Authors: D. R. Bell
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Historical, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Financial, #Spies & Politics, #Conspiracies, #Political, #Historical Fiction, #Russian, #Thrillers
I retrieve the picture and walk over to the major thoroughfare of State Street, a tourist trap I remember from the last visit to Santa Barbara. I am hungry, so I stop at a small Italian restaurant and order pasta and a glass of wine. Before the food arrives, my Blackberry rings.
“Mr. Rostin, this is Detective Rozen. You are looking for the person that met with your father last year?”
“That would be me. Where are you?”
“Palazzio on State Street.”
“Stay there, I’ll come over in ten minutes.”
I am still working on my pasta when I sense someone standing over me. I look up and see a short bald man in his fifties, wearing khaki pants and a checkered jacket.
“Yes. How did you know?”
He points to a half-empty restaurant. “I would be a really bad detective if I did not. Besides, there is a resemblance. Do you mind if I sit down?”
“Please, thank you for seeing me.”
He noisily squeezes himself into a chair. “He told me your name. I am sorry, I don’t remember what it is; my memory is not what it used to be.”
“Yes, yes. I recall now. You live on the East Coast, you are a physicist. He was very proud of you.”
I swallow hard and say nothing. The waiter must know him, because he brings a glass of ice tea without asking.
Rozen continues, “I am sorry to hear about your father. You said at the station he’s been killed?”
“Yes, I did. Although it’s not clear whether it was a murder or a suicide. It happened last week in St. Petersburg.”
“And that’s why you are here?”
“What makes you think that a visit to Santa Barbara would lead to your dad’s death?”
“I don’t know if it did; I am just trying to understand why he came here. He was not exactly a traveling kind, but at 80 he flies half across the world to visit a police station in a small city? There must have been a reason.”
Rozen drums fingers on the table, probably deciding how much to tell me. “It’s getting close to 5, the place will fill up. Why don’t we go back to the station and talk there?”
At the station, I follow Rozen into a small, cluttered office with two desks facing each other. Rozen sits behind one of the desks, points to the chair in front of it. “Make yourself comfortable. The other detective is out today; we have our privacy.” After I sit, he casually throws out, “Do you remember the case of John Brockton?”
Rozen must have wanted to be an actor; he enjoys the dramatic effect of a perfectly delivered surprise, but after a few seconds and my stunned nod he can’t hide a proud smile.
“Yes, the biggest case to grace Santa Barbara in God knows how long. A filthy rich financier and his mistress, Natalya Streltsova, get killed by a son of someone who committed suicide over the losses inflicted by that very financier. Murder, greed, sex, the Russian connection – the media had a field day with this.”
“I read that this was an open-and-shut case. The murderer had the weapon and literally blood on his hands?”
“Most people thought so. Imagine my surprise when a barely-speaking-English old man shows up here in March of last year, claims to be a private investigator from Russia, and asks for me. People at the front thought the old man was a nut case, but it was a slow day and they amused themselves by directing him here. The guy pulls out an old badge with Cyrillic letters and says in a prepared sentence that he used to be a detective in St. Petersburg, retired in 1992, but still takes on cases, and that a client hired him to investigate the Brockton’s murder.”
“Did you believe him?”
“I took his name and made some inquiries via Interpol. I used to work in Washington before I decided to head to a smaller city and warmer climes, so I had my connections. To my surprise, they confirmed that indeed Vladimir Rostin was a detective in the St. Petersburg
, now retired.”
“Did he tell you who hired him?”
“He did not, but I can guess. During the trial we had a visitor from Russia who came to see me – Mark Bezginovich, Streltsova’s brother, an attorney from Moscow. Streltsova was a name she took for TV work. He thought that Natalya was the target. He would be my number one suspect amongst potential clients.”
Rozen starts finger-drumming again.
“Well, Mr. Rostin, I told your father things that were not in the newspapers, and now he is dead. So I wonder how much I should tell you.”
