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Death of a Russian Priest


  1. Cover
  2. About the Book
  3. About the Author
  4. Title Page
  5. Copyright Page
  6. Dedication
  7. Epigraph
  1. Chapter 1
  2. Chapter 2
  3. Chapter 3
  4. Chapter 4
  5. Chapter 5
  6. Chapter 6
  7. Chapter 7
  8. Chapter 8
  9. Chapter 9
  10. Chapter 10
  11. Chapter 11
  12. Chapter 12
  13. Chapter 13
  14. Chapter 14
  15. Chapter 15
  16. Chapter 16
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About the Book

Just days after the end of the USSR, a mysterious priest becomes a martyr.

In service of his beloved Orthodox Church, Father Merhum has spent decades battling Soviet apparatchiks and the KGB. Now the Soviet Union is gone, but the bureaucracy survives, and the aged priest makes plans to denounce Communist supporters, including some within the Church. He is on his way to Moscow when an assassin stops him with an ax. And as he dies, Merhum begs for forgiveness - a curious plea from a saint-to-be.

The case falls to police inspectors Porfiry Rostnikov and Emil Karpo - a ruthless detective whose eerie appearance has earned him the nickname “the vampire.” But as they dig into the past of this celebrated village priest, they uncover strange church secrets and a conspiracy that would ensure that though Soviet Russia is finished, corruption will never die.

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.

Death Of A Russian Priest

An Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov Mystery

Stuart M. Kaminsky


To Evan Hunter for his support and inspiration

With special thanks to the two Moscow police officers who showed me a night side of Moscow of which few are aware, and to the Moscow Branch of the International Association of Crime Writers for their generous hospitality.

… in his period of piety, fasting, visiting monks, and going to church, when he was seeking help in religion to curb his passionate nature, Nikolai had not only failed to find anyone to encourage him, but everyone … had laughed at him. They teased him, called him Noah, a monk; and then, when he returned, no one came to his aid. Instead, everyone turned away from him in horror and disgust.

—LEO TOLSTOY, Anna Karenina

Chapter 1

AN HOUR AFTER DAWN on a chill December morning, the assassin stood before the white wooden church in the village of Arkush.

He was careful not to touch any of the gathering faithful who entered prepared to cross themselves, stand, bend, pray, and sing during the three-hour ceremony that would be conducted by the priest who would one day be a saint.

The assassin looked up at the domes of the church, four bulbous shapes meant to represent colorful flames reaching up toward heaven, but looking to child and nonbeliever only like pastel onions. The assassin, filled with disgust, hid behind a suffocating mask of piety. He entered the church and found a place to stand where the priest could be clearly seen.

The church was filled with men and women of all ages, families with children, not just old babushkas. They had come to hear the holy man who evoked the spirit of St. Basil and St. Philip. They had come to pass their candles forward and then be blessed by him.

Through the moving, talking congregation the assassin could see the iconostasis, the wall of holy paintings that, according to dogma, served as the door to the Lord, the Holy Mother, or the depicted saint. The assassin paid little attention to the crowd, the icons, the lighted candles. He watched the actual door in the iconostasis through which the priest would soon be coming.

In the sanctuary beyond that door, Father Vasili Merhum held out his arms in homage to the Savior so that his grandson Aleksandr could help him put on his vestments for the Eucharist. As the ecclesiastical robes slipped over his arms the priest’s heart beat madly in anticipation of what he planned to do this very afternoon.

Into his mind there came a vivid picture of a low wooden building in Moscow, the Department of External Affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church.

In a conference room in the building, where Father Merhum planned to go that afternoon, was a large painting. It was Father Merhum’s favorite painting. In the painting a large angry man in golden robes partially covered by a dark monk’s cloak looks down at a bishop, the object of his scorn. The bishop, in full white vestments, appears quite calm as he looks up at the irate giant.

The golden giant in the painting is Ivan the Terrible. The bishop is Metropolitan Philip of Moscow. Legend has it that Ivan entered the church in disguise to demand that Philip cease speaking out against the policies of the czar. The bishop refused. Ivan had him arrested and strangled in prison and Philip became a saint of the church.

