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May 13, 2024

A Train Trip to Murder on Strawberry Point 10

By Robert Earle

Smedlov, an Okhrana agent, has been sent to hunt down the author of articles that undermine the Czar's authority, a man with the pen name of John Patmos, whom he believes to be Ivan Karamazov. Dickerson, hired by McGrath to find the man who enticed away his wife -- Ivan -- has approached Valery in his office on the pretext of selling gold, hoping that Valery will be tricked into revealing Ivan's whereabouts. Valery has tried to mislead them both, but Ivan may be too easy to find.


The man on the dock who drifted out of his eye into his mind and then made his body quiver bore no resemblance to what he would have thought he were looking for if he were looking for anything. He, the man, was bald on top of his head but had strong shaggy eyebrows. He limped. His cheeks were gray, crosshatched and sunken. He didn't look about, no one did. He focused on his business, which caused him to clamber up and down a rope ladder hung over the side of a fishing boat called Tiburon and give his crew of three orders, one at work on the wheelhouse, re-caulking the windows, another repairing the anchor winch, another scraping fish muck off the gray-brown deck with a wide-bladed knife, careful not to gouge the wood, just slip the blade in under the guts and scales that had been ground into the grain of the deck by a million rubber boots scurrying this way and that on a hundred journeys into the wastes of the sea.

This man ... this man ... His face was fallen the way a man's face falls over the years; it had a baked, bloodless look. His neck was short, shoulders stooped, hands large and powerful.

Ivan stood under a roof of corrugated metal sipping a glass of tea and eating a cruller dusted with baking sugar and thought that there would be no end -- or every end? -- to the way his life would change if he approached this man and said one word and that word was the right word, which it could not be. The man would only look at him blankly, wondering why he had said it.

The tea was sweet, the cruller enormous and greasy. He reached into his pocket for a handkerchief and felt the letter, which, after he had rubbed his fingers with the white square of cotton, he extracted and reread. Katerina Ivanovna wrote about her remaining aunt's dropsy and the new bridges crisscrossing Skotoprigonyevsk in black ink and between the lines entirely different things in baking soda ink. Her youthful hysteria was back, meaning her intensity, pride, vanity, anger and dominance. The institute girl, as Dostoevsky had enjoyed describing her. She kept referring to as River, not Lenin, but Ivan could picture him either way and feel his pulsing secretiveness, a man convinced he was beyond all men and perhaps, fatally enough, was that man, that ubermensch grand inquisitor and figment of Ivan's youthful imagination and fury. River had allowed her to come to Brussels but not attend the important meeting of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, only sent her word that the meeting must continue in London where, if she insisted, she could travel as well. She did this. It was terrible. First, all she could think of was Ivan not being there, already off to America. Several times she walked past the house where he and V. had lived, and wept with loneliness. She visited the Reading Room in the British Museum. She also went to the seedy public houses where he had gone and of course a lady could not be there, but she sat down and read newspapers and listened to the talk and thought how incredible it was that River was managing to hold his meeting not far away, yet none of these crabby exiled Russians knew or perhaps cared. The whole world was about to explode and what did they tell each other? Old stories and worn-out jokes. She could not imagine how a meeting could go on for days and weeks from one country to another. She felt like a fool that she was not invited to attend, she who had given River so much money.

Then a woman approached her in the lobby of her hotel and invited her to join her for a cup of tea. Katerina Ivanovna knew this couldn't be English courtesy to a stranger. The English were polite, not courteous. They moved as if encased in something. They spoke in definitive bursts and then eyed one another at length, judging the effect of their wit and wisdom. She followed the woman into the women's tea room where they sat on little hassocks and the woman said River needed more money right away to show the meeting he was not without means and could, if he had to, take everything on his shoulders and carry it. What did she mean by everything? Katerina Ivanovna asked the woman. Russia, a revolution, socialism all over Europe? The woman informed her that she had come to request money, not deliver a report. Katerina Ivanovna was furious. It took all her resolve to say yes, although on the condition that when "the meeting" was finished, River must come see her. The woman said this would be impossible. Katerina Ivanovna told the woman that River had said to her more than once that nothing was impossible, so this was indeed possible. The woman said men would never fly and fish would never walk no matter what Katerina Ivanovna deduced from River's' bluster -- her sarcasm making Katerina Ivanovna jealous, that she could be so insolent referring to River -- but she would try to persuade him to pay a call on his benefactress.

