Two Cases For The Czar – Snippet 06
“I’d like to,” Bernie assured the lad, “but where did Pavel go?”
“He went to tell Colonel Aslonav that you are here.”
“Dumnye D’iaki Zeppi.” Colonel Aslonav bowed and Bernie sighed. Mikhail had bumped Bernie to the status of “duma clerk,” basically the highest rank a person without family rank could get. It made him almost a suitable match for Natasha, which Bernie approved of. It also made him the target of fawning attention and knives in the back, which Bernie approved of rather less.
But Mikhail didn’t do it to make it easier for Bernie to get married. He did it because in the months since the escape Bernie had become Mikhail’s semi-official fixer. And to do that job in Russia in the seventeenth century, even the Ufa-based modern Russia they were trying to build, you had to have rank.
“Colonel Aslonav.” Bernie gave back a nod for the bow. “I’m here to provide a bit of backup to the sergeant in his murder investigation.”
This announcement was met with gratitude that was mixed with more fawning than Bernie liked, but at least Aslonav wasn’t the sort to put a knife in his back. It took a few minutes to get the colonel back into his office, then they got down to business.
Pavel pointed at the stock certificates. “I think that he was killed for those. And I think he was killed by an agent of the embassy bureau, or perhaps one of the Kazaks who are in town with the khan.”
“How did you get those?” Bernie pointed at the embossed stock certificates.
“Miroslava found them in a secret compartment in the victim’s wardrobe.” Pavel said it without hesitation or resentment, Bernie noted with some relief.
“Where is she, by the way?”
“We think the killer was a woman or a small man from the wound, the blood spatter, and where we found the bullet. Miroslava spent yesterday looking for a prostitute as the killer. I think that if it was a prostitute, she was employed by someone else.”
“Because of the locked room.”
Bernie shook his head, and lifted his hands in question.
“It was done by a smart person, but a–what is it you called them–a smart-ass, someone who just had to prove how smart they were. Even when there was no point.”
Bernie grinned. “That sounds like the embassy bureau, all right. But you still haven’t told me where Miroslava is now?”
“Looking at fingerprints.” Pavel sighed. “She doesn’t seem to have the insight into this case that she did into the one about the girls killed at the Happy Bottom. She hasn’t even addressed the locked room. And she seems obsessed with the notion that it was a prostitute who killed him.”
“Well, let’s collect her, and go visit the embassy bureau.”
Location: Ufa Kremlin, Embassy Bureau
Date: May 11, 1637
Simeon Budanov didn’t frown. He was a professional, after all. But Bernie could tell that he wanted to. “Mr. Zeppi,” he said in passable English, “what brings you to our little corner of the Ufa kremlin?”
“I go where Mikhail sends me,” Bernie replied in Russian. The use of Mikhail’s first name without honorifics was intentional. “The czar is concerned about the lack of cooperation the detective sergeant here received in his investigation. If our man on the China desk has been murdered, we need to know why and whether it has anything to do with his work or this railroad venture he was involved in.”
“How did you find out about that?”
Bernie turned to Pavel. “You nailed it. That was what he was trying to hide, or at least part of it.”
“Apparently, Dumnye D’iaki Zeppi,” Pavel said. “Though I suspect there is more.”
“How,” Budanov asked again, “did you learn about the railroad?” He didn’t sound nervous. No, he sounded angry, really angry.
“Let’s go into your office,” Bernie said. They were in the outer office of the embassy bureau, not Budanov’s private office.
“Yes. That’s an excellent idea. And the sergeant, the young woman, and the boy can wait out here, not speaking to anyone.”
“No,” Bernie said. “They’ll come with us.”
“Mister Zeppi, you are a clerk of the duma by the czar’s will, but I am a boyar.”
“Yes, that’s true. But I am here on Mikhail’s instructions. You have three options.” Bernie held up his right hand, finger pointing at the ceiling. “You can cooperate with me.” He extended a second finger. “You and I can go see the czar right now. You won’t like that, but you will probably survive it.” He held up a third finger. “Or you can refuse, in which case I’ll be back with a company of the imperial guard in about five minutes to arrest you. You probably won’t survive that.” Bernie dropped his hand. “Your choice, but make it now.”
There was a pause. Not a really long one, but one long enough to suggest that Simeon Budanov was at least considering the second option, if not the third. Then he said, “We’ll talk in my office.” He turned and headed for his private office.
Bernie, Pavel, Maksim, and Miroslava followed.
As soon as they were all in the room, Maksim closed the office door and leaned against it.
Pavel waved Miroslava to one of the seats in front of the desk. It was a modern designed desk with a modern designed office chair behind it. There was also a small but plush couch against the far wall.
Simeon Budanov didn’t go around his desk to sit in his chair. He turned to Bernie and hissed, “You idiot. How dare you embarrass me in front of my staff like that?”
“Simeon,” Bernie said, “I am here on Czar Mikhail Romanov’s instruction. I told you that at the beginning. He sent me here because you were impeding a police investigation into the death of one of his people. The reason you got embarrassed was because you were pitting your will against Czar Mikhail. Mikhail Romanov will tell you himself that he isn’t a very forceful person. He doesn’t like to argue. He doesn’t like to fight. And, for a very long time, while he was surrounded by forceful people who pretty much ignored what he thought, that made him pretty ineffective. However, he is no longer surrounded by forceful people who don’t listen to him. Now he has surrounded himself with forceful people who do listen to him. Mikhail isn’t forceful. That’s what he’s got me for.
“Back before all this, before the Ring of Fire, I was a football jock. Not the sort of thing that shy and retiring folks go in for. I may not be as smart as Mikhail Romanov. I’m certainly not as smart as Natasha, or, well, most of the people I know. But I know how to rush a quarterback.”
Pavel was looking at Bernie in confusion. So were the rest of them. Oddly enough, the only person in the room who wasn’t, was Simeon Budanov.
“That’s the game that Sterns’ brother-in-law played, isn’t it? The one who scares the crap out of German mercenaries.”
“Yep.” Bernie didn’t play a lineman like Tom Simpson, and he hadn’t made it into college, but Budanov didn’t need to know that. “Now, we are going to need access to everything Nikola Vetrov was working on, especially the Russia China Railroad.” Bernie watched Simeon’s face as he mentioned the railroad. Yes. It wasn’t surprise. It was fear he was seeing on Simeon’s face. Simeon knew about the railroad project. That only left the question: why the hell hadn’t Mikhail?