Tatiana: An Arkady Renko Novel (Arkady Renko Novels) (8 page)

BOOK: Tatiana: An Arkady Renko Novel (Arkady Renko Novels)
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“Snowflake?”

“Snowflake.”

The box was open just enough for a maddened green eye to peer out.

“It’s white?” Arkady asked.

“Take my word for it.”

“You found it in the care of some sweet old lady?”

Victor leaned on the car. “Not quite. I found Snowflake in the arms of a skinhead called Conan at the construction site next to Svetlana’s. Apparently, they had a relationship. A skinhead and a prostitute; could love be far behind? She left Snowflake in his keeping because she was going home.”

In the box, the green eye retreated, replaced by a swipe of claws.

“Where is home?”

“Kaliningrad. Nothing more specific.”

“Did you get a true ID on him?”

“No.”

“What does he look like?”

“Like a Conan. Lots of time in the weight room, leather vest, abs you could crack clams on. Plenty of tattoos, but Nazi,
not Mafia. I promised him I would find Snowflake a home with ample mice.”

“Why would he give you the cat?”

“He was going on a bike ride. He left there and then on a black Harley. I wasn’t close enough to catch the license.”

“Did he say where he was going?”

“He mentioned Central Asia.”

“Look on the bright side, you did find Snowflake.”

“Now all I need is a suit of armor to open the fucking box.” Victor looked at the Den. “What is Anya up to with Alexi Grigorenko?”

“Research.”

“His father’s not around to protect him anymore, so I hope she works fast.”

Night and day, Arkady thought.

When Victor got in the car, Snowflake produced a genuine growl. Victor rolled down the window to say, “One other thing. Conan liked Tatiana for helping Svetlana. He thought she was a saint.”

•  •  •

Arkady’s apartment was a battlement against the storm. Sometimes it sounded as if nature was laying siege against the city, as if black furies and Irish banshees were tearing up and down the streets. It was two in the morning and he was wide awake. For dinner he had eaten something greasy with bread and vodka. It occurred to him that quite possibly this might be his last case, that he might close his so-called career chasing the anonymous dead. Which served him right. He picked up a shoe box of audiocassettes he had taken from Tatiana Petrovna’s apartment and fed one into his own recorder. What did a saint sound like?

He pushed “Play.”

“The bastards won’t let me through. They did before. This time they won’t. There are more than three hundred children in the school and this is the second day of the siege. I’ve brought food and medical supplies and the chance to negotiate. The FSB doesn’t want negotiations. In fact, the federal troops, the FSB, GRU and OMON sharpshooters, have been ordered further back from the school, further away from any communication. It’s not as if they have any plan apart from ‘no negotiation with terrorists.’ If not negotiations, what? Without negotiations, there will be a slaughter of horrific dimensions, but is anyone from the Kremlin here? The Chechen leaders are no better. They could intercede with their brothers in the building. Instead, they remain silent. They all remain silent as the slaughter of three hundred children draws closer.”

By the end of the tape, his throat was constricted and he discovered that his face was wet with tears. An unlit, forgotten cigarette was still in his hand. He screwed the cap back on the vodka bottle and tried another tape.

“Am I a dupe? They’ve asked me to be part of the negotiating team. We walk into the theater with food and messages, we walk out with hostages that have been freed, mainly women, children, and Muslims. So far, two hundred of them have been released, leaving an estimated seven hundred hostages in the hands of Chechen rebels. A musical revue was taking place when the rebels appeared so suddenly onstage that people thought they were part of the entertainment. The body in the aisle brings us back to reality. I suppose I’m one of the few Russians the Chechens have any trust in, but their demands are impossible. And for
a negotiator in a hostage situation, it’s difficult to bargain with someone who wants to die.

“Ten hours into the siege. For the hostages this must be like finding yourself a passenger on an airplane flight of unknown destination. The orchestra pit is their toilet. It’s no time for heroism. A man broke through the police barrier to bring out his son. A courageous soul. The rebels threw his dead body out like trash.”

Outside, the storm slapped a door shut and seemed to echo a shot fired ages ago.

