The Beast in the Red Forest(10)
Author:Sam Eastland

    I went to the police station in Nizhni-Novgorod but they told me he wasn’t being held there. They told me to go home and wait for a call, which I did. I waited three days, then four then five and finally I decided I would have to come to you to ask for help.

    Ambassador Davies, please help me to find out what has happened to my husband and to secure his release because whatever they are saying he did, I swear he is innocent. As a citizen of the United States, I’m sure he must be entitled to representation by our government.

    Thank you for taking the time to read my letter. Please hurry. I do not have a job as I have been home with the kids. I have no means of support except my husband’s salary and do not know how much longer the factory will continue to allow us to remain in the housing they provide.

    Yours sincerely,

    Betty Jean Vasko

    Immediately after departing from Linsky’s shop, Kirov drove straight to NKVD Headquarters in Lubyanka Square. But instead of heading up to the fourth floor to visit Elizaveta, as he usually did, this time he made his way down to the basement to consult with Lazarev, the armourer.

    Lazarev was a legendary figure at Lubyanka. From his workshop in the basement, he managed the supply and repair of all weapons issued to Moscow NKVD. He had been there from the beginning, personally appointed by Felix Dzerzhinsky, the first head of the Cheka, who commandeered what had once been the offices of the All-Russian Insurance Company and converted it into the Centre of the Extraordinary Commission. From then on, the imposing yellow-stone building served as an administrative complex, prison and place of execution. The Cheka had changed its name several times since then, from OGPU to GPU to NKVD, transforming under various directors into its current incarnation. Throughout these gruelling and sometimes bloody metamorphoses, which emptied, reoccupied and emptied once again the desks of countless servants of the State, Lazarev had remained at his post, until only he remained of those who had set the great machine of Internal State Security in motion. This was not due to luck or skill in navigating the minefield of the purges, but rather to the fact that, no matter who did the killing and who did the dying above ground, a gunsmith was always needed to make sure the weapons kept working.

    For a man of such mythic status, Lazarev’s appearance came as something of a disappointment. He was short and hunched, with pockmarked cheeks so pale they seemed to confirm the rumours that he never travelled above ground, but migrated like a mole through secret tunnels known only to him beneath the streets of Moscow. He wore a tan shop-coat, whose frayed pockets sagged from the weight of bullets, screwdrivers and gun parts. He wore this tattered coat buttoned right up to his throat, giving rise to another rumour; namely that he wore nothing underneath. This story was reinforced by the sight of Lazarev’s bare legs beneath the knee-length coat. He had a peculiar habit of never lifting his feet from the floor as he moved about the armoury, choosing instead to slide along like a man condemned to live on ice. He shaved infrequently, and the slivers of beard that jutted from his chin resembled the spines of a cactus. His eyes, watery blue in their shallow sockets, showed his patience with a world that did not understand his passion for the gun and the wheezy, reassuring growl of his voice, once heard, was unforgettable.

    The last time Kirov had seen Lazarev was to hand over the fire-damaged Webley belonging to Pekkala, and which had been brought back from the front line by Rifleman Stefanov as proof of the Inspector’s death. The once lustrous bluing on its barrel had been peeled away by the intensity of the blaze that had devoured the body on which it had been found. The trigger spring no longer functioned. Empty bullet cases appeared to have fused in place inside the cylinder. It was lucky that Pekkala had fired all the rounds. If the cartridges had been loaded, they would almost certainly have exploded in the fire, destroying the weapon completely. Only the brass grips, peculiar to this weapon, seemed to have been unaffected by the blaze and the metal still glowed softly as it had done when Pekkala carried the weapon with him, everywhere he went.

    Even though the weapon was so damaged as to be inoperable, regulations dictated that it still had to be delivered to the NKVD armoury for processing.

    ‘Major!’ exclaimed Lazarev, as Kirov reached the bottom of the stairs. ‘What brings you down here to the bowels of the earth? From what I hear these days, your visits are usually,’ he grinned and aimed a dirty finger at the ceiling, ‘to the lair of Sergeant Gatkina.’

    Kirov sighed, wondering if there was anyone in this building who did not know every detail of his romance with Elizaveta. ‘I’m here,’ he said, ‘because I need some advice.’

    ‘If it’s anything to do with that charming young lady on the fourth floor,’ remarked Lazarev, allowing his hands to settle gently upon the counter top which separated the two men, its surface strewn with gun parts, oil cans, pull-through cloths and brass bristled brushes, coiled like the tails of newborn puppies, ‘then I’m afraid you have come to the wrong place.’

    ‘I want to know why someone would have certain modifications made to an overcoat.’

    ‘An overcoat?’ Lazarev screwed up his face in confusion, sending wrinkles like branches of lightning from the corners of his eyes. ‘I’m a weapons man, Major. Not a follower of haute couture.’

    ‘That much I know already,’ Kirov told him, and he went on to describe the loops and straps which Linsky had built into the coat.

    Lazarev nodded slowly as he listened. ‘And you think this has something to do with weaponry?’

    ‘I believe it might.’

    ‘What leads you to this conclusion?’

    ‘The coat in question was made for Inspector Pekkala.’

    ‘Ah, yes,’ muttered Lazarev, ‘the famous Webley.’

    ‘But even I can tell that those straps weren’t made for a revolver. I was hoping you could tell me what they are.’

    ‘Does it really matter now?’ Lazarev drew in a slow, rustling breath. ‘Why can’t you let a dead man rest in peace?’

    ‘I would,’ replied Kirov, ‘if I believed that he was truly dead.’

    Lazarev touched his fingertips to his lips, momentarily lost in thought. ‘I always wondered if they’d really got to him. Since he disappeared, rumours have trickled down to me here in the basement, but it’s hard to know which ones you can believe.’

    ‘I must follow them all,’ replied Kirov. ‘There is no other way.’

    ‘Well, I don’t know if this will help you or not, Major, but I know exactly what those straps were made for.’

    ‘You do?’

    ‘A shotgun.’

    Kirov shook his head. ‘Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. You couldn’t hide a whole shotgun under that coat. It’s too short.’

    ‘You could,’ insisted Lazarev, ‘if the gun had also been modified.’

    ‘But how?’

    ‘It’s an old poacher’s trick. Cut down the stock, saw off the end of the barrel. Rework the hinge so that barrel and stock can be quickly pulled apart and fitted back together. Hang the separate pieces in your jacket, gun on one side, ammunition on the other.’

    ‘Shotgun shells,’ exclaimed Kirov. ‘Of course! That’s what those loops would hold, but I doubt that Pekkala would have turned his talents to poaching ducks.’

    ‘Not ducks, Major. My guess is that he’s after bigger prey. Few weapons can do more damage at close range than a shotgun. It is hardly a weapon of precision, but as a blunt and lethal instrument, you’d be hard pressed to find something better.’

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