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Fall of a Cosmonaut

Contents

  1. Cover
  2. About the Book
  3. About the Author
  4. Title Page
  5. Copyright Page
  6. Dedication
  1. Epigraph
  2. Prologue
  3. Chapter 1
  4. Chapter 2
  5. Chapter 3
  6. Chapter 4
  7. Chapter 5
  8. Chapter 6
  9. Chapter 7
  10. Chapter 8
  11. Chapter 9
  12. Chapter 10
  13. Chapter 11
  14. Chapter 12
  15. Chapter 13
  16. Chapter 14
  1. Looking for more suspense?
  1. Cover
  2. Begin Reading

About the Book

Rostnikov confronts a mystery that stretches from Moscow to the stars.

Once, Russian children wanted to be cosmonauts like Yuri Gagarin. But the Soviet Union is dead, and the days of Gagarin’s glory are long passed. For the men and women aboard the decaying Mir space station, life is an unending series of near-disasters. During one such breakdown, cosmonaut Tsimion Vladovka asks ground control to contact Moscow police inspector Porfiry Rostnikov if anything happens to him. And when Vladovka disappears a year after his safe return to Earth, Rostnikov is the only man who can find him.

A philosophical detective, Rostnikov has made a name for himself navigating the bureaucracies of the Kremlin. But never has he encountered anything like the labyrinth that is Star City, home of the Russian space program. Something has terrified the cosmonaut, and since he knows dangerous state secrets, he must be found, alive or dead. But if a man who braved outer space is scared, what chance does an earthbound detective have?

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.

Fall of a Cosmonaut

An Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov Mystery

Stuart M. Kaminsky

 

To Elliott Gould, fan and friend,

from a fan and friend.

I, son of Ether, will take you to orbs that lie beyond the stars, and you will be queen of the universe, my bride. And from above you will look back without regret, without concern at the earth which, you will then know, has no real happiness and no lasting beauty.

—Mikhail Lermontov, The Demon

The stars, as if knowing that no one was looking at them, began to act in the dark sky; now trembling, they were busy whispering with pleasure and mysteriously to one another.

—Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

Prologue

THE MIR SPACE STATION WAS launched in February of 1986. It followed the Russian space programs seven smaller manned space stations, beginning with Salyut I, launched in 1971, which orbited the earth for six months.

Mir, which means “peace,” is forty-three feet long and fourteen feet wide. It has ninety-eight foot-long energy-generating solar panels. Mir can accommodate six cosmonauts for short stays and three for longer periods. Fifteen months is considered the maximum time for a cosmonaut to remain in space.

Mir has six docking ports, and when most or all are in use the attached units make Mir look like a metallic dragonfly being attacked by space parasites.

Mir has four areas—a docking compartment, living quarters, a work area, and a propulsion chamber. The docking compartment houses television equipment, the electrical-power supply system, and five of the six ports.

In the living space are two small sleeping cabins and a common area with dining facilities and exercise equipment, plus a toilet, sink, and a water-recycling system.

The work compartment contains the main navigational, communications, and power-control systems. Attached to the sides of this compartment are two solar panels that provide Mir’s electricity.

Space suits are needed only in the propulsion compartment, which is not pressurized. This compartment has rocket motors, a fuel supply, a heating system, and the sixth docking port, used only for unpiloted refueling missions. Outside this compartment are the antennae for all communication with the earth.

In the docked modules are an observatory with x-ray and gamma-ray telescopes. Another module, with an air-lock system, is used for repairs outside the station. A third module is used for scientific equipment and as a docking port for heavy spacecraft. Two more modules with various functions complete Mir.

Mir is a marvel of technology, the pride of Russian science, and for the last five years of its existence it has been rapidly decaying and experiencing a series of disasters—some small, some large, and at least one that began as …

Tsimion Vladovka sat before the console in front of the axial docking port, wondering if dreams were different in outer space. He pressed the buttons on the panel in front of him and watched the lists and numbers scroll by, certain that if something was wrong the automatic part of his mind would notice and nudge him into action and out of the memory of his dream.

Tsimion had been on the Mir space station for eight months. Early in his stay he had decided that there were three things about the journey around the earth to nowhere that he did not like.

First, he did not like the loud squawk of the alarm that woke the cosmonauts each morning and blared when there was a problem or potential problem. At first he had slept just below the level of consciousness, strapped in to keep from floating about the cabin, slept without dreams, dreading that blare. Now he had learned to anticipate it, check his watch, unstrap himself, and float past whoever might be sleeping just below him. Long before the others awoke, Tsimion was drifting weightlessly about the communal cabin, eating alone at the work and dining table. At forty-two, he was the oldest of the three cosmonauts on board the space station. If he took after his father, whom he already resembled, he would soon be white haired. At first, Tsimion had routinely shaved carefully, finding even the smallest hair on his throat, cheekbones, and beneath his ears. His beard was dark and grew quickly. Lately, he had begun to shave just enough so that there would be no questions from ground control about his appearance. There was a slightly Asian look about his face, a look of eastern Russia and the farming village in which he was born, that weightlessness somehow accented. His family went back at least a thousand years in that village not far from St. Petersburg, inbreeding with other potato-farming families till everyone in the town looked as if he or she had been cloned from the same original, with more than a touch of the Mongols who had long ago raided and raped their way through the plains.

