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The White Russian

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The arctic wind sliced through Ruzsky's thin woolen overcoat. His
boots were damp and his toes numb with cold, but he was oblivious
to everything except the frozen expanse before him.

All he could see was ice.

Ruzsky's heart was beating fast. He tried to place a foot on the
ice, before shifting his weight back to the step. He looked down at
his boots, but his vision was blurred. He fought to control his
breathing. "Christ," he whispered. His first day back from exile
and it would have to begin like this.

The constables were ahead of him, in the center of the frozen river
Neva, illuminated by a ring of torches. The snowfall had tapered
off through the night and the sky was now clear. The narrow spire
of the Peter and Paul Cathedral on the far side of the river was
bathed in moonlight.

There was a sudden flurry of movement, and a burly figure broke
away from the group, the flame of his torch dancing as he walked.
Ruzsky watched his partner stride toward him.

"You're waiting for an escort?" Pavel halted, one hand thrust deep
into his pocket. Small crystals were lodged in his beard and along
his drooping mustache.


"It's the ice?" They'd had to deal with a body on the ice once
before, years ago, on a small lake outside the city.

Ruzsky cleared his throat. "No," he lied.

"It's January. The river's been frozen for months. If anyone was
going to fall through, it would have been me," Pavel said,
gesturing to his own girth.

Ruzsky stared at him. Pavel had a round face that exuded warmth
even when he was frowning. He was right, of course.

"Oh, shit," Ruzsky muttered. He closed his eyes and stepped
forward, trying to ignore the jolt of fear as his foot crunched
down on the frozen surface.

"The city's bravest investigator, afraid of the ice," Pavel said.
"Who would believe it?"

Ruzsky opened his eyes. They were walking forward briskly and he
was starting to breathe more easily.

"I didn't mean that," Pavel said.

"I know."

"I don't blame you, my old friend. You've barely been back twelve
hours and look what it has delivered up to us." Pavel nodded in the
direction of the Winter Palace. "And here, of all places."

They walked with their heads bowed against the damp, bitter wind
that whistled in from the Gulf of Finland. It was several degrees
colder out here on the river.

Ruzsky thrust his hands deep into his pockets. Only his head,
beneath one of his father's old sheepskin hats, was warm.

Next to the bodies, the constables stood, smoking. They were
dressed in long greatcoats and black sheepskin hats, the uniform of
St. Petersburg's city police.

The woman was closest to Palace Embankment and lay on her back,
long dark hair spread out around her head like a fan. "Torch."
Ruzsky held up his hand.

One of the men marched forward. He couldn't have been older than
seventeen or eighteen, with a pronounced nose, narrow eyes, and a
nervous expression. He was lucky not to be fighting at the front,
Ruzsky thought, as he took the torch and bent over the body of the
woman. He got to his knees.

The victim was--or had been--pretty, though with poor skin. He
removed one of his gloves and put his hand against her cheek. Her
skin was frozen solid. Her face was almost peaceful as she stared
up at the night sky. The fatal wound was to her chest, probably to
her heart; he could see that she had lost a good deal of blood. He
tried to ascertain exactly where she'd been stabbed, but her
clothes were rigid and he decided to leave any further
investigation to Sarlov.

Ruzsky's hand was already numb, so he put it back into his glove
and thrust it into his pocket. He straightened again, looking at
the gap between the two bodies. The area around them had been well
trodden by the constables, so he could make no attempt to determine
a pattern of events from the footprints. "Don't they teach them
anything these days?" Ruzsky grumbled, gesturing with the torch at
the trampled snow.

"It's good to have you back." Pavel offered him a flask.

Ruzsky shook his head. He walked around to the other body, the
spitting of the flame and the crackle of his boots in the snow the
only sounds above the whistle of the wind.

The man lay facedown, surrounded by a sea of crimson. He had bled
like a fountain.

"Turn him over," Ruzsky said. Two of the constables moved forward
and heaved the body onto its back.

Ruzsky breathed out.

"Holy Mother of God," Pavel said.

There were stab wounds to the man's chest and neck and face, one
through his nose, and another peeling back his cheek.

"Who were they?" Ruzsky asked.

"I don't know."

"Have you checked their pockets?"

"Of course. Nothing, except this." Pavel handed over a roll of
banknotes--small denomination Russian rubles.

"That's it? No identity papers?"


"Cards? Letters?"

