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Because sometimes, between the spam and the naked people, the internet is quietly brilliant.


Today sees the start of an internet-wide celebration of all things geeky, the brainchild of author Monica Valentinelli.  Because the Internet is our natural home, and we geeks have been silent for too long. Because people have the right to be proud of whatever particular facet of geekdom they embrace, and take the opportunity to share it with others who might have the same interests, but are too shy to speak up.

Not me, not today.  Today I raise my Geek flag high (sorry, Iggy!) Today I’m going to talk geeky.

The brand of geekdom most people who know me would think of first would be SF and fantasy geekdom.  I can’t help it, I was born that way.  And it goes with the territory.  Movies, books, TV, games, love all that.  I’d be happy to spend a large chunk of my life playing Zelda or reading Wyndham.  But I’m not going to talk about that today, because practically everyone I know is inclined to geek that way.  I’m going to geek about the less obvious things.

Like Manics fandom.  I do love my Manics 🙂 I can name you pretty much any Manics song, inculding b-sides, between 1990 and 1996 within about four seconds. I can tell you, without looking, where and when albums were recorded, by who, and what all the participants ate for breakfast that morning (it was a jacket potato and some grapes, if you’re asking….) My brain is full of daft and trivial Manics Mayhem, which is the way I like it. But I don’t talk about it a lot to strangers because then you get the whole depressing “oh, he killed hisself, dinee?” conversation.  I prefer to let my tattoo speak for me when it comes to the Manics, unless I’m talking to other people who GET them.  You either GET the Manics, or you think they’re crap.

Buts that’s not what I was intending to talk about either.  Because my other big geek-out, the one I never get to talk about because is makes people fall asleep, is 20th Century Russian history…

Are you feeling ok?  Your eyelids are drooping.  Want a coffee?

I’m fascinated with the whole Soviet era and the build-up to it, and I have liberally stolen bits of it to use in my other work, with no trace of shame. I do have a trace of shame when I recall drunkenly buttonholing someone I’d never met before at a friend’s wedding and explaining to then in extensive detail why Rasputin was able to get such a hold over the Czarina, because I find it very interesting and I WILL talk about it, for hours, to anyone who doesn’t run away fast enough.

And in honour of this geekdom, what follows is a reprint of the first story I ever received money for.  It was published in Gorlan Magazine in March 2005, and I got ten pounds.  Because everyone has to start somewhere…

It’s kind of a companion piece to “Snow Boots”, which was written much later, and is reprinted here under Creative Commons licence – feel free to share it with whoever you like, but please don’t change it, make money off it, or take my name off it.

It’s also the only story I’ve written which was rendered redundant by real-world events : the discovery of the bodies of the two missing Romanov children in Summer 2007.

I hope you enjoy it.


By Joanne Hall

(c) 2005

  I was in the kitchen when the shooting started, muffled by the thickness of the floor, but sudden and violent enough to send the glass tumbling from my hand.  A brief childish scream, suddenly silenced, left only an echo in my skull.  The barrage continued for a long time, and my hands were shaking as I opened my second bottle of vodka and sat down at the table to roll a cigarette.

The cheap vodka burned my throat, and I was still gasping when Commandant Yurovsky entered and took the bottle from my grip.  Without a word, he took a massive gulp and sank down opposite me, cradling his head in his hands.

“It’s done then,” I said.

“It’s done, Boris.”  He looked up, and I could see the fine spray of blood that patterned his cheeks and stained his tunic.  His rifle had a bayonet attached, and as he propped it up against the wall beside him, blood dripped onto the floor, and pooled there.

Yurovsky caught the direction of my gaze, and his frown deepened.  He was a thin-faced man, with a drooping moustache that made him look permanently sad, but today, the sorrow was genuine.  “Don’t look like that, Boris Sergeyevich,” he pleaded.  “I had to ensure the job was done properly.  Those were my orders from Moscow.  If the Whites had taken the house with the family still here, then everything we’ve fought for would have been destroyed.”

