- 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
- Looking for more suspense?
- Begin Reading
About the Book
To salvage his career, Rostnikov takes on a baffling bathroom murder.
After a lifetime in service to the Soviet Union, police inspector Porfiry Rostnikov may have found a way out. A high-profile homicide leads him to a cache of documents packed full of incriminating Kremlin gossip, which he uses as a bargaining chip to secure exit visas for himself and his wife. But just before the deal closes, Brezhnev’s death sends the nation into turmoil, and dooms Rostnikov’s escape. His career derailed, the veteran cop is reduced to investigating penny-ante murders - the latest of which may lead somewhere very big indeed.
An elderly Jewish man has been shot to death in his bathtub, an incomprehensible killing committed in sight of his two children. And as a brutal Moscow summer wears on, the police themselves become outright targets for car thieves and snipers. With the help of his two faithful lieutenants, Karpo and Tkach, the limping detective will need to find a way to solve these cases and salvage his good name - if it doesn’t cost him his life.
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.
An Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov Mystery
Stuart M. Kaminsky
For Lucy Irene Kaminsky
—Stepan Danilovich Lukin in Maxim Gorky’s Barbarians
A BLANKET OF AUGUST MOSCOW heat lay like a wet cat on Sofiya Savitskaya, burning her eyes as she tried to read by the light of the single bulb in the tiny living room. The window was open, but it brought no breeze, only shrill voices of boys arguing on Balaklava Prospekt two floors below. Her brother Lev’s voice was the most piercing, but Kostya Shevchenko’s was louder and more demanding.
Sofiya didn’t want to listen to them, and she didn’t want to read her dark brown shorthand book; nor did she want to go to sleep or go for a walk. There was nothing she wanted to do, but what she wanted to do least was sit in that smothering dark room where she knew before she looked up that the walls of the living room were expanding. She clutched the sides of her chair, trying to hold on, trying not to cry out for help that wouldn’t come. This had been happening to her, this room expansion that made her lose contact with life, since she was a child, and she had never mentioned it to anyone. It had always passed, but the terror had grown no less with the years. Once she had tried to consider that the room was not getting larger, that she was growing smaller, but that terrified her even more and became part of the horror. Not only did Sofiya have to hold on to herself during the spells; she also had to fight off the thought that she was getting smaller. If the room was growing, then anyone who walked into it would be in her predicament, but if she was shrinking to become an ant, a roach, her father or brother might walk and step on her.
Once she had tried to scream and discovered that it was impossible when this feeling came, so she had learned to suffer it through alone. Each time she came out of the spell, she was shaken but proud of having made it and told no one, but first the room had to become so enormous that the echo of the thought of her scream would be nothing. She dug her fingers into the dark-wood arms of the chair for the final burst, hearing the voices of her brother and his friends clearly.
“So what can police do? You’re just a kid. You say you hit him with your fist, not a rock, stupid.”
“Don’t call me stupid or it’s you’ll get the rock, Kostya.”
“I wasn’t calling you stupid, but I am not afraid to call you stupid. Don’t threaten, Ivan, or I’ll give—”
Sofiya opened her eyes wide and closed them with an enormous effort as the room snapped back to its normal size, leaving her weak and proud and aware of the promise of a terrible night of fear, heat, and the smell of her father and brother.
She wanted to get up and move to the window, call down to her brother to come up before he got in a fight, not because she feared for him but because she did not want to make the effort to be a part of what would follow. Sofiya couldn’t rise. Smeared hands of summer heat and dust pushed beads of sweat trickling down under her print dress between her breasts and thighs, into the hair between her legs, making her shudder and whimper. She closed her eyes once again and opened them to hear her father, who stood before her.
There was contempt in his eyes as he looked down at her, as if he knew her thoughts and feelings, as if he probed her mind and body and shame. Sofiya had seen him look at people this way since she was a small child, but it had always seemed more critical, more direct, when he looked at her and acted as if he knew her guilt.
