Authors: Sam Eastland
Tags: #Crime, #General, #Mystery & Detective, #Historical, #Fiction
A thousand feet above the Russian front
It was late at night.
Outside Pekkala’s apartment
Earlier that day
As the Emka rolled beneath the archway
Although the Museum of the Kremlin
‘Who is this man, Inspector?’
Years ago, when Pekkala first started
How exactly did you
As they walked across the courtyard
Exhausted from his run
The door to Pekkala’s office burst open
It was after dark
The Emka skidded
Rifleman Stefanov breathed in sharply
On the ride back to Moscow
Now Pekkala settled
As moonlight glinted
Kirov and Pekkala
While Pekkala reported
‘Oh, it’s you again,’
Late that August afternoon
Later that day
In the Tsar’s Secret Service
‘Comrade Stalin,’ said Pekkala
Before going to see Kovalevsky
At that same moment
Walking up a flight
By the time their request
In the course
With no idea how far he had to go
It was the middle of the night
The sun was not yet up
Rather than return
After a three-hour flight
Kirov paced back and forth
Having left behind the town
By the time Kirov
People’s Commissar Bakhturin
With the fires
Following the instructions
Under the jaundiced eye
Kirov stood at attention
Wearily, Kirov trudged
We’re too late
With their nerves beginning to fray
On Stalin’s desk
An hour later
In a tiny, windowless room
Kirov sat in his office
Less than an hour
One week later
The Amber Room: Timeline
About The Author
By The Same Author
A thousand feet above the Russian front, a German scout plane weaved among the clouds, searching for a place to land. The aircraft was a Fiesler 156, whose broad wings and spindly looking wheel struts had earned it the nickname of ‘Stork’. The pilot, Hanno Kosch, was a captain in the Luftwaffe. Beside him, nervously clutching a briefcase, sat a lieutenant of the Waffen SS named Karl Hagen.
One hour before, the Stork had taken off from a forward operations base of Army Group North, just outside the town of Luga, bound for a grass strip runway near the village of Vyrista, a short distance by air to the north-east.
Kosch tilted the plane and squinted down at the ground below, searching for some contour of the earth which corresponded to the flight-plan chart clipped to a map board on his knee. ‘I don’t see it,’ he said.
‘Maybe we should turn back,’ replied Hagen, shouting to make his voice heard over the engine.
‘It’s too late,’ replied the pilot. ‘I gave you that chance half an hour ago and you refused. Now we don’t have enough fuel to return to Luga. If we can’t find the runway at Vyrista, our only chance is to set down in a field and start walking.’
The Stork shuddered as it passed through a pocket of turbulence, causing Hagen to grip the briefcase even more tightly.
‘What’s in there, anyway?’ asked Kosch.
‘Something I have to deliver.’
‘Yes, but what?’
‘If you must know, it’s a painting.’
‘You mean some priceless work of art like a Rembrandt or something?’
‘Priceless yes. Rembrandt no.’
‘Can I see it?’
‘I don’t think I can do that.’
‘Oh, come on!’ Kosch persisted. ‘Just so I can know why I’ve been risking my life for the past hour.’
Hagen considered this for a moment. ‘Well, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to look.’ He unfastened the brass latch of the briefcase‚ removed a canvas in a small wooden frame and held it up for Kosch to see.
‘I’ll be damned,’ said Kosch. ‘What is it? A butterfly?’
‘Actually,’ replied Hagen, ‘I believe it’s a moth.’
‘It doesn’t look that special.’ Kosch shrugged. ‘But I guess I’m no lover of art.’
‘I don’t like it any more than you do,’ Hagen told him as he slipped the painting back inside the briefcase and re-fastened the latch. ‘All I want is to be rid of this thing and then I hope I never have to get inside an aeroplane again. I’m not like you. I hate flying. I didn’t sign up to be a bird.’
‘You won’t be a bird for much longer,’ Kosch told him, ‘and neither will I, with fuel enough for five more minutes in the air.’
‘How can we possibly have missed the airfield?’ demanded Hagen.
