'Quirky and colourful' Times Crime Club
'The village life, the (mostly awful) food, the appalling hooch and, above all, the loveable eccentricity of Olga, make this a novel to treasure' A. N. Wilson
'This intriguing but charming murder mystery is packed with psychological depth and wonderfully-drawn characters' Eleanor Ray
Literary fame beckons for Olga Pushkin, Railway Engineer (Second Class), when her self-help manual for hard-working women is published at last. In the meantime, however, Olga still has a household to support, a hedgehog to feed, and railway tracks to maintain from her tiny Siberian village of Roslazny, which has just become the target for Russian Railways budget cuts. Worse still, her beloved sergeant of police, Vassily Marushkin, has reunited with his long-lost wife Rozalina. And soon Rozalina is forcing Vassily to consider moving away...
Matters aren't helped when Olga's scheming superior, Boris Andreyev, forces her to babysit a special Romanov-themed murder mystery steam train doing the rounds of the local towns. Parked in a siding near Roslazny, the players deliver the first of several intended performances - only for a staged murder to become very real. Vassily starts a homicide investigation in conjunction with his boss, the mercurial Captain Zemsky, but both are baffled when another murder follows on the heels of the first.
Old-school Zemsky bans Olga from joining the investigation - but she soon makes vital discoveries that point towards something deeper and more worrying than the murders alone. Further afield, a rival author emerges to steal Olga's crown, while back in Roslazny Olga begins to suspect that Vassily's wife Rozalina might be hiding secrets of her own. With chaos striking Roslazny, can Olga solve the murders, save her literary career, and settle Rozalina's identity before she loses Vassily forever?
Praise for C J Farrington
'The book is an absolute delight, evocative equally of the frozen steppes, bad vodka and worse sausage, and full of larger than life characters. Olga Pushkin is an endearing protagonist, who is hopefully set for a series as long as the Trans Siberian Railway.' L C Tyler
'Written with a warmth that would thaw Siberia, this intriguing but charming murder mystery is packed with psychological depth and wonderfully-drawn characters. It also features the best hedgehog I've met in a novel.' Eleanor Ray
Release date: November 2, 2023
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Print pages: 90000
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Last Stop on the Murder Express
C J Farrington
‘As many as you want,’ said the man, shrugging. ‘You can have twenty, if you like.’
‘I don’t need twenty,’ said the woman, with a touch of steel that belied her sing-song tone. ‘I need the number I told you on the phone, and by the date I told you. No more, no less.’
‘Well, as I said, you can have ’em – if you can pay!’
The woman laughed, a cold, mirthless bark that fitted well – thought the man – with the rather wolfish cast of her features.
‘Don’t worry about that,’ she said. ‘This isn’t my first time around the dacha, believe me.’
And he did believe her: she was clearly an experienced customer, with who-knew-what kinds of horrors under her expensive-looking belt. He knew almost nothing about her, barring her air of slightly faded glamour and her unusual tastes when it came to off-the-books purchases.
Unusual? Bizarre, even – but then again, who was to say what was normal any more? Perhaps it was just to be expected these days that one might at any moment receive a call offering to buy things that were not, strictly speaking, for sale – things that weren’t, indeed, really just things at all, and whose transfer, paid or unpaid, would break a host of laws both federal and local. The man was risking a great deal by entertaining the sale – but then again, he would risk even more by turning it down.
The woman looked around her, first to her left up the alley that led towards Ulitsa 40 Let Oktyabrya and the centre of Tayga, and then to her right, down the narrow pathway that led back towards the railway station. But it was a cold Tuesday afternoon in early November, and most Taygans had more sense than to brave the chill wind on foot. Seeing nobody, the woman took an envelope from her jacket and slapped it against her wrist.
‘So,’ she said, ‘do we have a deal?’
The man looked down at the envelope, a basic, no-frills A5 affair of the kind they sold in the stationery kiosk by City Hall on Lermontov. It was strange to think that such an everyday item could start a chain of events that could land him in jail, or worse. But what choice did he have?
He lifted his head and nodded, a single yellow streetlight throwing his hollow, unshaven cheeks and black-bagged eyes into sharp relief. Then he stretched out a hand, a slash of worn blue fabric appearing briefly at the end of his sleeve, and took the envelope from her gloved fingers.
She nodded in turn, a faint smile playing around the corners of her lips and conveying (thought the man) an unpleasant sense of expected triumph.
