The metronome, p.1
The Metronome, p.1D. R. Bell
Book One of the Counterpoint Trilogy
D. R. Bell
The Metronome is the first book in The Counterpoint trilogy. The trilogy also includes The Great Game and The Outer Circle. The Great Game and The Metronome are largely independent, with only a minor overlap amongst the characters. The Outer Circle brings the heroes of the two earlier books together to conclude their journey.
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
drbellbooks.com or [email protected]
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.”
PART 1: NIGHT CALL
PART 2: UNDER SIEGE
PART 3: SECRETS AND COINCIDENCES
PART 4: THE PROPOSAL
PART 1: NIGHT CALL
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 qietly 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 militzia officer that called me last night. Militzia is the Russian term for police. My father was an investigator in the St. Petersburg militzia 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 militzia’s 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 Reunite 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
“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 of relief. “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 militziaman 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 – militzia’s 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 gray 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 militzia 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 militzia 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 a
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 militzia. The door was closed but not locked; the militzia 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, than 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. Cui Bono, 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 avoska 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.
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
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. Click…click…click. 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 18th 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.”
“Then militzia 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 y
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 Sweet Tooth. 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 statue 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 bookstore. 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.
Father has been moody for the past couple of months. I can sense that mother is being careful around him, see her using his diminutive name, cook his favorite dishes. She says, “Volodya, you did what you had to do. It was the best for Pavel. You can’t help…” Her voice trails off.
My father replies quietly, measuredly: “No, Nastya, I can’t. But it still hurts. And now the bastards are invading again.”
“Who is invading?” I ask. “The French?” I had just read about the War of 1812; we are sitting in front of the Kutuzov’s statue, and I am anxious to demonstrate my knowledge.
“Nobody is invading, Pavel.” Mother hugs me. “Your father misspoke. Volodya, tell him you misspoke.”
My father is silent, his face severe. Years later, I figured he must have been referring to the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia: half a million soldiers from the Soviet Union and its allies occupied the country to stop the “Prague Spring” reforms. The rest of the conversation is still unclear to me.
I cross Green Bridge over Moika River and admire colorful boats full of tourists. When I lived here, the official name was People Bridge, but no self-respecting inhabitant of the city would call it that. I stop to admire the Stroganov Palace: the facade has been transformed from a neglected, dilapidated dark green shadow to a light pink Baroque beauty, probably as Bartolomeo Rastrelli originally intended back in the 18th century. The Stroganovs were the Russian counterparts of the Dutch and English merchant adventurers and empire builders. Since the reign of Ivan the Terrible, they were the richest businessmen in Russia. It was the Stroganovs that crossed the Ural Mountains and started the Russian conquest of Siberia. Peter the Great elevated them into the Russian nobility. Funny how things turn out, now they are primarily remembered for Beef Stroganoff.
The Nevskiy ends, and I continue down the Palace Square Road. On my right, the expansive Palace Square. In the history books of my youth, it was primarily mentioned when describing how the heroic revolutionary masses in 1917 crossed the square to storm the palace. In truth, there was no great masses or battles, it was a simple coup d’état where the Bolsheviks occupied government buildings without much struggle. The Winter Palace was defended by cadets and an all-female battalion who offered no resistance. The Red Guards broke into the palace, looted parts of it, and arrested the provisional government. Obviously, this was not glorious enough so a politically correct version of “storming the palace” has been created in films and books. As Orwell put it, “He who controls the present controls the past.” The coup may have been bloodless, but what followed was certainly not. Grabbing power can be easy, governing is the hard part.
The red granite Alexander Column rises in the middle, with the Winter Palace behind it. The Admiralty’s golden spire is soaring to my left, fronted by the Alexander Garden.
I walk to my former school, hiding in a nondescript building in the shadow of the Admiralty. I don’t know what favors my parents called on to enroll me here, in a “gifted children” school, right in the middle of Peter’s city. While taking classes, my eyes would wander to the Peter and Paul fortress across the river, to the spit of Vasilievskiy Ostrov. Sometimes I w
My father rarely came to the school; it was my mother’s job to keep up with my grades and teachers. I do recall him coming once, when I was thirteen. Some big party official showed up to speak that day. I remember because it was soon after Nixon resigned, and people were whispering trying to understand: How is it that the Americans forced their own president out? The big party cheese explained to us that in America they had a “palace coup” where one group of capitalists overpowered the other, that it had nothing to do with their constitution. And, of course, this can never happen here because our government represents all the people, not some capitalist clique. Americans were right to criticize Nixon because he was a scoundrel. We are also free to criticize our government, but only as long as the criticism is true. Because if your criticism is not true, then it’s a lie, and we punish people for lying. The big party official finished by saying that we, the students, were fortunate to grow up in our truly democratic country led by the Party and that we should always follow the Party’s direction because that’s the only way to a bright future. Everyone got up and applauded. Afterward, I asked my father what he thought of the speech.
