You looking at me?

Conversation among Trees

Long Night, Chapter Ten

Long Night, Chapters One- Seven  Long Night, Chapter Eight   Long Night, Chapter Nine

Copyright 2020, all rights reserved.

Chapter Ten: Sharlotta and Fanya

As they walked downstairs to the Acme offices, Slava said “Before we talk to the secretary, I think we should have a plan.  She might be involved in whatever got him killed.” Roza replied “What if we just do the sympathy bit?  I’ll talk to her gently and explain that we need to temporarily relocate her to a vacant office and that we’ll come back tomorrow or the next day ‘when she’s over the shock’ to question her.  You can watch how she reacts and stay behind to confiscate the computer while she packs up stuff to move out of the office.”  “Sounds good.”

Roza and Slava knocked at the door of Acme and went in without waiting for an answer.  The room was about 15 feet square and mostly occupied by two desks on either side and filing cabinets lined up against the wall like sentries.  The windows were on the right and Viktor’s desk was by the window. Okay, thought Roza.  Viktor preferred light, even if it was colder when the wind came through the cracks.  The desk on the left side of the room faced the door.  Behind it sat a young woman of about 25.  When they entered she was bent over, but quickly sat up and started talking.  “Oh, I’m so glad you’re here. It’s awful; who could do this to Viktor?  I’m sorry I was just – I was at lunch and I was just taking off my boots and then” She indicated a pair of black leather boots with spike heels.  “Have you been upstairs yet? What is it like?  I don’t know what to — ”

Roza moved to take charge of the situation before the young woman babbled all morning.  “Hello, I’m Detective Roza Kozlov, and this is Detective Slava Egorov.  We’re very sorry for your loss and we won’t take up much of your time.  Right now we need to ask you to move to another space for the moment, because this office is a crime scene.  The room across the hall is empty.  I’m afraid it’s standard procedure that someone will need to stay with you while you move the essentials across the hall.  Then Slava will take Viktor’s computer back to the police station for examination.  Tomorrow or the next day we will need to talk to you, after you’ve recovered from this shocking event.  Oh, excuse me.  I just realized we don’t know your name.”

“Sharlotta.”  The woman was silent a moment.  “Okay, yes.  I will move.”  Roza noted Sharlotta’s appearance; she was blonde, of average height, with that small amount of body fat that probably bothered her a lot but that no one else would notice.  Roza was quite familiar with that phenomena, as she engaged in an ongoing struggle to lose five pounds that she had been assured were invisible to everyone but her.  Dating a baker didn’t help, she thought, and then returned to the situation at hand.  “Sharlotta,” she said, “as I said we will need to conduct a formal interview in the next few days.  But, for now, can you tell us the last time you saw Viktor?” “Um, yesterday? When I got here this morning, he had gone upstairs to the apartment where – where he was found.”  “Do you know why he was there?”  “Not really, but it was normal for him to check the guest apartment the week before we have a visitor, and we have a visit from the Central Auditor next week, I could check the schedule or maybe we should — ” She stopped talking.  “I can’t believe he’s gone,” she said softly.  “Okay,” said Slava.  He glanced at Roza.  It would be better if they did not ask any more substantive questions until they gathered more information.  If Sharlotta was implicated in some type of financial fraud, it would help they knew where the tricky spots were before they interviewed her.  “Roza is going now, but I’ll stay and help you move,” said Slava.  “Yes,” added Roza.  “We will see you again in a day or so.”

Roza was glad to get out of the gloomy building.  It was odd, she reflected, that the cold inside the building felt colder than the wind outside.  It was midday, and the sky overhead was a deep blue grey, allowing her to see down the street without relying on the lamps posted at 100 foot intervals.  She was not looking forward to informing Fanya Lebedev that he husband had been murdered.  Best to get it over with, she thought.  Maybe there would be time to stop at the bakery on the way back to the police station.

Viktor and Fanya Lebedev had an apartment on the first floor of a building close to downtown, as befitted Viktor’s status as a high-ranking administrator for an important company.  When Roza knocked at the door, it was answered by a small dark-haired woman of about 25.  Roza was momentarily startled; Viktor was over 40 and the woman seemed young to be his wife.  “Are you here to see Fanya?” the woman asked.  Roza could see that she was attractive, in a pixie way, but her looks were marred at the moment by red eyes and smeared mascara.  “Yes, is she here?” asked Roza.  “This way,” the woman answered, and led her into the next room.