When he brushed his teeth, Tsimion had to remind himself to keep his mouth closed tightly so that the toothpaste would not drift about the cabin. Even with frequent warnings and reminders it was inevitable that food particles would get away. It was routine for the cosmonauts to gather in stray floating bits as they came upon them and dispose of them in safe boxes. Washing was not so bad, but it had its own problems. Globules of water clung to the skin and had to be coaxed with a sponge to do their job. Capturing a fleeing globule of water in a plastic bag was a daily game.

“You sound tired, Vladovka,” Mikhail Stoltz had said once, his voice deep with years of smoking Turkish cigarettes. “Kahk dyehlah, ‘how are you?’”

Pryeekrahsnay, ‘fine,’” Tsimion had answered.

Tsimion had wondered at first why Stoltz, who was head of security at the Star City cosmonaut training center twenty miles outside of Moscow, had recently begun communicating with Mir. There was no point in asking and it wasn’t Tsimion’s concern. If there were a security problem on the space station, Tsimion was reasonably certain which of the other cosmonauts might be involved.

“I have been working on the fungus experiments,” Tsimion had said. “I lost track of time.”

“That is what your watch is for,” Stoltz had said with a laugh, a laugh patently false and carrying a hint of warning.

Their brief daily conversations, both men knew, were monitored by countries around the world, but they were most concerned with convincing the Americans that these communications were light and confident. There were breaks in radio contact with space control in Karolyov and Star City resulting from Mir being on the opposite side of the earth from Russia. In fact, acceptable radio contact lasted only minutes a day. Though he did nothing different from his normal routine during these breaks of contact, Tsimion looked forward to them precisely because they isolated him and the others from all earthly control.

The second thing that Tsimion disliked about his mission was his company. It was natural, he knew, that in such confines people would begin to get on each other’s nerves. They had all been taught that, all been trained in techniques of dealing with each other. Tsimion had spent much of his free time in the Spektr module, sending long e-mails to his wife at the Star City cosmonaut training center. He knew the correspondence was being monitored and analyzed by psychologists and military officers, and so he kept his innermost thoughts to himself. For much of his time, Tsimion had taken to keeping a journal and recording his dreams. The journal was a neat, thick, blank-paged book with a hard cover. He had, when he first began keeping it, asked the others aboard Mir about their dreams. Early on they had cooperated. The most cooperative had been the American, Tufts. Tufts’s Russian was grammatically correct but heavily accented. Tsimion’s English was no better. The two had become friends and had once been chastised by Vladimir Kinotskin for playing catch in the communal room with a ball of rolled aluminum foil that floated wildly across the small area.

“You could break something,” Kinotskin had said, suggesting but not exerting his command as senior officer, though he was more than a decade younger than Tsimion.

Tsimion was a botanist with no great ambition. Space was not the final frontier but an escape from his routine and badly paid future of agricultural research in Siberia. He had volunteered for the training, threw himself into it, and succeeded in qualifying.

“Everything is already broken,” Tsimion had said.

“Nevertheless …” Kinotskin had said, and the game had stopped. Kinotskin was muscular, blond, and humorless, with a doctorate in aeronautical engineering from Moscow State University. He was ambitious, handsome, unmarried, and slated to be a spokesman for the Russian space program when he returned to earth, his uniform covered in medals, his teeth covered in caps of artificial whiteness, and the small mole just below his left eye neatly and surgically removed without leaving a scar.

The American was gone now, taken back to earth by an American space shuttle at 17,500 miles an hour, replaced by another Russian, Rodya Baklunov, who had joined the crew carrying specimens of fat white worms in carefully sealed canisters. In addition to his other chores Baklunov, a small, powerfully built, and nearly bald man, spent most of his time with his worms. He did not share the nature of his experiments with Kinotskin or Tsimion, who now sometimes dreamt of those worms. In his dreams, the worms, hundreds of them, had escaped and were floating around the cabin. Baklunov was floating after them and with gloved hands slowly recapturing the worms and placing them back in a canister from which they immediately escaped.

“Don’t touch them,” Baklunov said in the dream. “Just a touch will make your skin burn and peel off in seconds, leaving a bloody screaming Vladovka begging to be shot because when the bleeding stopped, Tsimion Vladovka would turn into a giant, bloated white worm.”

