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It was two in the morning, an hour that was both early and late. Two A.M. was a world to itself.
Zoya Filotova wore her black hair severely trimmed as if to defiantly display the bruise below her eye. She was about forty, Arkady thought, stylishly sinewy in a red leather pantsuit and a golden cross that was purely ornamental. She sat on one side of the booth, Arkady and Victor on the other, and although Zoya had ordered a brandy she had yet to touch it. She had long red fingernails and as she turned a cigarette pack over and over Arkady was put in mind of a crab inspecting dinner. The café was a chrome affair above a car wash on the beltway. No car washes tonight, not with snow falling, and the few cars that made it to the café were SUVs with four-wheel drive. The exceptions were Arkady's Zhiguli and Victor's Lada crouching in a corner of the lot.
Victor sipped a Chivas, just maintaining. Drinks were expensive and Victor had the patience of a camel. Arkady had a modest glass of water; he was a pale man with dark hair and the stillness of a professional observer. Thirty-six hours without sleep had made him more still than usual.
Zoya said, "My heart hurts more than my face."
"A broken heart?" Victor suggested as if it were his specialty.
"My face is ruined."
"No, you're still a beautiful woman. Show my friend what else your husband did."
The drivers and bodyguards who occupied stools along the bar were contemplative, cradling their drinks, sucking their cigarettes, keeping their balance. A couple of bosses compared Florida tans and snapshots of Sleeping Beauty. Zoya brushed the crucifix out of the way so she could unzip the top of her pantsuit and show Arkady a bruise that ran like a grape stain on the smooth plane of her breast.
"Your husband did this?" Arkady asked.
She zipped up and nodded.
"You'll be safe soon," Victor reassured her. "Animals like that should not be walking the street."
"Before we married he was wonderful. I have to say even now that Alexander was a wonderful lover."
"That's natural," Victor said. "You try to remember the good times. How long have you been married?"
Would the snow ever end? Arkady wondered. A Pathfinder rolled up to a gas pump. The mafia was getting conservative; now that they had seized and established their separate territories they were defenders of the status quo. Their children would be bankers and their children would be poets, something like that. Count on it, in fifty years, a golden age of poetry.
Arkady rejoined the conversation. "Are you sure you want to do this? People change their minds."
"Maybe your husband will change his ways."
"Not him." She smiled with an extra twist. "He's a brute. Now I don't dare go to my own apartment, it's too dangerous."
"You've come to the right place," Victor said and solemnized the moment with a sip. Cars droned by, each at a different pitch.
Arkady said, "We'll need phone numbers, addresses, keys. His routine, habits, where he hangs out. I understand you and your husband have a business near the Arbat."
"On the Arbat. Actually, it's my business."
"Matchmaking. International matchmaking."
"What is the company's name?"
"Really?" That was interesting, Arkady thought. A quarrel in Cupid's bower? "How long have you had this business?"
"Ten years." Her tongue rested for a moment on her teeth as if she were going to say more and changed her mind.
"You and your husband both work there?"
"All he does is stand around and smoke cigarettes and drink with his mates. I do the work, he takes the money and when I try to stop him, he hits me. I warned him, this was the last time."
Victor said, "So now you want him..."
"Dead and buried."
"Dead and buried?" Victor grinned. He liked a woman with zeal.
"And never found."
Arkady said, "What I need to know is how you knew to go to the police to have your husband killed."
"Isn't that how it's done?"
Arkady ceded her the point. "But who told you? Who gave you the phone number? It makes us nervous when an innocent citizen, such as yourself, knows how to reach us. Did you get our number from a friend or did a skywriter spell out Killers for Hire?"
Zoya shrugged. "A man left a message on my phone and said if I had a problem to call this number. I called and your friend answered."
"Did you recognize the voice on the message?"
"No. I think it was a kind soul who took pity on me."
"How did that kind soul getyourphone number?" Victor asked.
"We advertise. We give our number."
"Did you save the message?"
"No, why would I want anything like that on my machine? Anyway, what does it matter? I can give you each two hundred dollars."
"How do we know this isn't a trap?" Arkady asked. "This phone thing bothers me. This could be a case of entrapment."
Zoya had a throaty, smoker's laugh. "How do I know you won't simply keep the money? Or worse, tell my husband?"
Victor said, "Any enterprise demands a certain amount of trust on both sides. To begin with, the price is five thousand dollars, half before and half after."
"I can get someone on the street to do it for fifty."
"You get what you pay for," Victor said. "With us, your husband's total disappearance is guaranteed and we'll handle the investigation ourselves."
"It's up to you," Arkady emphasized. "Your decision."
"How will you do it?"
