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September 18, 2023

A Train Trip to Murder on Strawberry Point 9

By Robert Earle

While still in England, Valery fended off questions from Smedlov, an Okhrana agent, about Ivan Karamazov, whom he suspected of writing anti-Czarist articles for newspapers. Ivan and Valery left him far behind in coming to California, Ivan settling in with Christina, Valery becoming comfortable in his post. Still, nothing ever will stay comfortable with a Karamazov.


Valery received Smedlov with an entirely inappropriate surge of affection. He was appalled at himself.

"What on earth ...?"

" ... am I doing here?"

"Well, yes, of course. Here, sit down. I'll have us brought tea."

Smedlov lurched into a chair that, like all chairs, was too small for him. Valery reached over and brushed some lint off his lapel, a gesture that perplexed them both.

"Do I look like I've been traveling forever?" Smedlov asked. "I feel as though I have. My God, this country is almost Russia!"

"Not yet!" Valery joked.

In came Mrs. Morgan with the tea without even having been asked. Did she deduce who Smedlov was on her own? The look in her eye, or the decided absence of a look contrary to her normal pop-eyed inquisitiveness, said yes. She wanted this young consul of hers to be seen as in command. Of course tea would appear, cookies, too. When she left, Smedlov encouraged Valery to talk a bit, tell him about the haze of gold in San Franciscans' minds that overwhelmed the fog enveloping their heads, the sense Valery had that America was still crashing into California, couldn't stop itself. Now there was no gold, but there was oil in the south, agriculture in the middle, timber and fish and trade in the north.

"But to the point," Valery said at last. "What brings you here, Smedlov?"

Smedlov grinned, not having a smile to offer. "Something you report to Cassini and Cassini complains about to my ministry. These articles about Russia's abuse of Russian citizens ... its designs on Asia ... how threatening we are."

Valery did have a smile he could offer, but he declined to do so, fashioning instead an expression of quick concern and understanding. Again and again he had inoculated himself with messages mentioning, if not John Patmos, then a disturbing article here, another one there. "Tripe," he said. "The same as in Berlin, Paris, London, no?"

"It's almost as though the shadow of old Engels still follows you," Smedlov said. He then added, jarringly, "Thank God your father kept us informed about Engels and you're following suit. Who would know what was said in San Francisco if you didn't report it?" Smedlov drew the syllables of San Francisco out at great length, as if to distract Valery from the barb he'd just pushed into his flesh: your father helped the Okhrana; he was on our lists. Smedlov then relaxed, all in shambles, one scuffed boot lolling over the other, one big hand wrapped around his teacup, the other occupied with a cookie.

Valery couldn't restrain himself. "I don't believe my father worked for you exploiting Engels. He knew the man. That's all. Many men knew him."

"You knew him, too."

"Yes, I did, and Friedrich Engels is long dead. So what on earth are you talking about?"

"I'm talking about a fellow who could be the same fellow popping up in the two places where you've found yourself and each time so expert in poisoning public opinion against our Czar."

"Do you mean Patmos?"

"No, I don't mean Patmos. You wouldn't think anyone would really be called that, would you? If I turned San Francisco upside down, would anyone be registered as John Patmos ... John of Patmos, don't I get it? No, I think this particular nuisance has a Russian name, being Karamazov.

Valery decided to be quick and aggressive, a real friend to Smedlov, in other words. "But my dear man, we're eight thousand kilometers away from where you last raised this question! My God, did you think you'd ever get here?"

Smedlov grinned that grin. "I certainly did not."

Valery leaned across his desk and lowered his voice. "If I were to wager, I would wager that Patmos is a Jap."

"A -- ?"

"They call Japanese Japs here. Or Nips. He's a Japanese man educated in Europe, I would say, sent here by his government to disturb us."

Smedlov, who had not considered this possibility, could not deny it was plausible.

