Korolev took Yuri back to the dacha shortly afterward—he didn’t feel safe down by the river after he’d seen the men. At first he was sorely tempted to head straight back to Moscow—but when he thought about it, he realized that wasn’t the sensible thing to do. If he was being watched, then running back to Bolshoi Nikolo-Vorobinsky might be seen as an admission of guilt—even if he’d no idea what it was he could be guilty of. And anyway—if those men
Lipski, meanwhile, had found them some eggs, two fish that were still cold from the ice they’d been packed in, a small bag of potatoes, half a watermelon, and a piece of butter. It was enough, with what he’d brought from Moscow, for a good lunch—though Yuri only picked at it, his gaze drifting to the open window from time to time. Korolev wondered if he’d seen the men as well.
“Aren’t you hungry?” he asked, after several minutes during which neither of them spoke.
“No,” Yuri said. “I think I’ll just go upstairs and read for a while—is that all right?”
“Of course—your brain is a stomach too, you know. Except you have to feed it with books.”
Korolev thought about that for a moment—not sure if he’d expressed himself remotely well. Yuri glanced up at him, looking a little confused.
“What I meant to say was—” Korolev began.
“I know,” Yuri said. “Don’t worry, Papa. I like books. I read as much as I can.”
“That’s good, very good.”
When Yuri left the room, Korolev waited a moment or two before reaching across the table for the boy’s plate. He’d learned early in life that you never knew for sure when you might be able to eat again.
He’d barely finished the last mouthful when the phone rang, much louder than he’d been expecting—it was as if there were a fire engine in the room with him. He picked the receiver up carefully, a part of him wanting to let it ring and not answer it at all. He’d tried to get through to Zhenia again when they’d come back to the house and this must be the operator calling back.
“Your call to Zagorsk. The line’s clear—I can put you through now.”
He listened to the phone ringing at Zhenia’s end. Once, twice, five times. The phone was in the communal hallway and sometimes it took awhile for someone to answer. After all, answering might mean climbing four flights to find the person the call was intended for—no fun in the middle of a hot summer. Eight times now.
A man’s voice, elderly would be his guess—and annoyed at having been the one to answer, if he wasn’t mistaken.
“I’m calling for Citizeness Koroleva. Apartment 3 on the second floor.”
“Koroleva, you say?”
The voice sounded half-amused.
“That’s the one.”
“She won’t be answering phones today, I don’t think. No, my guess is she won’t be answering phones for a while.”
The man chuckled and before Korolev had a chance to question him, there came the click of the phone being hung up.
Korolev stood there, listening to the monotone hum of the empty line in his ear. He heard a floorboard creak behind him and turned to find Yuri standing in the doorway, his face pale. Korolev smiled.
“I see,” he said, speaking into the phone. “Well, I’ll call back tomorrow then. Can you tell her Alexei called? Thanks.”
He hung the receiver back onto the phone and shrugged.
“She’s out, it seems. We’ll try again tomorrow.”
Yuri nodded and Korolev listened to his footsteps retreating back up the stairs to the first floor.
It might be nothing—some people made dark humor from other people’s misfortune these days. And the whole house would know Chekists had come to visit, that was certain. It could just be a neighbor who wanted to make a call of his own or someone who couldn’t be bothered to go and find her. It was unnerving—but it was probably nothing unusual. Neighbors were like that sometimes. He should just remain calm—that was the sensible thing to do.
* * *
Later they searched for mushrooms in the woods around the dacha and turned it into a game. Yuri was soon scampering around, his eyes roaming the ground in front of him and his nose pointing forward as if he might sniff their quarry out.
“Yuri,” Korolev had said, in what he hoped was an offhand way, “if I should suddenly be called away, do you think you could remember how to get back to Moscow—to the apartment?”
Yuri, whose feet had been making their careful way across the sunshine-dappled forest floor, looked up at the question.
“You think you might be called away?”
“It’s possible. I’m a detective, sometimes these things happen. Like the other day, if you remember.”
Yuri considered this. “You’d want me to get the train on my own?”
“I don’t see why not—you made it all the way from Zagorsk on your own.”
“I’m only twelve.”
“I was only ten when I started work for the butcher Lytkin—and you’re a brighter spark than I was.”
Yuri looked pleased at the compliment.
“I’d need money for the train and the tram.”
“You’re right—and I should have given you money before, anyway. A young man needs a rouble or two on his person, or so I’ve always found.”
Korolev reached in his pocket and Yuri rubbed the notes he handed him between his finger and thumb. He looked suspicious.
“It’s just in case,” Korolev said. “But if I have to go—make your way to Valentina, she’ll look after you till I get back.”
* * *
In the evening they played chess and then listened to a football game on the radio, an important match between Spartak and Lokomotiv, and then, when Yuri fell asleep in his chair, Korolev carried him to bed.
He looked down at the boy in the half-light of the dusk and saw Zhenia in his features, but also some of himself. He couldn’t help but feel frightened for the boy, and leaned forward to kiss his forehead before he left the room.
