CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

When Korolev came out of the orphanage he found the Emka had been replaced with another car—a Ford—and two new Chekists as well. He looked at them and they looked back—alert and wide awake—and Korolev felt the tiredness drag at him and realized it would be pointless to try to shake them off.

He drove through the still summer-warm streets with fear for his son’s well-being weighing heavily on him once again—that glimmer of optimism not quite so strong after Little Barrel’s warning. He’d tried to get her to tell him more, but then she’d clammed up so tight he might as well have been talking to himself—and so now he found himself worrying over the little she had said, like a dog with a bone, and not much liking the taste of it. Outside the streets were full of Muscovites enjoying the warmth of the evening, some staggering with drink, others just out to stretch their legs rather than stay put in some sweltering little box that had been carved out of an already over-crowded kommunalka just for them. But Korolev looked through them all—the only person he had eyes for was Yuri.

* * *

By the time he’d reached Bolshoi Nikolo-Vorobinsky, his thoughts had turned against himself. What kind of man was he? That he’d managed to put his own son at risk? He’d known for a year now that this job of his came with compromises, yet he’d usually done his best to avoid them. Why? And what was more, he’d known the job itself was a dangerous one—twice in the last twelve months he’d been close to disaster. And he’d known the risks weren’t only being taken by him—every morning he saw the queue of ordinary citizens outside Petrovka, waiting to find out from the records office which prison a relative had been sent to. And yet still he carried on trying to bring an antiquated version of justice to a society that thought telling a joke about the leadership a more serious crime than murder. He could have asked to do something else, training youngsters perhaps—he’d earned it, after all. Instead he’d carried on, putting his head deeper and deeper into the lion’s mouth. He could see now it had been selfish. If he got Yuri back he’d give it up, work in a factory if needs be, and keep his head where it belonged—intact and on his shoulders.

His steps were slow as he climbed the stairs to his apartment—not least, because he’d no hope whatsoever that his son would be there waiting for him. It felt as if the very air itself was thick with collective anxiety, and no trace of the joy he’d expect if the boy had returned safe and sound. He wondered what the other inhabitants of the building made of it all—he’d no doubt they’d seen him park the car, watched him cross the road, and now were listening to his footsteps as he climbed the stairs. They’d no doubt seen the two Chekists pull in behind him, as well.

Perhaps they’d already come to the conclusion that whatever was going on with Korolev’s son, it would be best to avoid the Militiaman until the matter had resolved itself, one way or another. He couldn’t blame them. He doubted Lobkovskaya was the only one who knew that Chekists had searched his room. And now he was going to have to tell Valentina what had happened—and he wondered what she might say.

He opened the door to his apartment and walked through to the shared room. Valentina was sitting at the table, Natasha beside her. Lobkovskaya was on the Chesterfield and Shura, Babel’s maid, was beside her. He stopped, looking from face to face, thinking what good fortune it was to have friends such as these—and what a responsibility as well. Valentina, meanwhile, had risen to her feet in one graceful movement. She came to him and wrapped her arms around him and held him close, and Korolev, despite himself, felt tears itching the corners of his eyes.

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