Authors: William Ryan
Still, for the moment at least, the dark red enamelled star that General Popov had ordered he wear on his chest while on duty, whether in uniform or not, had created a bubble around Korolev, and
even around Yasimov. Korolev wasn’t complacent, though, far from it. After all, if some of his actions during the icon affair ever became public, they’d result in his immediate
reacquaintance with the interior of a Lubianka cell. So for the foreseeable future he wanted to keep well clear of anything connected with the Chekists until they forgot he’d ever existed.
And, until he was confident they had, he’d carry on keeping a small packed suitcase in his bedroom wardrobe just in case they came for him one night with a one-way ticket for Siberia.
Korolev found himself at the door of the building he lived in on Bolshoi Nikolo-Vorobinsky and began to kick the snow from his boots before opening the heavy front door, light spilling out into
the lane as he did so; and as if to remind him that his concerns weren’t just groundless paranoia, he caught sight of the red seal that had been applied to Kotov’s apartment door by
State Security only the previous week and which swung gently in the resulting draught. Poor Kotov had been an administrator with a government ministry until his arrest, but he’d had the
nervous stoop and grey pallor of a condemned man for the best part of a month before it. Now he and his wife had disappeared and the only trace of their passing was that damned red seal that would
swing there till the apartment was cleared and reallocated. Korolev reminded himself that he was alive, climbing the stairs to an apartment which he shared with the beautiful Valentina Nikolaevna,
and by anyone’s standards he was a lucky man. He had to remember that. Tomorrow would look after itself.
He could hear Natasha’s laugh as he turned the key in the lock, but by the time he entered their shared room Valentina’s daughter was sitting grave-faced at the table – her
eyes focused on the exercise book in which she was writing. She didn’t even look up at him. Valentina Nikolaevna, on the other hand, stood from the battered Chesterfield, putting aside the
book she was reading. Every time he saw her he felt his mood lift – a man could dive into those sea-blue eyes of hers and swim to the horizon.
‘Are you hungry?’ she asked.
They’d come to an arrangement over the last few months – she’d often cook for him, or leave something out for him if he was late and, in exchange, he shared his food parcel
with her. It was a domestic arrangement and he was sure there was fondness on her part. For a while, he’d dared to hope a closer relationship might develop, but he wasn’t the kind of
man she needed. A battered, middle-aged
with a job that kept him busy most of his waking hours? She could do better, that was for sure. No, a beautiful woman like her deserved a man who
could look after her properly, and who she could be proud of. She’d find someone soon enough, he suspected – and then he’d probably be back to cooking for himself.
‘We had to arrest a fellow on the outskirts,’ Korolev said, aware that he’d been looking at her in silence for a moment longer than was polite, and cursing himself. ‘A
murder. It took a while to get the paperwork in order. Anyway, I picked up the parcel from the canteen. Shall we see what we’ve got?’
He put the package on the table in the small cooking area, feeling that his mouth was not entirely within his control. What was it about her that made him babble like a fourteen-year-old?
Sometimes he wished he’d never met the woman, but that was a feeling that never lasted for long. What sort of life would it be if he hadn’t?
Korolev wasn’t asleep when the knock at the door came. Thinking about it afterwards, he wondered if the car pulling up outside had woken him. It wasn’t
inconceivable: his bedroom window faced the alleyway and the ZIS would have made a rattle against the snow-swaddled silence of the Moscow night. And, of course, at that time of the morning the
streets belonged to the black cars of State Security, and the sound of an engine coming to a halt would have a whole street fearing the worst.
So Korolev was awake, but if it was the car that woke him he’d no memory of it. Instead he was only conscious that he’d been dreaming of that time by the river, only this time it had
been Valentina Nikolaevna his arm encircled, and Natasha who’d been sleeping beside them. The memory of the dream was still strong enough for him to feel the weight of the sun on his face and
joy rolling up him like a wave. For those two or three moments before the knock came he could have floated up to the ceiling with happiness if his body’s weight hadn’t kept him fixed to
Three knocks. One. Two. Three. Not much noise, after all, but enough to shatter that moment as if it had been a glass hurled against a wall.
