The four dead girls met David Korobkin at his office on a dreary April morning, three months before he read the letter. On paper, they were routine homicides, each with extreme head trauma in apparent gunshot-inflicted injuries. Nothing Korobkin hadn’t seen before. In the seven years he had been head of the regional Criminal Investigations Department, he’d stumbled upon dozens of victims, some as peaceful as a drowned infant in a bathtub, some as gruesome as a burned, stabbed woman he’d found last November. He glanced again at the coroner’s report.
“Mornin’, chief,” said Korobkin’s deputy, Ilya Petrovich, elbowing open the door with an armful of pyshkis. “Hungry?” Korobkin reached for the sticky doughnut absentmindedly as he flipped through the report. “So the slab’s got some girls downstairs, I see,” he said. “You checked ’em out yet?”
Petrovich nodded expectantly, watching Korobkin read the report. “Yeah, just got back. They’re fresh.” Korobkin frowned and flipped the report over: filed Tuesday, April 30. And received, he thought. There was a silence as both men chewed distractedly on their breakfast and Korobkin skimmed through the report carelessly.
Interesting case, he thought, nodding in approval. Four young women under the age of 23. Cause of death: head trauma. No signs of sexual abuse. Identities currently unknown; fingers and faces disfigured. It was the kind of investigation that delighted him.
“Go look. They’re bad. It’s gotta be our guy.”
Korobkin’s head snapped up in shock. “All of them? All four?” Seeing Petrovich’s nod, the chief raised his eyebrows, grabbed his coat and hurried out the door.
Seeing cadavers was routine for Korobkin, but each time the sheet was rolled back, he still could never brace himself for the full bluntness of traumatic death there before him. Here it was again, only a few hours old. This time, the women’s state was all too familiar: the increasing stiffness of the corpse; the small hole at the temple, cleaned but still oozing; the face too melted to recognize its features. He’d seen it twice the previous year, when two separate victims came in. The first to come in, on March 15, was a 50-year-old man, shot in the head and doused with sulfuric acid; the second, a 46-year old woman, came in on November 7 with not only a bullet in her brain but also a dozen stab wounds in her chest.
It was the remarkable work of a skilled and psychotic murderer. Examining the four girls, Korobkin felt his stomach turn over: It wasn’t every day he got a case like this. Shaking, he pulled the coroner’s report back out and flipped through it hastily, seeking a single line both gleefully and dreadfully: Cadavers found by chapel employee near the Church in the Name of the Saint Regal Martyrs.
Korobkin slammed his fist down on the table. “I knew it. Ilya, get a crew up to Ganina Yama now. And keep a few people here. We’re going to stake this guy out once and for all.”
Nearly seven months earlier, after the second body came in, the police force had sniffed out the pattern. Clearly, whomever this killer was had a connection to the chapels in Ganina Yama — all of his victims’ bodies were found there, lain out on each chapel’s steps in a grotesque human cross. They all had bullet holes in their heads and their faces were obliterated by acid. But waiting for the killer to strike again had been fruitless; no one had come any closer to catching him the act. Somehow he always eluded the agents in the night, and now there were four more people dead.
The first two murders had been calculated but senseless in the eyes of the law. Not anymore. This quadruple murder was deliberate and methodical. This time, Korobkin knew, the killer was waiting for a reaction.
If you are reading this, you have found my body. Both of them: my own, and the one I have placed for you nearby. It is over. Go, tell your superiors that you have won; the enemy has been defeated. Surely you will be rewarded as heroes for your brave and relentless work in capturing a murderous tyrant.
But you are wrong. I cannot be captured. I will not be defeated, even in death. Look around you. The fire I have created here has released me from my earthly body and will send me to heaven as a martyr, much like those whose burial grounds you stand on now. You may not know my story, but you will. You will come to learn my divine mission here and why it ended in the deaths of seven people — and my own.
God has tasked me with ending the wrongs brought against my family hundreds of years ago, felt still today in government. You, officers, were brought to power by a tyrannical political machine generations in the making, growing out of the failures of an untrue monarch. A century later, you still reap the benefits of overturning the divine right of God to lead.
