Two Cases for the Czar

Miroslava Holmes, the one and only licensed private detective in the United Sovereign States of Russia, has two new cases which couldn’t be more different: a locked room mystery involving espionage and a simple theft that nevertheless requires a trip to Kazan. But the cases do have one thing in common—they will both put her life at risk.

Formats: zip, rtf, mobi, epub, pdf,

Category:

$4.99

Miroslava Holmes, the one and only licensed private detective in the United Sovereign States of Russia, has a new case. She’s been called in on a locked room murder—and to make things worse, it’s the locked room of an agent of the Embassy Bureau, a 17th century Russian James Bond. This is a political case, and the Embassy Bureau isn’t talking to anyone. Solving the case is going to leave Miroslava at the crossroads where law and justice part ways.

But not everything is murders and spies. No, sometimes it’s the theft of a piece of costume jewelry from a girl at the Happy Bottom Club. And this case leads Miroslava into the bailiwick of another detective. Detective Corporal Viktor Zuykov, who doesn’t want her interference.

That, however, isn’t going to stop Miroslava. When money is involved things can get dangerous, and to catch the actual culprit, Miroslava and her faithful friend, Vasilii Lyapunov, must chase him to Kazan.

Location: Room 22B, Ufa Dacha
Date: May 10, 1637

I take pen in hand to record the second case of Miroslava Holmes, my companion and friend. Miroslava has taken to reading with a fanatic zeal, so when she was called to the scene, she was reading yet another children’s book. Even for Miroslava, reading isn’t something that you learn in an hour, though that was all the time it took her to learn the alphabet and the way reading works.

It was a warm afternoon with the mercury indicating seventy of the up-timer degrees, or twenty-one by the more rational centigrade scale. The grandfather clock was ticking off its seconds in the corner of the room, indicating that we were three hours and twenty-seven minutes past noon, when the knock came and Maksim Borisovich Vinnikov came in to announce, “Detective Baranov needs you.”

I was torn. I wanted to go along. I was more than a bit concerned about Miroslava. I understand her peculiarities, but not everyone does.

No, that’s not true.

I doubt that I really understand the way her mind works, but I love her, so I try to be patient with her uniqueness of mind. Not everyone shares my willingness to accept the unique way she looks at the world.

But the fact was, I was knee deep in the condenser plans for the airplane’s steam engine. And on a tight schedule. I didn’t have the time, and Miroslava knew that.

“You can’t go, Vasilii,” she said. “I will get my light coat.”

Miroslava was wearing a modified version of the culottes that were all the rage in Europe these days. Miroslava’s had a string sewn into the leg holes to tighten around the ankle so that the cold Russian winter air couldn’t circulate. It also mostly kept her split skirt out of the mud.

Maksim was grinning at me with all the impetuosity of his youth. He was an apprentice detective in the city guard. In his teens, he was always happy to see his elders being treated as children.

✽✽✽

This next part I learned from a secondhand account, and will record in the third person, because that is the manner that is preferred for this sort of archive.

Location: Hotel Turkovich, Room 218, Crime Scene

Miroslava followed Maksim to a fairly nice room in an upper class hotel. At the door there was a trickle of dried blood. More than a trickle, actually. A small rivulet went across the hall. The door, which was designed to open outwards, was broken inwards with considerable damage to both door and door frame. Once she stepped into the room, she saw that on the door frame opposite the hinges there had once been a bolt, the sort used to lock a door from the inside. This one was, or rather had been, of hard wood an inch thick. The paint on the door frame was scratched in an arc above the busted lock. The lock itself was ripped entirely off both door and frame.

Miroslava clicked her tongue in silent disapproval. They should have pulled the hinge pins to get the door open, but apparently didn’t think of that. Instead, some cop put his shoulder into it, and the door, not being particularly strong, gave way.

Detective Sergeant Pavel Baranov looked up at Miroslava from the body of a large man. “You see the problem? He was shot by something with a smallish bore. And, see here, the powder stippling on his chest. It was close range. The barrel of the gun wasn’t more than five feet from him.”

Miroslava saw. She also saw the bullethole in the far wall. In her mind, she saw the man standing. He would have been three feet to the left of where he fell. A strong man, and he was still moving to attack his attacker, even after he had half his chest blown open. “He was standing there when he was shot,” Miroslava said. “Facing that way.” She pointed. “The shooter was shorter than him, five four, or so.”

The corpse on the floor had been six feet two and heavy. He had also been rich. She knew that both from the carpet he’d died on, and the clothing he was wearing. Well, the underwear he was wearing. He wasn’t dressed to go out. But the underclothing was Chinese silk, dyed bright red, even before getting soaked with blood.

“Who was he?”

“Nikola Vetrov,” Pavel said, looking at his notes. “This is his room, and he worked in the China section of the embassy bureau.”

This far east, the China section was more important than it was back in Moscow. Especially since the Khanate joining the USSR meant that trade with China was even easier now. “Easy” being a relative term, but the truth was that trade went on; even over a thousand-plus miles of mountain passes, trade went on. And having Sheremetev’s Russia between them and commerce with the west made trade with the east all the more important.

“I’ll check in with his bosses and see what he was doing there.”

Miroslava nodded, not looking at him. She didn’t think that the killing had anything to do with his job. But it was a good idea to examine all the evidence; all of Vasilli’s books said so. Miroslava was looking around the room. The covers on the large bed, with the down-filled mattress, and linen sheets. The covers were thrown back and the sheet rumpled. On the sideboard was an opened bottle and a glass. A second glass was broken on the floor. She went to the sideboard and sniffed. The opened bottle was three-quarters empty; it contained a slightly greenish liquid that she recognized as vodka. Not the purified alcohol the up-timers thought of as vodka, but real vodka, Russian vodka. The herbs used in real vodka were sometimes hallucinogenic. Several of the girls from the club used it regularly, and Miroslava recognized the type. It was made in a distillery in Nizhny Novgorod, and depending on how much you drank could make you horny, violent, or unconscious.

She straightened, looked around the room again, her eyes and mind taking in hundreds of details, any one of which might or might not be important. The broken glass against one wall, scratches on the inside surface of the broken door that matched those on the doorframe, the way the sheets on the bed were disarrayed, and so on.

Pavel’s little squad was here. Maksim was back, taking fingerprints. He did it by dusting with fingerprint powder, then using a camera to photograph the print. The celluloid film for the camera was smuggled in from a factory in territory “controlled” by Shermetev’s faction in Moscow.

She examined the wardrobe and noted that its back was way too thick, and so was the bottom. Wardrobes were heavy enough to begin with. You didn’t make them heavier unless you were crazy. She put her hands against one side and pushed. If the back and base were as thick as they seemed, the wardrobe should be heavier.

She knew that rich people sometimes had hidden caches in their furniture. Madam Drozdov had one in her makeup table. It had papers and opium in it. Miroslava had solved the riddle of how to open it and looked. She didn’t like what opium did to her mind and she couldn’t read at the time, so she had left the drugs and papers where she found them and closed up the makeup table.

Here was another puzzle to solve. She ran her hands lightly over the wood, and felt a crack where there shouldn’t be one. Pushed, pulled. Nothing. More examination led to another spot. Two hidden cracks at the back of the wardrobe in the gap between wardrobe and wall. This time, when she pushed, a door popped open at the back left side of the wardrobe. She called one of the officers over to it.