"There's nothing."

"Have you looked properly?"

"Of course I have."

Ruzsky bent down and pulled back the man's overcoat. He thrust a
gloved hand into the inside pocket. It was empty. He straightened
again and shoved the roll of rubles into his own coat. "The


"Any sign of a knife?"


"How far have you looked?"

"We were waiting," Pavel said slowly, "for you."

The constables started to move about again. "Stay where you are,"
Ruzsky instructed them. He walked back to the girl. As he looked
down at her, he felt suddenly sober. She was young, probably no
more than twenty; well dressed, too. They both were. It was
difficult to be sure, but he didn't think she had been stabbed more
than once. He looked across at the other body. They were about
seven yards apart.

"You've checked all of their pockets?"


"We'll have a look when we get them inside," Ruzsky said, mostly to
himself. He didn't want to take his gloves off again out

Ruzsky looked up toward the Admiralty spire above Palace
Embankment, and the golden dome of St. Isaac's Cathedral in the
distance. They were in full view of the austere blue and white
facade of the Tsar's Winter Palace, but at a distance of fifty
yards or more. Pavel followed his gaze.

"Perhaps a servant saw something," Ruzsky said.

"Not if they were killed in the middle of the night."

"We should make it our first port of call."

"Of course. We'll get the Emperor out of bed."

Ruzsky didn't smile. They both knew the Tsar hadn't spent a night
in the Winter Palace for years--not since the start of the war, at
any rate.

Ruzsky raised the torch higher, then began walking again. "Tell
them not to move, Pavel."

He walked slowly and carefully until he found the footsteps he was
looking for, implanted in the thin layer of snow that covered the
ice. He examined them for a moment, before returning to the bodies
to check the size and shape of the victims' shoes.

Once he got away from the melee around the murder scene, Ruzsky
found the trail easily enough. The couple had been walking close
together, perhaps arm in arm. He followed their footprints for
about twenty yards, then stopped, turned, and looked back at the
scene of the crime. Pavel and the constables were watching

Ruzsky swung around ninety degrees, held the wooden oil flame torch
in front of him, and began to walk in a wide circle around the
bodies. He expected to encounter another set of footprints--or
several--left by the killer, but there was nothing here except
virgin snow.

Ruzsky returned to the orginal path and got down on his knees
again. He looked carefully at the tracks, moving the torch closer
to the ground, so that it hissed next to his ear.

He raised his hand. Pavel was marching out to meet him.

"You search like a hunter," Pavel said.

"I used to hunt wolves with my grandfather."

Ruzsky struggled to throw off the remains of his hangover.

"It's New Year," Pavel went on, "the couple are lovers out for a
romantic stroll."


"Just the two of them, alone. They leave Palace Embankment, walking
close together, arm in arm. They turn toward the Strelka, then gaze
up at the stars above. The city has never looked more beautiful.
Some bootlegged vodka perhaps, all troubles forgotten."

Ruzsky was now completely absorbed in his task, the fragility of
the ice only a dim anxiety at the back of his mind, the biting cold
a dull ache in his hands and feet and upon his cheeks.

He began to trace the victims' path backward once more, ignoring
Pavel, who followed him in silence. It was not until they had
almost reached the embankment that Ruzsky found what he was looking

The killer had followed the tracks of the dead man, both before and
after he'd struck. Only at the very last moment, barely three yards
from the embankment, had he lost patience and stepped outside

Ruzsky reached into his pocket, took out a cigarette case, and
offered it to his colleague. He felt more confident within reach of
the steps.

They lit up--no easy task with gloved hands numb with cold--and
turned their backs against the wind. The smoke was pleasantly warm,
but Ruzsky could still feel his temperature dropping. Perhaps he
was just sobering up.

"They must have been lovers," Pavel said. "Their footsteps are

"Why doesn't the girl run?" Ruzsky asked.

"What do you mean?"

"How many times has the man been stabbed? Ten? Twenty? In his
chest, his heart, his nose, his cheek. Does the girl just stand
there watching?"

"Perhaps she knows her attacker."

"Mmm." Ruzsky stared out across the river.

"It was planned. She knew of it."

"Possibly." Ruzsky turned to his colleague. "But why did she have
no idea that she was also to be a victim?"

Pavel shook his head. He flicked his cigarette high into the air
and they heard it fizzle as it hit the ice.