Listen to my story. You will see how we have ended up here, at Ganya’s Pit, the burial ground of the Russian monarchy.
For the next 10 weeks, Korobkin’s four-man crew kept watch every day in the Koptyaki forest. Officers rotated shifts each week, traveling the short 15 kilometers up from Yekaterinburg, where their headquarters stood.
Korobkin himself had never spent so much time there. He had taken obligatory trips after the first two murders last year, but they were only spot checks and never granted enough time to really look around. Now, with a serial killer definitely on the loose — perhaps nearby — he spent day after day either holed up in a makeshift office on one side of the largest chapel, or wandering the deserted grounds in the evenings as the sunlight fell.
On an unusually warm Sunday morning in early July, Korobkin was awake early, shifting once again through piles of paper that still had yielded no results. What are we doing wrong? The police had scoured missing persons reports, interviewed the victims’ friends and family and examined DNA lab reports for potential physical leads. The man and woman killed last year did not appear to be connected. None of the girls appeared to be related, either. As far as Korobkin could tell, the killer didn’t have a reason to kill any of these people — and yet, they were dead. This guy’s good, thought Korobkin with a frown.
What do we know? Six victims total. Two from last year, four this year; all lying on the steps of a different chapel. These were young women ages 17, 19, 21 and 22. No signs of struggle evident on the bodies. But none of the victims seemed to have anything in common with each other or him. Korobkin rubbed his face. Christ.
“Why do you kill them?” he said aloud to an empty room.
After a few minutes of silence, Korobkin stood up and walked outside. The humidity was overwhelming; a mild haze hung in the early morning air. Each of the seven chapels dedicated to the martyred saints glinted in the sun, their wooden frames creating a rustic atmosphere in defiance of the reason he was there. No signs of human life were evident; all the officers had left for the weekend leaving only Korobkin on duty. He walked in circles around each of the chapels, weaving in and out of the caution tape his crews had set up.
Korobkin eventually found himself at the smallest chapel at which the man’s body had been found more than a year ago. The groundskeeper who discovered it had just started planting new flowers around each of the paths to the chapels. She tended to the plants every morning, but that day, she had been horrified to discover the man without a face lying on the wooden steps nearby. Korobkin recalled how she called the police and stood, frightened, at a distance as the officers roped off the area, closed the chapel to visitors and began their examination. She’d since resigned from her job, a week after the second body was discovered a few hundred yards away from where the first had been, at one of the other churches.
The whole site was unusually quiet now that the tourists were gone during the investigation. Although it was tucked away from the road and had nothing but the churches to offer, its tourist presence been strong ever since the monasteries first opened in 2001. In the mild summers, the church guides often led tours for bumbling visitors eager to hear about the site’s bloody history, although few guides wanted to go into detail about it. Besides, most visitors were already well aware: here, the former Four Brothers mine, was where the bodies of the last tsar of imperial Russia and his family were unceremoniously dumped after their execution in 1918. Their deaths marked the end of a centuries-long imperial dynasty and ushered in decades of political instability and radical leadership. It took more than 80 years for their deaths to be marked officially by the government and their bodies given a proper memorial here at Ganya’s Pit.
And that connection only made the case more eerie. Clearly the killer, whoever he was, wanted to associate himself with that bloody event decades ago — but Korobkin still didn’t know why.
He pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to squeeze out any remotely intelligent thought that could lead somewhere. That’s when he noticed it. Squinting at the chapels closest to him, he saw a small white piece of paper taped to the doors. As he approached one, he was able to make out a few small lines of text: “This church is closed until further notice due to police activity. We apologize for the inconvenience.”
When he’d left his makeshift office in the chapel that morning, he didn’t remember seeing any such sign on his door. But all the others had one. Suddenly everything in Korobkin’s head went silent. Seven chapels, seven martyrs, seven royal family members. But only six signs. Only six bodies on the doorsteps….