The papers were only partly in Russian, and even her Russian wasn’t great when it came to reading. So she couldn’t make out what they were.

“They look like deeds of some sort,” the officer said. He couldn’t read much better than she could. Reading and writing weren’t common abilities among the lower, or even the middle, classes in Russia in the seventeenth century.

Having found the hidden door, she turned the contents over to the police. She shared her belief that the murder was commited by a woman, but not the notion that the woman might have been a prostitute. Then she left, explaining, “I need to see some people.”

✽✽✽

Pavel knew that by now Miroslava read better than he did, so he called Maksim over and had the lad read the documents.

“They’re deeds, Sergeant. More properly, shares in something called the Russia China Railroad.”

Pavel knew what a railroad was. By now everyone in Europe knew what a railroad was. The railroads in the Golden Corridor were famous across Europe, from England to Russia and from Denmark to southern Spain. The railroads were given credit for much of the great wealth that was created in the Golden Corridor of the USE.

The Russia China Railroad? That could be worth— Pavel didn’t have any idea what it could be worth. Nothing more concrete than “a whole lot.”

 

Location: Ufa Kremlin, Embassy Bureau
Date: May 10, 1637

“What brings you here, Detective Sergeant?” Simeon Budanov asked. He was a tall man with a beard cut so short that it might be called loosely shaved. He was in his thirties, or at most early forties, and was a cousin of a boyar family. And while “disowned” by his family for coming to join Czar Mikhail in Ufa, in Budanov’s case, that reason was even more threadbare than most. He was here on the direct orders of his uncle, who was in the Duma back in Moscow.

Pavel Borisovich wasn’t surprised by the recognition, at least not very. Detective Sergeant was a new title, and as the first, Pavel was almost famous. Budanov’s secretary would have told him who was coming, even as makeshift as the embassy bureau was here in Ufa. “Sad news, I’m afraid. Nikola Vetrov was found dead in the hotel apartment he rented on Irina Way.”

Pavel watched Simeon Budanov’s face carefully as he gave the news. There was the hint of a smile, followed by a half frown, before the face took on a solemn countenance. Pavel didn’t know what it meant, it was such a confused mishmash of expressions.

“Since you’re here, I assume it was a murder?”

“We think so. A death by violence, in any case.”

“How can a death by violence not be murder?”

“There are several ways, sir, but in this case the only one I can think of that might apply is if the killer was acting in self defense. Not likely, I grant, but I try to avoid jumping to conclusions until I have all the evidence. Can you tell me if anyone here had any strong disagreements with him?”

What? You think it might be someone from the embassy bureau?”

“I try not to think anything at this point in an investigation,” Pavel said, still watching the boyar. Simeon Budanov would make a decent poker player, but not, perhaps, a great one. The man was clearly nervous about something.

“Well, you can think nothing somewhere else,” Simeon Budanov informed him. “Nikola Vetrov wasn’t murdered or killed by self defense by anyone in this office. So you can go detect somewhere else.”

Pavel knew that he’d just fallen into it again. Since his promotion to detective sergeant, he’d put to bed three murders, not one of which had required any real solving. Two were bar fights, and one was a mugging. The mugging was the one that was closest to hard and the mugger had pawned the victim’s ring. Leaning on the pawnbroker got the mugger, and that was that.

But now he’d fallen into another political mess. It must be something about Miroslava Holmes, he thought, not really believing it.

Still, he knew how to deal with them now. He had clear instructions from the czar and his direct boss: follow the evidence and don’t worry about offended boyars. “I will go where the evidence leads me, sir. I have to consider all the possibilities until they are eliminated. If you want me gone, let me look. All I care about is the murder.” That wasn’t true. There was something fishy going on here, whether it had anything to do with the murder or not.

Location: Ufa, The Happy Bottom

Date: May 10 1637

The Happy Bottom was open and doing business, though it wasn’t yet the busy time. The bouncer, Anatoly, was at the door. “What brings you back here? Slumming?”

“Why would I want to do that?” Miroslava asked, honestly confused.

Dariya’s laughter had  a bitter edge to it. “Miroslava doesn’t care enough about us to want to show off to us. Never did. If she’s here, it’s because she needs something.”

“So what do you want?” Anatoly asked.

“Information,” Miroslava said. “I need to know about Nikola Vetrov?” Her tone made it a question.

“Who?” Dariya asked. Dariya was good at sizing up a customer, but she wasn’t the sharpest of the girls in the club. And she wasn’t good with names unless there was money in it.

“He might be a customer. He had Nizhny Novgorod vodka in his room.”

“This isn’t the only place you can get Nizhny Novgorod vodka,” Dariya said, and Anatoli nodded in agreement.

“I know, but it’s one of them. And I think that there was a girl in his room.”

“One of us?”

“Maybe, or maybe someone we know,” Miroslava said. “He was a tall man and strong.” She went on to describe him. Height, weight, the clothing he had in his wardrobe.

“I don’t remember him,” Dariya said.

“Thank you anyway. I need to talk to Madam Drozdov.” Miroslava went through and Anatoly let her, though he looked like he wished he had an excuse to keep her out.

✽✽✽

In the club Miroslava found a variety of responses to her presence. Kira was nervous around her, but tried to be nice. Tried harder now than she had when Miroslava had worked here. Roksana, who’d essentially ignored her when she was a bar girl, was now anxious to be friends and was treating her pretty much like she would a customer. Irina resented her, treated her like she was invading the club. Elina was happy for her, but that was pretty much the way Elina always had been. She was nice.

All of them scattered when Madam Drozdov came out of her office in the back. “Come back to my office, Miroslava.”

Once in the office, with the door closed and Miroslava seated in the guest chair, Madam Drozdov gave Miroslava a bitter smile. “I hope you’re not going to bring more royal attention my way, Miroslava. The last time almost ruined me.”

Miroslava didn’t like Madam Drozdov, but neither did she dislike her. A more accurate description of their relationship was one of guarded respect. Each knew the other, at least somewhat. And Madam wasn’t intentionally cruel or vicious. She just had a “business is business” attitude. So that was the tack Miroslava took. “Not if I don’t need to. There was a murder last night, and I was called to look at the crime scene.”

“And what does that have to do with us here?”

“I don’t know that it has anything to do with you or the club, but the victim had a bottle of Nizhny Novgorod vodka, the kind you like from the brewery on Cobbler Street.”

“Who was this unfortunate person?”

“His name was Vetrov, Nikola Vetrov. He worked in the China section of the embassy bureau.”

“I don’t know the man, but I can ask my sources.”

“Thank you,” Miroslava said. Then they talked about the price. Some of it would be in money, some in favors. And then they talked about the new situation.

“Since the czar’s ruling, the girls are independent contractors.” Madam Drozdov grimaced. “I can’t protect them that way. And you know, Miroslava, not all of the girls who work here have the sense that God gave a goose.”

That was true enough, but Madam Drozdov’s protection had never been as benign as she made it sound. “I will want to chat with the girls in case they have sources of their own.”

Again the grimace. “I can’t stop you.”

“No, you can’t.”

✽✽✽

Miroslava talked to the girls, the bouncers, the guards, and a new addition, the “disk rider,” who changed the disks on the record player and handled the new amplifier and speakers. And realized that if she was going to investigate crimes as she was beginning to think she wanted to do, she would need connections, sources. What the Sherlock Holmes books called irregulars. And while Sherlock—who in spite of herself Miroslava was starting to think of as a sort of distant relative, in a way a more real relative than her mother had been—had used children as his irregulars, Miroslava was going to have to spread her net more broadly. The girls of the Happy Bottom were going to be a part of that network, but they couldn’t be the whole of it.

