Fourteen years ago…
The Russian captain ran from the village as if all the fiends in hell were after him—instead of just one unarmed boy. He stumbled and slipped his desperate way through the snow, trying to reach his horse, any horse that would get him away from here. The dying screams of his men still rang in his ears; the stink of their burning flesh clogged his nostrils and churned his stomach. If it hadn’t been fire, he’d have coped better, but his greatest fear—maybe even his only fear—had always been death by burning.
He still couldn’t quite believe the boy had killed them all. Just by looking. There must be money in this, if only he could stay alive long enough to find the way to it. Visions of the last hour flashed back in front of his eyes—tracking enemy survivors of the battle on horseback, because it was the easiest way to travel in these dense woods; the trail of blood his troop had followed here, bright, shocking scarlet against the pristine whiteness of the snow; the wounded separatist soldier, dragged from his house with his wife and the boy clinging to him; the sight of the once awful wound healing and closing before his eyes; his own gun shooting the soldier; the screams of the women; one of his men seizing a young girl of the family, grabbing for her skirt—just before he burst into flames.
There had been a barrage of shooting then. The soldier’s wife, the boy’s mother, had fallen beside her husband as the Russian soldiers began the rampage of looting, raping, and killing that was all the fun they ever got out of this shitty little war. Only that hadn’t happened either, because of the boy.
With a roar that had somehow terrified those hardest and most brutal of soldiers—the captain included—the boy had charged up the street. The Russians had burst into flames on either side of him. Sparks had seemed to fly from the boy’s eyes. No one could touch him. No one even had time to shoot him. In seconds, the Russian soldiers had been fleeing in panic, their captain very soon at their head, but the boy had kept on coming and the men kept burning. It was spectacular, terrifying, splendid. But he couldn’t let it go on.
He turned, levelled his gun, and for an instant, he stared at the boy over the space of several yards and two dead, still-burning bodies. He was only about fourteen years old but tall for his age and good-looking to boot, even panting for breath, his smoke-grimed face contorted in grief and fury.
It was a pity; there had to be money in whatever the boy was doing, and in whatever had healed his father’s first injury. But right now, it was the boy or the captain. So, his hand shaking like an alcoholic’s on the morning after, the captain fired.
At first, he thought he’d missed altogether. The boy didn’t even cry out, just made an odd grunting sound in the back of his throat as he staggered back. Blood oozed from his thigh. But it didn’t stop him. He didn’t even fall, just lurched at the captain.
Why the hell had he only shot him in the leg? Just for some imaginary future profit? With an inarticulate, strangled cry, the captain staggered around and went back to running, expecting every moment to feel the flames bursting out under his skin, licking over his flesh…
Finally, he caught the reins of a frightened, skittish horse and hauled himself into the saddle. The boy still followed, limping and bloody, and the captain actually sobbed with fear. But he didn’t burn up. Sobbing for breath—and surely pain—the boy hurled himself at the captain’s leg, trying to pull him off the horse. The captain kicked him, and he fell back, blood pouring from his cheek. But the boy came at him again, and the captain finally understood. Whatever power had burned the others, the boy had run out of it. He had no weapons, only his fists to fight with. And the captain’s were bigger.
He leaned from the saddle as the boy ran at him for the second time, and punched him. The boy didn’t fall, merely swung with the punch, then lashed out fast enough to catch the captain’s chin before he stumbled back. The captain wheeled the nervous horse around, pointed him away from the village, and yet held him in check a moment longer.
He glanced back at the boy. So young, so angry. So fucking, amazingly lethal. “I’ll remember you,” he said softly.
The boy stared back, tears pouring down his grimy cheeks. “I know.”
Consorting with criminals in the middle of the night had never been part of her career plan. Yet here she was, approaching the desk of Edinburgh’s Gayfield Square police station at half past two in the morning.
That would have been disconcerting enough, even without her unexpected diversion en route, to the office of the mysterious Mr. Derryn. The whole night had become strangely unreal.
“I’m Nell Black,” she told the young policeman who seemed reluctant to look up from the football pages of his newspaper. Clearly, he was inured to the racket made by a rowdy group of drunks behind him. He glanced up at last without much interest, did a double take, and sat up straight.
“Yes, miss?” he said, much more brightly.
