Natalya waited for the old woman’s door to close then she heard the distorted voice of the TV presenter as the volume returned to normal. She took a pair of latex gloves from her handbag and snapped them on before turning the key in Zena Dahl’s metal door, careful to avoid the areas of the lock and handle.
Inside it was gloomy; long green curtains were drawn, allowing just enough light to see by. There was a pile of mail on the parquet floor that had been pushed through the door’s letterbox, presumably by the babushka. Natalya squatted to examine it, picking up the ones with postmarks then returning them to the same position; an envelope that looked like it contained a store card was stamped with the 22nd of June – two days ago. She closed the door behind her, seeing a denim jacket fixed to the hook on the back. Through the gloom she followed the small hallway into a sparsely furnished living room much like the old woman’s, with an ancient cabinet, a sofa bed, and a television on a stand.
The taste was random and inexpensive, a pre-furnished student apartment, which came as a surprise considering the funds Zena must have at her disposal. Natalya placed the matryoshka doll she had bought from the old woman on a telephone table and sniffed the air. She was glad there were none of the fruity notes of esters that marked the early decomposition stage of a corpse, but nor were there the lingering traces of perfume, cooked food, or artificial fresheners that came with the living.
There were two doors to the right, which she supposed led to the sole bedroom and the bathroom, and an archway on the far side leading to the kitchen. In the living room, next to the sofa-bed, were two empty Heineken bottles resting on a 1970s style smoked-glass table. She picked up each bottle in turn and held them up to a sliver of light to see traces of lipstick on the mouths, reddy-brown on one and pink on the other. There was a small bookcase by the television with titles on International Law and Politics, mainly in Russian; they looked untouched.
Zena’s kitchen was pristine compared to her own. She opened the fridge by the door’s edge seeing white boxes holding the remnants of a takeaway with the stamp of a Korean restaurant; adjacent to it was a bag of wilting salad leaves. A milk carton had a day left on its ‘consume by’ stamp. She closed the door and examined a picture postcard fixed by a fridge magnet of Saint Isaac’s Cathedral. The card was an old photograph of a man in folk dress standing in a kayak; stylised writing along the bottom edge gave the location away as Östergötland. A few hand-written lines in Swedish were signed off with “Papa” followed by a cross for a kiss. It was dated April. She replaced the card and inspected the rest of the kitchen but it held little interest: a worn but spotless four-ring gas stove; a washer-dryer full of clothes.
A wall calendar of Swedish countryside scenes was pinned to the archway that led back to the living room; it was the type of present an unimaginative parent or grandparent might buy. Taking out her iPhone, she held up the pages and took photographs of any that held appointments. In February, Zena had logged a visit to a dentist; in April, a doctor; both words were written in Russian with no names or addresses – that was a shame. She returned the calendar to the current month, then took a picture of the neat handwriting in the square for Tuesday the 6th of June: “9:30 ZAGS”.For a girl of nineteen, it was unlikely Zena had gone there for herself.
Everyone in the country had been to a Zapis Aktov Grazhdanskogo Sostoyaniya, or ZAGS for short, at some point in their lives, it was the civil registration office where births, marriages, divorces and deaths were recorded. They also performed ceremonies. On the 12th of July 2014, she had gone to the one on Furshtatskaya Ulitsa to marry Mikhail at Wedding Palace Number Two. For a girl of nineteen, it was unlikely Zena had gone there for herself.
The bedroom was behind the first of two closed doors, where an ethnic Indian-print quilt covered a neatly made bed. Next to it was an old wood-veneer wardrobe. She pulled on the handles to find it full of clothes. One hanger supported a beautiful rose-coloured dress with tassels; the label displayed “Monique Lhuillier”. She flicked through some of the others, finding the names of Brunello Cucinelli, Max Gengos and a few designers she didn’t recognise. Below them, an apartment block of shoeboxes held Manolo Blahniks, Jimmy Choos, Valentinos, and a stunning pair of Michael Kors flats. Zena may have shunned a luxurious apartment but the girl had managed to bring a few essentials with her. Natalya stopped when she realised the clothes were becoming a distraction, noting only that there were no obvious signs of burglary since the contents of the wardrobe were worth at least twice her annual salary.
