Read an Excerpt
Monday, 9 September 1985.
Like a frightened alley cat, he cowered in the corner near the Sobakina Tower at the northwest Kremlin wall. He blew on his hands to warm them, and then wiped some drizzle from his nose. Squinting, he glanced at his wristwatch. 4:50 A.M., but it didn't matter, not anymore. Today he'd find them, and then everything would be okay, just like before they’d mysteriously disappeared, leaving him alone.
A flash of jagged brightness suddenly lit the sky, startling him. The light revealed a dark figure by the stone steps at the far wall, moving quickly toward his position. He saw it was someone in a rain slicker, someone he'd not expected. Sighing, he reluctantly deserted the comfort of the shadows, and held out a nervous hand.
Reaching him, the one in the slicker jabbed a finger into his chest, and said angrily, “What the hell are you doing here? We weren't supposed to meet until next week on Monday.”
“I came to look for my family.” He reached into his suit coat side pocket, and struggled to pull something out.
“Did you expect to find them up here in the tower? You really are insane.” He glanced over the wall, down into the darkness. “One of my men is below in the Alexandrovsky Garden escorting a worker to her duties. They might see us. And if they were to turn us in, you know the penalty for ignoring the rules. Someone would have our asses. You are a fool, an insane fool.”
“I don't care about them or you or about our asses; I want my family back.” He yanked a small caliber pistol from his pocket. A thin brown envelope dropped to the floor near the wall, landing near apuddle. “I intend to find them today if it's the last thing I ever do. Do you hear me? The last thing.” He bent to retrieve the envelope, and almost lost his balance and the pistol.
The one in the rain slicker leaned forward and grabbed for the gun. “Give it to me, you idiot, before you kill us both.”
As they struggled briefly by the wall, the pistol suddenly exploded. The smaller man who’d been hiding by the wall slumped to the floor. He lay on his back with his eyes wide, catching the rain. Blood from the wound near his right ear ran down his face to his neck, staining his shirt.
Shoving the pistol into his pocket, the newcomer knelt by the body. He noticed the envelope in the shadows by the wall. He picked it up and tore it open, and then began to read, using the dim tower light above him.
Smiling, he folded the short, handwritten note into a neat square with a pair of fingers, and then carefully placed it into the dead man's hand. He crushed his fingers around one end of it, and crimped its other end together with several strands of thread from the inside arm of the man's jacket. He hoped it would stay in place, at least until it had reached its final destination down at the foot of the tower. Satisfied, he shoved the soggy envelope into his own pocket, and then positioned himself for a difficult pull.
On the balls of his feet with his knees slightly bent, he grabbed the front of the man's jacket. He stood, pulling the heavy load up with him. Despite his unusual strength, he had a hard time getting into a good position at the edge of the wall. He had to stop to rest a moment while he held the body up with his shoulder.
There would be hell to pay over this, he thought, gulping for air; but maybe the death notice the crazy bastard had scribbled earlier would take care of everything, assuming the authorities found it, and more importantly, believed it. If not, he could be in very serious trouble with his new friends who, even on their best days, were intolerant to any kind of failure.
Quickly breathing easy again, he moved his hands up the man's rear end, and then, in the right position for a final shove, he pushed the body headfirst over the wall into the darkness. As the body went over the wall, he felt the heel of the dead man’s shoe hit him hard in the shoulder. Startled, he jumped back like a large-caliber bullet had struck him in the jaw.
Regaining control, he jammed his hands into the pockets of his slicker, and fondled the pistol and envelope he'd placed there earlier. Then he glanced around the area. Satisfied that everything was in order, he hurried for the far wall and the stone steps that curved down to the garden where the others would be waiting impatiently in the rain, wondering what was taking him so long, if they’d even missed him.
Anxious halfway down, he had a frightening thought. Maybe he should have left the gun with the body, after all. Now, he would have to find a hiding place for it until he could dispose of it, along with the envelope. He could not afford to leave anything behind that would connect the body to him and the others. But there was no time now. Everything would have to be worked out later, before anyone found out, especially them.
* * *
From the inside of the square Zhiguli, it looked like a massive surge of water had suddenly smashed against the windscreen. It looked like the final stages of an emergency crash dive just before the sail submerged into a gurgling sea of foam, the hull covered with tons of rushing water. You could almost hear a Klaxon blaring an urgent warning off in the distance.