In fact, in the dream, one fat white worm squiggled through the air and clung to the exposed hand of Tufts, the American, who immediately began to peel to near screaming death. And then Tsimion saw that three more worms were heading toward him. Beyond these worms, Baklunov was still patiently, calmly plucking worms from the air and putting them in the canister from which they would immediately escape. This was always the point at which Tsimion awoke.

Tsimion had recorded that dream and the variations in his journal. He wondered if when he returned to earth the dream would continue to come. He felt sure it would.

The third thing, and most important, that he disliked about Mir and that caused him to think, “if I get to earth,” was the gradual disintegration of the space station. Systems were dying and had to be jury-rigged and frequently repaired. The inside of the spacecraft, so clean in photographs and diagrams shown to the world, was beginning to look like the messy workshop of a weekend tinkerer. Cables with fraying wires were wound with tape, panels once lit were permanently dark, and small metal boxes on the floor were tied in to perform tasks that should have been part of the internal system of the station. Solar panels shut off without reason. One of two oxygen generators in the Kvant I module seldom worked. The backup generator frequently failed. Their backup was an emergency cylinder that could be started to create a chemical reaction which produced oxygen. Tsimion was not at all sure the emergency cylinder would work. The last backup was individual oxygen packs with a supply of a few hours, supposedly enough time for the three cosmonauts to make it through the docking passage and into the Soyuz capsule, which could detach and return them to earth.

But there had been problems in the past, even a fire before Tsimion’s time on Mir, and it had become clear that even following emergency procedures there would not be enough time for all the cosmonauts to get to the Soyuz and detach while a major breakdown was underway. Even if they could detach, an explosion destroying Mir, which might happen in seconds, could overtake and destroy the Soyuz before it could distance itself from the station.

Ground control knew and Tsimion and the other cosmonauts knew that they were sitting inside a space bomb continuing to circle the earth, performing meaningless experiments simply to demonstrate to the world that the only space station, the first real space station, in orbit was Russian.

There had been a time when Russian children wanted to be cosmonauts, treated when they returned from space missions with the welcome of heroes. Parents gave their children the names of cosmonauts. Russia was overcrowded with Yuris named in honor of the iconic Yuri Gagarin, who was overwhelmed by his being a national treasure for simply sitting in a sphere he didn’t control and circling the earth a few times.

Now Russians did not even know the names of the cosmonauts who orbited the earth. Children wanted to be economists, bankers. They wanted to earn degrees in business. Engineering schools and research institutes, like the one Tsimion had attended, were closing down. Science and space were of little interest. The young were looking to the earth and their bank accounts, not to the skies.

And so, Tsimion spent each day in nearly resigned anticipation of that squawking alarm that would tell them yet another system had failed, another crisis was about to begin.

Tsimion Vladovka did not blame the solar-winged tomb in which they sped. Mir had been launched more than a decade ago. It was not intended for existence beyond a decade. It had done its job. It was tired.

Mir reminded Tsimion of the little horse in Raskolnikov’s dream in Crime and Punishment. It was Raskolnikov’s dream that had haunted him for more than two decades and was responsible for Tsimion starting his dream journal, which, he rationalized, might be of scientific interest back on earth.

In Raskolnikov’s dream, he is once again a small boy in the village where he was born. He is with his father. A big man comes out of a tavern and climbs into a cart. The cart is to be drawn not by the large horse with thick legs who normally pulls it, but by a small horse. The man takes the reins and invites people to join him on a ride.

“Come,” the man shouts drunkenly. “Climb aboard.”

People come laughing and climb onto the cart, crowding together.

The small boy tells his father that the horse cannot pull all those people. The father tells the boy that there is nothing they can do.

The big man yanks the reins and orders the small horse to pull. The horse tries valiantly, stumbles, breathes cold air. The big man whips the horse and then climbs down to beat him. The boy breaks away from his father and runs to help the fallen horse, who is now being clubbed and whipped. The big man turns to the boy, saying, “This is my horse. I’ll kill him if I wish.” The horse dies and as he dies the boy kisses his mouth.

Tsimion thought of Mir as that small horse and himself as the young Raskolnikov. The difference was that the man who owned Mir was faceless and on the ground, and Tsimion Vladovka did not dare protest as he rode the horse through starry blackness and red-white sunlight high about the clouds of earth.

It was a gamble. All others had gone. They had managed to leave the dying horse before its last breath.

“It is safe,” spokesmen at ground control had announced. “Our problems have been small and we have planned for their correction and executed all needed repairs. No one has been seriously injured or died on Mir.

There is always the possibility of a first time. In the history of chance, there was always an inevitable first time that altered the odds forever.

Mir had floated for well over eleven years at three hundred and ninety kilometers above the earth, had circled that earth close to seventy thousand times.