‘In these clouds, we could have missed the whole city of Berlin!’ Kosch growled with frustration. ‘It’s no use, Lieutenant. I have to start looking for a place to set us down.’ With those words, he began a gradual descent through the clouds. Raindrops speckled the Perspex canopy. Below them, the thatched roofs of a Russian village slid by, the whitewashed walls of the houses glowing warmly in the summer evening light. Spreading out from the village in all directions lay neatly planted fields of wheat, barley and rye, separated by reddish-brown dirt roads. There was no sign of people. It was the same with the other villages over which they had flown in this past hour. The entire population appeared to have vanished into thin air.
‘What is that?’ Hagen called out. ‘Down there! Look!’
Following Hagen’s gaze, Kosch glimpsed a wide expanse of manicured grass, cut through with ornate pathways. At the head of this park stood a huge building, painted blue and white, with what must have been hundreds of windows, set into gilded frames which gleamed blindingly out of the vivid green below. Another huge building, this one less ornate, stood off to one side. Other, smaller structures lay about the grounds, along with several large ponds. Kosch’s momentary fascination with the beauty of the architecture was followed by the burning of adrenalin in his guts as he realised how far they had strayed from their original course.
‘It’s beautiful,’ admitted Hagen, somewhat reluctantly. ‘I didn’t know such things existed in Russia any more. It almost looks like a palace.’
a palace!’ replied Kosch. ‘It is the old village of Tsarskoye Selo, which the Soviets now call Pushkin. All that down there was once the summer estate of Tsar Nicholas II. There is the Catherine Palace, the Alexander Palace, the Lamskie Pond and the Chinese Theatre. I learned about them in an architecture class I took at university.’
‘Now that we know where we are,’ said Hagen, ‘how close are we to where we ought to be?’
Kosch glanced down at his chart. ‘According to this map, we’re almost thirty kilometres behind the Russian lines.’
‘Thirty kilometres!’ Hagen exploded. ‘You don’t understand, Captain, this painting—’
Kosch didn’t let him finish. ‘If we come around on a north-by-north-west heading, we might be able to reach our own lines before we run out of fuel.’ Banking sharply, Kosch turned the little scout plane towards the west‚ on a course which took him directly over the vast rooftop of the Catherine Palace.
‘It looks deserted,’ said Hagen, his forehead pressed against the heavy Perspex of the side window. ‘Where did they all go?’
Suddenly the plane lurched as if it had flown into an invisible wall. This jolt was accompanied by a sound which reminded Hagen of the pebbles he used to throw by the handful at a corrugated-iron shed at the bottom of his grandfather’s garden. ‘What happened?’ he shouted. ‘What’s going on?’
Kosch did not reply. He was too busy struggling to keep the plane steady.
Bright yellow tracers, like a shower of meteors, flickered past the wings. Bullets clattered through the fuselage. In the next instant, a white stream of vaporising coolant poured from the cowling.
The firing died away as they cleared the palace grounds.
‘We must be out of range,’ Hagen said hopefully.
‘It’s too late,’ Kosch told him. ‘The damage has already been done.’
‘What do you mean? We’re still flying, aren’t we?’
‘We have to land now,’ replied Kosch, ‘before the engine catches fire. Look for a field, or a road not bordered by telegraph wires.’
‘We’re behind the lines!’
‘On the ground, we stand a chance. If we stay up here any longer, we have none.’
Seconds passed. The Stork’s engine began to sputter as the temperature gauge climbed into the red.
‘What about that?’ asked Hagen, pointing just beyond the starboard wing. ‘Is that a runway?’
Kosch peered through the blur of the glycol-smeared windscreen. ‘I think it is! It’s pretty crude, but I think I can get us down all right.’
‘Thank God,’ murmured Hagen.
Kosch laughed. ‘I thought you SS types didn’t believe in God.’
‘I’ll believe in anything that puts me safely on the ground.’
The Stork circled the airfield. At the far end of the runway stood a hangar, its roof painted dull olive green and overlaid with black amoeba-like shapes to camouflage it from above.
Kosch levelled the plane for a final approach, lowered the flaps to drop air speed, throttled back and came in for a landing.
The plane bounced once on its stilt-like legs, then settled on the ground. Silver threads of water sprayed up between the grass and tyres.