Disrupting a bird nearby, Korobkin turned on his heel and abruptly ran back to his church, where his papers still lay scattered on the floor. He could barely pick up his phone to make a call, he was shaking so much. Come on, come on, pick up! he screamed silently into the receiver.
After an eternity, he heard a click on the other end, and without waiting, launched into dialogue. “Ilya, I need you up here now.”
I was born in Kolyma in 1947, the product of a brutal Stalinist regime that tortured my mother and violated many good tsarists across the nation. I never knew my parents, who both were merely labor inside the prison camps. But I knew my pedigree. My name is steeped in a rich history of Russian nobility dating back to Ivan V, all but destroyed by a false, heretical monarchy.
My great-grandmother — born the same day as Alexander III, fatefully — raised me after my parents’ deaths, granting me with classical Russian education and private tutelage of the highest quality. While her children and grandchildren suffered during the social and political upheavals of Stalin’s reign, she fled to the west, where she was introduced to distant relatives who also faced persecution merely for being loyal. Only through her did I come to truly understand the lie that props up government today. I studied at university theology, history, political science, each widening my views into my past and how the world has been diverted from the divine course of leadership.
My prababushka believed her birth was a sign connecting her to her royal past and remained steadfast in her opposition to what she — and I — deemed impostors. Tsars in Russia were chosen by an almighty God to lead their people; they have the authority to dictate their peoples’ lives and supersede the will of sinners. No other man is worthy. And yet three centuries have passed with propped up tsars.
God alone truly knows the truth. I have lived my life under that simple axiom. Your president today is a heretic. The truth’s foundation is in the past, a time overlooked by a greedy demagoguery and and its bloody misdeeds. And the past is where my birthright lies.
Ilya Petrovich arrived at Ganina Yama a few hours later. “Good news,” he said, out of breath and wheezing after rushing in. “We found him.” Korobkin stood up triumphantly. But Petrovich hastily interrupted, “Sorry, I don’t mean captured. I mean we know his identity. I tried to call you yesterday but I was on the train back from Moscow.” He pulled out an folder out from under his jacket and spread out a dozen papers on the table, explaining the contents of each one.
Korobkin looked at the photograph first. It showed an old man using a cane to walk slowly along the sidewalk in a throng of people, carrying a grocery bag in his left hand. The photo, dated July 9, was blurry and taken from a distance across the street, but Korobkin could see the man’s relative height and body shape. He wore glasses and a rimmed hat, obstructing his eyes from the camera. An odd type for a serial killer.
“Ivan Miloslavsky,” Petrovich said, crossing his arms. “That’s what he calls himself, anyway. It’s not his real name; there are no official records of his birth name anywhere. But this Miloslavsky character of his is in his mid-sixties, very politically active.” Gesturing to the other papers, Petrovich went on, “He used to write about imperialism for several magazines until recently, you know, the kind of old-style nostalgia for the days of yore. That one there is from last June. Seems to be quite old-fashioned. Brought up by a great-grandmother and deeply involved in the Orthodoxy. His whole known family were devout loyalists to the tsar; his family tree goes back a long way.”
“You’re sure this is him?
Petrovich nodded confidently. “Yes, my guys have vetted him. The chapel’s footage shows this man has been walking around the chapel grounds a lot in the past week, usually in the early morning. The cameras here don’t reach all of the chapels, just the area around the main one. But still, everything fits. The footage confirms he’s been here multiple times, although I don’t know why he doesn’t show up on the days of the actual murders. He’ll walk in and out of the frame, carrying a box of some kind, and sometimes he just stands there, looking at the chapel. But actually, this photo is a still frame from yesterday’s surveillance footage outside the Church on the Blood in Yekaterinburg, and I’m pretty sure—”
“The Church on the Blood? No…” Korobkin closed his eyes and Petrovich fell silent. He knew better than to interrupt while Korobkin was having a moment. A full minute passed without anyone speaking. Then Korobkin slapped the papers back on the table and slipped on his shoes. “Come walk with me.”