Tsimion had recently developed a fourth concern. Baklunov had begun to talk to himself and he had developed a dreamlike gaze and a knowing smile. When spoken to he answered, but he seldom looked at Tsimion or Kinotskin when they talked to him. The little man performed his duties, kept himself immaculately clean and well shaven, ate with the others, and seemed to Tsimion to be going slowly mad, a condition with which Tsimion could sympathize. Though Baklunov had been on the space station working in his own module for only a month, Tsimion thought the stay was long enough. He had tried to convince Kinotskin, whose responsibility it would be to make the recommendation that Baklunov return to earth, but Kinotskin had his own future on earth to consider. To request the early return of one of the men under his command would be an admission of failure, an admission that would cost the Russian government a massive amount of money to remove the worm man.

“He is all right,” Kinotskin had told Tsimion only two days earlier as the two went over routine data and monitored the telescope telemetry.

“He is going mad,” said Tsimion.

“Ridiculous. He is eccentric. Biologists are often eccentric.”

Tsimion had wondered what extensive experience Kinotskin had with biologists that led him to this conclusion, but it was not an issue to be debated. Tsimion had long come to the conclusion that, though Kinotskin could easily beat him at chess, the poster boy with the blond hair and small mole was not particularly bright and possessed no imagination. He claimed, for example, that he never dreamt. Tsimion was inclined to believe him. The only subject outside of his work that Kinotskin entered into with any zeal was women. Vladimir Kinotskin never tired of talking about the women he had been with and the women he would be with when he returned to earth and toured the world.

“American women, perhaps the wives of diplomats, African women. You know, the women of Somalia are among the most beautiful on earth. And Mexican women, I have seen them with large breasts and lips that …”

Kinotskin had been at a loss for words. He had the soul of a satyr without the wit or words of a poet. His talk of women bored Tsimion, who was forced to endure it.

Five more weeks, Tsimion thought. Five weeks and I will be leaving. I can make it for five weeks. I have many dreams to record and to dream. I have my experiments.

The alarm went off, squawking, bleating. It was about time for the others to wake up, but there was something wrong. It was five minutes too early. Another system breakdown? Would they have to endure that maddening sound for hours till they could dismantle it?

Kinotskin shot through the opening to the command module.

Tsimion watched him bump into the side of the small tunnel, grab the bar next to the seat beside Tsimion, and say, “It’s … he …”

Shto, ‘what?’”

“‘Come,’ typeeyehr, now.”

It was the first direct order Kinotskin had issued to him.

Tsimion Vladovka had visions of worms floating through the passage into the module. He glanced. There were no worms. Not yet.

They were just coming into radio contact with the earth. Quickly the white-faced Kinotskin told him what had happened. The younger man spoke quickly, efficiently. It took less than fifteen seconds. There was nothing more to say to each other. They knew what must be done. Kinotskin began to transmit.

There was no television contact. Ground control had ended almost all such transmissions since problems had begun more than a year earlier. Voice contact was not perfect.

“Ground,” said Mikhail Stoltz, his voice weary.

“We have a Syehm, a ‘Seven,’” Kinotskin said calmly.

There was a silent pause on the earth before Stoltz came back, now alert.

“Prognosis?” he asked.

Kinotskin saw his future disappearing, but he managed to pull himself together and speak. “Unable to give one at this time,” he said. “We must go now. We will return with a report as soon as possible.”

Possibly never, thought Tsimion, who said quickly, “Ground, please tell my wife I love her.”

“Come,” said Kinotskin, tugging at Tsimion’s white T-shirt.

“And,” Tsimion added, reaching to turn off the ground contact, “if we go to Vossyeam, ‘Eight,’ please inform Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov.”

Chapter 1

One Year and Five Days Later

PORFIRY PETROVICH ROSTNIKOV, CHIEF inspector in the Office of Special Investigation, had not witnessed such a sight in his more than half century of life.

He had been heading across Petrovka Street after getting off the bus. The central police headquarters, two ten-story, L-shaped buildings surrounding a landscaped garden protected by a black metal fence, was no more than fifty steps in front of him.

It had been raining lightly when he kissed his wife, Sarah, and left his apartment on Krasikov Street. The rain had grown worse, out-of-season rain blamed by the television weather people on something called El Niño or La Niña.

When he got off the bus, it was coming down heavily and he could hear the crack of thunder. To his right he saw a bolt of lightning and the crackle of its electricity. It was at times like this that he missed his left leg. He had learned to talk to the leg, which had been shattered by a German tank when he was a boy soldier in Rostov. He found it difficult to talk to the leg-shaped mechanism of plastic and metal; it had resisted all conversation for the year or more that it had become a reluctant part of the burly man known to the various branches of the police, Mafias, and petty criminals as “the Washtub.”

