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Authors: Sam Eastland

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BOOK: The Red Coffin
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‘You were there?’ asked Pekkala.

‘I happened to be passing through the market place,’ replied Maximov. ‘I saw the whole thing. I’ve always wondered how you managed to survive.’

‘Later on,’ replied Pekkala, ‘when you have answered some of my questions, perhaps I can answer some of yours.’

The cottage belonging to Nagorski was of the type known as a dacha. Built in the traditional style, with a thatched roof and shuttered windows, it had clearly been here many years longer than the facility itself.

Perched at the edge of a small lake, the dacha was the only building in sight. Except for a clearing around the cottage itself, dense forest crowded down to the water’s edge.

It was still and peaceful here. Now that the clouds had cleared away, the surface of the lake glowed softly in the fading sunlight. Out on the water, a man sat in a rowboat. In his right hand, he held a fishing rod. His arm waved gently back and forth. The long fly line, burning silver as it caught the rays of sunset, stretched out from the tip of the rod, curving back upon itself and stretching out again until the speck of the fly touched down upon the surface of the lake. Around the man, tiny insects swirled like bubbles in champagne.

Pekkala was so focused on this image that he did not see a woman come around from the back of the house until she stood in front of him.

The woman looked beautiful but tired. An air of quiet desperation hung about her. Tight curls waved across her short, dark hair. Her chin was small and her eyes so dark that the blackness of her irises seemed to have flooded out into her pupils.

Ignoring Pekkala, the woman turned to Maximov, who was getting out of the car. ‘Who is this man,’ she asked, ‘and why is he so filthy dirty, as well as being dressed like an undertaker?’

‘This is Inspector Pekkala,’ Maximov answered, ‘from the Bureau of Special Operations.

‘Pekkala,’ she echoed. The dark eyes raked his face. ‘Oh, yes. You arrested my husband in the middle of his lunch.’

‘Detained,’ replied Pekkala, ‘not arrested.’

‘I thought that was all cleared up.’

‘It was, Mrs Nagorski.’

‘So why are you here?’ she asked. She spat out the words as if her mouth was filled with shards of glass.

Pekkala could tell that a part of her already knew. It was as if she had been expecting this news, not just today but for a very long time.

‘He’s dead, isn’t he?’ she asked.

Pekkala nodded.

Maximov reached out to lay his hand upon her shoulder.

Angrily she brushed his touch away. Then her hand flew back, catching Maximov across the face. ‘You were supposed to take care of him!’ she shrieked, raising her fists and bringing
them down hard against his chest with a sound like muffled drumbeats.

Maximov staggered back, too stunned by her fury to resist.

‘That was your job!’ she shouted. ‘He took you in. He gave you a chance when no one else would. And now this! This is how you repay him?’

‘Mrs Nagorski,’ whispered Maximov. ‘I did everything I could for him.’

Mrs Nagorski stared at the man as if she did not even know who he was. ‘If you had done everything,’ she sneered, ‘my husband would still be alive.’

The figure in the boat turned his head to see where the shouting had come from.

Pekkala could see now that it was a young man, and he knew it must be the Nagorskis’ son, Konstantin.

The young man reeled in his line, set the fishing rod aside and took up the oars. Slowly, he made his way towards the shore, oars creaking in the brass wishbones of the oarlocks, water dripping from the blades like a stream of mercury.

Mrs Nagorski turned and walked back towards the dacha. As she climbed the first step to the porch, she stumbled. One arm reached out to brace herself against the planks. Her hands were shaking. She sank down on the steps.

By then, Pekkala had caught up with her.

She glanced at him, then looked away again. ‘I always said this project would destroy him, one way or another. I must see my husband,’ she said.

‘I would not advise that,’ replied Pekkala.

‘I will see him, Inspector. Immediately.’

Hearing the finality in the widow’s voice, Pekkala realised there was no point trying to dissuade her.

The rowing boat ground up against the shore. The boy hauled in his oars with the unconscious precision of a bird folding its wings, then stepped out of the tippy boat. Konstantin was head and shoulders taller than his mother, with dark eyes and short, unkempt hair that needed washing. His heavy canvas trousers were patched at the knees and looked as if they had belonged to someone else before they came to him. He wore a sweater with holes in the elbows and his bare feet were speckled with bug bites, although he did not seem to notice them.

