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The Boy in Bitsevsky Park
It was cold.
Not so cold that Yuri Platkov would not do that which he had promised himself to do if the man was still sitting on the bench in front of the path into Bitsevsky Park. It was cold, but the boy could detect a faint drifting fall of moisture from the dark sky.
The man was still sitting there.
Was this the fifth day in a row? Yuri counted backwards and decided that it was. It had snowed three days earlier, putting another white layer on the park. The man had been there before and during the snow.
Every afternoon as Yuri walked home from school the man had been sitting there. Sometimes he was reading a paperback book. Sometimes he seemed to be just thinking. He was a block of a man made even bulkier by the thick coat and fur hat he wore.
The man with a broad face similar to that of hundreds of thousands of Rus sians did not look up from his book. Yuri approached and sat at the end of the bench away from the man, who turned a page slowly.
Darkness was no more than an hour away and people were trudging or scurrying home from work after emerging from the Bitsevsky Park Metro station at the end of the Kaluzhsko-Rizhskaya Line, the orange line.
Yuri, eleven years old and supremely confident, felt safe enough. The man was old and certainly slow, his left leg oddly still. Yuri could run with confidence if he felt the need. He was the fastest boy in his form at school. Thin, pale-skinned with blond hair under his earflapped wool hat, he had nothing much to look forward to when he got to the apartment where his mother might be home and his father certainly would not be yet. His grandfather would be in front of the tele vi sion, what ever he was watching the enemy. They would be having a dinner of salad with the vegetables chopped into little pieces, leftover bean soup with sour cream, and sautéed mushroom stew with onions and sour cream served over mashed potatoes. The mushroom stew was also left over and stored in those plastic see-through containers with blue plastic tops.
Yuri’s mother worked in the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Solnovo, seventeen miles outside of Moscow. Her job was quality control, watching the bottles fill with syrup, water, and carbonation, looking for even the slightest imperfections. She was well paid. She had frequent headaches. On headache days, Yuri sometimes prepared simple dinners or at least opened the plastic containers, heated the contents, and set the table.
Yuri’s father was a bartender in Vodka Bar near the Park Kulutry Metro stop. His father, if he were still home, would leave for work shortly after Yuri came home. Though Yuri was sure his father loved him and his mother, he did a poor job of hiding his desire to get away from his father-in-law each night.
And so Yuri sat on the bench.
The man read on.
"Why are you sitting here?" Yuri said after a minute or two.
"I am waiting," said the man.
"You," said the man, still not looking at the boy.
"Or someone who would be curious enough to wonder who I might be and why I was sitting here on an early winter day."
Yuri didn’t understand, but he was curious.
"What are you reading?"
The man held up his ragged paperback. Yuri looked at the cover. The title was in English, a language Yuri was slowly and painfully learning in school.
"You are reading an En glish book about small rodents?"
"Not ‘mice,’ " said the man. "Ice. Frozen water. It’s a story. I would offer you a Red October chocolate, but you might think I was a dirty old man."
"No," said the man.
"Then you can offer me a chocolate."
"What makes you think you can trust me?"
"You have been coming here for five days. You are slow. I think I can trust you. At least I can get away if you try to do something. People are passing and I am sure I am faster than you are."
The man shifted his weight and with a grunt reached into his coat pocket and came up with a brown see-through bag, which crinkled invitingly. Yuri had a near passion for chocolate. The man reached into the already open bag and fished out a wrapped candy. Yuri could see the familiar image of the woman marioshki figure on the wrapper.
"Throw it," Yuri said.
The man threw the candy and Yuri caught it. Yuri could catch almost anything thrown to him. He fully expected to be the goalkeeper on his lower school team next year. Yuri pocketed his candy. The man opened a second one and popped it into his mouth, stuffing the wrapper into his pocket.
"You want another for here?"
Yuri shrugged. The man came up with another wrapped chocolate and threw it to the boy, who caught it.
"You are a goalkeeper," the man said.
"Yes," said Yuri, this time unwrapping the chocolate and taking a small bite from the end. The candy cracked between his teeth and spread its taste as he chewed it.
"My son is a goalkeeper," the man said. "He was a goalkeeper. He’s old enough to be your father."
Yuri wondered how old this man must then be, but he was too polite to ask. "What position did you play?"
In answer the man leaned forward and rapped his knuckles against his leg. It sounded like a knock at Yuri’s front door.
"No position," said the man. "My leg was lost when I was your age. So you see that there is no way I could chase a ten-year-old goalkeeper down the street."
"I am eleven and I wasn’t worried," said Yuri, popping the last tidbit of candy into his mouth.
"It is probably a good thing to worry when you are near the park and nightfall is approaching."
Two women passed them by with barely a glance. The women were both carrying their string grocery bags weighted down with the night’s dinner. Both women were fat, possibly sisters. The fatter of the two kept shaking her head as the other woman raised her voice higher and higher. Yuri caught the word baranina. Lamb.
