Chapter 17 of The Holy Lance, a fantasy thriller

The muse won't let me alone. Third chapter today, with a big discovery on the Moscow side of the story. Comments are welcome.

Chapter 17

Druzhnikov, wearing the same ugly tie he wears nearly every day, sits at his desk reading the latest edition of Novye Izvestia, a Moscow daily. His feet are on his desk once again exposing the hole in his shoe. A story catches his eye. He puts the newspaper on top of all of the other detritus on his desk, swings his legs down, and begins to type on his keyboard, searching the online version of Novye Izvestia. He quickly finds what he was looking for: a story about the murder of a Dr. Beria in St. Petersburg. The story includes a police artist’s sketch of the suspect based upon interviews with employees of Laboratory Testing Services of St. Petersburg. Druzhnikov’s attention turns from the monitor to his desk as he searches for the file about the St. Petersburg kidnapping he was asked to review. He finds it under the crumpled brown paper bag that contained his lunch two days ago. He opens the file, pulls out the grainy surveillance camera picture of Sasha Krupsky, and compares the picture to the artist’s sketch on his screen. He studies the two pictures until he is satisfied. He stands up and opens his office door.

“Ludmilla, you need to see this,” he calls to his assistant.

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The bowels of the Lubyanka have been partly converted. For decades, the bottom of the building was used primarily as a prison where enemies of the state were thrown. They faced interrogation, torture, exile, and, at times, summary execution. As dreaded as the building was, even during the darkest years of the Stalinist purges Russians could be heard joking about it. “It’s the tallest building in Russia. You can see Siberia from its basement!” The jokes are gone, but much of the prison remains. However, a portion of it has been converted to storage, an archive of files and documents no one in the Russian government can quite bring themselves to destroy.

Gregori Druzhnikov and Ludmilla Chebushova sit at a sturdy, metal table surrounded by shelves containing thousands of boxes filled with files from the KGB era. A single, bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling provides the only light. The still air is thick with cigarette smoke. On Druzhnikov’s right are 15 boxes sitting on the floor, stacked three high in five columns, and all marked in Cyrillic “17 JULY 1918,” the date the Communists decided to end the exile and lives of the Romanovs in Ekaterinburg.  Another identically marked box with its cardboard lid removed sits on the table next to a magnifying glass and a full, plastic ashtray. They are both reading files from the box on the table, careful to put each file back in the box in the same order it occupied once they have satisfied themselves it contains nothing that will assist them. They have been at it for nearly three hours. The lone light goes out.

“Hey! Leave it on!” Druzhnikov shouts.

The light goes back on. A man’s voice echoes through the musty room.

“Turn it out when you leave. Don’t forget.”

Druzhnikov does not bother to respond. He checks his watch, rubs his eyes, closes the file in front of him, places it back in the box, pulls another out of the box, opens it, and begins reading. Ludmilla, ready to call it a night, looks up from the file in front of her.

“This isn’t what I had in mind when you asked me if I’d like to spend some quiet time alone with you.”

“What did you think? I was going to buy you dinner?”

“Never mind. You’re hopeless. Is this is how you old farts won the Cold War?”

Druzhnikov bursts into a hearty laugh.

“Is that what they teach in school these days? That we won? Hah!”

“Why are we wasting our time? There’s nothing in here. Files about the Bolshevik murder of the Romanovs from 1918? Please. I know you don’t believe this, but not every crime committed in Russia since then is connected to those murders.”

“And if this one is? The murdered doctor was a DNA specialist, and at least one of our kidnappers might have killed him. You saw the sketch and the stills from the security camera. It can’t be a coincidence.”

“Then congratulations. Your obsession with an event from nearly a century ago will finally pay off for you. You’ll catch a kidnapper, solve a crime no one wants solved, and maybe they’ll give you a raise so you can buy a new hideous tie.”

“What’s wrong with this one? One more box. Humor me. I know there are surveillance photographs. They might not be recent, but I know we have them.”

“The group is a myth. The KGB eliminated them as surely as the Romanovs were  eliminated. They didn’t survive Stalin’s purges. Not possible.”

Druzhnikov looks at her slyly and teases.

“You’re secretly hoping that the lights will go out again, aren’t you?”

“Don’t flatter yourself, old man.”

“Okay, then. Back to work,” he orders with feigned seriousness.

Chebushova can’t bear the thought of reading another document, so she takes a stab at a question instead.

“What about the girl? Kotuzov’s girlfriend.”

“I spoke to her. She’s small, but tough. Wouldn’t give me a thing. I gave her my cell number. We’ll see.”

Chebushova lights a cigarette. Druzhnikov continues to flip through the file in front of him. He comes to a group photograph. He studies it carefully, stops, and picks up the magnifying glass. Using the magnifying glass, he goes back and forth between the photograph in the file, and the photograph and artist’s sketch of Sasha Krupsky.

“If it’s a myth, explain this,” he exclaims.

He slides the magnifying glass, the Krupsky sketch and photograph, and the file to Chebushova. She reviews the three documents carefully.

“There they are! The Sons of Peter, as recently as last year, on the anniversary of the Romanov murders. Tour group my ass. And right in the middle of it, our kidnapper from St. Petersburg, the same man who probably killed Doctor DNA. Ha! As the Americans say, ‘Who’s the man?!’”

Ludmilla continues to scan the three images.

“It could be the same man. If it is, it’s fantastic, but with your reputation I’m afraid no one will believe you, Gregori.”

“What about you? Do you believe me?”

She does not immediately respond. Instead, she continues to study the three images, looking carefully, slowly at each through the magnifying glass. Just as Druzhnikov is about to lose his patience she sets the magnifying glass on the table, sits back in her chair, takes a long drag from her cigarette, and stares at Druszhnikov. She exhales.

“I’m starting to,” she barely whispers as she shakes her head, trying to contemplate the significance of what they may have uncovered.