Ghosts III: last street (i)

“Explain it again,” Yuri said to the foreigner, “but this time, put both hands where I can see them.”
The diplomat complied, extending his gloved hands flat on the table. Like all of his clothes, the gloves were a simulacrum of typical Vladivostokan attire. A local’s trenchcoat would be well-patched, each layer of fabric able to be traced, like an archaeological dig, to a series of conflicts and long winters. The gloves would be thick and woollen, worn down and tobacco-stained at the fingertips. The foreigner’s trench was bespoke and unfrayed, his gloves leather and lined – Yuri thought, from the edge of the seam that he spied – with lambswool.
“Alexei Novotny. The trail is a year old. My government has narrowed his location down to this city, and perhaps two others.” His Russian was oddly crisp.
“I’m not interested.”
“Novotny is not a good man, should that matter to you.”
“I don’t ask questions about my clients. It makes it easier to avoid any moral dilemmas.”
“Then why should it matter whether you take my business or theirs?”
“Because yours, Blackwood, has a stink about it.”
The only thing that prevented Blackwood from glowering, Yuri thought, was his English professionalism. As it was, he merely contemplated Cafe Bakunin’s ceiling for a few long moments before returning his gaze.
“You empathise with those who use your services. That’s it, isn’t it? Because you’re running too.”
“I am paid to get people lost, not find them again.”

Blackwood was an Empire man, working out at the farthest-flung outposts of English imperialism. He was far from home when he came to Vladivostok. Yuri had heard of him, naturally. Grey marketeers like Yuri didn’t thrive from not knowing who strangers were, how they fitted into the local power structure. And, despite his relatively opulent surrounds down on Aleutskaya ulitsa, Yuri knew that Blackwood was effectively powerless here. The Empire had a string of Concessions hundreds of miles to the south, scattered up and down the Chinese coast, but their influence terminated well before the Russian border. Blackwood knew it too. His role was almost a ceremonial one, a vestigial tail of diplomacy to what had been, briefly, the Russian Pacific Republic. The RPR was stillborn, a frantic attempt by Vladivostokan locals to declare themselves independent from the civil war that raged down the breadth of the Tsarist imperium. The tactic had been tried decades before in China, when the sprawling Yunnan tribes declared neutrality against the rampaging Taipings. The European powers had supported the
breakaway nation then because it suited them. When it didn’t suit, as alliances had inevitably shifted, the peasant democracy had withered on the vine like so many before it. The RPR had been given no such chance.

Diplomatic channels opened for a month or two before being snuffed out like a candle-flame in a blizzard. Blackwood had arrived in Vladivostok just a fortnight before the Punitives shot dead Merkulov, the Pacific Republic’s one and only prime minister. The Red Army’s information wasn’t good enough at the time to even know the Englishman had arrived, and local operatives saw no good in proactively removing the Empire’s representative. So, no order for assassination was made, and Blackwood stayed on.

Yuri knew that the Englishman had made his living in the intervening decade through information. Without material resources or influence to peddle, Blackwood had remained alive – and, even prospered – through trading knowledge. Few liked him, but all who had worked with him vouched for his reliability. No one was close enough to the foreigner to know how he knew the secrets he did, but it kept him in fine clothes and good accommodation.

“Would it make a difference if I told you that Novotny is in danger, and does not know it yet?” said the diplomat.
“This is Vladivostok,” replied Yuri. “We’re all in danger.” Yuri’s voice lowered despite himself. There was no one else in Cafe Bakunin except him, the Englishman and the professionally deaf patriarch of the Korean family that ran the cafe. Like the rest of his family, the proprietor had cultivated his apparent ignorance of the Russian language into a selling point for shady figures like Yuri, who preferred their deals done in private. Yuri knew that his heart was not in his reply to the diplomat. If Blackwood had come to him, he had information worth trading. The Englishman sensed the hesitation and leaned forward.

“I am going to move my hands now, and give you something. It’s a photograph, some documents that may help. I am not asking you to sell his location. I just need you to look.”
“When?”
“A day,” Blackwood said, and raised his hand to forestall the complaint on Yuri’s curling lip. “Time is critical. See what you can find in a day, and we can talk payment.”
“What are you offering?”
“More than you can imagine. Consider this an advance.” The Englishman produced a brick of currency. Yuri saw the familiar colour and shape of rubles, along with a sizeable amount of Imperial pounds and what were probably American dollars.
“What could I do in a day that you couldn’t in a year?”
“It’s a ghost of a chance that he’s even here. The news only came to me… indirectly.”
“So how do you know he’s in so much danger?”
The Englishman’s eyes met Yuri’s. They were lit by the gaslight, but Yuri felt a gleam behind them, something he had not seen before.
“Because we all are. As you said, everyone in Vladivostok is in danger.”

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