The Twelfth Department
By William Ryan
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2013 William Ryan
All rights reserved.
Yaroslavsky station was crowded and unpleasant — but Korolev breathed in the hot, muggy air and allowed himself a smile. What did it matter, when Yuri, his twelve-year-old son, would be stepping down from the Zagorsk train in a matter of minutes?
It was hot though. Even in the relative cool of the ticket hall, Korolev could feel sweat pooling under his arms and running down his back in what seemed to be a constant stream — but he still couldn't help the joy bubbling up through him. Anyway, it couldn't stay this hot for much longer — the weather would turn more comfortable in the next few days. It had to.
Ideally, he'd take off his jacket, which felt heavy as a fur coat in this heat. But if he did take it off then he'd have every citizen in the place looking at the Walther in its holster and wondering if he was a Chekist come to arrest somebody — and whether that somebody might just be them. He could do without that kind of attention.
He just hoped that the train would be on time — or at least not too late.
There was one niggling concern at the back of his mind about this visit though, and that was its unexpectedness — it had come completely out of the blue. His ex-wife Zhenia had called him just a few days before to ask if he could take Yuri — she hadn't explained why and he hadn't asked. At the time, it had been enough for him that he'd be seeing the boy for a whole week — just the two of them. But afterward, when he'd thought it through, he couldn't help but have a more complex reaction to the news. After all, he'd loved Zhenia back when they'd still been man and wife — and love left its mark on a man's soul and that was all there was to it. And even if it wasn't any of his business what Zhenia was up to, he couldn't help but feel a little low at the thought that, likely as not, she'd be spending a week with some other member of the male species, and in a place where their son wouldn't be welcome. He bore her no ill will, of course, and she was within her rights — but still.
His thoughts were diverted from their glum turn by two shrill blasts of a whistle from somewhere far down the tracks and, as if in response, the station speakers announced the arrival of the Zagorsk train. Not a minute passed before it came into view, steam billowing out behind and around it — eventually coming to a halt just short of the buffers with a loud grinding of brakes. In no time at all, the empty platform was full of passengers and a surge of baggage and humanity flooded toward him.
Korolev took up position just beside the engine's coal tender, keeping his eyes peeled for a mop of blond hair and a smiling face, hardly able to contain his own excitement — but there was no sign of Yuri. The people kept coming but still his son didn't appear, and now he was looking only at stragglers and railway workers. Where was he? There'd been youngsters among the crowd right enough, but they'd had parents and family in tow. Zhenia had sent the boy on his own, saying he'd be fine, that the journey wasn't very long; but Korolev knew things he'd never tell Zhenia about what could happen on a Soviet train — even in the middle of the day with the sun shining. He found his hands had balled into fists and that dread was seeping through his veins.
Korolev moved forward along the length of train, his pace increasing with each step, checking each compartment and pushing aside anyone who got in his way. By the time he'd reached the fourth carriage he was almost certain something had happened to the boy. And by the time he'd checked the fifth carriage, and found it empty as well, he was convinced of it. It wasn't until the very last carriage — by which time guards were shutting doors further up the train — that he found what he'd been looking for. A small head. Blonde hair pressed against a window.
Korolev swallowed hard and opened the door, fearing the worst. The young boy sat slumped in the corner of a bench seat, a suitcase on his knees nearly as big as he was. Deathly pale, his eyes shut. Yuri. Korolev reached forward to touch his son's cheek, bracing himself; but the skin was warm. Korolev hadn't even been aware he'd been holding his breath until he let it go.
The boy was fast asleep.
Korolev took the seat opposite, not sure quite what to do. Should he wake him? He examined him — a little over five feet tall now, he'd say — a good-looking child with a strong mouth and a firm chin. His hair was cut short at the sides but had a little length on top so his curls showed. Around his neck, above the white sleeveless shirt, hung a red Pioneer's scarf — the brass ring that gathered it together underneath the boy's chin looking as though it had been polished for the trip.
He'd changed, was the truth of the matter, his face was leaner and he'd grown an inch or two, but it was more than that. It seemed to Korolev almost as if he was looking at a version of the son he remembered. He'd only seen Yuri once in two years, for three days back in March, and even then they'd only been together in the evenings. Of course, he would have changed — he was young, it was what they did. Only middle-aged men like him stayed more or less the same.
Eventually he leaned forward and shook Yuri's shoulder till his blue eyes opened in surprise. The boy shifted his focus rapidly from Korolev to the carriage, to the station he found himself in — sitting up as he did so.
Korolev heard him murmur a single word — "Moscow" — before he leaned back against the seat.
