A series of grisly murders in Warsaw suddenly becomes an international case when radiation is detected on the third victim’s hands, raising fears that all the victims may have smuggled nuclear material out of the defunct Soviet Union. The FBI sends Special Agent Jay Porter to assist in the investigation. He teams up with a gay CIA agent, and when they learn that a Russian physicist who designed a portable atomic bomb is missing, the race is on to find him—and the bomb—before it ends up in the wrong hands.
Finalist, Best Gay Mystery, 2020 Lambda Literary Awards
WARSAW, POLAND 1992
A seagull fished the gunmetal river.
Jay Porter paid his taxi driver and ducked under red-and-white incident tape to approach the sprawl of police cars. Their swirling blue lights bounced off the low gray sky. Basia Husarska got out of her own car—bright red and sporty—and tossed aside a cigarette. She looked like a bruise on the ice in her leather boots and black everything else. “Dzien dobre, Agent Porter,” she said.
Jay shook her hand. “Good morning, Pani Husarska.”
“Detective Kulski waits for you before moving the body.”
He followed her down the riverbank.READ MORE
Two bridges spanned the Vistula’s sludgy water. Even at that early hour, their steel girders boomed thunderously from vehicles speeding overhead. It had snowed during the night, then rained, leaving an invisible crust. Głodedź. Was that the name for the thin ice that coated everything? The first word his tutor had taught him in a language short on vowels. With his feet crunching through it, Jay asked, “Is this głodedź?”
“Gołoledź,” the director replied, her tone correcting everything: his spelling, his accent, the presumption that he could speak a word of Polish. “We have gołoledźonly in winter. Now it is spring.” Her voice, rough from smoking, made everything she said sound even more foreign.
Detective Kulski, standing next to a body on the riverbank, was finishing up with his police team. He switched to English at Jay’s approach. “Remind the hospital not to accidentally burn his clothes this time,” he instructed them. The detective took Jay’s hand, pumped once, and let go. “I’m glad you were in your room.”
“I am too,” Jay answered, wishing he were still were in a warm hotel bed instead of bending over a body on the icy riverbank. He studied the dead man’s face, not really seeing him but only the evidence of him: a slackened chin, blood smeared on the ears, lips blued by cold death. He hadn’t shaved for four or five days, maybe a week. “Is he the fourth courier?”
Couriers, mules, runners. Smugglers. Post-communist Poland, with its porous borders to the East and West, had quickly become a freeway for unlawful trafficking. A native-born mafia was suspected of three execution-style murders in as many months. Each victim had a cheek ghoulishly slashed before a bullet to the heart killed him. From the looks of it, the dead man on the riverbank was the fourth victim.
“Some things are different this time,” Kulski pointed out. “He was killed here, not someplace else and brought here.”
The detective was right. There was too much blood, and dead men don’t bleed. “That’s a big difference. What more?”
“He fell here.” The detective indicated where the victim had fallen facedown, his heart leaking into the snow. “The killer rolled him over to cut his face.”
“So he was dead first and not tortured this time,” Jay said.
He slipped on rubber gloves and squatted next to the body. The dead man’s lacerated cheek revealed an almost full set of gold teeth. Blood matted his woolly hair to the snow, and his eyes were open, staring dully at—what? His last conscious moment? Jay wanted to develop his retina, make a print, see what he last saw.
Director Husarska pulled a pack of cigarettes out of her coat pocket. That morning she had shed her usual full-length fur for a shiny wet-look jacket that could not possibly have kept her warm, but perhaps, like Jay, she had been summoned to the crime scene at an awkward moment and had worn whatever was handy. Tapping out a cigarette, she slipped it between her lips, red like her car, and another rare spot of bright color in that blurry morning. She snapped open her lighter; its blue flame danced atop the silver case. “He is Russian,” she said, so flatly that Jay halfway expected her to poke the body with her toe, as she might something washed up on the beach.
“What makes him Russian?” Jay asked.
The policewoman sucked on her cigarette so hard he could almost taste the tobacco. “Look at his teeth,” she replied, the wind snatching smoke from her mouth. “Only Russians use so much gold.”
The dead man’s overcoat had fallen open, revealing a thinner jacket soaked in blood. Jay touched its flap. “May I?” he asked Detective Kulski.
Before he did, Jay paused for a last look at the undisturbed body.
Director Husarska remarked, “The labels are removed.”
“I thought the body had not been examined.”
“It is only my conjecture. Or would you use the word guess?”
“Guess,” he replied.
She smiled at the tease in his response.
Jay folded the man’s jacket back. Heavy with blood, it clung to the shirt. They all looked for a label, and saw the clean cut in the lining where one had been cut away. Jay touched the razor-straight edge of what remained. The other victims’ clothes had been cremated along with their bodies before Jay arrived, but the case files described how all the labels had been removed with a blade so sharp it never snagged a thread.
Remembering that Detective Kulski had described the other couriers’ hands as soft—“not callused like a worker’s hands”—Jay lifted the dead man’s right one by its wrist. Even in death it felt light, fragile: an old man’s hand. He looked to see if the victim had hair in his ears and he did. “He’s older than the others. Almost seventy,” Jay estimated.
“The Russians, they drink vodka, they look like this,” Basia told him. “In Russia, you can be twenty or one hundred, and you look like this.”
“You don’t like Russians, do you, Pani Husarska?”
“It is not disliking them, Agent Porter. It is knowing them.”
“His wedding ring is missing,” Jay remarked, noticing the paler band on the man’s already pale fingers. Then he saw something else: a pronounced bump next to the man’s little finger. He turned the hand to look at it and pressed it. It felt like the writer’s bump he’d had through high school, before he switched to an electric typewriter in college. He showed it to Kulski. “What would cause a bump like that?”
