The Beast in the Red Forest(54)
Author:Sam Eastland


    It was Vasko. He gestured for Malashenko to join him.

    Warily, the partisan approached, until the two stood face to face.

    ‘Where is Pekkala?’ Vasko whispered angrily.

    ‘He stayed behind in Rovno!’ Malashenko hissed in reply. ‘He sent that commissar instead. I swear there was nothing I could do.’

    ‘That’s not what we agreed. You still want that gold, don’t you?’

    ‘But how on earth can I persuade him?’

    ‘I leave that to you, Malashenko. Reason with Pekkala. Beg him. Bring him at gunpoint if you have to, or I swear it will be you that I come looking for.’ With those words, he stepped back into the forest and disappeared.

    In the cabin, Kirov had turned out the dead man’s pockets, in which he found a German infantry compass, a wood-handled pocket knife and a cigarette lighter engraved with the word ‘Zagreb’.

    Malashenko came and stood in the doorway. He looked pale and sick. ‘Satisfied?’ he asked.

    ‘All right.’ Kirov took one last look at the blood-spattered walls. ‘Let’s get back to Rovno and tell Pekkala what we’ve found.’

    ‘Gladly,’ replied Malashenko.

    With feet freezing in their sodden boots, the men returned to where Zolkin waited with the Jeep. Soon they were on their way to Rovno, jolting along over the potholed road.

    *

    After a short search, Pekkala caught up with Barabanschikov at the wreckage of the Jagdpanzer, where the partisan leader was supervising the removal of a machine gun from the driver’s compartment. Through the open hatch in the front hull, one partisan handed out gleaming brass belts of ammunition to another man, who gathered them like a dead snake in his arms and carried them away to Barabanschikov’s truck.

    ‘I see that you’ve wasted no time in gathering the spoils of battle,’ said Pekkala.

    ‘With any luck,’ replied Barabanschikov, ‘we won’t need them for much longer.’

    ‘The commander of the garrison would like to offer you his thanks.’

    ‘All I ask in return,’ replied Barabanschikov, slinging the belt over his shoulder, ‘is that we be allowed to get on with our lives. For that, you can tell him, every partisan in this region is prepared to lay down his arms.’

    ‘Are you sure?’ asked Pekkala. ‘You have spoken to the other bands?’

    Barabanschikov nodded. ‘On one condition.’

    ‘Name it.’

    ‘That the promises made by Colonel Andrich will be kept.’

    ‘You will have those promises,’ said Pekkala.

    ‘Not from you, my friend,’ said Barabanschikov, resting his hand upon Pekkala’s shoulder, ‘although I do not doubt your good intentions. Let me stand before the leader of this country and hear him make those guarantees in person. Otherwise, they’re just the words of other men.’

    ‘Moscow is a long way from here,’ said Pekkala, ‘and do you really think that looking Stalin in the eye will make a difference?’

    Barabanschikov swept his hand towards the crowd of partisans. ‘It makes a difference to them. To know that I have actually spoken with Stalin carries more weight than anything that you or I, or anyone sent here to speak for him, could ever say. You know these people, Pekkala. You have shared their suffering. You know they deserve nothing less.’

    Pekkala nodded in agreement. ‘I will notify Moscow immediately.’

    *

    ‘A telegram!’ shouted Poskrebychev. As he knocked on the door to Stalin’s study, he was already entering the room. ‘A message has arrived from Rovno!’

    ‘Finally,’ growled Stalin. Although it was a sunny day, he had drawn the curtains, shutting out all but a few stray bands of light which had worked their way in past the heavy sheets of red velvet. ‘And what does Kirov have to say?’

    ‘The message is not from Kirov, Comrade Stalin. This one is from Pekkala!’

    ‘Give it to me!’ Stalin held out his hand, snapping his fingers until Poskrebychev was close enough to have the message torn from his grasp. For a while, there was silence as he studied the telegram. Finally, Stalin spoke. ‘He says partisans have agreed to lay down their guns, on condition that I meet personally with their leader, Barabanschikov.’

    ‘And will you meet with him, Comrade Stalin?’

    Stalin scratched thoughtfully at his neck, fingernails dragging across the scars of old pockmarks. ‘Send word to the garrison in Rovno. Tell them to call off the attack. And have a plane dispatched immediately to the nearest airfield so that Barabanschikov can be transported back to Moscow, along with Major Kirov and Pekkala. Tell the leader of these partisans that I will meet with him, if that is the price of their allegiance.’

    ‘At once, Comrade Stalin!’ Poskrebychev clicked his heels, then turned and left the room, closing the doors quietly behind him. No sooner had he returned to his desk than the intercom buzzed. Poskrebychev leaned over and pressed a well-worn button. ‘Yes, Comrade Stalin?’

    ‘Once the plane is in the air,’ Stalin told him, ‘have the pilot maintain strict radio silence until they reach Moscow. Air-to-ground messages can be intercepted by the enemy and I don’t want anyone shooting them down before they get here!’

    *

    Ten hours later an American-made DC9, on loan to the Red Air Force, landed at the Obarov airfield. The aircraft had been on its way from Kiev to the Arctic port of Arkhangelsk with a cargo of submarine propellers when, on emergency orders from the Kremlin, it was diverted to the small airfield outside Rovno. The heavily loaded plane landed hard on the short runway, which drew gasps of morbid fascination from the onlookers, followed by wild applause when the aircraft, smoke pouring from its brakes and engines screaming in reverse, finally managed to stop, only a dozen paces from the tree line.

    Earlier that day, Kirov had returned from the cabin and reported his findings to Pekkala, who agreed that the assassin, whoever he was, had been killed in the explosion. Now that the case was closed, they immediately turned their attention to the business of transporting Barabanschikov to Moscow.

    The pilot of the cargo plane, wearing heavy brown overalls lined with sheepskin, climbed down from the cockpit. Warily, he looked out at the jumbled assortment of clothing, weapons and head gear of this ragged welcoming committee. Some appeared to be Red Army, while others, judging from their uniforms, could have laid claim to membership in half a dozen nations. ‘Well, I can’t take all of you!’ he shouted.

    Kirov stepped forward. ‘There are only three passengers.’

    ‘Four!’ announced Sergeant Zolkin, as he pushed his way to the front of the crowd. ‘I’m coming too, on the orders of Inspector Pekkala.’

    ‘Your new driver,’ Kirov muttered to Pekkala.

    ‘But what about your Jeep, Zolkin?’ asked Pekkala.

    Without a moment’s hesitation, Zolkin turned and tossed the keys to Malashenko. ‘Looks like we both get our wish,’ he told the partisan.

    Ever since he’d returned to the cabin, Malashenko had been pleading with Zolkin to transport him to Kiev. He had overheard Pekkala telling Kirov that the case was officially closed and realized there was no hope of persuading Pekkala to revisit the cabin. His only hope now was to get as far away from Vasko as he could. When Zolkin refused to drive him, Malashenko revised his destination to anywhere at all, as long as it was somewhere out of Rovno. In exchange, Malashenko offered the sergeant a lifetime supply of salt, to which Zolkin only shrugged and shook his head.

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