The Beast in the Red Forest(62)
Author:Sam Eastland


    The guards dragged Barabanschikov out by his feet, smearing the red carpet with the darker shade of blood.

    ‘Poskrebychev!’ Stalin called into the outer office.

    A moment later, the secretary peeked around the corner. As soon as he had heard the shot, he crawled under his desk and stayed there. Only when the guards ran into Stalin’s room did he feel it was safe to come out. ‘Yes, Comrade Stalin?’ he asked in a quavering voice.

    ‘Send a message to Akhatov. Tell him that his services are no longer required.’ Stalin took one last drag on his cigarette, before stubbing it out in his already crowded ashtray. ‘Major Kirov,’ he said, as casually as he could manage, ‘I owe you my thanks.’

    ‘You owe him more than that,’ said Pekkala, before Kirov had a chance to reply.

    Through gritted teeth, Stalin managed to smile. ‘I see that your time among the savages has done nothing to improve your manners.’

    ‘Inspector,’ Kirov said hastily, ‘the car is waiting.’

    ‘By all means go, Pekkala.’ Stalin waved him away. ‘Just not so far this time.’

    *

    That evening, after a visit to his apartment, where he took his first hot bath in more than a year, Pekkala returned to his office. As he climbed the stairs to the office on the fifth floor, a wintry sunset cast its brassy light upon the dusty window panes, illuminating the chipped paint on the banisters and the scuffed wooden steps beneath his feet. It was so familiar to him that, for a moment, all the time since he had last set foot in here held no more substance than the gauzy fabric of a dream.

    As Pekkala reached the fourth floor, he smelled food. ‘Shashlik,’ he muttered to himself. The grilled lamb, marinated in pomegranate juice and served with green peppers over rice, was one of his favourite dishes. Then he remembered that it was Friday.

    Kirov had not forgotten their old ritual of a dinner cooked on the wood-fired stove in their office at the end of every week.

    Pekkala smiled as he opened the door, turning the old brass knob with the tips of his fingers in a movement so practised that it required no conscious thought.

    Inside, Kirov was waiting. ‘You’re just in time,’ he said. He had cleared off their desks and dragged them together to make a table. Laid out on the desks, whose bare wood surfaces were stained with overlapping rings from countless glasses of tea, lay heavy white plates loaded with food.

    Elizaveta was there, too, clutching a platter of jam-filled pelmeny pastries – a gift from Sergeant Gatkina.

    ‘Tell the Emerald Eye,’ Gatkina had whispered in Elizaveta’s ear, ‘that there’s more where those came from!’

    ‘I hope you’re not surprised to see me here, Inspector,’ Elizaveta said nervously, as she laid the platter on the table.

    ‘I would have been surprised if you weren’t,’ replied Pekkala.

    ‘Before we sit down,’ said Kirov, rubbing his hands together, ‘I have an announcement to make.’

    ‘You two are getting married.’

    Kirov rolled his eyes. ‘You could at least pretend you hadn’t guessed.’

    ‘You wouldn’t have believed me if I tried,’ remarked Pekkala. ‘Besides,’ he nodded at Elizaveta, ‘she is wearing a ring.’

    ‘I wondered if you’d notice,’ she said, holding out her hand for him to see.

    ‘It’s only a small diamond,’ muttered Kirov, ‘but the way things are . . .’

    ‘Small!’ Taking Elizaveta’s hand, Pekkala studied the ring. ‘I can barely see it.’

    Elizaveta snatched her hand away. ‘Why would you say such a thing?’ she demanded, anger rising in her voice.

    ‘Because I think you can do better,’ said Pekkala. As he spoke, he produced a dirty handkerchief from his pocket and tossed it on to the table.

    ‘What are we supposed to do with that?’

    ‘Consider it as a gift.’

    ‘You are crazy!’ said Elizaveta. ‘I’ve always said you were.’ She snatched up the handkerchief and threw it at Kirov. ‘Get rid of that filthy thing!’

    ‘Now then,’ said Kirov, as he caught the handkerchief. ‘I’m sure there is a logical explanation for this,’ adding in a quieter voice, ‘although what it could possibly be . . .’ He lifted one of the round iron plates from the stove and was just about to toss the handkerchief into the fire when he noticed a knot tied in one of the corners. Returning the iron plate to its place on the stove, he began picking away at the knotted cloth until something fell out and rattled on to the floor.

    ‘What’s that?’ asked Elizaveta.

    Kirov bent down and peered at the object. ‘It looks like a diamond,’ he whispered.

    Now Elizaveta came to look. ‘It is a diamond. It’s the biggest diamond I have ever seen!’

    Grinning with satisfaction, Pekkala regarded their astonishment.

    Kirov bent down and picked up the gem. ‘Where on earth did you get this, Inspector?’ he asked, holding up the diamond between his thumb and first two fingers.

    ‘From an old acquaintance,’ replied Pekkala and, as he spoke, he thought of Maximov, heading out alone across the frozen lake. ‘I think he would have wanted you to have it.’

    Elizaveta placed a hand to her forehead. ‘And I just called you crazy, didn’t I?’

    ‘From what I hear,’ replied Pekkala, ‘you’ve called me worse than that.’

    Elizaveta turned to glare at Kirov.

    Kirov opened his mouth, but the phone rang before he could speak.

    Its jarring clatter startled everyone in the room.

    Pekkala picked up the receiver.

    ‘Hold for Comrade Stalin!’ Poskrebychev’s shrill command drilled into his ear.

    Pekkala waited patiently.

    A moment later, a quiet voice rustled through the static, like a whisper in the dark. ‘Is that you, Pekkala?’

    ‘Yes, Comrade Stalin.’

    ‘I thought you might like to know,’ said Stalin, ‘that Commander Chaplinsky was able to negotiate a ceasefire with the partisans. They have laid down their arms. Those men may not realise it, Pekkala, but they owe you their lives.’

    ‘It’s Barabanschikov who deserves the credit,’ replied Pekkala.

    ‘Barabanschikov!’ Stalin spluttered into the telephone receiver. ‘That traitor got exactly what he deserved and I intend to let those partisans know what kind of man was leading them.’

    ‘What makes you think they will believe you?’

    ‘They have to! It’s the truth.’

    ‘And when you tell them he was shot in the Kremlin, by a commissar of the Red Army, while under your personal protection – all of which is true – how long do you think it will take before they pick up their weapons again?’

    There was a pause. ‘You may have a point,’ Stalin conceded. ‘What do you suggest I do about it?’

    ‘Give Barabanschikov a medal,’ said Pekkala. ‘The highest one you’ve got.’

    ‘What?’ growled Stalin. ‘Have you forgotten that he just tried to kill me?’

    ‘Would you rather that Admiral Canaris knew exactly how close he came to liquidating you,’ asked Pekkala, ‘or would you prefer to have him think that he was betrayed by a man who had been loyal to you all along?’

    In the silence that followed, Pekkala could hear a rustling sound as Stalin raked his fingernails through the stubble on his chin. ‘Very well,’ he muttered at last. ‘As of this moment, I declare comrade Barabanschikov to be a hero of the Soviet union  .’

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