New Holland: A White Nights Mystery

Chapter 1

St. Petersburg governor Alexey Vinogradov hadn’t been to bed for almost a week: there was a city to rebuild. The new Russia, with its new money and new decision makers, demanded chromium and glass over Imperial elegance or Communist functionality, and since election his life had become a tense conveyor belt of meetings with Armani-clad investors in exclusive sushi restaurants or the hidden rooms of gentlemen’s clubs on Nevsky Prospekt. Once the entertainment was over, his new friends were usually happy to produce the ‘presents’ he requested to bypass most of the paperwork.

But not the Icelanders. Rocking back and forth in his office just after midnight, he felt tense as he remembered how they’d taken exception to the idea during a boat tour of the city. They’d even threatened to cancel everything. Did they not know how things got done at the top level? Did they really think their tiny new shopping centre was so important? Perhaps they were working for a liberal newspaper or television channel.

He stared at the River Neva in the late daylight, wishing the White Nights were ending rather than starting. Every year they stopped him from sleeping but that June they were making him edgy, a rash jangling on his skin. He brushed away the thought that there was more to the Icelanders than met the eye. Hopefully when the White Nights finished the small fry would disappear, replaced by serious businesspeople from all over the world who’d help him make the money his predecessor had enjoyed.

He glanced at the New Holland contract. It was his number one priority for the coming weeks, a risky but fruitful deal – he was going to sell the Swedes a useless little island for a lot of money. The military had abandoned it, and most people had forgotten it existed. What did history matter if the place was dead? Only the dark shadows in the dissident population and his own circle threatened a smooth sale. He swatted a mosquito on his desk, inspecting it for traces of blood. Brushing it to the floor, he again questioned who was most dangerous. Russians loved history and tradition, but liked to be led and could not get organised; the Leningrad People’s Resistance would not stop the deal. But the people close to him, the former diplomats and civil servants with three languages and Western ideas…did one of them know about the plan? Scanning the secret list of names he’d written, paranoia crept through the room like a spider. Someone close, a misguided patriot or one of the Westernisers, could be plotting.

On a boat bar outside a group of students was shouting and singing. Their joy ate into him, making him even more nervous; it was time to leave. Grasping the bottle of Hine 1975 – a present from the Swedes – from his desk and trying to ignore his shaking hands, Vinogradov thought of Anya. She’d be in the usual place. A hit of passion would temporarily cloak the danger. He picked up his mobile and dialled his driver.

‘Ivan, pick me up in ten minutes.’

‘Are you going to Nevsky?’

He paused.

‘No – I’m going home. My wife is expecting me.’

‘I’ll be waiting, Alexey Alexeevich.’

Alexey texted his wife and left the Smolny, examining the walls and ceiling of his office as he always did. Even under duress, he still felt in awe of the beautiful Palladian building. His bodyguard, Vladimir, was waiting in the corridor. Vinogradov slotted his hands into his pockets, avoiding eye contact.

‘I’m going to walk around the grounds, Vova, then I’m going back to the Moika. You go home.’

‘I must come with you, Alexey Alexeevich.’

‘No. I want to walk alone tonight.’

The gardens were not as spectacular as the building, though Alexey always felt sanctuary within their boundaries. He’d wanted to save the Hine for later, but he needed a drink right now. Slugging on the bottle, he turned up a flamenco track on his iPod. He leant against the railings exactly as he had done when he was a student, though in those days he had been on the other side, lost in the beauty of the structure and wondering whether he would ever get inside.

Now he was inside he sometimes wanted nothing more than to get out. But right now there was no choice. New Holland. The name rattled ceaselessly through him. Could it really work? What if the Swedes discovered the truth? What if they already knew the truth? He swallowed more Hine as he considered the possibilities: serious money, prison or even death. Closing his eyes, he told himself things would be OK. He’d be able to buy the villa in Seville next door to the Russian footballer he was friends with. He could send the children to London to do more postgraduate study, though he knew his daughter would demand Spain this time.

Should he have called Anya? No: Olga was suspicious. Once New Holland was completed he would start things with one of the other girls, though right now sex seemed a strangely scary prospect. He drank another large gulp, enjoying the dulling his senses. Becoming heavier against the railings, he closed his eyes tighter and imagined he was a child, gardening and swimming with his grandmother at the family’s country house. They had been the happiest days of his life.

Maybe his reminiscence took over him; maybe it was the Hine or the whinnying guitar, but Alexey did not hear the car glide up behind him. He did not see the figures jump the railings, and was not quick enough to identify the hand that grabbed him. His torso was held firmly, and a cloth placed roughly over his mouth and nose by another pair of hands. He didn’t hear the clink of the bottle as it collided with the railings. He didn’t remember being dragged into the back of the jeep, unable to confirm which of his ghosts had finally caught up with him.

Chapter 2

The doorbell jerked Jonathan David awake just before 7am. He’d probably been dreaming about Olesya again, but then she ghosted into his mind most nights.

Nobody knows where I live, he thought as he stumbled around the room, trying with half-shut eyes to find a full set of clothes. Nobody except one person. A peek through the front door’s spy hole revealed he was correct. Paul. With a Russian woman. Jonathan opened the door, scratching a mosquito bite on his arm.

‘Morning Jon.’

‘It’s a bit early, Paul. Can you give me ten minutes?’

Paul looked around before whispering his answer.

‘We need to come in now. I don’t want Olga Andreevna to wait out here; it wouldn’t be good if she got recognised.’