The two men ambled outside, Korobkin blindly leading an anxious Petrovich. “I’ve been walking and walking around all these chapels for days, trying to find out a connection among all the victims. A lead, a motive, anything. But there just wasn’t anything in common in any of the victims. Or there wasn’t — until now.”
Korobkin stopped abruptly. Petrovich, almost colliding with him, found himself in front of a wall of hundreds of photos that lined the plaza nearest the chapel in which Korobkin was living. They walked slowly down the pathway together. “I want you to look at these photos and tell me what you see.”
“David, can’t you just tell me—”
Petrovich meekly obeyed and began looking closely at the photographs, which he’d seen in some form or another dozens of times before. They depicted aching memories of a time long past, when the imperial family was revered and admired. There stood Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, in full military uniform as he greeted world leaders to his palace at the Tsar’s Village. His wife, Alexandra, was shown in her favorite mauve sitting room, often reading quietly or caring for her invalid son, the tsarevich. Their four daughters were presented in black-and-white beauty — Olga, the oldest, was graceful and polite; Tatiana was beautiful and charming; Maria, “Mashka” to her family, was sweet and caring; Anastasia, the most famous youngest daughter, was a rambunctious tomboy. And the baby of the family, Nicky and Alix’s son Alexei, an energetic thing eager to please his family and to be the military man when he was older, despite the hemophilia that often crippled him. Together, the dozens of memorial photos on this wall showed a happy family, before and after their abdication, spending time with one another in their many residences or playing out in the yard with their servants and pets.
Petrovich pretended to carefully study the photos like they were new to him. But everyone knew the Romanov story; every Russian knew of their tragic lives and deaths. “Photos of the family, David, yes, I see them. What—”
“A 50-year-old man shot. A 46-year-old woman shot and stabbed. Four young women, ages 17, 19, 21, 22, shot and stabbed. All of their bodies burned by sulfuric acid and left at Ganya’s Pit.”
The realization suddenly crashed down onto Petrovich. He covered his mouth in sudden horror and his expression turned very grave. “Oh my god. They’re the Romanovs. The victims, they’re all the royal family.”
Korobkin counted each death on his fingers. “Nicholas was last March. Alexandra was last November. The four girls were in April. Which leaves….” He glanced at a photo of Alexei playing and laughing with his dog before looking stonily back into Petrovich’s eyes.
“Oh, fuck. Fuck.”
Miloslavsky, Korobkin explained to his partner, was no ordinary killer. He was the best Korobkin had ever seen. “All of these dates — March 15, November 7, April 30? Those aren’t coincidences. Remember your Russian history? That’s the day Nicholas abdicated, the start of the October Revolution — based on the old Julian calendar, of course — and when the family was taken to the Ipatiev house in Yekaterinburg, where they were eventually murdered. That’s where the Church on the Blood stands today; that’s why the photo captured him there.
“I noticed the timing of all this one day when I came out here to look at these old photos, although I thought it was just a coincidence at the time. But, Ilya, what’s the only date missing from this story?” He paused as if actually waiting for the answer. “July 17th.”
Petrovich’s eyes widened. “Oh—” The pieces of the puzzle that Korobkin had assembled were now coming together in Petrovich’s head, too. No other murder case could be so symbolic to the two head detectives ever again. No other killer could use the anniversary of the Romanov execution to pull off an execution of this magnitude. Almost a century ago, a team of Bolshevik soldiers had entered the family’s lodging in the middle of the night and blown them away, then destroyed their bodies and the evidence in the most inhumane way imaginable. It seemed Miloslavsky observed the same murder techniques.
The early morning of July 17, 1918 was the last time the Russian monarchy was alive.
Korobkin pulled out his phone. “Today’s the 10th. We have seven days.”
The burial grounds on which you stand today deserved the dead they swallowed up nearly a century ago. If only they had kept them. The bodies I left you were indeed analogous to the Romanov’s fate. But you have missed a crucial motive, which has led to all these people’s deaths and my own. You think I am a nameless man, but I have followed your investigation in the newspapers, and only I know how everything ends.