Location: Ufa Kremlin, Police Headquarters

Date: May 10 1637

“Pavel! Get in here!” Evgeny Ivanovich Aslonav shouted. He was Pavel’s boss and they normally got along pretty well. However, the colonel wasn’t comfortable speaking truth to power, and he positively hated being pulled into turf wars. In large part, that was because he was in his twenties, and he knew perfectly well that he was likely to be replaced if anyone noticed how young and unqualified he was.

“Wasn’t my fault, Boss,” Pavel shouted back, even as he headed for the colonel’s office.

“Detective Sergeant, you are going to get me fired one of these days. Then some forty-year-old petit boyar will have to deal with you, and I will laugh my ass off. Now why is the embassy bureau pissed at you?”

“Because someone over there is too clever to be smart.”

“Well, that sounds like them.”

Pavel, because of his acquaintance with Vasilii Lyapunov, knew who James Bond was, and was also aware that if Russia ever had a James Bond, he would work for the embassy bureau. Because the embassy bureau wasn’t just Russia’s state department. It was also their MI6, CIA, or KGB. Depending on which up-timer reference you were using. “Yes, sir. In this case, they managed to pull off a locked room murder.”

“A what?”

“It’s a murder where you find the body in a locked room with no way for the assailant to get in or out of the room to commit the murder.”

“Sounds impossible.”

“Yes, sir. There’s always some clever trick to it that makes it possible. And that sort of clever trick is just the sort of crap that one of those embassy bureau creepers is likely to pull, just because they can. That’s what I meant about them being too clever to be smart. If they’d just left the door unlocked, there would be no particular reason to look at them.”

“But now there is.” Colonel Aslonav nodded. “So you went bulling into the embassy bureau, and I get to start my day with an official complaint.”

“I didn’t bull in anywhere, sir. I very respectfully asked what the China desk was up to, in order to discover if there might be a motive for his death in that.”

“And what is the China desk up to?”

“I don’t know, sir, but whatever it is, it stinks like week-old fish. Otherwise, there’d be no reason for them to get me out of there so fast.”

“All right. I’ll put in the request.”

Location: The Home of Tatiana
Date: May 10, 1637

As long as the oldest profession has been practiced, there have been gradations. Russia in the seventeenth century wasn’t Athens in the era of the hetaerai,  but neither was it Victorian England. Prostitution was legal, if frowned upon by the church, and at the top of the field were women of both great beauty and skill. Women who could talk politics at the highest levels, knew art, music, and dance, and who lived quite well and had more control over their destinies than most people of the time, slave or free.

Tatiana was one such, and half a day of questioning had led Miroslava to her door. The building was one of the new hotel boarding houses that were springing up in Ufa since the czar and his court, as well as the dacha, moved to Ufa.

It was also the sort of place that wouldn’t have let Miroslava in the front door before Vasilii had bought her contract. That didn’t bother Miroslava now, and wouldn’t have bothered her even then. It was just one of the strange rules that she didn’t understand but had to follow.

Now the doorman examined her Dacha ID card with her photograph and sent her up the stairs to Tatiana’s room with a bellboy escort.

The door opened, and a maid looked out at them.

“Miroslava Holmes to see Tatiana,” the bellboy announced.

There was a voice from inside, soft and gentle. “Show the lady in, Arina.”

Arina stepped aside, and waved Miroslava in.

In the living room was a lounge and a woman of uncertain age sitting in a plush chair. Miroslava examined her. She might have been eighteen or forty-eight. From the very faint lines around her eyes, Miroslava guessed her to be closer to the latter than the former. She was wearing a dressing gown of purple silk and the new up-timer style makeup.  She waved Miroslava to a chair. “What can I do for the czar’s detective?”

“I’m here about Nikola Vetrov,” Mirosalva said.

That produced a slight frown and a lifted eyebrow. “He wasn’t one of my favorite patrons.”

“Then you’ve heard about his death?”

“No, I hadn’t, but I am not greatly surprised.”

There was something off in that, but—even for Miroslava—identifying the precise meaning of facial expressions or nonverbal communications in general was a hit or miss proposition, affected by circumstance and the abilities of the person being observed. Tatiana was highly skilled, and Miroslava wasn’t at all sure what, if any, her conection to the murder was.

“Then why did you say he wasn’t one of your favorite patrons?”

“Because he wasn’t. I don’t understand your question.”

“Why ‘wasn’t’ rather than ‘isn’t’?”

“Oh.” Tatiana paused and looked at Miroslava. “Because he was no longer a client, even before he died.”

That was almost certainly true, but it wasn’t all. Miroslava thought it likely that Tatiana had known that Vetrov was dead before she told her. But she couldn’t be sure. “Why did he stop being a client?”

Again that pause to examine Miroslava before Tatiana answered. “There are rules to my profession that you might not be aware of.”

Well, that wasn’t hard to read at all. In fact it was clear that Tatiana wanted her to hear the emphasis on “my” and “you,” and Miroslava was sure that she was supposed to be insulted. Tatiana felt that the difference between what she did and what Miroslava had done in the Happy Bottom was so great as to be a difference in kind.

Miroslava wasn’t insulted. Not because she’d only rarely had sex with her customers. That didn’t matter to her. The reason Miroslava wasn’t insulted was because she didn’t see why she should care. You did what your talents and circumstances allowed you to do. Very few people had much of a choice in the matter. Miroslava certainly hadn’t, still didn’t, though she liked her situation better now. She knew intellectually that most people put some sort of value on what they did, either greater or lesser. But though she liked detecting better than dancing naked, she didn’t think it was “better” in any sort of moral sense. “What rules are you referring to?”

“Confidentiality. I don’t discuss my friend’s tastes.”

“Even former clients?”

“Even former clients!”

“I ask you to reconsider that position in this case for two reasons. First, because Nikola Vetrov is dead, so no longer cares about his privacy. Second, because I will keep his tastes private. I don’t understand why he or you should care. But I don’t understand a lot of what most people care about. For me, knowing that they care is enough to keep me silent on the matter.”

“If you’re silent on the matter, how will it help you?” Tatiana asked. It was a good question.

“Because it might tell me where to look for his murderer. Can you tell me where you were last night?”

“Are you asking if I killed him?” Tatiana looked offended at the very thought. “I did not.”

“If you were somewhere else and have a witness who can confirm that, we can eliminate you from the pool of suspects.”

“I don’t see why I am in that group in the first place,” Tatiana said, rather heatedly.

Miroslava considered the woman. She wasn’t happy and she might even be a bit frightened. That would make sense whether she was involved in the death or not. Miroslava was aware that you didn’t have to have committed a crime to hang for it,  and there was little doubt that Tatiana was as aware of that fact as Mirosalva was. “I have good evidence that you knew Nikola Vetrov. You are roughly the right size to be the murderer, and you have been reticent about your relationship with him.”

Tatiana was clearly frightened now. Unfortunately, that didn’t make her easier to read. “I do have a witness for my whereabouts for yesterday evening and a good part of last night.”

“Good. Who is it? I will talk to him and . . .”

Tatiana was shaking her head. “I can’t tell you who it is. I already told you why.”

