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The Amber Rooms
The Amber Rooms
Book Three of the Saskia Brandt Series
Copyright © 2012 by Ian Hocking
Unless otherwise stated, this story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from the author.
Ian Hocking has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
Line-edited and proofread by Olivia Wood of TextMender.com.
Cover design support by Toby James Creative.
Published by Writer as a Stranger
Table of Contents
About the Author
During his writing career, Ian Hocking’s fiction has been published both in print and online. His first novel, Déjà Vu, received the 2011 Red Adept Award for Science Fiction.
‘A new voice in Brit SF that we should all be taking an interest in.’
Joe Gordon, Forbidden Planet International
The Amber Rooms
Saskia Brandt illustrated by Pia Guerra
For Jessica: Cool as.
The Saskia Brandt Series
You are reading the third book of the Saskia Brandt series. It may be read as a standalone novel, but it will spoil aspects of the first two books, Déjà Vu and Flashback. If you intend to read them at all, I recommend doing so before you continue.
At the end of Flashback, Saskia Brandt has used Jennifer Proctor’s time band to escape 2003. Her last moments in that book feature a vision of forested land and eastern European myths.
Characters and Events
The keystone historical event in this book is real. The 1907 Tiflis (now Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi) heist, known also as the Yerevan Square Expropriation, took place on the 26th June, 1907 (Old Style calendar) and shocked the world for its daring and the unprecedented sum of money stolen. It was enacted by Bolshevik paramilitaries as a way of procuring funds for seditionist activities.
The courageous, chivalrous and murderous psychotic Bolshevik known as ‘Kamo’ is real. In our own world-line, Kamo languished after the revolution and passed through a series of jobs secured through his boyhood connection to Joseph Stalin. He was briefly a member of the feared All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for the Struggle against Counter-revolution and Sabotage—its acronym is Cheka—but was forced to leave when his behaviour was considered too brutal even for them.
As an old man, Stalin said, ‘Kamo was a truly amazing person... A master of disguise.’
In 1922, Kamo had returned to Tiflis to write his memoirs, which would include Stalin’s days as a bandit, when he was killed under mysterious circumstances. It seems likely that he was removed to protect Stalin's image as a statesman, and likely that Stalin gave the order.
His fate in my book is somewhat different.
The Amber Rooms
I will lead my fear
The Turkish merchantman Theodorus sailed south through the Strait of Kerch towards the Black Sea. It carried a tall, broad-shouldered Russian named Alexei Sergeyevich Draganov. He amused the crew with stories and songs of north-west Russia, which he translated into broken Turkish at their demand. He was an officer of the Department for Protecting the Public Security and Order. This department was known to some as the Okhranka.
Theodorus moved clockwise around the Black Sea and touched at Novorossiisk and Cape Kodori, where Draganov went ashore and made enquiries. He carried pistols beneath his tunic because there were thieving practices in this part of the world. His enquiries at the Cape were productive. At their conclusion, Draganov returned to his cabin and ate fish eggs and bread. Then he entered his thoughts in his diary. Each word was encoded with a cipher known only to him and his Protection Department mentor, Dr Kaplan. Once his speculation was set down in the diary, he copied out the text as an addendum to the serial letter that the captain kept on his behalf. The captain had been on a retainer for the Protection since the 1870s, when it had been known as the Third Section.
Towards the end of the voyage, Draganov often spent the later part of the evening smoking his pipe on deck with the ship’s surgeon, an erudite young Georgian called Chabua. They discussed whether the Black Sea itself could be described as a living organism. Both agreed it could be so; it depended on one’s definition. Chabua was taken by the history of the Sea. He had never sailed it before. He was a romantic and fascinated by its role as a watery crossroads during antiquity. To think of the Thracians of the Iliad; to think of these harbours, some older than the pyramids.
Draganov shrugged. He knocked the remains of his tobacco into the creamy wake and bade the doctor a good night. He lay without sleeping in his damnably short bunk. He thought of the Argonauts labouring into the eye of the wind, towards the edge of the known world. A golden fleece the prize. He listened to the slap of water against the hull. The ship’s bell rang to mark the middle watch. Someone laughed. It was a happy ship. Draganov slept, finally, with his feet in the air.
