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Nominee for Best Mystery "Edgar" from the Mystery Writers of America, this addition to the acclaimed series starring Russian Inspector Rostnikov will be caviar indeed. Rostnikov is sent to investigate a brutal murder in icy Siberia but is hampered by a suspicious set of KGB rules.
Commissar Illya Rutkin tucked his briefcase under his arm, adjusted his goatskin gloves, pulled down his fur hat to cover his ears and tightened the scarf over his mouth before opening the door of the wooden house and stepping out into the Siberian morning.
He had been reluctant to get out of bed, reluctant to dress, reluctant to light the small stove, heat his day-old tea, eat the smoked herring left for him in the cupboard. He was a Commissar. The old woman should have prepared his breakfast, given him some attention, but he had been warned.
Tumsk was not only Siberia but a small weather outpost near the Yensei River between Igarka and Agapitovo well within the arctic circle. Tumsk had barely been touched by the move to modernization which had, since the days of Stalin, been part of the propaganda of a harsh but promising new land beyond the Urals. Siberian towns sprang up to mine copper, diamonds, gold, to develop power from wild rivers, to revive the fur trade with the Evenk natives who have paid little attention to six hundred years of history.
Tumsk had not resisted change. Tumsk had not even been threatened by it. No one had cared. A few dozen people lived in the town just beyond the banks of the river, worked in the weather station, lived out their days as political exiles, made plans or hid. Tumsk was not a town in which to invest one's reputation and future.
Rutkin put out his right foot and tested the snow. It was brittle on top and took his weight reasonably well. In a few minutes or so the plow from the naval weather station on the slope would come to begin its rounds creating temporary paths, but Illya Rutkin did not have time to wait. He took another step out into the frigid, dark morning clutching his briefcase tightly and stood panting. What was the temperature? Sixty below? Ridiculous. Probably more like forty below. He stood with his arms out at his sides like an overbundled child in his fur coat under which he wore another coat and thick underwear.
The Commissar waddled rather than walked toward the People's Hall of Justice across the town square, glanced at the statue of Ermak Timofeyevich who had, with a band of cossacks, conquered most of Siberia in the name of the Czar early in the sixteenth century. Ermak, in full armor, a cap of snow on his head, was pointing east, contemplating the Siberia which he had taken. Ermak was badly in need of repair.
Rutkin took a few more steps, stopped and looked west, toward the Ural mountains more than a thousand miles away that stood like a great wall stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Arctic Ocean and separating Russia from the vastness of Siberia.
There was no one on the square. Something sounded to his left and Rutkin turned awkwardly to look toward the river, but the river was hidden by a low ridge covered, as was the world, with snow. He looked toward the taiga, the massive forest that came within a hundred yards of the town on three sides. Nothing. No one.
The Commissar sighed and started again toward the low stone building where he was to conclude his investigation into the death of the child. Normally, a Commissar would not have been dispatched from Moscow to Siberia for such an investigation, but there were two factors which made it a reasonable action. First, the child was the daughter of Lev Samsonov, a well-known dissident physician and scientist who had been sent by a court tribunal to Tumsk a year earlier. The hope had been that the world would forget Samsonov while he was in exile, but, apparently, the world had not forgotten him. Somehow word of his thoughts, life, efforts to return to Leningrad got to the outside world, even as far as the United States. The decision had been made only a month ago to allow Samsonov, his wife and daughter to leave the country. Arrangements were being made. The date of departure was only days away and so, now, the suspicious death of such a man's child had to be given serious attention, a Commissar at least, and, Rutkin had to admit to himself, he was probably considered one of the least busy of all available Commissars.
Rutkin had been given careful instructions. He had made "mistakes" in the past, he had been told by Party District Leader Vladimir Koveraskin, mistakes relating to certain alleged abuses of power for personal gain. Rutkin knew well what he meant, knew that the assignment to Tumsk was a warning, a taste of the Siberia in which he could easily find himself on a permanent basis. Illya Rutkin, who puffed his way through the snow, was expendable. If he failed to resolve this situation and it led to negative outside publicity, it would be Rutkin who would be blamed, demoted and punished. If he succeeded, he had a chance to survive, keep his title, his influence, his dacha near Yalta. At the age of fifty-four, he did not look forward to starting a new life above the arctic circle. His wife, Sonia, would certainly not join him. She would keep the apartment or, if necessary, go to live with their son and his wife and child in Odessa. Rutkin had no doubt and mixed feelings about the knowledge that Sonia would not be at his side blaming, grinding her teeth in sleep, hating his failure.