“Yes, confidentiality. However, that leaves you as a suspect.” That might mean that Tatiana was true to her code, or simply that she didn’t have an alibi.

Miroslava was learning that questioning of suspects, especially suspects who hadn’t been tortured, wasn’t how it was in the books. It was a slow grind of guesses checked against other guesses until you had a good idea what happened. She already had a good idea what happened, just not who was in the room. Tatiana fit the size range, and her profession fit the circumstances.

“So tell me about Nikola Vetrov’s tastes, or at least why he was no longer a client.”

Tatiana considered her yet again. “Do you think I did it? Not a pool of suspects, or the proper procedures. You, Miroslava Holmes?”

“I don’t know.” Someday Miroslava might learn to lie convincingly, but she hadn’t yet, in spite of the requirements of her former profession.

Tatiana’s lips twitched in a smile. “He liked it rough. He had a lot of anger in him and I was afraid he might go too far at some point. You know how it works. You don’t take it personally. You can’t.”

Miroslava nodded. That fit all too well with what she’d seen in Nikola Vetrov’s rooms. Unfortunately, it neither exonerated Tatiana or proved her responsibility. It could be that Tatiana was the woman in the room, and Vetrov got rough, and Tatiana ended it with a pistol.  Or it could be that she refused to see him and Vetrov went to another woman. “Is there anyone who can confirm that you had stopped seeing him?”

“There may be, but I can’t tell you his name without getting his permission.”

“What about the person you were with last night, can you get their . . .”

“No. The person I was with last night would never give permission, and I wouldn’t ask for it.”

After leaving Tatiana with her address at the Dacha, Miroslava went by the cop station in the Ufa Kremlin.

 

Location: Room 22B, Ufa Dacha
Date: May 10, 1637

“How was your day?” I asked as Miroslava came in.

“Frustrating, Vasilii. Very frustrating.”

“Mine too,” I admitted. “Even with the forced air, we’re not getting enough cooling in the condenser.”

“You should be.” Miroslava frowned. She didn’t like it when the real world didn’t match the math. She was used to it, but she still didn’t accept it. Not really. I felt myself smiling as she came over to my drafting board and looked at the notes. By now, of course, she knew her numbers, and could follow math and use a slide rule. “One of your assumptions is wrong,” she pronounced like a judge pronouncing sentence.

“Yes, dear, I know. But I don’t know which one. We know we aren’t getting laminar flow in the hot box. There’s no way we could. With all the heat exchange fins we have there, we don’t even want it. The guys are thinking that it’s the airflow that’s the problem.” I put a hand over the scribbled calculations. “What was so frustrating about your day?”

“Tatiana may be a murderer, may have acted in self defense, or may be completely uninvolved. And she is the only—” Miroslava grinned at me and finished. “—lady of the evening who I can confirm was associated with Nikola Vetrov.”

“Huh?” Aside from the whole lady of the evening bit, which Mirolsava had had read to her from one of my mysteries and just loved for some reason, none of it made any sense to me. I’d spent the day reading gauges in the shop and finding that not enough steam was turning back into water.

So for the next hour or so, Miroslava told me of her day. How the state of the room told her that Vetrov was trying to have sex with some one shortly before he died, and that something had gone wrong, leading to violence and his being shot.

“Why do you assume that the person he had sex with was a lady of the evening?”

“He wasn’t married.”

For all her experience, Miroslava was in some ways quite unworldly. Men had sex with their wives and ladies of the evening, sometimes both. Sometimes both at once. But a category that was neither didn’t fit in her world view. A thing I hadn’t realized until that moment.

“Men and women sometimes have sex when they aren’t married and when it’s not a buisness arrangement.”

“It’s always a business arrangement,” she insisted. “Marriage is a business arrangement too.” She took my hand, and I realized that she was explaining how the world worked to me. “It doesn’t mean it’s not fun, or one party doesn’t like it, or like the other party, but it’s always a business arrangement.”

She was wrong, but she was wrong in the way that Miroslava was often wrong. She saw very clearly. Especially she saw all the details, but she often missed subtlety. The hard part was going to be explaining that to her, because she wasn’t entirely wrong. There was an aspect of negotiation, business, in all human relationships. Not just sexual ones, all of them. “Yes, but that is rarely all there is. People agree to do things for a lot of reasons.”

“I don’t think this girl agreed, at least not at the last.”

“Then what was she doing there?”

“That is why I spent the day looking for a lady of the evening.”

“So you’re sure now that it wasn’t a lady of the evening?”

“No. Just that it’s no one I know, or no one that I know knows. Or at least can direct me too.”

That was true enough. The girls at the Happy Bottom, even at all the clubs like the Happy Bottom, weren’t the  only women making their living at the oldest profession. There were still at least two men for every woman in Ufa. It was a seller’s market, which was why Madam Drozdov had brought her girls to Ufa in the first place.

“Let’s go to dinner. We can both get started on our headaches in the morning.”

✽✽✽

The next morning, I suggested that she join Pavel on his hunt for the embassy bureau suspect.

Location: Ufa Kremlin, Office of the Czar

Date: May 11, 1637

“Come in, Bernie.” Czar Mikhail waved. He was standing at the sideboard of his office, fixing himself a glass of tea. The samovar he was using was based in part on pictures and descriptions gotten from Grantville, but it wasn’t much of a change from the authepsas that were present in Russia before the Ring of Fire. The two big differences were that this one had a built-in space for the fire and a place for a tea pot above the water boiling part. The tea was a gift from Salqam-Jangir Khan. He didn’t have the lemons that would be part of the mix in that other history, but he had honey and cream. He held up a wire frame holding a glass. “Want one?”

“No, thank you.” Bernie preferred coffee, which was available from the Turks. Besides, he wasn’t in the mood. “What’s going on?”

“Tea, as it happens. The addition of the Kazakh Khanate as the first state in the USSR opens up more possibilities than we first thought. Both for them and for us. We have the river routes from Ufa to the Caspian Sea—and, with a very short rail line, to the Black Sea. Also the links to the Arctic Ocean, and—if we win—to the Baltic and the rest of Europe. That’s not new, but with a rail line from Ufa to Shavgar, we’re a good part of the way to northern India, Tibet, and China. And—” Czar Mikhail held up the glass of hot tea in the metal framework. “—this. As well as Chinese silk, Indian cotton, and a host of other goods.”

“Not possible! The iron rails alone—”

But the czar was already holding up a hand. “Wood, single rail, and a graded road that can be used for carts and wagons when not used by the trains.”

“Okay,” Bernie said, slowly. “What do you want me for?”

“Nikola Vetrov got put on the China desk at the embassy bureau back before we had any idea that a route for the China trade might open up. We were all focused on Sheremetev and holding Kazan. He’s well connected in the nobility and no more corrupt than most. The rail line was his idea. And now he’s dead, murdered in a locked room. The city guard had to break the door down to get in.”

“Okay,” Bernie said, even more slowly.

Czar Mikhail grinned. “Yes. It gets worse, or at least more suspicious, when you learn that my head of the embassy bureau isn’t giving our new detective sergeant the time of day. And the way I found out about the project is from stock certificates and books found in Nikola Vetrov’s wardrobe. I don’t own any stock in that venture, so I’m curious.”