Ever on, the ship nodded its way towards Anatolia.
In Sukham, the Theodorus was met by a forgettable Protection Department officer, who paid off the captain of the merchantman and asked to introduce Draganov to the settlement. It was an overcast day and by late afternoon the weather was an unpleasant combination of draughty and hot. Draganov went alone to the bazaar and bought gifts—Caucasian trinkets, for the most part—for certain of his female companions in St Petersburg. He visited a bath house and had a proper shave. Then, for good form, he had tea and jam with the Sukham agent in the botanical gardens, though the fellow bored him with asinine observations on the relationship between cranial topology and anarchistic tendencies, particularly in the Georgian male.
‘Where is she?’ asked Draganov when he could stand their conversation no longer.
The agent fidgeted.
‘In my house. With my wife.’
Draganov dabbed at his mouth with a napkin and watched a child lead a camel across dusty cobbles. The agent seemed to deflate.
The Countess stood in the beautiful corner—that place in a Russian house where the icon is hung. She was tall. Her features were a trifle too penetrating for his taste. But her cheeks were rouged and her eyes were green and he looked forward to the interrogation. Age: twenty-six. Not young and not old; able to be either at a whim. She wore fine skirts and a short jacket. Her hat was broad-brimmed and slanted. In all, she was dressed exactly as Draganov would expect a young woman of her class and means to dress. Indeed, she shone with nobility.
Before he acknowledged her, Draganov closed the drawing room door and inspected his surroundings. He looked out of the second-storey window at the white caps of the Caucasian mountains. They were in the north-east of the town. A girl careened down the dust road on a bicycle. A fire bell rang somewhere.
Draganov dropped his canvas bag. He felt that the Countess was watching him with some amusement and this, in turn, amused him. There were no electrical fittings in the room. A fire was burning in the hearth. Winged armchairs faced it. The paintings on the wall were cheap, local prints. A rounded card table had been placed on a bear rug—itself a former local, Draganov had no doubt.
‘May I sit down?’ she asked.
‘Where are my manners?’ said Draganov. ‘Of course.’
It had taken her a long time to ask that question. He noted this, but reminded himself not to read too much into the delay. Her papers were in order, after all.
She assumed the further of the two winged chairs. Her back was straight and her hands remained in her bearskin hand warmer.
Draganov sat opposite her and smiled. He was thinking about the wife of the Protection agent and her servant, both of whom were likely to be listening at the door. The agent himself was probably where Draganov had left him: in the kitchen, drinking milk.
‘Why am I being held here against my will, Mr Draganov?’
‘A serious crime has occurred. You are an important witness.’
‘I am aware of that,’ she snapped, ‘having been held at gunpoint, along with my travelling companions and the ship’s crew. I would like to know why they were freed and I was not.’
‘When did you last eat?’
Draganov pulled the cord. The old servant entered immediately. ‘You,’ he said, ‘bring in bread and cold meats.’
‘His methods and mine differ, madam. Our guest has not eaten today. Pick up your feet.’
The servant, who was used to quite familiar exchanges with her master, screwed her face into an expression of disgust. She walked from the room with her hands in the pockets of her skirt.
The Countess said, ‘Do you want me to thank you?’
‘If you wish.’
‘Your servant, madam.’
Casually, Draganov opened his canvas bag and removed the Countess’s confiscated personal effects. He placed them on the tea table next to his chair. The Countess watched him. Draganov tried to note the object on which her eyes lingered. Was it the dull black band?
‘Now, let us begin at the beginning,’ he said. ‘You boarded the Spring Wanderer at Odessa?’
‘What was the purpose of your journey?’
‘To see the sights.’
Draganov leaned forward and indicated a handwritten letter. ‘The captain told us that you were returning home following the death of your fiancé, one Paruyr. What happened to his body?’
‘We buried him beneath a silver birch, sir.’
‘You are not in mourning.’
‘Wives mourn. We were never married.’
Draganov leaned back. They did not speak for a while. He listened to the clocks and birds. At length, the woman crossed her legs.
‘When did the pirates attack the Spring Wanderer?’
‘Two days ago. It was the middle of the night. Later, somebody told me that they had joined the boat earlier and stowed their weaponry beneath felt cloaks. I found them quite gallant, actually.’