Barbaric, he told himself, looking at the ring of concrete buildings alongside almost ancient wooden and brick structures. The buildings around the square and the houses on the slope circled Ermak, who looked ever eastward. These people, he thought. Some of them, the older ones like that fool of a caretaker, still said spasi bog, may God save you, rather than spasibo when they wanted to say thank you. The place, even the wooden church building where no services were held, was part of a useless past that would not simply die. The entire town had no reasonable function for existing other than the weather station. Well, there was another reasonable function: to isolate people like Samsonov. Siberia was dotted with exile towns to receive those who, for various reasons, the State did not want to put into the more formal prisons farther east. One cannot be a martyr if he or she lives to a ripe old age.
But Illya Rutkin did not want to think of such things. He was, in fact, feeling good this morning, hopeful about the future. He knew something, had through careful investigation discovered something startling about the case that would save his career. Well, if he were to be honest, the information had come to him through luck and not investigation, but he had no need to be honest about this and nothing to gain from such honesty. So he trudged on, wanting to be the first person present for the hearing, to give the impression to these exiles, hooligans, ancients that he was constantly alert, that the State was constantly alert.
He would show these people, show Samsonov and the outside world that Commissar Illya Rutkin was not a man to be fooled, trifled with. He would be swift, efficient, and then he would make a show of presenting his information and the documentation on the child's death, closing the hearing and re-packing his briefcase before he departed. He had already made the call to Igarka to pick him up that afternoon, told them that he would have the entire matter settled, but he had refused to tell Famfanoff, the local MVD officer, what he had discovered. No one was going to take credit for this but Illya Rutkin.
He looked up, took a deep breath and another step toward the People's Hall of Justice. He had no more than thirty yards or so to go but he could not hurry. The icy air would not let him hurry, the snow would not let him hurry, his heavy clothing would not let him hurry and years of neglecting his body would not let him hurry. So, he did not hurry.
Were his hat not so tightly pulled against his ears, Commissar Rutkin might have heard the sound, the slight wooshing sift of snow, but he did not hear and so the sudden apparition was all the more startling.
"Wha ..." Rutkin cried at the hulking animal-like figure before him. The creature had risen from the snow like an extension of it, a massive snow man.
Illya Rutkin was startled but not frightened. He was a practical man who represented the Soviet Union. He faced the creature and waited for it to move away or speak, but it did neither. It stood facing Rutkin.
"What do you want?" Rutkin said.
The creature said nothing.
"Are you drunk?" Rutkin went on. "I am a Soviet Commissar. I am conducting an important investigation and you, you are in my way."
The creature did move now. It moved toward Illya Rutkin who stepped back, clutching his briefcase protectively to his chest.
"What do you want?" Rutkin shouted. "You want trouble? You want trouble? That can be arranged."
The creature closed in on him.
"Stop," Rutkin shouted, hoping someone in one of the shuttered houses on the square would hear and come to his aid, but no one responded and the statue of Ermak continued to point east.
The creature did not stop and fear came to Commissar Illya Rutkin.
"Stop," Rutkin repeated, seeing something now in the hand of the creature, something that made him want to run, run to the safety of the People's Hall of Justice.
He tried not to think about dying. Not here, he thought, not here. All thought of the hearing, of his future, was gone. Rutkin couldn't take in enough air. There wasn't enough air in the world to satisfy him and so he stumbled, mouth suddenly dry, nostrils acrid. He clutched his briefcase and trudged, stumbled, fell and rose to look back at the creature that was now a few yards from him. Yes, he was much closer to the Hall of Justice, much closer but it was still so far. Rutkin tore off his hat, hurled his briefcase at the creature and tried to force his iron legs to move, to hurry, but they did not move.
Rutkin screamed, now only a few feet from the door. The creature hovered over him and he screamed and from far beyond the village an animal, perhaps a wolf, perhaps the companion of this creature, howled into the dawn.
The door. If he could simply open the door, get inside, close it and throw the latch. Was that too much to ask of his body, his legs, whatever gods might exist and in which he did not believe?
His hand actually touched the wooden panel next to the door but he did not get the opportunity to clasp the handle. He had a moment, however, before he died to regret what he did next. He turned his head to see how far behind the creature was, and the icicle in the creature's hand penetrated through his eye and into his brain.
It should be cold, Rutkin thought. I should be dead. He shivered once and slumped against the stone stoop of the People's Hall of Justice thinking that he would survive this, that he would pretend to be dead and that he would be found and taken by helicopter to a hospital where he would somehow recover. Yes. It did not hurt. He would survive. And with that thought, Illya Rutkin died.
