Wednesday, March 29, 2006

 

Crimson Snow


"History would be an excellent
thing if only it were only true. "

Leo Tolstoy


In the winter of 1916, Imperial Russia was ripe for change. It was Christmas… Russia's third at war. Her capital of St. Petersburg swarmed with war refugees from Poland and the far reaches of Russia’s vast empire… these forsaken souls had lost everything because of His Majesty’s war with Germany. To make matters worse, the city was facing a food shortage of Russia’s own making. In nearby fields mountains of unpicked wheat simply withered away as bellies lay empty… no one was left to harvest the lands. Russia’s youth was at war and they were losing, badly. Germany and her allies were growing bolder. Members of the German High Command had become specialists at the art of warfare and Russia’s generals had failed to embrace modern military tactics and paid a costly price … six million Russian men were now dead or wounded. It was a premature end to a generation, yet the Tsar’s government appeared not to care. Their Majesties’ spiritual adviser, a renegade priest named Rasputin, was making a mockery of the imperial cabinet and court as he used his influence over the empress to appoint men to high posts who were willing to do his bidding only. The once god-like Tsar looked weak and all too human… a fact recognized by the ambitious men who surrounded him. There was much to lose, there was much to gain, in the land of Crimson Snow.



Hotel Europe
St. Petersburg

9:50 a.m.

