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Stalin's Ghost: An Arkady Renko Novel (Arkady Renko Novels)
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Martin Cruz-Smith's novels include Stalin's Ghost, Gorky Park, Rose, December 6, Polar Star and Stallion Gate. A two-time winner of the Hammett Prize from the International Association of Crime Writers and a recipient of Britain's Golden Dagger Award, he lives in California.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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 get your phone 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."
"Detective Isakov?" 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 fold...
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