Apparently, the extra effort with makeup made a difference after all. “I’m a translator, here to see Detective Sergeant Lamont?”
The young policeman reached for his phone with alacrity, and less than a minute later, Nell was being led through a security door and along a maze of corridors and stairs. A plainclothes man in shirtsleeves with a tie dangling out of his crumpled trouser pocket strode out of a room at the end of one passage and hurried toward them with his hand held out. Somewhere in his late thirties, Nell guessed. His hair receded, greying slightly at the temples. He looked serious, harassed, and not someone you should mess with, however hard you were.
There was no avoiding the handshake, so she got it over with as quickly as she civilly could, which appeared to suit the brisk policeman well enough.
“Miss Black? Thanks for coming.” He jerked his head dismissively at the young copper who effaced himself, though not without a backward glance at Nell.
“I’m Craig Lamont,” the sergeant said, ushering her toward the room he’d just left. “And very glad to see you. I was beginning to think you weren’t available after all.”
“Sorry, I was out late,” Nell apologised, and Lamont cast her a more piercing glance. “I wasn’t drinking,” she said hastily; damned if she’d lose her first job through that kind of misapprehension. “What exactly is it you want me to do?”
“We’re interviewing a suspect in a rather nasty arson case. At least two people are dead, and this bloke was caught bolting out of the building. He claims not to speak any English and is refusing to talk to us without a translator. You guys are thin on the ground.”
“There must be lots of Russian speakers in Edinburgh,” she objected—stupidly. One should never look gift horses in the mouth, and God knew she needed the job.
“Well, that’s the crux of the matter,” Lamont said ruefully. “We have Russian translators we can use, but none of them know Zavreki.”
“Exactly. Frankly, I’d never even heard of Zavrekestan. Thought he was having us on, but it’s a real country, right enough. One of the ex-Soviet breakaway republics.” He gave a quick, deprecating grin as he said it, as though proud of his research and yet aware he must be teaching his grandmother to suck eggs. “Do they really have their own language?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so. It’s similar to Russian, yet too different to be simply a dialect. On the other hand, if your man’s from Zavrekestan, I’d be very surprised if he didn’t speak Russian as well as we speak English.”
“I wondered about that. I have this feeling he’s wasting our time—probably didn’t expect us to find someone.”
“God bless Mother,” Nell murmured.
Lamont stopped outside the door she’d first seen him exiting. “I take it you’ve never sat in on a police interview before?”
Nell shook her head.
“It will all be recorded,” Lamont said briskly. “All I need you to do is translate what I say to our man and what he says back to me. Be as clear and as accurate as possible. I’ll name you and your job for the benefit of the tape before we begin.”
He laid his hand on the doorknob and paused. “For what it’s worth, he seems to me to be hiding signs of agitation, but there’s no hint of violence about him. There’ll be two police officers present at all times.”
Nell nodded gratefully. She was a writer, a translator, a desk woman. These days, at least, her criminals all came in books. Like her spies. Until tonight. Focus, Nell.
“What’s his name?” she asked, more because she felt she should than because she really wanted to know.
“Kolnikov,” Lamont replied, extracting a pad from his pocket. “R. Kolnikov.”
She lifted her gaze to Lamont’s face. “What does the ‘R’ stand for?”
He glanced at the pad. “Razz, apparently.” He opened the door and went in.
Razz Kolnikov? Really? The bastard was guilty and laughing at them. It seemed the mysterious Mr. Derryn might be right.
Nell followed Sergeant Lamont inside, to where a group of people sat around a rather bashed-up table, ornamented only by a crushed packet of cigarettes. Lamont clearly felt time was of the essence, because even as he pulled a chair forward for Nell, he was speaking, combining the social politeness of introductions with naming those present for the police recording.
His police colleague, seated beside him, was a young detective constable called Livingstone. The suspect’s solicitor on the opposite side of the table was Gregor Gallini. Nell’s chair was squashed in at the end of the table, with Gallini on one side and Lamont on the other.
