Stuart Kaminsky: Murder on the Trans-Siberian Express

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Stuart Kaminsky Murder on the Trans-Siberian Express
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    Murder on the Trans-Siberian Express
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Stuart M. Kaminsky

Murder on the Trans-Siberian Express


Catch a train direct to death

Glide where wheels and rails caress

Hear the last taboos expressed

In language looted and compressed

Abandon this world for the next

Cross the great plain of forgetfulness

Trans-Siberian Express

Siberia: 1894

The six men trudged into a thick forest of birch and aspen trees so dense that this gray morning had the feel of oncoming night.

The permafrost had started its slow thaw and their ragged boots cracked through the glassy upper layer and sunk an inch or so into the earth. Had they not each been carrying a body they would probably not have broken the steamy surface.

Boris Antonovich Dermanski kept walking when he heard the blast of dynamite no more than three miles away. The blast was followed by the distant sound of raining rocks from the wounded mountain. It was a familiar sound. Boris had lost track of how many mountains they had ripped through, how much frozen ground had been torn up with dynamite, how many bridges they had built.

He walked on, shifting the nearly frozen naked body on his shoulder. Boris was the biggest of the group and the only one who was not a convict. Though it had not been specified by the section leader, it was assumed that Boris was the leader of this burial detail. It had also been assumed that he would carry the heaviest corpse.

He grunted softly and watched the men move slowly through morning mist in no particular formation.

Boris estimated that they had moved about two hundred yards from the temporary camp next to the end of the train tracks. Every foot of track had been laid by hand by men like and unlike Boris with picks, axes, and hammers; men in lines of six or more carrying lengths of steel and men in twos carrying wooden cross-ties which were laid quickly under the unnecessary guidance of a series of men introduced only as Engineer Kornokov, Engineer Sveldonovich, Engineer Prerskanski.

They were told that they had laid over two thousand miles of track. They were told that they had more than three thousand miles more to put down.

The best way to think about it, Boris had long ago decided, was not to see it as a project that had an end. He had quickly decided that this was his life’s work and that he would probably not live to see the last tracks laid down in the city of Moscow.

One of the men, a lean convict known as Stem, looked over his shoulder at Boris.

“Here?” Stem asked.

“Keep going,” said Boris, again shifting the body on his shoulder. Boris’s dead man had died the night before, gasping for air, eyes wide in horror, looking from face to face for help, for air. Boris did not know his dead man’s last name, but he did know his first, Yakov, and his approximate weight, heavy.

Stem stopped and turned. The others stopped too. One of them, a dark little bull named Hantov, rasped, “What’s wrong with here?”

Boris strode on, moving through the scattering of men. Here would have been fine. It really didn’t matter where they dropped the bodies, but Boris was in charge. He had to make the decision. There were thousands of miles to go, and his survival and reputation might well depend on how resolute he was.

Many had died, from the plague, disease, landslides, floods, anthrax, tigers, a wide variety of accidents and fights. The engineers and bosses who died were boxed and shipped to Vladivostok or back to Moscow to be buried as heroes of the czar’s grand plan to unite Moscow with all of Siberia, right to the coast, only a few hundred miles from Japan.

It was to be the longest railroad in history. It was to be the most expensive railroad in history. It was to be a tribute to the royal family, to the memory of Alexander, to the triumph of Nicholas.

Boris cared nothing for the royal family. He cared only for his own family in Irkutsk, for warm clothes and enough food to eat.

He had been among those in the crowd two years earlier on May 31, 1891, when the Vladivostok station had been declared open and the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway had officially begun. Czarevitch Nicolya Alexandrovitch, the heir to Emperor Alexander III, laid a stone-and-silver plate to commemorate the undertaking. There had been applause. The white gloves that Nicholas had worn to lay the stone had been taken off ceremoniously and placed in a jeweled box, which was carried away by the mayor of the city to be displayed in a place of honor to be determined.

“What’s wrong with here?” asked Stem.

Boris kept walking. He did not turn around. They would either follow him or kill him, drop the bodies, and go back saying he had fallen in a hole or been attacked by a bear. No one would know. No one would check. There were more than eighty thousand men working on the railroad. Hundreds died every week.

“I said, What’s wrong with here?” Stem repeated.

Stem had been in a St. Petersburg prison for theft. He had also committed two murders but had not been caught for those crimes. The other convicts had come from all over Russia. None had been asked if they wanted to die building a railroad. None had been promised anything more than food and work and time, perhaps years, away from prison.

Boris walked on.

“These corpses are diseased,” another man called to Boris’s back. “We’re breathing in their death.”

Actually, only four of the dead bodies had been superficially diagnosed as diseased. Two had died in accidents.

A second blast, louder than the first, shattered the morning. Birds went silent to listen.

“There,” said Boris, continuing forward toward an opening before him.

He moved slowly to a trio of rocks, large, almost black, each the height of a man. He dropped the corpse he was carrying in a small clearing next to the rocks and looked around. Silence. Streaks of sunlight, not many, came down like narrow lantern beams through the tree branches. It was the right place, a natural cathedral. Boris had imagination and intelligence he kept hidden. There was nothing to be gained by the revelation of either, and much to be lost.

He was big Boris, good-natured, a loner, not to be crossed.

When he fought he was ruthless and violent. When he talked, which was seldom, he kept it brief.

Boris turned to face the five men, who moved toward him and followed his lead, dropping the bodies not far from the dark rocks. One man shivered with the loss of his burden. Another tried to rub death from his shoulder.

There was no talk of burial. The wolves and other animals would come quickly. There would be only bones before a week was out.

Stem looked at the jigsaw pile of bodies, made a V with the filthy fingers of his left hand, and spat between them in a gesture of peasant superstition which Boris ignored.

“A prayer,” said Boris.

Some of the convicts laughed. One turned into a paroxysm of coughing, a hacking cough which suggested to the others that he might be among those on the next pile of the dead.

“Go back, then,” Boris said.

“I have a message for the dead,” Stem said. “Save a warm place for me. May there be large women in hell. May there be a hell to welcome us.”

“Stem’s a poet,” called a man named David, who had a large lower lip and the look of an idiot.

“Go back,” Boris repeated softly, knowing that their show of false courage in the face of lonely death needed punctuation. “I’ll join you.”

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