- About the Book
- About the Author
- Title Page
- Copyright Page
- Chapter 1
- Chapter 2
- Chapter 3
- Chapter 4
- Chapter 5
- Chapter 6
- Chapter 7
- Chapter 8
- Chapter 9
- Chapter 10
- Chapter 11
- Chapter 12
- Chapter 13
- Chapter 14
- Chapter 15
- Looking for more suspense?
- Begin Reading
About the Book
A terrorist at the Moscow Film Festival plots an international incident.
Built in the twilight of the Tsarist state, Moscow’s Metropole Hotel is a poignant reminder of the decadence of the last regime. But today its corridors are musty, its rooms are dank, and now its restaurant is the scene of a quadruple murder. Four men - one American, one Japanese, and two citizens of Mother Russia - share a meal of smoked salmon, caviar, and two bottles of vodka. In the morning, all are found dead, blood on their lips and faces contorted in pain.
To keep the killings under wraps, the Kremlin hands the investigation over to famously discreet police investigator Porfiry Rostnikov. A terrorist is targeting foreigners to embarrass the Soviet state, and the killer will happily sacrifice any Russian who gets in the way.
About the Author
Stuart M. Kaminsky (1934-2009) was one of the most prolific crime fiction authors of the last four decades. Born in Chicago, he spent his youth immersed in pulp fiction and classic cinema - two forms of popular entertainment which he would make his life’s work. After college and a stint in the army, Kaminsky wrote film criticism and biographies of the great actors and directors of Hollywood’s Golden Age. In 1977, when a planned biography of Charlton Heston fell through, Kaminsky wrote Bullet for a Star, his first Toby Peters novel, beginning a fiction career that would last the rest of his life.
Kaminsky penned twenty-four novels starring the detective, whom he described as “the anti-Philip Marlowe.” In 1981’s Death of a Dissident, Kaminsky debuted Moscow police detective Porfiry Rostnikov, whose stories were praised for their accurate depiction of Soviet life. His other two series starred Abe Lieberman, a hardened Chicago cop, and Lew Fonseca, a process server. In all, Kaminsky wrote more than sixty novels. He died in St. Louis in 2009.
Black Knight In Red Square
An Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov Mystery
Stuart M. Kaminsky
For Dominick Abel
It is a matter of indifference who actually committed the crime; psychology is only concerned to know who desired it emotionally and who welcomed it when it was done. And for that reason all of the brothers (of the family Karamazov; or of the human family) are equally guilty.
—Sigmund Freud, “Dostoevsky and Parricide.”
WARREN HARDING AUBREY THOUGHT HE was feeling the effects of a trio of double vodkas on the rocks. Actually, he was dying.
His once hard belly ached slightly as he got on the elevator of the Metropole Hotel and told the young woman he wanted vosem. When she pressed the button marked eight, he knew his minimal Russian had not failed him this time.
The girl on the stool was named Maria Nevanskaya. She had been riding up and down for almost fourteen hours a day five days a week for three of her twenty-five years. Normally it would take the appearance of a babbling ax murderer or of the general secretary himself to draw her attention. But this was not a normal week. It was the first week of the Moscow Film Festival, and the hotel was filled with foreigners. The lobby elevator dispatcher, Verochek, had abused Maria about her lack of courtesy to the guests. She guessed, quite correctly, that Verochek had himself been abused by Karlenko, the Metropole’s Communist Party supervisor. So as the elevator slowly rose to the sound of the weary restaurant orchestra playing “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” Maria turned to her drunken passenger and asked, in what she thought was French, if he was ill.
Aubrey was lost in thoughts of 1954, when he had begun the metamorphosis from Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent in Korea to hired typist who would cover anything anywhere in the world for a standard fee and all he could drink, which was an impressive amount. The French word mal got through to him, though, and he grinned at the woman and shook his head. He wanted to say something to her, but the taste of blood in his mouth and her apparent indifference stopped him. His hand went to his mouth and came away dry.
