Arkady Kuznetsov was tired. It had been a long day on the job, a day with extra strain beyond the usual annoyance of dealing with tourists. He didn’t like tourists. But he had learned to put up with them. He had to. Thousands of them came to St. Petersburg to see the art treasures here at the Hermitage Museum. None of them spoke Russian, of course. Most of them just spoke their own language louder, as if shouting would make foreign words turn themselves into Russian. Arkady was polite to all of them, no matter how loud and stupid. It was part of his job. But a busy day left him very tired.
Not often as tired as he was right now. There had of course been the usual tourists. It was summer, the season when they came here in great flocks from all over the world. But today there was even more to deal with than annoying foreign visitors. Today there had been a “credible threat”—that’s what his supervisor called it—that someone would try to steal one of the paintings Arkady and his colleagues spent their days guarding. Someone would try to steal a Van Gogh called Ladies of Arles. Arkady could not imagine why. He didn’t like that painting. To him it looked smeared. He preferred a picture to look like a picture. It should look like what it was, not all scrambled like this one. But that didn’t matter. The important thing was that somebody meant to take it—take it from the Hermitage, while he was watching it! As a matter of national and professional pride, Arkady would not let that happen.
So he answered the usual shouted and pantomimed questions as he stood at the door to Room 413, General Staff Building. And on top of that, he had added an extra layer of vigilance. It was a skill he had acquired in his twenty years in the Army, a very high percentage of it spent on guard duty. He had never been strong or smart or skillful enough for anything but regular infantry, and it had taken him fifteen years to rise to the rank of corporal. But he knew how to stand watch and stay alert. And when he had retired six years ago, his service had been just the right ticket to land him this comfortable job, security guard at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.
But Arkady was feeling his years, and to be honest, he had put on a few pounds since leaving the Army. His back hurt, and his feet were killing him. The flow of ordinary tourists had not slowed down at all. If anything, there were more of the annoying kind today than usual.
Like this one now, the fat Frenchman, standing in his face and lecturing. He had approached Arkady in a reasonable way. The man smelled of garlic and stale wine. His appearance was messy, too. He wore a rumpled off-white suit, which did not hide the bulge of his belly. And it accented the man’s shaggy gray hair and disordered beard. Still, for a Frenchman, he had been polite at first, pointing to himself and loudly mouthing his name, Hervé Thierry. That was all Arkady understood. Arkady spoke no more than a dozen words of French. But he made the mistake of answering, “Plaisir,” which he thought was the right thing to say. Mr. Thierry took this as a sign and had immediately asked a series of questions in rapid French.
Arkady could not stop the flow and Mr. Thierry became more heated when no answers came. His voice got louder, and his fat, sweaty face got sweatier and redder, and that did not increase Arkady’s understanding of the man’s pointed speech at all—which of course increased Mr. Thierry’s frustration. He seemed to grow larger and redder all the time. He began to gesture at the paintings, and the word “France” came with frequency. Arkady figured that it had become a matter of national interest for Mr. Thierry. Probably because most of the paintings here were by French artists or had been taken from collectors who had taken them from France.
Finally, just when Arkady had started to think he would have to encourage the Frenchman to move along, Mr. Thierry raised an index finger in Arkady’s face, as if to scold him. For a moment, Arkady thought he saw a puff of smoke.
When they woke him much later, that was all Arkady remembered.
* * *
Ludmila Ukhtomsky was hungover. This was not truly an unusual condition for her, nor for many in her social circle. Normally a few cups of tea would set her right. Not today. She was halfway through her eighth cup of strong black tea for the day, and her head still ached. The rhythmic pounding in her skull still thumped in tandem with her heartbeat, and she had not yet decided if she wanted to live another day.
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