‘I’ll be in touch to arrange the handover and transportation,’ she said. ‘Don’t forget the – ah – special requirements I mentioned. You’ll need to stage everything yourself.’
‘Don’t worry about that,’ he said, tucking the envelope into his pocket. ‘My operations always go to plan.’
The woman opened her mouth as if to add something, but turned at the sound of footsteps. ‘I’ll be in touch,’ she said again, and stalked away up the alley and into the darkness that lay beyond the streetlight’s fitful glow.
The man’s route lay in the opposite direction, past the pedestrian now walking up the narrow path, so he pulled his collar up around his face and marched rapidly on, averting his eyes as he passed. He had deliberately dressed in the most nondescript clothes he could lay his hands on, and barely a scrap of his flesh was visible to the casual glance. But the pedestrian stopped and looked after him, nonetheless, standing and watching until he moved out of view.
She could have recognised me, said the man to himself as he strode along, bare hands balled into angry fists in his pockets. Yes, she could have . . .
He saw a bin by the side of the path and kicked it in frustration, then came to a halt, resting against a concrete fencepost with his head in his hands.
‘I can’t – I can’t risk it,’ he muttered to himself. ‘If she did, she’s got to go.
‘Yes,’ he went on, lifting his hands from his face. ‘It’s her, or them. It’s her – or them.’
He repeated this to himself again and again, each time speaking in softer tones, as if he were uttering a calming mantra. Finally he nodded to himself, put his hands back in his pockets, and moved on, walking more slowly now and with his head raised above his collar. Behind him, the bin lay still on the damp earth, its contents spilled upon the ground.
Night was falling when Olga Pushkin arrived at the rendezvous, the building’s half-familiar outline softened by twilight as if its edges were anything less than hard concrete. The failing light stole the bright red of the canopy over the door and turned it to grey, as if the owners had tried to match the interior with a more fitting livery in the first place. And though Olga had passed the location many times on trips to Tayga, she moved now along its rain-soaked flank as if her very life depended upon the maintenance of secrecy.
‘Just a little more,’ she muttered, struggling to catch her breath as she scurried along. ‘Just a little – ah!’
She had caught her knee on an unseen drainpipe, the impact swinging her shoulder hard into the wall on her right. She swore without thinking, but clamped a gloved hand over her mouth. Now, more than ever, she had to be silent, for just a little longer – for just long enough to get there unobserved, do what she had to do, and come away again, as if she’d been in her little rail-side hut all along.
‘Pushkin, is it?’ came a voice, a very loud and very male voice, from the doorway under the canopy.
Olga hushed him energetically, and for good measure flapped her hands at him, too, to indicate the need for silence.
‘Pushkin – I thought so,’ continued the voice loudly, which Olga now saw belonged to the overweight middle-aged man with whom her rendezvous had been arranged. ‘What’s the problem? Why are you shushing me? Relax! Come inside! Get a vodka!’
‘So what if someone saw you?’ said the man, after they had sat down together a few minutes later, shrugging his camo-clad shoulders, and unfurling his meaty hand in a gesture of unconcern.
‘Well, obviously I – I didn’t want to be seen coming here, to be seen by someone who might know me,’ said Olga Pushkin, leaning forward and glancing from side to side as if to convey the need for discretion. ‘My meeting you here – well, it could be a bit embarrassing, couldn’t it?’
‘Embarrassing?’ said the man, bald head wrinkling with incredulous lines. ‘You are embarrassed by me? You should take a look in the mirror. Maybe it’s the other way round!’
Olga blinked, glancing down at her sensible outfit of winter jumper, waterproof trousers, and sturdy walking boots, before running a self-conscious hand over her tied-back hair. Had he expected her to doll herself up for the meeting, she wondered – to turn up in a cocktail dress and full warpaint? She knew he was an old army man, and therefore likely to be traditional in some ways – but on the other hand she’d thought his current occupation would place certain limits on the classic chauvinism of the Russian male at large, deriving, perhaps, from a bookish personality forced into the ranks and regiments at the behest of some old-school patriarch. And yet here he was, openly disparaging his newest client in the very public surroundings of the Rising Sun, Tayga’s half-hearted effort at a Japanese restaurant.
So far, the conversation wasn’t going quite as she had expected. In fact, if she were being truthful – and she tried hard to be as truthful as possible, these days – she’d have to admit it was almost the exact opposite of what she’d envisaged when Ekaterina Chezhekhov had arranged the meeting with Slava Sergeivich Kirillov, accredited counsellor and self-trained occupational, physical, marriage and karate therapist.
