by Joyce Yarrow
It is 1957. A hardened criminal imprisoned in Vladimir Central saves the life of a young violinist-turned-thief and takes the boy under his wing.
Fifty years later, in New York City, Jo Epstein - private investigator and performance poet - is hired by her Russian émigré stepfather, Nikolai, to help him escape the clutches of a blackmailer.
From Vladimir Central Prison to the brooding Russian forest, Jo races against the clock to solve crimes committed on two continents.
Note: Russian Reckoning was originally published is hard cover as The Last Matryoska.
Vladimir Central Prison – 1957
ISHKHAN ESTIMATED four seconds before the boy passed out. He couldn’t help but admire the nerve of the fraier, or “stuffed deer,” as newcomers to the zone were called. To accuse a thief of being an informer in front of his cellmates was nothing short of suicidal.
“Enough!” he commanded, and the would-be strangler, an emaciated but ferocious Ukrainian known as Wolf, reluctantly loosened his hands on the boy’s throat.
“I want to talk to him, alone.” Within moments Ishkhan’s authoritative whisper had emptied the cell.
“Can you give me one reason you are worthy of my protection?”
The boy, whose soft face belied the wiry strength of his body, spat on the floor before answering. “I don’t need anyone to look after me.”
“So you prefer strangulation to serving your sentence?”
The boy glared at him defiantly. “It’s all the same to me.”
“Since you’re so resigned to your fate, why not tell me about it?”
“Give me a Sobranie and I will.”
Amused by his insolence and wondering how the boy knew he had access to such luxuries, the vor-v-zakonye (thief-with-a-code-of-honor) complied, handing him a cigarette. They inhaled the pungent smoke, which curled into a hangman’s noose above them, as the boy related his story—one more sad tale among the hundreds of thousands told every day in the Russian gulag.
“My father was a general. He was a Red commissar in the civil war and then a hero resisting the Nazis. I never found out why he was arrested. Maybe there were too many medals on his chest and Koba was jealous.”
Ishkhan was impressed to hear Stalin’s name spoken aloud. All the thieves hated Koba—many of their elaborate tattoos showed him in obscene poses—but in spite of his death four years ago, his apparatus of terror lived on.
“What happened to your mother?”
The boy looked away for a moment, and when he looked back his lips no longer trembled. “She was a foreigner—from France—so she knew they would come for her eventually. On the day she was arrested I was picked up at school by two men. I thought they were taking me to prison, until one of the Cheka agents said, ‘Don’t be afraid. You’re lucky. No labor camp for you.’
“What he meant was that they were taking me to the Home for Children of Enemies of the People, and after I’d been there a while, I thought he might be right—at the Home we ate well, compared to most people, and sometimes I felt strangely happy. But that was because of the drugs they put in our food. I saw a psychiatrist every day. He said that he wanted to help me, that I was confused and wasn’t myself. He said I needed to erase all the false memories of my family to make room for my real identity as a good communist.
“When I had had enough, I set fire to my bed in the dormitory, and in the confusion I climbed over the wall. I had a relative—a cousin in Novgorod, and I used the last of my money to pay a truck driver to take me there. I thought I was one of the clever ones until I saw the phony smile on my cousin’s face. I knew I couldn’t stay.”
The boy told Ishkhan how, on the outskirts of Novgorod, he’d fallen in with a band of nomadic train thieves. They taught him to ride in the “dog box”—a contraption fastened to the undercarriage and used to transport tools—his head perilously close to the speeding ground. He and his partner, whose nickname was Tarzan, would stuff themselves so tightly into the small space that they could hardly breathe. Riding this way for hours, they waited for night to fall before pulling themselves up to enter the rail car and relieve the sleeping passengers of their valuables. Then, facing the true test of their profession, they jumped from the hurtling train into the darkness.
The teenager survived the perils of train larceny, but, as he told Ishkhan, “I missed playing music and that was my undoing. One day Tarzan and I were in Leningrad, and as we walked past the conservatory, I told him about my training on the violin and my boyhood dream of becoming an orchestra conductor. On impulse, Tarzan decided to steal me a violin and dragged me inside. We waited outside the practice rooms and the first unfortunate student to take a break had his instrument liberated. It was a student model but to my ears sounded like a Stradivarius.
“That same afternoon, we were spotted on top of a train and Tarzan took a flying leap to freedom. I should have followed, but I couldn’t bring myself to damage the violin. Instead, I climbed down the ladder, right into the arms of the militia.”
As he listened, Ishkhan thought fondly of his own seven-year-old son, Feydor. “If your fellow thieves find out your father was a general, they’ll make you so miserable you’ll wish you had died under the train wheels,” he told the youngster.
“Why? We all have the same Motherland.”
“You should know by now that the only people thieves hate more than stoolies are ‘sukas,’ those of us who break the code and serve in the military. Collaboration with society is forbidden. Even I have to send my son to school in secret.”
“You will need a klichka to hide your identity. Since your claim to fame is riding in the dog box under the trains and you are the youngest thief here, an underling, your nickname will be Pesik—Little Dog.”
Praise for the Book
"Joyce Yarrow's second case for private eye Jo Epstein not only opens a window on 1950s Russia, where thieves and political exiles all face the same brutal realities in post-Stalinist gulags--but on how lives warped then play out in the present ... An unusual and very well crafted story with astonishing characters." ~ Barbara Peters, The Poisoned Pen
"Joyce Yarrow, writing the second in her series of Jo Epstein mysteries, may very well prove herself to be the Mickey Spillane of the 21st century." ~ FCEtier, Blogcritics.org for Seattle Post Intelligencer
"... a multi-layered complicated story, best represented by those nesting dolls with one story inside another. You'll want to discover the secrets buried in The Last Matryoshka." ~ Lesa Holstine, Lesa's Book Critiques
About the Author
Joyce Yarrow's published novels include Ask the Dead (Martin Brown Publishers) and Russian Reckoning - available in hard cover as The Last Matryoska (Five Star Mysteries Nov. March 2012). She is a Pushcart Nominee whose stories have appeared in Inkwell Journal, Whistling Shade, Descant, Arabesques, and Weber: The Contemporary West.
Joyce recently co-authored a romantic thriller with Indian writer Arindam Roy and has lectured on "The Place of Place in Mystery Writing" at the Allahabad Museum, the University of Allahabad, and at writing conferences in the Pacific Northwest.
Raised in the Southeast Bronx, Joyce resides with her husband and son in Seattle.