‘What?’

‘Let us in and I’ll explain everything.’

Jonathan stepped aside, gluey eyes scanning the lady. Somewhere in her late forties or early fifties, she was attractive: probably part of St. Petersburg’s jet set with her expensive raincoat, extravagant hairstyle and extra-soft skin. She looked uncomfortable in her shabby surroundings, as if she feared she might catch some disease just by being there. Jonathan wondered whether he recognised her – perhaps from the many hours of television he’d been clocking up – but chased the thought away as he realised the poor impression his dishevelled early-morning stare was making. A wealthy woman on his doorstep could mean a decent payday for once.

‘Put some coffee on, mate, and I’ll be through in a few minutes.’

‘We’ll be in your office.’

Changing into a clean t-shirt, he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror left by the previous occupant: he ate little, but there was a bulge where his stomach was. Next to Paul and the Russian he probably looked like a tramp. As he sprayed himself with deodorant, he tried to guess what she wanted. Most likely her husband was being unfaithful and Jonathan was to follow him, though she was of a different class to the women Paul had brought in the past. Perhaps she was being unfaithful and wanted help covering her own tracks. Feeling relaxed and sleepy, Jonathan straightened his shoulders and sat down behind his desk. His mind was quickly scrubbed awake.

‘Jonathan, I’d like you to meet Olga Andreevna. She’s the wife of St. Petersburg’s governor.’

‘Semyon Mikhailichenko?’

Olga Andreevna’s glare marked his answer with a fat X. Paul continued, glancing nervously at her as he did so.

‘No – Mikhailichenko was arrested before the elections, remember?’

Jonathan didn’t remember – he’d probably been very drunk in front of a bad film that day.

‘Her husband is Alexey Vinogradov, and last night he was kidnapped in the garden of his offices. A smashed bottle of cognac was found by an area overlooking the river.’

‘An inside job?’

‘Possibly – but the police have discounted the driver and the bodyguard. CCTV corroborates their alibis.’

Jonathan remembered an anti-government blog he’d read.

‘Isn’t Vinogradov the one turning half the city into shopping malls?’

‘He’s building more retail units, yes.’

‘A high-pressure job. I’ll bet he liked a drink.’

Paul looked uneasy. He remained silent.

‘It sounds more like an accident than a kidnap. Most likely he was winding down with a bottle, feeling the heat from the Moscow puppet masters. He went for a dip and drowned in the Neva.’

‘Jonathan…’

‘Or he wanted to die and jumped in. Now his people want a cover up. I don’t want any involvement if…’

‘My husband is not a drunk and not a puppet! And he did not kill himself!’

Jonathan had assumed Olga Andreevna did not speak English very well. Staring at his computer screen, he blushed slightly. Paul touched her arm, glaring at Jonathan with a look he’d often seen since returning to St. Petersburg. He wondered whether Paul was becoming a surrogate big brother.

‘It’s OK, Olga Andreevna. Jonathan’s covering all the possibilities. He likes to get stuck in when he’s starting an investigation. I told you he was good.’

Jonathan twitched in his seat. He hadn’t agreed to any investigation. He was about to speak when Paul caught his eye. Placing index finger to lips, he encouraged the younger man’s silence.

‘There are several possibilities, including a Scandinavian link.’

‘Are the police involved?’

‘Yes – but they won’t find him!’ Olga Andreevna cut in suddenly. Jonathan wondered whether the reaction seemed exaggerated. He turned to look at her.

‘Why do you say that?’

‘None of our police speaks English properly, and there’s an important Western connection. You need to investigate the Icelanders and the Swedes he’s been doing business with recently – he’s become a lot more stressed since he started working with them. They think they’re better than us; that they can come to Russia and act as they wish. They start getting upset when they find they need to play by our rules.’

Olga Andreevna was beginning to intimidate him. He wasn’t sure whether it was the immaculate appearance, the domineering manner or the feeling that she was holding something back. He stood up, trying to smile.

‘I don’t know if I can help you. Paul, can I speak to you outside?’

In the corridor Paul grabbed Jonathan’s shoulders. He squeezed them encouragingly.

‘Come on, this is your chance – a big case at last!’

Jonathan pulled away and folded his arms.

‘I’m not doing it, Paul. Don’t try and persuade me.’

Paul’s smile disappeared.

‘If you help her find the governor do you know what it’ll do for your reputation?’

‘I’m not doing it. It’d be a joke.’

‘What do you mean?’

Jonathan jabbed a slender finger back to where Olga Andreevna was sitting.

‘She did it. It’s obvious.’

Paul checked the office nervously, but she hadn’t heard. He drew his face closer to Jonathan’s. As usual, he smelled of an expensive soap.

‘What are you talking about? Olga Andreevna cares very much for her husband!’

‘Can you prove that?’

‘No, but what makes you so sure she did it?’

‘She’s wearing far too much make-up given what’s happened; she knows he’s been kidnapped rather than murdered though there’s been no ransom call; she’s insisting on odd culprits rather than anyone realistic. Do you really think a foreigner would have the balls to kidnap the governor of St. Petersburg?’

‘Depends how much he wants it and who’s helping him.’

‘I still think she’s acting strangely.’

Paul moved away slightly, hands clapping in exasperation.

‘She’s the governor’s wife, Jonathan – this is her brave public face. Come on, say yes – I’ll help you!’