As the elevator door slid open on the eighth floor, Aubrey took a step forward feeling as if he were wading in knee-deep water. He almost collided with the desk of the dezhurnaya, the floor woman who sat watching him. Her hand automatically went up to protect her key box from his potential drunken onslaught. Each floor in each hotel in Moscow, with the exception of the gargantuan Rossyia, had an old dezhurnaya to guard the keys, the morals, and the sanctity of the establishment and to serve, when necessary, as the eyes and ears of the KGB. As Aubrey knew, these old women could shift from motherly sympathy to matronly scorn without apparent reason. None could speak any language but Russian. This dezhurnaya, Vera Olganova, eyed Aubrey suspiciously, and with little of the Party’s careful courtesy to the foreign visitor, found his key and reluctantly handed it over. Aubrey clutched the key, took a step, began to fall, and tried to steady himself by grabbing the nearest object on the woman’s desk, which happened to be a small framed portrait of Lenin.
Vera Olganova snatched the portrait from him with a grunt, and Aubrey had to hold the edge of the desk to keep from falling. She decided that the foreigner had intentionally and politically reached for the picture, which she now clutched to her cascading bosom, saving it from desecration at his capitalistic hands. He merited a report to the proper authorities even if he was drunk.
“Sorry,” Aubrey said, hoping he wouldn’t throw up.
She placed Lenin safely on the far end of the desk, facing away from the disrespectful Westerner.
Aubrey, praying that he would make it to his bathroom, took a dozen steps, inserted the key into the lock of room 808, turned it, and pushed open the door. With a great effort, he managed to raise his hand and flick on the lights. He was unaware that he’d left the door open behind him and that he had dropped the key.
The nausea subsided slightly as he found himself eye to eye with a painting of a thin man with his bushy head held high and a stern expression on his face. Aubrey put out both hands and leaned against the wall, trying to outstare this figure from the past.
“Just a few too many tonight, Comrade,” he confided to the severe revolutionary. He wanted to say more, but the taste of blood rose again in his dry mouth. This time it was mixed with bitterness. Another wave of nausea came, accompanied by a dull pain in his head and chest. He shuffled toward the bathroom.
“After I get the booze out of my stomach,” he called back to the portrait, “I’ll take you on.”
He rested his sweating hand on the bathroom door, light-headed. The feeling of falling that surged over him was so vivid that he felt a warm breeze against his cheeks. Then it struck him that he was actually falling, but so slowly that he must be defying the law of gravity. He marveled at how long it took him to hit the cold tile of the bathroom floor. I should put out my hands, he thought, break the fall. But his hands didn’t move, though he was pleased that he’d been capable of the thought.
His head hit the porcelain toilet, opening a deep gash over his right eye, but he felt no pain as he rolled heavily under the sink. The nausea and headache were gone. The hell with it, he thought. I’ll just sleep here and check the damage in the morning. The floor tiles felt cool against his hot cheek, and Aubrey closed his eyes.
At nine the following morning, Irina Marmontov, one of the maids, pushed her cart past the dozing Vera Olganova and down the hall to begin making up the rooms in her section. She noticed that the door to room 808 was open. The light was on, and she could see that no one had slept in the bed. But she had been working at the Metropole for almost thirty years and had seen far stranger things, particularly from the Cubans, Americans, and Italians. The worst times were during the Moscow Film Festival. In 1971, during the festival, a rainy July morning, she had opened the closet door and found a fat, naked man grinning at her. The man said something in a strange language, stepped past her, and sat down cross-legged on the floor as if he had been waiting for hours for someone to come and release him so he could engage in his meditation. But the door to the closet had not been locked, and the closet was covered with blood, though the naked man was apparently unwounded. Irina had hurried to the dezhurnaya, who had called the security office. The police eventually arrived and discovered that the man had not been found in his own room but in that of a Latvian clock factory representative whom they found in the dining room calmly awaiting his breakfast. The Latvian claimed that he didn’t know the naked man and had no idea what he was doing in the room or how the blood had come to be in the closet. The fat man had been of no further help. He had no identification, and he said nothing, but simply grinned. The police kicked him a few times in irritation and then covered him with a robe and took him away. That was the last Irina had heard of the mystery, but the memory had stayed with her, and an unpleasant feeling went through her whenever she opened a closet door.