Viktor must be wealthy, important, or both, thought Roza as they entered the living room. The living room not only had windows on two sides, but there was no sign that it doubled or tripled as a kitchen and dining area.  Fanya was on a couch by the windows.  She had one leg stretched out on an old fashioned hassock and the other curled under her.  She was bundled in a large woolen shawl, and Roza briefly reflected that a lace border would have been a good addition to the shawl.  Fanya looked to be in her late 30s, close to Viktor’s age.  Roza immediately thought of the phrase “faded red head” when she saw Fanya.  Her hair, which had obviously once been a vibrant red, was now duller with grey and brown hair mixed with the red.  Roza wondered briefly why Fanya did not, as so many others did, use dye to maintain the red.

Fanya seemed simultaneously frail and steely.  When she saw Roza, she sat up and put down her tea on a small table.  “Can I help you?”  she asked.  She clearly wanted to maintain control both of her emotions and of the situation.  “Please sit,” she added somewhat imperiously.  “Ms. Lebedev, you may know why I’m here,” she began awkwardly.  Roza had tried to prepare for the task of telling Fanya about her husband’s death; she had not anticipated that someone would have already informed her.  “Yes, I imagine you are here to discuss Viktor’s death,” replied Fanya calmly.  Her icy demeanor unnerved Roza, who reflected that even Viktor’s secretary had seemed more upset than his wife.  “I am, yes.  Has someone else been here to tell you – ”  “Tatiana came over as soon as the police released her,” said Fanya.  So, thought Roza, Tatiana who answered the door was the person who found Viktor’s body.  “Oh,” she said blankly.  “So, do you know – did you know – did Tatiana know? –”  Fanya rescued her.  “My husband and I both know Tatiana.  Her husband works for my brother.  I am disabled, as you see,” she went on, gesturing at her leg, “and Tatiana helps me by filling some of my prescriptions at the hospital where she works as a practical nurse.  She was dropping off a prescription with my husband when she . . . found him.”

Roza tried to process this barrage of possible connections.  Tatiana was a nurse at the hospital.  Tatiana’s husband worked for Fanya’s brother.  Tatiana was taking pills for Fanya to Viktor and found his body.  Something about this explanation bothered Roza, but she decided it would be better to follow the same approach that she and Slava had taken with Sharlotta, and postpone detailed questioning for a day or two.  She had no idea if this was what experienced homicide investigators usually did: what if it was important to talk to every one as soon as possible, before they could coordinate their stories?  On the other hand, they might only have one chance for an interview and if they took it too soon then they might not know what to look for.  Well, she decided, at any rate a formal interview would have to wait until Slava was with her.

“Ms. Lebedev, did Tatiana explain – did she know – has anyone told you that Viktor’s death does not appear to be the result of natural causes?”  “I gather that he was murdered,” Fanya responded flatly. They say to start with family members in an investigation, thought Roza, and Fanya’s weird lack of emotion did nothing to dissuade her from that approach.  “Yes.  I’m sorry that I can’t tell you more.  We will certainly keep you informed of the progress of our investigation.  Also, we will need to conduct an interview with both you and Tatiana in the next day or so.” Fanya’s face remained composed.  “It’s standard procedure,” Roza trailed off, wishing she could be gone from this apartment as soon as possible.  “So, um, we’ll be in touch about an interview, interviews, and again we are very sorry for your loss.  Uh, good afternoon ma’am.”  Not sounding very professional are we, thought Roza.  “Very well. Tatiana will show you to the door.”

Slava and Roza met at the police station an hour later.  Roza described her visit to Viktor’s apartment.  “She already knew that Viktor had been killed; the woman who found his body had rushed over to tell her.  Her name is Tatiana and I guess her husband works for Fanya’s brother or something.  They said Tatiana found Viktor when she went to the apartment to give him a prescription for Fanya, which makes about zero sense.  Another thing, she was an ice queen.  No tears, no emotion; you would think I was there to interview for a position as her housekeeper.  Honestly, she rattled me a little.”

Slava considered.  “Wait, this Tatiana picks up Fanya’s meds for her . . . and brings them to her husband?  I guess that could make sense – the hospital is much closer to Acme than to Viktor’s apartment.  But, speaking of apartments, why did she go there instead of the office?  Before we interview these two, let’s think about what to ask and how to ask it.”  “Gee, great idea,” said Roza rolling her eyes.  As she did so, it occurred to her that if Slava was the touchy type he wouldn’t appreciate her teasing, but really – think about “what to ask and how to ask it?”  To her relief, he laughed.  “Brilliant insight, am I right?” he said.  “You got the computer, right?  Did anything happen while you were in the office?” asked Roza.  “The computer’s here; I’ll start reviewing the files in a few minutes.  Sharlotta is moved across the hall.  I secured the office as a crime scene.”

