At nine o’clock in the evening on the twenty-third of February 1917, Inspector Vladimir Lesnoy, of the Moscow division of the Special Corps of Gendarmes, left his desk at headquarters carrying a small suitcase and hurried outside to hail a passing cab.
The journey to Yaroslavsky railway terminal was not long, but Lesnoy sensed menace as well as the threat of snowfall in the air, and was anxious to avoid being caught up in anything which might delay him. The cab driver would only allow his horse to go at a cautious pace as the streets had been plunged into darkness since five o’clock in the afternoon due to the rationing of fuel which had led to the imposition of the ‘gas hours’ on the city.
A newspaper vendor on the street corner brandished a late edition and called out ‘Revolution in Petrograd! Read all about it!’ Lesnoy shook his head in exasperation.
‘What is the world coming to?’ the cabbie called to him over his shoulder. ‘My wife had to queue for bread for five hours today – five hours!’
‘Mmm… disgraceful,’ Lesnoy replied. It was surely only a matter of time, he thought, before the revolution reached Moscow. Already there were strikes and riots and a general atmosphere of unrest. Then, just this evening, as he was about to leave, a report had come in of a disorderly rabble, led by a small cabal of well-known troublemakers, marching angrily towards Count Shuysky’s palace.
He had made a swift exit before he could be called upon to attend the scene. There were other officers who could deal with the revolutionaries – Lesnoy had bigger game to hunt. A significant piece of intelligence had come in from a town called Verkhneudinsk, over 5,000 kilometres east of Moscow, near Lake Baikal. The report detailed a murder in which the victim’s body had been hacked into pieces and placed inside a hessian farm sack. At last, ten years after Lesnoy had first heard of the ‘Potato Sack Killer’, as the popular press liked to dub him, he had the opportunity to apprehend the psychopath.
At last, the distinctive outline of Yaroslavsky station’s fairytale roof loomed up before them in the dark.
‘Whoa there!’ The cabbie pulled up his horse and Lesnoy hopped down, paid, and patted the horse on the nose, relieved to have escaped from the police station. The horse snorted loudly, emitting clouds of steam into the freezing air and Lesnoy looked up at the imposing station building, the white stone carvings and decorative mosaics gleaming in the moonlight. Then he took stock of the scene around him.
Where the city streets had been deserted, the station was thronging with a crowd of several hundred. For a moment, Lesnoy was taken aback, but, given the latest bulletin from Petrograd, this exodus was not in the least surprising. Predictably, the station entrance had become log-jammed with bodies, pushing and shoving in their attempts to enter the concourse, but coming up against the static and ever-growing queue at the ticket office.
‘Politsiya! Politsiya!’ Lesnoy, brandishing his official identity card and using his small case as an improvised body shield, battered his way through the sea of serge overcoats and fur hats from which an malodorous steam of human sweat and breath evaporated.
He thanked God that his official papers – hastily signed off just an hour before, as soon as the message from Verkhneudinsk had come through – let him bypass the ticket queue. However, he needed to call in at the station telegraph office where a smaller line snaked its way round the edge of the room.
Once again, Lesnoy flashed his card to jump to the head of the queue. The customer at the desk in front of Lesnoy glanced behind him as the clerk counted the number of letters in his message and Lesnoy instinctively captured a mental snapshot – mid-forties, close-cropped auburn hair, tweed coat. The clerk spoke in a low voice, but Lesnoy tuned in. ‘“Meet train stop Spassk Primorskiy stop twelve days stop Zayats stop” Is that correct sir?’
‘Yes, thank you, that’s correct. How much will that be?’
A cell in Lesnoy’s brain lit up. The message itself could be harmless enough, but he had been trained to observe everything and sift through every piece of information to identify the unusual and the suspicious. The man’s accent was distinctive and his grammar almost too correct to be a Russian native. And the name – Zayats – that name had come into his consciousness just a few days previously in a highly confidential note which had been circulated among the higher ranks of the Moscow police.
An English agent, Dominic Hare, was thought to have arrived in Moscow, motive unknown, but to be identified and observed as top priority. The agent’s name had immediately conjured up an image from Lesnoy’s favourite childhood stories. His father, an eminent Moscow medical man, had passed them on to the young Volodya from his own boyhood – the fables of Aesop. And the character ‘Zayats’ had unexpectedly lost in a race against the tortoise. Zayats was the Hare.
The clerk at the far end of the desk became available and Lesnoy made his way along to send his own telegram. ‘To Ilya Brilyov Verkhneudinsk Gendarmerie stop arrive train six days stop Inspector Vladimir Lesnoy stop.’
