The Secret of the Dying General

The sound of a gunshot made John Boothe jump. A gun dropped to the floor, but this gun wasn’t smoking.

General Raglov looked down at the wound in his chest. Blood blossomed like a particularly ugly flower. He looked up, stared at Lance Hancock. Hancock’s gun was smoking.

“You’ve killed me,” Raglov said, shocked. He sunk into his chair.

“And yet you refuse to die,” Hancock snarled, angry. Boothe lowered his hands, then wiped the sweat from his forehead.

“Howya going, John?” Hancock asked with a smile.

“Better now that you’re here,” Boothe smiled. He turned his attention to Raglov. “You didn’t have to try and be clever, Raglov. You could have lived.”

“And for what?” Raglov demanded, his voice a harsh wheeze. He dabbed at the blood on his chest, as though curious to its colour. “You think I want to see the inside of a jail cell? At my age?”

“It’s all you deserve,” Boothe said.

“Or the gallows,” Hancock said. “She was a child, Raglov. A child!”

“Most people would call her a Princess,” Raglov said. “And when the end came… well, nobody gave a damn, did they? Not when she was alive. Only now do people care—and only because it seems romantic. Back then… Well, there were a lot of monarchies that were due to come to a close, and theirs was one more. If they hadn’t listened to that rat, Rasputin… If they hadn’t listened.” Raglov shook his head. “Maybe if I had listened, I wouldn’t be in his spot.”

There was silence at that, with the only sound in the room coming from the crackling fire. Raglov let out a sigh that wheezed through his lungs.

“Are you just going to stand there and watch me die?” he asked into the room.

“I could shoot you again,” Hancock said. “But why don’t you tell us where the jewels are?”

“And then what?” Raglov growled. “What good would it do? She’s been dead a hundred years—who cares?”

“It’s the right thing to do,” Boothe said quietly. “Even after a hundred years.”

Raglov groaned from pain, then managed a smile.

“How did you find me? You owe me that, at least.”

“We tracked you for months,” Boothe told him. “You were selling guns. It was only a matter of time before you sold a gun that was interesting. That Federov—one of the earliest produced. Only the Palace Guard had access to those weapons so early in their production. And the Palace Guard did not exist by the end of the first world war. That piqued my interest, of course, so I did some more digging.” Boothe laughed bitterly. “Do you remember the chamber pot? You sold it a month ago to an anonymous buyer. Me, of course.”

“You bought the pot?” Raglov looked confused. “I sold it to a Belgian.”

“My agent,” Boothe said. “So now we had you linked to the weapons and to a pot that had belonged to the royal family. When the jewels went up for auction, it wasn’t hard to figure out where they had come from. You’re a hard man to track down, General—hard, but not impossible.”

“And now we are here,” Raglov said. “And you’ve won. Congratulations are in order, I suppose, although it must feel like a hollow victory for you. You have beaten an old man, and all I was trying to do was provide an inheritance for my daughters. Is that so hard to understand?”

“No, but murder is,” Hancock told him.

“I never murdered anyone!” Raglov sat up in his seat, winced from the pain. His eyes burned furiously. “I’m a soldier, damnit. I acted like a soldier.”

“By killing children?” Boothe demanded. “They were so young, Raglov. So very young.”

“They were enemies of the state and we had orders to execute them. A soldier rarely has the luxury of choosing his orders. Or his targets. They would have died, regardless of what I did.”

“Spare me the sob story,” Boothe said. “Where are the jewels? Tell me!”

“No,” Raglov said, and then he laughed. He managed a smile. “What are you going to do? Kill me? You’ve already done that. I can feel the bullet. It’s cold and hot, all at the same time. I can’t feel my arm anymore. Do you think death will be quicker, next time? If I get another chance? There were rumours she escaped, you know. The princess.”

“I’ve heard the rumours,” Boothe said. “You were there. What do you know?”

“She died, along with the rest of them,” the General said. “Not at first. The King and Queen died instantly, but the princess lingered. We had to stab her with our bayonets, just to be sure. Then we shot her again.”

“You’re a monster,” Hancock said. He was shaking with rage. Raglov looked at the pistol in Hancock’s hand, licked his lips. Hancock regained his composure and lowered the gun.

“Stop playing with us, Raglov,” Boothe said. “You only have minutes left. Why don’t you redeem your actions? Leave a legacy that has some good in it.”

“If only it was that easy,” Raglov said. He turned on Boothe. “How did you get past my guards?”

“People are only as good as you pay them,” Boothe shrugged. “You don’t pay them very much.”

“We should leave him here,” Hancock said. “Let him die alone. The jewels are in this house. They have to be.”

