Authors: Ronan Bennett
I went behind my desk. He sat opposite in the old armchair at the head of the couch. He took in his surroundings quickly and expertly, very much the trained observer. I saw his gaze linger over the gilt-framed photographs of Catherine and Elena on the wall to my left, then flick to the books on my shelves and the Inca and Moche artefacts arranged at intervals between them. Everything was being weighed and assessed for clues about their owner.
âHow may I help you, Inspector?' I asked.
âYou can start by telling me how you came to make the acquaintance of Alexander Yastrebov.'
It was irritation with his brusqueness that caused me to delay my reply. He seemed to think the hesitation suspicious.
âDoes the question discomfit you?' he asked.
âNot at all,' I said. âBut I'm afraid I cannot help you. I do not know any â¦ Yastrebov, did you say?'
âAccording to the papers we found in his possession, Yastrebov was a student at the Technical Institute,' he said.
The information did not assist me in the slightest.
âYou're certain you don't know him?'
âHow do you explain this?' Lychev said, reaching slowly into his overcoat. Withdrawing his hand from an inside pocket, he produced a plain, unused envelope, which he opened. I expected a photograph of Yastrebov. Instead he took out a
carte de visite
. The ink was smeared from what seemed to be water damage but the wording was still legible.
âDo you recognise it?'
âOf course,' I said. âIt is my card.'
âCan you explain why Yastrebov should have been in possession of your card?'
âI give my card to my patients,' I replied with a shrug, âbut also to colleagues and acquaintances, to people I meet at scientific conferences, or at receptions and dinners. They sometimes pass them on to others. I'm sure I don't know half of those who end up with my card.'
âCould you have given the card directly to Yastrebov?'
âIf I did, it was without my knowing who he was. Who is he anyway? Does he say I know him?'
Lychev looked at me carefully in frank assessment of my honesty; he made no pretence otherwise.
âYastrebov is dead,' he said; then added, with no more drama or emotion than if he were recalling the weather last Tuesday, âHe was murdered.'
I waited for him to continue with more details of Yastrebov's demise. Instead he got to his feet and looked around the room.
âYour office is very pleasant,' he said.
I hardly knew what to say. What did he want with me? He moved to the chess table I keep to the side of the window nearest my desk and picked up the white king. He tested its weight, which he seemed to find acceptable.
âA nice set,' he said, peering at the base on which was inscribed in tiny blood-red lettering
âYes,' I said.
âThe Staunton is a good design. More simple and pure than our Russian ones.' Putting down the king, he next examined the proud-chested and bearded knights. âVery nice,' he mused. âYou obviously play?'
âWhen I can, which is not often,' I answered. âNor, indeed, very well.'
âWho do you think will win the tournament?' he asked.
In view of what he had come to discuss, I found this turn in the conversation faintly ridiculous, but I answered anyway, âCapablanca has a good chance.'
âI'm surprised,' he said, in a tone that seemed to imply there was something doubtful about what I had just said. âRozental is the clear favourite. For the last two or three years he has been all but unbeatable.'
I sensed there was something behind the question. Did he know Rozental was my patient? In Russia the police know many things.
âRozental, too, has a very good chance,' I offered.
Kopelzon has just played 34 â¦ Kh5, attacking the white rook.
Exchanging on g5 gives White nothing.
What should Spethmann play to keep alive his chances of a win?
St Petersburg, 1913-1914
Moves so far
1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.g3 g6 4.Bg2 Bg7 5.d3 d6 6.Nge2 e5 7.h4 h5 8.Nd5 Nce7 9.Nec3 Nxd5 10.Nxd5 Be6 11.c4 Bxd5 12.cxd5 Bh6 13.b4 Bxcl 14.Rxc1 b6 15.Bh3 Nh6 16.Qd2 Kf8 17.0-0 Kg7 18.f4 exf4 19.Rxf4 Re8 20.Qb2+ Re5 21.bxc5 bxc5 22.Rxc5 g5 23.hxg5 Qxg5 24.Rc2 Kh7 25.Rg2 Rg8 26.Qf2 Qe7 27.Rf6 Kg7 28.Rf4 Kh7 29.Bf5+ Nxf5 30.Rxf5 Rxf5 31.Qxf5+ Kh6 32.Qf4+ Rg5 33.g4 hxg4 34.Rxg4 Kh5
Lychev replaced the king exactly in the centre of the square. âWhat is this position?' he asked.