‘Oh, he’s the best, Olga,’ Ekaterina had said the week before, squinting at her through the usual blue-grey cloud of cigarette smoke as they stood together on the platform at Tayga station. ‘He’s helped so many people round here – Grigory Pavlov, and Igor Babanin, and that signal engineer, too, I forget his name. You know, the one with the long beard.’
‘All men, though, Ekaterina, are they?’
‘Well, yes, but he works with women, too – I’m sure he does. Oh, he’s just what you need, Olga – a no-nonsense outsider to talk things over with, get some closure on Vassily and Rozalina, and all those other situations you’ve had to deal with, too. Nevena, Ivanka, the lot. And you’ve still got the Roslazny gang on your hands – Papa Mikhail, and Aunt Zia, and old man Solotov, to boot. And don’t forget your book!’
‘Don’t worry about my book,’ Olga had said, secure in the knowledge that her masterpiece, Find Your Rail Self: 100 Life Lessons from the Trans-Siberian Railway, would soon be profitably distributed to bookstores from St Petersburg to Saratov. ‘My book can look after itself!’
‘If you say so,’ Ekaterina had replied, but casting a troubled look at her friend all the same. Olga was certainly an accomplished railway engineer (second class), and had also shown a deft hand in managing her way out of some tricky – and indeed downright dangerous – circumstances over the past year, but Ekaterina worried that she expected altogether too much from publication day. Ekaterina was a little older than Olga, and had had enough experience of the world to doubt Olga’s confident belief that books-on-shelves would automatically equal roubles-in-pocket – roubles that Olga desperately needed to quit her track-maintenance job and go to Tomsk State University, the Stanford of north-western Russia, to study literature and become a professional, full-time writer at last. ‘Look, I’m sure you’re right – but even so, it can’t hurt to get another perspective, da? And it’s only a thousand roubles, for the first meeting.’
‘That’s quite enough, when you’ve got a whole household to feed on a Russian Railways salary,’ Olga had replied, thinking of her brother Pasha, recently discharged from the army, and her friend Anna Kabalevsky and her three small children – not to mention Olga’s Siberian white-breasted hedgehog, Dmitri, all of whom depended on Olga’s slender earnings for their sustenance and shelter.
‘But nothing’s more important than your happiness, Olga Mikhailova Pushkin,’ Ekaterina had replied, ‘and you haven’t been happy since Rozalina came back, have you? Well then,’ she’d nodded, when Olga confirmed that indeed she hadn’t, ‘you’ve got to do something about it. Nobody expected her back,’ she’d continued, squeezing Olga’s arm. ‘I don’t think even Vassily really thought he’d ever see her again. And arriving just at that moment, too, when you’d got past all the dangers at last – oh, Olga, it must be the hardest thing you’ve ever had to bear.’
Not quite, Olga had thought, remembering the death of her beloved mother, Tatiana, long ago – but it was still true that she hadn’t felt quite herself since Vassily’s lost wife had returned out of the blue barely a month ago. She’d tried everything she could think of – burying herself in her rail-side hut and working round the clock, scribbling down ideas for a sequel to Find Your Rail Self, helping Anna with the kids, even engaging with Fyodor Katin’s crazy schemes for the improvement of Russia – but nothing had yet managed to dispel the gloom. Rozalina’s return might not be the hardest thing she’d ever endured, but it had certainly come close. And Ekaterina was right: her happiness was important – so important that uncomfortable things like appointments with counsellors might have to be borne, even when those same counsellors insisted on meeting in a public space, on drinking vodka during the consultation, and now insulting his prospective client by suggesting that her appearance embarrassed him.
She opened her lips, intending to change the topic and keep things constructive, but Slava Sergeivich Kirillov barged on regardless. ‘I mean, look at you . . . I’ve got a reputation to consider, you know! I’ve got men coming to me from the army, from the police, from security operations – from the FSB, for God’s sake. So a lady engineer, by comparison . . .’
‘I’m not a lady engineer,’ said Olga, tight-lipped and angry. ‘I’m an engineer, second class. I’d love to see somebody like you survive a day – no, an hour – in my shoes.’
‘I wouldn’t be caught dead in civvy shoes like that,’ said Kirillov, darting his cigarette tip downwards. ‘There’s only one type of thing for this weather: standard-issue army boots. Look at that quality!’