“You think he was offed by another of your spies over the potential China trade that may be opened up by Kazakh joining the United Sovereign States of Russia.” Bernie avoided using the initials since he’d been rudely interrupted by Gerry Simmons. The song had taken off in Russia, at least in Ufa and Kazan in the last couple of weeks and you haven’t lived until you have heard “Back in the USSR” sung in Russian, backed by Russian guitars, and— Bernie shuddered just thinking about it.

“I don’t know what to think, but I’m not at all sure that Colonel Milktoast Aslonav, the head of my police department, is up to bearding the embassy bureau in its lair.”

“And you want me to go back up Detective Sergeant Baranov.”

“See? I knew you were the man for the job.” Czar Mikhail grinned, then sipped his tea and sighed in contentment.  “And while you’re at it, find out who else over there knew about this railroad.”

Bernie nodded his head in agreement and left.

Location: Ufa Kremlin, Police Headquarters

Date: May 11, 1637

The place looked the same as it had the last time Bernie was here. Streltzi coming and going most of them effectively beat cops, a couple of sergeants who oversaw the mess, and in a corner at an up-time style desk was Maksim Vinnikov, with his boss sitting at a table next to him, drinking a mug of small beer. Small beer was beer with a much lower alcohol content than regular beer.

Pavel looked up when Bernie came in, said something to Maksim, and left. Maksim stood and brought some papers to Bernie.

Bernie’s Russian was passable by now, and he recognized the Arabic script of the Kazakh Khanate. He didn’t need it. Maksim was already saying, “They’re railroad stock certificates. And you should see the books.”

“I’d like to,” Bernie assured the lad, “but where did Pavel go?”

“He went to tell Colonel Aslonav that you are here.”

Dumnye D’iaki Zeppi.” Colonel Aslonav bowed and Bernie sighed. Mikhail had bumped Bernie to the status of “duma clerk,” basically the highest position a person  could get without being a member of an upper class family. It made him almost a suitable match for Natasha, which met with Bernie’s approval. It also made him the target of fawning attention and knives in the back, which Bernie liked rather less.

But Mikhail didn’t do it to make it easier for Bernie to get married. He did it because in the months since the escape, Bernie had become Mikhail’s semi-official fixer. And to do that job in Russia in the seventeenth century, even the Ufa-based modern Russia they were trying to build, you had to have high rank.

“Colonel Aslonav.” Bernie gave back a nod for the bow. “I’m here to provide a bit of backup to the sergeant in his murder investigation.”

This announcement was met with gratitude that was mixed with more fawning than Bernie liked, but at least Aslonav wasn’t the sort to put a knife in his back. It took a few minutes to get the colonel back into his office, then they got down to business.

Pavel pointed at the stock certificates. “I think that he was killed for those. And I think he was killed by an agent of the embassy bureau, or perhaps one of the Kazaks who are in town with the khan.”

“How did you get those?” Bernie pointed at the embossed stock certificates.

“Miroslava found them in a secret compartment in the victim’s wardrobe.” Pavel said it without hesitation or resentment, Bernie noted with some relief.

“Where is she, by the way?”

“We think the killer was a woman or a small man from the wound, the blood spatter, and where we found the bullet. Miroslava spent yesterday looking for a prostitute as the killer. I think that if it was a prostitute, she was employed by someone else.”

“Why?”

“Because of the locked room.”

Bernie shook his head, and lifted his hands in question.

“It was done by a smart person, but a—what is it you called them—a smart-ass, someone who just had to prove how smart they were. Even when there was no point.”

Bernie grinned. “That sounds like the embassy bureau, all right. But you still haven’t told me where Miroslava is now?”

“Looking at fingerprints.” Pavel sighed. “She doesn’t seem to have the insight into this case that she did into the one about the girls killed at the Happy Bottom. She hasn’t even addressed the locked room. And she seems obsessed with the notion that it was a prostitute who killed him.”

“Well, let’s collect her, and go visit the embassy bureau.”

Location: Ufa Kremlin, Embassy Bureau
Date: May 11, 1637

Simeon Budanov didn’t frown. He was a professional, after all. But Bernie could tell that he wanted to. “Mr. Zeppi,” he said in passable English, “what brings you to our little corner of the Ufa kremlin?”

“I go where Mikhail sends me,” Bernie replied in Russian. The use of Mikhail’s first name without honorifics was intentional. “The czar is concerned about the lack of cooperation the detective sergeant here received in his investigation. If our man on the China desk has been murdered, we need to know why and whether it has anything to do with his work or this railroad venture he was involved in.”

“How did you find out about that?”

Bernie turned to Pavel. “You nailed it. That was what he was trying to hide, or at least part of it.”

“Apparently, Dumnye D’iaki Zeppi,” Pavel said. “Though I suspect there is more.”

“How,” Budanov asked again, “did you learn about the railroad?” He didn’t sound nervous. No, he sounded angry, really angry.

“Let’s go into your office,” Bernie said. They were in the outer office of the embassy bureau, not Budanov’s private office.

“Yes. That’s an excellent idea. And the sergeant, the young woman, and the boy can wait out here, not speaking to anyone.”

“No,” Bernie said. “They’ll come with us.”

“Mister Zeppi, you are a clerk of the duma by the czar’s will, but I am a boyar.”

“Yes, that’s true. But I am here on Mikhail’s instructions. You have three options.” Bernie held up his right hand, finger pointing at the ceiling. “You can cooperate with me.” He extended a second finger. “You and I can go see the czar right now. You won’t like that, but you will probably survive it.” He held up a third finger. “Or you can refuse, in which case I’ll be back with a company of the imperial guard in about five minutes to arrest you. You probably won’t survive that.” Bernie dropped his hand. “Your choice, but make it now.”

There was a pause. Not a really long one, but one long enough to suggest that Simeon Budanov was at least considering the second option, if not the third. Then he said, “We’ll talk in my office.” He turned and headed for his private office.

Bernie, Pavel, Maksim, and Miroslava followed.

✽✽✽

As soon as they were all in the room, Maksim closed the office door and leaned against it.

Pavel waved Miroslava to one of the seats in front of the desk. It was an expensive desk of up-time design with a matching office chair behind it. There was also a small but plush couch against the far wall.

Simeon Budanov didn’t go around his desk to sit in his chair. He turned to Bernie and hissed, “You idiot! How dare you embarrass me in front of my staff like that!?”

“Simeon,” Bernie said, “I am here on Czar Mikhail Romanov’s instruction. I told you that at the beginning. He sent me here because you were impeding a police investigation into the death of one of his people. The reason you got embarrassed was because you were pitting your will against Czar Mikhail. Mikhail Romanov will tell you himself that he isn’t a very assertive person. He doesn’t like to argue. He doesn’t like to fight. For a very long time, while he was surrounded by forceful people who pretty much ignored what he thought, that made him pretty ineffective. However, he is no longer surrounded by strong-willed people who don’t listen to him. Now he has surrounded himself with vigorous people who do listen to him. Mikhail isn’t domineering. That’s what he’s got me for.

“Back before all this, before the Ring of Fire, I was a football jock. Not the sort of thing that shy and retiring folks go in for. I may not be as smart as Mikhail Romanov. I’m certainly not as smart as Natasha, or most of the people I know. But I know how to rush a quarterback.”

Pavel was looking at Bernie in confusion. So were the rest of them. Oddly enough, the only person in the room who wasn’t, was Simeon Budanov.