Father Merhum was a large man, over six feet tall and shaped like a brown bear. He was sixty-six years old and his beard was curled and gray. His unflinching gray eyes announced that he was a priest who fully believed he had the ear of Jesus. With faith in his mission Father Merhum had stood up to commissars, the leaders of his own church, the KGB, and state leaders from Stalin to Gorbachev. And now, days after the end of the seventy-year-old failure of Soviet socialism, he stood ready to take up the demands for reform with Yeltsin himself.

Father Merhum had no illusions. He did not believe the new Sodruzhestvo Nezavisimykh Gosudarstv, the Commonwealth of Independent States, would suddenly bring freedom. He did not believe that the men against whom he had fought for more than half a century would suddenly become tolerant because they wore new hats and waved a flag of red, white, and blue instead of a red flag with a hammer and sickle. Yeltsin had come to power without a party behind him. He and the leaders of the other new nations had no choice but to rely on the old bureaucrats. The people would continue to suffer, with starvation, with the gradual realization that different is not always better, and ultimately, with attacks on their faith.

Vasili lifted his robe and held up a leg so his grandson could help him put on the stitcharion, the long, smooth undergarment. “My soul rejoices in the Lord,” the priest said softly. “He has dressed me in the garment of salvation and put upon me the vestment of joy. Like a bridegroom, He has placed the miter upon me, and like a bride, He has surrounded me with adornment.”

Across the shoulders of the priest his grandson, who stood a full half foot shorter than the old man, placed the epitrach-elion, the stole. Its dangling ends, sewn together over the chest, signified the burst of joy of the Holy Spirit.

As he donned the stole the priest said, “Praise be to God who has poured out His grace upon His priests like precious ointment upon the head; it flows down upon the beard of Aaron; it flows down upon the hem of his garment.”

Then, as the girdle was placed about his ample waist and belly, Father Merhum recited, “He has girded me with strength and made my way irreproachable.”

Then the epimakinia, the cuffs, reaching from wrist to elbow.

“Thy right arm,” he said, “was glorified in strength, O Lord; Thy right arm, O Lord, shattered the enemy.”

And then for the left arm. “Thy hands have created me and formed me; teach me, that I may know Thy commandments.”

Then he put on the chasuble, the “house,” seamless like the tunic of Jesus.

As Father Merhum said his prayer the assassin stood off to the side of the railed platform from which the priest would soon address his flock. An ancient nun, covered in black from head to foot and wearing a beehive-shaped head covering, stood head bent, praying the rosary. The assassin watched her gnarled hands that cradled a rosary of silver and green beads.

At her side a small choir of six men and women sang softly, almost to themselves. Nun and choir went silent as the ornate gold-painted door opened and Father Merhum, a giant in full vestments, stepped forth and bellowed, “Forgive me my children.”

Spasi gospodi. God save you. God will forgive,” echoed all but one voice in the church.

The service lasted more than three hours. Then it was time for the sermon. There was a great silence as Father Merhum turned his back to the congregation to look at the icons and gather strength from them. His broad shoulders sagged and then rose with determination.

A small child cried out for something to drink. Angry voices whispered to quiet the little boy, but the priest, who had now turned to face those before him, held up a hand and smiled.

“It is right that that thirsty child should ask for water,” he said. “The Lord did not make children with the power to dissemble. Children are taught pretense. We live in a world of pretense taught to us not only by those who once told us to worship the false God of Lenin, but by all those who would reject the true God and our Lord Jesus Christ. Give the child water.”

The ancient nun in the corner rose and the crowd parted. She moved to the child who had asked for drink and took his hand.

“Your soul,” the priest continued as the nun led the little boy to the church door, “may wear its earthly masks. Women may paint their laces.” His words echoed from the ancient stone walls. “Men may perfect their masks. But the true God can see the soul and hear its cry for water, food, meaning.”

The assassin was certain that the burning eyes of the priest met his at that moment. He forced himself to keep from blinking and turning away.

“The struggle is not over, though the statues are down and the empire is dying. We speak openly, but those with clubs and guns, the murderers of the soul, wait in the shadows. New freedom is not only for the just but for the unjust also. Those who stole your bread will be replaced by others who will steal your bread and your water. The struggle is not over.

“Look you,” he bellowed, stepping forward. “New false gods already dwell behind the golden doors of Moscow, Tiblisi, Kiev. Deny them. There is no new kingdom and there was no old kingdom. It was always the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ. This very day I will go to Moscow. This very day I will be expected to join in the rejoicing of those who claim a new kingdom called Democracy. This day even those in vestments in our own church will smile and give thanks and be mesmerized by hope. It is not hard for an evil king to clothe the seduced in the vestments of priests, but God, not the kings of the earth, determines the holy. In the name of our Lord I will not be mesmerized by a crucifix of gold while someone reaches into my chest to take my soul, our soul, and claim the kingdom of the Lord.”

