Martin Cruz Smith

Stalin’s Ghost

The sixth book in the Arkady Renko series

For Knox and Kitty

PROLOGUE

Winter was what Muscovites lived for. Winter knee-deep in snow that softened the city, flowed from golden dome to golden dome, resculpted statues and transformed park paths into skating trails. Snow that sometimes fell as a lacy haze, sometimes thick as down. Snow that made sedans of the rich and powerful crawl behind snowplows. Snow that folded and unfolded, teasing the eye with glimpses of an illuminated globe above the Central Telegraph Office, Apollo’s chariot leaving the Bolshoi, a sturgeon sketched in neon at a food emporium. Women shopped amid the gusts, gliding in long fur coats. Children dragged sleds and snowboards, while Lenin lay in his mausoleum, deaf to correction, wrapped in snow.

And, in Arkady’s experience, when the snow melted, bodies would be discovered. In Moscow that was spring.

1

It was two in the morning, an hour that was both early and late. Two a.m. was a world to itself.

Zoya Filotova wore her black hair severely trimmed as if to defiantly display the bruise below her eye. She was about forty, Arkady thought, stylishly sinewy in a red leather pantsuit and a golden cross that was purely ornamental. She sat on one side of the booth, Arkady and Victor on the other, and although Zoya had ordered a brandy she had yet to touch it. She had long red fingernails and as she turned a cigarette pack over and over Arkady was put in mind of a crab inspecting dinner. The cafe was a chrome affair above a car wash on the beltway. No car washes tonight, not with snow falling, and the few cars that made it to the cafe were SUVs with four-wheel drive. The exceptions were Arkady’s Zhiguli and Victor’s Lada crouching in a corner of the lot.

Victor sipped a Chivas, just maintaining. Drinks were expensive and Victor had the patience of a camel. Arkady had a modest glass of water; he was a pale man with dark hair and the stillness of a professional observer. Thirty-six hours without sleep had made him more still than usual.

Zoya said, “My heart hurts more than my face.”

“A broken heart?” Victor suggested as if it were his specialty.

“My face is ruined.”

“No, you’re still a beautiful woman. Show my friend what else your husband did.”

The drivers and bodyguards who occupied stools along the bar were contemplative, cradling their drinks, sucking their cigarettes, keeping their balance. A couple of bosses compared Florida tans and snapshots of Sleeping Beauty. Zoya brushed the crucifix out of the way so she could unzip the top of her pantsuit and show Arkady a bruise that ran like a grape stain on the smooth plane of her breast.

“Your husband did this?” Arkady asked.

She zipped up and nodded.

“You’ll be safe soon,” Victor reassured her. “Animals like that should not be walking the street.”

“Before we married he was wonderful. I have to say even now that Alexander was a wonderful lover.”

“That’s natural,” Victor said. “You try to remember the good times. How long have you been married?”

“Three months.”

Would the snow ever end? Arkady wondered. A Pathfinder rolled up to a gas pump. The mafia was getting conservative; now that they had seized and established their separate territories they were defenders of the status quo. Their children would be bankers and their children would be poets, something like that. Count on it, in fifty years, a golden age of poetry.

Arkady rejoined the conversation. “Are you sure you want to do this? People change their minds.”

“Not me.”

“Maybe your husband will change his ways.”

“Not him.” She smiled with an extra twist. “He’s a brute. Now I don’t dare go to my own apartment, it’s too dangerous.”

“You’ve come to the right place,” Victor said and solemnized the moment with a sip. Cars droned by, each at a different pitch.

Arkady said, “We’ll need phone numbers, addresses, keys. His routine, habits, where he hangs out. I understand you and your husband have a business near the Arbat.”

“On the Arbat. Actually, it’s my business.”

“What sort?”

“Matchmaking. International matchmaking.”

“What is the company’s name?”

“Cupid.”

“Really?” That was interesting, Arkady thought. A quarrel in Cupid’s bower? “How long have you had this business?”

“Ten years.” Her tongue rested for a moment on her teeth as if she were going to say more and changed her mind.

“You and your husband both work there?”

“All he does is stand around and smoke cigarettes and drink with his mates. I do the work, he takes the money and when I try to stop him, he hits me. I warned him, this was the last time.”

Victor said, “So now you want him…”

“Dead and buried.”

“Dead and buried?” Victor grinned. He liked a woman with zeal.

“And never found.”

Arkady said, “What I need to know is how you knew to go to the police to have your husband killed.”

“Isn’t that how it’s done?”

Arkady ceded her the point. “But who told you? Who gave you the phone number? It makes us nervous when an innocent citizen, such as yourself, knows how to reach us. Did you get our number from a friend or did a skywriter spell out Killers for Hire?”

Zoya shrugged. “A man left a message on my phone and said if I had a problem to call this number. I called and your friend answered.”

“Did you recognize the voice on the message?”

“No. I think it was a kind soul who took pity on me.”

“How did that kind soul get your phone number?” Victor asked.

“We advertise. We give our number.”

“Did you save the message?”

“No, why would I want anything like that on my machine? Anyway, what does it matter? I can give you each two hundred dollars.”

“How do we know this isn’t a trap?” Arkady asked. “This phone thing bothers me. This could be a case of entrapment.”

Zoya had a throaty, smoker’s laugh. “How do I know you won’t simply keep the money? Or worse, tell my husband?”

Victor said, “Any enterprise demands a certain amount of trust on both sides. To begin with, the price is five thousand dollars, half before and half after.”

“I can get someone on the street to do it for fifty.”

“You get what you pay for,” Victor said. “With us, your husband’s total disappearance is guaranteed and we’ll handle the investigation ourselves.”

“It’s up to you,” Arkady emphasized. “Your decision.”

“How will you do it?”

Victor said, “The less you know about that the better.”

Arkady felt he had a front row seat to the snow, to the way it tumbled in foamy waves over parked cars. If Zoya Filotova could afford an SUV, she could pay five thousand dollars to eliminate her husband.

“He’s very strong,” she said.

“No, he’ll just be heavy,” Victor assured her.

Zoya counted out a stack of much-handled American bills, to which she added a photograph of a man in a bathrobe at the beach. Alexander Filotov was alarmingly large, with long, wet hair and he was showing the camera a beer can he had apparently crushed with one hand.

“How will I know he’s dead?” Zoya asked.

Victor said, “We’ll give you proof. We take a picture.”

“I’ve read about this. Sometimes so-called killers use makeup and catsup and pretend the ‘victim’ is dead. I want something more solid.”

There was a pause.

“More solid?” asked Victor.

“Something personal,” Zoya said.




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