Major Frunze leaned forward in his seat, and held tightly to the wheel. The tires had started to hydroplane, almost spiraling the car. Glancing at Kulick, his relatively new SID partner, he asked indifferently, “Still with us?”
“You’re going to kill us one day, Frunze,” Kulick said. He rubbed his bushy mustache with two stained fingers, and continued to stare at the windscreen that was flooded with water from the heavy rain. He hated Frunze's driving, especially in a storm. And he wished he could smoke, it would calm his nerves, but it wasn't allowed in the car.
“We didn't wake you, did we, Kulick?” Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Antonovich, the SID team chief, asked from the backseat. He wiped steam from the side window with the back of his hand and pressed his forehead against the side window to catch a glimpse of the overflowing storm gutters along Tchaikovsky Street.
The car skidded onto Kalinin Prospekt, almost like it was out of control. The abrupt turn bounced his head against the rear door window. He calmly cleared his throat. “It looks like a bad one,” he said. He rubbed his forehead where it had hit the window, and cursed under his breath. He wasn’t particularly fond of Frunze’s driving either. “Are you sure you can see anything out front, Frunze?” he asked matter-of-factly.
“The windows are covered with water and steam,” Kulick said. “It’s impossible to see anything, sir. Please, tell the maniac to slow it down; will you?” He turned back in his seat to look at Vladimir, and said with a calmer voice, “The fellow at the Kremlin wall isn't going anywhere today, sir, not tomorrow either if our source was right about what he'd seen crumpled in the grass at the foot of the Sobakina Tower earlier this morning. So, what’s the hurry now? I think Frunze is trying to kill us.”
“Go back to sleep and be quiet,” Frunze said, struggling with the wheel. “I'm too busy to argue with you.”
The colonel leaned forward in his seat. He tapped Frunze on the shoulder. “Go in through the Borovitsky gate when we get there, Frunze. It's the only vehicular gate open so early in the morning.” He glanced at his wristwatch, but couldn't make out the time. He moved his arm toward the dim light at the side window while he held the back of the seat in front of him. “What time did your source telephone you, Frunze?”
“Before six-thirty, sir,” Frunze said, his eyes glancing to the mirror above his head.
“About twenty minutes ago. We'd better hurry then; it's hard to say what the militia may have done to the body by now. They can be sloppy at times. They tend to hurry too much when it's raining. They hate to get wet toes, I heard.” He smiled.
“Like a virgin at a summer fair,” Kulick said, as he smoothed his bushy mustache over his cheeks. It looked like it had not been combed this morning, maybe not yesterday either, or the day before.
Frunze kicked the accelerator, and then unexpectedly eased up on it. The wheel felt like he was losing control again. “Kulick,” he whispered when he felt firmer ground beneath the tires, and had steadied the car, “you're so full of shit sometimes, I think it will be my duty to buy you a carton of exceptionally thick shit paper for your birthday, if you ever reach it.” He laughed as the car skidded again, but he regained control almost immediately. “But sometimes, I wonder if…”
“What took them so long to notify us this time?” Vladimir interrupted to get Frunze's mind off Kulick.
“The same as before, sir, Frunze said. “You know how it is. Some people have not heard about our Special Investigations Department yet, so it takes longer to get notified. We're probably the last ones to hear anything about anything.”
“Unless you have good sources,” Kulick said, “like you have.” He glanced at Frunze and smiled as he spoke.
“It's good that he still has his sources,” Vladimir said. “Where would we be without him, and his old comrades from the Square? They're our main sources of information anymore.”
“Don't forget about Kostenko either, sir,” Frunze said. “Inessa has been extremely helpful at times with our work. I expect she'll be at the wall, working her militia team even as we speak.”
“Yes, she probably will,” Vladimir said. “She…”
“Look over there, sir,” Kulick interrupted. He nodded toward a side street and a group of a dozen men and women, all dressed for a long stay in the weather. Some struggled to hold their umbrellas upright in the wind. Those without umbrellas huddled close to those who did.
“The wind and rain are making it hard on them this morning,” Frunze said. He slowed the car, and glanced to the right where Kulick was staring.
“If they aren't careful the wind will have their umbrellas soon,” Kulick said, frowning. He had his nose pressed against the steamy side window.
“Or our compatriots will,” Frunze said. “Damn Zionists. They only gather to annoy the authorities. They're never satisfied. All they think about is their Utopia, a place of rocks in the sand. But Churnov will slow them down before the day is through, I'm sure of that. He's good at his job, you know.”