“I’m takin’ a bath,” he said, his heavy purple robe on his thin shoulders, a thin copy of Izvestia clutched in his stick of a hand. Abraham Savitskaya’s body and face were sagging, gray and thin, skin furrowed and arid, his beard, once black, flecked with gray, which matched his skin. Sofiya looked at her father and saw decay and knew no bath would return the moisture and sinew to the man. As much as she had hated and feared his moods in the past, she would have preferred them to this walking death that entombed both the old man and her. Her memory of hatred flared unbidden, and Abraham’s gray eyes saw that hatred and glistened with the possibility of long-gone battle. She thought he might strike her for her present thoughts and all her thoughts and feelings in the future. She tensed and awaited the blow, willed it, wanted it, would take anything to make the dry stick of a man who was her father live again in the present, raise her from her chair to battle him and be abused by him, anything to challenge a lifetime of growing smaller in that room with its Moscow-white walls peeling like dead skin.
But the passion had gone from Abraham’s eyes before it had even built to certainty, and he turned, went into the hall, and padded to the communal bathroom.
Outside, Lev and Kostya’s voices were shout to shout, their faces nose to nose. There would soon be blows, and she would have to pull herself to the window, shouting and hoping a passing man or woman or Comrade Myagou on the first floor would go out and yell at them that the ghost of Lenin would send a bolt of white lightning into the middle of the street as a warning to the nasal children of Israel to swallow their anger and bite their tongues. Sofiya laughed hysterically, imagining the fire of Lenin burning on Balaklava and the old women on their stoops holding their sagging breasts in awe at the ghost stepping in to stop a fight between two boys. At what point, Sofiya wondered, did her father’s god step in the way Comrade Myagou promised that Lenin’s ghost would appear? Did it take murder, war, earthquake, to stir him to act, or was there nothing in the filth of human conduct that interested him any longer? She imagined God like her father, tired and old and indifferent, which put everything on her thin shoulders, exactly where everything had been since her brother Leonid had died more than a year ago.
Abraham stopped near the bathroom at the sound of her laugh down the hall.
“What?” he shouted with distaste, unwilling to come fully out of his own thoughts and dreams and deal with hers but unable to ignore that single, unprovoked shock of a laugh.
“Nothing,” she said, stepping into the hall. “I was thinking of something Maya told me this morning.”
Abraham turned his eyes from her toward the open window in search of some Maya of the distant past and then went into the bathroom, locking the door behind him. Sofiya heard him turn on the water and knew he would soak for hours in the tepid water, further shriveling his dry skin, turning him more into a mummified version of that man she could barely remember. She returned to their two-room apartment and closed the door.
Now the voices of the street were screeches and threats and words with no thought or meaning, only the mad off-spring of wet heat and boredom as Sofiya pushed herself from the chair, her back soaked with sweat and her bare lower legs sticky. The wooden floorboards creaked when she slowly crossed the room and went to lean out the window into the near darkness. She had to raise her voice over the mad, steady rush of bath water behind and the clash of voices below.
“Lev,” she cried, “it’s time to come up.”
The older boy, whose face was inches away from her brother’s, took the call as his sign of victory, and he snickered, triggering Lev, who pushed the bigger boy down three concrete steps toward the basement apartment. The bigger boy’s hands went out to grab something, and Lev reached out his hand to help, but it was too late. Kostya Schevchenko’s head thudded in the darkness below, and Sofiya called on something in her to respond, but nothing came.
“You all right, Kostya?” shouted Lev in fear.
Kostya came up the stairs, holding his bleeding head and shouting, “Go home to your gimp sister and crazy capitalist father, back stabber.” Then he raced down the street.
A trio of boys ran after him, and Lev darted into the building and hurried up the stairs with impossible energy in the heat. The wooden stairs sighed wearily under him and relaxed as he passed, going up the three flights and bursting through the door.
“I didn’t mean—” he started, his eleven-year-old face thin and pale like that of his father. Sofiya, wondering if someday her brother would be dry and wrinkled, shuddered and felt tenderness.
“Don’t be afraid,” she said, walking to Lev and guiding him to the kitchen and the sink. “Kostya was just frightened. He wasn’t hurt so badly.”
“I’m not scared,” Lev protested, panting as he wet his face and drank warm tap water from his dirty cupped hands. “Did you hear what he called you?”
“He called me the name after you hit him. You didn’t hit him because he called me a name,” she said, helping Lev peel off his now-wet shirt to reveal a chest of bones.
“No, it was before,” Lev insisted. “You think he’ll get the police?”