It was true; the Czech Legion was advancing rapidly on Ekaterinburg.  I guessed that Yurovsky’s superiors had become so unsettled that they’d finally cracked and sent down the order to dispose of the prisoners.  Yurovsky had taken personal responsibility, selecting the death squad by the drawing of straws; I had been one of the lucky ones.

Sickened, knowing the answer before I spoke, I asked the question as my fingers brushed the rosary concealed in my trouser pocket.  “Commandant Yurovsky, what about the children?  Were they-?”

He looked as if he was about to vomit, and his hand trembled as he drank.  He did not reply.

“You gave orders that the children were not to be harmed…”

“My orders were superseded.”  His face was hard, but the glass rattled in his hand.  “I took care of the boy myself; I made sure it was quick.”

The taste in my mouth was rancid, and I was forced to swallow and spit before I could speak again.  “So what happens now?”

He took another slug of the vodka before replying, and I noticed the bottle I had opened only minutes before was almost empty, “Now,” he said, “we destroy the evidence.”

I may have avoided being picked for the firing squad, but neither I nor anyone else could avoid the grim task of clearing up the bloody aftermath.  I witnessed the last of those sad, limp forms being loaded into a covered truck that stood in the yard, but nothing could have prepared me for the carnage in the basement.  Trying to hold in my sickness, I got down on my hands and knees like a housewife, and began to scrub.  Yurovsky found me there, mired to my elbows in gore. He laid a hand on my shoulder, and I startled and cursed.

“What is it, Commandant?”

“Leave that.  I have another duty for you.”

He led me back up the stairs and out to the yard, where a second truck had joined the first.  He indicated for me to get in the back, and I found the interior already crowded with a number of my comrades, all silent and unsmiling.  I had barely settled myself onto the boards when the truck began to move beneath me.

It was a moonless night.  Looking out of the back, I could see nothing but blackness, but after some ten minutes of travel we bumped over what must have been the railway line, and I realised where we were.  I had walked this route many times; I had a girl in Koptyaki, some miles further along the road.  There would be another line to cross, and then the pine forests closed in on either side of the road, dense and forbidding.  Even on sunny days, it was a gloomy journey. Women in Koptyaki claimed the woods were haunted, but I guessed the only ghosts there tonight would be us.

We turned off shortly after the second railway crossing, the truck bouncing along the heavily rutted track, before coming to a halt in a clearing.  Someone had strung lanterns up in the trees, and by their light I could see oil drums and cans of petrol stacked up all around.  I climbed out of the truck, baffled, and someone thrust an axe into my hand.  The man behind me, an old soldier named Pavel, was muttering his dislike for the situation, and I hushed him as Yurovsky cleared his throat.  The Commandant carried a torch, which he swung slowly around the clearing as he spoke.

“Comrades, this used to be a mining area; the woods around are full of shafts, so tread carefully.  These,” he shone the torch on the shrouded bodies, which had been unloaded from the truck and piled in a disrespectful heap, “have to be disposed of most thoroughly, and in utmost secret.  I trust I have your discretion?”

There were murmurs of assent, but not from me, nor from Pavel, as he ordered the nearest lantern swung lower, the better to illuminate our grisly task.  “The idea,” Yurovsky went on, “is to leave no trace at all.  Hence the axes, and these drums which are full of acid.  The world must never know what happened this night, and you have to make that possible…”  He went on to give further instruction, but his voice was drowned out by the buzzing of blood in my ears.

“I don’t like this,” Pavel repeated beside me, a little louder, as we manoeuvred the bodies into the position Yurovsky had instructed.  I lifted one blood-soaked bundle into my arms.  It was pitifully light, and as the sacking fell away from his pale, cold face, I could see it was the Tsarevich.  I covered him back up as respectfully as I could.

“I don’t like it either,” I said softly, “but what can we do?”  I cradled the boy’s body in my arms and winced at the first dull thump of an axe chopping down through flesh and bone.  I felt Yurovsky’s eyes on me; he had seen my hesitation and indicated impatiently for me to lay my burden down and set to work.  I could feel myself shaking my head as I took a step back.  He walked slowly towards me, his face unreadable under the yellow light.  I couldn’t say what I was thinking, only that if it came to it, I would fight him for the right to give this little one at least a proper burial.  I knew he had a pistol; Lord knew it had been put to use enough tonight, and I knew he would shoot me without hesitation.  He took another step forward, then paused, half turning back as his name was called.  I seized my chance and fled.

