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 don’t remember much of my early years. Our small household was very orderly. Father had his habits, favorite foods, favorite TV shows. Mother sometimes tried to change the routine and he would indulge her for a while, but then slowly bring things back to normal. The fragments that come to me are mostly related to my father or to some of the grand Leningrad buildings. Of course, no self-respecting local called the city “Leningrad”; it was simply “Peter.” Both my father and the buildings towered as a larger than life authority. I wonder if that’s why 20 years later I rebelled against them.
In 1986, I stood in almost the same spot, delivering the “I am leaving” message. The law of eternal recurrence. But perhaps not so eternal, this time my father is not sitting in his chair, nodding gravely.
The desk’s surface is clean and empty, except for a holder with pens and pencils, a mouse pad, and an old metronome. That’s how he liked it, uncluttered. The mouse pad is new; everything else has been there for as long as I remember.
Sometimes my parents would turn the metronome on.
They would do it when they argued, one would turn on the device and an argument would end. And sometimes mother would say, “Today is such-and-such date” and start the metronome. My parents would exchange glances and grow silent for a minute.
I decide to go through the desk drawers. The two large, lower drawers are occupied by carefully marked hanging file folders, mostly various bills and correspondence. I flip through them, wishing I had inherited some of my father’s organizational habits.
The left upper drawer contains two rulers, a USB cable, and a few computer books and CDs. It registers with me that there is no computer on the desk. My father had a Dell laptop; he brought it with him last year and was proud of mastering it, at least enough to use e-mail and search the Internet. I make a mental note to look for his laptop.
When I lived here on Malaya Sadovaya, the left middle drawer had always been locked. I had never seen my parents open it. I pull on the handle expecting to find it locked, but it effortlessly slides out. It’s empty.
The right upper and middle drawers have newer bills and correspondence, stuff yet to be filed. As I thumb through the pile, on the bottom of the middle drawer I see a full-size notebook. I pull it out. The cover is faded, but it must have been colorful when new. It says “Diary.” I open the notebook. The paper is yellowish and brittle. The first page says:
The Diary of Vladimir Rostin
Began 18 August, 1941
My father’s handwriting has changed over the years, but I can recognize his hand in careful, almost calligraphic letters. August 18
was his birthday. On August 18, 1941, he has just turned seventeen.
The doorbell rings. I carefully put the diary back under the pile of papers, and go to open the door. The man in his fifties standing there has a careful smile and unnaturally black hair. He starts with, “Pavel Vladimirovich?”
“Yes. And you are?”
“My name is Evgeny Zorkin, I am your neighbor.” With that he first points to the door behind him, then to his feet. The gesture puzzles me, until I realize that he is wearing slippers. That must have been his way of proving to me that he is indeed my neighbor and not someone off the street. With me being silent, he continues: “I am so sorry for your loss.”
“Do you mind if I come in?”
I realize that I am being rude and invite Mr. Zorkin inside. We come into the living room and take chairs on opposite sides of the table.
“Vladimir Ivanovich was a wonderful person; I am sorry for your loss,” he repeats.
“How long have you lived here?” I ask in order to say something.
“I moved in about seven years ago. Such a wonderful place!”
At this point I remember Pemin saying that a neighbor called the police. “Were you the one who called the police yesterday morning?”
A color of excitement comes into Zorkin’s pasty complexion. “Yes, it was me. I usually sleep late.” He rushes to explain this impropriety, “You see, I stay up past midnight, I indulge in a bit of trading on international stock markets. But you are the expert in this, right?” On seeing my expression, he continues. “So, when I was woken up by loud noise, I did not immediately come out, I had to get dressed.”
“What was the time?”
“It was 7:09 a.m. I know exactly because I looked at the bedside clock when the noise woke me up.”
“And what kind of noise was it?”
“I am not an expert, but I thought it sounded like a gunshot or a loud car exhaust. I started getting dressed when I heard a second sound; that one was like someone had slammed a door. Please understand that this is a noisy street; we get all kinds of things going on at all hours. But these sounds were not of the usual kind of noise.”
“How do you know it was this door?”
“I don’t know for sure; but there are only two doors on this floor.”
I nod for him to continue.
“I came out and there was nobody on the landing, so I rang the bell to your father’s place. I rang and rang, then called the police.”
“But my father could have been out?”
“I knew his routine; he would usually leave between 8 and 8:30, just as I was getting up.”
arrived and found your father.” Zorkin said this with a sense of pride, as if he solved the crime.
I remain silent.
“So, Pavel Vladimirovich, are you planning to go back to your work on Wall Street?”
“How do you know what I do?”
“I am a resourceful man,” demurs Zorkin, then continues in a tentative tone, “If you are not staying in St. Petersburg, you won’t need this apartment?”
“Well, I just thought that if you look to sell, I am interested. Very, very interested. It’s not too difficult to connect the two apartments…”
I remember what Pemin has said, but my expression must have spooked Zorkin because he started apologizing:
“I am sorry, I understand this is not the best time…”
“And how much would this apartment go for?”
“Well…” A combination of greed and uncertainty passes over Zorkin’s face. “It can fetch several hundred thousand dollars…I would be willing to go even higher because I am a motivated buyer. I am very, very interested.”
So Pemin was right, the place must be worth well over a million.
“Of course, selling such a property requires a lot of paperwork and effort, while I can save you from all of this…As I said, I am a resourceful man with many connections.”
I stand up signaling the end of our conversation.
Zorkin gets up too, but before leaving reaches into his pocket. “Here is my visiting card. Evgeny Antonovich Zorkin, mobile phone, e-mail. I am very, very interested and I’ll make it happen quickly, no hassle.”