Resting on the bedside table was a pair of gold hair straighteners. She tapped one of the ceramic heating elements– it was cold to the touch. She pulled open the table’s single drawer. Inside was a phone charger and a paperback in Swedish which she lifted gingerly to reveal a pink foil pack of birth control pills.
Her phone started buzzing and she saw Rogov’s name on the screen. The Sergeant had been Mikhail’s best man at his first wedding and seemed to believe his continuing friendship with her husband gave him the right to be overly familiar with her. Normally she welcomed friends of Mikhail, but in her view Rogov epitomised the worst type of policeman; his chauvinism ran as deep as the Volga and the tactics he used to extract confessions made her ashamed to work in the same department. She tried to keep Rogov at a distance and reprimanded him regularly, but he brushed each one away as if she had made an elaborate joke he didn’t fully understand.
The phone stopped while she was removing her gloves to avoid cross-contamination. She tapped the screen to return the sergeant’s call.
‘Hey boss, are you in the apartment yet? Misha said you were going to check out the place.’
‘Yes, I got the keys from her neighbour. Next time, speak to me. Don’t go through him.’
‘What did the duty sergeant from Vasilyevsky tell you about the girl who reported Zena missing?’
‘Not much – he said she looked like a supermodel.’
‘I’ll rephrase that. Did he say anything useful?’
‘He said she’d tried calling Dahl’s phone but it was going to voicemail. Her name is Yulia, no surname offered…from what I heard she was more nervous than a rabbit in a wolf pack. At first he thought it was a joke: a teenager forgets to use social media for a day so it must be an emergency.’
‘Until she told him Zena was a rich kid.’
She looked at the birth control pills again and observed tiny letters on the blister pack marking the menstrual cycle; they were abbreviations for the days of the week in English. Zena’s last pill had been taken on a Thursday. Presumably the day she had gone missing unless the pack was old.
‘Does she have any type of transport…a car or motorbike?’
Sergeant Rogov let out a yawn. ‘No idea.’
‘Well, locate Zena’s parents and find out what you can. She may have told them her plans or gone home for the weekend.’
There was a brooding silence. ‘Are they Svens?’
‘Probably.’ Then she realised. ‘You don’t speak English or Swedish, do you, Rogov?’
‘Didn’t realise I had to.’
‘Well, as you’re being so friendly with Misha, can you ask him to do it?’ She hid her relief that Rogov wouldn’t be interacting directly with Zena’s parents.
She kept the phone to her ear and crouched down, careful to keep her shoes and the knees of her jeans away from Zena’s fraying Persian rug. Even if the worst had happened, it was unlikely any fibre analysis would be conducted – the facilities existed but they were only used in the most serious cases; and that usually meant a political dimension. Underneath the bed she found a full set of green, vintage-style suitcases.
‘Her luggage is here.’
‘Not looking good for the Sven, then.’
‘No,’ she agreed. It wasn’t looking good for Zena but there were still plenty of possibilities to explain a university student spending two nights away from home.
She heard a muffled sound on the phone, then, ‘Boss?’
There was one room left to try and she turned the handle with the tip of her index finger. Inside the bathroom was a tub
with a detachable shower hose; nearby, a small toilet and sink in white porcelain looked at least fifty years old by the style and loss of enamel. She pulled off a square of toilet paper and dabbed it against the bristles of an electric toothbrush; the tissue came away dry. There were bottles of contact lens solution and an opened lens case. Inside a cupboard she found the same type of medicines that accumulated in her own home: a near-empty bottle of cough syrup, paracetamol and a packet of antihistamines – nothing unusual.
‘You still there?’ she asked.
‘Who’s the expert criminalist on duty?’
‘Primakov, I think.’
‘Good. Ask him to come here and park around the back. Just Primakov, and tell him to wear normal clothes, none of those fancy white overalls he gets from those websites.’
‘Yes, boss,’ he said, and she couldn’t tell if he was irked or amused.
‘Thanks. I’ll wait here for him.’
‘Yes, when you speak to Misha ask him to go to the Dixy. Tell him we’re out of toilet rolls and coffee.’
