The Beast in the Red Forest(61)
Author:Sam Eastland


    *

    The Lavochkin aircraft in which Pekkala travelled, being faster than the fully-loaded cargo plane transporting Barabanschikov, arrived in Moscow only half an hour after the others had touched down.

    Scrambling into the air controller’s car, Pekkala raced towards the Kremlin, punching the horn as he sped through every intersection.

    ‘Inspector!’ Poskrebychev leapt to his feet as Pekkala entered the office. ‘I knew you would come back to us!’

    Out of breath and wild-eyed with fatigue, Pekkala swiped a finger across his throat, instantly silencing Poskrebychev. With his other hand, he drew the Webley from his coat.

    At the sight of the gun, Poskrebychev’s expression transformed from one of joy to utter confusion. ‘Why have you drawn your weapon?’ he gasped. ‘You know you cannot do that here!’

    Pekkala pointed at the doors to Stalin’s study. ‘Who is in that room now?’ he demanded.

    ‘Why, Major Kirov! And that partisan leader, Barabanschikov. And Comrade Stalin, too, of course. The partisan requested a private audience with Stalin, which has been granted. Major Kirov is just finishing up his report and then he will leave them alone to carry out their business.’

    ‘What about Zolkin?’

    ‘The driver?’ Poskrebychev shrugged. ‘He came and went. Kirov introduced him to Comrade Stalin. They shook hands, Stalin autographed the back of his pass book and then Zolkin excused himself.’

    ‘He’s gone?’ Pekkala looked stunned.

    ‘Yes!’ insisted Poskrebychev. ‘The last I saw of Sergeant Zolkin, he was on his way down to the motor pool, where your Emka has been stored since Major Kirov’s departure. I gather that the sergeant is to be your new driver.’

    Pekkala slumped back against the door frame. ‘I thought . . .’ he began, but his words trailed off into silence.

    ‘Inspector, do not throw away your life,’ pleaded the secretary. ‘I know how you must feel, but all the good you have done for this country will be squandered in a heartbeat if you shed his blood like this.’

    As those words echoed in Pekkala’s mind, he thought back to a promise he had made, on a winter’s day long ago, as he sat with his friend by the ashes of a still-glowing fire. Then suddenly he knew who he’d been chasing all along.

    The double doors flew open as Pekkala stepped into the room.

    The three men turned to stare at him.

    Stalin was on his feet, sitting on the front edge of his desk with his arms folded and his legs stretched out and crossed, so that only his heels touched the ground. At the sight of the Inspector brandishing a gun, Stalin’s eyes grew wide with amazement.

    In front of him stood Kirov and Barabanschikov.

    At the moment Pekkala entered, Kirov’s hands had been raised as he described some event in their journey. Now he froze, his hands stilled in the air, as if holding an invisible ball.

    The only one who moved was Barabanschikov. ‘Hello, old friend,’ he said to Pekkala, and as he spoke, he pulled a small Mauser automatic pistol from the pocket of his tattered coat. But rather than pointing the gun at Pekkala, he aimed it at Stalin instead.

    ‘Barabanschikov,’ whispered Kirov, ‘have you completely lost your mind?’

    ‘What is the meaning of this?’ roared Stalin, his eyes fixed on Barabanschikov’s gun. ‘Put that weapon down! This is not some muddy crossroads in the forest, where you can rob and murder to your heart’s content. This is the Kremlin! How do you expect to get out of here alive?’

    ‘That was never my intention,’ replied Barabanschikov.

    ‘I offered you peace!’ roared Stalin.

    ‘I have seen what you call peace. All you gave us was a different way to die. Nothing will change for us while you are still alive.’

    Pekkala slowly raised the Webley until its sights were locked on Barabanschikov. ‘Why are you doing this?’ he asked.

    ‘That day I was stopped at the roadblock in Rovno‚ at the same time as you were arrested on the other side of town, things did not go exactly as I told you. One of my former students, who had joined the Ukrainian police, was manning the roadblock. He recognised me immediately and I was brought to the German Field Police Headquarters. The commander’s name was Krug, and he explained that he knew where we were and that they had already made plans to wipe us out. But then he offered me the chance to work with them, in exchange for which he would spare my life, and the lives of everyone in our group. I had no choice, so I agreed. From that day on, I kept him informed about everything that happened in the Red Forest. And when I told the enemy you had joined us, they gambled that you might one day lead me into the presence of Stalin himself. As you can see, they were right. You once asked me how we managed to survive. Well, there is your answer.’

    ‘Do you remember the oath we took ?’ asked Pekkala.

    ‘To do whatever good we can,’ replied the partisan.

    ‘And to stay alive!’ shouted Pekkala. ‘Do you remember that?’

    ‘I do, old friend,’ said Barabanschikov, ‘but I’m tired of treading softly through this world.’

    A gunshot clapped the air, deafening in the confined space of the room.

    But it wasn’t Pekkala who fired.

    In the second when Barabanschikov turned his head towards the Inspector, Kirov had reached for his gun. He shot the partisan almost point-blank in the side, so close that the cloth of Barabanschikov’s jacket was smouldering as the partisan slipped to the floor.

    At the moment of the gunshot, Stalin cried out and shrank away, hands covering his face. Now he slowly lowered his hands and looked down at his chest, searching for the wound which he felt sure he must have suffered. Frantically, he swept his fingers up and down his arms and dabbed his fingertips against his cheeks in search of blood. Finding nothing, Stalin began to laugh. He stepped over to the dying Barabanschikov and began to kick at him savagely.

    The partisan was still alive, but he was barely breathing. He kept blinking his eyes, as if to clear the darkness that was closing in on him.

    ‘Comrade Stalin . . .’ Kirov said gently.

    Cackling obscenely, Stalin continued to jab his foot into the man’s stomach where the bullet had gone in, until the toe of his calfskin boot was slick with red.

    ‘Enough!’ Pekkala’s voice exploded.

    Only now did Stalin pause. He whipped his head around and stared at the Inspector, madness in his yellow-green eyes. ‘Filthy partisans!’ he snarled. ‘I’ll wipe them all off the face of the earth.’

    ‘The partisans were not behind this,’ said Pekkala.

    ‘Then who was?’ Stalin demanded.

    ‘Admiral Canaris.’

    At the sound of that name, Stalin froze. ‘Canaris,’ he whispered, and a look of terror passed across his face. He stepped away from Barabanschikov, walked around behind the desk and sat down in his chair. With trembling hands, Stalin lit a cigarette, the burning end crackling as he sucked the smoke into his lungs. Slowly, the madness faded from his eyes. ‘You took your damned time getting here,’ he said.

    Two guards skidded into the room, sub-machine guns at the ready. They looked around in confusion, until their gazes came to rest upon the partisan.

    Barabanschikov was dead now, his clawed hands still clutching the wound.

    Shouting echoed through the hallway as more guards rushed up the stairs, scrambling in their hobnailed boots.

    ‘Send all the others away,’ ordered Stalin, ‘and you two can clean up this mess.’ He gestured towards the body of the partisan, trailing smoke through the air with his cigarette.

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