I did not kill for revenge, nor for pleasure. I killed to take back what is justly mine: the divine right of this country’s leadership bequeathed by God alone. Had history not interfered with fate, I would be sitting on the Russian throne today. But my family lost it four centuries ago, when Ivan V, was forced out of his crown.
Ivan, possessing the utmost humility, did not wish to be emperor; he prefered a simple, private life. But even so, the throne was rightly his, and the allowance of his power-hungry half-brother, Peter I, to co-reign with him was a noble gesture I cannot support. Ivan’s heirs, female though they were, bore the true claim. My Miloslavsky family bitterly feuded for the crown with the Naryshkin line, who eventually forced Ivan’s abdication. Three centuries later and we are still feeling political effects from that error, when Peter so-called the Great overthrew the right leader. His posterity even continued their greed for power and royalty, and they proceeded to push my ancestors out of Russia, out into the shadows, lost to the passage of time.
Only God took pity on us. My family today has no rights and no royal claims No one considers us in the Romanov heir debate that rages on among nobles today. But we are alive. We were spared the fate of the imposter monarchy. After losing to the Naryshkin family, we married into Germany and lived between our two great nations for centuries, slowly losing sight of the throne, but we survived.
I know my birthright. It has kept me alive all these years, through the uncertainty of my birth in prison and the political upheavals that threatened my freedom. Killing these seven people makes no difference to the throne; they are nobodies. I, too, am a nobody. But I was part of a great monarchy once and still would be were it not for a conniving few. The last tsar’s family descended from them, and thus deserved their bloody end. Had I been alive a century ago, I would have murdered them myself.
The days passed slowly. Elsewhere, investigators had raided what was left of Miloslavsky’s abandoned house, interrogated his bewildered, aging relatives and sent out national criminal alerts again, all to no avail. He was nowhere to be found — but thankfully, neither was the 13-year-old boy they were expecting. Up in the Koptyaki forest, Korobkin worked diligently with a crew of half a dozen men alongside him to plan the final day’s procedure . Every morning, he checked the date on his phone with an increased sense of dread; the 17th was approaching quickly.
And then it was tomorrow.
Korobkin had been awake for 40 straight hours; sleep eluded him for several nights, as he overworked himself reenacting all the possibilities of the following day. No matter how confident he felt at work, frequent moments of panic undermined his entire career as an investigator: What happens if he strikes early to trip us up? What’s our plan if he isn’t working alone? What if he’s still better than us?
Each officer was ordered to guard the grounds nonstop. Four were dispersed among the chapels furthest from the gate; two more were within earshot of the main chapel; Petrovich was on the other side of the building Korobkin was in. All were armed with Yarygin PYas and shielded with bulletproof vests, and they had already been prowling the grounds for suspicious activity for hours. They were to conceal themselves and emerge only if the suspect appeared, then approach cautiously, anticipating an attack on themselves. Each wore the same uniform equipped with stealth radio headsets designed to alert them to their colleagues’ locations; a secondary communication procedure was developed so Korobkin could tap vibration codes into a transmitter and give orders to his men.
Korobkin anticipated everything and had briefed his men on the plan. He faintly hoped the killer could be caught before he had a seventh victim, but he wasn’t terribly optimistic about it — he had a sick feeling that the seventh victim was already dead. The last afternoon, he napped on and off, tossing and turning on the deflating air mattress he’d called home for the past three months, but never falling into a deep enough sleep to make up for what he’d lost that week. He prayed his instincts wouldn’t fail him.
The clock ticked in his ear all evening. He sat on a stiff wooden chair in his office, silent, listening, when midnight struck on July 17. It was time.
Already dressed and armed, Korobkin slipped out the chapel’s side door and emerged by a small reflecting pool whose waters sparkled in the moonlight. He paused, absolutely motionless, and waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. A short distance away, two lampposts marked the entrance to the complex, the only visible light in the complex. Everything but the water was still. Korobkin could barely breathe, lest he reveal himself to whomever else was out there.