A heavy hand beating against a wooden door stirred a lost soul in the Hotel Europe. Mumbling a laundry list of profanities, the dazed creature sought escape, “Leave me alone!” The banging continued as if the hammering fists were fed by his warning. Finally, the youth tossed away his covers. This was no way for the great grandson of a tsar to be awakened.
“Come back later! I’m sleeping!” he called out. As the banging stopped, he gave a heavy sigh, then buried his shaggy head underneath his pillow. Damn, he needed a drink. Then, as always, his mind drifted back to the war. Staring at his bedside clock, he gagged as he saw his medal dangling around an empty bottle. It was given to him for an act of bravery. What foolishness.
At that moment, the banging became much louder. “Damn it,” he cried, more annoyed with himself than the knocking, “I said, leave me alone!”
Prince Sergei Platonovich Konstantin was a product of the House of Konstantin, a house accustomed to greatness. In that noble household, Russia’s most legendary soldiers were born. They were cast in war’s infernos.
Suddenly, the banging stopped. Moments later, the prince’s bedroom door opened a crack, and with it came a piecing beam of rare, golden light. As it blinded him, he asked, “Who’s there?”
“Renko Serge” came the reply. Regaining his vision, he saw the stylish smirk of his father’s right-hand man, Inspector Renko of His Majesty’s Secret Police. Immaculately dressed in a fine cut suit, he strode in, smiling as he replaced a small tool in its leather case.
“Locks are useless around you,” exclaimed the prince.
“Afraid so, Your Excellency” Renko replied. He was a short, bald, and somewhat bull-doggish man with an intense look about him. Nevertheless, his beefy frame fit perfectly in his dark suit.
The prince attempted to focus on the fuzziness of the inspector’s face. He was still drunk. “Leave me alone, Stephan,” he said, attempting to replace the covers over his head. “What the hell are you doing here at this ungodly hour?”
Stephan’s clean and polished exterior cloaked his true profession as the royal family’s trash man. Foregoing the pleasantries, he barked, “Get up, Serge. We need to talk.”
“Later, Inspector. It can wait.”
“Not this time.” The inspector noticed the pile of discarded bottles. “Serge, this is your last warning.” Subtle snores were the reply. The inspector grabbed a silver bucket filled with melted ice and dumped it over the young Russian prince.
As the person under the wet covers screamed, Stephan allowed himself a brief chuckle -- it had been a long time since he had laughed, and it felt wonderful. Now sitting up, fully awake, the prince laughed also. “Renko, you have my undivided attention.”
“Good,” replied Stephan. It tore his heart to pieces to see Serge like this. Once, the prince had been a bright and strikingly handsome young man, an officer in His Majesty’s Chevalier Guards who had distinguished himself in battle. Currently, it appeared he was battling for his soul. His muscular frame was now pencil-thin; dull, hollowed-out eyes gazed out of an uncertain face and his dark beard was unkempt. He looked more like some poor street beggar than a Russian prince.
“Sergei, you worry me.” Why in the world were all the windows wide open in the middle of December? He didn’t want to know. Renko swiftly crossed the room to close them. “Young Konstantin, it seems you’ve been celebrating.”
“Celebrating? I drink simply to forget.” Looking at a tiny table of spirits, Serge asked, “Care for some breakfast?” He wanted to return to the comfort of the dense fog he had wrapped himself in.
“Don’t. It’s not even ten yet.”
“Ten or two, it makes no difference,” Serge said as he poured himself his first drink of the day. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right Renko?”
“Why are you doing this to yourself? Help me understand.”
“What is there to understand? I should have died with them.”
Renko replied, “I am truly sorry about Sophia. She was an angel. But—”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
The light caught three quarters of his face. “Fine my friend. Must I always be the one to remind you that good Russian air still fills those lungs of yours? With such a peaceful view,” Stephan said, looking out the window, “one might find it difficult to imagine that we are at war.”
“Nice observation,” Serge said, closing the curtains. “Why are you here? Is my father growing concerned about the dirt I’m heaping on his noble name?”
“You know that he never in his life relied on his name. Poor young Sergei,” the inspector acidly replied. “It’s been, what, six months now since your glorious return from the front?”
“Please don’t, Stephan. Tell my father that I’m sorry that I’m such a disappointment,” he said, refilling his glass.
“Yes, your father did send me. We are both concerned about you. And, looking at your present condition, we have good cause to worry.”
“I’m sorry I’m such a burden to you both,” Serge said, not daring to face the inspector’s eyes. “I would be better off dead.”
“Shame on you,” the inspector said, shaking his head and thinking of his son, lost in the same battle in which Sergei was wounded. “What do you know about death?”
“Too much,” he replied, covering his face.
“It’s normal to grieve. But life somehow goes on, my friend, whether you want it to or not.”
“I know. But I can’t accept what has happened.”
“And you probably never will, so stop trying. But, I must speak to you about another matter.”
“Another matter?”
“Yes, I am afraid so.” Renko paused, choosing his words carefully. “I would like to know more about your little gathering of last night.”
“Gathering? Why?”
“What were you celebrating?”