Konstantin looked from face to face, waiting for someone to explain.

It was Maximov who went to him. He put his arm around the boy, speaking in a voice too low for anyone else to hear.

Konstantin’s face turned pale. He seemed to be staring at something no one else could see, as if the ghost of his father were standing right in front of him.

Pekkala watched this, feeling a weight settle in his heart, like a man whose blood had turned to sand.

*

While Maximov drove Mrs Nagorski to the facility, Pekkala sat with her son at the dining table in the dacha.

The walls were covered with dozens of blueprints. Some were exploded engine diagrams. Others showed the inner workings of guns or traced the crooked path of exhaust systems. On shelves around the room lay pieces of twisted metal, fan blades, a slab of wood into which different-sized
screws had been drilled. A single link of tank track lay upon the stone mantelpiece. The room did not smell like a home – of fires and cooking and soap. Instead, it reeked of machine oil and the sharply pungent ink used on the blueprints.

The furniture was of the highest quality – walnut cabinets with diamond-paned glass fronts, leather chairs with brass nails running like machine-gun belts along the seams. The dining table at which they sat was far too big for the cramped space of the dacha.

Pekkala knew that the Nagorski family had probably belonged to the old aristocracy. Most of these families had either fled the country during the Revolution, or been swallowed up in labour camps. Only a few remained, and fewer still had held on to the relics of their former status in society. Only those who had proved themselves valuable to the government were permitted such luxuries.

Nagorski may have earned that right, but Pekkala wondered what would become of the rest of his family, now that he was gone.

Pekkala knew that there was nothing he could say. Sometimes, the best that could be done was just to keep a person company.

Konstantin stared fiercely out the window as the last purpling twilight bled into the solid black of night.

Seeing the young man so locked away inside his head, Pekkala remembered the last time he had seen his own father, that freezing January morning when he left home to enlist in the Tsar’s Finnish Legion.

He was leaning out of the window of a train as it pulled
out of the station. On the platform stood his father, in a long black coat and wide-brimmed hat set squarely on his head. His mother had been too upset to accompany them to the station. His father held up one hand in a gesture of farewell. Above him, bent back like the teeth of eels, icicles hung from the station-house roof.

Two years later, left to run the funeral parlour alone, the old man suffered a heart attack while dragging a body on a sledge to the crematorium that he maintained some distance into the woods behind their house. The horse that usually hauled the sledge had slipped on the ice that winter and was lame, so Pekkala’s father had tried to do the work himself.

The old man was found on his knees in front of the sledge, hands resting on his thighs, chin sunk on to his chest. Slung across his shoulders were the leather traces normally worn by the horse for inching the sledge along the narrow forest path. The way he knelt gave the impression that he had just stopped for a moment to rest and would, at any moment, rise to his feet and go back to hauling his burden.

Although it had been his father’s wish that Pekkala enlist in the Legion, rather than remain at home to help with the family business, Pekkala had never forgiven himself for not having been there to pick up the old man when he stumbled and fell.

Now Pekkala saw that same emotion on the face of this young man.

Suddenly, Konstantin spoke. ‘Are you going to find who murdered my father?’

‘I am not certain he was murdered, but if he was, I will track down whoever is responsible.’

‘Find them,’ said Konstantin. ‘Find them and put them to death.’

At that moment, headlights swept through the room as Maximov’s car pulled up beside the house. A moment later, the front door opened. ‘Why is it so dark in here?’ asked Mrs Nagorski, as she hurried to light a kerosene lamp.

Konstantin rose sharply to his feet. ‘Did you see him? Is it true? Is he really dead?’

‘Yes,’ she replied, tears coming at last to her eyes. ‘It is true.’

Pekkala left them alone to grieve. He went out and stood on the porch with Maximov, who was smoking a cigarette.

‘Today is his birthday,’ said Maximov. ‘That boy deserves a better life than this.’

Pekkala did not reply.

The smell of burning tobacco lingered in the damp night air.