Korolev stayed up for a while pretending to himself he was reading, knowing he wouldn’t sleep while his brain kept going over the little he knew and trying to make sense of it. And when he did go to bed he found himself shifting around, unable to relax or get himself comfortable, turning over possibilities and probabilities in his head; wide awake—no matter how much he wished he wasn’t.
So when the silence was shattered by someone hammering on the door downstairs, Korolev was on his feet and reaching for his clothes before he’d even thought who it might be. He went straight to Yuri’s room and found the boy sitting up in his bed, his eyes dark and round in his moonlit face. Korolev tried to keep the fear out of his voice.
“I’ll go and see who it is—but if I’m called away, remember what I told you. Valentina will look after you and I’ll come as soon as I can.”
He turned and went down the staircase, his feet hitting the steps with the same rhythm as whoever was still banging at the door. Whoever? Well, no thief ever knocked and no honest citizen battered another’s door in the middle of the night.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” he called out as he passed through the kitchen—and the knocking stopped.
He turned on the light in the small winter hallway and opened the door. Two men were outside, their faces yellow in the glow that spilled from the doorway. They were wide-bodied, slab-shouldered professionals—one a dark-skinned, black-haired fellow with the look of the Caucasus about him, and the other a blond, unseasonably pale Slav. They examined him without speaking and he wondered if they were deciding whether he’d come easily or whether he’d be trouble.
“Comrades,” Korolev said.
“We’ll see about that,” the paler of the two answered, with a curl of his lip that didn’t bode well.
“Korolev, Alexei Dmitriyevich?” The dark one’s cheeks were round and might have been jolly with another man’s eyes. This one’s had seen too much.
“Do we need to introduce ourselves?” the pale one asked.
From behind them came the sound of a door closing and Lipski appeared from the caretaker’s hut. The men turned quickly and Lipski had the good sense to come to a halt, putting his hands on his head as he did so. By then the dark one had a pistol pointing at the old man’s chest and the other was aiming his weapon at Korolev.
“It’s Lipski, the caretaker,” Korolev said in what he hoped was a calm voice. “He must have heard the noise. This is nothing to do with him.”
“That’s the truth,” the pale one said, an ominous tone coloring his voice.
Lipski looked at the Chekists for a moment, then seemed to decide this was the worst possible thing to do and shut his eyes altogether.
“I’ve seen nothing, Comrades, and I’ve heard nothing. Nothing whatsoever.”
“Remember the orders; the matter’s to be handled quietly.” The darker of the men spoke quietly, with a Georgian accent. “Citizen Lipski here will oblige us by keeping his mouth shut, I’m sure.”
“Of course, Comrade,” Lipski said, his eyes still closed and his shoulders hunched over as if to make himself a smaller target.
“Good. So we’ll all be very calm, won’t we? And then we’ll be on our way all the quicker.”
The Georgian was speaking as much to his colleague as to them, and the pale Chekist nodded his agreement.
“Korolev? You’re coming with us.”
Korolev nodded, looking down at his feet.
“I’ll need some shoes.”
“We’ll come with you to get them, don’t worry.” The dark one spoke softly. “And you’ll need to wake the boy while you’re at it. He’s coming too.”
Korolev felt his stomach turn so violently that he thought he must vomit.
“He’s coming too,” the pale one repeated.
As he spoke, he took a step forward so that Korolev found himself staring down the barrel of his gun from a distance of no more than a few inches. Korolev prayed the fellow had the safety catch on.
“You can’t arrest a twelve-year-old,” Korolev managed to whisper, mastering his fear. “He’s too young.”
The pale Chekist’s eyes narrowed and Korolev braced himself for a blow.
“We’re not arresting anyone, Citizen Korolev,” the Georgian said in his calm voice. “We’re just taking you to see someone. Your presence is requested. No one’s forcing you; but, of course, you’ll be coming with us just the same.”
The Georgian’s eyes were unreadable, but if he wasn’t being arrested that was a good sign, surely?
“Do we have a few minutes to pack?” he asked, hoping to extract a little bit more information.
“We’re wasting time here. We should be back in the car by now.”
“Cover Citizen Lipski here,” the Georgian said to his colleague. “I’ll get things moving quickly enough.”
“Yuri isn’t well,” Korolev began to say, but the Georgian interrupted him by taking his elbow and pushing him through the door to the house.
“I don’t care if he’s got two broken legs, he’s coming with us.”
Korolev felt the pressure of the gun barrel digging into his spine as the Chekist pushed him through the kitchen and into the dining room.
“Where is he?”
Korolev was about to suggest he just call the boy down, but one look at the Georgian and he changed his mind. They climbed the stairs.
“The one on the left.”
“In you go.”
Korolev opened the door and stepped in, turned on the light and found—no one.
“He’s gone,” Korolev said, mystified. He’d meant Yuri to go to Moscow if he was taken away—not for him to run off into the forest.
The Chekist pushed past him, saw the open window and cursed.
“I don’t know. He was here two minutes ago.”
Before he even saw the fellow’s hand move, the Chekist’s gun had hit the side of his head, knocking him to his knees.
“Where’s the damned boy, Korolev?”