Reggie has been struggling to find the will to live, burning his lungs with cigarettes and drowning himself in alcohol. As he moves from one vice to another, it is as if he is playing a game. But his wife, Nellie plans to be with him no matter what happens, guiding him through this dark time.
An anonymous assassin is sent to infiltrate the St. Petersburg household of Orlov, the son of a ministerial judge deemed a "serious enemy", by an unnamed radical cause. While masquerading as a servant, the narrator spies on the household and observes the extravagant and frivolous habits of the wealthy family, and is repelled by Orlov's aloof treatment of his lover Zinaida. He eventually becomes disillusioned with his mission and the purposelessness of life itself, comparing his own deceitfulness with the womanizing Orlov's self-awareness, and abandons his mission.