Valery pressed his advantage. "They are furious at the Triple Entente, losing Port Arthur, being pushed around by the European powers and told to mind their manners. I would say he studied at Oxford or Cambridge. I would say yes, he read his Marx and Engels and all the rest. I would say he's only practicing here, doing his scales. Next you will find him in Washington or New York." He had wanted to mention Engels again and was pleased with how he had done it. The slur on his father was too much. He took a deep breath, asking himself if he dared go on when Smedlov stopped slouching and raised a hand for him to stop while he finished the cookie he was eating preparatory to saying something.

"Mr. Consul, wait now, why haven't you written all this in your reports?"

"Because it's speculation, isn't it? What good does it do? What could I prove? I am one man working seven days a week. But you're here now -- go find this crafty Jap."

"No, now ... well, I couldn't do that. It's Russians we're charged with in my shop." Smedlov had gathered himself. "What's Karamazov look like?" he finally asked.

"He doesn't look Japanese," Valery snapped.

"We'll take that as a given, but I'm telling you I'm not here looking for a Japanese. I'm looking for a Russian, and the only Russian I know it could be is who I'm asking about. Look, Valery, this is serious, and we've got a chance to put it to rest," he said. "You know Karamazov whereas I haven't ever seen him. I'm blind. What does he look like?"

Trapped, Valery had to describe Ivan's natural fitness, his trimness, his low forehead, black hair graying at the temples, somewhat reserved way of looking at people more with his mind than his eyes. "But remember I have not seen him in years myself. Not since Berlin."

"Six years or thereabouts?"

"Yes. And further ... " Valery said this because he couldn't explain it himself and thought it was deft because inexplicable: " ... if you've read the Dostoevsky book and the part where Ivan Karamazov puts our Savior beneath of the foot of the so-called Grand Inquisitor, wouldn't you wonder how he could be this fellow here styling himself not as a Roman historian but a Christian prophet better known for predicting the end of the world than the end of an empire?" Valery allowed himself to laugh. "The man I knew and last saw in Berlin had God burned out of him." He crossed himself, something he had not done in years, and heard his own voice pronounce a fragment of text scavenged from his eclectic education; "'I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.'"

They'd all heard it, every little Russian boy and girl.

"All right, but he's not a stable fellow," Smedlov insisted. "Maybe he's swung back to God again."

Knowing Ivan, Valery offered a genuinely self-confident shrug of contradiction. "It isn't Karamazov, I tell you. It's a Nip. Go out on the street and look right and left. You won't see Ivan Karamazov, I assure you, but you will see thousands of Nips."


The way Dickerson worked was by not telling himself he was working, which he'd never liked since the tannery in Ohio, meaning all his life, and which didn't get you anywhere in San Francisco anyway, still a gold rush town where working was for blockheads, riffraff and rummies. Better to drift and bump and feel your way along, become a kind of San Francisco yourself, so often clammy and foggy and generally impenetrable to the naked eye with hills, slopes, and buildings thrown up anywhere and everywhere, as raw and sea-leached as a city could be if you could call it a city and not a mere coincidence of solitary settlements, house by house, building by building, all of them shuttered to the weather, the coal soot from the steamers, and the rattling of horse drawn carts. There wasn't a thing you'd call finished because any finish, the finish of a wall or a street surface or a man's face corroded and splotched and glistened with intricate patinas of moisture obfuscating the basis of things. A city of uncertainties. Unaccountably promising and yet worrisome. Look down a crooked alleyway and guess where it ended; peer into a hallway where the sconce work was for decoration not light; wonder who was padding along under those hats and umbrellas and shawls. People from everywhere; people from nowhere. Coolies and kulaks and sailors and miners and men wrapped in slimy aprons tossing fish and blocks of ice and coils of rope this way and that. Watch it. Take heed. Duck the bales, the boxes, the crates, the sacks, the sullen swinging nets winched no higher than they had to be before they were swung from holds to the backs of men that were broader than their legs were long.