That task completed, Lesnoy could relax a little. He glanced up at the telegraph office clock before leaving – ten past ten, just over one hour to go. Returning into the hustle and bustle of the main concourse, he bent to pick up a small paper pamphlet which had been unceremoniously discarded.
‘Fourth Thursday Meeting of Progressives and Intellectuals,’ it announced. Lesnoy snorted, derisively. ‘International Working Women’s Day, 6.00 pm, Moscow West Workers’ Meeting Hall. Speakers: Viktor Skobelev, Valeriya Amosova, Alexander Zhuravlev.’
Three grainy photographs, a hatchet-faced woman flanked by two men, completed the page.
Ha! Skobelev and Zhuravlev, Lesnoy mused. Well-known names – and faces – at headquarters. Odds on it’s this lot behind the Shuysky Palace disturbance. Well, it could get violent if Skobelev is involved – he’s got form. Zhuravlev is a different type altogether, fancies himself an intellectual – the pen is mightier and all that nonsense.
Lesnoy folded the leaflet and stuffed it into his coat pocket. Beyond the ticket queue, the crowd thinned out a little. As he passed the door into the first class waiting room, he glanced in but decided to continue through and out onto the platform. His superior at the Special Corps of Gendarmes, Kirill Belyakov, knowing he was travelling on this particular Trans-Siberian train, had asked him for a favour. A valuable, top-secret shipment of gold was being transported to Vladivostok and there were some concerns about its security. With all the trouble starting, they couldn’t spare anyone to act as an official escort, but could Lesnoy please keep an eye on things.
Out on the platform, Andrey Tokar, a sleek, well-fed middle-aged man with unnaturally black pomaded hair under an astrakhan hat, was overseeing the loading of about five dozen small wooden crates into a special secure carriage of the train. Tokar was a senior employee of the State Bank of the Russian Empire.
‘What have you got in here, guv, solid gold?’ joked a cheerful, red-faced railway employee, one of a team doing the loading. Tokar ignored the question and glanced nervously at the man who had just appeared beside him. Lesnoy’s interest in the gold was peripheral, but he was amused to recognise Tokar.
‘Good evening Mr Tokar, I’m glad to see at least some of the gold has made it from the bank to the station.’
‘Sorry? Do we know each other?’
The policeman produced his identity card and introduced himself as Inspector Vladimir Lesnoy of the Special Corps of Gendarmes.
‘You know my boss; we helped you with that “awkwardness” at the bank last year…’
Tokar blushed deep borscht red and stuttered, ‘That is all history. I had the word of the Chief of Police that no further action would be taken against me.’
‘Yes, yes of course. Please calm yourself, Mr Tokar,’ said Lesnoy, ‘I thought the crates would be bigger and more of them. Is this the complete load?’
‘The crates can’t be any bigger – they’d be too heavy to lift.’
Lesnoy nodded. ‘So what’s the total value here?’
Tokar glanced around to check nobody else was within earshot. ‘Should be enough to buy fifteen tanks and twenty-five thousand rifles. It’s safer to move it out in these small quantities. I’ve lost count of the amount of gold I’ve had to transport on this godforsaken route – three times in this past year at least. Back and forth to Kazan, back and forth to Vladivostok.’
Lesnoy nodded again, but his thoughts had wandered. Keeping an eye on this consignment of imperial gold bars on its way out of Moscow and out of the greedy clutches of the upstart revolutionaries wasn’t a problem. However, once they got to Verkhneudinsk he had his own matter to attend to, while the gold continued on to Vladivostok and beyond.
If Tokar had been expecting sympathy from the Inspector, he wasn’t getting any. He noted Lesnoy’s cold, expressionless eyes and the slight sneer permanently attached to his thin red lips and shuddered. Not the ideal travelling companion, he thought, but there again, this was not a social trip. He should probably feel reassured by his escort’s ruthless demeanour. If Lesnoy was being paid to protect him, then protect him he surely would, even if he had to kill in the process.
Inside the first class waiting room, Ekaterina, wife of Captain Pavel Ozertsov, despite being swaddled in her finest fur coat, huddled close to her husband, trying to gain some extra warmth. The journey from Oryol, several days earlier, had been tedious and uncomfortable and she was not looking forward to another long train journey, possibly several weeks of discomfort and tedium.