“That’s the game that Sterns’ brother-in-law played, isn’t it? The one who scares the crap out of German mercenaries.”

“Yep.” Bernie didn’t play a lineman like Tom Simpson, and he hadn’t made it into college, but Budanov didn’t need to know that. “Now, we are going to need access to everything Nikola Vetrov was working on, especially the Russia China Railroad.” Bernie watched Simeon’s face as he mentioned the railroad. Yes. It wasn’t surprise. It was fear he was seeing on Simeon’s face. Simeon knew about the railroad project. That only left the question: why the hell hadn’t Mikhail?

“Railroad?”

“Yes, the proposed railroad that will go through the Kazak Khanate from Ufa to northwest China. Czar Mikhail isn’t thrilled that Pavel here learned about it before he did, but he’s glad that the cops, at least, decided to share the information.”

Simeon professed his complete ignorance and promised complete access. Bernie didn’t buy either the ignorance or the idea that the access would be complete.  But there wasn’t much more they could get from Simeon right now.

So, after getting Simeon to publicly inform everyone they had full access, they let him get back to spying, and they started going through Vetrov’s notes. Well, Maksim started going through Vetrov’s notes and files. Pavel wasn’t really literate, and Miroslava was just becoming so. Bernie was literate, but Russian was his second language, so he struggled with it. And none of them spoke Kazak or Chinese.

✽✽✽

Kirill Blinov had a distinctively oriental cast to his features. He had a round face, a wispy black goatee, and more than a hint of an epicanthic fold on his eyelids. He was five feet six inches tall, which put him in the size range of the killer, and he didn’t seem overly upset by the fact that his boss was dead. He was also the only person in the Ufa Kremlin who could read Chinese. Probably the only person in Ufa. He was the son of a Russian merchant and his Chinese wife.

And he was the number one suspect for the murder of Vetrov in Pavel’s mind. He was also a friendly and engaging man, and seemed quite willing and helpful.

“What can you tell me about the railroad?” Pavel asked as Maksim, with Bernie and Miroslava looking over his shoulder, read through the files in Vetrov’s cabinet.

“It’s an opium dream,” Kirill said in accented Russian. “Even if the khan can get the right of way, it’s going to take years to build and the Kazak’s relations with their eastern neighbors aren’t great.

“But Vetrov was going to get rich selling stock in the project.” Kirill shook his head in disgust.

“What else was he working on?”

“The silk trade and the tea trade mostly, and Russian furs being exported to China. Lately, we were working on trying to develop markets for freeze-dried and canned foods made in Nizhny Novgorod being shipped to China as foreign delicacies. Oh, and cameras. We can make those now, though the cellulose-based film is still pretty basic. And, of course, it has to be shipped back here to the Dacha to be processed. But that’s a good thing.”

For the next several hours as Maksim, Bernie, and Miroslava went over the books, Pavel questioned Kirill, nominally about what Vetrov was up to, but he also learned that Kirill had at least a shaky alibi for the time of the murder. He was home with his wife. It was better than nothing, but the assumption was that a wife would lie to protect her husband if necessary.

All in all, Pavel found it a frustrating day.

Location: Ufa Kremlin, Czar Mikhail’s Office

Bernie was shown into the czar’s private office by a secretary. The czar was again having tea, and again Bernie shook his head at the czar’s offer. “So, Bernie, how was your day?”

“Frustrating. There are a few possible suspects in the embassy bureau, but no solid leads. And Miroslava doesn’t think that the murder had anything to do with the railroad.”

“What’s going on with the railroad?”

“Nothing!” Bernie said disgustedly. “Best we can tell, in spite of what Vetrov was telling his investors, he hadn’t cleared any of it with Salqam-Jangir Khan. And, though a couple of his people may have been in on the scam, there are no agreements in place.”

“Damn. That’s inconvenient.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s a very good idea, even if it takes a decade or more to do,” Mikhail said. “Look, we leak that we have an agreement to build the railroad and word gets back to Moscow. That makes us seem stronger. The same is true for Shein and for the Cossacks. To the boyars back in Moscow . . . pride in Russia is what rules them. The notion that we could become real competition for something like the USE? That’s enough to give every boyar in Moscow a hard on.”

Bernie still wasn’t really used to the seventeenth century’s casual vulgarity. As long as you left God out of it, you could say anything. And they did. “And that, in turn, strengthens you and weakens Sheremetev. So you’re planning to run the same scam as Vetrov?”

“Not a scam. The railroad will get built, just not next week. But I can’t do it without getting Jangir’s approval, and he left two days ago to go back to his capital. The Dzungars are making trouble, or at least noise.”

“So send a dispatch rider after him.”

“I have. I wish Vladimir had brought more tubes.”

“How’s our tube factory going?”

“We’re ahead of the original Dacha on that one. Along with the tubes, Valdimir managed to bring detailed instructions on their production. We have a couple of working tests and we’ll be in production in another few months.”

They went on talking about Russia and its political and technological future for another half hour or so. Then they called it a day and went home.

Location: Room 22B, Ufa Dacha
Date: May 11, 1637

Miroslava arrived home about six in the evening. I put away my work and we went downstairs to the dining hall for dinner. It was venison stew with a lot of cabbage, fresh baked black bread, and ice cream sweetened and flavored with vanilla.

For most of dinner, we talked about the continuing problems with putting a steam engine in an airplane, even an airplane as large as the Jupiter 4, which was what we were copying. An airplane developed in Grantville and sold to the Dutch, the plans of which had been, ah, liberated from the Dutch by an agent of the embassy bureau working for Vladimir Gorchakov. Good progress was being made on the airframe, but the engines were proving a challenge.

After dinner, we went back to our rooms, and we talked about Miroslava’s case. She told me about the railroad, and how Pavel was convinced that the railroad provided motive, even though it wasn’t real.

“Not real yet,” I told her.

“What? You think they will actually build the thing? Kirill Blinov called it an opium dream.”

“No. Even if it were an opium dream, which it’s not, it would still be a motive. Because if he was selling stock in a company that didn’t have the right of way it needed to build the railroad, the buyers would have plenty of reason to be angry. And in any case, the people who were left out of the deal had reason to be jealous and angry.”

“Why do you say it’s not an opium dream?” Miroslava asked me, taking off her outer dress and stretching.

It took me a moment to get my mind back to her question and, from her smile, she didn’t mind. “We can build steam engines in Ufa. We already are. We can build boilers and condensers. It’s fitting the condensers into an airplane we’re having trouble with. Steam-powered locomotives to pull trains fall well within our capabilities. And we have wood, Miroslava—” I waved out through the walls at the forest that surrounds Ufa. “—for fuel and rails. It can be done. Not quickly or cheaply, but it can be done.”

Then it hit me. The airplane project was even more important for Russia. Even if the railroad was built, it would take years. But an air route to China using airports in the Kazakh Khanate could begin operations as soon as we had the planes for it. The same was true of dirigibles, but I didn’t have nearly as much faith in dirigibles as I had had  prior to some of them crashing and burning before they had paid for themselves. “Airplanes could be going to China in a year or less.”

“No!” Miroslava told me. “My turn. We talked about your day at dinner. Tell me why Pavel insists that it was a man from the embassy bureau? It was a woman unless Nikola Vetrov liked boys. And I am pretty sure it was in self defense.”

“Why?”

“It was the bedsheets. I told you!”

