“How was Tobolsk?”
“Cold and boring.”
“Is it true they eat each other when they get hungry?”
“More or less.”
Anton clinked his glass against the metal vodka bottle and then poured out a measure for each of them. He pushed the glasses across the table and they all raised them together. “Older, wiser,” he said, looking at them meaningfully. “But still here.”
They drained their glasses.
An awkward silence followed. Their attempt to pretend that nothing had changed only served to reinforce the fact that something had. Maretsky-even Anton, or was he imagining that?-seemed almost wary of him.
“How is Irina?” Maretsky asked.
“She’s fine, thank you. Or so I believe.”
Maretsky frowned. “She survived Tobolsk?”
“I’m surprised she went. My wife wouldn’t have.”
“It’s surprising,” Ruzsky said, “what guilt can make you do.”
They were silent once more.
Ruzsky heard Madame Renaud’s haughty voice at the other end of the corridor.6
M adame Renaud burst into the room, an anxious constable alongside her. “Bonjour, madame.”
“You are Irina Ruzskya’s husband.” It was an accusation. She surveyed the room, glancing coldly at each of his colleagues.
“You should be ashamed of yourself.”
Ruzsky stood, then leaned back on the balls of his feet trying to imagine the stories Irina must have invented about him. They stared at each other like predators. “We have the body of a woman downstairs, wearing one of your dresses.”
“I have a business to run, don’t you know that? You drag me in here like some common criminal, and in these times. Don’t you have anything better to do?” She glared at the others.
Ruzsky kept his tone level. “As the constable will have told you, madame, we are the Criminal Investigation Division and we are investigating a murder. I’m sure the Okhrana does have better things to do with its time, if that is what you mean.”
“How can you be sure it is one of my dresses?”
“A man whose wife is bankrupting him recognizes the cause.”
“Only cheap husbands complain,” she said icily.
Madame Renaud exuded a haughty arrogance. She had a long, bony nose, narrow eyes, and white skin heavily powdered in a vain attempt to conceal her age. Her fingers were thin and, like her neck, bedecked in jewels that sparkled even in this dull light. Her expression reflected disgust and astonishment that the scion of a great family could work in such surroundings.
“These are my colleagues, Anton Antipovich…”
“I did not come to attend a social occasion.”
“You make no concession to the times,” Ruzsky said, pointing at her diamond necklace. “For that I admire you.”
“I am not normally dragged through the streets.”
“Your sled was not ready. I apologize. But this is a murder case, the victim one of your clients. I thought you would wish to help us.”
She relaxed a little, breathing out. Ruzsky realized his irritation and hostility had more to do with Irina. He imagined the two of them together, clucking and cooing over a dress that would cost ten times more than most people earned in a year. Since their marriage, Irina had received an allowance direct from his father, as well as a smaller stipend from her own parents. Behind the desk, Anton was staring at his empty glass.
“I’d be grateful if you would accompany us to the basement,” Ruzsky said.
A hint of a smile played at the corner of her lips. “You make the invitation sound so attractive, Prince Ruzsky.”
He could tell both Pavel and Maretsky were watching him. “We’re not in the habit of such formality here, Madame Renaud.”
“Are you ashamed of your fine ancestry?”
Ruzsky saw Pavel roll his eyes theatrically.
Without replying, Ruzsky led them along the corridor and down the stairs. Madame Renaud kept both hands in a fur muffler and her back rigidly straight.
As they came down the last flight of stairs, Ruzsky could hear Sarlov working with the saw and he hurried along the dark corridor. “For God’s sake,” he said, and Sarlov looked up, startled. “I thought I asked you not to do that.”
“I have a medical practice to run, Ruzsky. I can’t wait on your pleasure all day. As even you must be able to see, the bodies are rock hard and will take a considerable time to properly thaw.”
Sarlov’s coat and mask and face were splattered with tiny flecks of frozen blood and flesh. There was an incision across the woman’s chest, a small pool of thawing blood on the metal table beneath him, a thin stream dripping onto the floor.