At the end Father Merhum blessed the worshipers and patted the heads of those who came forward to kiss the hem of his vestments.

Assassin and priest’s eyes met again for an instant. Had the cleansing weapon not been hidden outside, he would have climbed over the backs of the fools, the stupid animals who knelt in front of this preening pot of filth. The pot had to be broken. Krov, thought the assassin, blood. He imagined the broken priest split in two, a putrid foul gas escaping from his body.

The priest was gone. Through the golden door.

The assassin pushed through the crowd. The priest would change quickly. Feigning humility, he would walk through the woods to the train station, where he would travel to Moscow to do battle with the state in the name of God and the people. But he would do other things in Moscow of which he told no one.

Hypocrisy, he thought, willing himself to move at the pace of those who stepped out into the cold daylight, dazzled, still in a religious swoon, a state of stupid ecstasy. They moved slowly and so did he.

Father Merhum, with the help of his grandson, removed his vestments carefully, with reverence. He was aware of his hands, his thighs, the rippling gray hair between his legs as he slipped off each vestment and handed it to Aleksandr.

“I have a question for you,” said the priest, and the boy’s legs trembled as he placed a cloak neatly on a wooden hanger. Aleksandr was sure that his grandfather had discovered his secret.

“You ate this morning?” Father Merhum asked, pulling his head through the top of his black cloak and smoothing his unruly hair and beard.

“Yes, Father,” said Aleksandr. He placed the sleeves gently in the wooden box on the table.

“You ate all your bread?” asked Father Merhum playfully.

“All of it,” said Aleksandr.

“Good,” said his grandfather. “Are you still going to be a priest?”

As he had said dozens of times before, the twelve-year old answered, “As my grandfather and his father before him.”

They said nothing of Aleksandr’s father, Peotor, who had forsaken his tradition for the life of a shopkeeper. Peotor claimed to be an atheist. In the four years during which Father Merhum had been imprisoned for his articles, for his attacks on the puppet priests who had been appointed by the government as metropolitans and bishops, not once had Peotor written to him.

“Your father has lost his soul,” said Father Merhum, adjusting the heavy cross on his chest. “He inherited the weakness of his mother, whom our Lord has taken to his breast.”

The small, thin boy, who most resembled his sad and pretty Georgian mother, nodded his head. When his grandfather talked of his father, Aleksandr imagined not the sullen man at home but one of the sinners in the icon of the Lord and the gates of hell that hung in his grandfather’s house. The sinner in the icon was a thin, pale creature in rags, his right arm trying to cover his face from the wrath of the Lord.

“It is not that Peotor honestly turned from God,” said Father Merhum, “but that he believed in the Lord yet turned his back upon him and the Holy Mother for a few extra bottles of wine and a shank of meat on earth. I respect an honest atheist, even an honest Communist, but I despise the coward who thinks only of preserving what sheathes his body and fills his belly, the coward who abandons God and his soul.”

Aleksandr nodded dutifully.

“You understand?” asked Father Merhum. “Speak.”

“I understand,” said the boy.

“My words are hard, but it is better to face reality than to waste time constructing lies and excuses. We are what we must be, but the Lord gives us the opportunity to choose. Your father has chosen. You must choose. Today. Tomorrow.”

Aleksandr nodded.

“Do you understand even half of what I say to you?”

“I think so.”

“Good,” said Father Merhum. “Go.”

And the boy turned, grabbed his coat, and ran out the door.

With his grandson gone, Vasili Merhum surveyed himself in the tall mirror and contemplated the approaching struggle. He would fight for political and religious freedom in this new Russia. He would demand that those who tortured and murdered under the old regime, even if they be officials in the new commonwealth, be brought to justice. He would supply the names. He would read them in Red Square atop the empty tomb that had held the profane icon of Lenin, which the foolish had stood in line to worship. And if he were martyred, then so be it.