After an hour, she saw the top of the white van from the kitchen window before it disappeared into the courtyard. She left Zena’s apartment and undid the bolts of the hallway door that led to the rear yard, still wearing the latex gloves which by now were making her skin itch. She watched Leo Primakov climb out, taking a silver case with him. He wore pale-blue chinos and a dark denim shirt: the type of clothes she’d often tried to get Mikhail into, instead of the plain office shirts and jeans that he favoured. The other difference between Primakov and her husband was that Leo worked-out regularly and his clothes were snug in the right places, revealing every crevice and contour.
She shook her head to dismiss the unfaithful thoughts floating in her mind.
‘Leo!’ She waved at him. He raised his arm in acknowledgement, then stretched blue overshoes over expensive-looking boots.
Two weeks before, Primakov had lent her a pirated copy of ‘CSI: Crime Scene Investigation’ and had been evangelical about the scientific techniques the Americans used. She disagreed, finding them unrealistic, but she was impressed by the white overalls the police and forensic experts wore even if the menti she knew never wore them; her colleagues reminded her of nineteenth century surgeons who eschewed sterilised gowns in favour of gardening clothes.
As a concession to the programme, Primakov had ordered several sets of blue overshoes. He held a pair out for her. ‘No, I’m leaving. I was waiting to let you in.’ Primakov drew level with her. ‘What’s going on? Rogov didn’t tell me anything.’
She stepped aside to let him enter. ‘I want you to take a look at an apartment rented by a Swedish student. There’s money in the family so kidnapping is a possibility. She hasn’t been seen since Thursday night.’ She drew the bolts behind him. ‘There, now you know as much as I do.’
She shrugged and held up a hand, palm facing him. ‘It could be a waste of time, but let’s take it seriously for now and hope she doesn’t come back while you’re picking through her dirty underwear.’
They strolled to the open door of Zena’s apartment. ‘Anything interesting so far?’ Primakov asked.
‘There’s a table in the living room with two beer bottles; both have different lipstick marks… I think she had a drink with a girlfriend before going out, possibly the one who reported her missing. It’s very neat which makes me think she didn’t come home or else she would have cleared them away.’
‘I’ll try to get some comparison prints from her personal effects.’
She shrugged. ‘That makes sense.’
‘Keep this quiet,’ she dropped her voice although there wasno need. ‘There’s a lot of designer gear in her bedroom. Don’t let anyone in unless I authorise it. There’s a woman in the neighbouring apartment; she’s deaf. I told her I’m a friend of the family so she doesn’t know anything yet. I’d like to keep it that way until we know more. She thinks Zena has gone away; I’m guessing she was the one pushing her mail through the letterbox.
‘What about the rubbish bins?’
She smiled, and tugged on the handle of the back door. ‘I thought I’d leave that to you.’
Outside, her phone started playing Elvis Presley’s “You’re the devil in disguise”. She hurried along the yard then answered it.
This was bad news. Vasiliev, the head of the city’s Criminal Investigations Directorate, wasn’t on duty until Monday and he didn’t do social calls. He was also close to retirement, preferring to delegate while he planned his next European vacation.
His voice had an icy tone, ‘Captain Ivanova, are you having a nice time over there?’
Her car was still parked outside Renata Shchyotkina’s apartment and she marched there, anxious to get away in case she was spotted by Zena’s elderly neighbour. ‘I was asked to look at something urgently.’
‘You were asked by Major Ivanov. Is he your direct supervisor?’
‘So do you always do what your husband tells you?’
The traffic was noisy and she cupped a hand over her free ear. ‘No, sir.’
‘But in this instance you chose to.’
‘Yes, sir. I was in the neighbourhood. Mikhail heard the
girl’s father is wealthy. If she has been kidnapped or killed it
could have political consequences.
‘Well, what have you found out?’
‘Nothing yet, Colonel. As far as I can determine, there are several possibilities.’
A pedestrian crossing displayed five, then four, then three seconds in large green numbers. She jogged across it as the cars started to nudge their way over the line.
‘Then what do you think?’ she heard him say. She stood next to a chemist’s windowpane and pushed a palm against her ear to blot out the noise of the traffic. ‘If the friend is telling the truth then she had an accident that night, or something worse has happened.’
‘Thank you, Captain. Well, as you say, it might be political. I’ve already asked Sergeant Rogov to check local hospitals and I understand Mikhail is trying to find the girl’s parents. In the meantime, I’d like you to speak with this Yulia, the one who reported her missing.’
‘See what you can find out by midday then we’ll regroup. If there is no obvious criminal element I intend to give it back to the local menti.’