“He won’t get the police,” Sofiya said, touching his head. Lev started to back away from her warm touch, then changed his mind and accepted it. She was much older than he, old enough to be his mother. His resentment, confusion, and love were as great as hers, and they brought brother and sister together.
“Kostya’s uncle is in the KGB,” Lev said, ferreting out a piece of bread from under the bread box. “Maybe he’ll get mad and call his uncle on us.”
“Kostya’s uncle is not in the KGB.” Sofiya sighed, scooping up crumbs from the table where he dropped them. “He’s a stupid man who sells coffee in the Byelorussian Railway Station.”
She poured him a glass of milk and told him to wash the sink.
“He in the tub again?” asked Lev, sitting at the small kitchen table. She nodded, affirming what he knew. Lev’s breath was coming more slowly now.
“You have homework,” Sofiya said.
Lev’s dark face turned automatically sour, but the routine of homework was reassuring, so he went to the tiny bedroom he shared with his sister to fetch his books. Sofiya got her book and brought it to the table to sit with him.
The bathroom water pounded steadily behind them through the thin walls, washing concentration away, making the lines in the book become nonsense. Finally, the water stopped and she imagined Abraham turning the pages of Izvestia with displeasure. His presence was inescapable in the apartment, in her life.
The knock at the front door came firm and insistent, and Lev bolted upright in fear.
“It’s the police,” he said, knocking his milk over.
“It’s probably Kostya and his mother,” Sofiya said as calmly as she could, reaching over to clean up the milk with a rag. The prospect of Hania Shevchenko with her narrow eyes, sharp voice, and demands, made Sofiya bite her lip, but there was nothing to be done. Two boys had fought on a hot afternoon, and one had tasted his own blood and the hidden secret of his mortality. That taste had driven him to his mother, and her fear of mortality made her want to scream in anguish. It was a street ritual, and it required an audience, though no one expected any real action, for there was no real action to be taken. No one would call the Moscow police. Hania had the right, the obligation, to wail and be heard. Sofiya did not feel up to it, but she had no choice.
“Coming,” she shouted as Lev scurried past her to their bedroom and closed the door.
Sofiya paused in the dark hall in front of the door to look at the two mounted photographs, one of her father and some friends in their youth, the other of her sad, smiling mother. Since her mother had died, Sofiya had never passed the photograph without looking at it. A few times she had gone to bed in the early weeks unsure of whether she had passed the photo without the required look, but on such nights Sofiya had gone quietly as she could to turn on the light and make her eyes meet those of her mother.
Now Sofiya sighed and opened the door, not to the wild figure of Hania Shevchenko but to two dark, heavy men, one as old as her father, the other young. They were shadow figures of a far country and dressed exactly alike, and they were, she was sure, neither the police nor the KGB. Sofiya had the strange impression that they were not two separate men but one man presented before her at two ages.
“Abraham Savitskaya,” said the older man.
“He’s taking a bath,” Sofiya answered, her eyes moving from one man to the other.
The younger man said something to the older one in what Sofiya thought was English, and the old man, who had an ugly scar on his cheek, replied in the same tongue.
“Anyone here besides you and Savitskaya?” asked the old man.
“My little brother’s in his room,” she said, standing between the two men and the small apartment.
“If you want to wait for my father—” she began, but got no further. The younger man pushed her aside and drew from his pocket a huge gun that seemed to have a life of its own, pulling the young man behind it, searching corners. Sofiya staggered back a few steps with feelings she didn’t understand. She was afraid but excited as the young man stepped toward her and aimed the gun over her shoulder at the bedroom door.
“No,” she screamed. “That’s my bedroom—my brother. He’s just eleven.”
The young man slapped her out of the way again and pushed open the bedroom door. She could see Lev sitting on the bed, beyond looking up in terror.
“Who’re you talking to?” Abraham shouted down the hall from the bathroom.
“Pa,” Sofiya screamed. She hobbled forward toward the bathroom, but the younger man grabbed her by the hair and punched her in the left breast, sending streaks of pain through her body as she fell. The bedroom door came open, and Lev ran out, fear in his eyes.
“Go back,” Sofiya screamed, dragging herself toward her brother.
