The Beast in the Red Forest(9)
Author:Sam Eastland


    ‘Is that really necessary now?’ asked Kirov.

    Linsky glanced at him knowingly. ‘Why else would you be here, Comrade Major?

    *

    After his brief conversation with Major Kirov in the hallway outside Stalin’s office, Poskrebychev had returned to his desk and immediately resumed his rubber-stamping of official documents. But his hands were trembling so much that he kept smudging the facsimile of Stalin’s signature. Eventually, he was forced to set it aside. He folded his hands in his lap and breathed deeply, trying to slow the tripping rhythm of his heart.

    Ever since Linsky had confided in him, Poskrebychev had known that he could not go to Stalin with the news. As far as the Boss was concerned, Pekkala was either dead or soon would be if he ever reappeared. In spite of what Stalin had said to Major Kirov, Poskrebychev knew from experience that death warrants, such as had been issued for Pekkala, were rarely, if ever, rescinded. Only Kirov could help Pekkala now, and Poskrebychev’s loyalty to the Inspector demanded that he pass along to the major what he had learned in Linsky’s shop. But how? He couldn’t place a call to Kirov. All of the Kremlin lines were monitored, even those originating from Stalin’s own office. The same was true for telegrams and letters. Poskrebychev didn’t dare go in person to the Major, in case he was observed along the way. If that happened, questions would be asked and those questions would end with his brains splashed on the wall of Lubyanka prison. Days passed as Poskrebychev struggled to find a solution. Valuable time was being wasted. Just when Poskrebychev was on the verge of despairing, Stalin had summoned Kirov to a briefing. Poskrebychev knew that this would be his only chance, but he couldn’t just blurt it out there in the halls of the Kremlin, where ears were pressed to every door and unblinking eyes peered from each polished brass key hole. All he could do was to point the Kirov in the right direction and hope that the major did as he was told.

    But now his mind was filled with doubts. He won’t go, thought Poskrebychev. It would never occur to Kirov that I might know anything of value except those scraps of information which Stalin permits me to overhear from his office, like breadcrumbs swept from a table for a dog to lick up after a meal.

    But this time it was different.

    In spite of the risk, Poskrebychev did not regret what he had done, nor would he have taken such a risk for anyone except the Emerald Eye.

    The reason for this was that he and the great Inspector shared a secret of their own which, if Pekkala had ever divulged it, would undoubtedly have cost Poskrebychev his life. But Poskrebychev knew without a shadow of doubt that his secret would be safe with Pekkala. The very fact that Pekkala had never used this knowledge as leverage against him, nor even mentioned it in passing, was what now compelled Poskrebychev to do whatever he could on behalf of the Emerald Eye.

    It all had to do with a joke. Several jokes, in fact, all of them conjured by Stalin and unleashed upon his secretary. They amounted to three or four each year, and ranged from sawing the legs off Poskrebychev’s desk to dismantling it entirely so that it collapsed on top of him when he opened the main drawer. There had been others, less inspired, such as the day Stalin’s bodyguard, Pauker, threw him in a duck pond on Stalin’s orders, after Poskrebychev had admitted that he could not swim.

    When Poskrebychev described these events to the few friends he possessed, he was astonished and frustrated to discover that none of them actually believed him. Comrade Stalin would not engage in such behaviour, they told him. The Boss is too serious a man to be amused by acts of mere frivolity.

    What their shuttered minds so stubbornly failed to comprehend was that these jokes, and the cruelty which lay at their core, revealed more about Stalin’s true nature than anything which they might ever wring out of the pages of Izvestia.

    If they could only have witnessed Pauker, describing to Stalin how, at the trial of Nikolai Bukharin, one of Stalin’s most loyal followers, the accused man had begged the court to notify the Boss as he was led away to be shot, little realising that it was Stalin himself who had ordered the execution. With ape-like gestures Pauker acted out the scene, clawing at the walls and promising to make amends for crimes he had never committed.

    Stalin enjoyed it so much that he ordered Pauker to tell the story twice. Each time Stalin wept with laughter, gasping for breath until finally he had waved everyone out of his office. For the rest of the day, fits of giggling exploded from the room as Stalin replayed Pauker’s antics in his head.

    But there was no laughter when, soon afterwards, Stalin ordered Pauker himself to be shot against the wall of Lubyanka.

    After Poskrebychev’s desk collapsed, and Stalin’s crow-like cackling reached him through the scratchy intercom, something snapped inside him. Poskrebychev did something he had thought he’d never do. He took revenge.

    Knowing the fastidiousness with which Stalin monitored his surroundings, Poskrebychev waited until Stalin left for a meeting, then crept into his master’s office and began to rearrange the objects in the room. The chair. The clock. The curtains. The ashtray. He moved them only fractions of centimetres, so that the displacement of each object by itself would have gone unnoticed. But cumulatively, the effect was exactly as Poskrebychev had intended. When Stalin arrived at his office, he was driven almost to distraction by some nameless anxiety whose source he could not comprehend. After the Boss had left, Poskrebychev replaced everything exactly as it had been before, which only added to Stalin’s consternation when he showed up the following day.

    For a brief moment, Poskrebychev believed he had committed the perfect act of revenge. Then Pekkala emerged from a meeting in Stalin’s office and, stopping at Poskrebychev’s desk, very carefully moved the black box of the intercom a hair’s breadth to one side. No words passed between them. There was no need. In that moment, Poskrebychev knew he’d been discovered by the only person, he now realised, who could possibly have figured it out.

    This was the secret they shared, the value of it measured not only by the fact that it was safe, but that someone aside from Poskrebychev had enjoyed a laugh at the expense of Joseph Stalin. And survived.





    (Postmark: none.)


    Letter hand delivered to American Embassy, Spano House, Mokhovaya St, Moscow.

    Date: July 2nd, 1937


    Dear Ambassador Davies,

    My name is Betty Jean Vasko and I am a citizen of the United States of America. I came here to see you in person, but the secretary here told me you are away on a sailing trip and will not be back for some time. I asked him to forward this letter to you and he said he would see what he could do.

    I am writing to you about my husband, William H. Vasko, who is a foreman at the Ford Motor Car Plant in Nizhni Novgorod.

    We came to Russia last year so that my husband could look for work. He had been laid off from his job where we lived in Newark, New Jersey, and we had no prospects there at the time. We brought our two children with us because we didn’t know how long we would be gone and we considered the possibility that we might settle here in Russia for good.

    When we arrived, my husband quickly found work at the Ford plant and, for a while, things were pretty good. My husband was promoted to foreman of the welding section. We had a house, thanks to the company. We had food and we had a school for our children. Truly, Ambassador, the closest I have come to living the American Dream was right here in the Soviet union  .

    But things have taken a turn for the worse and that is why I am writing to you now. Last week, Bill was arrested by Russian police at our home, just as we were sitting down to dinner. I do not know why this happened and the police did not give us a reason. They put him into the back of a car and drove away and I have not seen him since. And Mr Ambassador, that car was one of the same Fords my husband helped to make!

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