Days passed. Katerina Ivanovna kept seeing London. Saw the palaces, the famous clock, the ravens at the stubby little moldering tower, the flower gardens and museums. Wanted to go to the embassy but did not dare. Went to Marx's grave -- she was reading Marx, everything he wrote, the volumes she could get in England were so much better than anything she had ever seen in Russia -- the symphony, the ballet, and a production of Hamlet, and back again past the house where he and V. had lived, even down along the mews, almost feeling like a girl again, or a boy -- what girl did this sort of thing? At last River showed up and came right into her hotel room wearing a big hat and a coat with a high collar although it was August. He was sick again, in a fever, exhausted, angry and upset. The meeting had been a triumph. He had routed his enemies. The spark was his, but he was almost dead. How could he go on this way? How could this be a triumph? She wrote that the only person she had ever known so sick, brain-fevered and enervated was him. Now River was the same way and wanted even more money and news from her "friends" in San Francisco. What were they doing to provoke the eastern war? War? she asked. Did he mean war between Russia and America? No, no, no, he shouted, offending her, shocking her. Emperor against emperor! Russia against Japan! Blood in the rising sun, blood in the eagle's feathers, blood in their overturned crowns! She objected to him raising his voice with her. She said he had made her wait weeks to see her and now dared ... He threw himself back in his chair, apologized, demanded that she understand, take credit for the fact that the money she gave him was indispensable to their success. Then he got up. He had not been there ten minutes. She asked him where he was going. He didn't answer. He said she would hear from him. Which she did. He wanted more money; the spark would go out without money; money kept the spark lit. He meant by that the newspaper, Iskra. Couldn't Ivan send her things he wrote so they could appear in Iskra, too? She wanted River to see he wasn't the only warrior in the battle.

He put the letter back in his pocket and watched the bald man with the large powerful hands climb down off the Tiburon and limp across the dock to a ladder that led him to a little sailing skiff. Next he rowed out into the breeze, raised a ragged sail, and headed across San Francisco Bay toward whatever was on the other side.


Dickerson saw the man with the tea and the cruller, but Smedlov saw only Dickerson, not the man who looked like Dickerson whom Dickerson was watching, along with the man in the skiff whom Dickerson also observed. How could Smedlov have become so fixed on Dickerson that he missed them? His excuse was poor: He had had not shadowed anyone in years. Even so he had grown up in Omsk and survived as a thief who had turned against other thieves and ought never have lost his instincts and skills in examining the skin of a city, identifying the sweet and rotten spots where the insects and maggots would show up first. That's how he saw them, filthy gnawing crooks with himself their predator, big and yet still, a praying mantis of a man, immobile to the point of death but large-eyed and swivel-headed and able to tell you what will happen next.

Or used to be able to. Fifty-eight now and following Dickerson whom he thought might be Karamazov scurrying out of the Flood building wasn't just a matter of looking, it was moving fast to keep up. Hilly San Francisco was no riparian Omsk. The fellow climbed Russian Hill and had a look at what had been the cemetery. Then he was over in the Russian marketplace where he fussed over a hot bowl of shchi. Then he popped into and out of newspaper offices, the Examiner ... the Call ... the Chung Sai Yat Po, a Chinese newspaper! Then he began visiting rooming houses where Russians stayed and complained in perfect English -- Karamazov exactly -- that the asking price was too high after having had his look around and inquired with whom he'd be cohabiting.

Stuck to a lamppost or the corner of a building or a tree, Smedlov observed all this without being observed. For ten years early in his career he'd made his way along, spying and snitching for the Okhrana at home and then got his chance abroad, reports officer in Birmingham, then deputy chief in London, then chief -- chief! -- office-bound but finally boss because he always seemed able to tell the subagents, based on their stories, where to head next to pick up the scent of vodka-stinking socialists, smugglers and scum.

