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Authors: Sam Eastland

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BOOK: The Red Coffin
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As if he could not help himself, Gorenko’s hands drifted up to the chest of his coat and began scraping once more at the mud embedded in the cloth.

‘Will you stop that!’ shouted Ushinsky.

‘It’s a brand-new coat,’ muttered Gorenko. ‘I only bought it yesterday.’

‘The boss is dead!’ Ushinsky grabbed Gorenko by the wrists and pulled his hands away. ‘Can’t you get that into your thick skull?’

Both men appeared to be in shock. Pekkala had seen behaviour like this many times before. ‘When did you realise
that something had gone wrong?’ he asked patiently, trying to steer them back on track.

‘I was out smoking my cigarette …’ said Ushinsky.

‘No smoking in the factory,’ interrupted Gorenko.

‘I can do this by myself!’ shouted Ushinsky, jabbing a finger against Gorenko’s chest.

Gorenko staggered backwards, and almost lost his footing. ‘You don’t have to be like that!’ he snapped.

‘And I noticed that Number 3 was half sunk in the mud,’ continued Ushinsky. ‘I thought – look what the Colonel’s gone and done. He’s buried the machine. I assumed he had got it stuck on purpose, just to see what would happen. That’s exactly the kind of thing he would do. I waited to see if he could get it out of there, but then I began to think that something might have gone wrong.’

‘What gave you that idea?’ asked Pekkala.

‘To begin with, the engine wasn’t running. Nagorski wouldn’t have cut power to the motor under those circumstances, not even for an experiment. The whole tank could sink into this mud. If water flooded the engine compartment, the entire drive train could be ruined. Even Nagorski wouldn’t take a chance like that.’

‘Anything else?’

‘Yes. The turret hatch was open, and it was pouring with rain. He would have closed the hatch. And, finally, there was no sign of Colonel Nagorski.’

‘What did you do then?

‘I went in and fetched Gorenko,’ said Ushinsky.

Gorenko took this as a sign that he could speak at last. ‘We both went out to take a look,’ he explained.

‘First we checked inside the tank,’ said Ushinsky. ‘It was empty.’

‘Then I spotted the body lying under the tracks,’ added Gorenko. ‘We ran and found Captain Samarin, the head of security. We all came back to the tank and Samarin told us to stay here.’

‘Not to touch anything.’

‘Then he ran to call the ambulance.’

‘And we’ve been here ever since,’ said Gorenko, hugging his arms against his chest.

‘Shouldn’t we get him out from under there?’ Ushinsky was staring at the Colonel’s hand, which seemed to tremble in the wind-stirred puddle at their feet.

‘Not just yet,’ replied Pekkala. ‘Until I have examined the area, no evidence can be disturbed.’

‘It’s hard to think of him like that,’ muttered Gorenko. ‘As evidence.’

The time would come, Pekkala knew, when Nagorski’s body would receive the respect it deserved. For now, the dead man was part of an equation, along with the mud in which he lay and the iron which had crushed out his life. ‘If Nagorski was out here by himself,’ asked Pekkala, ‘do you have any idea how he could have ended up beneath the machine?’

‘We’ve been asking ourselves the same question,’ said Ushinsky.

‘It just doesn’t seem possible,’ Gorenko chimed in.

‘Have you been inside the tank since you got here?’ asked Pekkala.

‘Only to see that it was empty.’

‘Can you show me the driver’s compartment?’

‘Of course,’ replied Gorenko.

At the opposite end of the tank from where Nagorski’s body had been pinned, Pekkala set his foot on one of the wheels and tried to lift himself up on the side of the tank. He lost his balance and with a groan of frustration fell back spread-eagled into the water. By the time he emerged, Gorenko had gone around to the front of the tank and put his foot up on the fender. ‘Always board from the front, Inspector. Like this!’ He scrambled up on to the turret, opened the hatch and dropped down inside.

Pekkala followed, his soaked coat weighing on his back and ruined shoes slipping on the smooth metal surfaces. His fingers clawed for a grip as he moved from one hand hold to another. When he finally reached the turret hatch, he peered down into the cramped space of the compartment.

‘How many people fit in here?’ he asked.

‘Five,’ replied Gorenko, looking up at him.

To Pekkala, it didn’t look as if there was even enough room for himself and Gorenko, let alone three other men.

‘Are you all right, Inspector?’

‘Yes. Why?’

‘You look a little pale.’

‘I’m fine,’ Pekkala lied.