“Did Sharlotta say anything interesting?” wondered Roza.  “I don’t think ‘interesting’ is her strong suit,” replied Slava.  “She’s awfully flirty though.”  Saying this, Slava rose from his chair and briefly mimed a woman mincing a few steps, hips swaying, before affecting a coquettish arch of the back that accentuated her attributes fore and aft, while asking “could you be a dear and help me reach this?”  Roza burst out laughing.  Slava was a great mimic; she could perfectly imagine Sharlotta’s silly behavior.  Slava flushed and sat down, fiddling with something on his desk, and Roza realized that this performance was not acting. The feminine postures came too naturally to him.  Well, I’ll be, she thought.  Two days and I’m learning his big secret, just like on American television. For if Slava was gay, he would certainly keep it a secret in this setting.  To put him at ease, she gave a campy stage wink with the traditional “zip it” gesture across her lips.  “Okay,” she said. “What’s next?” Slava looked relieved and grateful, as they turned to planning their next steps.

 

Sherry Baby

Yeah, I’m old enough to remember when this came out, but ACTUALLY, if you listen to it, he’s a really good singer.

Long Night, Chapter Nine

Long Night, Chapters One- Seven

Long Night, Chapter Eight

I posted this before editing, oops.  I’m posting it again.

Copyright 2020, all rights reserved.

Chapter Nine: Murder!

The next morning Roza arrived at work a little early, in order to review the file about the anonymous phone call.  The transcript indicated that the caller was a woman who said that she “was calling to report missing girl” described as “7 years old, blonde, and she came on the plane yesterday.” That matched the height of the fluttering scarf that Roza had noticed in a tunnel.  The call had come in two days ago, which meant this was the third day that the child was missing.  Roza tried not to think about the grisly possibilities or to imagine Savina in such a situation.  There were unanswered questions, beyond the basic fact of a missing child.  The only way for a person to arrive in Norilsk was by plane.  They would need to check at the airport and see if the passenger manifests showed any children on board.  Then they would go to the abandoned apartment from which the call was made and see if anyone was there who could shed light on the situation.

When Slava got to the station, they plotted out their activities for the day.  They decided to first go to the apartment building together, because the abandoned buildings were considered sufficiently risky to call for the presence of at least two officers.  Then Slava would head to the airport to check both the records and the memories of the airport personnel.  Meanwhile Roza would go to Marina and ask the day manager whether he had heard of any overdoses from tainted drugs.  They also planned to meet for lunch downtown.  Roza felt comfortable enough with Slava to share a meal.

The two officers laboriously bundled back into hat, gloves, scarf, and outer snow suit and obtained a patrol vehicle key.  As they were headed for the door, they were stopped by an urgent call from the lieutenant.  “Glad I caught you! Good that you’re ready to go out.  We have a report of a homicide.”  “What?” said Slava, stunned.  Murder was rare in Norilsk.  For one thing, in Russia, unlike the USA, citizens were not allowed to buy or own guns without a special permit.  Nadya often said that in Norilsk people were too busy trying to survive to kill each other.  In addition, although the population was over 170,000, Norilsk retained the atmosphere of a much smaller city where people knew each other.  New citizens were usually added when they were born, rather than immigration.

Roza, Slava, and their supervising officer, Captain Orlovsky, met at the back of the room.  Orlovsky had written the name of the victim on a white board, where it would presumably be joined by his relatives, persons of interest, and suspects.  “His name is Viktor Lebedev.”  “Who is he?” asked Slava.  “Where did it happen?” asked Roza at the same time.  Captain Orlovsky held up a hand.  “Steady there.”  Viktor is – was – the administrative officer in charge of accounting and budget for Acme Bus Lines, the bus company that serves Norilsk.”  Roza’s heart sank and she and Slava slumped into the closest chairs.  This was not good news.

When a crime of violence occurred anywhere in the world, law enforcement officers prayed first that it would be solved quickly, and secondly that the crime would be the sad end to a personal conflict, one that implicated no one other than the immediate parties.  The last thing an officer wanted to investigate was a crime that had even a whiff of political corruption.  Roza reflected that they had no information yet about Viktor or any private entanglements he might have had.  However, his job required him to track, document, and report the spending of millions of rubles.  And, it was undeniable that whenever large sums of money were at issue the possibility of corruption existed.  Slava and Roza glanced nervously at each other.

