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Authors: Sam Eastland

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BOOK: The Red Coffin
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Pekkala and Konstantin made their way along the dark road, headed towards the facility.

As they walked, Pekkala tried to fathom what must have been going on in Konstantin’s mind in that moment he picked up the gun to shoot his father. There were some crimes Pekkala understood. Even the motives for murder made sense to him sometimes. Unchecked fear or greed or jealousy could push anyone to the brink of their own sanity. What happened beyond that point, even the murderers themselves could not predict.

Pekkala remembered the last time he had seen his own father; that day on the train as it pulled out of the station. But now the image seemed strangely reversed. He stood, not on the train but on the platform, seeing through the eyes of his father. Almost out of sight, he glimpsed the young man he had been, arm raised in farewell as he leaned from the window of the carriage, bound for Petrograd and the ranks of the Tsar’s Finnish Legion.

Then the train was gone, and he found himself alone. Sadness wrapped around his heart as he turned and walked out of the station. In that moment, Pekkala grasped something he had never understood before – that his father must have known they would not meet again. And if, in the end, the old man had not forgiven him for leaving, it was only because there had been nothing to forgive.

As the image stuttered into emptiness, like a reel of film clattering off its spool, Pekkala’s thoughts returned to the present. And he wondered if Nagorski might also have forgiven his son, if he could have found the breath to do so.

By the time they arrived at the facility, the sky was already beginning to lighten.

Pekkala rapped on the door of the Iron House and stood back.

Konstantin waited beside him, resigned to whatever happened next.

The door opened. A waft of stuffy air blew past them, smelling of old tobacco and gun oil. Gorenko filled up the doorway. He had pulled on his dingy lab coat and was fastening its black metal buttons, like a man welcoming guests to his home. ‘Inspector,’ he said. ‘I thought you had gone back to Moscow for the night.’ Then he caught sight of Konstantin and smiled. ‘Hello, young man! What brings you here so early in the morning?’

‘Hello, Professor.’ Konstantin could not return the smile. Instead, his face just seemed to crumple.

‘I need you to watch him,’ Pekkala told Gorenko. ‘I regret he will need to be handcuffed.’

‘Handcuffs?’ Gorenko’s eyes grew wide with astonishment. ‘He’s the Colonel’s son. I can’t do that!’

‘This is not a request,’ said Pekkala.

‘Inspector,’ said Konstantin, ‘I give you my word I will not try to run away.’

‘I know,’ Pekkala answered quietly. ‘Believe me, I do, Konstantin, but from now on, there are procedures we must follow.’

‘I don’t have any handcuffs!’ protested Gorenko.

Pekkala reached into his pocket and brought out a set. A key was clipped on to the chain. He handed them to Gorenko. ‘Now you do.’

Gorenko stared at the cuffs. ‘But for how long?’

‘A couple of hours, I expect. My car ran out of fuel on the road. I have to get out there with some petrol and then return to the facility. Then I will pick up Konstantin and we will travel back to Moscow. Until I tell you so myself, no one is to see him or to speak with him. Do you understand?’

Gorenko stared at Konstantin. ‘My dear boy,’ he said, ‘what have you gone and done?’ The old professor seemed so confused that it looked as if Konstantin might have to lock the handcuffs on himself.

‘Where do you store your fuel, Professor?’ asked Pekkala.

‘There are five-litre cans on a pallet on the other side of this building. Two of those would be more than enough to get you back to Moscow.’

Pekkala put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. ‘I’ll be back as soon as I can,’ he said, as he turned to leave.

‘Inspector,’ Gorenko called after him, ‘I must speak with you. It is a matter of great importance.’

‘We can talk about Ushinsky later,’ said Pekkala.

‘It’s not about him,’ insisted Gorenko. ‘Something has happened. Something I don’t understand.’

Pekkala stared at him for a moment, then shook his head, walked into the building and handcuffed Konstantin to a table. Then he turned to Gorenko. ‘Follow me,’ he said.

Around the side of the building, Pekkala picked up two fuel cans from the pallet. ‘What is it, Professor?’ The cans were heavy and the liquid sloshed about in them. He hoped he had the strength to carry them all the way back to the Emka.

‘It’s about the tank,’ Gorenko, lowered his voice. ‘The one they sent to the factory in Stalingrad.’

