The Beast in the Red Forest(5)
Author:Sam Eastland


    ‘Linsky? You mean Pekkala’s old tailor?’

    Poskrebychev nodded gravely. ‘Linsky can help you, Major, just as he helped Pekkala.’

    ‘Yes, I’m well acquainted with Pekkala’s choice of clothing and, trust me, Poskrebychev, he is the one who needs help in that department. So you see, even if I did want a new uniform, which I don’t, I can assure you that I wouldn’t go to Linsky!’ As Kirov spoke, he pressed the pocket flap back into place, as if worried that his wallet might be missing.

    ‘It’s just a little friendly advice.’ Poskrebychev smiled patiently. ‘Even the smallest detail should not be overlooked.’

    He’s gone mad, Kirov thought to himself, as he watched Poskrebychev return to his office, slippered feet whispering across the polished stone. The man is completely insane.





    (Postmark: Nizhni-Novgorod, October 14th, 1936.)


    Passed by Censor, District Office 7 NKVD

    Ford Motor Plant

    Worker’s Residence Block 3, ‘Liberty House’

    Nizhni-Novgorod, Soviet union  



    To:

    The United Brotherhood of Steelworkers, Branch 11,

    Jackson St,

    Newark, New Jersey, USA


    Boys, you ought to see this place!

    I am now working at the Ford Motor plant, just like the one in Rouge River back home, and run by an American who used to work there – Mr Victor Herman. The only difference is that here in Russia, I don’t have to worry all the time about being fired, or having the shift bosses give me the high hat and knowing I have no choice but to take it. I have a house, just like they promised, as well as hot water and a roof that doesn’t leak. My wife is happy in our new, rent-free home and my daughter and my son both go to the local school, where they speak English. We even have our own newspaper now. It’s called the Moscow News.

    It’s everything I hoped it would be and then some. I work hard but I get paid on time and if I get sick, there are doctors who will treat me for free. On the weekends, we play ball or else there are clubs for us, where we can play cards and relax.

    In case you think that all the good jobs have been snapped up already, I’m here to tell you that there are still plenty of spots to be filled. This whole country is on the move. They are building bridges, planes, railways, houses, everything you can think of, and they need skilled workers like yourselves. So come on over! Don’t wait another day. Armtorg, the Russian company that operates out of New York, can help get you all the emigration papers you need, or else there’s Intourist, who can get you over here on a tourist visa. Trust me, though, once you’ve set foot in the Soviet union  , you won’t want to go back.

    Your new friends are waiting for you.

    And so is your old pal,

    Bill Vasko





    After driving back across the city, Kirov climbed the five flights of stairs to his office. With movements made unconscious by years of repetition, he unlocked the door, strode across the room and slumped into his battered chair by the stove.

    The silence seemed to close in around him as he stared at Pekkala’s empty desk.

    Stalin’s orders had done nothing to raise Kirov’s confidence. His stubborn belief that Pekkala might still be alive had lately begun to seem less like faith and more like pure delusion. Surely, he thought, if Pekkala was out there somewhere, he would have found a way to let me know. Why can’t I accept that he is truly gone?

    The answer lay in a single detail, to which Kirov had been clinging since the day he heard that Pekkala was dead. It wasn’t what Rifleman Stefanov had found on the burned corpse. It was what he hadn’t found – the emerald eye.

    Kirov felt certain that, even if Pekkala had been forced to leave behind all of his other belongings, he would never have parted with the eye. The gold badge had been the Inspector’s most prized possession; the symbol of everything he had accomplished since the Tsar first pinned it to his coat.

    When questioned about it, the Rifleman had insisted that no such badge was on the body, leading Kirov to suspect that Pekkala might have faked his own death and gone into hiding.

    Since the day Kirov had set eyes on the crumbled remains of Pekkala’s identity book, and the heat-buckled ruin of the Webley, the question of the missing badge had swung back and forth inside his brain with the relentless ticking of a metronome. But Kirov was no closer to answering it now than he had been at the beginning.

    If it hadn’t been for Elizaveta, he would long since have gone out of his mind.

    *

    Kirov had first met Elizaveta Kapanina just before Pekkala departed on his last mission. She worked as a clerk in the Records Department at NKVD headquarters. Their office was located on the fourth floor, and required such a trudge to get there that most people simply left their requests for documents with the secretary on the ground floor and stopped back the following day to collect the files which had been brought down for them. But those flights of stairs were not the only reason people stayed clear of the fourth floor. The director of the Records Department, Comrade Sergeant Gatkina, was a woman of such legendary ferocity that, for many years, Kirov had heeded the advice of his NKVD colleagues and kept clear of the fourth floor.

    But the day had come when Pekkala had insisted that certain documents be found immediately. With no choice but to ask for them directly, Kirov made the trek to the fourth floor. He had no idea what this Sergeant Gatkina looked like, but by the time he reached the metal grille at the entrance, behind which the thousands upon thousands of NKVD files slept in dusty silence, Kirov had conjured something nightmarish into the forefront of his mind.

    Cautiously, he rested the weight of his hand upon a little button protruding from a bell set on the counter. But he lowered his palm so slowly that the bell hardly made a sound at all. To remedy this on the second attempt, Kirov struck it smartly with his fist. The bell gave a jarring clang and jumped from the counter as if the force of his blow had brought it to life. The bell tumbled to the floor, clanging even louder than before. Before Kirov could stop it, the bell had rolled across the narrow corridor and down a flight of stairs to the third floor landing, ringing all the while with a demented clatter that seemed to echo throughout the entire headquarters building.

    By the time Kirov had retrieved the bell, a figure was waiting at the grille.

    Kirov could only make out the face of a woman, but he felt certain this must be the fearsome-tempered Sergeant Gatkina. As he drew closer, however, Kirov realised that if the person who smiled at him through the black iron bars was indeed Sergeant Gatkina, then the rumours about her equally fearsome appearance were surely untrue. She was slight, with freckled cheeks, a round chin and dark, inquisitive eyes.

    ‘Comrade Gatkina?’ he asked nervously.

    ‘Oh, that’s not me,’ replied the woman, ‘but would you like me to fetch her?’

    ‘No!’ blurted Kirov. ‘That’s all right. Thank you. I’m here to pick up a document.’ He rummaged in his pocket for the scrap of paper on which Pekkala had written the file number. Clumsily, he poked the crumpled document under the bars.

    ‘People don’t usually come up here,’ remarked the woman, as she tried to decipher Pekkala’s writing.

    ‘Really?’ Kirov did his best to look surprised. ‘I can’t imagine why.’

    ‘What happened to the bell?’ asked the woman. ‘It’s missing.’

    ‘I have it right here.’ Hastily, Kirov put it back on the counter.

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