If he was looking for anyone, he was looking for everyone. There was a space between his eyes and mind where he stored them all, the faces, the gaits, the ears, the hair, hats, mouths, apparent points of origin and possible destination, which could be here, California, 1904, only if, as seemed likely, this was the end of the world where everything slipped in from the Pacific and rolled over from the Atlantic generating a queasy vertigo of swirling human whirlpools, undertows, and waves. Lots of Russians if you knew who was a Russian, where the Russians roomed and roamed, gangs of them piling down off ships out onto the streets that were theirs versus streets that were the Chinks' versus the fat merry islanders' from down south in the Pacific, some brown as Africans, some buttercup yellow. Go where they ate smoked duck and salmon and sloshed vodka into their tea. Follow the high boots, square shoulders and heavy bellies. Where they milled, he milled, neither searching nor surrendering. Was he going to simply knock on a door, find his man, collect his money and head for Chicago? With his luck? He hardly thought so, but he walked past the Russian consulate in the new Flood building and laughed to himself that the Pinkertons had their office in there, too, and asked himself why not just give it a try?

Because if he went in, knocked, and drew a blank, he'd be back out on the street in three minutes flat having tipped Mr. Valery off that someone was after Mr. Ivan, him and his stolen girl.

Then go in and don't ask for Mr. Ivan? Try something else? Well, yes, exactly, whatever didn't seem direct and logical always worked best. Ask about the next Russian steamer coming in ... or a permit to visit Russia ... something like that? Wait, visit Russia? Not on your life. He'd been reading things in the paper by a fellow called Patmos. Go to Russia, go to jail. The watchers had watchers in Russia and they all watched themselves being watched by the police.

He went up the steps and disappeared into the new Flood building. On the second floor, he came to a door with a peculiar double-headed eagle embossed on it, a crown floating up above the weird beast's twin crania, and gold Cyrillic script above simple English in black letters: Consulate of Russia.

There was a reception area with a battle-ax secretary, and coming out of the interior office a tall man with a lantern jaw and shambling gait. They looked at one another long enough for Dickerson to decide this fellow wasn't Ivan, gave way so each could pass, and the big guy left just as Dickerson announced he had a question about tariff rates on gold jewelry he might like to export to Russia.

The secretary said if he'd like to have a seat, the consul could speak with him in a moment. Dickerson sat down in a plain wooden chair and lit a cheroot which he smoked as he stared at the picture of Nicholas Romanov hung above the entryway to the consul's private office. That probably was more like what Ivan looked like, the czar himself.

Mr. Valery, last name Asimov, Russian consul, received him a few minutes later. Dickerson pinched out the burning tip of his cheroot and dropped it in his coat pocket.

"Gold jewelry!" the consul exclaimed. "Mr. Dickerson, don't you know Russia is already full of gold jewelry?"

"Well, so is California, sir. What are we going to do with it all?"

The consul reached up with both hands to smooth back the hair on either side of his balding head. "I have no idea."

"Are there custom duties, things like that?"

"This could vary, depending on what you are selling. You might have to go to St. Petersburg to find out for certain."

Dickerson decided he'd take that comment as a request for a bribe. Mr. Valery Asimov had been part of stealing a man's wife. He'd steal other things as well. "I don't mind making my business worthwhile to partners and cooperative facilitators. Everyone needs friends, people who know people who know people. That's why I'm here."

Valery wondered if he was being offered a bribe. The idea interested him. What would Katerina Ivanovna think if he sent her a small quantity of California gold to pass on to Lenin? "How much jewelry do you have in mind?"

Dickerson pulled a figure out of the air -- 100 24-karat double-headed eagle brooches and another 100 brooches that resembled the Russian crown. "Who would I deal with?" he asked. "You, sir, or an associate?"

Suddenly Valery thought this man had to have been sent by Smedlov, a prearranged ploy to let him know he would develop a separate case against him if he wouldn't turn over Ivan. He told Dickerson he didn't know who would deal with him. He'd have to think about it.

Dickerson said, "Okay, I understand, Mr. Consul. Look, I'll be in the palm court of the Palace Hotel at five o'clock on Thursday afternoon. Just have whoever it is approach me, all right?"

Outside the Flood building, Smedlov caught sight of the exiting Dickerson and followed him, a man with a low forehead, well dressed, slim and not very tall, smoking a cheroot.

Article © Robert Earle. All rights reserved.
Published on 2013-03-11
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