Victor said, "The less you know about that the better."
Arkady felt he had a front row seat to the snow, to the way it tumbled in foamy waves over parked cars. If Zoya Filotova could afford an SUV, she could pay five thousand dollars to eliminate her husband.
"He's very strong," she said.
"No, he'll just be heavy," Victor assured her.
Zoya counted out a stack of much-handled American bills, to which she added a photograph of a man in a bathrobe at the beach. Alexander Filotov was alarmingly large, with long, wet hair and he was showing the camera a beer can he had apparently crushed with one hand.
"How will I know he's dead?" Zoya asked.
Victor said, "We'll give you proof. We take a picture."
"I've read about this. Sometimes so-called killers use makeup and catsup and pretend the 'victim' is dead. I want something more solid."
There was a pause.
"More solid?" asked Victor.
"Something personal," Zoya said.
Arkady and Victor looked at each other. This was not in the script.
"A wristwatch?" Arkady suggested.
"As in...?" He didn't like where this was going.
Zoya finally picked up her brandy and sipped. "Don't kidnappers sometimes send a finger or an ear?"
There was another silence in the booth until Arkady said, "That's for kidnapping."
"That wouldn't work anyway," she agreed. "I might not recognize his ear or his finger. They all look pretty much alike. No, something more particular."
"What did you have in mind?"
She swirled her glass. "He has a pretty large nose."
Victor said, "I am not cutting off anybody's nose."
"If he's already dead? It would be like carving a chicken."
"It doesn't matter."
"Then I have another idea."
Victor put up his hand. "No."
"Wait." Zoya unfolded a piece of paper with a photograph of a drawing of a tiger fighting off a pack of wolves. The photo was murky, taken in poor light, and the drawing itself had an indistinct quality. "I thought of this."
"He has a picture?"
"He has a tattoo," Arkady said.
"That's right." Zoya Filotova was pleased. "I photographed the tattoo a few nights ago while he was in a drunken stupor. It's his own design."
A sheet covered one corner of the tattoo but what Arkady could see was impressive enough. The tiger stood majestically on its hind legs, one paw swiping the air as the wolves snarled and cringed. A pine forest and mountain stream framed the battle. On the white arm of a birch were the letters T, V, E, R.
Victor asked, "What does that mean?"
"He's from Tver," Zoya said.
"There are no tigers in Tver," Victor said. "No mountains either. It's a flat, hopeless dump on the Volga."
Arkady thought that was a little harsh, but people who made it to Moscow from places like Tver usually shed their hometown identity as fast as they could. They didn't have it inked on them forever.
"Okay," Victor said. "Now we can definitively ID him. How do you propose we bring the proof to you? Do you expect us to lug a body around?"
Zoya finished her brandy and said, "I need only the tattoo."
Arkady hated Victor's Lada. The windows did not completely close and the rear bumper was roped on. Snow blew in through floorboard holes and swayed the pine scent freshener that hung from the rearview mirror.
"Cold," Victor said.
"You could have let the car warm up." Arkady unbuttoned his shirt.
"It will, eventually. No, I'm talking about her. I felt my testicles turn to icicles and drop, one by one."
"She wants proof, the same as us." Arkady peeled adhesive tape from his stomach to free a microphone and miniature recorder. He pushed Rewind and Play, listened to a sample, turned off the recorder, ejected the cassette, and placed it in an envelope, on which he wrote, "Subject Z. K. Filotova, Senior Investigator A. K. Renko, Detective V. D. Orlov," date and place.
Victor asked, "What do we have?"
"Not much. You answered the phone on another officer's desk and a woman asked about doing in her husband. She assumed you were Detective Urman. You played along and set up a meeting. You could arrest her now for conspiracy but you'd have nothing on the detective and no idea who gave her his phone number. She's holding out. You could squeeze her harder if she pays for what she thinks is a finished assassination, then you'd have her for attempted murder and she might be willing to talk. Tell me about Detective Urman. It was his phone you answered?"
"Yes. Marat Urman. Thirty-five years old, single. He was in Chechnya with his buddy Isakov. Nikolai Isakov, the war hero."
"DetectiveIsakov?" Arkady said.
Victor waited a beat. "I thought you'd like that. The file's in back."
Arkady covered his confusion by fishing a ribbon-bound folder out of the dirty clothes and empty bottles on the back seat.
"Is this a car or a laundry chute?"
"You should read the newspaper articles. Urman and Isakov were with the Black Berets, and they killed a lot of Chechens. We fucked up in the first Chechen war. The second time we sent in people with, as they say, the proper skills. Read the articles."
"Would Isakov know what Urman was doing?"