Jonathan smiled as he looked along the gloomy corridor, wondering whether he should replace the faded wallpaper during the summer. If he could be bothered, he would put a shelf up for his Ladybird book collection.

‘You seem very keen on me taking this job on. Who is she, Paul?’

‘Who’s who?’

‘Who’s the woman you’re doing this for? You’re well dressed for a quick visit to me. Surely you’re not…’

Jonathan nodded towards where Olga Andreevna was now looking through the window. She was surveying the grubby courtyard below, head tilted at a disdainful angle.

‘No! Of course not!’

There were a few seconds of silence before Paul spoke, a sheepish look on his face.

‘But I have been seeing her daughter for a few weeks. It’s going well, but this is a family crisis and Sonya’s really upset. I want to help.’

‘Good for you, but I’m not sure I do, even if I’d be helping St. Petersburg’s number one babnik out.’

‘She’s threatening to move to Italy.’

‘Why?’

‘Because she’s scared of being here! Jon, I feel like she could be the one.’

‘Just like the girl from British Airways, the older woman from Kiev, the lady at the Finnish Consulate…’

‘I just want to give us a chance. You know how it was with you and…’

Paul stopped short of mentioning Olesya, perhaps remembering what had happened last time he’d suggested calling her.

‘That’s not fair. I was in love when I asked you to help me out.’

Paul squeezed his shoulder again, this time more gently.

‘Sorry. But won’t you at least think about this? I want you to do something with your life – you need to get yourself a proper career. Do you really want to turn forty living in Kolomna?’

‘You sound like a New Russian.’

‘It’s a slum; don’t tell me you like it here.’

‘I do: I don’t have to try too hard. I’m happy collecting evidence on unfaithful husbands every so often and not worrying about anything else. It keeps me going.’

‘You’ll be doing more than that if you accept this job: she’s offering $100,000.’

Jonathan grasped the doorframe, feeling it jar in his hands. An uncomfortable tingle moved across his neck.

‘How much?’

‘She said $80,000, but I’ll talk her round.’

Jonathan wondered whether Olesya’s husband earned that much in a year. He could start saving to buy back the family house in England.

‘I don’t know – I need to think about it.’

Without waiting for a response he walked back into his office. Paul followed.

‘Olga Andreevna, I’ve had a think and I’m willing to at least consider this. But if I were to help you I’d require a slightly higher fee.’

The Russian gave him a patronising look.

‘I knew the money would tempt you. How much extra do you want?’

Paul cut in.

‘$100,000 is Jonathan’s standard fee for dealing with kidnappings, but I can assure you he’ll be well worth it. He will not sleep until your husband is found.’

Olga Andreevna smiled for the first time since she’d got to Jonathan’s flat.

‘Very well – but you need to start working now! Start by speaking to Inspector Bugrov at the 33rd precinct – he’s in charge of this investigation.’

‘Olga Andreevna, he’ll go there just as soon as you conclude our meeting!’

A red dart of anger shot up Jonathan’s spine, pecking at the back of his neck; the reaction to this used to be rolling a few joints and finding a corner where he could smoke himself to oblivion. Now his world was a little more complicated.

‘Listen, both of you. I haven’t agreed to anything yet – you’ll need to give me 24 hours to think this through.’

Paul’s face went limp. He spoke out of the side of his mouth.

‘But we’ve agreed…’

‘Paul – this will take over my whole life. I need time.’

Olga Andreevna frowned.

‘Very well – you have 24 hours. But remember, your home will still look like this tomorrow. The tramps will still be drinking samogon outside.’

The pecking exploded and wriggled through his body, and he felt his face grow red.

‘Olga Andreevna: before you go, maybe I should explain a few of my reservations. A few moments ago you said the police can’t solve this, but now you’re telling me to visit them as soon as possible. I don’t understand.’

Paul covered his forehead and looked away. The Russian’s blue eyes scanned the room. Jonathan wondered whether he heard hesitancy in her answer.

‘Well, you must of course work a little with the police. But Bugrov is the only man to work with; don’t trust any of the others.’

‘And why the Scandinavians? Surely a better lead would be a Russian –someone with good access to the governor.’

‘Jonathan David, no patriotic Russian would kidnap our governor.

‘But not every Russian is patriotic.’

The Russian’s voice got a little higher.

‘At the moment our only lead is the Scandinavians. They’re staying at the Grand Hotel Europe on Nevsky Prospekt.’

‘It’s not much of a lead. Who’s heading their delegations?’

‘I’m only the governor’s wife.’

‘So shall I call the hotel and ask to speak to any Swede or Icelander they have staying there?’

‘You’re the investigator – work it out.’

‘And what about the crime scene? I should go there before any hotel…’

Olga Andreevna wagged a finger in front of him. Jonathan wondered whether she had a French manicure, though he didn’t really know what one looked like.

‘No, no, no. Do not go there. Bugrov’s team has already been – there is nothing to see.’

‘Maybe they missed something.’

‘No! If you go there I will not hire you!’

Olga Andreevna stormed from the office, not looking at either man. As the door slammed, causing the flimsy lock to tremble, Paul spoke.

‘Jonathan, there’s a little phrase you need to learn: bedside manner.’

‘She did it, Paul. Look how edgy she is.’

‘She’s upset – even more so now she’s met you. Jon, I know her – she wouldn’t do a thing like that!’

Jonathan looked out of the window. The dishevelled men drinking in the yard gave him an odd comfort.

‘What does she like doing?’

‘What?’

