The Beast in the Red Forest(60)
Author:Sam Eastland


    Standing closest to the inferno was Commander Chaplinsky, his sooty face glistening with sweat. Chaplinsky held a bottle of brandy in one hand and the severed receiver of a field telephone in the other. The cloth-covered cord which once attached it to the body of the radio had been wrenched apart and now only multi-coloured strands of wire hung from the receiver.

    ‘What happened?’ asked Pekkala, as he went to stand beside Chaplinsky.

    The commander glanced across at him, pig-eyed in his drunkenness. ‘Nobody knows for sure,’ he replied. ‘Some of our ammunition stores must have been hit during the battle. By the time we realised the place was burning, it was already too late. It was all we could do to get everyone out of there before the place started falling in upon itself. The partisans helped. Thank God we didn’t have to slaughter them. Just before the fire forced us out of the building, we received a message from Moscow, ordering us to cancel our attack on the Atrads.’

    He was interrupted by the dull thump of a ceiling giving way. A geyser of sparks erupted through the gap of what had been the front doors of the building. The doors themselves lay flattened on the ground, as if knocked down by a stampede.

    ‘Is there any way that I can contact Moscow?’ asked Pekkala. ‘It may be urgent.’

    Chaplinsky held out the broken radio receiver. ‘This is all that’s left of our equipment. After that last message from Moscow, everything went up in flames.’ Contemptuously, he tossed the receiver aside. ‘We’re cut off from the world, Inspector, and maybe that’s not a bad thing!’ he said as he passed the brandy to Pekkala.

    Pekkala took the bottle and held it up against the backdrop of the flames. On the label, not quite obscured by the name ‘Krug’, which had been scribbled across it in black pencil, Pekkala read the words, ‘Armagnac Baron de Sigognac’, as well as a date of 1940. He wondered what strange journey had brought it to this place. Through the dark green glass he saw the liquid swaying. It had been a long time since he’d been offered anything but samahonka, brewed by Barabanschikov himself in an old crow’s-foot bathtub, and which Pekkala wisely had not touched. Raising the bottle to his lips, he drank and felt the quiet fire of the brandy spread like wings inside his chest.

    ‘Where is my driver, Zolkin?’ asked Chaplinsky, retrieving the bottle from Pekkala. ‘Is that him sleeping in the back of the Jeep?’

    ‘No,’ replied the Inspector. ‘That is a partisan named Malashenko. He was one of Barabanschikov’s men.’

    ‘Was?’

    ‘That’s what I said,’ replied Pekkala.

    ‘Well, get him out of there before he bleeds on the seats! And where is Zolkin, anyway? Has he deserted? I never did trust that man. I’ll have him shot, I swear!’

    ‘Sergeant Zolkin has not deserted,’ Pekkala assured him. ‘He left for Moscow on a plane not long ago, in the company of my assistant, Major Kirov. He talked his way into becoming my chauffeur. I did not have a chance to tell you sooner.’

    ‘You’re welcome to him,’ said Chaplinsky. ‘Around here, drivers are not hard to find. It’s vehicles we don’t have enough of, not to mention spare parts for repairs. I guess I can’t blame him for leaving.’ He raised his bottle at the funeral pyre of the garrison. ‘Who wouldn’t trade Moscow for this?’

    ‘He said his greatest wish was to shake the hand of Joseph Stalin, and he may well get the chance before this day is out.’

    Chaplinsky blinked at him stupidly. ‘You must be mistaken, Inspector. Zolkin is the last person who would want an audience with Stalin.’

    ‘Why do you say that?’

    ‘His family used to be farmers in northern Ukraine, but they died of starvation when Stalin ordered the farms to be collectivised. Zolkin is the only one who survived, and if you believe the stories they tell about him, he did so by eating the flesh of his parents. A man like that,’ Chaplinsky paused to belch extravagantly, ‘is the kind who would carry a grudge.’

    While Chaplinsky continued to ramble, one thought blazed across Pekkala’s mind. If I were Canaris, he thought, Zolkin is exactly the kind of person I would be looking to recruit. As Yakushkin’s personal driver, he too would have been transferred back to Moscow. Once there, Yakushkin would have been in direct contact with top-ranking members of the Kremlin staff, including Stalin. Drivers regularly accompanied the officers they served to meetings, acting partly as bodyguards and partly as baggage handlers for the briefcases full of documents required at each presentation to the high command. Zolkin would be armed as a matter of course. All drivers were. Perhaps Yakushkin’s murder had not been planned. The commander had simply been in the wrong place when Vasko went looking for information on the whereabouts of Major Kirov. Since Vasko did not know the identity of the second agent, or the details of his mission, he had no idea that he had placed the entire mission in jeopardy.

    If Zolkin was indeed the second agent, his role in the assassination plot might have ended with Yakushkin’s death. Instead, the sergeant had just talked his way on to the plane bound for Moscow, and a meeting with Stalin himself.

    And I am the one who made it possible, thought Pekkala, dread rising in the back of his throat. Within a matter of hours, Zolkin will be at the Kremlin. If he is able to carry out his task, it won’t just be Stalin who dies. The lives of Kirov and Barabanschikov are also in grave danger.

    ‘Of course,’ Chaplinsky continued, ‘there are others to blame besides the Boss. Some say it wasn’t Stalin’s fault at all. Some even say—’

    ‘I must get a message to Moscow!’ interrupted Pekkala. ‘Chaplinsky, this is very important.’

    ‘I told you, the radios are gone. Burned to ashes. The only way you can contact Moscow is if you get on the plane and go there yourself with the message.’

    ‘What plane?’ asked Pekkala.

    ‘The one that landed about half an hour ago, although exactly what he’s doing here is hard to say. It’s all very strange. He was carrying orders from Moscow to deliver a passenger. The thing is, though, he didn’t have any passengers with him.’

    ‘Where is the plane now?’ asked Pekkala.

    ‘On the runway at Obarov, but if you want to get on board, you’d better hurry. The pilot said that as soon as his plane has been refuelled, he’s going straight back where he came from.’

    The words had barely left Chaplinsky’s mouth before Pekkala dashed back to the vehicle, started the engine and set out towards Obarov.

    ‘By all means, take my Jeep!’ Chaplinsky shouted after him. ‘You’ve already stolen my driver.’

    But Pekkala was already gone.

    *

    Vasko had been running flat out for half an hour, following the dim outline of the forest path, before he finally allowed his pace to slacken. By now, he was deep in the woods and unsure of his location. Not until the moon had climbed above the trees did Vasko even know in which direction he was headed. His only thought had been to get away. To have had his life spared by the man he’d sworn to kill had turned Vasko’s mind into a hornet’s nest of confusion. But the anger was still there, coiled like a snake in his guts and whispering to him that everything Pekkala had said was a lie. Vasko listened to its patient and familiar voice, demanding blood for blood.

    In the strange, gunmetal-blue light of the full moon, Vasko headed west towards the German lines, passing within a stone’s throw of the place where the farrier Hudzik lay naked and frozen among the bones of former customers.

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