Ever since he’d seen poor Kotov being marched away in his pyjamas, Korolev had slept ready for an immediate departure and he was pulling on his trousers and boots before he’d even
worked out what was happening. The mysterious knuckles battered the door again, louder this time, and more insistent, but Korolev took the time to put on an extra vest, take his warmest jumper and
his winter coat and pick up the small bag he’d packed for just such an event, before walking through the shared room. He stopped for a moment and looked around and it occurred to him he might
never see this place again. Well, if that was what the Lord intended, then there wasn’t much point dwelling on it.
There was another knocking, more insistent now, and Valentina Nikolaevna’s outline appeared in the doorway, Natasha’s sleepy voice coming from behind her, asking a question that he
couldn’t quite hear. He shook his head sharply, waving her back in to her daughter, but she didn’t move, waiting until he came closer before putting a hand on his chest. He leant
forward, unable to stop himself, and breathed in the scent of her newly washed hair but at the same time remembered himself enough to gently push her back into her bedroom, shutting the door behind
her. There was no time to say anything or even to consider what her action might have meant before he turned, inhaling deeply, and opened the door to the hallway.
Korolev blinked, dazzled for a moment by the light on the landing, before managing to focus on the man in front of him. There was only one of them, which was odd, and Korolev leant forward
slightly to see if there were others hiding in the corridor. The young Chekist smiled at his reaction and that irritated Korolev – if he was to be arrested he’d like to be treated with
‘Going somewhere?’ the lad asked. No more than twenty-five, he’d guess. His deep-set eyes were obscured by shadow, but Korolev had the impression the pup was laughing at
‘You tell me,’ Korolev answered, sneaking another look to see where the rest of them were waiting.
‘Yes, we have a short trip to make. To the Lubianka.’
Again that teasing little smile – it was making Korolev’s fist itch.
‘Well, I’m ready.’
‘Good. We must always be prepared. At any time of day or night.’
Now the fellow was quoting Party slogans at him. Korolev could feel his confusion creasing his forehead into a frown.
‘Look, Comrade, it’s half past two in the morning,’ Korolev began before he ran out of words.
Am I to be arrested?
was what he wanted to ask, but he didn’t dare
voice the thought.
‘And you have your bag packed ready for a trip – that’s good.’ The youngster was grinning now, nodding at the case Korolev had placed beside the door.
Korolev swallowed, feeling his mouth dry as paper, and found he’d taken a great dislike to this unimpressive representative of State Security. But then he had a sudden surge of hope
– the fellow wasn’t here to arrest him. The rascal was making fun of him because he
here to arrest him.
‘Look, Comrade,’ Korolev said, confidence returning to his voice, ‘either tell me what your business is, or let me go back to my bed.’
The Chekist seemed to relent. ‘You don’t need the suitcase, Comrade. Colonel Rodinov wants a few minutes of your time – that’s all. The phone system is down so we
couldn’t call. I’ve a car outside. My name is Todorov.’
Korolev didn’t shake the Chekist’s hand, or respond to his introduction. Instead he picked up his overcoat and nodded towards the stairs to indicate he’d follow the fellow. He
thought for a moment of going in to reassure Valentina Nikolaevna, but decided against it. He wasn’t out of the woods yet.
Korolev had been waiting in a narrow room, so narrow and so long it was almost a corridor, for the best part of an hour. A stern-looking Dzerzhinsky, the original People’s
Commissar of State Security, looked down from a poster beside the far door warning him to ‘Be on your Guard!’, which Korolev thought was sensible advice, tired though he was.
He was about to look in his pocket for a cigarette when there was a bang that sounded like a door slamming shut and the click of approaching footsteps. Then the young Chekist who’d picked
him up at Bolshoi Nikolo-Vorobinsky entered, the uniform he’d changed into crisp against the drab blue walls.
‘He’s ready, Comrade. He had some matters to attend to.’
Rodinov had changed in the short time since they’d last met. His skin was pale and flabby, whereas before it had been pink and taut, and his round, hairless head no longer
seemed to shine with brutal vigour. The eyes that looked up from the file on the table were bloodshot and tired and the greeting he gave Korolev was nothing more than a grunt and a nod of his head
towards the single chair in front of the desk at which he sat.