He looked at me and said, “Pavel, remember, you and only you are responsible for your actions, what you will or won’t do, where you will draw the line.”
The old grouch could not even give me a normal answer. Only years later, when I was already in Moscow, I understood what he was saying. It was lies, lies, lies that they were feeding us. Lies from our teachers, in our textbooks, in our newspapers, on TV, from our leaders. Lies that those in power tell in order to stay in power. Lies designed to make us follow them rather than to think for ourselves. I was angry at my father because he knew it was lies, but he did not tell me. I think that’s what eventually made me so angry – foolishly believing the lies until it became impossible to do so. Most other kids must have figured things out in their teens and had learned to live within the system. They were that much better adjusted. I was the village idiot who became angry when I realized my own stupidity.
The Neva draws me like a magnet; I continue onto the embankment. It’s late. The golden spires of the Admiralty and the Fortress shine through the pale light of white nights. The white nights give the city its enchantment, immersing it in twilight from dusk to dawn. But the city pays for this during the cold, dark days of winter when long shadows of towering buildings threaten the human ants scurrying around in the snow.
The river flows for only forty miles, but its power creates a tapestry of islands. No hills here like in Paris or Rome, just flat land barely above the water level. Why did Peter the Great pick this spot? Take all the accepted rules for choosing the right location for a city, turn them on their head and you’ll get this place. No fresh water, no agricultural land, annual flooding, no hills, no trees. The city rose on the bones of its builders. Peter’s will was destiny, turning swamps into an imperial city. But behind the grandeur there was poverty and despair.
I follow the Neva to the right, along the embankment, past the Hermitage, the Peter and Paul Fortress watching me suspiciously from the other side of the river. I make my way to the Fields of Mars. People are swarming around, young, tourists, or both, celebrating the white nights. Many are drunk. From the bushes come sounds of laughter and muffled sex. The government has changed, the economic system changed, but some things remain as they were in my time here.
My mother loved coming to Letniy Sad, the Summer Garden. In June, it’s green and lush, with statues guarding it from the shadows. Here, too, one should be careful to not step on a couple. I meander down narrow paths until I find an empty bench and sit down to think. Pemin was right, the apartment is worth a lot of money – does this mean I am the main suspect now? Something about the encounter with Vakunin and Pemin did not feel right: My father was a tough investigator who did not bow to anyone, but even he would have not ordered a militzia Major around the way Pemin did to Vakunin. Where is my father’s computer? Where is his will? I can’t imagine someone as organized as him wouldn’t leave one. Why would he let somebody into the apartment that early in the morning? And if the militzia found his body at 8 a.m., how come Vakunin was calling me on my new, unpublished cell phone number just three hours later? Perhaps the St. Petersburg militzia has become more efficient, but to move so quickly over the death of an old man? Why were they taking care of funeral arrangements? Why was Pemin so anxious to find out when my father last spoke with me?
I go back to the voicemail: “You remember how she used to always worry that you don’t eat enough, send you food?” My father was not a sentimental man; this question just did not fit. Was there a hidden meaning? When I was studying in Moscow State University, my mother would indeed send me food. But she did not want to send it directly to the university, rightfully not trusting for the parcel to arrive to me intact. She would send it to a post office on Lomonosovskiy Prospekt, about 10 minutes away. I would go and pick it up there, and then, without telling her, still share with my roommates.
Is this it? Did my father send me something to that post office? Was he afraid that someone was listening and communicated in a way that only I would understand? Or am I falling victim to that Russian curse of looking for a deeper meaning in everything, and my father was just reminiscing about the past? I have to go to Moscow to find out. I look at my watch, it’s past midnight, time to head back.
Walking through a milky twilight, I think of Sarah. It’s funny, but when Karen, Sarah, Martin, and I went out, people often thought that Sarah and I were one couple and Martin and Karen were the other. Must have been the way we were bantering and laughing at each other’s jokes. It felt guilty like I was lying, hiding something. But there was nothing to hide, except for an accidental touch that took a bit longer than necessary or an occasional sideway glance and a quick turn when caught. I remember one time two years ago when our hands brushed against each other, lingered for a moment and there was that electric spark between our fingertips before we pulled them back. Once, after a party, I gathered the courage to call their house but hung up after two rings. We never crossed the line. Karen still picked up on it, said once with a touch of jealousy, “You like Sarah, don’t you?”