The suspect himself, Kolnikov, lounged next to his lawyer. Nell found herself in no hurry to face him. Instead, she concentrated on sitting down and arranging her coat and bag, giving quick smiles and nods to everyone else as they were introduced. Her first impression of the suspect, gained from half glances and glimpses from the corner of her eye, was of long legs in blue jeans, a sloppy grey sweatshirt with the sleeves pushed up to the elbow to reveal colourful tattoos among the golden hairs on his forearms. And a sort of shimmering light—burning amber and gold—like an aura.
Nell didn’t believe in auras, largely because she’d never taken to the sort of people who talked about them. Therefore, she’d always felt slightly ashamed of the fact that she occasionally imagined different coloured outlines around some people, usually from exactly this kind of half glance. When she looked properly, the “aura” had always gone. Imagination combined with nerves, of course, and tonight she had an excuse for both.
“And Nell Black, translator,” Lamont finished, “present at the request of Mr. Kolnikov.”
“What are her qualifications?” Gallini demanded at once. “She must be fluent in Zavreki.”
“I am,” Nell said mildly. She reached into her bag and brought out copies of her degrees and diplomas. Although she was aware of Kolnikov’s gaze upon her, she passed the documents to the solicitor, who pushed them nearer to his client so that they could both view them. In the belief she would now have a free, if brief moment to examine the suspect, she lifted her gaze to his face. Mistake.
It was a bit like falling out of a tree when she was a kid: a sense of dizziness, followed swiftly by a thud that sucked all the air out of her lungs. Not because he was particularly good-looking—although he was, all straight, sharp lines and shaggy blond hair—but because his hard, intense blue eyes were staring right at her, as if he could see into every corner of her existence. She prayed he couldn’t.
At least there was no “aura” now.
His lips separated, and he spoke in Zavreki. “How come?”
The words were brief, without emphasis, and yet they threw her. Perhaps it was his voice, quiet and deep as dark velvet, that made her shiver.
“How come what?” she demanded.
“How come you speak my language?”
“My mother came from Zavrekestan.”
He picked up the packet of cigarettes from the table. “And they say you can never escape,” he said flippantly.
“You’re here, aren’t you?”
“Out of the frying pan, into the fire,” he observed, placing a cigarette between his lips. His hands were large but slender, his fingers long and oddly elegant compared to the rest of his flung-together if attractive appearance. He wore no rings, no wristwatch. And the tattoos licking down his forearms to his wrists were flames. Bizarre. Though no reason to arrest someone for arson.
“I’ve told you, there’s no smoking in here, Mr. Kolnikov,” Lamont said impatiently. “Can we get on? I take it you’re happy to have Miss Black as your translator?” He fixed Nell with his gaze, and she almost jumped with the realization that her job had now begun.
Hastily, she translated Lamont’s words, and Kolnikov threw the cigarette down on the table. “Hit me.”
Nell translated that as, “He agrees.”
Both the policemen fixed their attention on Kolnikov, although it was to Nell, presumably, that he addressed his words.
“Ask him what he was doing in the burning warehouse in Abbeyhill tonight at five minutes to eleven.”
Nell translated without expression, although she felt a chill run through her bones.
Kolnikov shrugged. “If that’s when I met the police, I was running out of the warehouse before I burned to death. I only went in because it was on fire and I heard someone calling for help.”
Lamont and his sidekick both looked sceptical. “Was that not dangerously reckless? Could he not just have called the fire brigade?”
The solicitor seemed about to intervene, then waved one hand as if it wasn’t worth the fuss.
Kolnikov answered. “What can I say? I’m a good citizen. And I did.”
“Did what?” Lamont demanded.
Kolnikov’s hand closed around the cigarette. “Call the fire brigade.”
“We can check on that, you know,” Detective Constable Livingstone warned.
Kolnikov said nothing, just looked at him.
“Did you know who was in the warehouse?” Lamont asked.
When Nell translated, Kolnikov shook his head.
“For the tape, please,” Livingstone intoned.
While Nell translated, Kolnikov’s hard, impenetrable blue eyes came back into focus on her face.
“No,” he said.
Something twisted inside her. It seemed likely he was looking at her to avoid the policemen; and yet, just for a moment, she imagined his eyes weren’t impenetrable at all but in pain, almost—desperate. Then his lashes came down, thick and concealing.
Perhaps Lamont caught that instant too. Or perhaps he just scented weakness or lies. At any rate, he leaned forward to ram his point home. “Two people died in that blaze, Mr. Kolnikov. Burned to death so that their own mothers wouldn’t recognise them. Did you start the fire?”