He would name the ones who had changed their masks, from the highest generals to the party members and even the pathetic mayor of Arkush. And to that list he would add two bishops. It would begin with a public meeting in snow before St. Basil’s this very day. The foreign press had been invited. Yeltsin himself had been invited but would certainly not come. Even Gorbachev had been invited, though it no longer mattered if he came or not. Father Merhum expected only the people and the television cameras. He would speak in Russian, English, French. He anticipated the day not far in the future when he would be offered a position in the Russian government. He pictured himself righteously refusing the offer.

After he put on his coat, Father Merhum checked the floorboard under the leg of the table, found the hidden space below it and its contents as he had left them. Then he rose and stepped out the door onto the stone path behind the church. He crossed the small concrete churchyard, went across the brick-lined street, and entered the woods.

As he walked, watching his cold breath cloud before him, the priest allowed himself a brief thought of the appointment he had made for that evening in the square building just across from the church where Pushkin had been married. The appointment and what it would lead to would be both the earthly reward and punishment for the explosive speech he would make that day. Father Merhum’s challenge to Yeltsin, his demand for immediate punishment for those who now hid behind the shadowed pillars of the Kremlin would be on the lips of every Christian and non-Christian in Russia and beyond. He planned to demand the immediate resignation of many of those in the new Commonwealth governments. He expected no such thing to happen, but the demand would signal that a respected member of the Church had joined in the call to overthrow not only the old reactionaries but the new bigots and self-seekers.

Father Merhum was soon no more than fifty yards from his house. He would not turn toward the house but would continue straight on to the station. Walking on the narrow path of stones, he was aware of the scuffling of animals in the snow-covered grass and the rustling of wings of the gray-black crows in the trees above.

He paused at the birch tree where at the age of sixteen he had cut a cross to impress the young large-breasted daughter of the then mayor of Arkush. There was no longer a trace of that cross. He stopped now because something was in his shoe, a pebble perhaps. As he paused, reached down, and removed the shoe, Father Merhum was aware of a rustling in the leaves behind him, a rustling that suggested something larger than a ferret or rat. With his right shoe in one hand and balancing himself against the familiar birch with the other, he turned his head and saw not a person but an upraised ax.

There was no time to think, pray, or respond. The priest fell backward as the blow came and his shoe sailed into the woods. He tried to turn his back, but he had no time. The next blow brought no great pain, just a sudden throbbing as he rolled onto his back and looked up.

“You,” he said. “You.”

The assassin was going to strike again, but he stopped in midblow. The priest had fallen backward, eyes opening and closing in confusion as his mouth let out a deep breath and a cloud of steam. The assassin stared at the bearded, wide-eyed dog who looked up at him, blood and something yellow coming out of the back of his head, staining the leaves on the ground dark. Instead of striking again, the assassin turned his back and walked into the woods, ax at his side.

Father Vasili Merhum, not yet dead, rolled over onto his knees, touched the back of his head, and felt the soft cushion of his own brain flecked with sharp edges of bone. He began to crawl, trailing his bloody handprints in the snow and along the stone path. Were he to live, it would truly be a miracle.

Through the clearing he could see his small house. The heavy cross on the chain around his neck scraped against the stone path as he crawled forward, slowly losing sensation in his shoeless foot and his right arm. He could imagine his cross sending up sparks.

At the low wooden gate to his house he saw his father, who had been dead for more than forty years. His father flew toward him, his vestments prepared for Easter. The old man’s cross bounced on his chest. His beard, long, gold gray, and silken, trailed behind as he approached his son.

And then, as his father knelt at his side, Father Merhum could see that it was not his father but a woman from his childhood, Yelena Yozhgov, and suddenly it was not she but Sister Nina, her rosary of silver around her neck. She sat, put his head in her lap, and wailed, a wail that was pain and justification to the dying priest. He would be a martyr. He could simply be quiet now and die a martyr, but he could not keep his mouth from moving.

“Sister, Oleg must forgive me,” he said, and she leaned forward to hear what he would say next, but there were no more words and the priest was dead.

Chapter 2

IT WAS NOT AT ALL clear to Galina Panishkoya how she came to be sitting in the back room of the former State Store 31 with a gun in her hand pressed hard against the neck of a young woman in a faded and not very clean white smock.

Galina was a sixty-three-year-old grandmother, a babushka, in a cloth coat. She had two arthritic knees and she had two granddaughters to take care of. If there was one place she should not be, it was here.

She shifted on the rickety wooden stool in an attempt to get a bit more comfortable. The movement made the gun in her hand shift, and the young woman in white sitting in front of her gasped as the barrel tapped bone just above her ear.