This was his gift. Mantids were prophets. Had to be with all their disadvantages. Where did all his lucky guesses and intuitions come from? his subagents asked. Smedlov wasn't saying. He'd eye them in deathless stillness just as he'd eye a victim and keep to himself where he'd gotten his education in the inevitable -- the two-kopeck novels his mother and sisters would read and describe to one another whenever they had a spare moment. They'd hurry their housework and skimp on marketing to have time for these things. That's all there was in the house, these tattered newsprint novels that passed from one hand to another and then were traded up and down the street, all of the girls and women taken with stories Smedlov overheard them sighing about, no different, he realized, from what went on in his own house, the squabbling and scheming, the disappointment and resistance, the whole business of life invariably culminating, it seemed, in the dark when he'd be on his pallet between his two sisters and they'd be listening to their father climb on their mother, executing her with his little sword while Smedlov tried to ignore it because if he didn't one of the sisters would pull off his covers to see if he was hard, and he would be, and she'd say so, and titter, and they might grab at him so he had to sleep on his stomach with his pillow over his head, half-smothered, not listening to his parents grunting and moaning or exposing himself to the humiliation of those large breasted sisters of his saying he was a poor excuse and would make a woman the worst lover in history, lying there hiding his dingus, motionless as a log.

No, he kept that to himself, exactly why he suggested to his men that they try this or try that -- all of it wrapped up in plots of jealousy and sex or sex-like greed or sex-like revulsion and revenge -- and never thought, at his age, he'd go back out onto the streets until His Excellency Stoltz in London gave him a report forwarded from Ambassador Count Cassini in Washington originally sent by the new Consul Asimov in San Francisco noting that a Taciturn-like copycat who called himself Patmos was attacking Russia in Asia now. "Asia for me!" a monologue read, ascribed to the Czar. "China my vassal, Japan my footstool," another article read. "The darkness beneath my crown, the world black within my heart," began a third.

His Excellency Stoltz had pushed these articles across his desk at Smedlov. "Cassini and I want you to go help Asimov in San Francisco. We want this stopped, just the way we stopped Taciturn here!"

Smedlov could have said to Stoltz, "Sir, I'll send someone out there." He had that seniority. He wasn't afraid of Stoltz. Didn't have to do his bidding. "Me?" he could have said. "Sir, I don't do things that way. Look at me. I find people who find people, that's what I do." But he was tired of England, tired of Europe, so why not move on a bit?

Off he went to Washington and there fumed Cassini, such a despicable noisy pompous ass. "Who gives Japan a chance against our armies and navy? Do they dare oppose us taking Port Arthur -- Russia the only great power with no warm water port? It's the key to our freedom -- an escape from ice! No Dardanelles through which we are obstructed, no Baltic across which we must fight navy after navy -- only Japan, which must have no ally. Do you understand? None! Not China! Not America! None!"

Smedlov took in Cassini's panegyric the way he tried to take in the uproar in his parents' bedroom ... with a praying mantis's stillness ... a praying mantis's large all-registering but indecipherable eyes. This infuriated Cassini, no man to hide behind a pretty little gold-legged desk. He pushed a globe on a wheeled stand across the carpet almost between Smedlov's knees and spun it to demonstrate what he meant. There was Sakhalin. There was Vladivostok, and there ... there! ... was Port Arthur, where a navy could be placed that would rule the world.

"I am saying to you that we can forget the whole European curse!" Cassini snapped, spinning the globe to show Smedlov how tiny Europe was. "The Germans, English, French ... just look at the Dutch! Look!" He covered the Netherlands with the tip of his little finger. No more Netherlands. Then Belgium. Then spreading one fat finger, the middle one, he covered up Great Britain. "We will fuck them all in the ass," Cassini growled, lowering himself to what he took for Smedlov's level of culture and sounding just like Smedlov's bovine-titted siblings.

He said to Cassini, "Don't take offense, your Excellency, but that's not my preference."

Cassini laughed at Smedlov's impertinence. "Go get that man Patmos or Karamazov or whatever you want to call him," he said. "Stop him, seize him, send him to Sakhalin on the first ship out."