I explained it was a correspondence game I was playing with my friend Kopelzon. At the mention of Reuven Moiseyevich's name, Lychev's eyes narrowed. A policeman with an appreciation of fine music? Or a policeman with a professional interest in one of my oldest friends?
He appeared deeply absorbed in the position. âWhose move is it?'
âMine. I'm White.'
âWhat was Black's last move?'
â34 â¦ Kh5,' I said.
âExchanging on g5 gives you nothing,' he said pensively, turning down the corners of his mouth. âWhat are you going to play?'
In all the years we had been playing chess together I had never beaten Kopelzon, but in this game I had come out of the opening with a slight advantage. My rather surprised opponent then decided to give up a pawn in return for an attack. Defending accurately, I had not only weathered the storm but held on to my extra pawn. However, by the time we reached the present position I had run out of ideas and my hopes of a first win over Kopelzon were evaporating; I was on the point of offering a draw.
âI don't know,' I said.
Although I felt it almost to be a breach of etiquette â absurd, given the circumstances â curiosity was getting the better of me. I said, âHow was Yastrebov murdered?'
Lychev turned his pale eyes on me. âHe was bludgeoned to death. His killers put the body in a carriage, then pushed it into the canal near Leinner's Restaurant.'
âI've read something about this,' I said.
I went to a stack of old newspapers in the outer office and quickly found what I was looking for, in
it happened, Gulko's paper. The story appeared in the same edition as the report of Gulko's murder, though it featured much less prominently. It related the recovery of the body of a young man after a motorcar accident on the Moika Embankment. According to the newspaper account, the unfortunate victim had lost control of his car on an icy stretch of road near Leinner's and skidded into the canal.
âThere's nothing here about it being murder,' I said.
âThe murderers attempted to conceal their crime by passing it off as an accident. Evidently they succeeded in fooling the press.' He indicated the newspaper and said, âDid you know Gulko?'
âNo,' I said.
âYou never met him?'
âNo,' I said again. âWhy? Is there some connection between the two murders?'
âIt's a possibility,' he said, his voice like a shrug.
âWhy was Yastrebov murdered?'
âLike Gulko's murder, it's still unclear,' he replied in the same unemphatic way. I noted with relief that he was moving towards the door.
âI really have no idea how he got hold of my card,' I said. âI'm sorry I couldn't be of more help.'
âI will see you tomorrow afternoon at police headquarters,' he announced matter-of-factly. âBe there at five.'
âWhat for?' I objected. âI've already told you â I know nothing about this Yastrebov.'
âPerhaps we will discover that you know more than you think you know. Surely you, as a psychoanalyst, will understand that.'
âIt's impossible. I have appointments tomorrow.'
âWould you prefer to come with me now?' I did not answer. Lychev looked at me squarely. âFive o'clock tomorrow, then.'
I was still in something of a trance when he indicated the
photographs on the wall. âWho is this woman?' he asked, tapping the larger of the two.
âMy wife Elena,' I said.
âShouldn't that be “my late wife”?'
âYes,' I said when I had absorbed the crassness of his provocation, âmy late wife Elena.'
âAnd this would be your daughter Catherine?' he said, tapping the second photograph.
The thought of this odious and slyly menacing man being aware of Catherine's existence induced in me a sensation of sinking.
âYes,' I said quietly, as though hoping he would not hear my admission.
âBring your daughter with you tomorrow.'
