Authors: D. R. Bell
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Historical, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Financial, #Spies & Politics, #Conspiracies, #Political, #Historical Fiction, #Russian, #Thrillers
Book One of the Counterpoint Trilogy
D. R. Bell
is the first book in
trilogy and a prequel to the already published
The Great Game
. The third, yet-to-be-named book will be published in early 2015.
All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2014 by D. R. Bell.
This book is intended for personal use only, and may not be reproduced, transmitted or redistributed in any way without the express written consent of the author. You can contact the author at
This novel is a work of fiction. The names, characters and events portrayed in it are the work of author’s imagination. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, events or entities is coincidental and not intended by the author.
“What’s past is prologue.”
Wednesday, June 7, 2006. 3 a.m. EST
I hate when the phone rings in the middle of the night. Nobody likes such calls, but for me the feeling is visceral. It must have come from the old country, where a knock in the dark often meant that a black car was waiting downstairs and someone was about to disappear. Because of my father’s work, we had the luxury of a phone. When it rang at odd hours, I heard my parents whisper. Then my father would quietly dress and leave.
The ringtone keeps getting louder. I reach for the phone, but it’s not in its usual place on the nightstand. Something falls. On my left, a light comes on. I figure that the noise comes from a pile of clothes I now see on the floor. I stagger forward, fish the BlackBerry out of the pants’ pocket and raise it to the light to find the little “phone” button. I simultaneously realize that I am naked, that I am not in my apartment, and that there is a woman sitting up in bed. I have a momentary urge to cover myself, but the phone keeps ringing so I punch the button with a little green sign if only to silence the noise.
The man’s voice on the other end is speaking Russian. Amazing, but even after twenty years the brain still switches languages seamlessly. I listen to the voice, at first not comprehending what he wants. I need a paper and a pen. I cover the phone and ask the woman. She shakes her head, rummages in the nightstand on her side and hands over a small pad and a pencil. I write down the name and the number and hang up.
“Don’t your Russian friends know the time difference?”
By now I am completely awake and know who she is: Sarah, an ex-girlfriend of my soon-to-be-ex-wife and an ex-wife of my ex-partner. If two wrongs can make a right, would four exes make for a mended future? Bits and pieces of last night’s events come to me. Her expression changes when I answer:
“My father is dead.”
The airport surges with families going on their summer vacations. Between a still-valid Russian passport and mention of Major Vakunin and family emergency, getting an Aeroflot ticket to St. Petersburg was easy. Vakunin is the
officer that called me last night.
is the Russian term for police. My father was an investigator in the St. Petersburg
for many years; that’s why I had the honor of a ranking officer calling me. I program Vakunin’s number into my BlackBerry and call AT&T to make sure I have roaming in Russia. I also call the credit card company to let them know I’ll be using the card abroad. I now have to take care of the details myself.
Poor Sarah, she must have regretted running into me three days ago and agreeing to have dinner last night. To her credit, she jumped out of bed, made us both a strong coffee –
You need caffeine to function!
– and was genuinely sympathetic over losing a parent. I did not explain to her that my father and I have been estranged for many years.
November of 1984. My mother is lying in a narrow hospital bed. Cancer has eaten away her body. I don’t know if she can hear us, as her lungs still noisily suck in oxygen. Her eyes are open, but she seems to be looking past me, face expressionless. I hold her hand and scream at my father, “You have connections, bring in the best doctors, she is only 59! There is still hope!” He is standing three feet away, not touching her, and coldly replies: “Pavel, let her go. She is not suffering anymore.”
Mother died two days later. I’ve seen him only three times since: when I told him I was leaving the land of the victorious proletariat; when I brought my family to visit Russia in 1999; and when he surprisingly came to visit us last year. I’ve never gotten over his calmness, his coldness that day. That anger is still with me.