“What’s going on?” shouted Abraham. Sofiya could hear the old man rising from his bath. She turned and pulled her useless leg to the hallway, a confused Lev clinging to her. Then the room and the world went into a series of still images she would never forget, snapshot images of the young dark man handing the gun to the old man. Then the image of the young man with his foot raised. Then the bathroom door kicked open. A blast of light and the memory of a terrible ringing echo. The blast repeated and repeated. She covered her ears and felt Lev’s face buried against her sore breast, and then it was over. The two men came back to the small apartment, took something, gave Sofiya a warning glance, and left.
Sofiya and Lev sat huddled on the hall floor in shock forever. When forever passed, they stood hand in hand and moved into the hall toward the open door of the bathroom. They knew Abraham was dead before they saw his thin white arm sprawled awkwardly out of the tub and one gray foot twisted against the wall. His eyes were closed, but his mouth was angry, and Izvestia sank slowly in the red water. They stood looking down at the father they had never seen naked in life and were transported into a new world where time and life meant nothing.
“We’ll have to clean the floor quickly,” she said. “And then we’ll have to call Comrade Tovyev and tell him about the broken door and then …” But her voice was no longer saying words; it had taken on a life of its own and was screaming louder than the echo of death.
“An old Jew’s been shot in his bathtub on Balaklava Prospekt. Central desk has the house number.”
The message had been given to Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov over the phone. It was brief, informative, and carried far more than its message. Rostnikov had grunted and the new assistant procurator, Khabolov, hung up before Rostnikov could reply, “Yes, comrade.”
The assistant procurator’s words were a reminder that Inspector Rostnikov was now reduced to handling insignificant Moscow murders and that one could mention “Jews” to him in a patronizing way. Rostnikov’s wife, Sarah, was Jewish. The assistant procurator certainly knew this. If Sarah were not Jewish, Rostnikov himself would probably have been making the call to an inspector while he, Rostnikov, sat in the assistant procurator’s chair in a small office with a cup of tea in his palms.
In Moscow, the investigation of a crime is a question of jurisdiction, and the investigation of important crimes is an important question of jurisdiction. Minor crimes, and no one is quite sure what a minor crime is, are handled at the inquiry stage by MVD, the national police with headquarters in Moscow. Moscow itself is divided into twenty police districts, each responsible for crime within its area. However, if a case is considered important enough, a police inspector from central headquarters will be assigned. The doznaniye, or inquiry, is based on the frequently stated assumption that “every person who commits a crime is punished justly, and not a single innocent person subjected to criminal proceedings is convicted.” This is repeated so frequently by judges, procurators, and police that almost everyone in Moscow is sure it cannot be true. This assumption of justice is also made for military and state crimes handled by KGB investigators, who determine for themselves if the crime is indeed a state or military crime. Major nonmilitary crimes, however, are within the province of the procurator’s investigator, who is responsible for a predvaritel’noe sledstvie, or preliminary police investigation.
All police officers in the system work for the procurator’s office. The procurator general is appointed to his office for seven years, the longest term of any Soviet officer. Working under him or her are subordinate procurators, who are appointed for five years at a time. The job of the procurator’s office is enormous: to sanction arrests, supervise investigations, oversee appeals at trials, handle execution of sentences, and supervise detention. The procurator general’s office is police, district attorney, warden, and if necessary, executioner. The procurators of Moscow are very busy.
Rostnikov had stood behind his desk in a small cubbyhole office at the Central Petrovka station, straightened his left leg as best he could, and sighed deeply. The leg, partly crippled when he confronted a German tank in the battle of Rostov, had been giving him more trouble recently. Rostnikov catalogued the possible reasons for this increased aching. First, he was simply, at fifty-four, getting older, and with age came pain. Second, since the failure of his scheme to obtain exit visas for his wife and himself, he had spent more and more time working with his weights in their small apartment. The trophy he had won a month earlier gleamed bronze and small in front of him, and he found it easy to lose himself in the pain and the strain of the weights. One morning he had heard a uniformed duty officer say to another as he passed Rostnikov, “That washtub is looking a little washed out.” Rostnikov did not object to being known as the Washtub. He rather liked it. What disturbed him was that he not only agreed with the assessment that he seemed washed out, but he took some comfort in it.
“Zelach,” Rostnikov had called, throwing his jacket over his arm and going into the long, dark room outside his office. The room was modern, clean, filled with desks and men working behind them.