Although Irina could not remember who was in room 808, she was not particularly intrigued by the open door. She went about her business, cleaning the other rooms, working slowly as always. She didn’t have too many rooms to clean, for the hotel, like most Moscow hotels, was ridiculously overstaffed. Irina, however, did not work slowly out of boredom or lethargy, but rather in the hope that the occupant of a room was a foreigner who might come back while she was working and give her a tip. During one film festival, an Italian actor had given her a tip of a thousand lire. A bartender she knew had given her four rubles for the colorful piece of paper. Irina knew there were movie actors, directors, producers, and writers in the Metropole right now, maybe on her floor, in this section, but she would not recognize a foreign movie star.
She walked through the open door of 808 at about nine-thirty and asked, “Anybody here?” No one answered.
Clothes hung on hangers; a suitcase sat on the chair. There was nothing to empty from the wastebasket. Irina bent to pick up the room keys from the floor near the door. She put them on the nearby table and got a cloth from her cart. The routine was automatic. Clean the room, replace the towels, check the toilet paper. The light was out in the bathroom, and she flipped it on.
There was blood on the toilet seat, bright red against the white plastic. Under the sink a drunken foreigner was sleeping. She wanted to simply walk out after changing the towels, but he might be someone important, and he might be hurt.
“Gospodin,” she said, “you all right?” He didn’t move. She reached down to touch his shoulder, but what she felt made her pull her arm back with a jerk. He is not a man, she thought. He is a body. She touched him again, and he rolled away from the wall to stare at her with unseeing eyes.
Irina jumped back quickly, banging her shoulder against the open door. Although the face of death was a shock, it was not death but the look of pain on the man’s face and the blood on his lips that terrified her. He was pale and cold, and the light from the sputtering bulb danced on his bald head.
Irina backed out of the bathroom, fighting her panic and the desire to run. She left the room as calmly as she could and hurried to Vera Olganova, whose eyes opened wide at this breach of routine. She reached for the phone, dialed a number, couldn’t get through, and dialed again.
“Comrade Verskov,” she said, proud of the control in her voice.
“What room?” he answered. Vera’s eyes rose and met those of Irina, who was looking back down the corridor.
“I—we just found a dead man in eight-oh-eight.”
“I know,” said Comrade Verskov, his voice cracking.
“There’s blood on his mouth.”
“How did—?” she began, but Verskov’s quavering voice cut her off.
“We now have four of them in the hotel.” There was a silence, and she could hear Verskov trying to pull himself together. “Don’t touch anything. Close the door. The police will be there in a few minutes.”
On the sidewalk in front of number 16 Kalinin Street, three boys about fifteen years old were jostling a younger boy between them. The younger boy wanted to get away without looking too frightened, but the tears were forming. From the window of the first-floor apartment, a pair of dark eyes watched the struggle with detached interest. The viewer saw the event as an experiment carried out many times before from São Paulo to Helsinki. The outcome was statistically inevitable. The tormented boy saw a slight opening and tried to step through the small circle of his tormentors’ legs, but one of the older boys tripped him, and he fell on the sidewalk, taking part of the impact with his face. He stood up bewildered, examining the blood on his shirt. Instead of arousing sympathy in his tormentors, the sight of blood seemed to anger them, and the shortest of the three attackers stepped forward and slapped the bleeding boy hard with the back of his hand.
The dark eyes turned back to the near-darkness of the room.
“The time must be exact,” said a male voice in too precise German.
The dark eyes turned slowly to the speaker, a thin, dark Arab in his late twenties.