I rub my forehead. “Detective, I appreciate your concern. I don’t have a death wish. But I do want to know what happened. This may end up having nothing to do with my father’s death.”
“That might be,” agrees the detective. “Anyway, there are things about this case that never smelled right, and that’s been eating away at me. I have trouble letting go when something does not add up.”
“What did not add up?”
“OK, let’s start at the beginning. Back to the basics, so to speak.” He pulls a thick file from the middle of the stack on his right. “As you can see, the file is still on my desk. John Brockton, born 1965, blah blah blah, Harvard Law School 1989, joins Millennium Mutual in 1992, in 1995 moves to Moscow to run the Russian Leveraged Equity (LRE) fund. In 1996, the fund is up 71%. In 1997, up 192%. In 1998, down 86%, investors wiped out. But the smart guy Brockton left in July 1998, right before the Russian devaluation and crash. Earned $4 million in 1996, $22 million in 1997. Bought a ranch near Santa Barbara in 1999. Killed in 2003, together with his girlfriend Natalya Streltsova. With me so far?”
“Jeff Kron, the convicted murderer. In 2003 he turned 21. Was a student in San Francisco State, dropped out due to financial difficulties. His father, Stanley Kron, killed himself in 2002. It is believed he was depressed over his financial losses; he lost a lot in the LRE’s wipeout, then took a mortgage on the house to finance Jeff’s education. Was laid off in the recession that followed the dot-com market crash of 2000. The mortgage loan reset to a higher rate in 2002, he lost the house and had nothing left.”
Rozen flips through the file, pulls out a photo and looks at it without showing me.
“John Brockton and Natalya Streltsova were killed with a knife. The knife was found near their bodies, with Kron’s fingerprints. Kron was stopped for reckless driving the night of the murder and immediately arrested. He was incoherent, had blood on him that was later shown to belong to the victims, and had a gun in his pocket. A parking ticket would prove that he’d been ‘casing’ the Brockton’s house for days. As you said, open and shut case, right?”
I shrug, already know that the case is anything but.
Rozen continues, “Well, the prosecutor certainly thought so. Plus, such a high profile case is a rare opportunity to get a name recognition, perhaps start a political career. So the whole show was staged pretty dramatically. The murderer was actually portrayed as a sympathetic but misguided person, no death penalty was requested. Jeff Kron was represented by a well-known attorney but would have been better off with a public defender: the well-known one took the case to get his name into the limelight, his pompous defense only turned off the jury. Jeff Kron is now serving a life sentence about an hour from here; with a good behavior he might get out in twenty years.”
“But Kron never admitted his guilt?”
“No. He admitted that he was watching the house and went there to scare Brockton; he wanted Brockton to know that Stanley Kron’s blood was on his hands. But he claimed that when he walked into the door, Brockton and Streltsova were already dead, lying in pools of blood. And that someone grabbed his neck from behind, he lost conscience, and when he came to he was lying next to Brockton and Streltsova with a knife in his hand. He dropped the knife and ran to his car.”
I shudder at the mention of Kron’s neck being grabbed from behind.
“Anything wrong?” Rozen picks up on my movement.
“No. I did not follow the case, but this seems to be the official version. The jury did not believe Kron. Did he not also get around the bodyguard?”
“Brockton did have a bodyguard, Alexander Shchukin, but that day of the week a local restaurant had a veal special that Brockton and Streltsova liked, so they sent Shchukin for takeout. As a matter of fact, this has been done four weeks in a row – a pattern.”
“It sounds to me like you believe the Kron’s version?”
“It’s not that I believe it out of some vague feeling,” demurs Rozen. “It’s that there are quite a few little things that don’t fit the official version.”