“No, not yet,” Boothe shook his head. “There’s something here that we’re missing. I slipped past the guards and got into this manor house, but you were waiting for me, Raglov. Why?”

It wasn’t you he was waiting for,” a voice behind them said, made them all jump. Hancock and Boothe spun. Raglov wasn’t surprised at all.

“Ah, Sergei… I did wonder when you would visit me. You are too late. The shot has been taken from you.”

“Yes, I see that,” Sergei said, and he was downcast. Boothe saw that the other man had a gun in his hand. Hancock tensed, but made no move to aim his gun at the new arrival. Sergei was younger than Raglov, but not by much. He had a face that was hard and lean; an echo of a hard life.

“A faithful servant to the end, Sergei.” Raglov said. “They would be proud of you.”

“It is my sworn duty,” Sergei said. “I vowed vengeance. I will see you dead, Raglov.”

“And the jewels?”

“I care not for trinkets. I care for blood.”

“Who are you?” Boothe demanded.

“A man of honour,” Sergei said. “That is all you need to know. Your job is done, gentlemen. You will the Princess’ jewels upstairs, in the baby’s crib. Try not to wake the child; I do not want to deal with the guards: there is no reason they have to die.”

“Look, we’re not going anywhere,” Boothe said. “You two know each other. How?”

“Of course we know each other,” Raglov said. “It has been… what? Seventy years? More? You look more sprightly than me, Sergei. How do you keep it up?”

“Rage has kept me young,” Sergei said. The strange man turned to face Boothe. “Since you are here, then you know what Raglov did—he murdered the Royal Family in cold blood. Pure treason. The Princess was wearing her favourite jewels at the time—a magnificent necklace, like something out of time. More beautiful than anything Cleopatra ever owned. It saved her life, for a time. A few minutes. The fools shot the necklace and she survived. But they could not let her live, so they killed her. Then Raglov claimed the necklace, amongst other items. By the end of the war, he was a rich man. Trinkets from the royal family are worth a fortune, now more than ever. Enough to buy a palace of his own, gigantic even for a Tsar. And yet he sits there, as though he is a martyr. Greed needs no saviour, Raglov.”

“You make yourself sound like an innocent,” Raglov said. He dabbed at his lip, looked at the blood on his handkerchief. He grimaced. “You stood by and did nothing. You may call me a traitor, but you were sworn to protect them. You let a girl die, Sergei—and you stand here accusing me! I am not your redemption. I may die greedy, but you are a coward. I followed orders; you hid like a child. The princess accepted her fate with grace. She did not embrace death, but she did not fight it. So what if I stole from them? They did not need any trinkets where they were going, and if not me, then somebody else would be sitting here. You look at me and I can see you want an admission of guilt, but I feel nothing. Nothing but this damn bullet.” Raglov coughed again, and now there was blood on his shirt. “If you don’t mind gentlemen, I think I might take this moment to die. The coward if right: the jewels are upstairs. Please do not wake the child. She is innocent. Do not tell her, when she grows. She does not need to know. Anastasia…” and with that, General Raglov died.

The three men lapsed into silence. After a moment, Boothe looked at the man named Sergei.

“The General’s dead. The police will be here soon; it would be best if you weren’t here when they arrived. I don’t know who you are, but we are not here for you.”

A darkness washed over Sergei’s face, then he nodded.

“I wanted to see Raglov dead; he is dead. My only regret is that he did not die from my hand.”

“And my regret is that I had to kill him at all,” Hancock said. “I do not relish bloodshed.”

Sergei didn’t respond to that, except to nod and disappear the way he had come: silently, quickly; as though he had never existed.

Hancock sighed and turned to Boothe.

“Another fine mess,” the older man said. “What now?”

“Raglov said the jewels were upstairs. Let’s see what we find.”

Boothe took the lead, and they left Raglov’s body and walked through the chateau’s cavernous interior. A grand, sweeping staircase led upstairs. The floors were carpeted here, and the lighting was dark. Boothe checked in each room, then moved on.

Eventually, he stopped.

“What is it?” Hancock demanded. Boothe held a finger to his lips for quiet, then slipped into the room. Hancock followed.

They found a baby sleeping in the cot. Dangling from above, like a diorama, a magnificent necklace glittered in the soft light.

“It’s beautiful,” Hancock breathed.

“Yes,” Boothe agreed. He pulled the necklace free and slipped it into his pocket. “How much more beautiful would it have been around the neck of an innocent? It has been stained with blood and violence: a museum will suit it. I fear that it will never again grace the throat of another princess.”

“Yes,” Hancock said as they left the baby where she slept. “I believe you are right.”

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