Ruzsky swung around ninety degrees, held the wooden oil flame torch in front of him, and began to walk in a wide circle around the bodies. He expected to encounter another set of footprints-or several-left by the killer, but there was nothing here except virgin snow.
Ruzsky returned to the orginal path and got down on his knees again. He looked carefully at the tracks, moving the torch closer to the ground, so that it hissed next to his ear.
He raised his hand. Pavel was marching out to meet him.
“You search like a hunter,” Pavel said.
“I used to hunt wolves with my grandfather.”
Ruzsky struggled to throw off the remains of his hangover.
“It’s New Year,” Pavel went on, “the couple are lovers out for a romantic stroll.”
“Just the two of them, alone. They leave Palace Embankment, walking close together, arm in arm. They turn toward the Strelka, then gaze up at the stars above. The city has never looked more beautiful. Some bootlegged vodka perhaps, all troubles forgotten.”
Ruzsky was now completely absorbed in his task, the fragility of the ice only a dim anxiety at the back of his mind, the biting cold a dull ache in his hands and feet and upon his cheeks.
He began to trace the victims’ path backward once more, ignoring Pavel, who followed him in silence. It was not until they had almost reached the embankment that Ruzsky found what he was looking for.
The killer had followed the tracks of the dead man, both before and after he’d struck. Only at the very last moment, barely three yards from the embankment, had he lost patience and stepped outside them.
Ruzsky reached into his pocket, took out a cigarette case, and offered it to his colleague. He felt more confident within reach of the steps.
They lit up-no easy task with gloved hands numb with cold-and turned their backs against the wind. The smoke was pleasantly warm, but Ruzsky could still feel his temperature dropping. Perhaps he was just sobering up.
“They must have been lovers,” Pavel said. “Their footsteps are close.”
“Why doesn’t the girl run?” Ruzsky asked.
“What do you mean?”
“How many times has the man been stabbed? Ten? Twenty? In his chest, his heart, his nose, his cheek. Does the girl just stand there watching?”
“Perhaps she knows her attacker.”
“Mmm.” Ruzsky stared out across the river.
“It was planned. She knew of it.”
“Possibly.” Ruzsky turned to his colleague. “But why did she have no idea that she was also to be a victim?”
Pavel shook his head. He flicked his cigarette high into the air and they heard it fizzle as it hit the ice.
Ruzsky gazed at a cloud passing across the face of the moon. A photographer walked over from the St. Peter and St. Paul Fortress. They watched as he prepared his camera and lined up the first shot. He bent down, his head beneath a cloth, and they saw a light flash. The noise-a dull thump-reached them a split second later.
“Were there any witnesses?” Ruzsky asked.
“Do you see any?”
“We should begin at the palace.”
Pavel’s expression told him he did not wish to go anywhere near the palace. “So I’m taking orders again?”
Ruzsky looked up sharply, then shook his head, embarrassed. “Of course not. I’m sorry.”
Pavel smiled. “Better things return to the way they were. Welcome back, Chief Investigator.”
Ruzsky met his affectionate gaze and tried to smile, but his frozen face wouldn’t obey.
He reached into the pocket of his greatcoat for a notepad and pencil, then handed Pavel the torch and crouched down in the snow. He shakily traced the outline of one of the footprints the killer had left in front of the steps, then stared at it for a few moments. He stood and put his own boot alongside it. “About my size. A little bigger.”
“Why didn’t he go over to the Strelka?”
“The killer.” Pavel gestured at the Winter Palace. “There are guards here, the road is busy. Much less chance of being seen if he’d gone on to Vasilevsky Island.”
Ruzsky did not answer. He was staring at the group out on the ice, deep in thought.
“Oh, by the way,” Pavel added. “New Year, New Happiness.”
It was the traditional greeting for the first day of the year. “Yes,” Ruzsky answered. “Quite.”2
T hey climbed onto the embankment and approached the riverside entrance of the Tsar’s Winter Palace.
Ruzsky stepped forward to knock on the giant green door. There was no answer, so he tried to look through the misted glass of the window to his right. He climbed up on a stone ledge to give himself a better view.