Zelach had looked up as if awakened from a mildly pleasant dream. He was reliable, slow of mind and foot, and the only help Rostnikov had been allowed since his informal demotion.
Zelach stood and followed. He had no curiosity and thus asked no questions as he followed Rostnikov down the aisle of desks past men at their solitary task of filling out reports. None of the actual interrogation was done out there. Interrogation, which could take hours or days if necessary, was normally carried on in small rooms down another corridor. The rooms could be made extremely warm or extremely cold, depending on the investigating officer’s assessment of the suspect or the witness.
Rostnikov did not try to divert his eyes from the third desk, the desk of Emil Karpo, who had nearly died a month earlier in an explosion in Red Square. Since his return to duty, his right arm lying limp in a black sling, Karpo had been even less communicative than before. Karpo, he thought, had a look of death in his eyes. It was, Rostnikov knew, an old man’s thought, the thought that things were better in the past and would only get worse in the future.
“What?” said Zelach, now at his side as he passed the desk.
“I said nothing,” said Rostnikov, though he was not at all sure that he had said nothing.
In front of Petrovka they hurried to the metro. Zelach had not, in the past month, appeared to notice that Rostnikov no longer had access to a car and driver or that the cases he was assigned were far below the level of social and political import of those in the past. In some ways, Rostnikov envied his lumbering assistant. If you do not let the world in, if it seems unchanged, it can cause you no pain. Nichevo, he thought, nothing. Never let anything bother or surprise you. Be resolved to accept anything and nothing.
As he dropped his five kopeks into the metro’s turnstile slot, Rostnikov turned to Zelach. “What would you say if I were to tell you that you have been deemed a political liability and that I would have to shoot you in the next ten seconds?”
Zelach, instead of looking puzzled at the question, let a frightened-looking man in a workman’s cap squeeze by them and then answered, “Good-bye, Comrade Rostnikov.”
“As I thought,” said Rostnikov, hearing a train rumble below them and rise to a roar that ended conversation.
On the escalator ride down, Rostnikov reflected for the thousandth time that he had been the victim of terrible timing and overconfidence.
The plan had been dangerous but simple, but chance, which should always be reckoned with, had laughed at him. Chance and accident had always played a part in the life of Steve Carella and the 87th Precinct, the American novels purchased on the black market that Rostnikov loved and kept hidden in his apartment behind the Russian classics and the collected speeches of Lenin.
Chance had failed to crown Rostnikov’s plan. He had set up an elaborate blackmailing of a KGB senior officer named Drozhkin that involved Rostnikov’s silence concerning the cover-up and the KGB assassination of a well-known dissident and Rostnikov’s assurance that the official reports, which were with a friend in West Germany, would not be released if exit visas for Rostnikov and his wife were issued. It was to have been processed as a routine exit visa for a dissident Jew and her husband with special permission for a police officer to depart based on his years of loyal service in both the military and the government.
However, Brezhnev had died, and Andropov had taken over. Andropov had been a friend and admirer of Drozhkin’s and when Andropov took over, Drozhkin had been promoted, which meant he spent more quiet days on his dacha in Lobnya. And then Andropov had died, followed quickly by Chernenko’s death, which confused the situation even further. It had all gone wrong. Drozhkin had simply refused to deal with him. Rostnikov could have committed suicide by having the papers released in Germany to the Western press. As it was, there was still the threat of release, and at some level of the KGB apparently a decision had been informally or formally made. A stalemate existed. Rostnikov would not be allowed to leave the Soviet Union. However, he would not lose his job or be driven to complete despair, which might make him release the embarrassing report. It was a chess game in which the police officer had been outmaneuvered by the KGB. In this case, the stalemate had been a victory for the KGB.
In the rumbling metro Rostnikov looked over at a woman with an avoska, a string sack on her lap, and wondered briefly if his case had actually made it to the desk of Andropov. It was possible but not terribly likely. It would have made the situation more bearable for him to know that it had reached such a level.
More painful, however, was the knowledge that Rostnikov’s son, Josef, who was serving his time in the army and stationed in Kiev, would certainly be part of the continuing stalemate. Were the papers to be released to Stern or the New York or London Times, Josef would be on the next plane to Afghanistan. That threat had been made explicit by Drozhkin.