A slow breeze blew by, tousling Korobkin’s blond hair, and bringing with it an abrupt pungent odor that took his nose by surprise. When his vision set in the dark, he turned around slowly and saw what his nose detected first: a trail of drips leading from the pool up the path and out of sight. Kneeling carefully on his knees, Korobkin leaned over the water to see an oily spray adorning its surface. Gasoline!
He reeled around, gun leading the way, and tapped once on his belt to signal Petrovich. Both men circled around the back of the chapel, furthest from the pathway. As they huddled together, Korobkin spoke in a hushed whisper so quickly Petrovich could barely register his words. “He’s got gasoline. There’s a trail from the pool to the chapel and who knows where else. He’s going to light the whole fuckin’ place up. I’m going after him.” Petrovich nodded. Their correspondence echoed through to the other officers’ earpieces; Korobkin only hoped the warning was sent in time.
A faint thump from the other side of the building ended their conversation. Both men jumped. When they peeked around the corner of the building, they saw a shadowy figure running away. It was their man.
Korobkin and Petrovich drew their guns and rounded opposite corners of the chapel. The other two officers standing nearby hadn’t seen Miloslavsky, but as soon as they saw their superiors slink out from behind the building, they knew something was about to happen. Korobkin gestured an order to follow him. As soon as he stepped away from the chapel into the thicker trees, darkness grasped him again; sight was instantly useless. All he had was a pair of ears to guide him and the gun in his hand to defend him. He took a few unsteady steps in the direction the man had run, but he didn’t dare approach further. Instead, he waited silently, listening.
Fifty feet away, Miloslavsky listened, too.
For an agonizing few minutes, the pair were silent players in a life-or-death game of chess, each waiting for the other to make a move. Both men knew the other was close, but neither wanted to find out exactly how close. Korobkin listened to his own barely audible breathing until he caught a overwhelming whiff of smoke down his throat. He gagged and let out two coughs — a fatal mistake.
Miloslavsky turned in a flash and fired four shots in the dark toward Korobkin, two striking him the chest and stomach. Korobkin doubled over, gasping. Time seemed to stop. Seized by sudden clarity, Korobkin felt his heart thud rapidly in his chest.Those’ll be some excellent bruises tomorrow, he thought, then immediately chastised himself for the absurd thought. He blinked hard once and managed to stumble to a nearby tree, behind which he tapped three times in rapid succession on the pager on his belt, sending the vibrations for his men to reinforce him — he’d lost his grip on his gun and was now defenseless. Miloslavsky stood nearby with his gun aloft, blind in the dark, trying to locate the target he’d just hit.
“Miloslavsky!” Korobkin yelled. He could barely hear his own voice — a high-pitched ringing was the only sound in his head — but he pushed past it. “Miloslavsky, put the gun down and you won’t get hurt!” His chest ached with immense pain after taking just a single step forward out from behind the tree.
No response. All Korobkin heard was his own weary breathing.
And then the faint ringing in Korobkin’s ears turned into a split-second crack of another bullet rocketing at him. He felt it before he heard it. When the impact came, Korobkin’s whole body whiplashed back and forth until he fell backward into the flowers, his chest rattling with its blunt force. When he regained some composure, he looked up to see Miloslavsky walking menacingly toward him, silhouetted in the sparse moonlight and reeking of gasoline. Korobkin pressed frantically on the pager on his belt, mentally begging his men to be close enough to subdue the killer — the vibrations coming back to him were too frequent and garbled to understand the code.
Korobkin’s chest throbbed. He was no longer sure how many times he’d been shot or if any of the bullets had penetrated his vest; all he felt was relentless pain. All he could see in his blurred vision was a hulking figure standing over him.
“No. Please,” Korobkin pleaded pathetically, gripping his chest. “Stop.” A coughing fit rattled through his entire body, and he braced himself with one hand on the ground. But Miloslavsky reached for something into his breast pocket, and all of Korobkin’s faint hopes emptied out of him. This is it, Korobkin thought. He closed his eyes and waited for it to be over.