‘In her free time: I like listening to Nick Drake records and looking out of the window. You like chatting up women at exclusive parties. What does she like?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Then you don’t know her, and that means you can’t be too sure of her. Oh, why didn’t I just say no? If it wasn’t for you I’d be back in bed by now!’

Sitting behind the desk, Jonathan fired up his computer and loaded the web browser. Paul nudged him.

‘Shouldn’t you go and see this Bugrov guy?’

‘Later. Right now I’m doing research. What these older people forget is that we know how to use computers better than them. I’m going to see if there’s anything she’s not telling us about her husband.’

The Google search returned over 250,000 hits. 

‘You’ll need to refine that, Jon; add a few more search terms.’

Jonathan looked at Paul, a slow smile breaking across his lips.

‘Who’s in charge?’

‘You are, for once.’

A plan was crystallising inside Jonathan’s cluttered mind.

‘Then get yourself off to your day job! You can help me find your girlfriend’s daddy later. I’ll call you when I need you.’

‘Yes sir! I hope I’ll get a decent cut of this hundred grand.’

‘I haven’t said I’ll do it yet. Just make sure you’re smartly dressed by early afternoon: a suit and tie.’

Chapter 3

Jonathan made the call at midday from the Bridge of Kisses, using a pay-as-you-go mobile. He hoped he sounded something like Paul.

‘Is that Mr. Kaamark?’

‘Who is this?’

‘Paul Wilson, director of the British Council in St. Petersburg. I’ve been asked to meet with you to discuss this terrible business with the governor. I’m his future son-in-law, and Olga Andreevna wants to make sure none of his contacts are left out of the loop during the investigation.’

There was silence for a few moments before Kaamark spoke.

‘This is a very worrying business. Do the police have any leads?’

‘They have a good idea about what has happened; I’d like to meet you to tell you more.’

‘Did Olga Andreevna give you my number?’

‘She told me where you were staying.’

‘It’s strange you called the hotel reception to ask for me, Paul – she could have given you my mobile number.’

Jonathan fidgeted with his other mobile. Another lie from her.

‘She must have forgotten she had it; she’s quite upset at the moment. Can we meet later today?’

‘Good idea. Why don’t you come to the hotel?’

Once a time had been set with the Swede, Jonathan dumped the handset in the doorway of a scruffy building that leant against the bridge’s slinky curve. It was a twenty-minute walk to his favourite thinking spot in St. Petersburg, but he never minded the journey. The decision to stay in Russia and be with Olesya had been made there, even after the physical threats from her ex-boyfriend, as had his final decision to give up on their relationship and return to England. More recently he’d decided to stop drinking for a month there, just to prove that he wasn’t becoming his father. Now he needed to work out whether to take the $100,000 for a farcical and dangerous mission.

A small bird joined Jonathan, perched unmoving on the granite, as if trying to capture just one of his thoughts before taking off again. Jonathan briefly wondered what type it was but had no idea. The bird suddenly launched itself into the sticky afternoon air and Jonathan was alone again, mind unzipped and spaghetti-like in confusion.

Jonathan’s first action once Paul left that morning had not been to refine the Google search but to return to bed. It had been difficult to sleep the previous night, the cheerful shaft of light penetrating his thin curtain and the air heavy with the buzz of mosquitoes. He’d remembered the dream about Olesya. It was one he’d had before: they were walking along the rails between two metro stations, holding hands. Water was running down the walls, and one of them was crying. This time it was him.

A little less tired, he had returned to Google at 9.30 with a mug of sencha green tea. There was nothing but syndicated good news about Vinogradov and his wife on the web, as well as a story of a $150,000 deal done with a group of Icelanders the day before. Jonathan was about to give up when he stumbled across a message board on Yandex:

 

RE: Sale of the city!!

Lyolik_87: 3%’s going to flog the lot to the Europeans over the next five years – just watch. Someone close to him tells me there’s a secret deal to sell New Holland to a group of Swedish criminals. They’re going to open a new IKEA and trade centre there, as well as a load of other Western shit. As soon as the deal’s done, they’ll hoist their flag over it. In five years there’ll be nothing Russian left in this city!

Dyomka: Who’s 3%? And why do a bunch of Swedish criminals want New Holland? It’s a wreck of an island in a crappy area! We had to move my granny out of Kolomna because of all the drunks and foreigners; I’d rather share a room with her than have her living with them. Have we all forgotten that Russia is for Russians?!

Lyolik_87: 3% is Vinogradov – that’s the cut he demands for signing any deal. Unfortunately no-one in his administration agrees that Russia is for Russians. The foreign tourists won’t think Kolomna’s a dump if it’s got a Swedish furniture store and luxury hotels in the middle of it.

The messages had been posted earlier that morning. Jonathan wondered whether Dyomka had chosen his Yandex password carefully. Apparently not – it was 123456. Logged in as the unfortunate young man, Jonathan responded to Lyolik_87 using slangy Russian to disguise his bad grammar:

Dyomka: Sounds like bullshit, Lyolik_87! I work at the airport and no Swedes have come through lately other than tourists. Do you really believe Russia is for Russians?

Lyolik_87 fell into the trap:

Lyolik_87: I’m a patriot! You don’t know who you’re talking to…

Dyomka: You know nothing. Fact – there are no Swedes doing business in the city at the moment.

Lyolik_87: Try the name Lars Kaamark on your passenger lists if you know so much – former jailbird running the New Holland show! If you still don’t believe me, come to Pushkin 10 – The Leningrad People’s Resistance! We’re the only ones who give a shit about our city being raped!