“We’re here,” Zelach said, shouldering past a pair of young men with paper sacks under their arms. One of the younger men considered a look of anger, let his eyes take in the two disgruntled policemen, and changed his mind.
Rostnikov dragged his leg behind him and just managed to get through the door of the train and onto the platform of the Prospekt Vernadskogo station behind Zelach as the door closed. He glanced back into the passing train and caught a look of clear hatred from the now-safe young man within. Had the young man been within reach, Rostnikov probably would have lifted him off the ground and shaken him like a sack of grain.
“Zelach,” he said as they rode up the escalator, “do you think of me as a violent man?”
“No, chief inspector,” said Zelach indifferently. “There’s a stand on the corner. I have not eaten. Would it be all right if I bought some blinchiki?”
“It would be all right, Comrade Zelach,” Rostnikov said sarcastically, but the sarcasm was lost on Zelach. “Do you want to know where we are going?”
Zelach shrugged as they pressed through the morning crowd.
“In that case, we will let that be your surprise for the day.”
In almost any country in the world, the knowledge that a murder had taken place would draw a crowd. In Naples, it would be almost impossible for the police to make their way through the crush of curious onlookers speculating on who had done what to whom and for what reasons. The situation would have been the same in Liverpool, Tokyo, Cleveland, or Berne, but in Moscow the sidewalk in front of the tenement was clear. Curiosity was there, but it was overcome by the fear of becoming involved, questioned, asked to remember and comment, to be made part of an official report.
The building was one of the Stalin postwar blocks that looked like pale refrigerators. The apartments were usually dark, small, and far too hot in the summer. One could be easily disoriented by the sameness of such structures all over the city. Since Rostnikov’s own apartment on Krasikov Street was from the same period and in the same style, although in a slightly better neighborhood, he was filled with a weary sadness as he followed Zelach through the door and into the small lobby.
There was no one there, no children, no old people. The building seemed deserted for a Wednesday evening, but both Rostnikov and Zelach were accustomed to this. Later, Zelach would wearily knock on doors and cajole, threaten, or force statements from people who insisted that they had seen and heard nothing.
“Floor?” Zelach asked.
“Three,” said Rostnikov, moving to the stairwell. The trip up the concrete steps was slow due to Rostnikov’s leg, and since their voices echoed unpleasantly, as in Lenin’s tomb, they said nothing.
When Rostnikov opened the door on the third floor, a small girl, no more than four, stood staring at him. Her hair was braided behind her, and she sucked her thumb. Rostnikov smiled.
“Oo menya temperatoora,” the little girl said, indicating that she had a temperature.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Rostnikov.
“They killed the man with the beard,” she said round her thumb.
“So I understand,” said Rostnikov.
“Who are they?” the little girl asked, now taking her thumb from her mouth.
“We will see,” said Rostnikov. Zelach stood, hands behind his back, patiently waiting for his superior to finish interrogating the child.
“Will they come back?” said the girl. Her eyes were so pale blue that they almost blended with the white and reminded Rostnikov of his own son as a child.
“They will not come back,” Rostnikov assured her. “Did you see them?”
The girl shook her head no and glanced down the hall at a door that was now creaking open. An old woman dressed in black came out of the open door, looking quite frightened and stepping as if the floor were made of the shells of eggs.
“Elizaveta,” the babushka whispered, not looking at the men. “Come now.”
“No,” the child said, looking coyly at Rostnikov.
“I think you should go, Elizaveta,” Rostnikov said. “You have a temperature.”
The girl giggled and ran to her grandmother, who snatched her in by the arm after giving an apologetic and very guilty look in the general direction of the two policemen. The door closed, and the men were alone again.
“You’ll talk to the old woman later,” Rostnikov said.
Zelach nodded, and they strode to the door of number 31. Rostnikov knocked and was answered almost immediately by a woman’s voice.
“Yes,” the voice said, strong, familiar, and in command.
Rostnikov knew who it was, and the knowledge drained him further.
“Inspector Rostnikov,” he said, and the door opened to reveal the uniformed presence of Officer Drubkova, her face pink and eager, her zeal oppressive and tiring.