Vladimir crammed his neck as the car went by the group. “Too bad,” he said. “They really should let more of them go. Perhaps that might ease the problem considerably.”
Frunze gave him a quizzical look in the mirror. “Maybe they should, sir; I think we have plenty to spare.”
“Frunze,” Vladimir said, “have you ever met a Jew? I mean socially?”
“Plenty, sir, but not so many socially. But that's beside the point. There are more visas being granted than ever before; but still they complain. Maybe a Siberian gulag is the only solution for such people, after all. At least there, they wouldn't be able to demonstrate or complain in the rain. They'd be too damn busy cutting firewood for their black-bellied stoves, trying to keep warm.”
“A gulag is not the answer for everything,” Kulick said, sitting up.” He suddenly stopped talking and closed his eyes, letting memories flash.
Vladimir looked at the back of Kulick's head. He saw he needed a haircut, and the Lenin cap he was wearing was stained with hair oil and the rain, much like the shoulders of his leather jacket. “Wasn't your wife Jewish once, Kulick?” he asked.
“Once, sir.” He turned, and placed his hand on the back of the seat. “That was before they took her away five years ago when I was in Afghanistan in 1980, sir. I think I told you about it. You were there at the same time yourself on a special mission, weren't you, Colonel?”
He ignored the question. He didn’t like to think about that mission, where he’d lost most of the men in his gruppa.“Too bad about your wife. Is she still okay in the gulag?” He knew something about her case from Kulick and from the records, but had never really gotten that deeply into it. He'd been too busy lately with his new SID duties to keep up even with his own family, Aleksandra and young Dimitri.
“She's fine, sir. She died.” He turned to face the squealing sounds of the defective wiper blades scraping across the windscreen, trying to ignore new images that burned in his brain.
Embarrassed, Vladimir sat back. He suddenly remembered a little more about the case. She'd cut her wrists with a meat fork, he recalled. They'd not even bothered to inform Kulick about her death until after he'd returned from the war zone, wounded and a hero.
“Who was her judge?” Frunze asked, glancing at Kulick.
“I was never told; but I understand he sent a lot of Jews to the camps after some of the earlier demonstrations. Supposedly, he moved to a high government position here in Moscow to continue with his work. He’s probably still here in an even higher position, like supervising babushki while they scrape dog crap from the streets.”
“They should have waited for a political change,” Frunze said, ignoring the potentially traitorous remark. “More of them might have been allowed to immigrate sooner or later. It's getting better with the visa situation every day. Gorbachev may even make it more attractive for them in time, if they give him a chance.”
Frunze pushed into his seat, and glanced out the side window, and then into the mirror. Well-built and strong with short dark hair, he usually carried himself confidently like he was on parade. He was in his early thirties, a year or so younger than Kulick, and slightly younger than Vladimir, too, who looked younger, although he was several years older than both of them. Even sitting behind the steering wheel, Frunze didn't look like a man you’d want to rile for no reason at all.
“All they wanted to do is go to Israel in peace, that's all,” Kulick said, his voice unusually low.
“A lot of them have been employed in high positions with top-level security clearances,” Frunze said defensively, “so it's unlikely they would have been allowed to leave anyway, then or now. So why demonstrate at all? They're only asking for trouble from the procurator-general and his staff. And they have plenty of that already just by being Jews.”
“I hear it's something they have to do,” Kulick said. He looked out the side window at the early morning shadows, and the dark puddles of running gutter water that were still being splattered by the rain. “But it's none of my business any longer. I'd rather not talk about it anymore.”
“I sometimes wonder,” Vladimir said, “where it will all lead to in the end; but regardless, Kulick, just remember this. We can't mix our duties with our politics. Let the KGB worry about the things that go beyond our SID charter or the Army Manual of Rules. We have enough to worry about with the Mafia and their illegal activities without worrying about the Jews, or their political problems with the procurator-general of the Soviet Union. Let Churnov be their conscience.”
“What about our consciences, sir?” Kulick whispered as he turned again.
“Let the politicians worry about that, too.”
“Or the KGB,” Frunze interjected. “They're damn good at worrying about such things even with their new faces.”
Suddenly, Frunze jerked the steering wheel to the right. The car skidded around two other sleek sedans that were speeding off to the left of him. The abrupt change in the motion of the Zhiguli threw a gigantic spray up over the other cars like they'd been hit by a tidal wave of foamy water. The angry drivers blew their horns several times at the maniac speeding around them and cursed aloud.