"I don't know." Victor screwed up his face with thought. "The Black Berets make their own rules." He kept his eyes on Arkady while he lit a cigarette. "Have you ever met Isakov?"
"Not face to face."
"Just wondering." Victor snuffed the match between two fingers.
"Why did you pick up Urman's phone?"
"I was waiting for a snitch to call. He'd called Urman's number by mistake before; it's one digit off. These guys on the street, in the wintertime they drink antifreeze. You've got to catch them while they're able to talk. Anyway, it might be a good mistake, don't you think?"
Arkady watched a group leave the café and head for an SUV. They were heavyset, silent men until one of them built up speed and slid on the ice that covered the parking lot. He spread his arms and moved as if his shoes were skates. A second man chased him and then all the rest joined in, clowning on one leg, executing spins. The lot rang with their laughs, for their own impromptu performance, until one went down. Silent again, the others shuffled around, helped him to the car and drove off.
Victor said, "I'm no prude."
"I never took you for one."
"We're underpaid and no one knows better than me what a person has to do to live. There's a break-in and the detective steals what the robber missed. A traffic cop milks drivers for bribes. Murder, though, that's over the line." Victor paused to reflect. "Shostakovich was like us."
"In what conceivable way?"
"Shostakovich, when he was young and hard up for money, played the piano for silent movies. That's you and me. Two great mentalities wasted on shit. I've wasted my life. No wife, no kids, no money. Nothing but a liver you could wring the vodka from. It's depressing. I envy you. You have something to fight for, a family."
Arkady took a deep breath. "Of sorts."
"Do you think we should warn the husband, the guy with the tattoo?"
"Not yet. Unless he's a good actor, he'd tip her off." Arkady got out of the car and immediately began stamping his feet to stay warm. Through the open door he asked, "Have you let anyone else in on this? The station commander? Internal Affairs?"
"And paint a target on my head? Just you."
"So now we're both targets."
Victor shrugged. "Misery likes company."
Arkady's headlights concentrated on a hypnotic reel of tire tracks in the snow. He was so exhausted he was merely coasting. He didn't mind; he could have circled Moscow forever, like a cosmonaut.
He thought of the conversations men in space had with their loved ones at home and called the apartment on his cell phone.
"Zhenya? Zhenya, are you there? If you are, pick up."
Which was useless. Zhenya was twelve years old but had the skills of a veteran runaway and could be gone for days. There were no messages either, except something angry and garbled from the prosecutor.
Instead, Arkady called Eva at the clinic.
"Zhenya is still not back. At least he didn't answer the phone or leave a message."
"Some people hate the phone," she said. She sounded equally exhausted, four hours left on a sixteen-hour shift. "Working in an emergency clinic has made me a firm believer that no news is good news."
"It's been four days. He left with his chess set. I thought he was going to a match. This is the longest he's been gone."
"That's right and every minute has infinite possibilities. You can't control them all, Arkasha. Zhenya likes to take chances. He likes to hang out with homeless boys at Three Stations. You are not responsible. Sometimes I think your urge to do good is a form of narcissism."
"A strange accusation coming from a doctor."
He pictured her in her lab coat sitting in the dark of a clinic office, feet resting on a coffee table, watching the snow. At the apartment she could sit for hours, a sphinx with cigarettes. Or wander out with a small tape recorder and a pocketful of cassettes and interview invisible people, as she called them, people who only came out at night. She didn't watch television.
"Zurin called," she said. "He wants you to call him. Don't do it."
"Because he hates you. He would only call you if he could do you harm."
"Zurin is the prosecutor. I am his investigator. I can't totally ignore him."
"Yes, you can."
This was an argument they had had before. Arkady knew his lines by heart, and to repeat them by phone struck him as unnecessary misery. Besides, she was right. He could quit the prosecutor's office and join a private security firm. Or -- he had a law degree from Moscow University, after all -- become a lawyer with a leather briefcase and business card. Or wear a paper hat and serve hamburgers at McDonald's. There weren't a great many other careers open to a senior investigator, although they were all better than being a dead investigator, Arkady supposed. He didn't believe Zurin would stab him in the back, although the prosecutor might show someone else where the knife drawer was. Anyway, the conversation had not gone as planned.
Arkady heard a rustle, as if she were rising from a chair. He said, "Maybe he's stuck somewhere until the Metro starts running. I'll try the chess club and Three Stations."
"Maybe I'm stuck somewhere. Arkady, why did I come to Moscow?"
"Because I asked you to."
"Oh. I'm losing my memory. Snow has wiped out so much. It's like amnesia. Maybe Moscow will be buried completely."
"Exactly like Atlantis. And people will not be able to believe that such a place ever existed."