When I got to my apartment to get a few things for the trip, his voice was on the answering machine, the call forwarded from the old Connecticut number. He called at 9:42 p.m., when I was finishing dinner with Sarah, negotiating a return to her place. In his typical commanding manner: “Pavel? It’s your father. I tried your cell phone, but there is no answer. If you get this message, please call me back. There is a situation you should know about.”
He did not know that my cell number had changed. My previous number was on a corporate account of my last job and trying to salvage it from a cell phone carrier became a bureaucratic nightmare that I did not have the stomach for. Then a second call at 10:31 p.m., just as Sarah and I were going at each other with the ardor of a first encounter. This time, a hesitating, pausing, almost stumbling message: “Pavel? It’s me. If we don’t talk again…I am sorry for any wrong that I did, I was not always the best father. But I loved your mother more than anything…You remember how she used to always worry that you don’t eat enough, send you food? Goodbye.”
A few hours later, a
officer called to tell me he was dead. My father’s last message was so unlike him that I would not have believed it if a secretary had taken it. But the voice was his, no doubt about that.
On the long flight from New York to Moscow, I sit in economy. It’s not comfortable. I used to fly business or first class, but I can’t afford either at this time. Next to me is a twenty-something kid. He is very excited to go to Russia with his family who are sitting across the aisle from us. After learning that I am originally from Russia, he gets wound up even more and starts throwing questions at me:
“How did you come to the U.S.?”
How did I? Do I explain that I caused a bit of a diplomatic furor? The headlines were screaming “Congressman’s Daughter Wants to Re-unite with Her Husband!” and “Let Pavel Rostin Go!” That was my fifteen minutes of fame. I choose to mumble that I married an American woman.
The kid does not stop. “And what do you do?”
I try to keep it short. “I am a physicist, but I worked on Wall Street.”
“Wow, I want to work on Wall Street! How did you get a job there?” He sprays saliva in excitement.
One of the problems with middle age is that any question can bring up unwanted memories. I am now in the office of Jason Rabinow, the chair of the physics department, at the college where I teach. Jason sadly shakes his bald head and says, “Physics is true science, why would you exchange it for glorified trading?” Because he and his wife raised three kids, he does not quite understand why the teaching salary is not enough when you have a wife and two kids. Of course, his wife was not the daughter of a rich U.S. congressman.
“I started in quantitative analysis, and ended up running a hedge fund for a while,” I allow to the kid.
“Hedge fund!? I am studying accounting; can I come intern for you after we get back?” I am glad my loquacious neighbor has a seat belt on; otherwise he would have jumped out of his chair. Then he gets suspicious and accidentally hits a painful spot. “I thought you people traveled in first class?”
“Sometimes things don’t work out,” I muster, and succeed at getting the attention of a passing flight attendant to ask for a small bottle of Scotch. The kid loses interest, deciding that I am a fraud. He is right. I was there at the top for about a year, running a fund with over a 100 million under management. Doing great for a while, then it was like someone was following us, knowing our positions, crowding our trades. When the fund dropped 17 percent in one quarter, the secretive major investor forced a liquidation. I relied on my partner Martin for most of the legal due diligence, so I did not know about an unusual small print proviso in the documents that gave priority to that investor. We were finished.
I think of Sarah, Martin’s ex. She did not want to talk about her divorce, only said that it’d been in the works before our hedge fund collapsed. Without knowing it, we both moved to New York two months ago and rented apartments only four blocks apart. Yesterday at the end of our dinner she said, “You can come with me if you like; I don’t want to be alone.” Her lips curved into an anxious smile.
I paused, unsure because there’s been this chemistry between us for years. She sensed my hesitation and quickly tried to protect herself. “You really don’t have to, no hurt feelings.”
“I want to; that’s what scares me.” I replied.
She gave me a quick smile. “Same here.”
I drink the last of the Scotch and decide to take a nap. It’s already nighttime in St. Petersburg. I suffer one of my recurring dreams where I am fighting but can’t see the opponent, so my punches strike at the empty air until my arms tire.