He lifted a heavy foot sideways so Olga could see, then moved it back under the table, kicking its leg in the process. Kirillov swore as his glass toppled sideways over his plate, dousing his fish-filled pelmeni in a pool of clear vodka, and signalled for a cloth to a waitress dressed half-heartedly in a replica kimono.
‘Not bad, this place, nyet?’ muttered Kirillov, as the waitress helped him clear up the mess. ‘I always have my meetings here – best food in Tayga. But, you know,’ he said, in a lowered voice, leaning forward as the waitress left, ‘we’ve still got unfinished business with Japan. 1905. Always remember 1905!’
Olga looked at him incredulously: was her counsellor-to-be suggesting Russia might once more go to war with Japan to avenge defeats of more than a hundred years ago?
‘Oh, yes,’ he went on, ‘once we’ve taken care of business to the west, there’s a whole list of people the other way who’ll need to go carefully. This is only the beginning. So now can you see? My job’s to help prepare us for that – I owe that much to my old regiment. I’ve got to sort out all the men who come to me, so they can fight, if need be. That’s honest work. But I don’t have time for a heap of old maids coming to me with a heap of made-up problems.’
‘They’re not—’ began Olga loudly. But then she noticed several pairs of eyes swivelling in her direction, and proceeded more quietly: ‘They’re not made-up problems! I told you I’ve spent the past two weeks digging out an ancient siding because of some order filtering down from Kemerovo – look at these blisters!’
‘And why shouldn’t you dig out a siding, if your superior asked you to?’ replied Kirillov. ‘Aren’t you paid by the state to do the state’s bidding? Looks like you could do with losing a few pounds, too,’ he went on. ‘As for the rest – I reckon that sergeant’s better off with his wife, after all, if this is what you’re like. Oh, yes, Ekaterina brought me up to date. Classic female hysteria! And your book? Well, it sounds like the kind of rubbish only women would read, anyway, so what’s the difference?’
Olga felt the blood rushing to her cheeks. She balled a fist under the table to contain her rage, and with the other hand gathered up her handbag prior to leaving – but Kirillov was still speaking.
‘Listen,’ he said, ‘it’s simple, da? Toughen up! Do your work without complaining, like a soldier! And forget about this book nonsense, too – you’ll never get anywhere with that, or nowhere worthwhile, anyway. Stick to hammers and nails, wood and steel – that’s the Russian way. And this Rozalina woman? Just find a way to make life uncomfortable for her. Get her to leave of her own free will, and vualya! Problem solved. And last of all, don’t worry about what other people think! Who cares if some fancy man saw you coming here to meet with me? Just go your own way and the hell with everyone else.
‘There,’ he went on, knocking the table with his fist and looking at her with a satisfied smile. ‘Consider yourself counselled! That’ll be a thousand roubles.’
A thousand roubles, thought Olga, as she strode out of the café – enough to buy several meals for the household she’d sworn to support back in Roslazny. A thousand roubles – and for what? For a few words of idiotic advice that she could have extracted free, gratis and for nothing from any number of the bullet-headed has-beens that she saw on the trains and at Tayga station, flocking like swarming Kirillovs in identikit military gear, and with identical opinions to match.
And, of course, Kirillov had her over a barrel, since she’d been foolish enough to tell him some of her troubles before she realised what kind of ‘counsellor’ he really was. She’d only told him things in outline, admittedly, but with enough substance to be embarrassing if he chose to spread them around. Her father Mikhail, who earlier that year had unceremoniously ejected Olga and her brother Pasha from the family home, would fall on such juicy details like manna from Heaven, as would Zia Kuznetzov, Mikhail’s sister-in-law and Olga’s aunt, and their associate, Vladimir Solotov – not to mention the village gossips like Igor Odrosov, who presided over Café Astana, Roslazny’s sole destination. So Olga had really had no option but to dig into her handbag and stump up the required cash, which Kirillov had gathered with satisfaction, before rolling it into a little tube and sticking it in the top of his combat-trousers pocket.
Oh, but he was really a thief, thought Olga, as she walked quickly back towards the station, wondering how on earth Ekaterina Chezhekhov could have recommended him in the first place. A stupid man filching money from honest people in exchange for unmitigated nonsense . . . Surely other countries didn’t allow things like this to happen. Surely, in France or Germany or England, the authorities would stop unqualified people like Kirillov setting up as counsellors or therapists or life coaches! But things were different in Russia, where the authorities let people do what they like in exchange for upward payment. They hadn’t stopped the aristocrats from working their serfs to death, in the old days, any more than they stopped the modern-day oligarchs stripping the country of oil and cash and blood. They started wars to expand their empire abroad and distract from problems at home. And meanwhile the people froze and starved and suffered, in small ways and big. In Russia, life itself was the thief, seizing youth and love and all good things, and turning them to bad. Yes, life was the thief, in Russia.