Nell translated, trying desperately to keep any emotion from her voice. Her cold lips seemed reluctant to say the words, but at least her brain kept working.
Kolnikov’s gaze flickered to hers and then on to Lamont. “No.”
“At least one of the victims seems to’ve been Russian,” Lamont said casually. “We found the remains of a damaged passport. Is that just coincidence?”
“I suppose it must be.”
Lamont sat back. Kolnikov didn’t move, except for the slow play of his fingers on the cigarette, turning it over and over and tapping it occasionally on the table. There was nothing quick or nervous about it, and yet it looked to Nell as if his hands were shaking.
Kolnikov was a lot more bothered than he wanted anyone to think.
“So what were you doing in Abbeyhill?” Lamont asked. However he asked the questions, his attention was always on his suspect, looking, Nell was sure, for signs that Kolnikov understood before the translation, and for any tiny signals that might betray him before he was ready.
“I was on my way home,” Kolnikov answered.
“Which is where?” Livingstone asked.
“The Royal Hotel in Leith.”
Nell knew it. Despite its grandiose name, it wasn’t an impressive establishment. It catered largely for the homeless and for passing trade who wanted very cheap rooms.
“And where were you coming from?” Livingstone asked.
“Deacon Brodie’s bar,” the answer came back.
“Wasn’t Abbeyhill a bit out of your way?” Livingstone enquired.
“I got lost,” Kolnikov replied.
“Okay.” Livingstone obviously decided to let that one go. “Did you have much to drink in the bar?”
“A whisky and a pint of heavy,” Kolnikov said in heavily accented English. The funny thing was, the Scots intonation came through. Nell only just stopped herself from smiling, and from the sudden twitch of Lamont’s severe lips, she rather thought he had the same problem.
“Anyone who’d remember seeing you there?” Livingstone asked.
Kolnikov shrugged. “I spoke to a couple of people. Don’t know their names, though. I played chess with one.”
The translation of that managed to surprise the cops, but before they could ask any more, Kolnikov added, “One of the barmaids might remember me. I asked her for a drink on her next night off.”
“Did she say yes?” Livingstone asked.
Kolnikov smiled. “Actually, she did.”
“So when did you leave the bar?”
“Before eleven. Maybe half past ten.”
Lamont said abruptly, “Ask him if he knows what was in the warehouse.”
Kolnikov shook his head. “There were a lot of cardboard boxes on the stairs. Everywhere I looked.”
“Some of it was heroin. The female victim threw a bag of it through the window to attract attention.”
“Shit,” said Kolnikov. Anyone might have had that reaction. There was no way to tell if he cared any more than he would for a stranger.
“We also found guns,” Lamont went on. “Regular gangster’s paradise. We really don’t like that.”
Kolnikov let her say all of it before he answered mildly enough, “No one would.”
Lamont fired the questions quick and curt now, barely giving Nell time to translate the replies before he snapped out the next.
“Ever taken heroin, Mr. Kolnikov?”
“Once, when I was sixteen. In Zavrekestan. Never since.”
“Do you own a firearm?”
“Have you ever?”
“What are you doing in Scotland?”
“I’m travelling. Seeing the world.”
“Would you consent to your clothes and skin being tested for deposits?”
“No,” said Gallini, as if he’d just woken up.
“Yes,” said Kolnikov, then glanced at his solicitor and shrugged. “I don’t care. What are you looking for?” he added.
“Anything that might eliminate you from our enquiries,” Lamont said smoothly, before spoiling it by adding, “Any reason we might discover anything incriminating on you?”
“Like what?” Kolnikov asked, apparently amused.
“Petrol,” Livingstone said dryly. “Matches.”
“Is that how the fire was started?” Kolnikov enquired.
“We don’t know yet. Please answer the question.”
He did them the courtesy of appearing to think about it. “I don’t have a car here, so I haven’t been near petrol to my knowledge. Matches…” He held up the cigarette and shrugged. “And I crashed about on the stairs of the warehouse as far as the first floor before I realised it was useless.”
“We’d also like to take your fingerprints and DNA swabs,” Lamont said.