Thursday, June 8
After a stopover in Moscow, I land at Pulkovo, St. Petersburg’s airport, at 10 a.m.; I am planning to go straight to my parents’ apartment, but as I walk off the plane, I realize that I have no keys. Before I have a chance to call Major Vakunin, at the entrance to the terminal I am intercepted by a
in his late twenties, “Pavel Vladimirovich Rostin?”
“Major Vakunin?” I ask in turn.
The young man protests, “No, the major asked me to meet you. I am Lieutenant Govrov.”
I want to ask how they knew which flight I was on, then I think better of it.
Govrov continues anxiously, “I am supposed to take you to identify the body, and then to your father’s place on Malaya Sadovaya. Unless you want to go and rest first…”
The events of the past twenty-four hours feel surreal, but then the last few months have been this way. I am like an automaton, reacting to external commands. I nod my agreement to the plan, and Govrov relaxes. He walks to the baggage area and is surprised when I tell him I have just the small backpack and a rollaway bag. His Lada is parked outside –
privilege – and he opens the back door for me. We get in and drive north into the city.
I try questioning Govrov about my father’s death, but he only responds that Major Vakunin is handling the case. I attempt a different angle, get the same response, give up. For the rest of the short drive, I just look out the window. I spent the first 17 years of my life in this city, and it’s still my home. I am happy to see that it looks more colorful, more alive than during my youth or even since the last time I visited seven years ago.
We drive through the city center to Suvorovskiy Prospekt, where Govrov parks the car in front of a massive grey building guarded by giant Tuscan columns. The place is buzzing with activity. I follow Govrov up the steps and down some corridors, until we arrive at a door marked “Medical Examiner.”
Back when I was a teenager, my father wanted to bring me to a morgue, to make me see “what death looks like.” Being a detective, he’d been there many times. Mother blocked the idea as foolish, and he grumbled about not teaching me what real life is like, but relented. As the result, I’ve never been to a morgue. Linoleum floors, fluorescent lights, no windows. There is a smell in the air, a lingering hint of formaldehyde, decay, and death. As one would expect in a movie script, a gaunt, cadaverous-looking man in a white coat sits behind a desk piled high with papers. An ashtray overflows with cigarette butts. I feel like having a smoke even though I quit many years ago. Govrov tells the man why we are there. The man motions us to follow, rolls out a gurney, lifts the sheet.
For a tiny second, I am relieved it’s not him, then I realize my mistake. My father has an almost relaxed, peaceful expression, different from the strict look he wore in life for as long as I can remember. Perhaps not wearing glasses made the difference. He has not changed much since the last time I saw him about fifteen months ago. May have lost a few pounds, but otherwise the same lean body even at 81. I don’t have to guess how he died; a round wound with a black burn mark on his temple tells the story.
I point to it. “Is this…”
“Yes,” the examiner jumps in eagerly. “This is the cause of death and the only wound. Looks like a suicide. No defensive wounds, no signs of struggle…”
Govrov coughs, and the examiner stops talking.
The image of the hospital bed with my dying mother is stuck in my head, and I can’t let go of it. I feel neither anger nor love, only sadness. I have no siblings, no uncles or aunts, my father was the only link to the past. Now I have no past.
The examiner asks: “Pardon the formality, but this is Vladimir Ivanovich Rostin, your father, right?”
I nod, “Yes.”
Govrov exhales, happy that this part of his task is over. “Let me drive you to the apartment. Major Vakunin will meet us there.” He starts walking out, then pauses when I don’t follow.
I stop the examiner from covering my father’s face. The image of my mother’s death bed disappears, and I see my father teaching me to play soccer when I was five. I am ten, sitting across the table from him, chess set between us, and he smiles when I win. I am 25, telling him I plan to leave my country forever; he nods and says nothing. I feel alone. All alone.
To Govrov’s great relief, I finally turn and follow him out of the room and the building.