Later, settled into his seat, Frunze glanced at Kulick, who had started to snore despite the bumpiness of the road, and the splatter of rain against the roof, and his driving.
“Gone again?” Vladimir asked Frunze, leaning forward to listen to the noises coming from the front passenger seat. “It never seems to take him long at all. I wish I could be so relaxed, especially riding with you.”
“Yes, sir. He can fade in or out almost anywhere, anytime, he says. I think he learned the trick in the war zone some years ago.”
“Sleep can carry a man away from many things,” Vladimir said, “here or there; but he always has to come back again sooner or later.”
“That's true, sir. It can also turn a man into an elephant, too, if he isn't careful while he sleeps.”
“What do you mean?” He leaned forward, and held to the back of the seat to guard against Frunze’s driving skills.
“When Kulick reaches the apex of his snoring, he can suck a notebook right off from a dashboard without ruffling a page, almost like he had an elephant's nose.”
Vladimir laughed as he sat back. “Yes, he can do that all right. Maybe he should be in the circus.”
Frunze twisted his head, and said, “Or in a cell, sir, where there are no notebooks.”
“Or elephants either,” Vladimir said. He recalled that paratroopers talked like that, too, trying to tell jokes that were not all that funny really, but sufficiently worded to take another paratrooper’s mind from the dangers in his life, making him think about something else. Sighing, he pushed back into the hard cushion, and closed his eyes, remembering his fellow paratroopers in Afghanistan that time, and how they liked to laugh until tears came to their eyes, even at the worst of jokes. Where had the time gone?
* * *
Inside the Kremlin walls and safely parked in a “No Parking” zone not far from the Central Committee buildings, Vladimir slammed his hand down hard onto the seat in front of him. “Wake up, Kulick, it's time to earn your SID pay for the day like the rest of us.”
Kulick rubbed his eyes. “We're there already, sir?”
Outside, in the drizzle, Vladimir turned the collar of his suit coat up by his neck. He motioned for his partners to follow him toward the wrought-iron gate down the street, away from the restricted area of the Kremlin. The gate separated the government buildings from the Alexandrovsky Garden at the northwest wall where the mangled body had been found earlier this morning by a pair of Kremlin guards. “I thought I saw something.” He rubbed the back of his neck as he turned to Kulick.
“Where, sir?” Kulick asked, twisting his head for a better look.
“Over there.” Vladimir let his eyes wander back to the heavily draped windows of the four-story Central Committee building across the way. He sensed someone was looking back at him. For a moment he thought he saw someone standing behind the thick curtains in one of the darkened rooms on the second floor, at the far side of the building. He recalled that was where the office of Procurator-General Boris Churnov was located. He was the top lawyer of the land, and by far the most ruthless, especially when it came to “the damn Zionist problem,” as he liked to call it.
“There!” Kulick said. He pointed at a group of uniformed guards moving around the corner of a concrete and glass building Vladimir had been staring at before.
“Slugs,” Vladimir said. Kremlin guards. He locked eyes with the leader of the group, a captain named Craksky. Reaching up, he arrogantly wiggled a red plastic-covered pass that was attached to the lapel of his gray suit coat. He smiled at the captain across the street, trying to aggravate him.
The pass gave him authority to go almost anywhere. It had been signed six months ago by the town prosecutor, Yuri Vosko, and then countersigned by Procurator-General Boris Churnov himself shortly thereafter.
“The glorious Ninth,” Frunze said. He moved closer to Vladimir.
“The slugs responsible for protecting high-level government officials and their families.” Vladimir nodded for his partners to fall in line with him so they could continue on together toward the gate down the street.
Major Frunze, a grade higher than Kulick, moved closer to Vladimir's right side as they walked. “Craksky wanted to hassle us this morning, sir. I could see it on his face.”
Kulick moved to the left of Vladimir and took up the step. “Slugs are like castrated roosters,” he said. “They can posture magnificently, flap their wings mightily, and squawk until they're hoarse; but they'll never be able to satisfy a hen again because they have no balls, something like their friends at the Square.” He twisted his neck, and smiled across Vladimir's chest into Frunze's face.
“Leave it alone, Kulick,” Vladimir said. “The slugs here are not exactly the same thing as the rest of the KGB, even today.”
“But they suck just as much blood.”