The pilot cut the engine and the Fiesler rolled to a stop with little room to spare on the short runway. As the blurred disc of the propeller stuttered to a halt. Kosch pressed his hand against the silver metal disc on his chest which connected the four seat straps, turned it to the left and then released the clips.
Hagen was still struggling with his straps, one of which had become tangled underneath the leather holster of the SS officer’s P38 pistol.
Kosch reached across and unfastened Hagen’s seat belt.
Folding back the canopy, Kosch climbed out of the plane and jumped down to the ground, followed closely by Hagen.
The two men began to look around them. The doors of the hangar were closed, but fresh vehicle tracks showed that the place had been visited recently. The rain was still falling softly.
‘If we move quickly,’ said Kosch, ‘we should run into our own lines within a few hours. The Russians must have seen us go down but, with luck, they’ll be so busy retreating that they won’t have time to worry about us.’
A sound of creaking metal made them jump. Both men turned to see the doors of the hangar sliding open. A face appeared from the darkness and then a man stepped into the light. He was a Red Army officer. There was no mistaking the rotten-apple green of his
tunic, the enamelled red star on his cap and the Tokarev automatic he clutched in his right hand. Strapped across his waist was a thick brown leather belt, which carried the holster for his gun.
Now two other men appeared from the darkness. They wore helmets and carried Mosin-Nagant rifles, on which long, cruciform bayonets glinted in the brassy evening sun.
Hagen dropped the briefcase and drew the P38 from its holster.
‘Are you mad?’ hissed Kosch‚ raising his hands in the air. ‘There are three of them, and probably more inside that hangar. We can’t get back now. We have no choice but to surrender.’
Seeing that one of the Germans had drawn his weapon, the Russian officer came to a sudden stop. He raised his gun and barked out a command. The two men behind him took aim with their rifles.
‘You were right,’ whispered Hagen.
Kosch turned to him, his eyes wide with fear. ‘About what?’
‘I don’t believe in God.’ With those words, Hagen set the gun against the side of Kosch’s head and pulled the trigger.
Kosch went down so fast it was as if the ground had swallowed him up.
Then, as the Russians looked on in amazement, Hagen placed the barrel of the P38 against his front teeth, closed his eyes and fired.
It was late at night.
Pekkala lay on the floor of his tiny apartment in Moscow, still wearing his clothes and boots. Against the far wall, neatly made, and with an extra blanket folded at the end, stood his bed. He never slept in it, preferring the floorboards instead. Neither did he wear pyjamas, since they reminded him too much of the clothes, known as
, which he’d been made to wear in prison. A coat rolled up beneath his head for a pillow was his only concession to comfort.
He was a tall, broad-shouldered man, with a straight nose and strong, white teeth. His eyes were greenish-brown, the irises marked by a strange silvery quality, which people noticed only when he was looking directly at them. Streaks of grey ran through his short, dark hair and his cheekbones were burnished by years of exposure to the wind and sun.
He stared at the ceiling, as if searching for something in the dull white paint. But his thoughts were far away. In his mind‚ at that precise moment, he was charting a rail journey from the city of Kiev across the entire length of Russia to Vladivostok on the Pacific coast. He made a mental note of every stop along the way, the places where he would need to change trains and the times of each connection. Pekkala had no intention of actually making the trip, but he had taken to memorising rail timetables in order to help himself fall asleep at night. Having acquired the entire twenty-four-volume set of timetables for the Soviet State Railway System, which he kept on the shelf in his office, Pekkala now knew the departure and arrival times of almost every train in Russia.
He had just stepped out on to the platform in the city of Perm and now had fifteen minutes to wait for the connecting train to Omsk, when the buzzer rang beside the door, indicating that someone in the street below was waiting to be let into the building.
Pekkala sat up suddenly, the journey evaporating from his mind.
