The arctic wind sliced through Ruzsky's thin woolen overcoat. His boots were damp and his toes numb with cold, but he was oblivious to everything except the frozen expanse before him.
All he could see was ice.
Ruzsky's heart was beating fast. He tried to place a foot on the ice, before shifting his weight back to the step. He looked down at his boots, but his vision was blurred. He fought to control his breathing. "Christ," he whispered. His first day back from exile and it would have to begin like this.
The constables were ahead of him, in the center of the frozen river Neva, illuminated by a ring of torches. The snowfall had tapered off through the night and the sky was now clear. The narrow spire of the Peter and Paul Cathedral on the far side of the river was bathed in moonlight.
There was a sudden flurry of movement, and a burly figure broke away from the group, the flame of his torch dancing as he walked. Ruzsky watched his partner stride toward him.
"You're waiting for an escort?" Pavel halted, one hand thrust deep into his pocket. Small crystals were lodged in his beard and along his drooping mustache.
"It's the ice?" They'd had to deal with a body on the ice once before, years ago, on a small lake outside the city.
Ruzsky cleared his throat. "No," he lied.
"It's January. The river's been frozen for months. If anyone was going to fall through, it would have been me," Pavel said, gesturing to his own girth.
Ruzsky stared at him. Pavel had a round face that exuded warmth even when he was frowning. He was right, of course.
"Oh, shit," Ruzsky muttered. He closed his eyes and stepped forward, trying to ignore the jolt of fear as his foot crunched down on the frozen surface.
"The city's bravest investigator, afraid of the ice," Pavel said. "Who would believe it?"
Ruzsky opened his eyes. They were walking forward briskly and he was starting to breathe more easily.
"I didn't mean that," Pavel said.
"I don't blame you, my old friend. You've barely been back twelve hours and look what it has delivered up to us." Pavel nodded in the direction of the Winter Palace. "And here, of all places."
They walked with their heads bowed against the damp, bitter wind that whistled in from the Gulf of Finland. It was several degrees colder out here on the river.
Ruzsky thrust his hands deep into his pockets. Only his head, beneath one of his father's old sheepskin hats, was warm.
Next to the bodies, the constables stood, smoking. They were dressed in long greatcoats and black sheepskin hats, the uniform of St. Petersburg's city police.
The woman was closest to Palace Embankment and lay on her back, long dark hair spread out around her head like a fan. "Torch." Ruzsky held up his hand.
One of the men marched forward. He couldn't have been older than seventeen or eighteen, with a pronounced nose, narrow eyes, and a nervous expression. He was lucky not to be fighting at the front, Ruzsky thought, as he took the torch and bent over the body of the woman. He got to his knees.
The victim was--or had been--pretty, though with poor skin. He removed one of his gloves and put his hand against her cheek. Her skin was frozen solid. Her face was almost peaceful as she stared up at the night sky. The fatal wound was to her chest, probably to her heart; he could see that she had lost a good deal of blood. He tried to ascertain exactly where she'd been stabbed, but her clothes were rigid and he decided to leave any further investigation to Sarlov.
Ruzsky's hand was already numb, so he put it back into his glove and thrust it into his pocket. He straightened again, looking at the gap between the two bodies. The area around them had been well trodden by the constables, so he could make no attempt to determine a pattern of events from the footprints. "Don't they teach them anything these days?" Ruzsky grumbled, gesturing with the torch at the trampled snow.
"It's good to have you back." Pavel offered him a flask.
Ruzsky shook his head. He walked around to the other body, the spitting of the flame and the crackle of his boots in the snow the only sounds above the whistle of the wind.
The man lay facedown, surrounded by a sea of crimson. He had bled like a fountain.
"Turn him over," Ruzsky said. Two of the constables moved forward and heaved the body onto its back.
Ruzsky breathed out.
"Holy Mother of God," Pavel said.
There were stab wounds to the man's chest and neck and face, one through his nose, and another peeling back his cheek.
"Who were they?" Ruzsky asked.
"I don't know."
"Have you checked their pockets?"
"Of course. Nothing, except this." Pavel handed over a roll of banknotes--small denomination Russian rubles.
"That's it? No identity papers?"