She frowned. ‘May I ask who is leading the investigation?’
She had expected to hear Mikhail’s name or that of the new major, Dostoynov, and almost asked him to repeat it.
‘Thank you, Colonel.’
‘I suggest you to speak to the girl’s family first – once Major Ivanov locates them.’
He hung up.
She continued down the street, located her Volvo outside Renata Shchyotkina’s apartment, then climbed inside and called Mikhail. He answered after two rings. ‘Misha, you bastard, what have you done to me?’
‘I don’t know what you mean.’
‘How did Vasiliev find out I went to the girl’s apartment? I was supposed to be doing you a quiet favour.’
He chuckled. ‘The Colonel called in and spoke to Rogov. He wanted me to handle it but I said you were the best we had… also Swedes don’t usually speak Russian.’
So that was the answer, and it had nothing to do with her superior skills of detection. The girl’s father needed regular updates with the person in charge of the investigation. Most of the men in headquarters spoke basic English at best, whereas she had studied it at the Leningrad Oblast Pedagogical Institute and was near fluent. Mikhail’s was good enough to establish contact with Zena’s parents but to conduct interviews and maintain a relationship, it had to be her.
She heard a clatter of plates and guessed Mikhail had made it as far as breakfast.
‘What did Vasiliev say?’ he asked.
‘Prove there’s a crime or he’ll give it to the locals…I guess he doesn’t want an open-ended missing persons case.’
‘He told me to find the girl who reported Zena missing.’
‘Are you eating?’
There was a chewing noise that made her grimace.
‘Breakfast, and I’m having fried eggs before you ask. We need to do some shopping. Have you got a signal on your mobile?’
She held it close to the windscreen then brought it back to her ear. ‘Four bars.’
‘Good. Can you put me on speakerphone and log onto VKontakte?’
‘Misha, I’m busy.’
As soon as she clicked the speaker icon, the sound of chewing filled the car, making her feel queasy. She tapped the blue VK symbol on her mobile and the social network software filled the screen, listing recent updates from her friends and pages they had liked.
The chewing stopped and there was a slurping noise.
‘For God’s sake put me on speaker phone too so I don’t have to listen to that noise.’
There was a soft knock which she guessed was his phone being placed on their dining table. In the background she
could hear cupboard doors opening and a murmur of conversation – Anton was up too and she wished she could be there, enjoying a leisurely breakfast with them.
She heard a slight echo when Mikhail spoke again. ‘Now look for the missing Sven.’
‘She’s Swedish, won’t she be on Facebook?’
There was another slurp, quieter now. ‘She’s on both. Have you done it yet?’
‘Don’t be impatient.’ She tapped in “Zena Dahl” then clicked on the search button. Only one profile image returned – a circular profile image of a skier wearing thick goggles and a woollen hat; a stripe of pink zinc oxide cream ran along the length of her nose. Like that, she was indistinguishable from half the girls in St. Petersburg. Maybe it was deliberate – a rich kid craving some anonymity.
‘That’s her. She has more pictures on her page.’
Natalya tapped on the image and selected the girl’s photos. She flicked through them until she found a clear one of Zena holding up a glass to the camera. ‘The wine glass?’
‘Yes, that’s the best I think. There’s been no activity on VKontakte since Wednesday. I’ve already checked her Facebook account – it hasn’t been updated since March and she only has forty-six friends.’
Another plate clattered on the table, then she heard Mikhail say something indistinguishable. ‘What was that?’
‘Anton. I told him to eat his breakfast on the sofa while we finish talking.’
‘Hi, Natasha,’ a distant voice called.
She raised her voice in return, ‘Hi Anton.’
‘Haven’t we finished talking yet?’ She asked Mikhail.
‘I’ll speak to Rogov and call you back with her address.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘Look at your phone again, her security is weak.’
She got the hint and opened Zena Dahl’s friends list. There were only four on the VKontakte profile and she studied the circular picture of the first one; it was of a pretty, narrow-faced girl with bright blue hair wearing a cowboy hat.
‘You see her?’
‘Meet Yulia,’ he said, stuffing egg into his mouth, ‘Yulia Federova.’
From Motherland by G. D. Abson. Used with the permission of the publisher, Mirror. Copyright © 2019 by G.D. Abson.