Grumbling, he picked up the revolver placed beside his head. The weapon was an English Webley .455, and had been a gift from Tsar Nicholas himself. As Pekkala made his way down five flights of stairs to the street, he set the gun back in the holster which he kept strapped across his chest. The holster was designed so that the revolver lay almost horizontally across that place where the two sides of his rib cage joined to form an inverted letter V. The rig had been made according to Pekkala’s own specifications by the master armourer Emilio Sagredi, gunsmith to Nicholas II. The angle at which the gun was carried required a perfect fit inside its holster. To achieve this, Sagredi had soaked the leather in saltwater, placed the weapon in the holster and then allowed the leather to dry around the gun. The result was a fit so perfect that neither a flap nor a retaining strap was required to hold the weapon in place. The unusual angle at which the gun was carried allowed Pekkala to draw, aim and fire the weapon in a single fluid movement. It had saved his life on more than one occasion. One final modification, made on the suggestion of Sagredi himself, was a pin-sized hole drilled into the top of the barrel just behind the front blade sight. The large .455 round employed by the Webley meant that the gun would buck significantly when fired. This required the user to steady and re-aim the weapon each time he pulled the trigger. Sagredi’s adjustment permitted a small amount of pressure to be released vertically through the pinhole when the gun was fired, with the result that the barrel would be forced down with each shot, at the precise moment when the force of the escaping bullet caused the barrel to rise upwards. The two opposing forces allowed Pekkala to hold the gun more steadily, and thereby to aim the next round more quickly and accurately than he could otherwise have done.
At the time of Pekkala’s arrest one freezing winter’s night in 1917 on the Russo-Finnish border, both gun and holster were confiscated by the Bolshevik militiamen who dragged him off the train. Once Pekkala’s identity had been confirmed, he was transported directly to a prison in Petrograd. There, Pekkala underwent weeks of torture before being shipped to the gulag of Borodok, in the Valley of Krasnagolyana.
Unknown to Pekkala, Stalin had ordered the Webley delivered to him personally. He had heard about the weapon, whose solid brass grips had been added by King George V, when the English monarch had originally made a gift of it to his cousin the Tsar. The size, weight and power of the gun had proved to be, in the words of the Tsarina, too ‘sauvage’ for the more delicate sensibilities of the Tsar, and so he had presented it to Pekkala. Stalin had been anxious to see this weapon and considered holding on to it for his own use.
Reluctantly, the Webley, together with its holster, was surrendered by the militiaman who’d claimed it at the time of Pekkala’s arrest. Upon receiving the gun, Stalin retired to his quarters and secretly tried on the holster. But this new pairing of man and weapon did not prove successful. Stalin had always maintained an aversion to heavy clothing, or any garment that restricted his movements. This was particularly true of his boots, which he had custom-made from fine kid leather normally reserved for gloves. Although ill-suited for walking the streets of Moscow, Stalin rarely went out on foot and did not need to worry about freezing his feet in the middle of a Russian winter. After only a few minutes, the weight of the gun and the constriction of its holster caused Stalin to abandon the idea of keeping them for himself.
Rather than dispose of the Webley, however‚ Stalin placed it in storage. The reason for this safeguarding was that even as Stalin sent Pekkala away to what should have been a certain death in the notorious gulag, he was by no means convinced that Siberia could kill the man. One thing Stalin did know for sure, however, was that the skills of the Tsar’s personal investigator would prove profoundly useful to him, if Pekkala could ever be persuaded to employ them in the service of the Revolution.
It was nine years before the opportunity finally presented itself, when the newly promoted Lieutenant Kirov arrived at Borodok, bearing the offer that would release Pekkala from the forest which had been his prison. Kirov, who had since become Pekkala’s assistant at the Bureau of Special Operations, returned to him not only the Webley and its holster but the badge which had been Pekkala’s mark of service to the Tsar.
The badge was fashioned from a disc of solid gold, as wide across as the length of his little finger. Across the centre was a stripe of white enamel inlay, which began at a point, widened until it took up half the disc and narrowed again to a point on the other side. Embedded in the middle of the white enamel was a large, round emerald. Together, the white enamel, the gold and the emerald formed the unmistakable shape of an eye. As the Tsar’s investigator, Pekkala had been granted absolute authority. Even the Tsar’s own secret service, the Okhrana, could not question him. In his years of service to the Romanovs, Pekkala had become known to all as the one man who could never be bribed or bought or threatened. It did not matter who you were, how wealthy or connected. No one stood above the Emerald Eye, not even the Tsar himself.
Since Pekkala’s release from the gulag, he had formed an uneasy alliance with the ruler of the Soviet Union.
Stalin, for his part, had always known that Pekkala was too valuable to be liquidated‚ as millions of others had been.