” asked Rostnikov.

“Actually, no, and it has been many years since the last, but I have a good memory.”

“Remember then that Primazon came here to see me. I talked to him and left. Then our very-much-alive man left. In fact, he and I left at the same time. It would be best if many people saw him leaving the district.”

“Many people will swear that they saw him drive away,” said Boris, looking far more alive than when Rostnikov had entered the room.

“Good. Then I will finish my coffee, meet privately with your son, and go home.”

“More will come, won’t they?”

“I will act so that no one will follow,” said Rostnikov. “I cannot guarantee it, but I believe you and your family will be left in peace.”

“And why do you do this?”

“Why? I believe it is what should be done.”

“But you are a policeman and I am a murderer.”

“And I must wake up every morning and say to myself, Porfiry Petrovich, can you live with what you have done with your life so far? Can you live with what you did yesterday? And I wish to be able to answer yes. Now I must talk to your son. As soon as we leave, I suggest you put your dead visitor in the trunk of his car and keep him there till it is dark. I think it best if the women and the child do not see him.”

“They are strong,” said Boris.

“I have seen many dead people,” said Rostnikov. “I would be quite content to see no more and to have never seen the first.”

They stood up yet again. They shook hands, and Rostnikov went in search of Tsimion Vladovka.

Tayumvat rode with Karpo and Vanga to Petrovka. The three sat in the back of the car, Vanga in the middle. The driver whistled a nonsong, and Vanga struggled to find another, better lie. He could think of none.

“This is a mistake,” he said.

“It is not,” said Tayumvat.

The pale policeman looked straight ahead and said, “Before we went to Bolskanov’s apartment, I asked Dr. Tayumvat to look at the files in your computer.”

“You had no right …” Vanga said with indignation.

“I had the right and the obligation, but you may dispute that with the courts and my superiors if you wish,” Karpo replied calmly. “He asked me to look at your paper on dream research. It meant nothing to me. He said he did not believe you had written it, though he could not prove it.”


“Ah, there was one curiosity I have not yet mentioned,” said the old man. “At my age, my memory. The cover page, dedication, and cover letter to a journal meant a great deal. The article itself has two spaces after each period. That is standard. The cover page, dedication, and letter are different. In each of those, and in all of your correspondence and memos, the period is followed by a single space. I would say that the text was written by one person and the cover page with your name on it was written by another, by you. I quickly examined the files of Bolskanov. They all contain documents with two spaces following the period.”

“Dr. Tayumvat also says that the style of the article in question bears little resemblance to your style in other documents in your computer,” said Karpo. “I believe his professional opinion will carry great weight, and I believe others who know of such things will agree with him.”

“I know important people,” said Vanga.

“I knew Einstein,” said Tayumvat. “Met him twice. The first time he smelled of pipe tobacco and asked where he could get good food. That was in Vienna. Why he asked me, I don’t know. What do I know of Vienna?”

Vanga went silent. A lawyer. Yes, he would get a lawyer. A very good lawyer. He would make calls. He would ask for favors. He was a respected scientist, the director of a major research institute.

“It doesn’t matter,” said the old man, looking out the window.

“What doesn’t matter?”

“That you are the director of a respected research institute,” said the old man.

Vanga stared at the old man.

“You read my mind. I thought you didn’t believe in such things.”

“I didn’t read your mind,” said Tikon Tayumvat. “It was the logical thing to think under the circumstances.”

And the logical thing to think now, thought Andrei Vanga, is that I wish you were dead.

“I soon will be,” said the old man, still looking out the window. “But there is a very real chance that you will go first.”

“Try again,” Nadia Spectorski said, sitting across from Zelach in her laboratory, a stack of photographs, facedown, in front of her. “Or, rather, don’t try, just close your eyes and tell me what you see.”

“I would prefer to keep my eyes open,” he said.

“Then open. Do you see anything?”

“You. This room. No more.”

She picked up a photograph and looked at it. It was a white telephone on a black table.

