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.