The Beast in the Red Forest(59)
Author:Sam Eastland


    Before he reached the village, however, Poskrebychev pulled off on to a side road and drove into a wooded area where there had once been a slate quarry. The quarry had been abandoned long before, and the deep pit from which the slate had been extracted was now filled with water. As a boy, Poskrebychev had frequently come here with his parents, to swim in the luminous green water.

    He backed up the Packard as far as he dared towards the lip of the quarry. Then he stopped the car, got out and walked to the edge. It was a long way down, enough to give him vertigo, and he quickly backed away.

    Poskrebychev dragged Akhatov’s body from the car, letting it fall heavily to the ground. Then he got down on his knees and, using all his strength, rolled the corpse off the edge of the cliff. Akhatov fell, limbs trailing, until he splashed into the quarry lake, leaving a halo in the blackness of the water. For a while, the corpse floated on the surface, pale and shimmering. Then it sank away into the dark.

    Before he got back into the car, Poskrebychev threw the murder weapon into the quarry. The Nagant had belonged to his uncle, who had carried it in the Great War and gave it to his nephew as a present on the day he first joined the Kremlin staff. But Poskrebychev never wore a gun. From that day until this, the Nagant had been hidden in a metal tub of rice in his kitchen.

    Before returning to Moscow, Poskrebychev drove to the Perovichi airfield, where he found the Lavochkin still waiting.

    ‘Hurry up!’ called the pilot, when Poskrebychev stepped out of the Packard and approached the aircraft. ‘I’ve wasted enough fuel already.’

    ‘I am not your passenger!’ Poskrebychev shouted over the buzz-saw thrumming of the aircraft’s Shevtsov engine.

    The pilot threw up his hands. ‘Then where the devil is he?’

    ‘He’s not coming.’

    ‘But I have orders to fly this plane to Rovno!’

    ‘Oh, you’re still going there,’ Poskrebychev told him.

    ‘Without a passenger?’ the pilot demanded in amazement. ‘But the amount of fuel this is going to take—’

    ‘Do you presume,’ hollered Poskrebychev, ‘to question the will of Comrade Stalin?’

    ‘No!’ the pilot replied hastily. ‘It’s not that . . .’

    ‘Then go!’ cried Poskrebychev, using the particularly shrill tone he employed on all who were beneath him. ‘Take to the sky and be gone and I’ll forget your suicidal proclamations!’

    Within minutes, the plane had vanished into the night sky.

    As he drove back to Moscow, Poskrebychev realised that he had given almost no thought to everything he had just done. There had been no time to consider his actions and to balance out the risks. Poskrebychev had simply made up his mind on the spot that Akhatov had to be stopped. Now he wondered if he would be caught, but these thoughts were vague and fleeting, as if the risk belonged to someone he had met in a dream. There was nothing to do now, Poskrebychev decided, but to carry on as if nothing unusual had happened. He wondered if this was what bravery felt like. He had never been brave before. He had been sly and cowardly and grovelling, but never actually brave. Until now, the opportunity had never presented itself. As he raced along the empty, frozen roads towards the lights of Moscow in the distance, the steady thrum of the V12 engine seemed to reach a perfect equilibrium, as engines sometimes do at night, and Poskrebychev was filled with a curious blur of energy and peace of mind, as if the gods were telling him that no harm would come his way.

    After returning the Packard to the Kremlin motor pool, Poskrebychev walked back to his office to collect some paperwork before heading home.

    Entering the room, he turned on the lights and gasped.

    Stalin was sitting as his desk.

    ‘Comrade Stalin?’ spluttered Poskrebychev. ‘What are you doing there, alone and in the dark?’

    ‘You drove my Packard.’

    ‘Yes, Comrade Stalin.’

    ‘That is my car! It is not for running errands.’

    ‘But it is the only vehicle whose destination is never listed in the motor-pool logbook, Comrade Stalin.’

    Stalin was silent for a moment. ‘Yes,’ he said finally, ‘Under the circumstances, I suppose it makes sense to have used it.’ Stalin rose from the desk. ‘But if I find one scratch on the paint, you will answer for it, I promise.’

    ‘Yes, Comrade Stalin.’

    ‘The Siberian has been dropped off?’

    ‘I handled it myself,’ replied Poskrebychev.

    Just before he left the room, Stalin paused and turned to his secretary. ‘I know what you think about my decision but, in time, you will see that everything which has been done is for the best.’

    ‘I see it already, Comrade Stalin.’

    For a moment, Stalin only stared at Poskrebychev, as if struggling to comprehend the meaning of his words. Then he gave a noncommittal grunt, walked out and shut the door.

    *

    Pekkala picked up Malashenko, carried him over to the Jeep and laid his body across the rear seats.

    By then, the sun had set, and darkness seemed to rise up through the ground.

    He went back into the cabin, took up the paraffin lamp, and smashed it against the wall. The fuel splashed over the bare logs, trickling into a puddle on the floor. Afterwards, Pekkala lit a match from a box which he found on the windowsill. When he set fire to the paraffin, pearl-white flames raced across floor and walls and Pekkala backed out of the cabin, shielding his face with one hand.

    Quickly, he climbed behind the wheel of the Jeep, turned on its blinkered headlights and raced back down the trail. The wheels spun and side-slipped in the mud and the body of the man who had saved his life jolted in the rear seat as if a pulse were returning to his veins.

    As Pekkala drove, he thought about what Vasko had said about the second mission. Maybe the man had been lying, although he doubted it. Over the years, Pekkala had investigated numerous plots to assassinate Stalin. Most turned out to be nothing more than rumours and the rest had been stopped in their tracks long before they turned into actual threats. But Canaris was a formidable adversary. Stalin had confided to Pekkala that the only man who truly made him fear for his life was the admiral. The year before, Stalin’s fears had almost become reality when a German plot to assassinate him at a conference in Teheran had only been uncovered by accident. Fortunately, the admiral’s powers had been undermined by the ongoing struggle between the SS and the Abwehr, which had weakened both branches of German Intelligence. This bitter rivalry had forced Canaris to undertake operations so secret and complex that not even those within the German High Command were aware of their existence. Although Vasko had given Pekkala little to go on, the possibility that Canaris could have conceived and set in motion another plot to murder Stalin was very real. There was little Pekkala could do, however, except to transmit a message to the Kremlin as soon as he arrived in Rovno and hope that Moscow took his warning seriously.

    As Pekkala drove through the outskirts of the town, he noticed a column of smoke rising from the centre, its blackness blotting out the stars. He found himself wondering what was even left to burn in Rovno. The town had been all but cremated in the numerous battles and air raids unleashed upon it.

    The closer Pekkala came to the garrison, the clearer it became to him that the fire was coming from the building itself. Arriving at the barricade, he climbed out of the Jeep and joined a crowd of soldiers who were watching the blaze. No one made any attempt to put out the fire. Instead, they seemed content to stare at the inverted waterfalls of smoke and flames, rolling and boiling from the window frames.

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