Govrov parks his Lada on Nevskiy Prospekt. Malaya Sadovaya … Little Garden Street. The street I grew up on. My parents were lucky to live here; that had much to do with moving in at the end of the war when the city’s population was still scarce, or so they told me. There were occasional designs on pushing them out, but with my father being a respected
investigator, we were not an easy target.
Malaya Sadovaya is now an area of fashionable stores, closed to traffic. Nicely painted buildings, flowers, statue of a photographer. It’s a beautiful if humid sunny day, with lots of people out. Women are in shorts and bright-colored short dresses, showing off legs after cold winter and spring. We make our way through the crowd to the third building on the right, climb the stairs. There is no longer the urine smell that’s been there since I could remember. We get to the third landing, the door on the left is the one I walked through thousands of times. It is slightly ajar. I expected a yellow tape or something indicating investigative activity, but there is nothing of the sort.
Govrov respectfully waits. I put my hand on the door handle and hesitate. I get the feeling that stepping across this threshold is crossing into unknown. I push the door open and walk in.
Three doors in the familiar corridor. The two on the left lead to the kitchen and the bathroom. The one on the right takes you to the living room and the bedroom. This last one is open and I walk in.
Two people are there already. One is wearing a
uniform; the other is in civilian clothing. The uniformed man walks towards me with a big smile and an open hand: “Andrei Vakunin. I worked with your father.” Everything about him is large: the hand, the height, the girth, the head, the mustache. The other man is slight, more refined; expensive looking suit; careful haircut. After an awkward minute, he flashes small white teeth and stealthily moves forward: “Pavel Vladimirovich? I am Nikolai Pemin, the investigator. I also had the pleasure of knowing your father.” I shake hands and smile.
Pemin looks at Vakunin and gives a slight nod in the direction of the door. Vakunin speaks up: “Lieutenant Govrov, thank you for your service. You can go now.” Dismissed, Govrov quietly leaves. Vakunin turns to me. “Pavel Vladimirovich, I am sorry you had to start your visit with identifying the body of your father, I am afraid it could not be helped.”
I nod, trying to show understanding.
Vakunin guiltily waves his hand. “I realize you must be tired, but we would like to discuss the circumstances of his death.”
Yes, so do I. “Where did it happen?”
“Right here—” starts Vakunin, but Pemin unceremoniously interrupts him.
“Pavel Vladimirovich, please sit down,” Pemin says. He pulls a chair from the table and points to it. His manner is so authoritative that I follow his direction without protest. Pemin looks at Vakunin, who sits in a chair across the table from me. Pemin remains standing, now the tallest person in the room. “Pavel Vladimirovich, when did you last hear from your father?”
I was about to answer that the father left me two messages before he died, but something in Pemin’s manner puts me on guard. I am sitting in a chair in the middle of the room and he is interrogating me. Something does not feel right. “March of last year, when he came to visit us in Connecticut.”
“Are you sure? You hesitated.”
“I had to think before I respond. I have this habit.” I get sarcastic when I am angry. “I sent him an e-mail a few weeks ago that I was moving to New York, I did not hear back.”
“OK. You understand, it’s very important that we know the truth.”
“It’s important that I know the truth as well,” I spit out. “Where was my father when he killed himself?”
“It was indeed right here, by his desk,” Pemin points to the bedroom. As long as I could remember, my father had his work desk there by the window. He liked to work by natural light. I stand up and walk there. The chair is pushed to the side, there is a chalk-drawn contour and a dark spot.
Pemin continues. “Yesterday morning at about 7 a.m. the neighbor heard a loud noise. He rang the bell, but no one answered, so he called the
. The door was closed but not locked; the
men came in and found your father lying on the floor.”
He pauses and offers me a drink of water if I like. I decline.
Pemin shrugs. “Why did you say it was a suicide?”
“The medical examiner said that’s what it looked like.”
“Possibly it was, but we have to consider all possibilities. He was killed with an old German handgun, a Walther PPK. Do you know anything about this gun?”
“I know my father had fought in the war. He must have taken it from the enemy.”