Inside the People's Hall of Justice of the Village of Tumsk, Sergei Mirasnikov looked out of the frosted window and adjusted his rimless glasses. Sergei clutched his broom and watched the creature gather in something brown that looked like a huge book. Sergei's eyes were not good even with the glasses. At the age of eighty-three, he was content that God had allowed him to live this long in relatively good health. One sure way to end that life and show his ingratitude to God would have been to open the door and try to come to the aid of the fool of a Commissar who had strongly hinted that Sergei was too old to continue to hold his job. Had he gone through that door to face the creature with his broom, Sergei was sure that there would now be a dead Commissar and a dead caretaker in the square.
Now there would be another Commissar coming, another investigation. It wouldn't end. Sergei watched the creature amble into the far snow, move toward thetaiga, and then disappear into a clump of birch trees.
Sergei put down his broom when the creature was out of sight and looked around to be sure no one was there to see him. It was then that he saw the other figure standing silently near the row of birches at the edge of the forest just beyond the square. He could not make out the face of this other figure, but he knew from the stance, the fur parka, who it was. This other figure had also witnessed the death of the Commissar. Sergei blinked and this figure near the forest disappeared. Perhaps the figure had never been there. Perhaps the memories of age were playing tricks on Sergei. Perhaps the Commissar wasn't dead at all, hadn't been murdered by the creature.
Before he went to the door to check, Sergei Mirasnikov backed away from the window so he couldn't be seen, and crossed himself.CHAPTER 2
Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov pushed away the sleeve of a jacket that brushed against his cheek and shifted his weight on the battered wooden stool to keep his partly lame left leg from growing too stiff. He would probably need to move quickly when the moment came to act.
He was sitting in the closet of an apartment on the third floor of a building on Babuskina Street in Moscow just four blocks from his own apartment on Krasikov Street. In his left hand, Inspector Rostnikov held a small Japanese flashlight whose bulb was threatening to reject the Czech batteries which he had recently put into it. In his right hand, Rostnikov held a paperback copy in English of Ed McBain's The Mugger. He had read the book five years earlier and about four years before that. It was time to reread it and so, while he waited for the three strong-arm robbers to return to the apartment, Rostnikov sat silent, shifted his more than 220-pound bulk, and hoped that the batteries would hold out.
If the flashlight did fail, Rostnikov would put the book away and sit silently waiting, contemplating the dinner of chicken tabaka, chicken with prune sauce and pickled cabbage, that his wife Sarah had promised him for that night if she did not get another one of the headaches she had been plagued by for the past few months.
Rostnikov read: "For as the old maid remarked upon kissing the cow, it's all a matter of taste." He had read the line before but for the first time he thought he understood the joke and he smiled slightly, appreciatively. Americans were most peculiar. Ed McBain was peculiar, including in his police novels pictures of fingerprints, maps, reports, even photographs. Delightful but peculiar.
And then Rostnikov heard the door to the apartment begin to open. He turned off the flashlight and stood quickly and silently in spite of his bulk and muscles tight from years of lifting weights. As the three men entered the apartment talking loudly, Rostnikov placed the flashlight in the left pocket of his jacket and in the right he carefully placed the paperback book. He did not use a bookmark, would never consider turning down a corner of the page to mark his place. He had no trouble remembering his place in the book.
The first man through the door was named Kola, Kola the Truck, a great bear of a man with ears turned in and curled by too many drunken battles. Kola, who would be celebrating his thirty-ninth birthday in two days, shaved his head and wore French T-shirts that showed his muscles. Unfortunately, T-shirts did nothing to hide his huge belly though no one would have the nerve to tell this to Kola, not even Yuri Glemp who was the second man into the apartment. Yuri was even bigger than Kola and ten years younger, probably even stronger, but Yuri was afraid of the older man who didn't seem to mind being hurt, didn't seem to be afraid of anything. Yuri, on the other hand, did not like to be hurt though he thoroughly enjoyed hurting others.
Together, for almost two years, Kola and Yuri had made a more-than-adequate living by robbing people on the streets at night and beating them severely if they did not have much money. They also beat them if they had money, but not with as much zeal. Watches, wallets, belts and even shoes they sold to Volovkatin.
Yuri, who paused in front of the small mirror to admire his neatly combed hair, kept track of the number of people they had robbed and beaten. His count was fifty-one. Kola had no idea and no interest in the number. He didn't even seem to have a great interest in the amount of money they had made. Between robberies Kola tended to be quiet and morose, drinking vodka, looking for arguments and watching television.
Excerpted from A Cold Red Sunrise by Stuart M. Kaminsky. Copyright © 1988 Stuart Kaminsky. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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