“I’m sorry,” said Galina.

The young woman, whose name was Ludmilla, sobbed, and tried not to look at the body of Herman Koruk, her boss, who sat on the floor, his legs spread, eyes wide open in surprise. There was a spot in his neck just below his chin where Galina had shot him. There was very little blood.

“Please let me go,” said Ludmilla.

“Shhh,” said Galina, looking at the partly open door to the shop.

She was trying to hear what the policemen were saying, but they were too far away. The first policeman through the door had been a young man. Most policemen seemed to be young. For that matter, most people seemed to be young. She had already sat the shopgirl on the floor in front of her when the young policeman had entered.

“Stop,” she had told him, and though he was young, he was not stupid.

He stopped and moved his hand away from his holster.

“Don’t hurt her,” he had said.

“Go away,” Galina had said.

“I …”

“Away,” Galina repeated, and he had gone away.

Ludmilla, who was twenty-five years old and just a bit on the scrawny side, wanted to do two contradictory things at the same time: become invisible, and plead with the madwoman with the gun to let her go. She started to turn her head slightly to address the woman and felt, even smelled, the steel of the gun barrel against her ear. She decided invisibility would be the better choice.

When the call went out on the police band that someone had been shot and a hostage taken at former State Store 31, Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov had been seated next to the driver of a new Mercedes police car speeding to the morning meeting of the Special Affairs Department. The car happened to be passing the massive gray block of the Lenin Library, which meant that State Store 31 was five minutes away.

“Go,” said Rostnikov.

When they arrived in front of the store at the entrance to Arbat Street, two uniformed policemen were trying to keep a crowd from pressing up to the store window and possibly getting their frozen noses shot off by the madwoman inside.

Rostnikov stepped out of the Mercedes and closed the door.

The cold began immediately to work its way up Rostnikov’s left leg. The leg, a tyrant in the tradition of the Czars, was quick to complain of changes in weather or requests for activity. The leg, rather badly served by a German tank during the Great War, placed full blame on Porfiry Petrovich’s youthful patriotism. In the forty-six years that had passed since the event Rostnikov had learned to endure the accusations of his leg.

He addressed the appendage—internally, of course—and made deals with it. Give me only minimal discomfort today, he would bargain, and I will prop you up tonight with a pillow and not move for three hours.

Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov, wearing an imitation leather jacket over his still-serviceable black suit, moved slowly through the crowd that parted resentfully.

“Go home, all of you,” shouted the young policeman who had seen Galina in the back room of State Store 31.

“Why?” asked a gravelly voice that could have belonged to a man or a woman. “There’s nothing to eat at home.”

“We’ve got a free country now,” came another voice, a younger male voice. “We can’t be ordered home by the police anymore.”

“Yes,” shouted several people as Rostnikov broke through to the front of the crowd.

A snaggle-toothed little man wearing an orange wool hat pulled over his ears and an oversized coat pushed his face toward Porfiry Petrovich and squealed, “No more pushing around.”

Rostnikov could smell alcohol on the man’s breath.

“The police will always push,” came the gravelly voice from the rear. “No matter what color they wear.”

Two more uniformed police had arrived and were helping push the crowd back. The young policeman spotted Rostnikov and broke away from the man with whom he was arguing. Rostnikov, hands plunged into his pockets, was looking at the bare windows and the partly open door of State Store 31.

“Inspector Rostnikov,” the young man said, assuming a position something like attention.

Some people in the crowd laughed at the young police man. He tried to ignore them. He had joined the police when he came back from Afghanistan, thinking he could make a living and command some respect. He was wrong on both counts.

“What is your name?” asked Rostnikov.

“Misha Tiomkin.”

Misha Tiomkin’s nose was red. His fur uniform hat was pulled down over his ears and he looked like a boy dressed up like a soldier.

“It is an old woman,” said Tiomkin.

“Go in and shoot her, why don’t you?” said the drunken little man with bad teeth. “Solve all your problems that way. People get hungry, shoot them. Bullets are cheaper than food.”

Rostnikov and Officer Tiomkin moved away from the crowd, closer to the store’s open door.

“It’s not clear what happened,” said Tiomkin. “People were pushing and shoving, complaining that there was so little in the store, that it was too expensive, ten times more than last week, even bread is—”

Tiomkin stopped himself.