‘We’ll come to that,’ said Draganov. ‘Do you mind if I smoke?’
‘Not at all.’
Draganov knocked his pipe against the free-standing ashtray beside his chair. He took a pouch of tobacco from his pocket, grimaced at the clumps, which indicated dampness, and set about sprinkling the tobacco into the bowl of the pipe. As he did so, he considered showing the woman a mugshot of a political—perhaps her, perhaps not—that he had obtained in Tiflis.
‘How many of them were there?’
‘Two dozen, I think.’
Draganov nodded and tamped the tobacco with his thumb. He sucked a little on the pipe to test its draw.
‘Are you telling me,’ he said, ‘that two dozen pirates boarded and nobody raised an alarm?’
‘The two dozen includes several of the ship’s crew. They were in on the crime from the beginning.’
‘How would you describe these pirates?’
‘Workers. Intellectuals. It’s difficult to say.’ A smile came and went. ‘They were revolutionaries in style and deed.’
Draganov added more tobacco to his pipe. ‘Do you find the notion of revolution romantic?’
She gave him a hard look. ‘Don’t practise upon me.’
‘It is a plain question. Many women, I hear, find the notion of anarchy romantic.’
‘Anarchy and revolution are not the same.’
‘Really? Tell me the difference.’
She smiled again. ‘I leave that to the intellectuals. But I might say that the revolutionary does not know what he wants, whereas the anarchist does.’
‘I see,’ said Draganov. He looked at the notes made by the Sukham agent. ‘Please describe the head pirate.’
‘He was a tall man—bald and ugly into the bargain. He sounded like someone from the north-west.’
‘Did he, indeed?’ Draganov read once more the description provided by two independent witnesses: short; good looking; freckled complexion; Georgian accent. ‘What did this man say?’
‘Very little. Once, I believe he claimed “I am not a criminal but a revolutionary”.’
‘What happened once you knew the pirates wanted money?’
‘They rounded us up first and made us stand in the middle of the ship. They told us to see nothing. The captain was compelled to show the chief pirate the location of the wage money.’
‘Did the crew put up any resistance as the cash was being stolen?’
‘No. The chief pirate put some officers in the lifeboats as hostages. These officers were later used to row the pirates ashore.’
‘How would you describe the atmosphere?’
‘Businesslike. There was no question that the chief pirate was in control of his men.’
‘Only men? No women?’
‘They were disguised, but I’m sure no women took part.’
‘There are reports that you helped the pirates.’
‘The reports are false and outrageous.’
‘You are a revolutionary, madam.’
Draganov struck a match and moved it in a circle around the bowl of his pipe, drawing shallow puffs. When the pipe was going, he extinguished the match with a wave and dropped it into the ashtray.
‘You were on the inside. You participated in this expropriation, which was a crime committed by an anarchist gang known as the Outfit. We know that this gang is responsible for several prior robberies around the region. One of their number is a woman known to us only by a codename. She has a peculiar distinguishing feature. Shall I tell you what it is?’
Draganov withdrew his gun. He did not cock it. He laid it crosswise on his leg.
‘Please,’ he said, ‘remove your hands from the bearskin.’
The woman had not moved or shown the smallest sign of alarm.
‘I will not,’ she said.
‘Everything is clear to me, I believe, with the exception of one thing. Why have you not already escaped this house? I have evidence of the range of your skills.’
‘If I’m honest,’ she said, ‘I need the band on the table.’
Draganov cocked the revolver and pointed it at her chest. Carefully, he reached across and pulled the cord for the servant again. ‘So you confess, Countess. Please, show me your hand.’
‘Who betrayed me?’
‘Your so-called fiancé, Paruyr. He should have lain low, consistent with his role of a dead man. Instead, he has been frequenting casinos. We picked him up yesterday.’
‘Who else did he betray?’
‘I can’t tell you that.’
‘My travelling companion, Alenya, is dead, isn’t she?’
‘I cannot be specific. However, in general, I can say that interrogation practices in this part of the world are regrettably behind the times.’
The door opened.
Without turning, Draganov said, ‘Tell your employer that he can come in, but not before he’s called the Chief of Gendarmes.’ He was about to add, ‘We have her,’ when a loop of wire was passed over his head. He was a big man but his reflexes were fast. He was able to put his gun against his throat before the garrotte was pulled taut. His breath stopped and his windpipe was almost crushed by the pressing bulk of the gun.