I shrugged. “Sure, she is funny.”
Sarah is different from Karen: while Karen is a serious, calm and stately blonde, Sarah is a lithe brunette, full of nervous energy, always ready to laugh.
Her lovemaking was also different from Karen’s: greedier, more aggressive, as if she wanted us to merge into a single being. We did not even make it to her bed at first. Sarah cried quietly afterward but would not tell me why.
When I get to the apartment, I go through the files and the books again, searching for the will without success. I prepare my small backpack for an overnight trip. Then I remember my father’s diary and take it as well, together with the most recent photo of his.
Friday, June 9
When I was a child, I used to sleep on a folding couch in the living room. In the morning, the couch would be folded into a kind of recliner chair, except that it wouldn’t recline. After I left for Moscow, the folding couch was replaced with a sofa. I could not bring myself to stay in the bedroom, so I tried to sleep on the sofa, with little success. I was tossing and turning as the northern light of white nights seeped through the windows. I must have fallen asleep at some point, because my travel alarm woke me up at 8 a.m. I wash up, put on my suit, white shirt and a tie, and go downstairs to the already familiar Sweet Tooth for coffee and a cake. When I come back up, Lieutenant Govrov is patiently waiting by the door.
We get into the same Lada, drive a block on the Nevskiy, then turn right onto the main Sadovaya Street. Traffic is heavy and people outside are walking with purpose, hurrying to their jobs. We turn right again, drive by the circus, and cross Belinski Bridge over Fontanka.<
I ask, “Which cemetery are we going to?”
“Piskariovskoye memorial cemetery,” replied Govrov.
“What?” I can’t hide my surprise. “I did not think they buried people there now; it’s a memorial to the victims of the blockade of Leningrad.”
“Generally, they don’t have new burials there. But your father was in the city during the whole siege, and he served as a soldier defending Leningrad.”
My parents did not like to talk about the siege and would change the subject when I tried asking them about it.
“We’ve been trying to find your mother’s grave but could not,” guiltily admits Govrov.
“She did not want to be buried. She wanted her ashes to float to the sea.”
We turn left onto Liteyniy Prospekt, cross the Neva, and continue along the embankment until we come to the Piskariovskoye Prospekt. I am taking in the view of my native city and thinking that only Paris can possibly compare.
We park at the entrance gate. I’ve only been here once, 30 years ago, on a school trip. Even for horsing around teenagers this was a solemn site. Now, the thought of over half a million people buried here shocks me. We quietly go by the eternal flame, and by the mounds of mass graves, Beethoven’s music playing. Just before reaching the sculpture of the Motherland, we turn to the left. I follow Govrov down a winding path until we come to a birch grove. A few people are there already, surrounding a freshly dug grave. A hearse is parked on the side.
A man approaches and introduces himself as Petr Saratov. “I had the pleasure of knowing your father,” he says. With sunken cheeks, deep-set eyes, and thin bluish lips, the man looks like a skull with skin stretched tight over it. With this appearance, I expect his voice to sound solemn and grave. Instead it’s high-pitched, as if he is straining his vocal cords. Since he seems to be in his early 30s, I wonder how exactly he knew my father, but don’t have a chance to ask as others come up to introduce themselves. An orthodox priest is there, which surprises me as my father was decidedly not a religious man. Vakunin and Pemin show up together, and that seems to be the sign to start.
Vakunin and another man make speeches, the siege of Leningrad is brought up a number of times, at some point a reference is made to my father raising a “brilliant young scientist,” and all eyes turn to me. Vakunin whispers whether I want to say a few words. I shake my head. We lower the coffin, and soon the ceremony is over, people start shaking my hand and leaving. To my surprise, Zorkin is here. I ask him how he knew my father, and he replies: “I am a resourceful man. And very interested in the apartment.” A man with a cane, in his seventies, tries talking to me, but Vakunin gently pushes him to move on, saying “Anton, don’t bother Pavel Vladimirovich, he must be awfully tired.” The old man hesitates, then obediently moves on, but not before giving me a sorrowful look. He looks vaguely familiar.
Vakunin continues, “Pavel Vladimirovich, the department will put up a memorial stone with a star, your father’s name, and the years 1934 – 2006. Let me know if you want something different.”
“It’s 1924, not 1934” I automatically correct him.
“But of course, I misspoke.”
Vakunin moves on. Pemin also says goodbye, and it’s just me, Govrov, and a freshly covered grave.