I do not think I uttered a single word for a minute or more but stared uncomprehendingly at my unwelcome visitor, and he back at me. Even when the shock subsided I did not ask why he wanted to see Catherine, or what he thought Catherine had to do with Gulko or Yastrebov or this business of the accident or murder, or whatever it was.
Lychev glanced back at the chessboard. âYou are not losing,' he said. âAt least not yet.'
I turned to follow his gaze. When I turned back he was sweeping his lank fringe out of his eyes. He carefully patted his hair and put on his hat.
âI will see you tomorrow, Dr Spethmann,' he said, and with that he was gone from the office.
With my patients I am the good father: attentive, kind, calm, fair, strict, unreproachful and present. It would dismay them to discover that the man to whom they impute almost preternatural wisdom and serenity is, in reality, no more immune than they to anxiety or excitement, or other more turbulent and dangerous emotions. But this is the truth of me.
My most intriguing patient at that time â and here I include Rozental â was Anna Petrovna Ziatdinov. I was first introduced to her in the spring of 1913, at a levee for the German ambassador. Thirty-seven years old, she was one of St Petersburg's most famous beauties.
I had gone only at Kopelzon's urging.
âYou must get out more, Otto,' he had said in his brisk, no-nonsense way. âI know you are still mourning but it's been a year. No one will think ill of you â and besides, there's a woman I'm on the point of seducing and I want your opinion of her.'
âI should stay in with Catherine. She'll be lonely without me.'
âCatherine has battalions of young friends. Whole armies. Get your coat!'
The embassy building was colossal and monolithic, carved, it almost appeared, out of a single block of Finland granite. Everything was about scale, power and domination: the
massive architraves, the gigantic walls and, on the roof, the bronze giants holding the bridles of two huge horses, their manes long and flowing, their nostrils flared. War was on the horizon and tensions ran high.
âHow can you bear to be in such a place?' I whispered to Kopelzon as we accepted our first drinks.
âBecause only here can I speak to my true love,' he said airily, casting his eye about the room. âThere she is. Come. If her husband sees her alone with me, the game will be up.' He took me by the elbow and steered me in her direction. âIsn't she the most beautiful woman you've ever seen?'
Anna Petrovna was of average height, with a fair complexion, full lips and large, honey-coloured eyes, the whites of which were very bright. Her black hair was lustrous but the hairline was low, making for a rather paradoxical beauty, an effect accentuated by an upper middle tooth that seemed to come from the gum slightly at an angle, the single rogue in what was otherwise a perfectly symmetrical arrangement. I was taken with the imperfection of hairline and tooth; they suggested another, faintly piratical side to her, as though behind the decorousness there was something secret and knowing. Or perhaps it was simply that I was generally relieved to find flaws in others, being so conscious of my own.
She seemed pleased enough to see Kopelzon but, to my eye, was more bemused than flattered by his attentions. He brought the same dedication to his seductions as he did to his recitals; his playing, however, was infinitely more subtle. After a time, Anna Petrovna excused herself.
âWhat do you think of her?' Kopelzon asked. âWorth the risk, no?'
âThe husband, you mean?'
âGod no!' Kopelzon exclaimed with a dismissive wave. âBoris Ziatdinov is a nasty piece of work but he's just a little lawyer with a violent temper. The risk is the father.'
âWho is the father?'
âThe Mountain,' Kopelzon said in a low voice.
His look was serious, and with good reason. Peter Arseneyevich Zinnurov was one of St Petersburg's richest industrialists and was suspected of secretly funding the Black Hundreds; certainly, he had no difficulty defending their violent attacks on Jews and Jewish property. He would not be amused were he to discover that his only daughter was the object of a Jewish violin player's sexual attentions.
âAlas,' Kopelzon sighed, âit does not look as though Anna Petrovna will be coming to my bed, not tonight anyway, and as I, unlike you, consider a night alone to be a night wasted â¦'