“Four days from today on Sunday at six, seven, and eight P.M. Moscow time,” said the one with dark eyes. “That is exact.” The eyes coolly examined the four others in the room. Besides the young Arab, Ali, there was a short, muscular Arab in his late forties named Fouad, a nervous type who had to have something in his hands to keep them quiet. There was a blond man in his thirties with a French accent. The others called him Robert. He appeared to be the leader, but he seldom spoke. The final member of the quartet had made most of the arrangements. She was a woman in her late twenties with thick blond hair who identified herself as Seven. She had once been beautiful, but now she was consumed by a neurotic hatred that the man with the dark eyes had seen often before. She had a slight British accent, but the dark-eyed one knew it was a fake. The conversation was conducted in German.
“You are sure,” said Seven, “that nothing has changed because of the Metropole business?”
“I am sure,” said the one with dark eyes. “Business is going on as usual. Now I’ll have the rest of my payment.”
“We think,” said Seven, rising, “it would be better to pay you when we are finished.”
Fouad leaned against the door, and Ali backed into a corner, his hand in his pocket. The dark eyes moved to Robert, who sat impassively, arms folded, a slight smile on his lips.
“I get it all, and now,” said the one with dark eyes, “or you can forget about the agreement.”
“If the KGB knew about our meeting,” said Seven, “you would not be seeing anyone for a long time. You might not live very long.”
“You are not very good at this,” said the dark-eyed one, “not good at all. If you get away with the plan, it will be because of what I do, what I plan. You’re wasting time with these games. I’ve got to get back or someone might grow suspicious about where I’ve been. The cash now, and all of it.”
Robert nodded to Seven, who went to a briefcase on the table and extracted a package.
“If you—” Seven began, but a gesture from Robert stopped her words. She handed the package to the visitor.
The dark-eyed visitor took it and left, thinking that the money was good and the challenge interesting, but that as a group, the terrorists were far below even the clumsy Japanese airport group and the inept Italian quartet, both of which had bungled their tasks miserably. Robert was more interested in self-image than ideology. Seven was all fire and no brains. Ali was an idealist with no experience. Only Fouad had the makings of a good terrorist; he was unconcerned about self-image and able to control his fire and strength. If the four of them had plans to dispose of their visitor eventually, Fouad would be the one to keep an eye on.
Outside the sunlight was bright. Across the street, the three youths had given up their game with the younger boy and were looking for something else to fill their empty day. They spotted the one with the dark eyes and started to move forward. When their quarry did not run or even walk away, they paused in the middle of the street.
The smile on the face of the one with dark eyes told the three boys they were like insects to this lone, well-dressed foreigner. The stranger walked directly toward and then past them without hurrying or looking back. One of the boys muttered the only words he knew in English: “Fuck you.”
The dark-eyed one felt the packet of $150,000 in American dollars and didn’t bother to reply.
PORFIRY PETROVICH ROSTNIKOV REALIZED THE importance of what he was about to do this Thursday morning. There had been several such crucial moments in his fifty-two years. The first had occurred in 1941 when he was a boy soldier who had stepped out from behind a doorway in Rostov to face a German tank. He had destroyed the tank with a lucky grenade and a hail of bullets from the machine pistol he had taken from a dead German. The cost had been a nearly destroyed left leg, which he had to drag slowly and often painfully behind him throughout the rest of his life. The second such moment happened when, as a young policeman in Moscow, he had caught a drunken thief named Gremko assaulting a young woman outside the Kursk railway terminal. The drunk had nearly killed Rostnikov with his bare hands, but fortune and a well-placed knee to the groin had turned the tables.
At that point Rostnikov began to lift weights. At first he did so to gain strength and then as a means of relaxation, a way to escape from the pressures of living in Moscow. Eventually, lifting weights had become an end in itself. It demanded his total attention and he gave it willingly. His body had begun to expand with musculature as he lifted, and before he was named a chief inspector he had already earned the nickname “Washtub” among his fellow police and also among full-time criminals.
Rostnikov gripped the metal tightly in his hand and moved slowly up the stairwell of the apartment on Krasikov Street, again going over what he would say. His wife, Sarah, had tried to talk him out of this, but he had worked too hard, prepared too well. He moved resolutely upward, dragging his bad leg behind him, and opened the door on the seventh floor. There were no elevators in the apartment building; few apartment buildings in Moscow had elevators.