“What am I looking at?”

“A photograph.”

“Of what?”

“I don’t know.”

She adjusted her glasses and Zelach did the same. He would not survive a battle of wits with this woman. I am, he told himself, going to become a test mouse or a monkey doing tricks. No, Porfiry Petrovich will save me from this. He must save me.

“You are supposed to cooperate,” she said evenly.

“I am,” said Zelach, slouching in the chair as best he could.

“Then what is …”

She stopped. It was she who saw two quick, very quick, almost subliminal images. The first was of Andrei Vanga sitting next to Emil Karpo. Vanga was definitely frightened. The second was of her sitting in the office of the director, behind the desk, talking to … someone.

“Are you all right?” asked Zelach.

“Yes,” she said.

“You saw something?”

“Yes. Did you see it?”

“No. Dr. Spectorski, I do not want to do this.”

She sat back, took off her glasses, rubbed her forehead with one finger, and closed her eyes.

“Then,” she said, “it will end.”

When she opened her eyes, Zelach was looking at her in a way few men had done in the past.

“End?” asked Zelach.

“My-if you don’t want to proceed, you should not have to do so. I think you are a good man who doesn’t want to or have to be turned into a research phenomenon.”

“Why have you changed your mind?”

“I don’t know,” she said, removing her glasses and placing them on the table. “May I ask you a question?”


“Would you … I’ve never done anything like this before … would you go out for some coffee and cake with me? I will pay. If you say no, I will understand.”

“I say yes,” said Akardy Zelach. “And can we not talk about … this?” he asked, looking around the room and at the photographs.

“We will talk of other things,” she said with a smile.

Zelach thought she had a most wonderful smile.

Valery Grachev existed no longer. There was only Kon. He had changed his mind after talking to the old man from whom he bought the shirts. He would only truly become a king if he were to survive to claim victory. An attack doomed to defeat had its compensations, but it did not create a king.

The bus, green and slow, made many stops. Each stop was painful. A sudden jerk and stoy, “stop.” And it also hurt when the bus moved again. The bullet, he was sure, was still inside him. He was sure he could feel it. He could certainly imagine it, a small distortion of metal making its way through his blood, finding and jabbing into a pulsing organ.

The bus was not crowded, but it was far from empty. He had moved to the rear, covered his bleeding wound as well as he could, and gripped the top of the empty seat in front of him.

When he finally got off the bus, arms folded in front of him as if he had a chill, he staggered. Soon, he feared, fevered hallucinations would come. They would have to wait. The bus door closed and he knew the driver and the passengers on this side were looking at this young drunk as he moved down the street.

Will yourself to keep moving, he told himself. Your will can carry you through. Your will power. It can be done. You cannot quit before the game is ended.

He couldn’t go home. He couldn’t go to work. He did not have enough money left to buy bandages or a fresh jacket or shirt to cover his wound. And he certainly could not go to a hospital. He went the only place he could.

“You want to buy a bicycle?” the shopkeeper said.

“Yes,” said Valery Grachev.

“I think you’re sick,” said the man, one hand on the wheel of the upside-down bicycle in front of him. “I think you have a fever and should go to the hospital.”

“You want to sell a bicycle?”

“Yes, but I don’t think you can drive one.”

“That is the concern of Kon, not yours.”


“Yes, will you sell me a bicycle, now?”

The shopkeeper had a weak heart and no stomach for trouble. “How much can you afford?”

Kon shook his head and smiled.

“Price is no concern,” he said. “Something simple, no gears.”

The man moved down the aisle and selected a bicycle from the many lined up on both sides.

“This?” he asked, pointing to a bicycle.

“Fine, perfect. I’ll take it.”

“It will cost you …”

“I don’t care. I told you, Kon doesn’t care.”

The shopkeeper shrugged. “You need to know so you can pay me,” he said.

“I have no money with me. When I return, I’ll pay you double whatever you ask.”