‘Korolev,’ he said after a moment or two, his eyes narrowing as he glared at him, as if willing Korolev to admit his guilt, even if he was guilty of nothing.
‘Yes, Comrade Colonel. Korolev. You sent for me.’
‘I did,’ the colonel said, and it wasn’t immediately clear whether he was questioning the suggestion or agreeing with it. He looked back down at the file in front of him.
‘Are you prepared to undertake a confidential mission connected with the security of the State, Captain Korolev?’
Well, there was only one answer to that question.
‘Of course, Comrade Colonel.’
‘Good.’ Rodinov pushed a photograph across to him. ‘Then it’s settled. Maria Alexandrovna Lenskaya. She was, until last night, a production assistant on Comrade
Savchenko’s new film. Now she’s dead.’
Korolev examined the girl in the photograph.
The colonel seemed to consider the question, smelling his way round the answer in that fighting-dog way of his.
‘Apparently not,’ he said, seeming to produce the words reluctantly. ‘She killed herself, or so we’re told. But we want to make certain, which is where you come
‘I see. When did it happen?’
‘She was found at ten o’clock this evening.’
‘Has anyone looked at the body? A pathologist, I mean – I’d recommend Chestnova at the Institute if not.’
‘No one has examined her and she died in the Ukraine, near Odessa, so I don’t think Chestnova will be much use. And we want this matter handled very quietly. At least until we have a
better idea of the situation. Comrade Ezhov himself thought of you – he formed a favourable impression from that matter you assisted with last year. He recalled your tenacity, and your
discretion.’ That slight emphasis on the word ‘discretion’ was setting off warning bells. Korolev was wide awake now, that was for sure.
‘I’m grateful he recalls me favourably,’ Korolev said, thinking exactly the opposite.
‘A great honour. And, as it turns out, your friend Babel is writing the film’s scenario – a happy coincidence.’
‘I see,’ Korolev said, wondering why me? Surely there was someone in Odessa who could handle this.
‘We think it best if you go there by chance. I’ve spoken to Comrade Popov and in recognition of your excellent performance in recent months, you’ve been awarded a two-week
holiday – to be spent where you wish. You wish it to be spent near Odessa. It isn’t the summer down there, but it isn’t as cold as Moscow – so why wouldn’t you visit
your good friend and neighbour, Babel? Isaac Emmanuilovich will be made aware of your true purpose and will no doubt do his best to help with your enquiries. One of our more competent Ukrainian
operatives, a Major Mushkin, is coincidentally at the location on sick leave but will assist if necessary. If it’s suicide, you have two weeks to spend as you please. If it’s something
else – well, I’m sure the local Militia would be grateful for the assistance of an experienced Moscow detective. You will, however, report to me. The local Militia will be involved only
to the extent that you consider necessary. Understood?’
Korolev understood. He looked at the girl’s face once again. She seemed an ordinary person – not bad-looking to be sure, but at the same time not visibly worthy of the attention she
seemed to be getting.
‘A few questions, Comrade Colonel?’
Rodinov opened his hands to signify his agreement.
‘Who is she?’
Rodinov paused and considered the question for a moment or two, his gaze dropping to the dead girl’s photograph before returning to Korolev. He sighed.
‘If I tell you she’s a personal friend of Comrade Ezhov’s, will that make more sense of the situation for you?’
Korolev felt his left eyebrow rising despite his best efforts to keep his face completely immobile, but the colonel shook his head.
‘Don’t jump to conclusions, Korolev. As you know, we’re surrounded by enemies, both within our borders and beyond them. We have to remain vigilant – careful of even the
most innocuous event in case it reveals treachery. The girl was known to Comrade Ezhov – yes. He took an interest in her, as senior Party members often take in younger comrades who promise
much for the future. Because of the connection he considers it prudent to make sure there are no suspicious circumstances. The commissar doesn’t understand why a young comrade of
Lenskaya’s prospects and ability would kill herself. He wonders whether there might be more to it.’
Korolev didn’t for a moment believe that Ezhov’s interest in the pretty girl was that of a fatherly older Bolshevik for a young protégée, but he wasn’t about to
disagree with Rodinov’s version of the story. After all, he still had a working brain and a strong instinct for self-preservation. As for the girl, he’d keep an open mind.