Olga walked through the streets of Tayga in the falling night, thinking how quiet it was everywhere, and how unlucky she’d been to see someone en route to her ill-fated meeting – someone who might well have recognised her, and later hear that she and Kirillov had been seen at the Rising Sun, and put two and two together . . . If she ever ventured to see a counsellor again, which seemed rather unlikely to her at that moment, she swore it would be somewhere much farther away from Roslazny than Tayga.
After a few minutes she stopped outside the Volkovs’ shop, where she’d planned to stock up on a few groceries for dinner, and rolled her eyes as she saw yet another murder mystery poster pasted in the window.
JOIN RASPUTIN & THE ROMANOVS ON THE MURDER EXPRESS, ran the headline, and below, surrounding a colourful illustration of an old-fashioned locomotive powering through the Siberian snow:
Come to Roslazny (nr Tayga) and experience the DRAMATIC EVENT of the CENTURY! Meet the Tsar and Tsarina, Imperial Captains, and the Maddest Monk in history – all on board a specially adapted Russian Railways P36 steam train. Amid sabres, tsarinas, and sordid goings-on, can you solve the mystery and find the killer?
14‒21 November incl. matinee performances at 3 p.m. and evenings at 8. Tickets 500R. For sale at Tayga station and at all good shops in the area. Don’t miss out – buy today!
Olga sighed and glanced down at her hands, flexing her fingers and wincing at the sharp pains in her joints. The Murder Express did sound quite entertaining, she grudgingly admitted, but she wished it hadn’t come along all the same. It was because of the Murder Express that she’d spent the last fortnight working with the Tayga maintenance crews to clear an old siding near Roslazny, carrying out endless hours of gruelling toil alongside her everyday duties in the rail-side hut. And as soon as tomorrow, she’d have the train itself to look after, too, on the express orders (as he put it) of Boris Andreyev, the red-star-wearing foreman at the Tayga depot and Olga’s immediate superior, in title if not in nature. It was because of Boris that Olga had almost been unceremoniously shipped off to Mongolia earlier that year, and it was because of Olga that Boris’s wings had been clipped so decisively not long afterwards, prompting a grudge that had clearly gone nowhere in the intervening months. He had assigned Olga’s extra duties with such undisguised glee that even the other railwaymen, who normally found such things amusing, had frowned in disapproval – but disapproval was to Boris as a four-foot snowdrift was to the Trans-Siberian: the merest trifle to be tossed aside and immediately forgotten.
‘I wish I didn’t have to do this,’ he’d said unconvincingly, smirking beneath his Ushanka hat, ‘but this is from on high. Arkady Nazarov himself,’ he continued, naming the new Mayor of Kemerovo. ‘I think he must have invested a bit in the show . . . So you see, Pushkin, we need all hands on deck. Even ladies’ hands – assuming you can put off your next manicure for a week or two?’
Olga had never had a manicure, barring the odd night when she and Anna Kabalevsky had had a few too many vodkas and ended up painting each other’s nails in outlandish colours – but it hadn’t seemed worth mentioning to Boris on that particular occasion. Unfortunately, Olga had never been privy to the secrets that her putative replacement, Polina Klemovsky, had used to blackmail Boris into letting her take Olga’s spot on the Mongolian exchange, so Olga could hardly try to manipulate him herself. For the moment, her best option was to keep moving forwards, like a Luhanskteplovoz 2TE116 diesel locomotive barging ice and slush aside on the Tomsk‒Irkutsk route. If she just stuck to doing what she knew, and doing it well, good things would surely come – or so she kept telling herself, when times were tough.
Olga brushed aside the inconvenient thought that this was more or less what Kirillov had advised, and gazed instead at the small pile of books that Madame Volkov had on display. The Volkovs were quite a literary family, by Tayga standards, and each month ordered in the most popular books from the Tomsk suppliers in the hope of selling a few to passers-by. Olga had often dreamed of her own book featuring in the small but tasteful displays of Madame Volkov, and half closed her eyes as if she could see her own title, Find Your Rail Self, nestling at the top of the carefully arranged heap of bestsellers.
But then she opened them wide, staring in horror at the glossy hardback that Madame Volkov had placed prominently on a stand surrounded by cardboard cut-outs of railway track, stations and locomotives, with several copies set out at artful angles.