Ruzsky gazed at a cloud passing across the face of the moon. A
photographer walked over from the St. Peter and St. Paul Fortress.
They watched as he prepared his camera and lined up the first shot.
He bent down, his head beneath a cloth, and they saw a light flash.
The noise--a dull thump--reached them a split second later.

"Were there any witnesses?" Ruzsky asked.

"Do you see any?"

"We should begin at the palace."

Pavel's expression told him he did not wish to go anywhere near the
palace. "So I'm taking orders again?"

Ruzsky looked up sharply, then shook his head, embarrassed. "Of
course not. I'm sorry."

Pavel smiled. "Better things return to the way they were. Welcome
back, Chief Investigator."

Ruzsky met his affectionate gaze and tried to smile, but his frozen
face wouldn't obey.

He reached into the pocket of his greatcoat for a notepad and
pencil, then handed Pavel the torch and crouched down in the snow.
He shakily traced the outline of one of the footprints the killer
had left in front of the steps, then stared at it for a few
moments. He stood and put his own boot alongside it. "About my
size. A little bigger."

"Why didn't he go over to the Strelka?"


"The killer." Pavel gestured at the Winter Palace. "There are
guards here, the road is busy. Much less chance of being seen if
he'd gone on to Vasilevsky Island."

Ruzsky did not answer. He was staring at the group out on the ice,
deep in thought.

"Oh, by the way," Pavel added. "New Year, New Happiness."

It was the traditional greeting for the first day of the year.
"Yes," Ruzsky answered. "Quite."


They climbed onto the embankment and approached the riverside
entrance of the Tsar's Winter Palace.

Ruzsky stepped forward to knock on the giant green door. There was
no answer, so he tried to look through the misted glass of the
window to his right. He climbed up on a stone ledge to give himself
a better view.

"Be careful or they'll shoot you," Pavel said.

A light was dimly visible in the hallway. There was little obvious
security, but then it was well known that the Tsar and his family
preferred their country palace outside the city at Tsarskoe

Ruzsky stepped forward and knocked once again. He glanced up at the
light suspended on a long iron chain above him. As it swung slowly
in the icy wind, its metal links creaked.

"This cannot be right," Pavel said.

"If anyone saw it, it will have been the guard here."

Pavel hesitated. "Let's go around to the office of the palace
police at the front."

"Then we'll never find out who was on duty back here."

They waited, listening to the wind. Pavel forced his hat down upon
his head. "Maybe it's colder than Tobolsk."

Ruzsky saw the guilt behind Pavel's uncertain smile. "It's the damp
here," Ruzsky said. "You know how it is. In Siberia, it's a dry
cold." Ruzsky wanted to assuage his friend's guilt, but did not
know what else he could say. Pavel had been responsible for his
exile, but Ruzsky did not hold it against him. In fact, far from
it. The thought still filled Ruzsky with bitterness, as though it
had happened yesterday.

Three years before, in the darkened, piss-strewn stairwell of a
tenement building in Sennaya Ploschad, Ruzsky and Pavel had
arrested a small-time landlord who'd assaulted and strangled the
ten-year-old daughter of one of his poorer tenants. The man had not
imagined the terrified mother would dare complain, but his
insouciance as they led him down to the cells in the city police
headquarters ought to have set their alarm bells ringing.
Throughout that night, both Ruzsky and Pavel had struggled to
retain their tempers as the fat, sweaty toad had drummed his pudgy
fingers upon the table and answered their questions with a
contemptuous insolence.

Pavel had a distinct intolerance for these crimes, and while Ruzsky
was upstairs dealing with the paperwork, Pavel had decided to put
the man into a cell with a group of armed robbers. He'd informed
the men of the nature of their new companion's crime.

Ruzsky had no moral objection to this solution, but it had resulted
in the world falling in upon their heads. The man turned out to
have been the foreman of an arms factory over in Vyborg and, more
damaging, an agent of the Okhrana--the Tsar's vicious secret
police. Within a few hours of his lifeless body being dragged from
the cell, the city police headquarters had been swarming with
hard-faced Okhrana men in long black overcoats.

Excerpted from THE WHITE RUSSIAN © Copyright 2003 by Tom
Bradby. Reprinted with permission by Doubleday, a division of
Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.


The White Russian
by by Tom Bradby

  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday
  • ISBN-10: 0385508409
  • ISBN-13: 9780385508407