“The situation got tense,” he continued. “Someone broke a glass case, took some cheese. Others started grabbing. The manager had a gun. He fired in the air. People were screaming. And then someone took the gun from the manager and … I don’t know. She’s in there with a clerk, a young girl.”

“Tell me, Misha Tiomkin,” Rostnikov said, looking up at the gray sky and then at the angry crowd, “is it your impression that winters are getting milder in Moscow?”

Tiomkin pondered the question. “I don’t know.”

“I think they are,” said Rostnikov. “Mild winters are like full moons. People grow mad. The blood is affected like the tides, perhaps.”

“Perhaps,” agreed Tiomkin.

Rostnikov patted the young policeman on the shoulder, motioned for him to move back to control the crowd, and moved to the door of State Store 31.

“He’s going to shoot her, look,” called a woman.


“The one in the fake leather jacket, the one there by the door. Use your eyes, the one that looks like a barrel.”

Rostnikov stepped into the shop, closed the door behind him, and looked around. Broken glass and the beads of the store’s broken abacus lay before him on the floor.

There was nothing that resembled food in the store except a spongy splat of white on the floor. The splat, which may have recently been cheese, bore the footprint of a large shoe.

Rostnikov moved around the splat, behind the counter, and up to the door behind which someone was sobbing.

He knocked twice.

“Who?” came a woman’s voice.

The voice sounded dreamy, as if the woman had just awakened from a deep dream.

“My name is Porfiry Petrovich,” he said. “I would like to talk to you.”

“Are you a policeman?”

“Would anyone but a policeman want to come in and talk to a woman with a gun?”

“Do you have a gun?” she asked.

“No,” he said. “I’m not fond of guns.”

“Me neither,” said the woman. “Why do you want to come in?”

“Perhaps I might be able to help.”

“You are alone? There is no one out there with you?”

“No one.”

“Come in and close the door behind you. I want to see your hands.”

Rostnikov pushed the door open.

The room held a small metal table, some empty shelves against the walls, several chairs, and a stool on which the older woman sat. The walls were gray white. The room was not large, but he was at least ten feet from the two women.

“What is wrong with your leg?” asked Galina as Rostnikov came forward slowly.

“Old injury, the war, Nazi tank,” he said. “May I sit?”

Galina shrugged. “I don’t own the store. Sit if you want to sit.”

Rostnikov moved carefully to the nearest chair on his right, almost a dozen feet from the two women. He sat awkwardly, his left leg extended, his right bent. The young woman on the floor looked at him with moist frightened eyes.

“You were telling the truth,” said Galina.

“The truth?”

“Your leg,” she said, pointing at his leg with the pistol in her hand. “I thought you might be pretending so you could jump at me when I didn’t expect it. But … you are too young to—”

“I was not yet fifteen when this happened,” he said.

Galina nodded knowingly.

“Your name is … ?” asked Rostnikov.

“Galina Panishkoya,” said the woman.

“And you are … ?” he asked, looking at the frightened girl on the floor.

“Ludmilla, Ludmilla … I can’t remember my last name,” she said between tears.

“That’s not possible,” said Galina.

“It happens to some people when they are very frightened,” said Rostnikov. “It happened to me once.”

“To forget your own name,” said Galina, shaking her head.

“Perhaps if Ludmilla got up and went outside, she would be less frightened,” Rostnikov suggested.

“But then,” Galina said, raising the barrel of the pistol to the girl’s head, “your police would come in here and shoot me.”

“No. You would still have me,” he said.

“You? What would I do with you?”

“Talk,” he said.

“Talk, there is nothing to talk about,” said Galina. “This stool is too low. When I was a girl in Georgia, I milked goats on a stool like this. Sat for hours. Now, backaches.”

“You remember a—”

A loud noise rose from beyond the door, on the street, laughter or anger—it was hard to tell which. Ludmilla looked at the dead man near the door and began to shake.

“You remember a great deal about when you were a child?” Rostnikov asked.

“One forgets the details,” said Galina. “Where was the chair? The bed? What color were the walls? These are important things. If we cannot remember our lives, what do we have?”

Rostnikov nodded. “Ludmilla is growing more frightened,” he said.

Galina looked down at the young woman in front of her as if for the first time. “I have two granddaughters,” she said. “Little. Eleven and seven. My daughter is dead. Her husband left them with me. He”—she nodded toward the sprawled dead man—“looked like him.”