The bus had pulled away down the street. Rostnikov looked after it. The bus swayed dangerously though it was moving slowly. The wind suddenly went mad. People scattered. No one screamed. The two uniformed officers at the Petrovka station gate backed into the relative safety of their small bulletproof guard box.

Porfiry Petrovich swayed and ordered his leg to stand firm, knowing that it would not listen, had no mind. It was efficient but poor company. He was about to fall. The wind pulled open his coat and tugged at the buttons of his shirt. Rostnikov avoided a car that pulled past him and stopped in the middle of the street. The Washtub managed to make it over the curb to a small tree whose bare branches chattered as he clung to the trunk.

In the kennels of Petrovka, the German shepherds howled.

It was then that the bench, iron and wood, came flying down the street, touching down on top of a stopped car, creating a streak and scratch of sparks before continuing away about six or seven feet off the ground. The bench paused, twisted, rose as if deciding what to do, and then darted with the wind and rain down the street and into the drenched darkness. Now Rostnikov could hear the sound of windows breaking in Petrovka headquarters.

It reminded him of something in a book he had read. No, it had been Chekov’s notes on Siberia, the description of something like this, only in Chekov’s tale it had been snowing.

Rostnikov clung and watched, waiting for more wonders. Across the street, well behind the bus and not far off, a slightly larger tree than the one to which he clung cracked low on the trunk and slowly toppled, brushing the sidewalk with a dying sigh.

And then it was over.

The rain continued but it was only a drizzle now, though the street was puddled and rivulets cascaded down the gutters. There was no wind, just a breeze. The sound of thunder was distant now and there were no more crackles of lightning. The entire marvel had taken less than a minute.

Rostnikov examined himself, touched his body to be sure he had not been stabbed by some stray flying screw or broken twig, and continued his walk to Petrovka headquarters. The guards nodded him in as they emerged cautiously from their shelter.

He was not the first to arrive on the fourth floor, which housed his office, that of the director of the Office of Special Investigation, and the cubicles of the investigators who worked under the direction of Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov, who, in turn, reported to the director. The cubicles of the investigators were behind a door directly across the hall from Chief Inspector Rostnikov’s. It was only seven in the morning. The sun was barely out, but the light was on in the investigators’ office.

Rostnikov knew who was behind the closed door. He went to his own office, closed the door, and began to remove his soaking clothes and put on his spare suit, which was in his very small closet. He hung his damp clothing neatly on hangers and then brushed back his hair with his hands. His hair, like his father’s before him, was bushy. There was more than a bit of gray in it now, but Sarah, his wife, said it made him look distinguished, even stately. To keep him looking respectable, Sarah checked his shirt, suit, and tie each morning. There wasn’t much of a selection, but with three suits, a dozen ties, and a reasonable selection of shirts and two pair of shoes, one black, one tan, she could certainly keep him respectable.

He moved to the window of his office and looked out. There was a scattering of tree branches in the street, and some of the shrubbery and flowers in the courtyard of Petrovka had been broken, plucked, and tossed about by the storm. Now the heat would come back. The mad rain would drop the temperature for a few minutes, and then the summer heat, worse than any Rostnikov could remember, would be back.

Air conditioning in Petrovka, driven by the city’s gas system, if working, made the offices too cold, just as they were too hot in the winter. Stepping into the heat of the outdoors from the chill of the protected building was a blow for which one had to prepare.

His window was not broken but he could see that several across the courtyard had imploded. Behind one of the broken windows on the third floor a heavyset woman in a dark dress looked at the jagged broken glass and then across at Rostnikov, who nodded his head in sympathy. The woman turned away.

Rostnikov’s office was wired by the director, Igor Yaklovev, “the Yak.” Rostnikov knew his conversations were recorded and listened to, and the director knew that Rostnikov knew. The offices across the hall were similarly wired and every inspector knew it. Everyone pretended that their conversations could not be overheard. Everyone knew that if they wanted privacy they had to leave the building. The director did not really expect to learn anything from his hidden microphones, but he wanted the devices to remind those who worked for him that he was in charge. The only one who was upset by these hidden microphones was Pankov, the director’s secretary, a sweating dwarf of a man who had lived in near panic since learning of the wiring, long after the discovery had been made by the entire investigative staff.

Rostnikov was suddenly hungry.

His phone was ringing.

He picked it up and said, “Chief Inspector Rostnikov.”

“Are you all right, Porfiry Petrovich?” his wife said.

“I am fine,” he said. “The storm hit where you are?”

“I think it hit everywhere in Moscow. The television said that part of the roof of the Bolshoi was torn off and that people ran in fright as the pieces of roof chased them into the square.”

“Was anyone hurt?”

“I think so. The television said so.”

“You are well? The girls are well?”