Going down the corridor, he took a deep breath. No turning back, he thought, and then he paused before the door and knocked. Beyond the door he could hear two voices, one a man’s, the other a woman’s. He could not make out what they were saying. He knocked again, and a voice answered, “Coming.”
It was early in the morning, more than two hours before Irina would discover Aubrey’s body, half an hour before Inspector Rostnikov was due in his office at Petrovka—barely enough time to do what must be done. The door opened.
“Yes?” A thin man in an undershirt stood at the door. His wife, standing behind him, was extremely plump, with her orange hair pinned in an untidy bun.
“I live in the apartment below you,” said Rostnikov, adopting the official voice he used in dealing with those who appeared frightened.
“We are Bulgarian,” the man said.
“I know,” Rostnikov replied.
“I am here for six months for a machine trade exchange,” the man said.
“That’s not important,” replied Rostnikov, shifting the tools in his hand. Both the man and the woman looked down as the tools clanked together.
“You are a policeman,” said the woman.
“Yes.” Rostnikov spoke softly, almost with resignation, trying to give the impression that what he was about to do was regrettable but inevitable.
“What have we done?” said the man, touching his chest and looking at his wife.
“Your toilet,” said Rostnikov.
“I’m what?” said the startled man, stepping back.
“Your toilet is broken,” explained Rostnikov. “It is causing a massive leak in our apartment below. We cannot use our toilet.”
“You cannot use your toilet,” echoed the man dumbly.
“We can,” Rostnikov went on, “but we are not willing to clean up the floor each time we flush.”
“No one told us,” said the woman apologetically, putting a hand to her breast and discovering that her dress was not fully buttoned.
They had not been told, Rostnikov knew, because a decision had been made, in spite of Rostnikov’s threats and pleas to the building manager, a thin Party member named Samsanov, to avoid telling the Bulgarians that their toilet was faulty. Apparently the local political decision was that it would not do to let the Bulgarians see how defective the plumbing was. They might go home and ridicule their Moscow hosts. Rostnikov, in spite of his position with the police, had been told to forget it till the Bulgarians left, but they showed no signs of leaving. So Rostnikov had begun reading plumbing books. For four weeks he read plumbing books. The library was filled with them. There were more books on plumbing than on plastering, cooking, radio and television repairing, automobiles, and crime. He now felt himself capable of repairing whatever the problem might be, if his tools were sufficient and his resolve to defy the local Party decision held firm.
“No one told us,” the man repeated his wife’s word.
“There are reasons,” Rostnikov said mysteriously. “I will repair the problem, and you must promise to tell no one I have done so. It is forbidden for one in my station to do this, but I did not want the problem to get worse and affect you, visitors to our city.”
With this he stepped past them into the replica of his own apartment. The central room, a combination living room—dining room—kitchen, was well furnished, including a small television set. There was a foreign odor, which was not unpleasant but which Rostnikov could not place. To the left of the entrance was the even smaller bedroom. He marched toward it with the Bulgarians behind, mumbling to each other frantically.
“I’ll take no more than a few minutes,” he said, pushing open the door. The window was open, and sunlight was pouring in on the unmade bed. Rostnikov stood before it trying to imagine the unmatched Bulgarians making love. They made little noise during the night. He knew this because his and Sarah’s bedroom was right below theirs. He moved to the bathroom, turned on the light, and removed an oversize pink slip from the toilet seat. The woman, closing in behind him, reaching over to take it from him like a nurse retrieving a scalpel during surgery.
“I’ll not be long. Just leave me alone.”
They backed out, mumbling again in their native language, and Rostnikov went to work. From his pocket he withdrew a long, coiled plumbing snake, unwound it, and began to force it down the toilet. He eased and worked it but struck nothing.