“Comrade inspector,” she said, stepping back to let him in. “This is the victim’s daughter and son, Sofiya and Lev Savitskaya. The victim is Abraham Savitskaya, eighty-three years. His body is still in the bath down the hall.” She nodded with her head as Rostnikov and Zelach came in. Rostnikov caught the eyes of the no-longer young woman standing in the corner with one arm around a boy whose frightened eyes tried to take in everything at once, to keep everyone and all things in view so they could not get behind him. There was something about the woman that struck Rostnikov. It was like seeing for the first time a relative known only in childhood. If she were the victim’s daughter, then she was at least half Jewish, and so, he thought, there may be some reminder of Sarah, but it went beyond that, and when she moved, he knew what it was.
The woman stepped forward as if to ask a question, and her limp was pronounced, quite similar to Rostnikov’s own. Perhaps she had seen him move into the room and made the connection.
“Excuse me,” she said.
Officer Drubkova, ever efficient, moved to the woman, probably to guide her back to the corner until the inspector was ready for her. Drubkova’s firm hands took the woman’s shoulders, but Sofiya Savitskaya did not turn away. The boy stayed back, eyes darting.
“It is all right, officer,” Rostnikov said, shifting his coat to his other arm.
Zelach asked, indelicately, “You want me to go look at the corpse?”
Rostnikov nodded first at Zelach, who lumbered back into the hall, and then at the woman, who had limped forward.
“They killed my father,” she said.
“We know,” Rostnikov answered, and realized that he had one of the dazed ones, the ones for whom the trauma had been so great that they viewed violent events of the immediate past as if they were of no time, no place, just vague images they were trying to get to stop shimmering long enough to ask questions about their reality.
“The two men shot him,” she said. The boy moved forward, frightened, to hold his sister’s arm. If she were lost in madness, he would have no one.
“She will be all right,” Rostnikov assured the boy. “This is one of the natural reactions. Why don’t we all sit down. …”
“Lev,” the boy said, holding his sister’s arm firmly. “My name is Lev.”
“Why don’t we all sit down after you get me a drink of water,” Rostnikov said, finding a kitchen chair and lowering himself into it. Lev considered whether there might be a trap in the request and then cautiously moved to the sink in the kitchen section of the room. Officer Drubkova watched the boy suspiciously, as if he might grab the glass of water and make a mad escape with it into the hall.
“Officer Drubkova,” Rostnikov said, taking the glass of tepid water. “Find a phone and be sure the evidence truck is on the way. Comrade—”
“Her name is Sofiya,” Lev said, leading his sister to a chair.
“Sofiya,” Rostnikov said, sipping the water, “where is there a phone in this building?”
“There’s one—” Lev began, but Rostnikov put a finger to his lips, and the boy stopped.
“Comrade Sofiya?” Rostnikov repeated to the staring woman. “A phone. I need help here.”
Sofiya made an effort to refocus, came back into the world temporarily, and said, “Thirty-three, Vosteksky has a phone.”
Officer Drubkova nodded and went in search of the phone, closing the door behind her.
“Your father is dead,” Rostnikov said to the two in front of him. The boy was now standing, holding his sister, his hands on her shoulders. “And we should like to find out who killed him and why. Do you have an answer to either question?”
“Two men,” said Lev. “A young one and a very old one like—”
“Like me,” finished Rostnikov.
“No, older, like my, my—”
“And you have never seen them before?” Rostnikov said, finishing the water and putting the glass on the table, which was covered with a slightly worn flower-patterned tablecloth made from some oilclothlike material.
“Never,” said Lev.
“And you, Sofiya? You have never seen them before?” Rostnikov said gently.
“I’ve seen the old one,” she said, looking through Rostnikov into eternity.
“Good.” Rostnikov sighed with a gentle smile, thinking that perhaps he could wrap all this up and get home before ten for a decent dinner. “He is a neighbor, a friend, an old enemy?”
Sofiya glanced around the room as if looking for someone or something and then brought her puzzled glance back to Rostnikov. Her answer made him revise his plans for a reasonable dinnertime and the possibility of an hour of weight lifting before the hockey match on his little television.
“I don’t know where, but I’ve seen him, but it wasn’t quite him. Do you know what I mean?”
“Exactly,” Rostnikov said reassuringly, though he had no idea of what she meant. “Try to remember where you have seen him. Now, your father, what was his business, his work?”
“He didn’t work,” Lev said, and Rostnikov thought there was a touch of something, perhaps resentment, in the words.