“I don’t think …”

“You do not have to think. Kon is thinking. I’ve been renting that closet from you for months. You have overcharged me. Have I ever missed a payment? Ever?”

“No, but …”

“I’m taking the bicycle. I have no time to argue.”

“Take it. You’ll pay today?”

“And for the rest of my life,” said Valery Grachev.

The shopkeeper returned to his work. The man was drunk, in a fever, or crazy, or all of these, but he was surely trouble. He heard the man go to the closet, open it, make some noise. Then the man moved slowly to the bicycle, pulled it out of the line, and wheeled it past the shopkeeper. There was now a very large and clearly very heavy backpack strapped over the shoulders of the man who was now calling himself Kon.

The shopkeeper watched as the man struggled to get on the bicycle, the pack on his back heavy and awkward. Finally, he succeeded and managed to drive away down the street.

Fortunately, the bike he had given his customer was one he had been trying to get rid of for two years. It was fortunate because the shopkeeper had a feeling that he would not be seeing this young man again.

A man fitting the description of the one who had shot at Sasha and killed Yuri Kriskov had been reported to a policeman on the embankment of the Moscow River, across from the Kremlin. The policeman had been directing traffic when a man and woman approached him and said that a bleeding man was weaving back and forth on his bicycle and talking to himself. The policeman had nodded professionally, checked the traffic, and moved to the police phone station across the street to call in the report and then go back to directing traffic. The policeman thought little of the report, but he had learned that he should cover his back if he were to survive and possibly some day escape dodging maniacs in red cars. He had reported. He was done.

The report had been taken by a desk clerk who had just received a copy of the description of a Valery Grachev. Grachev, the report said, was dangerous, armed, and probably wounded. The clerk, like the policeman directing traffic, did not wish to lose his job should anything come of this coincidence, should it be but a coincidence, which was likely. The clerk had a wife, a grown daughter, and a gambling habit that required his small but steady salary. He picked up the phone and called the sighting of the wounded bicyclist in to Petrovka, suggesting that it be passed on immediately to the officers investigating the man named Grachev.

It was this that sent the helicopter allocated to the Kriskov murder down the embankment of the river where the pilot saw a man sitting on the narrow line of rocks along the water. The pilot dropped lower and reported over his radio that there was a child on one side of the man and a large cloth bag that looked like a backpack on the other. It was then that the man raised his arm and fired a shot at the helicopter.

The pilot heard the bullet hit not far from his window. He took the helicopter up two hundred feet quickly and noisily and reported in again, trying to keep his voice calm as he told of the shot fired. The pilot was a veteran of the Afghan war. He had been shot at before, but it had been a long time ago, and now that it had happened again the knowledge of how close he had come to dying in that distant rocky wasteland rushed into his consciousness. He was afraid, but he would not show it.

“Man and boy on the embankment of the Moscow River almost directly across from the Kremlin,” he said. “Man fits the description of Valery Grachev. There is a bag at his side. When I approached, he fired one shot from a handgun, hitting but, I believe, not causing serious injury to the craft. I could not determine if he might be wounded or the extent of any wounds.”

“Very good,” came the voice of the pilot’s supervisor. “Remain in place until you see police vehicles at the scene and then return to base for a damage assessment.”

The supervisor ended the transmission and the pilot allowed himself to take some serious deep breaths.

Grachev was still sitting in the same position that the pilot had reported, when Sasha Tkach and Elena Timofeyeva arrived at the embankment in the police car they had been in for the past hour and a half. By this time, other marked cars with flashing lights had converged and a pair of uniformed policemen were directing traffic away from the site, creating a lengthy traffic jam and drawing camera-armed tourists.

Sasha had said little during the ride. Elena had only repeated that she was certain that Vera Kriskov was involved in her husband’s death. Sasha’s mind was elsewhere. Once again he had almost died. He had imagined Maya and the children crying at his grave site. He imagined his mother shouting at Porfiry Petrovich, telling him how many times she had pleaded with him to give her only son a safe job behind a desk. The helicopter pilot and Sasha had a great deal in common this morning: both had almost been shot by the same man.