"Yuri," Korolev said, softly, and expected to see the boy's face break into a smile, for the suitcase to be tossed aside and for arms to reach around his neck, but instead his son's expression remained melancholy, and he said nothing. Korolev leaned forward once again to ruffle the boy's hair — careful to be gentle with him.
"Are you all right?"
Yuri nodded but it seemed to be an effort for him. Korolev looked at him for a long moment — there was something not right, that was certain. But like as not, tiredness was mostly what it was — that and the heat. He took the bag from the boy's unresisting grip then slipped his arm around him.
"Come here, Yurochka," he said and scooped the boy up to his shoulder, turning to climb down from the carriage and place Yuri on his unsteady feet.
"We'll have to walk for a while, can you manage?"
The boy nodded.
"I'll carry the suitcase then."
They made their way along the platform in silence, Yuri's eyes fixed on the ground in front of his feet, not once looking up at him. And Korolev felt almost as lost as the boy looked.
* * *
They traveled by tram back to Bolshoi Nikolo-Vorobinsky. Korolev managed to squeeze Yuri onto a seat and stood over him, protecting the boy from the late-afternoon crush. Yuri didn't look at him or the other passengers, or even out the window at the city passing by. His stare was blank and seemed fixed on nothing. Korolev felt his hand instinctively reach forward to touch him, but he held it back. He'd take it slowly — there was time. They needed to get to know each other again was all.
It was only five minutes from the tram stop to the street Korolev lived in, but Yuri still hadn't spoken — or even properly acknowledged him. Korolev stopped at the door to the apartment and crouched down in front of Yuri so that the boy couldn't avoid looking at him. Even in the gloom of the stairwell, the boy's blue eyes seemed unnaturally bright.
"Listen, Yuri. I know you're tired, I can see that, but these are your neighbors for the next week and you'll make an effort, yes? The woman is called Koltsova — Valentina Nikolayevna." Korolev spoke distinctly — until the boy was better acquainted, it would be polite for him to use both Valentina's name and patronymic. Yuri nodded to show he had it memorized.
"Her husband was that famous engineer I told you about, the one who died in the Metro accident."
"I remember." Yuri's voice, when it came, was little better than a croak.
"Good. Now her daughter is Natasha — she's a bit younger than you and a good person as well. A Pioneer, same as you are. They're the best of people, both of them — I couldn't ask for better. So I want you to speak up and speak strongly, as Comrade Stalin would expect from such a fine young specimen of socialist youth, and treat them as the good comrades they are."
Yuri seemed to wake at that, and give Korolev his full attention for the first time.
Korolev stood and put his key in the lock, knocking once on the door as he opened it.
"We're here," he called in.
"Come in, come in." Valentina bustled out from the small kitchen area, wiping her hands on an apron, her cheeks rosy from the heat. It occurred to Korolev that he'd never seen her wear an apron before.
"We made a cake," she said. "We wanted to do something nice for Yuri."
"An apricot cake," Natasha said, appearing beside her mother, a smile on her face. "I queued for them. The apricots that is."
"We didn't get everything we needed." Valentina put a finger to her chin as she considered this. "But it worked out, I think."
"It smells good."
"It does smell good," Yuri agreed, and Korolev was pleased to see his son was smiling along with everyone else.
"Yuri." Valentina stepped forward to embrace him. "We're pleased to have you here."
"Thank you. I'm pleased to be here."
Yuri looked up toward Korolev, who nodded his approval.
"Yes, Comrade Yuri — fellow Pioneer." Natasha took Yuri's hand in hers, shaking it vigorously. "Welcome to Moscow."
It was strange to spend a night with another human being so close by, and periodically Korolev found himself waking, just about, and listening — though for what, he couldn't quite remember at first. A dark silence surrounded him. Then, his ears attuning, he might hear a car's engine a few streets away, or perhaps some mysterious metallic grinding from down near the river, or a late-night walker's footsteps. Nothing unusual, in other words. It was like that, Moscow — it moved around in its sleep.
Finally, however, Korolev would detect the quiet rhythm of Yuri's breathing only feet away. The boy was sleeping on a borrowed couch on the other side of the bedroom and Korolev felt a warm happiness at his proximity. But even in his half-awake state, he remembered that all wasn't well. Yuri had cheered up when they'd come back to the apartment, but until then — well — he'd been strange and silent. And, remembering that, worry would gnaw away at Korolev — until he slipped back into unconsciousness once again.
How he found himself lying beside Valentina Nikolayevna, looking across at her sleeping face, he wasn't sure. Her hair was spread across the pillow like an angel's halo — never had she looked so beautiful. Her lips opened slightly as she stirred, the blanket slipping down from her bare neck, lower and lower. Then lower still ...
The voice was clear, very clear, but it didn't fit — he decided to ignore it.