Next, he turned off the water and, with the wrench that he had taken from the confiscated burglar tools in the basement of police headquarters in Petrovka, he removed the pipe behind the toilet seat. When it was removed, he found a cup on the nearby sink, filled it with water, stomped his foot on the floor and poured the water down the pipe. Almost instantly, Sarah in the apartment below pounded on the ceiling with the signal.
“Fitting,” muttered Rostnikov on his hands and knees, peering down into the dark pipe.
“What is?” said the Bulgarian behind him. The man was standing back in the bedroom, unwilling to intrude but equally unwilling to leave this barrel of a man alone.
“There is a loose fitting in the pipe,” Rostnikov explained. “I’ll have to go down to my apartment, unscrew the coupling and pull it up here to fix it. If it’s just a fitting it won’t be difficult. If there is a leak in the pipe, we have a more serious problem.”
Using the sink to steady himself, Rostnikov rose. There was a smile on his lips. He might be a bit late for work, but he would lick this. Triumphs were few in his work and even fewer in the tasks of getting through the day, but this would be a triumph.
The knock at the door jerked him from his near triumph. He turned to face the Bulgarians, who looked at him.
“Answer the door,” he said, stepping into the bedroom. Had someone actually called Samsanov? Did the little man have a spy on the floor? Rostnikov began to think of a lie and decided that his best chance to get through would be to bluff Samsanov, to tell him this was a police matter, that the toilet had to be fixed, that national security was at risk. That, of course, superceded even local Party decisions. The Bulgarian opened the door, and Rostnikov wondered how national security could be involved in fixing a toilet.
“Chief Inspector Rostnikov,” came a familiar voice from the doorway.
“In here,” said the Bulgarian, and Emil Karpo strode into the room to further confound the man and the woman.
The man who strode into the room was about six feet three, lean, and quite hard. Because of his slanted eyes, high cheekbones, tight skin, and expressionless dark face, he had been known in his early police career as the Tatar. But twenty years of fanatical pursuit of enemies of the state had given him the pale look of the obsessed and earned him the more frequent nickname of the Vampire among his colleagues. The name seemed particularly appropriate when a peculiar look crept into Karpo’s eyes and at those moments even those who had worked with him for years avoided him. Only Rostnikov knew that the look was caused by severe migraine headaches, which Karpo refused to admit to. Rostnikov knew quite a lot about his junior colleague. Survival in the Soviet Union often depended on how many secrets you knew and could call upon. Rostnikov watched Karpo with interest, glancing at his left arm, which was stiff and still. Karpo had been shot several months earlier and then had injured the arm again while chasing a petty criminal. He had almost lost the arm that time, but a surgeon who had just had a good meal and a few hours’ sleep had worked harder than usual to save the limb. So the two men shared something—one with a bad leg, the other a bad arm—though they never spoke of their common bond.
“Yes,” said Rostnikov.
“You’re to come to Comrade Timofeyeva’s office. It is urgent. There’s a car downstairs waiting.”
Rostnikov looked at the Bulgarians and back over his shoulder at the toilet.
“Karpo, what do you know of plumbing?”
“I’m a police investigator,” Karpo replied.
“That does not preclude your knowing something,” Rostnikov said.
“You are joking again, Comrade Inspector,” Karpo said expressionlessly.
“Why is it you can recognize a joke, Emil Karpo, but you cannot engage in one?” Rostnikov said, walking past him toward the door.
“It is not functional to engage in jokes,” Karpo said. “There is too much to do. Lenin had no sense of humor either.”
“I know.” Rostnikov sighed, and then said to the Bulgarians. “Do not touch the toilet. Use the one at the end of the corridor. Above all do not tell anyone of this.” He put his fingers to his lips. “I’ll be back tonight to fix it.”
“But—” the woman began. The thin man tugged at her sleeve to quiet her.
“Security,” said Rostnikov, allowing Karpo to precede him through the door.
“We understand,” said the Bulgarian, rushing to close the door behind the two policemen.
As they walked down the corridor, Rostnikov said, “Are you curious about that?”
“No,” said Karpo, and the conversation ended.