*

Pekkala returned to the assembly building; the flat-roofed brick structure which Ushinsky had christened the Iron House. Engines hung in wooden cradles against one wall. Against the other wall, the bare metal shells of tanks balanced on iron rails, rust already forming on the welding joints, as if the steel had been sprinkled with cinnamon powder. Elsewhere, like islands in this vast warehouse, machine guns had been laid out in a row. Arching high above the work floor, metal girders held the ceiling in place. To Pekkala, an air of lifelessness hung about this place. It was as if these tanks were not pieces of the future but fragments from the distant
past, like the bones of once-formidable dinosaurs waiting to be reassembled by archaeologists.

A table had been cleared off. Engine parts were strewn across the floor where NKVD men had hurriedly set them aside. On the table lay the remains of Colonel Nagorski. The terrible whiteness of torn and bled-out flesh seemed to glow under the work lights. Lysenkova was spreading an army rain cape over Nagorski’s head, having just examined the body.

Beside her stood Kirov, the muscles drawn tight in his face. He had seen bodies before, but nothing like this, Pekkala knew.

Even Lysenkova looked upset, although she was trying hard to conceal it. ‘It’s impossible to say for sure,’ the commissar told Pekkala, ‘but everything points towards an engine malfunction. Nagorski was out testing the machine on his own. He put the engine in neutral, got out to check something, and the tank must have popped into gear. He lost his footing and the tank ran over him before the engine stalled. It was an accident. That much is obvious.’

Kirov, standing behind her, slowly shook his head.

‘Have you spoken to the staff here at the facility?’ Pekkala asked Lysenkova.

‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘All of them are accounted for and none of them were with Nagorski at the time of his death.’

‘What about the man we chased through the woods?’

‘Well, whoever he is, he doesn’t work here at the facility. Given the fact that Nagorski’s death is an accident, the man you chased was likely just a hunter who had made his way into the grounds of the facility.’

‘Then why did he run when he was ordered to stop?’

‘If men with guns were chasing you, Inspector Pekkala, wouldn’t you run away, too?’

Pekkala ignored the question. ‘Would you mind if I examine the body?’

‘Fine,’ she said, irritably, ‘but be quick. I am heading back to Moscow to file my report. Nagorski’s body will remain here for now. Guards will be arriving soon to make sure the corpse is not disturbed. I expect you to be gone when they arrive.’

The two men waited until Major Lysenkova had left the building.

‘What did you find out?’ Pekkala asked Kirov.

‘What she said about the scientists is correct. They have all been accounted for by the guards at the time Nagorski died. During work hours, guards are stationed inside each of the facility buildings, which means that the scientists were also able to account for the whereabouts of the security personnel. Samarin was on his usual rounds this morning. He was seen by all of the staff at one time or another.’

‘Is anyone missing?’

‘No, and no one seems to have been anywhere near Nagorski when he died.’ Kirov turned his attention to the rain cape, whose dips and folds crudely matched the contours of a human body. ‘But she’s wrong about this being an accident.’

‘I agree,’ replied Pekkala, ‘but how have you reached that conclusion?’

‘You had better see for yourself, Inspector,’ replied Kirov.

Grasping the edge of the cape, Pekkala slowly drew it back until Nagorski’s head and shoulders were revealed. What he saw made him draw in his breath through clenched teeth.

Only a leathery mask remained of Nagorski’s face, behind which the shattered skull looked more like broken crockery than bone. He had never encountered a body as traumatised as the one which lay before him now.

‘There.’ Kirov pointed to a place where the inside of Nagorski’s skull had been exposed.

Gently taking hold of the dead man’s jaw, Pekkala tilted the head to one side. In the glare of the work light, a tiny splash of silver winked at him.

Pekkala reached into his pocket and brought out a bone-handled switch blade. He sprung the blade and touched the tip of the stiletto against the silver object. Lifting it from the rippled plate of bone, he eased the fleck of metal on to his palm. Now that he could see it clearly, Pekkala realised that the metal wasn’t silver. It was lead.

‘What is it?’ asked Kirov.

‘Bullet fragment.’

‘That rules out an accident.’

BOOK: The Red Coffin
8.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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