When Elena and Sasha stepped out of the car, a uniformed policeman pointed to the concrete balustrade that ran along the river, keeping drunken motorists from plunging into the water. Elena reached the concrete barrier first and carefully looked over. Sasha moved to her side and looked down at Valery Grachev to their left. Grachev was holding a gun in his lap. The weapon was pointed at a boy of about eleven, no more than a foot or two from Grachev.

“A special-division marksman is here,” the policeman said. “He says he can safely put a bullet into the man’s head. It is an easy shot, the marksman says.”

“If one puts a bullet into a man’s head, the word safe cannot appropriately be applied,” said Elena.

“I’m just reporting what my duty officer told me to report,” the policeman said.

“And if Grachev, in the throes of death, pulls the trigger and puts a bullet into the head of that boy?” asked Elena.

“I’m just reporting what my duty officer told me to report,” the policeman said.

“Tell the marksman to be ready but to do nothing unless I hold up my right arm,” Elena said. “Then he is to safely put a bullet into Grachev’s brain.”

The policeman nodded and moved down the balustrade toward a young man, also in uniform, cradling a rifle in his arms.

“Now?” asked Elena.

“Now,” said Sasha, leaning over the rough concrete to get a better look at Grachev.

Valery Grachev was talking to the boy, apparently ignoring the noise above and behind him.

“Grachev,” Sasha shouted.

The gun came out of the man’s lap and pressed into the stomach of the boy. Sasha looked at the boy, who seemed remarkably unafraid, perhaps even curious and excited. He was, obviously not feeling the same sense of mortality as Sasha Tkach and the helicopter pilot.

“Stay away,” shouted Grachev. “It will all be over soon. Stay away. I want you to watch what I am about to do, but I want you to stay away. This is the end. Kon will not simply surrender. Kon will go with defiance like Boribyonovich in the regionals. I do not wish to harm this boy, but what does it really matter if he dies today, in twenty years, in fifty years. It’s all the same. All we have is the game.”

“I’m coming down,” said Sasha, starting to climb over to the rocks below. “I have no weapon. I won’t get close.”

Elena grabbed his sleeve. “What are you doing?”

“Climbing down to talk to him,” he said calmly.

“That is insane,” Elena said as he continued to climb. “I’m going to signal the marksman.”

“No,” said Sasha, one leg now over the side. “I remind you that I am the senior inspector here.”

“You are the single insane inspector here,” she said.

“A good match,” said Sasha, now about to drop to the rocks. “A mad suspect and a mad inspector. We should have much to talk about.”

With that, Sasha dropped, fell to his knees, and almost tumbled into the dark water.

“Go back. Go back. Go back,” shouted Grachev.

“Very difficult,” said Sasha, still on his knees, hands holding a jutting edge of rock. “I just want to talk.”

“I have work to do,” said Grachev. The young man was bleeding. The front of his shirt was soaked through.

“Perhaps I can help,” Sasha said, moving up the rocks and sitting about a dozen feet from the other man.

“Help? You don’t know what I have to do.”

“I think I do,” said Sasha.

“I …” Grachev began. “It’s you. You shot me.”

Sasha nodded.

“And you tried to shoot me,” said Sasha. “And I think you would have had no trouble succeeding in killing me, had you a little practice with your weapon.”

The boy, who had his dusty-brown hair cut short, was remarkably skinny. His face was clean and he was wearing a pair of jeans and what seemed to be a new black pullover T-shirt.

“I can kill you now,” said Grachev.

Sasha shook his head. “Possibly, we are much closer now. But consider this, if you shoot me, a man with a rifle whom you cannot see will put a bullet through your brain. You stand a far better chance of missing me than he of missing you. Then you would be dead and unable to do whatever it is you plan to do.”

Grachev, his face pale, seemed to smile. “And you are not afraid?”