The girls of whom Rostnikov spoke were twelve-year-old Laura and her eight-year-old sister, Nina, who lived with the Rostnikovs in their one-bedroom apartment along with the girls’ grandmother, Galina Panishkoya. They had no place else to live yet. Galina had recently been released from prison. She had shot a man in a state-owned grocery. It had been an accident. The man had been arrogant. Galina had been desperate for food for her grandchildren. Rostnikov had arrested her. Rostnikov and his wife had taken in the girls. Rostnikov had gotten Galina out of jail and had gotten her a job in the bakery on the Arbat owned by Lydia Tkach. And so the Rostnikovs found themselves with a new family. Porfiry Petroyich didn’t mind. Sarah welcomed them and their company.

“Yes, the girls are fine. Galina took them to school.”

“Then maybe the mystery we call God and cannot understand has chosen to keep us alive another day. I saw a bench fly down the street.”

“A bench? What is happening to the world, Porfiry Petrovich?”

“It went mad long ago, Saravinita. Most of the world refused to acknowledge it, but you and I have not been given the luxury of blindness.”

“Take care of yourself today, Porfiry Petrovich. It is a dark day.”

“I will try to be home at a reasonable time,” he said. “You take care too.”

He hung up, removed his artificial left leg, placed it on his desk, and in English softly sang, “Looks like we’re in for storm in the weather. Don’t go out tonight. There’s a bad moon in your eyes.”

Rostnikov knew he didn’t have the words quite right, but the melody was close and the meaning clear.

The phone rang again and Rostnikov picked it up.

“The director would like to see you in his office in fifteen minutes,” said Pankov. Rostnikov had long ago decided that Pankov was the only human he had ever met who could sweat over the telephone.

“Please tell Director Yaklovev that I will be there in precisely fifteen minutes.”

“I will tell him, Chief Inspector. Would you like coffee when you come?”

“I would,” said Rostnikov.

“A cup will be waiting,” said Pankov, hanging up.

Pankov was definitely the dog who did the bidding of the director. He had hidden in the shadow of the previous director, the preening but surprisingly cunning Colonel Snitkonoy, who had gone on to the position of chief of security at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and been promoted to general. The current director was a bit more difficult than had been Snitkonoy, who’d been known as “the Gray Wolfhound.” While the Wolfhound had been tall, stately, almost always uniformed, the picture of a historic officer, Igor Yaklovev was of normal height, lean, given to dark suits and conservative ties. He spoke softly and kept his brown hair cut short and his bushy eyebrows untrimmed. The Yak, who had been a KGB officer, was ambitious and didn’t bother to hide it. He was not above manipulating his office or the law, not for wealth but for the promise of power. The Yak had made an unwritten agreement with Rostnikov. Porfiry Petrovich would be in charge of all investigations turned over to the office. In turn, the Yak would decide how to handle the results of all investigations. Rostnikov would have a free hand and the complete support of the director in carrying out his investigations. In turn, Rostnikov would not question his superior’s use of information gathered.

There was room for negotiation with the Yak but not a great deal of room. Rostnikov and his team had been responsible for notable successes even before the fall of the Soviet Union. Each additional success made the Yak look better. He did not long for the prestige and public circle of the Hermitage. He sought the quiet power of Moscow. Though it was no longer fashionable or politically correct to put paintings or photos of Lenin on the wall, the Yak kept a clear mental picture of the fallen leader in his mind as a model and inspiration. Were it acceptable, he would have grown a small beard.

Rostnikov put his artificial limb back on after sliding up his trousers and being careful not to snag the cloth on the prosthesis. He stood, hesitated, and then with a sigh of resignation reached into the pocket of his drying jacket and took out a plastic Ziploc bag containing two sandwiches of Spam, wilted lettuce, and butter. Sara had sliced the sandwiches neatly in half. Rostnikov stood eating one of the sandwiches, knowing he would be hungry again in a few hours. The morning was just beginning but it already seemed long. He vowed to wait as long as he could before he ate the other half of his lunch.

Across the hall in his cubicle Emil Karpo sat alone, neatly writing a report and preparing for the day. Karpo, tall, gaunt, and ghostly, known to those around him and those who kept their distance from him as “the Vampire” or “the Tatar,” had been given an assignment by the chief inspector that he would have preferred to avoid. Karpo had simply nodded and taken the report. The case was murder, the victim a research psychologist at the Moscow Center for the Study of Technical Parapsychology, which, Karpo knew, was doing classified work for the government.

Akardy Zelach, “the Slouch,” had been assigned to work with him. That was acceptable. Zelach was not bright, a fact of which Zelach was well aware and which he accepted. He took orders well, was loyal, and never complained. He was large, though of average strength. Karpo, who was taller but much thinner, was far stronger, but Zelach was not afraid of trouble, though he had almost lost his life several years ago aiding a fellow investigator.

