Chapter 22 of The Holy Lance, a fantasy thriller

FSB spends some face time at the scene of Dr. Beria's murder.

Chapter 22

Gregori Druzhnikov is not easily impressed. Having witnessed the collapse of the seemingly invincible Soviet Union and the demise of the once omnipotent Communist Party, he knows that the trappings of power and success are nothing more than an ephemeral veneer that can be instantly stripped away by the caprice of history. In Druzhnikov’s view, the new power of capital in post-Soviet Russia, on such ostentatious display throughout a nation that once officially condemned that power, is no different. It has come, and it will go, and those obsessed with revering both capital and the power of those amassing it are as foolish as those who paid fervent homage to the dogma of socialism. As he enters the reception area of the offices of the Laboratory Testing Services of St. Petersburg, the symbols of a clearly successful private enterprise, something missing from the daily lives of Russians for seven decades, make no impression on him. He looks around, not with admiration or envy, but with an investigator’s eye, wondering how it is that a man’s brutal beating and murder, in his office in the middle of the workday, could go unnoticed by his colleagues for more than an hour.

He approaches the receptionist and identifies himself.

“Druzhnikov, FSB. I’d like to ask you a few questions. Is this a convenient time?”

The receptionist glares at him, but does not otherwise respond. Druzhnikov, unperturbed, continues.

“Were you on duty the day Dr. Beria was killed?”

The receptionist grows immediately defensive.

“FSB? Why are you here. Talk to the police. I already told the police everything. You should ask them.”

Druzhnikov smiles.

“They’re next, but you’re lucky because I’m starting with you. I trust that I can count on your cooperation,” he states with a hint of the old KGB malevolence.

“I gave my statement. I cooperated once already. Why do I have to do more?”

Druzhnikov decides that being a hard ass is unlikely to get him anywhere, so he tries a somewhat softer approach.

“Why don’t you calm down? No one is blaming you. I just need to get as clear a picture as possible of what happened, okay?”

The receptionist looks as if she is ready to cry. Druzhnikov is trying to determine if the emotion is genuine or an easily-summoned defense mechanism.

“It hasn’t been easy.”

“Of course not. I won’t be here long. Just a few questions.”

“All right. But please, make it quick. Your presence here is bad for business.”

Druzhnikov ignores the insult.

“The police report said there was no file on the customer. Why is that?”

“I don’t know. I’m the receptionist not the file clerk.”

“But surely you’re familiar with office protocol?”

“Yes. Of course.” She takes a deep breath before continuing.

“We always make two copies. One for the customer, one for our files. The customer was here to pick up the report on the testing. There should have been our own file with the original documents.”

“DNA testing?”

“Yes. For the last customer he saw him alive.”

“Do you know if Dr. Beria did this particular test himself?”

“He did, but that’s not unusual. He is, well he was, the most qualified technician in the office.”

“And the customer gave no name, do I have that right?”

“Yes, but the police have the surveillance video. His picture was in the papers.”

“What about Dr. Beria’s hard drive?”

 “The police took it two days after he was killed.”

“Were his files backed up on your server?”

“The police again.”

“How are you functioning with no server?”

“It was returned the same day, along with the technicians to install it. No charge they said, just like that. But it had been scrubbed. Dr. Beria’s files. They were all missing.”

“Did you know Dr. Beria well?”

“I have been working here for three years. He always treated me with kindness.”

“Anything special?”

The receptionistbristles.

“Of course not! I am a married woman. Make sure you put that in your report.”

“No dinners after work? No special chit chat? No secrets?”

“I told you. Nothing. Nothing at all. Why won’t you leave me alone?”

“All right. Here’s my card. If you think of anything, please call my cell, day or night.”

She takes his card and studies it for a moment before setting it down.

“Thank you so much. Your full cooperation will be noted.”

Druzhnikov turns to walk out. She stops him.

“There is one other thing.”

Druzhnikov stops and turns around.

“And that would be?”

She looks around furtively. Certain that no one else is around, she motions for Druzhnikov to come closer. He walks right up to her and leans over the reception desk.

“I overheard Dr. Beria mention Ekaterinburg when the customer first came in about a week before the murder. I was taking coffee to them. They stopped talking as I opened the door, but he clearly said Ekaterinburg. It made me shiver. I should have knocked first. I always knock first. I don’t know why I didn’t, but I wish I had.”

“Do the police know this? I saw no mention of it in their file.”

“No. I didn’t remember it until the day after they were here. The whole thing was such a shock. I was not myself. You understand, don’t you?”

“Of course. You needn’t worry. I’ll tell them for you.”

“Would you? Oh, thank you so much. I don’t want them to come back here. I can’t lose this job.”

“No one’s going to lose their job. Can you think of anything else you may have forgotten to mention?”

“No. That’s all. I swear to you. I thought about calling them. Really, I did.”

“Well you have my number, and you’ll call me if you remember anything else you think I should know, won’t you.”

“Yes. I will. I will. And thank you for being so kind.”

“No, it is I who should thank you,” Druzhnikov replies with an air of friendly formality. He turns to leave, smiling as the word Ekaterinburg, a word that has haunted him since his days as a schoolboy, is transformed from a conspiracy theorist’s tiresome mantra into the key to solving an anything but random murder.