Yuri and the man watched the two women until they were far down the street and the loud voice was lost in a riff of the wind.
The man shifted again, holding the candy in his right hand and fishing his wallet out of an inner pocket with his left.
If he offers lots of money to do some unspeakable thing, I will go find a police car. There was always a police car roaming near the park. This was because . . .
The man held open the wallet to show a police badge.
"I am a policeman," said the man. "My name is Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov."
"My name is Yuri Platkov. I know why you are sitting here."
Porfiry Petrovich nodded.
"Him," said Yuri. "The Bitsevsky Maniac."
"You know about him?"
"Everyone who lives near the park knows about him. He attacks the old people who hang out around the park. He beats their heads in with a hammer and hides their bodies in the bushes. Some say he has killed fifty or more. You expect him to walk up to you and confess?"
"It has happened in the past, but I do not expect it."
"How would he even know you were a policeman?"
"He would know," said Porfiry Petrovich.
"So, you thought someone would just come and sit down and tell you that they knew who the Maniac was?"
"No, but that would be very nice, nicer even if the murderer himself were to sit where you are and confess. I do not expect it, but it would be nice."
"Then why sit here if you do not expect someone to come to you?"
"You came," said the policeman.
Cars were moving cautiously in front of them, windshield wipers rubbing faster than was called for by the falling cold mist. Both Yuri and Porfiry Petrovich watched a large white Chaika stretch limousine with tinted windows come by.
" We don’t see cars like that here very much," said Yuri. "There’s no place a car like that could be going."
"There’s a big dinner at the Posvit Hotel on the other side of the park," said Porfiry Petrovich. "Our government is trying to convince a Japanese investment group to develop an area called Gargarin Street."
"How many has he killed now?" asked the boy.
"Many," said the policeman. "I can’t tell anyone because the number might be important when we catch him."
The official internal number of victims, Porfiry Petrovich knew, was officially nineteen. The unreported number of victims was fifty-one. It was assumed that there were other bodies to be found .
"You are not hoping he will come out of the woods to confess?" Yuri said.
"No, I am not."
"Maybe you are hoping he will come by and try to kill you?"
"I have considered that possibility," said Porfiry Petrovich. "I expect that at some point he will come and sit down as you have. Or perhaps he will pass by letting our eyes make contact."
"Will you be here tomorrow?" Yuri asked.
"Perhaps," said Porfiry Petrovich, urging his plastic and metal leg to allow him to rise with some dignity.
Now that he was standing, Yuri could see that the man was neither tall nor short. He stood with his legs apart, reminding the boy of a cylindrical box of kasha on the kitchen shelf.
"Shall we shake hands, Yuri Platkov?" Porfiry Petrovich said, holding out a thick right hand.
Foot traffic had grown heavier. People streamed from the direction of the subway. It was safe enough. He placed his hand in that of the policeman. Yuri steeled himself to squeeze, but it wasn’t necessary. The policeman’s grip was firm but gentle.
"The Maniac has moved the bird feeders," said the boy.
The policeman knew the makeshift bird feeders made of shoe boxes or cereal containers. The feeders, tied by string or ribbon, were hung from the low branches of trees with piles of seed inside left by bird lovers. They existed in almost all parks within the city.
"Moved them where?" asked the policeman.
"Farther from the path, deeper into the trees," said the boy. "People have to move away from the eyes of others to put in seeds or watch the birds feed. And some of the old men with no home eat the seeds."
No further clarification was necessary.
"I will look at the bird feeders," said the policeman.
"Paka , good-bye," the boy said.
"Paka, Yuri Platkov," said Porfiry Petrovich.
Yuri started to move away and then turned to face the standing man.
"Are you important?"
"I am Chief Inspector in the Office of Special Investigations."
"I have never heard of such an office."
"Good. That is as it should be."
Yuri turned and hurried away adjusting the scarf around his neck as he followed the jumble of icy footprints in the thin layer of snow that crackled under his feet.
Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov had been handed the case of the Bitsevksy Maniac only six days earlier. For the past two years, the murders had been under the jurisdiction of the MVD, Ministerstvo Vnutrennikh Del, the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
The existence of the murderer had been kept a secret. But the public began to learn of the Maniac through word of mouth, surviving relatives, and newspapers and small magazines that couldn’t be silenced. They learned of it long before Rostnikov was handed the case. The MVD was embarrassed and the way out of the embarrassment was to issue an internal document, which they were certain would be leaked, stating that their resources had to be concentrated on terrorist threats and that the Office of Special Investigations was ready to take on principal responsibility for finding "the murders in and around Bitsevsky Park."