The book itself was called All on the Line, by one Inessa Ignatyev, whose name was scrawled in improbable fonts across the base of the cover, beneath a colourful (if inaccurate) painting of a Russian Railways diesel shunter at work. But the thing that made Olga’s breath catch in her throat was the subtitle, running from side to side as if to steal her life’s work in a few well-chosen letters: Eighty Life Learnings from a Trackside Engineer. She staggered back in horror, reeling at this new and most unexpected blow. Was everything going to go wrong today, she asked herself, or only the most important things?
‘But don’t you see, Ekaterina?’ cried Olga twenty minutes later, waving a copy of Inessa Ignatyev’s book – unwillingly purchased from Madame Volkov – from side to side. ‘It’s my book! Somebody’s stolen my idea and written it up. All on the Line? Find Your Rail Self. Eighty Life Learnings? 100 Life Lessons. It’s the same bloody book. I don’t know who this Inessa Ignatyev is, but she’s about to find out who I am!’
Ekaterina Chezhekhov took a drag of her cigarette and handed it to Olga, then took the book from her hands and inspected it closely. ‘Inessa Ignatyev – a TV journalist, with a couple of books under her belt already . . . And it’s published in Novosibirsk – isn’t that where your publisher’s based? Well, then,’ she went on, handing back the book and taking her cigarette again, ‘there you go.’
‘There I go – what?’
‘It’s your publishers. They liked your idea, but wanted to make sure it sold. So they roped in an established author, knocked off a copy, and banged it out before yours to ensure Inessa gets all the credit. But then, if it takes off, your book would be a nice little extra – picking up on the trend and hoovering up the interest.’
Olga stared at Ekaterina, wondering where on earth she could have got such ideas. ‘But the publishers – I’ve signed a contract with them. I’ve signed a contract with them,’ she repeated, much louder, to be heard over the gentle strains of a 3TE25K2M getting up speed at the head of thirty heavy-laden goods wagons.
‘Olga, Olga,’ said her friend, when the noise had died down, smiling sadly at her through a cloud of smoke. ‘You’ve signed a contract with Russian Railways, too, but do you think that would stop them hanging you out to dry if it served their purpose?’
Olga glanced around her, taking in the well-worn sights of Tayga station but also viewing them with a different eye, seeing not just shunters and sidings but the remorseless efficiency and ruthlessness of a giant corporate machine that would indeed, as Ekaterina had said, sacrifice an Olga Pushkin without missing a step. She turned back to Ekaterina with a sigh, and raised the book once more, intending to comment on the poverty of invention and style displayed by the supposedly brilliant Inessa – but the words died on her lips as Ekaterina stepped forward and took her arm.
‘Look, Olga, I’m sorry to add another burden to your shoulders, but there’s something else you should know.’
‘What now?’ snapped Olga, feeling she couldn’t bear it if another single thing went wrong that day.
‘Oh, it’s Boris,’ said Ekaterina, rolling her eyes as if to soften the blow. ‘You know how he is – and you know how he is about you.’
‘I do,’ said Olga, drily.
‘Well, I happened to overhear him talking earlier on – when I was getting rid of my receipts. By chance, I chose a bin near Boris’s office ‒’
‘By chance, of course!’
‘‒ and I didn’t like what I heard at all. He was talking about how Russian Railways should adopt new technologies, adapt to the modern world – the usual der’mo. But then he started talking about you in particular, and how your hut was a relic from the last century ‒’
‘Just like him!’
‘‒ and how they could easily replace you with a drone, inspect the track from the air and call in the standard rail-mounted crews for repairs.’
‘Replace me with – with a drone? You mean – one of those little helicopters that boys play with?’
‘I know, Olga, I know – it’s ridiculous. No drone could do what you do.’
Olga shook her head. ‘But if Boris puts his mind to it . . . Oh, Ekaterina, I can’t lose my job yet, especially if this other book takes away all my sales. What am I going to do?’
Ekaterina gripped her arm again. ‘Look, Olga, you’ve beaten Boris before, and I’m sure you can do it again. Besides, I don’t know if he could even get it past the inspectors – they still like boots on the ground, Pavel tells me. I can’t see some spotty kid with the latest gadgets replacing someone like you, Olga – a strong, independent woman, an experienced engineer. No, Pavel would never allow it. I’d see to that!’
Olga smiled despite herself: Pavel Veselov was the latest. . .
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