“Oh, very much afraid,” said Sasha. “Very much, but I said to myself up there that if I did not do this I would be afraid for whatever remains of my life.”

“Yes,” said Grachev. “Yes.”

“May I ask a question?” asked Sasha.

“Yes, then I have one. I think we should be quick.”

“Who is Boribyonovich?”

Grachev looked at the detective. “Don’t you play chess?”

“A little, badly,” Sasha said, looking across the water at the wall of the Kremlin. “My wife is the chess player.”

“She is a true Russian.”

“She’s Ukrainian,” said Sasha. “Her name is Maya. I have two children.”

“You are trying to make me feel sympathy,” said Grachev.

“Am I? I don’t know. Maybe. I was … I don’t know,” said Sasha.

Sasha continued to look across the river at the wall, at the flowing traffic, which paused as drivers looked across and saw the crowd of police vehicles and the two men and a boy on the rocks.

“I’ve always wanted to climb that tower,” Sasha said, pointing across the river.

“The Moskvoretsky Tower,” said Grachev.

“Yes. An interesting sight from this perspective. Have you ever been down on the rocks before?”

“No. I have a question. Do you love your wife?” asked Grachev.

“Is that the question you want to ask?”

“No, it just came to me. I’ll ask the other soon, very soon. Now I have a third question. What’s your name?”

“Sasha. And yours is Valery.”

“Mine is Kon,” he corrected.

“Yes, I love my wife. I love my children. My wife has taken them to Kiev, Kon.”


“Because I have behaved like an animal, a brooding animal in the zoo. You’ve seen the tigers in those small cages. Pacing, pacing. They are depressed. I was told that by my chief inspector. When he told me about the tigers, I stopped taking my older daughter, Pulcharia, to see them.”

“Sasha, I think I am dying. I have work to do and I don’t understand what you are saying, but I do understand love. I am sitting here like this because of a woman I love. No, that is not fair, I am sitting here because of what I wanted and because I seem to be growing more and more mad as I lose blood. Also, I think I have the flu.”

“I would say you are not having a good day,” said Sasha.

Grachev laughed and then coughed. The boy at his side made it clear by his look that he had no idea what this madman who had kidnapped him was laughing at.

“A very bad day, but I mean to salvage something.”

“That is understandable,” Sasha said. “Who is the woman, the one you love?”

“No,” Grachev said, shaking his head. “I am dying. I am going mad, but I am still playing and I will go down protecting my queen.”

“All right, then what is the boy’s name?”

“I don’t know. What is your name?”

He turned his eyes to the boy, the gun touching the black T-shirt.

“B.B.,” said the boy.

“Your real name,” said Grachev.

“Artiom. Are you going to shoot me?”

The boy seemed more curious and excited than afraid.


“Are you going to shoot yourself?”

“You watch too many movies on television,” said Grachev. “You should be playing chess.”

“I don’t like chess.”

“Maybe I will shoot you.”

The boy who called himself B.B. suddenly changed. He was afraid.

“I’m not going to shoot you,” Grachev said. “And I’m not going to shoot Sasha here or anyone else. But that is our secret. I have killed enough for one morning. They are making a great deal of noise up there.”

“A great deal,” Sasha agreed, looking back over his shoulder. “I have no control over that.”

“I don’t mind,” said Valery Grachev. “Now, my third question. You said you know what I am going to do, or you think you do. What am I going to do?”

“Take the negative out of that bag and throw it in the river,” said Sasha. “The only reason you have not already done so is that you are waiting for a larger audience and the television cameras.”

“You really should play chess,” said Grachev.

Sasha shrugged.

“I don’t think I can wait longer,” said Grachev. “I think I see a television truck on the Kremlyovskaya Embankment over there across the river, and I am sure there are others and tourists with cameras. I would like your people to let the people with cameras come where they can see.”

“I do not have that power, Kon,” said Sasha.

“Then I will have to begin.”