“Celebrating?” he said, trying to recall the events of the evening, “Ah … life!”
Renko looked around the trashed room, then at Serge. “You break my heart. Were you celebrating merely life, or was it a dark celebration for someone’s death?”
“What are you talking about, Stephan? I don’t think I’m that drunk yet. Or am I?”
“Her Majesty’s spiritual adviser is missing, feared dead.”
“Father Rasputin is dead? Splendid. Now, may I return to bed?”
“Not quite yet, my sad friend.” Stephan’s icy eyes scanned the room. He found it hard to believe that he was in the penthouse suite of the Hotel Europe. The once-luxurious room, like the man lounging before him, was nearly ruined. “Just answer a few questions and you may return to the ranks of the honored dead.”
“Ask away,” Serge said, combing his fingertips through his unruly hair.
“Sergei—” the use of the formal name told the prince the inspector was serious—“Where were you last night?”
“Stephan,” he said, laughing and shoving his hands deeper into his robe’s pockets, “please, do you really believe that I’m somehow involved in Father Rasputin’s disappearance?”
The inspector hesitated, looking around the room. It was in shambles.
“No, though it appears I missed quite a party.”
Serge chuckled. “It was fun, what I recall of it.”
“Who attended your small celebration of life?”
“No one of importance; the usual gang of poets, prostitutes, and other degenerates from the Caviar Bar. Now,” Serge said as he walked back to his bed, “I needn’t waste any more of your precious time.”
If he wanted it this way, so be it. “Who was at your little party?” barked the inspector, a man accustomed to having his questions answered, “I need names!”
“Just a handful of people from the downstairs bar. Honestly Renko, must I go through this? Is it a matter of state secrecy?”
“Yes. As a matter of fact, it is. Who was with you last night? Tell me now.”
“I told you, no one of importance. I can’t even recall everyone. A good friend of mine from my Oxford days arrived on the Moscow train yesterday. It was just he and I and a few regulars from the Caviar Bar.”
“Didn’t Felix Yusupov graduate from Oxford?” Renko asked in a tone that suggested that he already knew the answer.
“Barely, but that was before me. He graduated the year I began.”
“So, your friend is a foreigner then? What is he doing in Petersburg? Is he a British correspondent?”
“No. Good God, Renko. You have been involved in too much intrigue in your life. You are starting to become paranoid.”
“Paranoia has kept me alive this long. I still need names. Start with your friend.”
“Very well. His name is Malachi Jones, and he works for the British Consulate in Moscow. He’s here preparing for the allied conference, to be held in January.”
“Odd name,” Stephan said, recalling it from the list of possible British agents working for the consulate.
“He’s an odd man,” Serge replied.
“I see. Any of your cousins present? Prince Nikita, or Theodore, or Felix?” The first two were Grand Duke Alexander’s two sons and the latter his son-in-law. Serge laughed.
“My cousins? I’m no longer everyone’s favorite.” Upon returning from the front, he had severed all ties with anyone he ever loved or who would remind him of his old life.
“So, Felix was not here?”
“Felix? I haven’t seen him in ages. Nor do I wish to. We don’t exactly travel in the same circles. What’s this all about?”
“Rasputin was murdered last night in the Yusupov Palace, Felix’s home.”
“Murdered? I thought you said he merely disappeared?”
“No. Rasputin was murdered.”
“Impossible! Felix is far too gentle a creature to be involved in such madness.”
“He told me he did it,” Stephan said flatly. Gentle was not a term that came to the inspector’s mind when he thought of Felix.
“How can you be certain? Felix could be lying. He always does. Rasputin is most likely passed out under some woman’s bed. The Siberian is known for two things: his drinking and his womanizing. Normally in that order.”
“No, he’s dead. We just finished searching his palace, and it’s a definite crime scene. There were bloodstains everywhere. Felix showed me and my men the rug they wrapped him up in.”
“What?”
“This morning, your cousin escorted me and my men to his basement. He showed me where the body had lain. There was a huge bloodstain.”
“But why? He could have easily denied it.”
“That’s what we are trying to find out.”
“I don’t understand. You tell me that they go through all the trouble and secrecy of killing the Siberian and the first thing they do after disposing of the body is to tell the authorities exactly what they have done?”
“Exactly. That’s what troubles me. Your cousin Felix is an odd one, but this crime is even too bizarre for the likes of him.”
“Did he tell you where Rasputin’s body is now?”
“Not exactly.”
“Without the priest’s corpse, how can you be certain he’s dead? This could all be some childish game.”
“I wish it were. But when I asked him where it was, he only replied ‘where it belongs.’ Believe me, Rasputin is dead. The question is why.”
“Why did you earlier tell me he disappeared then?”
“I wanted to see if perhaps you too were involved.”
“I see. Damage control. And Nikita and Theodore?”
The inspector looked the other way. “They were there also.”
“They’re only teenagers.”
“I know.”
“And Felix,” the prince said, already knowing the answer but asking anyway, “Is he currently in custody?”
“He’s a prince. What do you think?”
“This is insane.”
“I agree. But what is true madness is to strike down the only man the empress thinks can save her only son.”
“What is she going to do?”
