My name is Maxim Verlushenkov and I’m deathly afraid of Aeroflot. Well, I’m afraid of flying altogether, but the smell of vodka from the cockpit seems to aggravate my phobic neurosis. That’s why I was sitting in a tea shop at the Yaroslavsky Rail Terminal in Moskov, waiting for a train to take me halfway around the world, all the way to Vladivostok, my new home for an unforeseeable future. I had been commissioned to take over as senior lieutenant in the Primorsky Krai Police Force, and my train - on which I was to spend six whole days - was delayed.
As I was sitting there drinking my tea I was suddenly approached by an old man who seemed particularly interested in my uniform and its insignias.
“Are you waiting for the train?” he asked. I nodded without specifying which train. “Am I correct in assuming that you are bound for Vladivostok?” I nodded again and smiled to show him that I appreciated his affinity for deduction. “Then, if I am correct, you must be comrade Verlushenkov, my successor”.
I immediately rose to my feet and saluted him. “Captain”, I said. “Please sit down.”
He shook his head. “I’m on my way home and was just passing by when I saw you sitting here with suitcases big enough for a minor household. I thought; could that be..? And it turned out I was right. So I stopped by to give you your first case. It is one of my old cases. From 1962. Unsolved”. He smiled for the first time.
“I’m listening, sir”, I answered.
“Well. I’m not going to tell you. You have to work for it. You see, I wrote it down on my trip here. But I wrote it down in the train station ledgers, At six different stations on the route, every station where the train stopped for more than an hour. Of course, I travelled from Vladivostok, so you are going to read it backwards, so to speak. But that shouldn’t be any problem for a young and clever lieutenant, now, should it?”
“You wrote it down for anyone to read?” I asked incredulously.
“Oh, people write the most ridiculous things in those books. I don't expect anyone to find a single one of my entries, even less connect the entries to a comprehensive story. You will find the first one - or, rather, the last one - in Kirov. I wish you good luck and bid you farewell. I hope you find Vladivostok to your liking”, and with that he left my table and vanished.
Our brief encounter had piqued my interest and when the train finally left Moskov I had decided to accept my predecessor’s challenge. When we arrived at Kirov Railway Station, after thirteen hours in solitude in my private compartment, I hurried to the station manager’s office and checked the public ledger. Yes, there it was, an entry about a murder case in Vladivostok, a long time ago. It was written in a meticulous and old-fashioned handwriting and this is what it said:
We didn't have many murder cases during my fortyfive years in Vladivostok but those we had were usually easy to solve, even if we didn't always get our man. Mother Russia was a big country and bad people in subterfuge had a lot of places to run to.
But I will always remember this case. For one thing, it was very typical of how we prioritised; murder wasn’t the worst crime you could commit - and when the victim was a known capitalist, well, then nobody really cared. The other thing was the problem with the red wine. That was a big oversight. Maybe, if we had told our superiors in Moskov about it, we would have been given more time to investigate - but I never told them. In all the years that followed I have thought about it and every time it has felt like a cold shower. Could I have handled things in another way? A better way?
All the same, the case was soon forgotten. I believe the files were lost in the fire of -78 so there is no use looking for DNA or any of that fancy stuff. The case only exists in my mind - and, now, in the pages I have written down during my last voyage.
It had to be about a pretty old case, I concluded. It didn’t intrigue me at first but I was curious about the mentioning of “the red wine” and I was - kind of - looking forward to the next entry.
Twenty four hours later we arrived at Omsk with it's beautiful, sky blue railway station The entry in the ledger was short:
Where was I? Oh, yes. The wine. The wine was a problem. We didn't find any traces of wine on Svetlana's dress and yet everyone at the Rusalka assured us that she had spilled wine all over her. Maybe we should have taken this discrepancy more seriously but we didn't have time to examine every tiny aspect of the case. Svetlana Mosnikova was dead. Maybe we didn't care enough.
Anyway, a week later the case was closed; because our resources were limited or because we had to catch another dissident - or something like that.
Yet another day filled with samovar tea served by hostile train hostesses - and an endless landscape in frosty spring-shroud passing by outside the window. The next stop where passengers were allowed to disembark was Krasnoyarsk where I eagerly pulled the ledger from the station masters hands.
The staff at the restaurant, the Rusalka over in Nakhodka, remembered her very well; the red dress and the black flower. She had arrived at lunchtime, alone, and, yes, she had ordered their famous lobster in Pernod. Few tourists ordered anything else. A man had approached her while she was eating, still alone, but she had dismissed him rather forcefully. In the scuffle that followed, she had spilled red wine over the front of her dress. She was very upset - but what could you do? Yes, it was obvious that she had expected company but it wasn't the man that had approached her because she definitely didn't know that man.
I had copied every entry in my private notebook, and on the way between Krasnoyarsk and Irkutsk I arranged them in order. There were still a lot of missing pieces, but the issue with the wine was interesting and opened up to a lot of interpretations. I did not yet know anything about the victim, apart from her name and that my story-teller called her “a capitalist” - which indicated that she was either a foreigner, or at least someone who wouldn't choose red wine with shellfish.
The station master in Irkutsk wore a black ribbon around his upper arm. His two sons had just both died of AIDS. And he wasn't the only one affected by this plague in Irkutsk. The whole town was on its knees by this devastating virus. It was very sad.