“Be careful or they’ll shoot you,” Pavel said.
A light was dimly visible in the hallway. There was little obvious security, but then it was well known that the Tsar and his family preferred their country palace outside the city at Tsarskoe Selo.
Ruzsky stepped forward and knocked once again. He glanced up at the light suspended on a long iron chain above him. As it swung slowly in the icy wind, its metal links creaked.
“This cannot be right,” Pavel said.
“If anyone saw it, it will have been the guard here.”
Pavel hesitated. “Let’s go around to the office of the palace police at the front.”
“Then we’ll never find out who was on duty back here.”
They waited, listening to the wind. Pavel forced his hat down upon his head. “Maybe it’s colder than Tobolsk.”
Ruzsky saw the guilt behind Pavel’s uncertain smile. “It’s the damp here,” Ruzsky said. “You know how it is. In Siberia, it’s a dry cold.” Ruzsky wanted to assuage his friend’s guilt, but did not know what else he could say. Pavel had been responsible for his exile, but Ruzsky did not hold it against him. In fact, far from it. The thought still filled Ruzsky with bitterness, as though it had happened yesterday.
Three years before, in the darkened, piss-strewn stairwell of a tenement building in Sennaya Ploschad, Ruzsky and Pavel had arrested a small-time landlord who’d assaulted and strangled the ten-year-old daughter of one of his poorer tenants. The man had not imagined the terrified mother would dare complain, but his insouciance as they led him down to the cells in the city police headquarters ought to have set their alarm bells ringing. Throughout that night, both Ruzsky and Pavel had struggled to retain their tempers as the fat, sweaty toad had drummed his pudgy fingers upon the table and answered their questions with a contemptuous insolence.
Pavel had a distinct intolerance for these crimes, and while Ruzsky was upstairs dealing with the paperwork, Pavel had decided to put the man into a cell with a group of armed robbers. He’d informed the men of the nature of their new companion’s crime.
Ruzsky had no moral objection to this solution, but it had resulted in the world falling in upon their heads. The man turned out to have been the foreman of an arms factory over in Vyborg and, more damaging, an agent of the Okhrana-the Tsar’s vicious secret police. Within a few hours of his lifeless body being dragged from the cell, the city police headquarters had been swarming with hard-faced Okhrana men in long black overcoats.
Pavel tried to take responsibility, but Ruzsky had overruled him. It had been his own idea, he told the secret police chief, Igor Vasilyev, and his thugs.
Ruzsky’s punishment had been effective banishment to Siberia as the chief investigator of the Tobolsk Police Department.
Ruzsky tried to return his friend’s smile. They both knew that Pavel’s punishment would have been much worse. Ruzsky might have been the black sheep of his distinguished, aristocratic family, but the Ruzsky name itself and the fact that his father was a government minister still carried weight. It had limited the scale of punishment-back then, at least.
Ruzsky finally heard a bolt being pulled back and the palace door swung open. Three men in the distinctive uniforms of the Yellow Cuirassiers emerged from the darkness. The elder of the men-a sergeant-had white hair and a mustache like Pavel’s. His two young companions were nervous and held their rifles firmly in both hands. In the grand hallway behind them, Ruzsky could just make out the tip of a chandelier.
“City police,” Ruzsky said. He wasn’t in the mood to offer felicitations for the dawning of a new year.
“You should have come to the other side.”
“There have been two murders, out here, on the ice.”
The sergeant walked forward, followed by his companions. They stood in a small group looking out toward the torches in the middle of the frozen river. “Yesterday it was a drunk,” he said, pointing at the deserted road in front of him. “Froze to death just here.”
“I fear this is a little different. The victims were stabbed-”
“A week ago, someone was stabbed out in front of the Admiralty.”
“A domestic dispute,” Pavel corrected him. “Two brothers. Both still alive.”
“Have you been on duty all night?” Ruzsky asked.
“You’re on detachment?”
The Yellow Cuirassiers-officially His Majesty’s Life Guard Cuirassier Regiment-were based out at Tsarskoe Selo, in the small town that surrounded the royal palaces there. It was about an hour’s train ride from the capital.