“I don’t know,” Stephan replied, shaking his head. “All I know is that Protopopov, our beloved new minister of the interior, is currently on route to Tsarskoe to see the empress personally on this matter. Her Imperial Highness wants him to begin an immediate inquiry into the disappearance of her beloved Rasputin. She wants revenge. I trust the minister will use this situation for his own advantage. According to her, Father Rasputin was not only Alexei’s savior but also Russia’s. And now, that savior appears to be dead.”
Serge sank deeper into his chair. “Hasn’t there been enough bloodshed?” His thoughts drifted back to the front. “Must there be more?”
“I’m afraid so. Remember, Protopopov was personally in charge of Rasputin’s own safety, and he failed. He will be looking to avoid the empress’s wrath and pin the guilt of Rasputin’s death on anyone but himself -- most likely, your cousin Felix.”
“There are rumors floating around town that Protopopov is insane.”
“He most definitely is, I hear, from the advanced stages of syphilis. But who else would Rasputin—I mean, Her Majesty—choose?”
“Indeed.”
“Don’t forget, Serge,” Stephan said, picking his words carefully, “Protopopov is desperate, and desperate people are dangerous. He will have no trouble placing your cousin under arrest.”
“Stephan,” Serge said, lighting a cigarette, “what were they thinking in killing Rasputin?”
“I don’t know,” replied the inspector. “I suppose your cousin thought he could solve Russia’s problems with one single blow.”
“Then he is a fool,” Serge said with a cigarette clinging perfectly to his lips. “Striking down a Siberian peasant will accomplish nothing. Russia’s problems lie deeper than that. These are dark days.” Serge stared out of the window, his eyes drifting toward the leafless trees that lined the Nevsky Prospekt. As he inspected the icy backdrop below, the words of warning from the poet Gogol came into his ears:
“Oh, do not trust this Nevsky Prospekt, I always wrap myself more tightly in my cloak whenever I walk along it, and I try not to take notice of things I encounter. Everything’s an illusion. Everything’s a dream. Everything’s not what it seems.”
Renko was nodding.
After a few moments of shared silence, the prince asked: “Who else was involved?”
“We believe Grand Duke Dmitri also played a part in the plot. His motorcar was seen in the area, shortly after a gendarme reported hearing gunshots coming from the Yusupov Palace.
“I hope you’re wrong.”
“So do I. For everyone’s sake.”
“Stephan, why are you telling me this?”
“Your father wants you away from the capital at once,” Renko said, taking a cigarette from his case. “At least, until after the New Year.”
“My proud father, the war hero? Why does he even care?”
“Fool, he has always cared about you, even though, you give him every opportunity not to.”
“You think I should forget about our past?”
The inspector exhaled a cloud of smoke. “The past is the past. Leave it buried. The future is all that truly matters. My only son, and too many of your friends, can no longer say that.”
“Nothing matters to me anymore.”
“I see that, my son. Nonetheless, you’re still alive. And that matters,” he said softly, “at least for me.”
Serge felt awkward. “Thanks for your concern. But why—”
“Concern?” mocked the inspector, staring at his superior’s coddled son, “This isn’t a game, Serge. The empress believes the removal of her trusted aide was just the beginning. And, your father thinks she may be right. A mutinous step, by forces targeted against her husband’s teetering regime. Every day I hear rumors of the efforts of the imperial family to replace the old regime. Some say Nicholas’s days are numbered.”
“Changing of the tsars? Isn’t that a little outdated? It’s been over a century since that last occurred. Her Majesty is as mad as Protopopov if she believes that.”
“Open your eyes, boy,” Stephan said, looking around the grand room. “The imperial family isn’t going to allow Nicholas to hand the country to the radicals. They have far too much to lose.”
“Serge, I require only two things of you. First, warn Felix and Dmitri to flee the city at once. Try the yacht club. They often go there.”
“Alright.”
“I don’t want them to cause any more trouble. And second, when they leave, go with them. Your father wants you to head south, out of harm’s way.”
“What?”
“You heard me. Go to your family estate in the south. There, you should be safe.”
“Safe from what?”
“No matter Serge. Just make sure you’re on this evening’s train. Until then, warn the others and stay out of sight. Grand Duke Alexander’s palace would be safe.”
“Sandro’s?’
“Yes. You should stay there until this evening. Now, promise me you will be on that nine o’clock train.”
“I promise.”
Stephan moved toward the door, truly smiling for the first time since his arrival. “Good. I need to begin my investigation. Your father wants a full report on his desk by this evening. I must somehow attempt to control this chaos before it consumes us all. Your father will personally see you off to the station. Expect him at eight. I recommend you take a bath, and shave that damn beard off.”
The mere mention of his father disturbed Serge greatly. To everyone else his father was a national hero, but to him he was only a stranger. “Shave? Why?”
“No matter,” Renko said, hugging Serge. Serge followed the inspector to the door. Attempting to find his way back to reality, he asked, “Stephan, what is today?”
“It’s Saturday Sergei. The seventeenth of December, a week before Christmas.”
“Ah, yes. Well then,” he said, adjusting the drawstrings of his robe, “Merry Christmas, Stephan.”
“Merry Christmas, Your Excellency,” the inspector replied, before marching off down the corridor. He had much to do today.

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