Karpo had been a loyal Communist. Even now he refused to acknowledge that there was anything wrong with the philosophy. It was the weakness of humans that had brought an ideal to ruin. It had not been the lure of capitalism but the drive for power that had begun even before Stalin. Humans were, Karpo had decided when he was quite young, ultimately animals. A reasonable utopian ideal like Communism was probably beyond the conception of animals, even those wearing clothes.

Karpo had become a policeman to protect Communism and the state from the eroding effects of crime. Then, for several years he remained a policeman because it was what he knew how to do and he could lose himself in the work. Recently, he had come to a new commitment to his work. A woman, her name was Mathilde Verson, had been killed in the crossfire of a battle between two Mafias. She had been the meaning for his existence. Now his crusade was to rid the city of Moscow of as many as possible of the worst of the two-legged monsters who prowled the dark streets.

But psychics? Had Porfiry Petrovich given the assignment to him as some kind of joke? Rostnikov was not above such a joke. Emil Karpo was surely the wrong man to deal with people who believed in and studied such things. The world was tangible. Nature had its laws, even if we did not understand them. So-called psychic phenomena were strands of false hope that something existed beyond the natural world. Yes, some things called psychic phenomena were certainly explainable if the research and experiments were possible to demonstrate that they were natural and not supernatural. The problem might be that research did not exist to prove the natural where the unnatural seemed to be taking place. It mattered little to Emil Karpo. It was sufficiently challenging to accept the terrible reality of the tangible world in which he existed.

Rostnikov entered the room. Karpo did not have to look up. It was too early for anyone else, and the sound of the limping leg on the wooden floor was unmistakable.

The chief inspector entered the cubicle and stood before Karpo’s desk. Karpo put the top back on his pen, closed his notebook, and looked up. He was dressed as always completely in black: shoes, socks, trousers, and jacket over a pullover shirt.

“Are you aware that we had a storm, Emil?”

“I am aware, Chief Inspector.”

“Windows broke, trees fell, a bench flew down the street and into the darkness.”

Karpo nodded. “It seemed unduly loud.”

“Thunder and lightning. At this magnitude in the middle of the usually calm summer. Nothing like this has happened before. Perhaps at the parapsychology center you will witness things that haven’t happened before?”

“I do not expect that to occur,” said Karpo.

“I know. Do you like Spam?”

“No.”

“If you are here when Iosef arrives, please tell him to come to my office and wait for me.”

“I will be here till the institute opens at nine.”

“Keep smiling, Emil Karpo.”

“I do not smile, Chief Inspector.”

“I know,” said Rostnikov.

“And I know that you know,” said Karpo, without humor or emotion.

“We have too many levels to our conversations,” said Rostnikov. “Even the most trivial. I believe it is endemic to Russians. It comes from having a history in which survival is often dependent on being cryptic.”

“That is possible.”

“We will talk later. As always, take care of yourself. Today especially. Omens from the sky.”

“I do not believe in omens,” said Karpo.

“Which is one reason you have been assigned this investigation,” Rostnikov said as he nodded and left the cubicle.

He arrived in the outer office of the director one minute before his scheduled appointment. Pankov stood up and handed him a dark mug of steaming black coffee. Rostnikov took it with thanks. Pankov bit his lower lip, waiting for the chief inspector to taste the brew. Rostnikov did so. It was not foul. It was not good, but it wasn’t foul.

“Very satisfying,” said Rostnikov.

Pankov smiled, having lived through another of the thousands of ordeals in his daily life.

There was no time to sit and, besides, Rostnikov did not want to go through the trouble of sitting for less than a minute. The maneuvering of his leg was more than the moment of repose was worth, especially when he was holding a mug of hot liquid.

The door to the inner office opened and Pankov rose behind the desk to look at the director, who stood in the doorway.

“Pankov, sit down. Inspector, come in.”

Yaklovev left the door open and turned back into his large office. Rostnikov, still carrying his coffee, followed him and closed the door. The Yak sat at the far end of his conference table.

“Sit,” said the director.

Rostnikov placed his mug on one of the brown cork circles provided for drinks and eased himself down to one side of the director.

“Do you know a man, a cosmonaut, named Tsimion Vladovka?” asked the director.

Sasha Tkach made a sound, perhaps a groan, probably a reaction to the dinner of oversalted barley-and-beef soup his mother had prepared the night before. He rolled out of bed and tried to see the clock on the bed stand. Normally Maya would have awakened him by now. Instead he had been awakened by the electric crackle of nearby lightning and the sound of rain hitting the windows across the room.

It was late. He would have to hurry, to shave, take a cold shower in the little tile cubbyhole in the bathroom. To accomplish this he would have to get past his mother in the bedroom. Lydia, in spite of her loud snoring, was a light sleeper. He did not want to wake her. He wanted coffee, though he was sure the acid in it had been giving him stomach pain. Perhaps he would switch to Pepsi-Cola. He had appropriated a large supply from a tourist hotel that wanted no trouble with the police. There were six bottles in the refrigerator and a carton of them next to it.