The sergeant did not answer.
“There are other guards?” Ruzsky went on.
The man shrugged. “On Palace Square. They don’t move unless we call for them.”
Ruzsky looked down the embankment toward the Hermitage. “There is no one out here?”
“A sentry either end until midnight. After that, it is not necessary. The shutters on the ground and first floors are closed. We would hear any commotion.” He was defensive.
“There are no patrols?”
His cheeks flushed slightly. Ruzsky didn’t wish to press the point; it had been New Year’s Eve, after all. “What time did you and your men come on duty?”
“If you wish to ask questions, you will have to apply to the head of the guard detachment or the office of the palace police.”
“Come on,” Pavel said softly, before Ruzsky could get annoyed. “A couple of lovers have been sliced up out there. We just want to check to make sure no one saw anything, then be on our way.”
The man’s face softened. He breathed out. “Cigarette?” Pavel asked, taking out a tiny tin case from the pocket of his coat and offering it around the group.
The men hesitated-smoking on duty was strictly forbidden-before each taking one in turn. They lit up and smoked in silence, suddenly conspiratorial.
The sergeant looked out at the constables still guarding the bodies on the ice. It was marginally less cold here, in the shelter of the giant porch.
“We came on duty at midnight. I did my last rounds about an hour later. I walked along the embankment to check for drunks. Then I locked the door.”
“You stand here, inside the hallway?”
“We check the rooms periodically, but, as I said, all the shutters are locked, except those by the door.”
“You didn’t see or hear anything?”
The sergeant shook his head and so did his young companions. Ruzsky could see they were telling the truth. He suspected they’d probably been playing cards as the New Year dawned.
That, and the fact they had accepted a cigarette while on duty, was, he thought, a sign of the times. He wondered if the men had seen action at the front. The sergeant, certainly. The others looked too young.
“When you came out at one o’clock, you didn’t see anyone at all?”
“There was a group farther down, by the Admiralty. I think they’d just crossed the river, but they were going home. It was quiet after that. If we’d heard anyone else, we’d have moved them on. We don’t allow people to linger.”
“Could anyone have seen something from one of the upstairs windows? A servant?”
He shook his head. “These are all state rooms at the front. There are family bedrooms on the top floor, but none are occupied.” The sergeant gestured toward the group on the ice again. “It’s quite far out.”
“But extremely visible on a clear night.”
“Yes.” He shook his head and looked genuinely apologetic. “You can talk to the head of the household later on. He could tell you whether there might have been anyone in the front rooms, but I’m afraid I cannot help you.”
The sergeant turned and retreated, taking the younger men with him. The door shut with a loud bang and the silence descended once more, save for the iron chain above them creaking in the icy wind. An ambulance had parked on the Strelka and two men were carrying a stretcher out to retrieve the bodies.
“It’s a strange place for a murder,” Pavel said. “At this time.”
Ruzsky didn’t answer. He glanced over his shoulder. They were only a few minutes from his parents’ home here, and he thought of his son Michael sleeping, curled up with his teddy bear pressed to his nose.
“We’d better start looking for the knife,” he said.
Ruzsky returned to the edge of the ice. As he reached the bottom of the steps, he heard the sound of a car door being shut and turned to see two men in fedoras getting out of a large black automobile farther down the embankment.
The men leaned over the wall and surveyed the scene on the ice.
“The Okhrana?” Ruzsky asked quietly.
It was only half a question. They both knew perfectly well that these were Vasilyev’s men. The change in Pavel’s demeanor was palpable.
“What are they doing here?” Ruzsky asked.
Pavel did not answer. He was staring at them, trying to conceal his unease.
The two secret policemen sauntered back to their automobile and got in. The car swung around and returned the way it had come.
Ruzsky and Pavel watched as it disappeared down the embankment before turning left over the bridge in the direction of the St. Peter and St. Paul Fortress.3
R uzsky didn’t want to go back onto the ice, so he got Pavel to instruct the constables and then stood on the embankment and watched as they searched across the river. It was a huge area and they moved quickly, reminding him of a pack of hunting dogs eager to pick up a trail. Maybe they just wanted to get home.