The Beast in the Red Forest(57)
Author:Sam Eastland


    ‘Because it is Pekkala!’ roared Stalin. ‘And the men of Special Operations all but worship him. I cannot count on them to carry out the task. That is why I called upon you, Akhatov, because you worship nothing but the money I will pay you for your work.’

    ‘But why must it be done at all, Comrade Stalin?’

    ‘Yes,’ whispered Poskrebychev in the other room. ‘Why? For the love of God, why?’ His arms ached from the effort of holding the bulky intercom, but he did not dare let go for fear of missing a single word.

    ‘My reasons are none of your concern,’ said Stalin. ‘I am not paying you to have a conscience, Akhatov. All I ask is that you do it quickly and cleanly and that you leave no trace behind which could connect your actions to the Kremlin.’

    *

    The Jeep pulled up outside the cabin. Its stubborn Detroit engine had kept running, in spite of having driven through a series of puddles, which had soaked the driving compartment, as well as the feet of its passengers.

    Pekkala climbed out of the vehicle and walked towards the cabin. ‘You built this yourself?’ he asked, admiring its solid construction.

    Malashenko, who was walking just ahead of him, turned and smiled and opened his mouth, ready to take credit for it all.

    At that moment, Vasko stepped out from behind the cabin, the Tokarev in his hand.

    ‘Get down!’ Pekkala shouted as he drew his gun.

    Malashenko turned to face the agent. ‘No!’ he shouted, raising his hands.

    Vasko pulled the trigger.

    The first round struck Malashenko square in the chest. Two more bullets had punched through his ribcage by the time he collapsed into Pekkala’s arms. The next shot sounded dull and flat. A burst of sparks sprayed from the Tokarev. The gun had misfired. Vasko tried to chamber a new round, but a cartridge had jammed in the ejection port.

    Vasko raised his head and found himself staring down the barrel of Pekkala’s Webley.

    Malashenko lay on the ground between them. He was already dead, the pale blue sky reflected in his half-open eyes.

    ‘Did they not tell you in Berlin,’ asked Pekkala, ‘that soft-point bullets are a frequent cause of misfired ammunition?’

    Cursing, Vasko tried once more to work the slide of the Tokarev.

    Pekkala set his thumb upon the hammer of the Webley, drawing it back with a click so that even the slightest pressure on the trigger would cause the gun to fire.

    Vasko heard that click. He knew it was useless to go on. Slowly, he breathed out, and then tossed the gun away. It landed with a soft thump upon the pine-needled ground. ‘Inspector Pekkala,’ he said.

    ‘Who are you?’ asked Pekkala.

    ‘My name is Peter Vasko.’

    ‘Who sent you? Was it Skorzeny or Himmler himself?’

    ‘Neither,’ answered Vasko. ‘My orders come from Admiral Canaris.’

    ‘You killed Andrich?’

    Vasko nodded. ‘That’s what Canaris sent me here to do.’

    ‘Then why didn’t you leave when you still could?’

    ‘Because I wasn’t finished yet,’ he replied. ‘I swore to kill you too, Pekkala, before this war even began.’

    A flicker of confusion passed over Pekkala’s face.

    ‘I don’t expect that you recall the name William Vasko. Or his wife. Or his daughter, or his son, who stands before you now? I am all that’s left of a family that set sail from America in the summer of 1936, hoping to escape the Great Depression and with a promise of a better life in Russia.’

    Vasko, thought Pekkala, as the face of a terrified man shimmered into focus. Pekkala saw him again, sitting on a metal chair in an interrogation room at Lubyanka. His nose had been broken during previous interrogations. Some of his teeth had been knocked out and his scalp was dotted with open sores, the result of being struck by a man wearing a heavy ring. ‘I do remember him,’ he said. ‘He was a spy at the Novgorod Motor Plant.’

    ‘My father was no spy!’ hissed Vasko. ‘Just an ordinary assemblyman at a car factory.’

    ‘That’s not all he was,’ replied Pekkala.

    ‘And who would he be spying on, Inspector?’

    ‘His fellow workers at the plant.’

    ‘For who? America?’

    Pekkala shook his head. ‘Russian Internal Security.’

    ‘You are lying!’ Vasko insisted. ‘Those men came to start a new life. Why would they spy on each other?’

    ‘That new life they found,’ explained Pekkala, ‘was not what they had been expecting. There was talk of a strike at the plant, and Internal Security needed a man on the inside to keep them informed.’

    ‘My father would never have allowed himself to be recruited as a Russian agent.’

    ‘He wasn’t recruited,’ said Pekkala. ‘It was your father who approached them, offering to deliver information, for a price.’

    ‘That is all lies!’ screamed Vasko.

    ‘What reason would I have for lying to you now?’ asked Pekkala. ‘Look who is holding the gun.’

    ‘If he was their informant, why would they have arrested him?’

    ‘The Americans at the plant realised that someone among them was spying for the Russians. When your father guessed that they suspected him, he panicked. He went to the local office of Internal Security and requested that they transfer him to another factory in a different part of Russia. But by then he had become a valuable asset to Russian Intelligence, and his request for transfer was denied. Your father was trapped. He couldn’t stay, but neither was he allowed to leave. Believing that his life was in danger, he tried the only thing that he could think of, which was to get back to the United States with his family. Unfortunately for your father, his letters to friends in America, in which he described his plan, were intercepted. That’s why he was arrested and detained. And because he was acting as a paid informant, and possessed intelligence which Internal Security considered sensitive, his whereabouts were kept secret. Since your father was no longer employed at the factory, you, your mother and your sister were evicted from housing supplied to the workers. Your mother brought you to Moscow and contacted the American Embassy. Following a request from Ambassador Davies to locate your father, Stalin assigned me to the case.’

    ‘And you condemned us all to death.’

    ‘The truth is quite the opposite,’ insisted Pekkala. ‘When I discovered that your father was being held at Lubyanka, I immediately had him transferred to a proper holding cell. There, I interviewed him personally in order to learn the details of the case. I also travelled to Novgorod and spoke to people who had known him at the plant. What they had to say confirmed his story. I wrote up a report, advising that he be repatriated to the United States, along with his entire family. If my instructions had been followed, you and your family would have been back in America long ago. I assumed that’s what had taken place, since my involvement with the case ended there.’

    ‘My father didn’t reach America,’ said Vasko. ‘He probably never made it out of the country. My mother, my sister and I were arrested outside the American Embassy on her way to apply for a passport to replace the ones which were taken from us when we first arrived in Russia. She was convicted of illegal currency possession and the three of us were exiled to the Gulag at Kolyma.’

    ‘Kolyma!’ exclaimed Pekkala. ‘And how is it that you survived?’

    ‘We never arrived,’ explained Vasko. ‘We were shipwrecked off the coast of Japan. I was one of only a few survivors. We were taken to a hospital in Japan, but I suspected that it was only a matter of time before we would be handed over to the Russians, so I escaped. I made my way to the German Embassy. When I explained who I was, they offered to smuggle me out of the country and to give me a new life in Germany.’

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