Gallini opened his mouth, presumably to object, but again his client merely shrugged and said, “Fine.”
Nell could almost have imagined he was innocent. Aye, right, Mr. Razz Kolnikov.
“In that case, interview ended at”—he glanced at his watch—“three fifteen a.m., in order to take evidence swabs from Mr. Kolnikov.” He stood and regarded Nell. “Would you mind sticking around?”
“Sure.” Sleep was overrated. She’d already resigned herself to the fact that she wasn’t going to get any for a long time. Besides, the caffeine pills had clocked in, and she felt almost bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
It was six thirty a.m. and almost light. Nell, fortunate enough to find a café open on Leith Walk to catch the shift workers and early starters, sat staring into her black coffee. She felt as if her eyes were kept open with matchsticks, and yet her brain was churning so fast she couldn’t have slept on a featherbed with the sandman in attendance and lullabies in the background.
It was years since she’d been in a police station. That police station. And the memories it stirred up didn’t help her to deal with the rest of tonight’s crap. She shivered, wondered if Derryn would know if she just went home. Or was someone watching her watching the street? Uncomfortable, unsafe thought.
At the police station, she’d hung around in an outer room for a while, just in case Kolnikov chose to say anything while the police took away his clothes. He didn’t. She’d only glimpsed him once through the swinging door as his clothes were returned to him. He’d been sitting in a dull white bathrobe that seemed too small, his head back against the wall, his eyes closed, his long legs spread casually wide and constantly vibrating to the tapping of his feet, which seemed to be the only part of him moving. In different surroundings, it would have been a sight worth memorizing. Even with the ends of the robe dragged together almost as far as his throat, as if he were cold, he was a sexy bastard. Nell’s body had acknowledged it, surprising her with its brief, shocking stir of interest.
She didn’t want to think about that either.
She took a sip of coffee and hugged the warmth of her cup in both hands while she gazed out the window. Rain was spitting down in a halfhearted sort of way. Apart from the passing cars, the street was almost empty. A woman hurried by with a bawling baby in a car seat.
The café radio played mindless pop music, interspersed with quite inappropriately cheerful chatter. A young man yawned behind the counter and began to fry bacon and sausages. Nell’s stomach rumbled.
And then she saw him. Kolnikov. He was walking down the pavement toward the café, hands in the pockets of a battered black leather jacket, his long legs striding, more, it seemed, because they couldn’t travel any other way than because he was in a hurry. He appeared to be whistling.
The police had found no reason to hold him. So far.
Nell’s heart lurched. Don’t look in, she willed him suddenly. Then, Oh hell, yes, please look in.
He looked in. He stopped first to examine the menu in the window. But she didn’t think he even saw it. He looked pale and exhausted, his lips tighter, his fine jaw more rigid than in the police station. And his blue eyes weren’t hard or cold. They were blank with something very like misery. Then his gaze dropped, and he saw her.
She caught a flicker of recognition, even a faint upward tug at the corner of his mouth. For an instant, she held his gaze, descried a flare of intense, almost predatory interest that swiped at her breath.
Then he walked on.
Fuck. Suddenly there were two reasons to call him back, but if she thought about either she wouldn’t be able to do it.
She was at the door before he’d taken two steps. “Mr. Kolnikov?”
He paused, glancing back over his shoulder. She wondered what she looked like to him. A professional young woman fully made-up at six thirty in the morning, wearing a smart business suit and hanging out the door of a café only one step up from a greasy spoon. With her eyes held open by imaginary matchsticks. This was such a bad idea. She was in way over her head, and he must be able to see it…
“Are you all right?” she asked reluctantly.
There was the faintest pause, then: “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Because you’ve been up all night being questioned by the police just for trying to help strangers?” It was too close to the words used by his solicitor already. She added quickly but honestly, “You look ill.”
“I’m not ill. Just tired, I guess.” He glanced at the café window. “Is the coffee any good?”
“Good enough,” she said, going back inside.
Stupidly, her heart hammered in her breast. She was careful not to make eye contact as he came in, gave him space. He didn’t need to talk to her. She didn’t want him to talk to her.
And yet the writer in her was curious. He wasn’t like any criminal type she’d encountered before. He wasn’t anything like she expected of an arsonist. A possible gangster. A murderer.