"Have you looked properly?"
"Of course I have."
Ruzsky bent down and pulled back the man's overcoat. He thrust a gloved hand into the inside pocket. It was empty. He straightened again and shoved the roll of rubles into his own coat. "The girl?"
"Any sign of a knife?"
"How far have you looked?"
"We were waiting," Pavel said slowly, "for you."
The constables started to move about again. "Stay where you are," Ruzsky instructed them. He walked back to the girl. As he looked down at her, he felt suddenly sober. She was young, probably no more than twenty; well dressed, too. They both were. It was difficult to be sure, but he didn't think she had been stabbed more than once. He looked across at the other body. They were about seven yards apart.
"You've checked all
of their pockets?"
"We'll have a look when we get them inside," Ruzsky said, mostly to himself. He didn't want to take his gloves off again out here.
Ruzsky looked up toward the Admiralty spire above Palace Embankment, and the golden dome of St. Isaac's Cathedral in the distance. They were in full view of the austere blue and white facade of the Tsar's Winter Palace, but at a distance of fifty yards or more. Pavel followed his gaze.
"Perhaps a servant saw something," Ruzsky said.
"Not if they were killed in the middle of the night."
"We should make it our first port of call."
"Of course. We'll get the Emperor out of bed."
Ruzsky didn't smile. They both knew the Tsar hadn't spent a night in the Winter Palace for years--not since the start of the war, at any rate.
Ruzsky raised the torch higher, then began walking again. "Tell them not to move, Pavel."
He walked slowly and carefully until he found the footsteps he was looking for, implanted in the thin layer of snow that covered the ice. He examined them for a moment, before returning to the bodies to check the size and shape of the victims' shoes.
Once he got away from the melee around the murder scene, Ruzsky found the trail easily enough. The couple had been walking close together, perhaps arm in arm. He followed their footprints for about twenty yards, then stopped, turned, and looked back at the scene of the crime. Pavel and the constables were watching him.
Ruzsky swung around ninety degrees, held the wooden oil flame torch in front of him, and began to walk in a wide circle around the bodies. He expected to encounter another set of footprints--or several--left by the killer, but there was nothing here except virgin snow.
Ruzsky returned to the orginal path and got down on his knees again. He looked carefully at the tracks, moving the torch closer to the ground, so that it hissed next to his ear.
He raised his hand. Pavel was marching out to meet him.
"You search like a hunter," Pavel said.
"I used to hunt wolves with my grandfather."
Ruzsky struggled to throw off the remains of his hangover.
"It's New Year," Pavel went on, "the couple are lovers out for a romantic stroll."
"Just the two of them, alone. They leave Palace Embankment, walking close together, arm in arm. They turn toward the Strelka, then gaze up at the stars above. The city has never looked more beautiful. Some bootlegged vodka perhaps, all troubles forgotten."
Ruzsky was now completely absorbed in his task, the fragility of the ice only a dim anxiety at the back of his mind, the biting cold a dull ache in his hands and feet and upon his cheeks.
He began to trace the victims' path backward once more, ignoring Pavel, who followed him in silence. It was not until they had almost reached the embankment that Ruzsky found what he was looking for.
The killer had followed the tracks of the dead man, both before and after he'd struck. Only at the very last moment, barely three yards from the embankment, had he lost patience and stepped outside them.
Ruzsky reached into his pocket, took out a cigarette case, and offered it to his colleague. He felt more confident within reach of the steps.
They lit up--no easy task with gloved hands numb with cold--and turned their backs against the wind. The smoke was pleasantly warm, but Ruzsky could still feel his temperature dropping. Perhaps he was just sobering up.
"They must have been lovers," Pavel said. "Their footsteps are close."
"Why doesn't the girl run?" Ruzsky asked.
"What do you mean?"
"How many times has the man been stabbed? Ten? Twenty? In his chest, his heart, his nose, his cheek. Does the girl just stand there watching?"
"Perhaps she knows her attacker."
"Mmm." Ruzsky stared out across the river.
"It was planned. She knew of it."
"Possibly." Ruzsky turned to his colleague. "But why did she have no idea that she was also to be a victim?"