Ruzsky heard a sharp intake of breath from Madame Renaud behind him and he rushed forward to pull a sheet over the body. He turned to face her. “My apologies, Madame Renaud. I was not aware this process had begun.”
He expected her to turn away, but found instead that she was struggling to compose herself. Pavel stood alongside her. Maretsky and Anton had remained upstairs.
“Come forward, if you would.”
She put a black gloved hand to her mouth, then took out a white lace handkerchief from her bag and placed it over her nose. She stepped forward and looked calmly at the girl’s face, before shaking her head confidently. “I don’t recognize her.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure.”
Ruzsky walked over to the pile of clothes in the corner and picked up the dead girl’s dress. He carried it to Madame Renaud, pulling the hem through his hands until he found the label. She took the dress from him and half turned, holding it up toward the light. She returned it to him and removed a pair of eyeglasses from her bag, before examining it once again. “Yes,” she said, simply. She let the hem of the dress drop, holding it up by its shoulders. “I see you are as capable as your wife claims.”
Ruzsky felt momentarily confused.
“Sherlock Holmes, she calls you. Isn’t that so?”
Ruzsky realized she was taunting him.
“This is one of your dresses,” he said.
“It is much too big for the dead girl. A terrible fit.” She turned to him with a caustic smile. “Surely you can see that.”
“Who did you make it for?” Ruzsky didn’t expect an answer.
“Vyrubova,” she said.
“Yes.” She was enjoying her power now. Ruzsky saw the color drain from Pavel’s face again.
“You are referring to the intimate friend of the Empress, Anna Vyrubova?”
“The same. It’s an old dress-two or three years. She must have given it to the dead girl.”
Ruzsky hesitated. “You haven’t seen this woman before?”
She tilted her head to one side, but it was a gesture of amusement, not irritation. “No.” She was watching him. “Your wife came in this morning.”
He didn’t answer.
“She wishes to have a dress for the Vorontsov ball.”
“She said you would not be accompanying her.”
Ruzsky stared at the floor.
“She says you were once handsome, but she does you a disservice.”
Ruzsky looked up. He could hardly credit the fact that this harsh-faced woman was attempting to flirt with him in front of two half-dismembered corpses. “Thank you for coming in, Madame Renaud.”
Pavel was silent as they walked upstairs to the office.
The dagger had been placed on the corner of Ruzsky’s desk, with a tag attached stamped Petrograd City Police, Criminal Investigation Division. Alongside it was a set of crime scene photographs, which they examined in silence.
Ruzsky opened the drawer, took out the notebook, and slipped it into the inside pocket of his jacket. He replaced it with the piece of paper on which he had drawn the outline of the footprint traced from the snow.
“What do you want to do?” Pavel asked.
“Go down to the embankment and start checking all residential buildings in the neighborhood. Go to the Winter Palace and try and get hold of the head of the household. See if there is any chance anyone did see anything. And if you have time, try the embassies. British, French, American. Ask if they’ve received any reports of a missing national. We’ll see if Sarlov was right about the man being a foreigner. I’m going to go out to Tsarskoe Selo.”
“You don’t want me to come with you?” Pavel didn’t sound enthusiastic.
“We’ll make more progress if we split up.”
“Who are you going to see?”
“Count Fredericks. One of the other senior household staff. Vyrubova herself.”
“Why don’t you telephone?”
Ruzsky frowned at Pavel’s caution. “If I call, they will decline.”
“They will decline to see you anyway.”
Ruzsky looked up and saw Maretsky going into his cubicle. He picked up the dagger and walked around to join him. Pavel followed.
Maretsky was scanning a document, his glasses pushed to the top of his head. He looked up at them, chewing his lip, as if concentrating on something else, his round, piggy eyes staring into thin air.
Ruzsky held up the knife.
“It’s a dagger,” Maretsky said.
“Correct.” Ruzsky handed it to him.
“It has blood on it.”
“That’s not uncommon in murder cases.”