His attacker grunted and pulled Draganov backwards. His chair tipped. The pipe spun from his mouth and his foot kicked the ashtray. Draganov felt that the gun barrel was pointing past his chin, so he discharged it twice to advertise his predicament. The noise was tremendous. Powder burned against his throat.
As he struck the floor, he felt the garrotte slacken. He did not try to touch it. Instead, he used his long reach to put his hand into the hearth. He fumbled for a burning log and felt his hand grip an iron poker instead. Draganov grinned. Luck was with him. He seized the poker and swung it behind his head.
The poker passed through empty air.
Draganov felt that the garrotte was loose. He whipped it from his throat using the gun. Ignoring the pain of his burnt neck, he coughed and staggered to his feet. He forced air into his lungs but his vision darkened abruptly and he slumped against the upturned chair. He raised his gun into this gloom and prepared to fire.
Draganov could see his assailant. It was an ostler. No, a woman dressed as an ostler—her long, untied hair betrayed her—and she was running for the window. He would have to shoot her in the back. He decided this was justice. It was her own fault for attacking one of the Protection. But he could not bring himself to fire, and in three bounds she was through the window. He expected to see her fall to the ground. This room was on the first floor. Instead, she tumbled onto something that rang wooden and hollow. There had to be a carriage beneath the window.
The Countess was retrieving her belongings from the collection of evidence. She turned to Draganov and looked coldly at the gun as he brought it to bear. She did not hesitate. The last item she took was the black band. She passed this over the stump of her left wrist and secured it at the elbow.
‘It is you,’ said Draganov. His voice had a drunken slur. He felt crushed with sleepiness. ‘You are … Brandt.’
A man’s face appeared in the window. Draganov recognised him as the Georgian poet who had led the pirates. The man hissed, ‘Lynx! Come!’
Instead, the woman walked towards Draganov. He held the weapon but her green eyes scared him. She used her teeth to pull off her glove.
‘We have a custom here,’ she said, talking from the side of her mouth, ‘which a stranger will practise on a child when leaving a house. It helps learn names, and a little respect.’
She slapped him hard.
‘I am Lynx.’
Draganov coughed, then smiled. The Countess moved out of focus.
‘I know you as Saskia Brandt, late of the Federal Investigation Bureau. You remember it as a dream, don’t you?’
Though he could no longer see her face in detail, Draganov perceived her bewilderment. The glove still hung from her teeth. She was staring at him. The moment ended when the man at the window shouted, ‘Now or never again, Lynx. We have it all. Come.’
Slowly, and still covered by Draganov’s gun, the Countess walked away. Draganov fell to his knees. He could hear the shouts of alarm from the floor below. Someone was knocking at the door. Even as he pitched onto his face and his sense of himself evaporated, enough wit remained to appreciate the sophistication of his entrapment. Saskia Brandt, alias the Countess, had been reunited with her most precious possession. Did she even know why it was so important? Did she justify her yearning for the band as a sentimental attachment, origins forgotten? In passing, she had also discovered the identity of the man, Paruyr, who had betrayed their latest expropriation, as well as the death of the woman she called Alenya.
Yes, it was the neatest thing.
Draganov watched the blur of this woman slip through the window. He had been outplayed. But he was determined to meet her again. It would take more than a garrotte to separate him from a vow.
Approaching St Petersburg: Early September, 1907
A late evening train moved north through the empty miles towards the City Upon Bones. The electric lights of the train reflected in the water dripping from the trees and the animal eyes only one passenger, Saskia Brandt, could see. She sat in the dining carriage. Her right hand held The Travels of Marco Polo open at an illustration of Kublai Khan, but Saskia was not reading the book. Her eyes searched for the occluded horizon. She had been thinking of that first meeting with Draganov in Sukham, when he had used her real name and unlocked the puzzle box of her memory.
Pink spray carnations leaned in pity over her uneaten lemon sorbet. Saskia had no appetite. She was more scared than she could remember, and she could remember everything. Fear was her partner and had been since April of 1904. Some days she led; some days the fear took her through every step and turn.