“Where was he found?” asked Slava.  “In an apartment in the Acme office building. The nature of Acme and of Viktor’s position is such that visitors were – are- a fairly frequent phenomena. Auditors, vendors, I don’t know . . . anyway, the company maintains an apartment on site for the use of visitors.”  This made sense, thought Roza.  Other large organizations did the same, so that visitors would not have to search for their hotel room upon arriving in what was likely to be a cold, dark city. “So, why was Viktor there?  Was Acme expecting someone?  Did he usually inspect the apartment?” asked Roza.  “No idea.  I suggest you begin by visiting the scene so that the techs can remove the body, and then meet briefly with his secretary.  Slava, I want you to take possession of Viktor’s computer, which we can review here.  You will need to do that as soon as possible. After you view the body, instruct the secretary on protocol, and retrieve his computer. You two should also inform his wife. We can meet back here to plan the next steps.”

Roza and Slava were silent as they drove to the Acme building.  Both were hoping that Viktor’s death was unrelated to his professional duties, but neither was wanted to say this aloud.  The dark days of the former Soviet Union had cast a shadow long enough to reach present day Norilsk.  If public officials were involved in any sort of  corruption, then their investigation might expose them to personal danger.  Finally, Roza said “If there are empty offices in the Acme building, the secretary should probably move there for the moment, eh?”  Slava agreed and they discussed how to present this to Viktor’s administrative assistant.

The Acme building was grey and gloomy in the twilight glow of the street lamps.  It sat on a corner on the main road out to the mine, which made sense, given that the primary function of the buses was to make runs back and forth to the mine.  The door was about five feet above the level of the street.  The stairs up to the door were buried under snowdrifts, but the press of feet up and down had created passable stair-like treads that could be used to get to the door.  Roza  took a deep breath, fixed her face in an expression meant to both convey compassion and professional competence, and got out of the car.

Inside the Acme building, they waited a moment for their eyes to adjust to the darkness in the hall.  Someday, thought Roza, I’d like to visit someplace warm and bright.  Straight ahead was a narrow enclosure with a door.  This was the back of the stairs to the second floor.  Roza and Slava were familiar with this arrangement.  In most places, the stairs would be immediately in front of you as you entered the building.  In Norilsk, stairs were often reversed, to prevent icy gusts from rushing to the upper floors.  The janitor’s closet would be directly in front, beneath the stairs.

Their first duty was to view Viktor’s body and see what could be learned there, so that the evidence techs could take him to the hospital morgue for further examination.  The apartment was on the second floor, above the Acme offices.  Roza sighed and set off down the hall.  She hadn’t wanted to admit this to her new partner, but she had not previously investigated a homicide.  As they walked down the hall, Slava said in a low voice, “you know, this is actually the first murder I’ve worked.”  Two points for you, thought Roza, for being brave enough to admit it first.  “Me too,” she answered.

The apartment was compact, a small bedroom, combination living, dining, and kitchen area, and a bathroom.  They walked through the living area to the bedroom.  Viktor’s body was sprawled on the floor, face down, like a small child who had fallen asleep on the rug.  They could see blood on his sleeves and on the floor next to his head.  “Here is where Sherlock Holmes would notice that the fibers in the rug were pushed to the north and the bedspread pulled down by the east corner,” murmured Slava nervously.  “Yeah, but I’m not spotting anything that jumps out at us, are you?” replied Roza.  A minute later, she spoke again.  “Well, let’s see if we can rule anything out.  Excuse me,” she asked the tech workers who were guarding the scene, “was there any sign of forced entry?”  “No.  The door was unlocked when Tatiana came in.  She told us she came to the apartment to leave a prescription with Viktor and found the body.”

Roza glanced at Slava.  Now they had something to follow up on.  Who was Tatiana, why was she bringing Viktor a prescription, and why would she bring it to the apartment?  “Any ideas about the murder weapon?” asked Slava.  “Not yet.  There is nothing obvious, like a broken lamp or a gun, and we didn’t want to move the body before you saw it.”  Roza peered under the bed, but saw nothing except a single balled up sock and a warren of dust bunnies.  Slava looked at the bed.  The top quilt was slightly disarrayed, maybe indicating that Viktor had slid off the bed?  However, it did not appear to have been slept in.  The curtains were drawn and a single light was lit on a table across the room.  There was no indication that Viktor had been using the kitchen.  They took photos of his body from various angles and of the apartment, before giving the evidence techs permission to take Viktor to the morgue and leaving the apartment themselves. “That didn’t answer any questions; it just raised a lot,” reflected Roza.  “Yeah, like what was Viktor doing in the apartment, why was he in the bedroom, when was he killed, what was he killed with and, oh yes, who did it?” said Slava.  “Next we should do a preliminary interview with his assistant, and get her to move out of his office,” said Roza, as they headed back downstairs.

 

The sun returns!

The sun rose again in Norilsk!

Sweet Home in a Trailer