The Beast in the Red Forest(7)
Author:Sam Eastland

    Given the shortage of materials since the German invasion back in June of 1941, the idea of requisitioning a new uniform had simply been out of the question. As a result, the clothes he wore now were more than two years old and he had used them almost every day. But now that war aid was flowing in from the United States – everything from tanks to clothing to cans of blotchy pink meat commonly referred to as ‘The Second Front’ – the stranglehold on such items was slowly beginning to loosen and tailors like Linsky could find the raw materials to carry on their trades.

    Kirov had previously convinced himself that he could perhaps get another year out of his present set of clothes. But if a man like Poskrebychev can notice the defects, he thought, then maybe it is time, after all.

    And although Kirov hated to admit it, Linsky was a good tailor. It wasn’t his fault that Pekkala ordered him to make garments that were as much of a throwback to a bygone age as the Inspector himself seemed to be. Kirov took great pleasure in reminding Pekkala that Linsky was best known as a man who made clothes used for dressing corpses laid out at funerals. It only made sense that a man like Linsky should have ended up as tailor to the Emerald Eye, especially since Pekkala’s own family had been undertakers back in Finland.

    Kirov’s good-natured mockery hid the fact that he was extremely self-conscious about his own appearance. He was tall, with a shallow chest and embarrassingly thin calves. His uniform cap made his ears stick out and his waist was so thin that he couldn’t get his thick brown gun belt, its buckle emblazoned with a hammer and sickle, to stay where it should across his stomach. Most shameful of all to Kirov was his thin neck, which, in his own opinion, jutted from the mandarin collar of his tunic like the stem of some pale, potted plant. Since joining NKVD, he had only ever worn issue clothing. His natural frugality prevented him from actually paying for a uniform when he could get one for free, even if the issue clothes never quite fitted as they should.

    Maybe it’s time I listened to Poskrebychev, thought Kirov, as he climbed out of his chair. After all, I can’t report to Comrade Stalin in clothes fit only for the battlefield. The thought occurred to him suddenly that it might have been Stalin himself who raised the objection, and Poskrebychev was just delivering the message. The idea made him queasy, as Stalin was not slow in punishing those who failed to heed his advice. Now there was no question in his mind. It was time for a new set of clothes. Kirov only hoped that, if by some miracle the Inspector was still alive, he never learned about this trip to Linsky.

    Jangling the car keys in his hand, Kirov trampled down the stairs towards the street, bound on a mission to Linsky’s.

    (Postmark: Nizhni-Novgorod, June 14th, 1937.)

    Ford Motor Plant

    Workers’ Residence Block 3, ‘Liberty House’

    Nizhni-Novgorod, Soviet union  

    Boys, I am writing in haste. Whichever one of you opens this letter, I hope you will read it to the others. The truth is, I may need your help. My situation has changed recently. It’s too much to go into right now, but the upshot of it is that I am sending my family back to America. I expect it will only be temporary, but they are going to need a place to stay and since my wife’s family is spread out all over the Midwest, I figure it would be better for her and the kids to stay in a neighbourhood where she has friends like you. She’s going to need a place to stay. You know Betty. She doesn’t need much, and she’ll be glad to earn her keep in whatever way she can. I wouldn’t ask this of you if it wasn’t real important. But I am asking you now. I expect she will be home again in a couple of months at the outside. Depending on how things go, I might be following her in a matter of days or it could be a matter of weeks, but I think it’s best if she and the kids leave now. I don’t know if you’ve heard anything from the others who came over, and by that I mean anything about me specifically, but if you have, then just remember that there’s two sides to every story. I’ll explain it all when I see you again, which I hope won’t be too long from now.

    Your old friend, Bill Vasko

    The tyres of Kirov’s battered Emka saloon popped rhythmically over the cobblestones.

    Robotically, Kirov steered down one street and another as the chassis of the Emka swayed creaking on its worn-out springs. He wheeled past roadblocks fashioned out of torn-up railroad tracks which had been in place since the winter of 1941, when advance units of the German army Group Centre came within sight of Moscow and the seizure of the capital had seemed almost a foregone conclusion. Now those sections of rail, welded into bouquets of rusted iron, seemed to belong to a different universe from the one in which Russia existed today.

    At last, Kirov pulled up to the kerb outside Linsky’s. It was on a dreary street, so choked with ice and snow by midwinter that few vehicles would risk the journey. Even in summer, the tall buildings cleaved away the light except when the sun stood directly overhead.

    As Kirov climbed out of the car, he paused and looked around. Apart from a man sweeping slush from the sidewalk with a large twig broom on the other side of the street, there was nobody around. And yet he had the feeling that he was being watched. This same sensation had come to him so many times since Pekkala disappeared that Kirov had begun to worry he might be growing paranoid. With gritted teeth, he scanned the windows of the buildings across the way, whose empty reflections returned his nervous stare. He looked up and down the street, but there was only the sweeper, his back turned to Kirov, methodically brushing the sidewalk. Finally, with a growl of frustration at his own fragmenting sanity, Kirov returned to his errand.

    Linsky’s window had not changed in all the years that Kirov had known about the existence of this eccentric little business. The intricate floral designs etched into the corners of the frosted-glass window belonged to a style more reminiscent of the nineteenth century than of the twentieth.

    Inside, it was cramped and poorly lit, with scuffed wooden floors and a large mirror at one end. On the other side of the room was a platform on which clients stood when they were being measured for their clothes. The wall behind the platform was papered dark green and decorated with vertical pillars of ivy printed in gold and red. The effect was like that of a dense hedgerow, through which Kirov imagined he might push into a secret garden on the other side. Opposite the entrance was a large wooden counter, on which stood an ancient cash register with a brass plate identifying its maker as M. Righetti, Bologna. On either side of the register stood little trays of pins, loose buttons and a tattered yellow tape measure, coiled like a snake about to strike.

    Behind this stood Linsky himself. He was a slight but well-proportioned man, with rosy cheeks, pale blue eyes and hair combed so flat that an ashtray could have balanced on top. He had thin, smirking lips, which gave him an expression of permanent disdain that Kirov could not help but take to heart.

    ‘Comrade Linsky,’ he said, as he removed his cap and tucked it smartly under his right arm.

    ‘Major Kirov.’ Linsky bowed his head in formal greeting. ‘Comrade Poskrebychev mentioned that you might be stopping by.’

    Kirov felt the blood rush to his face as he imagined the laughs they must have had at his expense. ‘I had been meaning to stop by, anyway,’ he muttered.

    Faint wrinkles of bemusement appeared in the corners of the old man’s eyes. ‘Judging from the state of your clothes, Major, you have arrived not a minute too soon.’

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