‘Well, then,’ said Gorenko. ‘Down you come, Inspector.’

Pekkala sighed heavily. Then he clambered down into the tank.

The first thing he noticed, as his eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, was the smell of new paint mixing with the odour of diesel fuel. Cramped as it had appeared from above, the interior space seemed even smaller now that he was inside it.
Pekkala felt as if he had entered a tomb. Sweat beaded on his forehead. He had struggled with claustrophobia ever since he was a child, when his brother Anton, for a joke, had locked him in the crematorium oven belonging to their father’s undertaking business.

‘This is the fighting compartment,’ said Gorenko, perched on a seat in the far right corner. The seat was fixed into the metal wall and had a separate back support which wrapped around in a semicircle, following the contours of the walls. Gorenko gestured to an identical seat on the left of the compartment. ‘Please,’ he said, with the cordiality of a man inviting someone into his living room.

Hunched almost double, Pekkala took his place in the seat.

‘You are now in the loader’s position,’ explained Gorenko. ‘I am where the commander sits.’ He stretched out one leg and rested his heel on a rack of huge cannon shells which stretched along the side of the compartment. Each shell was fastened with a quick-release clasp.

‘You say the engine wasn’t running when you found it.’

‘That’s right.’

‘Does that mean someone had switched it off?’

‘I would assume so.’

‘Is there any way to check?’

Gorenko peered into the driver’s area, an even smaller space located just ahead of the main fighting compartment. His eyes narrowed as he deciphered the confusion of steering levers, gear sticks and pedals. ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘I was wrong. It’s still in forward. First gear. The engine must have stalled out.’

‘So someone else was driving it?’

‘Probably,’ replied Gorenko, ‘but I couldn’t guarantee it. The clutch may have slipped while he was outside the machine.’

‘I’ve heard of clutches popping out of gear,’ said Pekkala, ‘but never popping in.’

‘These machines have not yet been perfected, Inspector. Sometimes they do things they aren’t supposed to do.’

Pekkala’s instincts begged him to get out. He forced himself to remain calm. ‘Do you see anything else in here which looks out of place?’

Gorenko glanced around. ‘Everything is as it should be.’

Pekkala had seen what he needed to see. Now it was time to retrieve Nagorski’s body. ‘Can you drive this machine?’ he asked.

‘Of course,’ replied Gorenko, ‘but whether it can get out of this crater without being towed is another question. That’s probably what Nagorski was trying to discover.’

Pekkala nodded. ‘Will you try?’

‘Certainly, Inspector. You had better wait outside. It’s hard to tell what will happen once I move the tracks. It could sink even deeper and if that happens, this compartment is going to flood. Give me a minute to check the controls, and make sure you are standing well clear when I start the engine.’

While Gorenko squeezed into the tiny driver’s compartment, Pekkala clambered out of the tank. His broad shoulders caught painfully on the rim of the turret hatch. As his hands gripped the metal holding bar on the outside of the hatch, the cold solidity of the machine seemed to
radiate through his skin. Pekkala was glad to get out into the open air, even if it was only to stand in the rain once again.

Outside the tank, Ushinsky was puffing on a cigarette, his hand cupped over the burning tip to shield it from the wind and rain.

‘Gorenko says the engine was in gear,’ said Pekkala, as he splashed down into the mud beside Ushinsky.

‘So it wasn’t an accident.’

‘Possibly not,’ replied Pekkala. ‘Did Nagorski have enemies here?’

‘Let me put it this way, Inspector,’ he replied. ‘The hard part would be finding someone around here who didn’t have a grudge against him. The bastard worked us like slaves. Our names were never even mentioned on the design reports. He took all the credit for himself. Comrade Stalin probably thinks Nagorski built this entire machine by himself.’

‘Is there anyone who felt strongly enough to want him dead?’

Ushinsky brushed aside the words, like a man swatting cobwebs from his face. ‘None of us would ever think of hurting him.’

‘And why is that?’ asked Pekkala.

‘Because even if we did not like the way Nagorski treated us, the Konstantin Project has become the purpose of our lives. Without Nagorski, the project would never have been possible. I know it might be hard to understand, but what might look like hell to you,’ he raised his arms, as if to encompass the T-34, along with the vast and filthy basin of its proving ground, ‘is paradise to us.’

Pekkala breathed out. ‘How can men work inside those things? What happens if something goes wrong? How can they get out?’