That voice again. He wished it would go away. If this was a dream then it was a damned good one — one he wanted to wrap tight around him like a blanket. Even now, as it seemed in danger of slipping away. But she was still there — just. Valentina, the woman with whom he shared his apartment — the woman he secretly admired. And now this perfect dream. It was hard to hold on to it, with that gentle tapping in his chest.
A boy's voice — close enough for him to feel the breath against his cheek. If he shut his eyes very tightly it would go away, no doubt of it. The important thing was to stay asleep and hold on to the dream.
"Papa, wake up."
And it was gone. Such a dream, as well. He opened his eyes to find his son looking down at him, frowning.
"Yuri?" he said, rubbing his fingers over his eyes. "What time is it?"
Early, to judge by the flat sunlight coming through the curtains. He'd half-hoped to lounge in his bed for a change, but it seemed that wasn't to be.
"You were groaning."
"Was I?" Korolev said, feeling his cheeks redden.
"I thought you might be ill."
"No, just a dream."
"You were talking to yourself."
Damn, he'd been talking to himself. What had he said?
"What did I say?" Korolev asked, deciding it was best he knew.
"I couldn't make it out. You sounded in pain, though."
"Probably just a bad dream." Or a good one, of course. "How did you find the couch?"
"Good, I think." Yuri looked unsure. "How did I end up in here?"
"You fell asleep while you were eating so I brought you in."
Yuri considered this.
"I was tired from the journey."
"You were," Korolev said, pushing down the sheet and sitting up. He thought about that niggling worry of his and whether he should bring it up — and decided not to. There was time enough. He yawned and stretched his arms above his head. He should be fully awake for such a subject.
"Let's get some breakfast then, and plan our day."
"Mother said you might have to work." Yuri's eyes slid sideways. "She said I shouldn't expect to see much of you."
Korolev sat on the side of the bed and regarded his son, smiling as he did so.
"As it happens, I've the whole of the time off. I need to go in to Petrovka and sign some papers this morning but that won't take more than a few minutes. And I happen to know there's a jazz band playing in Hermitage Park, which is just across the street — we can kill two birds with one stone."
* * *
By the time Korolev had done his morning exercises and they'd dressed, Valentina and Natasha were also up and about in the bedroom they occupied on the other side of the shared sitting room.
"Good morning," Korolev said, the memory of his dream making him feel more than a little shifty in Valentina Nikolayevna's presence.
"Yurochka," Valentina said, embracing his son — the diminutive of Yuri's name sounding surprisingly natural to Korolev, even though they'd only met the night before. "You're awake. We were worried about you last night. You just fell forward — you'd have had a bruise if your father hadn't caught you."
Yuri gave her a shy smile.
"I thought it might have been the apricot cake," Natasha said, gravely, coming into the room. "I thought Mother might have poisoned you."
Valentina reached out a swift hand as though to cuff her only child, who giggled as she danced away.
"I'll poison you, one of these days."
"I thought the cake was very good," Yuri said. "I liked it very much."
"At last, a polite child in the house."
"Have you been to the zoo, Yuri?" Natasha asked, clambering onto the heavy wooden table in the shared room and sitting there in the morning light, her legs swinging. She was ten — a couple of years younger than Yuri — but if he hadn't known this to be the case, Korolev would have guessed she was the older of the two.
"You see, Mama. I told you. We have to take him. You must call your friend. If Yuri went back to Zagorsk without going to the greatest zoo in the world — well."
It was clear that, in Natasha's opinion, this would be a source of bitter shame for everyone involved
"Can I come?" Korolev asked.
"If you're not working, of course you can," Natasha said. "But you work all the time. Which is good, of course. The State needs hard workers."
"I have the next six days off."
"Six days?" Valentina said, raising her eyebrows. "Six days with no work at all?"
"I've got to sign some paperwork this morning — on the Gray Fox investigation. But apart from that — I'm free as a bird."
Yuri's eyes widened.
"The Gray Fox investigation?"
"A serious business — we captured the leader yesterday."
"He was a murderer," Natasha told Yuri, lowering her voice. "And a bank robber. They called him 'Needle' because he killed seven men with an ice pick."
"A bank robber?" Yuri asked, looking to Korolev for confirmation.
"Only one bank. Mostly post offices and factory safes. A tough customer — we were glad to catch up with him. I'll tell you about it on the way to Petrovka, don't you worry."
"You're taking Yuri to Petrovka?" Natasha asked. "To Militia headquarters?"
"I wasn't going to," Korolev said. "But I could do that. Shura said she might come up with us — there's a concert in Hermitage Park. A jazz concert. I was going to drop Yuri and Shura off there, do my business, and join them later." (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Twelfth Department by William Ryan. Copyright © 2013 William Ryan. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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