After Zorkin departs, still mumbling “very, very interested,” I go through the apartment looking for my father’s computer. There is not a lot of furniture. I search in the neatly organized wardrobe, check out the kitchen and the bathroom. Nothing.
The bookcase still has most of the volumes I’ve read as a child: collected works by Chekhov, Tolstoy, Gogol, Turgenev. I pick up the books, run my fingers over gold lettering on a black spine.
The Three Musketeers. War and Peace.
The familiar old edition of
The Count of Monte Cristo
, the pages stained and yellow – my parents had some sentimental attachment to the book. I remember father reading these books to mother. It was a ritual that I could not quite understand: she was a language teacher, perfectly capable of reading. And she must have known these books by heart. But she would sit with her eyes closed, almost hypnotized, as if some important secret was being revealed.
There is a shelf of chess manuals and books on math and physics. But there are some works I have not seen before: Solzhenitsyn, Grossman, Updike. Surprisingly, I find fairly new books on finance - offshore banking, offshore companies, money laundering. Some are in Russian, some in English. I did not realize his English was good enough to read these, and I am not sure why he would after his retirement. No sign of the laptop, though.
On the upper shelf of the closet, I find a photo album. I sit down on the bed and look through the pictures. They are well organized by date through 1984, the year my mother died. But a few photos are at the end in a small pile. My father organized everything, except for the pictures. I look through the pile, surprised to find pictures of me, Karen, and the kids taken over the years. I puzzle over them for a moment, then realize that these are the pictures I e-mailed him when he asked. He had them nicely printed. A couple of older black-and-white pictures catch my attention: my parents in their 20s with a light-haired boy who looks to be about thirteen; my parents with another couple and two young men, one is the same boy but grown up. I don’t quite understand why these pictures are not filed in chronological order and why I have not seen them earlier. I look for a recent photo of my father, find one of him with a slightly younger man. Father looks the same as he did during last year’s visit, even wearing the same sweater. The other man looks vaguely familiar, I am not sure why.
I sit on the bed, thinking whether I want to contact anyone. I left in 1978 to go to college in Moscow; I barely remember my schoolmates. My parents were the only war survivors in their families; I have no relatives. There is nobody to call. Jet lag overcomes me. It’s only about 4 p.m., but I can’t fight it. I stretch out and close my eyes.
I wake up from hunger pains. I have not eaten since the airplane breakfast. Still groggy, I don’t bother changing. I grab the apartment key that Vakunin left on the dining table, and go downstairs. Just as I come out, there is a little café temptingly called
. It’s not the right thing to do, but I go in for a strong black coffee and a couple of cakes. As I order, I realize that I have no rubles. Fortunately, they accept my Visa. The cakes calm my stomach while the coffee brings me back to the land of the living. Even though it’s past 8 p.m. it’s warm and light outside. The short street is full of people, most speaking Russian, but also English, German, French. Tourists gather around a fountain and a statute of a man taking pictures. Since my days, they have replaced boring asphalt with colorful tiles, turning the street into a place to stroll.
I walk to Nevskiy Prospekt, turn right, and blend in the crowd. I walk on the street of my childhood. It was the walk I would take for ten years as my school was located all the way up on the Admiralty Embankment. Twenty minutes walk there, twenty minutes back. I have learned the history of every building on the way. I never wanted to take a tram or a metro; I loved walking the Nevskiy even during the winter when the wet wind would push you back, determined to prevent you from getting to the river. When I was little, my mother would walk me. When I got older, I did not want her to.
I recall it was Gogol who said, “There is nothing better than Nevskiy Prospekt!” I think he was right. Karen preferred Paris, but then she’s only been to St. Petersburg once. The Nevskiy is different now, brighter, with many stores and restaurants, people are dressed similar to New Yorkers. Young people check each other out, now that the weather is warm and bulky clothing has been shed.
Not many boats on the Griboyedov Canal; they can’t travel under the low Kazanskiy Bridge. The native St. Petersburgers call the canal by its old name, the Catherine Canal, after Catherine the Great. The buildings on both sides of the canal are the typical beautiful buildings of old St. Petersburg, adorned with porticos and caryatides. But, beyond the façade, the courtyards are dark, the stairways dimly lit. Go there and you are transported into the novels of Dostoyevsky…or Zola or Dickens.
The beautiful House of Books is straight ahead. How many times did I get in trouble at home because I lost myself amongst its shelves and forgot what time it was? A hundred years ago a famous producer of sewing machines, Zinger decided to build a skyscraper similar to the “Singer Building” in New York. But according to the local law, not a single building could be higher than the Winter Palace. Zinger agreed to make it lower but ordered that a glass dome be placed on top so that it looked a little bit more like a skyscraper. After the revolution, they got rid of sewing machines and turned the building into a book store. I’d love to visit for old times’ sake, but it’s closed for renovation.
Kazanskiy Cathedral is towering on the other side of the street. I used to feel that its colonnades are like two arms, trying to grab the passersby’s. Mother would tell me they are trying to welcome, not capture. The cathedral became a memorial to victory over Napoleon. The French emperor thought that taking Moscow would end the war, and that mistake cost him his empire. Kutuzov’s statue is in front, pointing a sword at past and future invaders.
The memory comes to me. It’s late August 1968, and I am seven years old. I remember it vividly because I am about to start first grade. My parents and I are right here, before the cathedral. Mother has on her favorite green summer dress, and father is in his usual black pants and short-sleeved white shirt, minus the jacket. It’s hot, and they buy me an ice cream bar from the vendor. The three of us sit on the bench; I lick the frozen goodness, enjoying every little bit of it.