Vladimir started to say something more, but stopped when he heard the chimes sounding from the east wall where the Spassky Tower was located. He glanced at his wristwatch. Ten after seven. He was a little off as usual. He liked to keep it fast, so he could maintain a busy schedule without ever being too late.
Frunze interrupted his thoughts. “Will all of them be here this morning, sir?”
“At least the militia will be. I'm not so sure about the KGB. It all depends on their interests today, who the body is, what his position was, if he had one at all.”
* * *
Quickening his pace in silence, Vladimir shoved his hands into his suit coat pockets. He thought about Yuri Vosko, the town prosecutor, his immediate boss, and about the procurator-general, Boris Churnov, Vosko's superior in the new chain of command.
There were many rumors lately about both of them, most of them bad, he recalled. At forty, Vosko, the grasshopper, was overly ambitious. He supposedly would do anything to get ahead. A typical bureaucrat except a bit more charming than the rest. And a bit more horny, too, if the stories about him were true.
And Churnov, the only man that he'd ever met that had legs as big as his thighs, and a head that hung so low on his shoulders that his chin almost touched his chest. Churnov was ambitious, too; but his was much bigger and broader in scope than Vosko's, and much more deadly, too. His hate for Jews was only exceeded by his love for personal power and wealth, and maybe his unusual obsession for food.
Glancing at Kulick, Vladimir asked, “What do you think of our bosses, Churnov and Vosko, Kulick?” He continued the brisk pace toward the gate where he could see a uniformed guard in a rain slicker, standing indifferently in the drizzle, looking back at him.
“All I can say, sir, is that a man must keep a safe distance from bears and wolves even when he is tracking them, or he may one day end up in their stomachs.”
“There are only rumors,” Frunze interjected. “And they are our superiors, after all. We shouldn't be talking about them like this, nor should we be watching them in our spare time like they were common thieves or worse with nothing better to do than to steal from the State. If they ever found out what we've been doing behind their backs, they would be very upset with us to say the least.” He looked around nervously like someone was watching, and would hear his words. “There are ears everywhere, especially here within the Kremlin compound. They are always looking for traitors.” He glanced over his shoulder at Kulick.
“They won't hear us,” Kulick said, “not that we are traitors.” He smiled. “It’s just that we're much too smart for all of them, especially the slugs who always hide behind the walls over there.” He looked off to his right at the red Kremlin walls that were still dripping with shiny moisture from the rain.
Frunze turned his head toward Vladimir as they continued to walk. “I suggest, sir, that we concentrate on our immediate business today. It should keep us busy enough without the other things. Besides, I don't want to be called as a witness at your trial if this conversation ever got into the wrong hands. Treason is a very serious crime, sir, as you know.” He adjusted a heavy evidence kit to his shoulder while he continued the quick pace.
“There!” Kulick shouted. He pointed off toward the walls at his right. “Over by the Sobakina Tower where the body is supposed to be located. Looks like a damn movie set with all the mobile floods shining their lights on the walls.”
“The militia is amply represented like always,” Vladimir said, ignoring Kulick's antics and Frunze’s warning. “They even wore their dark rain slickers today.” He pulled his suit coat collar closer to his neck. He wished he'd worn a slicker himself. He glanced at Kulick and Frunze, and thought that they were probably wishing the same thing, too. Frunze's suit coat looked soaked to the threads, and Kulick's beige leather jacket was spotted dark from the rain.
“But I don't see Kostenko yet,” Kulick said, twisting his neck. “Where could she be?”
“Maybe by the walls,” Vladimir said. “They all look the same to me all snuggled down in their long raincoats this morning.”
“Maybe you should take a leave, sir,” Kulick said, “if you think Kostenko looks anything like any of the rest of them over there, with or without her rain gear on.”
“Kulick, knock off the crap; will you? We have work to do,” Vladimir said. “And how the hell would you know how she’d look without her clothes on anyway? Don’t talk stupid.” He stepped off the walkway onto the crinkled grass. “Just remember, Kulick, I don't have time for your bullshit today.” He’d become agitated all of a sudden. He didn’t like people making quasi-sexual remarks concerning Inessa Kostenko.
His neck warm now, Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Antonovich headed directly for the spot where the lights were the brightest on the wall, and where all the activity seemed to be. The other two followed closely at his heels, mumbling something under their breaths about the damn drizzle, and their duty to be in it today whether they wanted to be or not. And somewhere in their minds, they wondered what had set their leader off like that so early in the morning. Did he still have a warm spot for Kostenko after all these years?