Fortunately, Igor Yaklovev, Director of the Office of Special Investigations, was quite willing to take on the high-profile case. The Yak was always willing to take on cases that no one else wanted provided there was a payoff in the end, be it an acknowledgment of his skills as an investigator, the possibility of a promotion, or the likelihood of an opportunity to blackmail a government official or a wealthy citizen.
The Yak, lean and always impeccably dressed in a dark suit and tie, seldom left his office in Petrovka, Moscow’s police headquarters, though it was rumored that he engaged in regular martial-arts exercises with Vladimir Putin, with whom he had served in the KGB in St. Petersburg. The Yak relied completely on Rostnikov and his team to successfully take care of the investigations for which the Yak took credit. In turn, Colonel Yaklovev did his best to protect Rostnikov and his team when trouble arose.
Now in his own office down the hall from the Yak’s, Rostnikov continued to go over the MVD reports on the investigation. The stack was at least three inches high, and he was sure that everything had not been turned over to him. It was only natural that MVD officers and the Yak would pull out possibly vital documents to hold for possible gain or simply to hamper the investigation in the hope of failure.
Still, there was much in the pile of folders and reports, including the photographs of all the victims and the autopsy reports. Rost-nikov had divided the pile of reports in two and given one stack to Emil Karpo, the gaunt, almost cadaverous inspector who would certainly read every word placed in his hands. Rostnikov, however, would move through instinctively, catching a word here, something in the corner of a photograph there. Sometimes he knew what to look for, but more often he would simply sense what he needed to know, though he would acknowledge there were times in the past when he missed some vital piece of information. In a few days, he would switch piles with Karpo and go through the same pro cess again. They were a good team. Karpo was an analyst of fact with no imagination. Rostnikov trusted his imagination and doubted facts.
The others on his team who shared an office with Karpo were on other cases. Rostnikov’s son, Iosef, mistakenly named for Stalin when the Man of Steel was still considered the savior of the Soviet Union, was investigating the death of a professional boxer and the wife of a giant of a man who was on the verge of becoming heavyweight champion of the world. That investigation had just begun. Iosef was assisted by Akardy Zelach, the Slouch, a lumbering man of no great investigative skills but often surprising talents.
Zelach’s mother was in the hospital almost certainly dying from an ailment that the doctors could not identify. Zelach, who was forty-one years old, lived with and listened to his mother. He could not even imagine what life might be like without her. On the other hand, Sasha Tkach dreamt of living without the daily unannounced appearances of his mother.
Sasha’s mother, Lydia Tkach, was a retired government apparachnik who was given to shouting directions to her son about how to live, what to eat, and what he could do to try to win back his wife and Lydia’s two grandchildren. Lydia was nearly deaf. Lydia had a pair of very effective hearing aids. Lydia refused to wear them. Sasha was sure this was because she had no interest in hearing what anyone else had to say.
Sasha was still morose and not a joy to be with since his wife, Maya, had moved to Kiev with their two children. Sasha had willingly fallen victim to one woman too many.
Elena Timofeyeva had her own concerns, primarily the coming wedding to Iosef Rostnikov, son of Porfiry Petrovich to whom she was to be married in five days. It was required that they were to be wed exactly thirty-two days from the time that they registered with with ZAGS, the all-powerful office that controlled marriages. At the moment, however, Elena and Sasha were assigned to protect a British journalist about to look at or ganized prostitution in Moscow.
Any of them could be pulled from there to concentrate on the Maniac if and when they were needed.
Rostnikov looked at his watch. It was growing late, but he had one important stop to make before heading home. He had removed his leg and massaged the stump when he had sat back behind his desk. He had no recollection of the time when he was a child and had a functioning left leg. He well remembered his atrophied leg, a burden he had grown accustomed to. He missed the leg, which resided in a large jar in the underground laboratory of the possibly mad scientist Paulinin, who claimed to engage in conversations with the dead. Now Porfiry Petrovich faced the prospect of allowing the never-fully-welcome device to take on much of the weight of his considerable bulk.
It couldn’t be helped. He picked up the phone on his desk, pushed a button, and told Karpo to meet him two levels below Petrovka.
Rostnikov knew that the Yak’s assistant Pankov listened to all conversations in both Rostnikov’s office and the shared office of his team from a trio of hidden microphones. Rostnikov took some plea sure in sometimes leading the often-perspiring little man astray. This time, however, there was no deceit.
It was time to pay a visit to the dark labyrinth of a laboratory on the second level below the ground floor of Petrovka where the bespectacled Paulinin worked on and talked to the dead amid chards, fragments, books, and jars of formerly living parts and tissue of man and animal.
In one of the larger jars on a shelf not far from the two autopsy tables, Rostnikov’s shriveled left leg floated languidly.
Excerpted from A Whisper to the Living by Stuart M. Kaminsky.
Copyright 2009 by Double Tiger.
Published in January 2010 by A Tom Doherty Associates Book.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.