The Georgian stared out at the expanse of moonlit snow beyond the window, vast sheets of whiteness interspersed with dark stands of trees. His own reflection in the window, cast by the small table lamp, overlaid the panorama of snowy Polish winter rolling past his gaze. His thoughts raced as quickly to cover the few miles ahead.
To be home again, to be on Russian soil, to be where I am master, where no one can evict me as if I were a muzhik, a serf! I, friend to the Tsar of all the Russias! Me, in possession of more secrets than any councilor of state! A toast to Russia, where I need not endure such humiliation!
Gulping down the last of the brandy, he set down his glass brusquely and left the dining car.
Neither Romelle nor Vladimir were in their compartments. Chavadzy continued to the next coach, coming to Brad's roomette. The Marine's door stood open. The chair was overturned. Brad was also missing.
Immediately, Chavadzy's instincts went on the alert. Moving with caution, he progressed slowly along the corridor. The next three compartments were dark and vacant, but a stream of light poured out of the fourth. He stopped and glanced toward the window in the corridor immediately opposite the open door.
He could see, clearly reflected in the glass, a struggle in progress inside.
Vladimir and the woman from the dining car lurched back and forth across the roomette. Vladimir was trying to wrestle something from her hand.
They tumbled to the sofette. He straddled her, pinning her arms with his knees. His strong fingers encircled her throat and squeezed the life from her in seconds. Her hand relaxed.
Romelle's ruby fell to the floor.
Chavadzy resisted an impulse to rush in. Instinct forced him to observe.
Vladimir rose from the woman's body and straightened his tie. He opened the large center window of the compartment, leaned out for a look around and then heaved the corpse out through it.
He stooped to pick up the ruby and placed it in an inner pocket of his jacket, where its bulk would not be noticed.
Chavadzy, still governed by an instinct he could not define, stepped back a few paces to give the appearance of having just reached the coach and discovered Brad's compartment in disarray.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that Vladimir was coming to his side.
"Thank God you are here!" Vladimir exclaimed. "Come, the woman has disappeared, and the dogs. I think the American girl may be dead."
At the last words, Chavadzy whirled and pushed past his aide. In the compartment where the woman's murder had occurred, he now saw that Romelle, her eyes closed, lay back in the chair opposite the sofette. It was an area he could not have seen reflected from his side of the window in the corridor. Her rifled purse gaped in her lap.
He reached for her wrist, sweat pouring down his brow, his thoughts out paced by the thumping of his heart.
If this woman is dead, the Tsar will hang me! My humiliation will be complete!
Romelle's pulse was weak, but she was quite alive.
Chavadzy heaved a heavy sigh and pushed up the closed lids of her eyes.
"As I thought," he muttered, "she has been drugged. That damned candy from Bohemia! I should have known!"
He backed away from Romelle to stand between Vladimir and the door.
"So you came through the coach, and saw the open door," Chavadzy suggested, "and the woman was gone. The window is open, I see."
"Yes, she must have taken the ruby from the American's purse and jumped out, into the snow," Vladimir conjectured.
The aide poked his head outside, nodding toward the snowdrifts along the sides of the track. "She would not have been hurt."
Shaking his head, Vladimir turned back to his chief.
"It looks, sir, as if we have failed again....." he began, but stopped short when he discovered himself confronted by the barrel of Chavadzy's gun.
"Give me the ruby," Chavadzy ordered coldly.
"The ruby? I do not have....."
"It is in the inner pocket of your coat, tovarish."
Chavadzy made an impatient gesture with the gun.
"The woman is gone because you strangled her and cast her from the train," he went on. "She was your agent, was she not? You must have called her from Berlin after we knew the American was on the way from Vienna. She obviously boarded at Warsaw. You called when you went to get the schedule of the Moscow Express. I also made a call. I saw you at the telephone exchange. You did not see me. It did not seem important at the time.
"You told your agent to board this train, to secure the ruby, and give it to you. She balked at the last minute. What did she want? More money?"
Vladimir nodded nervously.
"What a fool she was!" Chavadzy laughed scornfully. "Where could she have run with the stone if you would not pay more? We shall cross into Russia within the hour. She would have been surrounded by Cossacks and the Okhrana. No, you could not have let her live to expose your treachery to them, to me, to the Tsar, to Russia, to your race! Was she a Manchu?"
Vladimir nodded again.
Chavadzy expelled his breath in grudging admiration. "She was the best job I've ever seen! One day, I should like to confer with those Oriental cosmetic surgeons. However, tovarish, there is only one thing I am interested in at the moment...the ruby, if you please."
He extended his free hand and gave a menacing shake to the gun.
Vladimir, drained thoroughly of color by now, reached into his pocket with a trembling hand and drew out the ruby.
Something else fell to the floor.