The detective shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Jay couldn’t imagine a repetitive task that would create a callus in that spot. He lowered the man’s arm to the ground, stood, and pulled off his rubber gloves. “Ask the pathologist about it. Will Dr. Nagorski do the autopsy again?”
“I can ask for him,” Kulski said. “He is not always available.”
“It would be a good idea. In cases with multiple murders, often the same pathologist makes a connection we overlook.”
“I will guarantee that Dr. Nagorski is available.” Director Husarska tossed aside her cigarette. Its butt, stained with red lipstick, rolled down the riverbank.
“Good,” Jay said.
Across the river, a ray of sun, breaking through thinning clouds, reflected off the snow clinging to a church’s twin copper spires. “The other victims were all found on the other side of the river,” he said. “On the Praga side.”
“It’s nothing,” the policewoman replied, lighting another cigarette. “So the courier comes from a different direction this time.”
No one ventured a guess as they pondered the lifeless man on the ground. “Why does a man cut a face like that?” Basia finally asked.
“It’s a signature,” Jay said. “The killer wants us to know that it’s him.”
“But whydoes a man cut like that? What is inside him to do such a thing? We have no such experiences in Poland.”
“You are certain it’s a man?”
“Can a woman be so cruel?”
Jay thought about women he had seen in prison. Some he had put there. “You would be surprised,” he said. “Any witnesses?”
“Jeszcze nie,” Kulski said. Not yet. By the way the detective shook his head, he didn’t expect any to turn up.
“Polish people do not cooperate with the police. It is our tradition,” Director Husarska said, and shivered from the cold. “Have you seen enough?”
“I’d like to take some pictures.”
Jay pulled a Polaroid camera from his daypack, snapped the photos, and as they popped out of the camera, slipped them into a pocket without waiting for them to develop. When he’d shot what he wanted—face, close-ups on slashed cheek and odd callus, and setting—he rose.
Detective Kulski signaled for the ambulance crew. Two men hoisted a stretcher and stumbled down the riverbank, obliterating whatever forensic value remained. They heaved the dead man onto the stretcher and everyone plowed back up the hill behind them. The detective limped with difficulty on the icy slope. When they reached a service road running the length of the embankment, his gaze traveled back to the river. As a fellow cop, Jay knew he was engraving the scene in his memory for all the times he would try to reconstruct what happened there.
The stretcher-bearers shoved the body into the back of an ambulance, sounded a siren, and drove away.
“So, we shall wait for a report on the radiation from Dr. Nagorski,” Basia said.
“I’d like to attend the autopsy,” Jay said.
“Please arrange that, Leszek.” Basia pressed a key fob that popped open the locks on her sporty car.
Jay was surprised by it. Electronic car locks were only beginning to appear in the States, and Poland, recently liberated from decades of stifling communism, had a long way to catch up. “Nice wheels,” he said.
Director Husarska glanced at her tires.
“I mean, nice car. ‘Nice wheels’ is an American expression.”
“I like nice things,” she said, and got into the car, started the engine, and gave it gas. Her tires spun on the slippery cobblestones.
Jay tapped on her window. She lowered it.
“You call this spring, Pani Director?”
“The Poles are romantics, Agent Porter. It is already April. It should be spring.” Her window glided back up.
Jay leaned on one fender, Kulski on the other, and her wheels gained enough traction to bolt up the ramp and disappear into traffic. Brushing off their hands, they walked to the detective’s car. Along the embankment stood a row of kiosks with chairs chained to naked umbrella poles embedded in cement blocks. Beyond them, a houseboat strained at its dock lines. “What is this place?” Jay asked.
“A park,” the detective told him. “It is very popular in the summer. Now, it is too cold except for young people.”
Jay detected wry note in what the detective said and asked, “Is it another lovers’ lane?”
“We have the same name for it.”
“Who lives in the houseboat?”
“No one is home, so we are checking. Are you going to the embassy?”
“I’ll walk. It’s not far.”
“Another storm is coming.”
“I’ll run if it does.”
“I will telephone you about the radiation test.”
The men shook hands and the detective drove off.
A policeman was balling up the last of the incident tape as Jay turned into the strengthening wind. The plywood kiosks groaned under its assault. A sign nailed to the houseboat’s side offered daily river tours, but judging by the trash in its lines, it hadn’t moved for some time.
A light flickered in one of the deckhouse windows.
Had someone returned unnoticed?
The gangplank heaved as the boat rocked in the wind. Jay grabbed the ropes that served as rails and started up it. In a couple of steps, he slipped on the sheer ice, his feet going overboard before the ropes stopped his fall. He looked into the murky, unforgiving water swirling beneath him and pulled himself back on his feet.
When he looked up again, the light inside the houseboat went off.COLLAPSE
When three unidentified bodies with mutilated faces turn up on the banks of the Vistula River in 1992 Warsaw, the police initially assume that they are dealing with a serial killer in this solid thriller from Smith (A Vision of Angels). Later, they determine that the victims are Russian and carry traces of radioactivity. The possibility of smuggled Soviet-era nuclear materials raises its head. FBI agent Jay Porter, who has family connections to the Manhattan Project, joins the Warsaw police on the case. The perpetrators, chief among them a Serbian nationalist general with delusions of grandeur, are known to the reader early on, and coincidence plays a key role in moving things along. Interest lies in watching how various strands of the straightforward plot gradually converge as events play against a moody picture of daily life in post–Cold War Poland. Sharply drawn characters, rich dialogue, and a clever conclusion bode well for any sequel.