Here it comes. There. Now. Hold it.
Gregori Nowek felt the violin take over and sing with its own voice as the last notes of the Khachaturian adagio radiated from his fingers and melted into the kitchen walls. Water trembled in a glass as he drew the bow. Look up and see Nina's photograph on the wall. Admit it: it wasn't just a picture. It was a shrine.
Half the bow is gone. The E flat note is endless. He's not even sure he's making it. The sound creates itself. It resonates everywhere. It fills his ears. But not his eyes.
The photo. Nina sits surrounded by sunflowers, their radiant heads bowed low with late summer fullness. They seem interested in what she's about to say. She smiles, one hand to sweep back an unruly lock of hair. Nina, his wife, so he ought to know. Wait! Let me straighten this first!
But there's nothing.
The note nears its end. It's 1997 and Nina's three years dead. Nowek closed his eyes and pressed the violin to his cheek. The polished wood tickles his sparse beard. There. Ready? End it. Now.
The E flat echoed through him for a few seconds and then faded. The adagio from the great Gayne
ballet had been Nina's favorite short piece. He'd played it well. Not perfectly.
Long ago his teacher cautioned that striving for perfection was the surest way to kill beauty. In real beauty there is always something wrong. Thus, he used to say to Nowek, it can be proven that life in Russia is more beautiful than any other place.
His father had a different view. He'd said that life is different, but the violin never betrays you. The more you give to it, the more it gives back. He also told Nowek that making your living grinding horsehair on stretched gut demanded an excellent ear and a highly developed sense of the absurd.
It wasn't so different being mayor of Markovo.
As he snapped the velvet-lined case on the instrument, the telephone hanging on the kitchen wall jangled.
He picked it up. "Ya sluchayu."
"Grisha!" It was Arkady Volsky, the presidential representative down in Irkutsk. He'd once been a coal miner. He still shouted as though yelling "FIRE IN THE HOLE!" down an open shaft. As Moscow's official watchdog for the state of Irkutsk, a loud voice still came in handy. "I'm interrupting you?"
"No." He looked at his watch. Nearly eight. "Not now. What is it, Arkasha? My driver will be here any second."
"That's good because I need you to go somewhere this morning. You've heard about Andrei Ryzkhov?"
"What about him?"
"He's dead. Murdered. It happened last night. There's still some confusion."
"Over whether he's dead?" Mafiyas,
"Funny. Two of your militia were also killed."
Two more. He didn't have any militia to spare. Finding men willing to work for rubles was hard. Finding men willing to risk their lives for them was impossible. "What happened?"
"I'm working from a very sketchy report. Last night sometime. You can find out yourself when you go."
"He lived in Rossinka. Understand, with a name like Ryzkhov there will be demands for a thorough investigation. His father was one of Stalin's aides. People still know the name and I mean in Moscow, not Markovo. It can't be dealt with in the conventional manner."
"My two men. Do they also have names?"
"Gorits was one. I don't know the other. Imagine, a chornye
on the militia," said Volsky. It meant "black," the name used for all Chechens.
Nowek knew Gorits. He had a family with young children.
"You know what they say, scratch a chornye
and find a thief. Why else would he be at Ryzkhov's flat? Anyway, you can make your own determinations. We want you to take on the investigation. You know why."
"Actually, I don't." Actually, he did. The general of the Markovo militia had been killed in a recent mafiya
shootout. General Skhurat had never been replaced. "Send me a new general for my militia," said Nowek. "I'll put him to work."
"I can't. That's Gromov's job. All I can give you is a good reason. AMR. Do these letters mean something?"
"AmerRus." The joint venture operation drilling the Tunguska oil fields. "Ryzkhov was connected with them? How?"
"The way a tick is connected with a vein. The Americans are very important to our economy. To Markovo's even more. We can't afford to scare them off. Ryzkhov's murder could have broad effects."
"It's probably a mafiya
"Maybe, maybe not. AMR's made a lot of promises to Moscow. I'm speaking now of hard currency promises. We can't allow something like this to get in the way."
"And there's the question of your two men. You'll want this matter resolved for their sakes. You'll want to know the truth, won't you?"
"I'm not so sure."
"Don't play games. You're asking for a bribe?"
"I'm asking for a reason. I don't know Ryzkhov. Just his reputation. He lived in Rossinka. It's expensive. You say he worked with AmerRus?"
"Excellent! You'll keep me informed?"
"Arkasha, there's nothing to inform you about."
"That's where you come in." Volsky hung up.
Nowek stood there as the wood stove clicked, the iron crystals changing from one phase state to another, contracting along their geometric fault planes as the metal cooled.
He hung the phone back up.
Three murders. The Gayne
adagio had been a good choice for his morning's practice. Tchaikovsky was for life, Mendelssohn for hope, Sibelius for madness, and Elgar for despair. But dark, oriental Khachaturian of the flashing sabers and pounding tempos was made to order when it came to killing.
Andrei Ryzkhov. An entrepreneur. Live by the dollar, die by the dollar. But his two men, that was a different situation entirely. Unless, of course, it wasn't. More than a few of his militia had taken jobs in private security. Jobs that paid. Maybe these two had done it with their uniforms still on. Or tried to. A disagreement over a bribe? Possibly.
He glanced at his watch. Seven-fifty.
Nowek gave a quick, disapproving look at the dead cigarette sitting on the edge of the scarred table. His daughter had already left for school, leaving a dirty coffee cup, a half pack of Yavas, and an American fashion magazine. Cosmopolitan.
A woman with flaming red hair was on the cover. She wore a scornful expression and some kind of cloth tied over her impossible breasts. The coffee cup had left a ring around the model's head, turning her into a kind of icon, a saint.
Galena. Who was it this time? A visiting official? An American Baptist missionary? An oil worker with cowboy boots? It had to be someone big to make her forget her cigarettes and her Cosmopolitan.
When had he last seen her without a curl of smoke rising from her slender fingers?
He stuffed the box of Yavas in his pocket and grabbed his jacket. It was a peculiar shade of green that nearly matched his pants. He wore a dark shirt and a darker tie. With the thin beard he'd grown it was almost gangsterish. But then, looking like mafiya
was protective coloration these days.
He walked to the front door. Passing a small alcove, he gave a quick, guilty look at his set of weights. Dusty. He had plenty of time for exercise, and no interest. The results were evident: the roll of flab at his waist, his thin arms, the slack way his suit hung like sails on an airless day.
The weights were from another, better time. Nowek made them from short lengths of eight-centimeter pipe with massive oil-well drill bits threaded onto each end. The bits weighed twenty kilos each and looked like electron photographs of a worm's mouth; gaping jaw, flared throat, and prominent rasping teeth, though these teeth were worn badly. Drilling into Siberia's granite shield up at Samotlor was hell on bits. It had been the same for the crews.
He stopped at the front hall and looked through the small, triple-glazed window. Outside, the sun had burned its way through the white horizon. A steady drip of meltwater came from the eaves, bright diamonds in the sun. Nowek scored it to Vivaldi. The Quattro Stagione.
Springtime. Season of hope?
Maybe three years ago. Illusions were more real back then.
There was a mirror. Nowek faced the glass, squared the padded shoulders of his jacket, and straightened his tie.
Excerpted from Siberian Light by Robin White. . Excerpted by permission of Island Books, 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.