But I got my ledger and found the next (or previous) entry:
A few days later we had a kind of breakthrough. The body had been dissected and examined by our pathologist, and she had found some interesting stuff in the stomach. It turned out that our victim had eaten a very specific combination of seafood less than an hour before she died. The specific seafood dish was the signatory dish at a so-called dollar-restaurant in Nakhodka, six hours drive from where the body was found. Since Svetlana had been dead for at least five hours when she was found, it was obvious that she had been killed on the other side of Ussuriyskiy Bay and the body had been driven all the way back to town, only to be massacred and dumped where we would find her. The question was; why?
Yes. Why, indeed, I thought. I knew that Nakhodka was a popular town for tourists and high ranked party members alike. It was quite possible that one of them had been driving by and picked up a hitchhiking Mosnikova, perhaps standing half-naked in a gasoline station rest room washing her red dress clean from wine stains. But then again; you don't get rid of red wine that easily, not “without a trace”.
In Chita I got a glimpse of a motive and a slightly better picture of the victim:
We knew people wouldn’t talk with us. They never did. Ordinary people these days weren't afraid of us; they were indifferent, and they didn't care one bit if we found a perpetrator or a scapegoat or if we didn't find anything. However, we did find a young man who said he saw a car cruising in the neighbourhood at very slow speed late that afternoon. The car was a dark grey or black Moskwich, and, no, he didn’t get the registration number.
We also found the names of Mosnikova’s debtors. It was a long and pathetic list of people from town. I was there, and so were my colleagues Borislav Morozov and Viktor Gusev, but we had all been at work since early that morning and had perfect alibis. (Well, Viktor had actually been away for three hours around lunchtime. But later, when we discovered were the murder had taken place, his alibi became bulletproof.) All of the debtors had a hard time concealing their satisfaction that Svetlana was dead and gone, but they all had good and sturdy alibis and we had to remove them from our diminishing list of suspects one by one.
So she was a money-lender, one of those leeches that thrive on misery and despair. That changes things, I thought. It must have been one of her customers. How he or she did it, I don't know, but the interrogators must have missed something.
I wasn't sure I could solve my predecessor’s case with these meagre tid-bits of information but I was hooked by the story and during the transport between stations I invented lots of more or less probable solutions.
In Khabarovsk I got what I believed was my last piece of the information; the first chapter:
Svetlana Mosnikova was known to us. She was a moneylender preying on the poor and destitute - of which there were plenty. Nobody would mourn her, but we had to do our job.
She was found in Lugovaya, near the fish market, by some women walking home together after a long day's work at the collective cannery. I was on the last stretch of a long and tedious day full of paperwork and minor inspection tours and I was ready to go home myself when the report came in. “Woman found dead with her head bashed in”.
I and two of my colleagues left the station in our Lada and arrived at the crime scene a few minutes later. It was a gruesome sight. The colours were mostly red; red blood everywhere and an expensive red dress, a piece of clothing that suggested that the victim had been in festive circumstances. There were other colours too, colours in a more nauseating anatomical hue.
That didn't help me at all. I was a bit disappointed and wondered if my predecessor had tricked me somehow. He had said that he would give me my first case, but there was nothing here that could lead to anything conclusive. If I were to get anywhere I would have to interview the debtors again - I was certain that the murderer could be found amongst them.
When the train left Khabarovsk on its final leg towards Vladivostok, I packed all my notes together and was prepared never to look at them again.
Several hours later the train stopped at an insignificant station in the middle of nowhere and stood still for a very long time. I asked the conductor what was happening and he informed me that this was the place where the train supplies were replenished. “Does it always stop here?” I asked. “Yes. Always. But it usually doesn't take more than an hour at the most”.
I rushed out of my compartment, out of the wagon and into the station building. The ledger was lying on the ticket counter in an empty waiting hall. It was almost untouched. The only entry, the longest I had seen so far, read as follows:
My name is of no importance. It is enough to know that I was a police officer in the people’s militsiya during the fifties and sixties and the following is an account of an unsolved case from that time. I am now returning to Moscov for the first time since my early youth, and this will also be my final trip because I am old and I am about to die from a terminal affliction.
I’m travelling back to Moscov, and I feel that I have to tell my story, not for the fame and glory but because everything should be properly recorded. I am a killer - a murderer - and I will tell you how I did it, and how I lead the investigation, searching for myself.
I was twenty-six years old and already so deep i depts that I would probably never be free again. How I had gotten myself into this situation is of no importance, what’s important is that my creditor was an evil woman sucking interest upon interest from me every month. Her two goons had beaten me up more than once, while collecting my money.
I began my deed by buying two identical red dresses from a dollar store in Nakhodka. Then I stayed in town until I found a woman of a certain age and with a certain hair colour checking in, without company, to one of the luxurious hotels in that town. She was an insignificant party member by the name of Irina Solovyova and she looked like she was very lonely.
I killed Svetlana Mosnikova on June 14, 1962, 6.500 kilometers from comrade Khrushchev in Kreml and from my bosses in the Bureau of Internal Affairs and 160 kilometers from Nakhodka where Irina Solovyova was having her luxurious lunch. On my own lunch-hour, I invited myself to Mosnikova’s place “to discuss my payments” and treated her with a homemade Langoustine Flambe in Pernod (not the real stuff from France but the closest thing you could get, an anise-flavoured liqueur from Azerbaijan). And then I bashed her in the head with my baton until she was dead. I changed her dress to the red dress from Nakhodka - exactly the same as the one I had sent anonymously to Irina Solovyova, (together with a mysterious invitation to Rusalka, the famous seafood restaurant in Nakhodka that served Langoustine Flambe in Pernod). Then I drove the body to Lugovaya where I finished my deed off with an axe - and went back to work.
I will not make it easy for you, dear reader. I will spread out my confession as I travel to my destination. To read it you must go from Vladivostok to Moscov. I will say no more - you will find it.