Moscow can be a cold, hard place in winter. But the big old house on Tverskoy Boulevard had always seemed immune to these particular facts, the way that it had seemed immune to many things throughout the years.
When breadlines filled the streets during the reign of the czars, the big house had caviar. When the rest of Russia stood shaking in the Siberian winds, that house had fires and gaslight in every room. And when the Second World War was over and places like Leningrad and Berlin were nothing but rubble and crumbling walls, the residents of the big house on Tverskoy Boulevard only had to take up a hammer and drive a single nail—to hang a painting on the landing at the top of the stairs—to mark the end of a long war.
The canvas was small, perhaps only eight by ten inches. The brushstrokes were light but meticulous. And the subject, the countryside near Provence, was once a favorite of an artist named Cézanne.
No one in the house spoke of how the painting had come to be there. Not a single member of the staff ever asked the man of the house, a high-ranking Soviet official, to talk about the canvas or the war or whatever services he may have performed in battle or beyond to earn such a lavish prize. The house on Tverskoy Boulevard was not one for stories, everybody knew. And besides, the war was over. The Nazis had lost. And to the victors went the spoils.
Or, as the case may be, the paintings.
Eventually, the wallpaper faded, and soon few people actually remembered the man who had brought the painting home from the newly liberated East Germany. None of the neighbors dared to whisper the letters K-G-B. Of the old Socialists and new socialites who flooded through the open doors for parties, not one ever dared to mention the Russian mob.
And still the painting stayed hanging, the music kept playing, and the party itself seemed to last—echoing out onto the street, fading into the frigid air of the night.
The party on the first Friday of February was a fund-raiser— though for what cause or foundation, no one really knew. It didn’t matter. The same people were invited. The same chef was preparing the same food. The men stood smoking the same cigars and drinking the same vodka. And, of course, thesame painting still hung at the top of the stairs, looking down on the partygoers below.
But one of the partygoers was not, actually, the same.
When she gave the man at the door a name from the list, her Russian bore a slight accent. When she handed her coat to a maid, no one seemed to notice that it was far too light for someone who had spent too long in Moscow’s winter. She was too short; her black hair framed a face that was in every way too young. The women watched her pass, eyeing the competition. The men hardly noticed her at all as she nibbled and sipped and waited until the hour grew late and the people became tipsy. When that time finally came, not one soul watched as the girl with the soft pale skin climbed the stairs and slipped the small painting from the nail that held it. She walked to the window.
And neither the house on Tverskoy Boulevard nor any of its occupants ever saw the girl or the painting again.