Luckily Lars Kaamark was a rare name; he was CEO of Solna Holdings, and, according to a Swedish anarchists’ blog, with a string of convictions for violence during the eighties. But Pushkin 10 was home to an arts centre rather than any resistance organisation. Jonathan tried his luck as Dyomka once more:

Dyomka: Only God can save us if the opposition to the sale of the city is a group of artists! Hope you and your friends can get a bit more muscle in for the fight ahead!

But Lyolik_87 hadn’t bitten; five minutes later, his post naming Kaamark was deleted.

The sun was high in the sky, baking the city’s bricks and steel and granite as Jonathan watched the River Moika lap gently, stirring his mind once more. The figure of $100,000 floated straight to the surface – it was at once enticing and guilt-inducing, the smoky glance of a future lover.

          I’m curious about this case.

I already know who’s guilty. She wants to hire me because she thinks I’m useless – that I’ll never get her.

But I’ll prove it’s her, and I’ll find out who she’s working with. I don’t think she can do this alone.

The Icelanders have already gone home, and their project was worth nothing.

The New Holland deal seems prominent. Some involved in that, either Lars Kaamark or The Leningrad People’s Resistance, knows more. I need to visit them both, and I need to watch her too.

$100,000 – it will probably make or destroy me. Can I do it?

I’m in. I’ll tell her tomorrow. But Paul needs to know now. He’s meeting Kaamark today.

‘I’m meeting who? Jonathan, I’ve know we’ve been friends for a long time, but this is taking things a bit far.’

‘Well, you did say you’d help. What did you have in mind – doing the photocopying?’

‘No, but I’m quite busy here, and…’

‘I’ve arranged a meeting for you with the head of the Swedish delegation. It starts in two hours. I can’t go – I’m awful at meetings but you were born for this kind of thing. Are you wearing a suit and tie?’

‘Of course! I’m director of the British Council!’

‘Good. It’s just that the old director always wore Farah trousers and a Pringle jumper. Paul, think what this’ll do for your love life. You’re helping out your fiancée’s family.’

‘What fiancée, Jon? Oh, you didn’t…’

‘I’m afraid I told him you were engaged. The truth would’ve sounded tenuous, so I embellished. Look, the worst thing that could happen is you’ll have to marry a pretty girl ten years younger than you. I assume that’s an accurate description.’

‘Oh, Jon! What are you doing to me?’

But Jonathan could already hear a smile in Paul’s voice.

‘Help Sonya find her daddy – she’ll run away to his mansion in Italy if you don’t. Get yourself down to Gostiny Dvor around half past two. I’ll be in the pizza place.’

Gostiny Dvor was no longer Nevsky Prospekt’s main shopping attraction, but Jonathan still found allure in its well-trodden marble floors and pretty arches. This was despite the odd layout: the main walkways looked identical to one another, and there were few windows to the world outside. If one spent long enough inside it was easy to get disorientated and leave through an exit a long way from where you wanted to be.

Paul arrived exactly on time, wearing a tailor-made suit he’d bought in Moscow. His hair was ruffled with a little gel, and an expensive tang skipped around him. Jonathan had always been in awe of the way his friend could turn female heads; even well into his thirties he retained a boyish spark in an otherwise manly demeanour.

‘Pizza? You’ve still got time.’

‘Shut up! Just tell me what I’ve got to do.’

‘Have a chat with Kaamark. You’re keeping him updated: tell him the police have got significant leads on a group of artist dissidents.’

‘What?’

‘They’re angry that he wants to buy New Holland.’

‘And regenerate it and make it useful. When will these people get a grip?’

‘When the city stops changing – not everything needs to be geared around money-making.’

Paul frowned, looking at the overcooked pizzas on the hotplate.

‘What next?’

‘Check his reaction – whether he’s surprised, indifferent or pleased. And ask him about when he last saw Vinogradov, and whether their meeting went well. Don’t ask about anything to do with corruption, though.’

‘Why not?’

‘They all pay bribes, but let’s pretend for now they don’t.’

‘That new IKEA got built without a bribe being paid.’

‘Yes, but I think we can assume Kaamark isn’t that principled. We’ll try and get some information on that later.’

‘I’m a bit nervous.’

‘You’ll be fine. I’ve been following him for the last couple of hours; he’s been milling around the shops, picking up souvenirs and chatting to a pretty young lady in the Gino Ginelli café. He’s leaving town.’

‘Do you think he might be dangerous?’

‘He’s just an ordinary businessman who happens to have chosen a bad time to sign a deal. Anyway, you won’t be on your own in there; I’ll be hanging around the shops in the hotel concourse, playing the overwhelmed-by-all-the-beauty European tourist.’

‘I did wonder why you were wearing a bum bag.’

Jonathan entered the Grand Hotel Europe’s atrium ten minutes before Paul, buying himself a day-old copy of The Times and sitting three settees away from where he could already see Lars Kaamark waiting. He was in his late forties, with a shaven head rather than receding hairline, and underneath his expensive suit lurked a man forceful enough to have got to the top at any cost. Peering over the newspaper, Jonathan noticed that he had particularly thick wrists.

Paul arrived on time and strode over, nerves apparently evaporated.

‘You must be Lars. Hi, I’m Paul Wilson. We spoke on the phone earlier.’

‘Hi, good to meet you. Your family must be very concerned.’