Smedlov never expected Stoltz to give him an order, or Cassini, or to hear Asimov claim Patmos was a ... what did he call him? Nip, was it? But never mind, look, there in the fog, the man with the cheroot, wasn't that Karamazov? Didn't it have to be? He lived in a third-rate hotel called the Pacific Coast and went in a side door and straight up to his room, second to the rear on the north side where he extinguished his light in fifteen minutes, exhausted, no doubt -- Smedlov was exhausted, too -- from his frenetic perambulations, his note-making in his little gray book, his slipping on the cobbles and hard pushes up the slopes. What had he been looking for in the Russian cemetery? What did he say as he dodged in and out of the newspaper offices faster than Smedlov could follow him? Who ate shchi? Russians! Karamazovs! Smedlovs, his sisters and mothers all reading as they slurped, his father giving the girls the once-over before settling on his plans to end the day between his mother's legs, the one satisfaction the bastard had in life, grinding away at his fat woman just the way all the men up and down the street did, or tried to, and all the men in the cheap books did at least three times before the final page!

On Thursday afternoon Smedlov followed his man to Montgomery Street and watched him enter the Palace Hotel. To his mind, that's where the match was made for certain. The expensive hotel, the departure from the dregs and dungeons of San Francisco ... this was Karamazov, no doubt here to meet Asimov, perfect habitué of such places. Whereupon Smedlov strode across the street, boldly pushed through the front door, and with his large praying mantis eyes mounted on his swiveling head above his massive jaw spotted his insect prey on a sofa along the windows of the palm court.

"I'll have him now, right at this moment," Smedlov thought, in five seconds looming over the man, looking down at him, wondering if he'd recognize him, have heard of him, discussed him with Asimov and dismissed him. Smedlov? The Okhrana? In San Francisco? No, no, no. Oh, no, no, no.

"Are you here for the gold?" asked the man who must be Karamazov.

"Gold?" Smedlov replied. "No, I'm here for you."

"Me? Not the gold?"

"You, not the gold."

"Well, I'm sorry to say I'm not available at the moment. Would there be another time when we could meet and discuss what brings you to me?"

Smedlov sat on a footstool, his knees high up in the air, his large hands hanging between them. Dickerson took some issue with this and glanced toward the bartender who seemed to be sending him more business than he could handle.

"Where would we meet?" Smedlov asked. "In Sakhalin, perhaps?"


"Sakhalin," Smedlov coached him. "Russia," he said, bending the word the way a Russian bent it, making it vibrate.

"Now wait a minute ... " Dickerson relaxed a bit and smiled. "You had me going. You are here for the gold." He raised his arm and called to a nearby waiter for two whiskeys and branch. Obviously this big guy wasn't Mr. Ivan -- another minion of the consul apparently. Well, okay, play along, he told himself.

He reached into his waistcoat and took out a tiny white packet in which were wrapped a gold two-headed eagle and a gold crown, both with pins fastened to the back. The eagle had ruby eyes. The crown was ornamented with emeralds. He'd had one of each made, confident he could resell them at a profit after this job was done.

"See, Mr ... what's your name, sir?"


"Smedlov. No one would think you'd find a goldsmith this talented in California, but you can." He put the brooches on the coffee table after Smedlov declined to take them. "You think we can sell them in this Sakhalin? Is that what your consul thinks? Where is it? Near St. Petersburg? He mentioned the gold market in Amsterdam, but frankly, I'm no traveler. Makes me seasick just taking a bath."

He grinned at his little joke, but Smedlov didn't respond in kind.

"Maybe Karamazov could go to Amsterdam for you, or Sakhalin, even. Would be good place for him."

Dickerson wondered if he were being threatened. The man had a bone-breaking look about him. That hard skull, those huge hands, that jaw. "Karamazov? I don't know the gentleman, do you?"

"Yes, sir. I've met him. Only a moment ago, however."


"Am I not looking at him? Are you not Karamazov?"

Dickerson said, "No, I am not. Why on earth would you think that?"

Smedlov didn't hesitate. "Because you look like him and have dealings with the Consul Mr. Asimov and you go in and out of newspaper offices where you peddle the trash you write about the Czar and Russia ... you, Ivan Karamazov!"