“Twenty-eight hours. The Black Widows wear long black burkas with eye panels to see through. The burkas are loose, to hide the belts of high explosives strapped around their waists. I wonder about these young women and their suicidal mission. True, they have lost their husbands, but most of their own lives lie before them. I think each must live in the stultifying confines of her husband’s coffin, until her own death will release her. I know the feeling.”

Arkady heard voices and footsteps on the landing as Anya slipped into her apartment. It was three in the morning, an hour shared by insomniacs.

“It’s over,” Tatiana said. “Fifty-seven hours into the siege, a sleeping gas was introduced by Special Operations into the ventilation system and when Russian troops entered thirty minutes later, there was virtually no resistance. Fifty Chechen rebels—including Black Widows—were executed where they were found. Seven hundred hostages were freed and not a single one of our soldiers lost in what clearly should have been a triumph in the war against terrorism. However, the gas also killed one hundred thirty hostages; families without a breath between them still occupy
their theater seats. Hundreds more need hospitalization. There is an antidote, but we are informed that the nature of the gas is a state secret and cannot be divulged. The man from Special Operations says, ‘When you chop wood, chips fly.’ ”

The rest of the cassette was so faint it was virtually blank, a heartbeat in the dark.

8

Arkady squinted in a morning light so bright that crumbs cast shadows on the kitchen table. Anya was in dark glasses, her fingernails painted scarlet red, black hair brushed to a shine. Uncertainty was in the air. She had spent the evening and half the night with Alexi, and Arkady didn’t know whether to be angry or feign nonchalance. He hadn’t expected her to show up on his doorstep the morning after, looking fresh as a daisy, although she held his gaze a little too long and lit a cigarette with movements that were a little too quick.

“Have some caffeine with that.” He poured her a cup. “You were out late.”

“Alexi and I went to a club.”

“That sounds like fun.”

“He says you’re jealous.”

“He told me.” Since there was nothing he could say now that wouldn’t sound jealous, he plunged ahead. “How is the writing going?”

“I’m still doing research.”

“With Alexi?”

“What have you got against him?”

“Nothing, except that he’s a slicked-back version of a real Mafia boss. Someone is going to put a bullet through his empty head any day now.” That didn’t sound fair, he thought. “I just hope you’re not in the way.” That didn’t sound any better.

“So you were up late too.”

“Listening to Tatiana. I found some old tapes in her apartment.”

“Sometimes I think you’d rather listen to ghosts than to someone alive.”

“It depends.”

“And now, on top of ghosts, you have a Saint Tatiana. Maybe you should pray.”

“What would help more than prayers is the notebook Tatiana brought back from Kaliningrad.”

“It’s funny. Everybody wants it and no one can read it.”

“I’d like to try.”

She opened her tote bag and produced the spiral notebook that Obolensky had shown him. “Just for you, the Holy Grail.”

“You’ve read it?”

“Over and over.”

“May I?”

“Be my guest.”

The pages were covered with enigmatic symbols. Inside the
back cover were geometric shapes, a list of numbers and sketches of a cat.

Anya gathered up her coat. “I myself prefer a hothead to an ice cube.”

He heard the decisive slap of her shoes and perhaps the word
idiot
as she shut the door.

•  •  •

Whenever Arkady visited the university, he could not help but measure his progress in life against the precocious student he had been. What promise! A golden youth, son of an infamous general, he had floated easily to the top. By now, he should have been a deputy minister or, at the very least, a prosecutor, ruler of his own precinct and feasting at the public trough. Somehow, he had wandered. Almost all the cases that came his way were fueled by vodka and capped by a drunken confession. Crimes that displayed planning and intelligence were all too often followed by a phone call from above, with advice to “go easy” or not “make waves.” Instead of bending, he pushed back, and so guaranteed his descent from early promise to pariah.

One exception to the general disappointment was Professor Emeritus Kunin, an elderly iconoclast who dragged an oxygen tank and breathing tube around his office. A linguistics expert, he had once been arrested for speaking Esperanto, considered in Soviet times a language of conspiracy. Arkady convinced the judge that the professor was speaking Portuguese.

“I apologize, my dear Renko, that my office is such a mess. There is a system, I promise you. With all these . . . charts and chalkboards . . . I can’t even see the windows. I know there’s a bottle of cherry liqueur here somewhere.” He waved his arms
futilely at charts, at audio equipment, at photographs of small brown people with oversize bows and arrows. Two blue macaws in separate cages cocked their heads skeptically at Arkady and blinked their sapphire eyes.

