The Beast in the Red Forest(3)
Author:Sam Eastland


    For the past several minutes, Stalin had been ignoring the presence of the major. Instead, he carefully examined several files laid out in front of him – although whether Stalin was actually reading them or simply taking pleasure in making Kirov nervous, the major couldn’t tell.

    By the time Stalin finally set aside the documents, the sweat had soaked through Kirov’s shirt.

    Stalin sat back in his chair and raised his head, yellow-green eyes calmly appraising the man who stood before him. ‘Major Kirov.’

    ‘Comrade Stalin!’

    ‘Has there been any word from Pekkala?’

    ‘None, Comrade Stalin.’

    ‘How long has he been missing now? Two years, isn’t it?’

    ‘And three months. And five days.’

    *

    Pekkala had been born in Lappeenranta, Finland, at a time when it was still a Russian colony. His mother was a Laplander, from Rovaniemi in the north. At the age of eighteen, on the wishes of his father, Pekkala travelled to Petrograd in order to enlist in the Tsar’s elite Chevalier Guard. There, early in his training, he had been singled out by the Tsar for special duty as his own Special Investigator. It was a position which had never existed before and which would one day give Pekkala powers that had been considered unimaginable before the Tsar chose to create them.

    In preparation for this, he was given over to the police, then to the State police – the Gendarmerie – and after that to the Tsar’s Secret Police, who were known as the Okhrana. In those long months, doors were opened to him which few men even knew existed. At the completion of his training, the Tsar gave to Pekkala the only badge of office he would ever wear – a heavy gold disc, as wide across as the length of his little finger. Across the centre was a stripe of white enamel inlay, which began at a point, widened until it took up half the disc and narrowed again to a point on the other side. Embedded in the middle of the white enamel was a large, round emerald. Together, these elements formed an unmistakable shape and it wasn’t long before Pekkala became known as the Emerald Eye. Little else was known about him by the public. His photograph could not be published or even taken. In the absence of facts, legends grew up around Pekkala, including rumours that he was not even human, but rather some demon conjured into life through the black arts of an Arctic shaman.

    Throughout his years of service, Pekkala answered only to the Tsar. In that time he learned the secrets of an empire, and when that empire fell, and those who shared those secrets had taken them to their graves, Pekkala was surprised to find himself still breathing.

    Captured during the Revolution, he was sent to the Siberian labour camp of Borodok, the most notorious in the entire Gulag system, located deep in the forest of Krasnagolyana.

    There, they took away his name. From then on, he was known only as prisoner 4745.

    As soon as Pekkala arrived at the camp to begin his thirty-year sentence for Crimes Against the State, the camp commandant sent him into the wilderness as a tree marker for the Gulag’s logging crews, fearing that other inmates might learn his true identity. The average life of a tree-marker from Borodok was six months. Working alone, with no chance of escape and far from any human contact, these men died from exposure, starvation and loneliness. Those who became lost, or who fell and broke a leg, were usually eaten by wolves. Tree-marking was the only assignment at Borodok said to be worse than a death sentence.

    Everyone assumed he would be dead before the end of winter, but nine years later, Prisoner 4745 had lasted longer than any other marker in the entire Gulag system.

    Provisions were left for him three times a year at the end of a logging road. Paraffin. Cans of meat. Nails. For the rest, Pekkala had to fend for himself.

    He was a tall man, broad-shouldered, with a straight nose and strong, white teeth. His eyes were greenish-brown, the pupils marked by a strange silvery quality, which people noticed only when he was looking directly at them. Streaks of premature grey ran through his long, dark hair and his beard grew thickly over windburned cheeks.

    He moved through the woods with the help of a large stick, whose gnarled head bristled with square-topped horseshoe nails. The only other thing he carried was a bucket of red paint for marking the trees which were to be cut. Instead of using a brush, Pekkala stirred his fingers in the scarlet paint and daubed his print upon the trunks. These ghostly handprints were, for most of the other convicts, the only trace of him they ever saw.

    Only rarely was he seen by those logging crews who came to cut the timber. What they observed was a creature barely recognisable as a man. With the crust of red paint that covered his prison clothes and the long hair maned about his face, he resembled a beast stripped of its flesh and left to die which had somehow managed to survive. Wild rumours surrounded him – that he was an eater of human flesh, that he wore a breastplate made from the bones of those who had disappeared in the forest, that he wore scalps laced together as a cap.

    They called him the Man with Bloody Hands. No one except the commandant of Borodok knew where this prisoner had come from or who he had been before he arrived. Those same men who feared to cross his path had no idea this was Pekkala, whose name they’d once invoked just as their ancestors had called upon the gods.

    In the forest of Krasnagolyana, Pekkala had tried to forget the world he left behind.

    But the world he left behind had not forgotten him.

    On the orders of Stalin himself, Pekkala was brought back to Moscow to serve as an Investigator for the Bureau of Special Operations. Since that time, the Emerald Eye had maintained an uneasy truce with the man who had once condemned him to death, but after his last mission, which took him deep behind the German lines, Pekkala had disappeared and was now presumed to have been killed.

    *

    ‘But you, Major Kirov, are convinced he’s still alive.’

    ‘Yes, Comrade Stalin,’ he replied, ‘until I see evidence that convinces me otherwise.’

    ‘The fact that his personal effects were removed from a body on a battlefield has done nothing to persuade you. Some might consider that as ample proof that Pekkala is no longer with us.’

    Those effects consisted of the Inspector’s identity book, as well as his brass-handled Webley revolver, which had been a gift from Tsar Nicholas II. They had been recovered by a Soviet Rifleman named Stefanov, the last survivor of an anti-aircraft crew which had been whittled down to almost nothing by the fighting around Leningrad. After wandering for days in German-occupied territory, he had at last reached the safety of the Soviet lines, only to be ordered to accompany Pekkala as a guide back to Tsarskoye Selo, site of the Tsar’s summer residence and the very battleground from which he had recently escaped.

    The purpose of Pekkala’s mission had been to determine the whereabouts of the priceless inlaid panels of the Amber Room, the greatest treasure of the Romanovs, last seen hanging on the walls of the Catherine Palace.

    Initial attempts by palace curators to remove the panels and transport them to safety east of the Ural mountains had met with failure. The glue which held the amber fragments in place was over two centuries old and had become too fragile to be moved. In desperation, since the German army’s advance threatened to overrun Tsarskoye Selo at any moment, the curators resorted to hiding the panels under layers of wallpaper and muslin cloth. Their gamble that the Germans might believe the amber had already been evacuated was reinforced by a broadcast made on Soviet State Radio, whose signal was constantly monitored by the Germans, that the amber was now safely in Siberia.

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