Tomorrow, he told himself, tomorrow I’ll start drinking Pepsi-Cola. Today I need coffee. Who could deny me coffee in a life like mine?

Sasha was thirty-four, an inspector in the Office of Special Investigation. When he had begun as an investigator, he had been in the procurator’s office under Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov, who reported to Procurator Anna Timofeyeva. Looking a decade younger than his years, lean, handsome, with straight blond hair that often hung over his forehead, he had done undercover work, pretending to be a student, a naive computer salesman, a manager of killer dogs, a black marketeer, an innocent file clerk, and many other things, but now …

He looked around the living room—dining room—kitchen. It was empty. There was no Maya in the bed. The baby was not in the crib, though the crib was still there, and he knew his four-year-old daughter, Pulcharia, wasn’t in the next room. His wife, Maya, had taken the children and gone back to Kiev to live with her brother and his family, indefinitely.

Sasha took a deep breath, heard his mother snoring in the bedroom, folded the bedding and pillows, and closed the bed back into the sofa.

Sometimes, during the past few weeks, he had concluded that it was his own fault. He had staggered, fallen, been with other women, unleashed periods of brooding anger and sullen silence. In short, he had been less than a joy to his family. However, with “help, he had convinced Maya to give him one more chance, twenty-two days. She had reluctantly agreed, partly, he thought, because it had been a strangely specific number to choose.

She had remained the entire time and he had tried, really tried, to change. But change does not come easily. He had loved his children, held his wife in the darkness of night when he came home, avoided other women, and done his best, though his moods had still come. And at the end he had the feeling that it was she who was becoming sullen, that somehow she had taken on his moods of depression as if they had been a disease transmitted from one person to another.

He moved to the small sink in the kitchen area near the window and turned the water on, but not full blast. The pipes were noisy and there was a precise point, which he could never quite judge, when they would begin to rattle and shake. Porfiry Petrovich, who for reasons Sasha did not understand had a great interest in plumbing, had during his last visit to the apartment offered to look into the problem. Sasha had said he would let him know. He cupped cold water in his hands and plunged his face into his palms. He let the water drip onto his extra-large gray Nike T-shirt and he rubbed his eyes. He could see somewhat clearly now.

When Maya had moved out, Lydia, who was retired and supposedly on pension from the Ministry of Information, had insisted on moving in with her only son. At first Sasha had protested, said he would be all right, that he was sure his family would be returning soon. She had insisted and, he admitted, he really did not want to be alone.

There were times, however, in the last weeks when he was sure he had made a mistake. Lydia could barely hear. She had a hearing aid but she either didn’t use it or turned it off. Lydia issued commands and criticism. Until Maya had left, Lydia’s favorite topic had been Sasha’s dangerous work and her insistence that he seek safer employment. She had not given up on that quest, but she now had a list of her son’s shortcomings that required addressing.

Lydia had money. She had invested most of her salary for decades in property. It had all been done quietly and with advice from her superiors, who taught her how to make such purchases and protect them even within the Soviet system. Now, having sold much of that property and placed the money in high-yield foreign investments, Lydia was more than comfortable financially. Her prize investment was a bakery and pastry shop on the Arbat. It had been a state-run bakery, with sad loaves and lines of shuffling people. And then the revolution ended: crime, punishment, money flowed next to poverty even worse than that during the Soviet reign. But those with many new rubles, some with hard foreign currency, and even a few with very little flocked to the bakery on the busy Arbat to buy sweet cakes and brown healthy breads.

When even the new ruble had fallen to near nonexistence, Lydia, whose investments and money were all secure in German banks, had become even richer.

Maya had more than once suggested that Sasha stop being a policeman, manage the bakery, perhaps open a second one, maybe a chain of bakeries in various Russian cities. He would make money. He would have time to be with his wife, his children, his mother.

The idea, when presented to Sasha the first time, had made him seriously consider that suicide would be a better alternative to a career in bakery management, a career in which he would work for his mother.

Sasha liked being a policeman. He liked having new problems almost daily, dealing his way in and out of dangerous situations, meeting challenges, carrying a weapon. Anything else, particularly managing a bakery, would mean a slow death.

Now, with Maya and the children gone, he needed his work more than ever and, surprisingly, in the few weeks since she had been gone, he was sure that he was becoming a better policeman. He got along better with the partner assigned to him for each case. He wrote his reports without complaint and he did not frown or sulk when given a case he normally would not have liked.

But at the same time he missed Maya and the children and lived for the day they would return. He would be a better husband and father as he had become a better policeman. At least he thought he would.

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