Pavel shook his head. He flicked his cigarette high into the air and they heard it fizzle as it hit the ice.
Ruzsky gazed at a cloud passing across the face of the moon. A photographer walked over from the St. Peter and St. Paul Fortress. They watched as he prepared his camera and lined up the first shot. He bent down, his head beneath a cloth, and they saw a light flash. The noise--a dull thump--reached them a split second later.
"Were there any witnesses?" Ruzsky asked.
"Do you see any?"
"We should begin at the palace."
Pavel's expression told him he did not wish to go anywhere near the palace. "So I'm taking orders again?"
Ruzsky looked up sharply, then shook his head, embarrassed. "Of course not. I'm sorry."
Pavel smiled. "Better things return to the way they were. Welcome back, Chief Investigator."
Ruzsky met his affectionate gaze and tried to smile, but his frozen face wouldn't obey.
He reached into the pocket of his greatcoat for a notepad and pencil, then handed Pavel the torch and crouched down in the snow. He shakily traced the outline of one of the footprints the killer had left in front of the steps, then stared at it for a few moments. He stood and put his own boot alongside it. "About my size. A little bigger."
"Why didn't he go over to the Strelka?"
"The killer." Pavel gestured at the Winter Palace. "There are guards here, the road is busy. Much less chance of being seen if he'd gone on to Vasilevsky Island."
Ruzsky did not answer. He was staring at the group out on the ice, deep in thought.
"Oh, by the way," Pavel added. "New Year, New Happiness."
It was the traditional greeting for the first day of the year. "Yes," Ruzsky answered. "Quite."2
They climbed onto the embankment and approached the riverside entrance of the Tsar's Winter Palace.
Ruzsky stepped forward to knock on the giant green door. There was no answer, so he tried to look through the misted glass of the window to his right. He climbed up on a stone ledge to give himself a better view.
"Be careful or they'll shoot you," Pavel said.
A light was dimly visible in the hallway. There was little obvious security, but then it was well known that the Tsar and his family preferred their country palace outside the city at Tsarskoe Selo.
Ruzsky stepped forward and knocked once again. He glanced up at the light suspended on a long iron chain above him. As it swung slowly in the icy wind, its metal links creaked.
"This cannot be right," Pavel said.
"If anyone saw it, it will have been the guard here."
Pavel hesitated. "Let's go around to the office of the palace police at the front."
"Then we'll never find out who was on duty back here."
They waited, listening to the wind. Pavel forced his hat down upon his head. "Maybe it's colder than Tobolsk."
Ruzsky saw the guilt behind Pavel's uncertain smile. "It's the damp here," Ruzsky said. "You know how it is. In Siberia, it's a dry cold." Ruzsky wanted to assuage his friend's guilt, but did not know what else he could say. Pavel had been responsible for his exile, but Ruzsky did not hold it against him. In fact, far from it. The thought still filled Ruzsky with bitterness, as though it had happened yesterday.
Three years before, in the darkened, piss-strewn stairwell of a tenement building in Sennaya Ploschad, Ruzsky and Pavel had arrested a small-time landlord who'd assaulted and strangled the ten-year-old daughter of one of his poorer tenants. The man had not imagined the terrified mother would dare complain, but his insouciance as they led him down to the cells in the city police headquarters ought to have set their alarm bells ringing. Throughout that night, both Ruzsky and Pavel had struggled to retain their tempers as the fat, sweaty toad had drummed his pudgy fingers upon the table and answered their questions with a contemptuous insolence.
Pavel had a distinct intolerance for these crimes, and while Ruzsky was upstairs dealing with the paperwork, Pavel had decided to put the man into a cell with a group of armed robbers. He'd informed the men of the nature of their new companion's crime.
Ruzsky had no moral objection to this solution, but it had resulted in the world falling in upon their heads. The man turned out to have been the foreman of an arms factory over in Vyborg and, more damaging, an agent of the Okhrana--the Tsar's vicious secret police. Within a few hours of his lifeless body being dragged from the cell, the city police headquarters had been swarming with hard-faced Okhrana men in long black overcoats.
Excerpted from The White Russian by Tom Bradby. Copyright © 2003 by Tom Bradby. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.