“Would you like some help?” asked Sasha, who was now certain that Grachev was dying. “It will be awkward for you, keeping the gun on B.B. with one hand, staying alert, reaching in for the film. It will be painful.”

“I think I would prefer you to remain where you are,” said Grachev. “You can watch.”

With that, the young man reached into the bag and pulled out a tightly wound roll of film about one and a half feet across. Sasha could see the pain in the man’s face.

“You are going to destroy Tolstoy,” said Sasha.

“I am going to destroy a movie about the life of Tolstoy. I will tell you a secret, Sasha,” said Grachev. “From what I have seen of it, it is a very bad, bloated, lying movie about Tolstoy. It turns him into a tragic romantic figure with a big-budget background. The world is better off without this Tolstoy.”

“And without Kriskov?” asked Sasha.

“And without me,” answered Grachev, unwinding the film.

“I can help,” said B.B.

Grachev handed him the reel, and the boy began to unwind the film. There was a rattle and more than a murmur in the crowd behind the two men and the boy. Above the sound of voices and vehicles, Sasha could hear the crinkling of unwinding film. Soon the rocks in front of the boy and the man who now called himself Kon were covered with curls of black film. When there was still about half the film remaining in a tight circle, the circle collapsed and dropped into the boy’s lap.

“Throw it in,” said Grachev. “Stand up. Throw it in.”

B.B. wiped his hands on his jeans and stood. “Really?” he asked.

“Throw,” said Grachev.

And the boy threw.

Some people who had managed to make it to the concrete ledge began to applaud and some took pictures. The film now floated in a serpentine mass upon the water. The black bundle began to move away from the shore. Grachev reached for the second reel and handed it to the waiting boy, who eagerly took it and began to unwind.

“Sasha, would you like to cast black bread upon the water?” asked Grachev.

“No, thank you,” said Sasha. “I’m content to watch.”

And watch he did till there was no more film, just four dark clouds floating away on the water. The first cloud of film had begun to sink.

“Now,” said Grachev, his eyes blinking away perspiration.

“Now?” asked Sasha.

“Now you come close and I tell you a secret,” he said.

Sasha moved toward him carefully along the rocks, knowing that he was ruining a good pair of pants already stained by his earlier shoot-out with the man toward whom he crawled. Someone in the crowd gasped. When Sasha was a yard from the dying man, Grachev turned his weapon on the detective and said, “B.B., you may go now, clamber up the rocks, climb the wall, talk to the television people and the police. B.B., I have become the highlight of your life. You will remember me and what we have done till you die. You will tell the story many times. It will change. I don’t know how. I know. I once made it to the Moscow chess semifinals when I was your age. I remember every move and the watching crowd and I have convinced myself that the game I lost was much closer than it probably really was. Go.”

B.B. scampered up the rocks, slipped once, and continued.

Grachev was not watching, but Sasha was.

“Is he gone?”

“Yes,” said Sasha. “You talked of a woman. Was it Vera Kriskov?”

“That is Kriskov’s wife?”

“You know that it is. You love her,” said Sasha.

“I have never seen her, don’t know her, but I will perhaps do her a great favor when I tell you my secret. Lean close.”

Sasha leaned toward the man, not worrying about being shot, though it would have been a reasonable cause of concern at that moment. Sasha could smell blood, fever, and death now.

“There is a bicycle shop off of Gorky Street. It is called Wheels. There is a closet in that shop, in the rear. Go to it. You will find my final surprise, my last move. I will be laughing. I will have protected my queen.”

“What will I find in that closet?” asked Sasha.

“The original negative and the duplicate negative for the abomination of the life of Tolstoy. B.B. just threw away the negative of a movie I worked on two years ago, The Gambler’s Wife. That was even worse than the film you will find in that closet. That is my gift to the widow.”

“And from this you got? …”

“Look around you, Sasha. I got an audience for my final move. I got …”

He drew in a breath, broke off in the middle of it, stretched himself out, and died.


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