There was a long pause. The phone crackled.
Arkady said, "Was Zhenya with homeless boys? Did he sound excited? Scared?"
"Arkady, maybe you haven't noticed. We're all scared."
This might be a good time to bring up Isakov, he thought. With the distance of a telephone cord. He didn't want to sound like an accuser, he just needed to know. He didn't even need to know, as long as it was over.
There was a silence. No, not silence. She had hung up.
As the M-1 became Lenin Prospect it entered a realm of empty, half-lit shopping malls, auto showrooms and the sulfurous blaze of all-night casinos: Sportsman's Paradise, Golden Khan, Sinbad's. Arkady played with the name Cupid, which on the lips of Zoya had sounded more hard-core than cherubic. All the time he looked right and left, slowing to scan each shadowy figure walking by the road.
The cell phone rang, but it wasn't Eva. It was Zurin.
"Renko, where the devil have you been?"
"Out for a drive."
"What sort of idiot goes out on a night like this?"
"It appears we are both out, Leonid Petrovich."
"Didn't you get my message?"
"Say that again."
"Did you get...Never mind. Where are you now?"
"Going home. I'm not on duty."
Zurin said, "An investigator is always on duty. Where are you?"
"On the M-1." Actually, at this point, Arkady was well into town.
"I'm at the Chistye Prudy Metro station. Get here as fast as you can."
"Just get here."
Even if Arkady had wanted to race to Zurin's side his way was slowed when traffic was narrowed to a single lane in front of the Supreme Court. Trucks and portable generators were drawn up in disorder on the curb and street. Four white tents glowed on the sidewalk. Round-the-clock construction was not unusual in the ambitious new Moscow; however, this project looked especially haphazard. Traffic police vigorously waved cars through, but Arkady tucked his car between trucks. A uniformed militia colonel seemed belligerently in charge. He dispatched an officer to chase Arkady, but the man proved to be a veteran sergeant named Gleb whom Arkady knew.
"What's going on?"
"We're not to tell."
"That sounds interesting," Arkady said. He liked Gleb because the sergeant could whistle like a nightingale and had the gap teeth of an honest man.
"Well, seeing as how you're an investigator..."
"Seeing that...," Arkady agreed.
"Okay." Gleb dropped his voice. "They were doing renovations to extend the basement cafeteria. A bunch of Turkish workers were digging. They got a little surprise."
Excavation work had torn up part of the sidewalk. Arkady joined the onlookers on the precarious edge, where klieg lamps aimed an incandescent light at a power shovel in a hole two stories deep and about twenty meters square. Besides militia, the crowd on the sidewalk included firemen and police, city officials and agents of state security who looked rousted from their beds.
In the hole an organized crew of men in coveralls and hard hats worked on the ground and up on scaffolding with picks and trowels, plastic bags, surgical masks and latex gloves. One man dislodged what looked like a brown ball, which he placed in a canvas bucket that he lowered by rope to the ground. He returned to his trowel and painstakingly freed a rib cage with arms attached. As Arkady's eyes adjusted he saw that one entire face of the excavation was layered with human remains outlined by the snow, a cross section of soil with skulls for stones and femurs for sticks. Some were clothed, some weren't. The smell was of sweet compost.
The canvas bucket was passed fire brigade style across the pit and pulled by rope up to a tent where other shadowy bodies were laid out on tables. The colonel went from tent to tent and barked at the men sorting bones to work faster. In between orders, he kept an eye on Arkady.
Sergeant Gleb said, "They want all the bodies out by morning. They don't want people to see."
"How many so far?"
"It's a mass grave, who can say?"
"From the clothes, they say the forties or fifties. Holes in the back of the head. In the basement of the Supreme Court yet. March you right downstairs and boom! That's how they used to do it. That was some court."
The colonel joined them. He was in full winter regalia with a blue fur hat. Arkady wondered, not for the first time, what animal had blue fur.
The colonel said loudly, "There will be an investigation of these bodies to see whether criminal charges should be brought."
Heads turned along the line, many amused.
"Say that again," Arkady asked the colonel.
"What I said was, I can assure everyone that there will be an investigation of the dead to see whether criminal charges will be brought."
"Congratulations." Arkady put his arm around the colonel's shoulders and whispered, "That is the best joke I've heard all day."
The colonel's face turned a mottled red and he ducked out of Arkady's grip. Ah, well, another enemy made, Arkady thought.
Gleb asked, "What if the grave runs under the entire court?"
"That's always the problem, isn't it? Once you start digging, when to stop?"
Copyright © 2007 by Titanic Productions
Excerpted from Stalin's Ghost: An Arkady Renko Novel by Martin Cruz Smith
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.