I stand in front of it, trying to comprehend what just happened. Heart-wrenching loneliness momentarily overcomes me. Govrov carefully taps me on the shoulder. “Pavel Vladimirovich, would you like me to take you back to the apartment?”
“Yes, please, let’s go back to the apartment.”
At the apartment, I change into jeans, a T-shirt, and a comfortable jacket. I deliberate for a minute whether I should have created some cover story, but it’s too late for that. I grab my backpack and run out. Instead of going through the main entrance to the building, I sneak into the courtyard, find an open door in one of the neighboring buildings and come out onto Karavannaya Street. I look around, don’t see anyone paying attention to me, turn left and briskly walk to Manezhnaya Square, figuring I’ll find taxis there. I am right, a few private taxis are parked there. I go to the first one in line, show him a $20 bill and say “Pulkovo One.”
As we make our way to the airport, I wonder if I will be arrested there and brought back as a primary suspect trying to escape. At the airport, I buy a ticket for the next Aeroflot flight to Moscow, exchange $200 into rubles, and get a quick lunch all the while nervously checking things around me, expecting a tap on the shoulder. But my shoulder is not touched, and I board the Airbus, squeeze into my middle seat, and breeze a sigh of relief as we take off. I try to take a nap for the duration of the short, just over an hour, flight.
We are approaching for landing from the East, over distant suburbs and green fields. From my window seat, I can see Moscow proper in the distance. Moscow and St. Petersburg, the two poles of Russia. One dates to a small 12th-century fortress built by Prince Yuri Dolgoruki. Two hundred years later, after the Mongolo-Tatar devastation, Moscow emerged as the leading Russian city, sometimes by its leaders aligning with the Tatars to subdue the city’s rivals. All’s fair in love, war, and politics. From the victory over the Mongol-Tatar forces in 1380, Moscow’s reach grew and grew, primarily to the East, until it reached China’s borders and the Pacific Ocean. Moscow – the “Third Rome,” the “Second Constantinople,” the defender of the Orthodox faith, protecting it from “barbarians” in the East and in the West. As the Russian monk Filofey wrote in 1510, “Two Romes have fallen. The third stands. And there will be no fourth.”
Until the upstart in the north rose out of empty marshes. St. Petersburg: majestic, imperial, haughty. Proclaiming that Russia’s future was not in the footsteps of Constantinople and Byzantium, not in Asia, but in Europe. Peter the Great wanted St. Petersburg to be the beginning of new, European Russia.
And for two hundred years the upstart reigned, Moscow relegated to a noisy, dusty has-been. But the city that Peter founded as a leap of faith became a capital of mammoth bureaucracy. In the end, Russia rejected this implant in favor of its natural focus in Moscow. And then the curtain fell between Russia and the West.
Two cities, three tzars: Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Stalin. Should it be Stalin the Murderous? Three tzars that fought to modernize Russia, each in their own way. All left behind fields filled with the bones of their subjects, not caring how many had to die in their cause. All ruled with an iron fist, believing that their ends justified the means. All, directly or indirectly, killed their own, flesh-and-blood, sons. All fought with Europe: one was defeated, one victorious, the last one got his tanks all the way to Berlin.
As we land in the Domodedovo Airport, I am again anxious, expecting to be stopped. But no one bothers me as I make my way outside to the taxi line. This time I have to splurge $90 for the ride, but after an hour and a half in heavy traffic, I get to the post office on the Lomonosovskiy Prospekt only twenty minutes before it closes.
I look around, don’t see anyone following me, then I head in. I wait in line, get to the window, show my Russian passport. The indifferent woman behind the glass goes inside and comes back with a thick manila envelope addressed to me. I recognize my father’s handwriting. With a trembling hand, I sign off for the package, stuff the envelope into the pocket of my backpack, zip it and leave.
In a hurry to make it to the post office, I had made no plans for my stay in Moscow. I debate for a minute whether to try and fly back to St. Petersburg, but decide that this will be too much for one day. I should find a hotel, eat, read the materials that my dad sent, and hopefully get a good night sleep. Not seeing taxis nearby, I recall that there is a hotel on the Leninskiy Prospekt a short distance from here.
There are not many pedestrians, and I walk briskly. A group of two men and two women walk toward me, laughing. They stop and loudly argue about where to go eat. The sidewalk is narrow, and I try to get around them on the building side when a strong arm loops around my neck from behind, squeezes, and the lights go out.
The Metronome by D. R. Bell / History & Fiction / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5 out of 5 / Based on30 votes