New Holland by Saul Pope: winner of Writers’ Billboard first chapter prize February 2011

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 of 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.

********************* 

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. Usually their husbands were being unfaithful and Jonathan had to get proof, though she was of a different class to the women Paul usually mixed with. Perhaps she was being unfaithful and wanted help covering her own tracks. Feeling 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 election, 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.

‘You’ve been really good getting me all this work, Paul, but I’m not doing this one. 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 for your lady-friends 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. First I’m going to see if there’s anything she’s not telling us about her husband.’

‘You won’t find anything.’

‘Don’t bet on it – these older people don’t know what a blog is, let alone what people put on them.’

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’ve got a tie on by early afternoon.’

This chapter of ‘New Holland’ won the Writers’ Billboard first chapter prize in February 2011 – the original entry, and previous winning entries, can be found here.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s