Ushinsky’s lips twitched, as if it was a subject he did not feel safe discussing. ‘You are not the only one to have considered this, Inspector. Once inside, the tank crew are well protected, but if the hull is breached, say by an anti-tank round, it is extremely difficult to exit.’

‘Can’t you change that? Can’t you make it easier for the tank crew to escape?’

‘Oh, yes. It can be done, but Nagorski designed the T-34 with regard to the optimum performance of the machine. The equation is very simple, Inspector. When the T-34 is functioning, it is important to protect those who are inside. But if the machine is disabled in combat, its life, effectively, is over. And those who operate it are no longer considered necessary. The test drivers have already coined a name for the tank.’

‘And what is that?’

‘They call it the Red Coffin, Inspector.’ Ushinsky’s voice was drowned out by the tank, as Gorenko fired up the engine.

Pekkala and Ushinsky stood back as the tracks spun, spraying a sheet of muddy water out the back of the tank. Then the treads found their grip and the T-34 began to crawl up the sides of the crater. For a moment, it seemed as if the whole machine might slide backwards, but then there was a crash of gears and the tank lurched out of the hole. When it reached level ground, Gorenko set the motor in neutral, then switched off the engine.

The silence which followed, as the cloud of exhaust smoke
unravelled into the sky, was almost as deafening as the sound of the engine itself.

Gorenko climbed out. His mud-smeared coat flapped behind him like a pair of broken wings as he jumped down to the ground. He joined Pekkala and Ushinsky at the edge of the pit. In silence, the three men stared down into the trough of churned-up water.

The crater’s surface was goose-fleshed with raindrops, obscuring the surface of the water. At first, they could not see the body. Then, like a ghost appearing through the mist, the corpse of Colonel Nagorski floated slowly into view. Rain pattered on his heavy canvas coat, which appeared to be the only thing holding his body together. The broken legs trailed like snakes from his misshapen torso. With the bones snapped in so many places, the limbs seemed to ripple, as if they were reflections of his body instead of the actual flesh. His hands had swollen obscenely, the weight of the tracks having forced the fluids of his body into its extremities. The pressure had split his fingertips wide open, like a pair of worn-out gloves. Some curvature of the soft ground had preserved half of Nagorski’s face, but the rest had been crushed by the tracks.

Ushinsky stared at the corpse, paralysed by what he saw. ‘It’s all ruined,’ he said. ‘Everything we worked for.’

It was Gorenko who moved first, sliding down into the crater to retrieve the body. The water came up to his chest. He lifted Nagorski in his arms. Staggering under the weight, Gorenko returned to the edge of the pit.

Pekkala grabbed Gorenko by the shoulders and helped him out. Gently, Gorenko laid the Colonel’s body on the ground.

With the body stretched out before him, Ushinsky seemed to wake from his trance. In spite of the cold, he took off his coat and laid it over Nagorski. The drenched material moulded to the dead man’s face.

Now Pekkala caught sight of a tall man standing at the edge of the proving ground, half obscured by veils of rain which swept across the space between them. At first, he thought it might be Kirov, but on second glance he realised the man was much taller than his assistant.

‘That’s Maximov,’ said Ushinsky. ‘Nagorski’s chauffeur and bodyguard.’

‘We call him the T-33,’ said Gorenko.

‘Why is that?’ asked Pekkala.

‘Before Nagorski decided to build himself a tank,’ explained Ushinsky, ‘we say, he built himself a Maximov.’

Just then, from somewhere among the drab buildings of the facility, they heard a shout.

Captain Samarin ran to the edge of the proving ground.

Kirov was close behind him. He yelled to Pekkala, but his words were lost in the rain.

As suddenly as they had arrived, Samarin and Kirov disappeared from view, followed by Maximov.

‘What’s happened now?’ muttered Ushinsky.

Pekkala did not reply. He had already set off through the mud, heading towards the facility. Along the way, he sank up to his knees in craters of water, lost his footing and stumbled with arms outstretched beneath the surface. For a moment, it seemed as if he might not reappear, but then he rose up, gasping, hair matted by silt, mud streaked across his face, like a creature forced into existence by
some chemical reaction in the dirt. Having scrabbled up the slope, Pekkala paused to catch his breath at the edge of the proving ground. He glanced back towards the tank and saw the two scientists still standing by the body of Nagorski, as if they did not know where else to go. They reminded Pekkala of cavalry horses, standing on the battlefield beside their fallen riders.

BOOK: The Red Coffin
5.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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