Maretsky pulled his glasses down and glanced at Ruzsky. He held it up to the light.
“There’s some writing on the blade,” Ruzsky said.
“I can see.”
Ruzsky waited as Maretsky turned the knife over in his hand. The professor handed it back without comment.
“And?” Ruzsky asked.
“And what?” Maretsky glanced at Pavel. For some reason, Ruzsky thought, the professor never felt as comfortable when Pavel was around.
“Have you ever seen this kind of knife before?”
“You’re the chief investigator, Chief Investigator.”
Ruzsky shook his head. Ever since the professor had joined the department, they’d had a strong protective bond. Maretsky had once been a highly regarded academic at St. Petersburg University -a professor of philosophy-but an incident with a young male student had destroyed his career. Anton had offered him a home here, and for some reason Maretsky thought Ruzsky was the only other member of the department who did not judge him. Over the years it had paid dividends more often than Ruzsky could remember.
“The Black Bands?” Ruzsky asked. “Political organizations? Revolutionaries? Does this kind of knife, or the inscription, have any connection with any of them?”
“I’ve not seen anything like it.”
“What is the script?”
“Can you find out?”
The professor sighed, which Ruzsky took as a sign of acceptance. He examined the knife once more. “It’s an unusual weapon.” Ruzsky looked up. “Do you still do liaison work?”
Maretsky had been made responsible a long time ago for liaison with the Okhrana, but since Vasilyev’s appointment, relations between the two organizations had grown so hostile that there was virtually no communication at any level.
“I never wanted to.” There was a note of bitterness in Maretsky’s voice.
Ruzsky looked at the professor. Perhaps it was his imagination, but all of his colleagues seemed more evasive these days. Was it his fate that had frightened them? Or something else? “Have you heard any whispers about this case?” Ruzsky asked. “Has anyone called you?”
Ruzsky nodded at Pavel, who returned a minute later with the photographs. Ruzsky spread them out on the desk and waited as Maretsky examined them. The professor shook his head. “No,” he said.
“You don’t recognize either of them?”
Maretsky was saved from further questioning by the appearance of one of the constables, his face puce with exertion and alarm. “Sir. You had better come.”7
S arlov’s voice was audible from the top of the stairs.
Three men in long dark overcoats waited outside the laboratory. Sarlov and Anton stood between them. “This is outrageous,” Sarlov said, his face red with anger.
Ruzsky pushed past them. Ivan Prokopiev was standing in the center of the room, smoking a cigarette. He was a tall man, bigger even than Pavel, with a bulbous, ruddy nose and closely cropped hair. He wore only a shirt which, despite the cold, was open to the middle of his chest, dark trousers and high leather boots. The head of the Okhrana’s Internal Division still held himself with the swagger of the Cossack officer he had once been.
He was watching two of his officers wrap the bodies in a single canvas sheet.
“What are you doing?” Ruzsky asked.
“Prince Ruzsky. What a pleasant surprise. Welcome home.”
There was a moment’s silence as they stared at each other. Prokopiev made no attempt to offer an explanation.
Ruzsky took a step closer. “You’ve no authority to do this.”
“Sandro,” Anton said, taking hold of his arm.
Prokopiev’s expression was dismissive.
“Let’s see your authorization.”
“Sandro,” Anton said again. His and Pavel’s faces were white with shock. Only Sarlov echoed Ruzsky’s anger.
Prokopiev finished his cigarette and stamped it out under his boot. From the inside pocket of his jacket, he took a piece of paper and handed it to Anton, who looked at it before giving it to Ruzsky. It contained a single sentence instructing the Okhrana to remove the bodies for urgent political investigation. It was signed by Major General Prince Alexander Nikolaevich Obolensky, the city mayor and titular head of all of Petrograd ’s police departments.
“Did Obolensky even see this?” Ruzsky asked. “Or did you just sign it yourselves?” In theory, Obolensky was the most senior police official in the city, but they both knew he’d never dare stand in the Okhrana’s way. Prokopiev might easily have forged his signature to save time.