The boy’s heels bumped against my chest as I ran, ducking under branches as they clawed my face, turning my ankles on the uneven ground.  I remembered Yurovsky’s warning about the mine shafts, and I came to a trembling halt, held by the fear that one incautious step could send me plunging to my death.

It was utterly black.  I had left the light of the lanterns far behind, and there was no sound of pursuit, no torches bobbing and weaving their way between the pines.  The only noise was my breath rattling in my chest.  I laid the boy down at my feet, and felt in my pocket for my meagre supply of tobacco, rolling myself a cigarette with shaking hands.  I had just lit it, and was sucking in a calming lungful of smoke when a hand clapped down on my shoulder, sending my heart leaping into my mouth and my roll-up spinning out of my hand in a shower of sparks.

“I’m glad you stopped, Boris.”  It was Pavel, bent almost double, gasping for air, as the bundle he had been carrying slipped from his shoulder and landed on the ground.  “Got any more smokes?”

“That was my last one,” I said ruefully, looking in the general direction it had vanished.  “Did Yurovsky send you?  I’m not going back -”

“Yurovsky?”  I heard him spit.  “That fool’s still scrabbling around on the ground, I expect.  They found diamonds on the Empress, see, when they -” he broke off.  I didn’t have to see his face to know what he was thinking.

I relaxed a little.  “So what are you doing here?” I asked.

“Same as you.  I figured what you meant to do when you ran off with the little one.  I thought I’d join you.”

I wondered how he knew what I intended to do when I didn’t have much idea myself, but it was good to have a companion.

“So, shall we do it then?” he said.

“Do what?”

“Give them a decent burial, as good as two old soldiers can.  Or do you want to leave them here for Yurovsky to dice and burn?”

“Of course not.”  I was repulsed at the idea.  “Which one have you got?”

“One of the girls, I think.”

I struck a match, and in its flare I could see his florid complexion.  He was about fifty, and I could see the grey in his hair and beard.  He uncovered the face of the body he had carried, and I held up the match to illuminate it.  It was one of the girls, but I didn’t know which one.  I couldn’t tell them apart even when they were alive, let alone now.

“You want to bury them here?” Pavel asked.

I shrugged.  “Seems as good a place as any.”

We dug out a grave with our bare hands.  The soil was dry, and crumbled between our fingers as we widened and deepened it until we reached a layer of sticky clay about five feet down.  It was a long, backbreaking task and we worked in utter silence, only stopping as the darkness began to fade to grey and the first bird called amid the trees.

Pavel wiped a filthy hand across his forehead, streaking himself with dirt.  “We should be away from here before full sunrise,” he said, and I nodded.  As gently as I could, I laid the boy in the hole, and his sister beside him, while Pavel muttered a badly remembered mass.  I was standing over them, wondering if there was something more I could do when my hand strayed to the rosary in my pocket.  I took the beads out, and laid them on the boy’s chest, hoping he would be given a better lot in death than he had been in life, then scrambled out of the way as Pavel began to push the dirt back in the hole.

With the sky growing brighter by the minute, we shook hands wordlessly, knowing we had to part.  The only sign of our night’s endeavour was a small mound of earth.  I turned to leave, but Pavel’s voice checked me.

“A pity about Yurovsky.”

“Yurovsky?  Why?”

“He’s a decent man with a hard job, from what I’ve seen.”  I nodded, and he went on.  “He says the world will never know what happened here.  I think it will.”

“You do?”

“You can’t hide such a thing.  A secret shared between so many is no secret at all.  But a secret shared between two,” he grinned, teeth showing very white, “well, that’s a different thing.  It’s a shame, though, that we’ve given them this decent Christian burial, and that’s the one thing the world will never know.”


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