But nothing happened. Korobkin looked up, confused and dazed. Instead, Miloslavsky had lit a match and was holding it aloft in his right hand.
Miloslavsky stared at Korobkin with steely eyes. “Too late,” he rasped, and let go.
Korobkin realized then what the killer’s intention was and watched the match fall in slow motion. He leaped backward as the flames engulfed Miloslavsky’s body; the fire exploded up from his feet up his body, sending tremors of agony across his flesh.
Korobkin could barely register what he was seeing. Without thinking, he whipped off his police jacket and began beating at the flames that raced up the killer’s body; he was exhausted, but he couldn’t stop lashing. Miloslavsky was curled up on the grass now, convulsing in flames; the fire had spread so quickly he was already unrecognizable. The smell of burning flesh consumed Korobkin’s senses, gagging him several times. Surrounded now by his agents at a distance, Korobkin didn’t notice the flames racing through the grass beside him. He was so focused on stunting the flames eating up the man’s body that he didn’t hear everyone else yelling his name.
He snapped out of his stupor when Petrovich grabbed his shoulder harshly and spun him around. “David, we have to leave!” he shouted, but Korobkin could only read his lips. “Where were you…” he started faintly. Then he looked over Petrovich’s shoulder to see the chapel: its wooden frame was halfway gone, eaten away by a white-hot flame that leaped into and batted the sky. Korobkin’s eyes followed the flames from the body of the chapel down to its fingertips in the grass, reaching widely across the complex to where Miloslavsky lay melting. The whole scene was an ocean of fire.
Oh, shit. Realizing the trap the killer had put them in, Korobkin relented and allowed Petrovich to lead him away from the body. The entire crew ran to the opening of the complex’s gate, passing the gasoline-filled reflecting pool, which was now brimming with fire, on the way out. But something unusual on the charred remains of the chapel steps caught Korobkin’s eye, and he weakly freed himself from Petrovich’s grip to take a look. Walking upright — moving at all — was difficult, but Korobkin limped unsteadily over to the steps on his own.
He was well aware of the crackling flames all around him, and the worried looks of his men questioning his safety, but what he saw on the steps was worse than anything he had seen yet: Lying there like a mummy was a boy, the top half of his body charred into the steps as the building went up in smoke around him.
Korobkin felt faint. He started to sway, and he staggered back to Petrovich, who met him with a supporting arm around his shoulders. He was right. We were too late.
The time has come. I can no longer sit back and watch the systematic, bureaucratic destruction of my once-great nation. It has betrayed me in the end. But I will go to my grave knowing everything I have accomplished my entire life has led up to this moment, the last in my earthly life. Everything I have done has been for the glory of God and his divine guidance for the leaders of this nation. When his children rebelled, only my family remained steadfast to him in their insistence to the throne — only we would have brought justice back to the monarchy. Alas, my birthright is lost, but my legacy will live on. I will honor my family by martyring them for the crown that was once theirs.
When I adjourn and you remain to assemble the pieces, remember me. Remember my name and the names of my ancestors before me. We are the true heirs to a position that was stolen from us centuries ago, and you shall face the consequences. Perhaps not on earth, but divinity will have its day.
May God have mercy on you.
As the last fires were extinguished and the debris cleared, Korobkin lay flat on his back on a stretcher as medical personnel tended to his wounds. He’d asked the nurse to prop the ambulance door open so he could see the smoldering ruins in the distance, but she drew the line at letting him help retrieve either Miloslavsky’s or the boy’s body.
Two broken ribs and a bruised kidney later, all that had come from the night was the razing of an entire sacred memorial site. The killer was most certainly dead now, but still, too, were the seven people he’d murdered. It was pointless terrorism. All of the killer’s threats had been carried out, all of the chapels had been burned to the ground; nothing at all had been saved. In fact, Korobkin had put his own men at risk by trying to catch the killer in the act. He deserved the pain he felt each time he inhaled, he decided, to remind him of the peril that could have happened tonight. He had been shortsighted and overly confident, and his mistakes had caught everyone off guard. Korobkin’s injuries almost certainly meant a paid leave from work to recover — beginning now, as he lay on the gurney, humiliated and defeated.