“Well, that’s not legal…” starts Pemin, then waves his arm. “Ahhh, it does not matter now. Here’s the problem: the neighbor across the way claims he heard two different types of noises: first something that sounded like a muffled shot, then that of a closing door. It’s possible that someone was in the apartment with your father. Do you know who may have wanted to kill him?”
“No, I have no idea. I am sure he made enemies back when he was an investigator, but he’s been retired for a long time.”
“Yes, fourteen years,” nods Pemin. “Not likely that it’s someone from his past. Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
“No, I don’t.” I am tempted to add that surely an investigator should know this.
“No. My parents were the only ones from their families that survived the war and the blockade.”
“Ah, yes. So you are the only living relative?”
“As far as I know.”
“Well, here’s the problem, Pavel Vladimirovich.
, as they say, who benefits? The only asset of any significance that your father owned is this apartment. Given the area, this apartment is worth at least thirty million rubles, probably more. That’s over a million dollars.”
The essence of what he is saying gets through my jet-lagged brain.
“Are you insane?” I ask Pemin in genuine wonderment.
He only smiles. “And you did have some financial problems lately, have not you? You are the only heir, and this money would go a long way to improving your situation. When one can hire a contract killer for a small fraction of the value…” Pemin makes a sweeping motion across the apartment. “…the door lock was not broken, your father let someone in – why? Did he think that the killer was carrying a message from you?” He stops theatrically.
I am speechless, as the difficulty of my position sinks in. I finally squeeze out, “I did not hire anybody; this is a complete and total nonsense.”
Vakunin looks aside, while Pemin stares right at me. I feel like a shadow of a smile crosses his lips.
“Of course, this is all speculative,” Pemin says. “Are you sure you did not have any communication from your father lately? We need some lead, something to explain why he was killed. Because, right now, the only person we know who has a motive is you, Pavel Vladimirovich. Major Vakunin here does not believe that it’s you.”
“And you think I did it?”
“I am an investigator; I have to stick to the facts and motives,” Pemin says. “I feel like there is some information here that I am missing.”
After a minute of silence, Vakunin noisily gets up. “Excuse us, Pavel Vladimirovich, Detective Pemin and I need to have a discussion.”
They go out of the apartment, in the background I hear quiet conversation. Vakunin comes back.
“Pavel Vladimirovich, we’d like to make funeral arrangements for tomorrow at 10 a.m.”
“You? For tomorrow?”
“He was a part of the department for many years; the department was his second family.”
Why do I feel like I am being rebuked? I meekly protest, “But how would people find out and make plans on such a short notice? And what about the investigation?”
“We’ve examined the body, we know the cause of death, we won’t gain anything by postponing the funeral. He had no relatives, you said it yourself. People in the department will be informed and given time off if they want to attend. We’ll take care of everything and send a car for you.”
I nod, not sure whether I should resist the plan.
“Do you need anything today? Would you prefer to go to a hotel?”
“No, I am fine, I will stay here.”
Vakunin looks at Pemin, who nods.
“By rules, you should not, but we have searched the apartment already.”
They go, leaving me alone.
I stand by the window, taking in the street’s noise. There used to be a produce stall on the corner. Usually it would offer small, partly rotten apples and brownish heads of cabbage. But once in a while an unexpected delicacy would show up: oranges, bananas, tangerines. Mother habitually checked the window every few minutes. If she saw a line forming, she would grab her faithful
string bag and run downstairs. If you did not queue up in the first fifteen minutes, you were too late; although for many years we had our share of overseas delicacies. At some point in his career, my father “got off” a manager of a large food store. Father grumbled that the man was a thief but happened to be innocent of the particular transgression that someone tried to pin on him. The grateful manager had a package of food and liquor delivered to us monthly, to my mother’s great pleasure and my father’s chagrin. On this particular issue, mother reigned supreme. Alas, in the mid-1970s, the man was finally arrested for embezzlement, and the packages stopped.