The Swede seemed to have bought the worried fiancée line; Jonathan hoped he’d also forgotten the strange way he’d been contacted.

‘We are, especially Sonya. She usually sleeps so well through the White Nights. But the police are doing everything they can to find Alexey Alexeevich. Hopefully your deal will be back on track in the nearest future.’

Lars tilted his head, looking at Paul from an angle.

‘I hope so too. But one small thing concerns me. I find it a little strange that his wife sent you here; I’d have thought someone from the administration would have been more suitable.’

Paul paused momentarily, watching Lars as he ritually wrung his hands. A chunky gold bracelet danced in the atrium’s warmth.

Deal with it, Paul.

‘It was Olga Andreevna’s idea. I think she felt that a Westerner would reassure you in a way that Russian wouldn’t.’

Lars smiled and gestured for the two of them to sit down. Jonathan fiddled with his bum bag, concentrating on the gentle flutter of a nearby water feature. He wondered whether the café sold green tea and went to check, but decided that it was too expensive when he had good quality sencha waiting at home. As he ambled back towards the water feature his mind was jolted by the question he’d told Paul not to ask.

‘Lars, did Alexey ask you to give him any ‘presents’ to get the contract signed? I know what he can be like.’

The question seemed to have surprised the Swede. He left it hanging in the air and looked Paul directly in the eye. It had been a bad idea to get an amateur involved. In the pizza café they had agreed that when Jonathan left Paul would close the meeting. He walked quickly out of the hotel and waited in his black Volga for his friend to emerge.

Forty-five minutes later Paul had still not appeared, and his phone was switched off. Jonathan was about to creep back into the hotel when Paul and Lars walked into the street, sharing a warm handshake before Paul smiled and dashed towards Nevsky. Jonathan dialled his mobile again.

‘I’m in a bit of a rush, Jon. I need to get back to the Council. I hope you’re pleased – that took longer than I expected.’

‘Is everything OK?’

‘Absolutely. We’ve swapped contact details, and even arranged a bit of educational philanthropy. He seems a nice guy.’

‘What about Vinogradov?’

‘Who?’

‘Paul…’

‘I don’t think Kaamark or his people have got anything to do with it. They’ve already paid a deposit for New Holland: why kidnap the man who’s sorting it all out for them?’

‘Why did you ask him about bribery? I told you not to.’

‘I like to push boundaries; we can’t all get our kicks from obscure singers and looking out of the window.’

‘Maybe you should try it some time. What did he say?’

‘He was a bit edgy, but when I explained some of the things I’ve done to get our new teaching centre opened he thought I was comparing notes. He was fine after that.’

‘And did he give Vinogradov a bribe?’

‘Of course – he’s not that much of a nice guy. He gave him a 1975 bottle of Hine and some very expensive Spanish jamon.’

‘What’s Hine? A wine?’

‘An expensive cognac. I’m not a big fan myself. Look, I’d better go. I’ll call you later.’

Jonathan sat in the car and waited for Kaamark to reappear, at first wondering why he hadn’t heard of Hine and then wondering whether it really mattered. He wondered how many bottles he could buy with $100,000. Half an hour later Kaamark left the hotel with a bellboy and suitcases, which were loaded into a jeep with St. Petersburg number plates. He followed the jeep at a distance, but gave up when it became clear it was heading for the airport.

Back in the city centre, Jonathan bought a hot dog and a can of Coke from a street vendor. He drove to New Holland, gulping it down as he summed up what had happened. Kaamark was not as nice as Paul thought, but he would have stayed in St. Petersburg were he involved. For the moment he decided he could be discounted; a businessman who wanted to buy an island. Somewhere else within New Holland’s aura was the key to the kidnap. Pushkin 10, perhaps.

Placing the empty can in the glove compartment and realising he felt a little sick, Jonathan scanned the strange walled island in front of him. It was pushed into a deserted corner of St. Petersburg, a misfit hiding away from the elegance and splendour. He’d sometimes stood opposite it during his month off drinking, enjoying the ghostly silence as he counted down the minutes. The Classical archway seemed imposing, guarding the secrets of New Holland’s military past, but it had almost become a friend to Jonathan. Before driving away, he stared at it for a few moments. It seemed to be howling a plea to remain untouched, to be left to live peacefully on the edge of the city centre forever.

The day had two more operations. Jonathan accelerated towards Nevsky, deciding that he’d do the easy task first only if the set of lights in front stayed green. They did, and he turned right and right again, stopping to buy a sports’ newspaper before parking the Volga on the Moika. Pretending to be interested in the biathlon results, he watched the entrance to the Vinogradovs’ flat through one of the side mirrors. The street remained calm as rush hour subsided into the car parks and suburban tower blocks. Jonathan had expected a hive of activity as the police searched for the missing governor, but the peaceful, ghostly quality drifting across the buildings belied this, as if the whole case were a fake and the governor would exit from his apartment at any moment, ready for the latest round of difficult negotiations.

Nobody entered or left the apartment before eleven o’clock, when Jonathan’s stomach began to rumble. He guiltily thought about getting another hot dog before swiping the thought away and heading in the golden brown evening towards the Smolny. He had to see the crime scene. He parked carefully on a side street, promising himself a quick survey before going home for green tea and a healthy meal. Then he’d get up early and tell Olga Andreevna he wanted the job, but would already be one step ahead.