Her husband put a protective arm around her and she smiled up at him. Although they had been married for almost three years, Pavel’s long spell as a prisoner-of-war in Germany had made him almost a stranger. He had returned from the war to her damaged, his left-hand ring finger obliterated by a German bullet wound, the wedding ring itself lost in some muddy battlefield. She wondered whether years from now some young farm worker might dig it up and marvel at his luck in literally striking gold, presenting it proudly to his peasant-girl fiancée.
Ekaterina’s own wedding ring, safely ensconced inside her fur-lined mittens, had survived, but she blushed with shame and the smile disappeared from her beautiful face when she thought of her own, invisible scars. Pavel, his privileged upbringing battered by deprivation, disease and hard labour, quite understandably thought he had experienced the worst of what war can bring. Ekaterina was not so sure. Bitter and ashamed, she had kept her unhappy experiences a secret from her husband and she wanted them to remain that way. No good would come from sharing her own pain.
Pavel had returned from Germany, released in a prisoner-of-war exchange and invalided out of the army. His family, of noble blood, but liberal-minded and resigned to the new social order that was inevitably coming to Russia, had sold off or given away most of their estates and moved abroad, some to Western Europe only to find themselves caught in the horrors of the war there, others to the United States, land of the free and limitless opportunity. Pavel had been keen to join the exodus to America and Ekaterina had been only too relieved to leave behind the dark memories associated with their home, with Oryol and with Russia in general.
She glanced around nervously at the other travellers. A young girl, dark-haired and pale-skinned, but flushed, had just arrived in the waiting room. Ekaterina appraised her clothes and fine features and identified her as someone of her own class. The girl looked familiar, someone she might have seen in a box at the Moscow Opera, perhaps, or at one of the balls she had attended in the city. The girl’s companion, of a similar age and type, but blonde, seemed to be in charge, checking documents and sorting out their luggage. Both girls looked anxious and frightened.
Ekaterina could tell that Pavel was also appraising the crowd, wondering who else would be travelling spalny vagon – first class – like themselves. The two young girls looked likely candidates. A tough-looking auburn-haired man in his forties was harder to place – possibly a foreigner.
The dark-haired girl, Countess Tatiana Shuyskaya, was casting her gaze anxiously about while her maid, Sofia, organised their tickets and luggage. The crowd out on the concourse looked malnourished and ill-dressed. She herself had, at her father’s request, dressed in her least ostentatious clothes. Having run, dragged by Sofia, from the palace, she was looking more dishevelled than she would normally dream of appearing in public, but the situation was a desperate one and her life was in danger. She surreptitiously eyed the well-dressed couple – the attractive woman in expensive furs, the haunted-looking man in a cavalry officer’s greatcoat – and assumed that they too were escaping from the troubles.
Back out on the platform, Tokar was trying, without success, to engage the Inspector in small talk. Lesnoy’s replies were gruff, his manner curt. He had the cold, expressionless eyes of a hawk and, like a hawk, he missed nothing. Ignoring Tokar’s dreary, complaining voice, he watched, from the darkness of the platform, through a grimy window, the travellers in the first class waiting room which was lit by the waxy yellow glow of oil lamps.
The man calling himself Zayats was standing alone in the far corner, his back to the wall, clearly assessing his fellow travellers in a similar manner. Lesnoy’s attention was next drawn to an attractive blonde whom he had noticed earlier, when she had been struggling through the station entrance with an equally pretty dark-haired girl in tow. The two of them looked quite well-to-do, but somewhat flushed and flustered. It was curious that they were travelling alone; most likely their parents were aristocrats, anxious for their daughters’ safety now that the revolution was building up steam. Two young girls, all alone. Perhaps they would need some ‘protection’ – a service which Lesnoy specialised in. Fleetingly, a smirk replaced his habitual sneer and he gave a soft snort, causing Tokar to glance at him in surprise.
Suddenly, though, Lesnoy felt his heart thud and the brief smirk was quickly wiped from his lips. His gaze had wandered from the blonde to a couple, certainly a cut above the rest of the crowd by virtue of their superior dress, who were standing near the window next to the platform. They had their backs to Lesnoy, but at that moment they turned to each other and smiled, anxiously but lovingly and the man placed a protective arm around the woman. As the interior oil lamp lit her profile, Lesnoy immediately recognised her and a shock ran through him. ‘Kiki…’ he murmured softly.
He looked more intently at the man. No, he hadn’t seen him before, not in the flesh at any rate, but of course he recognised him. He remembered that first time at the house in Oryol, in Ekaterina’s bedroom, when she had made such a pretence of reluctance. She had reached for the silver-framed photograph of her handsome husband, resplendent in his cavalry uniform, and turned it face down on her dressing table before drawing the curtains.