Chavadzy glanced down. "Aha! Ho-ting-hung! The crane-poison beads! You didn't throw them away after all."
He paused, frowning, his mind racing. "Yes! I see it now...the assassin you shot and killed on the beach, when you knew I wanted him alive...the woman in the choir. They were also your agents! You planned the murder of Captain Duncan as a distraction. Then, the woman in the choir could snatch the stone and get away. That is why you were so anxious to join me on this assignment!"
Chavadzy shook his head ruefully. "I should never have confided to you my conjectures about the wedding. I violated my own credo: trust no one! I told you of my suspicion that the stone was in the small package I saw Doctor Bart pass to Captain Duncan aboard the Thistle sixteen years ago. I told you the captain might, therefore, give it to Romelle as a memento of her father, on the wedding day. So much time had passed. What danger could he perceive at this late date? I also told you I should be there in case the Manchus had the same idea, for I have always thought the steward on the Empress's yacht may not have been alone. Is my theory correct?"
The aide knew intuitively that the time had come for truth. Only honesty might balance with the years of their partnership to save him.
"As always, Chief, you are right," the aide replied.
The Georgian's black eyes blazed with fury.
"You are the perpetrator of my humiliation with the Empress! You would have discredited me with the Tsar once and for all!"
Chavadzy cocked the weapon.
"No, sir, no, please!" Vladimir cried out. "Think of our years together! I know more! I can tell you more!"
Chavadzy lowered the gun. "What more do you know?"
Vladimir sighed with relief. "The Manchus promise a kingdom for the ruby."
The Georgian glowered. "A kingdom? What kingdom?"
"The governorship of Outer Mongolia," Vladimir said. "They would like to have a Russian in place there instead of a Manchu, someone like me...like you...who knows and understands the Tsar, someone who can anticipate his moves. They want to keep Mongolia under tight control as their buffer against invasion from Russia. Chief, if we give them the ruby, we can both go to Mongolia. Think of it! Our own country! No one could touch us there!"
Chavadzy seemed thoughtful. "What is the significance of this piece of stone that it is worth human lives and a kingdom? Have they told you that?"
He lifted the gun again.
"Answer me!" Chavadzy shouted.
"They say it holds the secret to riches beyond any man's dreams," the aide responded.
"Yes, Chief, that's what they say."
"Let me see it."
Vladimir tried to raise it high, but his hand was shaking too much.
"Give it to me!" Chavadzy's hand shot out and seized the stone.
He lifted it to his eyes, looking through at Vladimir. Reflected light surrounded the scarlet image of the aide with an aura of devilish fire.
"One more question," Chavadzy added, continuing to peer through the stone, "where are the Marine and the dogs?"
Vladimir shook his head nervously. "I don't know. They were not here when I came through the coach."
"Then you will never know," Chavadzy responded, lowering the stone to his side and taking aim with the gun.
The aide cringed. "Please, tovarish, don't do this. We have been through so much together. It cannot end this way. Please."
Chavadzy's expression chilled Vladimir to the soul.
"Very well, old friend, I shall give you an option. Pick up the beads."
Vladimir shook like a leaf in the wind. "Not the poison!"
Chavadzy smiled grimly. "As you wish, then. I shall shoot you, but not to achieve instant death. You will die slowly, while your lungs fill painfully with blood. You have seen me do it before. You know what it is like."
Vladimir crumpled to his knees. He scooped up the beads and stuffed them into his mouth.
Chavadzy watched pitilessly as the aide bit into them and quickly died.
The Georgian put the gun away with a grunt of satisfaction, and pocketed the ruby.
He pulled Vladimir's heavy body to the window, hoisted it to the sill, and shoved it out.
Shivering from the chill of the winter air, he wiped his hands on the curtains as if he had touched filth.
Gently, he lifted Romelle from the chair and carried her to her roomette in the preceding coach. Signs indicated that she might sleep for hours, perhaps a day, until the drug wore off.
Proceeding then to Vladimir's room, he tossed the few things there out of the window, as well.
Returning to the murdered woman's compartment in the other car, he tossed all her possessions from the window, and closed it.
He examined Brad's roomette and shook his head.
Chavadzy stood in the corridor, looking both ways, mulling over the possibilities with regard to Brad, Rebel, and the woman's dog.
He could think of no solution.
Then, distantly, he heard a dog's bark. He followed the sound to the end of the coach where it adjoined the first-class baggage car. The barking became quite distinct.
Chavadzy stepped outside to the connecting platform and tried the door. It was unlocked. There was definitely a dog on the other side. When he opened it, Rebel raced past, scampering through the corridor to Romelle's compartment.
Chavadzy looked into the baggage coach.
Brad lay sprawled on the floor, blood trickling from a gash on the side of his head.