‘The prototype? What about it, Professor?’

‘The tank has not arrived. I called to check. You know, in case there were questions.’

‘It’s a long way to Stalingrad from here. Perhaps the truck broke down.’

‘No, Inspector. I’m afraid that’s not it. You see, when I called them, they told me they had never put in a request for the tank.’

Slowly, Pekkala lowered the fuel cans to the ground. ‘But they must have. You saw the requisition form, didn’t you?’

‘Yes. I have it here.’ Gorenko rummaged in the pocket of his lab coat and produced a crumpled yellow paper. ‘This is my copy. I was going to frame it.’

Holding up the page so that he could read it in the lights which illuminated the compound, Pekkala searched the form for anything out of the ordinary. It was a standard government requisition form, correctly filled out by someone at the Stalingrad Tractor Factory, which he knew had been converted to tank production. The factory designation code looked right – KhPZ 183/STZ. The signature was so hastily scrawled as to be illegible, as most of them were on these forms. There was nothing unusual at all.

‘I received a call the day before the truck arrived,’ continued Gorenko, ‘from someone at the Stalingrad works, informing me about the requisition and telling me to prepare the tank for transport.’

‘Did you mention that to the people in Stalingrad?’

‘Yes.’

‘And what did they say?’

‘That they never telephoned me, Inspector.’

‘This is probably just a miscommunication. Mistakes like this happen all the time. Was there anything suspicious about the truck or its driver?’

‘No. It was just a big truck, like you see on the Moscow highway every day. The driver even knew Maximov.’

‘Knew him?’

Gorenko nodded. ‘I saw the two of them talking together after the tank had been loaded on board. It didn’t seem unusual to me. They’re both drivers of one sort or another. I assumed they must have got to know each other the same way that professors become acquainted through their work, even if they live at opposite ends of the country.’

‘This truck,’ said Pekkala, ‘was it a flat bed or a container?’

‘I don’t know what you mean, Inspector.’

‘Did the tank sit on a platform at the back or was it inside a cargo area?’

‘Oh, I see. Yes. It was a container. A large metal container big enough to hold the tank.’

‘How did the driver get the tank into the container?’

‘He drove it in himself. I showed the man how to operate the T-34’s gears and pedals. It only took him a minute to get the hang of it. Anyone who knows how to operate a tractor
or a bulldozer is already familiar with the principles. Then he rolled the tank up a ramp and into the container.’

‘And the container was sealed?’

‘Yes, with two large metal doors.’

‘What did this container look like?’

‘It was painted red, with the State Transport Commission letters painted in green on the side.’

Like almost every other container on the highway, thought Pekkala. ‘And the driver? What did he look like?’

‘Short, heavyset. Moustache.’ Gorenko shrugged. ‘He seemed friendly enough.’

‘Have you spoken to Maximov about this? Perhaps he knows how to reach the man.’

‘I tried to, but he was too drunk to make any sense.’

‘Fetch me a bucket of water,’ said Pekkala.

*

For a moment, the ragged silver arc seemed to hang suspended over the sleeping Maximov. Then the water shattered on his face as if it were a pane of fragile glass. Maximov sat bolt upright, spewing a mouthful of water from between his puckered lips.

Pekkala tossed the bucket to the other side of the room where it rolled, clattering loudly into the corner.


Mudak
!’ shouted Maximov. He doubled over, coughing, then swiped the water from his eyes and glared at Pekkala. ‘I thought you were going to let me sleep!’

‘I was,’ replied Pekkala, ‘but now I need you to tell me something.’

‘What?’

‘What is the name of the driver who picked up the tank from this facility?’

‘How should I know?’ groaned Maximov, smoothing the hair back on his head.

‘You knew the driver. Gorenko saw you talking.’

‘He was asking me directions. That’s all. Why?’

‘The tank has not arrived in Stalingrad.’

‘Then perhaps he is a very slow driver.’ Maximov ran his hand over his mouth. ‘What’s the matter, Pekkala? Has your sorcery failed you at last?’