“For one, in the official version Kron went to the house with both a gun and a knife. That’s unusual given that he was a student, not a professional assassin. Moreover, I would have expected him to use a gun. Kron is a big, strong guy, but still, to quickly kill two people with a knife is not an easy task unless you are trained for this. And there was nothing in his background to indicate such training.” Rozen pauses for effect. “Streltsova used to be an anchor and an investigative reporter on the Russian TV station Telenovostiy. There was practically a war in Russia between different oligarchs, and Telenovostiy was owned by the oligarch Sosnovsky that fell out of favor with the new Russian president. She had enemies, and it’s possible that she was the intended target, not Brockton. In which case, Kron had no motive for the murder.”
“I remember this possibility was raised but never went anywhere.”
“No, but your father thought this was worth looking into. I think that’s why he came here. There were other things that did not quite add up. We checked against the insurance records and some of the expensive jewelry items were missing. Kron did not have these items when police stopped him. Where did they go? Why was the door of the house open and Kron able to just walk in? And last, but not least: Streltsova’s computer was not in the house.”
“Where was it?”
“Nowhere. We did not find it.”
“Perhaps she did not have a computer at the moment. Had it repaired in a shop or something?”
“She was seen with her laptop just two days prior, and we checked all the computer repair places in the area. The last big investigation she worked on was that of terrorist bombings in Moscow in 1999. It was blamed on the Chechen separatists, but she questioned and raised a possibility of the Russian security services, the FSB, as being behind the bombings. That also made her a potential target.”
This all is pretty confusing, but the mention of the FSB really gets my attention. Did my father find something that the FSB did not want him to?
“Detective, to my earlier question: You don’t believe the official version of Kron killing Brockman and Streltsova, do you?”
Rozen sits up, all serious. “As I said, these unanswered inconsistencies bother me. Each can be explained away, but there are just too many here for my taste. And if your father was killed over this, then all the more reason to believe that the truth did not come out and someone is trying to keep it that way. Besides, I might be wrong but Jeff Kron never struck me as a killer. Sometimes you just have to trust your judgment. Do you want to form your own? He is less than an hour drive from here. Your father had met with him.”
When stated this way, it’s hard to refuse.
“Of course. But don’t you have to schedule an appointment in advance?”
“I am a police detective, I don’t need much of an advance. Meet me here at 10 a.m. tomorrow.”
I return to the hotel and check my e-mails. Months ago, I was getting hundreds of e-mails a day. Now they are in the low dozens, and only a handful are not junk. A message from Jennifer, asking me when I am coming to Laguna Beach, ending with “Dad, can’t wait to see you!” and a hug emoticon. A “how are you” message from Sarah, ending with “miss you” and a kiss emoticon. Perhaps this is becoming more than the FWB thing between us?
And then a message from Nikolai Pemin, wondering why I left Russia in such a hurry, reminding me that I am a suspect and should get in touch with them. I puzzle for a second how he got my e-mail, then remember that they had no problem finding my new and unlisted cell phone number.
I make my way back to State Street, stroll around enjoying warm summer night, sounds of people laughing, music drifting from some of the restaurants. Come to a quaint outdoor shopping mall with tiled pavement and outdoor seating. It reminds me of Malaya Sadovaya Street. I grab a small table at a Hawaiian-themed restaurant, order fish tacos and a glass of syrah, and watch people saunter by.
A couple stops to look at the posted menu. A woman tentatively offers “This looks OK,” but the man is having none of it: “I want a place where I can order a good rare steak.” He is heavy and breathing hard from walking. His high-pitched voice bothers me as if he is scratching a blackboard with his fingernails. I am old enough to remember blackboards and chalk. Another scratchy voice pops into my head:
“The colonel’s orders were to take the package and let him be.”
The recognition that was at the back of my consciousness comes rushing to the front: Petr Saratov, the man at the cemetery. It was him directing others in a dark passageway off the Leninskiy Prospekt. He must have followed me on the same flight from St. Petersburg to Moscow. If only I was paying more attention instead of trying to hide, in fear that they’d stop me. They did not want to stop me, they wanted me to go and retrieve the package.