A trio of shell-suited security guards stood in the grounds outside the governor’s offices. Pushing his seat backwards so that his body was in line with the door frame, he waited for them to move back inside. They seemed to be guarding a corner of the gardens, though with the governor disappeared it wasn’t clear who had asked them to guard what.

Waiting motionlessly, his mind whirred back to life in England: his parents suddenly dead, forced to sell their home when he couldn’t pay the mortgage, living in the car and showering at the swimming baths, stumbling between the haze of marijuana torpor and automaton night job at a motorway service cafe, staring at a picture of St. Petersburg he’d stuck over the sink as he washed the endless pans.

Six months later, things were better; posture straight, the mind’s palette brimful of colour once more and making plans to get the family home back. Maybe he’d even phone Olesya soon. The case had started well – he’d easily tricked Kaamark into meeting Paul, and now he would sneak a look at the crime scene. Olga Andreevna wouldn’t know what had hit her when confronted in a few weeks’ time.

It was after midnight, the city briefly smothered in dusk, when the shell-suited men finally left the Smolny gardens. Checking no-one else was on the street, Jonathan quietly closed the car door and crept towards the spot. Perhaps that was where the kidnap had taken place. The semi-night offered cover, but made it harder to examine the ground. He’d have to climb over the railings to get a proper look. His strength and height made it easy to hoist himself to the top.

But what he didn’t expect was a hand suddenly pulling him backwards, bringing him down to the ground with a jolt.

‘I see you’ve made your decision, Jonathan.’

Chapter 4

‘I told you not to go there. It’s basic common sense to obey your new boss, or maybe English people think they’re above such things.’

Jonathan was silent as Olga Andreevna thrust the Hummer through the city centre avenues, barely slowing for corners and ignoring red lights.

‘You’ve made the right decision, and I’m glad of your help. But from now on you must do what I say or I will fire you. Now, tell me what else you’ve been doing. Perhaps you already know where he is.’

The four-by-four homed in on a tramp crossing Suvorov Avenue and Olga Andreevna beeped the horn, smiling as he jumped from their path. Jonathan felt the red dart peck at his neck once more. He hated people who did things like that; maybe taking on the case would make him one of them.

‘I went to the Smolny because an investigator should always see the crime scene, even if other people try to lead him off the trail.’

‘But you should also do as intelligent people instruct you. Have you not considered that I told you to stay away from the crime scene for a good reason? Maybe I thought that going there would put you in danger.’

‘Is that why you followed me?’

Olga Andreevna continued to scan the road for obstacles blocking the Hummer’s path.

‘I wasn’t following you, Jonathan: I was passing on another matter. But I noticed a black Volga outside the Smolny. The same car was parked near the flat this afternoon. I wondered whether it might be a lead and so I stopped to take a look. Perhaps I should report that vehicle to the police.’

She smiled, revelling in Jonathan’s unease.

‘I’ll get someone to drive you back to your car later. But you must be careful – do not try and fool me again.’

The self-esteem that had earlier bloated Jonathan had been lanced on the railings. He shrank into his seat, embarrassed that he hadn’t noticed being followed and reminding himself that he hadn’t taken on a case this big before. Perhaps it was beyond him.

But $100,000 made it worth keep trying. He would fly straight back to England, put it all in a savings account and enquire about the market value of his parents’ last home. Maybe he’d have enough to buy it right away. As he was shown into the Vinogradovs’ living room he scrabbled for a clue that would bring the money closer, but its vast size, as if three flats had been knocked into one, made it hard to take everything in. In one corner, slumped across an oversized cushion in front of an even bigger television set, a bony boy in his early twenties stared at a pop star gyrating her way through a tinny Russian hit.

‘Seryozha, turn that down! Do you know what time it is?’

‘Mum, I’m studying! I need to find someone exactly like Babochka if I’m going to get anywhere in this business!’

‘Seryozha! We have a visitor. This is Jonathan David – he’s an investigator.’

Seryozha turned around, grey eyes examining at the Englishman as if he were another boring Christmas present. He proffered a limp hand which Jonathan pretended not to notice. The boy’s face contained the arrogant, self-satisfied look of a wealthy middle-aged man. When he’d first come to St. Petersburg ten years earlier most young Russians had been studious and hungry to better themselves, but money had changed that. He turned back to Olga Andreevna.

‘His father’s missing, but he’s watching music videos as if nothing’s happened. Is he OK?’

‘He’s very focused on music: I think it helps him to cope.’

‘I think I have a different definition of ‘music’ to Seryozha.’

Olga Andreevna shook her head.

‘You may scorn him, but one day he’ll be a famous producer. Seryozha, turn it down! And stop staring at these tarts – you need to find a proper girlfriend!’

Jonathan smiled grimly as he wondered who Babochka would prefer to date – the lonely Englishman living in the St. Petersburg slums with a collection of children’s books or the wealthy but petulant son of the city governor.

‘Is he close to your husband?’

‘As close as you can be to a father who works 20 hours per day. Now, what do you know about the Swedes and the Icelanders?’

Jonathan sank into a leather chair. He wondered whether he had ever been so comfortable yet so wary.

‘Do you have a lot to do with your husband’s business affairs?’

It felt like a prepared answer.

‘No – he is governor. I only chair the Fund for Suburban Children’s Development. Now, please tell me what you know about the Scandinavians.’

‘I don’t know that I’ve got anything new – you already know Lars Kaamark.’

The Russian’s eyes flashed as they had done that morning. Her hair and make-up were still immaculate, but anger tinted her face with haggardness.