The chief’s men — who, as it turned out, had been sidelined by carefully timed fires set at each chapel long before he called for them — walked back and forth across the ambulance’s doorway where Korobkin could see them. Petrovich stood nearby, too, to his boss’ great comfort.
Korobkin sat up to see sun slowly creeping over the horizon, hours after the ordeal first started, a welcome beacon for he and his men. But in spite of the new day, he yawned, suddenly reeling from his fatigue; he felt dizzy, and the nurse urged him to lie back down.
“Way to take one for the team there, boss,” Petrovich said, hopping into the ambulance to look down at his fallen friend. He laughed, but his expression was that of clear relief.
“Or three,” Korobkin replied, laughing — and then immediately cried out from the pain.
“Take it easy, yeah?” Petrovich grimaced in sympathy. “Need anything?”
“Yeah, you can get me a goddamned motive, that’s what you can do.” Petrovich rolled his eyes. He should have known Korobkin would be on one track after leaving a case unanswered, no matter how many times he’d been shot. In the years they’d been the top two officers in their bureau, Petrovich had never seen Korobkin let a case go without a resolution. Even now, as he looked down at the man, he noticed Korobkin’s anxious eyes and fidgeting fingers, as if it hurt him more to lie here prostrate than it did for him to take three bullets to the torso.
Almost unknowingly, Petrovich reached for Korobkin’s hand and gave it a short, encouraging pat as if to confirm his presence there. His panic over his boss’s health was mercifully over, and although Petrovich would have to fill in for Korobkin during his medical leave, he felt confident in his abilities after tonight. Korobkin looked gratefully up at his subordinate. You did good, his eyes said. The nurse smiled at this rare physical show of brotherly affection.
A interrupting knock came from the ambulance’s doors, where a young officer was standing patiently. “How are you feeling, sir?” he asked quietly.
Ignoring the nurse’s resistance, Korobkin sat up on his elbows again and shrugged his shoulders. “Been better, I suppose. You guys holding up out there?”
The young officer nodded. “Yes, sir. The bodies have been removed to the coroner and we are searching the scene now. The fire patrol isn’t letting us onto the sites of the chapels, but the rest of the grounds are safe, they say. Here,” he held out a folded, yellowing sheet of paper, “you might want to see this. It’s a letter. We found it in his car.”
Korobkin looked aghast. “His car? He has a car? Jesus, why didn’t we know about his car?” The nurse immediately restrained him so he wouldn’t jump off the stretcher and yell at someone himself. Petrovich lamented the abrupt loss of peace in the ambulance.
The officer interrupted hastily. “It’s not here, sir. It’s parked at the end of the road leading here. We saw no headlights coming in here last night; come to think of it, we didn’t hear anything either. But when the local force arrived after we called them, they said there was a car there. And this was tacked to the front seat.”
Korobkin groaned. His crew had been sequestered in the chapel complex for so long that hardly any vehicular traffic had gone in or out. It seemed Miloslavsky had anticipated this, too. All of his agency’s mistakes were making sense now: the failure to intercept the actual killings, the fire setup. Nothing the killer did was unplanned; everything was calculated down to the last second and minute, and the very coordinates of where he would place the body and set the fires. He had the timing down to a science, so when the police finally did catch wise, Miloslavsky would be two steps ahead. A goddamn psychotic genius. “There’s no way this wasn’t intentional,” Korobkin said aloud. “If he can destroy an entire church complex, he could have gotten rid of a car and a piece of paper. But he didn’t.”
As Petrovich and the young officer stood by, their brows furrowed in confusion and frustration, Korobkin unfolded the letter and began reading.
Last telegram to Alexandra. 7 March 1917, Julian calendar. Five days after abdication:
Hearty thanks for details. The old man and his son-in-law have at last left for the country. Here it is quite quiet. Am spending most of my time with Mother, who, with me, kisses you all very tenderly.