Authors: Stuart M. Kaminsky
Black Knight in Red Square
Open Road Integrated Media
For Dominick Abel
It is a matter of indifference who actually committed the crime; psychology is only concerned to know who desired it emotionally and who welcomed it when it was done. And for that reason all of the brothers (of the family Karamazov; or of the human family) are equally guilty.
âSigmund Freud, “Dostoevsky and Parricide.”
ARREN HARDING AUBREY THOUGHT HE
was feeling the effects of a trio of double vodkas on the rocks. Actually, he was dying.
His once hard belly ached slightly as he got on the elevator of the Metropole Hotel and told the young woman he wanted
When she pressed the button marked eight, he knew his minimal Russian had not failed him this time.
The girl on the stool was named Maria Nevanskaya. She had been riding up and down for almost fourteen hours a day five days a week for three of her twenty-five years. Normally it would take the appearance of a babbling ax murderer or of the general secretary himself to draw her attention. But this was not a normal week. It was the first week of the Moscow Film Festival, and the hotel was filled with foreigners. The lobby elevator dispatcher, Verochek, had abused Maria about her lack of courtesy to the guests. She guessed, quite correctly, that Verochek had himself been abused by Karlenko, the Metropole's Communist Party supervisor. So as the elevator slowly rose to the sound of the weary restaurant orchestra playing “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” Maria turned to her drunken passenger and asked, in what she thought was French, if he was ill.
Aubrey was lost in thoughts of 1954, when he had begun the metamorphosis from Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent in Korea to hired typist who would cover anything anywhere in the world for a standard fee and all he could drink, which was an impressive amount. The French word
got through to him, though, and he grinned at the woman and shook his head. He wanted to say something to her, but the taste of blood in his mouth and her apparent indifference stopped him. His hand went to his mouth and came away dry.
As the elevator door slid open on the eighth floor, Aubrey took a step forward feeling as if he were wading in knee-deep water. He almost collided with the desk of the
, the floor woman who sat watching him. Her hand automatically went up to protect her key box from his potential drunken onslaught. Each floor in each hotel in Moscow, with the exception of the gargantuan Rossyia, had an old
to guard the keys, the morals, and the sanctity of the establishment and to serve, when necessary, as the eyes and ears of the KGB. As Aubrey knew, these old women could shift from motherly sympathy to matronly scorn without apparent reason. None could speak any language but Russian. This
Vera Olganova, eyed Aubrey suspiciously, and with little of the Party's careful courtesy to the foreign visitor, found his key and reluctantly handed it over. Aubrey clutched the key, took a step, began to fall, and tried to steady himself by grabbing the nearest object on the woman's desk, which happened to be a small framed portrait of Lenin.
Vera Olganova snatched the portrait from him with a grunt, and Aubrey had to hold the edge of the desk to keep from falling. She decided that the foreigner had intentionally and politically reached for the picture, which she now clutched to her cascading bosom, saving it from desecration at his capitalistic hands. He merited a report to the proper authorities even if he was drunk.
“Sorry,” Aubrey said, hoping he wouldn't throw up.
She placed Lenin safely on the far end of the desk, facing away from the disrespectful Westerner.
Aubrey, praying that he would make it to his bathroom, took a dozen steps, inserted the key into the lock of room 808, turned it, and pushed open the door. With a great effort, he managed to raise his hand and flick on the lights. He was unaware that he'd left the door open behind him and that he had dropped the key.
The nausea subsided slightly as he found himself eye to eye with a painting of a thin man with his bushy head held high and a stern expression on his face. Aubrey put out both hands and leaned against the wall, trying to outstare this figure from the past.
“Just a few too many tonight, Comrade,” he confided to the severe revolutionary. He wanted to say more, but the taste of blood rose again in his dry mouth. This time it was mixed with bitterness. Another wave of nausea came, accompanied by a dull pain in his head and chest. He shuffled toward the bathroom.
“After I get the booze out of my stomach,” he called back to the portrait, “I'll take you on.”
He rested his sweating hand on the bathroom door, light-headed. The feeling of falling that surged over him was so vivid that he felt a warm breeze against his cheeks. Then it struck him that he was actually falling, but so slowly that he must be defying the law of gravity. He marveled at how long it took him to hit the cold tile of the bathroom floor. I should put out my hands, he thought, break the fall. But his hands didn't move, though he was pleased that he'd been capable of the thought.
His head hit the porcelain toilet, opening a deep gash over his right eye, but he felt no pain as he rolled heavily under the sink. The nausea and headache were gone. The hell with it, he thought. I'll just sleep here and check the damage in the morning. The floor tiles felt cool against his hot cheek, and Aubrey closed his eyes.