‘Sorcery?’ Pekkala crouched down in front of the man. ‘There never was any sorcery, Maximov, but I’ve been in this job long enough to know when I’m being lied to. I saw the way your back straightened when I mentioned that the tank had disappeared. I see your eyes drifting up and to the right when you are talking to me now. I see you covering your mouth, and I can read those signs like you can tell when it will rain by looking at the clouds. So tell me, Maximov. Who has that machine and where have they taken it? You don’t want this on your conscience.’

‘Conscience!’ spat Maximov. ‘You’re the one who needs to search his conscience. You took an oath to serve the Tsar, and just because he’s dead doesn’t mean that oath no longer applies.’

‘You’re right,’ agreed Pekkala. ‘I did take an oath, and what I swore to do I’m doing now.’

‘Then I pity you, Pekkala, because while you’re wasting your time talking to me, an old friend of yours is deciding the fate of this country.’

‘You must be mistaken,’ said Pekkala. ‘All of my old friends are dead.’

‘Not this one!’ laughed Maximov. ‘Not Alexander Kropotkin.’

Pekkala saw again the wide jaw, the strong teeth clenched in a smile and shoulders hunched like a bear. ‘No,’ whispered Pekkala. ‘That’s impossible. He just asked me for a job in the police.’

‘Asking for a job? No, Pekkala, he was offering you a chance to work with us. The White Guild could have used a man like you.’

It took a moment for Maximov’s words to sink in. ‘The Guild?’

‘That’s right, but he said the Communists had got to you. The incorruptible Emerald Eye had finally been corrupted!’

Now, as Pekkala recalled the words of his last conversation with Kropotkin, it all began to turn around inside his brain. He realised he had utterly misunderstood. ‘How did you find Kropotkin?’

‘I didn’t,’ replied Maximov. ‘He found me. Kropotkin was the one who figured out that the White Guild was just a front for luring Stalin’s enemies to their deaths. He decided to turn the White Guild against the Communists.’

‘It was you who killed those agents, wasn’t it?’

‘Yes, and he ordered me to kill you as well. I would have, if Bruno hadn’t got in the way.’

‘That was you, outside the Café Tilsit … But why?’

‘Kropotkin had decided to give you one more chance to join us. He waited at the café every day, knowing you’d show up eventually. When you turned him down, he made a call to me. I drove to the café on a motorcycle. When I saw you lying on the ground, I thought I’d killed you. It was only later that I found out you were still alive. From
the apartments of the agents we killed, we managed to steal enough weapons and ammunition to keep us supplied for months. We even got our hands on a brand-new German motorcycle which one of the agents had parked in the middle of his living room! That’s the one I was riding when I took a shot at you. Then Kropotkin came up with the idea of stealing a T-34. By the time you people figured out what happened, it would already be too late.’

‘Too late for what?’

‘To stop the war we are about to declare.’

Pekkala was wondering whether Maximov had gone completely insane. ‘You might have been able to murder some government agents, but do you really think the White Guild can overthrow this country?’

‘No,’ replied Maximov, ‘but Germany can. They are looking for any excuse to invade us. All we have to do is offer them a reason. And what better reason than an attack across the Polish border by the Soviet Union’s newest, most devastating weapon? If we strike into Poland, the Germans will see it as an act of aggression against the West. That is all the reason they need.’

‘How much damage do you think could be done by a single tank?’

‘Kropotkin has chosen a place where the Poles have nothing but cavalry units on their border with us. One tank could wipe out an entire brigade.’

‘But don’t you realise what the Nazis will do to this country if they invade? We are not prepared to defend ourselves.’

‘Kropotkin says that the quicker we are defeated, the less bloodshed there will be.’

‘That’s a lie, Maximov! You may have taken an oath to the Tsar, but do you honestly think this is what he would have wanted? You will have unleashed a thing you can’t control. The Germans won’t just overthrow the Communists. They will turn this place into a wasteland.’

‘I don’t believe you.’

‘But Kropotkin does! You might think that you’re both fighting for the same cause, but I have known Kropotkin for a long time and I have seen his kind before. His only cause is vengeance for a world that no longer exists. All he wants to do is see this country burn.’

‘Then let it burn,’ replied Maximov. ‘I am not afraid.’

Hearing this, Pekkala was consumed by rage. He lunged at Maximov, grabbing him by the lapels of his jacket, and heaved him across the room.

BOOK: The Red Coffin
9.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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