‘I think I may have heard of him.’

‘His name’s in your phone; I think you know him better than that.’

‘Maybe. But what of it?’

‘You lied to me, but we’ll gloss over that for now. What I can tell you is that I don’t think he’s involved.’

‘Why are you so sure?’

‘The New Holland deal is going through; all he wants to do is complete the purchase as quickly as possible. He’s left the city, and I don’t suppose he’ll be back until the governor is.’

Olga Andreevna’s voice suddenly got louder. She stamped her foot, causing a choir of champagne flutes behind Jonathan to chime threateningly.

‘Don’t you know this man has a long criminal record in his own country? He’s brutal and stops at nothing to get what he wants, yet you dismiss him like an old lady in the Metro!’

‘He’s not been convicted of a crime for years. Why would he kidnap your husband when he’s the only man who can sign the contract?’

‘He’s paid a three million dollar deposit. Have you not considered that he’s changed his mind and the kidnapping is a way of calling the deal off? Or do English investigators only look for the most obvious answer?’

Seryozha suddenly rose from his torpor. Staring at Jonathan, he waited for the response as if it were a key line in a Hollywood movie. Jonathan sighed.

‘Olga Andreevna, if you gave me the obvious answers I’d probably be closer to finding your husband. You lied to me about Kaamark. You tell me not to go to the crime scene. You even follow me around. It’s as if you want me to fail. I’m sorry, but I can’t work like this.’

Jonathan stood up to leave and Seryozha turned back to his pop music, as if such incidents happened every day. Olga Andreevna moved to stand in his way, a slender yet intimidating roadblock.

‘Wait. Today was a test. I wanted to see if you had the skills to find out about Kaamark yourself, and you passed. But I need to know that I can trust you. You’ve been sneaking around; you spent an afternoon outside my flat like some stalker. Then you went to a place I told you not to visit, and you did it poorly. Did you think because it was dusk nobody would see you? This isn’t the Secret Seven; it’s St. Petersburg!’

Blue eyes bored Jonathan back into the chair. Olga Andreevna moved closer to him, an insincere kindness curling the corners of her mouth.

‘I know you want that money and you’ll work hard for it. You’ve shown you have good investigative skills. I need you to find my husband. Stay with us.’

$100,000. As well as getting a deposit for the house, he’d impress Olesya. Perhaps he could take her out to a really exclusive restaurant, or arrange a private showing of a film at one of the cinemas on Nevsky Prospekt. He imagined the two of them laughing together in a deserted cinema, and for a second it was as if the last two years hadn’t happened.

‘You lied to me.’

‘I didn’t lie – I tested you. Jonathan, we need you. You speak English and you have a Western mentality. Only you can work out where my husband’s being held.’

Jonathan brushed away concerns about why she was so desperate to employ him. Maybe the money could somehow bring the old days back.

‘OK – I’ll carry on.’

‘Thank you. Get some sleep, then in the morning you must call Detective Bugrov – I think you need to get a second opinion on Kaamark.’

‘I’ll call him, but I’m following a lead at the art commune at Pushkin 10 first; The Leningrad People’s Resistance.’

‘Oh, Alexey’s told me about these idioti – they don’t know anything! This sale will help the poorest, but they’re too stuck in their Communist ways to understand that! I don’t know why we bother – usually they’re poor because they’re lazy or don’t want to give up drinking.’

‘You surprise me: Your Wikipedia biography is full of tales from your poverty-stricken upbringing. Apparently you want to help the ordinary people more than anything because you’re one of them.’

A nasty smile appeared on Seryozha’s face. He began to speak but his mother raised her arm quickly to silence him. Jonathan wondered whether he could see flecks of fear on his face.

‘I’m involved in many social projects. The old people round there live like tramps; often they’re forced onto the streets by some New Russian who tricks them into selling their room for peanuts so he can occupy a whole floor. My first priority is to help them live out their lives with dignity by giving them a proper place to live. I want to remove all the communal flats, like they have in Moscow.’

It almost sounded sincere, though Jonathan remembered how she’d dismissed his own home. As he swept the huge room once more, he wondered whether it had been created by kicking any pensioners onto the street.

‘I hope you’ll be able to do that. I’ll be in touch over the next couple of days.’

‘Don’t you want a lift back to your black Volga?’

Jonathan wondered who else knew the car was his; who Olga Andreevna had asked to watch him.

‘I’ll walk – it looks a nice morning.’

It took almost an hour to get back to the car. Once he reached the Smolny he sat for a while in the passenger seat, enjoying the sun as it danced over the blue and white heights of the nearby cathedral; it afforded him a little calm. He was going to earn $100,000 but it would probably turn his insides outwards, making him yet another over-anxious, struggling St. Petersburger. It was strange, but living in a beautiful city seemed to make people sadder rather than happier.

He put a John Martyn CD on the car stereo. The slurred vocals washed over him and he drifted off to sleep, no nearer to working out the conundrum. He woke up around 6 o’clock when a black cat jumped onto the bonnet. His neck ached, and the sun was high above the cathedral. He switched off the music and started to drive home through the already hurrying streets. At the flat he took a shower, ate some black bread and drank two cups of sencha tea. He didn’t want to go to bed. He was going to Pushkin 10, and he needed help. Picking up his mobile telephone, he called a number that had been etched into his brain for many months but which he was only now brave enough to dial.

‘Hello? Olesya? It’s Jonathan.’

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