Dickerson said, "Oh-ho-ho," sounding more like Santa Claus to himself than to Smedlov. He couldn't believe it. He had let himself be followed. But Ivan ... Ivan? He took a chance. "Sir, I'll let you in on something. I'm looking for Ivan Karamazov." He reached up and with the splayed index and middle finger of his left hand he pulled down the lower rims of his eyes, making the universal sign for "looking."

Dickerson's chirpy demeanor convinced Smedlov he was lying. Karamazov mocked; this man mocked. And who but someone like Karamazov would commit the sacrilege of turning the double-headed eagle and imperial crown into brooches? One could be imprisoned in Russia for wearing such jewelry.

Dickerson saw Smedlov staring at the brooches and said, "Tell you what, Ivan Karamazov could make a lot of money helping me move that jewelry. There's a hundred more where they came from. Tell him that if you do see him, okay?"

"Karamazov, stop it!" Smedlov commanded.

"Come on," Dickerson said. "How about you tell me why you're looking for him."

"You know why I'm looking for you. Your exit permission is expired; your passport is invalid; you are an offense to your country; I will have you detained and deported. Do you understand me? Stop this, now. We go quietly or we go with the police and your friend the consul goes, too."

"Mr. Valery?"

"Yes, Valery Asimov. Both of you."

Dickerson finally realized the consul wasn't this man's friend and the consul hadn't sent him along to spy and somehow trick him. "Mr. Smedlov, my name is John Dickerson," he said. "I am from Oak Creek, Ohio. I have no passport and don't need one. I'm an American. You can't deport me. Tell it to my aunt Nelly, maybe she'll believe you, but as for me, if you really want to deal me with me, I'll tell you what. Those brooches? I'll give them to you if you help me find Ivan Karamazov. That's why I went to your consul, and that's what I've been doing these last two days hunting and scouting where I've been guessing he might hang out. Deal or no deal, your choice. Just get ready to have yourself deported if you'd rather take me on."

A large old man had ambled into the palm court while Dickerson was lecturing Smedlov. He paused, seeing that Dickerson seemed to be accomplishing something, but when Dickerson finished up, he came over to where the two men were staring one another in the eye and took a seat.

"He going to help us find our Mr. Ivan?" the old man asked.

"No, sir. He's playing a game saying I'm Mr. Ivan ... Mr. Ivan Karamazov. But where are my manners? Mr. McGrath, this is Mr. Smedlov. Mr. Smedlov, this is Mr. McGrath, for whom I work."

McGrath scratched his speckled dome before reaching across the coffee table to shake Smedlov's hand. Smedlov reluctantly reciprocated, only to find himself stuck for an extra moment in McGrath's surprisingly strong grip.

"See, if he were Mr. Ivan -- I mean Mr. Dickerson here -- he'd be dead," McGrath said. "So that means he's not Mr. Ivan, and what I'm wondering is who the hell are you?"

Smedlov managed to free his hand. "Viktor Smedlov, his imperial majesty's representative on special assignment."

"Another Russian?"

"Yes, sir. You put it so well."

"Oh, I don't put it that well at all, not the way I'd like to put it. Now this Ivan -- who?"


"Kazarov, him, yes, what do you want him for?"

"To stop him from publishing lies and smears in American newspapers. This is what he does. He is some kind of revolutionary."

"You mean ... Patmos?"

Smedlov felt something almost like glee spritz through him. For the first time he sipped his whiskey and soda. "You know Patmos?"

"I have nothing to do in this city except eat, drink and read the newspapers. I know 'em all -- Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, Ida Tarbell, the dead one, Norris, now this Patmos you think's Kazerwhat?"

"Karamazov. Ivan Karamazov."

"Who snatched my wife from me in Denver?"

So there was a woman. Exactly. "He has a woman?"

"He has what was my woman! And I want him dead. Would you do it if he won't?" McGrath asked, referring to Dickerson. "Or I'll tell you what. The five thousand I offered him if he found the man and five if he killed him, I'll double it. Ten for you Smirnov and Dickerson you get ten, too. I don't want him just found, got it?" McGrath hissed these words. "Put him out of the newspaper business altogether, the wife stealing business, then go back to Russia and stay there, okay? Kill him and get the hell out of town."

Article © Robert Earle. All rights reserved.
Published on 2013-03-18
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