“What about the bedsheets? You said they were linen, good quality, and that they were rumpled. But what does that mean?”

“It was the way they were rumpled. Vasilii, I have seen a lot of rumpled bedsheets, and the way those were rumpled tells me that someone either jumped onto the bed or was thrown onto it. I thought it when I first saw the room and when I talked to Tatiana, she confirmed that Vetrov liked rough sex. The other person in that room was thrown onto the bed. The broken glass . . . There was a fight and a rape, or an attempted rape. I don’t know whether it was because the prostitute wasn’t paid or if he got too rough, but she said no, and he tried to force her. Would have too, if she hadn’t had or found a gun, because he was much bigger and stronger than she was.”

I considered what she had said. I know that Miroslava was sold to a brothel at a young age, and I know that that, combined with her unique way of looking at the world, gives her a strange view of sex and a great deal of knowledge of beds mussed in that way.

“What makes you think it was a prostitute?”

“Who else would be in his room?”

“An investor, a female friend, the maid? It is a hotel, after all. There would be a maid to change the sheets and tidy up the room.”

Miroslava looked at me strangely when I said female friend. Truthfully, the female friend was a bit of a stretch, based mostly on my reading of up-timer books. In Russia in the seventeenth century, women didn’t go to men’s rooms by themselves. Investor was less unlikely, even a female investor, but a woman would have had a companion of some sort. That just left the maid.

“What about the maid?” I asked and, for a moment, I thought Miroslava was going to get up, put her outer dress back on, and go seek out the maid right now. But she didn’t. Instead she smiled at me, and waved for me to join her.

And the rest of what happened that night is really no one else’s business.

 

Location: Hotel Turkovich, Staff Rooms
Date: May 12, 1637

It didn’t occur to Miroslava to take an escort. So she arrived at the hotel early in the morning, by herself, and asked the manager to let her speak with the maid for Nikola Vetrov’s room. It was at that moment that Miroslava realized that bringing backup might have been a good idea.

“What? No! The maid has other work. Go away.”

Miroslava started to turn away to go to police headquarters and collect Pavel and a couple of beat cops, when the manager reached across the counter and grabbed her arm. It was early, and only she and the manager were in the lobby. He was also desperate and at least as afraid as Miroslava was. She could tell that readily. That didn’t make her feel safe. In her life, Miroslava had seen a number of people killed and the killer was almost always as frightened as the victim.

“You said to go away,” Miroslava said. “Let go of my arm and I will go away.” This man wasn’t the killer. He was too tall. Five eleven and thin, with long arms and surprisingly strong hands.

“What are you going to do? This is none of your business. I heard the cops. You’re nothing but a dancer at the Happy Bottom.”

“I am a resident of the Dacha and a consulting detective for the police.” Miroslava knew perfectly well that a dancer at the Happy Bottom was someone who could be killed and buried in a ditch without anyone important paying any attention. But a resident of the Dacha and Consulting Detective? That was the sort of person whose disappearance brought down heat.

Unfortunately, the consulting detective part also meant that if you had something to hide from the police, you didn’t want them talking about it.

He kept hold of her arm and pulled her along the counter to the gate, then dragged her behind it, through a door, and down a short hall to a small room. The room had no windows and two beds. It had a door much like the door to Nikola Vetrov’s room with the same locking bar. He threw Miroslava at one of the beds and pulled the door closed with a bang.

Now Miroslava noticed the locking mechanism wasn’t the same. Both were wood bars about an inch thick that were held in place by wooden brackets attached to the door and doorframe, but her captor locked the door by sliding the bar. And there were no semi-circular scratches on the doorframe or door above the locking bar. And she remembered that there was a blocking piece on Vetrov’s door. He couldn’t unlock the door by sliding the bar.

From the beginning, Miroslava’s plan had been to first find the killer, then ask them how it happened that the door was locked from the inside. Now she thought she wouldn’t need to. Though, this man’s wife . . . no, two beds, and he was at least forty . . . probably daughter, would need to explain what happened.

“Killing me won’t protect your daughter.”

“Shut up. Just shut up. I need to think.”

I need a gun, Miroslava thought, something small and light that I can hide.  She looked around the room. It was small, and not well lit. While the guest rooms had the Coleman style lanterns and windows with glass in them, these rooms had no windows and the older wick lamps without even a glass chimney. The beds were hay-filled sacks on low platforms, and the whole room was less than half the size of Vetrov’s.

“Do all the guest room doors have the locking bars modified the way Vetrov’s was, or did he do his special?”

“What? What are you talking about? What does Vetrov’s door have to do with anything?”

“Not much, I suspect,” Miroslava said, “but it looked like it did.”

He leaned against the door and stared in confusion at Miroslava on his daughter’s bed. Confusion was good. It was better than fear by a long shot.

“Why do you want to talk to Melica?”

“To confirm. I thought it was a bar girl, but I guess this is a full service hotel.”

“Melica is not like you. She’s a good girl.”

That was anger. Not good. Anger and fear were things she didn’t want this man feeling. It was also a bit of a surprise. Russia wasn’t the England of Miss Marple, where a girl’s “goodness” was focused on her virginal status. But maybe it was in this family? Russia, after all, wasn’t all one thing and everyone in Russia didn’t think the same way. If anyone should know that, it was Miroslava, who thought like no one else she’d ever heard of until she read—or more accurately, had been read to—about autism or spectrum disorder. “I wasn’t condemning her or you. And I don’t think she did anything wrong, but I need to talk to her to understand what happened.”

“Didn’t do anything wrong?” the man shouted. “She killed him.”

“I thought so,” Miroslava said. “I want to know the details of how it happened.”

“Who else knows?”

“Ah . . .” Miroslava stopped. She wasn’t a skilled liar. It wasn’t something that she could do at all unless forced. And she’d never been able to do it convincingly. Back at the Happy Bottom, it was mostly some other girl who did the talking. Which meant that Miroslava got smaller tips. And here, there wasn’t anyone telling her what she had to say.

What she wanted to say was “Just me” because that was the truth. Vasilii would suspect, if she disappeared. If Pavel had any clue what she suspected, Melica, her dad, and the rest of the staff of the hotel would be being questioned. Not rigorously questioned, but questioned and their answers compared to get to Melica, who might well be rigorously questioned. After all, Vetrov was an important person. And Melica, “good girl” or not, wasn’t. And when unimportant people killed important people, justified or not, the cops wanted someone to blame.

And that was why Miroslava had come here alone. Because if it turned out, as it apparently had, that the maid killed Vetrov, she hadn’t decided yet if she was going to tell the cops. After all, while she wasn’t any good at lying, she was very good at keeping her mouth shut. Let the case remain unsolved. That wouldn’t help her reputation any, but she didn’t care that much about her reputation. She did care some, because if the cops didn’t call her in she wouldn’t have mysteries to solve and she liked solving mysteries, just like Sherlock.

All those thoughts flitted through her mind in moments. And what finally came out was, “I haven’t decided whether to tell the cops yet. That’s why I need to talk to your daughter. To understand exactly what happened, so that I can decide.”

“But if you disappear . . .” Melica’s father, whose name Miroslava didn’t know, said desperately.

“It might buy you a little time, but not much. And it would be murder, not self defense.” She looked at the man. “Are you willing to murder me?”

“I have to protect my daughter.”

“Then let me talk to her.”

“Why should I trust you?”