Twenty minutes later, after getting his jacket and saying good-bye to Sarah, Rostnikov arrived with Karpo at the entrance to Petrovka in a yellow police Volga with a blue horizontal stripe.
Petrovka consists of two ten-story L-shaped buildings on Petrovka Street. It is modern, utilitarian, and very busy. It is prominent—everyone knows where it is—and so are the thousands of gray-clad policemen who patrol the city. The ratio of police to civilians is higher in Moscow than in any other major city of the world.
In spite of this, crime, while it does not flourish, exists. Files of doznaniye or inquiries, cover the desks of the procurators working under the procurator general of the Soviet Union. The police work with the procurators in the twenty districts of Moscow and are responsible for all but political crimes, which fall within the sphere of the KGB (Komityet Gosudarstvennoy Besapanost) or State Security Agency. It is a constant puzzle to both procurators and police what qualifies as a political crime. Economic crimes are generally political because they threaten the economy of the state and thus are subversive. In fact, any crime can be considered political, even the bludgeoning of a husband by a jealous wife. Officially, the procurator general’s office is empowered by the constitution of the U.S.S.R., Article 164, to exercise “supreme power of supervision over the strict and uniform observance of laws by all ministries, state committees and departments, enterprises, institutions and organizations, executive-administrative bodies of local Soviets of People’s Deputies, collective farms, cooperatives and other public organizations, officials and citizens.”
Which was why Procurator Anna Timofeyeva, a thick box of a woman, about fifty, spent at least fourteen hours a day, seven days a week in her office in Petrovka, trying to shorten the pile of cases on her desk. She looked quite formidable in her striped shirt and dark blue procurator’s uniform. She drank gallons of cold tea, did her best to ignore her weak and frequently complaining heart, and went on with her massive task.
Procurator Timofeyeva was in her second ten-year term of office. Before that she had been an assistant to one of the commissars of Leningrad in charge of shipping and manufacturing quotas. She had no background in law, no training for her position, but she was dedicated, reasonably intelligent, and, above all, a zealot. She was an excellent procurator.
She was behind her desk as always when Rostnikov entered her office after knocking and being told gruffly to enter. Then the ritual began. Rostnikov sat in the chair opposite her, glanced up at the picture of Lenin above her head, and waited. As always she offered him a glass of her room-temperature tea.
“Murder,” she said.
Rostnikov sipped his tea and waited.
“Poison,” added Procurator Timofeyeva.
Rostnikov looked down at his glass, hesitated and again sipped at the tea. He liked sugar in his tea, or at least lemon. This had neither and very little taste, but it kept his hands busy. Procurator Timofeyeva’s one vice was her taste for the dramatic in assigning cases.
“An American,” she went on. “During the night, at the Metropole.”
“An American,” Rostnikov repeated, shifting his left leg. Keeping it in one position for more than a few minutes always resulted in stiffening and at least minor pain.
“And two Soviet citizens. And a Japanese.”
“Four,” said Rostnikov.
“Let us hope our powers of addition are not taxed beyond this number,” she said, sipping her own tea.
“And the inquiry, I take it, is now mine?” said Rostnikov.
“It is yours, and it is, once again, delicate. The American was a journalist here for the Moscow Film Festival. The Soviets were businessmen. The Japanese was also here for the festival, but it is the American who causes concern. It seems he was well known in his country.”
“An accident?” tried Rostnikov.
“According to the preliminary medical report from the hotel, this poison could hardly have been an accident. So, you must work quickly. There are several thousand visitors in Moscow for the festival from more than a hundred countries. There must be no rumors of a poisoner, no panic to spoil the festival. It is an important cultural event, a world event. The Olympics as you know were successfully sabotaged by the Americans and their puppets. Moscow cannot be the scene of another such embarrassment.”
Comrade Timofeyeva’s knuckles were white as she clutched her glass.
“Forgive me, Comrade Procurator, but are not such fears a bit premature? This is but—”
“Sources have informed me that there may be those who wish to embarrass the Soviet Union during the festival and that this may be part of their scheme,” she said, looking over her shoulder at the portrait of Lenin as if to seek approval.
