Two days later I received a rare call on my home phone.
"This is your local uchastkovy," said the man on the other end. "With whom am I speaking?"
I have a rough idea of the police heirarchy, and as I recall, an uchastkovky ain't particularly high on the ladder. He told me his name was Oleg Vladimirovich and that he was the uchastkovky at my local precinct. He asked for my name and date of birth, my wife's name and date of birth, whether we were renting or owned the apartment. I went along with it and answered him until I began to get nervous giving out so much personal information to a stranger over the phone. I politely asked him to give me his name, precinct, rank and contact information, which he duly did. He then asked me to do him a favor.
"You know your neighbors in apartment 54? I have a telegram from a hospital that someone registered at that apartment named Yelena Deneigin has been checked in there. I've called and called, and no one picks up the phone. I came over last night, but no one opened the door. Do you have a cordless telephone?"
I informed him that I did, indeed, have a cordless telephone. Then came the favor request:
"Can you go over there and knock on the door and take the phone with you? I'll stay on the line. Just tell them the uchastkovy wants to talk to them about Yelena Deneigin. When they come out, just hand them the phone."
I froze. First of all, I try avoid any interaction with my neighbors, and especially these neighbors, a family of Caucasians whose 60-year-old matriarch has been quite rude to us in the past. Secondly, I started to suspect I was being set up; that the second I stepped out the door I would take a hammer to the back of the skull while criminals ransacked our apartment. I needed some time to calculate my next move.
"I need about 10 minutes," I said. "I have something important to do."
"Fine, I'll call back," he said.
After hanging up I immediately went to the door and looked through the peephole. Nothing alarming. Certainly no one was visible, nor were there any ominous shadows, but if they were pros, they would probably make sure they were out of sight. I put my key in the top lock and turned it several times to the right, just for extra insurance.
After a quick call to my wife to let her know I thought I might be in danger, I looked up the guy's name on the Internet. Indeed, the official web site of city police actually had a press release posted about this particular major in August 2006 after he took a knife in the hand while arresting a Georgian purse-snatcher.
This did not comfort me. The robbers lurking outside my door could have easily looked up the guy's name. So I looked up the telephone number of the precinct and after three tries managed to get a duty officer on the phone. Oleg Vladimirovich, he told me, was not in his office.
I left a message, hung up and began pacing back and forth between my computer and the peephole. I was trying to remember if I'd read about similar set-ups in the Srochno v Nomer "Death Porn" section of Moskovsky Komsomolets. Then the phone rang. It was Oleg Vladimirovich.
He asked me if I could do the favor for him, after which I told him I was highly uncomfortable leaving the house at the request of a total stranger by telephone. I was nervous and began stuttering, and finally he said gruffly: "Alright then, I'm coming over. What's your door code." I told him just to ring my apartment, and I'd let him in.
I sat down to play a game of Internet chess to calm my nerves. He was downstairs five minutes. I opened the door and watched him clamber up two flights of stairs to my door. He was older than he sounded on the phone: short and thin, gray hair cropped tightly, a little graying Hitler-stasche. He was in his uniform with a black leather police bomber and smelled of nicotine.