That was a very good question, and Miroslava didn’t have a very good answer. She knew he could trust her at least not to turn over Melica if it was self defense, not unless she had some way of protecting the girl from the USSR’s legal system. Because, even if under The USSR’s laws, everyone was, in theory, treated equally, Miroslava knew it wasn’t true in fact. “Because it’s your best option, your best chance of saving your daughter.” It was true, but would he believe her?

As she watched the man out of the corner of her eye, she thought he might, not because he trusted her, but because, now that he was thinking, not reacting in terror, he was unwilling to kill her in cold blood.

He was still dithering, but Miroslava didn’t think he was going to try to choke her to death. Then there was a knock on the door.

“Papa? Why aren’t you at the desk? Are you all right? Mister Gorelov wants his tickets. What tickets?”

“Let me talk to Melica while you go take care of Mister Gorelov’s tickets.”

✽✽✽

Papa, whose name Miroslava still didn’t know, was seeing to the tickets and Miroslava was looking at a girl of about fifteen or sixteen, whose face looked like a raccoon right now, complete with the double black eyes and a nose that should be rebroken and set if the girl was ever going to look right or breath properly again. That it was self defense was obvious.

“Tell me from the beginning. How did you come to be in his room?”

“I was bringing the new bowl for the water chair.” Another piece of furniture in the room was a toilet which consisted of a wooden chair with a double hinged top. The whole top could be lifted to put the lid on the porcelain pot. The smaller lid was put down to place the bottom in the right place to do their business. The lid to the pot kept the odors from filling the room, and prevented slopping when the bowl was replaced on a daily basis. It was standard fare in the better hotels, and one of the chambermaid’s jobs was to collect up the old ones and place the new ones each day.

“Very well. What happened first?

“Well, I’d put the old bowl on the cart.”

“No. From the beginning. Was the door open?”

“No. I knocked and Mister Vetrov said come in, so I tried to pull the door open, but it was locked. I said ‘the door’s latched’ and he said ‘wait a minute.’ Then there were noises and he opened the door. The cart doesn’t fit through the doors very well, so I usually just go in and fetch the old pot and put it on the cart, then bring the new pot into the room.”

“And this time?”

“Just like always. I checked and it was used, so I took it to the cart and got the new one. I put it in the chair and was going to leave, but Mister Vetrov had pulled the door closed. He was standing there by the door with a glass of vodka in his hand. And he was grinning at me. He said ‘Have a drink,’ and pushed the glass at me. I shook my head and backed away.

“He followed me, pushing the glass at me, and I kept backing up. Papa doesn’t even like it when I drink small beer.”

“Go on,” Miroslava said, confused again by the father’s attitude.

“He had me backed into a corner, and was pushing the glass into my face, and I could smell the vodka from the glass and on his breath. He’d been drinking a lot, and I batted the glass away. It fell on the floor and broke.

“He grinned then, and said he was going to have to punish me for breaking his glass. I tried to get by him, and he hit me in the face.” She pointed to her broken nose.

“Everything got all blurry for a few minutes, but he threw me onto his bed and went back to the sideboard to get another drink.

“I tried to get up, but my head hurt and I fell back on the bed. And he came over. He grabbed me, he ripped open my shirt, and fell on top of me. I tried to get away, and my hand found the gun under his pillow. It was one of the new pistols, but I didn’t know that. All I knew was that it was something hard. I pulled it out from beneath the pillow and I hit him with it.”

“Where?”

“I don’t know. The head or maybe his shoulder. I was just trying to get away. Anyway, he reared back and I rolled off the bed onto the floor, then scrambled away.”

So far this was fitting, but from the wound and the bullet in the wall, Miroslava knew that the gun was shoulder high on Melica when Vetrov was shot. It wasn’t fired by anyone crawling on the floor. She nodded for Melica to continue.

“He was trying to get up. I don’t know if it was because I hit him in the head or because he was drunk, but he fell back on the bed and I got up. Then he shouted ‘Hey, that’s my gun. You give that back,’ and he got up. I turned to face him and I held up the gun, to try and get him to back up. But he just kept coming and, well, the gun went off, and he looked at me, and staggered after me. I turned and ran for the door. I don’t know how I got the latch open, but I pushed open the door. I didn’t want him chasing me, so I slammed it closed and leaned against it to keep it closed. I heard a thump, but it wasn’t against the door. I would have felt that.”

It fit the facts. When Melica leaned against the door, it let the locking bar fall into place, latching the door from the inside. In a way, Pavel was right about the too clever by half embassy bureau spy. But the too clever spy was Vetrov himself. And he wasn’t trying to obscure his murder. He was trying to hide his key.

It was actually quite a clever trick. How do you pick a lock that you don’t know is there? Unlike the normal locking bars in the hotel, Vetrov’s was hinged on the door side so that it rotated up. That caused the marks scratched in the door and door frame. It had to be tight or it wouldn’t stay up while you were closing the door. Miroslava imagined that Vetrov had to jiggle his door a bit to get the bar to fall into place, and to open it, he just slid a knife in under the bar and lifted.

“Anyway,” Melica said, “I stood there for a bit with my back pushed up against the door, and he didn’t bang into it to force it open and, well, I was scared. I didn’t know what to do and I felt . . . I don’t know what I felt. But I put the gun in the chamber pot and, holding my blouse closed with one hand, I pushed the cart back down the hall.”

“Why didn’t the police notice your face when they fingerprinted you?”

“It was the next day. The bleeding had stopped, but the bruise hadn’t turned color. My face was just a bit red. It didn’t start to look like this until last night. That’s when Papa realized that something had happened and made me tell him.”

“And what did you do with the gun?”

“It was still in the chamber pot when I emptied it into the big barrel out back to go to the chemical plant.”

“Have they been by to collect it yet?”

“No. They come by tomorrow.”

Normally, Miroslava would go see Pavel, and Pavel would assign a beat cop to go through the big barrel of crap. But if she did that, the cops would want to know how she knew where the gun was. And tomorrow, when the people from the chemical plant started their sorting process separating out the various useful bits, they would find the gun and that would point right back at Melica. All of which meant that Miroslava was going to have to go dig through a big barrel of shit to find the gun. And she had to do it before the chemical plant people came by in the morning to fetch it.

Ufa, almost from the beginning, had had strict and rigorously enforced rules about sanitation. And these days those rules were aided by the fact that the chemical plant paid for the crap and urine. Not much, but for a business like the hotel, it helped.

“I’m going to need a pitchfork.”

“Why?”

“Because if that gun is found in your barrel, it’s going to lead right back to you. I need to fish it out of the barrel.”

✽✽✽

Out behind the hotel, with a three-tined pitchfork in hand, Miroslava pulled open the lid of the chest-high wide barrel. It didn’t smell good, but Miroslava was used to bad smells and wasn’t overly bothered. She lowered the pitchfork into the barrel and searched for something hard. It wasn’t that difficult to find. The barrel was only about three-quarters full. However, getting the pitchfork under the gun wasn’t easy because the angle was wrong.  Eventually, she managed to push the gun up against the side of the barrel and wedged it between the pitchfork and the side of the barrel, and lifted it up the side. She only dropped it twice before she got it up out of the muck and then she had to grab it with her bare hand because it was about to fall again. A bucket of water to rinse off the gun, her hands, and the pitchfork left them, if not clean, at least closer to it.

With the gun wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper, Miroslava departed, still unsure what to do about Melica.