July 18, 2014

Parley with a Gangster

Parley with a Gangster

{Excerpt from Murder at the Dacha, by Alexei Bayer. Published by Russian Life books. All Rights Reserved}

A blind alley branched inconspicuously off a side street between a tall fence and a pigeon coop. I turned onto its cobblestones and quickly came up against a steel gate, painted dark blue and featuring a heavy padlock under a sign announcing the presence of a vicious attack dog.

The dog started to bark the moment I touched the bell button and went on barking for a long time. I did not hear the bell ring, but my presence was acknowledged by a curtain swaying slightly over the window of a one-story house. I was being observed.

At last a voice told the dog to be quiet and there was the sound of a metal chain being rattled. A kid pushed the gate open, creating a crack about an inch wide.

“What do you what?” he inquired rudely.

“Is Arkady Matveevich at home?” I answered him with a question of my own.

“Get in.”

I squeezed through the crack and found myself in the leaf-strewn front yard.

The kid promptly closed and barred the gate behind me.

“Name?” he asked.

“Matyushkin,” I replied, matching his laconic manner.

He nodded.

“Wait down here.”

He ran up the steps and disappeared inside the house, leaving me in the yard. In an open garage stood a brand-new motorized cart of the kind that were given to disabled war veterans. A large German shepherd watched me carefully from its doghouse, growling softly.

“Get in,” said the kid, sticking his head out the door.

He stood aside to let me in, and shut and relocked the door the moment I was through.

Arkady Matveyevich had placed his huge hairy forearms on the table and sat staring at me. He had a full salt-and-pepper beard and his thick curls framing a bald spot on the top of his head were graying and wiry. He was a large man and gave the impression of being powerful, not heavy. The impression was not diminish when he pushed off from the table and sent his wheelchair rolling to the middle of the room. The legs of his soft wool trousers were neatly folded and tucked underneath his leg stumps. The pneumatic wheels left deep ruts on the rug as they rolled over it.

“Cheers.” He jerked his head upward at me by way of greeting. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t shake your hand.”

“Good day to you, Arkady Matveyevich,” I replied courteously. “I’m glad to see you in good health.”

“I’m sorry I’m not getting up,” Arkady Matveyevich went on. “Nor am I going to ask you to sit down.”

“Don’t worry about me,” I assured him, smiling politely at his joke. “I’ll stand. Thank god I can.”

“Enough joking around,” the invalid cut me off sharply. “State your business and be gone, chop-chop.”

“I’ve got a question for you, Arkady Matveyevich.”

“Then get on with it, man. Don’t beat around the bush.”

“Daniel Frezin, a.k.a. Freak. What do you know about him?”

Arkady Matveyeich gave it some thought. He was doing some careful calculations. He was a good actor - he had to be, in his line of work. If he hadn’t wanted to show me that he was doing those calculations, he wouldn’t have.

What Arkady Matveyevich Brunetsky was figuring out was this: he owed me a small favor. It was something I had done a long time ago to help him out of a tight spot. There was no question of him refusing to repay it. That would have gone against the code of honor by which he and his ilk lived. He would have been happy to do so at once. The problem was that I had not yet asked him for repayment and was holding it back for a rainy day. You never know when you might need the help of such an important person.

At that moment, Brunetsky was figuring out whether his debt to me was large enough to warrant providing the information. And at the same time he wanted to make sure that I had seen the complex calculations involved, so that if he did decide to provide the information, I would know that his debt to me had been repaid in full and I never bother him again.

“Freak, you say?” he said after a while. “A circus freak perhaps? One of those who perform at country fairs?”

Apparently, the information was more valuable than my old favor to him, even adding up the accrued interest. That in itself was worth knowing.

“Well,” I said, hiding my disappointment. “I wonder if they have an understudy for him at the circus. Because he’s going to miss a couple of upcoming performances.”

“Why is that?”

“I arrested him a couple of days ago.”

“Really? Where?”

“On a suburban train.”

“That’s a surprise,” said Arkady Matveyevich, a twinkle appearing in his eye. “Have they demoted to a railroad copper?”

“I just happened to be there.”

For all his flippancy, I could tell he was interested.

“I see,” Arkady Matveyevich said. “Professional instinct right? Once a hound always a hound. Collar everything that moves. Grab and hold. Like my German shepherd Duska.”

I smiled.

“Something like that.”

I didn’t mind Brunetsky’s barbs. He wouldn’t have been kidding around with me if he didn’t have an interest in this conversation. I was keeping up my end and staying cheerful.

“What kind of laws was Freak breaking? Was he picking pockets?”

“Not exactly,” I replied. “He was harassing a woman.”

That took him by surprise. He couldn’t quite hide it.

“Come on,” he said. “Tell me more.”

I told him what happened on Sunday on the Serpukhov train. I also mentioned that Frezin was being framed by Regional Criminal Investigations in Podolsk for crimes he hadn’t committed, which could land him a pretty long term in jail, considering that he was on probation.

“He’s a great candidate for them to write off a bunch of unsolved crimes and misdemeanors,” I concluded.

{An excerpt from earlier in the book}

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