At nine the following morning, Irina Marmontov, one of the maids, pushed her cart past the dozing Vera Olganova and down the hall to begin making up the rooms in her section. She noticed that the door to room 808 was open. The light was on, and she could see that no one had slept in the bed. But she had been working at the Metropole for almost thirty years and had seen far stranger things, particularly from the Cubans, Americans, and Italians. The worst times were during the Moscow Film Festival. In 1971, during the festival, a rainy July morning, she had opened the closet door and found a fat, naked man grinning at her. The man said something in a strange language, stepped past her, and sat down cross-legged on the floor as if he had been waiting for hours for someone to come and release him so he could engage in his meditation. But the door to the closet had not been locked, and the closet was covered with blood, though the naked man was apparently unwounded. Irina had hurried to the
, who had called the security office. The police eventually arrived and discovered that the man had not been found in his own room but in that of a Latvian clock factory representative whom they found in the dining room calmly awaiting his breakfast. The Latvian claimed that he didn't know the naked man and had no idea what he was doing in the room or how the blood had come to be in the closet. The fat man had been of no further help. He had no identification, and he said nothing, but simply grinned. The police kicked him a few times in irritation and then covered him with a robe and took him away. That was the last Irina had heard of the mystery, but the memory had stayed with her, and an unpleasant feeling went through her whenever she opened a closet door.
Although Irina could not remember who was in room 808, she was not particularly intrigued by the open door. She went about her business, cleaning the other rooms, working slowly as always. She didn't have too many rooms to clean, for the hotel, like most Moscow hotels, was ridiculously overstaffed. Irina, however, did not work slowly out of boredom or lethargy, but rather in the hope that the occupant of a room was a foreigner who might come back while she was working and give her a tip. During one film festival, an Italian actor had given her a tip of a thousand lire. A bartender she knew had given her four rubles for the colorful piece of paper. Irina knew there were movie actors, directors, producers, and writers in the Metropole right now, maybe on her floor, in this section, but she would not recognize a foreign movie star.
She walked through the open door of 808 at about nine-thirty and asked, “Anybody here?” No one answered.
Clothes hung on hangers; a suitcase sat on the chair. There was nothing to empty from the wastebasket. Irina bent to pick up the room keys from the floor near the door. She put them on the nearby table and got a cloth from her cart. The routine was automatic. Clean the room, replace the towels, check the toilet paper. The light was out in the bathroom, and she flipped it on.
There was blood on the toilet seat, bright red against the white plastic. Under the sink a drunken foreigner was sleeping. She wanted to simply walk out after changing the towels, but he might be someone important, and he might be hurt.
,” she said, “you all right?” He didn't move. She reached down to touch his shoulder, but what she felt made her pull her arm back with a jerk. He is not a man, she thought. He is a body. She touched him again, and he rolled away from the wall to stare at her with unseeing eyes.
Irina jumped back quickly, banging her shoulder against the open door. Although the face of death was a shock, it was not death but the look of pain on the man's face and the blood on his lips that terrified her. He was pale and cold, and the light from the sputtering bulb danced on his bald head.
Irina backed out of the bathroom, fighting her panic and the desire to run. She left the room as calmly as she could and hurried to Vera Olganova, whose eyes opened wide at this breach of routine. She reached for the phone, dialed a number, couldn't get through, and dialed again.
“Comrade Verskov,” she said, proud of the control in her voice.
“What room?” he answered. Vera's eyes rose and met those of Irina, who was looking back down the corridor.
“Iâwe just found a dead man in eight-oh-eight.”
“I know,” said Comrade Verskov, his voice cracking.
“There's blood on his mouth.”
“How didâ?” she began, but Verskov's quavering voice cut her off.
“We now have four of them in the hotel.” There was a silence, and she could hear Verskov trying to pull himself together. “Don't touch anything. Close the door. The police will be there in a few minutes.”
On the sidewalk in front of number 16 Kalinin Street, three boys about fifteen years old were jostling a younger boy between them. The younger boy wanted to get away without looking too frightened, but the tears were forming. From the window of the first-floor apartment, a pair of dark eyes watched the struggle with detached interest. The viewer saw the event as an experiment carried out many times before from SÃ£o Paulo to Helsinki. The outcome was statistically inevitable. The tormented boy saw a slight opening and tried to step through the small circle of his tormentors' legs, but one of the older boys tripped him, and he fell on the sidewalk, taking part of the impact with his face. He stood up bewildered, examining the blood on his shirt. Instead of arousing sympathy in his tormentors, the sight of blood seemed to anger them, and the shortest of the three attackers stepped forward and slapped the bleeding boy hard with the back of his hand.
The dark eyes turned back to the near-darkness of the room.
“The time must be exact,” said a male voice in too precise German.
The dark eyes turned slowly to the speaker, a thin, dark Arab in his late twenties.
“Four days from today on Sunday at six, seven, and eight
Moscow time,” said the one with dark eyes. “That is exact.” The eyes coolly examined the four others in the room. Besides the young Arab, Ali, there was a short, muscular Arab in his late forties named Fouad, a nervous type who had to have something in his hands to keep them quiet. There was a blond man in his thirties with a French accent. The others called him Robert. He appeared to be the leader, but he seldom spoke. The final member of the quartet had made most of the arrangements. She was a woman in her late twenties with thick blond hair who identified herself as Seven. She had once been beautiful, but now she was consumed by a neurotic hatred that the man with the dark eyes had seen often before. She had a slight British accent, but the dark-eyed one knew it was a fake. The conversation was conducted in German.
“You are sure,” said Seven, “that nothing has changed because of the Metropole business?”
“I am sure,” said the one with dark eyes. “Business is going on as usual. Now I'll have the rest of my payment.”