“Is that why you shot him?”

“I don’t know if I shot him,” she said, looking directly at him. “But …”

“I believe you,” he said, and he did believe her.

“My savings are gone. My job, I used to work at the Panyushkin dress factory, gone. My legs, gone. And my memory is going. I can’t even remember if I shot a man a few hours ago.”

Rostnikov did not correct her. The manager of State Store 31 had been shot no more than ten minutes ago. “I suggest you put the gun down and I take you and Ludmilla out.”

“No,” Galina said, looking toward the door. “I’ll go to jail. I’m too old. I’m a good Christian. I’ll die knowing my girls are starving. It’s better I die here.”

Rostnikov could now barely hear her over the sobs of the girl on the floor. He put a finger to his lips to quiet her and she made an effort, which resulted in more subdued sobs.

“He came out,” Galina said, trying to remember what had taken place less than an hour earlier. “He shouted. He had a gun. He had no compassion. This one …” She touched the top of Ludmilla’s head with the barrel of the gun, and the girl closed her eyes. “She had no compassion. Now she cries, but we cried, my babies cry with hunger.”

“It’s my work,” Ludmilla said, addressing the policeman. “I feel, but—”

“Go,” said Galina, standing. “Go.”

Ludmilla looked up at her and then at Rostnikov. “You’ll shoot me.”

“Go,” Galina repeated, and Rostnikov nodded his head yes.

Ludmilla stood, knees week, sagging arms and shoulders shaking. “You won’t shoot me?” she said, looking down at the corpse near the door.


The girl took two steps to the door and stopped. “I can’t walk.”

“Ludmilla,” Rostnikov said gently. “It is time to go.”

“I’ve made in my pants. There are people out there. Customers. They’ll see me. Laugh at me …”

“Go,” Galina said gently. “Now.”

Ludmilla sighed deeply, brushed back her short hair, and ran out the door, slamming it behind her. They could hear the sound of her feet running on broken glass, a door opening, and then the mixed cheers and boos of the crowd.

“I don’t even know what kind of gun this is,” Galina said, sitting back on the stool.

“May I?” asked Rostnikov, putting his right hand up to his jacket.

Galina nodded.

Porfiry Petrovich reached into the inner pocket of his jacket and extracted a pair of glasses, which he placed on his nose. He looked at Galina and the weapon in her hand. “A Femara, Hungarian pistol,” he said. “Probably a 7.65mm Hege. Possibly a Walam model. Look at the handle.”

She loosed her grip slightly and looked down.

“A Pegasus in a circle?” he asked.

“Pega … ?”

“Flying horse.”

She nodded.

“The Hege,” he said, putting the glasses away carefully.

“I thought you didn’t like guns,” she said, lifting her arm to aim the weapon at him.

“It is, in my work, a good idea to know weapons. One is not required to like what one may be required to know.”

“I think,” she said, “it would be best if I shot myself.” She raised the weapon and pointed it to her head.

“I have a son,” Rostnikov said. “His name is Iosef.”

“I had a daughter,” said Galina. “We were told not to have more than one child. We all listened except the Ubekistanis. Arabs. They were right. We were wrong.”

“Your granddaughters,” he said.

“I am not young and this gun is heavy.”

“It makes an unpleasant hole,” he said, shifting his weight slightly. “A painful hole. I think you might not be in jail long, if at all, Galina Panishkoya. Have you ever committed a crime?”

“I was born. I had a daughter. I’m sorry, I can hold this gun no—”

“You shall see your grandchildren,” he said. “You shall talk to them, prepare them. Where are they now?”

“Home, waiting for me, hungry,” she said.

Rostnikov said nothing. He imagined two frightened little girls waiting all day. He looked into the deep brown eyes of the woman across the room and knew she was thinking the same or something very like it.

The gun came down slowly.

“You promise?” she asked.

“I promise,” he said.

“All I wanted was a small bread,” Galina said, taking a step toward the policeman and holding out the weapon to him. “I had the money to pay for it.”

Rostnikov took the gun, placed it in his pocket, and moved to the woman’s side to take her arm and keep her from collapsing.

The central police headquarters known simply as Petrovka stands at 38 Petrovka Street. It is, to those who see it for the first time, a surprisingly pleasant pair of white L-shaped buildings. Behind the black-and-white iron gates of Petrovka is a garden.

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