“Do they have names?” Arkady asked.

“Fuck off,” said one bird.

“Piss off,” said the other.

“Don’t get them started,” Kunin said. “It’s bad enough that the tropical forest they came from has been despoiled . . . by international corporations . . . logging in the Amazon, paradise lost. My charts are virtual tombstones . . . Thank God for DNA . . . For example, who the devil are the Lapps? Really.”

“A good question. Do you have five minutes to look at this?” Arkady produced the notebook.

“Ah, as you mentioned on the telephone; your piece of evidence.” The professor pushed books off his desk to make room. “You’re in luck. I have been making a study of ‘interpretation’ to see whether it tells us something about the foundations of language. The basic words.
Mother. Father.

“Murder?”

“You get the drift. Because each interpreter creates his own language.”

“Ah.”

“You’ll see.” Kunin sipped oxygen and studied the pages. “I can tell you, to begin with, one thing that’s odd. Usually the first thing a professional interpreter does is write on the cover of his notebook the name of the event, the parties involved, and the place and date the notes were taken. Also his name, mobile phone and an e-mail address in case the notebook is lost or stolen. Perhaps promise of a reward if found. This notebook has no identification. There is the
name Natalya Goncharova, Pushkin’s wife, but of course she was a historical figure and a slut to boot.” The professor emeritus stopped for air and returned to the first page. “It’s hard to say with so few pages actually written on but it seems to be a notebook commonly used by journalists or consecutive interpreters. I would say that by the use of some commonly used symbols this was the notebook of a consecutive interpreter. Party A speaks in one language, which the interpreter relays in a second language to Party B. So it goes back and forth. If he keeps good notes, he can deliver a complete and accurate translation whether the parties speak for one minute or ten. It’s an amazing mental feat.”

Arkady was more confused than ever. Each page was blocked into four panels with a dizzying solar system of hieroglyphs, half words and diagrams. He felt like a fisherman who had hooked a creature far below the surface of the water with no idea of what he had caught.

“From these pages an interpreter can reconstruct an entire conversation?”

“Yes. And aren’t they lovely? Beyond arrows signifying ‘up’ or ‘down.’ A bumpy line for ‘difficulties.’ A loop and an arrow meaning ‘as a consequence.’ Genius. A ball and line for ‘before’; a line through the ball for ‘now.’ An interpreter creates a new symbol and other interpreters follow. It’s the creation of language before your eyes. A ball in a three-sided box? ‘A goal,’ naturally. Crossed swords? ‘War.’ A cross? ‘Death.’ ”

“Then we should be able to read it too.”

“No.” Kunin was just as definite.

“Why?”

“These are just the commonly accepted symbols. I can write them in for you. The rest are his. We don’t know the context.”

“If we knew, could we read the notes?”

“Probably not. It’s not a language and it’s not shorthand. Interpretation is a system of personal cues. No two interpreters are alike and no two systems are the same. For one interpreter, the symbol for ‘death’ might be a gravestone, for another a skull, for another a cross like this one. Symbols for ‘mother’ run the gamut. Cats can be sinister or cozy.”

“They don’t look warm and fuzzy to me.”

“See, the double triangles could be a map, or a constellation, or a route with four stops.”

Arkady had seen the shape before; it danced just beyond his grasp. He tried not to try too hard to remember because answers came when the mind wandered. Stalin used to draw wolves over and over.

“Or a bicycle frame,” Arkady said. He remembered going into a bike shop with Zhenya. Hanging from the shop ceiling had been a row of bicycle frames in different colors. “Someone was building a bike.” He walked the idea through. “An expensive bike for a serious biker.”

“You don’t know that for a fact.”

“This was custom-made. Not like adding a bell to the handlebars.”

“Renko, I’m dragging around an oxygen tank. Do I look like I know from bicycles?”

And that was it. Abruptly, Arkady was dry. He had gone as far as this slender branch of guesswork could support him.

•  •  •

“Is this Lieutenant Stasov?”

BOOK: Tatiana: An Arkady Renko Novel (Arkady Renko Novels)
10.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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