“In which case, would this not be properly handled by—” Rostnikov began, but she interrupted him again.
“The KGB wishes us to investigate this as a common crime and not a political one. I’m afraid, Comrade Rostnikov, you have gained a reputation for discretion in such matters.”
The meaning of this, Rostnikov well knew, was that if he failed, his enemies could throw him to the dogs. He was expendable, and this precarious state was becoming part of his life with each delicate case he handled.
“I understand,” Rostnikov said, rising. “I assume I am to go to the Metropole immediately. I am to keep you informed, and I am to work, as always, as swiftly as possible.”
She stood and took the empty glass from his hand.
“An American is dead, poisoned,” she said. “It is already an embarrassment.”
“And Karpo is to work with me?”
“If you wish,” she agreed, sitting again and already reaching for the next file on her desk. “But he must keep up with the rest of his case load.”
Rostnikov moved toward the door.
“If you need Tkach, yes,” she said.
He opened the door but paused before he stepped out. The next thing he was going to say would surely be dangerous, but it was worth saying, for he both liked and admired the homely, far too serious, and officious woman who sat behind the desk in this hot office.
“How are you feeling, Comrade Anna?” He spoke softly so that she could ignore him if she wished.
Her reaction was to yank off her glasses and glare at him angrily for an instant. But something in his look, the way he stood, the sincerity of his tone, got through to her, and she couldn’t sustain the anger.
“I am well, Porfiry,” she lied evenly.
He recognized the lie and smiled ever so slightly.
“Good,” he said and stepped into the corridor, closing the door behind him.
He knew that she would not take his inquiry as the false solicitude of the underling who coveted his superior’s job, for the facts were clear. Rostnikov would never be more than a chief inspector in the MVD, a position higher than might be expected of him considering his inability to control his tongue, his frequent impetuousness, and his politically hazardous Jewish wife—a wife who had no interest at all in either religion or politics. Fortunately, Rostnikov had no ambition; he was politically uninterested. His job was to catch criminals and occasionally punish them at the moment of capture. Usually, however, the game—and he saw it as a game—ended when he caught the criminals and turned them over to the procurator’s office for justice. It didn’t matter to Rostnikov whether the law was reasonable or not. The criminals knew the law and knew when they were violating it.
Beyond catching criminals, Rostnikov’s life was in his wife, his son Iosef who had recently been posted to Kiev with his army unit, weight lifting, reading American mystery novels, and, most recently, plumbing.
Lost in thought, Rostnikov turned the corner and found himself facing Emil Karpo, a startling specter.
“You’ll be needing me?” Karpo said.
“For now,” answered Rostnikov, continuing to limp down the corridor. “We are going to the Metropole Hotel.”
On Sverdlov Square facing the monument to Karl Marx stands the Metropole Hotel, which belongs to Intourist, the official Soviet tourist travel agency. The Metropole was built in 1903. In October 1917 the revolutionary workers and soldiers fought fiercely to capture it from the White army troops who had barricaded themselves inside. On the side of the hotel facing Marx Prospekt is a plaque commemorating this battle. Near the entrance to the hotel, on the square, are other memorial plaques, reminding people that the hotel for a time housed the offices of the All-Russia Central Executive Committee of Soviets of Working People’s Deputies under the chairmanship of Yakov Sverdlov after whom the square had been named. Lenin often spoke in the ballroom of the Metropole.
The Metropole has been renovated several times. The upper part of the facade is decorated with mosaic panels designed by Mikhai Vrubel on the theme of the play La Princesse Lointaine by the French playwright Edmond Rostand, who also wrote Cyrano de Bergerac. Feodor Chaliapin once sang in the hotel’s restaurant and Maxim Gorky once described the hotel in glowing terms in his novel The Life of Klim Samgin.
That is the tourist-book description of the Metropole. In fact, the hotel is dark, dusty, and decaying. The food in the restaurant is poor, the service ridiculous even by Moscow’s standards, and the orchestra laughable.